travel : bangkok part 2
The Erawan Shrine.
This is part two of our trip to Bangkok. Which was quite a while ago, at the beginning of the year in fact! I’ll be finishing off this travel series with our 3 day stay in Cambodia, which is a post coming soon (promise!).
New Year’s Eve dinner at Flow
New Year’s Eve in Bangkok is always a money gouge. You can bet that every roof top restaurant, any view and hotel will come with a premium attached. But you can also bet there’s an amazing dinner attached to that premium. I booked our New Year’s Eve dinner at Flow Millenium Hilton, which is perched right on the river. it’s easy to get to via a skytrain to the Saphan Taksin station. It’s then a matter of hopping onto the hotel’s very own ferry to the restaurant’s doorstep. (It’s an enjoyable ferry ride – the Chao Phraya is so full of life and the Mandarin Oriental’s terrace, dripping in fairy lights is breath taking.)
The dinner also included an amazing fireworks show. As midnight approached, the river came to an eerie standstill and hordes of people line the riverbank, all holding their breath for the first crack and whine of fireworks. The DJs from the surrounding hotels start the countdown and when the clock struck twelve it seemed the whole river was counting down in unison. The fireworks at this proximity are ear popping loud and as two barges duel each other (the other is upriver) with a seemingly never ending supply of fireworks, we watch on, eyes up, with tummies full of good food. Ringing in the new year on the Chao Phraya was an unforgettable experience.
Fireworks from Millenium Hilton, Bangkok. Turns out fireworks are dangnabbit hard to snap.
Talking about food, I have three words for you. The three words that made Flow an easy choice for the last night of 2011.
THE CHEESE ROOM.
Why hello, Cheese Room. Be still my beating heart.
It’s the single reason why I picked the venue. Within Flow, there’s a room dedicated to the most formidable range of cheeses in, probably, the whole of south east Asia. And did I mention that because it’s New Year’s Eve (and the buffet costs three times than usual), we get to eat cheese like it’s going out of fashion?
Swooooon. (Ignore the part where I am lactose intolerant.)
I sure made a beeline for that cheese room! A narrow, temperature controlled gallery, the cheese room is hidden behind tinted doors that shield the goods within from sunlight, unknowing eyes and smells. Talking about smells, the one that immediately slaps you upon entry is intense to say the least.
Subtly sectioned into cheese types, the table is full of cheeses flown in from around the world. You can journey from one corner of Europe to the other by sampling cheeses centimetres apart. Creamy bloomy cheeses (like real camembert made from whole milk), goat (both fresh and ashen), hard/waxy types like manchego and Comte, well aged cheeses like cloth bound cheddar, washed rind (my favourite being taleggio), blues another one of my favourites – the magnificent roquefort – and fresh soft cheeses. All handsomely ripe, oozy and at their peak, their flavour is in full bloom.
Soft blues. Some of which have to be scooped out. And eaten with honey. OMG.
The cheeses are cut from the wheel and each is surrounded by nuts, fruit and honey to enhance the cheeses’ flavour. There’s an assistant in there, cutting cheeses and recommending wines to match. For a cheese lover it’s the ultimate experience. I wanted to hang out in there for the entire night. Unfortunately the fireworks couldn’t be seen from within the room.
Hard cheeses, too many to choose from, let alone eat.
Just a fraction of the Four Seasons Sunday Brunch.
Four Seasons Sunday Brunch
I swear I did not plan to have two buffets back to back! It just happened the very next day was a Sunday and we really could not miss out on the Sunday Brunch buffet to end all brunches at the Four Seasons. Luckily the Four Seasons was next to our hotel so we could literally be rolled back to our room if necessary. (Which we came dangerously close to needing.)
Sunday Brunch in Bangkok is a big thing. Any hotel worth its weight usually has buffet lunches but on Sunday they bring it. And on New Year’s Day? Well you can only guess. Four Season’s three hotel restaurants join forces on Sunday afternoons to make up the buffet area. We chose to sit in Aqua, with a jazz band hidden nearby, overlooking the koi pond and deliciously right in the middle of the action.
Left: Foie gras custards steaming away. Right: Foie gras for everyone! Pan seared to order with port wine reduction.
I’ll let the pictures do the talking but the range of food (especially at the grill) was fabulous. Clair de lune oysters flown direct from France, fat wodges of Alaskan king crab, Boston lobsters, scallops and marbled beef rib, cooked which ever way you’d like on the hot, spluttering grill. Most of the stations here are a la carte (but all inclusive), where table tokens are exchanged and the dish arrives at the table later. This method leaves your hands free to pick up anything you fancy.
The star of the show was the foie gras at the French hot station, cooked three ways. Plainly grilled, lobes of foie gras are crisp to bite into and lusciously creamy within. There was also foie gras in port wine reduction, foie gras in savoury custard and foie gras sausage (which was particularly good).
Cold station with smoked and gravlax Norwegian salmon.
The grill, with a variety of raw seafood to go on the grill. Out of shot are steaks, rib and lamb chops, all waiting for someone to choose and eat.
Left: Cold seafood section with lobsters, French oysters, razor clams, bugs and scallops. Right: Parma ham ready to be shaved.
The sashimi station was dishing out thick cut pieces of hiramasa king fish, whelk, saba (salted mackerel which was addictive), snapper, tuna and salmon. I did three visits to the sashimi station alone. The Chinese barbeque station was ransacked by duck lovers. Four Seasons’ duck is especially good (they even have a restaurant up the road at Siam Paragon) and here it’s all you can eat, with the shards of crisp skin wrapped in fresh mandarin pancakes. All you can eat Peking duck – you can bet that’s going to be popular.
Next door was a super hot tandoor, with naan being slapped onto it’s blistering hot walls to puff and cook. The Thai food in Spice Market is particularly good. The cooked to order coconut disks, which were strangely sweet and savoury at the same time were a highlight. The pad thai was excellent too.
Foie gras three ways – sausage, pan fried and in a custard.
Pad thai. If you’ve noticed the number of glasses on the table , the buffet is OPEN BAR, making it incredible value for drinkers. (I especially liked the sparkling wine cocktails…)
We skipped the pasta station (which was busy with homesick tourists) and hot dessert stations in favour of the cheese and patisserie dessert stations. Yes, cheese. Again. Quite a nice selection, which I’d be ecstatic to find on a Perth buffet. Tip: cheese lovers should hit the cheese station first before it gets massacred.
The dessert table looked divine and tasted equally so. Lined in rows and delicately adorned, the gateaux, tortes and cakes looked perfect, like they had been shot out of a Parisian patisserie. Beside the whole, luscious cakes which looked like they would disintegrate at a mere wobble, there were tubs of gelato, cookies and handmade chocolates – seriously too many to eat, let alone sample. A galette de rois, a French traditional cake eaten on Epiphany, was a nice touch for the occasion.
The cutest station award went to the ‘caviar’ station. It’s ironically set in the fish pond. So there you are, scooping fish roe with fish swimming around you. If only the koi knew what was going on.
If you are coming to Bangkok, be sure to book in advance for this brunch. To even taste the width and breadth of the buffet I’d advise being there at opening – 11.30am – that’s enough time to digest and go back for round seven. Yes, round seven, that’s me.
The only other brunch to rival Four Season’s would be Lord Jim’s at the Mandarin Oriental (I assure you that is a visit for next time).
Little birds in red cages, waiting to be set free.
After brunch, I left K in the hotel and attempted to walk off that massive brunch by visiting the Erawan Shrine. One of my favourite things to do on holiday is to head out by myself on foot. Seeing the city alone gives a different perspective and lets me notice the little things without being distracted.
To give you an idea of how revered the Erawan Shrine is, during a ride on the Skytrain (which can be seen in the background below) the man who was standing next to me bowed his head and put his palms together as the train rounded the corner past the shrine.
Located on the corner of Ploenchit and Rajadamri Roads, the Erawan Shrine was purpose built for the construction of the government owned Hotel Erawan (which has since been demolished). A series of unfortunate incidents had plagued the construction site and eventually the workers refused to work until the spirits, who occupy the land, were appeased. A shrine honouring the deity Phra Phrom (the Thai representation of Brahma) was inaugurated on the auspicious date of 9 November 1956.
Despite the elaborate shrine and lucky date, the Hotel Erawan was eventually demolished making way for the Grand Hyatt Erawan. The shine is now is now part of central Bangkok’s identity, occupying prime real estate in the shopping heart of the city.
Approaching the shrine, carts of flowers, carved elephants and offerings crowd the pathway. A man with cages of the little birds that infest the city, plugs the entrance in the hope a pilgrim will pay for the privilege (and good karma) to setting the creatures free.
It is a heaving mass of humanity here. Clouds of incense chokes and envelops the site, it’s hot and the constant drone of traffic and the smell of pollution is an assault on the senses. The faithful stream in, lighting slender sticks of incense and slowly writhing their way to the shrine where they place wreaths on the fencing and hope for good luck. The sweaty caretaker is constantly hauling away the festoon of yellow flowers, only for more to be piled on.
Towering over are the Grand Hyatt Erawan (the building on the left) and the Skytrain rail system.
If their prayers are fulfilled, pilgrims usually return to commission a dance performance. Someone (or something) must be listening at this shrine because the dancers are pretty much always dancing, filling the sticky air with graceful moves and the faint tinkling of bells.
(No photos for this section – no way was I bringing my DSLR into these markets! Same applies for any valuables…)
This city has a lot more to offer than Khao San Road and floating markets (both of which are tourist traps – would you go to Bangkok to see other tourists?). I would give up visits to both these sights for one trip to Chatuchak. Chatuchak Market (or JJ market) is shopping heaven. Go early – around 10am – to beat the heat, or come in the late afternoon.
About 8 football fields wide, this market sells everything from gorgeous ceramics, clothes to the kitchen sink and wedding invitations. You really need to know what you are looking for; it’s no good for window shopping because the whole place is a maze. It’s very easy to get lost. That’s where the Nancy Chandler map comes in – its Chatuchak market map is invaluable.
It would take a weekend to fully explore the market but I would only target a few areas of interest, because eventually you will succumb to the stifling heat. Most of the market is covered by tin, which makes the place extra hot.
Stock up on the tourist buys here – souvenirs are particularly cheap. Other good buys to take home are leather belts, ask them to punch extra holes if necessary; vintage clothing; ceramics; paper goods; hats; kitchen tools; and silk items like scarves and axe pillows. For the fashionistas, the little upstart boutiques that line the main lanes are definitely worth a look see.
Since our last visit here, it seems more of the market is becoming fixed price. So keep a look out for a fixed price sign, otherwise haggle away! If you run out of cash, there are bank ATMs on the northern rim of the market.
The market is known for good food – from basic market stalls where you sit on tiny stools to air conditioned restaurants, there’s something for every kind of tourist. For the market fanatics, the upscale food market Or Taw Kor is a short walk away.
This visit I targeted the middle section for celadon ceramics (wood fired ceramics from the north of Thailand) and greenware. Greenware is like cheap knockoff celadon, it’s a great buy for everyday use. Plus it’s pretty! It’s easy to bargain down as there are heaps of stalls selling the same thing.
However to identify real artisan celadon, look for translucent green and clear, cracked glaze. The glaze should be crackled all over. This is a tell tale sign of the firing process. I found only two authentic celadon stalls. If you buy ceramics do buy duplicates just in case some get smashed in transit.
It took half a day to explore three sections (and I got lost). Conveniently, couriers can post back purchases home – however it’s only economical in volumes over one cubic metre. I just managed to sneak everything under the baggage weight limit.
My top tips for Bangkok (and how to have a stress free holiday there).
Bangkok is a big city and true to this, it will chew up the naive and spit them out – especially the taxi and tuk tuk drivers. If you get past its big city lights, there is a city full of intrigue from the dirtiest sois to the sparkling roof top bars. You could spend a lifetime exploring it.
~ Do not get into a tuk tuk. They may look cute but the guy driving it is most likely a con artist who will whisk you to a fake jewellery shop and strand you there until you buy something. Take a taxi instead. See taxis below.
~ Without local knowledge, do not try to haggle your taxi fare – always ask for the meter when you approach a taxi. If the driver does not turn on the meter, get out. If something goes wrong in transit, get out, pay the driver and hail another taxi. Stuck somewhere hopeless and can’t find a taxi back? Call up your hotel and they will send a driver to you. Good for emergencies, provided you carry your hotel card with you.
~ If someone tells you a sight is closed, go and see for yourself. Most of the sights are open every day.
~ Get Nancy Chandler’s Map. Navigation, places to see and eat are in the map and accompanying mini book. Superior to Lonely Planet’s, the map is invaluable especially if you are heading to Chatuchak Markets. I got asked about my map on three separate occasions in Chatuchak alone.
~ Frustrated at the locals? Keep your cool or you’ll find yourself shunned. Polite manners, a smile and positive disposition will get you far in Thailand.
~ Tourist discount cards and tax refund forms are available at major malls and stores.
~ Do not go to the Floating Markets – they are tourist traps set up for tourists, no locals actually shop there. Khlongs? They are underwhelming and stinky. If you still want to see them, get the short trip (1 hour max) and if you’d like to continue the boat driver will be more than happy to oblige. For a hassle free hire, get a long tail boat organised by the boatman at a hotel pier. The boatman will wave one down and bargain on your behalf.
Flow Restaurant at Millenium Hilton
123 Charoennakorn Rd, Klongsan 10600
T: 66 (0) 2 442 2000
Four Seasons Sunday Brunch
155 Rajadamri Road, Bangkok 10330
T: 66 (0) 2 126-8866
Thanon Ratchadamri, Lumphini, Pathum Wan, Bangkok 10330
Chatuchak Markets (whole market is open to the public on Sat & Sun)
Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900, Thailand (if taking BTS get off at Mo Chit station)
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