November 18 - 20 (Wednesday - Friday)
Across Half the World
It almost started with tears on the sidewalk at Portland International Airport.
The trip had been planned in some senses for years. We'd decided before having our first child, Coraline, that between kids we'd get away. Somewhere fun. Somewhere warm. Maybe exotic. With Cora approaching her second birthday, time had come to choose. Our friends Eric and Linh lived in Bangkok tipped, and had made an open invitation. The balance tipped to Thailand.
A true getaway didn't involved twenty four plus hours travel, fifteen of them on one plane, with a 20 month old. Nor did it include a jetlagged toddler, gate-checked carseats, or strollers in customs. Our family graciously offered to care for Cora, and the way was clear.
We spent the preceding days hanging out, savoring time with Cora as we made final preparations. A few moments of hugs and kisses outside the airport, holding back the tears, and then the car left with our little one. We were just a couple again, and Thailand beckoned.
The night before our flight, we did last minute checks on reservations. A few simple minutes on the internet, a basic double-check, turned heart stopping.
Our tickets came two separate ways—one from credit card air miles, the other straight from a travel agent. Amber logged into the air miles site while I sat on the couch beside. After several login attempts, we got in and Amber clicked on "My Reservations."
"My Holds." Nada.
"My Activity." You get the picture.
She leaned toward the screen, her expression progressively more worried. Her breath dropped to shallow jags as she typed the confirmation number over and over.
"It's okay honey," I said, panicked myself but reassured by a debit for Cathay Pacific in the activity history. I touched her leg in a comforting gesture.
"Don't." She hastened off to find a phone number.
A short call sorted it all. The website lied. Our trip teetered on the brink of airline hell before veering back to more mundane territory.
With that backdrop I entered the next day with lingering worries over the ticketing, but it all proceeded smoothly. Baggage checked through all the way to Bangkok. Our seats weren't assigned yet past San Francisco, but the layover there was long enough to get that sorted. No quibbles over weight, size, color, or contents of our bags.
We left in the evening, so the long leg from San Francisco to Hong Kong aligned with our sleep schedules. Amber also got us some Ambien. Between that and Cathay Pacific's decent seats, with nifty in-place recline, it was the most restful long flight ever.
Layovers were brief and uneventful—apart from one incident I'll return to later—and we traipsed across the Pacific, through Hong Kong, up to Bangkok. As I sat in the Hong Kong airport, staring out the windows at the steep hills fronted by towering high-rises, it reminded me of a book I read over the summer about circumnavigation. Mere generations ago, the trip we made would be months long at best. At one point, a crew could expect only a fraction to survive crossing such distances. Now, I slept soundly, watched Moon and Terminator: Salvation on my seat back while the miles slipped away.
In Bangkok the warm air slapped us as we got off the plane, full of a foreign scent of elsewhere. We found our way through the passport checks and got our luggage to take through customs. The biggest piece was a cardboard box weighing almost thirty pounds, lovingly readied by Eric and Linh's family and slathered in tape. Amber originally expected we'd pack the gifts. Instead the goods came bundled up already, so we didn't have an exact list of the contents.
Kids, don't try this at home.
We got plucked from the streaming line of people to have the box X-rayed. When asked what was in it, we said, "Gifts. Toys. Books."
"No, what." The man pointed deliberately at one end of the box.
"A toy?" I said. He gestured for me to come around. My heart thudded as I circled to the monitor.
In the jumble of orange and gray, he pointed to a strange cluster of lines, dotted with bright points. It was clearly separately boxed.
"What?" he asked again.
I stared harder. "Oh, it's a plastic racecar track. Gift for the little boy we're visiting." It was my best guess.
The man nodded and motioned for us to go. I heaved lugged the box back onto our cart, and we silently bustled off without rushing. Next time, we're getting a list.
Eric and Linh met us at the airport. Between our mass of luggage, the huge gift box, the forgotten strollers and carseats that hadn't made it out, there just wasn't enough room. Linh and Amber took a taxi, and I set off with Eric down the expressway.
Everything spoke of Asia as we passed. The architecture, the plant life, the cars on the expressway with us. Massive advertisements in Thai script intruded on the skyline. Amongst the splashy images of cars, cell phones, handsome beer drinkers were loving signs gilt with gold celebrating the king. The royal family is a big deal in Thailand. Eric mentioned when a nephew of the king came into Bangkok to shop once, a whole stretch of the expressway was shut down for the occasion.
Thailand is a left-drive country, but that didn't seem odd after traveling in England and Anguilla. We traded driving stories as we went, Eric told me a few Thai phrases, and I recapped about life at WebMD where we'd met.
We pulled into a business plaza and parked in the basement. Uniformed men guided us along to a cramped space. Shockingly, I saw several larger pickups, though nothing "full size" like back home. Still I wondered how they maneuver in those conditions. Even stranger, when we returned later to the car, another car had parked perpendicularly in front of , blocking us in. Eric walked up, and nudged the car—which by convention was left in neutral. Within a few seconds the car scooted enough that we could pull out. Pushing cars out of the way… certainly not in the States anymore.
Linh and Amber already waited several floors up in a cafe. The tables were tiled and about knee height, but with standard size chairs. We ordered Thai ice teas, a green papaya salad and noodle soups. My soup had different fish cakes, firm and savory, crispy fried fish skins on top, a fungus with a rippled spongy texture, rice noodles beneath a fresh tom yum broth. I had eaten on the plane, but gladly devoured the noodles with a smile on my face.
Eric and Linh's flat was on the ninth floor of a building in the ex-pat part of town. Down a side street called a "soi," it teamed with taxi and motorbike traffic. From their balcony you could see high-rises in every direction, with no clear center to be found. Luckily their side of the building got good breezes in the late afternoon. They threw open the doors to let the cooler air through.
We'd arrived in the morning with a perfect chance to sync with the local schedule, but we were beat. We decided to lie down for a short rest while Linh got the kids from school across the soi. I set an alarm for an hour. Well, I thought I did. Dusk was closing when Linh's tentative knock shook me awake. My first thought was "Ack, we're doomed. We've screwed up our jetlag!" but we had no problems sleeping that night, so no harm in the extra rest.
We had dinner at a restaurant across the street. Open air, with mismatched tables and chairs, I knew it was a winner when we climbed the steps. A few fish tanks were empty, but normally offered up dinner options. The menu was a split between Thai and Chinese—the owners' nationality. We ordered a bunch of dishes to share: boiled duck, fried duck, whole grouper with chili, greens cooked with soy-sauce. Drinks were poured from a little side table, bottles of 7-Up, Pepsi and Singha, family style into small glasses. Always remember, ice with the holes is safe. Anything else, you may as well be sucking down tap water.
To keep us travelers awake, we went after to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. Spread over several blocks, this night market has a world of small vendor stalls hawking souvenirs, Thai and Chinese clothes, bed linens, sunglasses, crude and funny T-shirts, plastic toys, incense, candles. Much of it repeated from stall to stall—same supplier I guess—but that helped with bargaining. Amber got sheets for half the quoted price after finally finding the right color at the third or fourth stall.
Eventually, Eric and I went to the beer garden, leaving Amber and Linh to their hunting. A wide open area with tables filled up the gulf between two long lines of stalls, food down one side, beer the other. The picture menus left me wishing I was hungry, but dinner had not been that long before.
Eric explained, almost apologetically, that ales were hard to find in Asia and expensive when you did. Lager reigns supreme, cold, crisp and—wait for it—iced. Those who know my taste in beer might laugh, but when in Bangkok, you drink your Tiger beer with ice. Between that and the huge gusts of wind down the beer garden, it was actually quite refreshing. Back home you won't catch an ice tray in ten feet of my beer, but there it worked out rather well.
November 21 (Saturday)
Market, Massage, and Meeting People
We rose the next morning late, well rested and starting to align with local time. Our morning with the Nguyens often had this relaxed feel—hanging around, sipping fresh French pressed coffee, chatting, eating abundant, inexpensive, exotic fresh fruit.
The Nguyen's had invited some other ex-pat friends for dinner. That meant shopping, and they took us to an open air food market. Well established under a permanent roof, it had solidly tiled floors but no walls. Long ranks of stalls ran off until the end was lost to view behind other shoppers. We entered by the seafood. Lovely fish, prawns the length of your hand, bright blue crabs, slick squid all waited on ice. Across from these delights stalls sold the dried counterparts, though. Dried shrimp was particularly common, and smelled intensely fishy. It took a moment to realize that overriding aroma was not from the fresh catch, but from the other side of the aisle.
From there we passed on to meats where Eric picked up the ribs for that evening. Produce followed, an amazing world of fruits and vegetables displayed neatly in brilliant colors. Huge mangos, green and ripe orange. Glossy rose apples stacked on each other. Unfamiliar mushrooms clustered beside greens and onions. Stranger fruits abounded—petaled dragonfruit, mangosteen with the bulbed top on deep maroon skin, green skinned rambutan covered with reddish fuzz, and spiky durian the size of your head.
That last one caught my attention. Friends know I'm adventurous about food. No Bizarre Foods or anything, but when you hear a fruit described as smelling like garbage, runny custard textured, but beloved by adherents—gotta try that. In Thailand they cut open the spiky shells and remove the edible lobes, which dealt with the physical hazard of getting into the fruit. Eric said as well that Thai durian seemed drier and less stinky than in Vietnam. We bought a package, and the stall owner offering me a sample. I sniffed it, as I hadn't been stricken unconscious when they cut the plastic.
From a Balcony in Bangkok
The city is packed with activity. Here's a sampling of what was visible from Eric and Linh's ninth floor flat.
- High rises clustered in every direction with no clear downtown. Advertisements run up the sides, including a GE building with a Thai-styled cone top.
- Construction everywhere, buildings wrapped in blue and green mesh over scaffolding.
- A crane pumping concrete to a roof where a next floor was being made. Rebar stuck up, pointing the way.
- An ex-pat pool on the rooftop below us. Old white guys sprawled by the pool to bake.
- Shiny metal cylinders for water on many roofs.
- Apartments with laundry hanging in the windows.
- Advertisements everywhere for BMW, pizza delivery, shiny appliances, credit/reward cards.
- Rooftop tennis court.
- International school compound, walls all bright blue across the street.
- Buildings climbing on an angle rather than straight up. Windows staggered like ziggurat blocks.
- Expressway traffic humming behind the next line of buildings.
- Low, slanted roofs of the tobacco monopoly, all at the same angle.
- Skeletons of distant buildings slowly coming to live.
- Taxis and motorbikes flowing up and down the soi.
- Men in orange vests below waiting by a line of motorbikes to carry people up the soi.
Sure enough, it smelled. It didn't smell terrible, but it certainly didn't smell good. If I were the first person to crack open a durian, I'd have said, "Nothing here, move on folks, smells kinda bad." The taste, though, was entirely different, a distinctive, creamy texture I'd never expect from a fruit. At the center was a brown, irregular shaped pit with stringier fruit around it. It was mildly sweet, rich, a bit musky, almost savory. The more I ate, the better it tasted.
On a side note, the packet had three more lobes. Amber and I left the next day for Phuket, so I thought I mentioned to let the kids finish it off. Instead they kept it until we got back. Three days later. Even sealed in Tupperware, it stuck up half the room. Now I was getting that durian reek, but you know what? I ate the rest anyway.
When we got back to the flat, Linh convinced us to go for a massage. A place in walking distance offered one and a half hour massages for about 350 baht (about $11). She drew us a map, and we wound through tiny sidestreets, passed closely by motorbikes and other traffic making our way to soi 8.
The décor was tranquil, all deep tan colors with decorative bamboo screens. We settled on cushions to wait our turn. They brought slippers and tea, although they had to go up a size for me. Apparently 10 ½ isn't a common shoe size in Thailand.
Our plan included a foot massage, so we started by getting our grubby feet washed off. I'm rather ticklish. Friends and family might wonder if I was out of my mind signing up for a foot massage. At first I wondered the same as the brush sent my leg into near spasms a couple of times.
Thankfully, the start was the worst. Occasionally the masseuse would drag a nail along my arch, grab a toe awkwardly, or otherwise make me jump, but in general it was relaxing and comfortable. In fact, the foot section was more enjoyable than the head and neck, an outcome I wouldn't have guessed.
Feet slick and moisturized, limber and loose, we left the blissful air conditioning to return to soi 4. Eric and Linh's company had already arrived. I joined the guys on the balcony where Eric was saucing the barbeque ribs. The topic of grills arose naturally. We determined Eric paid as much in Thailand for his grill as mine back home, but it was maybe half the size. Gas versus charcoal was briefly discussed, but I don't feel like recounting religious arguments.
Dinner consistent of the ribs, nicely bitter morning glory in soy sauce, and a spicy tom yum prepared by the Nguyens' live-in nanny, Pi Roma. We enjoyed getting to know the other couples while the children swirled exuberantly behind us. The chaos was refreshing as I realized I had no responsibilities, no "Cora, don't touch that" "Don't eat that" "Don't climb that." The sound of children had become oddly relaxing, washing over us familiar, but barely heeded.
After dinner the guys headed out to a bar for the All Blacks (New Zealand) rugby match against England. Eric loaned me a black polo shirt, and we were set. We grabbed a taxi to dart between sois and walked into a crowded bar done up like a classic British pub. Cigarette smoke hung in the air, and there was standing room only with hardly room for the servers to deliver drinks. We talked about waiting for the haka—the Maori warrior chant the kiwis do before the game—and moving on, but no other bars nearby had the match, so we ended up staying.
It was fun to watch and like many sports outside the US easier to follow. In rugby motion is constant, rushes forward, kicks back when you get stalled. No complicated plays, counts, or obscure rules.
The All Blacks won, but not before a disappointing first half. Eric took the blame for that since New Zealand had lost the prior two matches, the first ones Eric had watched. At least the streak was broken.
November 22 (Sunday)
Conveyor Belts and the Death Taxi
Our first day in Bangkok under our belts, it was time to head for relaxation in Phuket. On the way out of town, the Nguyens took us for lunch at a conveyor hotpot restaurant called Shabushi. We'd seen photos of it on Facebook. It was located in a giant, gleaming mall called Central World. We heard tell of a Lamborghini dealership in one such mall—clearly we weren't in Oregon anymore.
Arriving shortly after the restaurant opened, we were seated quickly and it was a good thing. People streamed in constantly and by the end of our allotted time (all-you-can-eat-in-one-hour-and-fifteen-minutes) people were lined up outside.
The food was excellent, and some nerdy part of me loves anything delivered by conveyor belt. I mean come on, it's a conveyor belt! The mechanized future has arrived, and it's bringing you lunch.
Tom yum and chicken broth bubbled in a split pot on the table heated by a gas burner. The tom yum was the clear winner for flavor. Into the broth went shrimp, Udon noodles, yellow noodles, slices of beef, slices of pork, white fish, shrimp, mussels, greens, mushrooms, wood ear fungus, shrimp, chicken. We only skipped the liver and bypassed the sushi—Bamboo in Portland has spoiled me entirely.
Afterward there was a very Bangkok decision to make—how to reach the airport. Traffic was a consideration, not along the route but just getting out of the parking lot. Huge snarls gather as the incredibly long lights stack cars up to block driveways. You fight for every inch. Eric and Linh had sat for hours leaving this mall before. With our flight that was clearly an issue. Instead we walked down the length of the mall, bags in tow, and caught a taxi on a clear street headed our direction. Crisis resolved.
Traffic Do's and Don'ts
- Do drive on the left.
- Don't honk much. Not like anyone's moving anyways.
- Do use motorbikes to weave between cars.
- Don't worry about lanes. Drive where you need to.
- Do wait for extremely long lights—five minutes plus.
- Don't sweat stopping in the curbside lane (taxi only).
- Do keep purses and bags on arm away from the street when walking.
- Don't count on arriving early in Bangkok.
- Do try the sky train and subway.
- Don't take unmetered taxis.
Or so we thought. Maybe it was Amber mentioning "expressway" misinterpreted as "go fast." Maybe that driver always goes fast. Either way, we'd entered what I call the Death Taxi. Once we hit the expressway we realized what we'd gotten into. The driver hit the gas and barely let up the whole time. Lanes have less meaning in Thailand already, but this guy swerved like he was alone on the road. He punched and slowed like a NASCAR driver, slipping into spaces I wouldn't have tried in Mario Kart. My throat tightened, my breathing shallowed, and I held on as we bounded along. Once I saw him hitting 150 kph in an 80 zone, with traffic around us averaging 100. I've never been so glad to get out a vehicle except the flight to Anguilla where we lost an engine and the flight crew taught us the brace position. Come to think of it, that might have been useful here.
After that drive the domestic flight was uneventful. It was smoother than similar flights back home, as they're less strict on the liquids, shoes, other carry-ons that you have to individually bag and tag in the States.
Arrivals in Phuket was a mass of calling voices—people with signs, with taxis, with hotels, tours, and villas to sell you. Our stay with the Mariott included pickup from the airport, so we found a desk and followed a man who cut through the crowd pulling our largest bag. The drive led down narrow one-lane roads with motorbikes and lush trees in limitless supply.
At the resort, we were met with fragrant flower necklaces and shown to our room. A nice two bedroom suite, it had a small, well-stocked kitchen and a private plunge pool on the porch. Towels were rolled up into a decorative elephant on the table.
Exhausted, we didn't explore much, just hitting the closest resort restaurant for dinner. I had a yellow curry over noodles with a chicken leg on the bone, and Amber had a burger. Despite my giving her a bad time, it sounded good to her, and I've got to admit the fries were tasty.
By the end of dinner we were nearly drooping into our plates. Back at the room we dunked in the cool water of the plunge pool before collapsing to sleep.
November 23 (Monday)
Waking in the king sized bed in Phuket, buried in the soft, heavy comforter, pillow plush beneath my head, I knew we had a problem. I didn't fell well. Let's call it "tummy trouble." So glad I was in the suite near the toilet rather than en route or out sightseeing.
Phrases and Gestures
- Ka or kup—a polite punctuation ending most statements. Use ka if you are female, kup if you've male.
- Sa-wat dee(ka/kup)—Hello or goodbye
- kob-kun (ka/kup)—Thank you
- Hands together before you, slight head bow. Book indicated only do to people you aren't paying, which we totally botched.
Amber went to the market and returned with rice, bananas and yogurt. We'd already gotten bread for toast, nailing three quarters of the BRAT diet. However the market lacked Cipro. All the OTC antibiotics were amoxicillin based, which I'm allergic to.
Asking the front desk where we could get something better, it and turned out a nurse was on staff, and a doctor was making rounds later in the day. We called for the nurse, but she only dispensed charcoal tablets and orange flavored electrolyte solution. Dressed in a tidy, old-fashioned nurse's uniform, she even had that early 20th century-style pointed cap. I took the tablet and settled in to wait out the worst.
In many ways, it wasn't a complete loss. Relaxation for me is mostly defined by reading. Not inclined to leave the suit, I certainly got plenty of book time. I pounded through most of the The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Nothing like a bleak post-apocalypse for your tropical vacation time.
Around lunch, Amber started having similar symptoms. We decided to call the doctor, and he soon came along with the same nurse. He felt our stomachs gurgle, agreed we had a bug, and dished out the Cipro. He warned it wouldn't be instant. Thankfully by the next day we both felt much better.
As for the cause, well, we're both idiots. In Hong Kong Amber remembered we needed to take our medications. We must have been tired because we each drank tap water, just a sip, but enough. The silliest part—we each did the same thing separately. D'oh.
November 24 (Tuesday)
Relaxing in Phuket
On our first day in Phuket, Amber had spotted the tasty breakfast buffet at our nearest restaurant. Glad to be in an eating mood, we went over and tucked in. It was an interesting mix of East meets West—standard omelet bar, hash browns, bacon, sausage, and toast alongside noodle soups and stir fried dishes I associate with lunch or dinner. It made sense, because the resort drew equally from Asia and Europe, with a smattering of Yanks like us.
That morning was our mandatory timeshare presentation. Eric and Linh got us a sweet deal on the time in exchange. It was interesting to get the actual numbers, although mostly it served to earn the Nguyens some points toward there plan.
Asia is way ahead of the States with cell phones. Had on the cheap in Thailand, you purchase a SIM card separately from phones. These can be obtained anywhere—local 7-Elevens for instance. Text messages are key given the high rate for minutes and phones can interact with many services via simple SMS interfaces.
After that, at long last we reached our true goal in Phuket—the pool. The air was warm and humid, the water just cool enough to lap that away. Read on lounge chairs, dip in the pool, repeat. What a gorgeous way to spend an afternoon.
As evening closed thoughts turned to dinner. The more posh JW Marriott resort nearby had the bulk of the restaurants, so we took a golf cart down the winding paths to it. Palm fronds and pools with lilies whisked by. On arriving at the JW it was clear that our resort was only the entryway of the Marriott empire in Phuket. Huge stone vases sat in a long stream down the center of the drive. Sculptures and other art decorated the alcoves and corners. An infinity pool dominated the center of the entry porch, its view running to an open slice of beach and sky framed by palm trees. Downstairs a pool held matching Thai pillars with space for lamps to be set in them come nightfall.
We surveyed the food options—an international buffet, a café, an Italian spot, a sushi bar—and opted for the single Thai option called Ginja Taste. At the end of the complex, we walked along a wooden pathway above the beach to get there. Massage huts popped up every so often, as did a small covered table right on the cusp of the sand where some couple shared a romantic dinner. A bar all in glowing blue thumped techno music by one of several pools.
We sat outside at Ginja Taste. Despite the added heat, it suited us to hear the surf crashing and watch the day's light fade. While we ate the staff from across the resort finished their shift and straggled by in singles, groups of two, and more. Motorbike lights flared through the bushes where they were being picked up.
The dinner was excellent—pretty authentic Thai, if a little upscale. We sampled appetizers, luscious satay, crispy egg rolls, pillowy seasoned scallops, tart green papaya salad, bites of sea bass with chili and herb in a folded banana leaf box, and a lovely spicy beef salad. At a coworker's suggestion I ordered beef with oyster sauce and green peppercorns. The young peppercorns gave it little punctuation marks of sharpness with the rich beef. Amber definitely got the dish of the night, though. Steamed sea bass fillet doused in a fantastic chili and Thai herb sauce. It tasted so fresh, so bright, exactly like I had hoped for from food in Thailand.
November 25 (Wednesday)
Amber and the Sea
Our beach access in Phuket was at the adjacent resort, so it was midmorning before we made it to the water's edge. The day was clear and hot already out of cover. The steep beach had textured sand that crunched as you walked. The water was gorgeous turquoise, with fishing boats dotting the distance. The surf pounded in, and a small yellow flag recommended the water for "experienced swimmers." We were both fairly comfortable with the water we thought, so after setting blankets in the shade we approached the waterline. Visions of bobbing in warmth off Anguilla played through our minds as we stepped into the white froth.
I noticed immediately that the water dragged heavy at my legs and feet. Not a problem. Oregon tides pull pretty hard. You just set your feet for the tugging.
A funny thing about that beach in Phuket. I'd noticed the night before how inconsistent it sounded. Mostly small waves came, then two or three loud crashes would boom up out of the dark.
That pattern held in the morning. White foam surrounded us. The force of it surprised me. I leaned into it to keep my balance. Amber, a few steps behind, struggled in similar fashion.
"If we just get past the waves—" one of us said as a big one pummeled us, well above my waist. I looked back to see Amber fully submerged, down on hands and knees. She struggled to rise, but another wave followed close and knocked her over. I reached out to help her, but in that instant I was really elsewhere.
Childhood visit to the Oregon coast. It was a gray, cold day, sweatshirt and jeans weather. I must have been young because I wanted in the water so bad. My brother Travis and I rolled up our pant legs and waded in. From there things go fuzzy, but I think Trav fell over. Or I did. Then we were both in the water. The tide's clutching fingers dragged at us.
We were young enough it was probably three inches of water and no real peril. But since then, falling uncontrolled in the surf jolts me toward panic, chest squeezing fight-or-flight as I face down the sea. Helping Amber up felt that way for a few seconds, though we were soon laughing and wincing in equal measures at her abraded knees and the rocky sand dotting her hair.
After that we stuck to the blankets, thank you very much.
We chose the tamer pool at our resort for the late afternoon's lie in the sun. Light clouds kept dampened the morning's heat. It was a good thing too, since our "water proof" sun block had worn away enough to burn us in patches around the shoulders and neck. Our encounter with the sea had washed away more than just our dignity.
For dinner we returned to Ginja Taste, heading over a short while before sunset. As the orange and pink strokes touched the sky off the end of the infinity pool, Thai dancers came out, garbed in white with masks. A few men staked out the middle of the pool with long torches. The dancers moved along the rim of the pool, stretching out in those distinctly Thai, sinuous lines of hand, arm, and leg. The men came to the edges, spun their burning torches, and blew flame in the air and along the water's surface. No Cirque du Solei, but it was a few minutes entertainment before dinner.
That night we began with two soups—tom yum and tom ka gai. The tom yum was of particular interest since we make that at home ourselves. While not far off the mark, our home recipe lacks a certain character, a rich spicy flavor in every bowl sampled in Thailand. We've concluded that fish sauce—which we now appreciate rather than revile—and galangal instead of ginger are likely culprits. The tom ka gai was based on coconut milk, with all that creamy sweetness mixed with mild spice and tender chicken. It was almost like a thin liquid curry served without rice.
For entrees Amber ordered a version of pad thai—largely at my prompting from my obsession with noodles—and I had the yellow-curried soft-shell crab. Outside the light was not great, so when it came I had a moment's uncertainty of how to eat the dish. Maybe I'm late to the party, but I hadn't quite keyed in that you eat the entire crab, claws, legs, guts and all. There were four of them, each maybe two inches across. The shells were quite tender, no hint of brittle sharpness I half expected on that first bite. The inner parts of the crab mixed with the curry so they couldn't be told apart. Amber's pad thai was okay, but cooked sprouts lent a bitterness neither of us liked.
It was hard to believe our time in Phuket was already done. We could have stood a bit longer, but adventure lay ahead.
November 26 (Thursday)
Our domestics hops in Thailand were on an airline called AirAsia. Based out of Malaysia, it's been described as the Southwest of southeast Asia. There are many parallels—midsized planes, no refreshments, online booking. A big plus for air travel in general was looser security than the good old TSA—no shoe checks, no separate baggies for liquids (though size was still restricted), and fewer hideously clogged lines.
Reaching the airport in Bangkok midmorning, we heard from Linh that she was heading out for a manicure/pedicure. We taxied home, dropped off the bags, and joined her.
I know, a manicure? What was I thinking? And a pedicure… with my ticklishness it should have been unthinkable. But for years I'd heard Amber rave about them, and I was honestly curious at the appeal. Given my inherent cheapness, I'd never spend $30-60 at home. But in Thailand my glimpse into this other world only cost about $10.
The salon was in a new, largely empty building called aptly enough, Trendy Condominium. The salon resembled any other I'd seen, though I've never been close enough in the States to comment on more than surface details. They had backlogged a bit since Linh's call, so we waited, browsing Thai celeb magazines. Oddly, the publications often sported English covers with Thai contents. Only names showed in script I recognized, though this had little impact on the information actually conveyed.
My turn finally rolled around. As the gal got to work with the emery board, I realized what I'd failed to consider—much of the process involves something like sandpaper which I hate. Hand sanding sets me to chewing my lower lip (I'm not chewing now only by force of will as I write this). I'd thought having survived the foot massage I could take on anything. Now my limits would be tested.
In the end I made it through. I closed my eyes, focused on holding still as she passed that grating board from nail to nail. I emerged alive.
And for all the smart-alecks, no, I didn't get them painted, just buffed thank you very much.
So here we were, Thanksgiving Day half a world away from home. Luckily, some ex-pat friends of Eric and Linh's came to the rescue, with help from Marriott's catering.
The spread was excellent and highly traditional. The small group was all American, and we traded stories. It proved a good simulation of the beloved holiday that, given the time difference was just dawning on our homeland's shores.
The celebration did put Coraline more in my thoughts. Her time with Aunt Sarah and Cousin John was over, and she'd be heading to my parents' for the holiday and the next week. It was her first major holiday without us, though she certainly won't remember. Still, a good time with friends buffered the sadness as we enjoyed the meal.
November 27 (Friday)
Platinum and Pop
After lying in, we went with Linh to join Eric for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in a local mall. After negotiating over the picture menus, we ended up with some steamed buns with standard barbequed pork, others with sweet bean curd, a noodle dish topped with wilted greens for Amber, a noodle soup for me, and the standout dish, Shanghai dumplings filled with broth. The dumplings squatted sat there in the steamer lumpy, doughy little bells. They are picked up delicately on a soup spoon, dabbed with sliced ginger and sauce, and popped whole in the mouth. Rocket hot broth shoots out of the dumpling. With careful management you can avoid burning your tongue off. So delicious and moist.
Eric returned to work, and the rest of us headed to the Platinum Fashion Mall. Five levels of tightly packed, tiny shops, this was nothing like the fancy, glossy Central World mall where Shabushi was. This was all about merchandise per square meter. Most shops specialized on a narrow style or item—here all denim, there cartoony T-shirts, here flip-flops in a bewildering array of colors and patterns, there wallets and clutches stacked deep.
The craziest was probably a purse shop that Amber eagerly waded into. Only a few feet of walkway cut between an enormous central mound of bags and the stacks against the walls. I had to lean back and forth to navigate through, and the highest bags required a special reaching stick. Not the shop for the claustrophobic—it felt like suffocating in cheap leather and plastic.
We wandered for hours until my back and feet ached. I'm the stereotypical male hunter when it comes to shopping, so browsing gets dull in a hurry. But Amber was excited, and I'd heard rumors of food worth waiting for.
A food court the likes of which I wish we had in the States. If I say "mall food court" what pops into your head? Probably fast food, limp pizza, cheap "Chinese" food, heat lamps. This place was lined with small stations serving one or two dishes—noodle soup, barbeque pork, roast duck, khao soi, spring rolls, soup with pig entrails. These were made fresh, noodles boiled before your eyes, meat sliced on the block for you. I had duck over bright green noodles. A tasty sweet sauce drenched it, with crumbles of pickled vegetable balancing it out. Best part? It cost $2.
If only malls had such cheap, good fare, I'd be less hostile about visiting them.
After dinner that night, we left Pi Roma with the sleeping kids and headed out for some live music. A Filipino cover band was playing at a place called Hillary Bar II.
We arrived between sets to find an empty stage. Taking a table we couldn't help but watch the "scene." Old guys, middle-aged at the youngest, were liquored up and dancing with young Thai women. You couldn't look anywhere without seeing a guy in gray hair or a mullet, flashy shirt or shoes with white socks too high, enjoying the company. The plainly evident sex trade was definitely a downside to parts of Bangkok. Not the best environment, but once the music started it got better.
The band was a hoot. They opened with a Metallica tune, the guitar work almost perfect. I was surprised too how well the singer mimicked Hetfield's trademark growl. From there they moved to other standard pop tunes across the decades—Dire Straits, Bon Jovi. Their female singer, a recent add apparently, was a bit karaoke, but otherwise it was an impressive set. They also laid into a Thai hiphop number totally foreign to me, and that really got people energized.
Walking back from the bar, Eric snagged short ribs and chicken wings straight off the grill. He dumped all the fiery red pepper sauce into the plastic bags. The meat was beautifully crisp and juicy, searing from the chilies but delicious. Steam rose from the bags as we munched our way home, full and happy.
November 28 (Saturday)
That Saturday Eric and Linh hosted a big Thanksgiving bash. Obviously, Amber couldn't stand aside, so we volunteered to make my mom's award-winning potato rolls (up till 2am Friday doing it) and yam sham, a sweet potato dish with crumble topping.
Before the event, though, we had more shopping to do at a weekend market called Chatuchak, nicknamed the "JJ" for reasons I never sorted out. Separated by much of the city, we branched out and hit public transit. Bangkok has both above and underground rail, and our path used both. At the end of soi 4 we boarded the skytrain. Passing through the gates from the dirty, packed streets was like broaching another world. Clean, well labeled, all straight lines, it resembled any modern transit center. Switching to the MRT (subway) was simple, cocooning us in the modern transit bubble.
The market was a major stop near the end of the line. We ascended into the bright sunlight and crowds. Higher end shops lined up near the station, still open stalls but of recent construction. Beyond, older stretches of market cut dark halls back and forth over concrete paths, gutters thankfully empty. The merchandise was largely familiar, but sprinkled with more unique options. A whole stretch sold antiques—ancient looking stone buddhas, metal serving pieces, sepia photos and maps behind glass. The Chatuchak boasted more hand-crafted art as well. In particular one shop were massive carvings intricately cut from a single piece of wood, easily my arm span across. The largest showed elephants roaming through draping rain forest, unbroken vines running to connect different parts of the wood slab.
Bookstores, packed floor to ceiling held English, Thai, and Chinese books. We asked after a few titles but didn't find many. Those stores were often a strange mix of mainstream paperbacks, textbooks, science manuals, and travel publications. Organization was hard to spot, though the stacks were neat. I'm not sure how the sellers managed to answer our inquiries about particular titles with such certainty.
Leather goods—flower hair clips specifically—found their way into our bags along with heavy pottery I worried about packing home, bamboo bowls with cunning geometric designs, tiny painted magnets of seafood, dim sum, tropical fruits, and Thai classics. Loaded up, I wondered how we'd get back.
Along the way, we saw a line at a meat stall. They also served fresh bau (steamed buns) and shumai, noodly bits wrapped around sausage or ground pork. We waited impatiently near the charcoal's blazing heat and the succulent aroma of grilled pork. Eating with small wooden skewers from a steaming plastic bag, it fulfilled its promise—sweet, crispy at the edges, moist, and soft. Out in the sunlight again, Amber got a cup of strawberries which were doused in a salty sprinkling. Neither of us much liked that mix so she got another, conveying by sign to leave off the salt.
We took the subway back, but figured we'd catch a taxi instead of the skytrain those last few bits. It proved a very Bangkok scene—we waited ten minutes on the curb, weighed down with bags, every taxi in view full as they waited eight minutes for a light. After a perilous crossing of six to eight lanes of traffic—hard to tell for sure—we finally slipped into the AC'd comfort while our driver blocked a lane.
Most of the Thanksgiving prep was done back at the Nguyens, save cooking the yam sham. Back home, the dish glows a lovely orange, almost like creamy pumpkin pie filling top laden with crunchy brown sugar laden and pecans. In southeast Asia, sweet potatoes are a different beast—purple gray, less sweet, and much drier. For nuts we used slivered almonds, which worked but were coarser than the normal topping. The dish tasted good but looked dire in goopy, gray piles on the plates.
A crowd of more than a dozen adults—plus kids—made for a boisterous time. Half of them weren't American, so we had ample opportunities to share the intricacies of dark versus light meat, the glory of canned cranberry sauce, the careful staging of plates for obligatory second courses. It was a unique and enjoyable way to cement our Thanksgiving celebrations abroad.
November 29 (Sunday)
Street Food Fantastic
Chiang Mai (or Chaing Mai, Chiangmai or numerous other variations I saw) sits in the northern, more mountainous parts of Thailand, leading to Burma. By no means a small city with 1.5 million residents, it was our bid to escape the tourists of Phuket and the bustle of Bangkok.
Our flight out delayed an hour and the departing gate switched downstairs. TVs blared with Thai game shows and advertisements. Finally we were bussed out onto the tarmac and bunched up on the stairs in the glaring sun, waiting to board.
The altitude brought a welcome cooling to the air in Chiang Mai. A taxi took us to our bed and breakfast. Most of the drive trailed a canal dotted with humped brick ruins. Traffic felt light and disperse after Bangkok. A sense of calm pervaded the place, a small town feel though it was truly a city.
Our bed and breakfast, Baan Orapin, was down a narrow street with only broken bits of sidewalk appearing here and there. An unassuming white gate opened on a surprisingly large area. Hexagonal blocks of the drive had grass neatly growing up through them, softening the entryway. Buildings hid behind palm leaves and neat shrubs. The main building was a classic colonial house—two stories, painted white with lines of shudders angled open for air flow. Taking off our shoes, we entered a room all in dark teak wood, quiet but for the creak of floorboards underfoot. Our room was a nice suite with a tiled entry area, mosquito nets on the bed, and a deep wicker couch. The front door was locked with a padlock, but oddly fumbling with it lent to the simple atmosphere.
We rested a while, before trekking to the Old City for the Sunday Market. A footbridge not far away crossed over the Ping River, leading us toward our destination. Shops and stalls packed with flowers lined the busy street across from the footbridge. We made our way past closed fish, meat, and produce stalls. Water dripped on the concrete as the daylight filtered away in this closing market.
It's true sometimes in the US, but if an option is "local style," know what you're getting into. One dish we were assured wasn't too spicy was hotter than my "hot" dish. Know before you go.
Tall, intricate brick structures marked the Old City. In a courtyard area an art show was set up under a tall picture of the king. Sculptures of ice—full blocks chest height with flowers embedded in them—lined the way to weaving, painting, drawing, metalworking and sculpting. Artists worked there at their crafts. I was fascinated most by a man sculpting a Chinese dragon. He spent minutes rolling and shaping a long strip of clay to lay over the dragon's eye. It put in perspective how the immense work in the elaborate decorations on the wats (temples). If an eyebrow required such attention, imagine the hours required for those bright, intricate buildings.
From there we proceeded to the market, which took over several streets, numerous cul-de-sacs and side ways. We did shop until my back and feet ached, but not all for gifts and souvenirs. We were hungry, and we hit the jackpot.
After entering the throng, a side path led to a courtyard filled with food stalls. Tropical fruits, fried fish cakes and prawns, pad thai, juices and smoothies, all packed together. We found our fix in the middle, though. Huge vats of red and green curry were ladled out over noodles. Accompanying were pork cracklins which the others squatting at our low table showed us to eat between bites of curry. The peppery, slightly sweet flavor reminded us of our recipes, but with a delicious freshness.
I ate some curry, but the noodles next door had my attention. After curry we sidled up and got bowls of savory broth over small and wide rice noodles. Bits of pork, fish cakes, and chili finished it off. I slurped my way to happiness. Crouching there with the night sky above, crowds swirling, noodles steaming, it may have been my favorite Thailand memory.
An old lady with a mask grilled satay over charcoal next door, and we bought a few skewers. They disappeared before we even hit the street again. How is it that simple grilled meat can taste so good, so soft, sweet, juicy and transcendent?
As we walked on I told Amber I was channeling Anthony Bourdain, the travel/food writer from No Reservations who possesses a limitless gut for street food. We snacked along, finally landing at a stall with squid—whole, about three inches long—and skewers of octopus tentacles. Stuffed though I was, I couldn't resist. I ate the octopus first with a vinegar and chili sauce. Tasty, wonderfully charred on the tips, it wasn't too tender, but I enjoyed it. After that I didn't expect much of the whole squid. For whatever reason I thought it would be tougher than the tentacles. I bit off the top, and it melted as my teeth cut into it. Good squid has a hint of chewiness, not tough but you know thirty seconds on the fire would have turned it to rubber. This squid was the best I've ever had, simple, fresh, and perfectly soft.
After all the walking we were beat, but chairs along the roadside beckoned. For $2 we had half-hour foot massages. Just sitting would have been worth the money, but as firm hands worked away the pain of the market I sat back and watched the people flow by. We headed back to Baan Orapin exhausted, elated and extremely full. What a beautiful night.
November 30 (Monday)
Private Tuk Tuk Driver
We woke late, almost missing breakfast which closed at 10:30. Served in the main building of the bed and breakfast, doors opened across a spacious room onto the porch facing the pool. Tables inside and out were carefully set identical to each other. All the woodwork—floor, walls and ceiling—was teak, wrapping around with a sense of timeless calm.
An excellent breakfast followed, with fried eggs, bacon, toast, potatoes, tea, and bitterly strong coffee, almost espresso strength. The manager diligently tended us throughout the meal, bringing a small fruit dish, glasses of fresh sweet orange juice, then the meal.
We'd arranged for a driver to take us up to a temple on the hill called Doi Suthep. The plan was an afternoon trip to catch the temple around sunset. That left us with a few hours to relax in the room reading and writing. I was reading Atonement, yet again a somber book set far from the humid tropical warmth I relaxed in.
As lunchtime approached hunger crept in. According to the guidebook, a great spot for khao soi waited down the road. Khao soi was a traditional northern Thai dish, a yellow curry over noodles with crunchy fried onions. Just the ticket.
We walked partway there before concluding we wanted a ride. Although the road was busy, few options stream passed as we staked out two corners of a busy intersection. Finally we flagged down a tuk tuk puttering.
Lam Duan was cleary a local spot, the type of restaurant with mismatched furniture, an open front jammed next to a motorbike shop. Someone tended a charcoal fire near the entrance, always a good sign. We sat down and with signs, pointing, and nods conveyed that we wanted two of "the usual." Local it might be, but they seemed used to folks dropping in with only sawadeekup and kupunkup in the language department. I sucked down my delicious khao soi, then watched the various decorations—faded photos of sport teams, children, and the king, hung between Coke advertisements and clocks. We ordered a bit of satay after. The meat was so tasty it seemed silly that they brought a plate of sauce with it.
A tuk tuk is a converted motorbike with an open frame and tiny back seat strapped on for passengers. The name's origin is obvious once you hear one—the puttering engine almost speaks the name.
In Bangkok we favored taxis—AC and better fares—but in Chiang Mai tuk tuks proved easier to find. After a night of street food, there's no better way home than zooming along, crouched low in the back of a tuk tuk.
Back at Baan Orapin we met our driver, Mr. Deth. He drove a spacious hatchback taxi off toward the edge of town. Buildings gave way to lush deciduous trees, and the road coiled on itself in frequent switchbacks as it climbed. From a distance he pointed out Doi Suthep, a glint of gold up the green hillside.
Doi Suthep was our first time in a wat, or temple. Set up high with long flights of 300 stairs lined by dragons, you could imagine another time when tourists didn't stream through and quiet reigned. Even on a weekday plenty of people came and went.
Inside the other walls was a court around the main temple. An overlook of the city was lined by a stone wall and trees. By the main temple wall ran a long line of ceremonial bells. Every set of stairs leading up to the temple proper was flanked by ornate dragons in shining tiled colors. Gold glinted off the roof.
Removing our shoes, we entered the temple. Yet another layer of court here circled the roofed temple spaces. Buddha statues were everywhere in a profusion of materials—stone, gold, and other metals. A huge dome shape like half a pinecone, gilded in gold, was surrounded by scaffolding and orange netting of construction. At various stations were candles and lamps where people bowed and lit. Sunset proved further off still than we wanted to wait for, so we left after a while.
After dark we set out again from Baan Orapin on foot. Down the road was a more western style restaurant called Brasserie. We were drawn by its riverside placement, sitting at a table just feet above the calm Ping's waters. Light from the shops and market across the water reflected on the river. I ordered a crispy duck dish, and Amber a ruby fish. A local variety, the server also convinced her local style wasn't too hot. This proved spicier than my duck, which I actually ordered hot. In the low light, it turned out she had crunched several little peppers hidden throughout the dish. A couple of gin and tonics helped through the scorching meal. I thought it all tasted great, although the small bits of duck lost their juiciness to go with the crunch of gorgeous duck skin.
Our destination that night was the Kalare Night Bazaar, a nightly market. After the night before, we went in jazzed to explore. Unfortunately the weekend is truly a step up. We found only stalls with the same cheap, ubiquitous stuff, none of the food, and pushy vendors at every turn. We did find an artist painting with oils we actually liked—most of the pictures before were cheesy at best—but otherwise it was a bust.
On the way back, stomachs growling at the lack of promised street food, we hit a 7-Eleven. Prawn chips, wasabi peas, red soda, and tea, and back to the hotel to snack.
We flagged down a tuk tuk, and after a moment burst out laughing as we recognized our tuk tuk driver from earlier in the day. The tuk tuk driver smiled broadly. We got a photo with her and tipped her well. Our own private tuk tuk driver.
December 1 (Tuesday)
We checked out the next morning, but they kindly let us keep our bags at the bed and breakfast since our flight left that evening. After breakfast we made for the Old City to wander around until departure time. We hopped into a "truck bus" after failing to find a tuk tuk. These pickups with canopies and benches in the back were a major mode of local transport. It dropped off another guy, then proceeded to the main wat our guidebook had identified as the best in town.
Within a walled gate was a small collection of buildings, all touched with the same tile, gold, and flourishes we'd seen at Doi Suthep. An ancient stone structure rose behind this wat, worn smooth by the years and encircled by carved elephants. The temple interior was all red and gold. But for a few carefully placed electrical fans, it felt like entering another time.
Outside the wat was an odd aspect of touring in Chiang Mai—people with tables of merchandise sat right outside the temples, while tuk tuk drivers with laminated maps lobbied to guide us. The serene wat clashed with the press of commerce so nearby.
We crisscrossed the Old City with brief stops at the ubiquitous wats. We soon developed wat fatigue, though, much like cathedrals and castles did when touring Britain. Lacking historical context or energy to dig for it, we eventually watched each as we passed and called it good.
Near the center, mere blocks from the art show that first night, we settled in at a coffee shop. Black Canyon Coffee was the local equivalent of Starbucks—all over, consistent branding, decent coffee and pastries. Speaking of that international juggernaut of brewed beverages, I'm almost ashamed to admit we hit one of those too. It had awesome AC, mango smoothies, and in England we started collecting their massive city mugs. It began as irony—I mean, what's less English than passable coffee?—but by now we've crossed over to only faux irony. Ah well, at least they're nice mugs.
Western brands are popular worldwide, but some odd ones showed up repeatedly that I didn't expect:
- 7-Eleven —These were everywhere, sometimes mere blocks apart. In addition to typical 7-Eleven snacks, you also find steamed buns (bau), chips in seafood flavors, occasional tech books, and the aforementioned cell phone SIM cards.
- KFC —McDonald's and Burger King I expect, but KFC? I guess greasy chicken's a hit everywhere. Good for them, since our nearest outlets have closed in the past year. Will international fame save the Colonel?
- Sizzler —Yes, you read that right. And not only is America's most mediocre steakhouse in Thailand, it was in the glitzy Central World mall no less!
We ate lunch at a place called Den Duang. Tiled inside in light blue, the restaurant spilled out onto a porch. The sidewalk past there was hemmed in by the buttoned up stalls of the night bazaar. I had a noodle soup, and Amber gang hanglay, a red northern curry.
Our driver from the trip to Doi Suthep took us to the airport. A lovely sunset painted the sky as blazing orange and pink as we took off.
Texting Eric and Linh from baggage claim, we found they were at a work function. A bit of shopping remained, so back at the flat we checked if Platinum Fashion Mall was still open. Failing to find clear hours online, Pi Roma told us she thought it was. We sped back into the night's heat and bustle.
When we got there, it was closed. Bummed, we walked toward home. The glitzy uber-mall Central World was not far away. Multiple outdoor stages with beer garden-style seating blared with live music. Part of the mall was still open, and famished we were drawn, moth-like to Shabushi, the hot pot restaurant. We stuffed ourselves on conveyor goodness before finally heading home.
December 2 (Wednesday)
Cooking and the Grand Palace
Our last full day in country was stacked to be busy. In the morning we joined a cooking class run by a charity called Helping Hands. They picked us and a couple other students up at a nearby hotel. One of the gals was very kind and seemed interested, but the other had plainly been coerced into coming, declaring she only cooked for herself "twice a year." Ahem.
Purchasing ingredients at a local market was the first step. We were soon surrounded in the narrow streets and walkways by exotic fruits, vegetables both known and strange, spices piled or bagged to go, shellfish, fish, and squid all gleaming fresh. Our teacher explained ingredients while Amber peppered her with questions. Many ambiguities were resolved, names learned for produce we'd seen across our time in Thailand.
Deep in the market we passed live chickens. The two other students hung back, fearing they would see them slaughtered. Our teacher led us down that aisle, and we entered a truly foreign place. Fish waited in shallow tanks with only a few inches water. Eels—called snakefish—writhed and squirmed, occasionally jumping out. These escapees got a splash of water before being plucked up and returned to confinement. Chickens were there, but no killing going on. Those already dead were not your Foster Farms birds—heads intact, skin less pale, evidence of real feathers only recently removed.
From the eels, things got even more interesting. Frogs joined the mix, at first dead and partially skinned, but later in big, bullfroggy bunches together in netted ties. They didn't move much, but the occasional twitch showed these were very alive. Pots along the way held sauces in dark browns and reds that I wouldn't have plumbed too far on ingredients for. Then there were those staples of exotic food travel shows—the bugs. Grasshoppers, huge beetles, ants piled high over blocks of ice to keep them fresh.
From the market we were driven to the slum where our teacher grew up and still lived. Cramped ways ran beside a slew way littered with trash ran. Glimpses in the doorways showed dirty, dark conditions. I've seen deeper material desperation in Africa, but this was no kind place to live.
In the midst of this, a small room had been converted to a modern kitchen. The walls were garish pink, decorated with photos of past classes. The teacher pointed out a table across the walkway, outdoors. That was where she used to teach. It put that pink kitchen with just enough seating for us in perspective.
She demonstrated several curries. Linh had passed along our interest in those dishes since we make them at home. Fundamentally, most Thai curries start with curry paste—fresh if you have the time and strength for the pestle, canned if not—and coconut milk with vegetables and meat. The ingredients proved familiar but were prepared much faster. We often simmer a bubbling pot for thirty minutes. These dishes cooked in mere minutes. They also finished with fresh herbs and kaffir lime leaves, yielding a brighter flavor.
One dish included shrimp, which the non-cooking lady tried to persuade her friend not to eat. Same lady also thought the pork was raw when it was just a little tough after the fast, hot cook. We had a good time and learned a lot, but were glad to leave the whining behind.
Most of our time in Bangkok was spent visiting with Eric and Linh, shopping, and resting up for out of town jaunts. Time had finally come to sightsee before we left.
If there's one thing to see in Bangkok, it's the Grand Palace and the temples attached. We took a taxi from the cooking class. The warm light and the early morning lulled us into dozing, but I woke on streets with government buildings and half-finished decorations. The king's birthday, a national holiday, was soon after our departure. The prep told clearly that we approached the political center of the city.
The taxi driver let us out near a tall white wall running almost as far as you could see. People streamed in and out a gate nearby. At least three other drivers set upon us immediately, offering to show us, telling us we were going the wrong way. Amber, who was hungry and thirsty, told them stridently that we didn't want their help, and they finally backed off. We got a sandwich and cool tea across the street. Feeling much better, pass through the gateway.
While Chiang Mai familiarized us with the architecture of Thai temples, we were not quite prepared for the scale of the Grand Palace. Everything we'd seen was represented here, easily three or four times the size. Even as the temples expanded, pressed tightly together, the scrollwork, bright tiling, and panoramic murals remained as intricate as before. It was busier too, school children in uniforms darting amongst the throng of common tourists.
Among the many things to see in the temple complex was a jade Buddha statue, seated several meters above the floor. Signs explained that the Buddha had three separate garments for the hot, wet, and cold seasons. Sure enough, the statue was draped in the longer gold coat of the cold season, as we roasted in the direct afternoon sun outside.
Leaving the temple area brought us to the palace buildings. Mostly closed off, these very westernized, colonial looking mansions had a few weapon museums open on the bottom floor. Between Japanese swords and traditional spears, were guns of all sorts, often gifts from visiting powers to Thailand's royalty. Though the room had little text beyond naming the weapons, they still conveyed the tumultuous past of the land we now so peacefully visited.
Tired and hot, we grabbed a taxi back toward home with one short stop—the Platinum Fashion Mall. Yes, we made one last, mad grab for gifts, plumbing the crowded, jam-packed floors for shops vaguely remembered on visits days before. We found what we sought, but dinner waited at home so we didn't even hit the mythical food court.
Pi Roma had cooked a lovely, spicy soup and juicy Nepalese chicken over rice. We had intended to learn a little cooking from her, but ran short of time.
All that remained then was packing. The heaps of shopping bags seemed impossibly huge at first glance. I'll admit, I wondered at the weight limit, not just the need to buy another suitcase. Oh me of little faith. Amber kicked into high gear as we consolidated, folded, rolled, stacked, pressed, and packed. We compressed things to only a small overflow, easily obtained on soi 4 as nighttime was still shopping hour.
With Linh to aid, we found a line of luggage shops at the top of the soi. We tried to negotiate at the first, but apparently pissed off the clerk who threw up her hands and turned away. We ended up with a bag for a similar price—branded "Pology." I believe we refrained from shaking the bag as we passed that original shop.
We picked up noodle soup, short ribs, and grilled chicken we later identified as the tails. Amber and Linh, expecting a more conventional cut of chicken meat, wouldn't touch them, but for a chicken skin lover like me, they were crunchy bits of heaven.
Exhausted but packed and full of tasty food, we dropped for a few short hours of sleep.
December 3 (Thursday)
We dodged the death taxi race to the airport, and as the sun rose we found ourselves at the international terminal. Our luggage passed without a hitch, and we passed beyond security.
With time on our hands and baht to kill, we browsed the duty free liquor store. Amber had taken a shine to gin and tonics on the trip, and I'm always up for nice single malt scotches. Purchases in hand, we boarded for Hong Kong.
Because of the time we only snacked there—a pity since the noodle soups looked good. We did spot something which reduced our chagrin at drinking the Hong Kong water on the inbound trip drinking fountains were blazoned with signs declaring them sterilized. Alas, no such signs on the taps, but it explained our false sense of security.
The long Pacific hop started with bad news. Apparently the TSA wouldn't allow any liquids above 100 ml. Not sure why we thought duty free would be treated differently. Disappointing. I hope whoever "destroyed" our scotch and gin enjoyed themselves.
After our fantastically restful trip over, we went in expecting similar results. Not so fast. Despite Ambien, neither of us dozed more than a couple hours. The long, twitchy flight was only alleviated by the movie selections and anticipation of seeing Coraline again.
Our last leg from San Francisco to Portland was a small plane with restricted carry-on room. Carting a bunch of pottery, we asked the crew for help. Turned out they weren't using their crew luggage space—no overnights this trip—and let us stow our bulging, heavy bags rather than gate-check them. That, plus complementary microbrews, and I was feeling good about Alaska Airlines as we coasted home.
My parents met us at the baggage claim with Coraline in tow. My mom held our daughter, pointing as we approached. After a few seconds she yelled "Mama," and ran as fast as her stiff toddler gait would carry her. Hoisted into Amber's arms, she plastered herself to mama's shoulder, finally meeping "Dada," when I ducked in for a kiss.
We may still have been at the airport, but we had already arrived home.