Day 1 - Bangkok: Grand Palace, Jim Thompson House, Food Court & Samboon
Part 1: We first glimpsed Bangkok at night as our car inched through thick late-night traffic to the hotel. The streets were alive with locals doing their daily shopping at the dozens of night markets for food and clothes, endlessly bargaining for a better deal on this or that. Despite the steamy night heat, the atmosphere was vibrant, intense, and cheerful. Down narrow streets. people stood next to stalls eating small healthy meals: steaming bowls of noodles with shrimp, skewers of fish balls with chili sauce, and bags of fresh chilled pineapple. They spoke with each other as they ate, presumably catching up on the day. If we hadn’t been so totally exhausted from the plane ride, we might have jumped out for a quick snack ourselves. With all bowls of fresh noodles and freshly roasted fish staring us in the face, we could hardly wait for our Thai seafood quest to begin.
The next morning, we fortified ourselves with a hotel breakfast of Pad Thai, grilled tomatoes, and fresh guava juice, followed by several bottles of water and Coca-Cola® at the nearby 7-Eleven®. At first, we were disappointed at our immediate reliance on an American convenience store for basic sundries, until we realized this chain is a) one of the few consistently air-conditioned places to be found and b) nearly ubiquitous throughout the country. My discerning seafood radar was particularly amused to discover a wide selection of Lay’s® potato chips in flavors unknown in the US, including Lobster and Crab, indicating the Thai appetite for seafood applies to snacks as well as main courses.
The concierge furnished us with a city map that we were soon to learn was roughly 80% accurate. It seems that most mapmakers and guidebooks agree Bangkok is far too complicated to map, with all of its tiny, twisty streets, so they just list the major ones and allow tourists to get lost if they dare deviate. It also means it is best to take a cab everywhere, since it is nearly impossible to walk from point A to point B without veering off course at least three times en route.
Cabs must know instant disorientation is the case with most tourists, so they may or may not drive in endless looping circles around the city. Despite my best map-reading abilities, this could have easily happened to us. To add to the anxiety of cab transportation, they like to drive three abreast down two-lane streets playing perpetual games of chicken with oncoming traffic as they pass one another. After two devil-may-care cab rides, Nicole and I developed a system for approaching Thai transport: demand the cabbie use the meter, give him the address of the destination, close eyes, hope for the best.
Per the suggestion of most guidebooks and friends, our day began at the Grand Palace. A glittering city within a city, it is the original residence of the royal family and is home to the Emerald Buddha. Local monks and tourists alike flocked to the Wats (temples), praying to the statue and paying respect to the local city. Unlike the mellow heat of nighttime Bangkok, the bright sun was incredibly hot. Fans were strung up throughout the complex and we stopped several times in the shade to slug more water and collect our thoughts. After nearly an hour exploring the stone streets and golden temples, we hopped in a tuk-tuk (the local open-air-style cab which only adds to the anxiety of cab travel) for a quick stop at the Jim Thompson house for more sightseeing; then it was time for lunch.
From Jim Thompson, we opted for a less stressful transportation system and hopped the immaculately maintained public Sky Train to meet a local friend, Mona. She suggested eating at a food court at a mall nearby her office. Initially skeptical, we agreed to try it. Being a foodie, she assured us food courts in Thailand are different than the ones we are used to. The entire room is so clean you can eat off the floor and when you are finished eating, someone removes your tray and wipes down your seat and chair. To select our meal we bought a card with cash and used it to debit food at different vendors around the room. We elected to concentrate on the seafood vendors, selecting Rice with Shrimp Paste, Papaya with Hot & Spicy Crab, and Noodle Soup with Chicken and Fish Balls.
Our first foray into seafood quickly taught us an important lesson: most Thai seafood dishes do not exclusively contain seafood. Our Rice with Shrimp Paste was expertly styled with a side of beef in sauce, julienned chiles, and steamed vegetables. The soup contained both chicken and fish balls nestled in chicken broth, and the sweet mango and crab salad was dotted with tiny dried prawns. All of our selections, Mona assured us, were representative of the commonly found flavors and ingredients. Shrimp paste is a salty concoction of dried shrimp mashed with salt and chilis and is widely used to flavor soups and salads. The tiny dried prawns in the papaya salad are used as a garnish nearly everywhere and the fish balls are rarely served on their own.
As I snapped several photographs of our meal, I was excited to see I didn’t have to style any dishes, because they actually came that way from the servers. The Thai attention to style and detail in all of their dishes was remarkable throughout our entire stay. To cap off our meal, since most Thai do not eat dessert, we finished with a bag of fresh pineapple chunks and bubble tea from a street vendor outside of the mall.