I <3 NY

Let me just start by saying how absolutely delighted I was that I got to see this current production of Spring Awakening. I’d actually first read about it during its initial run in Los Angeles and it sounded amazing. When I heard it was moving to Broadway for a limited run, I planned to get tix to go along with tickets to Hamilton – only to discover SA was scheduled to close a week before my arrival in NYC in January. Well, they extended the show by a couple of weeks – not only did I get to see it, I got my tix for half-price at TKTS.

Now the show was not without its flaws – having seen the roadshow of the original production back in 2009, I was so enamored of the music that I didn’t cast too critical an eye on the story itself which is a bit overwrought (though I suppose that this is an accurate interpretation of how teenagers view their own lives…) – but I noticed it this time. Also, I think they pared down a couple of the musical numbers – which I can understand, given that half the cast is deaf, but it was a bit of a disappointment for me.

With all that being said, I thought this particular imagining of the show was masterful. Pairing deaf and hearing actors who performed using voice and ASL was astonishing from a technical perspective but also added another layer to the story’s portrayal of the difficult and awkward transition from child to grown-up – especially for adolescents seen by parents and teachers as not measuring up or being different. The use of a pair of performers in the roles of both Wendla and Moritz – a deaf actor taking the lead, while a hearing counterpart also appeared on stage to sing and deliver lines vocally not so much as an interpreter but as an alter ego to the character – was really quite extraordinary.

Suffice it to say, this was a wonderful evening at the theater. And almost as wonderful? My Jewish deli fix post-theater at Sarge’s. Pastrami delicious as always and the matzoh ball soup saved me from the near hypothermia I’d suffered on the walk their…

Tuesday morning I headed back to TKTS at South Street Seaport – again, took advantage of the 11AM opening time AND the fact that they sell matinee tix the day before the performance rather than day of in Times Square. Got a great seat for Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” featuring jug-eared dreamboat Russell Tovey. Rowr…

Headed back uptown, including a blustery walk along the Highline, for lunch with my dear friend Ralph. Returned to Porteño, an Argentinian place we’d been before (and which was the shortest walk from his office) and had a delicious plate of empanadas, followed by a chicken cutlet for me and a flank steak for him. And we kept the conversation light – starting off with the lead poisoning of the entire population of Flint, MI and ending up comparing notes on various friends and family battling cancer. We did manage to avoid comparing notes on our aching joints and other maladies associated with aging – though I’m sure that’ll be next… But I had a lovely time. As much as I love NYC in and of itself, some of my dearest friends live here and I’m always so happy to see them.

Speaking of friends, dinner that evening was with Michael and Justin at Artisanal Fromagerie (warning: site will autoplay audio, which is annoying AF; scroll down to stop it) where we had charcuterie and fondue and cheesecake and some really sensational wine. It was a perfect meal on this frigid night. Afterwards, caught up with my friend Dawna – she’s my theater buddy for this trip and had flown in that afternoon. We found a great little cocktail lounge right up the street from my hotel called The Raines Law Room. Super yummy cocktails as we regaled each other with our latest stories and plotted our plan of attack for shows.

Wednesday we met up at 11AM for Swedish meatballs at Smorgas Chef at Scandinavia House. It’s Restaurant Week here, so the prix fixe lunch was a reasonable $28. Then, off to Broadway! “Misery” for Dawna, “A View from the Bridge” for me. Had a bit of lie-down that afternoon, a snack downstairs at the hotel, then back to Broadway for the raison d’être for the trip: “Hamilton”!

I really enjoyed the show – smart, funny and rather brilliantly performed. My criticism? The love story component felt a little tacked on – but maybe that was because I found the political storyline, particularly in Act II, to be so engaging.

Dinner nearby, a brisk walk home and another day in NYC came to a close. Tomorrow, back to South Street Seaport TKTS to pick out another show to see Thursday night. Fingers crossed for “Fun Home”…

New York, New York!

Sunday morning flight from SFO to JFK. Seems simple enough – save for the fact that BART doesn’t start running to the airport until 830AM, meaning no way to make a 920AM flight. Which is bullshit. But whatever. And let’s be honest – as easy as BART is, it’s certainly a lot more pleasant to take a Lyft.

Anyway, this was my first time flying out of Terminal 2 – and it’s pretty darn gorgeous! I was a little disappointed that security lines really weren’t any better designed than other terminals, given that the T2 re-do was done in the post-9/11 era (Never Forget™) – but the line moved relatively quickly, so no major complaints.

I had a pass for the Admirals Club, AA’s lounge, so made myself at home. It was pretty nice and very quiet. Helped myself to a bagel and cream cheese and as much free water as I could drink! A pleasant respite before boarding my on-time flight on Virgin.

Of course, the other problem with traveling Sunday is that it’s mostly leisure travelers, i.e. rubes. It’s really amazing (by which I mean infuriating) how a handful of nincompoops who don’t how to board an aircraft can bring the proceedings to a complete halt. But other than that, flight was uneventful – the absolute best adjective for any commercial airline flight.

Took the Airtrain to catch the E into Manhattan. As I alit from the train, I noticed someone, presumably wrapping up their own stay in NYC, had placed their MetroCard on top of the trash can. I helped myself to this karmic good deed – thank you, kind fellow traveler – and not only did I save the $1.00 new card fee, there was still $5.59 left on the card! Certainly a good omen for the trip.

No express E trains plus re-routing to F tracks in Manhattan meant for a longer-than-usual trip, but it was fine (well, other than the aroma of vomit wafting in from the next car. City living!). Besides being the cheapest (and really just about the easiest) way into to the city, starting off a week in NYC on the subway is great because it reminds of two things I love about this city: everyone (for the most part) looks good and not everybody is white. “Melting pot” may be a cliché but it’s such a refreshing change from the homogeneity of SF.

Checked into the Pod 39 and was given an upgrade from the miniscule room I’d booked to one that is merely tiny. Hooray! But seriously, I’ve stayed here several times and it’s great – comfy bed, spotlessly clean, great location and (during off-season in January) extraordinarily well-priced. I’m paying about $80 a night for a nice place a couple of blocks from Grand Central. It’s an amazing deal.

Dinner up the street at Le Relais de Venise, the NYC outpost of a Parisian chain that offers only one thing on their menu – steak frites along with a salad for $28.75. Decent wine for $8 a glass is also on offer. The steak was pretty good – tender and tasty – and the secret sauce (which I understand is chicken liver based) certainly made the whole meal delicious. It’s by no means a prime, aged piece of beef – but it’s price-to-value ratio is second to none. Oh, and that portion in the photo? Yes, it looks rather petite – but that’s only the first serving. You’re served sliced steak and fries – but the other half of your steak is kept warm by the waitress, who serves you when you’ve finished the first half, along with another helping of hot frites.

I skipped dessert (which I of course regretted when I saw the next table getting theirs), but I figure I’ll be getting plenty to eat this week, so why gild the lily..? Back to the hotel for a fitful night’s sleep, thanks to my still being on CA time.

Slept in a bit, but was up and at ‘em by about 930. Weather forecast repeatedly referred to the weather as “bitterly cold” – and they were not wrong! But no snow, so it’s all good. Stopped down the street at a very small bagel place, where I ran into a traditional New Yorker – a lady occupying a four top and making sure no one else could sit there by putting her coat on one chair, and two different bags on the others. I kinda wished someone had asked to share (the place was packed) so I could’ve heard her response of, “Go fuck yourself.” As for me, I squeezed in at a less threatening table…

Was down at South Street Seaport TKTS before they opened at 11 and was fourth in line. The benefit of this location versus Times Square location (other than the obvious one of not being in Times Square) is that they open at 11AM rather than 3PM, meaning I could get my ticket and have the rest of the day free. Happily got my first choice – the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening.”

With the rest of the afternoon to kill, I made my usual stop at Moscot to check out new glasses – decided on another pair of Lemtosh – though I’ll have to order online, since my insurance benefit doesn’t kick in until Feb 1.

Next, I decided to check if Ben Sherman over in Soho was having a sale – I’ve gotten some good bargains on previous trips to NYC in January. WELL. Everything in the store – EVERYTHING – was at least 60% off OR MORE. Granted, the assortment, while large, was a bit picked over in terms of sizes, but I managed to pick up half a dozen button-front shirts, a couple pairs of chinos and a smart jacket – and all for a song!

Shopping had me all worn out, so had a bowl of ramen at Mr. Taka. It was decent – though as far as $15 bowls of ramen are concerned, I’ve had better.

And now, back in my little room, having a lie-down before theater. Really looking forward to an evening of teen angst and ASL!

So Long, Bangkok!

My last day in Thailand! How is this even possible? I feel simultaneously as if I’ve been here for ages and as though I’ve only just arrived…

Met Ak for brunch at the hotel – a fancy and frankly ridiculously pricey buffet at the Red Oven. Now, I don’t mind spending a couple of bucks on a meal – but this was decidedly mediocre. In fact, compared to the breakfasts I’d had at Riva Surya and Dusit D2 earlier in my stay, this was far and away the least impressive and the most expensive. The view was nice, but that’s about it… So, if you’re staying at the Sofitel So, don’t bother with breakfast here.

Anyway, long before I’d even planned on visiting Thailand, I’d read this article in the NYTimes about Bang Krachao, Bangkok’s “Green Lung.” Given my penchant for bicycle riding, it sounded like someplace I’d really like to visit – and here I was, two years after reading about it actually on my way there.

Ak, despite being a native of Bangkok, had also never been – but it was certainly ideal having him along this morning. Sure, I could probably have figured out how to get here on my own – but having a local who can instruct the taxi driver where to go and then get me onto the (very small!) boat to cross the river to Bang Krachao and take care of renting some bikes once there? That is fantastic – especially since I could focus on our surroundings rather than worrying about where I might wind up.

First we had a good ride around Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park. Green and pleasant, with a large lake and lots of smaller ponds. From there, we headed to the local floating market. Parked our bikes and spent a good hour or so making it from one end to other and back. Crowded mostly with locals, though a good sprinkling of tourists as well. Then back on our bikes to find the Bangkok Tree House, the eco-lodge mentioned in the Times. It took us a bit to find our way, as there is a small (and to be honest, potentially perilous) path for walkers, cyclists and scooters (!) over the swamp and through the trees. It was a bit of an adventure to get there, but get there we did – and treated ourselves to a couple of ice cold beers.

It was quite a bit easier finding our way back – though encountering scooters on the narrow path remained rather heart-pounding. But just like Kelly and Michelle from Destiny’s Child, we are survivors!

Back across the river and a taxi to the hotel. A perfect time to have a dip in the Sofitel’s gorgeous pool (and a cocktail naturally). After a little downtime, we headed to the roof for a couple of cocktails while the sun set.

Dinner at Naamsah Bottling Trust, a lovely old house turned into a charming restaurant. Had a couple of tasty cocktails at the bar before heading upstairs for dinner. The food was tasty – though the lights were kept quite low, so none of my photos came out very well. But the portions were generous – we definitely over-ordered. And we didn’t skimp on the wine! So, as much as I enjoyed the meal, it was spending a really fun evening with my friend Ak that is my favorite memory of Naamsah. Well, that and the super-handsome Oscar-Isaac-lookalike sitting on the opposite side of the dining room that we both kept sneaking looks at…

From Naamsah, we headed back for one last drink at Bas Bar in Silom Soi 4 – stopping along the way to pose with a clown, an octopus and to attempt several cat-nappings of various adorable street kittens. And there may or may not have been some singing of Cher songs along the way…

Back to my hotel for a bit of a nap – but not much of one. My flight from BKK departed at 7AM, meaning I had to be at the airport at 5AM, meaning a car was coming to collect me at 415AM. UGH. Though as it turned out, this was OK. I slept a good portion of the six-hour flight to NRT; did my usual shower-beer-sushi during my three-hour layover (N.B.: let me just reiterate – if you are flying to Asia, it’s worth your while to transit through Narita just to have the sushi at Kyotatsu), then was on my way back to SFO. I arrived 11AM the same day and was back home by noon. I mostly stayed awake until about 10PM, went to sleep and was up for work just a bit earlier than usual.

And just like that, I’m back at the office. It’s almost like I never left! Happily, though I have a ton of great memories and experiences (plus about 1200 photos) of my first visit to Thailand. And, even better, I’ve already planned my next trip back – in just about four months from now!

Here’s a bit of our ride through the jungle:

 

And our boat trip back across the river:

 

BONUS FOOTAGE: proving once again that Japan is great, the beer pouring machine in the United Lounge at Narita.

A Mellow Friday in Bangkok

Despite Thursday evening’s large and fancy dinner (accompanied by wine and cocktails, duh), I was up and at ‘em pretty early on Friday morning. I wanted to get to the Jim Thompson House when they opened at 9AM in hopes of avoiding the crowds.

And so I did! Today’s Skytrain ride was uneventful, insofar as I was able to get to my destination without any detours or wrong stops. I got a bit turned around getting from the station to the JT House, but still managed to present myself at the ticket window promptly at 9! Oh, and speaking of JT House, when I’d been texting with Aek the prior evening about how excited I was to visit JT House, I told him I couldn’t wait to meet Justin Timberlake because I am a dork and also hilarious.

ANYWAY, my early arrival wasn’t all that helpful given that the first tours don’t start until 9:30. But I spent my time wandering about the grounds outside the house, which are just marvelous, filled with beautiful plants and trees, small ponds and fountains and beautiful flowers. And it’s relatively unassuming – not a huge plot of land, and with traditional Thai structures that are of nice size, but by no means palatial. It’s a quiet little oasis in the middle of bustling Bangkok and it was undoubtedly one of the loveliest places I’ve ever visited.

The tour of the place was short but quite interesting. No photos permitted – which is kind of good for me every now and again. I think I’m OK at putting down my camera regularly, but it’s always good to have it occasionally enforced. The interiors are an amazing mix of authentic Thai and Western antiques. It felt genuinely comfortable and homey – this guy knew how to live. In fact, take a moment to read a bit about Jim Thompson – including the surprise twist at the end.

After this wonderful start to the morning, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had a three-hour spa treatment scheduled for 1PM, so not a whole lot of time to kill. I consulted my map and discovered I was not too far from Siam Paragon (IKR?) so this seemed like the perfect spot to grab lunch.

And it was! I had headed over there with the intention of trying the ramen place I’d spied on my last visit. But in addition to having some difficulty locating it (I’ve been to casinos in Las Vegas with more easily navigable floor plans), I came across the “street” food section. All the usual suspects on offer, so I went with classics: chicken & rice, then som tum tai. The lady who prepared my som tum asked how spicy, so I said spicy. She raised an eyebrow and grabbed a huge handful of birdseye peppers. “Spicy?” Jeez, OK, I’m not Thai! “How about medium?” She laughed – but with me, not at me! Or so I told myself…

Now off to Divana Spa, recommended by my friend Nicolas. I made it there with time to spare – but lucky for me, I was just outside Terminal 21, another one of BKK’s super-cool malls. And this place was no exception. There was some kind of crazy bra sale happening on the main floor, so I headed upstairs to “London.” Oh, did I mention that each floor is named after a different world city? And decorated to match? And the top floor is San Francisco and includes a replica Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 (cleverly called Pier 21? Because it’s all true.

“London” was really great – all tiny pop-ups with groovy t-shirts and such. There was one place in particular that had a fine assortment of designs – but apparently stocked only size M. Asian size M. And I’d already learned my lesson in that regard, so I didn’t even bother. Sigh… But I still enjoyed my amble.

Divana was lovely. I sat and relaxed with some tea while they had me smell the different fragrant oils to choose the one for use during my treatment. I had reserved for “Gentlemen Exclusive Care” with scrub, steam, bath, massage and facial. Oh, boy – it was great! The scrub was with some kind of mud which covered me from the neck down. They left it on me and sat me in a steam room for 15 minutes to let it soak in. This was followed by a nice soak in a milk bath replete with bright pink flower petals. Next a relaxing massage and finally my facial treatment (to what little of my face is accessible behind my hobo whiskers). I must say my hamstring injury was still bugging me, so this very relaxing and gentle treatment was a nice contrast to the rather intense series of Thai massages I’d had earlier in my trip. I walked out feeling like a million bucks – despite the disappointment of assuming that my post-treatment snack was balls of fresh pineapple sorbet, when in fact it was just fresh pineapple…

Back to Siam Paragon to meet Ak at the Kinokuniya Bookstore. This would actually be my first time in the mall above the ground floor food hall. Well, this place is even crazier than I thought. In addition to the usual Gucci-Tiffany-Vuiton and their ilk, there was also a Rolls Royce dealership – complete with floor samples. Oh, and another for Bentley. And one for Lamborghini, because why the hell not? I’m going to have to perform a much more in-depth investigation of this mall on my next trip to BKK…

I’d read several accounts of the amazing yellow crab curry at Krua Apsorn before I arrived in Thailand and I really didn’t want to miss it, so Ak agreed to accompany me. It’s over in the older part of town, closer to the river, which means Skytrain isn’t really an option.

“I’m beat, let’s just cab it,” I said.

“No, we ought to take the canal boat. It’s faster, “ Ak replied.

Yes, please! Not only was it faster, it was another bit of adventure. We waited at the stop along with the other folks and along came our boat. It kinda stopped at the pier – I mean it definitely slowed way down and came quite close to stopping. Everyone scrambled on (standing room only!) and grabbed onto something, because the fellow at the wheel was doing whatever the nautical equivalent of putting the pedal to the metal is. A couple of stops later and there we were. And no dallying! I’m pretty sure that boat was already throttling back up to full speed while I had one foot on land and the other still on the boat. Happily, despite a bit of teetering, I did not wind up in the canal.

As for Krua Apsorn, Ak led us there directly. Very crowded, formica tables, bright fluorescent lights and well-worn laminated menus. In other words, the ambiance was nothing to write home about. But, oh that crab. The yellow crab curry was several crabs-worth of large meaty chunks – and nary a shell to be cracked. I mean, who doesn’t like crab? But the normal process back home involving hammers and tongs is a lot of effort for very little reward. At Krua Apsorn, it’s all reward! Ak also ordered a crab omelette – I was almost going to complain about a surfeit of crab and was so glad I didn’t, since this dish was as delicious as the other. This was certainly one of the best meals I had in Thailand.

Also in the neighborhood was Nuttaporn ice cream, another place I’d read about. Been making ice cream for 60 years and supposed to be amazing. Ak told me they close at 5PM, but I insisted we find it anyhow, “just in case.” Well, it does indeed close at 5PM. So, to the bars!

We actually had a nice walk until we wound up back near Wat Pho and then wended our way down an alley across the street to the Sala Rattankosin, a little boutique hotel. Climbed up five stories to the roof where we settled in for a couple of cocktails along with a lovely view of the river and the Temple of Dawn. A fine way to wrap up another marvelous day in Bangkok.

N.B.: Yes, I realize I’m waaaay behind in wrapping up my trip to Thailand – I’ve been back in SF for nearly a month! But this is my penultimate entry. And part of the reason I’ve been too busy to write is that I’m already planning my next trip back to Thailand. Yes, I loved it that much.

 

Thursday in Bangkok

Despite last night’s festivities, woke up feeling not-awful on Thursday morning. Looking out my window, I saw that it was pouring – which was frankly not the end of the world, given that today was for shopping. Nicolas was supposed to join me for an excursion to MBK, but messaged me that he was feeling a bit under the weather (mm-hmmm…) and would catch up with me later for dinner.

So, I set off in a cab and met up with Ak. This place is huge! Though, TBH, the wares on offer were awfully similar to what I’d seen at the Night Bazaar in CM, i.e. lots of crappy Chang tank tops and such. That being said, we still had a good wander.

This was also my introduction to the wonders of Bangkok’s mall food courts. They have everything! Upon entrance, your given a plastic card which is then scanned at whichever venues you get food or drinks from (and when I say drinks, that includes beer, wine and cocktails. Well-played, indeed, Thailand!) and you turn in your card when you leave and pay whatever you owe.

I had a very tasty plate of basil chicken and an OK serving of green curry (Ak declared it too sweet). Oh, and a beer obviously. All was right with the world… Though it was at this point that I asked Ak, “So where’s the good mall? Like with a Uniqlo and an H&M?”

“That’s Siam Paragon. Let’s go.”

And so we did. First stop was actually (and unbeknownst to me) in Siam Center, the adjacent and relatively petite annex to Siam Paragon. Checked out a few shops (and started to learn in earnest about the sad reality of Asian clothing sizes relative to my paunchy American body…) and was impressed with the place.

“Oh, let’s cross over to Siam Paragon now,” Ak then tells me.

WELL! This place was cray – in a totally good way. I’m not typically a mall kind of guy, but Siam Paragon is quite a show. The first floor is all food – from fancy sit-down restaurants to high-end street food prepared while you watch to Fauchon (!) to McDonald’s. It was amazing! Even though I’d already eaten, I was glassy-eyed with wonder as we ambled about.

I’d previously mentioned how much I enjoy going to supermarkets when I travel, since they are filled with amazing and mysterious items. So Ak says, “There’s a supermarket here too.”

OH. MY. GOD.

Known simply as “Gourmet Market,” this place was spectacular. I think I dragged Ak through there for a good 90 minutes! “What’s this? And what about this? What’s this thing? Ooooo, I’ve never seen this – what is it?” He also advised me on the best exotic flavors of Lay’s potato chips to purchase. His favorite was Miang Kham, but I was frankly more partial to Lobster Choochee (though I’m still unclear on exactly where on the lobster its choochee is located…). And sadly, given the transportation issues, I was not able to acquire the highly-intriguing Matcha Kit Kat Drumsticks-style frozen treat. I did get a couple of boxes of Kit Kats that look relatively ordinary – until one realizes they are meant to be toasted in the toaster oven! (I did not realize that when purchasing – it was discerned by my friends back home during our exotic Kit Kat Tasting Conference. And we decided to exclude them from the tasting, given the special preparation required – so I don’t yet have a verdict on them).

The entire place was fascinating and I loved it. The only downside? Thanks to my extended stay in the supermarket, I really didn’t get to see much else in this giant, mesmerizing mall. Another visit will be required! Though we did have a bit of wander through the department store – where I saw a super-cute shirt on sale! So, I decided to try it on – in a size medium. An Asian size medium. Or at least what I assumed was a size medium, since the label said “M” – though I think perhaps that “M” was for “My God You Foreigners Are Fat!” Luckily, they also had a size large – still not really accommodating my gut. Sigh…

So, on that note, back to the hotel for a lie-down before meeting up with Nicolas for a drink on the roof before heading down the street to Nahm for dinner. A lovely place and purported to be one of Bangkok’s best restaurants – we certainly enjoyed it! We decided to go with the tasting menu – all four canapés on offer, then a selection from each of the menu’s five sections. Oh, and dessert, obv. Photos and descriptions below. Everything was lovely – though, honestly, despite making a good show of it, it was really more food than we needed. The soup course was definitely gilding the lily and probably four dishes – even three! – would have been enough. That being said, I’m really glad we got to try a good cross-section of everything on offer.

As for dessert, Nicolas got the durian fruit. À chacun son goût and all, but I’m not a huge fan – and as it turned out, neither was he for this particular preparation. He wasn’t sure what they’d done to it, but it wasn’t what he was accustomed to when eating fresh durian. Lucky for me, I chose well! Pandanus noodles, black sticky rice, water chestnuts, sweet corn and tapioca in coconut cream. Simple, not too sweet and just absolutely delicious – my favorite style of dessert!

A fine, fine evening. And there is certainly something very jet-set about visiting Bangkok from San Francisco and having dinner with my dear friend from Switzerland. We said our farewells, as he flew back the next day, and I got a good night’s sleep, preparing for tomorrow’s activities!

A Day in Ayutthaya and a Night in Silom

I’d booked a bike tour of Ayutthaya for Wednesday – and since I am a sad, Mary-Ann-Singleton solo traveler, it meant having to make my way to Ayutthaya on my own via the local train, rather than being picked up in a van like all the superior tourists traveling in pairs. OK, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic – but solo pick up meant paying a $50 premium and frankly, I think I can figure out how to take a train. Nevertheless, I wanted to be sure to give myself plenty of time to get to the station and purchase my ticket – so I was in a taxi to the Hua Lamphong Station by 6AM.

No snags encountered (well, other than the taxi driver dropping me at Hua Lamphong metro station rather than train station – they are close to one another, so NBD, but the intersection I had to navigate was particularly treacherous…) and I got my ticket easily enough. I even sprang for the super-luxurious, extra-fancy 2nd Class ticket, which set me back about US$2.00, rather than the US$0.75 for 3rd Class! It took me a bit to locate the appropriate carriage, but once I did, the 95-minute ride to Ayutthaya went off uneventfully. I even managed to doze for a good portion of the trip, which was nice.

Arriving at my destination and shaking off a highly persistent tuk-tuk driver offering me a tour of the area, I schlepped up the road armed with the highly-stylize map of directions provided by the Recreational Thailand Biking, the operators of today’s bike tour. Even with the assistance of Google Maps, this proved to be quite the most difficult navigation of the day. They referred to the spot I was going as their “office” – which I pictured as something along the lines of a storefront with a sign announcing “Recreational Ayutthaya Bike Tours” or something. Not so much – the office consisted of a non-descript dwelling behind a wall with no indication of what business might be conducted there. The only reason I even found it is was because one of RTB’s vehicles was parked in the field next door and the fellow behind the wheel ushered me over to the “office” – which was really just the small courtyard in front of where the bikes were kept locked up.

I should also add that the advice I was given by the company was to take the 7AM train from Bangkok – which certainly gave me plenty of time, but also meant sitting around waiting for the tour to start for over an hour in a bare courtyard. Perhaps not the most auspicious of starts, but oh well…

Anyway, 10AM finally rolled around and the other bikers and our guide showed up. We hit the road pretty quickly. After a pretty decent ride of several kilometers, we stopped at a rice paddy, where our guide Amm gave us an interesting and comprehensive overview of the role of rice in Thailand’s farming and diet.

The next stop was a local elephant camp. The tour description makes it clear that an elephant camp visit is included – and frankly, that should have been enough for me to re-think this particular tour, but I didn’t. After my wonderful visit to Elephant Nature Park, this camp was pretty grim. Most of the elephants had leg shackles and were chained to poles to keep them from roaming. At least two were chained by their necks to poles right next to them, meaning they could not roam even a few feet. I also saw a number of elephants demonstrating repetitive behaviors like rocking and head shaking associated with stress in captivity. It was difficult to witness and I really did not like being there. I simply sat out the activities there, like feeding and posing with the elephants (for a fee), and hoped the time would go quickly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely true that I was unhappy with the situation for these captive elephants – but I also recognize that this camp undoubtedly provides employment and livelihood for plenty of local residents. And Zeus knows that as a meat-eater, frequent airplane flyer and resident of the earth’s most wasteful, energy-hogging nation, I am hardly innocent. But I really could have done without visiting this particular elephant camp…

Happily, we were back on our bikes soon enough and the next stop was for lunch. A simple open-air place along the river where we served a whole passel of yummy Thai food. We’d been on our bikes for a couple of hours at that point, so the food was super satisfying. And it was another nice group of folks: a couple of gays from Seattle, a mother and her teenage son from the Netherlands and a couple from San Diego. Amm, our guide, was genial and easy-going. We all really enjoyed sharing a meal together.

Back on our bikes and we started making stops at the various temples, ruins and statues in Ayutthaya. This was the main attraction for my visit and I really enjoyed the combination of sightseeing and cycling. Amm was extraordinarily knowledgeable about each location we visited and was well-versed in Thai history, weaving the information together so that we learned about how the different places we visited fit into a historical context.

And while all this history was fascinating, at our penultimate stop, we encountered something really incredible: PUPPIES! We were just standing around, minding our own business, when all of a sudden I felt something around my ankles – and it was the most adorable little white puppy and he was obviously in love with me! I only managed to get one or two decent selfies with my new friend. The fellow from Seattle snapped a few more – but he never sent them to me as requested. The nerve!

At this point we were given a choice of continuing on to one more location or calling it a day. The San Diego folks decided to pack it in – and I was wavering myself, as it was hot as Hades and I was filthy with sweat, dirt, sunblock and puppy drool. But since the other folks were willing to soldier on, so was I.

And I was glad I did! We had a pretty lengthy ride to get there – which was great! Part of the reason I like to take bike tours is because I miss my daily cycling at home. So it’s nice to actually put some miles on (and maybe work off some of that coconut ice cream I’ve grown so fond of…). And our last stop was, I think, the most intact and complex of the sites we visited. We headed back to our starting point – including crossing the river, bikes in tow, aboard a small river boat – and wrapped up a really fun afternoon.

And I’ll confess right now – as much as I enjoyed visiting all the different Wats, I neglected to take any notes. So while I think my photos below are pretty great, I could not tell you specifically which wat is what. Of course, my philistinism is well-known, so this should not come as any great surprise…

I was also able to hitch a ride back in the van to Bangkok. The train would’ve been fine, but I was happy for the AC, comfy seats and no wait. I was under the impression I was getting dropped at my hotel but instead was let out at the Skytrain station. I could’ve taken it a couple of stops to the subway and transferred, but instead I just did the 20-minute schlep. I was already filthy, so why not?

After a glorious and lengthy shower, I met up with Ak and we headed over to Soi 4 and the Telephone Bar, where my friend Nicolas was waiting for us. He’s Swiss and works as a flight attendant – so when he heard I was going to Bangkok, he arranged his work schedule so that he’d be on a two-night layover during my trip! This was great, especially since he’s been to Bangkok many times and knows his way around.

After dinner upstairs, we meandered up to Bas Bar for a few more cocktails. After being suitably liquored up, our next stop was DJ Station (which for reasons I cannot explain I kept mistakenly referring to as DJ Superstar… In fact, that’s the name of the place I gave to the two fellows on my tour that day. Perhaps that’s why I never got those puppy pix. But I digress…), Bangkok’s most well-known gay dance club. I’ll be frank – it’s at this point in the evening that my memory is a bit hazy (jet lag, I’m sure…) but a fine time was had by all and I even got to break it down on the dance floor a bit (though Ak was decidedly unimpressed with my rendition of The Robot. Shows what he knows…) Eventually made it back to my hotel (apparently) and the next morning, I did not wake up with a stranger lying next to me nor with any new piercings or tattoos. If that’s not a successful evening, I don’t know what is!

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Bangkok…

Tuesday is for tourists! At least, that was my plan – get an early start and visit the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Thanks to cocktails on Silom Soi 4 the previous night, I didn’t get quite as early a start as I might’ve hoped, but what’re you gonna do?

The biggest quandary was how to get there. The Skytrain and Metro in Bangkok are great, but limited – and neither really goes anywhere especially close to the Palace and the Wat (which are next to one another). Taxis are inexpensive, but traffic in the city is hellish, meaning a long ride. But I checked Google Maps and plotted out a course using subway then river boat – an adventure!

More of an adventure than I realized, actually. I didn’t pay especially close attention to the specifics of the map’s instructions – which were to take a bus, not the subway, to the river, then get on a boat. I was already on the platform for the metro when I said to myself, “Self, I seem to remember looking at a map of the subway system and it doesn’t go to the river.” And this turned out to be correct! Oh, well, NBD – I can just take the subway one stop and transfer to the Skytrain which does go to the river. Of course, transfer is a bit of a misnomer – the subway and Skytrain are separate systems with separate tickets, so I had to leave the subway, climb up to Skytrain and buy another ticket.

So, I was on my way! Got off two stops later, headed downstairs for the short walk to the river boat stop – only to consult my map and discover I was not where I thought I was. I was supposed to get off at the next stop. Honestly, I am not bad at public transportation and have successfully navigated transit systems from Tokyo to NYC to Buenos Aires – but for whatever reason, I went completely brain-dead in BKK.

So, I bought my third train ticket of the morning and finally made it to the river. As I left the station, the boat dock was right there and I attempted to determine which boat to catch – only to have a Thai lady start yelling at me to hurry up and gesturing forcefully to get on the boat. Happily (and surprisingly, given my morning thus far) this turned out to be the boat that was going to my destination. I even got to pretend I knew WTF I was doing by correctly identifying Wat Pho for some other tourists a few stops later.

Anyway, I arrived at the Grand Palace with no further incident – save for the fact it was no longer especially early and, judging from the throngs of glassy-eyed, selfie-stick-wielding visitors, apparently the exact time when all the tour buses arrive. Having done a tad bit of research, I knew that there was a dress code, i.e. no shorts – but I came prepared, with a pair of hand-me-down elephant pants that Ak had given me.

Now let me digress for a moment… Dress codes are a bit unusual for many Westerners (esp Americans who, for the most part, find it acceptable to wear sweatpants or yoga pants in public) – but I was really surprised at the number of visitors (male and female) who showed up in tank tops and sugar shorts and were surprised to be stopped by the guards at the entrance. Robes are provided for the underdressed to borrow, so no one seems to be turned away. I guess I’m just mystified that someone can fly halfway around the world without a single clue as to even the most basic of local customs. Oh well…

Anyhoo, I slipped my elephant pants on over my shorts and in I went. I think I made it about 50 meters before I realized that I would probably die with all those layers on in the heat. My khaki shorts were not especially lightweight to begin with (plus I was foolishly wearing drawers underneath!) and the gauzy elephant pants just served to further stifle me. So, there I was in the midst of the truly gorgeous palace complex and all I could think of was “must find bathroom.” But I found one, ditched the shorts, kept the drawers (because I’m a respectable sort – plus it wasn’t Eggplant Friday) and got back on the tourist path in my easy-breezy-beautiful elephant pants.

WELL! Let me tell you, the Grand Palace is astonishing. (Side note to Betty Windsor: that bedsit of yours in London could use some sprucing up). Even with the crowds, it was hard to know where to look, since there are so many elaborately decorated structures and temples, wall paintings, royal residences – truly a feast for the eyes. My words aren’t so good at the describing, but there are plenty of photos below. Frankly, when I was looking over my photos for this post, there were very few that didn’t make the cut – which means I probably didn’t edit the collection as effectively as I ought to have, but each time I looked at another picture, I was all, “OMG, so pretty! Must post!”

I probably spent a good two hours wandering around and enjoyed myself immensely. And my presence did not go unnoticed! I was asked four separate times by different tourists to pose for pix with them. While I’d like to think it was because of my innate beauty, both inner and outer, I suspect it was my freakish beard and septum piercing that were the real draw. Eh, no such as thing as bad publicity.

Since I’d rushed out of the hotel, I’d not had any breakfast and now it was getting onto 1PM, so I was a might puckish. I wanted someplace “nice” – by which I mean somewhere I could sit inside with AC, be waited on and drink beer. A quick Google search led me to Inn A Day, a hotel located at the end of an alley across from Wat Pho. It was just the right choice – quiet and peaceful understated space, a gracious staff and a tasty and reasonably-priced lunch of green curry, tom yum and beer.

My initial plan was to visit Wat Pho after lunch, given that it was right across the street, then head back to the Palace to visit the Queen’s textile museum. Luckily, I’d consulted Google first – the textile museum closes at 3:30PM, so I made a beeline back there.

I was so happy I’d saved this for last. While the crowds at the Palace had dissipated somewhat, it was still quite busy – but the museum is very quiet with few visitors in comparison. And, TBH, I was kind of happy that photography is not permitted inside. Granted, it would’ve been nice to take some shots, but it’s also good for me to focus on simply enjoying the moment.

The museum contains a wonderful collection of Queen Sirikit’s gowns and dresses from the ‘60s to the present. She worked closely with Thai designer Urai Lueumrung and Pierre Balmain to create a “national dress” (like India’s sari or Japan’s kimono) to wear on a world tour in the ‘60s. The various styles of dresses are all clearly recognizable today as Thai – yet they did not exist until created for the Queen! The styles, patterns and materials were all based on historic Thai clothing and fashions, but to learn that their vintage is so relatively recent was fascinating. For anyone visiting Bangkok, be sure to make time for a visit to this lovely museum.

From here, it was on to Wat Pho. I’d visited in the evening during my first weekend in Bangkok, but it was certainly a different experience in the day. Not as calm, of course, but seeing the details of the different pagodas and wall paintings was marvelous. The giant reclining Buddha is immense and beautiful.

By the time I was ready to head back to my hotel for a nap, the thought of re-navigating boats and public transit sounded daunting… Taxi it is! Now, it did take 45 minutes to make the four mile trip, but there was AC, so I’m not complaining.

Had a quick dip in the pool on the 10th floor (along with a cocktail, natch), then retired to my room for a brief nap while I waited for Ak to come by for dinner. When he arrived, he’d had a bit of a schlep (and had picked up my laundry on the way! BFFs!), so I told him he was welcome to take a shower – which he did.

And here’s where I’m going to sound like the worst person on earth (which, let’s face it, I probably am). On our way out, I called the hotel operator and requested a new set of towels and turn-down service. When I returned later that evening, neither request had been fulfilled. Honestly, this is NBD – but as I mentioned in a previous post, it’s little things like this that make the difference between a four- and five-star hotel experience. Not the end of the world by any means (though nearly so, considering I had to use a damp towel after my shower in the morning), but certainly sloppy.

So, we headed out to Somtum Der – Ak’s suggestion, though coincidentally it was on my own list of places to eat in BKK! They recently opened a branch in NYC which is apparently mobbed – here in BKK, we were able to stroll in and easily grab a table. A nice little place – casual and modern – in a quiet neighborhood in Silom. We had some grilled pork, som tum and fried rolls (which were quite tasty, but were served with tartar sauce which was… odd). A fine dinner!

Followed up with a stop the Sofitel’s rooftop bar. Cocktails delicious – I had a watermelon-basil margarita! – and while not cheap, were not outrageously expensive by any means. And it was pretty swank up there… But just one drink. I had a really early day tomorrow, requiring me to be on a 7AM train bound to Ayyuthaya. So, Ak and I said goodnight and off I went to bed – where I had to turn down my own sheets like some kind of common frump…