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.”


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…

A Day with Elephants

Do you like elephants? Well, you’d sure better, because in this post, I’ve finally gotten around to winnowing my 300+ photos (plus action cam vids!) from my visit to Elephant Nature Park down to a discreet 70-something. I still have plenty to blah-blah-blah about in this post, but let me just say that the this visit was everything I’d hoped for and more. If you are interested in interacting with elephants in an environment that is focused first on the well-being of these wonderful creatures, this is the place for you.

So, our guide for the day, Ging, showed up at my hotel as scheduled and I piled into the van with, at that point, one other couple. At our next stop, the first person to board looked quite familiar to me. “You were sitting in front of me on the flight from SFO to Tokyo, weren’t you?” Answer in the affirmative – this was Jodie, traveling with her step-daughter Katie (on a break from teaching English to school children in Korea). As it turned out, not only were we geographical neighbors in the Bay Area, our respective itineraries had much in common. The two of them had just done the cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School and declared it a rollicking success – it was good to hear, as my own class was coming up later in the week. After our tour wrapped up, the three of us had a nice dinner together (making friends with several resident kittens at the restaurant!) back in CM.

We continued to pick up other folks and the van filled up – kind of a surprise to me, given that October is still the tail end of low season and the other tours I’d been on were rather sparsely populated it seemed. On the halfway point of our journey to Elephant Nature Park, we stopped for a bathroom break and there were probably 20 similarly populated vans, all on their way to the same destination. Another surprise – I was a little concerned about what this would mean in terms of crowds at our destination. But thanks to a large parcel of land and an extremely well-run program for visitors, our tour that day was extraordinarily intimate and with little overlap with other folks at the park.

Anyway, we arrived at our destination, clambered out of the van and there were three gorgeous elephants hanging out in the grass. Seeing a group of easy marks for bananas and watermelons, they made their way toward us immediately. It was really quite remarkable that literally the moment we arrived, we were interacting with elephants. I was also pleased at how relaxed it was. I’ll be honest – large animals can be a scary to be around. But these gentle old ladies (all in their 60s and 70s) seemed pretty content to scarf up the food we had to offer and were clearly used to being around tourists. Of course, our guide and the mahouts were close at hand to make sure nobody got trampled…

From there, we and our new elephant friends ambled along toward the river – most of us visitors attempting to master taking photographs while also feeding our rather demanding companions who knew exactly what was in those bags we were carrying (bananas… sooo many delicious bananas…). And we all adjusted fairly quickly to the fact that one winds up covered with rather a lot of elephant saliva when feeding them.

I have to say, touching the elephants was amazing – most especially so when they were grabbing food from your hands with their trunks. It was fantastic to see exactly how both agile and delicate those trunks are – not to mention how incredibly strong.

At the river, we forded on foot, humans and animals alike, and continued our trek up into the hills a bit. As I got used to the idea of chilling with elephants, I finally noticed how really beautiful the setting was. We were surrounded by tree-covered hills, the sky bright blue with fluffy white clouds. And from the hillside, we had great views of the river and the rest of the sanctuary, seeing other small groups of elephants in the distance.

A stop for lunch, a simple vegetarian spread that was that special kind of delicious that goes with a healthy appetite after a good hike. We all got to know each other a little better – it was a fun mix of Yanks, Brits and Aussies in our particular group.

After lunch, we headed back down to the river along a different path, though we crossed at the same place. Once across, we got buckets (and more watermelons!) to give our elephant friends a nice soaking, followed by a group photo.

Once back to where we started, we piled back into our van – though not before I took the opportunity to purchase what is likely to be my most cherished memento from my visit to Thailand, a small elephant carving, made by one of the mahouts. Not only does this little guy have a ton of personality, but like each of the carvings for sale, he is based on one of the local residents – in this case, a handsome fellow called Banyen.

For some reason, I’d forgotten that the particular program I was enrolled in – “Pamper a Pachyderm” (IKR?) – included a raft trip. And this was in spite of the fact that Ging, our extremely personable and knowledgeable guide, had mentioned it repeatedly – though he’d also been quick to pull  my leg about a couple of things, so I thought this was just him ribbing another camera-laden city slicker.

Anyway, it was no joke! Which was fine… but I suppose I imagined a gentle ride down the river while I sipped a cocktail. Well, it was a bit more athletic than that (and required me to don a highly unflattering life jacket! And to paddle!), but it was a super-fun trip down a mostly gentle river, with a couple of small but exciting rapids.

Our raft trip ended at ENP HQ, home to the main lodge along with all of the various support facilities, like the kitchen, vet, etc. This is also where we met lots and lots of wonderful dogs and cats who reside at ENP – and who are for the most part ready to be adopted.

We spent the rest of our time observing a couple of groups of elephants, one including a toddler who happily played with his tire and frolicked in the river while his adoptive moms bathed. Wrapped things up with a beer in the lodge before heading back into Chiang Mai.

I can’t recommend Elephant Nature Park highly enough. They do a really amazing job looking after their resident elephants and their programs for visitors are well-organized and provide a truly memorable experience. All of the staff appear to be really engaged with the organization’s mission and to care deeply about the elephants in the park – and they are certainly a huge part of what made this day so special. A superb highlight of my visit to Thailand.


Here’re a few excerpts from my head-mounted action cam. It’s a little Blair-Witchy, so if you’re prone to motion sickness, maybe skip it. But I hope it gives at least some sense of exactly how up-close visitors get to interact with the elephants. I know I keep using the word, but it was really quite amazing.

And here’s a bit of rafting!

Back to Bangkok

Monday and it was time to say “farewell” to Chiang Mai as I headed back to Bangkok. Flight back left a bit late and, after last week’s delightful 777 flight from BKK, it was a bit of a let-down to be on boring old A320. But other than that, a fast and uneventful flight and cab ride to my digs for the next week, the Sofitel So.

Well! This place was pretty deluxe. I was whisked up to the lobby on the 9th floor, overlooking Lumphini Park and smelling delightfully of lemongrass. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of fragrances pumped into public spaces, but literally every time I passed through the lobby during my stay, I’d say to myself, “God, this place smells fantastic!”

Since standing at a front desk waiting to check in is SO gauche, guests are seated in the lobby and served a refreshing (though sadly booze-free) drink while one of the hotel’s workers (outfitted in fanciful-but-still-charming uniforms designed by – I shit you not – Christian Lacroix. Lacroix, sweetie, Lacroix!) verifies the reservation and presents the paperwork for one’s stay. Once this is all squared away, one is led up to one’s room – each one themed to represent the hotel’s “elements” of Wood, Metal, Water and Earth. I had chosen Wood (obviously!) and was quite happy with the spacious quarters and the view overlooking Bangkok – though sadly, I did not get the park view. In fact, I asked about this while checking in and was told that it wasn’t included in the rate I was paying – which is fair enough! – but I was surprised I wasn’t either offered an opportunity to pay for an upgrade or somewhat subtler message about my cheap-ass, no-park-view room (e.g. “Unfortunately, those rooms are already booked.”). This was certainly not a big deal – but over the course of my stay there (and which I’ll discuss in future posts), it was clear that the hotel still has some work to do to become the five-star hotel they claim to be. I’d give it a sold four-stars – which is an excellent place to stay! – but there were a variety of minor misses throughout my stay that show there’s room for improvement.

ANYWAY, after getting settled (i.e. unpacking, then folding and hanging all of my clothes – so satisfying!), my new Thai friend Ak came by so we could get some dinner. Of course, before we could do that, I’d elicited his help in locating a laundry nearby, so I could get my unmentionables cleaned (the hotels rate was THB150 per pair – that’s over $4.00! For each pair of underpants! And don’t even ask about t-shirts!) So, off I traipsed through my fancy lobby in shorts and flip-flops with a bag of dirty laundry slung over my shoulder, just like the the fancy and elegant person that I am – with Ak kindly pointing out that I looked like a low-rent Santa Claus. It was a short-ish schlep in 90° weather with high humidity, so we were both drenched by the time we reached the laundry – and read the sign out front that they are only open from noon to 5:00 (this was at about 5:45). What kind of a business model is that?!

So, Ak located another laundry close by on Google Maps – which led us to a parking lot. The next place we found seemed OK – save for the fact they were closing for three days, meaning my clothes wouldn’t be ready ‘til Saturday (this was on Monday!). The next place said Thursday! Though happily, she also pointed us to another place around the corner and down an alleyway that would probably be faster. And, lo and behold, we found it. It took us awhile, but my clothes were ready the next afternoon – and my drawers were folded so expertly, I may have to adopt this method when folding them myself…

Needless to say, by this time I was not only famished but in truly desperate need of a beer. As requested, Ak took me to one of his own favorite places – basically a handful of plastic tables and chairs set up in an alley off Silom Road. The specialty is seafood, so we had tom yum, clams with chili sauce and squid with garlic. I’ll admit – I was a bit leery, but Ak had already assured me that he has a bit of a sensitive stomach, so he’s pretty picky about where he eats (though I did also find out that he had recently eaten at Sizzler – for shame!). So, I dug right in – and it was delicious! The clams, which I was the least enthusiastic about when ordering, were my favorite and I think I ate way more than my allotted half. What a great welcome to Bangkok.

Next, we ambled across the street to Silom Soi 4, Bangkok’s “gayborhood.” It’s an alley lined from front to back with various gay bars, all with (generally sexy) touts out front claiming to have the best happy hour prices. Ak took me to Bas Bar – a great choice, given that it’s small, quiet, chill and served up some great cocktails – caipirinha for me, mojito for Ak.

Made a relatively early evening of it, so that I could be up (relatively) early to get started on my visit to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.

Learning to Cook Thai Food

Sunday was my cooking class with Thai Farm Cooking School – and it was super fun! Another good group of folks, with visitors from Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and Finland. Our guide and instructor was MB – who got off on the right foot with me when I asked what MB stood for and without missing a beat, she replied, “Most Beautiful.” Yes, I’m sure she uses the same line every time, but as I (and everyone who knows me) can attest, when you’ve got good material, you use it whenever the opportunity arises.

We had a quick tour of a local market and learned about some of the ingredients before heading off to the farm itself. MB took us on a short walk around the garden to learn about some of the other things we’d be cooking with that day.

The kitchen was great – outdoors but within an open and airy structure. Oh, and also equipped with an adorable dozing kitty, called “Gai” – which is “Chicken” in Thai (and to all you racists: no, he was not an ingredient…). Some prep had been done in advance, such as peeling shallots and garlic, deveining shrimp, cutting up the chicken – but we did plenty of slicing and dicing on our own, including preparing a curry paste of our choice (red, yellow, green) from scratch in a mortar and pestle.

Everything we made was quite delicious – my particular favorites were my green curry chicken and the dessert of bananas poached in coconut milk, which was stunning in both its simplicity and scrumptiousness. And who knew how incredibly easy tom yum was to make? Of course, my rendition was a little on the bland side – apparently I’d used too much water… But I’ll try again at home and maybe get the proportions right.

Of course, I more than made up for the mediocre tom yum with my superior spring roll rolling technique. MB was convinced I’d made them before, but I had not! I guess I’m just a natural. It’s good to know I have at least one potentially marketable skill…

As we wrapped up for the day, MB quizzed us on some of the ingredients for the day, asking us the Thai name for long beans. I quickly found them in our recipe book and yelled out, “Tua fak yao” – to which MB kept telling me, “No, fak yu! You fail the course now!” She really knew her audience, since I was LMAO.

I also have to give an extra big “kiitos!” to Oskari, the Finnish exchange student who snapped a lot of these photos. Given my vanity and narcissism, it was great to have so many action shots of me in the kitchen.