I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or because I've just been doing a lot of travel over the past few months (US, UK, Germany, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand) but lately I've found myself overwhelmed and emotional at the amazing things I've seen around the globe. It hit a few months back when I had a weekend in Singapore and most recently, on a short trip to Bangkok. You see, I came from a small town. One pizza shop, one school, and one big chair (see Gardner, Massachusetts). I'm just amazed at how lucky I've been to see so many wonderful places - while still humbled at how many other countries and cultures I haven't experienced yet.
And just to heighten this sense of wonderment, I keep finding little hotel gems that highlight the best each place has to offer. In Bangkok, it was my random stumble on the Okura Prestige, which is a Japanese owned masterpiece in the heart of Ploen Chit district. If the central location isn't enough to sell it, the pool might seal the deal.
The views from the pool and from the lobby restaurant were pretty fantastic. And a great way to scope out the city and get my bearings.
But I was in Bangkok to primarily do one thing - and that's to eat! And maybe sneak in a few sights in the couple days I had in the city. So I was pretty happy when things kicked off on the first day with breakfast at the Okura buffet. I can safely say, this was no ordinary hotel buffet. I dove straight into the pork noodle soup. With a variety of condiments, of course!
Breakast down, I had two sights on my itinerary that I wanted to visit in the two days I had: the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Even though the Grand Palace was only 8kms from the hotel, the trip to and and from was an hour, EACH WAY! That's Bangkok traffic for you.
The Grand Palace sits on the Chao Phraya River and has been the home for Thai kings since 1782. You can research the complex on your own but suffice to say, it's massive, crowded, and hot. But well worth the trip if you can put up with the crowds.
As a history fan I was taken in my the sheer number of events have occurred here. But almost as inspiring was the amazing architecture and artistry. The overwhelming craftsmanship of even the smallest building left me wowed.
I could have spent more time here but after a couple of hours I'd had enough. And I was hungry! So I started the fifteen minute or so walk to Wat Pho by stopping off at the street markets at the ferry pier just outside the complex.
I have never been to Bangkok before and loved looking at every little food cart and buying little samples here and there. I think I ended up with a couple dozen shots like this one.
The river pier it can be a bit of a tourist trap. But I popped into one of the side food stalls and grabbed some Pad Thai and Thai Pad Prik Chicken. And of course, a couple Singhas!
I'm not a dessert person but when I saw that the stall was cutting up fresh durian I just HAD to jump at the chance. If you don't know durian, it's a fruit that has a sweet taste and a custard like texture. With the smell of dirty dishwater. It can be so bad that most hotels have banned its very existence. But I love it. And you can find it in a lot of places in Sydney these days. Give it a try!
Now, I like to assume the best in people but am always on my guard in busy tourist areas. On the short walk to Wat Pho I was told three times that it was closed (it wasn't) and that I was waking the wrong way (I wasn't).
And don't get me started on the taxis. On the way back I had four different taxis refuse to put the meter on, which they legally have to do. So I kept getting out and trying the next one. Funny thing is, the nice driver who did use his meter ended up with more after a tip! But I've been screwed by taxis in many, many other cities so I'm just alert but not alarmed.
In any case, Wat Pho was beautiful. Almost everyone comes to see the 46m Reclining Buddha but the complex is fairly large and there are little treasures around each corner. As I've said before, the workmanship on each and every building is truly impressive. It's definitely worth a visit and so very easy to combine with a tour of the Grand Palace.
But all sightseeing must come to and end - and that's where the food fun in Bangkok begins! I had two restaurants in my sights and the first was recently rated as the best in Asia - Gaggan.
To say Gaggan is an Indian restaurant is to say that I'm an American. Yeah, the influences are still there if you pay attention, but it's hard to pin just where the hell things come from. And that's the fun! Chef Gaggan Anand obviously has a playful and imaginative side and it comes through in the menu and food.
There are two choices at Gaggan, the Taste of Gaggan or the Best of Gaggan. Obviously, I went with the Best of Gaggan - in all 23 courses of glory. I won't bore you with every dish or wax poetic on the whole night but I've captured five of my favorites.
CTM Burger - This is chicken tikka masala paste in a green tomato bun. I'm not sure how they make the bun but it almost disintegrates in the mouth. And the plate is stunning.
Magic Mushroom - this had truffle and forest mushrooms with edible soil. Seriously, could this look more like the forest?
Pig & Pickle - the Iberian pork belly has been cooked for 72 (read-em) hours and placed on the plate with small pickles and a Punjabi sauce.
Gajar Halwa - this is black carrot ice cream with cardamom oil in a cone, served in a bed of micro herbs. Talk about a palate cleanser...
Fall Season - basil ice cream with 70% chocolate, leaves, and sponge. If you love chocolate, this is for you.
Seriously, this was my best meal in Asia and probably in my top five of all time. If it hadn't taken 3 1/2 hours it would have been in the top three. The pace was too slow. Even the guests next to me commented on it. But that's a small, insignificant price to pay to have such an amazing food experience in Bangkok.
I had one more day left and my mission for the last was the same: street food and then one of Asia's best.
After the two hours in a taxi the day before I learned quickly that the BTS, or SkyTrain, was the way to go if it was near the destination. They are clean, cheap, efficient, and air conditioned. When I researched my next street food spot, Sala Daeng, and found out it was on the BTS I was relieved. Just a few stops from the hotel and I was there. In reality, though, I should have gone one more stop from Sala Daeng to Chong Nonsi to hit where I wanted to be. Out of Chong Nonsi on Silom Road, past the Pullman and across from a massive Buddhist temple is Silom 20. It's a street food haven!
I arrived later than I would have liked and missed much of the lunch crowd but still was spoiled for choice and scored some top food. I mean, look at this! I had fried salted snapper, papaya salad, and Pad Thai with multiple Leo beers for under $20. And I still probably paid tourist prices. As hard as it was, that's as much as I could eat as I knew I was about to eat at Nahm, home of legendary Aussie chef, David Thompson.
Nahm is in the Metropolitan Hotel and it was only a short cab ride from the Okura. Thank god. It's a very different place from Gaggan but Chef is focused on true Thai food and respecting the traditions and flavours of the country.
As I usually do, I let the chef staff choose my dishes and they didn't disappoint. First was a birds egg nets with prawns, wild almonds and kaffir lime. I couldn't believe how light these were. They were a sign of what was to come.
I'm only catching the highlights here, but my second favourite dish was coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi lime. Look at the amount of crab in this dish!
My third favourite was the king fish salad with pomelo, lemongrass and lime. I have become a new fan of pomelos on this trip and my new mission back in Sydney is to find them on a regular basis. What really made this one, though, was the smoked kingfish. It added a very different tone to the salad but still kept the freshness of the fruit and herbs at the forefront.
I know the photos aren't great as the lighting was really low. I can never see myself as one of those people who bring in a massive DSLR to get the perfect shot. I'd rather be respectful and take a quick iPhone shot and be done with it.
In any case, it was definitely worth the visit. I almost felt a sense of reverence - David Thompson is a Thai cooking legend. I didn't get to meet him on the night but I was very thankful to him and his team for their dedication and hard work. This is as good as Thai food gets.
I realise different people value different things. Not everyone loves to travel and to be away from home. Not everyone enjoys strange and new food experiences. But for me, this is it. Meeting amazing people, eating food that chefs have worked their lives to perfect, and seeing new and interesting places. I take home a smile, photos and memories - and hopefully I leave behind a legacy of a considerate but inquisitive traveler. The stories I tell years from now won't be about the menial stuff in my neighborhood back home. It'll be about this. Travel. Food. Emotion.
So excuse me when you hear me gasp at a new vista. Or shed a tear the smallest bit on the plane on the way home. I've come a long way. And sometime I don't feel I deserve to see all these amazing things. But I have. And I will continue.
And with that, I was off to Phuket.
Thanks for reading.