This final Thailand post has taken me a while to put together, I'd wanted to put it up a month ago but with all the photos to go through and the house hunting process in full swing, this post kept falling by the wayside. *But*, a week ago Jeremy and I signed the closing papers on our new home, and we're now officially first-time homeowners! I can't tell you how happy I am to be moving back to Oregon, where the landscape is green, the skies are gray, and my parents' cooking is only a 45-minute drive away. I've been wanting this for a long, long time, and now that it's finally happening, I find myself filled with a huge sense of both joy and relief. The move has been stressful and time consuming, of course, but in the end we'll have a place to call our own. A place where we can truly go home to roost. I. can't. wait.
But enough about the new abode, and onto Thailand! Yes, this is the last installment of my Thailand travel guide, and it focuses on the area in and around the capitol of Thailand, Bangkok. We'd only allotted a day and a half for central Thailand, which for us was a half day in the ancient city of Ayutthaya and a full day in Bangkok. The reason for this was because we'd heard from several other people that Bangkok was not that great and to spend as little time there as possible. I'm not sure what those people did in Bangkok while they were there, though, because we had an amazing time in the city and if we had more time I would have loved to spend another two days roaming around. We had just missed a huge outdoor antique market that happens every weekend evening in the city, and man I would have loved to pick up some great old Thai cookware and teapots. Its supposed to be very affordable, too, compared to the actual standing antique shops located throughout the city. The royal palace looked incredible from the outside (the roof of one of the structures is covered with gold leaf. I will say that again, COVERED IN GOLD LEAF), and I would have loved to go on a tour of the grounds and interior if we had more time. There's always next time, though. And we definitely packed in a good amount of activities on our last few days in the country.
When we arrived in Bangkok, we went to our hotel, The Siam, to check in and get some advice on getting to Ayutthaya, which is about 1 hour outside the city. The Siam is owned by an avid antique collector, and he incorporates many of his pieces into the actual hotel space. The rooms, the hallways, the curio shop, the library, the movie room, the gymnasium, the spa...every corner of the hotel contains gorgeous antiques from around the era when Thailand was first exposed to the west (mid 1800's to early 1900's). It's as if Jumanji was in hotel-form, but with a slightly modern twist. I spent a good amount of that night wandering around the hotel taking in all the display cases, and later that night we asked if we could watch a film in the movie room, which is filled with antique film cameras and old theater seating, and they set it up for us complete with blankets because it was a bit chilly with the AC pumping. Anyone staying at the hotel can use the room, but no one else did so we had the whole thing to ourselves. I lingered a while in the library, too, since I have a small but well-loved collection of antique books and the copies they have on display are just beautiful and so interesting to read. Really transports you to a different time. We also used their complimentary boat shuttle service the next night, since The Siam is situated right on the Chao Phraya river that runs through Bangkok, they have a boat that will take you to various other parts of the city, a water taxi of sorts. We went on a little boat ride at night and it was breathtaking. The city lights sparkled on the water and we got to ride all the way up through the city, going by the more modern skyrises in the city center and passing by some beautiful Buddhist temples along the riverside, too. The staff told us that sometimes guests will order a cocktail and take it on the boat with them, just going on a little nighttime river cruise with no set destination in place. We didn't think of doing that, regretfully, as a nice cool cocktail would have been wonderful on the warm evening.
But going back to the first day, after we checked in we asked the staff about getting to Ayutthaya. They recommended taking the train, but said that shuttles also left from a place called Liberty Plaza and that the shuttles were a bit faster. So we decided to take the shuttles, and they bade us goodbye with a 'good luck!' Well, traffic was terrible so we ended up leaving the cab we were in and walking the rest of the way to Liberty Plaza, which ended up being really fun because there is street food EVERYWHERE in Bangkok so we just looked and smelled food the entire time. And once we got to Liberty Plaza, we could see why the staff seemed a bit hesitant about us taking the shuttle over the train. It was *packed* with people. It's a huge round-a-bout with a large obelisk in the center and stores all around. One corner is a giant food court, the other is full of insanely cheap clothes, and there were a few other areas around it but we didn't have the time to see what was over there. The shuttle left from the fashion district, and we could see shuttle vans lined up along the sidewalk, but everything was entirely in Thai so we didn't know which van to get on. Luckily, the Thai people there we very friendly and helped us find our way to the right van. We got in, packed like sardines, and I was slightly panicked because we were in the very back of the van and if there was any kind of accident at all there was no way we'd be able to get out. Pretty anxiety-inducing if you're mildly claustrophobic like myself.
So, off we went to Ayutthaya. We drove and drove and drove, and the van made some random stops along the way, but eventually we saw a sign for Ayutthaya and knew we were close. The van stopped and we got out and took a tuk-tuk to the old city where the ruins are. A tuk-tuk is a motorbike with a little cabin strapped onto it, kind of like a mini-taxi. They're great because they can maneuver around traffic really easily, which was a huge advantage in and around Bangkok. Once we got to Ayutthaya, we felt kind of...sketched out. It was hard to know if the tuk-tuk drivers there were taking you to the right place or not, so we saw one of the ruin sites and then decided to head back. The ruins were beautiful and I'm glad we got to see one of them, but it was very hot and the old town was hard to navigate without a guide. Looking back I wish we would have had an extra day to take a guided tour there, that way we wouldn't have to worry about getting ourselves around. We went on a Bangkok food tour (which I'll talk about in a bit) that I *loved*, and the same company has an Ayutthaya food tour that sounded pretty awesome. I think we'll do that the next time 'round.
So we took a tuk-tuk to the train station and hopped on a train back to Bangkok. It was such a relaxing ride, and you get to go through some countryside too, so I can see why the hotel staff was trying to lean us towards taking the train. Once we got back, we relaxed at the hotel for a few hours, walking around try to take everything in (it's like if a museum and hotel had a steampunk-like baby, so there's a *lot* to see) and then we went to a nearby night market the staff recommended. There's night markets all over the city, so no matter where you stay in Bangkok there will be one nearby. It was about 75% food stalls and the rest were little shops selling things like tea pots or trinkets like elephant statues carved from teak. There was a vendor there cooking insects, and Jeremy got a small bowl to try. Now, I really, reallllly don't like bugs. But, I wanted to try something that made me uncomfortable just because very few things make me uncomfortable food-wise. I know that bugs are widely eaten in lots of cultures (even though the whole time my brain was screaming WHAT ARE YOU DOING THAT'S A BUG GET IT THE HELL AWAY FROM YOUR MOUTH) soooo I let Jeremy eat a few and tried the one he said tasted the best, which was a fried grub. I quickly popped it in, chomped a little, and down it went. Honestly, it was so fried that it tasted like an oily potato chip. Not bad, not good, just crunchy and oily. Kind of needed some salt. Not something I'll be eating again, but I could see why some people would enjoy it as a snack if there was a bit more seasoning.
After that it was back to bed, then we woke up bright and early to go on a floating market tour with Bangkok Food Tours. Our tour, Ghai (pronounced guy, it means chicken in Thai! He was born in the year of the chicken) was amazingly friendly and adorable. Any food we saw and/or asked about at any of the markets he'd get for us to all try a bit of, and then he'd tell us all about it. The tour took us about an hour outside the city and we went to four different markets. The first was a very traditional local floating market, with fresh produce and foods being prepared and sold in small Thai boats along the river. There we tried some fried baskets with ground pork and lemongrass inside, some street noodles, and a delicious coconut drink. We got in a little canoe of our own and floated down the river to a local coconut farm, which is the mainstay produce of the area. Not only do they harvest the coconuts for food, but they also make palm sugar from the sap of the coconut palm tree. They cut off fresh palm fronds and hang a metal bucket from the place where they made the cut, and it collects the sap as it drips down. The sap is then boiled down until the water evaporates and they are left with palm sugar. I grabbed a bag while I was there and have been using it to cook Thai desserts, it has a wonderfully slight tang to it that you don't get with normal granulated sugar. Think of maple sugar compared to normal sugar, it's that kind of a flavor difference. You'd probably be able to find palm sugar for sale at any natural or organic grocery store or asian marketplace.
After that we went to a marketplace that's built on stilts above a river. This was my favorite market because of the atmosphere and the food. It was very vintage-y and had a lot of fun second-hand shops and amazing food EVERYWHERE. This was where I ate the most unique thing I'd ever eaten that was unlike anything I'd ingested before. It was a dish without a memorable name, and was made from local aquatic plants that grow in the water of the river. They weren't grassy like seaweed but were more firm, kind of like asparagus in texture and flavor (you can see the dish in the photo directly above). So there was a whole bunch of different water greens mixed in, plus some fried baby river fish, an edible flower, fresh okra, and it's served alongside a very fermented shrimp sauce that you pour over the whole thing and mix together before eating. Now, that sauce smelled *strong*. Strong enough where I was weary of eating it, and I love fermented foods. But my God, something about the freshness of the greens paired with the crunchy fish bits and the tangy sour shrimp sauce pretty much made my head sing with joy. It was a moment of extreme happiness and extreme sadness, because it was my favorite dish of the whole trip, but also one that I knew I'd never have again because there'd be no way to recreate it back in the states. So I consoled myself by purchasing a pair of Thai fisherman's pants, which are pretty much the comfiest pants ever, and by eating a very colorful and popular Thai soup. It's called Yen Ta Fo and its noodles are a lovely soft shade of pink, which is because of the fermented soybean paste that is used as the base for the soup. It has a wonderful earthy and slightly vinegary flavor to it (I've been meaning to try and find the base since we got back but have yet to locate it). We also had some very small deep-fried soft-shell crabs that were about 1-inch long each and served in a little rectangular paper dish like you get french fries here in the states. They were AMAZING. I wish every restaurant that offered french fries as a side would replace them with baby soft-shell crabs... But alas that is not the way things roll 'round here. :(
Our next stop was a market that was actually on top of active train tracks, and about 3 minutes before the train comes whizzing past the middle of everything the shop keeps pull their stands back bit and roll up the awnings. It was incredibly crowded there and hard to walk around (see: train tracks) so we were only there for a short time, but as we left I caught the scent of something incredible. It was sweet and rich, and I followed it to a little food cart where a woman was frying up these little ivory-colored patties in what looked like a cast-iron ebelskiver pan. I bought some (which Ghai then lightly chided me for because he would have bought them for me. Oh, Ghai!), tried one, and then immediately began saying "ohmuhhhgaahhh" because it was really, really hot and I should have waited longer before shoving it in my mouth, and also because it was really, really good. I asked Ghai what it was and it turns out they were little coconut milk custards. They were the best sweet dish of the trip, and I knew I wanted to try recreating them later when I got back...
The last market we went to was near another river with a bridge separating the two parts. This one was also mostly food (a delightful trend in Thai market places) and had a ton of seafood everywhere. We tried many different things, but I liked the grilled squid the most. Afterwards we had the last bite of the trip at a little ice cream shop. Ghai got durian ice cream and had us all try it. For those of you unfamiliar with this notorious fruit, durian is truly the stinkiest fruit in the world. It literally smells like rotting fruity garbage. The flavor, to me, tastes like cantaloupe that has gone past ripe and is going into overripe territory, but southeast Asian cultures really love it. After what I like to call 'the durian incident', we got to get our own ice cream to get the taste of the durian out of our mouths, and then we headed back to the hotel and parted ways with our lovely tour group.
We spent the rest of our time packing up our things and resting after the whirlwind week we'd had abroad, and then flew back home the next day. After we left, I kept longing to go back, and I still do. It's such a relaxing place, and going back through all the photos in the middle of a horrifically stressful out-of-state move makes me miss that friendliness and tranquility even more so. I know we will eventually get back to Thailand, and until then I figured out a recipe for the coconut custard that will hold us over. I bought an ebelskiver pan and tried making it in there, but they stuck to much to the sides of the pan and ended up falling apart when I tried to take them out. So, I went the western route and baked them in ramekins in the oven in a lipped baking sheet lined with water to keep the custard from cracking. The result was my favorite custard, everrrrrrr. It was sweet, salty, creamy, smooth, and rich. (But not too rich where you feel kind of weird after eating, more like where you give a deep sigh afterwards and say "Good God, that was good." Or at least I say that.) So I will leave you with this recipe, and many, many photos of one of the most breathtaking countries in the world. I love you, Thailand!!! You will always have a special place in my heart, right next to Pad Thai.
Coconut Milk Custard
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup palm sugar
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 cups coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 tablespoons whipped cream (optional garnish)
6 tablespoons whipped cream (optional garnish)
Palm Sugar Syrup
3/4 cup palm sugar
1/4 cup water
To prepare the syrup, bring the ingredients to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely before chilling in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Drizzle the coconut custards with the syrup, top with a dollop of whipped cream, and serve immediately.