- Bangkok, Thailand
- 16,494 miles flown
- 13°45′09″N 100°29′39″E
- Temp: 93 deg
- 3 books read, 6 massages in the books
- Days 15-19
There are many ways to describe Bangkok: sprawling, frenzied, traffic-paralyzed, steamy, delicious, inexpensive, deliriously wonderful and exhausting are a few that come to mind first. Every destination takes twice as long to reach as google maps suggests it should, as the city’s infrastructure struggles to support the volume of motorists. And while everything looks close on a map, nothing is close. Nothing. Which means you’re beholden to taking taxis or Ubers to each place you want to visit and spending just as much time in transit as you do visiting your destination. The good news is the average 30 minute ride only costs you $2, so lost time is the only limiting factor to exploring all the corners of the city.
I split the trip into spending two days with a friend’s family at their b&b and two days at a hotel in central Bangkok. The b&b, which they call Aiyanna Handmade Hostel, is nothing like a hostel. It’s a joyful mix of bohemian and modern decor that makes each nook of the property distinctly unique. We no sooner dropped our bags off in the “Audrey Suite,” that we were seated in the main room on tapestry covered stools with dream catchers hanging overhead for a welcome lunch. Unexpected and delightful.
This is when the tone for the entire time in Bangkok was set. Bangkok is delicious and it’s not about the restaurants. Being lucky enough to have three homemade meals at Aiyanna was truly special. Lunch: noodle soup with crispy pork with Thai chilis.
Breakfast day 1: crispy chicken in lettuce wraps, fried eggs and some sort of delicious omelet roll that was light and fluffy and creamy and unlike any omelet I’ve ever had. There was some sort of mystery magic in that roll and I assure you there were none left by the time we were done.
Breakfast day 2: Thai pork toast with a cucumber-Thai chili relish. I can’t explain how amazing this dish was, and I assume when you look at the picture you’ll shrug your shoulders and think it looks like nothing special. But sometimes the simplest things outshine expectations. Maybe that’s because you go in with no expectations and are hit with the surprise of flavor and texture that you wouldn’t anticipate from something that just looks like simple toast. But there are many ingredients that go into that pork purée hitting on all your tastebuds. The purée is then spread on thick bread and fried pork side down to create crispy, buttery, porky goodness. It’s like a Thai take on French toast and it is swoon-worthy.
Let this toast dish be symbolic of my entire outlook on food in Bangkok. The simplest things will surprise you and outshine any meal you eat in a restaurant. The best part of being able to stay with a local family is the ability to eat homemade meals, but even though most people don’t have the benefit of staying with locals, you’ll get that same home-cooked, mind-blowingly delicious meal if you explore Bangkok’s street food scene.
Simple street food is pervasive and can be found on just about every street, alleyway or corner. It’s everywhere. Most street food is cooked and served from nothing more than a small cart surrounded by a few metal folding tables and plastic stools. If you let decor (there is none) or environment (dark alleys) scare you away from taking a seat and eating whatever is placed before you, you will miss out. Let your nose be your guide and if there are locals there, it will be good, try it.
Our first night we hit up JJ Night Market, a vast space with hundreds, maybe thousands, of food stalls. Mini seafood omelets with hot sauce, check. Fried chicken skin (um, yes!), check. Meat on a stick, check. The world’s BEST (seriously, the best) papaya salad, check check check.
We paid $1 for each of these things. $1! I now understand why Anthony Bourdain is obsessed with Asian street food. It’s some of the best food I’ve ever had and it’s cheap, dirt cheap. It doesn’t make sense, you would easily pay at least 10x what we paid for any of these dishes in New York and would easily give any of our food markets like smorgasburg a run for their money. I’d actually love to see that street battle and I know who I’d put my money on.
Our quest for life on the street didn’t end here. The next day we sweated our way through Chinatown, exploring the food markets selling mostly unrecognizable and photo-worthy ingredients.
We took left turns, right turns, back-tracked, walked in circles, taking in all the food stalls and the frenzied bartering. We had no destination in mind, only the desire to explore and discover more deliciousness. As the afternoon wore on and we needed to find a place for lunch, we asked a local man where he eats and he pointed us down an alley to a noodle cart. He did not lead us astray. English was not spoken so we simply pointed to a few ingredients, were ushered to a metal folding table and plastic stools and waited for a steaming bowl of noodles to arrive. From a pastel pink bowl we devoured a porky, brothy heap of noodles, dotted with fresh seafood dumplings, sprouts, scallions, Thai chilies (a staple) and crispy fish skin. OMG. It was heaven and you guessed it, only cost $1. My love for Bangkok street food has been solidified.
This meal was so good Sarah deemed them the “long lost noodles,” and swayed us to stay in Chinatown for dinner to feed the addiction. With a few hours to kill before our next meal, the only sensible thing to do was to get a massage from one of the hundreds of Thai massage shops dotting the streets. $6 for a 60 minute massage was the second best decision of the day. The only thing I regret is not doing it for two hours.
Before finding our next dining destination, we popped in a bar for a brief happy hour. I don’t remember what my drink was called, but it was a tea-based cocktail with frothy egg white and it too did not disappoint.
Ready for dinner? Good, me too. It’s probably only been 2 hours since lunch, but who cares. We had passed T&K Seafood earlier in the day, but it was pretty quiet other than fresh seafood being unloaded and the charcoal fires being lit. By the time we made our way back to the outside grills, the flames were bursting, the line of hungry diners had grown down the block and dinner was on. As you stand in line, they hand out menus, give you a ticket number, take your order and then usher you to the few seats available to wait in anticipation.
Again, metal tables, plastic chairs. Moments after sitting dishes start arriving one at a time until you have an array of glorious fire-grilled, pan-fried awesomeness. One of the meal highlights of the whole trip was the black pepper prawns and sautéed morning glories (a vegetable, not flower on this side of the world.) We dug in, letting juice drip down our elbows, ignoring the thin tissue napkins that dissolve as soon as you touch them — a useless offering to combat sauce-covered fingers. If you care about this sort of thing, bring your own. We splurged on this meal and spent $4, but that also included two cold waters and a large beer.
The next day only affirmed not to stray from a good thing when you’ve found it. Street food was our temple, yet we were able to score a table at Gaggan, the Michelin star awarded restaurant rated #1 in all of Asia in top 10 in the world. This, we thought, was certain to blow our minds and have us praying to the Bangkok food gods.
We opted for a late light lunch at another street vendor known for their papaya salad and chicken wings, eating just enough so we didn’t go to do dinner hungry, but not too much so that we couldn’t’ make it through the planned 25-course tasting menu. Lunch: 10 stars.
Dinner: 0 stars. I struggle to say this, really I do. But everything about our meal at gaggan was a disappointment. We were seated at the “chef’s table,” rather than the cozy, colonial style dining room with big cushy white chairs and ceiling fans. What that meant, is we were seated in the stark test kitchen with 10 other strangers, none of whom spoke to anyone the entire meal. Music was blaring throughout dinner, making it difficult to hear the meek-mouthed cook who seemed uncomfortable speaking to a crowd to explain each course. I had no idea what I was eating. It was made equally more difficult with a menu depicting only emojis to represent each course — frankly, a little too clever for it’s own good.
The meal continued to disappoint on two fronts. First, Gaggan was made famous for rethinking Indian cuisine in the same way El Bulli reinvented Spanish cuisine. Our meal was not Indian, nor Indian-inspired. Word on the street is Gaggan is opening a new restaurant in Japan in 2020, so the majority of our dishes were largely influenced by Japanese cuisine. As we sat there in the test kitchen it sank in that we were his guinea pigs as he tried out dishes for this new venture. Dishes not yet ready for prime time. And when I say dishes, I mean single bite courses. 25 of them. The problem here is you leave totally unsatisfied by 25 bites of food, many of which could have taken 5 days to painstakingly create as they dehydrated, fermented, rehydrated, freeze-dried and applied any other technique they could think of to turn an otherwise normal ingredient into a form you would not expect. The result was not juice-dripping-down-your-elbow-goodness and it didn’t cost $1. The result was disappointment. Sometimes money can’t buy you happiness.
Highlight dish of the bunch, the dish that made him famous: spherical yogurt explosion
Low point of the meal: minion cheesecake on a stick. Huh?
Or maybe it was when we were asked to lick our plate dotted with three purées? I assure you this did not add to the experience, nor did the added element of them blaring the song “Lick it Up” by Kiss as we did so.
Moral of the story. Visit Bangkok, but pray to the street food temple gods. There was not a single disappointing meal I had for $1, and in fact found myself talking about each of the things I ate days later. Sarah and I have vowed to learn how to make our favorite street food and have you over for dinner, so get your singles ready, an invitation will be in the mail.