BANGKOK, THAILAND — On our last day in Bangkok, we ate Thai food. A lot of it.
We usually go on a food tour when we’re on vacation — so far, in Chicago, Boston, Madison, Honolulu, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and Prague. It’s a great way to learn about the culture as well as the food, and though we’ve eaten a lot of Thai food, we didn’t know much about Thai culture.
We were pretty sure the tour would get us beyond pad Thai, and it did. Our guide was a nearsighted, somewhat wacky young woman named Mord who had spent four years working in Orlando and spoke heavily accented but rapid-fire English.
We met at the Saphan Taksin train station across the river; we were going to walk the whole way, but Karan convinced us to take a tuk-tuk to the bridge. The group included a young couple from Seattle and a young woman from Los Angeles and her mother from Indiana, all friendly folks. Amy and Tyler had just come from Thailand’s Five Islands, and Lynn and her mother were heading up to Chiang Mai.
Mord led us north into the Bang Rak district, which includes luxury hotels and is more posh than ours, but it still has crazy traffic and lots of mom-and-pop street vendors. It also is the neighborhood into which many immigrants were pushed when the king built the palace further north, so its food is a blend of Thai with many different cultures.
At a fruit stand, Mord stopped and picked six lumpy brown fruits out of a bin — mangosteens. She twisted one in her hands and voila! Six cloves of garlic — that’s what it looked like, anyway. She popped them all into Lynn’s mouth, and we each got our turn. They were sweet, a little like oranges but not as juicy.
Our next stop was a little hole-in-the-wall place with Chinese-Thai cuisine. We sat down and were served bowls of tom yum soup with flat noodles, hard-boiled egg, wontons, shrimp and fish balls and, if you wanted it, knobs of blood pudding. We’d all asked for “medium-spicy,” but when our mouths didn’t go up in flames, Beth asked if we’d actually gotten European medium-spicy — yep. And that was fine with us.
Next, we went to one of Mord’s “secret spots,” a 90-year-old Indian Muslim restaurant on Charoen Krung Road where she pointed out dishes in a display case: yellow curry, green curry and, for the more adventurous, a dish made from cow brain. We steered clear of that.
Instead, we had a delicious coconut curry and mataba, a layered and filled egg pancake that you ate with slices of cucumber and slices of mild green peppers. Everyone liked that. Then we each got a spoonful of a dessert Mord had picked up from a street vendor: black sticky rice with coconut milk topped with dried shrimp, yum!
Our route took us past the five-star Mandarin Oriental, whose entrance was across from the once-splendid East Asia Trading Co. building, which we’d noticed from the river. Plaster was crumbling off brick, sandbags and junk were piled in the portico, trees grew out of windowsills. It’s typical in Bangkok to see luxury right next to poverty or, in this case, abandonment.
Nearby, we stopped at the neighborhood Saun Phu Temple, and Mord started talking about monks, then women who wear spaghetti-strap tops to tempt the monks, and pretty soon, she’d spiraled into a tirade about alcohol, one-night stands, pregnancy, abortion, men who cheat, angry women who bring in ducks to snap off men’s “worms” . . . we were getting a little uncomfortable.
Beth got her back on track with questions about how long men are monks (at least a week, but lengths can vary) and if women also can study Buddhist principles (yes; Mord was a nun for three days).
There was a school for low-income children at the temple, Mord said. Tuition is free there, 1,000 baht a semester ($29) at other schools and 1 million baht ($29,000) to go to a school for rich kids where you can make the connections that are so important in Thai society. Sounds about like the U.S.
As we walked, Mord conjured a plate of a fried rice-flour appetizers with corn and coconut milk, shaped like a clamshell.
We took the 5-baht (15 cents) ferry across the river to the restaurant Yum Rod Sab, which was air-conditioned and felt great. There, we had grilled pork salad, papaya salad with stealth chilis and chicken in a nest of fried lemongrass with kaffir lime and tamarind sauce.
When we were finished, Mord asked the women if they wanted to “water the flowers,” and men if they would like to go “shoot a rabbit” — that is, go to the toilet.
Mord’s second secret spot was Panlee Bakery, whose owner once was a cook at the Mandarin Oriental and opened it in 1950. There, we got green custard bahn, or rolls, which Torsten loved, and Thai iced tea with condensed milk.
We finished up at Kalpapruek, where we ate roti with bird-eye curry, noodles with regular curry and a dessert of sorbet. Our choices were tamarind, young coconut, lemon-honey, banana or — Mord made a face and said this would be only for boring people — chocolate or vanilla.
After the tour, we walked all the way home, first stopping at a Western-style shopping mall to use the bathroom (and check the prices — cheap). Beth also saw some lovely pashmina scarves along the street and knew she should probably buy one, but it seemed like too much work to decide on one and then bargain in the sticky heat and humidity.
We didn’t do much for the rest of the day except write and pack. We took pictures with Karan, whose sister lives in Heilbronn and might actually visit us in Munich some day. When we paid, we had to remind him to include our 250-baht laundry bill, and when we tried to pay the 2,300 baht rate listed on his website, he insisted on charging us only 2,000 ($58).
The taxi he ordered was waiting for us at 10 p.m., and we zipped to the airport. It was modern, huge and filled with people even late on a Friday night. Our bags went right through with no fuss, since the limit on Thai Airways is 30 kg — and one of our bags weighed in at 29.8!
The entire process of bag drop, security lines and getting to the gate was so well organized that Torsten thought this was the best airport experience of the entire trip.
At Dean & DeLuca, we each had a slice of pizza, and we shared a delicious peach and passionfruit smoothie — Beth was glad to have one last taste of her new favorite flavor. Then we queued up with a whole bunch of sunburned Germans to board the 747 for our 12:50 a.m. flight.
Goodbye, Thailand. Next stop: Munich.