In early December we spent 10 days in Thailand on our way back to the US. We scheduled three nights at a resort in Hua Hin, about a 3-hour drive south from Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand and three nights in Chiang Mai, up in northern Thailand. We book-ended this with three nights in Bangkok at the beginning and end of our stay.
We arrived very late on a Saturday night after a nine hour flight from Sydney. We had pre-arranged limo service to our hotel, which was a good thing, as we later learned that none of the taxi drivers in Bangkok knew where our hotel was, even when given the address. We stayed at a charming B&B-style hotel called The Old Bangkok Inn. “Old Bangkok” refers to the neighborhood of Rattanakosin. This ended up being a great choice, not least because of the lovely hostess, Nantiya, who saw to our every need. The rooms were all themed to Thai flowers and had soaps and shampoos scented to match. The decor was modern, but with nice Thai touches, including a small gift from Nantiya left on our pillow each night. We stayed in the Rice room our first two nights and in the Lemongrass room on our last night. As lovely as this all was, what impressed us most about this hotel was the breakfast.
Breakfast began with an enormous array of fruit, including a few we had never had and could not identify. All peeled and cut into attractive pieces that complement the shape of the fruit. There was fresh orange juice that resembled blood oranges and tea served with a pretty ceramic tea service. The thai breakfast consists of a porridge-like congee with ground pork or chicken balls and a dusting of grated ginger and cilantro, plus garnishes like chillis in vinegar and soy sauce. The congee was made with chicken stock, rather than water, which made it very hearty and flavorful. Then there are these amazing little coconut pancakes called kanom krog. They are made with rice flour and creamy coconut milk, crispy around the edges and still warm and custardy in the centre. Unbelievably yummy. The only problem is that after a breakfast like that, you don’t need to eat anything else all day, which is contrary to one of the biggest reasons to visit Bangkok– to eat!
Breakfast our first morning in Bangkok. One of several plates of fruit in the background with watermelon, pineapple, dragon fruit and pomelo. The obligatory toast and jams. And in the foreground, a plate with Patongkoh (which is similar to the Chinese Yau Ja Gwai, but usually served with condensed milk), the fried dough you can dunk into your congee, and the kanom krog.
One of the fruits offered for breakfast is tamarind, still in the pod. If you’ve never had this, the flesh is dry like a prune and very tangy. Tamarind paste is used in many Thai dishes, and it is what gives Pad Thai its characteristic zing.
On Sunday we spent an adventurous day wandering around Bangkok, though we now understand why so many people recommend spending as little time as possible there. It wasn’t really all bad, just kind of overwhelming from the standpoint of gridlocked traffic, loud Tuk-tuks (3-wheeled vehicles with motors that sound like chainsaws), and sidewalks crowded with humanity. It’s also crazy hot (and this was the “cool” season!), grimy, and the air quality is terrible. We walked most of the day, weaving our way through Chinatown towards the central train station to buy our tickets for Hua Hin and the night train to Chiang Mai. It was a Sunday, but you’d never know it wasn’t just any old busy day in the city. There were not many tourists around, and so we found ourselves the target of an unending stream of offers for things to buy and various modes of transportation. No one seemed content to just let us walk. It was confounding, because the thing you want to do in a foreign city is simply wander and explore, but the Thais seemed determined to ensure that you had a destination in mind at all times and that you got there as quickly as possible. It was at this point that we encountered our first Thai school teacher who was adamant on planning our tour of the local Wats (Buddhist temples) and taking the liberty to write on our map of the city both the locations and how much to (not over) pay a Tuk-tuk.
One of Bangkok’s many canals. At one time, Bangkok was a city of canals, but most of them have now been filled in and covered over.
Late in the afternoon we ended up in the Farang Quarter, which is where the Portuguese established a colonial post. Farang is the Thai word for foreigner, and it is also the word for â€œguavaâ€. We had drinks and a snack overlooking the river at the opulent Shangri-la Hotel. It was so nice to find someplace air conditioned and with comfortable, plush chairs. We were so sweaty and grimy from our day-long ramble, I worried they wouldn’t let us in. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, there was ballroom dancing going on in the large open lobby restaurant. Mainly comprised of woman of a certain age and young gay men in pompadours, it was a sight to be seen – and heard, as the live band played the Mantovani version of Bossa Nova (which sounded as bad as you are imagining).
Later that evening, we had a shower back at the hotel and then went out in search of a restaurant. We walked for almost an hour, fighting the throngs of people paying respects for the king’s 80th birthday, which was being celebrated in force at a big square near our hotel. The king’s birthday is a major holidy/event in Thailand, and this year was even grander, because of the 80th birthday and the king’s 50th year of rule. While his actual birthday was a few days before we arrived, it appeared that the celebrations continue for several weeks. Everywhere you looked there were garlands of yellow flowers, yellow bunting, and christmas-style lights. Every shop and business seemed to compete for the best display. And everyone wore yellow shirts, as yellow is the royal color. We were staying near the Democracy Monument, basically Bangkok’s equivalent to Trafalgar Square, so we found ourselves at the hub of the celebrations. We eventually found a chinese/thai restaurant, where we had 2 dishesâ€”pork larb and chilli basil chicken, rice and 2 beers for the equivalent of $7. Nothing fancy, but delicious– and spicy! (Eric notes that his mouth is still on fire).
People, lights, and traffic fill the Democracy Monument all evening during the celebration of the King’s birthday.
On Monday morning we left to catch a very early train down to Hua Hin, a 4 hour journey. Because it was a long holiday weekend, we were not able to get our 2nd Class seats together. I sat next to a German tourist from Bremen and Eric ended up towards the back with several older Thai ladies who kept trying to share their food with him. We took the train mainly because it seemed like a good way to see some of the countryside and to experience a little bit more of Thai culture up close. The scenery is supposed to be better from the train, and indeed, it was like several hours of National Geographic photography passing by the window as we travelled in between small villages and countryside dotted with Wats (temples). When we boarded the train there was an empty compartment with shelves where we stowed our single suitcase. This resulted in quite a panic when we later arrived at Hua Hin and discovered that the compartment we had comandeered was intended for the food service and our bag had been moved somewhere else. However, we did not speak Thai and none of the train staff spoke English, and so it was quite a frantic search trying to locate our bag before the train left the station again. Luckily, we did find it, expertly wedged behind a seat, but almost invisible. That would have been a very unfortunate turn of events to lose our entire vacation wardrobe as well as malaria pills and other necessities.
From the charming train station in Hua Hin we got a taxi to our hotel. For the first of two times, we had our taxi driver go to a gas station first before taking us to the Hotel. It wasn’t even on the way. But, when you have no idea where you are going and can’t really speak to the driver, you aren’t really in a position to argue. It’d be a big deal if the cost of taxis was ever more than a few bucks. Hua Hin is a resort town that was made famous as a retreat for the Thai royal family. It appealed to us because it was supposed to be a little more quiet and reserved than some of the resorts further south where more of the Australian and European tourists tend to go. Nonetheless, the main strip in town was quite built up with restaurants, big hotels and shops. Our hotel, called Let’s Sea, was a small resort on the southern end of the beach, a ten minute drive from town.
We arrived almost 3 hours before the official check-in time. We took care of the paperwork in the open-air lobby and then sat at the ocean-front bar and had a surprisingly gorgeous lunch. We were expecting plain, “resort” quality food, but the food here was really was impressive. We had two types of grilled meat on bamboo skewers as a starter, one was curried chicken with a satay dip and the other was pork with a sour nam pla (fish sauce) dipping sauce. That could have been a meal in itself. Then came a big plate of pad thai and some grilled shrimp on a bed of curried rice, along with two more cold glasses of Singha. By the time we finished stuffing ourselves, the hostess came to tell us our room was ready for us, an hour early. We started with showers to get the stickiness of the 4-hour train ride off, and then had a nice long nap in our big, fluffy white bed. Heaven! Then we had the dilemma of deciding whether to go down to the restaurant for dinner or order in to our room.
The Pad Thai, the most elaborate we’ve ever seen with the noodles, tofu, shrimp and sauce enveloped in a beautiful lacy wrapper made of egg and topped with a huge river prawn. On the side were sprouts, lime, and crushed peanuts. Lovely presentation.
Curries shrimp and rice with a sweet cucumber and nuoc cham dipping sauce.
Let’s Sea was very understated from a “resort-y” point of view, but we liked it for exactly that reason. It was billed as more of a “couples” resort and discouraged children. The result was a very quiet, stylish, and relaxing setting. We immediately wondered if we shouldn’t have booked a week there instead. Our room was terrific, the bathroom was like a spa all by itself. Nice bath products, a huge tub with sprayer and a big walk-in shower with a giant “rain” showerhead. Everything was polished concrete and mirrors. Our three nights there were meant to be our “treat”. Everywhere else we stayed in Thailand was between $40-60 a night. This was $200 a night. But when you compare this to the cost of any chain hotel in any western city, this is an unbelievable bargain considering the luxury and service we experienced.
View from our room. The resort’s rooms are arranged along a long pool, so that everyone had direct access to the water.
The resort pool ran from a pool bar on the beach end to the lobby at the far end. Ground floor rooms had a small pool deck and upper rooms had a roof deck. It was all just so nice and quiet. Well, except for the Christmas music they were piping through the place. (I think they thought the Americans/Europeans liked it, but it was very tiresome, as they played the same mixed CD over and over all afternoon.) At least the mornings were tranquil. After you’ve been sunbathing for about half an hour, someone would magically appear with tray for you that had a damp lemongrass-scented washcloth that has been chilled in the fridge so it was really refreshing and cold, along with a cold spritzer full of scented water to spray yourself with, and a glass of ice water with lime slices.
Sitting up on our “moon deck” as the sun sets behind the mountains and the breezy sea air cooling down.
Eric waiting for his breakfast in the morning in the open air restaurant, with the hazy backdrop of the ocean. We found the skies were always at least a little hazy here. The ocean was more greeny-gray than blue, and the water came right up to a sea wall along the front edge of the restaurant during high tide (daylight hours).
A view of our room from the stairs leading to the roof deck. The bed was worth the price of the room all by itself.
Reflection of the bath in the bathroom mirror. Below the mirror is a window to let in the daylight or nightime glow from the pool.
Another view of the beach-side restaurant. We’re enjoying lunchtime cocktails.
Angela enjoying a pina colada and waiting for her Thai fish cakes. This was the whole point of taking a tropical holiday, right?
The toilets at the resort restaurant were “al fresco”, as was the theme of the whole resort. Interesting to look down and see fish swimming and to look up and see the sky while you are doing your business.
The “beach” at Hua Hin during high tide.
Our second day in Hua Hin was all about relaxation. We signed up for a 2-hour total body exfoliation and massage treatment. We were in a grass hut on the roof of the resort, in a “couples” room, so it was really fun to do this together. We’ve never had such a thorough massage. We could barely stumble out of the room when it was over and were pretty much comatose the rest of the day and had a nice dinner by the ocean and watched movies in our room. We liked it so much that we booked a second set of massages for the next day to try out the “Thai-style” massage.
The “beach” here is kind of nonexistent during the day. The high tide is up most of the morning and daytime, and the water laps right up to the seawall. But later in the afternoon, it starts to go out, so that by evening, there is an actual beach exposed. We decided to take a walk while the tide was still up, through ankle-high water. On the way back to the resort, we were climbing up the boat ramp (there is not easy access to the beach, likely to keep the riff-raff out), and I slipped on the algae-covered surface. Before I knew what was happening, I was face down in shallow water, and had taken quite a smack to the chin. Eric walked me, limping, back to the room, as I had also skinned my knee pretty badly. Once here he had a look at my bleeding chin and decided that I was going to need stitches.
So off we went to the local emergency room by taxi, and about 40 minutes later I walked out with 4 stitches. All in all, it was as good as such an experience could be, the medical staff were very friendly and efficient, despite the language barrier, and I was receiving a doctor’s attention within 10 minutes of entering the hospital. (Far better, I might add, than the experience I had in Boston 10 years ago getting a finger stitched up.) They led me off to the triage area while Eric filled out paperwork. Eric watched them do the whole procedure, and he was impressed with the thoroughness of the whole thing. They gave me antibiotics and painkillers and we walked out with a $130 bill for the whole thing. (In Boston, $150 was just my co-pay.)
I was fine, but felt pretty beat up for a few days, especially as I wrenched my arm and bruised my knee pretty badly, in addition to the throbbing chin. As a result, we decided to extend our stay in Hua Hin by a day and booked a flight to Chiang Mai instead of the night train. We never did get our second massage, but we took advantage of room service, and the whole hotel staff was very concerned about me (we were now the infamous “room 28”). It makes you very appreciative of the hotel staff who work so hard at being fluent in English, and very ashamed of being the western tourist who can only say hello and thank you. I gotta say, Thai is one challenging language.
Off to Chiang Mai
At 9:30 on Friday morning we hired a car to drive us 3 hours back to Bangkok (for $100, we decided that would just be easier on my injured self than train or bus), and then we boarded an afternoon flight to Chiang Mai. The city is much smaller than Bangkok, but has been historically the capital of the Lanna Kingdom of northern Thailand. The city had a very different feel from Bangkok, quieter and much less urban and congested. We felt much more comfortable here than in Bangkok.
Lots of traditional architecture lining the streets of Chiang Mai.
A lanna temple, one of hundreds of Wats in the city.
A chedi at one of the temples.
Cloth lanterns hanging in the square at Tapae Gate in Chiang Mai to commemorate the King’s birthday.
Wandering through shops on a side street. This one offered an infinite variety of biscuits, cookies, and candies packed in metal canisters.
We arrived on Friday evening and needed a nap after we checked in. Our hotel in Chiang Mai was an old Thai-style teak house called River Ping Palace, which is a little bit outside the city. It is a 120 year-old Lanna (northern Thai style) house and we chose it because we wanted a more authentic “Thai” experience. The building was beautiful and very charming, but it was a little more rustic than we had bargained for. The mosquito netting around the bed proved essential. In the bathroom there were gaps between the roof and wall that let the mosquitoes in and outside our door was an open air hallway that was thick with mosquitoes. We were a little concerned, just because I had to stop taking my anti-malaria meds because they conflicted with the antibiotics I had to take for the cut on my chin. We were considering changing to a more modern hotel, but then we met the owner of the hotel and had dinner in the restaurant and both were experiences that helped convince us to stay. Esther was friendly and outgoing in a way that brings the whole place to life and she has created such a romantic setting with food that was out of this world! The “palace” has a pretty setting on the Ping river with a deck with big red lanterns hanging over the river. We decided to stay and use lots of deet.
The bedroom had just a canopy bed with mosquito netting (critical), a small wardrobe and an antique vanity, and a high pitched roof ceiling of exposed beams and clay tiles. The walls and floors were all dark teakwood, so it felt more like we were sleeping in a barn than a house. But it is a pretty cool house. The woodwork and the interesting layout with open hallways and porches feels like it should be the setting for a period drama.
Ping River Palace at night, with big lanterns in the garden.
A view of the restaurant by nightâ€”very romantic.
An appetizer of stuffed chicken wings.
This dish was a specialty of the cook’s mother. A delicate pork stew with fried dough.
Piece de resistance. A whole fish prepared northern style, deep fried and smothered with fresh herbs.
The restaurant patio was decorated with an interesting mosaic artwork.
The inner hallway on the upper floor.
Canopy bed in the room, with essential mosquito netting.
Rear view of River Ping Palace
We spent Saturday exploring Chiang Mai on foot and I don’t know how many miles we covered, but we walked from about 10am to about 6pm– mostly in the baking hot sun. Chiang Mai does at least cool off quite a bit at night, so we have had nice sleeping weather and did not need to use the air conditioner. The city is much more laid back compared to Bangkok, though it is still crammed to the brim with market stalls, street vendors and Tuk-tuks and motorcycles whizzing by. We saw more Farang here than in Bangkok, but you are still an instant target when you walk down the street for people wanting to sell you things or take you somewhere. We quickly learned to walk against traffic so the Tuk-tuk drivers were more likely to just pass by, although not always.
On Sunday we did more exploring and visited both the City Arts and Cultural Center in the afternoon and the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center in the evening. Both were suggestions of one of Eric’s Thai co-workers in Sydney. The museum was a beautiful old colonial building, and a nice, cool place to spend such a hot afternoon. I had hoped to do more shopping at the markets, but it really is a trial. Everything is bargaining and hassling over prices and the sheer amount of merchandise in stall after stall becomes overwhelming after a while. I was saving up my shopping exploits for Chiang Mai, because of its reputation for local crafts. But as we began to browse through shops and stalls, I started to notice that many things I picked up had a “made in china” or “made in india” sticker, and I began to doubt whether any of the baskets, textiles or “thai silk” I looked at were authentic. As a result, I didn’t buy very much in the end. The global economy really takes the fun out of souvenir-seeking. We visited a few shops that were state run and claimed to carry only locally-made crafts, but the selection at these stores seemed geared towards what someone thought western tourists would like, and the colors and patterns were not appealing.
Angela enjoying a ride in a Songthaew, a flatbed truck with benches in the back.
Ton Lamyai, the flower market. Yes, those are buckets full of purple orchids.
Hopefully this chook wandering the city sidewalk isn’t headed for a bowl of kao soi.
Temples abound at every turn.
The view from the back of a Tuk-tuk.
That evening, we had an interesting dinner and saw traditional dancing at the Old Chiang Mai cultural center. It was a touristy set-up, with a bus to come collect us at our hotel, but it was recommended in all the guidebooks, in addition to our friend. Dinner was served seated on the floor in an outdoor pavilion and the dancers came out and performed in the center of the space. It was a very pleasant evening. The food was nice, the service was very good, and the dancing and musical instruments were very interesting.
Dinnner at the Chiang Mai Cultural Centre is kantoke-style, with many small dishes to share. These were served with both steamed rice and a small basket of sticky rice. Pork cracklings and delicious fried chicken in the front; A sweet red chilli curry, bananas fried with coconut, braised cabbage, pork stew, fresh crudites, and sweetened rice noodles behind.
Two young women in hill tribe costume welcome diners and pose for photos with guests.
The dancers make their entrance to the dining floor.
Hill tribe performers in beautful costume. The younger girls had a lot of fun.
This costume was meant to resemble a butterfly.
The men danced with knives and fire. This long exposure captures the movement of the torch.
A dance using rice and baskets used to skim off chaff.
Angela relaxing on the verandah of the River Ping Palace the morning of our departure.
We returned to Bangkok for a final night at the Old Bangkok Inn and a final day and a half of sightseeing before our late flight out the following evening. We were dreading a return to the Bangkok experience a little bit, simply because by this time we had grown weary of the constant haggling over taxis and Tuk-tuks. We were rewarded on our trip back from the airport with a particularly unscrupulous driver. We had used the airport’s official taxi stand, where the drivers are supposed to use their meter. As soon as we got in the cab (luggage already loaded in back) he wanted to “negotiate” a price. Eric named what we thought would be fair based on previous trips, and the driver insisted on double that. We weren’t in a mood to bargain anymore, so Eric insisted on the meter, which he angrily switched on and proceeded to take us on a very round-about route back to our hotel. So roundabout that he was stopped by police a mile outside the airport and chewed out by a cop who could clearly see what he was trying to do and shouted for him to get back on the main road. When we finally made it back into town, he did not know the area and got stuck in a traffic jam after missing our turn. So we finally just demanded to be let out and walked the last few blocks to our hotel. Ugh. And even with all the detours, the meter didn’t add up to the price Eric originally offered.
The lemongrass room at the Old Bangkok Inn.
With a last night to kill in Bangkok, we wanted to have a good meal, and so we looked up some recommended places in the guidebook and found a place within walking distance, in Banglamphu along the river on Phra-Arthit Road. We found a place called Hemlock. It was an adventurous meal. We ordered a number of dishes in the interest of trying some new things. Some were great, and one or two things were merely interesting.
Dinner at Hemlock. A deep fried whole fish. This became something we regularly ordered throughout Thailand. We probably had this for dinner more nights than not. Sometimes the fish is whole, sometimes filets are separated for you. This was a particularly fishy fish, less good than others we’d tried.
Delicious fish cakesâ€”tod monâ€” loaded with chillis and kaffir lime leaves.
Nam Prik Num, a cross between chutney and chilli paste, served with artfully decorated vegetables, water spinach omlette, and preserved egg. The restaurant billed this particular nam prik as an “ancient” recipe. We found this version of it smoky and very pungent. A little went a long way.
Our final day in Bangkok was a bit restless. We had a midnight flight out, but needed to check out of the hotel by noon. Fortunately Nantiya, the proprietress, welcomed us to leave our bags and come back that evening for a shower in a special little bathroom that they had set up. This was a godsend, as we knew how sweaty we would get exploring that day, and the thought of boarding a long flight without a shower was very unappealing.
Angela with royal decorations and image of the king in the background.
We set out to wander off in another direction to see a different part of town and headed out northwest toward the river. It was a long, rambling wander, in the hottest part of the day. Bangkok would be far more enjoyable if it were a bit cooler! Interesting market streets and grand monuments become obscured by the sweat dripping into your eyes and the crabby determination to struggle on to the next bit of shade, rather than lingering to enjoy the view. We eventually wound our way down to Phra-Arthit Road, where we had eaten dinner the previous night, and found a dark, cool oasis of a restaurant called the “Loverant”– obviously catering to westerners. Here we enjoyed a long, delicious late lunch, and our last real meal in Thailand.
Lunch at the cutely named “Loverant”. Minced pork battered and fried with chillis and herbs. Crunchy and yummy. Eric likened it to a Thai hush puppy.
A rich yellow chicken curry with potatoes and a glass of Singha.
Tangy papaya salad.
We just had to try the authentic version of our old standby favorite, pad see ew. It was much lighter than any we’d had in the US or Australia.
Our steamed rice was served in the shape of a teddy bear. How cute is that? Maybe that’s the “love” part.
Refreshed after our lunch and cool drinks, we headed back out into the blazing sun, and took about 2 seconds to decide that we needed to find someplace out of the sun. We decided to go to Sukhumvit, a very different part of the city which is filled with modern buildings, luxury hotels and shopping mall after shopping mall. It felt like a bit of a copout, and it was a long ride in the Tuk-tuk, but we were wilting in the heat, and with so much time to kill before our flight, it was very desirable to do so in the air conditioning. We actually had fun visiting some of the unusual shops (many japanese chains and chic homewares– if only we had more room in our bags!) and ended up finding some nice souvenirs at the department stores. Clearly, you would have a very different picture of Bangkok if this is where you stayed. It felt like another world away from the old city.
A shrine set up amid the malls and flashy hotels of Sukhumvit. All the yellow color comes from bunches of fresh marigolds.
One last view from the street as we departed Bangkok for the airport.