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I was having a late afternoon tea with the lovely V today (vegan chocolate cake for her and pita with babaganoush for me, the non-sweet toothed party) when she mentioned she’s planning a trip to Barcelona by train. I love overnight train journeys and our conversation reminded me of the fantastic leg of our Thailand trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok by train.

I’m already well-disposed to sleeper trains: the whole thing evokes either the romance of private cabins (think North by Northwest) or the communal fun of berths with curtains (Some Like it Hot). This journey was more along the Some Like it Hot lines and it was completely splendid. First of all, Thai trains are simultaneously old-fashioned and wonderful. The ceiling fans might or might not work and you’ll be lucky to have a/c but everything is comfortable and passengers are incredibly well looked after. Someone cleaned the floor at least three times during our journey and staff pass up and down the aisles constantly selling drinks. But the best part was when they made our beds for us. When you signalled a desire to sleep, someone would appear and, Transformers-style, turn your four-seater table set up into cosy bunk beds with curtains. I don’t know how they did it, it was so fast. The table was folded into the floor. A mattress came out of the wall. Linens appeared from nowhere. It was awesome.

But before we went to bed, there was dinner to consider. I actually think the food on the Thai rail system was some of the best I ate, possibly because it wasn’t aimed at tourists. We did have to combat the farang menu situation – the Thai and English language menus were different, naturally – but once we got the Thai menu translated, we picked from a simple selection of curries and stir fries. I ordered something like pad krapow with chicken and it was so good. It’s hard to imagine that something in a little airline food tray could ever be good, much less something you order on a train. (British train food makes me shudder.) But it was.

It was full of green peppercorns, crunchy long beans and Thai basil, and it came with a side dish of chopped chilies in fish sauce and vinegar. I know it looks a bit oily but it was a nice slick of good chili oil, and the overall effect wasn’t at all fatty.

Sadly, some of my travel companions really couldn’t tolerate any level of spiciness and I ended up eating some of their food too. (Sadly for them, but obviously I was completely happy to be trying more dishes.) I think I had the best night’s sleep of the whole trip on that train. The rhythm and sound of its repetitive movements, plus the delicious food and cosy berths must have lulled me into a state of complete relaxation. Hmm, perhaps time to think about some more train-based travel..

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Bangkok is a pretty bustling city already so Bangkok Chinatown was always going to be a bit madcap. We took the regular bus-type boat down the river and emerged into a shopping street that ‘bustling’ doesn’t even begin to describe. Holy hell, I have never seen anything so crowded and claustrophobic in all my life! I don’t actually have any photos of the experience because there was no real way to take meaningful photographs. We were squashed up like the mosh pit of a Morrissey gig, but with only cheap consumer goods as our objects of lust. We just shuffled along with the rhythms of the heaving crowd for what felt like miles till we found a cross-street and then legged it out of there. This picture below is of a relatively quiet, relaxed and empty thoroughfare…

But for all its insanity, I really enjoyed Bangkok Chinatown. The Chinese lanterns were pretty and there was a different energy to the place than the rest of the city. Also fascinating were the proximities of other immigrant communities: walk west a couple of blocks and you’re among sari stores, pan sellers and samosa stalls. Walk north and you’re in an older Chinatown full of mildly decrepit shophouses selling all manner of knick-knacks.

Naturally, I was partly there for the food and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, my first sensation was being overwhelmed by choice: every corner had maybe five or six food stalls and I was anxious about how much I’d miss, no matter what I chose to eat. I started off with some green sugary coconut things that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I love pandan but whatever I bought tasted mostly of sugar. Mr Lemur enjoyed it more than me as he has a South American sweet tooth. Once in the real market area, I found more to my savoury tastes, but what really piqued my interest were these odd dumpling displays.

The dumplings themselves are not odd – they’re the kind of flat, rice flour dumplings that are often filled with slightly bitter Chinese greens and I love them. But these enormous displays of dumpling architecture built around the edges of vast drums reminded me of nothing more than something from the nest of Ridley Scott’s Alien. I think it’s the gelatinous, sticky consistency of the dough, which is so appealing in the mouth, but becomes a bit abject en masse like this. I expected something to emerge from the bottom of the pile and bite me. Plus, the perfect tiling of the wall doesn’t give me the impression that these dumplings are being cooked and served quickly…it was a hot day and the alien dumpling nest looked, well, dank. I ate one and lived to tell the tale, but I was slightly concerned about food safety here, I have to admit.

To recover from the freaky Alien dumplings we stopped off in Hong Kong Noodles cafe for some dim sum. This wasn’t the best dim sum I’ve ever had in my life but it was perfectly serviceable and one shrimp dumpling with chili sauce was amazing. Siu mai and har gow were fine with good fresh seafood and it was mostly good to find a place to sit down after all the crazy crowds.

The only thing I really couldn’t bring myself to try was these little Asian ‘tacos’ that they sell at lots of food stands. I know they’re not tacos and I am willing to bet that they’re delicious. But the filling just looks SO MUCH like nasty American orange cheese and sour cream that they put me right off.

The south end of Banglamphu quickly sloughs off the frat boy reek of the Khao San Road and becomes a rather charming neighbourhood. Apparently there are some trendy parts, which we made a foray into by going to a couple of rather cool bars (of which, more later) but mostly it feels quiet – or as quiet as you can reasonably get in an Asian metropolis. We came down this way partly to eat at Chote Chitr, an old shophouse restaurant that’s been written up in a lot of venues. Unusually, it features both in budget travel guides and in very upscale publications. My friend K gave me a fancy culinary journal that featured it and since my Bangkok guide also listed it with a helpful map, we figured it would be worthwhile but possibly very touristed. By here’s the odd thing: while Chote Chitr does cater to foreigners with an English language menu and distinctly tourist-oriented prices, neither the restaurant nor the leafy square it abuts are overwhelmed with tourist business. Read the rest of this entry »

Ever since I was a child I’ve enjoyed dinner for breakfast. When my mum made her famous lasagne for Saturday dinner, the best part was eating leftovers for Sunday breakfast. While my parents ate weird shit like eggs and bacon in the dining room, I’d be in the living room enjoying my pasta, far from the noxious scent of boiled eggs. Ok, I knew I was somewhat freakish, but I felt vindicated by Asian morning foods. As soon as I learned that Asian breakfasts include rice, noodles and dumplings, I knew that these were my people. So when we got to Bangkok station this morning at 7:30 to be told by our lovely guide Aom that we could eat at one of several bakeries or go to the Thai food court, there was no decision to be made. 

 
This is not what westerners think of as a food court. No chains, no shiny logos, just a series of stalls where your breakfast can be cooked to order. First you change baht into coupons, then figure out how to communicate with the staff. I considered some kind of congee and also some roast pork rice, but was ultimately seduced by the rapid movements and fresh herbs of the lady with the wok station. Foolishly I thought I had no idea how to order, and ended up picking fried rice because that’s what the person ahead of us had. In fact, food is my only area of even vague linguistic capability in Thai. We’ve all read a bunch of Thai menus and I could have totally ordered a pad krapow gai. Oh well, next time I’ll remember…
 
In any case, the fried rice was delicious, although I had to pick the bits of egg out. We had it with crispy pork belly and the combination of soft rice, crunchy pork fat and light crisp cabbage was pretty darn satisfying. There was a serving station for add ons, so I dolloped on bean sprouts, pickled chilies and lime. I may, to be honest, have made it a little too spicy, but I was into the idea of a spicy wake up call and it did the trick. We turned out to be the only people in our group to go the Thai breakfast route, so when the national anthem came on at 8am we were the only foreigners looking bemused as everyone stood to attention. But even in this very local space, people were incredibly gracious with the ignorant white people. Eating Thai breakfast set the perfect tone for our adventure. Next stop, Sukhothai!

 

We arrived into Bangkok at 6am today and, of course, our hotel didn’t yet have our room ready. With our backpacks dropped off, we were disgorged into the area of the Khao San Road by 7:30am – not the neighbourhood’s best time of day it must be said. The Khao San Road is at this point in time the same kind of hideous party street as Bourbon St in New Orleans, and first thing it is a ghastly mix of stale beer smell and knots of still partying girls. But even in this most unprepossessing of situations, I was excited to be here. Just a couple of blocks from the detritus of a rough night there’s a market setting up, and street stalls already grilling breakfast treats. We stopped off for our very first Thai meal: sticky rice and banana wrapped in banana leaf and grilled. Simple and delicious, the rice tasted richer than at home. 

Next stop was coffee and the main market street soon delivered. These two nice ladies coped gracefully with the foreigners who didn’t speak a word of Thai and I short order poured us coffees sweetened with condensed milk. They know us so well already… 

 

With immediate needs dealt with, we spent a while wandering round the market. It’s not a special one I don’t think, just a neighbourhood feeling place, which was all the more welcome in such a touristy location. We passed candy and bakery stalls that appealed as well as several stalls that I had no idea what to do with their food. This is kind of a new sensation for me. It’s not that I didn’t know what the food would taste like or if I would like it – I literally had no idea if they were selling something to eat now or to take home and use as a store cupboard item. I had no way of asking and could imagine the hilarity if the farong couple started chowing down on some flavouring paste or marinade.  I’m fairly sure these were desserts of some kind. Or maybe fish treats? Yeah I basically have no idea. 

 

I feel like we’ve been all over the city today, though we really only saw a couple of neighbourhoods. We picked up a tuk tuk, which was part of a scam bringing tourists to gem stores and tailors. I think we managed to scam our driver right back, since we haggled him down to a tiny cost to take us to several tourist sites and then didn’t buy anything in any of his shops. What we did was see several wats and temples, filled with more Buddhas than you can shake a stick at. We drove round Thewit and Dusit and walked around Ko Ratanakosin and Banglamphu. Our final stop, Wat Pho was spectacularly beautiful, filled with the decorated towers called stupas (although point that top part down to ninety degrees and then tell me are Thai temples secretly monuments to the Dalek???)