Under the belly of the beast – exploring Bangkok

Posted: March 7, 2011 in South East Asia
Tags: , , , ,

We welcomed Muneeza’s parents at the airport after a manic morning trying to sort plans for their visit. It started so easily with a short skytrain ride to Ekamai to pick-up bus tickets for our Ko Chang sejourn. It then got complicated. We headed up to Victory Monument, north of Siam Square, looking for the minibuses that head to Ayuthaya, an intended 2-day trip. It’s easier said than done. The first enquiries drew blank looks. Strange given that this was the place where all minibuses departed. We walked to all 4 corners of the large intersection and each person showed us to the next. Eventually we worked out the problem; our poor grasp of Thai language. I had been saying it phonetically as “Ay-you-tie-a” but it is actually pronounced “A-yoo-tea-er” – close but no cigar. A kind soul with nit noy (little) English helped us out and convinced we had it sussed, we headed out to the airport on the reliable skytrain.

It was great to see Muneeza’s (and soon to be mine) parents. After more than 5 months together on the road, it’s a refreshing change to have other people to talk to. That doesn’t mean we’ve run out of things to say, far from it, as I am sure you can all imagine. It’s just that there are times when travelling can tire you and you slip into routines, so the impetus of new people gives you a little kick. It makes a big difference when those people just happen to be your family.

Being the generous peeps that we are, we took them for a refreshing Thai massage and gave them the evening to relax after a long flight, staying at the hotel catching up and enjoying a nice Thai meal.

Celebrating Muneeza’s birthday with Thai culture

We woke early the next day, Muneeza’s 30th birthday, and after the unwrapping of presents, headed to the Thai cooking lesson I had booked. The Silom Cooking School was ideally located on Th Silom, a 15min walk from our hotel on Charoen Krung in Riverside. Nusi, the owner, met us en route to the market with his other protégées. He was hilarious; decidedly camp with elaborate hand gestures and a fondness for dramatic punctuation. He took us around the local food market where we bought all the ingredients for our cooking lesson. Nusi also taught us about the role of each ingredient and its importance in Thai cooking.

A short walk later and we were at the cooking school – he has converted his home to create space for 14 pupils and it’s really well structured. There are 2 principal rooms; the kitchen where briefings take place and you eat and the living room where you sit on the floor and prepare all the ingredients. Between the two is a long balcony on which the gas cookers are placed and the majority of the time is spent.

The lesson takes about 5 hours during which time we cooked and helped prepare 7 traditional Thai dishes; coconut soup with chicken, glass noodle salad with shrimps, chicken with cashew nuts, spicy fish cakes and corncakes, red curry with chicken, banana and sticky rice. We prepared a sweet chilli dip for the fishcakes and sliced and dice all manner of strong smelling veg including lemongrass, fresh chilli, galangal ginger and sour cucumber. It was a schoolboy error to rub my face after cutting red chilli and I looked like a domestic abuse victim for most of the morning, much to the entertainment of Muneez’a’s Mum. For each course, Nusi’s helpful staff had laid out the cooking equipment complete with oil and seasoning in the woks. We just had to roll up with our freshly cut ingredients and follow instructions.

The food wasn’t actually that amazing. The soup, red curry and fishcakes were excellent but the other dishes were too oily. However, the lesson was really enjoyable and we all came away with a better knowledge of Thai cooking and the importance of key ingredients. We’ll definitely be experimenting on some of you when we get back to blighty.

To continue the cultural theme, we had booked tickets to the Aksra Theatre in the evening for dinner and a traditional puppet show. Having visited the theatre the previous day, we were excited because it is housed in a modern building and is rather posh with a huge marble entrance hall. We had visions of grandeur. The reality was somewhat less impressive. The combined dinner and show ticket involves sitting down in the giant food hall to the side of the theatre for an all-you-can-eat buffet. There is a small stage in front of the tables from which the puppet show emerges. It’s a random set-up because to your right people are moving to and fro like ants to grab the latest helping and to your left men and women are performing with puppets. After the initial disappointment at not being inside the real theatre, we really enjoyed the show. At the end, the performers mingled with the diminuishing audience and used their puppets to joke around; a nice touch. The food was also excellent and I ate my body weight in sushi despite not being hungry – Muneeza’s parents both told me I had lost weight, so I need to build myself up.

We wrapped my jani’s birthday up with a trip to the night market in Banglamphu, the heart of backpacker town. The market is actually quite good though all prices are way too steep. Luckily for us Muneeza’s Mum is a shrewd haggler and loves the challenge. Muneeza came away with a couple of cool dresses and I found us some interesting Thai art, canvass paintings of the Buddha in black and red painted by a cool Thai hippy who was lovely to talk to.

Ko Ratanakosin and plenty of Wats

What is a Wat you may ask? Well my friend, it is a Buddhist temple. And boy oh boy are there lots of them in Bangkok. There are so many that you couldn’t see them all in 1 day. I had planned a morning walking tour for all of us, so the idea was to take in the most important. We headed by taxi to Wat Pho and Wat Phra Keow, in spitting distance of the river.

I won’t bore you with details because they are both vast compounds. Let’s just say that these temples are some of the most beautiful buildings we have ever seen. Adorned with gold leaf and boasting intricate detail and delightful carvings, the bright colours are a feast for sore eyes. Wat Phra Keow was once the residence of the Thai monarch and contains the Emerald Buddha, sitting atop a gilded pillar and guarded by pairs of yaksha (mythical giants). It is Bangkok’s biggest attraction and a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists.

The Wats cover large areas and after a few hours of walking in the oppressive heat, we were soon tired and thirsty. We opted for a break to refuel. Muneeza’s Mum is like my Dad and struggles with the heat, so the AC café was a welcome break. Refreshed and reinvigorated, we took a stroll to the nearby Amulet Market. Here Thais hunt specific symbols to protect them from evil spirits and to bring them luck. It’s fascinating watching people hunched over rows of amulets, inspecting them closely with magnifying lenses much like a diamond dealer. Very few people speak English, so it was hard to understand the difference between the amulets. Still, the market was a lot of fun to wander around.

From the market we headed east towards the October 14th Memorial, a peaceful amphitheatre in the middle of a roundabout that commemorates the civilian demonstrators killed by the military in 1973 during a pro-democracy rally. 200,000 people assembled here to protest against political prisoners and the military dictatorship and more than 70 people were killed when tanks confronted the crowd.

After a quick detour to Ban Baht, the Monk’s Bowl Village, where the tradition of manufacturing monk’s alms bowls is kept alive, we hit our last stop for the day, the intriguing Corrections Museum on Th Machachai. Set inside a former jail within Rommaninat Park, the museum bears testament to the often brutal ways in which prisoners were treated and the excruciatingly painful way in which they were executed. I was worried that it might not be Muneeza’s parents’ cup of tea as it verged on the macabre but they found it fascinating, a relief for me.

Cruising down the Mae Nao Cham Phraya river

After a long, hot day, sweating ourselves thin in the scorching humidity of Bangkok, a treat was awaiting. I booked a river dinner cruise for 6pm, leaving from the ferry terminal just down the road. We nearly missed the boat because the directions on the website weren’t too hot.

I deliberately booked one of the more traditional cruises, not wanting a glitzy party boat atmosphere. We were delighted to see an elegant, traditional teak barge sail up to the pier. The reception was really friendly, with Thai girls in beautiful outfits greeting us with flower garlands. At our table, the starters were already waiting and we tucked in greedily, hunger at its peak after hours of walking. The evening was lovely and the food excellent. It’s just a shame that the drinks, not included in the price, were exorbitant so we steered clear of wine. Before disembarking, we were treated to Thai dancing which was interesting to watch.

And so our second visit to Bangkok drew to an end and we hit the hay ready for our next adventure, a trip out to the unpronounceable Ayuthaya.

Love jamer & muneeza x

Silom Cooking SChool Bangkok

Getting the lo-down on Thai cooking


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