Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lonely days are gone / I’m a going home…

I was going to post a Box Tops clip here as a tribute to the late, and extra-ordinarily great, Alex Chilton, but I guessed the internet would be filled with such things in the next day or so. So, I thought I’d post this instead:

Good, huh? I'm sure he'd approve.

RIP Alex.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

l never got over bein' a tax man...

BKK 20101  

Well I do my best to understand, dear / But you stiil mystify / And I wanna know why

The Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister proves once again that being a moron is no impediment to getting a cabinet post in that nation....

Suryadharma added he did not agree with Muhammadiyah’s branding of smoking as haram, saying he believed Islam’s original stance on tobacco was makruh (frowned upon) but not haram.

“Unless it poses a direct threat to human health, such as by causing heart disease, then smoking should not be haram,” he said.

[From Minister calls anti-smoking edict ‘unwise’ | The Jakarta Post]

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Eat to the Beat

I was passing time, chatting rather aimlessly, a day or two back with a friend who’s lived in BKK for over thirty years.

We were talking music mostly, the sort you find on 12” vinyl, something I’ve been buying quite a bit of recently, but slipped into culture and life in this city in general.

You know, he said, Bangkok only has one real culture.

Forget the temples, forget everything, Bangkok’s true cultural pinnacle is what you eat. It’s the preparation and consumption of food.

The fruit of BKK And, yeah of course it is.

It’s been a point of some bemusement for some time how skinny, small framed Thai people can eat so much in one sitting, because they very much do and I’ve sat in local restaurants trying not to look, but finding myself unable to stop gazing at Thai couples, often under 5', little more than skin and bones, consuming 5 or 6 dishes, at least two of which are deep fried, with no obvious effect or effort.

I so much as think about a leg of fried chicken and I need to put another notch in the belt.

So, yes, he’s right.

And it’s the one thing that absolutely no city on this planet can trounce it on, at least the ones I've spent time in.

I’ve travelled a bit over the years, eaten both high and low and just about everything in between in many of the great food towns. There are predicable highs (NYC, Hong Kong and Melbourne), there are the regarded but in my admittedly limited experience, frankly overrated (Penang, Singapore, Paris, Sydney), the great undiscovered (I’m going to put my hand up for Wellington, although they won’t admit to the tag, and Jakarta, once you leave the street level) and an overwhelming mass of, yep, ok towns. All rather pointless and swinging generalisations of course, but more or less towns where you can, if you have the suitably honed instincts that Brigid and I like to flatter ourselves with, almost randomly choose an eating house and find yourself eating something which in the terminology of my younger years, has the potential to blow yer mind.

Bangkok sits above them all.

I made a point of veering well clear of street food in Indonesia..not because some of it didn’t smell and look rather good, but because Indonesia has at best a passing acquaintance with hygiene and I watched others in agony for days after rancid butter on corn, or water spinach plucked from water which also serves another less appealing household or neigbourhood purpose.

food2 But BKK is different. We eat off the street all the time, and whilst it always pays to be wary of exactly what your stick of marinated something might actually be, given the amount of scrubbing of stainless steel you witness, it’s mostly pretty safe to do so.

Which brings me around to the rather happy substance of this post: 10 places I’d eat in Bangkok if I could.

And given that I’m here it's more than likely, no?

This listing has an underlying selfish motive attached though. It’s a lazy way of killing off those interminable questions, the sort that we seem to get daily. By which, I mean the folks that wander through this city, assume that we are on permanent holiday and exist only to guide or entertain them (and before anyone gets paranoid this only applies to a very slender few of those we see).

That said, though, Bali was much worse.

Curries There, all sorts of people would turn up on your doorstep, people you may have met once or twice, if at all, and ask to be driven and entertained. We used to to be fairly generous about it but you soon hit a wall, when you end up paying for petrol and there seems to be some sort of expectation that, as the hospitable local, you have an obligation to buy them a meal or two.

One girl, whom we knew moderately, we offered a bed to (it was the tale end of a business deal..all good we thought). At the airport, as she put her bags in the car, she informed us, as an aside, that her sister was arriving tomorrow..but not to worry as they’d share a bed. The day after she arrived, the surly sister came to us, plonked down the tin and said with some demand and menace: "you’re out of coffee”.

We invited a couple to stay with us for two nights just after we moved to Bangkok.

Sure, we’ll bring wine and more.

They arrived, completely empty handed (aside from a bottle of Bailey's which they hid in their room and took unfinished when they left) announced that they were extending the visit to 9 nights and, over the next week and a bit, seemed to always be short of change when out, bought no water, coffee or anything else for the house, and left again. We’ve heard nothing since…

Cheers guys, it was a thorough pleasure being walked all over.

As bad are the ones who email, or message on Facebook asking for recommendations on accommodation. After having spent some hours listing, noting, recommending and generally being as generously helpful as you can, you send it off with a smile.

You hear nothing until you see the photos of the holiday on their F/b page, which show them at the places you recommended, y’know, just down the road from where you live. New Zealanders are very good at this parasitic behaviour (not all, mind, many are very gracious and generous, but there is a certain sort..)

So, with that in mind, and indeed because I’ve been bone lazy blogwise as I swaned around Singapore last week, I decided that this was timely.

So, donning the tour guide hat….a few BKK must eats:

Khua Kling Pak Sod

10/4 Sukhumvit Soi 40, 02-391-1855, 08-6307-1850.

Glorious Southern Thai. Much of the food we know as Thai in the Western world, or anywhere outside Thailand, is northern or Isaan (North Eastern) food. The Southern Thai food, from the areas below BKK is quite different. Where the Northern Thai is influenced heavily by southern Chinese and other South East Asian cuisines, Southern Thai has more of Indian and Muslim feel (although this place serves icy Singha, uses pork and is very much not halal), especially in the dry curries and heavy coconut flavours.

And it’s hot.

Mindbendingly so.

The spices and heat of North and Central Thailand, which in themselves often defeat non-Thai palates, fade when put next to the dry beef curry smothered in whole birdseye chilies. Or the Chicken in a yellow curry that has a so much fire it almost walks to the table unaided.

fruit in Chinatown Maybe I’ve been in this part of the world too long, but the pain is a big part of what pulls me through the door.

Moghul Room

1/16 Sukhumvit Soi 11, 02 253 4465

Bangkok has, as you’d expect given the number of Indian residents and visitors, a huge number of Indian restaurants. There are some that are truly awful, and a couple of oft highly rated ones that are really just drearily boring (although in the case of Mrs. Balbir’s the staff are quite wonderful).

I love the little Formica tabled places in the Little India precinct of Chinatown, but it’s a trek at times.

Then there is Rang Mahal. It’s appropriate that the word Mahal is Bahasa Indonesia it means expensive, and yes it is, but the food and, more, the view is quite long as you don’t mind sitting next to some appallingly dressed loudmouth sipping their cocktail from a plastic Tuk-Tuk calling the whanu back home in Scunthorpe (best town name ever though) on speaker phone, or some some bloke from Mumbai loudly ringing home to tell everyone and where he is, and letting us know exactly how important a property developer he is back home. You get that in a mid range tack-fest of a hotel (which is the Rembrandt sadly).

It’s a barrier.

And then there is the wonderful Moghul. Tucked away in the largely avoidable lower Sois of Sukhumvit (unless you crave ladyboys, fat old men with their 16 year old true loves, Russian hookers and overflowing Australian themed pubs..oh god, why???), situated perhaps a little too close to the infamous bar, Cheap Charlies, for my tastes, and often overlooked.

The Moghul Room, unless I’m missing one, which, given the way we hunt our spices, I doubt, is Bangkok’s best Indian restaurant, having sat on the site for some 30 years. Depth of flavour, with what Brigid claims is the finest Saag Gosht on the planet, and without the often heard ding of the microwave which plagues so many Indian restaurants the world over.

And it’s gonna cost you less than US$30 for two.


Al Ferdoss

Little Arabia, Sukhumvit Soi 3/1

Actually Lebanese I’m told and without the glitter and chrome overkill (they still have it though, so don’t fret) of the close to 100 (I counted them because Brigid said I was mad) other Mid-East eateries in one of my favourite parts of this never-ending town.

Yep, the food here is fantastic..fresh and silly cheap. We love the salads and the humus is creamy and like nothing else I’ve tasted, but best of all is the naan, which, if you ask as it’s not listed on the large menu this way, they will smother in crushed garlic as it comes out of the oven. I crave this badly some days.

And, yes, it’s halal, but they’re happy to serve you a beer in a plain mug (indeed, half the old Arab guys seem to do the same as they puff on their hookahs).

And you can watch the world go by outside…Arab couples, often in the city as medical tourists, Africans, the odd European, and, best of all, watch the funny flustered little chubby guy from the restaurant across the lane as he chain-smokes, wriggles his false teeth and repeatedly shouts out a phrase which I though was some sort of Arabic greeting but after a while worked out it was a heavily accented Weeelcome Sir!

He’s my hero right now..I’m fascinated by him. I’m odd.


Pla Dib

1/1 Areesampan Soi 7 Rama 6 Samsennai Phayathai Soi Aree, 02-2798185

Yeah, yeah, I’ve mentioned it before (as I have Al Ferdoss, but like I said, there is an ulterior motive bringing all this into one, easy to push off a pesky visitor, list).

Off the beaten track (and if, for you, BKK is just about the odd temple & palace, a market or two and ping-pong balls, this list will likely confuse you anyway), in a ‘burb called Ari which is just north of where most tourist maps end, it’s still relatively easy to get to: take the BTS to Ari station (2 stops up from Victory) and wander into Soi Ari. Jump in a Tuk tuk (one of the only times I’d recommend using one of these, but this is outside normal tourist hell, and mostly these ones serve locals..the correct fare is about B20) and hand him a bit of paper with this:

ที่ตั้ง : เลขที่ 1/1 ปากซอยอารีย์สัมพันธ์ 7 (ตรงข้ามกระทรวงการคลัง)
ถนนพระราม 6 แขวงสามเสนใน เขตพญาไท กรุงเทพฯ

Easy, huh?

It’s worth it.

Pla Dib is a tres-groovy, indoor / outdoor Thai / Japanese fusion eatery, overflowing with the very beautiful young things of BKK, (although you find the odd expat at the bar throwing back the Belgian beers) with a DJ playing, not too obtrusively, soul of sorts. The food..yes, well the Salmon sashimi with a Larb dressing is incredible, the rest is just mouth watering and if you can eat fully seeded pickled habanera that is served with the various dishes, I’m impressed (I can, honestly, but it hurts a little lot), and this is worth the trek.


Bangkok, for want of a better word, is awash in Italian food (some 350 restaurants they say), much of it rather good, although we’ve found a shocker or two, best forgotten. Why eat Italian in BKK?..because, after a day or three many crave the odd western dish, and because it’s rather good. I’m gonna mention three:

Bella Napoli

3/3 Sukhumvit Soi 31 02 712-5422

Widely regarded as the best pizza in town, pizza being mostly what they do, and often impossible to get into without a reservation (which they won’t take in the weekend). Enjoy the Pizza tower, or the superb Diavola (which just needs a sprinkle of the all-table placed chili flakes), and the well priced Pinot Grigio on the wine list makes it seem even better. They do a range of pasta too, cooked then baked in a dish under pizza pastry, but if it’s pasta you need:

La Buca

220/4 Sukhumvit Soi 1 02 253 3190

…has something of a reputation as arguably (and when there are that many Italian restaurants in a city that’s all you can say) the best pasta in town. I’m not going to argue. Mr. Oreste, the animated host / chef / owner (who’s been known to burst dramatically mid-restaurant into O Sole Mio, or other tunes you may have heard in The Godfather on occasion..many occasions..) is famous citywide, and re-writes the extensive menu almost daily, which can be frustrating when you return craving that special cannelloni from last week and it’s gone. But he explains it all and obviously creates with such passion (lesser souls perhaps might be termed a control freak) that it’s part of the joy of the place, which looks and tastes like something you’d find in rural Northern Italy.

Il Tartufo

Sukhumvit 51, Bangkok 02 2593569

Best described as serious Italian food. The chef, Flavio Manzoni, has a reputation second to none in Bangkok, and was in Florida cooking for the stars, or so the hype goes, before he was in the city, but the prices are not crazy (they can be, it’s your call). And in a city where 5 star can command thousands, that’s something.

Imported meats (and truffles on almost every dish) mean that working out exactly what not to eat is a big part of the visit. The staff are superb, attentive but not pushy (how I hate the well meaning restaurant owner who spends a large part of your meal time leaning over trying to be the attentive host) and as generous with the extras as Italian eateries should be (Auckland’s few decent Italian places should take don’t charge for bread, and small liquor afterwards is appreciated).

Weekend Markets The Chatujak Weekend Markets

Yep, hot, sticky, almost overwhelming as the day progresses, but aside from the fact that you can buy almost anything you want or don’t want (what colour snake do you want to go with that new hanging vicious pink polystyrene candelabra), at over 15,000 stalls, there is the food. We’ve been known to go for just that. Brigid swears by the green curry just to the northwest of the MRT exit (Kamphaeng Station, which takes you out in the middle of the market, NOT Chatujak station) which, incidentally, is the best way to get in, avoiding the the BTS bunfight at Mo Chit, but I prefer the salads and gai thaawt (Thai fried chicken..ok?) in the little, overcrowded, place on Soi 17 in Section 9 next to Viva coffee (but just get a map..the Nancy Chandler is best for the market and very handy for BKK as a whole, bearing in mind it’s a little bit old lady in it’s tastes at times).

Outside the gates Isaan sidewalk eateries abound, with mountains of green spices. But I’m a sucker for the two Indian dudes serving roti of any flavour you may desire (I like the ones stuffed with banana), with pulled tea, just by said station. Oh, and the incredible ice cream made from pure baby coconut milk served in a shell close by….

And It’s all, unlike Indonesia, done in a wonderful 100% smoke free atmosphere (one of the joys of BKK after Bali..there’s an aura of sophistication in not having spend half one’s day breathing second hand kretek smoke).

Sukhumvit Soi 38

Most tourists never leave the narrow confines of the assigned tourist zones. That means they miss the bulk of the city, including many of the more interesting bits, and rarely move up Sukhumvit Rd beyond Soi Asoke (Sukhumvit 21), or, at a pinch, the big Emporium mall. So they miss the upper Sukhumvit sois with their, literally, hundreds of restaurants, including Japanese-mini towns, they miss the design fest of the beautiful young things (the monied Thai) and their Thong Lor / Ekamai districts, and, most importantly, they miss the little places where Thai people eat and menus have no English translations (you may, if you are lucky, find a picture book version).

At the top of Soi 38, literally underneath the Thong Lor BTS station (see..easy, huh?) sits a mini mecca of late night stalls that sell just about everything that’s ever appeared on a Thai menu, all at crazy prices, and all until at least 5am. The drink stall sells beers, and those glorious blended fruit drinks that Thailand seems to do so much better than anywhere else.

But, I’m not going to recommend you eat here…go back over the BTS walkway and wander back towards the city a few metres (you will still be under the train station) until you see a brown enclosed diner (with a few tables outside..the other night two European guys and a Thai guy were sitting there clearly discussing how much of substance X they could get into one of the Donald Duck statuettes they were studying…I’ll work out how many we need by tomorrow said one guy..). Inside it has pictures of the odd famous Thai person who’s eaten there (they say many do, but I’m oblivious), lots of bits of paper on the wall, all in Thai script (saying what?).

The catch is, it has no name in English. We asked and they gave us this:


Does that help? I guess not, but, hell, you’re in Thailand, move outside your comfort zone. The menu ain’t in English all..but there are nice pictures. And the food (insist on Thai spicy..go on..) is glorious, with a Chinese lean, the dishes with the red chili paste being particularly fine.

And it’s famous for it’s very fresh seafood, at, once again, less than you’d pay for a long black in Wangaratta.

And if that’s too up-market for you, get a Klong Boat (B12) to Charn Issara (they finish about 8pm) and walk over the bridge to Soi 63 (Ekamai). Cross the footbridge over the main road and wander down Soi 30. On the left are a series of restaurants..hole in the wall’s the last one you want. What’s it called, once again, who knows, and although the faded menus say something like… nah, forget it, you’re not going to make the trek. But the point I’m trying to make is that the city is teeming with these sorts of incredible little places, anyone of which serves vastly better Thai food than the likes of the much touted Basil, or the other five star hotel joints at a fraction of the price.


And if you need to be picked up at the airport, or a bed for a week…

Monday, March 15, 2010

Time takes a cigarette / puts it in your mouth