Greetings from coronavirus central.
Just kidding…sort of. I have been watching the numbers go up in Singapore and across Asia. But if there is any place in Asia I could be, I’m glad it’s Singapore. The government has been taking swift and bold action to keep the numbers down and the patients cared for, even incentivizing people to come forward if they feel unwell. Bravo to all the government leaders and first responders for their work to keep the country healthy.
Let’s bring it back to less infectious times. The setting: Bangkok, Thailand. The date: Saturday, January 11. This was the first weekend we had after landing in Singapore following Christmas and New Years, and we were not looking to travel (but rather sleep by night and nap by day). Yet, I was scheduled to fly to Bangkok Sunday evening for a work training the following week. So we figured, why not make it a quick weekend away and add some pad thai meals to the sleep + nap agenda?
We checked into the Westin Grande, located in the city center of Sukhumvit, Bangkok. Sukhumvit is the main road that runs through the commercial center of Bangkok; lined on either side with big-brand hotels, shopping malls, nightlife hotspots and most importantly, massage chains. I can feel my father rolling his eyes at my decadence here (it’s like a super power I have developed), but I’d like to remind all cost-conscious travelers that massages in Asia largely run between $5-12/hour. Chump change!
I had traveled to Bangkok on a few work trips in my day, and once for a short weekend two years ago, but I’d never seen any of the major sites the city has to offer. Same for Zé. So our goal for the weekend was to hit a few of the big cultural sites, starting with the Grand Palace.
The Grand Palace is a complex of buildings at the heart of Bangkok, Thailand. It’s been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (former name for Thailand until the prime minster changed it after WWII) since 1782. The king, his court, and his royal government were based on the grounds of the palace until 1925. Now, the palace is used for hosting royal ceremonies and welcoming the king’s guests, state guests, and other foreign dignitaries. A few #QuickFacts on the palace for you here:
- King Rama I established the Grand Palace, in 1782 when he also founded Bangkok as capital of Siam.
- The largest building, Chakri Maha Prasat hall, was a collaborative work of British and Thai architects and artists, completed in 1882. The immense T-shaped structure displays an Italian Renaissance style on the lower floors, crowned by three glittering Thai-style spires.
- The chosen location of the Grand Palace was anything but random. It is very close to the artery of Bangkok, the Chao Phraya River, making it easier to defend against possible invasions.
- The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is the key reason people flock to the Grand Palace. The temple is considered to be one of the most important temples in Thailand.
As luck would have it, it started drizzling just as we entered, so we did our sightseeing under the stretch of my polka-dot umbrella. It was also incredibly crowded (though we were there during peak hours), so while it was beautiful, it has to be said that it’s a tourist-heavy spot.
In order to get out of the rain, we headed to nearby Thai restaurant The Sixth, which was packed with people who had the same idea as we had. To avoid the line, we went next door to a place called The Deck. It was a very cozy place in a casual hotel; one that gave us a simple riverside view and open-air dining experience. It was perfect for lunch, and we were much happier there than we had been at the Palace. Lunch consisted of the classics: pad thai, tom kha soup and mango sticky rice. Mom, I can hear you salivating from here.
Following lunch, we took a short stroll through Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown. It’s one of Bangkok’s best neighborhoods for walking, because of its cute, tiny lanes, lack of traffic, and charming shophouses. It’s a vibrant community, with temples, shopping arcades, and street vendors selling good food (not that we could physically consume anything else after our earlier feast). We ambled through Yaowarat and hopped into a tuk-tuk towards Talad Noi, another historic neighbourhood in Bangkok. Talad Noi houses a few cultural sites which neither nor my human computer system (Zé) can recall the names of, but please do see the pictures below of the nameless gems.
Next up on the agenda, we headed next to the Penthouse Bar and Grill for sunset drinks with Rory, a friend also in Bangkok for the weekend. The bar is located on the rooftop of the Park Hyatt Hotel, so the views are stunning any time of day, but particularly at sundown. We were anticipating a packed house, but actually there was barely anyone there—and this was during the B.C. (before coronavirus) era! A hot tip if you’re visiting.
Following our cheeky cocktails, we headed back to the hotel quickly to shower and change after a day of sweat + rain + humidity. It was especially important that evening to don our finest, because we were headed to Gaggan, the highlight of our trip!
Gaggan was recently rated No.4 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (it remains the only Indian restaurant to ever rank in the top 50). For four years in a row (2014-2018), Gaggan was voted No.1 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Head chef Gaggan Anand is a true baller: though he’s Kolkata, India-born, his menu is far from purely Indian. It contains hints of global cuisine, as he has taken influence from restaurants he’s eaten and worked in around the world. Everything about the menu, the space and the service is wacky and wild, in the greatest ways. Prime example: the Lick It Up dish, where we were encouraged to lick a flavorsome curry straight from the plate (check out the rainbow-colored photo below).
What was it like to eat at Gaggan? I’ll first point to one of the best-known bits about Gaggan: upon being seated, you’re handed a single sheet of paper with an emoji depicting each course. The 25 emojis stack upon each other and guides diners through the meal, ultimately forming a puzzle that illustrates the restaurant floor plan on the opposing side. Some emojis are straightforward (a chili for a chili-based dish), some are infinitely more tricky. It’s a whimsical touch that shows the remarkable playfulness of the experience and creativity of the chef. The food may be elevated, but everything else is fun x100 (the AC/DC blasting on the stereo throughout the evening serves as Exhibit A). Chef Anand put it best when he described his team as having “a third-world appetite and first-world thinking.”
The first dish, the yogurt explosion, is a classic of Gaggan, according to my research on the World Wide Web. It’s a single-bite dish served in a spoon, containing an explosion of sorts: the liquid inside bursts out of its exterior layer and the flavor is a recognizable mango chutney, along with all the other key flavors of India in your mouth: sweet, salty, sour, and spicy. (….and this is how the meal started). I won’t go into the details of every single dish because
Zé specifically told me it would bore people I value the time of my readers but the meal was fantastic, the service epic, and the experience unforgettable. @Gaggan team: I am available for ambassador-ship. Will work for free.
After floating away from Gaggan that evening, we woke up feeling happy and perfectly satisfied (vs. overly full) due to it being the most perfect meal that one can ever experience (@Gaggan team I am not joking about the ambassador role). So we headed out early, first to the Jim Thompson House. This jungly compound is the former home of the American silk entrepreneur and art collector Jim Thompson. He settled in Bangkok after WWII, where his neighbor’s handmade silk caught his eye and piqued his business sense. He sent samples to fashion houses abroad and built up a clientele worldwide. In a strange turn of events, while out for an afternoon walk in western Malaysia in 1967, Thompson mysteriously disappeared. That same year his sister was murdered in the USA, fueling various conspiracy theories that I just spent a solid 20 minutes trying to get to the bottom of. No closure yet.
We toured the house and learned about the elevated doorways that led to many of the rooms of the house, which involved stepping over the bottoms to get into each room (they are elevated to keep bad spirits out, seems effective). The design of the house actually incorporates six traditional Thai houses that were bought and moved to the estate. The hallways were outdoors and for the living room led straight into it through massive doors that opened wide, and the bridging of indoor and outdoor space really did make the house feel more open than it was. Good work, Jim! U-S-A! U-S-A!
We also ran into Rory at the Jim Thompson house who was there separately for a tour, so once they were both done, we joined forces and walked to town to grab street food (we were largely unsuccessful and ended up just getting fresh mango juice). From there, we split off and the two of us headed to Lumphini Park for a Sunday afternoon stroll. The park is one of the largest green spaces in central Bangkok, offering lots of nice pathways for walking and a man-made lake for gazing (and duck-boat riding if that’s your thing).
For our final stop in Bangkok, we did what any sensible visitor would do, really: booked massages. One-hour foot and bod to do the trick. It was the perfect way to end our quick getaway, and a relaxing way to send me into my week of work in Bangkok.
Bangkok is anything but charming upon a first impression. It’s hot, dusty and crowded. But as I’ve peeled back the many layers of the city over time, I’ve learned to love this gem of a city. It harbors enough sights and experiences to keep travelers, especially food lovers like me, occupied for ages. Walking down the street, the aroma of stir frying chilies, garlic, and basil, mixed with Bangkok’s thick humidity, really does something to the senses. I’ll be back!
Some photos from my trip Bangkok: