Monday, July 02, 2007

Thailand Do's and Don't's

1) Learn local customs- Take a cue from Ronny and Mike, and wai people in greeting instead of shaking hands.

2) Cook your own food- We spent one morning at the wonderful Baipai cooking school in Bangkok. It was a relaxing break from the chaos of the city and a nice opportunity to talk with other English-speaking tourists. The lovely instructors took us to their local market, then guided us through four Thai dishes. This was the best food we ate in Thailand! Take a look:

Chicken Satay cooked over hot coals with peanut sauce and sweet and sour relish.

Mango with pandan leaf-scented coconut sticky rice.

3) See the Big Buddha- If you think you'll go to Thailand and see all the temples, you're in for a VERY long trip. There are dozens of noteworthy temples in Bangkok alone, so we spent the better part of a day in the care of a tuk-tuk driver who chauffeured us around to the four most impressive ones. The Wat Benchama Bophit is an incredible structure fashioned out of Carrera marble from Italy, but our favorite was Wat Inthara Wihan, referred to by locals as the "Big Buddha."

As we walked into the courtyard that is home to the massive standing Buddha, a man handed me a little wooden cage with three tiny, energetic birds inside and told me to release them for good luck. Mike wanted to know if I asked how much they cost, and naturally I replied, "Who cares, this is sooo cool!" My lucky birds cost about two dollars, and the rest of our trip was lucky, indeed.

The Buddha is so huge, you can only see his feet in this shot.

The Marble Temple.

4) Hang out at the food court- Singapore had hawker centers, and Thailand has food courts. They are kind of like what we have in American malls, but the food is actually good. First you have to learn the drill: go to a desk near the entrance and buy vouchers in small increments of money. Then exchange them for food at any of the stalls. If you have vouchers left over, you go to a different desk to trade them for cash. The food court at the awesome MBK Center mall in Siam Square was our favorite haunt, and the place we had our first meal in Thailand-- pad thai (click here more my recipe), of course!

5) Make friends who use protection- Whether or not you plan to patronize Bangkok's legendary sex industry, be sure to eat a meal at Cabbages and Condoms. This beautiful (and very romantic) restaurant is owned by a former government official who made it his mission to promote sex education in Thailand. Profits are donated to STD prevention programs. I had the BEST green curry at the restaurant, and I got to snap this shot:

In case it's not clear in the photo, that's a sari made of the Pill and a dress made of unwrapped condoms that Mike is standing beside.

6) Eat anything wrapped in a lotus leaf- Thais love to wrap tasty things in lotus leaves. Some of the most popular treats are custardy, sugary confections. You may not be able to identify it, but if it's wrapped in a leaf, it's bound to be good.

1) Ask for the sommelier- Nobody drinks wine in Thailand! Seriously. It was a trying week for me. I like beer. I even love beer. But with a good meal, I need wine! Okay, it is possible to get wine in some restaurants, but the selection is nil, and there's nothing by the glass. I'm guessing the bars and restaurants in the major hotels serve wine, but we didn't go to Thailand to eat at the Hilton. One place where we could get wine by the glass was the 5th Flr. food court at the MBK center in Siam Square. Once, the bartender tried to pour my cabernet into a frosty, chilled glass... hey, you take what you can get.

2) Channel Leonardo DiCaprio (I mean Alex Garland) on Khao San Road- If you've read Garland's novel, The Beach (and I definitely recommend you do), you might be tempted to stay in one of the backpacker rat traps where the book opens. A lot of guidebooks will tell you that's the place for a cheap room and an occasional American breakfast to remind you of home. Don't do it! Khao San is dirty and jammed with people all the time. Not only that, but the neighborhood is isolated from most of the city. It's a good place to stay if you want to be near the shrines and buddhas, but you'll get nicer (still cheap) rooms, more accessibility and a much less touristy atmosphere elsewhere. We stayed at the Bed & Breakfast Inn right off Siam Square. The Wendy House right next door is also great.

Crazy Khao San Rd. It's a fun place to visit, but you wouldn't want to get a room there.

3) Assume a ping-pong show has anything to do with sports- You'll inevitably grow curious and venture out of your hotel after 9pm. This is a good idea. Thais seem to never sleep. There are night markets, and the city comes alive in contrast to the scorching, languid afternoons. What you do in Bangkok at night is your business, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't warn 'ya!

4) Order a salad unless you’re up for serious heat- Asian salads are spicy! See this innocent little number we made at cooking school? It's got one little Thai chile in the mix, and it will definitely put a thin layer of dew on your brow--Thais would consider this level of heat very mild. If you're not up for it, ask for the wimpy western version when you order food in a restaurant. The fresh, unique salads are some of the best, healthiest choices on a Thai menu, but take precautions.

Savory Prawn Salad with lemongrass and spicy Thai chiles.

5) Go anywhere without your own “tissues”- Bangkok is a modern city, but their "facilities" can be anything but. Always bring your own tissues and be prepared to squat.

Bangkok is an amazing place where sleek, modern shopping centers stand next to quaint neighborhood shrines. And it's hot. I mean really hot. Once we learned to nap away the afternoon, we were much better off. We had fabulous food, but there is also a lot of bad food in Bangkok. Stay out of tourist traps and try the food courts. They can be hit or miss, but if it's a miss (nothing was really awful, but we did get the occasional plate of greasy noodles), you can throw away a dish that cost you two dollars and go back for something else. Like I said above, our favorite food experience was Baipai cooking school where we got to taste homestyle thai flavor and learn about local ingredients.

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Anita said...

Thanks for all the tips and warnings, Julie! Thailand has always been on my list...hopefully it will happen soon.

Peabody said...

Well, I wont be going to Thailand anytime soon but good to know about having to carry around your own tissue :)

Anonymous said...

Great posts Julie! Love your work.

However, I had to comment on Mikey... Being on the other side of the world does NOT make it okay for him to wear male capris! In two different colors, no less... shame!

Slim Goodbody

Julie said...

You're right, Slim. Even though he's just wearing regular shorts that are way to big, they look disturbingly capri-like. I should never have allowed him out in public in such a state of awful male fashion. Shame, indeed:)

Monica Rose said...

Currently located in Thailand, I understand and fully agree with everything you've just said.
...including the Ping Pong show. *shudders*

The food really is awesome. :) Pad Thai is one of my favorite dishes, and if you got the chance to eat the cream-colored leafy thing with it [dok gwoi/banana flower], eat the petals only, with the bite of Pad Thai - AMAZING.

I subscribed to your blog, I hope the thingie works... :S
Great recipes and photos. Love it. :D

Bangkok Blocked said...

As a resident on BKK, I can confirm that there is plenty of wine in Bangkok. The wine scene is growing fast!

Julie said...

Bangkok- I wish I had known where to go! Any tips?