Archive for the ‘taste’ Category

The Gateway

Location: Khao San Road, Bangkok
Soundtrack: Hardcore house trance

Coming back to Khao San is an appropriate end to a trip, as well as a fitting place to start.

It’s a place of beginnings and endings, a gateway from one world into the next. It envelops you in gaudy neon advertising, shouts at you with the latest dance tunes, spins you around with touts and tuk-tuks and street food. You’re slammed with a sensory overload that is uniquely Khao San.

But all of that is a gloss over the surface, a veneer rubbed on to give the impression that this is what Thailand is. But scratch at it – travel away from Khao San, Ko Samui, and Phuket – and you’ll see the real Thailand underneath. A land full of amazing people and stunning scenery, mixing ancient history and modern experiences together into an intoxicating elixir.

It makes sense, then, that Khao San is a fitting final counterpoint to your Thai experience. Sit at any one of the plentiful bars or cafes along the street, and just watch the wide eyed backpackers fresh off the plane stumble through the gateway and into the adventure that awaits them. You know it’s going to be an adventure – after all, you’ve just finished yours.

And you take with you your memories, and your learnings from the road. In my case, I took the clarity I’d been seeking, and had finally found in Pai.

Harold Stephens, writing for Thai Airways, summed the road up well:

So what is Khao San Road?  It’s a street, or a road, that is true. But it’s more than that. Khao San is about people. It’s a place where not all dreams may come true but at least those people who go there dared to dream. For the young travellers, it’s a place they will remember all their lives. For the young Thais, it’s meeting these crazy foreigners and perhaps even imitating them, for one night at least.

Then the time arrives.

You pay your bill. You pick up your bags. You take one last glance around at the veneer of Khao San, and behind it – your Thailand.

You promise you’ll be back, and know that you mean it.

Then you straighten up, and walk towards the gateway that the backpackers are coming through to start their adventure.

And without hesitating, you step back through the gateway and start your own journey home.

 

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
~ T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

The View

Location: Vertigo, Banyan Tree, Bangkok
Soundtrack: Smooth jazz

A day after my elephant adventure, I left Chiang Mai for Bangkok.

I’d reached a turning point earlier in Pai – I’d achieved what I’d set out to find. And now I was on my way home.

I had a few stops to make, and a few traditions to uphold. One of them was a beer on Khao San Road at the Centerpoint Plaza Bar, just above the road itself.

It was on the road that I met up with Michael, a friend from Brisbane who was in Bangkok at the same time. We shared a few too many beers at the Center Khao San (which seemed to have become an Irish pub since the last time I was there), and agreed to go out somewhere quieter the next night for a drink and dinner.

Part of the experience of Bangkok is, if you can afford it, staying in one of their luxury hotels. Instead of staying in one, we just settled for a drink in the Sheratan Grande Sukhumvit jazz bar, The Living Room. A few frosty beverages and a flight of cheese and wine later, Michael revealed a surprise: we were going to be having dinner at Vertigo.

Top floor, please Garcon.

Vertigo
Vertigo is an open-air restaurant and bar on the 61st floor of the Banyon Tree resort. It’s a dizzying height, but offers up spectacular views of Bangkok at sunset and into the night. It’s currently sitting at Number Two in my favourite unique bars of the world – Number One is the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, famous from Lost In Translation. But Vertigo comes a very close second.

Vertigo was brilliant.

It fit perfectly with my life philosophy of valuing experiences over things – and Vertigo was definitely an experience worth every penny. I settled on the 4 course set menu with matching wines, and wasn’t disappointed. The view, the meal, and especially the company were all perfect.

If you’re ever in Bangkok, and you have a night spare, and you like the person or people you’re travelling with, you have to visit Vertigo. It’s simply a unique experience that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world.

I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing way to start wrapping up the trip.

The Class

Location: Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: Meatloaf

I’m a bit of an amateur cook.

I love to gather my ingredients, lay them all out on the kitchen bench, turn on some Meatloaf, and lose myself in the joy of food for an hour or two as I prepare a delicious meal. A glass of wine or three always seems to make my cooking taste even better.

So when I get the chance, I love to take cooking classes to learn something new.

Last time I was in Thailand, I took a class at Gap’s House. It was full of character, and taught me about the five sensations of Thai cooking: sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and crunchy. Get the ratios right, and you have yourself a recipe for a delicious meal.

But this time I wanted to take it up a notch. I’m not really a beginner anymore. I know my way around a cutting board and how to craft a Thai meal.

I discovered that the Thai Cookery School does Master Classes – basically one-on-one sessions with Chef Sompon Nabnian, a man who I would come to learn was the head of a sprawling business empire.

I signed up to do a beginner class during the day for AUD$33. After the end of the beginner class in the afternoon, my newfound partner Kim from Spain and I would tackle a Master Class creating five dishes in three hours under the tutelage of Chef Nabnian.

In the morning, after a tour of the markets where we picked up a slew of ingredients for the day, we arrived at the cooking school.

Thai Cookery School
The school was founded in 1993 by Chef Nabnian, and has to be one of the most professionally organised cooking classes I’ve been on.
Upon arrival you’re given your station, and then ushered into an air conditioned training room where the Chefs cook and demonstrate the dish you’re about to prepare.
As an added bonus, there’s an angled mirror above the training station where you can look directly down onto the station: no more craning and peering. Just look up.

We cooked six dishes varying in difficulty, and our group of 20 had no struggles at all. We covered the basics of pad thai (or in this case, fried big noodles with chicken and sweet soy sauce), yellow curry chicken, steamed fish in banana leaves, chicken with cashew nuts, a spicy prawn salad and finally bananas in coconut milk.

If it sounds delicious, I assure you: it was.

Food, glorious food.

After the beginner class, Kim and I teamed up with Chef Nabnian for the Master Class. Since there were only two of us, we got to pick and choose the dishes to cook. We came up with:

  • Barbecued prawns with a kaffir lime dressing
  • Fried pork spare ribs with garlic
  • Lemongrass sticks with minced chicken, prawns, and pork
  • Banana flower salad
  • And the ultimate: Chiangmai Noodles with curry sauce and chicken, or the famous Khao Soi Gai: staple food of the north.

Prawn salad, anyone?Skewers are delicious AND nutritious.

It was intensive and educational, and worth every penny of the AUD$90 we paid. Kim is a cook in Spain, so he’s taking his certificate back with him to move up the corporate ladder.

Me? I’m just chuffed to have cooked such brilliantly delicious dishes under the guidance of a master.

Look out ladies, I’ve got a repertoire of meals to cook for you, and I’m not afraid to use them.

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
Harriet Van Horne (1920 – 1998)

The Quest

Location: Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: Ke$ha

At the heart of every good journey is a quest.

It may be to see something famous, or to experience a culture or their food, or to see an old friend.

Quests also have goals. I’m on the hunt for something here in Thailand – and it’s not what you might think.

Thailand for me has always been a transition place: a place that I come to when I’m transitioning between one life phase and the next.

On this transition, I’m not looking for enlightment or a rare mystical photo of a hidden city – I’m just looking for a bit of clarity.

So, after travelling for the better part of Boxing Day, I found myself in Chiang Mai at my hotel, the Centara Duangtawan, at sunset.

Even though I  was finally here, it didn’t feel like I was in Thailand. It felt like I was still trying to arrive.

I showered the travel grime off, and went to find some food at the night market. I talk about it in my first video blog: Chiang Mai Night Market, Food Avenue.

After dinner I went a-wanderin’, to try to convince myself that I really was in Thailand. I walked in on a Countdown festival, which is the Thai way of celebrating New Years. Their New Year isn’t until April, believe it or not.

The stage is set, the die is cast!

I happily sought out some famous Thai sausages, full of meaty gingery chilli goodness. And they were everything I’d been dreaming of – so good! You’ve got to have them when you come to Thailand.

I then stumbled into yet another random event: the regular Sunday Walking Market where the city shuts down a few streets and folks just go walking through looking for bargains. Thailand love their markets…

Just keep walking, people.

I still felt displaced, but it was slowly dawning on me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

When I was here a few years ago, the same friend that features in my vlog and I went and had a beery session at Pirate’s Cove. I realised it was just around the corner from the walking market. I went to find it again in a whim of nostalgia.

I didn’t feel i was in Thailand until I spoke to Lee, the new owner of Pirate’s Cove. Mid-40s, goatee’d and running his bar in a loose shirt, pants and sandals, he’s your typical American ex-pat who left their rat race to settle somewhere foreign and quiet. An intelligent and friendly guy, he reminded me of why I was here: adventure.

And suddenly it clicked: I was in Thailand. I was drinking Chang. A tuk tuk just tore past the bar. The croaking wooden frog ladies were just outside.

I was back.