I understand the rationale of mass tour operators': they need to market something the hoi polloi would want but what's with travel writers? Many Travel & Food hacks remind me of monkeys in the zoo who were taught how to masturbate. They completely forget about normal mating and jack themselves off into exhaustion. At times, it seems like there is nothing else to travel writing but perpetuating stereotypes. Amsterdam = drugs and whores. Moscow = vodka and matryoshka. Inscrutable Orient. Sexy Brazil. Romantic Paris.
If I were an editor or a PR agency exec, you would need to hold me at gunpoint to commission articles from that kind of crap-spinners. If I ruled the universe, I would have their foreheads tattoed for offputting advertisers and sabotaging tourist arrival numbers.
On the other hand, what can you find out about a place on an all-paid press trip with a tight schedule? You are hauled around in an aircon coach on a pre-programmed tour and expected to come up with something punchy by the time your airplane's landing gear hits home soil.
Perhaps, after all there is some social value to writing tips about the tired sightseeing circle for the first-time visitor. They are in every glossy magazine as well asplastered all over the internet. My mission is entirely different: to share some insider knowledge of the country where I spent six happy years entirely submerged in the local culture. So there we go, Thailand.
Tip: Never wash down durian with alcohol: it will make you really sick, in worst cases it can prove even lethal.
2. Try street hawkers' food. It is safe and superbly tasty. In six years in Thailand, I never got sick a single time. Quite often roadside delicacies taste better than restaurant fare. There are hundreds types of Thai dishes. Try each at least once, it will only set you back half a euro a dish. The chances are you will fall in love with each of them, but if you don't like it you don't have to finish it.
Tip: For the uninitiated, air-conditioned food courts in shopping malls may be a safer bet. The heat and din outside need some time to get used to.
Another tip: First few days lean off really spicy food. You can get a run not from the bacteria but from too much chillies that will irritate the lining of your stomach and bowels. A glass of soya milk, also commonly sold in the street, before the meal can help prevent that.
Yet another tip: If the food burns your mouth, don't drink water, have more rice! Water will remove the protective layer of saliva on your tongue, rice will absorb the spice.
3. Night markets can be fun to shop at but only if you are good at haggling. Otherwise, head out straight to shopping malls and department stores for amazing bargain hunting. Thailand, tagging along the US of A as a sale paradise. Even the poshest outlets offer amazing discounts throughout the year. Thai people are fussy dressers and are very apt at fashion design. For clothes and shoes I would recommend MBK Center, Isetan, Zen, Emporium. The clothes section at Big C department stores often stock good and inexpensive basic casual clothes. Siam Square is chockablock with hundreds of boutiques.
4. Good seafood is for you to enjoy anywhere in Bangkok, but there is a hidden gem for true connoisseurs of marine life cooked in spices and herbs. If you can drive and know a few words of Thai, try Hat Mae Ramphueng, a long stretch of white-sand beach in Rayong Province strewn with fishing villages, a 2-hour drive from Bangkok. Freshly caught seafood is cooked right there on the beach and costs half what you'd pay in Bangkok. Pick your prey from the big tanks with live fish, crustaceans and shellfish, pay by the kilo, cooking fee is included. Certain ways of cooking suit certain types of seafood better: for example, lock lobsters (kang) are the best stir-fired with toasted garlic, cockles ought to be grilled with butter and oyster sauce, fresh-water prawn just need to be put on charcoals, then gorged upon with a lime and chili dip. If you are unsure of how you want yours done, leave to the cook, Thais know best!
Tip: The replica of a Thai village on stilts standing in the midst of a large pond is host to several restaurants serving quite decent grub at reasonable, not tourist prices.
Most representative foods by the region.
- Northern: khao soy, khanom jiin nam ngiao, nam prik ong, naem, kaeb muu, muu yor, nam phrik num, kaeng hang lae, kaeng khanun.
- Isarn: tam bak hung, larb, nam tok, tom saeb.
- Southern: massaman curry, roti, tamarind prawns.
9. You probably won't believe me: real Thai massage has nothing to do with hanky-panky. In fact, unlike in the West, the massaged even stays dressed in a sort of pyjamas. When I lived in Bangkok, my every (other) weekend I would go to Marble House, a well-established massage parlour for my two hours of mildly masochistic pleasure. It is called differently now but it is still situated in the Silom area, off Surawong Road, next door to Arima Onsen, a rival massage parlour frequented mostly by Japanese expats.
10. Multi-million Bangkok has less than a handful of public parks, so it is a rare treat to have a picnic in the nicely maintained Lumphini Park. The skyscrapers is Silom looming over lush tropical vegetation are a fine backdrop for a sushi bento set I love to buy at Isetan. The swish department store is three bus stops up the road but the made to perfection sushi are well worth the trip. The sushi stall is in the food court right after the checkout counters on the 5th floor, while fantastically fresh sashimi can be found in the very back of the supermarket's fish section.
11. Thailand is not all about carnal pleasures and retail therapy. If you want to discover the real self, learn the art of living, get a glimpse into the nature of things or, perhaps, all of the three, make the time for a 10-day meditation course at one of Vipassana retreats. Non-congregational, they are strictly halal and kosher and won't offend any religious sensitivities. You only learn the technique by which the Buddha attained his Enlightenment. They are run on a voluntary basis, no pre-payment, no donations are extorted, it is up to you whether and how much to give. While by no means a pleasure cruise, Vipassana courses provide a perfect environment for self-discovery.
12. In the evening, dress up and go to the rooftop Vertigo Bar & Restaurant in the Westin Banyan Tree Hotel on South Sathorn. Enjoy a classy vibe to the soft sounds of classic jazz overlooking the lights of Bangkok sprawling at your feet from horizon to horizon.
13. Thai vegetable seeds are available in the fruit and veg sections of most supermarkets. If you are into gardening like yours truly or his parents, you will appreciate fresh exotic produce straight from your kitchen garden. Water spinach (phak bung) and Thai basil (burapha) are easy to grow even in moderate climates.