Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Getting the goods on Bangkok

Hire a guide to access Thai capital's treasures

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IT was my fourth visit to Bangkok but this time I got more bang for my baht by hiring a guide.

You can cover more territory, enjoy more sightseeing and easily find the way back to your hotel. And because you'll take public transport, the money saved in cab fare can pretty much cover the cost of a guide for the day. Most important for me, they know the best places to eat.

It's hard to get a bad meal in Bangkok, but equally hard to get a really great meal. Fortunately, I was staying at the Metropolitan Hotel, home of Nahm restaurant and renowned chef David Thompson. He had to pick up some ingredients in Bangkok's Chinatown for that night's dinner and I had the good fortune to be able to tag along.

He doesn't usually do tours, but you can hire a guide to give you a foodie tour of the city through companies like Bangkok Food Tours.

We made our way through a labyrinth of alleys crammed with umpteen noodle shops and dried fish stalls, ducked baskets of live chickens and elderly shoppers squabbling over which fish was the freshest.

Thompson placed an order with the crab guy (he was thinking green mango and chili) and bought greens and herbs I'd never seen before.

We emerged in blazing sunlight onto Sampheng Lane, so narrow it can only be accessed by pedestrians, found a rickety table at Nai Mong Hoi Thod, and tucked into Mr. Mong's crispy oyster pancake.

"The secret is the batter -- tapioca flour with a bit of rice flour," said Thompson, and pondered another secret -- how Mr. Mong can charge a measly 70 baht (about $2) for 10 plump oysters.

More snacking was in store as we meandered along Yaowarat Road, lined with high-end restaurants advertising shark fins, ancient Chinese herbal medicine shops and the ubiquitous noodle stalls.

"Thais are constantly snacking, yet they are slim; there is no justice in the world," said Thompson with a smirk.

He told me the locals swap stories about the "niftiest" food stalls and that you're more popular talking about food than real estate. Thompson is very popular.

We stopped for Khoy Teaw Nam Tok Moo (pork noodle soup), which includes edible morning glory and pork blood (thankfully Thompson mentioned this last ingredient when my bowl was empty). He told me about new items he was introducing on the menu that night: pork soup, pork curry with sour fruit and grouper deep-fried in rice bran oil, better than other oils because it allows for a higher cooking temperature.

"Thai food is a conversation of ingredients, a balancing act of sweet and sour," Thompson explained, "but the mark of a chef is refinement and restraint." After my dinner at Nahm I can attest that Thompson walks and cooks the talk.

First I had an amuse bouche called Ma-hor, or galloping horse: spicy minced pork piled onto a pineapple slice. I realized there is no such thing as a ripe pineapple in Canada. On chef's advice, I tried his "gentle and kind" clear pork soup with herbs he'd purchased hours earlier -- and almost swooned. I had five more dishes, including a slice of raw lotus root and spicy soft-boiled egg, and was soon rendered speechless, words too meagre to reach those taste notes.

This food was fuel for the senses and the memory.

But not everyone is lucky enough to be able to follow Thompson around for an afternoon. Realizing how much more of Bangkok I had seen and tasted with him, I decided to hire a guide the next day. Bright and early, I met up with my guide Tippie and we boarded the BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit Sys-tem) Skytrain to Chatuchak market.

If you go it alone, pick up a map, available at most bookstores or in the parking lot of Chatuchak, before navigating your way through the maze of more than 15,000 stalls offering everything imaginable, from Harley-Davidson jackets for designer dogs to hand-carved wooden iPad rests to antiques made yesterday.

Go early -- even at 9 a.m. the place was steaming. We made our way to the Roti Saimai (silk thread) stall: spun sugar in rice paper and a much-needed iced lychee drink.

Tippie was a wealth of information, including how to avoid pickpockets.

"If you keep your bag in front of you, it's yours, behind you, not yours and on your side, 50/50," she said, as I manoeuvred my purse from dangling off my shoulder to front and centre.

We walked across the street to the immense Tor Kor Market, in complete contrast to Chatuchak. Air-conditioned, spic and span, this is where rich Thais fill their fridges.

The food court is mind-boggling with too many options so I let Tippie decide. After much scrutinizing, she found the right vendors for iced Vietnamese coffee, prawns grilled on the spot and mango sticky rice.

A must-see is the Royal Palace. Tippie told me photos are allowed outside only and some buildings require that you leave your shoes outside, but hats off everywhere.

"Here is King Rama IV, also known as King Mongkut, portrayed by Yul Brynner in The King and I but the movie was banned here when it was released," said Tippie, explaining King Mongkut was deeply religious and the movie didn't present an accurate portrait of the royals.

"And this is King Rama V," said Tip-pie, reverently. "He disguised himself as a commoner and travelled the country so that he learned about his people."

With a guide at my side, this visit was like my first time. I saw Bangkok anew, with more appreciation of the culture and nuances of the people.

I got to understand their humour, loyalty to their king and love of their family, and I had the fondest foodie memories.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

This trip was the first time I didn't fly south to Ko Samui or Phuket to get away from Bangkok's traffic jams and humidity. Instead, I drove only a few hours south to the tranquil seaside town of Hua Hin and the Anantara resort.

The last remnants of jet lag vanished after a Merudanda massage and steam at Anantara's superb spa (even a leg wax was relaxing!) Blissed out, I floated down the torchlit path, past fragrant tropical gardens and the infinity pool to the outdoor buffet. I usually avoid all-you-can-eat buffets, but on display were grilled-to-order fish and seafood that appeared to have been caught that day, curries in tiny coconuts and every fruit and vegetable imaginable. And everything tasted as good as it looked.

It wasn't easy to tear away from my luxurious room the next morning with its teak furnishings and silk pillows and floor-to-ceiling sliding windows that open to a private terrace overlooking a lotus-strewn lagoon, but a cooking class was about to begin.

Most cooking classes are "show and tell" but Anantara's class is hands-on. We gathered in the Gatsby-esque gazebo complete with cooking stations and the resident chef taught us how to make Nam prik sab pa rod (a traditional dip with minced pork and shrimp) from scratch, including mashing chili, garlic and shallot in a mortar and pestle. Then we ate our creations and the chef presented us with a personalized Certificate of Achievement.

Down the street from the Anantara is Maruekatayawan, once the summer residence of Thailand's King Rama VI. This seaside palace is an open-air marvel of 1920s architecture and is the world's longest golden teak palace. We strolled the sprawling, peaceful grounds with a glass of iced Chrysanthemum tea and chilled out before hitting the Hua Hin night market.

Like most Asian markets, it's the dark side of retail, with knock-off Rolex watches and Ray Bans and dresses that wind up as tea towels. But it's also a foodie paradise. The Singha beer is ice cold and fried mussels with bean sprouts spicy have just enough heat not to tear your head off.

Back at the Anantara for more royal treatment and a few laps in the pool, I didn't even make it to the beach. I passed on the tan and came home rejuvenated.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 D5

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