Bangkok’s skyscape

It’s an hour or so past dawn. So early, it’s hard to tell whether the sun will break through the Bangkok smog. It gives me something to think about as I wait in a small courtyard of a Buddhist temple, Keaw Jamfa, in downtown Bangkok. I’m here to donate food to three young Buddhist monks who have been told of my visit- the only meal they will eat before noon until the next morning. The temple is modest and not far from the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel where I’m staying. Their obliging kitchen prepared and packaged the assortment of allowable food for my donation. Since the monks throughout the country depend daily on these offerings, those who donate add merits to their afterlife. It would be a stretch to say that this philosophy fits mine, but the generosity of the Thais make this a suitable reason for their serenity.

There are rules while handing over the food –don’t touch the monks or their robes, don’t look at them which I find difficult since they are so young and sweet faced (I admit, I peek) And while placing the food in their stainless steel pot, don’t take too long. The still warm plastic bagged cooked rice is placed at the bottom followed by vegetables also packaged and then the still warm chicken. Today the fruit is a banana ending with a small container of water.

Just before they walk off in their flowing saffron robes, I hand them picture- perfect white lotus flowers. It all happens so quickly but I feel spiritual for the rest of the day.

The hotel has arranged with their chef to take me to the very early morning local market. Not far from the Royal Orchid Sheraton located on the Chao Phaya River, is the public ‘express boat’, the city’s convenient public water bus. We wait for only a few minutes at the Siphaya stop. When the Thais say express it means getting both feet well placed on the boat before it takes off at breakneck speed. In a bustling city of 10 million, this is probably the fastest means considering the constant traffic jams on the city streets. However, the Choa Phaya isn’t exactly appetizing. It’s darkish brown with floating vegetation which I am told, actually grows in the river.

At Memorial Bridge, about 15 minutes from our embarkation, we fast-pace it off the ‘bus’, walk through a small garden, the last patch of green I’d see for hours, an oasis which seems to make this a cosmic fantasy. By the time we arrive at the market, about 7.30AM, it is still frenetic but the busy time is far earlier. Chef Charoensri leads the way. He points out his favorite stalls and vendors, the unusual fruits and vegetables. Since I’m searching for curry paste, he suggests a vendor whose dry spices and herbs he considers best. I purchase the paste and curry powder.

There are odd shaped and unusual produce – lemon grass, Kaffir eggplants (tiny little green balls,) dragon fruit, galangal that looks like ginger. The market streets have deep pot- holes filled with water from the rain during the night plus the washing down of the produce. I hopscotch, stepping and jumping over puddles. Everyone seems in great spirit and it still isn’t 8AM. After a quick negotiation with Chef Charoensri about not spending too much time at the meat counters, – a few minutes of seeing the beheading of an animal was long enough – we make our way to the street filled with colour. Flowers galore at the famous floral market and so many species , colours I didn’t know existed in the world of flora (e.g. black). Patiently, women sit making the most intricate garlands on wire with jasmine and roses for festive occasions.

We’re on time for the pre-arranged Thai cooking class at The Royal Orchid Sheraton. The hotel is known for their fine restaurants. Every utensil from pots, pans, a small stove to small dishes filled with spices and herbs on a mobile table, are waiting my arrival in the hotel’s renowned Thara Thong (Golden River) Restaurant, closed to any on lookers since it is still too early to open for lunch. A sparkling clear tank filled with fish, baskets of fruit and vegetable and great wood elephants decorated the entrance. I’m offered lemon grass juice – much appreciated since even at this time of day, it is humid and hot. I suspect the staff aren’t really sure of my kitchen ability or agility since they tightly wind a serious looking apron about my waist and as far up to my neck as possible. I assure them, this isn’t the first time I will be standing over a hot stove. They giggle. We start with soup and continue through an entire meal. I hadn’t realized how very seriously they are about this hands-on session. We share in eating my culinary triumphs after each course has been cooked. Into a pot for the Tom Yum Goong Yai ( hot and sour prawn soup) I mix large prawns, lemon grass, galangale, lime juice, chilies (very hot) crushed with a pestle together before I add kaffir leaves. Early as it is, we all taste this incredibly delicious starter. For Kaeng Kiew Wan Gai (Chicken Green Curry), I cut chicken into long thin slices, squeeze one cup coconut cream from the coconut, add green curry paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, horapha (basil leaves) and the mandatory chilies- to name some of the ingredients. Again we chow down this course with some hot rice. The Pad Thai Sai Kai (fried small rice noodles) is a Thai favorite, (much easier to make than I suspect) with bean sprouts, chopped pickled white radishes, soybean curd, peanuts, garlic, tamarind juice and ground dried chilies. I suggest perhaps we go lighter on the chilies. They laugh wondering why I hadn’t mentioned this before. The Thais are accustomed to ‘strong’ and they know visitors usually aren’t. Now with my gloved hands I mix the finale, the Yam Wun Sen (spicy mung bean noodle salad). A great way to learn and eat at the same time.

But there are still hours left in the day. A return visit to the spa belonging to and across the river from The Oriental Hotel has long been on my wish list. When it opened a few years ago, I had taken the 3 minute ferry ride on the Chao Phaya. This time, the taxi takes me to the front door. The wonderful shiny teak floors at the entrance where guests leave their shoes, and hopefully their stress, hasn’t changed. There is still a mystic silence. Everyone whispers. The appointment is for three hours. San, the diminutive, waif thin esthetician leads me into a standard-sized room. Some private treatment areas have a sauna and Jacuzzi, but this didn’t. However, it is large enough with private shower and loo, closets and vanity area all separated by an arch where the massage mat is on the floor. The beautifully designed spa still glistens, the etched glass hasn’t lost its lustre or luxurious appeal. There is no time for modesty. San’s directive is to undress, lay on the mat. I am covered with a sheet, temporarily. The first application is an extract of chamomile and mint which she spreads over my entire body, except on the paper panty supplied by the spa. After the shower I am smeared with sterilized seaweed and water. The fishy smell permeates the air until San envelopes me like a sardine, in a plastic cover topped with an electric blanket to “retain the heat and detoxify the body”.

This concoction is more difficult to wash off but with strong liquid soap and loofah mitt, the mission is accomplished

She asks if I want a light or heavy Thai massage. I consider her size and confidently say “strong please”. Big mistake It’s a session I won’t forget, nor will my muscles which ached the next day. The palms of her hands press either side of my spine, her fingers find every vein and artery in my legs and arms. I want to shout ‘uncle’ but I don’t think she’d understand this expression. Now slathered with lotion, the good part comes when she starts exploring my skull. The head massage is the perfect relaxant. After that momentarily lapse of kindness, suddenly she pushes and shoves my limbs into positions they hadn’t been able to master for decades. For the facial, the all natural Thalgo products from France are used. First the exfoliation, the massage is masterful and the mask is left on for about 15 minutes. The final offering is a glass of cold papaya juice and a cup of lime mouse. (The Royal Orchid’s new spa is equally special, but that’s another story) I can’t leave without sourcing the Oriental Hotel shopping arcade. It’s a one step luxury retail therapy stop especially Lotus with the most unique jewelry designs including jewelled scarabs.

With still some time, I visit the small Orthodox Bet Elishiva Synagogue and meet Rabbi Kantor, who is getting ready for a religious holiday meal. There are only about 300 Jewish people in Bangkok.

A few years ago, I had gone to a unique restaurant. Like a supermarket, you take a cart, choose your seafood, vegetables and bread, at the 50 metre long display counter, check out at the cashier where you’re escorted to your table. Then you tell the waiter how you want your purchases prepared or ask his suggestion. However, the intimate eatery of old (it’s been around since 1969) has relocated and now seats 1500. They must have the monopoly on neon signs. There’s a huge one “If It Swims We Have It”. It’s a fish-eating Disney World. Inside, colourful sculpted wood fish, waves and water cutouts decorate the ceiling. There are several people at the counters deciding which of the still wiggling fish they want. Forty chefs are busily cooking in the partially outdoor kitchen. The Seafood Market and Restaurant isn’t just a touristy destination. There are equal amounts of locals. This is, after all Bangkok, a mecca for eating and no better way of ending a full day in this city in the Land of Smiles.

Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel & Towers,
2 Captain Bush Lane, New Road, Siphya
Tel 66 2266-0123
email 00172.info@sheraton.com
They will arrange cooking classes and other mentioned activities

The Seafood Market & Restaurant,
89 Sukhumvit Soi 24, Sukhumvit Rd. Klongtoey.
Tel 661 1255 9. Open from 11:30 AM to 11:30 PM
Reservations suggested.

The Oriental Hotel
48 Oriental Ave., Bangkok 10500
Tel. 66 26 59 9000
Fax 66 26 59 0000
Email orbkk-reservations@mohg.com
Favourite shopping. Lotus, Arts de Vivre for great jewelry designs and bejeweled shoes.

Bet Elishiva Synagogue
121 Soi Sai Nam Thip 2
Sukhumvit Soi 22
662 663 0244
email ykantor@ksc15.com

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