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Bangkok, Penang and Chiang Mai - Kathie's 2006 Trip Report

Bangkok, Penang and Chiang Mai - Kathie's 2006 Trip Report

Nov 25th, 2006, 09:14 AM
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Bangkok, Penang and Chiang Mai - Kathie's 2006 Trip Report

Hello, Fodorites, here is my trip report. I�m writing it in sections, and I�ll post each section as I finish it.

Air Travel: We flew United in Business Class from Seattle to Bangkok and return. There is a change of planes in Narita. We always buy coach tickets and use miles to upgrade to Business. The flights between Seattle and Narita are on Boeing 777s � my favorite plane. I like the huge overhead bins that swing up, so you can stand at your seat, even in a window seat, and I find the seats very comfortable. (The biz seats are not lay-flat, which for me, is an advantage). The entertainment system has 5 channels of movies and a couple of other video channels, plus perhaps a dozen audio channels. It is not on-demand, but runs repeatedly through the flight. The flights between Narita and Bangkok are on 747s. These planes have the tilt-flat seats, which I find uncomfortable. It was especially annoying as I had a mal-functioning seat from Narita to Bangkok and Cheryl had one from Bangkok to Narita. In both cases, the seat would not stay in the upright position, so would gradually move to flat, which is excruciating for my back. The champagne was Pommery on the outbound flight and Pol Roger on the return.

Domestic flights were all on Thai, all in business class. The flights between Bangkok and Penang were on an Airbus, and the seats and amenities were similar to US domestic first class. The flights between Bangkok and Chiang Mai were on an internationally configured 747. The biz seats were of the type that moves within the confines of a hard module, so when you recline the portion of the seat facing the person behind you does not move. It allows both a tilt-flat recline and a bent knees recline (more comfortable for my bad back). These seats have me thinking about whether I�d be willing to fly to LA to catch the Thai non-stop to Bangkok� They also have on-demand entertainment at each seat.

The new Bangkok airport: We had good experiences with the new airport. Our luggage took about 15 minutes to get to us � not bad. The signage was good. I�ve written elsewhere about the Thai Lounge, which is not impressive so far. I hope it will improve. While there are things not yet working well at the airport, our experience was fine. The four trips we took between the airport and the Royal Orchid all took between 25 and 30 minutes. Airport limo prices are higher than before: we paid between 800 and 1200 baht, depending on the company. AOT prices were the highest.
Kathie is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 09:15 AM
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Bangkok: Despite my many trips to Bangkok, I never tire of this city! We stayed in a suite in the Towers at the Royal Orchid Sheraton. The Towers rooms are all on the top few floors, and include important amenities such as breakfast, evening cocktails and canapés and free laundry. Out two stays here (beginning and end of the trip) were lovely as always. All of you who regularly stay at one property know how it feels like home both because its familiar and because staff makes sure they take extra care of the regulars.

We had several missions for our Bangkok time. Cheryl wanted to buy glasses, having gotten a great deal on glasses two years ago in KL. We chose to look at Siam Paragon, as they have half a dozen optical shops in close proximity to one another. She was looking at high-end frames, and found ones she loved. For the frames and the progressive lenses with all the extras (non-glare, extra thin, etc) the price was half of what she would have paid in Seattle. It was such a deal she also bought prescription sunglasses. Miki Paris was the shop she used, but we found that each shop had a different selection on frames, so take a look at all of them. There was one shop where the sales woman was very high pressure, but all the others were glad to help you look and there was no pressure.

Of course, I had some jewelry-buying on my agenda, and I visited Lily at SJ International. (Guenmai, she did have some Burmese jade, not a lot. The carved pendants that caught my eye were set with gold and a few diamonds and I was quoted prices in the $1000 range.) I bought myself a pair of beautiful orange sapphires (also known as Padparascha or Padparadscha) and had them set into earrings. I also had a couple of cabochon sapphires that I purchased years ago set into rings. I designed the earrings and rings during our first stay in Bangkok and Lily had the finished items delivered to me at the hotel when we returned to Bangkok.

I also visited Amantee, a place that specializes in Tibetan antiques and other high-end SE Asian antiques. Its a lovely place, out by the old airport. The owner, Gilles Saundre has a gorgeous collection and is very knowledgeable. We purchased several prayer wheels and a piece of carved jade. By the way, there is now a restaurant there, so you might combine a trip to see the antiques with lunch. Unfortunately, we did not have time to do it this visit. (www.amantee.com)

We made our traditional visits to Face spa the morning after our mid-night arrival in Bangkok and again the day before we left Bangkok. It was wonderful, as always. The price of a two-hour spa visit (body scrub and massage) is approximately US$60.

Food: We ate at a number of old favorites: LaNa Thai at Face, Lemongrass, and Thara Thong all with excellent Thai food. We tried Tongue Thai with Bob and Karen, and the food didnt have a lot of pizzazz. Next time, Id ask them to make the food spicier. We ate at the Gallery (near the Royal Orchid) and the food was good, but they were installing light fixtures, drilling into the ceiling (they were doing this as we ate last year as well!) which certainly detracts from the ambiance. Next time, Id check to see if they were doing construction before having lunch there! A great find in the Siam Paragon is Orangery, a place on the 4th floor that has selections from a half a dozen well-known restaurants in Bangkok (including the Blue Elephant). You order from one menu and your food is brought to you. You can opt for a Mediterranean appetizer and Thai entrées, or any other combination. The food was very good, the ambiance was quite nice, the service good. I highly recommend it for a lunch when you are out shopping.

The China House deserves its own paragraph. As you know, the China House was undergoing remodeling, and re-opened the day we returned to Bangkok. I had a belated birthday lunch there. The remodel well, youll love it or youll hate it. They painted the charming white Victorian a dull, dark greenish gray color and added a dark glass cube onto the front of the building which is now the foyer. The restaurant has been re-done in all black and red a high-end interpretation of a stereotypical Chinese restaurant, IMO. There are charming booths with a fretwork doors, but they are mirror-lined. It struck me as glitzy. They have moved from traditional Chinese teas to French-blended teas I found this to be a pretension that made the tea options less good and less interesting. Your entrée is now preceeded by an amuse bouche, we had a perfectly seared scallop atop perfectly steamed vegetables served in a vodka glass. It was very tasty, but presented atop dry ice with water poured over it, producing a thick, cold steam. A dramatic presentation, I suppose, but over-done. We ordered Peking duck (of course) and it was wonderful. The duck skin is carved at your table, and the ducks are now cooked with the heads on. There are some subtle changes in this classic dish, all for the good, in my opinion. The luscious pancakes are lighter and more delicate, and are served with slivered pieces of scallion, cucumber and red bell pepper. The second course of the duck is now moister and more succulent. We opted for our favorite sauce, black pepper. Last year, we shared a fresh mango pudding, a China House specialty. We ordered the same thing this year. However, this is a dish that has not benefited from tinkering. The fresh mango pudding is served inside a dragon-fruit shell atop the dry-ice presentation. Again, this seemed over the top to me, especially as this was the second of these presentations in the meal. Also, the lovely, smooth pudding is now studded with chunks of fresh mango and fresh dragon fruit and toped with coconut cream. This lovely, simple dish is now so complicated that it has lost its charm. I would not order it again. The staff is as gracious as ever. They seemed enthusiastic, but some of the details they gave us about what has changed (they must all wear the same make-up, and have been trained as to how to apply it, for instance) struck me as excessively controlling. While I am not charmed by the remodel, China House still has the best Peking Duck Ive ever tasted. With the decline in the dollar and the slight increase in prices, out meal came to US$66.

We also ate at Chote Chitr, a tiny place reviewed my RJ (Johnny) Apple in the New York Times about a year and a half ago. Finding the place is an adventure and well worth it. In our hour walk, we saw only one other farang, and none were eating at the restaurant when we were there. It was perhaps the best Thai food Ive ever eaten. The flavors were astounding. We took a look at the long menu, and I said to the owner, well have what the man from New York had. She smiled and rattled off his selection, asking us what we wanted in our red curry (he had prawns, we had duck). We had mee grob (a revelation!), banana flower salad, red curry with duck, and a stunning eggplant dish. It takes about 20 minutes from the time you order for the food to begin to arrive, as everything is made just for you. Our bill was something like 270 baht. We will return!
Kathie is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 09:29 AM
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Sightseeing: We have some old favorite places we like to visit, like the Erawan Shrine, and we always like to visit some new places as well. We visited several wats that are bit off the tourist track. We went to Wat Ratchanadda, also known as the Iron Wat, and visited the amulet market there. We also visited Wat Suthat, a lovely, quiet place. As many on the board have said, if you get slightly off the tourist trail, you will find many fascinating places to see and will often be the only foreign visitors.

We were in Bangkok for Loy Krathong. Being by the river is so nice! We watched many people launch their Krathongs and we enjoyed the spectacular fireworks from our suite on the 28th floor of the Royal Orchid. There were fireworks directly in from of the Royal Orchid, and identical fireworks in front of the Pen and the Oriental. It was like seeing a close-up and a longer distance shot of the fireworks at the same time. Spectacular!

GTGs: We had the opportunity to meet with a number of other Fodorites this trip. We had dinner with Bob and Karen one night, attended the Bangkok GTG on Nov. 6, and enjoyed meeting a number of regulars, including MichaelBKK, Brad in BKK, and several people on their first trips, Cadwax and Mirasia. We also met up with mjs, (Michael and Anne and their daughters, Julia and Jennifer from the SF area) and we met with GPanda (Andy and Beth). It was a delight to meet other Fodorites!
Kathie is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 10:48 AM
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Some misc. notes on Bangkok: The Royal Orchid now has a boat that runs between the hotel and the pier by the Skytrain station. It leaves from the hotel on the hour and half hour and leaves from the pier at a quarter to and a quarter after the hour. On your return trip from the Skytrain to the hotel they offer cold water and cold facecloths.

The river was the highest weve ever seen it on Loy Krathong. There were sand bags all along the river, making it possible to walk from the pier to the Skytrain, preventing water from entering the riverside patios of the hotels, etc.

I forgot to report on Mahanaga. We ate there last year and had an excellent meal, though a bit pricey. They bill themselves as Thai fusion, but the food we had was more Thai than Fusion. This year, our meal was more fusion than Thai and frankly, not as good. The service and atmosphere are both lovely. Id examine the seasonal menu before going again.

Next, on to Penang.
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Nov 25th, 2006, 11:37 AM
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Penang: Ive had Penang on my must visit list for many years. Finally, we got there. We wanted to stay in Georgetown and explore the historic town and eat the wonderful food Penang is justly famous for.

The E&O: Ive always wanted to stay at the Eastern & Oriental hotel there, even back in the days before it was refurbished. It was closed for a number of years and completely refurbished and reopened in 2001. This is a hotel that was originally developed and managed by the Sarkie Brothers, who also developed and managed Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The remodeling kept the feel of the old hotel, with its domed lobby and old colonial architecture. The hotel is all suites, and you choose what kind of suite you want. Each suite has a big bedroom, a good-sized sitting room, and a huge marble bathroom with separate tub and shower and two separate sinks. Antique furniture, hardwood floors and Oriental rugs add to the atmosphere. We had a small balcony overlooking the water, a feature of the Premier suites. There is a beautiful swimming pool surrounded by nice lounge chairs and shaded by palms. After considerable research, I found that the hotels own website had the best prices: a half price special good through Nov 19. The price included breakfast. Breakfasts were wonderful with a huge range of options, traditional Malay, Chinese and Japanese selections, gorgeous pasteries, wonderful fresh fruit, and an omelet station to make eggs or omelets to your order. The hotel offers Butler-assisted transfers from the airport for 90 ringgit net. As this is under US$25, we opted to use the hotel car, a nice Mercedes. The whole stay was very luxurious and pampering, and for a great price, about US$ 150 per night, including tax, service and breakfast.

Food: Penang is famous for its hawker food. As you may know, the Malaysian government helped develop hawker centers to house hawker stalls to improve sanitation. The hawker centers have running water, so the dishes you use are washed in hot water with soap, and the hawkers have hand-washing facilities, so the situation is much better sanitation-wise than it is for street food in, say, Thailand. These hawker centers are located all over Georgetown, as well as in the famous Guerney Drive area. We actually found better hawker food in downtown Georgetown than on Guerney Drive. Hornill recommend a book to us called The famous Street Food of Penang. It has interviews with some of the famous hawkers and recipes as well. We went to several places recommended in the book and had great food. We also picked by a book called My Penang by Lim Bee Chin which was another great resource for finding great hawker food. One of our favorite places was just a few blocks from the E&O, called the Kheng Pin Café, it was a hawker center with lots of choices, including what is renowned to be the best satay in Penang, cooked to order over charcoal and Lorback, a sort of fritter, especially the shrimp lorback this hawker is famous for (but do try the sweet potato as well). Cheryl searched out a hawker famous for his Oh Chien, an oyster omelet. We tried noodle dishes as well, both fried noodle dishes and soups, and had a great time eating tasty and very cheap food. For those of you who havent used hawker centers before, heres the routine. There are tables set up, choose where you want to sit and someone will ask for drink orders. You order your food from each hawker, gesture to where you are sitting, and your food will be delivers to your table. You pay for each item as it is delivered. When you finish eating, the hawker will pick up your dishes. By the way, its bring your own napkins.

We also tried several restaurants. Kuranosuke recommended Hamedia, a Muslim Indian restaurant. It is like many small restaurants in that it has a very limited menu, but what they cook, they do very well. Cheryl had Tandoori chicken and naan and I had Chicken Tikka with naan. The food was excellent and very cheap!

We found Passage to India, a few blocks from the E&O. It had a wide range of Indian cuisines. We love Indian food, and in chatting with our waiter, he said he could get us things not on the menu. So we negotiated a menu with him, some items on the menu, some not. The food was some of the best Indian food Ive had. We ate there twice, trying out a great range of dishes. I highly recommend it for a more upscale dining experience that is still inexpensive.

Sarkies corner, the casual restaurant in the hotel had food that was good, but not exciting. We ate there one night just to order a good bottle of wine (which is reasonably priced, especially in comparison to Thailand)!
Kathie is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 12:13 PM
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Kathie, what a treat to see your trip report as I am recovering from Thanksgiving festivities. I am glad to hear that United still works out ok for you on the overseas flight - they will be upgrading their planes - don't know if that if positive or negative for you. The Thai flight we take from NY is pretty much the same as the one from LA - we found the seats to be more comfy than those on the United flights in their current configuration.

Sounds like getting to and from the airport is as easy or even better than getting to and from the old one.

Funny thing is we have not yet found a "home" in Bangkok and we need to. Our most frequent hotel WAS the Amari Airport (which I know is way down on your list) since we have passed through BKK to go to so many other places. We are staying at the Intercontinental and the Penn on our February trip.

Both Jeane and I both wear very costly prescription glasses with all the extras that you mentioned so hopefully in the future we can follow your advice - Cheryl would have saved a bundle though by purchasing glasses that have the magnetic clip-on sunglasses rather than going for a second pair of prescriptions by the way.

We have to get to SJ in February - it seems you really make out well there.

We will definitely check out China House again but based on your comments, I am not sure that the changes have brought any improvements. The Peking Duck is the important thing though for both me and Jeane so I think we will enjoy it again.

Can you provide a location for Chote Chitr? I am sure we can figure out how to get there via taxi or whatever - it sounds wonderful.

I am surprised that the ROS never had a boat to the Taksin Pier - really necessary to compete with the other riverside hotels.

Thanks again for posting - Penang sounds interesting - we will add to the "list" for future consideration.
Craig is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 01:53 PM
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I'm enjoying your report very much!
KimJapan is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 02:09 PM
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Craig and Kim, glad you are enjoying my report. I'll get on to site-seeing in Penang then the Chiang Mai report later today or tomorrow.

Craig, I had the address and phone number for Chote Chitr and the conceirge called the restaurant for directions and wrote them in Thai for me, so I have to admit, I don't know exactly what they said! From another post, here's the address and phone with directiions (which I can't vouch for). Chote Chitr, 146 Phraeng Phuton, 011-66-2221-4082.
Turn left on Thanon Tanao off Ratchadamnoen at the 1st traffic light past Democracy Monument and go 1000 m until you come to Soi Phraeng Phuton; it's 50 m down the soi on the left.

And Craig, I had to laugh about your comment on the Amari Airport... I'll bet you could get great rates there now!

Take a look at glasses when you are in Bangkok. Cheryl knows about the clip ons, but doesn't like them. The prescription sunglasses (which she had made with a single vision lens for driving) were such a deal that she couldn't pass them up!

Also, the ROS used to have a boat, but had discontinued it for several years. Once the Skytrain was running, they had a van that ran every half hour, but I didn't like taking the van, so used the public water taxi to the Skytrain.
Kathie is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 02:54 PM
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Sightseeing: Perhaps the most interesting item on the site-seeing agenda is the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, also known as Blue Mansion. There are guided tours daily at 11:00. The tour will not only give you a chance to see an amazing home, but is a great introduction to the history of Penang and some of the culture of the Chinese merchants in Penang.

We visited a variety of temples, including the Thai and Burmese Buddhist temples, the Penang Buddhist Association, the Kuan Yin temple and the Khoo Konsi. We also visited Fort Cornwallis, and walked Beach street where there is still much of the colonial architecture intact. Little India and China town were both interesting. Note that there are many areas of Georgetown that still have the old Chinese shophouses, not just Chinatown.

There was plenty of Penang that we didnt see. Since we were interested in mostly the cultural and historic aspects, we didnt visit the nearby beaches or the modern city.

The E&O is a wonderful place to relax. We made sure we spent part of every afternoon at the beautiful pool and had that nice man at the pool bring us a cold tropical drink.

Id recommend Penang as a great place to visit. There are many flights per day from KL, and there is one flight a day from Bangkok.

Next installment will be on Chiang Mai.
Kathie is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 03:30 PM
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Re: the Restaurant Chote Chitr

Here is the article from the NY Times on the restaurant Kathie mentioned:

October 12, 2005
On the Streets of Bangkok, Two Guys Keep It Real
By R. W. APPLE Jr.

THE guidebooks touted Bed Supperclub, where the hip and beautiful recline while they eat, and the airline magazine featured the Australian Amanda Gale, who has set the town on its ear with her fusion food at Cy'an. But I was looking for something more traditional, so as soon as I had settled into my hotel room, I picked up the phone and called Robert Halliday, an American writer and gourmand who has lived here so long that he finds vacations without Thai food painful.

"Welcome back to Bangkok," he said. "Prepare to eat like a shark."

Soon, he and I, a pair of ample fellows, were accordioned into the back of a not-so-ample taxi, en route to Chote Chitr, a modest establishment with only five tables, near the famous temple, Wat Suthat. "You won't believe the banana-flower salad," he enthused as we wove through the city's notorious traffic. "It's one of the wonders of the world, up there with the late Beethoven quartets."

A few years ago, Mr. Halliday had promised me an eating spree for the ages, but he had taken ill shortly after my wife, Betsey, and I arrived. This time would prove to be different, as he led us into a hidden world of restaurants. At every stop, we were the only Western customers. And at every stop, the food was cheap, simple and delicious.

With heavy teak chairs and gleaming black-and-white tiles, Chote Chitr reflects the quiet pride of a family that has owned it for a century. Its clients are middle-class Thais, who can choose from no fewer than 400 dishes. We didn't sample them all, but all things considered (such as the fact that this was lunch, not dinner) we gave a fairly decent account of ourselves.

After a few crisp, garlicky wontons, we moved straight to mee krob, the sticky, sweet-and-spicy fried noodles found on Thai menus from Delhi to Des Moines. These were another matter altogether: subtler, tarter, zestier. The secret, Mr. Halliday quickly explained, was peel from a rare, sourish citrus fruit called som saa.

The banana-flower salad was stunning indeed, another example of a standard transformed. Prawns, chicken and the shredded red buds of the banana tree, among other things, went into the dish, but its brilliance, as with all the best Thai dishes, lay in the complexity of its seasonings - sour in the front of the mouth (tamarind pulp), fiery in the back (dried chilies), and sweetly nutty at the top (coconut cream). Eating it left me punch-drunk with pleasure.

There was wonderful tom yum pla, that eye-poppingly vibrant fish soup. Hot, rich and sharp, it owed everything to the liltingly fresh, vividly perfumed lemon grass, ka-prao or holy basil, coriander and kaffir lime leaves that flavored it, along with the obligatory chili. A mildly piquant vegetable curry, too (still made from a paste prepared by hand every day). And a small wok-fried bass. But for me, the pièce de résistance was a salad made from long green eggplants, makheua yao, heady with smoke from the grill, plus shrimp, red shallots and palm sugar. An addictive sour tang was added by fermented shrimp and lime juice.

For dessert, Mr. Halliday dashed around the corner to buy sticky rice, cooked in coconut cream and coconut sugar, at Kor Panich, the city's oldest sweet shop. We ate it with Okrong mangoes, perhaps the world's most succulent and least fibrous. No point in going overboard here, but I can't imagine a better dessert; it was an ideal finish to a meal of Thai classics, cooked with consummate finesse, with a whole array of bitter, spicy, nutty, sweet, salty and sour flavors in perfect balance and harmony.

Mr. Halliday, who is 62, was born in Englewood, N.J., and studied James Joyce and Russian at Columbia. Modern music and exotic languages have always been his things; although his French and his Italian (except for musical terminology) have never been very good, he learned Hungarian to read Bela Bartok, and his Thai is so fluent that it startles native speakers.

After working in bookstores, at The Washington Post and at the Library of Congress, he took his severance pay when his job at the library was eliminated and went to Bangkok, staying at first with the family of a Washington friend. From time to time, he returned to the United States, but about 1986, he told me, "I decided I didn't want to live anywhere that didn't have durian" - the remarkably smelly Thai fruit.

Gradually, he began writing on a variety of topics for the Bangkok Post, holding forth about favorite modern composers, including Berio, Boulez, Dallapiccola and Elliott Carter, and about film, another of his passions. He has a multilingual collection of more than 2,000 DVD's.

Curiously, he never signs his real name to his work, and he has resisted repeated urgings to compile his profound knowledge of the history and intricacies of Thai food in a book. He styles himself Electric Eel (the Thai words escape me) for film reviews, and in a long spell as restaurant reviewer, he used the self-deprecating pen name Ung-aang Talay, which means Sea Toad.

Asked to explain, he replied, "I don't like to see my name in print."

Although shy and gentle in manner like the Thais among whom he lives, Mr. Halliday harbors strong opinions about Thai food, which he expresses pungently. Thai restaurants abroad, he insisted, inevitably suffer from inferior ingredients. (He is not alone; David Thompson, the chef at Nahm, an extraordinary outpost of Thai gourmandise in London, flies supplies in from Asia every week for the same reason.) The limes are too thick-skinned, in his view, the herbs are dull, and the peppers, even when grown from imported Thai seeds, lack the authentic, in-your-kisser flavor and aroma.

Drive around with him, eat with him, and you soon know what contempt he feels for much that he sees in modern Bangkok. Passing a KFC outlet, he uncharacteristically growled, "The restaurant that was there used to serve the best duck and noodles in town." Discussing the bland, prettified, hopelessly dumbed-down version of Thai food served in local tourist traps, he summed it up as "chicken à la king with a kaffir lime leaf floating on top."

But with the help of a remarkably heterogeneous group of friends, including taxi drivers and farmers as well as intellectuals, he still finds much that is genuine. Some of his discoveries have become widely known because he has championed them, like Polo Fried Chicken, a joint near the polo club in the diplomatic quarter. Once a humble three-table stall, it now has an air-conditioned if garishly lighted dining room down the street, to which a corps of waiters ferries platters of explosively hot green papaya salad, shredded beef fried with palm sugar and fish sauce and larb moo, chopped pork flavored with mint, to feed hordes of workers from nearby offices at lunch.

All good, but what pulls them in is the chicken. Brined and liberally dusted with black pepper, it is fried until golden-brown, crisp but not dry and papery, then showered with garlic, also fried. One of the marvels of this world-class dish is the succulence of the chicken; another is the sweetness of the garlic, unmarred by burned bits.

I cede the final word to Betsey, a student of the genre like all true Southerners. "The best fried chicken I've ever eaten," she said as we plowed through a second platter. I think she might have danced with delight if she had not been too busy eating.

CHUA KIM HENG, a noisy five-story poultry palace jammed between a freeway and an electrical substation, epitomizes much that the Thais fancy in their restaurants. It is starkly utilitarian, with no idle decorative flourishes, it is known for one dish - in its case, roast goose and duck - and its food is cooked by Thais of Chinese descent. Most are Teochow, with roots on the southeastern China coast, like many of their brethren in Vietnamese and Singaporean restaurants.

Here the overture was khanom jeeb, steamed dumplings with exquisitely thin wrappers, served with tiny green Thai chilies with a slight floral scent and a nuclear kick. (In pedagogic mode, Mr. Halliday warned, "Not too much chili, or it will blot out the other flavors, like looking into the sun when you're trying to study a Monet.")

We ordered goose, steamed first to minimize fat, then braised. A plate of sliced dark meat came to the table, no bones in sight, bathed in a thin sauce flavored with anise, black pepper and galangal, a ginger-like root. Fresh coriander on top and a condiment of pickled chili and garlic on the side pointed up the lusciousness of the goose. Cabbage in a sauce sharpened by lime and sesame came on the side as well.

With no drinks, dinner for three was $17.50. But in Bangkok as everywhere else, delicacies do cost more. At Pen, for example, a mirror-walled, family-friendly place that serves scrumptious white wood mushrooms, parrot fish deep-fried and surrounded by sambals (green mango shreds in tamarind sauce, fried and raw shallots and the like), and astonishingly tender river prawns, nearly a foot long, deliciously charred over charcoal, the seafood prices are five times those at the eateries along the Chao Phraya river. "Everything here is fresher and bigger," said Mr. Halliday, who celebrates birthdays at Pen. Worth every baht, but beyond the means of many Thais.

Even plates of noodles can be expensive. Not at Thip Samai, a storefront noodle shop near the Golden Mount that produces a definitive pad thai, free of the sweetness that often disfigures it in the West. But at Raan Jay Fai, a few doors down, in a banal setting of fluorescent bulbs, hospital-green walls and linoleum-topped tables, an elderly, balletic cook wearing a kind of knitted snood and working at a charcoal brazier turns out luxury pad khee mao, at a price. She allows her rice noodles, broad ones, to catch a bit in the wok, giving them a pleasantly seared taste, adds basil leaves and then dumps in prime seafood, including heroic lumps of crab meat that reminded me of Chesapeake Bay, what Mr. Halliday called "shrimps as big as sheep," and fresh hearts of palm.

The thrifty, persnickety locals, who consider cheap, tasty noodles their birthright, term these "millionaire's food." Three servings cost about $18.50.

Mr. Halliday had words of measured praise for a few fancy places, like the funky Asiatique, whose custardy tofu and mellow yellow crab curry we had admired, and the sybaritic Celadon, whose elegant food exhibits "all the tastes and subtleties Thais appreciate," in the words of its chef, Khun Veera. But he is a populist at heart.

So on the last day of our visit, we ate lunch on the run at the splendid Aw Taw Kaw market, a food-lover's must-see with heaps of gorgeous tropical fruit, schools of brightly colored shellfish and bubbling caldrons of curry. It was raining, and the plastic roof was leaking, but our guru cried happily, "Try this!" when he spied an aromatic green curry whose sauce, as he observed, had been carefully cooked to prevent the coconut oil from rising to the surface. He insisted that we taste a gang som or sour curry made from lotus stems, a lip-smacking eggplant stir-fry, crab steamed in a banana leaf with coconut cream and curry spices, and some meltingly tender pork satay.

We did as we were told, and soon we scarcely noticed the rain.

peacheysmokey is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 09:10 PM
Join Date: Feb 2003
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Kathie - what a wonderful report - love your bit on Penang - we've been thinking of going back - mainly for the E&O which I've always wanted to go too and its still very reasonable. Maybe next year!

Glad Cheryl's glasses turned out well. I've used Paris Miki a couple of times and have found them great - last time they didn't have suitable frames for me unfortunately and we went elsewhere and it wasn't as helpful.
MaryW is offline  
Nov 25th, 2006, 11:21 PM
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Awesome report Kathie, really enjoying it.

Sounds like you did soo much in three weeks. We also loved alot of the places they have to eat in the Siam Paragon, so many choices.

Did you get to try Basil?

hawaiiantraveler is offline  
Nov 26th, 2006, 02:07 AM
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Kathie-super report as always. Your prose is fun and informative. It was great to meet you and Cheryl. The ROS is just like home.
Gpanda is offline  
Nov 26th, 2006, 02:12 PM
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Background: I was last in Chiang Mai almost 20 years ago. At that time, I have to say, I wasnt especially impressed. It struck me as a small town that had grown too fast. There was lots of sprawl, traffic, and air pollution indeed, my notes from that time say that the air pollution was worse than Bangkok (and that was in the days before the expressway from the old airport was built). We spent three days in CM then, I felt Id seen as much as I wanted to, a rare occurrence for me. The highlight of that time in CM was a visit to Doi Suthep early one morning. There were few people there, and it was magical. Im a collector of crafts, and I bought a few on that trip, a bit of celadon, some silver, and I was able to buy Hmong belled ankle bracelets for my niece (who was a toddler at the time) at the night market.

After so many visits to Thailand in the intervening years, it seemed to me it was time to go back. And a number of people on this board whose opinions I respect love CM. Cheryl had never seen Doi Suthep, so that was another reason to return. And the event I was really excited about was Royal Flora, a huge horticultural show in honor of the Kings 60 years on the throne.

When I was last in CM, the options for places to stay were not very good. We stayed in what I would call a soulless box a hotel with all the ambiance of a Motel 6 and it was supposedly the best CM had to offer at the time. I was delighted to have so many good choices this trip.

This trip: We flew from Penang to Bangkok, changed planes and flew onward to Chiang Mai. Our luggage was out fairly quickly, and we found a cab (flat rate 120 baht) to take us to Yaang Come Village. Yaang Come is a lovely place. There is a pool in the center of the buildings (but alas! almost no shade). We had been told to request a room overlooking the pool. We had a room, 421. That looked toward the pool, but there is a muddy lot just beyond the YCV, and it was hard to miss that as one looked out the window. Oh, well, we looked toward the garden. YCV was totally booked the whole time we were there.

The rooms are lovely, with a very Thai feel. Ours was a deluxe room, and we had a good sized bedroom, a small balcony, a dressing area, and a good-sized bath with separate shower and nice, big tub. We were very happy with the accommodations and would stay there again.

We had just a couple of disappointments with YCV. With forewarning, you can work around them. First, we allowed the restaurant manager to talk us into going to their dance show. We had no interest in the western set menu, but he said he also had a Thai set menu. He was even willing to adapt it to our restrictions (no beef), so we booked. The dance show was rather amateurish, but as we expected, but the food bore little resemblance to Thai food, being entirely bland (except for the soup). It was an expensive and largely inedible meal. Our Thai lunches at YCV ordered from the menu were spicy and delightful.

The second problem was quite bewildering. When we arrived, one of the women at the desk said, oh, you should have had our hotel car pick you up its just 200 baht! I filed that away for future reference. When we went out to dinner that night, the hotel car took us for 120 baht. I knew it was a bit more than a local taxi, but that was ok, the price seemed reasonable to me. And they were glad to set up the hotel car to take us to Royal Flora in the morning for 200 baht. When we arrived at the front desk at 7:30, they said, oh she gave you the wrong price, its 500 baht. I told them that was too much, would they please call us a taxi. They said, talk to the woman at the Taxis and Tours desk. I told her we needed a taxi to Royal Flora. We thought she was getting us a taxi, but after about 5 minutes she came back to us and said, We can drive you there for 800 baht. I said no, please call us a taxi. Then she tried to sell us a bus tour to Royal Flora for the same amount. I reiterated that we just wanted a taxi. She said maybe we can give you a discount , 500 baht to Royal Flora. I again said no, we were not interested, please call us a taxi. At last someone called us a taxi, which drove us to Royal Flora for 250 baht. I understand bargaining with taxi drivers on the street, but I dont expect to do that with my hotel! As you can imagine, we avoided using them for transport after that. The night before we were to leave they asked if they could drive us to the airport. I confirmed the 200 baht price, and booked it. In the morning, we had our luggage at the front desk and were ready to go when one of the women at the front desk said, Oh, its 200 baht per person to the airport. I looked at her and said, thats not what we were told. Call us a taxi. At that point she said, Ok 300 for both of you. I said call us a taxi. She relented and said theyd drive us to the airport for 200 baht. The whole thing left us with a bad taste. It was so unnecessary.
Kathie is offline  
Nov 26th, 2006, 03:07 PM
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Royal Flora: This was an incredible horticultural show. Its huge and you really need to utilize the people movers provided. I posted on the practical aspects of visiting Royal Flora in a separate post. Just a brief description: Countries were invited to design and install gardens represent their horticultural heritage, and corporate sponsors were also invited to do so. This is in addition to the gardens and features that were designed and constructed by the show itself. The orchid gardens were really amazing. They had competitions for the best-designed gardens emphasizing orchids, and many of these were stunning. I had hoped for many rare orchids, but that was not the emphasis of the show. Many of the international gardens were stunning. I especially recommend Japan, China, and Indonesia. The gardens of the European countries were pretty boring, and the US and Canada did not opt to participate. There was an area called Shaded Paradise that was lovely. There is a grand processional way, and there is a brass band that plays and marches around, eventually marches along the processional way. The pageantry is lovely. There is so much to see. We opted to spend three morning there, and that was a great way to do it. Everyone says go in the morning or the evening, as it is very hot during the day. Royal Flora alone was a good reason for us to visit CM. If you are in Thailand before it closes (Feb 1), do go.

Doi Suthep: As I mentioned earlier, I consider Doi Suthep a must-see. I have find memories of it from my first visit there. I followed the advice of many on this board and scheduled a visit at the end of the day. I have to say I was stunned at just how crowded it was. We really had to adjust our approach from anticipating a quiet meditative visit to instead appreciating the crush of people. I wonder if it is quieter first thing in the morning.

Transport: One of the problems in CM is the lack of public transport. Basically, your options are songthews, tuk-tuks and taxis. CM is spread out, and if you have a number of things you want to do in a day, youll need a car and driver. We found an excellent driver, Mr. Nakron Buthluang, who drives Taxi No. 75. You can reach him on his cell phone at 08-1884-5649. He charges 250 baht an hour. The trip to Doi Suthep is 800 baht. He drove us to Royal Flora and picked us up as well for 250 baht each way. He was great. His English was pretty good, we had no problems communicating. He was persistent in tracking down the little shops we wanted to visit. One was especially hard to find, but he persisted and did find it. He was born and raised in CM and he couldnt stand the idea that there was a place he couldnt find. I recommend him highly.

Food: I think we ate lunch at YCV every day. It was convenient for us after spending the morning at Royal Flora. Their Thai food was very good, and had a good amount of spice for us. The Chicken and Mango salad was an interesting take on the green mango salad theme, with both ripe and green mango pieces cubed in it.

Dalaabaa: The menu here is a bit bewildering. Most of the food doesnt sound Thai. We opted for obviously Thai dishes and the food was fine. I understand that many of the boring-sounding dishes are actually quite good. I wish we would have had a better idea of what to order.

Ramchamankha: The restaurant here has absolutely wonderful food! We each had a coconut cream soup (mine with corn, Cheryls with mushrooms) that was exquisite. There are quite a number of Burmese dishes. This is a restaurant that would be successful in Bangkok. (By the way, we looked at the rooms and were very unimpressed I wouldnt stay here.)

Whole Earth: I have to say that our review of this place is unfair, as we had just spent time in Penang where the Indian food is some of the best Ive ever eaten. In contrast, the food couldnt stand up to that standard. The Indian food was ok, needed more spice.

For our last night in CM, we did something we rarely do, we opted for a French restaurant. We had such a disappointing dinner the previous night (the dance show at YCV) that we wanted something really good for our last night. We booked at the Coq DOr. They sent a London cab to pick us up and returned us to YCV in the London Cab. The service was impeccable. The French food was really exquisite, just perfect. We started with a Caesar Salad performed at our table. The salad was topped with three large prawns, cooked perfectly. For entrees, Cheryl had Steak Diane, I had seared Duck breast in a Calvados sauce. We both opted for chocolate soufflés for dessert. We had a good bottle of wine, which is what made the meal so expensive (2000 baht ++). The total bill was similar to what we would pay for the meal here in Seattle.
Kathie is offline  
Nov 26th, 2006, 05:56 PM
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Spa: Our schedule was so jam-packed, we felt like spa was the way we were giving ourselves some time off. We tried out Oasis spa, and it was as lovely as everyone said it was. There are 500 baht off certificates at the airport, so if you are planning on visiting Oasis, do pick up a certificate. As mentioned here before, they will arrange transport for you (often a taxi). I was a bit surprised that Oasis was more expensive that Face in Bangkok. I had expected CM spas to be less expensive.

We wanted to have another spa session and decided to try one I havent read any reviews of: Legends spa. They came and picked us up and returned us to YCV (in a BMW, by the way). Legends was a bit less expensive than Oasis. The atmosphere is entirely different. Located in a house-like setting, the sitting room had hardwood floor, the treatment rooms all had marble floors. The one thing I didnt especially like was that the showers (and steam) were in fiberglass modular showers (or steam rooms). But after the treatments, that didnt matter. These therapists were the best Ive had in years. The wonderful body scrubs (I had a coconut cream, Cheryl had Mocha yogurt) smelled good enough to eat, and the therapists used Swedish massage-like strokes for the scrub. So if felt a bit like getting two massages, The massage portion was wonderful. No doubt, I go there again.

Shopping: One of the things I wanted to look into this trip was buying a set of Celadon. I had looked at Baan Celadon on the web, and they had some lovely designs. We looked at two places in CM, Baan Celadon and Siam Celadon. I was looking for a blue celadon glaze, and the blue at Baan Celadon was too green for me, while the blue at Siam Celadon was perfect. Siam Celadon also had more design options, and was about 2/3 the price of Baan Celadon. Fortunately, Siam Celadon had the design I liked best. We decided to order a huge set: Eight place settings with 4 sizes of plates, two sizes of bowls and many serving pieces and extras. With shipping, the total is just over $800. The shipping more than doubles the price. Had we shopped at Baan Celadon, the shipping would have just doubled the price (as it was more expensive). The set will be custom-made for us, and it will be 3 months or so before it arrives. I will let everyone know how and when it arrives.

Crafts: I opted to visit only fair trade and non-for profit craft places this trip. All of these places are listed in Nancy Chandler. Our stops were Sop Moei Arts, Thai Tribal Crafts, and the Golden Triangle. We also looked for Northern Crafts Center, but it turns out to be an exhibition space, and there was none going on at the time.

Many of you probably know Sop Moei Arts. They have gorgeous things. I was a bit surprised at how limited their selection was. Nonetheless, we found some lovely gifts there.

Thai Tribal Crafts has many items made by a number of the northern hilltribes. The items are inexpensive and charming, and we picked up a lot of small gifts.

The real find of this trip was The Golden Triangle. It was hard to find! Our driver (who could actually read the Nancy Chandler map, and my printing!) was very persistent. We were all triumphant when he found it. But the gate was closed and locked (it was after 5:30). Not to be deterred, he called the phone number and the owner came out and let us in. The Nancy Chandler book says no English is spoken but that is not true. The owner is an Akha woman who was married to a Dutch anthropologist for many years (he is now deceased). Sales of the textiles benefit the Akha women who make the items. She does have old Akha textiles from time to time. We were able to buy several old pieces as well as some new pieces. The items are really unusual. We didnt see anything like them anywhere else. The owner is a wealth of information about the textiles. We talked for quite a while, and she pointed out that many of the new needlework pieces are done on modern synthetics, as it is less expensive. We bought a number of pieces made from local cottons and dyed with natural dyes. She can tell you which pieces use which techniques and what the various motifs mean. Note that she takes NO CREDIT CARDS. Bring cash!

Sunday Walking Market: We did go to the Sunday Walking Market. We bought a few items. It reminds me of how the old night market used to be. It was fun, but for me, it was like many, many markets in SE Asia I have visited. Frankly, it wasnt as special as I had expected. If you are in CM on a Sunday, by all means, go. But I wouldnt schedule my trip around it.
Kathie is offline  
Nov 26th, 2006, 08:18 PM
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Sounds great Kathie, especially the Royal Flora. We found the Whole Earth very ordinary. Much preferred Riverside. Great report.
Peteralan is offline  
Nov 26th, 2006, 08:30 PM
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Posts: 360
Kathie, thanks for your report -- have really enjoyed reading it !
Question: Did Cheryl have her prescription with her for glasses or was that done there? Progressives are so tricky -- is she still happy with them? Would love to think I could get that done in BKK this year.
If we go back to CM will have to try to find the Golden Triangle.
jenskar is offline  
Nov 26th, 2006, 09:12 PM
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Kathie - Reading between the lines, it seems as if you still were not thrilled with Chiang Mai. True?
crosscheck is offline  
Nov 27th, 2006, 12:11 PM
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Kathie...Glad you had such a great time and thanks a million for checking out my Burmese jade. I haven't had time to read your whole trip report yet, but plan to do so. I have read through the Penang part since I've had Penang on my list since for many years and still haven't gotten there. And the E&0 has always been on my list,too...way back before the renovation. So,on this coming trip...I leave for Bangkok in 3 weeks, I won't get to go to Penang as I'm only staying in Bangkok for the whole three weeks.Purchasing the matching yellow sapphire earrings to my pendant will win over a side trip to Penang this time. Smiles. I need to contact Lily to see if the earrings are still there.

Oh, by the way, I was at a friend's house yesterday and she wants me to take a few stones that she bought in Brazil and have them made into small, drop earrings set in 18 karat gold. Do you know an approximate price for such work? She had about 6 small stones and a pair of earrings that she said I can take with me and have them copied. I have no idea as to how much money to tell her to give me. I always buy her jewelry from the Januaury boutique, but this time she wants to try having some of her Brazilian stones set as she travels to Brazil every other year and buys them. Happy Travels!
Guenmai is offline  

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