Thailand

Mark at the Wine Connection, one of the mall-based restaurants before we discovered a far more interesting neighborhood

Mark at the Wine Connection, one of the mall-based restaurants before we discovered a far more interesting neighborhood

Bangkok, Thailand. Hot, steamy, poor, noisy, crowded – and the first time in almost six months we’ve been north of the equator!

A funny thing happened on our stay in Bangkok: we kind of fell in love with the city. Or, if not love, at least genuine like. Completely unexpected. This was our 8th pass through the Southeast Asian hub since we started this adventure in 2013 and it was purely a functional stop: we need a visa for China and this was the best place to get it. After all, you don’t come to Bangkok for the eighth time in four years because it’s such a beautiful city or to see the museums or whatever. You come here because it’s a hub and you need something.

Except we kind of liked it, once we changed hotels. We’ve typically stayed in or near Sukhumvit, an upscale part of Bangkok right on a SkyTrain route. It’s where all the flashy malls and most of the fancy hotels are but unless you’re in the market for Gucci or Bvlgari (we’re not) there’s just not much else here. And to make matters worse, with one notable exception there are just no good, normal Thai restaurants around. You can eat at expensive hotel restaurants or in the malls and – like all of Bangkok – there’s tons of street food. But a nearly total lack of normal, decent restaurants scattered around. The one exception is an isolated little restaurant with great Thai food; the only downside was the absurd name, Tummy Yummy. Try to convince someone that’s the place to meet for lunch.

And yes, we did meet a friend for lunch at Tummy Yummy. Just after we got to Bangkok Mark saw on Facebook that Lin Liu, an old graduate school classmate, was on her way for her US AID work. So we made lunch plans and caught up on the last 28 years or so.

And yes, we did meet a friend for lunch at Tummy Yummy. Just after we got to Bangkok Mark saw on Facebook that Lin Liu, an old graduate school classmate, was on her way for her US AID work. So we made lunch plans and caught up on the last 28 years or so.

We started in a beautiful hotel in the usual area where they upgraded us to a great suite (we love Starwood) with just one little problem: we’d mistakenly reserved a smoking room. Presumably they only had smoking rooms available when we made the reservation and we just didn’t notice. I mean, who even has smoking rooms anymore? No problem, though, we just went back to the lobby and told them we needed a new room. Alas, there were no non-smoking rooms available. None. Nothing. The room itself wasn’t that bad, but every time you had to go through the hallway to or from the room the smell was just awful. We hated it.

We’d only reserved three nights, not sure what we’d find when we tried getting the China visa, so as soon as we could we got the hell out. The application process at the China embassy was smooth, it appeared that after a few days our visa would be approved, so when the initial three nights we’d reserved were over we moved to another Starwood property (with another great suite; did I mention we love Starwood?). Just over a mile away, but a world apart. Still crowded and hot with terrible traffic, but while the first hotel was in that flashy mall region, the Méridien was in a more normal area. All of a sudden we had access to seemingly dozens of great little restaurants and interesting street life. It just made a total difference.

Great Thai food at Ruen Urai, almost immediately adjacent to our second hotel

Great Thai food at Ruen Urai, almost immediately adjacent to our second hotel

And perfect Perfect Manhattans at Eat Me, another unusually named restaurant

And perfect Perfect Manhattans at Eat Me, another unusually named restaurant

The strange part is that the Silom area that we moved to is also home to Bangkok’s notorious sex industry. Whole blocks dedicated to strippers and “massage” offers, with some streets for gay sex tourists and others for straight sex tourists. Somehow it didn’t seem as seedy or icky as I might have expected and actually just made for a colorful atmosphere. Lots and lots and lots of touts on the street all day and night offering anything you might imagine – and, I presume, plenty that I’m just as happy not to imagine – but if you weren’t interested they were quick to move to a more tempting target.

An amused Mark at the entrance to part of Bangkok's red light area

An amused Mark at the entrance to part of Bangkok’s red light area

And interspersed with all that were some really good restaurants. Le Bouchon, a Lyonaise restaurant run by an old French guy with great French food, was tucked in between stripper bars. A great new Lebanese/Indian restaurant just around the corner from all that action. From our hotel we’d walk the length of one of the major sex streets past such enticing establishments as Super Pussy and Screw Boy to get to Vesper, a great restaurant and bar where we made new friends. (They were from New York and while the four of us were trashing our President we added new friends who wanted in on the conversation to trash him, too. Amusingly, our new friend Keith was staying at the Méridien as well and had just finished Hillbilly Elegy, a new memoir that’s all the buzz explaining the plight of the author’s white, working class roots, so he left it for us before heading off on his continuing journey to Vietnam. New friends and a book!)

And somehow it all worked. You’d think that we’d have learned before this that the real estate mantra – location, location, location – was just as important in Bangkok as it is anywhere else. This massive city of 8 million people, with horrible traffic, terrible heat, and too much grit and dirt, became somehow lovable. After days in Sukhumvit and just boring food choices, we found ourselves with too many great dinner options. And still a great place to get chores done. Got our semi-annual teeth cleaning for the third time in Bangkok. Replaced old and nasty shoes. Filled up on toiletry supplies before heading on to China. And of course the big one, we succeeded in getting a 10-year China visa. We’ll be able to go into China whenever we want until I’m in my 70s; how great is that?

Bangkok's night streets are teeming with colorful street food

Bangkok’s night streets are teeming with colorful street food

Mark’s late afternoons were focused on the legitimate massage opportunities, where for $10 or $12 you get an often really good 60-minute massage. He was always a little nervous about making sure he was going into the legitimate services, but you can kind of tell which ones are about massages and which ones are about … other things. And I would head into Lumpini Park, one of the very few oases of green in the city to read. These days I’ve been focusing on preparing for our month in Japan, so I finished Embracing Defeat a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of post-war Japan and then started a novel about 17th century Japan. Fun.

The lake at Lumpini Park. Don't let this fool you: Bangkok is about the least green city I've ever been to. This one park, though was a welcome oasis.

The lake at Lumpini Park. Don’t let this fool you: Bangkok is about the least green city I’ve ever been to. This one park, though was a welcome oasis.

And finally, in addition to getting chores done and finding great food and massages and reading in the park, we even checked off one tourist activity that we’d never been to. Jim Thompson was a Princeton alum and World War II-era intelligence operative, assigned near the end of the war to Thailand. He fell in love with the place and, after the war, came to live permanently. He almost single-handedly re-started Thailand’s dying silk industry when his work was used extensively in the movie The King and I. He built a beautiful compound in Bangkok from six different Thai buildings that are now a museum … and then he disappeared. Vanished while hiking in Malaysia and to this day there are apparently no clues about what happened. So we toured his old haunt and it was just as beautiful and relaxing as we’d heard, mostly Thai but with just enough Western touches to make it interesting.

Part of the Jim Thompson House museum

Part of the Jim Thompson House museum

Now, Chinese visa in hand, we’re off to China’s Yunnan Province for three weeks. That feels like the adventure we need these days.

Mark found a big dog outside our hotel

Mark found a big dog outside our hotel

Waiting for a tour of the Jim Thompson museum, mark found this kitty and wanted her on his lap. She preferred me.

Waiting for a tour of the Jim Thompson museum, mark found this kitty and wanted her on his lap. She preferred me.

Meanwhile, walking to a FedEx center to ship off some documents, I found this cutie relaxing in one of the many street-side markets

Meanwhile, walking to a FedEx center to ship off some documents, I found this cutie relaxing in one of the many street-side markets

King Rama IX died on October 13, 2016, after over 70 years on the throne; I suspect he used to refer to Elizabeth as "that new queen." They are still in official mourning for him with pictures and bunting and memorials to him everywhere.

King Rama IX died on October 13, 2016, after over 70 years on the throne; I suspect he used to refer to Elizabeth as “that new queen.” They are still in official mourning for him with pictures and bunting and memorials to him everywhere.

Part of the royal palace compound where I passed on one long walk to discover Bangkok

Part of the royal palace compound where I passed on one long walk to discover Bangkok

Great food once we got into the right neighborhood

Great food once we got into the right neighborhood

Great Thai food

Great Thai food

Great Lebanese food

Great Lebanese food

Great Italian food

Great Italian food

Part of the gardens at the Jim Thompson House

Part of the gardens at the Jim Thompson House

More of the compound

More of the compound

And finally, one last shot of the nighttime scene

And finally, one last shot of the nighttime scene

Mark with our old friend Augie

Mark with our old friend Augie

And, we’re back in Bangkok. Probably not much to say about Bangkok that we haven’t said on any of our several other passes through the city. It’s hot here. Really hot. I’m typically a morning runner, but here I have to get up even earlier than usual; by 6:00 AM it’s in the mid-80s and the park near our hotel where I run is crowded with people getting their exercise. Because if you’re not done exercising by 8:00 or so, you’re not going to. At noon the temperature is in the mid-90s and it keeps going up from there.

So we don’t do a lot. The highlight of this stay in Bangkok was Sunday brunch with old and new friends. Augie was an underclassman at Harvard when we were there, dating a friend of ours. We’ve (barely) stayed in touch with him, but remembered that he was stationed here with the State Department. So through the miracle of Facebook we connected and made plans for brunch with him and his partner Andy and their friends Jane & Toni. Such a delightful time and such interesting people. And … we love this … Augie and Andy are just finishing up their three-year tour in Bangkok, heading in the late summer to their next duty post in Jerusalem. Now, we were already planning on spending the late summer in the eastern Mediterranean, so I think we may get to visit them again soon.

Andy, Jane, Augie, Mark, and Toni at brunch, an all-you-can-eat-AND-drink extravaganza. In case you're wondering, Andy is not Anderson Cooper, though the resemblance is striking.

Andy, Jane, Augie, Mark, and Toni at brunch, an all-you-can-eat-AND-drink extravaganza. In case you’re wondering, Andy is not Anderson Cooper, though the resemblance is striking.

The other good thing about brunch was that they could give us some inside scoop on where to eat here. Bangkok is a little strange, insofar as it’s really hard for outsiders, at least, to find good restaurants. In most cities we know, there are cool, hip areas with lots of good restaurants in a fairly contained area; there can be great restaurants anywhere, of course, but we can nearly always find a restaurant “district” where we can go window shopping until we find something we like.

Not in Bangkok, though, so getting some suggestions from people who’ve lived here a few years was a big deal. We ended up at one of their recommendations last night and had incredible food and great drinks. I don’t remember what my favorite drink was called, but it consisted of rye whiskey, absinthe, and bitters. Wow!

Mark drinking a gin-abisinthe concoction at a fabulous little restaurant our friends recommended. Well done!

Mark drinking a gin-abisinthe concoction at a fabulous little restaurant our friends recommended. Well done!

And that’s it. Some pool time, a little shopping to make sure we have the stuff we need for Bhutan, and doing whatever we can to stay out of the midday heat. Oh, and celebrating Visakha Bucha day, a national holiday. I’m not sure exactly what we’re celebrating but it’s a major Buddhist holiday and by national law no alcohol can be sold in bars or restaurants.

What is with these people??

Our escape from the heat, a beautiful little infinity pool on the 19th floor of the Muse

Our escape from the heat, a beautiful little infinity pool on the 19th floor of the Muse

Our view from lunch on Chaweng Beach. Did I mention that it's a beautiful beach?

Our view from lunch on Chaweng Beach. Did I mention that it’s a beautiful beach?

Remarkably, this is our sixth pass through Thailand in the two years we’ve been on the road. In part that’s a function of Bangkok being a transportation hub, with Thai Airlines being pretty flexible for us to use our United miles on. Beyond that, though, we love the heat, the tropical feel, the beaches, and the food. Especially the food. And while often they tone the heat down for us Westerners, sometimes it comes piping hot like the Thais eat it. Turns out that’s great for my diet since I just can’t eat too much when it’s that hot!

Enjoying a chocolate ice cream bar for Mark's birthday lunch. This was no ordinary dessert, though - this was the end of a fabulous meal at the Four Seasons Resort on the northern tip of the island!

Enjoying a chocolate ice cream bar for Mark’s birthday lunch. This was no ordinary dessert, though – this was the end of a fabulous meal at the Four Seasons Resort on the northern tip of the island!

Mark's birthday dinner at a great French restaurant, with real French owners and a French menu. And a Pastis to celebrate with.

Mark’s birthday dinner at a great French restaurant, with real French owners and a French menu. And a Pastis to celebrate with.

At any rate, the second we stepped off the plane in Koh Samui we were struck by the intense midday heat and the heavy, humid tropical air. I’d sort of forgotten that since we got to Saigon in mid February, we’ve essentially been traveling through spring weather, sometimes a little warmer, sometimes cooler, but always pretty temperate. Not so here: there is no spring in the Gulf of Thailand. There’s sun and rain, and we had a fair amount of both. The rain, though, this time of year at least, comes in intense but relatively short bursts so even on a day with heavy rain you get plenty of sun.

We first came to Koh Samui in January 2014 and, as countless tourists before us, found it to be a spectacularly beautiful island. So, as we were looking for a place to lay back, rest Mark’s knee, and celebrate his 50th birthday, Koh Samui leapt to mind. And after nine days here we’re confident it was a good choice.

What do you do for nine days on Koh Samui? Not a lot, to be honest. The first four days we splurged at the W Resort on the north coast of the island, celebrating Mark’s birthday. It was a bit of a strange experience insofar as we weren’t really that crazy about the resort as a whole or the beach there, but we loved our villa with great views of the Gulf. So you rent scooters and go out for lunch at Fisherman’s Village, maybe go back there for dinner, but mostly just hang around the pool and read. Very luxurious.

Then we headed south down the island to Rocky’s, a beautiful but much more affordable resort near Lamai Beach. We found this just a lot more comfortable, friendlier, more accessible. The woman who did the design obviously has a great eye and great attention to detail; it was a place where you were always noticing another beautiful touch. And speaking of nice touches, once a week the management at Rocky’s sponsors a one-hour cocktail party, giving guests a chance to mingle and chat and, of course, drink. We met a bunch of fun Brits on the island for a wedding.

Our view from breakfast at Rocky's

Our view from breakfast at Rocky’s

The only slight disadvantage to Rocky’s is that, like the W, it didn’t have a very nice beach. Or, more specifically, the beach was nice but the swimming was all but impossible; very shallow for a long time and lots and lots of rocks (thus the name of the resort!). There’s an easy solution to a problem like that, though: rent scooters and head to Chaweng Beach, just a little north. This was where the backpacker set “discovered” Samui back in the 1970s and while it’s grown up a lot since then – until 1970 there were no roads on the island at all – the beach itself is still spectacular. We’d spent lazy afternoons when we were here a year ago, and after trying some of the other places on the island we decided it really was perfect for us.

One of the great things about returning to a place like this, and having great records of where we ate and all that, is that we could go back to the same place on the beach with spectacular beach chairs that they rent out for about $6.25 a day, per person. It’s a beach restaurant called “Eat Sense,” which really doesn’t make sense but we loved their slogan: “A perfect combination of good and delicious.” (If “Eat Sense” sounds like an odd name, our favorite restaurant in Fisherman’s Village was called “Starfish & Coffee.” Weird.) At any rate, Eat Sense has big, comfy chairs and big umbrellas to sit under. So the last two days, finally, we were back in bliss.

My view of the Gulf of Thailand from the beach chair on Chaweng Beach. It doesn't get much better.

My view of the Gulf of Thailand from the beach chair on Chaweng Beach. It doesn’t get much better.

And that’s pretty much it. Mark turned 50 and finished his massive Ken Follett trilogy. I worked through a history of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and did a lot of running. We had some great meals and watched a few great rainstorms. And we relearned a lesson we (should) know well: location, location, location. We’ve stayed at three different resorts on Koh Samui, now, all of them a bit distant from the best beach on the island because we liked the look of the resort. Next time we come here – and there will be a next time – we’ll probably stay in Chaweng, since it is one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever found.

Next stop, Bangkok, and then off to Bhutan!

The beach at Rocky's. The day had been beautiful and sunny until about 4:30, when this blew in. Unfortunately, the Brits' wedding started at 4:30, too. Still, it passed and apparently the wedding was fine.

The beach at Rocky’s. The day had been beautiful and sunny until about 4:30, when this blew in. Unfortunately, the Brits’ wedding started at 4:30, too. Still, it passed and apparently the wedding was fine.

Lunch at the aptly named Nirvana in Fisherman's Village

Lunch at the aptly named Nirvana in Fisherman’s Village

And finally, just so Mark will remember his 50th birthday, this was the menu. Tuna tartare, foie gras, duck confit. Very low key, very French, and great food. If you ever get to Koh Samui, it's worth a night.

And finally, just so Mark will remember his 50th birthday, this was the menu. Tuna tartare, foie gras, duck confit. Very low key, very French, and great food. If you ever get to Koh Samui, it’s worth a night.