Bangkok is not a city for the faint hearted; in fact, I’ve come to realise it’s a bit of a marmite kind of town. You either love it or hate it. In our case, we love it… it wasn’t love at first sight but after three decent stints, we’re firm fans. So much so that we’ve often talked about how we could see ourselves living there for a while, to truly get under its skin. I would ecstatically devote my days to uncovering the nooks and crannies you don’t get to find when you’re just visiting, and eat my way through the side alleys and street stalls. But what really excites us about Bangkok is that on top of all that, there’s also a burgeoning contemporary restaurant scene which is dead set on catching up with its more established Western counterparts.
Right now, the food industry in Bangkok feels like a land of opportunity that everyone wants a piece of. International chefs are flocking to this fertile ground, while local chefs are upping their game to hold their place. Contemporary fine dining here doesn’t seem to have the same constraints or rules, perceived or otherwise, that may exist elsewhere and as a result, the cuisine is ambitious and creative. As a diner, this gets me salivating and hungry for more… new restaurants are popping up all over the city, some of them are serving up traditional Thai flavours in a fresh new approach, whilst others are bringing their own style and incorporating the very best of Thai ingredients!
One of the most popular journeys in South East Asia must be the slow-boat cruise down the Mekong River from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang. It’s a well-worn route, often described with such romanticism that it would be difficult to resist. We fell for it, and you would too if you had also read half the articles we did. With the luxury of time on our hands, the idea of spending two days crawling down the Mekong River, absorbing tranquil scenes from a rustic but comfortable slow-boat seemed just lovely. We thought it would be a great way to switch off and just relax as we had a few weeks of long, action-packed days full of exploring up to that point!
There are two options when it comes to cruising along the Mekong; you can take the much cheaper public boat, or splurge a little to go with a private company. It took us all of five seconds to come to the conclusion that the private boat option was the one for us. And a mere five minutes to find three companies which seemed suitable, but this is where our trip got a lot harder to plan. The usual journey takes two days with an overnight stay at Pakbeng, the small village halfway. Our complication was that we wanted to stay two nights instead of one, and no private company could accommodate that on their schedule. So the plan was to brave it with the public boat, but we also ended up taking a private slow-boat; this is what happened…
Having never graced Thailand with my presence (madness I know, because who hasn’t been to Thailand) my experience of Thai food is somewhat limited to the western-friendly versions dished out anywhere but Thailand. In their defence, most are usually run by expats wanting to bring a piece of their local cuisine to their adopted home, or at the very least have a sourced a chef who does have roots in the country. But they’ll inevitably still be tailored towards the palate they are serving. What you then end up with is a large menu split into categories such as curries, stir fries, noodles and rice, soup on occasion, and 10 or so dishes in each category- something for everyone you could say.
As an indecisive orderer with a shocking case of plate envy, I hate being confronted with a multipage menu book. Add the fact that the descriptions are usually a bit lacking, and I am really in my personal hell as I try to navigate from the tom yum goong to the pad preaw wan, all the while trying to pick something I haven’t ordered before, but not wanting to choose something too obscure that I won’t like. Even when we dined at the Lotus of Siam, often described as the best Thai restaurant in America or the world even, the ridiculously large menu was still my undoing. I used to smirk at the people who always order the pad thai or the green curry after a starter of fish cakes, but over the years I have been worn down by sub-par choices (a burn-my-insides-spicy pork mince slush comes to mind) and now generally resort to a red curry or spicy stir fried type dish. It’s just easier, and there is less chance of diner’s remorse.