Non-Glutton related: A Covid Christmas

Homemade beef noodles

I wasn’t sure about writing this post because it has to do with someone else’s health and not mine. It also has nothing to do with food. But after sending a draft to my friend Karen first, I decided to post a little (or rather lot of) something in case it does end up helping someone navigate a similar situation.

What happened was this: Karen caught COVID, probably in New York, and started showing symptoms while mid-flight on the way to Seattle to visit us. Unlike the teacher en route from New York to Iceland, Karen did not self-quarantine in the airplane bathroom. However, she did text me the instant she landed, asking me to help transport her to a PCR testing site “just in case”, since she had a sore throat, cough and headache, three early symptoms of Omicron. She had already booked an appointment the next morning, the earliest appointment she could find that was near us.

We hung out tentatively, with Karen always masked around us, because even if it wasn’t COVID, she was showing signs of a really bad cold, which none of us wanted. All the same, we believed that the likelihood of Karen having COVID was very low, since she had had two Moderna shots and a recent Moderna booster. She also didn’t seem to be as sick as we would have expected for a person suffering from COVID; she did not have trouble breathing, and she still had her sense of taste and smell. 

Although we’d managed to get one PCR appointment in downtown Bellevue, Karen booked a second PCR test at Bellevue University because results for both tests were expected to arrive anywhere between 24-48 hours after, which is both 1) terribly inconvenient for people who don’t want to spread the virus and 2) something to be expected when holiday-time demand for tests was so high. At this point, Washington was relatively free of COVID; 400 cases had been detected in the state in the run-up to Christmas.

Karen had her second PCR test, and we spent a quiet day at home as she recovered from her cold. That night, you can probably guess the rest: the results from her first COVID test came back positive. That meant everybody in the house had to be tested, but, as it was coming up on Christmas Eve, appointments were hard to come by. By this point, Washington’s COVID cases had grown exponentially and everyone was getting worried about spreading the disease at a holiday gathering. Rapid at-home tests were also impossible to get; Karen made us visit many a CVS or Rite Aid since their websites indicated tests were available, but shelves (for a lot of things, not just COVID tests!) were bare, giving off a kind of surreal, end-of-the-world vibe.

A friend saved the day with a bagful of at-home tests he had at home, and very kindly drove to our house o’COVID to drop them off at our doorstep. We all tested negative, and even though it made us feel relieved, we knew it wasn’t as reliable as an up-the-nose-into-your-brain type of test, the kind they favor back in Bangkok.

The earliest available tests for the household were on Christmas Eve in the morning. So we headed to the test site, where Karen had had a very easy and efficient experience getting her second PCR test. Just like when we took Karen, our car was rejected for being outsized and unable to fit into the garage where a long line of car occupants waited to be swabbed. So we were told by the security guard to head to the upstairs car park, armed with the words “tell them Ron sent you.” Upstairs, we joined a lone woman braving the cold in a sweatshirt and leggings, who had been driving a similarly oversized car and had been waiting for her test since 7:45 in the morning.

Our experience diverges from Karen’s here. I think they saw that Karen managed to bypass the long snaking wait in the garage by coming in an outsized car, and that her quick, efficient experience was not indicative of their “brand”. So a bit after 9am, the lone testing person showed up and promptly told the sizeable queue that had formed that he would only be testing people who had made appointments. That disqualified more than half of the line, including the lady who had been waiting for over a hour in front of us. She did not take this well. When we informed this man that we had made appointments, he asked us for a code that would enable us to go through with the test. I asked him if the code was “Tell them Ron the security guard sent you”. By now it was 9.15, and this ordeal was beginning to resemble a game show where we were to overcome obstacles of increasing difficulty in order to win the prize of having a swab up your nose.

We eventually persuaded this guy that we really did actually know Ron, and were given swabs to put up our own noses that he then took from us to put into our personal beakers. After us he did allow the woman who had been waiting for two hours to finally get a test; thankfully, she now had the code.

We got our results, surprisingly, by Christmas morning (I was the last, of course). We were all surprisingly negative. This could be due to any number of factors, including 1) we were all vaccinated and boosted and 2) Karen was extremely careful around us, especially in the first few days of her visit, when she never left her room and I brought all her meals to her door. This was helpful, since we learned that the first few days are when COVID is at its most contagious. By the end of Karen’s trip, she was absolutely recovered and even tested negative on two (!) at-home COVID tests, which we took to mean that she was no longer contagious.

Some very obvious takeaways to this story that ultimately ended well:

  1. The stinginess with which organizations use their PCR tests is, to put it mildly, unhelpful. People have to really, really, really want to be tested, or really, really, really lucky to know someone who can give them access to a test. It is much, much easier to pretend everything is hunky-dory and that, even if you do get sick, it’s not COVID since your non-existent test didn’t tell you so.
  2. Vaccines and boosters aren’t Captain America shields keeping you from getting the virus. They are intended to keep you from getting so sick that you need hospitalization, thereby taking up the space of someone else who needs the bed for a non-COVID reason.
  3. As Karen said herself, what if she had been another kind of person? It would have been easy for her to pretend she had only had a cold, or to be less vigilant about testing (in fact my parents had been joking that we were planning to do a tour of all the PCR sites in the Seattle area and writing a guide book about them). Even when she didn’t know she had COVID, she had her meals in another room or in front of an open door and wore her mask when around people. Which leads me to the next point.
  4. Masks do work in preventing the transmission of this respiratory virus. I know people for some reason (usually Western, and, in Bangkok, a lot of men) like to make fun of them as some sort of evidence of hysteria, but I can personally attest to their efficacy in fighting the spread of COVID. Make of that what you will.

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Markets: Koh Kret

Proof that Thais will fry anything: flowers at Koh Kret weekend market

(Photo by Andrew Hiransomboon)

As I was waiting for my friend Andrew to show up in front of Emporium Suites, a bird flew head-on into a clear window, lured by the delights of Au Bon Pain, and fell to the pavement, twitching and bleeding before eventually lying still. I thought it might be a harbinger for our trip to Koh Kret, a man-made island that is home to a Mon community who settled there after the fall of Ayutthaya. It’s considered a short day trip from downtown but is a trip that neither I nor Andrew ever remembered making. Following the advice I took from a cursory Google search, we would take the boat to Nonthaburi from Saphan Thaksin and get a long tail boat from there to the island.

When Andrew arrived, of course he took a photo of the dead bird before we got on the Skytrain for the very easy trip to Saphan Thaksin. And that is where our plans started to fray. For if we had bothered to extend our Google search to the Chao Phraya Express schedule, we would have known that service is suspended on Sundays. Ha ha, some people pay me to do online research.

So we got on the first ferry we saw, the one to Icon Siam, and got a taxi from there. Thus began a trip that I imagine the three wise men must have taken to see the baby Jesus in his manger. Crossing the river multiple times, it was at least 200 baht before we got to Nonthaburi Pier, where we encountered a napping dog, a few Thai people with luggage milling around, and absolutely no ferry at all. A man selling fish food near the entrance offered to take us to the island on his long tail boat for 200 baht apiece (what is it with 200 baht?) After promptly agreeing, we joined a family of equally clueless Thais on a trip up the river that easily took about 30-40 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice trip, even if my butt was numb by the time we disembarked. Buoyed by promises that our driver Tow would wait for us for the three (!) hours he thought we would need, we were released into the wild and headed smack into the midst of a lively outdoor market in full swing. Set in the shadow of Pramaiyikawat Temple, the market offers everything you would expect of a Thai market: noodles, sweets, those Thai popsicles made out of soft drinks, and of course, fried things.

Some fried things are better than others. I am always partial to chicken of course, and some fish, even fish fins and bones. But the fried flower vendor we found near the water’s edge (Pa Oud, 081-632-8681) was the first of its kind either of us had found anywhere, offering more than a dozen varieties of varying levels of crunch and scrumptiousness. I was partial to the juicy yellow buds, the name of which I was told three times and promptly forgot each time.

(Photo by Andrew Hiransomboon)

The vendor was happy to serve us a number of different varieties that she thought we’d enjoy, and then because there was no seating, we took up space in front of the temple and made our hands sticky with the sweet chili sauce (bring wet wipes like Andrew).

The next stage of our traveling lunch was past the temple at the water’s edge, where a vendor promised us khao chae (summertime rice), even though we were well past the season. And then I remembered, yes, khao chae is a Mon dish, and of course we should have it while visiting Koh Kret.

Two servings of beef summertime rice, 100 baht

Sitting down by the river with a cooling bowl of fragrant rice was all very well and good, but then we discovered the ferry from Wat Sanam Nuea, which is the normal way that everyone else who knows better comes to Koh Kret. Ha ha again.

Finally full, we thought we should probably try out what everyone was banging on about when it comes to this island: the Mon-style pottery. Many of the places that we passed have a kiln, even the seemingly abandoned ones. Because of a recent flood in October, many places had not been cleared up yet and we could still see marooned boats and bits of buildings along our walk. But the signage was up and stores were open, all offering examples of the distinctive terracotta-colored vessels with elaborate carvings on the top or side. I finally bought a trinket at the only store that offered us the chance to spin (or throw?) our own pottery.

Add Patrick Swayze here

Finally, we ended up where we would spend the rest of our three (!) hours on the island: Chit Beer. Open at 1pm, we arrived only a few minutes past 1 to find the place already half-packed. I ordered a white mango IPA and can tell you it is the best one, fragrant and wheaty like a Hoegaarden. Andrew ordered some other stuff that wasn’t as good as mine. We took a seat overlooking the main dining room floor next to the river and watched as the place filled up in spite of the occasionally very loud Thai rock music playing. It was a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

A few days later, Andrew sent me a holiday card.

This time next week, I will be in Seattle for the start of what should be 10 weeks in the US. As this will probably be my last post of 2021, happy holidays everyone, and here’s to a better year ahead of us.

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Markets: Bang Noi

“Purple” pad thai at Bang Noi floating market

When people ask me, “What do you do?”, I give varying answers depending on how honest I am feeling that day. Sometimes I say I am a “food writer”, which usually elicits raised eyebrows and a sense of bewilderment as to how someone could get a job like that. The real answer, of course, is that very few people can get a job like that, and in my case, only sporadically. So sometimes I tell them I am unemployed. To me, “food writer” and “unemployed” are frequently the same thing in that I eat food, I write about it, and I don’t get paid.

Very once in a while, I do get promises of getting paid. Which is why I dragged my friend Nong, who is always up for exploring corners of Thailand, south of the city to explore some floating markets — not the fun big floating markets guaranteed to yield things to do, eat and buy, no — but the smaller, lesser-known ones mainly patronized by actual Thai people. Markets like Bang Noi, made up of a series of vendors lining the Bangnoi canal and set up in the shadow of Amphawa. While the market is busiest during the waning and waxing moon, it’s open every weekend and offers enough action to warrant a visit from an inveterate market-goer and scourer of street food (me sometimes, Nong most times).

While the Tourism Authority of Thailand website recommends you visit the only roti shop in the market, we were not in the mood for something sweet. After trawling through every food vendor on one side of the canal (and buying more than a few woven baskets and pomelos that turned out to be flavorless), we stopped at a welcoming guay thiew moo tom yum (pork noodle with spicy lemongrass seasonings) vendor boasting a dining balcony set out over the river. We were early enough that we had the veranda all to ourselves, with a quiet and relaxing view of the disconcertingly large fish in the water.

Pork noodles with tom yum seasoning, dry because it’s still too hot for soup

But as we sat and ate, we noticed a persistent caterwaul across the canal from a rival noodle shop advertising guay thiew poo (crab noodles). No, it was not a cat, but a man, singing what appeared to be traditional Thai songs in between advertising various dishes at the eatery. It was when he mentioned hoy jor (Thai-Chinese crab-pork fritters) that I was compelled to brave the music and cross the bridge to the other side of the canal.

The fritters was not what I had been hoping for, greasy and accompanied by an aggressively sweet dipping sauce. But it was the scene before us that kept me riveted: a sort of karaoke club, made up of retired locals who took turns singing very old Thai songs for the assembled noodle shop throng. In between bites of our food, we ended up joining in with the egging on of various singers (as with any karaoke club, two people ultimately competed for the microphone) and clapping enthusiastically when they were done.

The noodles were okay, too.

Noodles featuring crabmeat painstakingly picked from the legs, more economical than big lump crab

And if I occasionally got shards of shell from the crab, so what? We also enjoyed something we hadn’t seen before, a plate of “purple pad thai” featuring noodles colored with dok anchan (butterfly pea) extract. After our pork noodle appetizers, both dishes were a lot for us to handle.

It was only when the singers began asking us for requests, and then asking us to sing, that we decided to pay our bill and get out of Dodge. Don’t let it be said that we would ever overstay our welcome. Besides, the only Thai song I know is “Sabai Sabai”. I had a feeling they didn’t have that one.

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