Author Archives: Bangkok Glutton

About Bangkok Glutton

Eating and writing in Bangkok.

Glutton Abroad: Thai in Exile

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Fried chicken and som tum pla rah at Zap 2

It was almost a full two days after the fact when I found out Ric Ocasek had passed away, in his sleep, at the age of 70-75 (no one seems to know for sure). Although I had not followed Ric’s comings and goings lately, and he had lived to a nice ripe old age, I still felt a pang of sadness for his family, his remaining bandmates and of course for myself. I still, only just two days ago even, listen to “The Cars”, their 1978 debut album. I do it enthusiastically, not by accident, not like when I end up with Gang of Four or Killing Joke on shuffle (sorry guys) and am too lazy or tired during my run to change it. I actually seek out “Best Friend’s Girl”, “Good Times Roll”, and “Bye Bye Love” in my downloads, and “Just What I Needed” remains my go-to karaoke song. They are carefully crafted earworms, but still cool, which gives my 15-year-old true inner self some plausible deniability.  The Cars were labeled as “new wave”, but they could have been considered alternative, even though they were played on mainstream radio. They rarely veered off their slightly offbeat course (save for the maudlin “Drive”, the ’80s precursor to every song by Train). Today, the Cars are classic rock.

I don’t really know what it is about them that enabled them to morph into everyone’s idea of their own particular brand of music — Was it the Boston thing? Ben Orr’s sleepy eyes? Or were the songs just simply that catchy? — but their work is classic in the way that New Order and Depeche Modes’ ’80s output is classic. It hasn’t aged badly like, say, some of Motley Crue.  It’s not “niche”. And by “niche”, I mean that it’s not Justin Bieber (which I also listen to, but only “Purpose”, and nothing before or since OK I mean I have standards OK).

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I know this isn’t really Justin Bieber

(via GIPHY)

I used to have a rule that I would never eat Thai food outside of Thailand. That’s because I thought of Thai food as niche like Justin Bieber and that it needed the special fairy dust provided by authentic Thai shallots, or the tiny pungent Thai garlic. The nasty funk of real Thai shrimp paste, or dare we say it, fermented anchovies. Let’s not even go near bird’s eye chilies versus jalapeños.

But all that has changed here, of all places, in New Zealand. Or maybe it was just desperation. In any case, I found myself on Dominion Road, ground zero for all Asian food in Auckland, awaiting an actual Isaan meal at the confusingly named Zap 2 Restaurant (639 Dominion Road, 09-638-6393) (unnecessary musing: where is Zap 1? No one knows, including Google). It specializes in Northeastern Thai favorites like larb, fried chicken, grilled pork collar, various spicy-tart nam tok salads and of course som tum (including with pickled crabs and Thai anchovies!), but as this is still abroad, it also serves a full roster of Central and even Southern Thai favorites like gang som (sour curry). In short, the menu is enormous, which used to be another red flag for me but isn’t here in New Zealand.

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Chicken I larb you

To last while abroad, a Thai restaurant needs to do a sort of “Cars” thing where they manage to morph into every diner’s idea of their own particular brand of Thai food. Somehow this restaurant has been around for 20 years, but for some reason I was stuck noshing elsewhere on khao soi the size of an infant and stir-fried leftovers rebranded as “Thai salad”. I will not make that mistake again.

Long story short, this is Thai food cooked by Thai people, where some of the other customers actually speak Thai. The other customers, the pad Thais, the central curry lovers, the southern Thai chili heads, are also catered to. And if the som tum is made of carrots (a little more watery, what can you do, no green papaya during a New Zealand winter) and the spicy salads a little short on the herbiage and greens, it’s still Isaan food served with a big helping of hot sticky rice and the kind of solicitous care from the makrua (chef) that is the first thing to remind you of home in a long time. It also blew my head off, chili-wise. That makes it my own particular idea of Thai food.

 

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The pig knuckle lady

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The “ovaltine pork leg rice” at SabX2

We are people of freedom. We love freedom. Except when we don’t. At those times, we like to be told what to do. Even if we pretend we don’t.

Some street food vendors understand this. Customers are like unruly children who need to be guided and occasionally scolded. The way to stand in line, the way to order, where to sit: sometimes, you need to be told these things.

The formidable woman who shepherds the tourist hordes at SabX2 (4/32-33 Petchburi Soi 19) is one such person, a lady who can be counted on to tell you what to do — in English, because most of the people in line with you (or possibly all) are from somewhere else. But no matter where you are from, the rules are the same for all of us: stand behind the yellow line; form one tidy queue; sit where you are told with no arguments; wait for the lady to give your order; wait for your dish, which must come in the order your request was placed; be open to being moved if more people come in; be considerate of the other people waiting in line after you.

We thought the shophouse might be difficult to find, but of course that was not the case, since the line into the shop stretched out along soi 19. The unusual name SabX2 is because this vendor has two specialties: egg noodles (bamee) and pig’s trotter on rice (khao kha moo), braised with the addition of ovaltine powder to enhance the pork’s sweetness and richness. Both dishes cost 100 baht apiece, but diners pay extra for egg noodles in soup (bamee nam). On a recent visit, the bowls of egg noodles outnumbered plates of the pork rice, but only just.

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In case you don’t know, there is no branch in Singapore

You are not coming here for Thai smiles. You are coming here to eat and nothing but. That means that if you have to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with a total stranger, with someone’s spit-out pork knuckle bones in front of you on the steel tabletop, you will. It’s not all a scene out of Oliver Twist, though. One of the men working there rushed to give me a plate of the last pork leg rice (by noon, they only had kaki, the fattiest part of the leg, on offer), earning him a reprimand from the lady because I was served before my dining companion’s egg noodles and wontons with barbecued pork were ready. Moral of the story: come earlier for the pork leg. It takes longer to run out of the egg noodles.

Another conclusion: a mean mommy fosters a sense of community. We got to know our dining companions, Singaporeans eager to try out some Thai street food.  When we left, the line was as long as the one we saw when we arrived, stuffed with people waiting to be told what to do.

 

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Bangkok’s Magic 8 Ball

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The future of street food?

You can tell when the popularity of something has crested when companies begin to incorporate parts of it into their own identities. If you ever see a Nike commercial featuring something like “Know Your Enemy” or “Bullet in the Head” by Rage Against the Machine, it is time to call it a day, our corporate overlords have declared themselves.

So when you see a sign like this:

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It is time to really ponder, what is street food? Is it the dish itself? Or is it the difficulty of striking out on your own? Is it the promise of discovery? Or is it community aspect of it, the commingling of people at the same table, glued together out of necessity, in a quest for a good plate of noodles or rice. Although I have derided some diners in the past as being the kinds of gourmets who prize atmosphere over the food, it turns out that street food lovers like me are the other end of that spectrum: the ultimate atmosphere seekers.

The so-called “street food cleanup” has been largely quiet since the run-up to the last election, suggesting that the Bangkok government (BMA) has washed their hands of an initiative that academics have charged with “hurting tourism” (Bangkok Post, 27 Nov 2018).

But that doesn’t mean efforts to impose a Singapore-style tidiness haven’t stopped completely. Even in Chinatown, the birthplace of street food, superstar seafood purveyor T&K Seafood (and its less famous rival) have been forced to clear its sidewalk and offer only tables indoors, effectively cutting 75 percent of its appeal to diners. Authorities are still clearing spaces, but are no longer framing it as “we’re Kevin Costner and the vendors are Robert Deniro in ‘The Untouchables'”. They are no longer saying they are “restoring order to the streets”. They are sneaking a bite from your dessert when you’re in the bathroom.

So it’s time to seriously consider what form street food will take on in the next few years. Shophouse vendors — the ones who have made enough money to be able to rent out a space and are established enough not to worry about getting kicked out, like Joke Samyan  — are currently immune from the threat of change, but the mobile vendors will face a dilemma as they decide in what form they should operate. Should they band together and form a Singapore-style outdoor hawker center? Or do they seek the relative safety (and air-conditioning) of the shopping mall? What does your Magic 8 ball say?

Unlike the bucolic canal-side idyll presented by Icon Siam, The Market shopping mall seems geared primarily towards locals, with its “Siam Square under a roof” concept and, yes, “street food”-focused floor, where prices promise to dip as low as you would find them on the streets.

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Shopping mall food courts that include street food usually make sure to include big names; at Emporium, for example, you get Bamee Sawang and the pork knuckle vendor from Soi St. Louis (making a restaurant’s bid to serve similar street food even more inexplicable).

So as you would expect, the street food court boasts its own local stars. There is  Chinatown dessert stalwart Sweettime:

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And another favorite of the neighborhood, longtime fish ball specialist Lim Lao Ngo. Marketed here as a “bistro”, this outlet offers things you wouldn’t find on the street in Chinatown, such as a salmon and a river prawn noodle version, priced accordingly (165 baht).

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Salmon, original fish ball, and river prawn noodles

As you can maybe see, plastic features prominently here. The chicken rice vendor Rungroj Khao Man Gai even includes plastic models of hanging chickens in their window display, a mimicry of the traditional display favored by the chicken rice vendors outside. It did not encourage me to try the chicken rice here.

Other vendors included Kha Mhu Fukui (pig’s trotter on rice) and Yen Ta Fo Jay Nung (pink seafood noodles). But opportunities still abound for the enterprising vendor. Missing were a guay jab (rolled pork noodle), congee and Thai-style rice porridge stall, so if you make any of these things, you still have a chance. You can then rest easy that, even if the streets are ultimately cleared, or if the world heats up to levels unbearable for noshing, you will at least have made your choice.

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Phuket Spread

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Breakfast at Boonrat Dimsum

These are the dog days of summer, which is why I have not been writing as much as I should. I have holed myself up in Phuket with directives from my editor to update my book, but I have been unable to do any work, since it would impinge on my eating everything in sight in a bid to transform into Russell Crowe. I am only halfway there right now. Catch me in a few months, when I will look like I am auditioning for the lead role in a George Lucas biopic.

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Documenting the amuse-bouches at Pru, where set menus are 6 or 8 courses, but they surprise you with more stuff

One thing I did manage to do was convince my friends to trek into the Old Town, where gorging on dim sum for breakfast is a thing. Everyone is familiar with dim sum (aka yum cha), but the experience in Phuket is unique. Because this is Thailand, most of the difference is in the sauces. The dipping sauce is thick, sweet and spicy, meant for everything on the table; when you don’t feel like that, you have the tart black vinegar known as zisho, ideal for the rolled rice noodles stuffed with minced pork, or the steamed pork dumplings crowned with bits of fried garlic.

Because of the island’s sizable Chinese population, Phuket is chock-a-block with dim sum places, some more reminiscent of the motherland than others. But for a real Phuket dim sum experience, few are more famous than Boonrat Dimsum . However, both Boonrat Dimsum shops are only open from 6-10am, which means a mad scramble into town unless, unlike us, you managed to get to bed nice and early the night before. The worry was that we would be unable to pick out the humble shophouse with the red sign on the road, but we needn’t have worried, since it was the only place completely mobbed with waiting customers.

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The Boonrat Dimsum sign

Both branches have the same open shophouse setting, with the various offerings — steamed dumplings, various meatballs, stewed pork ribs, steamed buns — out in front for you to poke at and salivate over until your table is called. Despite the enormous queue, tables were quick to turn over — so quick, in fact, that my friends, who had opted for a quick snack of pig’s trotter on rice (khao kha moo) next door during our wait, had to cut short their pre-breakfast and hurry back.

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Pork trotter next door

(Photo by Christian Bauer)

Because we were just on the edge of closing time, there were only a few things to choose from: specialties like rice porridge, sausages, sticky rice dumplings, everything deep-fried, radish cakes, steamed stuffed buns and even chicken feet were all gone. Instead, we had to content ourselves with steamed pork, crab and shrimp dumplings, seaweed-wrapped minced pork, steamed rice noodles with pork, and numerous meatballs made from either fish or pork bits. It was still a substantial spread. My friends, who were Chinese Malaysian, said they had never experienced dim sum like it before, which is a very good thing to say because it gives you the choice to take it positively.

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The next time I come, I will, obviously, come earlier. I might even come on a weekend, when yellow chicken curry with steamed buns are available. Who knows, I might even treat myself to the Boonrat “Gold” branch, where fried spring rolls and Western breakfasts are available (although why would you order a Western breakfast at a dim sum shop? It reminds me of those Thai seafood places that offer plates of sad, soggy fried chicken wings on limp lettuce leaves as a consolation prize for the one seafood hater who couldn’t be left at home).

And, of course, I will need to find more hungry friends.

 

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Glutton Abroad: The Case of the Missing Appetite

It was like a body, dressed haphazardly in formalwear, glasses askew and smeared lipstick on a too-young face, discovered behind a couch in the library. It was a purple-faced vicar collapsing to the ground in convulsions in the middle of a cocktail party. It was a reviled industrialist with a mean streak, found murdered in a locked bedroom.

It was my appetite.

Now, my appetite had its share of enemies. It had cut many a mighty swathe through even the most intimidating of restaurant tables, guest house countertops groaning under the weight of myriad dishes, cows mooing in the fields, etc. But the facts are irrefutable, and they are this:

  1. The appetite went missing during the week of July that I was in London
  2. The suspects could only have been those encountered in the course of that week
  3. The prime suspects are one of the following places, unless they all ganged up, “Murder On the Orient Express”-style, and finished it off together

Suspect 1: St. John

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The famous bone marrow with a parsley-caper relish at St. John

There is no denying the impact that nose-to-tail pioneer St. John has had on the global restaurant scene. Indeed, there was a period of time when no restaurant could open without claiming to be a “nose-to-tail” specialist, all the while serving only oxtail stew and a token pig’s ear or tail terrine of some sort (but I digress). St. John was the first to make that philosophy paradoxically glamorous, and I have been a fan of chef Fergus Henderson for years (I even have the cookbook). I had wanted to go for as long as I can remember.

Knowing this, I tried as best as I can to wake up my appetite for this momentous event by having only a coffee for breakfast. So I thought it was well-equipped to take on the kohlrabi salad, mustardy pig’s tongue with green beans and pickled shallots, half of my daughter’s sweetbreads and a taste of my husband’s roasted marrow — normally a walk in St. James Park for this creature, aka my appetite. And even though everything was perfect, seasoned just the way I like it, and served with the good humor and aplomb that only the best places can muster, I still felt like a lead weight had invaded my insides after about an hour, and was forced to miss the mummies at the British Museum in favor of sleeping it all off back at my hotel room. Later, I caught a performance of “The Lehman Trilogy” at the Piccadilly Theater (full disclosure: I am a 0.0000000001 percent investor), which means I had only one meal that day. What happened???????????

2. The Wolsley

Since skipping breakfast didn’t work, why not just get a good meal out of the way? Truth be told, The Wolsley was not my choice, but my husband’s, who wanted to have what he said were the best scones in the world. Alas, we are Asian, so we did not know that scones are not served for breakfast. Luckily, The Wolsley has a great breakfast: there are deviled kidneys, and kedgeree, and kippers, none of which I ordered. This is because there was a bacon sandwich on the menu. I also got a Chelsea bun because I didn’t know what it was. It turns out that it is like a cinnamon bun without the cinnamon.

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The Wolsley’s Chelsea bun

According to The Wolsley’s website, it is the most profitable restaurant in London, and I am pretty sure I know why. Upon entrance to the dining room, you are stopped by a maitre’d, who at a moment’s notice assesses your person to determine where you should sit in the dining room. It turns out that The Wolsley’s maitre’d is not an avid reader of Bangkok Glutton. We were dispatched to an upstairs Siberia, where I actually enjoyed a great view of the entire dining room and how this informal hierarchy gets arranged (the most coveted tables appear to be directly in the middle, which doesn’t make sense to me since there’s no good vantage point for spying on other people). Service was similarly condescending, adept at giving you the feeling you are being well tolerated. The result? I want to go to The Wolsley every day for breakfast (but only if I get the same table every time.)

3. Tayyabs

I don’t think any food lover goes to London without some intention of hitting up some South Asian goodness. London is a hotbed of great Indian and Pakistani restaurants, and all I had to do was pick one. My friend Gareth said that he was confounded as to why I would trek all the way out to Whitechapel when Dishoom was right there, but then again he’s not as crazy about Indian food as I. Because the fact of the matter is, Tayyabs is one of the most famous Indian restaurants in London for a reason.

Tayyabs specializes in Punjabi food, but is crowded with people of all stripes at just about any time of the day. I want to say that taking the trouble of booking a table in advance was useful, but I’m not really sure if they cared. They will simply stick you anywhere you will fit, Thai street food-style.

There are a few dishes that everybody orders: the tarka dal, chicken tikka masala (the General Tso’s chicken of the British Indian food world), the tandoori chicken. Everything is a bit more fiery, less creamy and rich than the Indian food you get in Bangkok. But the standouts are the lamb chops, which are really out of this world, intense enough to make me momentarily forget about my missing appetite troubles.

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Dinner at Tayyab’s: tarka dal, chicken biryani, saag paneer, chicken tikka masala

4. New Fortune Cookie

Folks, if you ever find yourself in London and for some reason or other are in search of a Thai person, have no fear: you will find that Thai person at New Fortune Cookie in Queensway. Make sure you come during the first lunch shift, because after 1pm the dining rooms will be taken up by actual Chinese people.

The food here is excellent. I can’t say if it’s the best roast duck in London, but it’s got to be one of the best. And I’m not saying that because, even though we stayed only a few steps away from Chinatown, we never braved the queue at Four Seasons. Why would we do that, when we can just traipse into New Fortune Cookie at noon (after one quick Tube ride, or almost-as-quick bus ride) and get a table immediately?

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Don’t worry, we overordered, and people had to take leftovers home after lunch. And don’t worry, I wanted to die after eating. But I promise you that not a shred of that duck was left (and, protip, you can also order it with all the bones already taken out).

 

 

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Ped, ped, goose

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Roast ped — or duck — at Duck Noodle House

My friend Mauricio, who is one of the very few Thai food chefs in Brazil, told me about this duck place while discussing his favorite solo lunch places in Bangkok. Thinking I had stumbled on a sparkling new discovery, I asked my friends if they would be up for a bit of exploration.

“Oh that place?” said James (who lives across the river and also gave me the title for this post). “I always take my guests there before we get on the boat.”

It’s Duck Noodle House, but locals know it by its real name, Ped Thun Jao Ta (Stewed Duck at the Pier, 945 Soi Wanit 2, 02-233-2541) or, more simply, “the duck noodles at Talat Noi”. The most popular order is, for sure, the bamee (egg noodles), served simply crowned with slices of tender duck in a Daffy-rich broth, but plenty of diners also opt for the plate of sliced stewed duck paired with a simple bowl of white rice. Goose is also available, but it’s clearly a second-class citizen in this joint. Indeed, so popular is the duck that the pile of roasted birds that greeted me upon entry to this shophouse was nearly depleted when we had finished our meal, about 30 minutes later.

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James’s order

What excited me, though, was the guaythiew kua ped (fried rice noodles with egg and duck), which I had never eaten before. This is Mauricio’s favorite lunch in Bangkok, and what I had set my heart on.

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Fried duck noodles

I have to say, guaythiew kua in its normal form is not my favorite street food dish, although I do enjoy a nice big faceful of grease every now and then. Although duck is also quite a fatty, rich meat, it felt totally at home with this silky, uber-comforting plate of soft slicked rice noodles, unhindered by a negligible amount of egg and paired with a little bowl of Sriracha sauce (Sriracha Panij, to be precise). Or, I could just have been hungry. It was a revelation to me, at least.

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The front of the shophouse

 

 

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Little Portugal

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Plates of kanom jeen gai kua at Yai Thi

I noticed that I haven’t been complaining about the heat lately, so I thought it was time to get back to my regularly scheduled programming. It’s really hot, guys. Even when it’s supposed to be rainy season, it’s still hot. The rain doesn’t really help very much. This heat sucks. The end.

But even with this heat, I still managed to corral a few of my friends into taking me to the Portuguese neighborhood of Kudichin, centered on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River around the Santa Cruz church. This patch of land was awarded to the Portuguese by King Taksin for their help in fighting the Burmese in Ayutthaya, and they have retained a cultural hold on the neighborhood ever since. I’m sure you already know about the impact the Portuguese have had on Thai culture, but to fill up this post with more words, I will say that the seafaring adventure-lovers that were the Portuguese spread their culture all over the world. This includes Asia, where they introduced us to heretofore unheard-of ingredients like chilies and created desserts like the egg-and-sugar extravaganza tong yod (a stand in for ovos moles) and kanom mor gang (a coconut custard, inspired by tigelada). Some other stuff the Portuguese brought to us: foy tong or “gold threads”, a stand-in for fios de ovos; look choop, mini fruits inspired by massapa’es but filled with mung bean instead of marzipan; corn; potatoes; guava (!); pineapple (!); papaya (!); cashew nuts (!); pumpkin (!). And of course tomatoes, which they brought to everyone, including the Italians. This is new stuff we all learned at the Baan Kudichin Museum.

Kudichin has something for everyone here, really: history buffs, architecture and design geeks, or people who really like walking around in hot places. For me, of course, it was the promise of food that I would not be able to find anywhere else, the Portuguese-Sino-Thai dish of kanom jeen gai kua, or fermented rice noodles in a mild chicken curry.

What makes this chicken curry and noodle dish different from, say, a standard Thai kanom jeen gang gai are the spices used to season the coconutty curry, which are mixed quite happily in a food processor instead of pounded in a mortar and pestle to release the oils (a shameful practice to Thais, who like to pretend that the food processor or blender don’t exist). The chicken is minced like in a bolognese and flavored with fish sauce, coconut milk, and a hint of chili. The garnish is always slivered green onion. The result is milder and lighter than something you would find elsewhere in Thailand, the flavors fewer and more focused. It is, not surprisingly, utterly delicious. I ended doing this thing where I tried to stuff it down my throat like I was a foie gras goose, but I was doing it to myself. This is not healthy behavior.

The first place where we had this is said to be the jao gow, or original vendor of the dish. Directly across from the Santa Cruz church next to the river, Yai Thi (02-472-5231) offers their most famous dish — prominently advertised in front of the restaurant — alongside more Portuguese-inflected fare like grilled pork chops with fries and a succession of thick toast with various toppings, including spinach with cheese and butter with caramel. There are chicken nuggets and waffled mashed potatoes, onion rings and garlic bread. It is essentially your picky 4-year-old’s dream restaurant.

Our favorite creation, though, was the banana “crepe”, which is actually a deep-fried samosa stuffed with mashed ripe banana. We thought it would be everywhere on our walk from the church to the Kudichin Museum, but it ended up being a unique thing to this restaurant.

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You will have to remove your shoes to enter the “dining room”, which in this case, appears to be the family living room. The kitchen is located right next to the river, so that the chef can enjoy a pleasant view while preparing your order. In our (in)expert opinion, it appears that various households in the neighborhood are supplementing their income this way, by welcoming strangers into their homes for meals. This is what we surmised, anyway, after heading next door to the next place serving kanom jeen, called Pa Jae (080-305-2448). Unlike Yai Thi, the menu is more Chinese-focused, offering stir-fried pork in oyster sauce on rice, fried shrimp on rice, and macaroni in tomato sauce besides the requisite rice noodles with chicken curry.

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Unlike Yai Thi, you are expected to add your own nam prik of coconut milk and blended chilies, which looks like this:

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A plus for Pa Jae is the karaoke, which is performed at your table, while eating your noodles. We blitzed our way through John Denver’s “Country Roads” (a Thai karaoke bar staple), what I believe was “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (I can’t be expected to remember things anymore) and “Top of the World” by the Carpenters before we took pity on the proprietors and showed ourselves out. The karaoke was free, something that maybe the owners should rectify in the future if they value their own mental health.

The third place we were aiming for was the most famous restaurant in the neighborhood, Baan Sakul Thong (213 Soi Kudichin 3, 062-605-5665), where we are told the dishes come from the recipes of great-grandmother Chawee Sakulthong. A set here is slightly more expensive than the other restaurants we visited, at 250 baht per person for a plate of the chicken noodles with two appetizers, a dessert and a soft drink.  Appetizers include Royal Thai-type stuff like chor muang (steamed dumplings stuffed with minced pork and dyed purple with butterfly pea extract) and jeeb tua nok (bird-shaped steamed dumplings stuffed with chicken). When we got there, we were confused by which door was the entrance and ended up busting in on a private family meal. Apparently, reservations must be made 2-3 days in advance. It took all of my willpower to not snap a photo of the family’s food from over their shoulders. I am not yet a savage.

So Baan Sakul Thong was a wash, but it wouldn’t do to not have something to look forward to on our next visit to Kudichin. Wasn’t it Kierkegaard who said that true despair was having all of your wishes fulfilled? Maybe not. I was never that good of a student.

 

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