In the springtime, I started thinking about which countries I wanted to visit during the year. After falling in love with Japan after my visit there in April, I knew that I wanted to explore more of Asia. Thailand has long been a desired destination of mine and I’ve heard such wonderful things about Indonesia, Bali in particular. It wasn’t long before my friend Enitan and I had our flights and hotels booked around March in anticipation of our 9-day Thanksgiving vacation.
Since traveling to Thailand would be the longest flight I’d yet take, I did research so I’d be well prepared to handle the longest of the two flights there, 13 hours. The day before my flight, I went to see my chiropractor (who I’ve been seeing every two weeks for a couple months to get my back readjusted). He showed me a few stretches to do on the plane. I had a midnight flight on a Thursday night (a week before Thanksgiving) and forced myself to stay awake the first few hours and then I slept the rest of the flight to get my body on a schedule closer to that of Thailand (which is 15 hours ahead of California). To get me through the first few hours, I played Zelda on my 3DS. :) Then I took naps here and there, forcing myself to get up and walk around the back of the plane and do stretches every two hours or so until I fell asleep for a solid 6 hours at the end of the flight. I sat in the last row of the plane in a window seat that had only one person in the section of the row I was in, which worked out well. Since I was all the way in the back of the plane, getting up to stretch in the roomy area at the back was perfect for me. I constantly drank water to stay hydrated since jetlag is primarily caused by dehydration. I brought an empty bottle of water to the airport and refilled it several times until I landed in Thailand. I also wore an eye mask to help me sleep and a face mask that covered my nose and mouth (a trick I learned in Japan) to avoid inhaling any germs from the countless people coughing and sneezing on the flight. The flight went by pretty quickly, with the only hiccup being the terrible turbulence that we experienced. It felt like something was grabbing the plane and shaking it from side to side in the sky. It was the scariest turbulence I’ve ever experienced.
I had a connection in Taiwan and then flew five hours to Bangkok to begin my vacation. Enitan was originally scheduled to be on the same flight as me but had to delay her trip until Monday because of a conference she couldn’t miss. Luckily, I had a group of friends from Cornell who were in Thailand that same week so I hung out with them on the days I would’ve otherwise been alone. It worked out perfectly! Landing in Bangkok around 10 am, I nervously waited for my suitcase to appear on the baggage carousel. I only packed a small bookbag and a carry-on suitcase that I had planned to take on the plane with me, but China Airlines has a weight limit for carry-ons and I ended up having to check my bag. I’ve heard horror stories about people losing their luggage in random places so I was hesitant to check it but she gave me no choice. Luckily, my bag finally showed up on the carousel towards the end and I gleefully found my private driver to take me to my hotel, SO Sofitel Bangkok. Hiring a private driver was so convenient, allowing me to avoid the hassle of finding a taxi after 20 hours of traveling.
Upon arriving at the hotel, I was immediately greeted with friendly smiles and pleasant voices, which was a wonderful way to start my Saturday morning experience in Thailand. The service at Sofitel is incredible. I met with Josephine at the check-in counter and she asked me what kind of customizations I’d like in the room, from the number and size of the beds to the firmness of my pillows. Each floor of the hotel has a theme of one of their five elements: Water, Earth, Wood, Metal, and Fire. I got an Earth room. Before heading to my room, I was served their special welcome drink called the SO Magic drink, which is a beautiful concoction of lemongrass tea, butterfly pea juice, and lime juice (more about this drink later). The ingredients each arrive in a test tube, and the server mixes each ingredient one by one to show you the “magic” of the drink: the acid in the lemon juice reacts with the deep blue hue of the butterfly pea juice to turn the liquid a vivid purple color. The drink is delicately sweet and refreshing.
My first day in Thailand was more eventful than I expected. Since Enitan wasn’t arriving until two nights later, I had a chance to hang out with my Cornell friends, most of who I hadn’t seen in years. I unpacked a little, showered off 20 hours of traveling, and got ready to meet up with them at their hotel which was an 8-minute cab ride away. I forced myself to stay up the entire day so I wouldn’t run into jet lag issues the next day. I caught a cab at the hotel and ran into my first ripoff experience in Thailand.
Being the researcher that I am, I knew that Bangkok cab drivers are notorious for ripping off tourists by charging them higher fares. The thing is, they never really rip you off by an obscene amount of money because everything in Thailand is so cheap. The cab I got into had a meter, but I couldn’t see it because the driver had it covered with a baseball cap. Even though I asked him to use the meter, he played dumb and acted as if he didn’t understand me, but as soon as I asked him how much it would cost to get to my friends’ hotel, he had no issues understanding that when he replied, “200 baht”. This is a little less than six dollars, so no big deal, but when I caught a cab back to my hotel later that night with a driver who used the meter (because I insisted he use it before I even got in the cab), it cost only 50 baht. Womp. I learned my lesson in practice even though I knew it before I got to the country. Sigh.
When I met up with my friends, all eight of us took two taxis to a popular weekend market called Chatuchak, known for selling street food, souvenirs, clothing, bags, accessories, and even home decor. While on the way to the market, our taxi driver tried to hustle us. Before we got into the cabs, we were told it would cost 200 baht to get to the market. Once we were in the car and a good five minutes into the drive, he tried to change the price by saying that it would only cost ฿200 if we let him make a stop at some random shop (that he probably gets a commission from for bringing tourists to), or ฿300 if we drove straight to the market. We all complained until he pulled over so we could talk to our friends in the other car. Their driver tried to pull the same stunt. After sternly telling the drivers that we were not interested in whatever destination they were trying to take us to, they took us to the market, still claiming that it would cost ฿300. Upon arrival, we gave each driver฿200 to their disapproval and went on our merry way. The thing about trying to hustle people, dear taxi drivers, is that you’d better be in the position to collect what you ask for and think you are going to get, otherwise you will get hustled right back! We were not the kind of tourists who were in the mood to be swindled that day. :) The whole taxi situation was starting to get on my nerves and it was hurting my otherwise amazing time in Thailand.
The market itself was an enjoyable experience. There were so many beautiful things to see, and I was tempted to get quite a bit of stuff but I knew that it wouldn’t be wise to bulk up my suitcase on my very first day of the trip. Since collecting masks from around the world is a hobby of mine when I travel (an idea I stole from my mom, whose mask collection is insanely gorgeous), my only mission was to find a mask. Mom has been to Thailand but never got a mask at the time, so I picked up one for her but didn’t find one that matched what I was looking for. I had previously researched traditional Thai masks and learned about Khon masks, which are used as part of the costumes of performers of Khon (โขน), Thailand’s traditional dance drama that involves dancing, singing, and acting. Unfortunately, I didn’t find one in the market. I mostly saw masks of different interpretations of the Buddha, so I got mom a pretty one made of dark wood and decided to hold out on purchasing one for myself until I found what I was looking for.
When we prepared to leave the market, I found a car that was willing to take us back to our hotels for the same ฿200 price. As soon as I prepared to get in the car, he immediately added, “But we make quick stop first.” I told him that we did not want to make a stop, and he informed me that the price to go directly to the hotel would be ฿700! I looked at him like he was crazy and walked back to my friends. He shouted at me, “Okay! No stops! ฿500!”, as if that would suddenly make me return to his car. I kept it moving. Not having it! Luckily, Uber exists in Bangkok so we requested one and got a good fare to get back home. From that moment on, every cab I took was either metered or a predetermined rate from an Uber driver (thank goodness that Uber is in Bangkok! What a time and money saver!).
I got back to my hotel just in time to start my private night tour. I met with my guide, Linky, and we headed to our first stop of the night: Park Society, the sky bar at the top of my hotel. We ordered some snacks (the olives were all I cared about; I love olives) and I had a delicious lychee and rose martini (vodka, lychee and rose syrup, sweet and sour mix: yum).
The next morning, I grabbed breakfast at the hotel’s buffet and then took a metered taxi to my friends’ hotel. This time, since the meter was running, I didn’t get ripped off. Unfortunately, my driver did try to trick me into having him take me on a tour. He asked me what I had planned for the day and I told him we were going to the Grand Palace. “Grand Palace?” he said, looking back at me. I confirmed. “Oh, no, Grand Palace is closed all day today. I can take you around.” I gave him a very serious look and replied, “sir, please do not lie to me. I know it is open until 3:30 pm. Please take me to my destination.” He shut up for the rest of the trip. Unbelievable. I’d read about this, too: Bangkok taxi drivers who will lie to you and tell you that whatever you have planned is “closed” and then offer to take you somewhere else instead. It was so irritating.
Once I arrived at the hotel, my friends and I booked a driver for the day for only ฿2000. He had a spacious van that held all nine of us. The plan was to head to a local floating market called Taling Chan and then check out the Grand Palace. However, somehow the driver got confused when we told him we wanted to go to the floating market, and he took us to the more popular one instead, Damnoen Saduak. This floating market was an hour and a half away, and by the time we realized what was happening, we were too far away to turn back. We arrived at the market at 1 pm and knew that by the time we’d finish, we wouldn’t make it to the Grand Palace before it closed. I had a tour to see the palace the next day, but my friends were leaving Bangkok in the morning so they wouldn’t have a chance to see it.
Damnoen Saduak floating market turned out to be fun. We all loaded into two boats and cruised down the water to see the stalls on either side of the canal. The vendors sell everything from food and clothing to jewelry and souvenirs. Bargaining is a big part of the experience. I was very excited to find a stall that had khon masks! I purchased a monkey mask. The monkey is the most popular character in Khon performance art. I also saw the cutest lemur and wanted to take a picture with him, but his owner was charging too much money. Hustlers everywhere, I tell you.
After the floating market, we went to Wat Pho and saw the stunning and huge Reclining Buddha. After exploring, we grabbed food at a yummy spot called S&P. I got a refreshing watermelon slushie and the delicious Holy Basil Fried Rice with Chicken. We wrapped up the night with massages at Health Land Spa Sathorn (located here). Some of us got a Thai massage, which I wasn’t mentally prepared for because I had heard how rough and intense it could be. I got a standard 90-minute oil massage, which was great. It was definitely more intimate than I expected: I wore only a tiny pair of underwear made of stockings material and my masseuse basically pulled it all the way down and tapped my butt in weird ways when she was massaging my lower back area. I’m not complaining, though, it was great! :) Afterward, I headed back to my hotel.
On Tuesday morning, Enitan and I flew to Phuket, one of Thailand’s many beautiful islands. We settled in at our hotel, Centara Karon Resort Phuket, which is a beautiful resort that looks like a rainforest in some parts. We grabbed some food and then went straight to a cooking class at Phuket Easy Thai Cooking. The cooking class was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip. Our instructor, Bui, took us to a local market to show us how she shops for ingredients and she explained what every interesting looking vegetable was. We then went to her place to start the cooking class. Outside of her building, she showed us the butterfly pea flowers and Thai peppers she had growing in her garden. I was thrilled to see the butterfly pea flowers since I had become fascinated with the flower ever since getting the Magic drink at my hotel.
Enitan and I were accompanied by one other person in the cooking class, and she happened to be another black woman. We made a joke about the odds of Bui having a class of all black women. Bui told us how in her family, she is the darkest one, and that skin tone can be a beauty concern in Thailand but it doesn’t bother her because she loves her skin. She loved our skin so much that she took a picture with me and held her arm next to mine to show how close we are in complexion. She made a joke that maybe she is mixed with “some black”, haha! It was awesome to get to know her and spend time with her as she taught us how to make delicious Thai dishes. Her class was so enjoyable that we went back the next day!
We made a couple soup dishes, one of them made with a delicious green curry that we made from scratch. We also made a dessert called Bue Loy, which are rice balls in sweet coconut milk. I didn’t love the dessert; it reminded me of soggy cereal in milk, but it was delicate and interesting. My favorite dish that we made that day was Pad Thai, a delicious stir-fried rice noodle dish that is typically served as street food in Thailand. Here is Bui’s recipe.
- 1 tablespoon palm or dark brown sugar (for sauce)
- 1 tablespoon white sugar (for sauce)
- 1 tablespoon tamarind sauce (for sauce)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce (can be substituted with the same amount of soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce) (for sauce)
- 2 tablespoons water (for sauce)
- 60 grams thin rice noodles
- 70 grams chicken, beef, or seafood, sliced
- 1 cup of bean sprouts, carrots, or cabbage, sliced
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon diced firm tofu
- 1/2 tablespoon pickled radish
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon paprika powder
- 1 lime, quartered (for garnish)
- 1 tablespoon peanuts, crushed
- a pinch of salt
- a pinch of chili powder
- Mix sauce ingredients well and put aside.
- Soak rice noodles in cold water for 15-20 minutes or in room temperature water for 10 minutes. Do not let the noodles get too soft.
- Heat up cooking oil in a wok over medium heat. Add shallot, tofu, and pickle to the pan when oil is hot, stirring until cooked.
- Add meat and cook through.
- Create an empty circle in the middle of the wok and crack the egg into it. Stir it a few times until it is 80% cooked, then mix the egg with the rest of the wok’s contents.
- Add the rice noodles, sauce, and paprika and stir it well together.
- The Pad Thai should start to dry out slightly in the pan. At this point, add the vegetables and stir well until cooked. Turn off heat and serve on a plate with lime slices and crushed peanuts on top for garnish. Sprinkle with salt and chili powder to taste.
Pad Thai is typically served with the firm tofu, but you can omit it without affecting the taste. Leaving it out will remove some of the texture of the dish, though.
Later that evening, we went to a lady boy show. Lady boys, known locally in Thailand as katoey, can refer to either a transgender woman or an effeminate gay male. The hour-long show was very entertaining, with dozens of lady boys dressed in beautiful gowns singing and dancing to classic songs and popular music. One very tan lady boy got on stage and performed the entire choreography for Beyoncé’s popular Single Ladies music video. Another performed Madonna’s Vogue, and yet another performed Aqua’s Barbie Girl. The show really was fabulous. At the end, the lady boys lined up for photo opportunities. I got a photo with one and he was disappointed to learn that I had no cash to pay him for the photo (I didn’t realize I had to pay; oops! He was dramatically upset with me).
We also learned how to make Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam). We didn’t have all the ingredients on hand to make it, but even with just the papaya, peanuts, and sauce, the salad was still tasty. Here is my slightly modified version of Bui’s recipe.
- 1 cup shredded green papaya (or cucumber if you can’t find firm green papaya)
- 1/4 cup shredded carrot
- 1 green bean, cut into 1-inch long pieces
- 1/2 tablespoon fish sauce (can be substituted with the same amount of soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce)
- 1/2 tablespoon palm sugar
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1/2 tablespoon tamarind sauce
- 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 tablespoon dried shrimp (optional; I prefer 1/4 cup thin slices of grilled chicken breast)
- 1 tablespoon peanuts
- 1-2 Thai chili peppers
- 2 cloves fresh garlic
- Use wooden mortar and pestle to crush the chili, garlic, and a tablespoon of papaya. Then add the dried shrimp and continue crushing.
- Add the fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, and tamarind sauce and mix together well with a spoon.
- Add papaya, carrots, green beans, and tomatoes to a small bowl and stir in the sauce from the mortar. Stir well to combine.
- If using chicken, stir into salad. Serve with peanuts as garnish and enjoy.
Bui also showed us how to make lemongrass tea, which was very simple. She smashed two stalks of lemongrass to release its oils and flavor and then tied them into knots. She placed them into boiling water for a few minutes and then mixed the tea with some sugar in our mugs. It wasn’t as yummy as the butterfly pea tea from the day before, but it was still tasty.
After getting back to the hotel to freshen up, Enitan and I briefly checked out Bangla Road in Patong. The area is a long blocked off street that turns into a mini Las Vegas at night, with hundreds of people hanging out at bars and clubs and lots of hostesses trying to talk you into a drink deal or a ping pong show (yikes). I’m a bit over the whole Vegas-type scene so we stayed only for ten minutes to see what the hype was about and then left, taking a ride back to the hotel in a party tuk-tuk equipped with loud speakers blasting hip hop music. Our last day in Phuket was an awesome way to end our time in Thailand.
Overall, my trip to Thailand was one filled with scents of lemongrass, lingering tastes of butterfly pea flowers and green curries, sounds of Sawasdee, and images of warm smiles and beautiful temples. It was excellent exposure to a new culture, finished off with a small dose of lessons in hustling. Phuket made up for the rougher edges of Bangkok. The people were kind, the food delicious, and the scenery breathtaking. The bottom line: I would definitely visit Thailand again, but probably not Bangkok. Enitan and I were ready and eager for the second and final part of our trip: Indonesia!
To read about my trip to Indonesia, click here.