A country for all seasons
A trip that includes Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Bangkok brims over with unusual experiences – and the best food ever, writes Vir Sanghvi.india Updated: Jun 26, 2010 18:16 IST
Well, yes and no. When we get to Bangkok Airport, I find it relatively empty with few queues at immigration counters. So yes, some tourists have decided to wait. But Indians (who had never really stopped coming to Bangkok, even during the troubles) have not hesitated from thronging to the city.
By the time I drive into Bangkok, any sense that these are unusual times has passed. There are the same traffic jams, the same crowds and the same buzz of excitement as always. The only visible reminder of the chaos of a couple of weeks ago is the sight of Central World (formerly the World Trade Centre, a name most Indian still use for the complex) as a tired, burnt out wreck. When the Red Shirts had been dispersed by the army, they set fire to a few buildings as they retreated and Central World was one of them.
I have dinner at Indus, generally regarded as one of Bangkok’s two best Indian restaurants (the other is Rang Mahal), and one of my favourite Bangkok restaurants across genres. The food is as terrific as always though it probably helps that my table includes Sid Sehgal, whose family owns the restaurant and whose contribution to the kitchen is clearly visible in the food served this evening: it is authentic, full of flavour and free of the greasiness that afflicts Indian food abroad.
Sid tells me about the Bangkok restaurant scene and recommends several new restaurants including one on Soi Ruamrudee which he says is a new venture from Ian Kittichai, the Thai chef who is best known for his New York restaurant.
Sid and his family are Thai-Indians, which is to say that they are equally at home in both cultures, having spent at least three generations in Thailand. Sid’s uncle, Satish Sehgal, who I have known since the Eighties, is one of the best connected Indians in Thailand, often accompanying Thai Prime Ministers on their tours abroad. The family’s many enterprises usually involve some connection to tourism. So I ask Satish if he is downbeat about the future given the events of recent weeks. “It will be back to normal, soon,” he says confidently. “Tourism in Thailand always bounces back.”
My trip begins in earnest today. In the evening, I take a Thai Airways flight for the journey to Chiang Rai, and then, I drive to the Golden Triangle. This is a term much used in pulp fiction usually in the context of heroin but it has a specific geographical meaning. The Golden Triangle is the bit of land where three countries – Laos, Burma and Thailand – meet. The borders are not clear so it is easy to smuggle drugs from one country to the next. Some parts of the Golden Triangle are actually no-man’s land where no national authority holds.
I’ve opted not to stay in a hotel but in a camp, run by the Four Seasons, which consists of 15 tents, a single restaurant and (this is Thailand, after all), a spa. What I have not realised is that access to the camp is by boat up the Mekong river. Because I have chosen to arrive at night, the river route is not an option. So the camp sends a four wheel drive to haul me up hills and cliffs on an alternative route.
The camp itself is not quite the luxury-hotel-pretending-to-be-a-tented-camp that I had expected. There are just the tents and two small buildings (reception and the restaurant). Everything is on the side of a hill so you spend a lot of time walking uphill and downhill on narrow paths.
The camp suggests that all guests begin their stay with a bit of elephant riding. At nine in the morning they take you to an elephant reserve further up the river where you are taught to ride elephants bareback. This can be scary but apparently, at the end of two hours of being perched precariously on the elephant’s head, you learn the commands and develop a rapport with jumbo.
This sounds brilliant but I am too much of a lazy and cowardly Gujarati to actually jump on to an elephant. So we agree on a compromise. I will sleep through the elephant training, eat an early lunch and then go off to the elephant reserve for a slightly non-participatory trip.
After lunch, Rain, my guide (so called because he was born on a rainy day – he has a long and complicated Thai name too) and I take a longtail boat (a sort of canoe with a motor) up the river to the elephant reserve. Rain points to the reeds on the other side of our narrow stream. “That’s Burma,” he says. Borders are meaningless in the Golden Triangle. A few feet to the left and you are in a new country.
At the camp, we reach just as 20 elephants of various sizes are being led to the river for their evening baths. The mahouts are Thai boys (and one girl), the youngest of whom is only 13. But the mahouts have clearly developed a rapport with the animals and as elephants and mahouts get into the water, it is hard to see who is having more fun.
The sight of 20 elephants up close can be an exhilarating one but what I find more interesting is that these elephants love to play. Mothers and babies stick close and two elephants hug (or so it appears) in the water, a truly remarkable sight not just because of the vast quantities of river water they displace but because I had no idea that elephants did this sort of thing.
The following day, Rain takes me on a trip around the Golden Triangle. We start off on the longtail boat again. Rain points out a huge ugly building which he says is a casino constructed by Chinese interests in Burma. A little further up the river we find another such building. This is another casino, also paid for by the Chinese, but this one, a short distance from the first, is in Laos. And our boat is either in the Thai part of the Mekong or in some no-man’s river.
Our boat stops at the Thai border town on Chiang Saen and Rain takes me to see the week-end food market, always the highlight of any trip for me. The stall-holders sell the usual things but there are some surprises. There are huge catfish, presumably cousins of the fabled giant catfish of the Mekong, prized in all six of the countries the river runs though. There are huge shitake-style fresh mushrooms. And there are what look like little truffles. They have no smell but seem to be one of the lesser truffle variety. The Thais sell them by the kilo and advise you to roast them on hot coal.
Back in the longtail, Rain takes me to a spot in the river which he describes as the absolute centre of the Golden Triangle, a place from where all three countries seem equidistant. Then we nip across to Laos (a five minute boat ride) which actually seems a lot poorer than Thailand (lots of beggars) but where enterprising retailers have set up a whole mini-market selling Chinese-made (ie good quality) knockoffs: designers bags, tee-shirts, sun-glasses etc. This is a duty-free zone, they say, and urge me to buy bottles of noxious -looking local whisky. Some more expensive bottles have dead animals inside them: snakes, scorpions etc. And the most expensive are Chinese spirits which include (or so I am informed) bits of tiger penis.
Obviously, I am angry. The chances are that the shop keepers are lying. Tiger penis is too expensive and rare for it to be sold like this. But it does illustrate the complete lack of embarrassment they feel in many parts of the world about killing off endangered species.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city after Bangkok. This makes it sound rather bigger than it actually is. In fact, it is a smallish town with a pleasantly provincial air, surrounded by paddy fields and mountains and with a lake at its centre.
The last time I was at the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai, it was called the Regent. It had cottages and villas and its architecture incorporated the local paddy fields. But though I have often been back to Chiang Mai, I have usually ended up at the rival Dhara Dhevi resort (and very nice it was too.) Part of the transformation of the Regent into the Four Seasons consists of ten small villas, each with a large outdoor seating area that includes fountains, a jacuzzi and a pool. Like all Four Seasons rooms all over the world, the villas are astonishingly well designed. Not only is the space beautiful, it is also amazingly user-friendly.
There is a friendly rivalry between the Four Seasons and Dhara Dhevi (“you always stay in Dhara Dhevi,” the manager gently admonishes me) and the staff seem to flit between the two properties. Anchalee, the Thai chef who I had shot with for Discovery Travel and Living at Dhara Dhevi, is now at the Four Seasons and she sends a plate of Northern Thai snacks to my room.
The cuisine of Northern Thailand is significantly different from royal Thai cuisine or the food you find in the South. Some of its dishes are now world-famous, among them Som Tam, the raw papaya salad and the spicy-sour sausage that is called Chiang Mai sausage in English. (I am sure it has a more evocative Thai name.)
The last few times I have come to Chiang Mai, I have eaten at Huen Phen, a small unpretentious restaurant that Khun Chali, the PR person at Dhara Dhevi, first took me to. I go there again and eat my way through the menu: spicy sausage, pickled pork, coconut-less northern curries, chilli hot pork larb, spare ribs, fried pork scratchings and lots more. The food is as excellent as always and as cheap. The food in Chiang Mai is among the best in Thailand and it is also astonishingly inexpensive.
The following day, the Four Seasons sends me to what the concierge says is the best restaurant in town, the House. This turns out to be an old house converted into a) a fine dining restaurant b) a shop and c) a coffee shop. At lunch, the coffee shop is the best option and the room is gorgeous, full of Thai silks and old-style furniture. The staff are young and cheerful and the barmen delight in shaking (presumably, non-alcoholic) cocktails for the waiters who seem happier with each sip.
There’s a great duck confit with Thai accompaniments, a nice cheesecake and good fried rice. It is slightly toned-down Thai food served in superlative surroundings.
After two days in the Golden Triangle and another two in Chiang Mai, I am back in Bangkok. My hotel there is another former Regent (and a Peninsula before that) which has now become the Four Seasons. It has the best location in Bangkok, with the Rajadamri sky train station right outside and the shops of Ploenchit a two-minute walk away. Though the hotel had to close for a month because it was near the Red Shirt protests, it is up and running once again. In true Thai style, the staff give the impression that nothing was ever wrong and are as gracious as always.
Anyone who goes to Bangkok regularly will tell you how wonderful the hotels are: the grandeur of The Oriental, the warmth of Lebua, the peaceful beauty of the Sukhothai etc. But even by those standards, the excellence of the Four Seasons service comes as something of a surprise. The guest recognition factor is extraordinary and from the moment you check in, the staff make you feel like you’ve known them all your life.
I wander through the city looking for evidence of the cataclysm it has been though. Though the streets tend to empty earlier at night than before (there isn’t much traffic on the roads by midnight), there is little sign that anything has changed. I go to Siam Square, home to the small stalls that locals go to when they want to buy something trendy but inexpensive. There are still crowds at each stall. Opposite, the Siam Paragon mall is offering discounts on designer-wear but the part of the mall that I frequent – the Gourmet Market where I buy vegetables – is just as I remember it: same crowds, same prices, no discounts and no change. I try Sukhumvit Soi 33, home to some very dodgy clubs and the Indian Ambassador’s residence. It is unusually quiet which suggests that bar girls may have lost business now that European tourist numbers have declined. But the restaurants are as packed as ever.
Hyde and Seek is the smart, very new bar with food by Ian Kittichai that Sid Sehgal told me about. The place is packed to the gills and jumping. Most people are drinking and ordering snacks from a bar-menu. I want to try a bit of everything so I go into my professional eater mode and order loads of food knowing that I will only eat a mouthful or so from each plate and will waste the rest.
The very first dish is a knock-out. It is a reworking of that old pub classic, the Scotch Egg. Instead of the boring industrial boiled egg at the centre though, there is a flavourful quail’s egg. And the sausage meat is clearly made on the premises. A dish of slow-cooked Korobuta pork (done sous-vide) is astonishing. The pork is so tender you can eat it with a spoon. Ribs with a chocolatey glaze are outstanding. So is a re-imagining of a club sandwich with grilled chicken, pulled pork and a perfectly cooked egg.
Just as I am finishing, Kittichai walks in, having finished recording his TV show. A friend of his who has been at a nearby table has recognised me from Discovery Travel and Living and points me out to Kittichai who is kind enough to come and join me for a bit.
Despite being the most famous Thai chef in the world (though David Thompson is better-known and more successful, he is an Australian), Kittichai is surprisingly unassuming and modest. He is now free of the New York operation (though the restaurant has kept his name) and wants to do different things. He is talking to investors about a Thai restaurant in London. And he has sealed the deal to open in Bombay.
Have I heard right? I have. It turns out that Kittichai plans to open an eponymous restaurant at the Intercontinental on Marine Drive. It won’t be a Thai food place like the Thai Pavilion but he hopes to go more Pan-Asian and include sashimi and the like. My guess is that he is aiming for the Wasabi market.
How, I asked Kittichai, did you get an offer to open in Bombay? Honest to the last, he says that the offer went first to David Thompson. David is too busy opening a Nahm in Bangkok (at the Metropolitan Hotel in Sathorn – it should open by August) and suggested Ian instead.
I once asked David Thompson if he could recommend a Thai restaurant in Bangkok and he suggested Bo.Lan run by two chefs who had worked with him in the London Nahm. So I turn up at Bo.Lan having taken the trouble to book. (They could not fit me in at a time of my choice; they were too busy. Wasn’t there supposed to be a crisis in Bangkok?)
The restaurant is beautiful, an old Thai home converted into intimate dining rooms. But service is slightly shambolic if sweet-tempered. I think the staff are thrown by a large party of 20 in the private dining room and it is only after they have eaten that the rest of the restaurant gets much service.
The menu is relatively small and is completely devoid of all the standard Thai dishes. There is no fried rice, no chicken with cashew nuts, no minced pork with basil and no Pad Thai. Instead, the dishes seem unfamiliar and complex. I order a small selection.
Before the food arrives, the chef sends out a sampler of five Thai starters. The flavours are so amazing that I can’t wait for the main meal. I am not disappointed. There is a red curry with beef and peanuts that bears no relations to the curries you get elsewhere. The other dishes use fruit (rambutans etc.) and flowers to add sourness and other tastes that you rarely encounter in restaurant cooking. The meal is a revelation and captures the complexities of genuine Thai food. I will be back.
Just before I leave, I have coffee with Nicola Chilton, the hotel’s hyper-elegant PR head. I first met Nicola in Hong Kong when she was doing the same job at the Four Seasons there. She has just moved to Bangkok. (It has not even been a week.) She asks me if I can sense the chaos that occurred two weeks ago. I tell her I can’t until I look at the buildings that are burnt or shuttered. Otherwise life seems to have returned to normal. But, I add, I am not surprised. I was in Thailand in 1992 in the aftermath of the street violence that led to the end of military rule. And even then, it only took days for things to return to normal. She agrees. She says that she gets the feeling that the people of Bangkok are determined to move on, to treat the unpleasant events as a bad dream and to act as though they did not happen.
I think she is right. I’ll give it a month. By then Bangkok will be so completely back to normal that I doubt if Nicola or the Four Seasons will have rooms left to sell.