back to bkk

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As a child, visiting my father who was posted there several years for work, Bangkok was an assault on my sheltered senses - it was hotter, wetter, noisier, dustier and sprawled in a million directions. The language was wilder - complicated, and melodic and piercing at the same time. The food was spicier, sweeter and saltier. The temples were grand and mysterious. Even the cars, with their dark tinted windows - something we didn't have in Singapore - seemed exciting. Bangkok was intense. I loved it all.

Long after my father no longer worked there, Bangkok remained a mainstay as a holiday spot. For Singaporeans, Bangkok is a land of inexpensive thrills - shopping, food, and massages mainly - even with the strengthening baht over the years. The city, just two-odd hours away, is a popular option for a budget getaway, and you'd be hard pressed not to run into a Singaporean at any of the usual tourist hotspots.

As a university student I visited Bangkok regularly for the same reasons, and never tried too hard to explore any off-the-beaten-path spots - I ate street food on Yaowarat and near my budget hotel in Sukhumvit; I shopped and ate my way through Chatuchak (it never gets old), I became addicted to Thai massages at Healthland (also still good), I people-watched in Siam Square. Every now and I then I looked for a Wat or a food market I hadn't visited, or did a short trips to places like Ayutthaya, Bang Pa In, Kanchanaburi, and Hua Hin. It was predictable.

My last visit to Bangkok was some 5 to 6 years ago. A couple weeks ago, some friends and I got it into our heads that we needed to go - I believe it started over a lament on how hard it is to find good Thai food in Singapore. We didn't have too much time to think about it. We found cheap flights. We picked a neighbourhood on Airbnb (Thong Lo). And figured things out from there.

My trip centered around one thing: food. And so this post is mostly a quick and dirty guide how to to fill your stomachs if you have 72 hours in Bangkok.

Soei
I wanted to eat at at least one amazing "zi char"-style place, and found this by Googling. In Singapore, zi char refers to Chinese family-style dining, comprising dishes eaten with rice, and often seafood-heavy. Apart from not being Chinese, this place was essentially it. Because it was featured on a popular food blog about eating in Bangkok, Soei gets its fair share of tourists and it has an English-language menu with the dishes usually featured in write-ups about the place. It would have been fun to go with a Thai friend since the Thai-speaking staff aren't especially helpful if you want to order outside of this menu, but we ordered almost everything on it and I can't say we suffered for it.

The standouts for me were the tom yum mackerel soup (deceptively clear-looking, searingly spicy), the fried mackerel heads (so popular every table only gets one order), and the mackerel curry (yes there is a pattern here).

I love mackerel because it's such a feature of the home-cooking I grew up eating. It is "fishy" and flaky and not for everyone, but it does lend itself to a wide variety of cooking styles. Soei is clearly an expert at preparing mackerel because whether cooked in fiery tom yum soup, deep fried, or stewed in coconut curry, the fish was always tender yet firm, and the fishy oils a nice, sweet foil to the spices. I loved that they used fish with the mackerel roe still intact for the soup and the curry - that extra kick tasting of the sea did it for me.

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I also liked a grilled prawn dish that was dressed with chilli, garlic, sweet onions, shallots, basil and probably other things I couldn't identify -

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From left, clams cooked in a spicy sweet sauce and basil, and grilled river prawns 

I wasn't so impressed by their raw prawn salad (goong chae nam pla, below) - usually its dressed in chilli, garlic and lime juice bit at Soei they add wasabi to the mix. It's still yummy, but it overpowers the natural sweetness of the raw prawns more than I would like -

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This was a nice counterpoint to the strong flavours, like a very eggy and garlicky pad thai but cooked with glass noodles -

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Eat it all with rice and wash it down with beer. Finish your meal with some shaved ice in drizzled with palm sugar and something that looked like frog spawn but were some kind of seeds. Sit back, and enjoy the trains rumbling by.

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Soei:
Kamphaeng Phet 5, Samsen Nai, Phaya Thai (right next to Sam Sen railway station)
Dress casual - it gets pretty hot, both because of the location and the food

Paste
On the other end of the spectrum, we wanted to give the "modern Thai" movement a try, and so we landed on Paste. I was a little nervous because modern takes on Asian cuisines have always been more miss than hit for me. But Paste, thank goodness, was outstanding. Thai food is a complex mix of flavours and it's pretty for one thing to overpower everything else. But the dishes were beautifully "layered" - every bite was a delight because you're experiencing a riot of flavours but they go together wonderfully. For example, the mud crab curry (curry with black pepper, pennywort, samphire and hummingbird flowers) was piquant, sweet, smoky and delicate at the same time.

And this isn't one of those places where you're expected to be wowed by flavour and presentation alone. Fine dining places usually leave me hungry (I'm a comfort food girl at heart) but the food at Paste is substantial and satisfying. Even the rice was a delight - jasmine rice isn't exactly a rarity, but the rice they served was wonderfully aromatic and cooked to a perfect texture.

The menu is a little overwhelming because of the sheer number of choices, and I think this place would be more fun if there were at least 3 to 4 people, so that you could try more things. For 4 people, you could skip the starters (which were good but not the highlight for me) and just order a bunch of "mains" to share and eat with rice. Something like 5 mains would be enough, I reckon, as the food is rich and it fills you up quite a bit even though the portions look manageable.

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Paste
3rd Floor, Gaysorn Plaza, 999 Ploenchit Rd., Lumpini, Bangkok (if you are taking the BTS, stop at Chit Lom)

Dressy, but not formal 

Som Tam Nua
Considering that it's smack in the middle of Siam Square and provides menus in English, you might be a little wary that the food here might be too tourist-friendly and lacking the powerful kick of Thai cuisine. But fear not, the food is consistently good (I don't find it toned down at all and I've had some very spicy things in Thailand), well-priced and an excellent option for the location.

Som Tam refers to the ubiquitous papaya salad, but don't limit to yourself to that. They do a nice version of larb pla tod, which is basically a fried whole fish topped with red onions, chillies, herbs and dressed with lime juice and fish sauce and dried chilli flakes and things I can't quite identify.

Staff are brusque and don't entertain questions much but I live in Singapore where this is considered normal, so I'm not too bothered, especially since the menu is easy to figure out.

Som Tam Nua:
392/14 Siam Square Soi 5
Casual, good for a quick bite

Tep Bar
Tep Bar is a beautiful space in the Charoenkrung with a range of cocktails made with local liquors, which were nice, but I prefer my drinks stronger. The food was actually pretty good and reasonably priced, and the place has a nice buzzy atmosphere that isn't too loud, with great service. It's located on beautifully crumbling street - the tall, shophouses are elegant and beg to be restored to its glory days.

We found time to check out another bar called Teens of Thailand - just steps away from Tep - which claims to be the first real gin bar in Bangkok. The drinks have a good flavour, but again, I just like mine with more kick. It's a noiser, more casual spot - fun if you find a place to sit (it's tiny), less so if you have to stand because it's just awkwardly configured. Again, great, friendly service.

Tep Bar:
Room 69-71, Soi Nana, Charoen Krung Road (if taking a cab, tell the driver it's in Charoenkrung or near Yaowarat) 

Casual, but style-conscious

Teens of Thailand:
76, Soi Nana, Charoen Krung Road

Casual 

Street food
I'm fairly casual where street food is concerned - I don't try to find the most famous places or the "best" because I think that rather defeats the point of something that's meant to be eaten on the go and delicious in an "everyday" way.

The great thing about Airbnb is that if you pick a residential area to stay in, you'll have no lack of street stalls to pick from. I had stewed pork noodles, mini crepes topped with coconut cream and palm sugar, green mangoes (eaten when it's relatively unripe and shockingly tart), all at unassumingly stalls scattered throughout my street (Sukhimvit Soi 55). I had some very nice fried squid eggs from a stall near the Thong Lo BTS station. I had a whole fish baked in salt from a stall in Ekkamai.

They might not be the best of the best, but they were very good, and 100 per cent satisfying. Street food just isn't fun when you overthink it.

Getting around:
Take the BTS or MRT whenever possible, to spare yourself the pain of being stuck in 40-minute jams (for 10-min distances), even though taxis are plentiful and cheap. Around the train stations there are always, taxis, or guys in orange vests riding scooters, who will bring you to nearby destinations in a jiffy. Very reliable and quite fun! Doing this lets you stay in Airbnbs in residential neighbourhoods without worrying about getting around (it's easy to flag one down or get the guards at the condo to call one for you).

But do take a metered taxi from and to the airport - it doesn't cost much at all

Stay:
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I use Airbnb a lot when I travel and so far it's been more of a hit than a miss - find the right place and you feel like a local, living in a neighbourhood full of things you might not seek out as a tourist.

Thong Lo (sometimes spelt Thonglor) is a gentrifying neighbourhood, full of old nondescript buildings transformed into stunningly refurnished clusters of cool cafes and shops, like The Commons - go to the "market" in the basement and grab a bite from the Soul Food Mahanakorn stall, which does a comfort food take on Thai food (they have a full fledge restaurant in Thong Lo itself). I was also impressed with the craft beers on tap from The Beer Cap (and I am extremely sceptical of any place that touts craft beer generally because it's usually a letdown), and the bar staff were extremely friendly and helpful (they let you try all the beers in shot glasses to help you decide).

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The Commons

We also liked having a relaxed, fun bar like the Iron Fairies within walking distance, and we had a rather good, affordable meal at a restaurant called Suppaniga Eating Room (I found out later it has pretty mixed reviews on TA, but I liked it). Again, it does a "modern take on Thai food (from the Isaan) region and I like that you get to try dishes that aren't so easy to find if you're new to Thailand.

But the area is still homely with plenty of street food options for quick bites (as I described above). It's also relatively close to the city centre but far away enough to feel relaxed.

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The Commons:
335 Soi Thonglor 17
Klongton Nue, Wattana
Casual 

Suppaniga:
160/11 Soi Sukhumvit 55 (Thonglor)
Klongton Nuea, Watthana
Casual 

Iron Fairies:
394 Thonglor Road, Sukhumvit 55
Casual 

Comments

Archana said…
Makes me want to pack my bags and go. When I lived in India, Bkk was always in the newspapers as the drug and gangster capital of Asia. We stereotyped it for a long time. Good to hear the other side of the story. The food, the promise of anonymity in the crowds and cheap stays are tempting.
Shutterbug K said…
Thank you for your recs, Lin. I'm passing this on to friends who are planning a trip to Thailand, this will be quite useful!
justeileen said…
What a gastronomic post! I love Thai food too.. First Thai at Purvis Street- have you tried that?
Anonymous said…
Lin, did you go to Ninth Caffe( locations Thong Lor and Soi Langsuan? it is probably the only place I recommend my friends visiting BKK .
I am absolutely bookmarking this post even though a trip to Bangkok is probably unlikely in my near future. I'd hate for it to be a short trip, and with travel time to Asia I would probably need to use up my entire yearly allotment of paid time off to make it worthwhile! Maybe if I plan a trip around the cusp right before my PTO days renew...

You've got me salivating on all these photos. I think that's why I really enjoy certain foodie shows, like Anthony Bourdain's, because he always makes it a point to try out the street food, not just the haute cuisine.

Bangkok food tour is on the bucket list for sure!

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