We spent an afternoon in Bangkok’s Chinatown. It felt somewhat like New York’s Chinatown, but with a lot of street food we hadn’t seen. The guidebook said it would be an overwhelming experience, but we were kind of unfazed. Myriad random products were on offer — packs of two-hundred "I’m the bomb" stickers, deep-fried squid, paper shirts for burning as an offering to ancestors, vats of what looked like sea cucumbers, Hello Kitty earmuffs, and a big bucket of something’s liver. We ate a wonderful variation on the pork bun — it looked like a pork bun banana split. The bun was split lengthwise, with ground pork filling, a flower made of pork, and a chestnut. We also had a really nice green tea custard cake. There was a half constructed building — maybe a temple, and a crowing rooster, hen and pile of puppies played in some of the excavated dirt around it. This bucolic scene was kind of incongruous in the middle of the city.
We took the river taxi and skytrain to our dinner destination, The Blue Elephant restaurant. It’s a chain of high-end Thai food with locations in places like London and Lyon, and has fairly recently come to Thailand. It’s located in a really lovely old wood Thai house; high-rises and skytrain platforms have grown up all around it. We had a prix-fixe meal and sampled a lot of traditional Thai dishes. Most items were quite familiar to us. The food was very good.
Another day, we visited the Jim Thompson House. Jim Thompson was an American architect and soldier who ultimately settled in Bangkok in the 1940’s. He fell in love with the people and the land, and saw an opportunity in Thai silk. He began exporting it to the US, and it really took off when featured in the film version of "The King and I," which I don’t think Thais are very fond of. He lived in a Muslim, silk-producing section of Bangkok, and built a wonderful house there. He basically bought several traditional wooden houses from various areas outside town, and had them reassembled and joined on his plot of land. The resulting house is a merging of Thai and Western styles, with a black and white marble floor from Belgium and Italy, chandeliers from France, and artwork from all around Southeast Asia. He used some of the Thai house components in nontraditional ways, such as putting some of the shutters on the outsides of the windows, or placing some carvings traditionally found outside the house inside. The traditional Thai house has a staircase outside; Jim’s was inside. There are lots of great old doors and wood fittings from various eras and cultures incorporated into the house as well. He had a great eye, and created an amazing haven.
This fellow was in a large ceramic bowl, and came to look at us.
Our guide told us that Jim saw a fortune teller who told him that since he was born in the year of the horse, he had to be careful during his sixty-first year. That year, while taking a stroll in Malaysia, he simply disappeared. No one knows what happened to him.
Since his death, his company has continued to make and sell Thai silk to westerners; they have stores all over Bangkok. The Jim Thompson House also hosts contemporary art and design shows; there was a LaCroix exhibition on when we were there.
After Jim Thompson’s House, we visited the Snake Farm. There are so many poisonous snakes indigenous to Thailand, they’ve set up one of the only snake farms in the world. Snakes are raised so their venom can be converted to antivenin, to cure people bitten by snakes. Since the snake farm’s establishment, many of the species farmed have become endangered, so the facility also helps to conserve rare snakes.
They raise money by putting on presentations to the public. We saw a great show where various workers at the farm brought out extremely poisonous snakes and showed us some of their behaviors — cobras rearing up at sticks, or a snake being milked. Our favorite was a snake who feeds on other snakes, who must be force-fed pork.
After stuffing raw pork into its gullet, a man moves his hand down the snakes throat to push the food to the stomach.
They’re not able to feed the snake its normal diet of other snakes, so they must force it to eat the pork. Although it doesn’t enjoy the feedings, the snake is healthy.
After making a new friend at the Snake Farm, we went to an "art cafe," featured on the Chandler map, to discover it was closed. So we had a beer at a great Irish pub. Afterward, we walked through Lumpini Park, Bangkok’s version of Central Park, in the dark. Lumpini’s nightly aerobics were happening. Hundreds of people gather to sweat to the oldies each night, and we saw people of all ages boogeying down.
Down the park’s center were large plackards with photos and text describing various eras in the current king’s life. The display was sponsored by Canon.
That evening, we went to the Night Market, which pales in comparison to the wonderful Weekend Market. After a couple hours of perusal, we headed in the direction of an “art café” off the Chandler map. We walked in the dark, along a freeway, through a poor, shack-filled neighborhood, then through a rich, condo-filled neighborhood. We took lots of wrong turns and were hot and sweaty by the time we reached the café. We’d been expecting a funky hippie gallery and café, serving hummus and earth-burgers or something, and were surprised to discover a beautiful old wood home, housing a high end restaurant, where we had a great meal.