Soi 18. Sukhumvit 36. An unremarkable Bangkok alley that we came to believe was the magical creation of Thailand’s Lewis Carroll or CS Lewis. We’d booked a couple of nights in the Rembrandt Hotel to give our spines the chance to unroll after our long flights. The hotel helpfully put a third bed in one room, and went out of their way to make us comfortable.
Just a step or two from our hotel, our first good food find. P Kitchen’s cheerful staff served an astonishing range of fresh-cooked food with great depth of flavor. Stephanie ordered mussels with garlic, lime and cilantro. These were served cold with all the garnish piled high on each mussel shell. It hadn’t been quite what Steph had expected, so she approached the first half shell with caution.
“Whoa” she said “Try this”
Star did, and then urged me to have one.
“I’m not sure about cold mussels for breakfast”, I said slightly stiffly. My spine still had some way to unroll.
“No honestly — do it. It’s intense. Refreshing. Really good”
It was— like the jolt of a shooter and the joy of the first chew of a citrus Starburst.
“What’s yours like Ma?” Star gestured to my plate of fried morning glory with a side of red onions in rice vinegar, fish sauce garlic and chili.
“It tastes like air”
“Like air? Let me have some”
The curls and squiggles of green were caressed by a water- washed sunset tempura batter. These were hard to transfer by fork or spoon. All the more for me.
There was so much we liked the look of on the menu that we came back two or three times. We still hadn’t ventured more than 100 yards from the hotel, and it was tempting to stay put.
Culture called however and so on New Year’s Eve we left Soi 18 to take a trip to the Grand Palace. Not one of the taxi drivers was using a meter because the traffic, even by Bangkok standards, was spectacularly bad. We dismissed two drivers who were just being silly, and came to an agreement with a third. We soon worked out why the traffic was so hideous– every Thai seemed to be on their way to temple. We shuffled our way through the turnstiles at the Palace entry and followed the directions of patrol cops with whistles as we moved around the grounds. It was still possible to get good pictures, but only by looking up. Luckily much of the spectacular detail stretches towards the sky. Even the monks have iPhones now. I saw two taking each other’s photos, though they seemed to draw the line at selfies. Good luck with all the “no touching” business in that crowd.
We never saw the Emerald Buddha. There was just too much of a throng. The next taxi driver we negotiated with, managed to trap three of my fingers in his roll-up window, which he chose to close as we were getting into the car. I’ll have a black nail to remind me of this for quite some time.
My memory of Bangkok in the ’90s was that it was all scooters and Tuk-Tuks and buses, with the air a constant black-grey fug. Today there are more cars than any other form of transport and what felt like slightly cleaner air, although we all suffered some dry hacking from the back of our irritated throats. Street signs too have changed. They are in Latin and Thai script today, which makes the whole experience much less overwhelming. Thailand has definitely got the hang of the tourism thing.
No transportation issues at the long tailed boat tour, but I did manage to stumble off the narrow path through the orchid farm, and thus into ankle-depth black mud and green slime. That’s the end of those white sandals.
Reluctantly, we decided we really should venture beyond P Kitchen on New Year’s Eve, but we still found it impossible to make it past the end of the Alley. The Lean On Tree had soft shell crab curry and sea bass poaching in a hot and sour sauce. The restaurant served cocktails. We felt a little disloyal but perhaps we liked it even more than P Kitchen?
On the 31st, in order to maximize space in their rooftop bar, the staff at the Rembrandt had removed all the chairs and scattered spandexed and lurexed hi-top tables where the chairs used to be. When I explained I had trouble standing, the bar manager immediately arranged for the return of an armchair. I sat in state close to a DJ who had almost certainly checked X in answer to the gender question on the hotel’s application form. He or she had blue hair, an enviable waist, and great taste in techno music. The kids criticized me for my shoulder moves saying that all great dancing requires a lead from the hips. I ignored them and grooved in my granny chair. We were up until past 1am. Jet lag was working in our favor.
Star had arrived in Thailand with a bad cold– and a bottle of NyQuil spilled all over the clothes in her checked-in bag. The bottle, which she was sure she had closed with a childproof click, was missing its top completely when she opened her case, and everything she’d packed was stained and sticky. The woman above a small reflexology shop on the Alley offered a laundry service. Everything arrived back on New Year’s Day, immaculate, folded, ironed and wrapped in plastic.
We lunched at the Palm 18 Cafe in the Alley, decorated with cloth light shades in bright colors and walls appliqués with large paper cabbages. The flair expended on interior design sadly did not extend to the kitchen. The food was fine, but not interesting.
“It’s the kind of Thai food you can get at home” Star pronounced “Starts ok but goes nowhere. Bland. Ordinary. Made to make money, when it should be made for love”
On the plus side the cocktails were divine. I had a Na-Palm, a concoction of Thai whisky and fruit juices, described as a perfect afternoon drink. Stephanie had a drink in aquarium colors and Star had a Pina Colada. Her sophisticated taste in food is counterbalanced by a love of sweetie drinks.
The girls went to the hotel pool and I opted for a Tiger Balm massage at Dao in the Alley. Most of the other people being stretched and skewered and pummeled were Thai. It is to be hoped that they weren’t put off by my involuntary cries during much of the neck and shoulder and lower back work. I asked for a liberal application of Tiger Balm, advertised inevitably by Tiger Woods. Star hasn’t felt the lack of the spilt NyQuil because she has my deteriorating joints to sniff. My full-body embrocation could clear all the congestion in Bangkok itself. And of course a bowl of red curry is also helpful when it comes to sinus therapy.
Although there was now no imperative for clothes shopping, the girls decided that a trip to a night market was still warranted. We left the Alley soon after dark, and tussled with a couple more taxi drivers until we found one prepared to run his meter. The market was a bust– filled with faked designer brand watches, sneakers and belts at what still felt like ludicrous prices, and tat that now sells more cheaply at Walmart or Matalan or Claire’s accessories. That’s the trouble with the western world –anyone can get anything anywhere– it takes the fun out of holiday bargain hunting.
The vibe at the market had changed since I was last in Bangkok more than 20 years ago, although mounds of unwanted elephant-patterned drawstring pants still remained. This is a garment that does no-one any favors. In the ’90s, there was a constant scrum of vendors swarming each tourist. Now they wait to see what a shopper touches because she cannot resist. Even then, today’s vendors will wait for an inquiry about the price, and then turn the question back on the prospective buyer:
“What will you pay?”
No suggestion of “for you I make evening price”. I found it disquieting.
Stephanie bought a pair of sunglasses. They’d better be Dior for that’s $12 she’ll never see again.
Leaving the market, we took a disappointing turn and found ourselves in what must be the only stretch of street in Bangkok without a restaurant. Whether it was the after effects of the massage, the many steps at the Grand Palace, or an ill-fated attempt to jump over Star’s suitcase when she left it blocking the bathroom door at the hotel, my back and knees ached. We all wanted to sit down and eat. Eventually we spotted a rainbow-bright sign for a rooftop restaurant accessible by a series of escalators, or by an elevator in a spa.
The early signs weren’t good. The young waiter, who seemed to be working almost alone, was bent in near-constant apology. The extensive menu was printed in a jumbo font so it could be read in the dark. The first two dishes we asked for weren’t available. The Mai-Tais (when they came) were heavy on the orange juice and light on liquor. From there it only got worse.
Not once but three times, a waitress wordlessly dumped a dish we hadn’t ordered on our table, each time turning away before we could point out the mistake. The first was a bowl of fries. The second a chicken dish that Stephanie ate some of, so we could be sure it was something we didn’t want. The third was a large plate of chicken satay. By that stage the ever-so-humble waiter was forced to travel from table to table asking who’s order he’d misplaced, and trying to drum up interest.
Star, half-asleep, had lost all enthusiasm for her cocktail. I decided to move to beer, and Stephanie asked for a shot of rum to see if it could pep up what was left in her glass.
“A rum and coke?” asked the Asian Uriah.
“No, just a rum” said Stephanie, gesturing towards her glass.
We reminded the waiter a second time, about 10 minutes after this exchange. At no point did anyone ask “dark or light? or Thai or Jamaican?” This was not a problem. By then anything would have done.
By the third pass I had decided to be firm.
“Bring us the rum now and check on the food. We have been waiting an hour ”
The waiter scuttled off and came back with a colleague bearing—yes, a rum and coke.
I’m afraid I bellowed at them both.
I finished with another exhortation to bring us our food– although anyone else’s order would have sufficed. The waiter backed away only to return a few minutes later to say another part of our order was unavailable. It seemed our ticket had still to reach the kitchen. Any kind of cooking had yet to commence.
We gathered our belongings
“You can give us the drinks for free” I said “we can’t wait any more”
“No ma’am you have to pay for the drinks, but you don’t have to pay for the food” said the waiter, suddenly showing the beginnings of a spine. Too late.
On the way out of the restaurant we passed the second waiter carrying a glass of rum.
“Too late” I said. He turned away. For a minute it looked like Stephanie might go after him.
As we got into the elevator, a policeman was getting out, presumably to apprehend another group of frustrated would-be diners who’d refused their drinks bill. We exchanged good evenings with him and descended, crossed the spa floor and left the restaurant. It took us a couple of goes to get a taxi driver prepared to use his meter.
By the time we got back to Soi 18, me still savage with hunger and the other two silent and tired, P Kitchen was closed.
“See you in the morning” said our favorite waiter, trying to sound upbeat. He could see our disappointment. Too late.
We walked to Lean On Tree as fast as we could. They had just closed, but because they knew us, they agreed to rustle up a soft shell crab in tamarind sauce, and a couple of red curries. It pays to have friends in the alley.
We had breakfast this morning at P Kitchen. A green curry with shrimp and roti. A shrimp yellow curry. Shrimp fried rice wrapped in an omelette and served with a chopped fresh chili relish.
As we left, a sous-chef in charge of cutting and squeezing a big bag of at least 150 limes turned to us and smiled.
“See you next time” he said. We are allied with the Alley.