By Gary Singh
I am listening to a baby grand piano crank out a velvety instrumental version of Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose. No vocal, just the piano, and I can’t tell who’s playing it. Situated right smack in the middle of the floor at Methavalai Sorndaeng Restaurant in Bangkok, the piano necessarily completes the bizarre colonial-era throwback scenario I find myself in.
One of Bangkok’s oldest and more famous restaurants near the Democracy Monument, Sorndaeng provides just such a retro experience. Judging by the décor and the dress, it may as well be 1956 for all I know.
The food satisfies: Fish cakes, a ridiculously spicy Tom Yum
Goong, some Green Curry Chicken, plus an unlisted menagerie of scallops and basil. They even throw a duck in there too. At the end, we receive mango and sticky rice for dessert, like anyone would. Dessert would not be complete, however, without the middle-aged woman who begins to belt out easy listening tunes
in front of the piano. I recognize an insipid Jerry Vale track in there somewhere.
The Sorndaeng Restaurant experience sets in motion a tear through Thailand, one through a decidedly selective filter. I will only pay attention to whatever falls between the cracks of normal observation. Everything else I will attempt to ignore, wherever possible.
Enter the Garden
I cannot ignore, however, the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden near Pattaya, as something like 2000 visitors descend upon its 600 acres of ornamental flowers and plants daily. The enormity of the place is staggering and the riot of topiary verges on the supernatural. To adequately experience what the property offers would take at least a weekend, so a variety of accommodations exist—everything from lakeside terraces to budget options.
The offerings at Nong Nooch include 300 types of cactus, an animal topiary garden, a blue leaf garden and a ridiculous Disneyland-style pottery garden with sculptures made from clay pots. One particular garden features 10-meter bottle-shaped trees from Australia. In another area, one finds over 300 bromeliads. The world’s largest palm collection is here, as are antiques, elephant shows, restaurants, performances, wedding facilities and a conference center.
I chose Stonehenge. Copied from the original Stonehenge in England, an entire replica of the ancient megalith sits in the open air. Each stone pillar appears to be present in its proper place. Adding to the complex is Nong Nooch’s own take on astrological-looking topiary.
Unlike the actual Stonehenge, though, anyone can enter the area and walk around. It’s a perfect Vegas-style living facsimile for anyone to conjure up conspiracy theories about Druids, hidden British history or the sun god’s takeover of the World Banking System. Either that, or Spinal Tap lyrics.
At one precise location, a black-wire fence, maybe five by five meters, surrounds a few trees. It is off limits, but through the chain-link fence I view particular species of exotic coconuts that apparently exist nowhere else on earth but Nong Nooch Gardens. There they are, growing right before me. I felt like a ghost looking in on some bizarre genetic experiment.
Cured By Herbs
A much more subdued and esoteric plot of land exists at the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhon Herbal Garden, where 260 medicinal herbs of about 20,000 herbal trees are cultivated. The placards alone conjure up enough mystery to make the visit intriguing.
Divided into 20 groups according to their medicinal properties, the herbs are explained on the placards. One finds sections titled, Diuretic, Anti-leprosy, Oxytoctic, Heart Tonic, Anti-Cancer, Anti-hemorrhoid, Treatment for Skin Diseases, Anti-inflammatory, Aromatic Plants, Expectorants and more. As a hay fever and allergy sufferer, I was quite intrigued to inspect the antihistaminic agents. I almost swiped a few plants, but I chickened out.
Whether one takes a guided tour of the entire facility or just wanders around alone, a ton of information is supplied via printed materials. For example, the humid, tropical climate of Thailand leads to multiple insect stings, so morning glory and aloe vera are planted in the detoxificant section. Star fruits occupy the anthelmintic (worm-killing) area. Tamarind and lime can function as expectorants. As many as 28 herbs are planted in the section labeled antipyretic (reducing fever.)
I am not surprised that Thailand is among the world’s leaders in medical tourism. After exploring the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhon Herbal Garden, I am more inclined to trust anyone affiliated with this place than anyone working in the crooked American pharmaceutical industry.
Takin’ it to the Streets
By the time I infiltrate Bangkok, street vendors beckon me from every nook and cranny. Some of the best Thai food anywhere appears behind the scenes at a ramshackle street cart, a makeshift setup, or from just a few people grilling their goods on burners stashed in the back of a pickup truck.
Street food is king in Bangkok. I discover some of the tastiest slabs of papaya I’ve ever consumed. I pay about the equivalent of one American dollar for a bag of papayas. In fact, even if one drives through back alleys on a tour bus, quite a common occurrence, a simple gaze out the window provides a tourist’s eye view of the locals at work, hawking their wares on the street.
Lottery tickets are also common. People appear to be selling them everywhere—roadside gas stations, pedestrian segues, and parking lots. Folks down on their finances, by Western standards, will sit around at the entrance to convenience stores, public restrooms, or other gathering places and set themselves up with flats of lottery tickets. It’s a regular sight.
I am listening to the original version of Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head by B.J. Thomas. A long-haired shaman-looking dude with all sorts of accouterments and bracelets and things crouches over a large table stocked with bootleg music CDs from all over the world.
Here at the Pattaya Floating Market—a giant interconnected compound of teak houses and floating paddle boats—the bootleg music dude waves his arms in the air to the music as a crew of sunburned Caucasian tourists picks through the CDs on his table. It seems like everywhere I roam in Thailand, I am assaulted with horrific easy listening tunes from the 1970s. The Floating Market is no exception.
Spread out over 100,000 square meters, the Floating Market divides up into four different regions of Thai cuisine—Northern, Central, Northeastern, and Southern. One can stop and bargain for tourist trinkets, watch impromptu dancing or sample all sorts of crackpot delicacies. It is the biggest manmade floating market in the world.
I scope out natives as they offer New Year’s blessings by pouring water on statues. Seven figurines of the Hindu God Ganesha, the one with the elephant head, signify each day of the week. People stop by to either pour water on each one, or just the one designated for their day of birth.
Even though Theravada Buddhism is the predominant perspective here, Hinduism tends to weave its way into the fold everywhere. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I don’t know which day of the week I was born on, so I just throw water on everything.
One particular vendor offers grilled squid and I make a beeline to her stall upon sight. She pulls the pieces from the grill, slices them up with a pair of scissors, and then presents me with the food in a plastic container. It comes with a cup of ridiculously spicy green chili sauce. As I turn around and wave goodbye, I notice that a group of camera-toting Chinese tourists are about to partake as well. The squid rocks.
Silken Splendor From the Sky
While the street vendors specialize in local eats, one must beware of anyone claiming he sells “100% Thai silk.” It’s often a scam. One has to go straight to the source instead.
Located in Chiang Mai, Jolie Femme is world-renown. Scarves, jackets, dresses, and walls of pure silk are for sale. Much of it is not cheap, but there are a few small things one can stash away in a carry-on bag.
I creep into the place during a torrential downpour, but the employees seem hardly phased by the weather at all. They aren’t going to stop it by complaining, that’s for sure. One woman even offers me cups of tea, so I oblige. One purchase—an eclectic art-deco-looking scarf—is all I need. A gift for someone it shall be.
Despite the massive downpour that blankets parts of Thailand during my short trip, I manage to remain dry and my psyche is well. The journey is winding down and I have especially blown away while navigating the Umbrella Village in the small roadside community of Bo Sang, near Chiang Mai. Hundreds and hundreds of cheap but durable bamboo umbrellas lay piled up all over the place. Some are waterproof, while others are made just for the sun, but every one of them is cheap.
I begin to dread my decision to only travel carry-on, as hardly any of these rugged implements would fit my suitcase. But nevertheless, I have hope. If I ever get frustrated with those crappy $6.99 umbrellas at Walgreen’s that never seem to last more than two weeks, I can always return to Chiang Mai and purchase one for the same price that will last years. What a deal.
All Cooked Out
On the final activity of my tear through the country, I am learning how to cook Tom Ka Gai, a coconut chicken soup, at the Baan Hongnual Cookery School in the suburbs of Chiang Mai. One of the women teaching the class, Phantanan Jala, who goes by the nickname, ‘Pam,’ offers me a beer at 10 am, but I turn her down. I opt for more pandanus tea instead. The pandanus leaves actually come from the garden outside.
Cooking classes are the rage all over Thailand these days, with many varieties of experience available. Sometimes a family simply opens up its own kitchen for the public.
In other instances, as with Baan Hongnual, a more professional setting awaits, with several cooking stations spread across someone’s backyard. They even take guests shopping at a local market to choose all the ingredients.
Throughout the morning-long class, I learn to cook four dishes, consuming them one at a time. Pam smiles and giggles at everything and clearly enjoys teaching foreigners how to cook. I will never look at pickled radishes the same way again.
In the end, I am quite disenchanted at having to return home. Before I get back in the vehicle, Pam asks me what the weather is like in America. I say I don’t know. It’s too big of a place.
Gary Singh is an independent journalist who surfaces most often in San Jose, California. He contributes to numerous trade and consumer magazines as well as his regular stories on GoNOMAD.