Shuffling my bags between the seats of Da Luigi’s Italian restaurant, the waitress greeted me with her signature Thai smile and asked ‘Have you just arrived?’ ‘Yes!’ I boasted, though as the answer left my mouth I wondered why I just lied to this lovely lady. “Uhm, no. Sorry. I’m actually leaving … on my way to the airport in fact” came my attempt at redemption. After four days in Bangkok I was not ready to leave and my subconscious was clearly doing its best to trick me into missing my flight. Madam Bangkok had charmed me, wooed me and most importantly, as a woman travelling on her own, she had taken good care of me.
Booking this impromptu getaway just a few days prior to departure meant there was not much time to prepare. This however was not going to be a problem, I decided, as the ultimate goal was to immerse myself in Thai cuisine and simply let Bangkok take me where she wanted. It wasn’t until a friend noted how brave it was of me to go on my own, and my mother gave me a particularly heavy dose of be careful, that I wondered if going solo to the City of Angels was one of my brighter ideas.
The usual safety warnings apply here as in any large city, however the warmth and openness of Bangkok’s inhabitants, along with the organised chaos of the city, guaranteed an experience that was nothing short of uplifting and comforting. Even the weather played it’s part in making sure BKK quickly became one of my BFFs. June is officially rainy season, however I witnessed only two (impressive) downpours, each lasting about 30 minutes and flanked by sunshine on both ends. The same breeze that rolled in the rain clouds was a welcome travel companion, gently rattling the trees that line many of Bangkok’s old streets.
As my culinary adventure began, I assessed my total knowledge of Thai food: spicy, hot, creamy, red, green or yellow curries, pad thai and oh yes, coconut milk, that was it. Like most visitors, my knowledge of Thailand was based on a handful of renown dishes served in Thai restaurants throughout the world. Just as a woman conquers a man’s heart through his stomach, some countries have successfully conquered visitors through dishes their emigrants exported. Thailand’s tourists today choose to visit based on the promise of amazing food as much as white beaches, colourful nightlife and lush vegetation. With food being such an integral part of the culture, learning more about the exotic ingredients and preparation techniques was my way of securing a unique souvenir: Thai cooking skills. Long after the snapshots have been put away and the tan has faded, the pungent smell of kaffir limes, galangal, hot chillies and lemon grass in your kitchen will transport you back to sunny Thailand, no matter how cold or rainy it might be outside.
Despite English not being spoken extensively, travellers will have little trouble when visiting the main tourist sites, negotiating with shop owners or dealing with taxi and tuc-tuc drivers. The lack of Thai language skills can however limit the culinary experience as most local restaurants and eateries do not offer English menus. I wanted to try more then the usual Kang Keaw Wan Gai (green chicken curry) or Pad Thai (fried noodles) so I knew I needed help with my linguistic barrier. Furthermore, as a solo traveller I hit one of the few great limitation of travelling alone – the amount of food you can sample. To overcome both these obstacles I enlisted the services of Bangkok Food Tours and found myself embarking on a half day Historic Bangrak Food Tasting & Culture Tour. My thought process was simple: what better way to learn about a city then to eat your way through it?
31C at 10am is a hot morning even by Bangkok standards, so when I met our guide Olivia and was introduced to my fellow food enthusiasts, I wondered how the day would evolve. Over the next three and a half hours we visited five very different restaurants strolling through colourful back streets and taking a short boat ride across the river, all the while listening to our guide as she enlightened us through the headsets we received that comfortably overrode the sounds of Bangkok traffic.
The visited restaurants offered samples of the many influences that make up the rich heritage of Thai cuisine as we know it is today. Looking down at the steaming roast duck served just after 10 am made us wonder if we were as enthusiastic about food as we thought. It only took the first bite however to crush any ideas that this might be odd. The Chinese might have had a large influence on Thai food, introducing dishes such as the afore mentioned roast duck, but the locals have perfected it. I am not afraid to say that I never tasted such tender roast duck in China.
Next we were off to the “Muslim Restaurant”, an institution in Bangkok. Having been in the same location for over 70 years, it is a testament to the Indian influx the founder brought with him when he moved to Bangkok over 100 years ago. They say the recipes are prepared the same way they were when he was running the business. Once again as we arrived, our table already awaited us and our sampling plates appeared like magic. The dishes might not seem large at first, but by the time we finished, just after 1 pm, there were serious doubts any of us would be having dinner that night.
The company that organizes these walking tours is the brainchild of three friends, all food bloggers, who realised the popularity of Thai food while studying for their MBAs and PHDs in Atlanta. Whenever they were invited to a pot luck dinner, they would bring Thai dishes which always proved to be a success. Blogging about the food was an easy way to answer their friends’ questions about recipes and ingredients. Upon returning to Bangkok, the three realised no one was bridging the gap between food and culture that tourists craved.
‘We wanted to create tours that make visitors feel as if they are out on a walk through Bangkok with a friend” says Kitichai Siraprapanurat, the Managing Director and one of the company founders. With a limit of 12 people, the tours are intimate, friendly and everyone gets a chance to pick the guide’s brain. By the time we finishing the last dish – Thai Style coconut ice cream – we were all exchanging travel stories as well as contacts to keep in touch. (To view images of the tour click here)
Having now been introduced to new dishes such as Curry Lava on Egg or Yum Pla Dook Foo (crispy catfish green mango salad), I yearned for more hands on involved and was finally ready to get my hands dirty, literally.
There are numerous cooking classes and schools in Bangkok but I chose the Silom Thai Cooking School because the half day cooking class included a visit to the local market. It was precisely the long list of ingredients I had never heard of that kept me away from any serious attempts at Thai cooking until now.
By 9 am my very international group of 11 fellow master chefs had assembled on Silom street where we were met by Nusi, the schools proprietor and head instructor. After a quick roll call and introductions, we walked about 500 meters to the market where we each received a bamboo basket that the vendors knowingly filled with the goods we needed.
Snaking his way through the crowded stalls, Nusi illustrated the qualities and purpose of each ingredient we took with us. Slowly but surely my fear of unknown ingredients melted into the hot summer morning and I couldn’t wait to get behind a wok.
The walk back to the school afforded me the chance to get to know my classmates and I realised what a motley crew we were. Our group was composed of two sun drenched Dutch lads on their way home from four fun filled months in Australia, two EVA air hostesses enjoying a day off, a Singaporean couple that had us in stitches as the wife whacked her husband and shouted “Look! Learn!” at regular intervals, a mother – daughter duo from down under and a couple of Canadian girls. Who would have guessed scraping coriander roots and pounding chillies with a group of people I had never met before could be so much fun?
Having prepared and eaten 5 rich dishes by lunch time, I knew I could not eat another thing all day, so once more I let Madam Bangkok lead the way. Again she knew best, and soon enough she had me climbing the Golden Mount to burn a few of the morning’s calories, cooled me down in the trendy Bangkok Art and Culture Center and pampered me with what can only be described as a mesmerising 90 minute massage to finish of a perfect day.
Bangkok is often portrayed as a fun-filled destination for die hard partygoers or backpackers on a shoestring budget. The city is rarely associated with being a good place for solo travellers, especially women, looking for a good blend of art, food, history and sophistication. Treat Madam Bangkok as the wise old lady she is, listen to her and let her lead the way and she will unleash her secrets to you as well.
Silom Thai Cooking School – 2 classes a day, 5 days a week; cost 1000 Baht including transportation, all ingredients, refreshments and meals; bookings and contact www.bangkokthaicooking.com
Bangkok Food Tours – 3 tours, contact the company for specific days; cost from 950 Baht; bookings and contact www.bangkokfoodtours.com
Bangkok Art and Culture Center – Location: National Stadium BTS Station (across from MBK shopping centre); closed Mondays; free entrance; www.bacc.or.th
Massage – 90 minute aromatic massage 900 Baht at Mulberry Spa; www.mulberryspa.com