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February 21, 2011

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Eating your heart out in Bangkok

WHEN Shanghai was incredibly cold, I had an incredible five-day vacation in Bangkok where the sun is inviting, the sky is tranquil and the food is, especially considering the soaring cost of living in Shanghai nowadays, cheap and good.

My first meal in Bangkok was in the living room of the service apartment we rented in the bustling Sukhumvit area. We arrived at nearly 3am Sunday but the streets were still crowded with happy party people - then I realized that we were situated next to what is called Nana area, full of bars, bar girls, she-males and the ever-present street food vendors.

As we passed the vendors, we saw beetles, scorpions, ants and other critters available on a stick but we opted for the "safer" crab and pork meat sticks and Thai-style sausages, all grilled over charcoal. Each costs about 15 baht (49 US cents). Since it was Chinese New Year, we celebrated the first night - or rather, morning - with a bottle of champagne, which turned out to be a surprisingly good combination with the street treats.

In Bangkok, street food isn't like the skewered meats you find on Shanghai streets late at night. From dawn to late night, street vendors in Bangkok prepare all kinds of food, from traditional Thai food such as Pad Thai (Thai-style fried noodles) to Chinese-style noodle soups and fried rice. I was told that if I had a hard time deciding what to eat, just follow the locals.

Street vendors are everywhere and people from all walks of life enjoy them. You are most likely to find food hawkers near the BTS Skytrian stations along the sidewalks. Even residential lanes are dotted with stands selling peeled fruits and juice, as well as occasional sellers who only make a single dish.

The Chatuchak weekend market is one of Bangkok's must-go tourist spots. Known as the world's largest weekend market, it features more than 15,000 booths selling literally everything. To me, it's like a place combining Shanghai's Qipu Road market of cheap clothes and counterfeit branded goods, Confucian Temple book market, Dongtai Road antique market, Jiangyin Road flower and bird market and Wujiang Road food street - all rolled into one.

Remember to wear airy clothes, comfy shoes or slippers to the market. The weather can get into your head sometimes.

After a whole morning's adventure in the sprawling maze of stalls, we had lunch at a food station specializing in deep-fried chicken wings served with glutinous rice. (Similar food can be found elsewhere in small cafes scattering the market.)

Try also Som Tum (spicy green papaya salad) made from shredded unripened papaya, sliced long beans, tomatoes, chillies and garlic, resulting in a rounded sweet-sour-spicy flavor that is not easily forgotten. It was a wonderful traditional meal, and cheap as well - 100 baht is enough to make you very full since most dishes cost only 30 to 40 baht.

Apart from traditional Thai food, there are also plenty of other eatery options, including numerous drinks and snack vendors. I highly recommend the freshly squeezed orange juice (20 baht for the small bottle, 50 baht for the big one), longan water and strawberry smoothies.

Seafood lovers should head directly to Chinatown. We spent our second evening walking around Chinatown where big neon signs were everywhere and traffic was really bad. Most of the business was shutting down except a lively mix of street food stalls and shop-house restaurants with tables on the street.

T&K Seafood is one of them. Located on what is probably the busiest street corner in Chinatown, the popular restaurant is housed in an old, three-story building with an outdoor space filled with cafeteria-style tables. Ask for indoor upstairs seating if you want to sit in the air-conditioned environment. However, many people just enjoy the outdoor fun when they can see fresh seafood cooked right in front of them.

The food at T&K is fresh, tasty and good value. We ordered almost every sea creature on the menu - two fried crabs with ginger and onion, giant prawns in curry paste, two deep-fried whole fish with and without soup, deep fried squid, shrimp and oyster omelets and blood clams. The Pak Boong (fried morning glory), another staple Thai cuisine, was also the best I'd ever had. All these, plus large bottles of Singha beer (for five adults) cost less than 2,400 baht. What a deal!

Speaking of traditional Thai dishes, my long-time favorite has always been the Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soup). During the trip, I took the rich-flavored soup at least once a day in different restaurants. In general, it is a bold, refreshing blend of fragrant lemongrass, chillies, lime leaves, salty fish sauce and many other secret ingredients - but each restaurant has its own recipe.

So, after at least six or seven bowls of Tom Yum Goong, I would suggest trying the hot and sour fare at Erawan Tea Room, a cozy, elegantly decorated restaurant on the second floor of the Erawan Mall, a haven for high-fashion boutique shoppers next to the famous Erawan Shrine. The restaurant serves traditional Thai food complemented by a wide range of tea selections and refreshing beverages, in a hotel-quality environment, with hotel-quality service but at surprisingly reasonable prices.

The bill for two of five dishes is about 1,200 baht. Apart from the Tom Yum Goong featuring a generous portion of fresh river shrimps (served in a clear soup base without coconut milk), the red curry duck, which is a rare find in Thai restaurants in Shanghai, also tastes heavenly for its tender, moist meat and creamy, aromatic yet not-so-spicy curry paste.

Shopping is undoubtedly one of Bangkok's major attractions. Whether you are looking for branded or locally made items, the Thai capital has it all. A fashion writer myself, I've noticed that Thai local designers are as phenomenal as international fashion chains in Bangkok. Local fashion brands such as Greyhound, Flynow and Tango can be found in all major shopping malls such as the Central World, Emporium and Siam Paragon.

My last meal of the trip happened to be in Greyhound Cafe, a bistro opened by the namesake Bangkok fashion pioneer. One of the most stylish restaurant chains, the cafe sells a good mixture of Thai and European food in a slightly fusion style, with a focus on salad, sandwiches, pasta and Asian-style noodles. And I was very happy to be surrounded by stylish, good-looking young fashionista diners.

The Complicated Noodle (140 baht) is one of the cafe's signature dishes ordered by almost every table. It came with paper-thin sheets of square-cut noodle, fresh lettuce leaves, minced pork sauce and chili sauce and you had to create your own way to wrap them all.

The Greyhound Famous Fried Chicken Wings (100 baht) are deep fried marinated mini chicken wings in unique fish sauce - another must-try. Oh, and don't miss the dessert, as the Coconut Sherbet (65 baht) is incredibly sophisticated and refreshing, a perfect ending for a wonderful meal.

Wherever I found it - in a fine-dining place, at a shop-house restaurant, on the sidewalk or just in an alley - Bangkok food never failed to impress. I can't wait to return for more.More to know

? The BTS Skytrain (and MTR) is the safest, quickest and most convenient way to get around. Foreign tourists should avoid taxis, since most refuse to use a meter.

? The massage school in Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha, offers authentic traditional Thai massage at reasonable price (580 baht for 90 minutes).

? Convenient stores like 7-Eleven only sell alcohol beverages from 11am to 2pm, and 5pm to 12am.

? Lingerie by brands such as Triumph and Wacoal, and denim jeans from Lee and Levi's are sold in Bangkok at half or even one-third of the prices charged in Shanghai.

? The popular Suan Lum Night Market near Lumphini Park was recently closed for good.


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