Four cities, three countries, four restaurants serving superior food, providing community training and accepting reservations – you’ll need one.
Bangkok, Thailand and Vientiane, Laos provide an abundance of eateries from street vendors to luxury hotel venues like Bangkok’s Centara Grand Hotel’s 55th/56th floor Red Sky dining room and Sky Bar.
Yet in remote villages, some reachable only by boat, tools invented centuries ago are still used for preparing important aspects of traditional cooking such as sticky rice, eaten at every meal.
Grains of sticky rice are sun dried and then the hard hull must be broken and sifted away using large woven baskets. The young mother of this household gave me permission to film her children providing the power to operate the hull cracking tool.
The abundance of South East Asia’s food supply is not lost on its restaurants.
In the Laotian capital, Vientiane’s Kong View provides beautiful vistas of the Mekong River while preparing excellent dishes such as salt grilled river fish.
On a quiet street within the historic French colonial core of Vientiane, reservations may be necessary on weekends for Dining at Ban Vilaylac.
Soon to be on every foodie tourist map, two year old Bangkok’s Look-in Restaurant makes both a mean pizza and the best Tom Kha Gai I’ve eaten. Chef Wan gave me his Recipe for Tom Kha Gai.
Enjoy all my articles at Suite101.com and International Dining Examiner and Philadelphia Fine Dining Examiner for Examiner.com
“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.” ancient Chinese proverb.
The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.
Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker – to revive Asian silk.
As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages. These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.
Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.
Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.
Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.
Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.
Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.
The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.
Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.
Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.
Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:
“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran
“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803 – 1873)
“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)
That’s two-time Academy Award winning actor, Sir Michael Caine,* listening to a profound statement on the necessity of Western intellectuals to adopt an enlightened vision of the future…no. It’s the response on asking a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the best way to cross the street. From recent personal experience, this is a profound – some might say life affirming Q & A.”
Although far more people walk than in any American city I know – pedestrian friendly is an alien concept in Asian consciousness. Sidewalks do exist but, even if they are wide, nearly every square meter is occupied by vendors or motor bikes using the space as parking lots. Congestion on these sidewalks frequently made me use the street sharing the often narrow space with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all.
To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which on the many 2-way streets or 3-street intersections comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The gentleman’s response to Michael Caine’s question was not flippant. It takes a sturdy centeredness gained through Buddhism, or tenacity, to calmly sense the correct timing and enter the traffic. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and accidents occur.
I knew none of this when I arrived in Bangkok. Six weeks later, leaving Saigon, perhaps I’d become a Buddhist as I simply spent no more than a ½-second contemplating my move across the street.
My wife, on the other hand, followed Michael Caine’s plan of action, “We looked for groups of Buddhist, inserted ourselves into the very center of them and crossed when they did. If I was going to be mowed down, at least I’d be in the right company.” * Except Jill looked for any vendor pulling (yes, pulling) a cart – frequently old women – and, using them as a human shield, crossed when they did.
Was it fun at first? No. Did I react negatively? Yes. I “threw the finger” at one SUV in Hanoi, after a particularly disappointing meal. He was shocked. After all, he was only going 35/mph 10 feet from me, but I lost my cool and failed to realize he’d never want to splatter me across the street – not as long as the Lord Buddha was watching over us all.
* “The Elephant to Hollywood,” by Sir Michael Caine
The 1951 musical, The King and I, is banned in the Kingdom of Thailand. The fictionalized script, based on the memoire of Anna Leonowens who served as tutor to the children of His Majesty King Mongkut, Rama IV, from 1862-1867, is highly offensive to both the Chakri dynasty and Thai society. Considering that the most onerous objection is the fictionalized portrayal torture and execution of Tuptim (who actually became one of Rama IV’s 36 wives) and His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, the 83-year old current monarch is a direct descendent of Rama IV, one might understand Thai sensitivity. When it comes to the monarchy, Thai sensitivity is high – it is a revered institution (with a capital “R”). Not only that, Rama IV started the modernization of both the monarchy and Thai society which is exactly the reason he hired Anna as governess to his children.
Following the destruction of the great 14th century Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1782 at the hands of the Burmese, the founder of the Chakri dynasty, Rama I, moved the capital 40 miles south and established Bangkok. King Rama I literally had the course of the Chao Phraya River altered along with the construction of numerous canals to surround the new capital with a watery moat. That same year, he began the construction of the half square mile Grand Palace complex on the river’s bank. At the center of the complex is Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (actually solid jade and robed in rich garments that change with the seasons. The Emerald Buddha itself was a prize of war from present day Laos centuries ago.)
The scale of most structures is so vast that it’s difficult to capture with a camera, but the artistic craftmanship is nothing short of stunning.
The Grand Palace complex today serves official functions only, as well as being Bangkok’s top tourist attraction. Admission to the complex is US$6.50. Photos are not permitted inside any of the few buildings open to the public, and shoes are always removed inside Temples and most Thai houses. Wandering the complex grounds is fascinating enough.
In the 1890’s His Majesty King Rama V found life in the Grand Palace too frenetic and moved the residence of the Royal Family to the Dusit area of Bangkok several miles inland from the river. There on a vast track of land that he personally purchased, he commissioned his European educated architect brother to design and construct the world’s largest all golden teak building, Vimanmek Palace (no interior photos, of course). The 72-room Palace would be comfortable as a mansion in any Victorian seaside town. Built in traditional Thai style there is not a single nail in the entire structure. Wooden pegs join everything including spectacular circular staircases.
Unlike so many mansions, this was a home. It’s flooded with light and well ventilated with intricate wooden lace work topping all walls allowing air to freely circulate. It serves as a museum today for the royal collection of period furnishings and for both official and private functions of the Royal family. Currently, it is now part of the extensive private compound of the Royal family including the Royal Elephant Museum and the Dusit Zoo. Admission to the Palace is included in the ticket for the Grand Palace and is valid for a visit within 7 days of the ticket’s purchase. One hour guided tours are conducted and, wearing no shoes, the silk-smooth teak floors feel wonderful on your feet.
Bangkok is young and chaotic. Founded only in 1782 (Philadelphia, USA, is a century older) after the Burmese destroyed the truly fabled capital city of Ayutthaya, the site of Bangkok was chosen for strategic purposes – protection from the Thai’s arch-enemy the Burmese. Like Venice, it was marsh land surrounded by rivers. The king immediately constructed a system of canals creating a virtual moat around the city – and like Venice the elevation of the city is sinking.
It’s a city of contrast; not only rich and poor but architectural styles as well – condo skyscrapers next to river shanties, 19th century shopping districts and modern malls, dubious electrical infrastructure, scorching heat/ humidity (even in “winter”), cooling parks, trees, flowers everywhere and exquisite topiary.
Would you believe Bangkok’s a clean city? Believe it ! Trash on the streets is virtually non-existent despite the constant and lively street life. Legions of street sweepers and building maintenance workers constantly sweep up even leaves and fallen flower petals.
Traffic is horrendous! I spent one hour in a taxi to travel less than 4 miles – of course the fare was modest and the cabs are mostly new, comfortable air-conditioned Toyotas. Yet for less I could have taken a Tuk-Tuk – a motorcycle pulling an open air covered wagon – or, for even less, rode on the back of an orange shirted motorcycle “taxi.”
Yet, built within the past decade, the ultra modern, ultra clean and comfortable Sky Train elevated and the subway system will whisk one around the central core of the city (about one-third of Bangkok) for less than taking the average city bus in the USA. Despite the chaotic traffic I’ve yet to see a dented car.
There are over 35,000 Buddhist temples (Wat) in Thailand, 300,000 Buddhist monks, shrines everywhere – street corners, in malls, in front of every house, in parks, restaurants and hotels with burning candles, incense, flowers and food offerings. Just about every other world religion is present as well. In the Robinson Department Store just down the street from my hotel is a Muslim prayer room.
Shoes and hats are never worn in Thai houses of worship, or, for that matter, in any Thai home. The dirt of the outside is left outside. Floors are immaculate – not a speck of dust.
Everything is available from street vendors, especially food. The Thai’s seem to eat constantly yet I have not seen a single person you could call even slightly overweight. For a Westerner, the cost of food is embarrassingly cheap. In the pictures below, the sushi and superbly grilled trout, plus a rice salad and miso soup in a small nondescript Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall cost less than a Big Mac in the States.
In the three days I have wandered the city I have experienced nothing less than the utmost courtesy whether in a tourist attraction, on the Sky Train or the street. I have yet to see any public display of anger or bad behavior. The police are friendly and helpful – what a contrast to so many countries.
Children seem to be revered and the photos below sums up my impression of Thai friendliness – figures of laughing children are everywhere, especially in the gardens of the Wats (temples) and street the vendor’s baby in the crib is cooled by a battery-powered fan. Bangkok may be intolerably hot and humid, chaotic and perhaps not “fabled,” but it has a more valuable treasure – it’s friendly.