We’re Only Happy When We’re Shopping

by Nancy Bestor

I’m fascinated with markets. Show me a market—any kind, anywhere, but especially overseas—and I am happy to wander aimlessly up and down aisle after aisle, perusing the goods on sale, watching folks make purchases, and getting a glimpse into how people in other countries live their lives. On our recent visit to Bangkok, Bob and I visited their Amulet Market, Flower Market, Talingchan Floating Market, Flashlight Market, Chatuchak Weekend Market, and the Wang Lung Market—all in just four days. Each and every market was mesmerizing, just like Bangkok itself.

When our frequent flyer tickets routed us through Thailand’s capital, on our way to New Zealand, we thanked our lucky stars, and arranged to stop over for five nights. We’d last visited Thailand 13 years ago, and had only spent two days in Bangkok, so we felt we were long overdue for another visit. We booked lodging in an out of the way neighborhood, which, although it required extra work to get to and from, proved to be a highlight of our trip. The Siamotif Hotel is an old wooden house, the hotel owner’s original family home. It is located in the traditional district of Thonburi, directly on the Bangkok Noi canal which is part of the Chao Phraya River. My is the proprietor of this charming nine room hotel, which cost us about $100 per night. Although not cheap by Thailand standards, our hotel was stunning in looks, service and accommodation, and included a full and delicious breakfast each morning. We could not have been happier. My and her sister Toon (two of seven daughters in the family) treated us as if we were family members, walking us to the bus stop, telling us to be careful, worrying when I felt unwell one morning, and making certain our experiences in Bangkok were everything we wanted. Staying at the Siamotif required us to take more local transportation to get where we wanted—including ferries and local red truck taxi buses— but in our eyes, this only added to its charm.

DSC03632

We had no real agenda for our stay, other than to soak up as much Thai culture as we could, and there is no better way to experience Thai culture than at an open-air market. Markets in Bangkok are everywhere, and on our first morning, we took the taxibus to the Talingchan Floating Market, where we feasted on many Thai delicacies, including mango sticky rice and a whole fish—snakehead—with a delicious spicy green dipping sauce. Talingchan is a starting point for canal boat tours. We took a great one, semi-private (with just four others), for less than $5 each. The long boat toured us through the waterways, and for about an hour we saw Thai life from the river, up close and personal.

The Amulet Market was another hit that first day, where serious shoppers (all Thai, we were the only tourists) used loupes to closely inspect statues, buddhas and other talismans. The market was not well lit, and with statues and other talismans staring out at us as we strolled the aisles, it was quite atmospheric.

DSC03808

The Chatuchak Weekend Market is likely the biggest market I have ever visited. The largest market in Thailand, Chatuchak has over 8,000 stalls, broken into 27 sections. Even with a map of the market, it is easy to get turned around, and from personal experience, if you see something you like, you should buy it, because you may never be able to find it again. We ate great Thai soups, then Pad Thai and papaya salad a little later (wandering in markets makes me hungry) and finally topped our meal off with coconut ice cream, which was the bomb. Our visit to Chatuchak Market was capped off with a foot massage. For 45 minutes, two very strong-handed Thai women rubbed and massaged our feet and lower legs, all for the low price of $5. I could definitely get used to that.

Another fantastic market was the Pak Klong Talad, or in words we can all understand, the Bangkok Flower Market. Although it’s open 24 hours a day, this market really gets going late in the evening and continues into the wee hours of the morning, as that is when fresh flowers are set up, and restaurants and hotels come to buy them. We were on a night bike tour when we visited (more on that in a future email newsletter), and were able to ride our bikes right through several of the market’s warehouses. Once we parked our bikes and walked along the market lanes, we were able to smell the tremendous variety of deliciously aromatic and beautiful flowers for sale. A visit to this market is a sensuous delight.

DSC03843

Food stalls at all the markets produce an amazing variety of dishes that are both delicious and incredibly cheap. We got fairly good at ordering and eating small portions, so we could try more things more frequently. On our last trip to Thailand, one of our local tour guides told us that most Thais eat many meals out, because it is inexpensive (and dare I say delicious) for them as well.

DSC03739

Another great window shopping experience was a visit to the religious shops block, Th Bamrung Meuang, which is one of Bangkok’s oldest streets. While not a traditional market, these two blocks house shop after shop of religious paraphernalia, including Buddha statues the size of a car, garb for buddhist monks, altars, and much more. This was fascinating, and again, we appeared to be the only tourists.

DSC03696

We read in our Lonely Planet guide about a Bangkok neighborhood in which several families still make traditional monk alms bowls out of steel and copper. They are the only remaining folks that still make these bowls, as most monks today use inexpensive factory made bowls. The narrow street showcases a handful of different families working outside their somewhat ramshackle shops, hammering away at their creations. It was impossible for us to walk down this narrow alley and not buy a bowl. They are formed from eight separate pieces of steel, representing the eightfold path of Buddhism. The pieces are then fused with copper, and polished with black lacquer. They are beautiful, and we ended up carting home two of them in our suitcases. I highly recommend a stop here.

Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible for us to duplicate authentic Thai food at home. We can make good American Thai food, but it simply doesn’t compare to the real thing. Every once in a while, however, when I pull out some Thai seasonings, I smell something that reminds me of those Bangkok markets, and I smile. I’m ready to go back and wander the markets of Thailand some more.

In a Town This Size, There is No Place to Hide

by Nancy Bestor

bridgeOur town of Ashland, Oregon has a population of about 21,000 people. Coming from the Bay Area 22 years ago, Ashland felt like a really small town. After living here as long as we have, I’m certainly used to small town living now. There are so many things that I love about it – running into my daughter’s pediatrician in the park and having her ask me if she is feeling better and does she need more medicine; having the UPS man deliver a package to me even though it was incorrectly addressed; and the lack of any traffic whatsoever. There are certainly times, however, when I long for the Big City. Thus on city visits for business or family time, I try and soak up as much atmosphere as I possibly can.

Last month I was in the San Francisco Bay Area for business and family combined, and enjoyed two great big city experiences. Every Friday night, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) sponsors Friday Nights @ OMCA. From 5-9pm gallery admission is half price, there are about a dozen Off the Grid food trucks parked outside, a cash bar set up (outside-ish), and live music and dancing near the museum steps. This is every Friday night, all year round. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit twice now, and have loved it both times. It is so fun to watch the wide array of people—young and old—dancing salsa or swing or tango. I’ve seen folks dancing interpretatively all by themselves, grandparents cutting a rug with their grand-babies, teens boogie-ing in groups, and fabulous couples who move effortlessly as one, obviously after years of experience dancing together.

IMG_3208

On my most recent visit, my sister, brother-in-law and I even took in a few exhibits inside the museum. This included a short term Day of the Dead exhibit and a permanent exhibit on the history of California and its settlers. Both were fascinating. I highly recommend a visit to Friday Nights @ OMCA, and a half-price ticket to the Oakland Museum is well worth it if you have the time.

IMG_3217

Another fun Bay Area experience was a walk I took one Saturday morning along the “new” span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The east span of the Bridge was replaced in 2013, with an entirely new look. It is now the world’s longest Self-Anchored Suspension Span and includes a pedestrian/bicyclist pathway (approximately three miles one way). This pathway offers a fabulous view of the Bay, the 525 foot Bridge tower, and the old bridge, which is currently being dismantled/demolished. On the day of my visit, a portion of the old bridge was dynamited at 7am, and when we walked across the Bridge at 11, cleanup was till taking place on the water below us. It’s a noisy walk, as cars and motorcycles are whizzing by you across the Bridge while you’re walking, but you really can’t beat the views back to the city of Oakland and its ports, and forward towards San Francisco. The San Francisco Bay Area really is a beautiful place, and a walk across the Bay Bridge just amplifies that allure.

IMG_3227

So yes, I’m happy to live in my small town, and to enjoy its truly special advantages. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy my forays into the big, anonymous City, where I can pretend to be a great dancer who just happens to stop by Friday Nights @OMCA to show off my salsa dancing skills. Until, that is, I actually start dancing.

For The Love of the Food Cart

by Nancy Bestor

foodcartI’m a huge fan of the food cart. No matter the city or country I am in, if I have the choice between a food cart and a brick and mortar restaurant, the food cart wins most every time. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe my brain sees the food cart as more authentic, maybe cheaper, or maybe the truth is, I just believe food that comes from a food cart tastes better.

Portland, Oregon seems to be ahead of the curve with its plethora of food trucks, and its blogs and books devoted to the food cart scene. Every time I visit the City of Roses, I’m sure to hit the downtown cart pod on Alder and 9th, for chicken and rice at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, or a pork sandwich at The People’s Pig, or maybe even Pad Kee Mao noodles at I Like Thai. I have also sampled cart cuisine in cities throughout the US, and based on my experiences, Washington D.C., San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles all have their share of delicious roaming restaurants too.

Our food cart passion also kicks in when we’re abroad. Bob and I drank phenomenal fresh squeezed pomegranate juice in Shanghai, and ate the best stir-fry noodle dish ever on a random street corner at another random cart. In Mexico City, we ate succulently rich deep IMG_0503fried gorditas at a food cart on yet another street corner. The atmosphere certainly isn’t fancy, napkins might be hanging from a cord, and the seating (if there is any) might be plastic kiddie chairs or short wooden stools, but for me, that just makes it better. I’ll never forget on our trip to Thailand more than 12 years ago, we ate every day at a local woman’s food stall on the island of Koh Phi Phi. This was our first experience eating at a food cart in a foreign country. We pointed to the ingredients we wanted her to include, and had to let go of the fact that she had no refrigeration, and her chicken was just sitting in a cupboard under her cook stove.

In the US, within the food services industry, food carts have a bit of a bad rap. Restaurants don’t necessarily like them, as they can take away their business, yet the carts don’t have the overhead that a restaurant has. Although I see their point, I’d like to think food carts and restaurants can find a middle ground, as I believe there are enough customers to go around. And not every diner is willing to stand in line outside and then find somewhere to eat, often also out in the elements.

That can be one of the food cart downsides, especially here in the US. There is rarely a set eating area, so you often have to find a bench, or a patch of ground, or in some cases sit in your car and eat. But how bad can it be to have the wonderful aroma of say, Tom Yum Soup, filling your car for a short while?

IMG_0482

Deep-fried gorditas in Mexico City – YUM!

Food carts are often the first place budding restaurateurs try out new menu ideas. Los Angeles chef Roy Choi put his toe in the water with his Kogi Barbecue Taco trucks before going brick and mortar. The Grilled Cheese Grill in Portland might do the same, with inventive specialty sandwiches like Grilled Jalapeños, Colby Jack, Cream Cheese, and Corn Tortilla Chips on Sourdough. (I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely feeling a bit peckish right now.)

Maybe in the end, the truth is that I love food carts because I think they are hip. And I’m always looking for an excuse to convince myself that I am as “with it” as my college and high school aged daughters are, and eating at cool food trucks helps me feel like I am on the cutting edge of the food scene. (I am right?)