Home sweet home! You never truly appreciate your own backyard until you’ve traveled through a developing country that took 30 hours to get to. To say my travels throughout South East Asia were life changing would be the understatement of the year!
The last Thursday of June, I hopped on an two flights totaling 20 hours at 30,000 feet with Philadelphia-based food, wine and travel reporter Brian Freedman. Brian contributes to several publications including Saveur, Philadelphia Style, Philadelphia Weekly and internationally famous restaurant and travel reporter John Mariani’s newsletter, making him the perfect traveling partner!
Armed with our laptops, ipads and plenty of reading material, we settled into the first leg of our journey. After a somewhat comfortable but grueling 15 hours, we landed for our layover in Taiwan. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant in the airport and ate the most amazing dumpling noodle soup I have ever tasted!
Our culinary tour had begun!
Satisfied and full, we headed onto our next flight. After our exhausting journey we arrived in Bangkok and were greeted by Chef Alex Boonphaya of Circles Thai in Philadelphia! Thrilled to finally be in The Land of Smiles, we wandered into a back alley restaurant and ate our first authentic Thai meal. Each dish was more decadent than the last, filled with exciting ingredients and distinctive flavor combinations.
After lunch we checked into the stunning Mandarin Oriental Hotel, known for its unparalleled service, luxury spa, dining and leisure facilities! Drained, we headed to bed to rest for the next day’s adventures.
The next day we woke up and hit the streets of Bangkok with Chef Boonphaya. We feasted on mouthwatering stewed pork (including the intensely flavorful intestines) over long grain rice and cilantro for breakfast, followed by spicy octopus skewers seared over a smoky charcoal grill that we passed along a bustling street. Talk about a flavor explosion! We nibbled our way around back streets and neighborhoods known only to locals, as Chef Boonphaya gained inspiration for Circles Thai’s street food menu.
After an afternoon of culinary delights, we loaded onto a tuk-tuk and traveled to the largest produce, meat, fish and textile market in Bangkok. This market had everything, including snacks of chewy pig heart skewers, sweet baby pineapple slices, and grilled fowl. The air was heavy with exciting aromas from street vendors grilling everything from fish to poultry to pork and lots of offal. (Much different than my usual shopping trip to Wegmans!)
The next morning we visited the spiritual center of Thailand; we were awe-struck by the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho and the ornate architecture encasing the spiritual landmark. After our inspiring morning, we had a delicious lunch in an assuming street food stall inside a bustling market near the royal palace. After lunch we took a speedboat down the Chao Phraya River back to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and packed up for what we thought would be a three-hour drive south to the Hua Hin Hills Vineyard. Unfortunately for us, Bangkok’s infamous traffic delayed us, and our three-hour drive turned out to be a five-hour odyssey.
Needless to say, we missed our tasting of the Hua Hin Hills’ award winning wines. We did, however make it to the winery to meet our host, the lovely Chiraphan Permsuwan, who showed us around the 500 acre estate and introduced us to Fatty and Honey Bee — two charming, super intelligent elephants who serve as tour guides for the hillside vineyard. Their gentle personalities were the highlight of the afternoon, as we enjoyed the sights of the beautiful rolling hills.
We booked a 10 a.m. tutor tasting for the next day and then made the short drive to the seaside town of Hua Hin, where we feasted on spicy whole fish, head-on steamed and garlic fried prawns, succulent octopus, crispy pork and greens and lots of Singha Beer. The scenic beach town was such a contrast to bustling Bangkok, but definitely a welcomed change of scenery!
Bright and early the next morning we headed over to the stunningly gorgeous Hua Hin Hills winery and tasted some of the best wines produced in Southeast Asia! (see http://www.huahinhills.com/.). We traversed the 500 acre estate atop Fatty and Honey Bee while learning about the exacting approach to soil preparation, grape growth and wine production that rivals top wine producers in California, France and Italy. After lunch we enjoyed a 6-course menu paired with winery’s various vintages in their breathtaking restaurant.
The following day, we flew to Phuket to examine the cuisine around some of the coolest beaches in Southeast Asia. From our Asia Air Boeing 747 at 10,000 feet we saw the incredible Indian Ocean dotted with hundreds of jagged edge mountains.
Excited to explore the incredibly beautiful island in the south of Thailand, we hustled off our flight and began investigating the cuisine from some of the most gorgeous beaches I have ever visited.
After a culturally rich day filled with fresh seafood and local hospitality, we ventured to the town of Patong on Phuket’s west coast. The seaside resort was bursting with tourists and locals buzzing around on motorcycles and scooters, and the views of the mountains meeting the beaches were truly spectacular.
Later that evening, we bounced around several notable restaurants tasting unbelievably fresh seafood. After indulging our shellfish craving by gorging on gigantic river prawns, we retired to our hotel rooms to rest for the next day of adventures!
Next, we traveled to Chiang Mai, the largest and most culturally significant city in Northern Thailand. The metropolis, which boasts a population of about 1 million residents, attracts over 5 million visitors each year, and was named one of the “25 Best Destinations in the World” by TripAdvisor in 2012!
Upon arriving, we wove throughout the sweaty crowds while taking in the unusual activities at Chiang Mai’s night bazaar. Chef Boonphaya purchased spices and different local ingredients, while Brian and I sampled northern Thai cuisine and bought souvenirs for our loved ones.
The next day we journeyed to visit and sample the cuisines in neighboring Laos and Myanmar, located in the Golden Triangle located a few hours north. We munched on the indigenous cuisine at lunch and were fully impressed by the bold flavors and inexpensive check! The total price for lunch for three hungry travelers with one liter of Leo beer was $6! No wonder 5 million people flock here each year. Not to mention the gorgeous scenery, tropical rainforest (complete with elephants, monkeys, snakes and waterfalls!), opulent temples, rich history and delicious cuisine which all contribute to the appeal of northern Thailand. No wonder it is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world!
We also visited a silk factory, and watched lavish silk being spun from worm into beautiful textile. It was so interesting to watch the complicated process while soaking in the rich culture. Inspired by the silk production, we each bought a few beautiful custom suits for about $100 apiece!
Nearing the end of our trip, we ventured back to Bangkok to see and taste some ingredients that we didn’t have a chance to enjoy earlier on our trip. Exhausted, we enjoyed the gorgeous pool and amenities at the incredible Mandarin Oriental Hotel. We finished our trip by experiencing Bangkok’s upscale nightlife. We toasted our unforgettable trip with drinks atop the State Tower (featured in The Hangover Part 2) and savored the gorgeous panoramic views of Bangkok for the last time!
The next day we packed our bags, and began our 30-hour traverse home. As we neared home, we were welcomed with a processional of over 50 firework displays as we landed in JFK! Watching the glittering light show sprinkle Manhattan was the perfect way to return to American soil.
Now that I’m home, I am excited to see which Thai dishes and ingredients will make it onto Circles’ new menu! After literally eating our way through Thailand, Chef Boonphaya is ready to share his culinary expertise with Philadelphia.
Click here to view a short film of our travels through Bangkok:
Click here to view a short film showcasing our tour of the Hua Hin Hills Winery, and our travels around Phuket and northern Thailand: