Nine years ago I began work on what was to be Travelers’ Tales first published work,Travelers’ Tales Thailand. During our research, we came upon a wonderful story by Kemp Miles Minifie, senior food editor at Gourmet magazine, on the Thai Cooking School at The Oriental, Bangkok. Because I loved to cook the story piqued my interest, and the editors subsequently chose to include it in the book. Later I taught myself to cook Thai food, using a wonderful cookbook by Vatcharin Bhumichitr. I scoured Asian markets for ingredients, tested and retested recipes, using family and friends as guinea pigs, and hoped that my creations were indeed close to the real thing. And every time I make a Thai curry, satay, soup, or salad, I am reminded of the original article and the Thai Cooking School, hoping one day to be able to spend time there and learn from a professional.

It’s finally hitting me–California is far, far away. I’ve just endured eleven hours on the first leg of a full Thai Airways flight from Los Angeles to Osaka that included two big meals, three movies, and a snack. In between naps and walking around to reduce the painful swelling in my feet, I have brief moments of lucidity where I realize that I am finally going to Thailand, with the blessing and encouragement of my family, friends, and co-workers–and all by myself! I am the lone holdout on the Travelers’ Tales staff, the one non-traveler, and I am about to spend twelve days realizing a dream–The Oriental, Bangkok Thai Cooking School–as well as touring around the southern half of the country at seaside resorts and a Thai rainforest.

Even after all the planning and reading (and planning and reading is my job), I suddenly feel very unprepared. I have packed for 90 degree weather and 95 percent humidity, but have never experienced such weather. I have read all I can about the four destinations I have chosen, but still feel as though they will be surprises to me. Normally, the feeling of being unprepared scares me, but today I just feel excited and blessed. I am on my way to the other side of the world.

At the Oriental, Bangkok

Master chef Sarnsern shares the secret of Thai peppers
Master chef Sarnsern shares the secret of Thai peppers

Today is Monday, July 16, 2001, eight years after the publication of Travelers’ Tales Thailand, and I have just returned from my first cooking lesson from Sarnsern Gajaseni, the master at the Thai Cooking School at The Oriental, Bangkok–the fulfillment of that dream. I found Sarnsern to be extremely knowledgeable, not only of Thai ingredients and food, but of its origins, and he has a wonderful sense of humor to boot. It is a joy and a pleasure to learn from him and mend the errors I might have made along the way attempting to teach myself. The attendees–Americans, Japanese, and Thai–all appear eager to learn and are put at ease by his relaxed, but professional, style of teaching. He pays individual attention to each student during the course of the day, explaining things that may be of particular difficulty, translating ingredients into other languages, or suggesting substitutes that might be found in native countries.

After four hours of instruction on the basics of Thai ingredients, herbs and spices, and walking us through the preparation of four different appetizers, we all sit down to a lunch of the items just prepared, noshing on: Goong Hom Pha–artfully wrapped prawn rolls–Khow Taang Na Tang–herbed peanut sauce with rice crispy chips–Yaam Tua Pu–herbed salad with winged beans, and the very spicy-hot Pla Nuea Yaang Gub A-Ngoon–spiced salad with grilled beef and grapes. The only thing missing is an ice-cold beer to wash it down.

After all that, I find myself sitting here in my room, staring out the window at the Chao Phraya River, with a full stomach and a smile from ear to ear. I think I’ll get that cold beer and celebrate my dream come true.

Our room in the Garden Wing at The Oriental overlooks the mighty, and muddy, Chao Phraya River. All day and night the traffic passes us by–water ferries with their whistle signals, longtail water taxis, multiple barges towed by little tugboats, grand tour ships, and a variety of local boats on their way up- or downriver. Judging by the traffic on the roadways, the river is, by far, the best way to travel. It is quick, cheap, and allows one to see the sights sans the smell and pollution on the roads of the city.

Buddhist temple on the Chao Phraya
Buddhist temple on the
Chao Phraya

Jennifer and I decided to jump on a ferry going upriver, which cost us the grand total of 20 baht (about 45 cents). Settling into our seats by the open air window, we rode along for almost an hour to the end of the line. Sprays of water kept us cool as we passed hotels, ornate wats, a Thai naval fleet, apartments and homes of all statures. The ferry is quite populated, primarily by Thais returning home at the end of the work day. Civil servants, business people, and school children cram onto the ferry taking every available space, with those standing in the back hanging on for dear life as we speed down the river, stopping frequently (and briefly) at various docks. In that hour or so we traveled about twelve miles, then jumped on another ferry for the return ride home. By comparison, the same distance on the roadways would have taken twice as long, given their congestion, and been twenty times the price. And the ferry was ever so much more pleasant and afforded us the opportunity to see significantly more of the sights and life of Bangkok.

Susan enjoying fresh squeezed juice and the view from the Oriental Bangkok
Susan enjoying fresh squeezed juice and the view from the Oriental Bangkok

Given more time here, I could spend days on this river highway, exploring the hidden corners of Bangkok, seeing how the people live, the floating markets, and enjoying the cool breeze that escapes the downtown streets that are crammed with food stalls, cars, tuk-tuks, mongrels, and beggars. I regret not being able to stay longer to do so, as the Chao Phraya enchants me. The time I spend in my hotel room, day or night, is sitting at the open window, taking in the sounds and sights it affords me. And tonight, as the brightly lit ferries and dinner cruises float by, I know that what I will miss most when I move on will be my river view.

Next: A Taste of the Night

About Susan Brady:
Susan Brady has filled various roles throughout her nine years with Travelers’ Tales, having been with the company since its inception. She is currently director of production, responsible for book and catalog production, scheduling, inventory, print buying, and general office management. When not slaving over books, she lives the life of a typical soccer mom in the suburbs with her husband, three children, two cats, and iguana. Before coming to Travelers’ Tales, she helped birth babies rather than books as the director of The Birth Place Resource Center.