Tokyo: With Money to Burn

From having a chef prepare teppanyaki in your own exquisite limestone-cave-reminiscent dining room, to eating in front of a multi-story glass-paned wine cellar, to mouthwatering foie gras-topped wagyu inside of Tokyo’s most exclusive private club, to painstakingly perfect sushi so gorgeous that you hesitate to eat it, if you have a plethora of ¥10,000 yen notes, I have the places for you to spend them. I also have the places for you to avoid like the plague, places that are date ruiners, places that could cause whoever you are with to look at you with contempt if you take them there. Knowledge is power.

Azuman|2-3-9 Azabujuban, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 106-0045, Japan +81 3-3454-5871
Opening Hours: Lunch: Monday – Saturday, 11 am – 1 pm | Dinner: Friday – Saturday, 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm.
Closest Subway Station: Azujuban

Azuman plays it so cool that, even with highly precise directions and the GPS on my phone repeatedly announcing that I was standing directly in front of my intended destination, I found myself staring at a brick wall, mouth open, baffled. Neither neighboring shop on either side of the alleged restaurant/actual brick wall had any idea what Azuman was, nor recognized the logo on the business card that I showed them. It was a riddle wrapped in a mystery. Just as I turned around to leave, a black-tinted, nondescript door on the edge of the flower shop to the edge of the brick wall caught my eye. No sign, no indication of where the door led to, no clues. With nothing left to lose, I stepped inside. Darkness fell upon me, but, dim light spilled down from the top of the steps on the second floor. Gingerly walking up, ignoring the nagging feeling that I might be barging directly into someone’s living room, I heard the gentle murmur of voices. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, I turned to the right, where a wide-eyed Japanese hostess greeted me. “Irrashaimase,” she cooed. “Welcome to Azuman.” Leading me into a cozy little waiting area, where the rest of my lunch party was already waiting, she informed me in Japanese that it would be just a minute before our private room was ready. Less than 15 seconds later, before I even had time to properly sink into a soft leather chair, we were led away.

Where you wait for your private room to be ready

The cozy little waiting area

As we passed the long communal counter that ran perpendicular to most of the private rooms, I was able to peer into the open doors.

If you are not feeling a private room, you can also eat lunch at this elegant counter.

One of the private rooms

One of the private rooms I passed.

Finally reaching our private room, I noticed that the configuration was exactly like the counter in the main part of the restaurant, meaning that it was difficult to hold a conversation with anyone except for the people seated on either side of you. However, with this configuration, everyone had unobstructed interactions with the various members of staff that rotated on and off of the other side of the table: the sommelier, the chef, and the restaurant’s manager.

My private room seated 5.

The enthusiastic sommelier.

Another member of my lunch party ordered for the table, meaning that I never even peeked at the menu. This was not a great loss, as I doubt they even had a menu in English. Instead of fretting over what to eat, I sat back and enjoyed a perfectly chilled glass of champagne.

A pretty appetizer

My pretty appetizer: tempura something with flowers.

First came a pretty little appetizer, tempura something with tiny purple flowers. While I didn’t care for the sauce it was floating in, the presentation was aesthetically pleasing enough to overlook it.

Followed by this

Ensuite…

The next appetizer was a mystery. Cucumber and salmon were involved, but beyond that I know nothing.

Then this

The hot mess.

The next dish was a hot mess of assorted seafood and vegetables.  I stoically worked my way through the dish, feeling slightly bored and unimpressed with all that had been on offer up until now.

Next, some little plates were placed in front of me.

Next, some little plates were placed in front of me.

Suddenly, glistening chunks of wagyu caught my eye at the same time that three bowls of seasonings and a slate plate with horseradish and wasabi were placed in front of me.  I looked up, hopefully. A chef entered the room. Pensively staring down at his chopsticks, he lit a small fire. A plate of sliced vegetables was placed next to the plate of wagyu. Australian Shiraz pooled ruby-red in our wine glasses. A hush fell over the group. The stage was set.

The chef appeared

The pensive chef.

I was like, "Let's do this!"

I was thinking, “Let’s do this!”

So he did.

He cooked our lunch with a small charcoal fire and chopsticks. La classe.

Yummers.

Yummers.

The wagyu was by far my favorite part of the meal. Added bonus: fried garlic chips!

Japanese digestive soup

Japanese digestive soup

As the meal wound down, I was given a bowl of miso soup, the traditional ending to a Japanese meal. Each restaurant makes their miso soup just a little bit differently than all of its competitors, so I always enjoy trying a mouthful or two of it when eating somewhere for the first time.

Dessert

Dessert

Dessert was a slice of mango cake with a scoop of indeterminate ice cream. At this point I was so full that it took everything in me to feebly manage one spoonful of sugary sweetness.

Looking back on this lunch, months later, I can not tell you how to get to Azuman, even with the restaurant’s business card, even with the GPS on my cell phone. However, I clearly remember the mouth-watering flavor of the wagyu chunks and the poetic melancholiness of the chef. While this is an excellent place to have a quiet lunch with friends, it would be a nightmare for a non-Japanese speaker. Bring a Japanese friend.

Lunch for one at Azuman, without wine, is approximately $150 USD. Good luck finding it.

Dazzle|2-4-1 2 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0061, Japan +81 3-5159-0991
Opening Hours:  Dinner: 5:30 pm – 10:30 pm
Closest Subway Station: Ginza

The wine cellar at Dazzle

The multi-story glass-paned wine cellar at Dazzle is the show piece of the restaurant.

Dazzle is yet another somewhat difficult restaurant to find. Even if you manage to locate the elevator and press the button to the correct floor, you’ll notice that you’ve been deposited squarely in the middle of the restaurant’s kitchen, with, in my case at least, several chefs and sous-chefs eyeing you. Don’t worry. You are, in fact, exactly where you’re meant to be. Turning to the right, a small, nondescript area contains two hostesses, one of which will gently guide you over to them if you become frozen in the gaze of the kitchen staff. After crossing your name off of the reservation list, one of the hostesses will lead you to another, smaller elevator. The first elevator you had to come up in was not large to begin with, or even normal sized, so this smaller elevator is one you should only enter with people you wish to know intimately. It is Parisian-sized. You will take the elevator up one floor, and, stepping out, rest your gaze on one of the most gorgeously weird wine cellars I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. It is the focal piece of the main dining room and something about staring at the dark bottles of wine in the multi-story glass structure is soothing.

Dazzle describes itself on its website as follows, “Dazzle’s vibrant kitchen is alive with sights, sounds and flavor to excite the senses. The beautiful open design makes you part of the kitchen as we blend the best of traditional cooking technique with the finest ingredients to create a uniquely contemporary cuisine.” I think that the open design makes you part of the wine cellar, and not part of the kitchen, which is not even on the same floor as the dining area. In any case, it is a weirdly, and wonderfully designed, multi-level space.

I found myself at Dazzle for a wine dinner that promised excellent pairings of Shafer wine with each course. Reasoning that, even if the food was boring, the wine alone would be worth the cost of the meal, I went with relatively high expectations. While all of the Shafer absolutely lived up to its reputation, the food was also surprisingly good, if not innovative. My only objection went to the summer truffles in the venison tortellini, as no good truffles come from the summer. The truffles were tasteless, but that was only to be expected.

The wine dinner I attended

Zee menu.

Here are Dazzle’s DinnerDessertWine and Cocktails menus. This would be a safe choice to bring a date, business associates or friends. While the food is not particularly exciting, the quality is consistent and the decor is intriguing. Dinner for one, without wine, runs approximately $100 USD.

Decanter at Tokyo American Club|2-1-2 Azabudai, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 106-0041, Japan +81 3-4588-0675
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday, 6 pm – 11 pm. Closed Sunday.
Closest Subway Station: Azujuban

Decanter is one of my happy places. Part of Tokyo American Club, where I am a member, it is conveniently located for spontaneous steak cravings in an upscale setting. I go so often that all of the staff know me by name, which is nice. It is also a three-minute walk away from the fitness center, which is even nicer. Eating dinner at Decanter feels like being back in the States, which is incredibly comforting when constant Japanese food starts to feel overwhelming.

Decanter’s website describes itself as follows: “The Club’s flagship culinary destination, Decanter, invites diners to indulge in its playful avant-garde concept. Featuring an eclectic mix of Las Vegas- and Hollywood-inspired spaces and menus, diners can expect nothing less than impeccable service, fabulous new American fare and uncomplicated dining fun, partnered with one of the country’s finest wine collections. Decanter, which is open to adult Members and non-Members alike, offers seating for 60 in the main dining area, with up to an additional 40 in the dining bridges, FLATiRON and the intimate chef’s table.”

Decanter

Decanter

Low lighting, discrete seating arrangements and luxurious velvet chairs make Decanter a blissfully romantic place to bring a loved one, or someone who you would like to become a loved one. Besides couples murmuring softly to each other, I often see groups of businessmen intensely negotiating deals over $400 bottles of wine and groups of women chatting over cups of tea. The views from the floor to ceiling windows are stunning, the food is delicious and the staff is incredibly attentive. Not only have all of the servers memorized my (never-changing) order, but they also remember whatever I told them the last time they saw me and follow up on it. “How was your trip to Scotland,” “Did you have a nice birthday,”  and “How much longer before your cats arrive,” are only some of the questions I’ve been asked. Everyone working in Decanter is kind, without being uncomfortably familiar, and quick to do any and everything that could make your experience at Decanter any more pleasant. Tokyo American Club’s President is known to walk around the restaurant, shaking hands with all of the members, which is also a fun experience is you are lucky enough to be there at the same time as him.

Zee menu

Zee iPad menu

The finish on the wood tables is sexy, the glassware is sexy and the iPad menus are sexy. The magnifying glass icon, seen in both the above and below pictures, shows you a picture of each item on the menu when you tap on it. This is helpful when stuck between deciding on two dishes, or when bringing a guest to Decanter that has never tried anything on its menu before.

Zee menu part 2

Zee menu part 2

One of Decanter’s best-kept secrets is its incredibly competitively priced wine menu. I have ordered excellent vintages here at a fraction of what I could get them for anywhere else in Tokyo. If you are willing to drop $200 or $300 USD on a bottle of wine, you’ll find that your purchasing power is on par with someone who has $500 or $600 USD to spend on the same bottle elsewhere in Tokyo. Here are the Dinner and Wine menus.

Decanter

A bottle of 2003 Pommard on the incredibly sexy table.

A yummy brioche

A yummy brioche

Once you’ve placed your order, a delicious brioche with black sea salt appears on your table. Fluffy, buttery goodness pared with salt is a flavor profile not to be missed. My record number of brioche eaten before a meal? 3. I have to cut myself off at some point, each and every time. I could eat nothing but Decanter’s brioche and sea salt and be satisfied. When the mere before-dinner bread is this good, you know great things are coming.

Tenderloin with foie gras

5 ounce Wagyu Tenderloin with foie gras

I always order the 5 ounce Wagyu tenderloin with a side of mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese that the table shares. Sometimes, if I am feeling particularly decadent, I will order the wagyu topped with seared foie gras.

Dessert

New York Cheesecake

The New York cheesecake is one of the desserts on the old menu, which was recently, sadly, changed. Nothing on the new dessert menu appeals to me, but this cheesecake, if ever brought back into the mix, is a creamy, graham cracker crusted delight.

Dessert

Deconstructed Black Forest Cake

My other favorite dessert from the old dessert menu was the Deconstructed Black Forest Cake, seen above. Oh, the decadence.

Dinner for two, with a mid-range bottle of wine, is $350 USD for members of Tokyo American Club, $400 USD for non-members.

The French Kitchen|Grand Hyatt Grand Hyatt 6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato-Ku, Tokyo, Japan, 106-0032 +81 3 4333 8781
Opening Hours: Daily, 6:30 am – 9:30 pm | Bar: 11 am – 9:30 pm

The restaurant was completely empty when I visited it last week, at 9 pm on a Wednesday evening. My 8 person dinner party felt very small in the cavernous indoor space, leading me to wonder what had gone so terribly wrong that no one else in Grand Hyatt’s 200 room hotel wanted to eat there. Then, I ate the bland steak and boring sour cherry tart and understood. There was no passion in the food, no soul, no life. It was definitely not, as it describes itself, “Classic French”, despite what was listed on the menu.

Additionally, the service was painfully bad. I kept flagging down waiters to ask for water, which is rather annoying when you can finish off the half-filled water glass in two gulps.

The French Kitchen describes itself on its website as follows: “The French Kitchen offers breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch buffets, and is open all day, serving classic French dishes from Pâté de Campagne and Sole Grenobloise to Boeuf Bourguignon. The restaurant features an open kitchen, a bar, an outside terrace and the “Chef’s Table”, a private dining room equipped with its own kitchen that is ideal for special dinners, private parties and company celebrations.”

frenchkitchen2

The outside dining area at The French Kitchen.

frenchkitchen

The inside dining area at The French Kitchen

Here are The French Kitchen’s BreakfastBrunchLunchDinner and Bar/Dessert menus.

Dinner for one, without wine, is approximately $125 USD. I would not recommend eating here unless you need a place to break up with someone, end a friendship, resign from a job or announce depressing news.

Kazahana|Conrad, 1-9-1 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 105-7337 Japan +81 3-6388-8000
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday: 11:30 am – 9 pm | Sunday: 11:30 am – 2 pm
Closest Subway Station: Shiodome

Kazahana

Oh, the gorgeousness of it all.

Having eaten sushi all over Tokyo, I have become a bit of a sushi connoisseur. At the very least, I can tell good sushi from bad sushi. The quality of Hazakana’s sushi is no better than the sushi I can get for $10 in the building next to my apartment. Do not get me wrong, the preparation of this sushi is the stuff legends are made of. Unfortunately, you will pay through the nose for it without tasting any discernible boost in quality. Additionally, the sushi chef is a bit controlling on how much soy sauce you can use. I realize that sushi should not be submerged in soy sauce, but some of us like doing that, and no one should try to make us feel bad for doing so. The decor is nice, it is The Conrad, after all, but the taste of Kazahana’s sushi lacks any sort of wow factor. It is once again, in my opinion, extremely expensive for the quality of the sushi received.

The Conrad’s website describes Kazahana as follows: “Sample traditional Japanese dishes given a contemporary twist at Kazahana. Take in the skyline view through floor-to-ceiling windows and appreciate the contemporary Japanese decor. Dine on a countertop and soak up the convivial atmosphere. Indulge in an intimate dinner in a private dining room and enjoy the elegant ambiance. Savor innovative Sushi, Kaiseki and Teppan dishes while taking in the minimalist design of this skyscraper restaurant.”

I ordered the Sushi Set Lunch. This was the first thing I received, some sort of salad from hell.

A pretty ballsy salad for a sushi restaurant.

After the salad, which I half-heartedly forked through, the sushi started coming, fast and furious, as beautiful as sushi can possibly look. When I asked the chef for soy sauce (because none had been provided), he pretended not to hear me. Homie don’t play that. I ended up with the soy sauce I wanted, but not before he explained to me what a mistake I was making. As I was plunging each piece of sushi in the soy sauce directly in front of his face, I felt a tad uncomfortable. His eyes shot daggers at me. I tried to ignore him, but, remembering a long-ago watched episode of Seinfeld, a little voice in my mind kept chanting, “Sushi nazi, sushi nazi, sushi nazi!”

Kazahana

Isn’t this exquisite looking?

Kazahana

A piece of art.

Kazahana

Look at how rich the color of this piece of sushi is.

Kazahana

Yummers.

Kazahana

Hello, beauty.

Here are Kazahana’s KaisekiSushi and Teppan menus.

Lunch for two, with a mid-range bottle of wine, is approximately $250 USD. If presentation is all that you care about, and you are cool with someone trying to micro-manage the amount of soy sauce that you use, Kazahana might be just the place for you.

La Tour D’Argent|4-1 Kioicho, Chiyoda, Tokyo 102-8578, Japan +81 3-3239-3111
Opening Hours: Daily, 5:30 pm – 8:30 pm
Closest Subway Station: Nagatacho

La Tour D’Argent’s Tokyo website reads, “Since 1582, La Tour D’Argent in Paris has upheld a standard of quality and tradition, serving only the most exquisite French Cuisine. It has been honored for being the most authentic representation of French culture and tradition, and has been compared to a National Treasure. La Tour D’Argent, Tokyo, is the only other La Tour D’Argent. It is decorated with period pieces and its rooms have the style and design representations of the many centuries that have marked the original. Let us majestically wine and dine you with the best wine cellar in the world and the seasonal creations of our Chef.”

Wikipedia adds, “The restaurant claims that it was founded in 1582 and frequented by Henri IV; it does not however offer any documentation for these or other claims about its history. Duck, especially the pressed duck, is the specialty (Canard à la presse, Caneton à la presse, Caneton Tour d’Argent). The restaurant raises its ducks on its own farm. Diners who order the duck receive a postcard with the bird’s serial number, now well over 1 million.”

I could not get over the carpet. It reminded me of the castle at the end of each level of Super Mario Brothers 3. All that was missing was the Princess.

La Tour D'Argent

An elegant location for lunch, especially if you played Super Mario Brothers 3 as a child.

The Precious.

The Precious.

La Tour D'Argent

Zee menu.

La Tour D'Argent

Choices, choices, choices.

La Tour D'Argent

Christofle cutlery. Ooh la la. Notice the Super Mario Brothers castle on the tablecloth.

La Tour D'Argent

Aesthetically pleasing.

La Tour D'Argent

Salad.

La Tour D'Argent

A nice bottle of wine.

La Tour D'Argent

I liked the shape of this dish.

La Tour D'Argent

I tend to not like branded glassware but this was tolerable.

La Tour D'Argent

Tasty.

La Tour D'Argent

I ate duck #22047. Sorry, buddy.

La Tour D'Argent

Elegant.

La Tour D'Argent

Choose  your cheese, bitches.

La Tour D'Argent

Delish.

La Tour D'Argent

Perfection.

La Tour D'Argent

Yummers.

La Tour D'Argent

I liked the china.

La Tour D'Argent

What a gorgeous dessert presentation.

Eating at La Tour d’Argent reminded me of every high-end restaurant in Paris that I love. Lunch for one, with a decent bottle of wine, is approximately $400 USD, and is, if you can ignore the Super Mario Brothers carpet, worth every penny.

Had I listed all of the restaurants in Tokyo that I love or loathe, this entry would have become extraordinarily long. Thus, I will continue documenting my quest for quality meals in subsequent posts. In the meantime, いただきます!

Singapore Airlines Suites: SQ 638 – Singapore to Tokyo

Having caught, at most 45 minutes of sleep on my previous Suites flight from London to Singapore, I arrived in Singapore sleep-deprived, groggy and full of Xanax.

Why did I have Xanax in my system, you ask? In 2005, I was on a flight, from New York to Paris, that caught on fire. Something in the cargo hold burst into flames, an hour into my flight, well over the Atlantic Ocean. I awoke to oxygen masks dropping. We had an emergency landing on an ice field in Newfoundland, where we were on the ground for 5 hours. Highly traumatized by that event, I can no longer board a flight lasting over 7 hours without sedating myself, or I’ll have a panic attack. Not a little, easily ignored panic attack that passes quietly. Oh no. One that involves tears and hyperventilating to the point that I need an oxygen mask.

Unfortunately, the Xanax hadn’t knocked me out on my London to Singapore flight, as anticipated, (probably due to the countless number of Diet Cokes I consumed) but it did make everything that followed for the next few hours seem extra-trippy.

Once my flight from London landed at Changi Airport, I woozily wandered through Terminal 3, wandering if I should book a transit hotel for my nearly 8 hour layover.

I decided to make a decision after stopping at the SilverKris lounge, arguably the best of all of Singapore Airlines lounges worldwide.

Singapore Airlines' Flagship Lounge

Singapore Airlines’ Flagship Lounge

I wandered into the SilverKris lounge general reception area, flashed my Suites boarding pass and waited for an escort to The Private Room. I’ve flown Singapore Airlines First Class before, so I knew how good of a place I was lucky enough to be going to.

The SilverKris Lounge in Terminal 3 has 3 sections: Business Class, First Class and The Private Room. I’ve always made it into The Private Room, which is the most difficult of any Singapore Airlines lounge, worldwide, to gain access to.

First Class, baby.

First Class, baby.

The Inner Sanctum

The Inner Sanctum

Once inside “The Private Room”, which is actually an ultra-luxurious lounge, I found the most remote, isolated armchair and wilted gracelessly into its leather folds.

Where I wilted gracelessly

Where I wilted gracelessly.

Someone came by with the two page food menu. I blearily looked at each page, whimpered something about needing a Diet Coke and Chicken Satay, then melted back into my armchair.

Choices, choices.

Choices, choices.

More choices.

More choices.

When the lady came back with my Diet Coke and Chicken Satay, I asked if she could help me drag another armchair over, so I could put it at the end of my armchair and make a bed. “I’m becoming delirious from the lack of sleep,” I explained, “and I have an eight hour layover here.” The woman eyed me kindly, then asked me to wait a moment, that she would be right back. Confident that another armchair would soon be joining mine, I sipped my Diet Coke happily.

Five minutes later, she came back. “I’ve turned the Baby Changing Room into a bedroom for you. I’ve made you a bed on the floor,” she told me. My eyes widened. This was better than I could have hoped for! I followed her groggily, holding a Diet Coke and muttering something unintelligible. I came upon a sight so marvelous that I would later have believed I imagined it, had I not had in my possession photographic proof proclaiming the opposite.

I needed this.

I needed this.

She turned off the lights and turned to walk away. “Could you wake me up at 10 pm,” I asked her as an afterthought, afraid that in my Xanax-haze I could sleep through my 11:55 pm flight. “Of course,” she said with a smile, and walked out.

A whole room to myself to sleep in! In the airport! In The Private Room! This was nothing short of miraculous. I curled up on the Givenchy blankets and settled down for a good nap. Unfortunately, Xanax is a bit of a truth serum for me. I fired off an ill-advised email, which I think, luckily, was never read by its recipient, someone in London. After triumphantly pressing send, I turned off my computer, put in my earplugs and slept soundly for the next 5 hours, until nearly 10 pm.

I woke up bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Life seemed infinitely better after a bit of sleep. I looked over to my left, saw the cold, uneaten Chicken Satay from 5 hours prior and shrugged it off as a casualty of war. Gathering up all of my things, I moved back to my original armchair and re-ordered the Chicken Satay.

Chicken Satay

Chicken Satay

It tasted delicious. Encouraged by the bolt of energy that came from consuming a few calories, I continued my epiucurean feast, ordering a Chocolate Cookie Dough Ice Cream.

Chocolate Cookie Dough Ice Cream

Chocolate Cookie Dough Ice Cream

Licking my lips, sated, I decided to roam around The Private Room and see what was shaking. Most of the Xanax had dissipated in my system by this point, leaving me merely relaxed and mellow. I roamed.

Inside the Inner Sanctum

Inside the Inner Sanctum

A perfectly cushy, squishy leather armchair that everyone was polite enough to not sit in.

A perfectly cushy, squishy leather armchair that everyone was polite enough to not sit in.

TV, if you want it.

TV, if you want it.

My main man telling it straight.

My main man telling it straight.

Lovely.

I love orchids.

Eventually, I ended up in the restaurant section of The Private Room, which has fabulous leather chairs. Unabashedly, I stood in the corner taking pictures with my iPhone 4S. No one noticed, or, if they did notice, they didn’t care, which was just the way I wanted it.

In "The Private Room's" restaurant

In The Private Room’s restaurant

Nice decor, non?

Nice decor, non?

I especially liked the leather banquette in the center.

I especially liked the leather banquette in the center.

Discrete refinement.

Discrete refinement.

Yummers.

Yummers.

Cheese and fruit

Cheese and fruit

Dessert

Dessert

I had no intention of eating anything else, and didn’t, but enjoyed traipsing around the different food choices. The chocolates looked especially tasty.

Eventually, a boarding announcement for my flight caught my ears. I gathered up my things and prepared to leave. No one offered to walk me to the gate, like sweet Sharmila did, back at Heathrow. I walked through the labyrinthine corridors leading back to the gates and wondered how long it would be before I would have the chance to enjoy The Private Room again. Having just blown out the last of my Singapore Airlines miles on this Suites flight, and the Suites flight from London to Singapore, I guessed it would take me at least a year to accrue the mileage needed for another one-way, London to Singapore to Tokyo Suites ticket.

Once on the plane, I requested to be in 2A, instead of 2D, my original choice. “No problem,” one of the kind stewards murmured, leading me to my seat. “Some champagne,” he inquired. “Krug, please, then Dom after take off,” I whispered under my breath. How quickly one becomes accustomed to the Suites lifestyle.

My original seat, 2D

My original seat, 2D

My new seat, 2A

My new seat, 2A

Krug and Diet Coke = Rebecca defined.

Krug and Diet Coke = Rebecca defined.

Happiness.

Happiness.

If you are surprised that I would drink Diet Coke and Krug at the same time, you must not have read any of my previous posts.

I walked down the hallway, to the bathroom, and on the way back, took a shot of the odd hallway configuration.

Suites Hallway

Suites Hallway

Anticipating that I would soon be asked for my dinner and breakfast orders, I checked out the menu. The first thing I noticed was that it read First Class and not Suites. What was up with that?

Why does the menu say First Class and not Suites, SQ?

Why does the menu say First Class and not Suites, SQ?

Blah, blah, blah

Suites Menu

More of the Suites menu.

More of the Suites menu.

Blah, blah, blah

More of the Suites menu.

Blah, blah, blah

More of the Suites menu.

Blah, blah, blah

Oh yes, I photographed every page.

Blah, blah, blah

Pour it up.

Blah, blah, blah

Choices, choices.

More choices for libations

More choices for libations

A midnight cocktail?

A midnight cocktail?

More choices.

More choices.

More choices.

More choices.

I'm not a coffee drinker.

I’m not a coffee drinker.

Espresso? Yummy.

But, I do like espresso.

Many interesting choices.

Many interesting choices.

Diet Coke? Say no more.

Diet Coke? Say no more.

When Delphine, the stewardess assigned to me, came over and asked me if I would be having dinner or breakfast, I stared at her confusedly. “Both?” I asked, as if it were a trick question. She sighed. But then, the head steward came over with my Dom and Coke. Delphine disappeared and I sat back and sighed contentedly.

Bring. It.

Bring. It.

Rebecca defined.

Rebecca, defined.

Notice how transparent the top and bottom are. No sex in the champagne room.

Notice how transparent the top and bottom are. No sex in the champagne room.

2007 Cos D'Estournel. I mean, it is a pretty nice bottle.

2007 Cos D’Estournel. I mean, it is a pretty nice bottle.

Olive Oil flavors. My favorite is the truffle one.

Olive Oil flavors. My favorite is the truffle one.

Chicken

Chicken breast with herb mousse and jus, pumpkin mash, bell pepper and green asparagus.

Fruit for dessert.

Fruit for dessert.

A comfortable enough place for a little nappy nap nap.

A comfortable enough place for a little nappy nap nap.

Givenchy blanket.

Notice the Givenchy blanket. It is sitting on my couch right now.

My neighbor might have been bothered by my constant flashing. Dommage.

My neighbor would have been bothered by the flash on my iPhone 4S, if I would have had a neighbor.

Another view out of my Suite.

Another view out of my Suite.

No one really sleeps with their seatbelt on.

No one really sleeps with their seatbelt on.

An eye mask and socks. Both are meant to be worn once.

An eye mask and socks. Both are meant to be worn once.

Givenchy sleepwear. Pretty low-grade, non?

Givenchy sleepwear. Pretty low-grade, non?

Comfy but not couture.

Comfy but not couture.

My TV

My TV

This is the full amount of privacy one has.

This is the full amount of privacy one has.

Which is not so very much.

Which is not so very much.

Another view

Another view

The Bad One.

The Bad One.

Delphine, the stewardess shown in the above picture, thoughtlessly put my bed away when I got up to go to the bathroom, 2 hours before the flight landed. Everyone else was still fast asleep in their beds.

“The bed needs to be put away at least 30 minutes before the flight lands,” she explained, as if I was an idiot.

“Well, 30 minutes before the flight lands is 90 minutes from now, right,” I asked her, flashing my death stare.

“Well, er, yes,” she stammered. “So, put my bed back out,” I informed her. She walked away to consult another stewardess, leaving me standing outside of my Suite, exhausted, for another 5 minutes.

“Put my bed back out NOW,” I said, loudly, perhaps waking some of the other still-sleeping passengers.

At this point, the steward in charge of the cabin came over, put my bed back out and apologized profusely. “She is brand new and no good,” he told me. He let me keep my bed out until 7 minutes before the flight landed, to make up for what I had been through.

Delphine eventually apologized, but it was too late. I couldn’t go back to sleep.

Breakfast

Breakfast. I was still mad at Delphine.

Neighbor-free.

Neighbor-free.

Silent.

Silent.

My Suite.

My Suite. Haters be trying to get rid of my bed extra-early, right Delphine?

Another shot of my Suite.

Another shot of my Suite.

Landing.

Landing.

Delphine said, in parting, “I know we aren’t friends.”

I glanced back at her. “It isn’t a big deal. Just don’t do it to anyone else. People need their sleep.” I waved goodbye.

Even though I was the first off of the plane, there are usually several flights arriving at roughly the same time. Narita is always teeming with people. Yet, oddly enough, this is what I saw as I walked through the concourse:

I was the first one off the plane.

No one.

Narita was silent.

Narita was silent.

There was no one else.

Nothing stood in my way or slowed me down.

A new country, a new story.

A new country, a new story.

I have never been to any international airport, anywhere in the world, where I have not seen another soul until reaching immigration. From the time I stepped off of the plane until the time I left the airport, only 9 minutes elapsed, which never happens at Narita. I felt that it was a good omen.

A one-way flight from Singapore to Tokyo, in Suites Class, costs 4812 SGD, roughly $3,910 USD.

Bahrain: Car Wrecks, Molotov Cocktails and Jail

My time in Bahrain was brief, weird and tinged with disaster. Somehow, I found myself employed in a job that I didn’t really want: International Sales Executive for a MNC. Hired in the Departure Hall of London’s Heathrow Airport, by a girl that flew me from Manhattan to London for 15 minutes of face time before she flew off to Doha, I should have seen the Sketchy McSketchness of it all long before I arrived in Bahrain, mais non. I’d worked in International Sales the year before, in Europe, hated it, and quit after 6 weeks, so why I chose to leave my apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and move to the Middle East still eludes me, but there I was, flying British Airways to London and then, after picking up my visa, to Manama, Bahrain.

I arrived at the Bahrain International Airport late one afternoon, diplomatic visa from the Embassy of Bahrain in London freshly stamped in my passport. Why did I have a diplomatic visa? Why had I been made to spend a week in London, cooling my heels, as it was issued? Why had the embassy employee winked at me as he returned my passport? The mysteries multiplied. Regardless, the diplomatic visa was legitimate, free, and good for 6 months. This was my first trip to the Middle East. I had chosen, sight unseen, to move to a country I had to look up on a map, in a part of the world some would argue is hostile to Americans, at 24 years old. One of the deciding factors in my move had been how fun the name of the capital, Manama, was to pronounce, which should indicate the level of maturity that I had at the time. Manama sounds quite similar to the title of a song by The Muppets, Mahna Mahna. How could a city with such a Muppetish name be anything but amazing? I called Manama Mahna Mahna throughout my stay. That was probably the highlight of my time there, singing Mahna Mahna any time I had to say the name of the capital.

Bahrain International Airport

Welcome to Bahrain!

The customs official at the Bahrain International Airport seemed cool with a 24-year-old American girl having a diplomatic visa in her passport, though he did try to make me pay the visa fee that normal tourists pay. “Why,” I asked him, emboldened by the ridiculousness of his request. “I already have a visa,” I told him coolly, locking my blue eyes with his dark brown ones. “Are you trying to rip me off?” He waved me through, silently. Although I have been raised in the American South, and am capable of being meek, demure and all of the things Southern girls are raised to be, I am also tough as nails. A man in Delhi once tried to grope me and I hit him in the solar plexus so hard that it knocked him back against a wall. But, I digress.

Once through customs, I retrieved my suitcase from the conveyor belt and walked out to meet my new work colleague, a Brit named H, who I found waiting for me in the Arrivals area. He picked up my suitcase and stood there, staring at me. “You are wearing a cocktail dress at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” he whispered, shocked. “Indeed,” I affirmed.

H was staying in a corporate apartment with E, our boss. It was a 2 bedroom, and E would be transitioning out of the project 3 weeks later, at which point I would take over her bedroom. Until her departure, I would be living in the Intercontinental Regency hotel. I later found out that the corporate apartment was H and E’s Love Shack, so thank goodness I dodged that bullet. H drove me from the airport to Intercontinental to check in.

Intercontinental Regency Bahrain | 130 Road No 1507, Al Manamah, Bahrain +973 1722 7777
Intercontinental’s website reads: “This luxury Bahrain hotel combines the best of the region’s hospitality with contemporary design. Sumptuous suites, three restaurants, spa treatments and outdoor pool provide the perfect urban retreat. Ideally located, this Bahrain hotel is close to authentic shopping experiences, including the Bahrain Gold Souk and the city’s oldest market, Bab Al Bahrain. For business, the hotel is within walking distance of Bahrain Financial Harbour and 10 minutes from the airport.”

The first thing that comes to mind, when I think of the Intercontinental, is how I survived on KFC and peanuts for the nearly 2 weeks I was in residence there. Everything on the room service menu seemed too bizarre to deal with. I had never seen, or even been exposed to, Middle Eastern food before and I refused to try any of it. Miraculously, KFC shone like a beacon on the right corner nearest to the front of the hotel. Had it not been there, I don’t know what I would have eaten. Now, years later, having developed a taste for Middle Eastern food, I would be able to eat many things off of the room service menu, but, back then, it all looked disgusting.

KFC Manama

The Colonel saved me.

Intercontinental was one of the first luxury hotels I ever at stayed for business. I remember how awed I was of the lobby, my room, the gym, the pool, all of it. I felt important, staying at this hotel. Granted, I was fired in its lobby less than 2 weeks later, but I’ll get to that in time.

Regency Intercontinental Bahrain

Intercontinental Regency Bahrain, conveniently located next to KFC.

The lobby has been renovated since I was there.

The lobby. I was fired on one of these couches.

regency hotel manama

I liked the color scheme in the bedroom.

Regency Bahrain

The gym.

The pool

The pool.

One night in a standard, King-sized room costs 70 Bahraini Dinar, approximately $185 USD.

After I checked into the Intercontinental, H picked me up. He drove me to the Ritz Carlton, one of the few places in the country where you can legally drink.

The Burlington Club At The Ritz Carlton|PO Box 55577, Manama, Bahrain +973 1758 0000
Opening Hours: Daily, Noon – 2 am.

The Ritz Carlton’s website describes The Burlington Club as follows: “Today’s dedicated followers of fashion have not only changed their profile, but also the line-up of venues they frequent. The Burlington Club at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain Hotel & Spa is intimate, comfortable and stylish.  With leather sofas and winged chairs, it recreates a typical ‘gentleman’s club’ although one where ladies are naturally, very much welcomed. The Cigar Room epitomizes the very spirit of Ritz-Carlton graciousness with a cigar menu that has been created especially to complement the tastes of aficionados who will find the humidor stocked with some of the finest Havana cigars.  Essentially, cigar smoking has an up-town, upscale image, which is why The Ritz-Carlton has a dedicated cigar lounge with a cellar of premium malts, cognacs and vintage wines; arguably the most extensive in the country. Burlington’s boasts a freestanding humidor stocked with premium cigars and a panoramic view of the magnificent gardens.”

The Burlington Club

The Burlington Club

We walked into the cozy space and sat down at the bar. H ordered us Gin and Tonics, then turned to me abruptly. “I think you are beautiful,” he declared. I stared at him silently, then ate a salted cashew. We were meant to be working alone together, alone in the Bahrain after E left, alone in the corporate apartment, alone together for 6 months. I ate another cashew and considered my options. H was cute. H had a British accent. H had good enough taste to bring me to the Ritz. However, if I got involved with him romantically, I would have to quit the company when I broke up with him. I didn’t know that he had something going on with E, who was engaged to the CEO of our company. My Gin and Tonic arrived. I stared thoughtfully into it. “No,” I finally responded, after taking a long, cool sip of my drink. The ice clinked against the sides of the glass. “No what,” he asked me, leaning closer, blue eyes flashing. “No, H. Nothing is going to happen between us. We have to work together.” Little did I know that, before even starting my first day of work, I’d sealed my fate. Eleven days later, H, in some sort of confessional moment, probably in bed, told E about our conversation at the bar. She was in love with him and fired me the next morning. Still, I am getting ahead of myself.

H downed the rest of his Gin and Tonic in one go. “Another,” he asked me, motioning to the bartender. “I think I’m a bit tired,” I declined. “Could you just drive me back to the hotel? I want to be rested for work tomorrow morning.” A look of annoyance flashed briefly across his face, but he nodded. Our drive back to the Intercon was glacial. “Take a taxi to Seef Tower tomorrow morning. We start work at 9 am,” he instructed me, passionlessly, as I got out of the car. I ate peanuts out of the mini bar for dinner and fell asleep without unpacking.

Seef Tower | Opposite Road 1725, Manama, Bahrain
Getting a taxi from Intercon to Seef Tower the next morning was painless. Walking out of the hotel lobby into the sweltering heat, dressed in a full pantsuit, with a line of taxis promising cool, cool air-conditioned comfort ahead of me, I smiled quietly to myself. I had taken out the equivalent of $100 USD worth of Bahraini Dinar the night before, carried my little Louis Vuitton briefcase firmly under my arm, and was ready to start my first day of work. I felt optimistic that E would be more professional than H, and I was looking forward to meeting my new boss, a fellow American. It took approximately 10 minutes and 3 Bahraini Dinar, approximately $8 USD to arrive at Seef Tower. Although I am now quite good at accurately converting foreign currencies in my head, I wasn’t at the time I was in Bahrain. It was a 1-1 conversion rate in my head.  “A three dollar taxi ride,” I thought to myself, happily, “is such a bargain!”

Seef Tower

Seef Tower, the 9th tallest building in Manama.

When I arrived at Seef Tower, conveniently located next to Seef Mall, I took the elevator up to one of the higher floors. I ducked into the bathroom, stared long and hard at myself in the mirror, then walked out, confidently, to meet my boss. I went to the receptionist and asked where my company’s office was located.  It was an open floor plan, with floor to ceiling views of the Gulf of Bahrain and she pointed vaguely towards the back. As I walked in that direction, a swishy blonde walked towards me. E seemed so professional, that first day, in her pinstripe suit and Jimmy Choo stilettos. I had never heard of Jimmy Choo before. H loomed behind her in the distance, glaring vaguely in my direction. I was given my laptop, shown to my desk, and immediately put to work compiling an Excel sheet of potential prospects. At lunch, E proposed going to the Seef Mall. “There is all sorts of fast food there,” she informed me, rattling off a list of chains. “KFC,” I inquired casually. “Oh, yes, there is KFC. And Chili’s.”

Seef Mall | Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Highway/Seef District Manama, Bahrain
Opening Hours: Retail, Saturday – Wednesday, 10 am – 10 pm, Thursday – Friday, 10 am – 11 pm
Food Court,  Saturday – Wednesday, 10 am – 11 pm, Thursday – Friday, 10 am – Midnight

Seef Mall, Manama

Seef Mall

Seef Mall, Manama

A pleasant place to each lunch

Chili's in Seef Mall, Manama

Chili’s in Seef Mall

During my first morning of work, I noticed the prolonged looks E and H kept shooting each other over their cubicle dividers. I dismissed it, only to have it immediately occur again, during our first lunch together, at Chili’s. I munched happily away on my Fried Chicken Fingers as E and H stared each other down for upwards of an hour. I figured they hated each other, or that too much time in the hot desert sun had addled their brains. That evening, at 6 pm, I stood up, thinking that my first day of work had successfully come to a close. “Oh no, Rebecca,” E told me. “We work until at least 7 pm every night.” Dejectedly, I slumped back into my seat and returned to my Excel file as men in pristine Thobes wafted around me like white petals, all headed for the elevator.

Around 7 pm, E offered me a ride back to the Intercon. “What are you two doing for dinner,” I asked them, innocently. Quickly shooting a glance at E, H offered, “We have a conference call with London.” I put no further thought into it, and headed immediately to KFC upon returning to the hotel. After eating, I fell asleep, exhausted by the weirdness of my new life in Bahrain.

The next few days followed, one after another, exactly like my first day. I worked on a Saturday and Sunday for the first time in my life. I started working out at the gym every evening, imperative after all of the KFC and Chili’s I had been consuming. I met a few Americans at the pool. It was all incredibly tame. Then, 4 nights into my new life, I came across something I shouldn’t have seen. I signed into the gym, giving my name and room number, only to see my room number one line above mine, next to E and H’s names and the words, “Squash courts”. I wandered through the squash courts and looked into every window until I found them. E was leaning against a wall and H was leaning over her, his left arm supporting him. It was, to say the least, an intimate pose. “What,” I shrieked under my breath, scampering back to the safety of the locker room. I couldn’t make sense of it. I was too innocent.

The next day at work, I was silent. E took me on several sales calls with her. “Could you please roll down at least one window if you are going to smoke in the car,” I asked her. “No,” she responded, driving on. She pitched, unsuccessfully, to several captains of industry, all of whom treated her dismissively throughout the meetings. This caused her to smoke even more profusely as the day progressed. “Do you want to see Bab Al Bahrain,” she asked me, “Manama’s oldest market?” “Sure,” I perked up. “That would be great!” We walked down a dusty side street on the very outermost edge of the market. She bought a pirated version of Windows and threatened the vendor, “If the software key you gave me is wrong, I know exactly where you are.” The ancient little man shrank back behind the counter, thought for a moment, then wrote out a new, undoubtedly correct, software key. I was both impressed and terrified. Who was this terrible E?

E and I started going out to lunch, alone, every day, in between our sales calls. I got the feeling that she was trying to figure me out. The more that she tried, the less information I gave her.

Cafe Lilou |Adliya, Manama, Bahrain +973 17 714 440
Opening Hours: Saturday -Wednesday 8 am-11 pm; Thursday-Friday 10 am – 11.30 pm

Time Out Bahrain’s review reads: “Peering over the froth of your cappuccino, you half expect your eyes to be met by a roomful of wannabe writers, aspiring actors and slumming courtesans in this sophisticated Bohemian café. Its upstairs balcony gives it an air of grandeur, as do velvet plum sofas, red-tasselled curtains, gold-gilded frames and a striking Lido poster of a sultry singer taking up an entire wall. But it’s still cosy and comfy, and a great spot to settle in for a leisurely coffee and a dainty pastry, or a healthy lunch of zesty sandwiches and salads. The de volaille – a char-grilled marinated chicken breast and smoked turkey sandwich on fresh oregano bread, with pesto and honey mustard and melted cheese – is tender and bursting with flavour. The glass cabinet display of exquisite chocolate domes and pistachio bonbons defy you to resist temptation, and are definitely worth each and every one of their sinful calories.”

Cafe Lilou

Cafe Lilou

“Do you think H is a nice guy,” E asked me during lunch at Cafe Lilou. This is the day I tried hummus for the first time. I peered at her over my Diet Coke and sighed. “Sure. I don’t know him well,” I responded dismissively. “You’ll have time to get to know him,” she volunteered, “being alone together for 6 months.” Some sort of warning bell sounded in my brain. This seemed like an odd conversation, even for her. Lighting her 900th cigarette of the day, she sat back in her velvet chair and inhaled deeply. “Have you ever been in love,” she continued, locking eyes with me in an extremely menacing way. “What were you doing on the squash courts, the other night, signing in with my room number,” I countered. E was starting to get on my nerves.

“We like to play squash, H and me,” she answered. “We would have invited you, but I doubt you know how to play. I learned while I was at LSE,” she shot back. “No, you are right. I don’t know how to play squash,” I returned. “Did you notice that H and I have the same color eyes? We do.” E sat back, musingly uncomfortably on the vagueness of my response, then finished her lunch hurriedly and called for the check.

I liked Cafe Lilou’s decor immensely. Lunch for one is approximately 10 Bahraini Dinar, or $28 USD.

Friends Club | 54 Bani Otbah Avenue, Adliya, Manama, Bahrain +973 17 713 732
Time out Bahrain’s review reads: “Despite its moniker (or should we say Monica), this is nothing like the coffee house where Rachel, Chandler, Ross and co traded quips. Set in a converted villa, it’s like going round to someone’s house for morning drinks or a light lunch. If you can get into the back room, it’s a cosy little place to hangout, gossip or read the magazines left out for you, and there’s a small room for shisha smoking. There’s original art on the walls (much of which is for sale), a wood-beam ceiling and petite artful tables. They do soups, pasta, burgers and baked potatoes, and it’s all adequate without being outstanding, but prices are reasonable and the service is polite. The food might be superior elsewhere, but you come here for the feeling of being in a home from home.”

Friends Club was shut down in the last few years, probably for copyright-infringement. Its sign was the actual logo from Friends. It made no sense to me, but the hamburgers were good. As it is defunct, I won’t put up a picture or go into pricing details.

Two days before I was gracelessly fired, E asked me if I wanted to get a facial at The Ritz Carlton’s spa. Having never had been to a spa before, I eagerly accepted.

The Spa at The Ritz Carlton | PO Box 55577 Manama, Bahrain +973 1758 0000

The Spa at The Ritz Carlton

The Spa at The Ritz Carlton

Ritz Carlton’s website describes The Spa as follows: “Slowly, gently, immerse your senses in a private sanctuary of calm and total tranquility. The assurance of renewal is a promise that The Ritz-Carlton delivers to every guest at The Spa in Bahrain. This exclusive luxury wellness concept focuses on providing a haven of relaxation and nurturing to members and guests, while providing a complete care of the skin, body and soul – all supported by a team of highly skilled therapists.”

E booked us in a couples room, which didn’t bother me, and we both had Aromatherapy Renew Rose Facials, which the Spa’s website describes as follows: “This luxurious facial harnesses the regenerative properties of rose to nourish, soften and hydrate all skin types, especially dry, delicate and finely textured complexions.” Sixty minutes cost 45 Bahraini Dinar, roughly $120 USD.

Five minutes into my facial, I fell asleep. I woke up at the end of the facial, to the aesthetician asking E how old she was. When E she said she was my age, 24 at the time, I nearly fell off of my bed. Due to her heavy smoking, and subsequent wrinkles all over her forehead, I thought E was much older than me.

The Spa at The Ritz Carlton

The Spa at The Ritz Carlton

The best feature of The Spa is the dipping pool part of the relaxation area. Utterly relaxed from my facial, I planned on unwinding in one of the pools for a bit. I had just gotten comfortable when E walked up to me. Dropping her towel, she said, “I’m going to take a shower first. Are you?” I was already in the pool, so it was a stupid question. E beckoned, invitingly, towards the shower she had just started, while standing stark-naked in close proximity and never breaking eye contact. This was too odd for me. “Ooh, wow, look at the time! I have some work I need to go do,” I responded, hopping out the pool like it was on fire and fleeing to the dressing room.

I was torn between still feeling semi-relaxed from the facial and highly freaked out by my boss’s naked frolicking. I shouldn’t have been driving and I definitely shouldn’t have attempted to drive away from The Ritz and through my first-ever roundabout at that moment. A white luxury SUV hit the left side of my little dinky Ford Focus so hard that it ripped the hood completely off. Did I mention that it was a rental car? My car ran off the side of the road as other cars swirled effortlessly through the roundabout. I was hoodless and the front bumper was dragging on the ground. The car was still drivable, but it was basically a deathtrap. So there I was, a 24 year-old little American girl in the Middle East, sitting in a rented car that I had just destroyed, with absolutely no idea what to do. I had no one to call. E would have tried to seduce me again and H would have hung up on me. It was, shall we say, a less than optimal situation. To make matters worse, the driver of the white SUV was a local man, twice my size, who walked over to me with a huge smile on his face. “You wrecked my car. You go to jail.” I shrank back into my driver’s side seat.

He pointed into the distance, past a swirling cloud of desolate sand. “Jail. You go to jail. You follow me to the jail.” I stared at myself in the rearview mirror as he talked. “You follow me to the jail,” he repeated, then went back to his car and started driving away. I obviously had no inclination to follow him anywhere, so I watched him drive away without doing anything. It was 45° C/ 114° F at 11 am. “You’ll be okay, Sweetheart,” I whispered to myself, not really believing it. “No one will put you in jail for getting into a traffic accident, especially one that you did not cause.” Still, I imagined myself rattling jail bars, nails chipped, screaming for a Diet Coke. About 15 minutes later, a police car pulled up behind me and an officer got out of the car. He came over to my window. “You follow me,” he ordered. “We go now.” “I don’t think I can drive the car in its condition,” I responded. “Yes, you can,” he told me. “It is just over there.” He pointed to the jail. This was bad. He tapped on the hood. “Now,” he commanded. I sighed, started the car and started driving. Jail it was.

I pulled into the parking lot of the jail and sat in my car for a moment. Hadn’t I just been having my first-ever facial? How had the day gone so terribly wrong? It was not even Noon. I finally got out of my car and went into the jail, where the driver of the car that hit me sat waiting on a folded chair in the reception area. I could see palm trees out the window. Sunlight flooded the airy room. Next to my new adversary was a chalkboard with a diagram of the roundabout, and two magnetized cars, one white, one red. Two police officers stood waiting for me, as did one police chief. When I walked in, they all started talking excitedly to each other in Arabic. The police chief handed me his card. “This man,” he motioned to the guy that drove into my car, “says that you wrecked his SUV at a roundabout. Did you,” he inquired politely. “No,” I said quietly.

“Take the red car,” he instructed, dropping the magnetized red car in my right hand, “and show me how you were driving.” I drove the little red car up to the roundabout, humming while I did imagined driving, then towards the right of the roundabout, ending with a crashing noise. “He didn’t yield,” I explained. The Police Chief furrowed his brow. “Tell me how a roundabout works,” he asked me kindly. This was not a mean man. “Well,” I mumbled, “you drive into it and everyone has to avoid hitting everyone else.” “You see,” the driver of the SUV exclaimed, hopping up. “Her fault! Her fault!” “Are you going to incarcerate me,” I asked the police chief. “No,” he answered kindly. “But you have to pay a fine, $400 USD.” “I don’t have $400 USD,” I told him. “I just started a new job. I am broke.” “We take credit cards,” he volunteered, sorting out my problem. “We’re going to write something in Arabic, a traffic report, saying that you caused the wreck, and you are going to sign it,” he continued. “Mmm hmm,” I complied. I sat around for a while, as various police officers came out to get a look at me, this little 24-year-old American girl, sitting alone in the lobby of a Bahraini police station. Everyone was very respectful. About 2 hours after my wreck, I finally signed my life away in Arabic. Someone called me a taxi back to the Intercon, and I took it, dazed. I had just wrecked the company car, the one that E and H used to go to work, the one that they took on all of their sales calls.

I called the rental car company and said, “I’ve wrecked the car you rented to our company. It is at the police station.” Then, after fortifying myself with some KFC, I called E. “Bad luck, Rebecca,” she responded, “but not to worry. I’ll pick another one up tomorrow morning. In fact, I’ll come pick you up at your hotel.” I hung up, relieved, and spent the rest of the afternoon floating in the pool, unsure of what would happen next.

The next morning, E came to pick me up as promised. She was acting weird. We went on a sales call, where the CEO stared at me the whole time and spent a good 10 minutes at the end trying to offer me Turkish Delights. “Just have one,” he implored. “No,” I declined. “Just one,” he pleaded. “NO!” I snapped. We had lunch with H, who half-heartedly tried to make conversation with me. “I’ve been to Tennessee once. It was green,” he volunteered. I stared at him silently, while eating my KFC Chicken Zinger Sandwich. E also tried to engage me. I stared morosely into the distance.

Around 2 pm that afternoon, my laptop gave up the ghost. E drove me back to their apartment, thinking it was simply a problem with my charger. I planted myself firmly on the couch in the living room. There would be no more shower scenes. Outside of the window, I saw a group of teenagers throwing Molotov Cocktails down the street. It was the second day of rioting in Manama. “I tried charging your laptop with my cord,” she told me, a muffled voice in another room. “But, it isn’t working. I’ll keep your computer overnight, okay? I think I have someone who can fix it.” I continued watching the kids throwing the Molotov Cocktails. What were they so angry about? I hadn’t been following the news at all. “Okay,” I acquiesced, still looking out the window as she came out from wherever she had been. “What are you looking at,” she inquired, walking up behind me. When she saw, she yanked the curtain shut. “Oh, that’s nothing.” I was silent. “Why don’t you take the rest of the afternoon off? I’ll drive you back to the Intercon and pick you up tomorrow morning,” she said with a smile. “Sure,” I nodded, thinking of floating in the pool. “That works.”

My last evening in Manama was productive. I swam in the pool, jogged in the gym, worked up a good sweat in the sauna and wandered around the immediate vicinity of the hotel. Manama was growing on me. I felt hopeful. I was even beginning to like my job, even though E and H were both deranged individuals. I had survived a car wreck, a weird seduction attempt and two hours in the lobby of a jail. I could handle this. I slept well.

The next morning, I came down to the lobby. E sat perched on the edge of one of the leather couches, smiling sweetly. I sat down next to her. “So you are in love with H, Rebecca,” she stated cheerfully. I choked on the air. “What,” I sputtered, involuntarily recoiling a few inches from this wretched, odious fool. “He told me last night. You love him,” she continued, with an ever-widening smile. I hopped back up from the couch. “What are you talking about, E?” I asked her disgustedly, moving away from her. People in the lobby were turning to look. We were making a scene. “I heard about the night at The Ritz, the night when you told him he was incredibly handsome,” she said. My eyes widened. This was lunacy. “Unfortunately,” she continued, drawing my name out for an impossibly long time, “Rebbbeeeeccccaaaa, that is unprofessional, and I won’t have it on my team.” I stared at her. “He’s mine,” she muttered, under her breath. “I’ve booked you on the 6 pm flight out. Pack your things, settle your bill and leave the hotel.” My mouth dropped open. “As you never signed your contract, because I never gave it to you to sign, I owe you nothing. Goodbye.” With that, she stood up and walked across the lobby and out into the sunlight. I sat there, motionless, for at least 15 minutes. As time passed, I decided it couldn’t have ended any other way. I’d been hired in the Departure Hall of Heathrow Airport. What had I expected?

Due to a technical glitch, I received a full month’s salary the next week, about the same time that the United States State Department made all American civilians in Bahrain leave the country. The civil unrest apparently became worse, then died down at some point. I took the money, closed my bank account, and walked off into my future. Southern California seemed like a nice place to live, so that is where I went. The company eventually realized I had been erroneously paid, and made the mistake of calling my Dad one time. After speaking with him, they never bothered me again.

In summation, Bahrain is probably a great place to visit, with loads of interesting cultural things, but, I wouldn’t know, because I spent all of my time there working, eating KFC and evading international love triangles.

London: The Book of Mormon, Rock of Ages, and Mamma Mia!

My love of musicals originated in high school, when a friend of mine looped Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera for the duration of our 8 hour Spring Break drive from Nashville to Destin. At first I thought it was psychological warfare, but, by the third time “Track Down This Murderer” resurfaced, I was passionately singing, “Jean Valjean is nothing now!”

Loads of interesting musicals are on in London at the moment. With a bit of free time and some cash, what better option could there be than getting the best seats at as many musicals as possible during my time here? Having promised myself to not watch Les Misérables, Wicked or Phantom of the Opera yet once again, there were the only three musicals left I was keen on seeing: Rock of Ages, The Book of Mormon and Mamma Mia! 

Although I’ve been visiting London since I was 17, there are still sections of town that I get lost in, no matter how clearly the directions have been laid out. The West End is one of those sections. Of the three musicals I saw, only one was reached without stopping for directions multiple times. Even with the GPS on my iPhone. Oh yes. Thus, I would recommend you reconcile yourself to the fact that you will most likely get lost. Budget an extra 20 minutes. Strangers are helpful. It will be fine.

Rock of Ages | Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0HH, England
Monday – Friday:  Matinee: 3 pm | Evening 7:45 pm
Closest Tube Station: Leicester Square

I walked into Rock of Ages without having the faintest clue what it was about. Purchased solely because it was the first listing I came across on Ticketmaster UK that I had remembered seeing an advertisement for while on the escalator in the Tube, I saw the Live Nudes neon sign off to the right-hand side of the stage and raised my eyebrows. When the curtain went up, and I saw The Bourbon Room set, I raised my eyebrows even higher. Furiously scanning the rows behind me, I did not breathe easy until I located at least 2 people that were my Dad’s age. If they could handle Rock of Ages, I, in my little white cardigan and ballet flats, probably could as well. It turned out to be my favorite of the 3 musicals I saw.

From Rock of Ages. Don't be scared.

Rock of Ages. Don’t be scared.

I am going to list the songs in Rock of Ages, rather than write out a detailed review, because The Book of Mormon review I’ve written later in this blog is quite long. I knew nothing about 80’s music before I sat through Rock of Ages, had never heard of Poison, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Twisted Sister or Whitesnake. Man, have I been missing out.

Rock of Ages Song List:
1) “Just Like Paradise” – David Lee Roth
2) “Nothing But A Good Time” – Poison
3) “Sister Christian” – Night Rangers
4) “We Built This City” – Jefferson Starship
5) “Too Much Time On My Hands” – Styx
6) “I Wanna Rock” – Twisted Sister
7) “We’re Not Going To Take It” – Twisted Sister
8) “Heaven” – Warrant
9) “More Than Words” – Extreme
10) “To Be With You” – Mr. Big
11) “Waiting For A Girl Like You” – Foreigner
12) “Wanted Dead Or Alive” – Bon Jovi
13) “I Wanna Know What Love Is” – Foreigner
14) “Cum On Feel The Noize” – Quiet Riot
15) “Harden My Heart” – Quarterflash
16) “Shadows Of The Night” – Pat Benatar
17) “Here I Go Again” – Whitesnake
18) “The Final Countdown” – Europe
19) “Any Way You Want It” – Journey
20) “High Enough” – Damn Yankees
21) “I Hate Myself For Loving You” – Joan Jett And The Blackhearts
22) “Heat Of The Moment” – Asia
23) “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” – Pat Benatar
24) “Can’t Fight This Feeling” – REO Speedwagon
25) “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” – Poison
26) “Oh Sherrie” – Steve Perry
27) “The Search Is Over” – Survivor
28) “Don’t Stop Believin'” – Journey

I won’t give away the plot, but, I’ll share who my favorite character is: Stacee Jaxx. Yes, he is the biggest bastard of them all. I have no excuse for preferring him over every other member of the cast, but I do.

Stacee Jaxx

Stacee Jaxx

I left Rock of Ages humming along to “Don’t Stop Believin,” covered in gold confetti squares. I want to see it again.

A Stalls, Row C, Seat 11 (three rows from the stage and nearly dead center) ticket is £72.75 (including Ticketmaster’s fee and a Box Office collection fee). Premium Stalls seats go for a cool £95 plus fees, but if you can get a good, nearly center Stalls seat, it isn’t worth paying the extra cash. For those of you that are students, or on a serious budget, other ticket price points are available, all the way down to £25 (available only to be booked in person on the day of the performance).

If you can kick out the cash, get a £65 Stalls seat, as close to dead center as possible. Row C, Seat 11, will do nicely.

The Book of Mormon | Prince of Wales Theatre, Coventry Street, London, W1D 6AS, England
Monday – Saturday: Evening – 7:30 pm | Wednesday and Saturday: Matinee – 2:30 pm.
Closest Tube Station: Leicester Square

The Book of Mormon‘s hype is worldwide and its advertisements on the Tube have taunted me since February.  It was a given I would be going to it. I booked it 6 weeks in advance and settled on a Dress Circle ticket at a matinee show. It was one of three seats available for the entire month of April. I usually only book Stalls tickets, but, I was very lucky to get what I did, as The Book of Mormon is currently sold out for the next 3 months straight.

When I was last here, in February, I saw advertisements for The Book of Mormon everywhere. Up the escalator: The Book of Mormon! Down the escalator: The Book of Mormon! At Embankment, Kings Cross, Oxford Circus: The Book of Mormon! I was seduced by the typography and the peppy, happy image of a Mormon missionary jumping jubilantly in the air. Additionally, Mormons have fascinated me since I was 24, when I lived in Southern California and drove past La Jolla’s Star Wars-like Temple on a bi-weekly basis.

La Jolla's Mormon Temple. Yes, it looks insane.

La Jolla’s Mormon Temple. Yes, it looks insane.

I’ve read at least a dozen books on the Mormons, including “Mormonism For Dummies.” I’ve learned all about their special undergarments, belief system, unusual wedding ceremonies and the one year supply of food that the wives are supposed to keep stocked in their cupboard at all times. The Mormons baptize the dead, try to never drink caffeine, and believe that each husband will get his own planet when he dies. On that planet, his wife, children and everyone the family has posthumously baptized will serve him. The Mormons are deeply whacked out, but in Disney sort of way, which is why I love them. Long story short, it has always been my destiny to see a musical about Mormons.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so don’t read it if you are planning on seeing The Book of Mormon and want to be surprised.

The Book of Mormon starts off like a Gap adwith rows of slickly dressed missionaries ringing invisible doorbells, “Hello, my name is Elder Price and I would like to share with you the most amazing book!” “Hello” is a catchy song. I feel optimistic at this point. After this, we learn that a group of young missionaries are about to receive the locations of their (2 year) missions. Some go to France, others to Norway. But Elder Price, who is one of the main stars of this musical, finds out he is going to Uganda with Elder Cunningham, a freaky little fat ass. They sing “Two By Two” and “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”, two more catchy songs that I will later replay on Spotify. At this point, I’m happy to be at The Book of Mormon, happy that I have a pretty good seat, happy that I am at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. Then, it happens. “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” The song that translates, as one of the Ugandans cheerfully tells Elder Price as he first arrives in their country, to “F*ck You, God.” I put my hands over my face and sink down low in my seat. Oh no.

Waiting to find out where they are going on their missions.

Waiting to find out where they are going on their missions.

Ugandans are dragging a dead donkey through the street now. Everyone has AIDS. The town doctor has maggots in his scrotum. Oh no. Elder Price and Elder Cunningham meet the other Mormon missionaries that have already been there for months. The conversion rate stands at nil. It is a bleak moment in the musical.

Luckily, “Turn It Off ” is the next song and it is hilarious. “When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head, don’t feel those feelings! Hold them in instead! Turn it off, like a light switch, just go click!” Catchy, catchy. Unfortunately, something deep within me has been unsettled by “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and, no matter what occurs for the rest of the musical, there will be an internal religious conflict within me that goes something like, “Rebecca, how did you find yourself at a musical where they are singing ‘F*ck you, God,’ while cheerfully raising their middle fingers towards heaven?” and then, “But, overall this musical is quite funny,” and then, “But they sang F*ck you, God, and you listened to it while wearing a cross necklace.”

“I Am Here For You” is the next song, and it is my least favorite of the entire lot. Any song that employs the word “buddy” in it, will be a song that I hate. Personal preference. Moving on. “All American Prophet,” with: “Have you heard of the All-American Prophet? The blonde-haired, blue-eyed voice of God! He didn’t come from the Middle East like those other holy men! No, God’s favorite prophet was…All-American!” made me smile. The next song, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” is mildly offensive, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti (Salt Lake City, with a strong African accent), the most perfect place on Earth. The flies don’t bite your eyeballs and human life has worth.”

Elder Price watches a warlord named General Butt F*cking Naked shoot a man in the face. He takes it badly and deserts Elder Cunningham, thinking he’ll be transferred to Orlando, where he always dreamt of doing a mission. Then comes “Man Up,” with lyrics like: “What did Jesus do when they put nails in his hands? Did he scream like a girl? Or did he take it like a man? When someone had to die to save us from our sins, Jesus said, ‘I’ll do it ‘, and he took it on the chin! He manned up! He manned up. He took a bullet for me and you. That’s man up. Real man up.” So, this is a pro-Christianity song in the middle of an anti-religion musical. Hmm.

Elder Cunningham begins telling increasingly ridiculous lies to would-be converts, just to entice them to join the church. This leads us to my favorite song of the entire musical, “Making Things Up.” I’ve copied a fair-sized chunk of it, just to give you an idea of how creative it is:

MORONI, MORMON, SMITH, and ARNOLD’S DAD:
You’re making things up again, Arnold.
You’re recklessly warping
The words of Jesus!

HOBBITS:
You can’t just say what you want, Arnold!

ELDER CUNNINGHAM:
Come, on, Hobbits!

ALL:
You’re digging yourself a deep hole!

ELDER CUNNINGHAM:
I’m making things up again…kind of.
But this time, its helping
A dozen people!
Its nothing so bad, because this time,
I’m not committing a sin,
Just by making things up again, right?!

I’ve caught myself humming this song a few times since I heard it. I like it.

At this point in the play, Elder Price returns to the group of missionaries, but is completely ignored, while Elder Cunningham is praised for getting people interested in becoming Mormons (through wild lies involving Star Trek). Then comes “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which involves Hitler getting a blowjob from a man with a tiny, red-sparkly hat on his head. The lyrics are amusing, so I will share a bit of them with you:

JESUS:
You blamed your brother for eating the donut,
and now you walk out on your mission companion?!  You’re a DICK!

ELDER PRICE:
Jesus, I’m sorry!

CHORUS:
Jesus hates you, this we know!
For Jesus just told you so!

SKELETON 1:
You remember Lucifer!

SKELETON 2:
He is even spookier!

The “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” dance is funny, even if it is disturbing on many, many levels.

Spooky Mormon Hell Dream

Spooky Mormon Hell Dream

Moving on. There are only 5 songs left to share, so we’re reaching the end of the musical.

“I Believe” is the another confusingly pro-Christian song, with lyrics like: “I know that I must go and do the things my God commands. I realize now why He sent me here. If You ask the Lord in faith, He will always answer you. Just believe in Him and have no fear!” At this point in the musical, Nabulungi is ready to be the first Mormon convert. Which brings us to “Baptize Me.” I’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves:

ELDER CUNNINGHAM
I’m about to do it for the first time
And I’m gonna do it with a girl
A special girl
Who makes my heart kinda flutter
Makes my eyes kinda blur
I can’t believe I’m about
To baptize her

NABULUNGI
He will baptize me
He will hold me in his arms
And he will baptize me
Right in front of everyone
And it will set me free
When he looks into my eyes
And he sees just how much
I love being baptized

It sounds like it is all about sex, right? Next, we have “I Am Africa,” where the missionaries dance around like Africans, singing, “We are the winds of the Serengeti. We are the sweat of the jungle man. We are the tears of Nelson Mandela. We are the lost boys of the Sudan.” I cover my face with my hands again. Oh no.

At this point in The Book of Mormon, more Ugandans have been converted to Mormonism than anywhere else in Africa, so one of the Mormon bigwigs flies down to congratulate his missionaries. While there, Nabulunghi and the 19 other Ugandans that have been converted, put on a truly obscene play for him, about the prophet Joseph Smith, as they understand him. “Joseph Smith American Moses” involves lyrics such as: “Even though their prophet had died, the Mormons stuck together. And helped each other, And were really nice to everyone they came across. And one day, the Mormons finally found Sal Tlay Ka Siti! (Sal Tlay Ka Siti)! And then, the Mormons danced with Ewoks, And were greeted by Jesus!”

The Mormon director closes down the mission and tells all of the missionaries to go home, because they have completely failed in Uganda. But, they decide to stay. Even though the Mormon church has disowned them, they stay. Moreover, they take the version of Mormonism that Elder Cunningham made up to convert the Ugandans, and create “The Book of Arnold.

The Book of Arnold

The Book of Arnold

The Book of Mormon ends with “Tomorrow Is A Latter Day,” with lyrics like, “You’ve read the book of Mormon. Did you know there’s more? We swear this is not a scam. Have you heard the story of our prophet Arnold Cunningham? Arnold Cunningham. Arnold Cunningham.”

I left feeling deeply conflicted. Am I glad that I can say I’ve seen The Book of Mormon? Yes. Did I like some of the music in it? Yes. Will I see it again? No.

Having said all of that, if you can get a ticket, go see it. Seat A9, in the row of the Dress Circle area closest to the stage, with an unobstructed view, costs £68.50.

Mamma Mia! | Novello Theatre, Aldwych, London, WC2B 4LD, England
Wednesday and Saturday: Matinee – 3 pm | Monday – Saturday: Evening – 7:45 pm.
Closest Tube Station: Charing Cross

Mamma Mia! was, by far, the tamest of the musicals I saw on this trip. The storyline seems completely implausible, with Sophie, who is about to get married to Sky, inviting 3 men that might be her father to her wedding. What. Ever. But, suspending reality, this is a happy and upbeat musical. Sky, played by Andreas Gyllander, is wildly handsome.

Hey boy.

Andreas Gyllander is the only one not dressed in a wetsuit.

Good times at Mamma Mia!

Good, clean fun at Mamma Mia!

It wasn’t until I arrived at Mamma Mia! that I realized that it featured only Abba songs. Having previously never heard of Abba before, I can now confidently say that Abba rocks!

Mamma Mia! Song List:
1) “Honey, Honey”
2) “Money, Money, Money”
3) “Mamma Mia”
4) “Dancing Queen”
5) “Our Last Summer”
6) “Lay All Your Love On Me”
7) “Super Trouper”
8) “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”
9) “The Name Of The Game”
10) “Voulez-Vous”
11) “SOS”
12) “Does Your Mother Know”
13) “Slipping Through My Fingers”
14) “The Winner Takes It All”
15) “When All Is Said And Done”
16) “Take A Chance On Me”
17) “I Have A Dream”
18) “Thank You For The Music”

I do not dance. But, I was dancing at the end of Mamma Mia! That tells you how much I enjoyed the performance.

A Stalls, Row D, Seat 8, ticket costs £73 (with Ticketmaster’s fees and Box Office collection fees). The rows start with C. I was in the second row, a bit on the right. It was a very good seat.

Each time I attend a musical in London, I feel like I am in the middle of something truly magical, that something quite extraordinary is going on all around me. I feel awed and enchanted, happy and hopeful. Even when I am not in love with a performance, I walk away with stars in my eyes, humming a new tune, in a world that is just a tiny bit, to me, anyways, more brilliantly-hued than before.

Tennessee: An Antebellum Plantation in the New South

I come from the land of Southern belles, Sweet Tea, and plantations, the land of shady porches, cotton fields and chivalry. I come from the land of “yes ma’am and no ma’am,” cornbread and churches, scorching summers and white linen dresses. I grew up in Franklin, Tennessee, where the Battle of Franklin, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, was fought in 1864 and where all of the plantations of that era have been preserved, albeit not always with their original furniture. Franklin is a city so rich in Civil War history that a 6-foot dig in the right area could very well reveal a cannonball. When I was very little, before I ever ventured beyond the cozy little confines of Franklin, I thought that every other city beyond my own must be exactly the same. I was wrong. However, the cities immediately surrounding Franklin are packed with antebellum plantations as well, with sweeping staircases and high-ceilinged rooms – the sort of place Scarlett O’Hara would have laid her head. I grew up with a sense of respect and awe for the beautiful plantations around me, but I never visited them or thought that there was anything specifically important about them. Until I moved overseas to Paris to college, until I realized the history I grew up surrounded by was unique, tragic, and gorgeous.

Tennessee used to be a slaveholding state. There is no way to get around it. Visiting a plantation entails visiting slave cabins. The Big House is always grand and breezy, while the slave cabins are always rustic and sad. Walking next to the cotton fields at the plantations makes me melancholy, especially in the summertime, when temperatures flirt with 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I cannot imagine how they survived. I only made it 10 minutes into Django Unchained. Slavery is the ugly cog that kept the plantations running smoothly. One hundred and fifty years later, the scars of slavery still mar the beauty of the plantations. The injustice of their plight still lingers in the air, lost and mournful.

Rough stuff

Rough stuff

Hannah Jackson, one of President Jackson's slaves

Hannah Jackson, one of President Jackson’s slaves

A Slave Cabin at The Hermitage

A Slave Cabin at The Hermitage

With that being said, I greatly enjoy visiting the plantations in Middle Tennessee. This is my heritage. I descend from women that rocked back and forth on the wide front porches, that read in the front parlors and occasionally fainted in the heat. But I also descend from someone who was hanged as a spy during the Civil War, a Confederate soldier that defected to the Union because he was so opposed to the idea of slavery

I try to visit The Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson’s home, each time I return to Tennessee. I don’t know what it is about this specific plantation that I love so much, but I do love it. I’ve been visiting it every year since 2003, when I randomly chanced upon it.

The Hermitage | 4580 Rachels Lane, Nashville, Tennessee 37076  +1 (615) 889-2941
Opening Hours: Daily, 8:30 am – 5 pm (April 1st – October 15th) 9 am – 4:30 pm (October 16th – March 31st)

The front of The Hermitage

The front of The Hermitage

Getting out to the Hermitage is a bit of a trek. A GPS would be useful. Even though it isn’t far off of I-40 East, the signage is sparse. When in doubt, go straight, would be the advice I would give to anyone who gets lost in route, as there is then a 50/50 shot of running directly into the Hermitage sign, which is impossible to miss.  There is ample parking at The Hermitage and the ticket booth is easy to find. An adult ticket currently goes for $18 USD. I once got in for free on the birthday of Andrew Jackson’s first wife, Rachel, so it might be worthwhile to look up her birthday. Ticket in hand, one is led into a small screening room, where a 15-minute film about Andrew Jackson is shown. After that, the exit leads directly to an audio-tour desk, where a free audio guide of the plantations can be exchanged against a valid photo ID.  I picked up the audio guide on my most recent visit to The Hermitage, but I wasn’t in the mood to stand with clusters of people, for 15 minutes at a time, looking at a shoe, so I turned it off 3 minutes after receiving it. This instantly made me feel better, freer. From the audio-guide desk, one walks straight ahead, entering the beginning of The Hermitage’s museum. Various fragments of pottery, antique pistols and portraits fill the room. My favorite item there is Mrs. Jackson’s wedding dress. Rachel was quite fat. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a voluminous, unflattering wedding dress. It is horrible. It makes me happy.

The horrible wedding dress

The horrible wedding dress

Some people stay in the little museum for an hour, before heading out to the plantation. I tend to breeze through it in 5 or 10 minutes, as I’ve seen it so many times. Out the doors from the museum, one steps onto a path that leads to the entrance of the Big House. It winds around the front of the house, affording a lovely, tree-lined view, probably the best view of the front of the house available. This is the place to take pictures. Moving onwards from that, one ends up at the front door, where a row of benches await visitors to the Big House. It is the only part of the property where one must be on a guided tour. I hate guided tours, but this one only last 15 minutes, which I can bear. The tours start every 10 minutes or so. I’ve never waited long to go in, and two little ladies, gatekeepers dressed up like Southern Belles, will answer any general questions posed about The Hermitage.

Photography is not allowed, not even on an iPhone with no flash, inside of the Big House. This is quite sad, because the official guidebook to The Hermitage has low-quality, overly saturated pictures of the rooms. Useless. Once inside the entrance hall, a guide tells of the history of both it and the rooms to the left, the dining and music rooms. They are lovely, but what I enjoy about this part of the tour is the story about how the Jacksons would push all of the hallway furniture against the walls and hold dances in the entrance hall. I suppose that gives an idea of how large the entrance hall is. I also love the story of the wallpaper in the foyer. It was Rachel’s favorite, but destroyed during a fire. Andrew re-ordered it from France and put it up again once the house was refurbished – after Rachel’s death.

The hallway where the dances were held

The hallway where the dances were held

The music room and living room are standard plantation fare. From here, the tour follows down the hallway to the right, to the Farm Office and President Jackson’s study. I love the view out of the Farm Office and the massive, ancient looking books in Jackson’s Study. They look like the sort of books Hagrid would read.

Look at those old books

Look at those old books

From here, one must ascend an incredibly steep set of stairs. The elderly usually skip the upstairs part of the tour, as getting up there is so strenuous. Once up the stairs, the children’s room is on the right and President Jackson’s room is on the left. The beds are curtained, fluffy-looking and draped with mosquito netting – basically the most perfect beds ever. President Jackson died of gout in the bed exhibited. Across the upstairs hallway, lie 2 guest bedrooms, both of which are bigger than the room of the President and the children. I love the views on either end of the upstairs hallway, which is the dead center of the house. That is the entire guided tour. I said it only takes 15 minutes.

Down the main staircase, out the back door, one is once again free and presented with a plethora of possibilities. To the smokehouse? The dining room? The Spring Cabin? The slave cabin? The garden? All choices work. I tend to hit up the formal dining room, the pantry and the smokehouse first. I love the smokehouse, though I have no idea why. Afterwards, I walk down to the slave cabins, and back through the fields leading to the foundations of further slave cabins. It is a pleasant walk. I then loop back to the Spring Cabin, and its well. After that, I stroll through the lovely garden, where President Jackson is buried, before hitting up the gift shop.

The Formal Dining Room

The Formal Dining Room

Andrew Jackson's tomb

Andrew Jackson’s tomb

The Garden

The Garden

As Sally Carroll said in F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Ice Palace, “There’s just the last remnants of it, you know, like the roses of an old garden dying all round us– streaks of strange courtliness and chivalry in some of these boys an’ stories I used to hear from a Confederate soldier who lived next door. Oh, Harry, there was something, there was something! I couldn’t ever make you understand, but it was there.”

Tennessee: Adopt The Pace Of Nature

Everyone has a favorite place, a place they think about when they are far from home, a place they wish they were at when life inexplicably knots and curls in unexpected ways. Mine is Crockett Park in Brentwood, Tennessee. I’ve been to countless 5 star properties, some of the most stunning resorts imaginable, and boutique hotels in strange corners of the world, but Crockett Park is where my mind wanders to as I fall asleep at night, in the moments between dreaming and waking. I see the endless path ahead of me, waiting to be explored.

What I dream about

What I dream about when I am far away from home

When I was 7 years old, I received a trampoline as a birthday present. If it was not raining and I was not in school, I was on the trampoline. In Winter, with dead, brown grass all around me; in Spring, with daffodils peeking out from under the trees; in Summer, with the smell of honeysuckle heavy on the air; in Fall, as crisp orange leaves swirled down around my head, I was on the trampoline. When the weather was warm enough, I’d sleep on the trampoline overnight, waking up with dew in my hair, dew on my face, happy. I would do my Latin homework on the trampoline, daydream about boys on the trampoline, jump pensively for hours on the trampoline. As I got older and went off to university overseas, the trampoline’s springs rusted and then fell off. I forgot how much I loved being outdoors. Until Crockett Park. Until I needed a place to rollerblade.

I took up rollerblading when I was home for the summer, at 19. When I laced up my rollerblades for the first time, I skated directly into a parked car (my own). My neighborhood was too hilly for rollerblading. I needed to be somewhere free of automobiles that I could run into or that could run into me. Whether Concord Park opened at this time, or whether it had always been open and I just discovered it then, remains unclear in my mind, but what I do know is this: I somehow ended up there one afternoon. Sometimes the thing you need the most is impossible to fathom until you come across it. Once my rollerblades hit the pavement and I started gliding down the path, I knew I had found something that made perfect sense to me, that made me incredibly happy, that spoke to me on a level that few other things do, something deep and serious and lovely and intoxicating. I found a connection with nature. I remember walking back to my car afterwards, dazed and dizzy, wondering, “What just happened here? What was this?” It was the beginning of a great love affair. I thought about rollerblading all the time. All I wanted to know was when I could have more, more, more.

Prior to taking up rollerblading, the sportiest I had been was joining the Varsity Softball team in high school. I only did that to watch the baseball team practice, and, sensing my lack of interest in softball, my coach relegated me to the outfield. That was perfect, because I could turn around and, barring any softballs coming my direction, watch the baseball team for the entire time we were on the field.

Rollerblading is an intense workout, burning on average 1,000 calories an hour. The first time I laced up my rollerblades and flailed unimpeded through the parking lot of Concord Park, I doubted I could last 15 minutes. Other faster, sleeker, cooler rollerbladers glided suavely around me as I jerked and twitched like a seizure patient, trying to keep my balance.

There was so much to learn. Rollerblading is impossible when it is snowing or raining, and for a few hours afterwards, because the wheels can’t get traction on the wet pavement. Even the smallest stick or stone can catch on the wheels, causing painful asphalt face-plants. Everyone else on the path, with the exception of bikers, must get yield to rollerbladers, but rollerbladers must alert everyone they overtake from behind so as not to startle them. A vague smile to everyone passed is polite, except early in the morning, when “Good morning” is thrown out and received freely. Children are a zone d’incertitude. They often have no idea what is going on, are prone to falling off their bikes and will walk, run, or lay down directly in the middle of the path.

Rollerblading during school hours yields the lowest ratio of other people. Rollerblading at dawn is too dangerous, as is dusk, because no one else is on the trail. Additionally, if a previously estimated time for sunrise or sunset is incorrect, darkness will linger on too long or arrive too quickly, making visibility too poor to rollerblade. If this happens when you are directly in the middle of the forest, you’ll have to take off your rollerblades and walk the entire way back. Rollerblading next to the soccer fields at Crockett Park and River Park when there are soccer games on, Saturday and Sunday, is dangerous because of the small, clueless siblings of the soccer players wandering across the path.

If a path is too steep, rollerblading up it will be a challenging and worthwhile foray, but rollerblading safely back down is impossible. Rollerblading too fast depletes all of your energy a few minutes into your workout and will cause you to feel like crap until you get back to your car. When going around curves, all of your weight needs to centered over the inside leg. It is best to bring a zip-up jacket, in case you get cold. Sunglasses are essential, even on cloudy days, because the day you leave them behind is the day the sun will blind you for your entire workout. Rollerblading in cool weather, cooler than you like, can be surprisingly agreeable once you’ve started sweating. On the other end of the spectrum, rollerblading between June and August, between 11 am and 1 pm, can lead to heatstroke. Allergy sufferers, take allergy medicine before getting on the trail, not after. Long haired ladies, put it up in a ponytail or it will whip across your face and irritate you to no end. If you fall over a rock and cut your knee open, there are three bathrooms at Crockett and River to clean yourself up at. I learned all of this through trial and error.

It initially took me 4 30 minute sorties through Concord and River Park to feel stable on my rollerblades. I started off slowly, going cautiously down the path – hopping off onto the grass when I felt I was going too fast. I often thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” As the days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to months, I felt confident enough to rollerblade with abandon, to swoop silently from side to side, to take on the hills that looked too big. I saw other rollerbladers, learning how to rollerblade, skating into trees and other people. I remembered being them and did not laugh.

Now on to the three parks. Why are there 3 parks in a 3 mile stretch? Why couldn’t they all have one name? These are, like so many things in life, unanswerable questions. Concord Park is located behind the Brentwood Library, while River Park starts across the street from it. Crockett Park starts at the end of River Park. Think of a three-colored gummy snake, with each color being one of the parks. Crockett, River, Concord.

I prefer parking in the parking lot at River Park, as opposed to at the Brentwood Library itself. Parking in the Brentwood Library’s parking lot is a bit like playing Russian Roulette. Frazzled Soccer Moms in minivans, drive distractedly while trying to silence their screaming children with bribes like Chick-Fil-A ice cream cones. They might not be as, how shall we say, attentive to the fact that rollerbladers are right in front of their 2 ton vehicle.

Parking at the library and following the little path that winds behind the library into the trees leads to a tiny field with a paved circular path. This is Concord Park. It has not been well maintained. Between the sink holes in the asphalt and the general rough feel of the pavement, few people rollerblade here. At the end of that circular path is another parking lot, Concord Park’s parking lot, but I don’t like parking there because I find it ominous. There is a sign that reads, “We’re Watching You!” and another sign with a sign telling you not to bring a gun into the park. Plus, there are always odd cars parked in that parking lot, in the farthest, most remote corners, with the silhouette of a face looking out through the driver’s side window. No thanks.

Because this isn't an ominous thing to see when entering a park.

Because this isn’t an ominous thing to see when entering a park

Leave your glock at home, all you suburban gangstas.

Leave your glock at home, all you suburban gangstas

The City of Brentwood’s website describes Concord Park as follows: “Concord Park is a 40 acre park surrounding the Brentwood Library. Situated at one side of River Park and across from the WSM tower on Concord Road, the location is a good spot for beginning a walk or jog. Connected to the Brentwood Bikeway system, the park is also a great destination for family activities. Housed within the park are the Civitan Fields. The park includes: walking paths, bikeways, practice fields, and open areas for picnics and kite flying. There are no large shelters or athletic fields available for reservation in Concord Park.” Although the website gives opening hours for the park, I won’t list them, as parks aren’t ever really closed (except for Hyde Park in London, where I once had to scale the wall at 3 a.m. when a police officer began walking my way).

Safely back in the River Park parking lot, across the street from the Brentwood Library, there are bathrooms to the left, a small basketball court, and a large covered pavilion, perfect for having a picnic. There is a wooden bridge running over a creek that must be crossed to get to the start of River Park’s trail. I call this “The Bridge of Death” because rollerblading over its wooden beams when they are wet leads to serious accidents. Safely over the bridge, there is a convergence of two paths, one of which, very short, arrives from the YMCA of Brentwood’s parking lot. There tends not to be any random congregation of people at the merging point, which is good. The paved path curls to the right, around a few soccer fields, before descending a few feet into the forest. It meanders through the forest for 2 miles, some of which runs along the Little Harpeth River, before meeting up with Crockett Park on the other side of the tunnel that runs under Wilson Pike.

The City of Brentwood’s website describes River Park as follows: “River Park’s 46 acres include a two-mile bikeway and walking path along the Little Harpeth River, connecting with Crockett Park one end and Concord Park at the other. Facilities include: picnic pavilion with two grills, outdoor basketball court, walking/jogging trail along the Little Harpeth River and children’s playground and restrooms.”

River Park

River Park

Once through both the underground tunnel and the path underneath the train tracks, Crockett Park appears. While Concord Park is good for a brief jog, and River Park is good for a long, pensive rollerblading session, Crockett Park is the place to go for a good workout. It contains the only hill I cannot rollerblade successfully down, because of the incline. This is where I tend to start and stop my entire rollerblading circuit, as the parking lots here are gigantic. Rollerblading from Crockett Park to River Park is much more enjoyable than the inverse, as it is downhill the whole way.

Another "Bridge of Death", this time in Crockett Park

Another “Bridge of Death,” this time in Crockett Park

The City of Brentwood’s website describes Crockett Park as follows: “Crockett Park is Brentwood’s largest at more than 164 acres of open fields, facilities and first class athletic fields. Home of the historic Cool Springs House and the Eddy Arnold Amphitheater, Crockett Park is the site of many Brentwood events and activities including the summer Concert in the Park Series and the annual 4th of July Celebration and Fireworks. Also within the park is the Williamson County Parks & Recreation Indoor Soccer facility. Facilities include: eight multipurpose fields (two lighted), eight lighted baseball/softball diamonds, seven lighted tennis courts, concessions and restrooms buildings, open meadows, nature trail, paved walking paths and bikeways, community playground for children of all ages, and an amphitheater (reservations can only be made by local schools and local churches). The historic Cool Springs House features facilities for receptions and community gatherings. A portion of the second floor has been transformed into a large conference room for workshops and business retreats.”

A nice place to read

A nice place to read in Crockett Park

Yes, there are numerous YMCAs and gyms in the area, but with 3 great parks to choose from, all within 2 miles of each other, what would be the point? There is something magical about rollerblading down the paths through the forest, with no one around, listening to the birds chirp. When I’m alone on a trail, with sunlight pouring down upon me, watching squirrels dart around and enjoying the fresh smell of the Little Harpeth River, I think of a line from one of e.e. cummings poems, “I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.”

Adopt the pace of nature. Meander through Concord, River and Crockett Park on a lazy afternoon. Breathe deeply of what the forest has to offer. Good things are always just around the corner, waiting to delight you, if you take the time to seek them out.

Koh Samui: Down The Rabbit Hole

There comes a moment when, sick of laying out in the sun, or sunburned so badly that one’s skin will literally catch on fire or explode if exposed to just a single ray more of sunlight, one’s thoughts inevitably drift away from languishing picturesquely under a palm tree, idly reading a book and nursing cocktails, and towards checking out the chaotic, dirty hustle of Koh Samui’s nightlife. It is at this point, when the rabbit hole presents itself, waiting to be slid down sight unseen, that Koh Samui becomes interesting. Tropical locales the world-over have the same basic set-up: a body of water, sunlight, and endless areas designed to allow tourists to melt easily into the scenery, into a carefully designed, pseudo-reality island area, bothering no one, leaving no imprint. What makes Koh Samui unique is that every possible vice imaginable swirls tangibly through its streets, yet with a bright, fluffy PG-13 bow on it all, sort of like if Disney managed Hooters.

Illicit transactions occur late at night, in the back alleys of Chaweng, but an appropriate level of discretion is maintained. Tourists walk alone at 2 a.m. without fearing anything worse than a sudden infatuation with a gorgeous woman who turns out to be a man or coming across a vendor selling neon plastic light sticks for roughly 5000% percent of their value. Tourism keeps Koh Samui’s economy going. The locals may enjoy swindling visitors through poorly conducted business transactions involving stained, cheap clothing or treating them to an unmetered taxi ride, but the importance of this particular industry to the future of their island is well respected and understood. Without tourists, Koh Samui would fade back into its natural state, back to whatever originally kept the island going before holiday makers showed up, when all of the trades were literally backbreaking. No one wants that.

An evening in Koh Samui is full of endlessly amusing visual stimulation for those adventurous enough to leave their hotel under the cover of night, with a wallet full of Baht and an open mind. Out in the sultry Thai air, shooting through the darkness on a scooter, the island unfurls like a bizarre, night-blooming flower. Chaweng and Fisherman’s Village are the two nocturnal hot spots, places where humanity pulses along the sidewalks, where bizarre choices are routine, where random oddities boldly step out to greet passersby, where one enters the fray.

Fisherman's Wharf is located in the Bophut area. Chaweng is on the right hand side.

Fisherman’s Wharf is located in the Bophut area. Chaweng is on the right-hand side.

Fisherman’s Village is located on the northeast part of the island, only a 15 minute motorcycle ride from Chaweng. The tamer little sister of the two, the most trouble to be found in Fisherman’s Village is half-hearted harassment from one of the overly ardent tailors walking a few steps after prospective clients, loathe to let their money go elsewhere. How could anyone not want to get fitted for a new “Prada Style” business suit or baby blue silk evening dress at 9 pm? “My friend, my friend,” the tailor calls out into the night, convinced of the urgency of his appeal, oblivious that the objects of his solicitation are wearing cut-off jeans shorts, flip-flops and sleeveless t-shirts with giant beer logos proudly displayed across the front of them. “Come inside now. I make the best tuxedos on the island,” he pleads. I’ve never seen anyone go inside of his store, but whether that is due to the unsuitability of his wares to his target market, his overly-aggressive sales techniques, or the fact that this all usually goes down at exactly the same moment someone in a group of friends mutters, “If I don’t eat now I am going to die,” is beyond me.  For the tamest of the tame, an evening in Fisherman’s Village provides just the right mix of uncertainty and excitement.

Fisherman's Village

Fisherman’s Village

Guests of Hansar or Anantara Bophut, resorts I wrote about in my last post, can simply walk out of their room, head straight ahead, towards the Gulf of Thailand which they both border and follow the beach towards the right for approximately 30 seconds to find themselves at Fisherman’s Village. Factors to take into account, when timing your departure, include when dinner can be acceptably eaten in your specific situation, and how fully the sun needs to have dipped down on the horizon to save your sunburned skin from further punishment. Fisherman’s Village is during the day, obviously. When the thermostat is flirting with 41 Celsius, the last thing most people could ever imagine doing is leaving the comfort of whatever shade or body of water they’ve found for a solid pummeling by Thailand’s intense sun. 7:30 pm tends to be when I show up.

Karma Sutra Restaurant | 25 moo 1 Tambon, Bophut Fisherman’s Village Bophut Ko Samui – Suratthani 84320 Thailand +66 7742 5198

Karma Sutra is a nice place to enjoy a few drinks before dinner. Its decor is something an eccentric aunt would dream up, distressed furniture everywhere, a large breakfast chalkboard menu still up at 11 pm, Bacchanal beds to eat upon, couch cushions in random, mismatched colors, drinks with silly names. I had two cocktails here, once, with a group of people who were already completely drunk once I showed up. They kept moving from one seating area to another seating area within the restaurant. I left after they moved for the third time. I would go back again, by myself, for a chocolate milkshake.

Breakfast whenever you want it

Breakfast whenever you want it at Karma Sutra

Everything in Fisherman’s Village is on one long street, Beach Road, with a few smaller, less important streets running away from the Gulf of Thailand, so it is virtually impossible to get lost. Coming out of Karma Sutra, which is at the absolute end of Fisherman’s Village, the only logical direction to walk is left on Beach Road, where all the usual suspects (Seafood, Thai, Mexican, French, Italian, Indian, Australian and British pub food) await customers.

The Seaside Steakhouse | Beach Road, Bophut Fisherman’s Village Bophut Ko Samui – Suratthani 84320 Thailand  +66 7731 0742

I recently had dinner on the beach at The Seaside Steakhouse, located smack dab in the middle of Beach Road. When I asked the owner for a good table, he led me through his restaurant down to the beach, where four empty tables all in a row sat less than 10 feet away from the water.  I’ve always wanted to eat on the beach and this was the first time I ever was able to, which was nice. The water was completely still, the blinking lights of distant fishing boats twinkled in the night and the quiet murmur of the other diners lulled me into a relaxed state. Vendors bothered me, trying to sell me kites and flashing Minnie Mouse hair bows, but restaurant staff shooed them quickly away. A Russian guy at the table to my right bought a laser pointer from one of the vendors, which he used to shine into the windows of all of the boats moored in the water and into his girlfriend’s eyes, provoking a cascade of caustic Russian scolding.

Dinner on the beach at The Seaside Steakhouse

Dinner on the beach at The Seaside Steakhouse

Dinner for one, without wine, costs approximately $25 USD. I suppose the proximity to the ocean is what elevates the cost. The food was forgettable. Come for the view.

After dinner, stroll down Beach Road for the fun of negotiating cheap Thai trousers and thin cotton dresses in tiny shops the size of airplane toilets. Dodge the overly ardent tailor I mentioned earlier, buy a Nutella crepe, enjoy the sound of the waves. Fisherman’s Village starts shutting down at around 10 pm, at which point it is time to hop on a scooter and ride 15 minutes or so to Chaweng.

Chaweng, pronounced “Sha WANG!” is the drain through which all of Koh Samui’s night tourism filters. No matter how late I have stayed out in Chaweng, I’ve never seen anything but one shopping mall, with a Lacoste of dubious authenticity, shut down before midnight. Cheap, brightly hued dresses sway softly in the breeze. Red Bull embossed silk Thai boxers await perusal. Poorly constructed Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Lacoste knock-offs sit sullenly, under plastic, in well-lit stores.

I usually arrive in Chaweng around 10 pm and head straight in for a Thai massage. Every other store is a Thai massage parlor, which seems self-defeating, like a road full of only Starbucks cafes. An hour-long Thai massage with Tiger Balm oil costs 350 baht ($11 USD) and the privacy level is minimal. Even though a curtain separates one’s naked body from everyone else in the spa, there are gaps in the curtain. The key is to get dressed and undressed while facing the wall. The last time I had a Thai massage, a few days ago, I ordered a Deep Thai Massage for 850 Baht ($29 USD). For someone self-professed as having the world’s lowest pain threshold, I always seek out the most brutal Thai massages. The woman was so rough with me that I thought I would die. I had tears in my eyes and knew I would be covered with bruises the next day. It was perfect. Once the 400 pound woman had walked all over me, cracked areas of my spine that I can never crack myself and basically pounded the crap after me, I felt incredibly relaxed, sore, and ready to see what the night had to offer.

Hey girl/boy!

Hey girl/boy!

One way to pass an evening is a ladyboy show at Starz Cabaret. The z at the end of Starz is a clue to the level of classiness one should expect. When I went, it was like watching a cross between a Miss America pageant, a strip-off and an off-off-Broadway musical. More interesting than the women, who were all artfully made up, with exquisite costumes and bodies, dancing saucily choreographed numbers, were the men watching them. In groups of three of four, with drinks scattered all across their tables, these men would whistle, howl, leer with every atom of their being before remembering, with a stricken look, that these were men they were whistling at. It was an odd cycle of lust, shame, lust, and then more shame. I will admit that I spent some time scrutinizing the ladyboys. Everything was completely hidden, and if the name of the show did not describe in precise detail exactly who these creatures were, I would have been hard pressed to pick any of them out  as sexual interlopers in a group of women. Ladyboy shows are not for the faint of heart. Lap dancing is involved. Pieces of clothing get flung about. It is all quite confusing, illogical and provocative. I greatly enjoyed myself, but then, I am someone who thrives in weird situations.

If ladyboy shows hold no appeal, Muay Thai boxing matches are held at Chaweng Stadium three times a week. Tickets cost between 800 – 1500 Baht ($27 – $51 USD). When I went, I paid 1500 Baht to watch a title fight and nine additional matches, including one between two overly fierce girls. Watching other people try to kick each other is quite fun, especially while sitting under a cool fan and drinking a Diet Coke. When the men bow to the corners of the ring before they fight each other, when they do their odd, little prancy dances in honor of the noble fight they are about to wage with their opponent, it seems weirdly poetic. It was so intensive that I left feeling like I’d had a thorough workout, exercise by association.

I like watching them kick each other

I like watching them kick each other

Chaweng is also full of prostitute bars. Prostitutes gaze brazenly from the edge of outdoor tables. They stand in the road, so as not to be ignored by passing cars. I’ve even seen hula-hooping prostitutes. One prostitute hula-hooped for at least 3 minutes straight, before traffic cleared up and I was able to drive away on my scooter. Three minutes of hula-hooping! I don’t think I could even do it for 30 seconds.

Whatever you seek in the inky, muggy dark, you’ll most likely find it in Koh Samui – be it a good Thai massage, a Muay Thai boxing match, or some ladyboys to gawk at. Drink in the chaos of the island and find yourself giddy, intoxicated, and as alive as the night around you. Stay out until the candles have all burned out.

Koh Samui: A Place In The Sun

Koh Samui is an island off the east coast of Thailand, a 45-minute flight from Bangkok. Full of five star hotels and lady boy shows, it makes for a good week-long vacation. If you want to come visit, you will fly Bangkok Airways and only Bangkok Airways, as it owns the Koh Samui International Airport. A flight from Bangkok to Koh Samui costs more than flying from Bangkok to Singapore, so the people that are here really want to be here. Like Kathmandu, you don’t just randomly end up in Koh Samui. It is a choice. Consequently, Koh Samui caters to the more high-end market, the well heeled, the ones that shrug their shoulders dismissively when told the only room available costs $500 USD a night.

According to the stamps in my passport, I have visited Koh Samui 6 times since September 2011. While all of the places I have stayed at have been 4 or 5 star, some have been markedly better than others. I’ll take you through the hotels I’ve frequented.

Anantara Bophut | 9/9 Bophut Bay Samui Island, Surat Thani 84320 Thailand  +66 77428 3009

Anantara Bophut was the first resort I stayed at in Koh Samui, twice in September 2011. The lobby is beautifully decorated, with a big cluster of Thai lanterns dripping down from the middle of the ceiling and little bells lining the walls that make lovely tinkling noises in the wind. Standing in the middle of the reception area, you can see clear to the beach. I found it to be a peaceful and soothing environment, and, for someone that is highly ambivalent about hotel lobbies, that it saying something. The walk from the lobby to the rooms was stunning, with a lily pad in the middle and various areas to collapse at if you cannot, or do not want to, make it to the pool. It felt authentic, the carrier of a long and noble history.

A nice place to relax

A nice place to relax

If you do make it down to the oceanfront pool, and you will, inevitably, it is worth noting that all of the beaches in Thailand are public. This means that once you step off the bottom step from the pool area to the beach area, you are fresh meat for the vendors of the world’s cheapest/most overpriced junk. A hot pink illuminated Minnie Mouse hair bow headband at 350 Baht ($11 USD) is a perfect example. The vendors often wear their merchandise, which is funny for the first 30 seconds you see it. Once you’ve been accosted 5 times in 2 minutes, you’ll find yourself facing a dilemma. Should you keep putting down your book each and every time someone tries to offload some crap on you, smiling politely yet firmly, murmuring, “No thank you, I don’t need a silk dragon kite at this exact moment.”  Do you start becoming increasingly ruder each time you are bothered, because the point of your trip to Koh Samui was, in fact, to lay undisturbed in the sun? Do you retreat to the pool area, where the ocean’s breeze still reaches, where the sound of the waves still carries in the wind? I lasted 17 minutes on the beach before retreating to the pool, dodging men in long-sleeved shirts trying to show me Chang Beer singlets the whole way. The pool is where everyone ends up, slightly worse for the wear, shaking sand off of their towels, glaring vaguely at the beach. It is a nice, if generic, resort pool, with a swim-up bar. The combination of alcohol and chlorine just doesn’t do it for me. I didn’t want any drunken swimmers knocking into me, so I stayed as close to the ocean end of the pool as possible. The swim-up bar can become loud, especially in the early evening.

The part of the pool is the Switzerland of the area between the beach and the swim-up bar.

This part of the pool is the Switzerland of the area between the beach and the swim-up bar.

Anantara’s website describes itself as follows: “Located on a tranquil stretch of sand, Anantara Bophut Resort & Spa offers guests inimitable luxury comforts coupled with world renowned Thai hospitality. Enjoy water sports on the Gulf of Thailand’s placid warm waters whilst residing at our elegant Samui resort. Soak in the sun by Anantara’s elegant infinity edge pool or on Bophut’s soft white sand. Unwind with one of our specially developed Anantara spa packages. Dine on fiery Thai curries and handmade Italian pastas overlooking the ocean. Anantara Bophut presents a Koh Samui resort lifestyle that is quite unlike any other, from Bill Bensley designed tropical gardens which complement the charms of Fisherman’s Cove on Bophut Beach, to southern Thai architecture which reflects our local cultural heritage, and world class amenities enhanced by Anantara’s unique design touches. Every room features a bathtub for two which opens onto a spacious bedroom that is brought to life by southern Thai artwork and décor.  A wealth of leisure facilities and experiences from windsurfing and sailing to spa, beach yoga, tennis, cooking classes and area excursions help you to make the most of Koh Samui’s stunning natural and cultural attractions. While complimentary Wi-Fi Internet at our Lobby and Library, in the Eclipse Bar, High Tide and Full Moon restaurants, as well as poolside, allows you to keep up to date with the world.  In short, Anantara Bophut Resort & Spa brings you all of the island’s riches with Anantara’s distinctive gracefulness.”
This is what I always thought Thailand would be like.

This is what I always thought Thailand would be like.

Having seen the layout of the rooms, the fact that all of the balconies faced the pool, meaning loud noise from the people in the pool area and no privacy, I felt dubious about my reservation. I like silence and seclusion at a resort. I don’t want everyone at the pool, totally bored and sleepy in the sun, to be staring into my window, watching me change clothes. Had I agreed to the room I was originally assigned, this would have absolutely been the case. Zero privacy. Eyes everywhere. But, after explaining my concerns, Reception graciously upgraded me to a Royal Sea View Suite. I enjoyed it so much that, when I returned to Koh Samui 3 weeks later, I booked it again.
The side balcony on my Royal Sea View Suite.

The side balcony on my Royal Sea View Suite.

Anantara’s website describes its Royal Sea View Suites: “Our detail to simplicity merged with exquisite interiors distinguishes us as one of the finest Bophut resorts. With a vast 80 square metres of living space, the Royal Sea View Suites were designed with care in order to provide comfort and fulfill the needs for those who wish to experience unforgettable moments on this beautiful island. Each of these Koh Samui suites features a spacious bedroom with four poster king size bed, elegant lounge area with teakwood furniture and gracious bathroom complete with a signature terrazzo tub. Exquisite Thai artwork accents each room and a furnished wrap-around terrace provides the perfect locale to spend a lazy afternoon taking in the sweeping sea view.”

4 Royal Sea View Suites feature:

  • 80 square meters living space
  • Sweeping sea view
  • Wrap-around private balcony with built-in sofa
  • Four-poster King size bed
  • Deep terrazzo tub for two and separate shower area
  • In-room mini bar with tea making facilities, Espresso machine
  • Electronic in-room safe
  • Satellite flat screen LCD TV, DVD player
  • Work desk with power sockets and high-speed internet access
  • Individually controlled air-conditioning and ceiling fans
  • IDD telephone with voicemail

One night in a Royal Sea View Suite currently goes for 14,800 Baht, about $504 USD.

Conrad Koh Samui | 49/8-9 Moo 4, Hillcrest Road, Tambon Taling-Ngam, Koh Samui, Surat Thani 84140, Thailand +66 7791 5888

I am writing this entry from my villa at Conrad Koh Samui. This is my second visit. Of all of the villas in Asia that I have ever had the privilege of staying at, this is in my top 3. The privacy is absolute, the view of the Gulf of Thailand is laid out in front of you like a featured painting in an art gallery, and the villa’s pool is 10 meters long. I feel like I am the only one at this resort right now, which is the highest compliment I can pay a property. Situated on the side of a cliff, it is a 5 minute buggy ride up or down each time you go back to or leave your villa. While this is not bothersome, it can take up to 15 minutes for the buggy to arrive after you’ve called Reception, so budget 20 minutes, door-to-door, from your villa to the resort’s entrance. You could walk it, but it is a 45 degree inclines the entire way, which isn’t exactly my idea of fun while wearing flip-fops.

Conrad Koh Samui’s website describes itself in the following minimalistic terms: “Stay in a private luxury villa at the Conrad Koh Samui and experience your own infinity pool, marble bathroom, and a stunning west-facing view of the Gulf of Thailand.

The view

The view

Once I check in, I always hole up in my villa, walking back and forth in the pool while listening to music on my iPhone, for the majority of each day. I have the amazing Gulf of Thailand view, bountiful Diet Coke and a sparkling pool where I can while away the hours. I can read in complete silence. I can do anything I want. This is all I need in a vacation. Conrad has loads of other places to hang out if you get sick of being in your villa, but I’ve never bothered to go to any of them. I leave the resort each evening, on a little scooter I rented 5 minutes away from the property, and eat dinner with friends, but a good 8 hours of each day are spent outside in my pool area.

This is what a vacation should be like

This is what a vacation should be like

A quiet afternoon

A quiet afternoon

Conrad’s website describes its One Bedroom Waterfront Pool Villas as follows: “Indulge in a luxurious, freestanding Thai-style one bedroom villa. This contemporary 96 m²/1033 sq. ft. villa features a private 10 meter infinity plunge pool set close to the calming waters and romantic sounds of the Gulf of Thailand. Original artwork, tropical hardwood floors, and Thai silk furnishings create unique accommodations where no detail has been overlooked. Ocean facing beds with 300 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, fine linens and full pillow menu offer a restful night’s sleep. State of the art in-room technology includes LCD flat-screen satellite television, CD/DVD player, iPod docking station, and wired and wireless high speed internet connection. A large walk-in closet and fully stocked mini-bar and an espresso machine provide the finishing touches. Complete with striking ocean views, the sea can be heard through full-height glass panes that serve as entrances to the terrace and pool from both the bedroom and bathroom. A sumptuous marble bathroom offers spa-quality amenities including an oversized soak tub, glass-walled rain shower, and twin vanity sets.”

A most aesthetically pleasing bathtub

A most aesthetically pleasing bathtub

One night in a 1 Bedroom Waterfront Pool Villa is currently listed at 29,000 Baht, roughly $989 USD. If you can afford it, this is where you should stay when you come to Koh Samui.

Hansar Samui | 101/28 Moo1, Bophut Koh Samui, Surat Thani 84320 Thailand +66 7724 5511

I stayed here once, for one night, in November 2011. Not having any choice over the room category I was booked into (the lowest), plus the design of the shower, left me nonplussed. Wearing contacts, I cannot take a shower under a rainforest shower head without covering my face with a towel. I don’t want to cover my face with a towel while I am taking a shower. This is my personal preference. Perhaps there are people out there that cover their faces with towels every chance they get, but I am not one of them. Additionally, I am not a shower person. I like long baths, with a book, and if forced to abstain from my normal routine and shower with a towel over my face, I start to feel like it is less of a vacation and more of a hassle. No 5 star hotel room should only have a shower.

I liked their poolside bar, and the pool itself, though it was a bit small and didn’t have enough pool chairs for all of the guests that wanted to be there. Its gym was a skeleton of machines and an ever-present barefooted man whose atrocious music choice bounced off of the mirrored wall as I stoically soldiered on from an adjacent treadmill.

Hansar's pool

Hansar’s pool

Hansar’s website describes itself in the following questionable English: “Hansar Koh Samui is Situated just 10 minutes from the Island’s International airport, Hansar Samui is located on the tropical stretch of golden sands and turquoise waters of Koh Samui’s up-market Bophut Bay, which offers a front seat to island life.  A leisurely stroll down the quaint cobblestone ‘walking street’ adjacent to the resort, is the vibrant Fisherman’s Village, with its antique wooden shop fronts, chic cafes and atmospheric seaside bars. The name Hansar is taken from the ancient Sanskrit language and translates to mean happiness and joy.  The concept and philosophy of Hansar Samui is to deliver an luxury resort and spa experience to each guest that is happy, memorable and enjoyable.  Hansar Samui is about living life in full colour and finding joy in every moment Hansar Samui offers luxurious, beachfront, spacious accommodation with unobstructed sea views from every room, and supersize private balconies and oversize daybeds for outdoor living and entertaining.  Open plan yet intimate, each room has been artfully finished with teak floors, terrazzo bathrooms and local textiles to provide a sense of place.  Chic custom furnishings, large flat screen TVs balance the design’s natural touches with a modern flair. Our facilities are outstanding and include the stunning Luxsa Spa Koh Samui and H Bistro for Koh Samui’s finest dining.  We hope to see you soon at our Luxury Resort and Spa.”

Hansar's pool by day

Hansar’s pool by day

I was booked into a Sea View room, sight unseen. The view of the Gulf of Thailand was nice, as was the balcony, but my nemesis, the rainforest shower head, was ever-present. Hansar’s website describes its Sea View rooms as follows: “Sea view – 54 rooms each 50 square meters. Created with a natural simplicity with natural textiles, rooms feature oversize walk-in rain showers and luxurious oversize king-plus beds with plush down comforters and pillows ensure a restful sleep. An amazing and affordable way to experience Hansar Samui Resort and Spa.”

The front desk staff, when I was there, was a group of jokers that would playfully hang up on me when I would call with any queries or requests.

One night in a Sea View Room is currently listed at 5,790 Baht, around $197 USD. It isn’t worth it.

Le Méridien Koh Samui Resort & Spa | 146/24 Moo 4, Lamai Beach, Maret, Surat Thani, Koh Samui,  84310, Thailand +66 7796 0888

When waiting in the lobby of Le Meridien Koh Samui to check-in a few days ago, I immediately thought to myself, “The branding is off here. Something is not right.” It didn’t look like a Le Meridien property. One of my friends that works in Koh Samui later explained to me that it used to be a Thai hotel, that Le Meridien bought it within the last 6 months and simply changed all of the logos. Branding issue solved. I haven’t stayed in many Le Meridien properties, but I was expecting more, better. Whoever photographed the property for Le Meridien’s website is a highly skilled and gifted individual, as it looks basically nothing like what you see online. I suppose it is all about managing expectation levels. Some people can be happy sleeping in a tent in a gas station’s parking lot. Those people would be happy here. Others, the ones that count down the days until their vacation, for months ahead of the day, that fly 14 hours to get here, will be sorely disappointed I fear. I only ended up at this property because the Conrad was full on the first night of my trip. Otherwise, I would have never have checked it out.

The lobby

The lobby

When I walked into my Plunge Pool Suite, my spirits immediately dropped. No natural lighting filtered through the windows. It smelled of mold. One of the jets in my plunge pool was broken. “You only have one night here, be cool,” I told myself in an effort to self-soothe. I like light-filled, airy spaces. This felt like a cave. I hated it. The insulation was paper thin. I had insomniac neighbors who chatted until 3 in the morning. Every sneeze, sniffle or cough from all of the surrounding suites echoed in my room. I hate loud noise in hotels.

When I escaped to the pool area, the noise level actually increased. Choosing the most remote chair in the most isolated corner seemed like a sure ticket to silence, mais non. I opened my eyes to a construction worker staring meaningfully into my eyes before pulling up the floorboard next to me, escaping down into a hole and then hammering for the next hour. Oh well, I tried.

The plunge pool.

The plunge pool.

Le Meridien Koh Samui’s website describes itself as follows: “Imagine waking up in the quiet of the morning, the golden sun streaming across the supremely comfortable four poster king-size bed—covered in smooth white Indian cotton and sumptuous Thai silks. You look up to admire the elegant length of silk artfully suspended over the bed from the ceiling. You get up, the terrazzo tile floor cool to the touch of your feet, and walk across the teak wood bridge walkway and into the gracious bathroom, where you splash water in your face at the terrazzo vanity. Then step down a few steps into your very own outdoor plunge pool. Surrounded entirely by the rest of the suite, it affords complete privacy, while its six-square-metre design gives you ample space to luxuriate in the sunlit water and let the built-in Jacuzzi jets help you unwind. After your dip, you walk through the bathroom and out into the private rainforest shower for a quick rinse. Wrap yourself into one of the white cotton bathrobes, slip on the matching slippers and saunter back into the bedroom and over to the fully stocked refreshment centre and accompanying coffee maker for a freshly brewed cup of illy coffee. A quick check of email at the writing desk, complete with wireless High Speed Internet Access and the rest of the day stretches out blissfully in front you. Perhaps read a book lounging on the sofa on your private outdoor verandah. Or listen to music or watch a film on the state-of-the-art entertainment system—including a 32-inch LCD television, DVD/CD player and iPod docking station. Whatever your pleasure, the Plunge Pool Suite offers endless sophisticated possibilities to unwind and enjoy. 538 Square Feet / 50 Square Meters.” This is all a lie.

Notice the ever-present darkness

Notice the ever-present darkness

One night in a Plunge Pool Suite is currently listed at 10,500 Baht a night, in the neighborhood of $358 USD. I felt depressed after staying here.

W Koh Samui | 4/1 Moo 1 Tambol Maenam, Surat Thani Koh Samui, 84330 Thailand +66 (66) 7791 5999

I cannot write objectively about W Koh Samui, as I had a friend, who was in Koh Samui at the same time as me, pass away while I was staying here in November 2011. I will always associate his death with this resort, which is highly unfortunate, as I quite liked it.

Aesthetically pleasing

Aesthetically pleasing

W Koh Samui’s website describes itself as: “Life done right. Start the day with a workout at SWEAT® or dip at WET® before unwinding with a local therapy at AWAY® Spa. Then, light up the evening with signature cocktails at W Lounge and dinner at our onsite restaurants Namu and Kitchen Table.”

My Tropical Oasis Villa was bizarrely laid out. It felt like I was living in a straw.

The view at breakfast

The view at breakfast

W Koh Samui’s website describes its Tropical Oasis Villas as follows: “Lounge all day in your colorful Tropical Oasis. Surrounded by the calm and charm of fragrant, lush foliage and a beautifully landscaped garden, it is the most secluded Retreat we have, with a novel combination of outdoor and indoor living. Make yourself at home on the huge wooden deck, complete with a spacious private pool measuring 11 by 2.5 meters, oversized daybed, two lounge chairs and a wooden dining table for two. Indoors, a revelry of red infuses everything, from sofa pillows and silk designer lamps to sideboards and wall-integrated shelves, with an aura of clean sophistication elevated by stunning floor-to-ceiling windows. Of course every piece of furniture and every detail is custom designed. Settle into the beanbag chair or sofa to take in the best of our state-of-the-art entertainment—from the 46-inch Samsung LCD TV and DVD/CD player to the innovative W Library (available via Whatever/Whenever®) and Yamaha Wi-Fi sound dock—with treats from the Munchie Box and refreshments from the Sweet Spot always on hand. Meanwhile, High Speed Internet Access and a cordless phone keep you connected 24/7.Relax at the end of the day in the serene bathroom, where Bliss® Spa sinkside six bath amenities and a 22-inch Samsung LCD TV amplify an oversized bathtub and separate rainforest shower, while a sliding door leads directly to your private pool. Then settle into in the king-size signature W pillow top bed with 350-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, a goose-down comforter and pillows for a restorative night’s sleep.”

  • 2,400 Square Feet / 223 Square Meters
  • Retreat with the Largest Outdoor Area
  • Landscaped Garden Surrounded By Walls

One night in a Tropical Oasis Villa currently goes for 24,500 Baht, roughly $835 USD.

In summation, if you are going to all the effort of traveling to Koh Samui, flying puny Bangkok Airways and whatnot, make sure you’ve thoroughly researched where you want to stay. If you can afford it, stay at Conrad. If you cannot afford it, and you end up staying somewhere that is just okay, passable, remember that it is the people you’ve brought with you, not the locale, that make or break a trip. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.” Make sure you bring the people that are as good as spring itself.

Bangkok: With Money To Burn

Bangkok is one of those wonderfully versatile cities that you can have a good time in no matter what your financial situation. Tuk-tuks will take you around the city for less than 100 Baht. Youth hostels and street food are incredibly cheap as well. But the other end of the spectrum, the dark side of the moon, if you will, is more fun. If you find yourself in Bangkok with money to burn, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Sky Bar at Sirocco | The Dome at Lebua, 63rd floor, 1055/42 Silom Road, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand +66 2624 9999
Opening Hours: Daily, 6 pm – 1 am.

Oh, Sky Bar. It is always so difficult to get a table here, even when you have a reservation for a table. Here is a typical exchange between myself and the hostess at Sky Bar. “I have a reservation for a table,” I say with a smile, stepping off the bottom step of the sweeping staircase that leads to this incredibly popular open-air bar. “No, you don’t,” she responds coolly, looking in her reservation book, snapping it closed when I attempt a peak. We always come to an understanding. Sky Bar is the only place I frequent each and every trip to Bangkok. If I am in Bangkok, I have recently gone or will soon be going to Sky Bar. I’ve been coming here since 2009, since before it was famous, before it was crowded. This is the place in Bangkok to bring a date, to smoke a cigar with friends, or to wow out-of-town guests/your parents. Dress up.

It isn’t that the food is exquisite, or that the drinks are incredibly well-mixed. No. People find themselves at Sky Bar for 3 reasons. Firstly, Hangover 2, the ubiquitous Bradley Cooper movie in which Sky Bar features prominently. Fame by association. Secondly, it is rated number 2 of all the attractions in Bangkok, so if you are a first-time tourist in Bangkok, with no idea what is going on, it is likely that Trip Advisor, or your hotel’s concierge, will lead you to Sky Bar. Thirdly, and most importantly, it has the best view in Bangkok. Sweeping panoramas of the city on 3 sides, with the massive Dome looming behind you.

The Dome at Sky Bar, as taken from a table on the right side.

The Dome at Sky Bar, as taken from a table on the right side.

Trivia: when you are walking up or down the staircase from Lebua Hotel to Sky Bar, are you allowed to take a picture? Are you allowed to even linger for 4 seconds, to stare pensively down at the mass of humanity in front of you or up at the attention commanding Dome? NON! Sky Bar’s staff will spoil your plans. Congratulations, Sky Bar, on having thought up the most idiotic photography policy I have ever come across. You are allowed to take pictures of the Dome from every other angle, but may God be with you if you pull out your iPhone on the stairs.

At Sky Bar, you can have a drink at the bar, which is in the center of the open-air area, or you can have dinner at one of the tables on either side of the bar, down a few steps and strictly forbidden to guests that only want to buy one drink. I have had both dinner and simply a few cocktails while seated at one of the tables, but if you try to get a table reservation for just a cocktail or two with friends, forget it. Having never set foot in the bar area, I cannot give you any feedback except that the people I see milling about there don’t tend to stay for more than 30 minutes and that the guys that hit on random girls in that area tend to be shot down. I’m not a bar frequenter, in general, and Sky Bar’s actual bar area is always teeming with tourists. Upscale meat market would be an applicable term.

Sky Bar

Sky Bar at Sirocco

The Lebua’s website describes Sky Bar at Sirocco as follows: “Suspended in the sky on the 63rd floor of The Dome at Lebua, the Sky Bar is the world’s highest open air bar, overlooking a panoramic view of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River. With such an enthralling ambience coupled with a seductive selection of the finest vintages, beverages and cocktails in Bangkok, the Sky Bar soars as one of the prized destinations in the city. No wonder, the rooftop bar is unanimously accepted as the coolest bar in Bangkok.”

One drink will set you back $12-15 USD, but you won’t be having it at a table. You’ll be crammed into the glass-sided bar area, or, The Fishbowl, as I like to call it.  Dinner for two, with a medium range wine, at a proper table, will set you back roughly $400 USD. Sky Bar at Sirocco is not to be missed.

Café Mozu at Lebua | 1055/42 Silom Road, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand +66 2624 9999
Opening Hours: Daily, 6 am – 1 am.

The bread basket

The bread basket

Gai Pad Med Mumuang (are you really surprised I would order that?)

Gai Pad Med Mumuang

After a few drinks at Sky Bar, it is incredibly easy to take the elevator down a few floors and have dinner by Lebua’s enormous pool. A bit like Baboo’s weird cafe across the street from Jerry’s apartment in Seinfeld that served dishes from an odd assortment of countries that you wouldn’t usually think about grouping together on the same menu, Café Mozu specializes in Lebanese. And Sardinian. And Thai. And Indian!

Lebua’s website describes Café Mozu as follows: “Offering the best of Indian, Lebanese, Thai, Pizza from wood fired oven and international cuisine in a vibrant ambiance, Café Mozu at Lebua reinvents the staid cafe culture in Bangkok. While you are here make sure you sample the eclectic spread of breakfast buffet at the Café’s poolside. Breakfast in Beirut. Lunch in Mumbai. Supper in Sardinia. All at the hottest new bar in Bangkok. Café Mozu blends the finest Lebanese, Indian, Thai and Western cuisine. Creating a truly global menu that reflects today’s eclectic tastes. Café Mozu features World music and an unrivalled drinks menu. Welcome to Mozu, a place which will be your guide to the cultures of the world.”

What I sat next to at Café Mozu

What I sat next to at Café Mozu

Le Normandie at Mandarin Oriental | 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok 10500, Thailand +66 2659 9000 ext. 7670
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday, Lunch: Noon – 2:30pm | Dinner: 7 pm – 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday.

Probably the best French restaurant in town, the hostess will rip you apart if you are not dressed correctly. As in, when I walked in, carrying a very expensive purse and wearing very expensive shoes, she looked me up and down repeatedly, and shook her head, “No.” Why? I was wearing a white Lacoste shirt and a Thai silk skirt. After a few choice words with my new enemy, she let me in. I was so enraged, however, that I merely ordered one $50 glass of champagne, gulped it down bitterly while staring out at the skyline, and left.

Inside of Le Normandie

Inside of Le Normandie

Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s website describes Le Normandie as follows: “One of the best-loved French restaurants in Asia, Le Normandie offers a delicious fine-dining menu and an exceptional wine cellar. Situated in the Garden Wing of the hotel, the restaurant frequently entertains the highest echelons of Thai society, from celebrities and politicians to members of the Royal Family. Offering stunning views of the river through floor-to-ceiling windows, the restaurant enjoys and elegant feel with large chandeliers, round tables and stunning flower arrangements. Diners are offered the choice of a set or a la carte menu specializing in exemplary seafood and exquisite meat dishes. Ladies are kindly requested to wear elegant attire and footwear. Gentlemen are kindly asked to wear smart shirts, long trousers and closed shoes. A jacket is compulsory for men during dinner (can be provided upon request).” Based on my interaction with the hostess, Louis Vuitton princess heels are not elegant footwear.

One glass of champagne with set you back $50 USD. You have been warned.

You better dress impeccably.

You better dress impeccably.

The Verandah at Mandarin Oriental | 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok 10500, Thailand +66 2659 9000 ext. 7610
Opening Hours: Daily, 6 am – 12:30 am

After fleeing Le Normandie, my mouth still burning with champagne, I wandered desolately through the Mandarin Oriental, hungry and slightly miffed. My roaming led me to Le Verandah, a much more relaxed restaurant on the lobby level, with both indoor and outdoor seating. I chose to sit outdoors, on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, where I watched brightly lit boats glide quietly through the night. All of the tables around me were full of couples, chattering away happily to each other. It was a lively, positive environment. Mosquitos descended on me in a gluttonous fury, but when I complained, my waiter quickly remedied the situation by putting a mosquito coil under my table. I had the best pumpkin soup of my life here. This is a nice place to come for a casual meal or a drink with a friend.

The Verandah

The Verandah

The Mandarin Oriental’s website describes Le Verandah as follows: “Featuring a wide variety of Asian and Western dishes, The Verandah elevates all-day dining to a new level. Served either indoors or outdoors overlooking the river, our à la carte menu offers fabulous dishes for any time of the day from breakfast through to late evening snacks. In addition, we also offer a wide selection of freshly baked pastries and homemade ice cream.”

A nice view at dinner

A nice view at dinner

Dinner for one, without wine, costs approximately $60 USD.

Gianni Ristorante | 34/1 Soi Tonson, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Bangkok 10330, Thailand +66 2252 1619
Opening Hours: Daily, Lunch: 11:30 am – 2 pm | Dinner: 6 pm – 10:30 pm

Gianni’s is my favorite Italian restaurant in Bangkok. It is the place to reserve on the morning when you wake up, think about eating Thai food for the 5th day in a row, and shudder. No one knows about it, so it is never too full. The quality of food is mind-blowing, the wine menu is well thought out and the desserts are all gorgeous. I once dropped a piece of squid ink ravioli on the lap of my white dress, while eating dinner here, and they had a Tide Bleach Pen on me in under 30 seconds. I have eaten here multiple times and have never had a bad experience. Their focaccia has to be one of the best that I have had.

Deliciousness in a basket

Deliciousness in a basket

Gianni’s website describes itself as follows: “Gianni is situated in a quiet courtyard, yet conveniently located within walking distance of Bangkok´s major shopping district. The décor is sophisticated, elegant, yet not formidable, with use of mediterranean blues and a mural covering one wall of the restaurant. Bright and airy, it fits any occasion. Chef/Patron Gianni has earned an enviable reputation in Bangkok´s culinary circles for providing warm and personal service combined with first class Italian cuisine. Gianni´s philosophy is to oversee all aspects of the restaurant, paying meticulous attention to the ordering on the freshest ingredients available. We like to think of our restaurant as a theatre in which we are able to perform every day. The dishes, the wines, the setting, even the music we play…everything is geared to be pleasurable. The actors are the people who help us to contribute to this production, and who have learned to love it as much as we do: from the cooks to the sommeliers, the maitres d’hotel to the vegetable growers, the cleaners to the gardeners. They know that their roles are as important as ours in giving our guests an unforgettable experience.”

Gianni's

Gianni’s

Dinner for 2, with a mid-range wine, costs roughly $250 USD. Highly recommended. Don’t wear white.

Biscotti at Four Seasons | 155 Rajadamri Road, Bangkok 10330, Thailand +66 2126 8866 ext.1229-30
Opening Hours: Daily, Lunch: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm | Dinner: 6 pm – 10:30 pm

I recently went to Biscotti for the first time a few nights ago. For being in the Four Seasons, it wasn’t stuffy at all. The service was quick and efficient. The tables were well spaced out. It was a pleasant experience. While the cold cuts and lasagna I had were tasty, the standout dish was the mascarpone black truffle paste focaccia I ordered as an appetizer. Have you ever eaten something so good, when out with other people, that you’ve felt compelled to turn to them and whisper, “Please give me a moment alone with this dish?” This was one of those times. It was delectable. I savored it. I had to resist the urge to order more of it. Oh, mascarpone black truffle paste focaccia, one fleeting dinner with you was not enough. I want you again.

A quiet table at Biscotti

A quiet table at Biscotti

The Four Seasons website describes Biscotti as follows: “Biscotti is a fun, contemporary Italian restaurant in Bangkok. With its open kitchen, Biscotti offers an intimate fine dining experience in Bangkok where guests can watch the chefs and enjoy the aroma of home-cooked food. The restaurant’s kitchen-to-table dining concept is reflective in the eight-seat chef’s table (visible from the entrance). Simple, home-style Italian food served for lunch and dinner. The business set lunch menu changes every Monday. On weekdays, Biscotti offers a business set lunch menu for busy executives. The lunch includes a choice of two or three courses and comes with the popular antipasti buffet. The à la carte dinner menu offers popular Italian fare, including pizza, pasta and seafood; wines are available by the glass.”

Dinner for 2, with a mid-range wine, costs roughly $200 USD.

Humidor Cigar Bar at Intercontinental 973 Ploenchit Road, Patumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand +66 2656 0444Opening Hours: Daily, 11 am – Midnight. Live music every Monday – Friday from 9 pm until Midnight.

The most beautiful cigar bar I have ever had the honor of smoking inside of, Humidor is the perfect place to smoke a nice Montecristo no. 2 after a long day in Bangkok. The staff is attentive, the clientele is interesting and the decor is tasteful.

Humidor at Intercontinental

Humidor at Intercontinental

Intercontinental’s website describes Humidor as follows: “The Humidor enables cigar aficionados to savour a refined selection of the world’s best cigars. Music lovers can order wine by the glass, elegant cocktails and a range of fine single malt whiskies while cigar aficionados can retreat into The Humidor to savour the world’s best cigars. “

One Montecristo No. 2 cigar costs $40 USD.

Whenever I go to any of the places I’ve detailed in this blog, a sentence from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray echoes in my mind over and over again. “There was an exquisite poison in the air.” Two hundred-dollar dinners, fifty dollar glasses of champagne and forty dollar cigars are all well and good, but in moderation. Life is lived elsewhere.

Bangkok: Gai Pad Med Mamuang or Death

I need to go ahead and get something out of the way before I write another sentence. I am not a culinary adventurer. I am not curious about smells wafting from foreign sidewalks, about the brightly colored bowls being handed over from behind faded white carts, about what the people who are crouched over miniscule tables, sitting on the ground or a bucket, are eating. When in London a few months ago, I broke into a cold sweat when faced with the idea of eating fish and chips for the first time. Yes, it tasted very good, but there is no way I would have chosen a new dish by myself, let alone anything fish-related. I have never eaten paella. I only eat salmon sushi and sashimi, although this will have to change when I move to Tokyo next month. I once went, at the age of 20, 4 months on only KFC. When I was 25 I lived for half a year on Hormel’s Chili and half a year on Taco Bell burritos. I’ve eaten at, and enjoyed, 10 course menus at the finest 3 Michelin star restaurants in the world, Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagniere, etc., but in my heart of hearts, I have an extremely cautious and trashy palette. I travel the world by myself, but I don’t want to take a bite of anything unknown. I think it comes from the food-poisoning I caught in San Remo, Italy, when I was 21. A tainted mussel was the cause, handed to me by a suspiciously smiley Canadian. I spent 3 days in the hospital.

When I find something I love to eat, I will eat it every meal until I get sick of it. I randomly chanced upon Gai Pad Med Mamuang, or as I like to think of it, chicken with cashew nuts, during my first trip to Bangkok in 2009. It was immediate infatuation. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. “No, this is wrong,” I scolded myself, as I ordered it meal after meal. “Fight the temptation!” But, the allure of Gai Pad Med Mamuang was too strong. I wanted it too badly. I craved it. The seduction was fast-acting and potent. I gave in, somewhere after the third day of eating nothing else, and stopped fighting the odorous wafts of chicken that I could imagine each time I read the name of the dish on the menu. Guy. Pad. Med. Mah. Moo. Ong. It is a fun dish to pronounce. Even in late 2011-early 2012, when I went through a vegetarian phase, I would still order Gai Pad Med Mamuang, “but without the chicken”. So many waiters must have thought I was an idiot. I didn’t care. I had what I wanted, my Gai Pad Med Mamuang, whenever I wanted it. If Gai Pad Med Mamuang had a Facebook page, I would like every post it put out, or at least one post a week. A typical Thai dish, it consists of stir-fried chicken, tossed together with onions, bell peppers, dried chillies and cashew nuts. It comes in its own bowl and one always orders a bowl of rice with it, on which to dump it on. I think I love this dish because of the cashew/chicken combination, but there is no point trying to dissect a random passion this deep.

The Precious

The Precious

With my love of Gai Pad Med Mamuang and my lack of interest in trying new foods firmly established, let me tell you about the restaurants I have been to in Bangkok. Sometimes, rarely, greater forces than myself keep me from eating Gai Pad Med Mamuang. In that case, I have Italian or French food. I have, on exceptional evenings, had a few other Thai dishes, but Gai Pad Med Mamuang always lurks in the back of my mind, half-hidden in the shadows, waiting for attention.

In this post, I’ll list only Thai restaurants, focusing on French/Italian restaurants in the next one. That seems only fair.

Aldo’s at Ascott | 187 South Sathorn Road, Bangkok, 10120, Thailand +66 2676 6969
Opening Hours: Lunch: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm | Dinner: 6 pm – Midnight

Aldo’s does both Ascott’s room service menu and a pool-level restaurant at the property. Their Gai Pad Med Mumuang is stingily-portioned and skimpy on cashew nuts, but it is fun to eat it out by the pool, in one of the little draped cabanas, as a fan whirs lazily overhead. It is so on the down low that it doesn’t even have a website. I recommend checking it out, if only for the fun of sitting in the little cabana. Dinner for 2, without wine, will set you back about $100 USD.

Aren't the cabanas cute?

Aren’t the cabanas cute?

The view, as best experienced while eating Gai Pad Med Mamuaung

The view, as best experienced while eating Gai Pad Med Mamuang

Blue Elephant | Yannawa, Sathon, Bangkok 10500, Thailand +66 2 673 9354
Opening Hours: Lunch: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm | Dinner: 6:30 pm – 10:30 pm

I’ve been to Blue Elephant numerous times, as their Gai Pad Med Mamuang is enormous and delicious. Bonus points for the fact that it is a 5 minute walk away from my favorite hotel, the Ascott. Blue Elephant occupies a gorgeous three-storey Thai colonial style house, and exudes an air of relaxed sophistication. If I had a Thai grandmother, I would want her to have a house like this. All of the tables are good, there are never too many other guests there, and there are all sorts of beautiful objets d’art to look at while waiting for the food to arrive. Blue Elephant enforces a dress code, so if you come in wearing shorts, you will be made to wear a Thai silk skirt or, if you are a guy, silk trousers. This leads to hilarious fashion catastrophes that are as delightful as the food, as the skirts and trousers available to be borrowed are quite bold, in every sense of the word.

Blue Elephant

Blue Elephant

I call this "Thai Colonial" style

I call this “Thai Colonial” style

Blue Elephant’s website describes itself as follows: “Experience the very best in Thai hospitality and cuisine at Blue Elephant, Bangkok. With a reputation of authenticity and excellence, Blue Elephant stays true to the culinary culture and influences of Thailand. Typical of a classic, our restaurant in Bangkok is housed in a century old building, creating a feeling of time travel in addition to the exquisite dining experience that awaits you. The menu at Blue Elephant, Bangkok is a palette of traditions and novelties, and delights even the most discriminating palate. You can choose from a variety of unique dishes, from the past, present and future of Thailand’s gastronomic culture. Having travelled the world, Khn Nooror Somany Steppe, our star chef and Khun Chang, our corporate chef, use their experiences to take you on a culinary journey, the Thai way.”

Dinner for 2 at Blue Elephant, without wine, will set you back about $80 USD.

Celadon at The Sukhothai |13/3 South Sathorn Road, Bangkok, 10120, Thailand +66 2344 8888
Opening Hours: Lunch: Noon – 3:00 pm | Dinner: 6:30 pm – 11:00 pm

Like Blue Elephant, I have been to Celadon repeatedly. I find the decor soothing. I like the lotus pond. They serve excellent Gai Pad Med Mamuang and have bountiful Diet Coke. While there, I also sampled numerous other Thai dishes, all of which I have forgotten the name of, all of which were delicious. What more do I need to say?

Celadon at The Sukhothai

Celadon at The Sukhothai

Traditional Thai cuisine

Traditional Thai cuisine

The Sukhothai’s website describes Celadon as follows: “Named as the “Best Restaurant in Bangkok” by Travel and Leisure magazine, Celadon is a celebration of the senses – in true Thai style and service. One of the city’s most iconic Thai eateries, Celadon serves authentic Thai cuisine in beautifully crafted air-conditioned salas. Submerged in a picturesque lotus-pond with open-air terraces overlooking the water, guests are spoilt both by the choice of tastes they can discover and the tranquil atmosphere. The extensive a la carte menu offers a selection of the finest dishes from all over Thailand, prepared just as they were meant to be enjoyed throughout the ages. The lush green herb garden caters another memorable evening, where a two special dinner set menu is served in this exclusive setting. Guests can also choose to add a personalized touch with an optional choice of a private butler who is at your service at all times, along with a Chef’s demonstration at your table whilst you are serenaded with traditional Thai instrumental music.”

All of Celadon’s different menus (Celadon, Dok Cha-Ba, Dok Khem, Dok Kaew, Celadon Herb Garden, Business and Traditional Thai Khao Chae) are in the link that I attached to the restaurant’s address at the beginning of this description.

A meal at Celadon, for 2, without wine, will set you back about $120 USD.

Ruen Urai |สุรวงศ์ Bang Rak, บางรัก Bangkok 10110, Thailand +66 2266 8268
Opening Hours: Noon – 11 pm

Looks aren’t everything, people often say. Please keep this in mind as the taxi drives you behind Le Méridien, through a warren of twisted little streets, and into a parking lot that looks like it has been bombed. Once you look up and see the Ruen Urai sign, you can breathe easy. It will all be okay. Of all of the Thai restaurants I have been to, Ruen Urai is my favorite. The service is fantastically slow, the staff are so relaxed that they would give coma patients a run for their money, but there are only 20 seats and the cozy little room is magical. Their Gai Pad Med Mamuang is scrumptious, as expected, and bountiful. I was in such a good mood when I visited it recently that I even branched out and tried other Thai dishes, including fried watercress, fried corn fritters and papaya salad with prawns.

The entrance to Ruen Urai

The entrance to Ruen Urai

A restaurant can never have too many fairy lights

A restaurant can never have too many fairy lights

Ruen Urai, which I cannot pronounce correctly, describes itself on its website as follows: “Experience exotic Thai flavors at Ruen Urai, set in a century-old traditional Thai house in the heart of Bangkok. Come and savor our finest delicacies of Thai cuisine in an unique and elegant ambience. Enjoy sumptuous meals and cool drinks in an urban oasis, hidden among the lush tropical garden of the Rose Hotel.”

A dinner for 2, without wine, will set you back about $65 USD.

In summation, Bangkok is an excellent place to eat Gai Pad Med Mamuang. If someone as apathetic to the cuisines of the world as me can find something to truly love eating here, you have no excuse not to do the same. Stay away from KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King. Venture off of the main path. Stumble into adventure. Find your own Gai Pad Med Mamuang, whatever it may be.