Wednesday, April 26, 2006
When I left London in my VW van in 1969 my goal was Nepal. The combined allure of the Himalayas, Shangri-la and Buddhism had been knocking around in my drug-addled brain for all my teenage years. Between Nixon in the White House and American troops in Vietnam, I figured mankind had no future and I better get to Nepal now or I'd never see it. 1969 was also the year I started the long, hard process of kicking drug dependence. By the time I got to Nepal in 1971 I had pretty much kicked drugs-- although, for sociological reasons, how could anyone possibly resist sampling the hash parlors along Hippie Street? I didn't. But after that I really did kick drugs.
Anyway, my 2-3 months in Nepal became part of my personal lifestory and the wondrous tales about climbing in the Himalayas and about how primitive and backward and peaceful and enlightened I found Nepal were things I talked about a lot. A few of my more intrepid friends wanted to go. And some did. Many years later, when I was living back in America, Nepal was as much a dream for Roland as it had been for me when I was his age and it didn't take much for him to convince me that we should go visit Kathmandu. Today when I woke up and saw the violence in the streets I felt very sad for this peaceful, enlightened, beautiful little corner of the world.
It's funny, I remember more specifics about my 1971 visit than I do about the more recent trip! Although a trip to a place like Nepal has always got to be exciting, I think I remember 1971 more clearly because I drove, I had no money-- my van literally rolled down the last Himalaya into the Kathmandu Valley and I had not a cent to my name-- and I had no choice but to be close to the ground and open myself up to all sorts of adventures.
I guess the two most memorable specific events I recall-- both vividly-- fall into this category, even more than trekking to the base camp of Mount Everest! One involved happening on a neighborhood "hootenanny." Each square block in Kathmandu surrounded the neighborhood temple and at night the baker and the candlestick maker and everyone else would come out and play transcendental music on the temple portico into the wee hours. Those nights will be with me forever. Unfortunately, so will the other adventure. As I was driving back to India after a few months in Nepal, in preparation for a return to Europe after a couple years driving around Asia, I had to ford a stream. My van-- which was both my home and my transportation-- started floating downstream. Some truck drivers lasso-ed me and pulled the van to safety.
In the 90's when Roland and I went, we flew and we stayed in hotels. A great time for sure. But... well, nothing is ever the same. We flew into Bombay (now Mumbai) in late November on Delta, which was a decent airline back then (now it completely sucks, ripping off and cheating its customers in a desperate and pitiful struggle to stay alive). We stayed at the Taj, the grandest and most venerable hotel in Bombay. It's laden with history and antiques and it's right on the water next to The Gateway. It was the hub of some kind of upper class social life, although I recall rooms being around $200. At one point the electricity went out for a long few hours, a drag because ac is a must and we were on a high floor. But poor Roland was in the shower when the power went out and suddenly raw sewage started coming out of the spigot. And Roland is a very fastidious person. He'll never forget that; I'll stick with the Nepali hootenannies.
I don't want to make this a blog about India so I'll cut to the chase. We flew to New Delhi, hung out for a few days and then took a Royal Nepal Air flight to Kathmandu. It's a short, cheap flight, like about an hour. The hotel, The Yak and Yeti, sent a car for us. It was a souped up Hyundai-- like a low-rider deal-- driven by a couple of kids playing rock music cassettes. It was already night but it felt kind of like going home for me-- and I could feel how excited Roland was as we drove into town. So different from the first time I was there-- right after they had paved a road in honor of the crown prince's marriage-- but there is still something timeless about the Kathmandu Valley that I picked right up on.
I could only dream of places like the Yak and Yeti when I was a poor hippie in a van. It seemed like a paradise inside paradise. But, although a contender for "best hotel" in town, it's kind of a dump. Durbar Marg is a kind of upscale area but it doesn't have a lot of personality. Fortunately it's an easy walk to anyplace you could ever want to go in town. We had booked in advance and negotiated a bit and I think we paid something like $125 for both of us and got an upgraded room. The hotel doesn't have much character, just mostly a faceless grand Asian hotel... but this is Nepal and nothing is too grand (except the temples). Anyway, it was worth the dough and we couldn't wait to hit the streets-- me to recapture my 70's adventure, Roland to experience first hand what he had heard about for years.
Neither of us got what we were looking for, of course. But it was actually pretty awesome. We headed over to the Durbar Square area which is honey-combed with temples. The streets were dark and empty and we both got right into the exoticness of it. The packs of stray dogs wandering around didn't make us feel that great but we definitely knew we were in a foreign place, a very foreign place.
The food in Nepal is ok-- kind of like Indian food but cruder. We never found anything amazing but it was all ok. I had a recollection of having eaten in a fancy, yummy place called Boris' when I was a kid. I think it is now called the Chimney Room of the Yak and Yeti and it was founded and run by a Russian émigré name Boris. It's neither fancy nor yummy, except by Nepali standards. They serve Russian food of course. The best Japanese restaurant in town, Fuji, is also very modest but the food was decent and it was very inexpensive for a version of fine dining. Other than that we stuck to modest Nepali restaurants and to the hippie expat hang-outs in Thamel. It's not a foodie place.
It is a great, amazing, phenomenal walking around place. And that's what we did for 10 days. December in the Himalayas... brrrrr... right? No. It's in the Valley and very temperate-- sort of like California weather almost. We stuck mostly to Kathmandu, Patan (an ancient suburb) and Bhaktapur, also nearby. Each one was more wondrous and fantastic than the next-- just magical. The whole place is a living museum. The past is still living and breathing and coexisting with today and every narrow alley and every square is a unique and exotic world.
Because I had talked about it for so long, Roland insisted that the first thing we do the first morning was to go to the legendary Monkey Temple. Turns out, only I called it the Monkey Temple. It is actually the most venerable temple in Kathmandu and it is known as Swayambunth Stupa. Its a little out of town on top of a forested hill with hundreds of stairs to the top. When I was first there the monkeys were pretty wild and threatening. They're a lot tamer now. But it's still quite the schlep to the top; there's a way to drive to the top around back but that's for pussies. Supposedly it's 2,000 years old. The place is crawling with pilgrims (not tourists) and the top is temple upon temple upon shrine upon shrine. It's was amazing-- and totally worth the exhausting climb. We went to a million temples in Nepal but Swayambunth Stupa was our fave.
A close second was the temple complex on Durbar Square in Patan. We loved Patan; it's even more remote from western civilization that Kathmandu itself. We couldn't get enough of it. We traded our airline toiletries kits for thankas. Durbar Square has a royal palace, the Monkey God temple (Hanuman) and temple after temple, each one fascinating and beautiful. We flipped over the Krishna Mandir but there had to have been a dozen at least and it was completely amazing and engrossing.
The next day we went to Bhaktapur, a little further away-- not just geographically, but further back in time as well. It was like going into ancient history, even more so than Patan. (By the time Kathmandu was seeing almost cosmopolitan in comparison). It's about an hour from Kathmandu. We took a bus there for less than a buck for both of us and a taxi back for about $5. The Durbar Square there is more open and has less temples but one is amazing-- a 5-tiered pagoda, Nyatapola.
We did some shopping although didn't really buy much. I picked up another Tibetan rug at the refugee center near Patan and we had fun learning about thankas and buying some and trading for some. Mostly we just loved interacting with the people in their environment. One day we took a bus out to Nagarkot for a spectacular view of the Himalayas and some walking and one of the most amazing sunsets I've ever seen. There's a bus from Bhaktapur and it takes a couple hours and costs about a buck. You'll never forget the sights you see from Nagarkot, especially if you hike about a mile out of town to a place where you can see Everest.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Airplanes and Bush just never were a good mix. First he was a disaster as a disgruntled, mostly AWOL semi-member of the Texas Air National Guard. Even worse-- for America-- Bush's pig-headedness about paying attention to President Clinton and his outgoing administration's dire warnings regarding the dangers posed by Al Qaeda were contributory to the catastrophe of 9-11. And now Bush is setting up an airline catastrophe that could be even worse! Even Bush's rubber-stamp congress can nip this one in the bud.
Right in line with the Bush Regime's seething hatred for working men and women exercising their rights to collective bargaining, as of last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has broken off contract talks with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) that would have saved taxpayers, $1.4 BILLION over the next five years.
Air traffic controllers (ATCs), for those who don’t follow aviation, are the folks who guide planes the second they leave the gate to your destination. Their job is one of the most stressful in the world yet they remain dedicated and hardworking public servants. They’ve been negotiating with the FAA since September 2005. According to FAA Administrator and Bush-appointed crony Marion Blakey, the FAA wants a “fair” contract that would save taxpayers money. What part of $1.4 billion in savings Ms Blakey and Bush don't get no one quite understands.
If that’s not bad enough, here’s something else I didn’t realize. So the FAA broke off contract talks and submitted a contract to Congress. If Congress doesn’t act within 60 calendar days-- and we know how lazy and unwilling to put in an honest week's work these people have been for the last 5 years-- the FAA gets to impose their contract on NATCA-- take it or leave it.
So in other words, these dedicated controllers are forced to take whatever the FAA gives them (and, from what I'm hearing from my sources, it's a steaming pile of crap). To make matters worse, the FAA’s version actually penalizes veteran controllers for staying-– creating a situation where it makes more financial sense for eligible controllers to retire than to stay in their vital jobs. By end of 2007, 1 in 4 controllers-– over 4,000-- could retire – and the problem would increase for the next five years by which time over 40% of current controllers will actually be penalized for staying in their jobs.
BTW, it takes 3-5 years to train an air traffic controller. Unlike most jobs where you can fill the spot immediately with someone new, ATCs take months (and sometimes a year) to learn new positions. The aviation system is already experiencing a staffing crisis which you can read more about here. Although it may not have dawned on this particular incompetent Bush crony with a fancy job, penalizing veteran controllers if they come to work certainly won’t help the situation.
I hope this is all getting you as pissed off as I am. That's because, like I said, this could be nipped in the bud. If you go to this site it'll help you contact your congresscritters and tell them to get off their duffs s-- BEFORE this turns into another Bush disaster.
Remember, these are the professionals who landed almost 4,500 airplanes within a matter of minutes on September 11th. And they're the same people who lost their homes and belongings during Hurricane Katrina, Rita, and Wilma but stayed at work to make sure others were lifted to safety – they are heroes. Don’t we owe it to them? Or is it just Bush playing President on Air Force One that deserves a safe flying experience? John Carr, NATCA's president has a cool blog you might want to check out-- entertaining and informative.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
I have to admit, Egypt has always been a destination I've dreamed of, like since I was a kid even. I mean, in our culture-- replete with Bible stories, mummy movies, Napoleon, Israel, hi-tech aliens building pyramids, Cleopatra-- how could it not be? And if you've been following this blog at all, you've probably figured out that Roland and I have always been looking for cool and challenging places to go experience. Egypt sounded really exotic to us both and we finally made it over about a decade ago.
We planned to spend about a week in Cairo and a couple weeks roaming the country (including a Nile cruise to Aswan). Although it didn't seem so at the moment, some real misfortune for everyone else turned into a break for me and Roland. Just as we were leaving L.A. in November a bunch of religionist fanatics slaughtered a busload of tourists from Switzerland or Austria and Japan. It was really a spectacular horror show with scimitar-wielding terrorists chasing unarmed tourists through the ruins and mercilessly slashing them to death. It was a bloody slaughter; 5 dozen were murdered. Egypt, one of the world's biggest tourist destinations, immediately emptied of tourists. And they stopped coming (at for a couple weeks). I feel terrible for the Austrians and Japanese, of course; I mean what a way to go! But... well, Roland and I pretty much had Egypt to ourselves. I mean it was just us and the Egyptians, who, except for the scimitar-wielders, are an extremely generous, friendly and gracious people.
Example of how this worked: the cruise. Normally these big boats are packed-- hundreds of people (including brats) running around making noise and slowing everything down. And the cabins are tiny little cells. I mean really, really tiny. The giant ship had a full crew (which included an Egyptologist) plus me, Roland and two sprightly old Brits returning to London from a lifetime of foreign service in Oman and seeing Egypt on the way home. That's right; instead of a couple hundred tourists we were four. The first result was that instead of Roland and I having to share one of these tiny cells, we each got our own tiny cell. Still horrible but an improvement. Later the Egyptologist explained to us that no tour group in his experience on the Nile had seen as many things as we had. That's because normally the tour goes as slow as the oldest and most crippled turtle-like member. The 4 of us were all really into seeing everything-- and we did.
We flew to Cairo on TWA direct from L.A. They're out of business now. Some guy from the Warner Bros affiliate picked us up at the airport and whisked us through an otherwise annoying customs rigmarole and hassel-hell. We checked into Le Meridien on Roda Island right in the center of town connected to the Corniche by its own bridge, and got a great room with a balcony overlooking the Nile. Good hotel with the best views of Cairo in the city and not expensive at all (although it probably is now). On the way back we decided to stay in the Sheraton in Dokki, a little bit away from the hectic part of town but still convenient. It was pretty inexpensive too, although I have a feeling that all the prices were down because of the recent brutal murders of all the tourists.
Food in Egypt is definitely nothing to write home about. It's amazing that such an ancient culture doesn't have a unique cuisine, like China or Morocco or Turkey. But they don't. It's kind of garden-variety Middle Eastern. The restaurants were non-descript from a culinary perspective, although the food was ok. On the cruise there was always the very boring, semi-bland choice of "chicken or fish."
If you've looked through my blog, you're no doubt aware about how I delight in the cuisines of the countries I visit. Scratch Egypt off that list. There was not one memorable restaurant in almost a month! Even the lavish ones the Warner Bros affiliate people brought us to served food that was just slightly better than mediocre. This was definitely not a food trip. It was a tombs trip.
In Cairo the biggest deal is, of course, the Pyramids. And were we in luck on that score! You know the guy always on CNN whenever they do a story on mummies or anything old in Egypt-- Dr. Zahi Hawass? Well, one of the musicians, Andy Paley, in a band on Sire Records, where I used to work, was friends with some well-known American Egyptologist, a Rockefeller no less, and through this guy we had an introduction to Dr. Hawass, then Governor of the Pyramids (now Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities). This turned out to be a golden key to the most amazing visit to the Pyramids imaginable.
Dr. Hawass treated us to a tour usually reserved for heads of state. He literally closed down the Great Pyramid and made everyone else wait while we had it to ourselves! It's pretty awesome. Most things don't live up to expectations; that one did. He said we could sleep in it if we wanted to. We didn't at the time but now I'm sorry we didn't take him up on it. We didn't climb any pyramids the way Bush just did in Chichen Itzen in Mexico last week, looking like a pansy. We didn't because a U.S. marine climbed up and fell off and died; so it's forbidden now. Afterwards he showed us a small, locked up pyramid that no one is allowed in except Charles De Gaulle and other people they wanted to impress. They don't want general traffic in there because of breathing. Next door they had a little museum with an ancient ship with a bunch of mummified pharaoh's servants on it. The Sphinx, on the other hand, was covered in scaffolding and seemed to be crumbling into the sand. Roland claims they were injecting silicon into it.
The other stuff in Cairo we went were the Egyptian Museum, which was like an over-stuffed warehouse but still amazingly interesting; El Azhar Mosque (the spiritual center of Old Cairo where, unlike the Moroccan mosques, all are welcome); the 12th Century Citadel and the Muhammed Ali Mosque (an incredibly magnificent Turkish-style mosque also known as the Alabaster Mosque and unrelated to boxers); and the City of the Dead, basically a gigantic cemetery with hundreds of thousands of people living in it.
After a pleasant enough week in Cairo we took an Egypt Air flight to Luxor to meet our Nile ship. Luxor is really spectacular (although it took some effort to put all the screaming, terrorized Austrians and Japanese being hacked to bits by the terrorists out of our minds). The temples, big and small, and burial areas in the outskirts-- The Valley of Kings and The Valley of Queens-- were mind-boggling and themselves worth a trip to Egypt. We stayed on the ship and they took over the routine, starting with the Temple of Karnak-- the heart of the Amon cult and one of the most spectacular sites either of us has ever seen... anywhere. After seeing it, the also incredible-- albeit much smaller and less grand-- Temple of Luxor wasn't nearly as breathtaking and memorable. We wound up going back to the Temple of Karnak for a cool touristy sound and light show the next night. The boat stayed tied up on the dock for a few days-- a floating hotel/restaurant for us, while we explored the Luxor region. It was really amazing. We were supposed to sail north to Dendara to see the Temple of Hathor, the goddess of love, but the Nile was too low so they kept us in Luxor longer-- which was fine with us-- and gave us a gift certificate for a night at the Hilton Hotel in Taba on the Sinai.
It's 140 miles from Luxor to Aswan and this was the heart of our trip. We (me and Roland and the two old Brits) stopped everywhere and did everything. First stop was Esna, a tiny ancient agricultural town-- we were in rural ancient Egypt now-- with an awesome little temple dedicated to Khnum, the ram-headed god. On the other side of the river and 30 miles away is Edfu. By this time we felt really comfortable on our ship and we had taken over the sound system and were playing Velvet Underground tapes as we watched ancient Egypt float by. The Temple of Edfu, the holiest site of Horus, the falcon god, is the most intact temple we saw on our whole trip. In some ways this was the one, the one where it was easiest to fantasize that I was an Egyptian living a thousand years before Christ. I wasn't in the real world any longer.
Next came Kom Ombo, the site of the temple to Sobek, the crocodile god. Roland loved it. I felt I had seen enough temples by then and I hate and fear crocodiles anyway. I was also getting bored with the crappy food on the boat and I was happy when the boat Egyptologist told us if we wanted to we could go for a camel excursion into the Libyan Desert to visit an old Coptic monastery. We all jumped at the chance and we had a truly remarkable day, although Roland picked up some accursed Arabic phrase that made my nasty camel run off whenever he shouted it.
Our last stop was Aswan, best known for the Aswan Dam, of course, but there are some pretty cool things to see there too. I think the last thing we did as part of our organized cruise was to take a falucca to Elephantine Island and Kitchener's Island to visit the gardens. It was very beautiful and peaceful and helped feed my fantasy about living 3,000 years ago. We checked into the Pullman Cataract Hotel, famous as the site of the film Death on the Nile and very beautiful-- Moorish in style. It's a luxury hotel but it was inexpensive and not really all that luxurious. Like everywhere in Egypt, the food was mediocre.
On a lark we decided to go see Abu Simbel, way down near Sudan, the gateway to Africa. We flew there from Aswan on ZAS. Most people fly in for a few hours and fly out with the same group. We were the only ones who stayed. The town gets lively when the planeful of tourists arrives and then gets real sleepy when they fly back in the evening. We loved being the only ones in this very primitive African town. We found a basic hostel to stay in. There were no real hotels. I don't recall any real restaurants either and we traded a farmer a pen for some tomatoes. The Temple of Rameses was as spectacular and awe-inspiring as the photos lead you to believe it is.
We wound up flying back to Cairo and I let Roland talk me into taking a night bus through the Sinai to Taba (to use our gift certificate and cross over and visit Eliat). We went to visit Jerusalem too-- and spent Christmas Eve in Bethelhem where tradition says Jesus was born, but that part of the trip is for another time.
UPDATE: Egyptian Roads
They should be avoided when possible. Christmas week, 2010 and a bus crashed into a truck, killing 8 American tourists, injuring 21 others, going from Aswan to Abu Simbel. Better to fly.
The crash took place early Sunday as the tourists were traveling from Aswan to Abu Simbel, the site of an ancient Egyptian temple.
Road accidents are common in Egypt because of bad roads and poor enforcement of traffic rules. An estimated 8,000 people die in car accidents annually in the country.
Saturday, April 01, 2006
When I was 15 I hitchhiked across the country-- from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. I was on my way to Tonga but I never made it past San Pedro Harbor. I got all the way to L.A. in less than a week and most of the trip was in a nice new Cadillac driven by a sailor named Howard (like me) for a rich man moving from Philly to L.A. (also named Howard; but I never met him; he flew). Howard, the sailor, was a bullshitter but I didn't know what that meant at the time. As we were driving across Texas he told me he had eaten Chinese food in Peking and Canton and Shanghai but that the best Chinese restaurant in the world was in Amarillo and we would be there in an hour and have lunch there. Coming from a Brooklyn I was, of course, a connoisseur of Chinese cuisine. That's when I discovered Howard was full of it. I didn't have to taste it-- it was like canned Chungking or something-- before I realized I'd been had. As soon as I saw the baskets of rye bread (with butter) on the tables I knew what was in store for me. I suppose if I hadn't grown up in a Jewish neighborhood, where Chinese food was more common than gefilte fish or latkes, I might have fallen for Howard's nonsense.
Now, unless you live in one of the 4 or 5 biggest American cities you might be clueless about Thai food. But I'm not going to steer you wrong. In fact starting this blog began as an idea for doing a restaurant guide to one of my favorite cities in the world: Bangkok. I lost track of how many times I've been there sometime after the tenth time. And one of Bangkok's big draws for me is the incredible cuisine. Bangkok has wonderful restaurants serving food from all over the world, everything from nutritionally worthless, cardboard-tasting American fast food to exquisite sampling of haute cuisine from Switzerland, Italy, China, India, Vietnam. They even have Mexican food now. I'm just going to write about Thai food today.
Cumulatively, I've spent months and months in Thailand. I'm an adventurous eater and I love to eat. So, of course, I've searched out the best Bangkok has to offer in the way of restaurants. And they do have a lot to offer! If you like fresh, flavorful, spicy food, chances are you'll like Thai food. If you like bland and unstimulating food, this isn't the cuisine for you though. Early on I learned about something called "Royal Court Cuisine." The recipes have traditionally been closely guarded secrets and the only genuine royal court cuisine chefs all learn how to cook in the royal palace kitchens. I'm not sure how much of that is myth and how much is fact, but I can tell you that there are only a small handful of restaurants serving the exquisite and unique delicacies that make up this kind of cooking. In the last couple of decades more and more of the recipes have crept out onto menus of some of the tourist restaurants, especially in the luxury hotels and these days you can experience a royal court cuisine dish without too much trouble.
For as long as I can remember my favorite overall Thai restaurant has been Bussaracum, always perfect even as it moved its location time and again over the years, from a classic old Thai mansion to a hotel to another old house to an office building. It's always my first culinary stop when I get to Thailand. It was my introduction to Royal Thai Cuisine. It is academically authentic and very serious about what it presents-- oh, and mouth-wateringly delicious. The prices are extremely inexpensive for a tourist eating in a first class restaurant. And even a budget-restricted tourist can easily afford to try this place-- especially the incredible all-you-can-eat buffet lunches. It's a nice healthy walk from all the big river side hotels-- about a third of the way to Patpong, the Disneyland-like, family-oriented red light district that so many western tourists delight in-- and is just down Pan Rd from the big Hindu temple on Silom. The food you'll find here is not food you'll find on the menus of western Thai restaurants (or in the non-Royal Court Cuisine restaurants that are on every street in Bangkok). It looks stunning and tastes even better than it looks.
One of the old locations for Bussaracum is the Dusit Thani Hotel at the foot of Silom at the end of Patpong (Rama IV). It's the most Thai of all the big luxury hotels and although they have a variety of restaurants to fit the taste of any visitor, the Benjarong is a Royal Thai Cuisine restaurant that is nearly as good as Bussaracum. It's quite a bit fancier (great for a date or an anniversary or something like that), maybe a bit less a stickler for the culinary traditions, but still completely delicious and well worth a visit. The Benjarong is an exception to my rule about avoiding hotel restaurants. That's because it's a great restaurant that happens to be inside a hotel rather than a restaurant a hotel happens to have so it can feed its hungry, undiscerning guests.
Newer and a bit more geared to tourists, but still wonderful and worthwhile, is the Blue Elephant. It's in an old Thai house a few blocks from the Chao Phraya hotels. When I was in Bangkok I sometimes worked out of the Warner Bros office there and it is just next door to the Blue Elephant. The restaurant is more concerned with being a first class international restaurant than with the specific and traditional intricacies of any schools of cooking. That said, it definitely gets it right anyway. It's perfect for someone a little nervous about going "too native" too fast but who still wants a taste of what's best in nouvelle Thai cuisine. They definitely take liberties with the traditions but everything they come up with is fantastic and unique in a fusiony kind of way.
I always stay in one of the hotels on the Chao Phraya River but the Sukhumvit area is another part of Bangkok very popular with tourists and it's the part of town most Western expats live in. The best restaurant I found in the sprawling area-- and a contender for best haute cuisine in Thailand-- is Baan Khanitha, a restaurant as sumptuous and traditional in its decor as in its delicious dishes. The food is very traditional and tends to highlight some of the best regional Thai traditions as well as the Royal Thai Cuisine. Some say the chef has made too many concessions to the palates of tourists but I'm usually sensitive to that and I found the food excellent.
One place I just discovered for the first time on my last visit is a simple-looking contemporary restaurant called Patara, not far from the Blue Elephant. (I stumbled on it when the Blue Elephant was too busy and I had neglected to make a reservation.) I think its an offshoot of the great Thai restaurant of the same name in London-- except this one is a lot less expensive. In fact, of all the fine-dining experiences in Bangkok, I think this one is the least costly. The service was particularly friendly and less reserved than in most of the always great service you receive in good Thai restaurants. They tend to serve food that is inventive and unique-- but always delicious. Its obvious that there is a mind behind everything that is sent out from the kitchen, a mind that is eager to please and even astound. I found myself going back again and again.
Another restaurant I discovered by accident-- a block from Bussacarcum-- is a very traditional Thanying, also worth a visit, even if the cuisine is less exciting and less innovative than some of the others I mentioned above.
Good Thai food is always fresh and healthy. The cuisine is very vegetarian-friendly and if your eating preferences run towards seafood and vegetables, you'll be very happy anywhere in Bangkok. There are a number of really good specifically healthy-food restaurants these days, restaurants that use organic food and that cater to health-conscious clients. My fave is Amaranth, in the Sukhumvit area. You can take people there and not mention it's health-oriented and they'll just think they're having a delicious meal. I haven't tried it but I hear the same is true of Anotai. Here's a list of a few dozen veggie and health-type places in Bangkok. But if you want to keep it to "fine dining," you'll never go wrong at Amaranth.
UPDATE: RAW FOOD IN BANGKOK
A friend told me about a new raw-- like in living-- food restaurant in Bangkok: Rasayana Café. I can't wait to try it. But not this year. This year I'm going to Mali and I have a lot of trepidation's about the... cuisine.