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KennethT

Memories of a brief trip to Bangkok and environs

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Recently, there was a thread about stir frying over charcoal, which immediately brought to mind memories of eating in Bangkok in July 2013.  At that time, I hadn't gotten into the habit of writing food blogs, and considering that I had some spare time this weekend (a rarity) I figured I would put some of those memories down on paper, so to speak.  Back then, neither my wife nor I were in the habit of taking tons of photos like we do nowadays, but I think I can cobble something together that would be interesting to folks reading it.

 

In the spirit of memories, I'll first go back to 2006 when my wife and I took our honeymoon to Thailand (Krabi, Bangkok and Chiang Mai), Singapore and Hanoi.  That was our first time to Asia, and to be honest, I was a little nervous about it.  I was worried the language barrier would be too difficult to transcend, or that we'd have no idea where we were going.  So, to help mitigate my slight anxiety, I decided to book some guides for a few of the locations.  Our guides were great, but we realized that they really aren't necessary, and nowadays with internet access so much more prevalent, even less necessary.

 

Prior to the trip, when emailing with our guide in Bangkok to finalize plans, I mentioned that we wanted to be continuously eating (local food, I thought was implied!)  When we got there, I realized the misunderstanding when she opened her trunk to show us many bags of chips and other snack foods.. whoops...  Anyway, once the misconception was cleared up, she took us to a noodle soup vendor:

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On the right is our guide, Tong, who is now a very famous and highly sought after guide in BKK.... at the time, we were among here first customers.  I had a chicken broth based noodle soup with fish ball, fish cake and pork meatball, and my wife had yen ta fo, which is odd because it is bright pink with seafood.  I have a lime juice, and my wife had a longan juice.

 

This is what a lot of local food places look like:

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After breakfast, we toured the Grand Palace, which to say the least, is quite grand... It is a giant complex of many buildings - it's like a small city... very hard to capture in photos...

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All of the different colors are actually very small tiles... it's unbelievable how much work this must have been to construct.

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Frescoes depicting history on the walls..

 

After the touring of the Grand Palace, we looked for some snacks to bring with us on our next activity, a klong tour - which is a riverboat touring the neighborhoods full of people who live on the river that runs through Bangkok:

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A Water taxi landing area

 

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A river view of the Marble Wat

 

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We "made merit" by feeding a bunch of fish in the river.  Making merit is a buddhist custom where you do something good for someone else which will make your karma better.

 

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Our snack - green mango with two different dips - one is sugar/chili, the other is shrimp paste.  This has turned out to be one of my favorite snacks when in SE Asia!

 

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After the klong tour, we made our way to Wat Po, a buddhist temple known for being one of the earliest medical colleges in the world.  It also has a HUGE reclining Buddha statue.

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Mother of pearl inlays in the feet

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There are lots of these types of diagrams.  Wat Po also has a very famous thai massage school.

 

This is a snack we had in the airport, on the way to another destination... one of the best airport food I've ever had!

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Small fried crabs with sriracha!

 

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OK, so this part isn't Bangkok, but after a couple days in BKK, we went to Chiang Mai - there, we took a cooking class which the first part was a local market tour... I figured people might want to see that...

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Prepared curries to take home

 

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My wife demonstrating how to drink thai coffee served in a plastic bag

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OK, so now we'll fast forward to July 2013 - our second trip to Thailand, mostly Bangkok.  For this trip, we decided not to use a guide because there was now a lot more information about local food available online, plus we had already seen many of the major sights.

 

We arrived in the afternoon after spending a couple of days in Koh Samui, mostly to relax and spend some time at the Mo Ang Ko National underwater marine park for snorkeling.

 

I had read about a vendor who made supposedly best pork satay in BKK, located in the Hualampong neighborhood, called Chongki, but as we exited the skytrain station and walked around, we couldn't find it.  Of course, we were approached by a couple of well dressed people who immediately spotted tourists and "offered" to help us look around or take us somewhere else, but we were able to escape them.  But some other 'non-professional' people did help us, one even took us into a 7-Eleven to ask the clerk if she knew where it was.. turns out, it was closed that day....  So we went next door to Sri Morokot who is well known for barbecued pork over rice.  A great first meal in BKK!

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That night, we went to a very famous thai-chinese place called Jay Fai.  She is known for using super high quality seafood in her stir fries, and ridiculously high heat on her woks.

This is her at work:

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This is one of the dishes she's famous for: Rard Na Talay, which is noodles and seafood in a oyster sauce based gravy:

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We also got an awesome version of Pad Kee Mao Talay (talay means seafood, and pad kee mao is also known as drunken noodles, or drunk man noodles) which shows the high heat of the wok:

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For a no-frills shophouse type restaurant, Jai Fay is very expensive, but locals come from all around BKK to go there...

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At like 31-33 Thai Baht, per dollar, that means each plate is over $10!!!!  But for the quality of the seafood and the preparation, it was certainly worth it.

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The next day, we went out to Polo Fried Chicken in Lumphini.  This place is a thai fried chicken (and Isaan food) institution, having been around for practically ever. First, we made the mistake of trying to walk there from the Jim Thompson store - it didn't look that far on the map.... Until we found ourselves walking down the side of the main road next to Lumphini park for what seemed like forever and then had no idea where it was! Finally, we jumped in a taxi - the driver was extremely helpful - and even though he had no idea where 'Soi Polo' was, he called the place with his cell phone and took us there with no problems... Turned out we were not far at all - the fare on the meter was only like 41B, so I very happily overpaid the driver who was especially thankful. I know he was only doing his job, but I felt like he really went out of his way to help us, plus he turned on the meter right way without me even having to ask (no less a small argument) so I liked to reward that.

 

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So about Polo Fried Chicken.... When we arrived, they very kindly ushered us into their air conditioned dining room a few doors down. Great. Until once seated, and there was that unmistakable smell that I'm sure some people are aware of... The smell that only exists when you have a bathroom that when you use it, you're not allowed to flush the toilet paper, but instead need to use a small garbage can next to the toilet. So, that smell permeated the entire dining room and we were seated on the opposite side of the room by the doorway! I was praying that we wouldn't smell it once the food arrived... Which turned out to be true. We got a half fried chicken, som tum Thai (papaya salad), sticky rice and fried morning glory. Som tum is a very common Isaan accompaniment to fried or rotisserie chicken. 

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(Sorry, the picture was taken after we started eating) The fried chicken came, as described, covered in a pile of slightly spicy fried garlic. Awesome. The chicken itself, however, was quite dry, and while the skin was paper thin, was just on the cusp of starting to get a little leathery. I don't know if it was supposed to be like that, or if ours was sitting around for a while.... In any case, the two dipping sauces on the table were really good - one was a sweet chili sauce, the other a more savory chile sauce that tasted like it had a bit of tamarind. Morning glory was very good... The som tum was ok... Not as sweet as some can be, which is a good thing, but didn't really have the balance and explosion of flavors that a great version has.... All in all, we were underwhelmed. But please don't take this as a review, which wouldn't be fair after only one visit. We may have had an off table or something since it was getting late by the time we got there (about 2PM).

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Posted (edited)

For dinner that night, we had a pad thai showdown!

 

In one corner, the venerable stalwart, Thip Samai. In the other, almost next door neighbor, Leung Pha Pad Thai. First, the ground rules - as all good experiments mut have controls. The PT should have fresh shrimp, shrimp head fat, and not be contained in an egg bag.

 

Here's an interior shot of Thip Samai:

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Notice the tons of staff out front... this place was packed!

 

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Part of their menu:

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The pad thai:

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The noodle's orange color comes from the shrimp head fat.

 

Here's an interior shot of their neighbor, Leung Pha:

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It's a much smaller place...

 

And the pad thai:

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So without further ado, the breakdown of the results in no particular order:

Fresh shrimp cookedness - winner: Leung Pha. Their shrimp were cooked perfectly, while TS's were slightly overcooked.

Egg cookedness - Winner: Leung Pha. Their eggs were just barely set, and almost mixed themselves into the noodles, whereas TS's were slightly overcooked, bordering on hard/rubbery.

Misc components/ general flavor - winner: Leung Pha. LP uses larger pieces of shallot which retain a very slight crunchiness providing good textural contrast, whereas TS's shallots are smaller and basically melt into the noodles. Obviously, this whole thing is subjective, but this is more subjective than the rest. We also thought the overall flavor was slightly better at LP.

Noodle cookedness - winner: Thip Samai. Their noodle texture was just perfect. Soft, but retaining a little bite. LP's noodles were a little mushy.

So this is a David and Goliath moment... Thip Samai, the giant PT factory and institution versus the tiny neighbor.

Overall winner: Thip Samai. Their noodle texture was crazy good and heads and shoulders better than LP. To us, at the end of the day, PT is a noodle dish, and the noodle texture is key. The overall flavor of both were excellent, but even if LP edged out TS in almost every category, the differences there were subtle and relatively minor compared to the textural issue.

As an aside, how come no one in NY can make a PT with shrimp head fat?? It lends such a great flavor that is so distinctive, and turns the noodles a bright orange color.


Edited by KennethT (log)
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That is really interesting n the shrimp head fat. What a flavor game changer. Around here I think the orange color is from tamarind.

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The next day, we had an appointment about an hour outside of Bangkok.  Afterwards, they arranged for us to have lunch at a local restaurant near the river, Lomtalay. All I can say is, wow. The place is pretty big, and very pretty being right on the river. It was packed with what looked like families going there for lunch.

 

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Whole fried fish covered in fried garlic

 

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pak boong

 

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tod mun goong, which were different than I'd seen elsewhere - very light as if they were made froma shrimp mousse, then covered in what looked to be Panko then deep fried. Excellent.

 

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Grilled tiger prawns.... The prawns were ridiculous. Each the size of my fist, with head on so you could suck the head fat. Perfectly cooked with great charring from the grill... Google this place - it's worth it going out of your way!

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@heidih Tamarind is brown, so I don't think that's what's coloring your pad thai... maybe turmeric?

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1 minute ago, KennethT said:

@heidih Tamarind is brown, so I don't think that's what's coloring your pad thai... maybe turmeric?

 

Or ketchup!

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Beautiful, and the meals look stunning. Thanks for sharing.

 

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That evening we went to Sukhumvit Soi 38... This is a side street where there are lots of vendors selling street foods.  Here's a shot from an overpass showing the scene:

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Nothing we had here was outstanding, but I'm very glad we went for the experience. Plus, I got to have a nice conversation with one of the guys working at the bamee stall where we were seated who wanted to practice his English, and I wanted to practice my Thai....... I thought the whole experience was very interesting. When originally reading about it, I just assumed they closed off the street, but no! Traffic (cars, motorbikes, etc) all milling about. I wonder how many people get mildly injured per year. I almost got hit a few times as I was a bit distracted checking out all the different vendors. We had 2 different kinds of bamee - one with a clear broth, crispy pork,and wontons, the other had a darker broth with BBQ pork.

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Also, we got some BBQ pork and Isaac sausage on a stick from one of the busy grilling guys. 

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All in all it was a lot of fun and I'm glad we went there.... But it was nice to be back in the air conditioning, especially as it just started to rain after we left! The grilled pork was actually really good, and I really enjoyed the sausage - plump nuggets of slightly fermented pork product, juicy with a nice snap on the skin... And very hot! Just off the grill! Always good to go to the vendor who is really busy so what you get is fresh....

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The next day, we went to a very interesting place for lunch - Jok's Kitchen.  It's usually impossible to get a table here unless you know someone.  Fortunately for us, at the time, I was posting and asking questions on the Fodor's Asia board - they have a lot of people who frequent BKK, and even some posters who live there.  One of them is a regular at Jok's, and offered to call them to get us a table.

 

Jok was awesome. We were seated in their front room at a large table by ourselves. It's an interesting experience being in a restaurant and being the only people in the room. The food there was incredible - some of the best we've had on this trip.

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We started with the quick fried ginkgo nuts, which I've never had before, but were enjoyable - especially with the spicy dipping sauce.  Actually, we didn't get much choice - the dishes just sort of came out once we sat down...

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Next were the shrimp wontons that were excellent - a great texture, and flavor that was only enhanced by the black vinegar.

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This was followed by a snow fish salad... this was really impressive to me, as the fish had a wonderful crispy skin, a great color on all sides, and was really perfectly cooked in the middle. Juicy, moist, tender...

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Then, for me, the star of the show (who thought it could get better than that fish?) were steamed mud crabs. It is obvious how his reputation was built on them - one of the things that makes this place famous is that the chef used to be a crab fisherman and still has many as friends - they supply him with all the seafood basically straight from the fishing boats.

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Crab claws the size of my fist (almost) that were perfectly cooked and simply prepared so the flavor of those crabs could really shine through.

 

My wife's favorite dish came after - the stir fried abalone. I really liked them, but she went crazy for it. The abalone was really well cooked - very tender, with some pieces having just the slightest bit of chew, and others being so tender that they practically melted. The sauce seemed to be an oyster sauce base, but very earthy from the addition of the mushrooms. I don't know if the mushrooms were fresh or rehydrated, but were a great foil to the subtle flavor of the abalone.

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I was worried when I saw it that I didn't have enough cash on me to cover the bill (they didn't take credit cards), especially with the abalone, but the abalone was not expensive itself - actually one of the least expensive dishes... only 200B, with the total coming to 2290B.. certainly well worth it!

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One of the things that makes BKK a pita to walk around in is the fact that there is practically no usable sidewalk anywhere.  Many of the stores use the sidewalk in front of the store as extra display space, and it's also used for motorbike parking or riding.

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Posted (edited)

On our last night there, we went to Nahm, which is David Thompson's restaurant that started in Australia, but moved to BKK.  He is known as the foremost non-Thai authority on Thai food, and he probably knows more about it and its history than most Thai people.

 

I think it's impossible to give a dish by dish review - you'll see why in a second. We got the set menu, which turned out to be an unwieldy amount of food. The sheer volume alone was daunting - and try as we did, I think we barely made a dent in a lot of the dishes. This should not be an indicator of our enjoyment or its quality, however. In fact, we thought that the meal was amazing - so many of the dishes were so complex it would be impossible to try to describe them. Plus, I wished we had a list of what we ordered, because our one complaint was that a lot of the servers were hard to understand when they were presenting each dish. If we had a copy of the menu or of what we ordered, we could read the descriptions as we were having them. But it was worth getting the set menu to be able to taste so many dishes - we just thought the portions could have been a LOT smaller.

The set menu also opened our eyes to the sheer variety of styles that are available in Thai cuisine. Some dishes had some extremely bitter components, some very sour. Others fragrant and heady. Somehow everything balanced each other out wonderfully. Also, everything was perfectly prepared and executed, and the pacing was great. All in all, it turned out to be a fantastic end to the great BKK experience.

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Edited by KennethT (log)
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That meal at Nahm IS a lot of food for two people! It looks delicious. I'd be waddling when I left, and then have more than the usual difficulty avoiding the traffic. Those street scenes, and your descriptions, remind me of Egypt during the years we went. The specifics are all wrong, of course - goods, people, vegetation all very different - but the essential congestion and cheerful disregard for anything like traffic rules seem to be the same.

 

The colors of the food and the scenery are so vibrant, and the food looks so fresh, that you make me wish to put Thailand on a travel itinerary. Thank you for bringing us along. :)

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Thanks @Smithy.  Yes, we were stuffed after Nahm, and we (sadly) probably left more on the table than we ate.  It is relatively expensive - it was probably about US$80-100 for the two of us for dinner, which is not much by NYC standards, but by Bangkok standards is pretty pricey... especially considering that the meal at Lomtalay probably cost $15-20 if it cost that much.

 

The one thing I didn't discuss much, which is a detraction from Bangkok (and I'm sure you saw a bunch of this in Egypt) are all the touts.  Tourism is quite advanced in Thailand in general and Bangkok.  No matter where you go, you are bound to have at least one person come up to you and start talking and being very friendly. They are typically very nicely dressed. They ask where you are from, how do you like Bangkok, etc.... they ask where you are going - and then they'll so "oh, I'm so sorry, it's closed today, but if you'd like, I can take you to these very nice shops that give great pricing on jewelry, jems, etc..." While there are a lot of jem sales in Bangkok, and good deals on authentic stuff if you know where to go, there is also a lot of fake stuff out there, and if anyone takes you somewhere, you can be sure that they are getting a kickback from it.  Guides are no exception - so even if you are paying your guide to take you to a specific tailor as part of your time with them, many times, they'll take you to a different place and make you think that it's the same, meanwhile, they're getting "tea money" or a kickback from it.  It's very annoying.  Plus, the taxis are a pita in Bangkok - the traffic is horrible there - you can be sitting at a traffic light for 20 minutes and not move 2 feet.  Literally.  The way the meters work (or did at the time), the taxis charge very little for time spent standing still, they basically only charge for distance.  So many drivers conveniently forget to use the meter, and will then give you an exorbitant price (maybe 3x what the meter would have been).  So, it's a good idea to tell the driver to use the meter the second you get in the taxi.  Many times, they refuse, and will then quote you a price, and then the bargaining begins... We actually got out of 1 taxi once because he wouldn't come down on the price, then got in another who used the meter before I could ask.  Traffic wasn't bad that time, so we made it to our destination fast, and the meter price was like 1/4 of what the other guy wanted... even after all the bargaining!  Very frustrating.  The Skytrain and subway system are good and inexpensive, but definitely need expanding from when we were there... if you want to go anywhere that's not that close to a stop, it's either a lot of walking down almost nonexistent sidewalks, or a taxi with more bargaining.

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3 hours ago, KennethT said:

Yes, we were stuffed after Nahm, and we (sadly) probably left more on the table than we ate.  It is relatively expensive - it was probably about US$80-100 for the two of us for dinner, which is not much by NYC standards, but by Bangkok standards is pretty pricey... especially considering that the meal at Lomtalay probably cost $15-20 if it cost that much.

 

I meant to ask also whether you think the leftover food is thrown away (as is legally required in the US) or goes surreptitiously to someone fortunate. You may not have a way of knowing, but if you do, I'd be curious to know the answer.

 

As for the rest - yes, it sounds almost exactly like what we've experienced.

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47 minutes ago, Smithy said:

 

I meant to ask also whether you think the leftover food is thrown away (as is legally required in the US) or goes surreptitiously to someone fortunate. You may not have a way of knowing, but if you do, I'd be curious to know the answer.

 

As for the rest - yes, it sounds almost exactly like what we've experienced.

Who knows!  I would like to assume that being David Thompson's restaurant, and at those prices, he would run it with the ethos of throwing away anything uneaten as it is A) unsanitary for anyone else - especially because things were not provided with serving utensils for each dish and B) I'm sure the quality would decline if it would need to be reheated or kept warm.

 

But, it's Bangkok, so anything goes...

 

I didn't mention this before, but in the middle of the night after eating at Nahm (our last meal before our trip home) I woke up with violent food poisoning.  There were times that I was actually sitting there in the bathroom praying for death as it would be a step up from what I was experiencing.  I am not attributing it to the Nahm experience, as we all know that food poisoning can gestate for a few days before showing symptoms, so who knows where I got it.  There were only 2 times that my wife and I didn't share everything equally - Nahm (just because I really enjoyed some of the things she wasn't a huge fan of), and the night before at the street food scene on Sukhumvit Soi 38 where she only had a bit of the barbequed sausages, and I finished them.  Not that that means anything either - sometimes one person is affected and another is not, even when eating the same quantity....

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I had an experience like that many, many years ago....sitting on the throne with a plastic bucket in hand for what was coming that way.  Feeling like death.  Then, red lights of an emergency vehicle appeared through the bathroom window.  Oh, thank god they are coming for me.  No.  It was for the next cabin over...heard the next day the lady was having heart issues.  I could not walk the next day...took me all day to recover...dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.  Needed Pedialyte.  Sorry for your experience in a foreign country.

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God bless y'all. A dear friend went to India on a business trip. Contracted food poisoning the night before he left. Spent the flight home, as he tells it, "locked in the airplane lavatory, sitting on the floor, hugging the toilet and praying to die." He can't eat Indian food to this day.

 

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This actually happened the night before we left!  My last meal in BKk was some toast in the hotel breakfast.. Then we had about a 30 hour trip home as a typhoon was heading for Taipei so I changed our flight to Singapore Air and took the long route home... BKk to Sing to Frankfurt to NY.... By the time we left for airport in bkk I could away from the bathroom (with the help of about 4 immodium) but I was just so tired...

 

And yes @Okanagancook that was me, sitting there with the trash bin in hand... It needed to be emptied several times... Ahh... Memories....

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