The Taste With Vir: Why you should consider Bangkok or other Asian destinations

Some weeks ago, I wrote about how Indian destinations are pricing themselves out of the market. My example then was Goa, which has had a disappointing season. But I could have been talking about Shimla, which has received only half of the tourists it expected this winter.

Why you should consider Bangkok or other Asian destinations over domestic tourist traps?(Freepik)

These destinations, I suggested, did okay during the pandemic when Indians could not travel abroad. But now that the Far East has opened up, places like Goa and Shimla seem absurdly overpriced.

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Determined to practise what I write about, I went to Bangkok for Christmas, when tickets and rates were at their highest levels. I flew Air India and while it was by no means a perfect flight (old aircraft, poor, uncaring, inflight service; basically, Air India treats the Delhi-Bangkok sector as it treats, say, Delhi-Jabalpur) it was still under two thirds of the fare to Goa. (Both fares are business class for comparison; Bangkok flights are even cheaper if you fly economy.)

I stayed, as I nearly always do, at the Anantara Siam, a beautiful, centrally located property that used to be the Bangkok Four Seasons and was built as a Peninsula. It is now run by its owner Bill Heinecke’s Anantara group and has large, luxurious rooms and excellent service.

For purposes of comparison, I checked the rates at the Anantara Siam for next week on the net. They are half or less than half of most five-star hotels in Goa. During the Christmas season when I went, they were one-third the price.

If you want to go to a beach resort, then Phuket, to which there are now direct flights from Delhi and other cities, is even cheaper.

Anyone who still wants to go to Goa, with its taxi mafia, to eat overpriced food, must either love Goa to the point of irrationality, or have money to burn.

And the food in Thailand? I have a rule in Bangkok. I don’t necessarily eat at dhabas or on the street which can be really cheap. I eat instead at mid-priced restaurants and often at places at such malls as Siam Paragon, Central Embassy and EMQuartier which pride themselves on being dining destinations.

I always order far more than two people can eat (force of habit: In case, I have to write about the restaurant, I try as many dishes as I can). Rarely is the bill much more than 3,000. The same meal, in Delhi or Mumbai, assuming you could get food of this quality, would be at least double the price.

I had three big meals at top restaurants this trip (more about which later) but, in the five days that I was there, most of my other meals cost between 2,000 and 3,000 for two people. None of the restaurants was a great discovery; they are all well-known and easy to find.

Kalpapruek: This is one of Bangkok’s older and better-known restaurants much frequented by Thais. It is at the end of Silom Road (there are other branches at malls) and the food is consistent and dependable. (Our bill was 2,800).

Talingping: Another well-known Bangkok name. The branch I know best is on Silom but I went to the outlet in Siam Paragon. The menu includes familiar Thai dishes, superbly executed.

Hong Bao: This is a branch of an international chain that offers a slightly different version of chicken rice and other Chinese specialities. Cheap and cheerful.

Smizzle: A burger counter on the funky but relaxed Fifth Floor of the Central Embassy mall. Great burgers. Excellent fries. Cheaper than anywhere similar in India.

These are the ordinary places that I would recommend.

Then there were the big meals. The current avatar of the Gaggan Anand restaurant is a 14-seat performance experience. Gaggan or his head chef spend several hours talking you though his latest (and best ever) menu of small plates. It is a once in a lifetime experience so it can be expensive (but by the time you have added the many glasses of wine included in the price and the caviar and the truffles, it is cheaper than say Wasabi in Mumbai or Le Cirque in Delhi).

They should charge more when Gaggan is performing himself but it is a bit of a lottery so you get him only if you are lucky.

It happens twice a night, four days a week and seats are hard to book.

I did not mention that my first meal in Bangkok is usually the largely Northern Thai restaurant 100 Mahaseth (as it was this time too) because I also went to the chef-owner Chalee Kader’s fancier restaurant, the newer Wana Yook.

Chalee is half-Indian (his father is from Tamil Nadu) and has been, for years and years, the chef’s chef. His 100 Mahaseth is where all of Bangkok’s top chefs come when they want a good meal. But Wana Yook (which has a Michelin star) has thrust him into the public glare. His restaurant opened during the pandemic, so it was directed at local Thais.

It is modern Thai food but there is no fooling around with the flavours because his Thai guests know what the real thing should be. Chalee has a reputation for nose-to-tail cooking and Thai customers have a higher tolerance for fishy flavours so my super finnicky wife was apprehensive before we went. But the food was so good that she declared that it was easily the best modern Thai restaurant in the world. And I agree.

Deepankar Khosla is a great success story. He spent nearly a decade with ITC Hotels before he moved to Bangkok and started all over again, including running a food truck. He then opened Haoma and soon won a Michelin Green star (Deepankar is big on sustainability) which is laudable but not very useful if you want to know how good the food is.

But Haoma has now had a proper Michelin star for two years now as well as the Green star.

Haoma is old-style, fine-dining with great wines, attentive and knowledgeable service and a glamorous dining room. Deepankar’s food draws from all his influences (including a nihari from Allahabad where he grew up). Haoma was jam-packed the night I went and it is clear that Deepankar has made it big.

It helps that he is an instantly likeable guy who has not let success change him at all. My son Raaj has known Deepankar from before he became famous and says that he is still the same helpful and thoughtful person.

So, if you want a reasonably priced holiday with great hotels and good food, you can’t do better than Bangkok. I am not as knowledgeable about the rest of the Far East, but people have been raving about Vietnam on social media. And there are about a dozen other such good-value Asian destinations.

So, think twice before planning a holiday in a domestic tourist trap. Consider the East. And if you plan long enough in advance, you can even reserve one of the 14 seats at Gaggan Anand’s restaurant.

What’s not to like?

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