Postcard from Bangkok
A floating market sells fruit in Bangkok. (BBC)
Bangkok is a shimmering sprawl of concrete, punctuated here and there with the glitter of jewelled temples; it makes you catch your breath in wonderment. It’s also teeming with places to eat, from the restaurants in the ultra-luxury hotels – our room in the world-famous Mandarin Oriental (mandarinoriental.com) has a button by the bed that says, simply, ‘butler’ – to the millions of street stalls that collect on every corner like bees on honeycomb.
But we're lost. Research delivers torrents of conflicting opinion and concierges want to send us to farang(westerner)-friendly, air-conditioned joints where few Thais ever venture. So we join the rich in beautiful dining rooms, like The Peninsula's Mei Jiang (peninsula.com) where we eat exquisite dim sum - rolled noodles with black beans and chilli, snow pea pastries, roast pork puffs so buttery they're like pig shortcakes - and are treated like pashas.
We sip cocktails on the Mandarin's terrace, watching the long boats buzz down the Chao Phraya river; we try to get staff at swanky (and excellent) Celadon at The Sukhothai (sukhothai.com) not to give us toned-down, foreigner-friendly spicing. This sends them into a tailspin, and results in a kaeng phèt pèt yang, red duck curry, that's almost lipstick scarlet with chilli. It's a carnival in the mouth. The staff hover round us in mild panic; I think they're expecting us to combust.
And we hit the notorious bars in the sky: Vertigo, atop the Banyan Tree (banyantree.com), which has D gibbering with health-and-safety-induced anxiety and requires us to neck two vast martinis each to facilitate the walk down the vertiginous steps clinging to the side of the building. And Lebua's Skybar (lebua.com), which appears to jut right out into the night. We wander round extraordinary shopping malls with their chichi tearooms, designer sushi and foodhalls offering the solution to all your Epoisses and Nutella needs. It's a gas, but not helping us get any sense of reality.
Then salvation arrives in the form of Bangkok-based chef David Thompson, Michelin-starred for his Thai restaurant nahm in London's Halkin hotel (halkin. como.bz). Not only is he happy to meet up, he wants to show us round. This is a bit like winning the lottery. Twice.
David is not averse to the high-end stuff, but he tells us that Thais don't have a restaurant culture as such - it's all about market food - and he's going to help us scratch the surface.
First stop is the roiling insanity of Chinatown - much of Bangkok's street food has Chinese roots. Nai Mong Hoi Thod (539 Thanon Plaeang Nahm) sells nothing but oyster omelettes, crisp from tapioca flour and long-frying on an ancient, seasoned wok in rendered pork fat. Fat glossy oysters sit on top, ready to be seasoned with sriracha (bottled chilli sauce) and lashings of white pepper. A couple of doors down, we stop for implausibly good, toffee-coloured, sugar-cane-smoked duck and a bottle of Mekhong whiskey, the kind of firewater that means you wake the next morning still plastered.
Then to Yaowarat, Chinatown's main drag, for creamy lobes of durian, like a mash-up between foie gras, blue cheese and vanilla custard with maybe a touch of unwashed foot; worryingly, David tells us that eating durian after drinking hard liquor can cause you to explode. Oops.
Sadly, David has to leave us to attend to his lovely new Bangkok restaurant, nahm (metropolitan.bangkok.como.bz). Panic? Not us. We're emboldened now, enough to go down a dirt track, past wooden shacks where people live their whole lives in one tiny room and up rickety wooden stairs to Kaloang Home Kitchen (2 Sriayudhaya Rd, Sisaotaves Dusit 00 662 281 9228), where ants crawl over the dilapidated tables, there's a gentle breeze from the river and a superannuated ladyboy (ladybloke?) entirely ignores me while plying with surprisingly excellent food: smoky, chargrilled seabass and giant prawns with viciously hot nam phrik dip.
Then there's the defiantly ugly My Choice (Sukhumvit Soi 36, 00 662 258 6174); the Thai love for OTT decoration hasn't touched this place. But the banana blossom salad more than makes up for any decorating shortfalls, that and its legendary roast duck. There are forests of alien vegetables: tua phu, meaty winged bean; loofah-like buap liam; sa taw, curious-smelling twisted cluster beans. We don't quite get round to fried fish intestines or pond snail curry.