Khao Sok Park (Tuesday, January 18, 2005)
Our next destination, Nakhon Si Thammarat, is described by the Rough Guide as “the cultural capital” of Southern Thailand. The city has enormous importance in Theravada Buddhism, the religion observed by more than 90% of Thais. Our two day whirlwind exploration of Nakhon will cover temples, museums, markets, and of course food.
Our breakfast was a simple but tasty rice porridge with some ground pork and toasted garlic and/or shallots, served with various condiments including chopped green onions and the Thai staple of fish sauce laced with chopped chiles. We were warned to have seconds, as it would be quite a while before lunch. We interrupted our journey back across Cheow Lan Lake to observe a small group of Dusky Langurs (leaf-eating monkeys) jumping around in some trees on the face of a limestone karst. After an hour enjoying the scenery, we returned to our minivans for the next phase of our journey, East toward Thailand’s gulf coast.
Our lunch spot was a restaurant somewhere in Surat Thani province where we first observed the Southern Thailand practice of serving a plate of vegetables as an accompaniment to the meal. These always seem to include sliced cucumbers, green beans (similar tasting but with quite a different exterior texture than string beans), one or more kinds of basil, round Thai eggplants, and something like Chinese celery/parsley, all served raw. In this case, the restaurant provided a hot dipping sauce containing shrimp paste and lots of chillies. Large spoonfuls of rice were provided to each diner, and numerous dishes set out family style. The options included a green curry of fish balls and slightly bitter pea eggplants, ginger chicken, a hot curry of wild boar (in place of its domesticated cousin), sun-dried fish similar in texture to smoked fish, and long green eggplant simmered with minced pork. The latter look similar, except in color, to Chinese (light purple) and Japanese (dark purple) eggplants. For dessert, we began a practice of choosing among several options. In addition to coconut milk containing a grab bag of items, there were two sticky rice desserts and one made from pink-colored tapioca that imitated the appearance of pomegranate seeds. I tried the black sticky rice in salty-sweet coconut milk. It was a taste I would have many times in Nakhon.
After lunch we headed to a school that trains monkeys to pick coconuts. This reduces the cost of labor (and, presumably, the danger to humans) of picking coconuts. The Macaque monkeys trained are both raised in captivity and captured from the wild; the wild monkeys apparently have better instincts for picking. The star monkey in our demonstration (Dara, a male) showed a wide range of skills in addition to twisting coconuts off trees, including untying knots, riding a bicycle, and shooting baskets. Many cute photos will be forthcoming from everyone on the trip.
Nakhon Si Thammarat
We hit the road again, heading for the Nakorn Garden Inn in Nakhon and a little shopping and Internet time before dinner. The blocks around the hotel are bustling with shops and street carts day and night; however, around 5:00 PM, the day-time shops close, giving the town a closed-up feeling in the evenings. Numerous food vendors work their street carts at all times, serving both savory and sweet dishes, from noodles to fruit, pig snout meat to unrecognizable gelled delights. But there would not be much room for snacks, as dinner was soon to begin.
We headed to the Bovorn Bazaar, home of a coffee shops, bar, and several restaurants, and were seated upstairs in a private room at Nok Chan. Unfortunately, we could not effectively silence the speaker in our room, which piped in local radio stations playing various types of pop music. The restaurant was under new management, and Kasma spent extra time negotiating the details of the order. We first received plates of morning glories sauteed with garlic, followed by a stir-fry of catfish. The third dish was an unusual but quite successful salad of fried crab, shrimp, squid, mixed with greens of some kind. After a hot and sour soup of pig knuckles (not much meat to speak of), we received plates of large shrimp halved lengthwise and covered with glass noodles (mung bean threads?) and cooked in a tasty sauce. This was served in the cooking pot and was mixed, bringing the shrimp up to the surface, at the table for serving. We closed with young mangosteens (tasting a bit like a green apple) and a layered gelatin dessert.
Nakhon Si Thammarat (Wednesday, January 19, 2005)
We met in the lobby at 7:30 AM for breakfast, bringing our laundry to be done during our long day away. We returned to Bovorn Bazaar to eat at Krour Nakorn. Choices here were far more elaborate than the previous few days and included khanom jin, a dish traditionally featuring noodles made from fermented rice but more often tasting like regular packaged noodles. The choice of toppings included a traditional peanut-based sauce and a green curry. The more adventurous ordered a “rice salad” with scallions, bean sprouts, dried shrimp powder, powdered chiles, and various other items. Desserts (yes, even at breakfast) included various chewy items in syrup and/or coconut milk. We were ready to get on the road.
Moments later — Nakhon feels like a small town, even if it is the South’s second largest city — we pulled up to Wat Mahathat, the most important Buddhist shrine on our trip. Before heading into the main temple compound, we noticed that the door to the Viharn Luang was open, and the monks invited us in to witness an ordination of a young man hoping to become a monk. While the proceeding was rather solemn, we did become in some sense a part of the spectacle (the monk presiding over the ceremony made references to us, and the family posed for pictures). I had never realized how uncomfortable it can be to sit with one’s feet pointing backwards for long periods of time. Perhaps there is a connection between this prostration and Thai massage?
At some point during the sermon, most of us headed into the temple compound and viewed the various sights, including spectacular gold-leaf covered Buddha figures, innumerable antiques, and numerous small altars. We continued to the marketplace adjoining the Wat for a little snacking and shopping, and a little relief from the hot sun.
Around the corner we stopped in at the well known local restaurant Khanom Jin Muang Nakhon where we had a huge spread starting with the usual platter of vegetables, including a couple of cool salads of marinated cucumbers, daikon radish, and other vegetables to soothe a burning palate. Main courses included two pork curries, a crispy mullet with garlic and (fresh) turmeric, a chicken musamun curry and a chicken soup. For dessert I enjoyed three small bananas that had been cooked in palm sugar syrup and served in a soup of salty-sweet coconut milk.
Around another corner we visited the workshop, demonstration theater, and museum created by one of Thailand’s shadow puppet masters, Suchart Subsin. After a brief play — mostly in Thai with a few English-language phrases added for humor value — we visited the workshop/shop to view the puppets available for purchase. Carved from thin leather and hand-painted, beautiful and intricate puppets that took several days to complete were on sale for as little as $100. However, it wasn’t the type of art I could imagine framing and hanging on a wall, so I took a pass.
The rest of the afternoon is a bit of a blur at this point. We visited the National Museum, which covered a broad range of history and pre-history, from basic living artifacts to various periods of Buddhism, and numerous examples of fine art, from nielloware (etched gold with a black inlay) to fanciful walking sticks. I noticed after using the restroom that my hands had swelled up, presumably due to dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. This persisted throughout the afternoon’s shopping jaunt.
For dinner we made a short journey out of town to the family home of Sun (I’m not sure of the precise transliteration), one of our two drivers. There they operate a catfish farm, serve meals, and operate a small retail store, all on a winding country road seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our first stop was a tank of jumping “doctor” fish; these are the fish described in Kasma’s book It Rains Fishes that hop from puddle to puddle around rice fields. We then watched some young men tossing feed to the catfish, who naturally swarmed greedily at the surface. Soon enough, we were sitting down to a feast of crabs with garlic sauce (pregnant crabs cooked so that the bright orange roe, with a texture like firm egg yolk, peeked out from the body sections); grilled mackerel with a shrimp paste sauce; a sour shrimp and bamboo shoot curry; grilled catfish with a spicy-hot dipping sauce; a salad of sliced beef and Thai herbs; larb, a salad made with ground beef; and a vegetable stir-fry of tender cauliflower and Chinese greens (which was the first to run out). For dessert we had delicious peanut cookies, which led to another story I won’t repeat here. The food was surpassed only by the hospitality, and many photos were taken and promised for the next time. (Due to bad planning, I did not get a picture of our hosts… but I’m sure someone else has a few.)
We got back to the hotel by 7:30, a bit early to turn in, but a bit late to get to the Internet store which closed at 8:00. So a number of us went out for Thai beers and aimless talk. So far, it seems like a really good group. Afterward, I checked out the still-open food carts at the night market, but nothing was tempting. Time to scribble out some of these notes and check my laundry (nicely done) before planning to get up early yet again for our journey South to Songkhla.