Sunday, January 16, 2005 — Bangkok
Tonight we will stay in Ranong, a town famous for its geothermal hot springs. Before leaving the U.S., I had read that after the December 26, 2004 earthquake and tsunami, the springs had run dry. If true, it probably is temporary: the Rough Guide says Ranong is the wettest town in Thailand.
We were scheduled to leave the hotel at 5:30 AM. Working backwards to allow time to check out, to grab a banana and hot tea at the hotel restaurant, to pack, and to shower and dress, I set the alarm for 4:00 AM. (Those familiar with my mistake with the alarm clock at the Atlanta Marriott — and the resulting craziness — will be happy to know that I kept my vow to always carry my own travel alarm clock with me.) But I ended up passing out after dinner and waking several times during the night so that, as usual, it was a mad dash to get everything into suitcases and get downstairs in the nick of time.
Ranong is a good 555 kilometers from Bangkok, and while the expressway traffic was light in the morning, there were some slow-moving vehicles and heavy rain, which meant challenging driving conditions. Nevertheless, we made our breakfast stop right on time at 7:00. This truck stop near Phetchaburi featured a dozen prepared dishes and a dozen soups and curries on a steam table, with a Thai espresso bar out front and a retail business off to the side. Every truck stop should have food this good!
Our lunch spot was not very far down the road, so we stopped in the resort town of Hua Hin to use the spotless restrooms at Starbucks and hit the local market. Many of the food stalls featured items prepared on the spot; the scent of delicious food mingled with that of fresh seafood and the exhaust of motorcycles weaving through the market’s narrow walkways. Here we tried durian for the first time. Most fellow travelers really enjoyed it; I’m still on the fence: it was okay, not at all as smelly as its reputation, but I don’t particularly want a third taste. We also tried jackfruit and an amazing coconut custard baked inside a small pumpkin-like squash. A recipe I must try for a party or potluck.
For lunch we left the highway and headed down to the coast in Pranburi to a place that could seat 100 but which we had to ourselves. The principal attraction was the “one day” squid, featuring strips of squid that had been dried in the sun for one day simply fried without breading. The flavor and texture was excellent, even without any of the accompanying dipping sauces (fish sauce with hot peppers, a garlic-pepper sauce, and a sweet-hot sauce). Close runners up included boiled gigantic prawns; a salad of chopped, fried baby clams; a whole grouper fried crisp and smothered in roasted garlic and peppers; and a salad of crab meat and holy basil. Rose apples cleansed the palate for a coconut pudding containing the mysterious green noodles (colored and flavored with pandanus leaf). Nap time!
It took a few hours to reach our next stop, a roadside stand selling siu mai and steamed buns in a neighborhood that appears to specialize in steamed items. The main items, steamed buns containing a heartily seasoned pork meatball and a slice of egg, are among the best steamed buns I’ve tasted (right up there with the manapua from Char Hung Sut in Honolulu’s Chinatown).
We got back on the road for the home stretch, with only one more stop before reaching our hotel. The roadside waterfall just North of Ranong was nothing to write home about (oops, I just did), but any opportunity to stretch our legs was welcome after nearly 12 hours of driving and eating. When we slid out of our vans at the Jansom Thara Hotel, we were greeted with small glasses of icy papaya juice. My room was far nicer than back at the Grand Tower. The hotel cleverly tuns off the air conditioning and electrical outlets when you remove your keyfob from a slot by the door. Great for saving energy, but not so good for efficiently recharging lots of batteries in preparation for the journey to electricity-deprived Ko Surin National Park.
Before dinner, I tried the hot springs, a hot tub-like pool of 105 degree water (one each for the women and the men). It took me about half and hour and a liter of refrigerated mineral water to feel normal again. I think perhaps hot tubbing in the tropics is a bit too much for me.
We ate dinner at the hotel’s in-house restaurant, Palm Court. My favorite was the soft-shelled crabs, perfectly fried and bathed in a delicious sauce. I could have eaten the entire plate. A steamed fish was topped with a chile-garlic-lime dressing, similar to the grilled salmon topped with “Thai herbs” that I order at Amarin Thai Cuisine in Mountain View, but much hotter. Other dishes included a curry with shrimp and locally grown rain forest beans, a ground pork and shrimp salad, and a Southern style vegetable that reminds me of the Burmese sour vegetable served at Rangoon in Palo Alto. Dessert was a cooling coconut custard with taro.
Well, it’s another early morning, leaving no later than 6:45 AM for the pier to catch our boat to Ko Surin. So, yet another quiet evening at home. As we learned at breakfast the next morning, the national director of parks forbade our visit to Ko Surin prior to further clean-up, reversing the local park head, so we instead picked up our itinerary with a journey to Khao Sok National Park.