Jan 302006

Khao Sok Park (Saturday, January 28, 2006)

Fifth cold shower in a row, but because the cabin had cooled well during the night, this definitely was the coldest. Fortunately, it should be the last one for a while. We gathered with our bags in the open-air dining room for rice porridge with a tray of toppings, including fried garlic, ground chillies, white pepper, and a strange peppery blend sold under the Tiger brand. Thus fortified, we returned to the lake for the journey back through the karsts. We didn’t spot any more langurs, and perhaps not coincidentally, the lake was very busy. It was Saturday morning and Chinese New Year, so crowds of people had come out to party. We stopped at the visitor center atop the dam for a scenic overview, remarkably clean restrooms, and some drinks and snacks (coffee for some, ice cream for me). Then we set out for the monkey training school.

Surat Thani: Of Monkeys and Coconuts

Just outside Surat Thani we stopped for lunch at a place that appears to have no English-language sign. Around the corner, long strings of firecrackers were exploding in doorways for good luck. We were spared the smoke and flying bits of red paper, but not the fire! Lunch started innocently with fresh squeezed tangerine juice, crunchy vegetables with hot shrimp dipping sauce, and a mild vegetable and tofu stir-fry. We then received a chicken curry with the foot sticking up: chicken around here appears to be mostly skin and bones and so nothing is wasted. The real shock, though, was the sauce in this chilli curry: it starts off hot, and just keeps getting hotter. A milder catfish curry, a winter melon soup, and lots of rice did little to ease the pain. Fortunately, we got soothing desserts of various jellies and chewy rice confections in coconut milk with shaved ice. We were ready for the next stop.

The Kadaejae Training Monkey School trains male pig-tailed macaques to pick coconuts, at the rate of 500-1000 coconuts per day. The really smart monkeys are trained to do shows for visitors (and command more than three times the price of regular working monkeys). One of the younger trainees was on display today doing most of the demonstrations, looking a bit stressed out but obviously eager to please. Later Dara, the star we saw last year, came out to handle the toughest assignments: climbing the tallest trees, riding the bicycle, shooting baskets, and affecting an attitude of casual indifference. The years of training clearly showed. We all took too many pictures; it’s a good thing there’s no gift shop here.

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Back on the road, we headed for our hotel in Nakhon Si Thammarat, the Nakorn Garden Inn. (As with many Thai words, there apparently is no agreement on how to spell the name of this town in English.) Just like last year, we sent our laundry into town and spread out for a few hours of free time before dinner. I went to the local Internet shop for about an hour and, walking back, I noticed a huge Carrefour department store. Here I spent quite a while in the food section comparing various jars, trying to figure out if they might be tasty. I ended up with the staples of bottled water and bottled sugar free iced tea. On my way up to another floor, a local man struck up a conversation. In Bangkok, this usually means you are a mark for some kind of scam, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it when he told me the location of his office building downtown. Anyway, after a brief attempt to communicate with one another, we went our separate ways. I found a karaoke store where you rent time in an individual room with seating for four. Each booth is glassed in and there were quite a range of users, from individual pop idol wannabees and giggling schoolgirls, to fathers with their children. I tried to ask whether they were making recordings, but I couldn’t get the translation. Anyway, it seemed like everyone was having a great time.

Around the corner was a camera store, which might come in handy for the people in our group filling up their memory cards. I couldn’t find anything else I needed, so I headed back to the hotel. On the way I stopped at the desk to complain that there was no remote control for the air conditioner in my room (without the remote, nothing works, not even the fan). I noticed a sign referring to wireless ADSL and 1,500. I inquired whether wireless Internet was 1,500 baht per day (that would be pretty expensive at $40), but she said it’s free. Wow, think how many dollars this will save me at the local shop.

For dinner we returned to Nok Chan. Until now, I was the only one taking pictures of the food at our meals but tonight everyone seemed to be joining in. Whether it was some kind of big joke or reflected the nicely presented plates, I don’t know. Sometimes a whim becomes an obsession; I’ve seen it. The flashbulbs didn’t kick in for the first dish, a dark green leafy vegetable stir-fried with eggs, but started when we received a shrimp in a curry sauce with rain forest beans (that looked like pale green favas) and Northern style sour pork ribs with crunchy condiments. We then had two soups (oops), the first a mild broth of chicken and Thai herbs (said to have medicinal qualities), the second a very sour hot and sour seafood soup with local crabs, chunks of fish and somewhat rubbery squid. We finished with a salad of barbecued pork neck meat, a tasty, fatty cut with crisp edges and a mildly peppery sauce.

After our main courses, we celebrated a birthday. Kasma asked the wait staff to light the candles, but apparently this does not translate and they brought in the cake along with a cigarette lighter. Despite the flawed presentation, we sang and then dug in. The locally made cake, decorated in a silly cat-and-mouse theme, was rather light but paired well with chocolate chip ice cream. Quite a change from oddly colored rubbery items in salty-sweet coconut milk, and perhaps not quite the local experience we craved. So we headed out to the night market in search of dessert roti. Eventually we found a place with many tables and a widescreen television showing a soccer game. The place was jammed, but we didn’t mind waiting. We got five plates of thinly stretched fried bread with sweetened condensed milk and granulated sugar for dipping. Unlike some places, no margarine was used in the preparation of these roti (thank goodness), but while they were tasty, we know we will have better in Songkhla in a few days.

By now totally stuffed (with food), we headed back to our rooms. I posted my wiki updates, and got everything lined up for an early start on Sunday, when we go to the enormous “Sunday market” of food, clothing, and miscellaneous “stuff.”

Nakhon Si Thammarat (Sunday, January 29, 2006)

Living the Vida Local

Rather than breakfast at a restaurant, we took a walk to the local market to graze on various favorites. Unfortunately, many of the vendors seemed to be missing, so we turned the corner and walked several blocks to the Sunday market, an immense sea of stalls spilling out onto the sidewalk. Here we had steamed pork buns from one stand, fried chicken from another, and pad thai noodles from a third. Standing and eating in corners or empty areas of sidewalk was somewhat awkward, and we never got the chicken-on-a-stick Kasma had hoped to find. But we were full and ready to shop, so in that sense, mission accomplished.

We were set free to shop or do whatever, meeting back at the hotel at 11:30AM for lunch. I got a bizarre T-shirt from a stall that sells only Mediums (so it will have to be a gift to someone, maybe you?). The shirt features photos of four deceased musicians — Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Bob Marley and Kurt Cobain — under the title “They All Met Together On The Heaven.” I’m pretty sure you can’t get that in California, not even in Berkeley. After exploring a bakery for possible gifts to bring to Sun’s family at dinner, I returned to the hotel for some Internet time.

For lunch we walked to Krour Nakorn, a local restaurant that displays a large number of antique coconut shredders. I had previously eaten breakfast here, but for lunch the range was much broader. We shared small portions of fish mousse (steamed in little baskets formed from leaves stapled into a square); son-in-law eggs, similar to Chinese-style salted or preserved eggs, served in a mildly sweet tamarind sauce; a red curry with pork (?); a green curry with chicken and Thai eggplants; mixed vegetables in Thai oyster sauce; and a fried fish in a slightly sweet sauce. Lunch was not very hot, so we chased it with a bit of fruit and skipped the coconut milk desserts.

Our first sightseeing stop of the afternoon was the National Museum. In addition to the collection of antiquities I saw last year, the museum features a new wing with displays more relevant to daily life. These included a rather loud childbirth soundtrack (after five minutes I turned around and barked “get her an epidural!”); a very detailed explanation of courtship and marriage rituals; and lots of food- and cooking-related implements and techniques. While we were in this display a group of Thai Buddhist monks came through. They tend to be ordained before the age of 18, so it seems logical that they would be continuing their studies. On the way out, we browsed the display of coconut shell souvenirs made by a school for the deaf. I found a large crayfish irresistible and, for about $6.50, quite affordable. But with its long whiskers, it is yet another “difficult to pack item” that I might not be able to get back to California in its original condition.

Our next stop was the Shadow Puppet workshop of Suchart Subsin, the nation’s acknowledged master. We toured his museum briefly and then sat down for a brief demonstration. The art of shadow puppets is steeped in ritual, but at the same time, incorporates contemporary elements. Three students appear before the master. The first has learned well and is released, while the second and third need more training but decide to leave anyway. Each has different adventures. The first student finds love and, presumably, happiness, although his potential mate interrupts their discussion to take a call on her cell phone. The other two try to steal a motorcycle, then try to fly an airplane and end up bailing out in parachutes. The shows ends with “okay, bye bye.” All of this is depicted by moving puppets made from thin sheets of cowhide behind a sheet backlit with a single incandescent bulb, accompanied by a mix of singing and speaking. It’s pretty strange, but if I could understand Thai, I’m sure it would be quite entertaining. We moved on to the gift shop. Last year, the goods on display were mostly medium and high priced shadow puppets. This year, the merchandise was more varied, showcasing the techniques and materials of the craft in more diverse and inexpensive forms. In fact, the puppet selection was not as good; someone might recently have bought them out as we did last year. I picked up a T-shirt painted with one of the troublemaker characters, as well as some small gift items.

We returned briefly to the hotel to store away purchases and stock up on insect repellent before heading out for the rest of the day. Our first stop was the laundry place, and they were not ready for us. Gradually our clothing appeared in individual bags. Some items were placed in the wrong person’s bag — most notoriously some purple panties — but for the most part they seem to have kept it all straight. We headed out of town to our driver Sun’s family compound. Their land has a long driveway with houses on both sides, a small open air restaurant near the road, and a gas station at the back for boats plying the river. Across the road they raise catfish and tilapia (and a third fish that doesn’t translate) in separate ponds. By American standards, they don’t have much money, but their entrepreneurial spirit would be held in high regard.

After a tour, pictures of cute children, and a trip to the ponds, we sat down for dinner. Most of the food was prepared by Sun’s wife, and his brother charbroiled the catfish. With the exception of a vegetable stir-fry, the food was quite hot. The crab was served with a hot green dipping sauce; the catfish with a hot red dipping sauce; there was a spicy salad of sliced beef somewhat similar to the Northeastern Thailand pork neck salad; a sour curry with fish and bamboo shoots; a green papaya salad; and larb (pronounced more like the tennis term “lob,” with the “aw” sound drawn out another beat), and wickedly hot ground beef dish with mint and invisible heat that just keeps coming on. I sweated, I moaned, I barely made it. But it was really tasty food, the only truly home-cooked food we will have in Thailand, and I ate several extra helpings.

Upon our return, I decided to try to get a digital photo printed. The place I tried at lunch had been closed, presumably for Chinese New Year, but I got a reliable lead on a place open until 8:00. When a fellow traveler and I got there at 7:35, we found the gate locked and the lights out. A woman behind the counter tried to explain something to us, but she spoke no English and we couldn’t figure it out. Eventually she handed me the keyring so I could remove the padlock, which was on my side of the gate. Just then her daughter showed up and coordinated everything. It seemed too late to ask them to restart the printing machines, but my friend could purchase a camera memory card. Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

Tomorrow, in fact, is “temple day”: we return to Wat Phra Mahathat, the most important Thai Buddhist temple in Southern Thailand. Long pants are required, so we might be a bit warmer than usual for the rest of the day, unless we sneak a pair of shorts and change before going shopping. I suspect my backpack will be well stocked with options.

Nakhon Si Thammarat (Monday, January 30, 2006)

The Two isms: Buddhism and Capitalism

As an early snack, I opened a little coconut custard-in-a-banana-leaf that I bought on the street yesterday, and was surprised to be greeted by the smell of onions. It was sweet, but apparently those were not toasted coconut shreds on top… I really do need to learn a bit more Thai to be safe in the marketplace. After a quick shower I slipped on long pants, grabbed a little more laundry, and met up with the group in the lobby for breakfast, temples, and tons of shopping.

We headed around the corner to Krour Nakorn, where most of our morning options included khanom jin — a decent portion of “Chinese” noodles traditionally made from fermented rice but more often tasting like regular packaged noodles — with a choice of toppings including a traditional mild peanut-based sauce, and spicier fishy sauce, and a green curry. Several eaters ordered the “rice salad” with scallions, bean sprouts, dried shrimp powder, powdered chillies, and various other items. Last year, I found the salad ingredients a bit scratchy in the throat, and to give my GI tract a break, I went for the peanut sauce. Desserts included various chewy items in syrup and/or coconut milk; the red beans were tasty.

We headed from the commercial end of town to the historical end, and parked across from Wat Phra Mahathat. Immediately we were attacked by women selling offerings such as incense and flowers: they thrust them into your hands and then demand money. It’s a bit of a racket, but the temple’s own sales booth inside doesn’t seem interested in shutting it down. After a brief orientation, we headed into the building used for the ordination of monks to see a bit of the ceremony. Last year, the abbot (?) leading the ordination was very outgoing and involved us as observers and photographers; this year, the ordination was more somber, although we still provided some amusement to the family and friends gathered to observe. At the national museum, I had studied the exhibit showing the various stages of the process and here it was in real life. If only my studying Thai phrases had such an immediate payoff.

Our tour of the temple grounds and adjoining shops was what you might expect, especially if you think “hot and humid,” “long pants,” and “heavy backpack.” By the time we met up at the vans for lunch, I was ready for some ice water and a comfortable place to sit. We headed to the nearby Khanom Jin Muang Nakhon, a popular local restaurant with reliable food. After setting down the usual plate of raw vegetables with a few picked vegetable salads, they delivered a feast: a pair of crispy fried mullets with turmeric and garlic (or shallots, or both); pork satays with peanut sauce; a medium-hot beef curry with pea eggplants; a mild masaman curry of chicken still on the bone; stir fried chicken and chicken livers (I wasn’t up for the livers today; in truth, I’m never up for chicken livers); and a mildly sweet, turmeric-colored “soup” of two mullets in their poaching liquid. For dessert (just like last year) I had the bananas in iced coconut milk. Mmmmm.

We did a little shopping along the street after lunch, where items ranged from Western-style belt buckles to batik sarongs. I bought a shirt with a subtle pattern, probably a little large but perhaps easy to shrink in a hot dryer when I get home. We loaded back into our vans to head over to a neighborhood of fancy shops, including Nabin House, an excellent source of yan lipao baskets. These baskets are woven from the inner fibers of the yan lipao fern, and the thinner the material, the higher the price. I found some irresistible pieces that probably have little practical use, but they look good and the shop was discounting everything 30% today. Up the street, I found it difficult to resist a heavy silver bowl with a band of gold nielloware around the top half inch. Nielloware is a very old art form that involves applying or oxidizing an amalgam of metals (such as silver, copper and lead) to create contrast with an etched gold or silver surface. My bowl is not as fancy as the stunning pieces on display at the national museum yesterday, but it’s near the outer limit of my budget for art pieces. I just hope to find out how to care for it: the shopkeeper and his staff spoke too little English to get into that.

Our next destination was a neighborhood of cookware shops. My motive in suggesting this stop was really to get a new beach mat, since I remembered finding some good ones here. But Kasma and her cooking students do love kitchenwares, so it certainly was not a waste of time. Finally we returned to the hotel to cool off and sort out all the purchases before dinner. I grabbed a box at the Post Office and was able to get a lot of souvenirs safely nestled inside (but sadly, not all of them). My laundry was brought to my room, there was fresh cold water in the fridge, the air conditioner remote was working, I could switch to shorts, and the Internet was back up and running… all’s right with the world.

For dinner we walked around the corner to Nok Chan (same as two nights ago). No birthday tonight, but the food was quite good. First to arrive were the vegetables, ferns with garlic on our end of the table, followed after a lengthy delay by a fancy presentation of squid stuffed with its own eggs, in a light, spicy broth; perfectly fried crispy fish fillets (catfish?) topped with fried basil leaves, fried lemongrass shreds, and green peppercorn clusters; a kua kling of sliced beef; a rich hot and sour coconut soup with more-than-jumbo shrimp; and a repeat of the pork neck salad. Kua kling is a Southern dish that starts off seeming mildly hot and builds and builds so that by the time you’ve had your fill it’s too late to avoid the burn. This one had good heat, but the beef was a bit tough. Overall, a very successful meal, followed by various cookies purchased at the market near Wat Phra Mahathat.

The plan for tomorrow is to check out by 8:00 AM for a day of shopping and cultural excursions on the road South to Songkhla. We need to wear long pants so we can be presentable, for reasons to be explained later. Time for a quick supermarket run before packing and bed. I’ll miss the easy Internet access, but I’ll be back.

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