Feb 102006

Trang (Thursday, February 9, 2006)

We enjoyed Trang’s restaurants and night market, but it was time to move on to Krabi, where we have upgraded accommodations and some of the finest food we will eat on our trip. The towns are not far apart, so it makes sense to stop a few places along the way and support the local tourism economy. But first, a breakfast of dim sum, Trang style.

Our dim sum breakfast began with fried bread and sticky rice roasted (?) in a banana leaf. This quickly was followed by the town’s signature food, roasted pork. Fatty, crispy, and slightly sweet, it has neither the red dye of Cantonese barbequed pork nor the sloppy succulence of the type of roast pork served on a plate lunch. It’s good stuff. With that is served fish in many forms: Fish cakes cooked to a toasty brown on the outside, imitating the appearance of tofu; strong-flavored fish (mackerel?) steamed with ginger; large fish “meatballs” with a soft mousse-like texture; and fake crab legs (made of fish and starch) with a meatball on one end. At some point, a plate of fish fried in crispy panko-like bread crumbs arrived with packets of ketchup. This was a strange adaptation, but I didn’t get the story behind it. We finished with three kinds of steamed buns: pork, sweetened black bean, and the irresistible coconut custard (known here as “cream”). Good thing they ran out of the latter or I might still be there.

Driving out of town, we stopped at the Kook Ming cake factory, home of the original Trang cake. Here we probably bought more little snacks than cakes; I picked up some mixes I thought would be good for happy hour on the next island. Naturally, we had to have a slice of cake on the spot. If you go more than two hours without eating, there’s a danger you might get hungry, and that just would not do.

Up the road we stopped at Le Khaokob Cave. I remember this spot well from last year, but no one seemed to have read or remembered the story of the low ceilings. In brief, you tour a hot and humid cave and see various formations lit by shocking green and red fluorescent light, and then exit through a passage with ceilings so low that you have to lay down in the boat and the two guys guiding the boat use their hands and arms to drive by pushing off the ceiling. I tried taking photos from the hip level and you can see a lot of the blue paint has scraped off on various protrusions; we all agreed that this attraction could not possibly be operated in America.

After cooling down a bit, we headed to two spots for soaking: a cool mineral water pool and a hot spring. The Emerald or Crystal Pool (depending on which sign you read) is filtered by algae and appears to be very clean and clear, not counting the suntan lotion already in the water from visitors who arrived before us. It was much busier than I remembered from 2005, and the past Winter’s unusual weather appears to have changed the area, with drier banks and a lower water level. After the soak we walked back through the nature preserve, snapping photos of lizards (who held very still) and butterflies (which always seemed to escape the frame). Lunch at the park entrance was the classic combination of fried chicken, sticky rice and green papaya salad. Followed by Trang cake.

At our next stop, I did not go into the hot springs. I ventured up to the toilets to change. There I accidentally flushed the handle. It was very loose, probably not connected, fell in and got sucked down. Since these toilets don’t handle paper, I was hopeful that the handle would be easily spotted and recovered from wherever the flushes go. Anyway, Kasma didn’t seem to think it was necessary to mention it on our way out. And I soon forgot all about it, as we snacked on the juice and tasty flesh of roasted coconuts from one of the park’s snack vendors.

Upgrading to Five Stars

Tired, hot, and somewhat wet, we rolled into Krabi to check into the Maritime (formerly spelled Meritime). Last year, a number of wings were closed and our rooms were rather drab. This year we are in the furthest building with perhaps the best views, and the rooms are quite wild. Fabric is draped over the two double beds forming a sort of canopy; there are strings of beads between the main room and bathroom area, and the lights are fringed with glittery strings ending in oddly shaped plastic crystals. It looked good to us.

Before dinner we gathered our laundry and took it into town where it is a bit cheaper than at this swanky resort. The clerk slowly and methodically sorted and counted and recorded each bag. Did I mention slowly? It took almost an hour to deal with about a dozen bags of laundry. Finally, though, we were ready for our first visit to Ruen Mai, perhaps the best restaurant on our trip. There was a little glitch, the restaurant ran out of beef for one of our dishes, but they will make it up to us tomorrow. So, without further ado, the menu: we began with a salad of sliced wing beans, shallots, and cashews, with a light sprinkling of toasted coconut shreds. Here and there you could find a little chunk of pommelo, the huge and refreshing grapefruit-like fruit. The masaman (muslim) beef curry featured the usual potatoes, onions and peanuts in a mild curry. A red curry with shrimp and rain forest beans (sorry, I don’t have a translation of the Thai name) and bitter pea eggplants added some heat. We had fish in a choo chee curry, a thick and slightly sweet coconut curry (better than last year’s, which I thought was a bit too salty). And our vegetable was a dark leafy green one that we have all the time, but the coconut milk in which it was cooked and served tasted distinctly like spinach: perhaps they are related? To replace our missing dish, we ordered sour curry with chicken. It was hot and extra rice was required. Which left less than the usual appetite for a dessert of Trang cake.

After dinner, the karaoke bar appeared to be closed, and most people had lost their enthusiasm. I purchased a half hour card for the internet service and checked email and updated my notes online. After using up my time, I noticed the karaoke bar lights were on so I dropped in for a practice session. There was a large group singing Thai songs and I alternated in a few in English. They applauded politely for me, but laughed when I applauded for them. Obviously something I don’t understand about the karaoke culture. I promised to come back the next night with a group. The beer made me feel way too full, but I managed to doze off eventually and get a few hours of sleep before our next early start.

Krabi (Friday, February 10, 2006)

Hot, hot, hot

The Maritime includes a buffet breakfast in the price of its rooms, but the buffet is nothing special. In fact, the scrambled eggs made me a bit queasy last year. So Kasma invited anyone interested to a 7:00 AM jaunt to a nearby town for khanom jin (Chinese-style rice noodles) and fried chicken. Who could refuse? Well, only a handful of us showed up, and we tumbled out of the van into a place with no English name that can’t see too many Westerners. We devoured plates of noodles with a very smooth and delicious curry sauce made with ground fish — I realize that doesn’t sound like breakfast, but it’s really good — and freshly made fried chicken (mysteriously we got a lot of white meat, which most Thais aren’t interested in eating due to lack of intrinsic flavor).

Afterward, we were invited to watch the process of making the noodles. The back of the kitchen is dark, lit mostly bit an intense wood fire under an enormous wok-shaped pot. The noodle cook rolls a ball of dough into a cylinder and puts about a foot of it into a press that he swings over the boiling water. The press, which looks a bit taller than a coffee can, has small holes in the bottom and the noodles are pressed directly into the water and stirred to prevent sticking. Cooking time is short, and cold water is added to control the process. It’s sloppy, and the cook wears flip-flops. He quickly moves the noodles into pans of cool water, sloshing more water in the process. What a job! But the results are good, much better than packaged noodles. We say our farewells and head back to the hotel to meet up with the buffet eaters.

We would spend the early part of the day in the Ao Nang area, touring a mangrove lined waterway, viewing a cave, and exploring a rain forest park with a lot of water features. I had done all these in 2005, so I won’t detail them again. Mainly it was hot and sticky, and we needed some relief. At lunch time, instead of eating in the park, Kasma decided to check out a restaurant back in Krabi town that had been recommended. After a quick once-over, suspicious of the tour buses parked nearby, we proceeded instead to Ruen Mai. The waitress at first was very concerned that she had misunderstood our dinner reservation but was happy to learn that no, we were adding another meal to our itinerary (for a planned total of five). We started with a refreshing salad of green mango shreds and cashews. We then turned up the heat with a plate of Southern vegetables, including cucumbers, eggplants, slices of white turmeric, bitter melon, and various herbs, with a spicy hot dipping sauce that contained whole small shrimp; this would be a fun “shrimp cocktail” to surprise your friends with back in the States. We had the crab meat with yellow curry, a favorite in 2005; a sour (?) curry with fish; and beef in a luscious panang curry sauce. We were full and, no undue risks having been taken, quite happy. The restaurant was playing some music from the “deep South” of Thailand and members of the group purchased a few CDs.

Next we headed around the corner to Varich Krabi Batik, a workshop where artists create batiks on site. Many are sarongs, “wall hangings” or fabrics, but there are lots of shirts, too. At least for women. The men’s selection was very limited. I bought one off of the mannequin and they agreed to make one for me, a Large of one that was only available in Medium. It should arrive Tuesday; here’s hoping it fits. Some folks actually ordered custom fitted shirts, but I’d like to think that I won’t remain my current size for much longer… as soon as I stop having fourths and fifths at every meal…

We drove just out of town to the famous Tiger Cave temple, which has panoramic views if you want to climb over 1200 stairs. I had my asthma inhaler ready, but it began raining as we arrived and there were several large buses of students, so Kasma felt it was better to call it a day and make the rest of the afternoon free time. Yet more time to check email, and even better, to cool off.

Before dinner we were going to pick up our laundry — but it wasn’t ready. Apparently it needed to be counted again. For dinner we returned to Ruen Mai, and were seated at the coveted garden table. The setting is beautiful, and there are mosquito coils placed strategically around the table to reduce biting. Fortunately their “perfume” does not interfere with appreciating the food.

We started with a variation on the green mango-cashew salad. This one had small crunchy items suspiciously similar to the fried wonton wrapper shreds found in “Chinese Chicken Salads” throughout America. It also had numerous other items often found in “miang plah,” such as chopped chillies and tiny pieces of lime with the peel, and was served on a leaf that you used as an edible scoop, somewhat like a taco. Next we had our special ordered catfish marinated in turmeric and garlic; the restaurant normally serves small fish (plah sai) that can be eaten from nose to tail, but Kasma prefers the way the catfish carries the turmeric flavor. (I regret the loss of “fun factor” of crunching whole little fish.) Our hot dishes included a curry with prawns (photo suggests sour curry with coconut shoots, but I’m not sure); kua kling, the beef dish where the heat builds and builds, long after you’ve finished your portion; and squid larb, a peppery salad. Ferns with garlic in Thai oyster sauce rounded out the meal. We used up the last of the Trang cake tonight.

After dinner we picked up our laundry with little incident and, after some time to re-pack for the island, a few of us took a break for karaoke. The Maritime’s bar was packed tonight, with five or six different tables. The microphone rotates to the next table after two songs, so it took quite a while to sing our six selections. Some of the other performers in the room sounded quite good, even if we don’t speak Thai and have no idea whether they are using the actual lyrics. After singing I was up late on the Internet and then packing. Yawn. Hopefully I’ll get some rest at Koh Poda.

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