Feb 142006

Koh Poda (Monday, February 13, 2006)

I awoke with the Poda island roosters around 5:40 AM, and could not fall back asleep. I tried to photograph sunrise through the clouds, and by 7:00 AM I had captured a few decent shots. Looking at the wind on the water, I decided I was feeling too lazy to snorkel, and headed back to the cabin to shower and pack. After an immense breakfast of chow fun-like wide rice noodles (with more than ample cooking oil), we loaded up two longtail boats for some scenic touring on the way back to Krabi.

The ocean was much calmer than yesterday, so salt spray was not too severe, but the the overcast sky limited photo opportunities and we hunkered down for the rest of the journey to Hong Island, known for its soft white sand and fearless monitor lizards. As we approached, we circled the formation and cruised into a small lagoon or bay (Ao Hong) to study the sheer karsts and have a bit of water and some snacks. There were a few other boats in here, and some came and left while we were here, including a group of kayakers who set out from the park’s main beach around the corner. When we arrived there, the beach already was crowded and there were no more kayaks to rent. Kasma balked at the entrance fees under the circumstances, and we cruised for another beach. That one didn’t have any monitor lizards, but did have a cave for possible exploration. (It was dark and I didn’t have a flashlight…)

After setting up our mats for lunch, it started to sprinkle. Then it poured. We ran for cover of some trees and broke out our protective garbage bags. Then, as suddenly as it started, the rain stopped. Our luggage on the boats was a little moist, but we continued to hang out on our little spot of sand. The water was nice, and the rice salad was tasty (and filling). A luxury boat featuring a helicopter parked offshore and disgorged some jet skis. Even with good binoculars, we couldn’t identify these suspected celebrities. Eventually it was time to head back toward shore — and into the rain. The ocean was strangely flat and you could see the drops of rain impacting the surface. Our seating area was covered, but our luggage was out in front. Fortunately my duffel bag has an interior rubber lining, so water dribbled in only through the zipper. The front row passengers were not so lucky and had to take shelter behind some life vests. These boats definitely could use a clear shower curtain on the front; oh well, “next year,” as I often say here. After about an hour of driving, we were on shore, under a tree, waiting for our vans to return from a distant parking lot to carry us to our oasis on the river.

To Have a Hot Shower

Back at the Maritime, we started with another “welcome drink”: yet another strange, fruity potion in an attractive glass. We then checked back into the same rooms and jumped into the shower. The water header couldn’t keep up, but a very warm shower was a big improvement from being all salty and rain-streaked. Then there was the re-packing. The mandate was to get everything we wouldn’t need for a few days into the vans to be driven up to Bangkok so that our luggage for our flight would fit within domestic flight weight limits. My backpack will be overweight but my checked bag should fit within the limit. Last year I stuck my passport in the van, but I won’t be repeating that snafu. I’m sure I’ll come up with a new one.

With the luggage sorted, it was time to return to Ruen Mai for dinner. Our garden table was under a tarp, but they were set up for us elsewhere. Today was one of three major Buddhist holidays where alcohol is not served, so the beer drinkers joined the rest of us in having “fruit shakes,” the two tastiest being lime (manao) and pineapple (saparote). We began with a salad of ferns prepared in the same manner as the wing bean salad, with none of the local hard boiled egg garnishes going to waste tonight. A curry of fish in a sauce made of “fish innards” (or fish viscera, as the menu puts it) was salty and a tasted a bit of liver, but wasn’t bad. This is one of the favorite dishes of Southern Thailand, and unlikely to be found back home. More conventional choices included a lively green curry made with fresh coconut milk, chicken and Thai eggplants; sweet and sour tamarind prawns with crunchy fried shallots; ferns sauteed in Thai oyster sauce with a few prawns; and crispy fried slices of fish in a red curry. For dessert we passed rich little shortbread-like cookies, each topped with half a cashew, and went over plans for our “free” day. (Free meaning unstructured; it would be our “expensive” day if you consider the souvenir hunting.)

We saw our drivers off from the front of the hotel; they will meet us in Bangkok in two days at the airport. Until then, we must get around in a variety of other transportation, and most of us signed up for the morning shuttle to town. The Maritime’s karaoke bar was not open, so I bought some time to check email in the coffee shop where there is a wireless network set up. The man who spins CDs at the karaoke bar was working some other duty; he recognized me and explained that due to the Buddhist holiday, the karaoke bar was closed tonight. He gave the “wai” gesture, which I’ve come to interpret as a kind of apology, and asked whether I would sing tomorrow night. I think I will.

Krabi (Tuesday, February 14, 2006)

Freedom, That’s Just Some People Talking

It’s Valentine’s Day and back in Trang they are celebrating with underwater weddings. With a big storm system over much of Thailand, there might be some wet weddings elsewhere, too. With much of our group spending the day shopping or at the spa, the rain shouldn’t be a big problem. I broke out the umbrella just in case. I needn’t have bothered.

Foregoing the delights of the Maritime breakfast buffet, I joined Kasma, her husband Michael, and two other trip members for a journey to the market. We picked up some little coconut cakes, waffles made with coconut and corn, and a cassava sweet, and settled down with some main courses. I had a bowl of noodles with ground fish curry sauce; the vendor tried to convince Kasma that I wouldn’t like it, but she persuaded the doubtful noodle seller that I could eat hot food. And it wasn’t even hot! Anyway, after visiting the place where the noodles were fresh made, these market offerings just can’t compete. The fried chicken was good, and nibbles (and second and third nibbles) of our numerous starchy items more than filled out the meal.

After we split up, I strolled around the kitchenwares section of the market and bought a cheap but impressively large cleaver I hope to use to open young coconuts back home. Just have to remember to put it in the checked baggage… Wandering down the road, I spent a lot of time in the OTOP shop (“one tambon one product,” a government program to support handicrafts) picking over batik T-shirts. With sizes like 40, 42, 44 and 46, I have no idea whether any will fit but, if not, they will make nice gifts. Around the corner I bumped into some of our group in the Vogue department store. Here I purchased some local products that seemed like potential souvenirs, like a bottle of “Best Odour” brand green food coloring. Perhaps the strangest thing in the store was a rack of brooms and mops that was labeled, in large stencil-styled lettering, BLACK MAN. Most of the other mysterious products were labeled in Thai script; I purchased some chili pastes whose ingredients I plan to interpret later, and started to think about a cold young coconut.

I proceeded to lunch at Ruen Mai by “mo-ta-bike” taxi. Unfortunately, they had neither the tiny crunchy fish I wanted nor a young coconut, but the fried fish I did try was reasonably tasty. It was battered and fried, and cleverly butterflied so that the spine and big bones formed a separate section. It was served with a lime-based “dressing” with green mango shreds and cashews. It was too much, but I ate it all anyway. I stumbled down the road to the 7-11 for an ice cream bar and then flagged down a motorcycle for the trip back to the hotel. My room wasn’t quite ready, but they promised the towels will arrive later.

During the afternoon, I finished the book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” which connects the dots between large engineering firms like Bechtel and Halliburton, international financial institutions like the World Back and IMF, economic consultants, and poor debtor nations. The author describes how developing country elites are persuaded to apply for large loans, which pay U.S. companies to undertake large projects, in exchange for their personal enrichment, and how these boondoggles worsen the rich-poor gap in these countries while creating a sort of enslavement to American interests. If the rest of the world perceives us as global loan sharks, then we have a bigger mess to clean up than I imagined. The other day Kasma, observing that many members of the group would rather stick their nose in a book than stare at the scenery, espoused the view that it is better to be present in the moment than to escape into a fantasy. This book, at least, offers no dreamy panacea; the easier escape is to enjoy the scenery.

Heading down toward the hotel’s expansive grounds, thinking I might spot some monkeys, I instead joined some group members in the bar to chat and nibble peanuts and oddly potato chip-like shrimp chips. We reviewed the purchases of the day, successful spa outings, and reflected on how the trip had gone. Soon our custom-made batik shirts arrived, and all were well executed; perhaps one was a bit long. As the sun set, it was time to head back to Ruen Mai for my sixth meal of the trip; it could be a record. I switched to a papaya “fruit shake,” which had just a touch of lime. Not too sweet, not too tart, not too icy. Our salad tonight contained a mix of seafood, including fish, shrimp, and something squid-like that didn’t taste exactly like squid. Cuttlefish or a clam perhaps? The dressing was the classic lime and fish sauce, with lots of Chinese celery. Refreshing and, if you bite into the chillies, hot. We had two different fish dishes, both cut into steaks. A large ocean fish was prepared in a rich choo chee curry, and several of us sampled the very fatty belly meat (not too fishy); a king mackerel was fried to a crisp and served in a thin puddle of a sweet soy sauce, less exciting than a curry. The tasty yellow coconut curry had chicken and orange sweet potatoes (or yams), and we reprised the panang curry beef we enjoyed at lunch the other day. Finally the leafy green vegetable arrived, stir-fried with ground chicken (or maybe pork) in Thai oyster sauce. Very filling, and no dessert. We arrived back at the Maritime with plenty of time for packing, and re-packing, squeezing in those purchases, and of course karaoke.

The karaoke bar was dead: a few people stuck in their heads briefly, but I had the microphone all to myself. Not too much fun. Also I had to slog through a couple of drinks to keep the place in business. I turned in confident that I could fit all my piles of stuff back into one piece of luggage.

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