Feb 082006

Koh Lipe (Tuesday, February 7, 2006)

Plans to try for another sunrise had to be scuttled when I overslept my alarm by 40 minutes. Perhaps the noise of the ceiling fan drowned it out, or my subconscious chose additional sleep. After a quick cold shower and a sprint of packing, I arrived in the dining room to a filling breakfast of rice porridge with a few chunks of fish, slivers of ginger, toasted garlic, and optional crushed chillies. Mmmm, seconds please.

Back to Shore

Our longboat taxi (“Sony Tour”) returned us to our big boat for an easy ride back to shore. Surprise: big waves and big spray. For about the first hour you had the choice of a windy and wet ride up top or a roller coaster inside. I actually took the front, which was a bit wet but gave me a lot of insight into how the captain chose to attack the waves. The wind roar took its toll and eventually I returned to the top deck as we found smoother waters. I disembarked wearing about a year’s supply of sea salt and we bought ice cream sundaes to fight the heat. (Recipe: put a glob of sticky rice in the bottom of a disposable plastic cup, top with 6 melon ball sized scoops of coconut ice cream, then sprinkle with roasted peanuts. Price: 25 cents.)

It wasn’t quite time for lunch, so we visited some shops at the pier. Most contained the usual seamen’s supplies of laundry powder and whiskey, but some also featured clothing. I bought a “genuine” batik shirt that’s probably a little too big. Could be another gift. We headed up the road and stopped briefly at a resort nearby to investigate the possibility of the group staying here next year. Apparently their air conditioning is more modern and reliable looking than at the Pinnacle in Satun; but where will the group karaoke? Not too far up the road we stopped at a restaurant that, despite four fans, had to be 95 degrees. And we had soup! The broth in the beef noodle soup was delicious, and the noodles had a good bite, but the few gristly pieces of beef had been cooked to death. It probably was under $1, so I have to adjust my expectations. The Danish butter cookies we had for dessert were much better than the night before. Apparently heating to 95 degrees agrees with them.


We pushed on toward Trang, arriving at the Thumrin Hotel at mid-day. The air conditioner is powerful here, so I took some time to “chill” while updating notes on the computer. Then I headed out to a store I remembered as a supermarket. In fact, it is more of a warehouse store with quite a limited section. I continued around the corner and checked out various vendors’ carts as the night market opened. Looked good. On the way back I picked up my staples of bottled water and sugar free green tea at the 7-11.

For dinner we went three blocks up the opposite side of the street. To avoid the danger of the local intersection at a busy hour, we drove in our vans. The restaurant has no English-language sign, but is bilingual in Thai and Chinese, which reflects the “fusion” nature of their dishes. We sat in a pretty garden courtyard, and the restaurant was quieter than last year: apparently after the revelry of Chinese New Year, the regular customers stay home for a while, perhaps rebuilding their budget for the next holiday. We started with a plate of appetizers: crab and pork meatballs stuffed inside a tofu skin wrapper, and a slice of deep-fried shrimp cake, both with a choice of dipping sauces including one that seemed similar to apricot marmalade (but went by the description “plum”). The first main dish was a garlicky combination of sea asparagus, shrimp and black mushrooms in a brown sauce, all cooked just right.

We then proceeded to spicy Thai dishes, including a curry of squid, shrimp, and battered-and-fried chunks of fish, with baby corn and a curry sauce. Next up was a spicy duck larb; the duck must have been pressed and fried for quite a while, making it was crunchy and solid as dried beef. Tasty, but a bit tough. Chinese broccoli with garlic in Thai oyster sauce is itself a fusion dish, but the next was classic local cuisine of the Hokkien Chinese who settled this area: a river eel cut through into “steaks” and stewed with pieces of roast pork (think of a slab of bacon cut into blocks instead of slices), chicken feet, and black mushrooms. The chicken feet were the least popular part of the dish, but several were at least tried if not consumed with gusto. Finally, we got a red curry with big prawns and slices of snowy white coconut shoots. In all, a very good meal to welcome us back from the island.

We ended dinner with “Trang cake” from the Kook Ming bakery. To make a long story short, a Chinese man who settled in Trang province opened up a coffee shop and served Thai sweets. When European cakes began to become popular, he developed a version that suited Thai tastes and his shop became well known, and his cakes imitated throughout the area. But the store’s slogan is “the original and the best,” and it appears to be true. The cakes, baked in a ring pan with natural ingredients, are fluffy and light, as you would expect of a cake designed to be served with coffee. They are not very rich by American standards: even the “Butter Cake” is not a pound cake (it might be a quarter pound cake). A slice definitely leaves room for seconds.

At this point, the night was still young, even if we did have to wake up very early the next day. Several of us wandered over to the night market to find the local roti vendor — and discovered that she was feeding a huge group of people. We tried plain roti, served with dipping dishes of sweetened condensed milk and granulated sugar, and banana-stuffed roti, and both were crispy and delicious, if a bit oily. Behind the tables there was an internet and gaming place, with a huge Ragnarok banner hanging in front. Apparently this is a popular and noisy game. While I was checking e-mail and uploading notes, there was a constant din of destruction on the other side of the room. Finally I made it back to the hotel and gathered the camera, binoculars, long pants, insect repellent… there was a lot to have assembled for our 4:45 AM journey to go birding.

Trang (Wednesday, February 8, 2006)

Eclectic Tourism

It was a mad scramble to get into the vans only a couple of minutes late for our scheduled departure. The highway is a bit difficult to find from the downtown area, but soon we were on the road to the Thale Noi Waterbird Park, a refuge with vast swaths of bright pink lilies, white lotus, and big flocks of sea birds. Normally. Because of the floods in Southern Thailand during the rainy season this past year, the habitat has changed and many of the birds flew inland. Still, there were a lot of birds, and even more food for birds: in some parts of the lake, the swarms of midges were relentless, ignoring insect repellent and even flying up my nose. I look forward to the return of their predators soon.

Sunrise on the “lake” was impressive, and there is a new “picnic” facility to stop and have an early morning snack of Trang cake. But as the sky brightened, improving the prospects for photography, the birds seemed to thin out. Oh well, maybe next year. Back on shore, we examined the offerings of souvenir plates with our photos on them (I didn’t look so good at 6:00 AM), and searched the park’s walkway in vain for any additional birds. We ate breakfast at a local spot, a chicken “lard nar” (meat and vegetables in a light gravy over wide rice noodles) that demonstrated that sometimes the cheapest food is not really a very good deal. Thus fueled up, we were ready to return from Phattalung to Trang province.

Near home we turned off on a side road that was undergoing a lot of repairs and eventually made our way to a village known for its weaving. Unlike the collective on Ko Yo, this shop had a wide variety of finished products, from table runners to ties, and served little containers of cold water to perk up the shoppers. As a result, we made numerous purchases. I bought something square with tassels; I plan to figure out what it is later. By the time we left the hot village, we were ready for the hotel’s strong air conditioning, and some were even speaking of using their free afternoon to have pizza.

Most of us returned to the restaurant in front of the train station. To avoid the slow service we had last year, Kasma ordered the same dish for everyone, trying to convince the waitress that yes, we could eat hot food. It wasn’t that hot, but it was fairly tasty: pork kua kling adjacent to a block of steamed rice draped with a fried egg. We tried some of the Western-sounding desserts from the case, such as “custard puff,” but they didn’t translate so well. Still, good enough for a quick refueling. And now, what to do in the heat of the day during our free time.

I decided to focus on a priority: getting a haircut. I had noticed the locks becoming a bit shaggy during our last days of snorkeling, and while Thai haircuts can be unpredictable, especially when the cutter doesn’t speak English, the risk seemed worth taking. The hotel runs a barber shop for men and women, so I dropped in. Conversation was limited: “where are you from?” “you want extra shampoo?” After she finished drying my hair, she said “sexy man.” I said “thank you.” Then she pointed to my decidedly unsexy fingernails, but I decided that I had had enough personal care for one day. It was about $5, and should grow out in about 3 months. I guess that’s fair. I took a few pictures of the poofy look, which definitely won’t last in this humidity.

I still had time to check out the local “fresh market” and book shop before our 5:00 laundry call. The market was still open, but many vendors were closing up. At least two selling little packages of sweets were asleep in their stalls. I grew weary of seafood, fruit, and clothes and walked up and down the adjacent streets checking spots recommended in the guidebook and generally getting very hot and sweaty. After a change of shirts, I headed out for a young coconut and found one around the corner. While I was reading a paperback, a woman approached who was trying to raise money for some kind of charity. I think. She tried to speak with me in Thai and could only show me Thai credentials and information, so I declined saying, in Thai, “I don’t understand Thai.” It took several tries… perhaps my Thai isn’t any better than her English?

The laundry was done at a place up the street and reeked of perfume and had the unpleasant texture of liquid fabric softener. But at least it was the same color as when I submitted it; others were not so lucky. We had been warned not to expect familiarity with sophisticated fabrics, but not everyone took the hint that small town laundries never read care instructions. Between the smell of the laundry and the diesel exhaust of rush hour, my stomach felt awful. Somehow I got over it.

We left a little early for dinner, since the restaurant was located across the street from a temple and park, which seemed like a good place to “hang out” at sunset. Kasma had spotted this new restaurant and Sun checked it out during the afternoon. We arrived and, of course, no English name for this spot frequented mostly by locals. Beautifully laid out with gardens, due to the size of our group we had to eat in a “room” with three walls looking out on the rest of the diners. There was a very large piece of art behind our table, and we were amused when a frog appeared atop the picture frame and posed for photos.

[dinner comments — really good food]

After checking e-mail at the local spot, I organized for yet another early checkout. But this time, not to a faraway island. Instead, we would be spending a day on the road taking dips in natural pools and then arriving at a five star resort in Krabi, a major tourist town to the North. The town also has awesome food. So I’d better not be late.

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