Songkhla (Friday, February 3, 2006)
We hit the BP Samila’s Tonson buffet for a final breakfast, and the rice porridge with various mix-ins was fine. But there had been several snafus with laundry the evening before (not affecting me) which delayed our departure. Service seemed to be falling down in general: they forgot to bring my bags down from the hallway. Eventually we were underway to the South end of the town to visit a small fishing village and view boats painted in the style of the Southernmost provinces. The boats seemed rather worn out, and the garbage that washed up on this part of the beach did not provide an attractive background. Life here looked difficult; whether it was always thus, or was related to recent problems (drenching rains and flooding) we couldn’t tell. But it was time to move on.
On the Road
We headed West, bypassing the largest city in this province, Hat Yai. Acclaimed by some as the gourmet capital of the South, it is very popular with holidaymakers from Malaysia. Perhaps some day I’ll check it out, but not this time. We rolled off the road to Ton Nga Chang park. Last year, we arrived on a weekend and it was packed with local folks taking a break and the concessions were busy. This time, the park was nearly deserted, and there was substantial construction work being done everywhere. Apparently the floods in this area did some damage to the infrastructure and they were taking the opportunity to redesign the parking and business areas. The falls looked heavy with water, but under mostly cloudy skies, were not as spectacular as I remembered.
After about 90 hot and humid minutes of hiking around taking photos, it was time to gather for lunch and cool down. I started with a young coconut from one of the vendors. The husk is carved away so that the coconut is roughly 5-sided and snowy white. The vendor then uses a cleaver to crack the top so that it can be flipped up like a lid. A straw is used to drink the coconut water while a spoon is used to eat the thin layer of tender coconut flesh inside (the part that later become thick and stiff and turns into macaroons). I could eat/drink these every day. We sat down to a lunch of grilled chicken which had been marinated in a sauce including turmeric, which gave it a bright yellow color. This was served with the traditional Northeastern Thailand accompaniments of sticky rice and spicy green papaya salad. After eating our fill, we got ice cream and piled back into the vans to continue our journey.
The border between Thailand and Malaysia undulates through a rain forest in Satun province. This gives us the opportunity to visit Malaysia (if we wish) and to take a short loop trail through the rain forest (without getting into the area with lots of leeches). The border has numerous vendor stalls on both sides. On the Thailand side, products include batik fabric, kitchenwares, and snacks. I didn’t visit the Malaysia side because I have a “single entry” 60-day tourist visa and didn’t want any complications. Those on “automatic” 30-day visas said they surrendered their departure cards and then re-entered Thailand on a new 30-day visa. Had I known it would be so simple, I could have saved the hassle. Maybe. I’ve heard you can’t leave the U.S. without a 60-day visa if your ticketed return date is later than 30 days. (“I plan to make a border run” apparently doesn’t always fly.)
After visiting what might possibly be the nastiest bathrooms in Thailand, we left the border area and entered Thale Ban National Park (not to be confused with any national security risks of possibly similar pronunciation). The park’s most unique feature is a large lake believed to have formed after subsidence of caves in the area. We hiked around on a well-paved path, seeing trees, insects, and the lake, but in the heat of the afternoon, we didn’t linger.
By 4:30, we were checking in to the Pinnacle Hotel in Satun. With commanding views of the surrounding countryside — featuring tree-covered karsts at various distances — the relatively plain furnishings (and lack of a refrigerator) can be excused. I remember last year trying to get a bottle of water in the middle of the night: it was nearly impossible with my Thai and the desk clerk’s English. After checking email, I wandered through town and stocked up at the 7-11 to avoid dehydration. Some of the treats at the night market were tempting, but dinner was soon, so I refrained.
Last year we had dined upstairs at the Time restaurant, and we returned this year again. The private dining room was a bit warm, but fortunately there were no signs of the swarms of gnats that hovered over some people’s heads last year (perhaps it was their shampoo?). On the other hand, the room next door was filling with smokers, and we had to tolerate that because our food service arrived through that room.
Dinner was good. We had a salad with prawns and cashews; a squid larb (the fiery salad served with cucumbers and other cooling vegetables); sea asparagus with shrimp in oyster sauce; a jungle curry with chicken; a deep fried whole fish in a sweet red sauce; and red curry prawns. The “sea asparagus” really are worms that we will see snorkeling in the Tarutao park. We weren’t served very many, but for a lot of people, one or two bites of a worm (it’s comparable in texture to gnocchi) is plenty. (Personally, I like them.)
As we concluded our main courses and waited for dessert menus, there was some mournful wailing from the next room: it was karaoke time in the bar. Last year, this was the first place I sang, but this year, well, my secret is out. The selection here was limited, so I repeated three songs I had already sung. This commenced an hour of give and take between our group and a group of drunken Thai men in the bar, and all ended well. Except that all our clothes reek of cigarette smoke and there’s no time to do laundry before we head out for three days of snorkeling. I guess we won’t need these clothes anyway.