Departing the Greenview (Feb. 3, 2012)
I thought I might be running late when I dropped into the dining room at 7:32, but apparently I was the first to show. I ordered the rice porridge with pork meatballs (“boiled rice” on the menu, “joke” in casual Thai) and doctored it with the available vinegar, ground dry chillies, and white pepper. When I later mentioned to Kasma and Michael that I wished I had brought a smaller bag for the lake trip, they lent me a bag. As they removed a couple of kilos of shrimp paste I realized that there would be a certain fragrance. I treated the inside of the bag with Rick Steves’ Quick Fresh spray (not entirely effectively) and set it out to dry.
With our bags loaded into the van, we headed South to nearby Takua Pa, pulling up to the market adjacent to the bus station. Here you can buy everything from fresh squeezed sugar cane juice (one of my favorites) and delicious fried chicken, to several kinds of bananas and enormous fish. I think I also saw clumps of cooked chicken blood (pork is little rarer as you head South, which has a larger muslim population). After ample snacking, I picked up a pair of shoelaces at a nearby clothing store to improvise ankle ties for my “snorkel pants”; probably not what fancy hotels have in mind when supplying a sewing kit.
Around 11:00am, we rolled up to a favorite local restaurant which serves roti (thin bread fried on a griddle) for breakfast. At our advance request, they made enough dough to serve us before the lunch rush. I posted some “how it’s made” photos in 2010 (Snorkelers Out of Water), and the big change this year was the delicious massaman curry goat. (It’s possible the chocolate syrup also is new, based on a trend at the resorts to incorporate western flavors into desserts.) I had to clean all the plates, since this is such a rare treat. As a result, I was somewhat comatose during the drive up into the hills.
Khao Sok Park
The lush rainforest preserved by Khao Sok Park is not what it once was: to provide electricity for Southern Thailand, a dam was built decades ago, and the vast body of water behind it (Ratchabrapa reservoir or Cheow Lan Lake) is a popular recreation area. We would be staying on the lake for one night. Literally: our cabins will be floating in the water.
Before leaving the pier, we visited the tourist center above the dam for a view of the lake. School kids on a field trip observed us with varying degrees of interest; the most outgoing asked us to pose for pictures with them. Of course, this was an opportunity for us to take a few photos as well. I saw a great batik shirt at the gift shop, but by the time all the kids had swarmed through, it was gone. Oh well, better luck next time.
Khao Sok is famous for its limestone karsts, which jut from the lake and surrounding forests like the broken bones of a gigantic prehistoric fossil. The same range continues North to China, so some have given Khao Sok the nickname “Guilin Thailand.” Our longtail boat had a removable sun shade, and for better photography, we dropped the top as we cruised amongst the karsts, marveling at their height and the tenacity of the plants clinging to their sides. One thing we did not see was any wildlife, which can be difficult to spot (and with the longtail engine clattering, impossible to hear).
After hitting all the scenic photo spots, we stopped at the park cabins for some refreshments with a fantastic view. It turns out these compact cabins were replaced only a couple of months ago. Each features a central walkway with wooden platforms on each side and two bathrooms in the back. Each platform has room for three mattresses above, and has drawers below for clothes. It’s close quarters for Americans used to their privacy, but very popular with Thai visitors, and relatively affordable. The canned Leo beer, on the other hand, is somewhat overpriced. With our beers, we shared some squid flavored crackers I had brought from a little shop at the Pranburi marina, and jackfruit and bananas from the Takua Pa market. After the first group of guests arrived, we cruised off toward our own accommodations.
Kee Ree Warin Resort
Because the park cabins had deteriorated in previous years, Kasma had booked us with one of the private operators on the lake. Perhaps due to the higher prices, we had somewhat higher expectations. Their cabins featured a large platform and queen (?) mattress, and a ladders to a loft with two single mattresses. There was a toilet inside, in a private little room, but the sink and shower were on the back porch (not the most convenient arrangement for washing hands after going). I was in the loft, and had to use sandals to go up and down the ladder because the narrow rungs were uncomfortable on bare feet.
Since the electricity was off until sunset, we took a swim in the lake. I was surprised to discover that I have no idea how to swim without a snorkel, mask, and fins. Luckily, it isn’t required too often. Eventually we got our scenic sunset. Although there isn’t 180 degree beauty from this resort, and the view toward the setting sun is over some of the cabins, it was pretty nice.
We gathered for a simple but filling dinner of fish and vegetables. More specifically, a substantial freshwater fish had its fillets removed, cubed, and deep fried, while its head and skeleton and tail were left connected and also deep fried, leading to a presentation of fried cubes of fish on top of the skeleton. I love that, but it could have used a sauce. The Southern-style sour curry (gaeng som) with fish was hot and sour as expected, while a plate of mild mixed vegetables provided a cooling influence. Dessert looked like fried bananas, but actually consisted of slices of pineapple, breaded and fried. Perhaps because of the moisture of the pineapple, the batter didn’t seem fully cooked inside, so this was not a very successful substitution.
Once the electricity came on, there was somewhat adequate lighting in the cabins, but battery operated headlamps were handy both to avoid tripping over the various platforms and for navigating the exterior walkway to the dining room. We were disappointed to learn that the fans were on a separate circuit that did not work at all. There was a little breeze if you left all the windows open, and the staff promised there were no mosquitoes.
Monkeys on the Mind (Feb. 4, 2012)
We set our alarms for the inky blackness of 6:00am, with the idea that we would eat at 7:00 and be ready to leave immediately thereafter. A bowl of rice porridge with pork meatballs could be flavored with one’s choice of fish sauce (for saltiness) and chillies, white pepper, shreds of ginger, crunchy fried garlic, green onions and chopped cilantro. With Lipton tea and bananas, it would be enough until we got back to the van for more snacks.
We set out on the lake with plenty of time to search for local wildlife, in particular, dusky langurs. These leaf eating monkeys have googly eyes and improbably long tails, and the driver Kasma usually hires can spot them from a distance. His son, who was driving for us this year, did not seem to have that gift, so we searched around fruitlessly for quite a while. Eventually we cut the motor and drifted into a cove where a tree’s movements indicated something was feeding there. Dark body, hard to see. Then there was a huge amount of whooping and hollering, which we initially ascribed to poorly behaved tourists testing out the echo between the karsts. But it turned out to be some gibbons, and although the view through the trees was poor, we did have a few sightings before heading back to the dock.
Less than two hours after disembarkation, we arrived at our lunch stop in the city of Surat Thani. With a sign only in Thai, and no other Westerners in sight, this seemed to be true local eating. The first dish was a complimentary set of spicy shrimp paste and raw vegetables, ranging from mild green beans, cucumbers and eggplants to astringent pennywort and cassia leaves. We shared large king mackerel steaks (fried), crispy fish with sweet chilli sauce, garlic chive blossom stems (the tops had not yet opened) with squid in a little Thai oyster sauce, a rich green curry with fish dumplings and bitter pea eggplants, ginger chicken drummettes in a soy-based sauce, and wickedly spicy chilli curry with (I think) pork. The latter is one of Southern Thailand’s three hottest dishes (the other two are sour curry and kua kling). We cooled off with various coconut milk desserts. I chose one reminiscent of shell pasta, but made with chewy sticky rice flour.
Next, it was time to go to school. The Kadaejae Training Monkey School trains male pig-tail macaques to pick coconuts. This involves learning various techniques to twist coconuts from their stems using hands and/or feet, and scampering up and down increasingly taller trees. Although it sounds bad to abduct baby monkeys from the wild and teach them that it’s fun play to pick hundreds of coconuts a day, if you consider the reduction in injuries to less dexterous humans, and the reduced cost of this staple food, perhaps it’s easier to swallow.
(At one point, the presenter’s assist quietly wiped up some monkey excrement with a couple handfuls of shredded coconut husk. Effective, sustainable, and biodegradable.)
Nakhon Si Thammarat
You could tell we were approaching a big city by the thickening traffic. The South’s handicrafts center, and home to its most important Buddhist temple, Nakhon Si Thammarat would be our home for a few days. When we pulled in to the Nakorn Garden Inn, I couldn’t see any difference from my last visit here in 2006. But since when does each room have an ashtray? The smell of smoke from other guests is difficult to exclude, since the louvered windows do not seal completely. Still, there is an air conditioner in each room, which is a good start toward feeling less hot and sticky.
We used to eat around the corner, but due to changes of management and menu, we will be dining further afield this evening. There seems to be a trend here: another place without an English name. The first course was a delicious salad of fern stems with squid and shrimp in a lime juice and coconut milk dressing. A moderately spicy dip of small bay shrimp and coconut milk was accompanied by crunchy green veggies and astringent banana blossom leaves. Our fried fish was an upgrade: silver pomfret (unusual in restaurants due to its expense; Thai restaurants back home substitute pompano) maintains a nice moist texture even as it crisps outside. The main source of heat was a kua kling of sliced pork (?), a dish featuring an immense number of pulverized dried red chillies that build heat gradually. A stir-fry of shrimp and sadtaw beans in a rich and creamy sauce, pak miang with scrambled eggs, and a hot and sour soup with chicken and mushrooms rounded out the set. The only dessert on offer was ice cream, so I passed on that and helped polish off another of the rapidly ripening bananas.
Tomorrow morning we will stroll the vast Sunday market, nibbling and presumably shopping as we go. After taking in a museum, we will head to a local family’s home for a spicy Southern-style seafood dinner.