Our last morning on Koh Lipe involved another run through the buffet (ho hum) and then a chaotic transfer by longtail boat to the ferry pier. Pier is generous: a too-small rectangular area composed of air-filled plastic blocks has two speedboats tied up to it at a time, and several longtail “taxis” attempting to unload passengers and bags from all directions. No one seems to be in charge, but the captains of the ferries give orders and reprimands. Tourists approach one another for a clue, but we who cannot speak Thai are all confused.
Back to Pak Bara (Feb. 14, 2012)
Although we bought our tickets the earliest, apparently we failed to secure queue numbers that morning, so we were not the first to board. Still, we got decent seats that kept us mostly dry and mostly out of direct sunlight during our 90 minute voyage back to Pak Bara. And by that time, we were hungry again. We stopped in at the same noodle shop where we had broken our fast a few days ago, this time for Pad Kee Mao (spicy chow fun-like rice noodles) with seafood. It was laced with crushed Thai chillies (whole or halved), so the heat was abundant and unambiguous. This was supplemented with BBQ chicken that we could not resist picking up on our walk here from the dock. All good stuff.
The drive to Trang is a couple of boring hours, and then suddenly we’re in a real city. Valentine’s Day has a special significance here, since each year they conduct underwater weddings around this time. Actually, they were held over the weekend, so the town probably is quieting down, all the better to enjoy its local restaurants. We pulled up to the Thumrin Hotel, conveniently located near the railway station. We request rooms with a view: there are corrugated steel roofs and tree tops as far as I can see. This is not a pretty town, at least not in this direction. Still, the hotel is quite clean and comfortable, and there’s a 7-11 nearby for my bottled liquid and packaging tape needs. I also found a pharmacy to pick up some menthol cough drops and Dibendryl (local brand equivalent of Benadryl) to help with the residual itching from the plankton stings.
For dinner we were encouraged to dress up a bit, since we were going to one of the fancier restaurants in town, Ban Suan Sudaporn. Choosing the latest addition to my growing wardrobe of batik shirts (picturing the Songkhla harbor Naga), I looked touristy, but aren’t hand-painted shirts always in good taste? You enter through a garden featuring ponds and various statues, with nice lighting and various separate open-air seating areas. There was a little snafu with the menu: they initially gave us the shorter one for foreigners. Requesting “Menu Thai” brought a longer menu that did not have any translations or photos, so it would be useless to me, but the results were delicious.
The star here is the deep fried pork leg. It’s meaty, but the more interesting parts are the crunchy skin, gooey tendons, and succulent blobs of fat. You dress your selection with some slightly sweet black soy sauce and a garlicky dressing, which makes a delicious combination and helps balance the richness of the pork. For about $10, we got a huge serving; although there are a lot of big bones, a little of this cut of pork goes a long way. (Although Southern Thailand has a substantial Muslim population, Trang has a large percentage of Thai and Chinese residents who evidently love their pork.)
Since one cannot subsist on pork alone, we also had two fish dishes — a pre-mixed miang plah, which combined fish with peanuts, slices of lemongrass, bits of lime, and chopped shallots and dried shrimp, all lightly coated with a sweet-and-sour tamarind-coconut sauce and served with leaves for wrapping; and a fried fish topped with crispy basil, cashews and dried chillies — a winged bean salad, tam leung (leaves of the ivy gourd vine) with egg, and a powerfully spicy chilli curry with chicken.
Actually, dinner was interrupted by the sound of a very loud, very close collision. Apparently a man caused a chain reaction auto accident involving several parked cars and motorcycles. He got out of his car and ran away, perhaps forgetting that he could easily be identified by the car he left behind. Anyway, no injuries, so it is a matter for the authorities. Once things settled down, we moved on to dessert. We passed a box of a local specialty, which was a flaky dough wrapped around a sweet taro paste filling with a slice of orange duck egg yolk in the center. These are very tasty, but one is so filling.
My nose was really starting to run by this point, so the extra Kleenex I picked up at a local store would come in handy tonight, and probably for the next couple of days.
Day 2 (Feb. 15, 2012)
At the top of Lake Songkhla is a waterfowl preserve named Thale Noi. It actually is more convenient to access it from Trang, through Phattalung province, than from the Gulf side. Of course, birds rise early, and so must we: our van departs at 4:45 in order to arrive in darkness so we can watch the sun rise on the lake.
When I first visited this area in 2005, the lake was thick with huge patches of pink lilies. In 2006, they had been washed out by heavy flooding, and the bird life was reduced as well. This year fell somewhere in between: there were lilies, but not as many patches and not as dense. Photographing birds in motion was challenging as usual. I need more practice, and perhaps a camera upgrade, to really catch something worth showing.
We had some free time in the afternoon to nap or catch up on work. Actually, I’m probably the only person who will be catching up on work. Just a little light work.
When we gathered for dinner, we were informed that our local Chinese-Thai fusion restaurant was unexpectedly closed today. Conveniently, but there is a related restaurant in town named Kanok, which we discovered was just as good, if a bit dowdy by comparison. One of the primary draws was the opportunity to eat “sea asparagus,” which is a white tube worm you sometimes see when snorkeling. Stir-fried with shrimp, Chinese broccoli, mushrooms and baby corn, their tender chewy texture is more like potato gnocchi than asparagus. Anyway, it’s always fun to eat things that sound terrible but taste good.
The true standout dishes were a duck larb, with crispy pieces of duck that were deep fried to perfection, and a tureen of huge shrimp and tender coconut shoots in a spicy coconut milk sauce. The black pepper fish was bland by comparison. A spicy stir-fry of mixed seafood could have fed several more people, and our vegetable dish was a mound of nappa cabbage with baby corn, mushrooms, and copious amounts of very fine, hair-like seaweed. The seaweed seemed much fresher here than when I’ve had it in California.
Tomorrow we will check out and head North to Krabi for one night, and then we’re off to another island for a couple days of snorkeling (health permitting!).