Jan 272015

With somewhere between 85,000 and 120,000 residents, Nakhon Si Thammarat is Southern Thailand’s cultural capital, and one of the South’s larger towns. With many more Thai than Western tourists and strong traditional influences, it’s still a place where many children look at pale skinned foreigners as a different species. That’s okay, I’m sure we don’t really understand them, either.

(This post is 5 days late due to lack of connectivity at the Koh Surin park.)

When I realized I had overslept, I looked out the window and saw many of my fellow travelers photographing the colors of the early morning sky. A brisk cold shower brought me to my senses and after packing up, I headed to the dining room for a breakfast of rice porridge.

As we attempted to leave the dining area for our boats, a large bumble bee the size of a hummingbird hovered curiously (for some, threateningly) over the narrow walkway. Perhaps it had an important message for us that we could not interpret? As we motored back toward the park exit, our search for wildlife proved futile, but the scenery was beautiful, and at some point, I got a signal for my phone again. (It’s surprisingly unnerving to be out of touch.) Back on dry land, we hit the road East.

The monkey training school was closed today, so we adjusted our route. We stopped at a “fast food” restaurant where you can select from numerous large posts of ready-to-eat dishes. Our selections included kua kling, the spicy chopped meat dish, perhaps with pork; a strong chicken curry; a coconut curry with catfish (which had an annoying quantity of tiny bones); deep fried lardons of pork belly; fried salted fish; and mixed vegetables in Thai oyster sauce. The real fun began with dessert. In addition to ruam mit (mixed items in coconut milk over crushed ice), the restaurant has an ice cream stand where you can get coconut sorbet with a range of toppings served in a half coconut shell. The add-ons range from Thai favorites such as gelatinous palm seeds and peanuts to Western influences such as chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles: your selection can be as cross-cultural as you like. Delicious, cooling, and filling. I was able to catch a good nap in the van after lunch.

Our vans flew up a narrow mountain road, passing giant tour buses until we reached the far end of Ban Khiriwong (Kiriwong village) and parked at the Khiriwong Herbal Home. Ban Khiriwong has received awards for eco-tourism and living in harmony with nature. It also is an OTOP product village, which means that it has been designated as specializing in one or more particular crafts. Of particular interest to us today are soaps made with extracts from mangosteen peels and batik and tie-dye products (shirts, purses, etc.) made with natural dies. We began in the open-air soap factory with a demonstration of the manufacturing process (the soap base is made from palm and coconut oils, and a blend of herbal extracts is added before blending and forming into rectangular cakes that later are pressed into molds). We supported them in the shop, and then strolled down to the river to wade into the cool water and feed the fish.

A little ways back down the road we stopped at Khiriwong Bai Mai, where we explored the versatility of naturally dyed batik fabrics. Although the shirts were too tight for most of us men, there were plenty of other items that might make a fine souvenir.

After a long journey through the mountains, we arrived in Nakhon Si Thammarat at the Nakhon Garden Hotel (formerly Nakorn Garden Inn). We sent our bags of dirty laundry into town with our drivers and relaxed in the strong air conditioning.

For dinner we headed to an open-air restaurant by a creek that we seemingly had all to ourselves. Its sign has an image of a crab holding a fork and a spoon, and indeed the crispy fried soft shelled crabs were perfectly fried and deliciously seasoned with fried garlic. A hot and sour fruit salad, dressed in a style of a green papaya salad, looks innocent but is laced with dangerous Thai chillies and delivers a serious kick. The hot and sour soup with prawns and decoratively carved coconut shoots also delivered the heat. A creamy dip of crab and ground pork was surprisingly spicy even with a large dollop of coconut cream and the accompanying crunchy raw vegetables. Our milder selections included an oyster omelet/pancake; chunks of fried fish topped with a sweet/sour sauce and accompanied by raw wild pepper leaves for wrapping (similar to miang plah, but it was tricky to remove the bones); and stir-fried water morning glories.

For dessert I couldn’t resist bananas in coconut milk. A few small bananas a bit thicker than a thumb (egg bananas?) that have been roasted or cooked in a syrup made from palm sugar are partially submerged in warm salted coconut milk. The combination is very comforting.

Dawn's early light on Cheow Lan Lake, Khao Sok Khao Sok park - can you spot the hornbill in the tree? Khiriwang Herbal Home has an exterior wall shaped like a mangosteen Very hot and sour soup with shrimp and coconut shoots

Back at the hotel we got our orientation for Wednesday: we would be starting early to pack in as many of the town’s sights as possible, and finishing up at a seafood restaurant on the coast.

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