From the Greenview, we head East, from the shores of the Andaman Sea to those of the Gulf of Thailand. Along the way we’ll visit a huge park on a man-made lake, smaller markets and towns, and other attractions less visited by Western tourists. Will we be sufficiently amused to go nearly a whole week without snorkeling?
Friday, January 27, 2017
The Greenview’s breakfast buffet offered a wide range of choices but we had to select with caution because we would be eating several times this morning. Super-crispy bacon and tender scrambled eggs were the stars, with fried rice performing well in a supporting role. Right on schedule at 10AM, we pulled up to the local market in Takua Pa for a little pre-lunch shopping. Vendors spilled out of the main building offering fruits, veggies, meats, seasonings, and ready-to-eat treats. It’s always a good place to sample a piece or two of Southern style fried chicken and crispy fried chicken skin. I love fresh pressed sugar cane juice and I can always find it here, although Kasma warns that this isn’t the cleanest market and at least one past trip member got seriously ill from her bottle of sugar cane juice.
After full consideration of various kitchenwares, too-small clothing, and other potential purchases, we headed around the corner to Thai-Muslim Restaurant for a decadent lunch of various kinds of roti. In Southern Thailand, roti dough is made the night before and allowed time to rest and rise. For plain fried bread, the cook stretches one ball of dough into a large circle and folds each side over to form a multi-layer square. A hot, slightly concave griddle is generously greased with palm margarine and the dough is fried to a moderate brown color. The cook then adds it to a stack of similar pieces and before serving, places a towel over the stack and “claps” it from different directions to fluff the bread and make it easier to tear into pieces. Diners dredge the bread in massaman chicken or beef curry, or spicy goat curry, which is a finger-licking delicious combination. The bread also can be eaten as a dessert with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk, chocolate sauce, and/or granulated sugar.
We also had three different kinds of stuffed rotis. The cook starts with two dough balls to make the outer wrapper, places one square of bread on it, and then savory or sweet fillings. The best was the savory roti mataba, which contains a curry filling traditionally made with chicken or beef, although ours seemed to have a lot of tender potato bits, and a scrambled egg. This makes a large roti that is cut into smaller squares before arriving at the table with a sweet-sour-spicy cucumber salad on the side. Another success was the roti stuffed with sliced bananas and scrambled egg. A little extra sweetener makes it the favorite roti of tourists visiting the shop’s cart in the evening at a Khao Lak resort. The roti stuffed only with scrambled egg was rather boring by comparison, but paired well with our curries. We soon were far too full, and ready for a twisty mountain drive.
Southern Thailand shares some of the widely recognized topography of Guilin, China, which also is famous for limestone karsts jutting up from the landscape. The ancient rainforest here has been heavily cleared for rubber tree plantations, but there is still plenty of foliage, and expedition companies offer legitimate jungle treks in the park. We’ll just take a boat. After stopping for a photo op above the dam that formed Ratchabrapa reservoir, we lugged our overnight bags from the boat dock parking lot to the pier.
We clambered aboard an extra-large longtail boat shaded by a black fabric roof, which unfortunately could not be retracted for photography. Still, innumerable gigabytes of digital storage were consumed by dramatic landscape photos as we motored around the lake to the near deafening clatter of the diesel engine. We were cooled by occasional wind-driven spritzes of fresh water, but at least we had a break from the recent rains here. No birds or animals were to be seen; we’ll hope for better luck tomorrow.
As we neared our accommodations (no English name), we were surprised by their unusual shape, which some compared to trailer homes on the water. I’m sure the designer of these sharply angled modern boxes thought they were really cool, but the gray and white color scheme and floor-to-ceiling windows do look a bit out of place amidst the organic shapes and earth tones of the park. Power came on after 5:30 so we could cool our boxes to a more moderate temperature. Meanwhile, some travelers took to the lake’s silky waters to cool themselves down. (360 degree images of the room)
At dinner, I finally broke out the tequila I’ve had stashed in my luggage (a bottle of Olmeca Altos Reposado), which was received with general appreciation by fellow travelers. It is customary in Thailand to serve hard alcohol over ice with either still water or soda water. This helps with hydration and keeps the party going. Rather than crunch bar snacks, we had several courses of Thai cuisine — the set dinner for everyone staying at the resort. Chunks of fish, lightly breaded and fried, and served with a side of sweet chilli dipping sauce were popular. The spicier dishes were the soupy sour fish curry (gaeng som), which was accompanied by a fluffy omelet you could cut into pieces and eat with or in your curry, as you preferred, and the green curry chicken. Mixed vegetables in a mild sauce rounded out the “all you can eat” set.
Unlike the park islands, lights and air conditioning stayed on all night, especially if you passed out shortly after dinner without turning them off. Ahem.
Saturday, January 28, 2017
After a quick breakfast of rice porridge (or fried rice) and a fried egg, we packed back into the longtail boat and went looking for wildlife. Eventually, we cut the motor and drifted around the edge of an inlet where we’ve seen gibbons on a previous trip. There was some movement in the trees from time to time, and various people with better eyes than mine spotted dark shapes with long tails, which likely were dusky langurs, but unless I was lucky in one of my photos (still requiring close analysis), I can’t confirm what was on the island. (Cue theme from Lost.)
Our ride back to the pier was largely uneventful, and there we were met by a coconut sorbet vendor in a mobile cart. We had sundaes served in the Thai style: a small amount of sticky rice (and/or bread cubes) sits at the bottom of a plastic cup to absorb run-off, and several tiny scoops of coconut milk-based sorbet are topped with your choice of slices of palm seed fruit and peanuts. Some vendors offer upgrades such as a broader range of toppings or coconut shell bowls with shreds of young coconut to eat with your frozen dessert. Astonishingly refreshing.
We pointed our vans East to Surat Thani, and stopped for lunch at a “fast food” place where Kasma chose several ready-to-eat dishes for us to share family style: green curry with fish and/or shrimp dumplings (surprisingly light blobs of fish paste or shrimp paste cooked in the sauce, without a wrapper); a crispy fried whole fish that had been marinated in turmeric and garlic, and was served topped with fried crunchy bits of the marinade; stir-fried liver and scallions, which I had never seen before; spicy kua kling chicken; and a mild vegetable dish of oyster mushrooms and chopped cassia leaves in coconut milk. This left room for a choice of several different desserts, most featuring sweet chewy things in coconut milk with a mound of shaved ice.
In a remote neighborhood, the proprietor of Kadaejae Training Monkey School gave us a clinic on how monkeys are trained from an early age to pick coconuts. They are taught to view it as play, and develop a close relationship with a handler who uses a rope (somewhat like a long leash) to guide them among the coconuts in a tree to throw down the ones that the handler believes have attained the correct degree of ripeness. This makes coconut products much more affordable (and safer to produce) than if humans had to run up trees and pick coconuts themselves.
One monkey used in the show was a very young trainee, while another is the veteran performer I first saw in 2005. Kasma translated the standard patter and helped get answers to our questions. Unfortunately the third generation of this school looks likely to be the last, as the children prefer jobs in the city to working with monkeys.
We pushed through the afternoon traffic to our basic local accommodations in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Nakorn Garden Hotel. Built around a courtyard, the hotel was one of many victims of recent flooding in Southern Thailand. In the first floor rooms, the water was literally knee deep. Accordingly we were assigned to rooms on higher floors, at least one of which showed signs of rodent residents who presumably also were displaced from their preferred rooms.
Our driver Sun generously arranged for his wife to prepare dinner for us at the family property, which is on a nearby river. Upon arriving, you could immediately see that the level of the river remains higher than normal, as some of the walkway leading up to their gas station/general store remains under water. Like many in the area, they are still drying out some of their houses. But our hosts’ hospitality, and the children playing in the yard reacting to the surprise of seeing foreigners at their house, reminded us of the resilience of the Thai people, who tend to live in closer harmony with nature than we do.
After wandering around working up an appetite, we convened in the outdoor restaurant for some fine cooking. A steamed fish with napa cabbage was accompanied by a delicious garlicky, limy sauce; a kua kling of beef was spicy, but appears to have been made a little more moderate for our group’s tastes this year (which do not run as much to the extreme as in past years); stir fried chicken with sweet caramelized onions, and a stir-fry of mixed veggies and shrimp were also gentle; a tasty chicken soup rounded out the menu.
Tomorrow we’ll start on our dawn-to-dusk program of temples, museums and shopping, not always in that order, squeezing in as much culture as we can before once again going face down in the ocean.