Located on the Gulf coast of Thailand, Nakhon Si Thammarat is an historically important sea port and home of Southern Thailand’s most important Buddhist temple. Here we will find our main cultural sites on this trip, as well as some tasty food.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
A brisk morning shower in my shifting lake house would be so much more tolerable if I had good tea, but unfortunately, I left my new teamaker under my seat in the van. I will have to give it it’s first tryout tomorrow. Meanwhile, we find the ubiquitous Lipton Yellow Label at the buffet, along with porridge, fried eggs, and a variety of “ham” and “sausage” options.
Before returning to the pier, we stopped our noisy diesel engine in a famous cove with iconic karsts featured on every postcard (or virtual postcard) from the lake. It’s also an area where we’ve heard (and occasionally seen) gibbons on past trips. We stared at the trees for quite a while as we quietly drifted, but couldn’t spot them. Some hooting seemed to be from beyond the limestone wall. I think you have to get up earlier and skip breakfast to have a better chance of seeing wildlife.
When we disembarked, we hoped to find a smiling vendor of delicious coconut ice cream on a motorcycle cart, but the pier has been reorganized, and we were in a hurry, so treats would have to wait. We drove on to Surat Thani and stopped at a restaurant for lunch. This might be the one where firecrackers were lit out front on a previous visit, which was really quite alarming if you weren’t paying attention, but today, the fireworks were only on our plates and in our mouths.
The first plate on the table was a Southern staple: a platter of raw vegetables featuring sliced cucumbers, sections of firm green “long bean,” Thai eggplants, and various astringent greens, accompanied by a small bowl of spicy and pungent shrimp paste-based dip. Our green curry contained tender shrimp dumplings, made by blitzing the shrimp to a paste in a food processor and dropping teaspoonfuls into either the curry or boiling water to poach. Our other curry seemed to be mostly chicken feet, which was somewhat arduous to eat considering all the little bones. The tastier of our two fish dishes was a deep fried mullet that had been marinated with garlic and tumeric, and was served topped with those fried seasonings. Another large hunk of fish had been boiled in a broth and made a mild soup. Finally, acacia leaves and oyster mushrooms were cooked in coconut milk with shrimp, which makes a soothing balm for a tongue suffering from too much spice.
After eating our fill, and then some, we headed down some side streets to the Kadaejae Monkey Training School. I’ve visited here several times starting in 2005, and it’s always interesting to see how people react to the concept of having monkeys pick our coconuts. As a heavy user of coconut milk, I appreciate that having monkeys scamper up the trees and throw down the mature coconuts makes the product safer and less expensive to produce. The philosophy behind the training is that a few hours a day of coconut picking is a kind of play for the monkeys, who form a close bond with their handler and are treated more like pets than employees. Of course, if let off leash, the monkey would likely run around the neighborhood looking for other opportunities, so it’s not exactly a voluntary arrangement.
Next, we headed to Nahkon Si Thammarat, where we would be staying in the Grand Park hotel, across the street from the Nakorn Garden Inn where we used to stay. Thoroughly modern and designed to handle a large number of visitors, the Grand Park unfortunately allows smoking in its rooms. There’s really nothing that sours me more than burying my face in a fresh, fluffy towel, and inhaling stale cigarette smoke. I asked the front desk about an air ionizer to clear the air, but instead housekeeping showed up with a spray bottle of perfume and applied it diligently to the curtains and air conditioning system. This might be the second worst thing your room could smell of, so I will need to minimize my time here.
For an informal dinner, we visited the Saturday Night street market in front of the town’s main temple. Here, stalls stretched as far as the eye could see (or as far as a person from a temperate climate can walk in the heat of the early evening) along both sides of the street, and for a stretch, down the center. I tried a little squid with a yellow marinade, grilled to order; khanom krok, little half-sphere coconut “pancakes” cooked to a jiggly consistency; and various other small bites and tastes shared with fellow travelers.
We also took a few minutes to watch performances of manora dance, featuring traditional Southern Thai music, and what looked like a school band performing pop songs in the next block down. In the next block, the street was occupied by over a dozen chairs with hard-working masseuses squeezing, poking, and slapping feet. The wait wasn’t long, but since my feet had been very swollen in recent days, a lot of work had to be compressed into thirty minutes. Despite valiant efforts, though, my feet remained uncompressed, and I will need to find a cure somewhere else.
Sunday, February 3, 2019
I generally start every morning with 5-6 grams of good tea infused in 4-5 cups of hot water (not all at once, of course). I had picked up a small bag of Royal Project Tea, #12 oolong, early in the trip and now I finally could brew it with my new infuser. Delicious. But with progress comes an expanded shopping list: I couldn’t find my scissors and had to use a folding knife to open the bag; I need a measuring spoon; and it wouldn’t hurt to buy a larger mug so I don’t have to drink comically small portions from hotel room coffee cups. These errands will have to wait.
Today is Chinese New Year’s Eve, and we are having a dim sum breakfast. This is not the familiar Cantonese dim sum we love in the Bay Area, but hokkien dim sum adapted to Thai tastes. Naturally, pork and shrimp in wrappers remain the stars, but fish also makes a welcome appearance. Kasma ordered a huge variety and left it to us to figure out how to share it. There’s nothing like trying to split a slippery meatball into two or three portions to test your spoon skills; as a benefit, though, we could see the filling before taking a bite. Nearly everything was excellent, so we needn’t have worried.
Our morning itinerary included two museums, the City Museum and the local branch of the National Museum. This was my first visit to the City Museum, which was very quiet on this Sunday and provided enormous amounts of detail on the history of the city through numerous waves of migration and changes of governance. The most important section, perhaps, was the story of the town’s main temple, Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan, which we will visit tomorrow. The City museum also featured some nice murals and good air conditioning. The National Museum didn’t make as much of an impression; I’ve seen this a few times before.
For lunch, we drove out of town to the “Wisdom Village,” which features artisan handicrafts. Due to recent local floods, many of the vendors were home cleaning up and not able to open their shops, but the Pad Thai stall was ready for us and cranked out a number of variations. The “kee mao” version I ordered wasn’t spicy enough, but the “hot and sour” version was quite good. Shaded seating was a bit scarce, but several of us could fit into a little palapa by the water where were finished our plates and amused ourselves by trying to get the fish to eat stale blue ice cream cones. (They didn’t seem especially interested unless you first soaked the cone in a tasty sauce.) We then browsed various shops where baskets were being woven and other arts and crafts were under way, before finally congregating at the ice cream stall. We can hope this place becomes more successful to promote traditional crafts; it was far too quiet today.
For dinner, we walked down the street, or possibly around the corner, to a restaurant that looked like a curio shop or museum. More traditional tables were located in the back, and we had a feast of seafood: plump green lip mussels poached with lemongrass and kaffir lime; a spicy mixed seafood larb; morning glories with garlic in a surprisingly meaty-tasting broth; coconut soup with shrimp; black pepper crab; and a huge silver pomfret in a savory broth set over a small charcoal fire (far more appealing then an alcohol fuel), with more soup on the side. I didn’t see an English name for this place, unfortunately.
After dinner, we explored a nearby street market set up for Chinese New Year. As Chinese rock music blared from a central stage, we scurried off to check vendor stalls for sweets we might eat, and found many to be the same as yesterday’s market. We watched the amazing artistry of cotton candy spinners crafting giant fluffy sugar concoctions that amaze children. We’ve all outgrown it, right?
Monday, February 4, 2019
For breakfast, we walked to a nearby coffee shop named Kopi. Conveniently, Thai customers prefer to sit at the outdoor tables while we prefer the air conditioned indoor tables. Options included both “American” and Thai breakfasts, as well as numerous types of coffee. Soon we were well-fueled for our temple day.
Our first stop was Wat Wang Tawan Tok, a small neighborhood temple with an historic kuti, a monk’s residence. It must be odd having innumerable tourists photographing your building. One year, the door was open and monks let us peer inside to see their quarters, but not this time. We didn’t linger long.
Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Thailand, and one of the most obvious links to the Theravada Buddhism shared with Sri Lanka. The temple’s large bell-shaped chedi (stupa) is said to contain a tooth relic of the Buddha. One difference this year compared with earlier trips: the chedi has been cleaned of mildew and scaffolding, and positively gleams. Meanwhile, at ground level, there are dozens of Buddha images (statues) in various postures ringing the entire temple and in the lower level of the chedi. Some of these have been adorned with gold leaf by worshippers while others look pristine. In addition, there is a museum featuring donated crafts, ceramics, and so on. I lingered strategically under the ceiling fans for some relief from the heat.
At one end of the temple grounds is a market where vendors sell souvenirs, cookware, cold drinks, and snacks. I picked up a tie-dyed t-shirt here and wandered with other trip members considering various purchases. We sampled a local specialty, khanom la, a cookie composed of thin threads of batter rolled into a crispy nest or roll. The thin threads are related to the legend of hungry ghosts who have a tiny mouth, which is completely unrelated to Buddhism, but belief in the principles of Buddhism does not exclude other ideas and philosophies.
For lunch, we stopped at Khanom Jeen Muang Nakhon, but there was a little time to wander local shops before sitting down to eat. In an effort to stay under the shade of awnings, I ran my head smack into one of the poles. The damage appeared to be superficial, and hopefully will heal well before I return to the ocean. Certainly I was paying more attention to the plates before us, starting with the usual vegetable platter, supplemented with cucumber, pickled cabbage, and green bean salads. The spicy dip arrived with a tray of cha om, and herb cooked in a manner similar to a frittata and cut into squares. A kua kling of chopped pork brought the heat, while a pumpkin curry with chicken and a massaman curry chicken suspiciously similar to American barbeque were less spicy selections. For dessert, I couldn’t resist the bananas stewed in palm sugar syrup, served with shaved ice.
Once sated, we drove around the corner to the home of national artist Suchart Subsin (now deceased), which his son operates as a shadow puppet museum and workshop. I’ve visited here several times before for a brief shadow puppet show, demonstration of how they form the puppets from cowhide, and browsing available purchases. I’m not currently in the market for any new shadow puppets, and the t-shirts didn’t impress this time. Hopefully others will continue to support this traditional art.[video?]
Across town, we dropped into a very nice shop to consider purchases of some other local crafts. Yan lipao fern vines are used to create very fine woven baskets. I’ve purchased several over the years. Nielloware is a method of etching silver or gold and creating patterns of dramatic contrast with a black alloy. As silver and gold are quite expensive, only one of these pieces has found its way into my luggage. It’s unfortunate I don’t know anyone’s preferences in bracelets and earrings, since those were 40% off for Chinese New Year. Maybe next time?
Of course, there are five similar shops in a row, so those looking for something in particular had plenty of options. Another was to drop by the nearby City Pillar Shrine. A city pillar is something like a phallic symbol of the city, and this particular shrine was very elaborate. A couple was using it as a backdrop for their wedding photos; the photographer’s assistants shielded them from the fierce sun with umbrellas between shots. Meanwhile, our cameras were pointed at the unusual design of the mythical demon Rahu eating the moon.
Back at the hotel, I headed to the nearby Big C to run my shopping errands. The Big C was gone, replaced by a Sahathai supermarket. Measuring spoons and scissors were straightforward. I didn’t find a mug, but instead a MASON Drinking Jar with a handle, and a lid with a hole in the center. Ignoring the lid, this will make a fine tea cup.
For some reason (too much happy hour?), I don’t remember dinner very well, but the photos show we had shrimp stir-fried with sadtaw beans; morning glories with garlic; a salad of coconut shoots and shrimp in a tangy dressing; a spicy curry with fish (?); a sour curry with chicken (?); and what might be soft-shelled crab. It certainly looks good.
Our time here on the Gulf of Thailand has reached its end. Tomorrow we head back to the shores of the Andaman Sea for our next snorkel adventure, and perhaps the nicest resort on our trip at the Southern tip of Koh Lanta.