Wat Hopping in Nakhon Si Thammarat

After a few days in Trang, we’d thought we would head north again and trek around Khao Sok National Park, a huge mountainous area spanning between the east and west coasts of South-central Thailand. Unfortunately, the train we’d planned to take to the park was no longer running due to the tragic flooding that has been taking place at the other end of the line (in Bangkok and parts north); for us, this was only a minor inconvenience, but we still needed to change our plans.

more bad news.

So we scanned our guidebook and decided to head to the gulf (east) coast instead, taking a chance on a small town called Nakhon Si Thammarat, a town apparently full of history and religious sites. Fortunately, as it often seems to do, spontaneity ended up paying off!

Anyway, like most city transfers in Thailand, it was easy for us to get from Trang to Nakhon via minibus. For the ride, Steph purchased “Peking Duck with Sauce” chips – Asia seems to have a disproportionate number of meat and fish flavored snacks.

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Even more so than Trang, Nakhon Si Thammarat is still well off the typical Thailand tourism trail. This was made clear upon our visit to the tourist information office the day we arrived, where the bored folks working there were notably excited to see Americans in their town (the only ones they’d met in at least a year, according to them). We had just spent about half of an hour chatting with them about Nakhon and its cultural sites, and just as we were about to leave, they kindly offered us some delicious coffee and tea, sending us into another round of lively discussion and some time helping with their English. The main person helping us, “Marvin”, was excited to tell us that he had been to America before– only to Wisconsin, he said. At least it had been during the summer!

We found the lack of tourists to Nakohn pretty surprising, as Nakhon has quite a lot to offer, especially its many ancient Wats (Buddhist Monastery Temples).
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In fact, Nakhon is home to the largest and most important Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand, Wat Phra Mahathat. We spent a good portion of a day wandering its grounds.

The entire facility was bordered by a hallway containing 173 life-sized gold Buddha sculptures.
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Beautiful old chedis dotted the interior courtyards of the Wat.
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Nakhon Si Thammarat

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Nakhon Si Thammarat

The inner building surrounding the main chedi of the Wat contained statues, ceremonial instruments, and rows of coin boxes that followers methodically walk along, dropping a coin into each for good luck.

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Nakhon Si Thammarat

It’s common for followers to plaster the statues with flecks of gold leaf.
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Along the way, we met some high school students who apparently walk around armed with a piece of paper listing English language questions to ask, should they happen upon an English speaking farang (foreigner). Here we are together after they polled us on our names, ages, and favorite Thai foods.
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This staircase led to the innermost area of the main chedi. It wasn’t open at the time we passed through, unfortunately.

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Banyan trees, sacred to Buddhists, are often found decorated like this.

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The monastery appeared to be closed when we arrived, but after wandering around back and chatting with a guy cleaning the grounds, we were let in to see the interior, which houses an enormous Buddha statue. Because the monastery was closed to the public, the only light available filtered in from some nearby open windows, and the enormous room was perfectly silent, save for a few birds outside. Aside from a few napping monks in the back entryway, we had this beautiful place to ourselves.

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As if the Wats weren’t enough, Nakhon is known for another important bit of cultural history in southeast Asia: it’s one of the lasting hold-outs of the ancient art of shadow puppetry! We visited the home/museum of Thailand’s best and most celebrated shadow puppeteer and puppet maker, Suchart Subsin, to take a look at what he and his son make. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to catch a performance – Suchart was taking a nap on the table while we walked around admiring his work – but we did get to see some pretty intricate – and some very old – puppets. The puppets are all hand-made of pounded animal skins, and the designs are incredibly detailed.
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Also of note: Scott made use of both the hands-down toilet and the shower at the puppet museum. It is unclear if we are welcome back.
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Again, as has been the trend in pretty much every place we’ve been so far in Thailand,  the food in Nahkon was fantastic. Some highlights…

Shredded and fried catfish with mango/lime sauce.
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Whole crab with glass noodles and peppercorns.

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A sort of half-pear, half-apple, half-no-idea (and more than half-eaten here) fruit with salt, sugar and dried chillies – an apparently common Thai dessert.

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Typical but delicious spicy and fishy fried rice with baby prawns for breakfast.

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The usual super-spicy chicken and rice soup for breakfast.

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More night markets lined with carts dishing out all sorts of unusual fare… this lady was cooking some sort of naan-like bread by juggling it back and forth over a fire.
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…And REAL COFFEE (not instant like most places we’ve been), including a latte that Steph actually enjoyed (while normally a proud, non-coffee drinker) at a nice little cafe called Hao Coffee.

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After a few days, we were in the back of a Songthaew (local taxis made from modified pickup trucks) on our way out of town to the next stop. Songthaews are standardly overbooked, especially when kids are riding to school and back. To free up some room for us, the songthaew driver kicked some kids out of their seats and had them hold on to the back off the pickup for the trip to our next stop; happily, they surfed the back bumper, hanging on with one hand, with lollipops in the other while we sped along at 65mph – just another reminder of how different things are in every part of the world.
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A culinary tour of Trang

Two and a half weeks into our trip through Thailand, and we’ve had some pretty amazing food. We’ve had the usual steaming plate of pad thai, mouth-scourching green papaya salad, heavenly massaman curry overflowing with sweet potatoes and a hint of cinnamon…

But none of our previous culinary adventures could prepare us for the deliciousness and sheer weirdness that we would experience in the tiny coastal city of Trang.

We had never heard of Trang until a few days ago, when we opened up our guidebook and found that it was a convenient jumping off point for the beautiful islands of the Thai west coast. Little did we know that Trang was a culinary powerhouse of the region, being on odd mix of Thai, Malaysian, and Chinese cultures.

Both of the nights that we were in Trang were spent roaming the nearby night market which was conveniently located right outside of our hotel (the Station Inn). Because Trang is renowned for having some of the freshest (and safest– as in digestive health) street food in Thailand, we felt free to indulge in any and all treats we could muster the courage to take down.  Most food items were $0.25- $1, meaning we got to try a lot of stuff…. And because no one spoke any English (and our Thai is as limited as it gets), the only thing we could do was to jump in head first and start eating.
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Trang Night Markets

Trang Night Markets

Trang Night Markets

Trang Night Markets

These little beauties turned out to simply be delicious deep fried chicken skewers covered in sweet chili sauce:

Trang Night Markets

The fun thing about the night market is that it’s sort of like gambling. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.  This next snack was a big lose– we thought it tasted like fried chicken, but it was definitely not meat– some kind of chewy/nubbin-y chicken part, perhaps:

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These colorful “fish” molds looked intimidating until we found out they were just coconut jello!

One woman was making this fantastic little snack by smearing dough onto a smoking hot griddle and then filling the resulting “tortillas” with hand-spun colored sugar. We didn’t know what these were until a nice middle-aged Thai man wearing a “United State Navy Grandma” hand-me-down shirt shared some of his “tortillas” with us while hanging out at a bar later that evening:

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Scott loved these candied dried snacks, made from green peppers, cherry tomatoes, ginger, many things we could not recognize…
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…waffles and wantons filled with quail eggs and served with sweet chili sauce (DELICIOUS!!):

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Trang Night Markets

Trang Night Markets

Anyone know what this fruit below is, in English? The man working this cart saw me looking at them and gave me one to try for free– slightly sweet, mild flavor… he called it something like “sala” in Thai:

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Trang Night Markets

For me, the best thing about this type of eating is that each thing you open or bite into is a totally surprise. It’s like opening presents on Christmas. Sort of like how WAY too excited I am in this following picture, opening my charred banana leaf wrapped present to reveal who-knows-what inside:

Trang Night Markets

It turned out to be some kind of toasted/smoky coconut treat. Amazing.

So, so happy with my very own bowl of limey, sweet, firey green papaya salad:
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(That salad looks so innocent, but this was so spicy that my eyes and nose had completely unloaded onto the front of my shirt by the time I was at the bottom of this bowl…But it was so delicious I could not stop eating it. Reminder to ask for 1 chili–not 2, as I did– next time…)

Young or old, there’s something for everyone at the Trang night market:  (Starnbach lab: take note of the size of that kid’s cotton candy– I know you can do better!!)
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And for dessert…. These women were making these fantastic crispy fried dough snacks that they would make by spreading paper-thin dough onto a hot griddle, breaking it up into pieces, and smothering it with toasted (black sesame?) seeds and sweetened condensed milk, which Scott loved and now orders in every city he can:

Trang Night Markets

I ordered what I thought was a normal ice cream sundae— little did I know that they would take a solid block of hard ice cream and put it through an electric grater to make dip-n-dot-esque fluffy banana ice cream!! Truly, no food emerged into a passerby’s hand until it had been given a Thai-flair.

Trang Night Markets

Not only does Trang have an amazing night market; we also found out that it is one of the few places in Thailand that you can get authentic, delicious dim sum– a Chinese-derived meal consisting of small snacks, traditionally eaten for breakfast. So the next day, we set out on a new culinary adventure to track down the local dim sum joint… a woman from Ko Hai had written the name of the restaurant in Thai for us so that we could try to find it.. we showed it to the first tuk tuk driver we could find, apparently over-paid way too much on the tuk tuk, and soon found ourselves in a restaurant surrounded by happy Thai and Chinese locals enjoying Saturday brunch. We were definitely far off of the tourist path, but everyone was smiling at us and very helpful. We grabbed a table and walked up to the counter, where dozens upon dozens of bamboo baskets filled with uncooked goodies were pilling up for our perusal:
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Dim Sum in Trang

Dim Sum in Trang

Dim Sum in Trang

When you find ones that look good, you simply start piling your baskets on top of one another and hand them to the person behind the counter, who places your entire stack over a hole with boiling water underneath, and the whole stack gets steamed and delivered to your table.

Dim Sum in Trang

Dim Sum in Trang

One of our dishes consisted of mu yaang, a local Southern Thai specialty of sweet roasted pork, similar to pork belly (but better). We also had to try the usual spring rolls and shrimp shumai– all delicious.

The dish at the top, below, was interesting… a great seasoned sticky rice with a large strange yellow bean and a date smooshed inside…Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 12.06.21 PM

Dim Sum in Trang

We also got to try our very first chicken feet!  (Need I say it really just “tastes like chicken”? More skin and less meat, than we’re usually used to, though). (Note: I did not change clothes mid-meal— this place was so good that we went there two mornings in a row…)
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After leaving dim sum, we continued the culinary tour by perusing the fresh market– dried chilies, dried fish, dried mushrooms, every deadly weapon known to man (to harvest the vegetables, of course…)

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Trang Markets

Trang Markets

Trang Markets

Trang Markets

We also took a break from solid food and enjoyed some lovely “kopii”, Southern Thai coffee, with the morning paper in a local cafe…

Trang "Ko Pee"

more bad news.

Finally, to round out our amazing culinary tour of Trang— we were wandering back to our hotel one day, and we came across this adorable baby elephant:

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just another afternoon in Thailand

just another afternoon in Thailand

What does this have to do with food, you ask?  Well, we got to feed him some sugarcane, of course! 🙂   Overall, our time in Trang was amazing– extremely helpful, friendly people, insane food, and a great off-the beaten path experience just waiting to be devoured….. 🙂

kOh Hai!

After a week on Koh Lanta, we felt the feet beginning to itch and decided it was time to head somewhere new…. So we bid farewell to our fantastic hosts at Where Else, hired a longtail boat, and found ourselves floating down to the next island in the chain–the island of Koh Hai…  Because no ferries were  running between the islands yet (it’s still the low season here), we got to Ko Hai by jumping on board with a day-trip snorkeling tour and the captain just pulled over at the right island while we jumped off with our backpacks!

On our way to Koh Hai, we learned that most of its land is actually preserved as a national park and that the only developments on the island are for hotels – meaning that unfortunately there wouldn’t be much to explore in the way of villages and markets. With that in mind, we decided to temporally leave the backpack trail in return for some comforts – okay, there still wasn’t hot water, but aside from that, these bungalows were pretty swank…

Our beach-front bungalow at Coco Cottages, Koh Hai:
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our view waking up each morning…
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Steph out on her yoga platform:  🙂
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outdoor shower… 🙂

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Our beach on Koh Hai faced the east towards the Thai mainland, giving us a head-on view of several limestone karsts straight off the beach:

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A couple panoramas:

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There’s not a lot to say about this place that the pics don’t say on their own…  we spent most of our time on Koh Hai reading, swimming on crystal-clear reefs, and running on the beach. Steph read in the welcome book that the hotel workers would be happy to show us how to make Thai handicrafts– she really wanted to learn how to make a lantern or an entire bungalow for our future home– instead, she learned how to make a rose out of dead leaves!!!

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The second day, we hiked a grueling jungle trail to the other side of the island and found an entire beach all to ourselves.
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Along the trail, we came across one of the many beautiful “spirit houses” found throughout Thailand. These are often placed beside or on top of a house or business as a place for the spirits to live who were displaced by the construction of that house.

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As beautiful as the day was, by the afternoon we were hot, tired, and had run out of water a long way back; the side of the island that we were hiking on was completely uninhabited, with no houses, no people, no drinkable water. Almost as if our of nowhere, we came across a Thai guy around our age who was sitting on the deserted beach; he saw us and offered up a seat and an instant cup of coffee.  A few of his friends joined us, and we sat around smiling, eventually gathering that they were park rangers for the national park that we were on. From what little we could communicate to one another, I know we established that everyone present had heard of the New York Yankees, that in America we call football “soccer,” and that boxing is big in Bangkok. Outside of that, I’m not sure what we said – we did manage to ask a husband and wife if they were siblings –  but we tried some of the Thai words we knew and the smiles we received verified that nobody was offended, at least.

On our final morning on Ko Hai, we shared a longtail transfer back to the mainland to a city called Trang. The seas were really rough, and we definitely wondered f our longtail driver would keep us afloat. We eventually made it, having received several waves right over the bow in the process. Sidenote: dry bags for any valuables (Mac laptops, for instance) are a must-have item!

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Overall, a few days very well spent, but we’re eager to get back into the thick of things. Hopefully Trang’s famed night markets will pull through in that regard. ‘Til next time!

Our First Thai Massage

I’m a type of guy who can really appreciate a good massage, heck, even a bad massage, but of the one or two I’ve ever paid to receive in the States, I’ve had trouble feeling it was quite worth the steep price. For this reason, I was excited to find that like many fine things in Thailand, you can buy an hour-long massage on the beach for the price of a cheap cocktail back home in Boston.

Steph, on the other hand, has never been much for massages. For some reason, to her they just don’t feel like much more than painful friction and pressure. My theory has held that she simply hasn’t had a good one yet; perhaps, I thought, this trip would be the time that she’d learn to appreciate a massage – that and coffee, but we’ll get to that later in the trip. In hindsight though, Thailand may not be the best choice for this awakening to take place.

Thai massage is a unique practice with interesting and ancient roots. Instead of speaking to the particulars on that history, I’ll just summarize the style as a focus on pressure points in muscles, increasing flexibility, and well, a healthy bit of good old-fashioned pain. Knowing this ahead of time, I wanted to make sure I’d get the most authentic experience I could, so I spent the previous day walking the beach scoping out the massage practitioners that looked best – essentially, we’d want the most jacked up muscle ladies I could find.

We settled on a place with very kind (and of course built) ladies who set us up with two side-by-side massage tables, right on the quiet beach on Koh Lanta. Our massages started out with the what I assume to be the basics –  a firm sucker punch to the arch of the foot – and then quickly got to business. It wasn’t long before Steph and I had women kneeling on our backs and pulling our arms toward their sides forcefully and repeatedly, as if our bodies were rubber dinghies that these women needed to return to port before the tide went out.  Muscles were stretched, digits cracked, pelvi squeezed. Not a few times, I’m sure I heard Steph actually yell “Ow!”, after which her masseuse surely asked if the pressure was too much, and upon affirmation, merely dialed it to 11. “Please relax your body,” they’d remind us, while pressing a heel into regions no foot should ever graze.

All the while, you might think we were at least soothed by the gently rolling, crystal clear waves less than 50 feet in front of our eyes; but even if we could have blocked out the pain of the contortions in which we’d been placed, we still had to ignore the women’s screaming and laughing children, running around and underneath our massage beds wielding sticks and shovels.

When the children’s cackling hit a peak, our practitioners stopped to see the cause of the ruckus. She laughed at them and turned back to us: “They’re just chasing a large snake! You know co-vra? Co… I uh, cobra? You know cobra?

Haha! Thailand has many large snakes,” she reminded us, before reiterating our need to relax our damn bodies. With this, Steph rolled her head in my direction with a look that confirmed we’d need to approach this massage thing another time.

Week on Ko Lanta, Thailand

Last week we left Bangkok on an overnight train headed for the South of Thailand. Originally we had planned to spend some time in Northern Thailand , but the flooding throughout the central plains had blocked all major highways and railways out of Bangkok to the north. We had even originally intended to spend another night in Bangkok, but with the flooding heading our way and the sandbags piling up outside storefronts, we thought it best to get back on the road…

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We took the train to a town called Surat Thani and then switched onto a bus headed for Krabi, on the West coast of the Thai Peninsula in the Andaman Coast.  The bus ride started out great–we had AC and some crazy Thai music pumping in our glammed out ride—

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Life was good.

30 minutes later………  Scott was soaking wet from the continuous drip of icy water from the AC condensing above us. At one point, it was so bad we decided to get out our dry bag to catch the water–we had a good 2 cups of water by the end of the first tape album.

In an ironic twist of fate, the bus then lost all AC and reached an uncomfortable/truly terrifying 120 degrees. Scott was right in the sun and was not doing well:

(I got amazing pictures of the sweat pouring off of his arms, which he would not let me post…)

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Luckily, we had our bucket of water in our dry bag that we had collected that I was able to use to pour over our heads. 🙂IMG_1733

—————

We finally reached the town of Krabi, just in time to snag a place for the night and eat at the night market before heading out again the next day…
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The next day we basically threw a dart at a map and decided on heading on to the island of Ko Lanta, in the Andaman Sea. We were confused when we were told we would be taking a mini-bus to Ko Lanta–  a bus? to an island??   It all made sense when our minibus drove right onto a car ferry and shuffled us right across to the island!!

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For the week that we were on Ko Lanta, we stayed at a little Thai-owned and -run place called “Where Else”, right on the beach. Each bungalow, each and every detail, from the walls, to the sinks, to the wood shelves, had been made by hand, gradually being added to over the 14 years the family had owned this property. They not only lived on the property but also continued to work on it every day we were there, adding new hanging hand-woven lanterns or buoys that had been strung together, resulting in a crazy but cute amalgamation/ explosion of washed-up beach life.
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Our bungalow was extremely rustic, with nothing more than a bed, mosquito net, cold shower, and manual/bucket-flush toilet, but it had everything we needed:
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At our local watering hole, the “Feeling Bar” at Where Else:

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It would have been perfect were it not for the CONTINUOUS flow of various animals that we would find in our bathroom each day.  Within two minutes of our arrival I sat on our extremely low toilet, just to find a super slimy lizard/snake slithering right at me, forcing me to pick up my feet despite my already extremely uncomfortable crouched position.  Later, we found 2 hermit crabs (we could hear them every day–they lived in the corner of the room–), a rat that kept stealing and eating our soap (the bars that he left behind had little teeth marks in the morning), and an abnormally large wasp-type animal that burrowed in the rock gravel, always in the same spot, despite our attempts to oust it by filling its hole with rocks, covering the hole with enormous rocks, and flooding the hole with water–all to no avail. Better than our neighbors who apparently had a monkey in their bathroom eating their medicines all night!!

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On our first full day on the island, we decided to try our hand at Southeast Asian motor-scootering for the first time. For most of the people who live here, a motor scooter is their only vehicle and therefore their only way of transporting entire families (usually up to 4 people on one bike!), bulging grocery loads, bird cages filled with birds (everyone seems to have bird cages here), 20-foot step ladders– everything.  Interestingly, most of the population on this island is Muslim, so we quite commonly see a woman flying down the road on a motorcycle with 3 kids, a bird cage, sunglasses, and a burka blowing in the wind.  It’s an interesting culture, indeed.

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So we decided to try it out for ourselves. For $6/ day, the fun we had on our little hog couldn’t really be beat.    We explored remote villages down muddy side roads, came across an old Buddhist temple and deserted beaches… We were a little unsteady on it at first; by the end of the day, we were flying down a washed out muddy road with bagful of groceries in one hand, and a pile of freshly-washed laundry from the woman down the road in the other— truly riding in Thai-style.
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Getting gas:

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Lunch at Sea Gypsy Restaurant, overlooking other islands:

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Caught in the daily downpour:

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We had been dying to see a Muay Thai (Thai boxing fight), and spent a while trying to find the stadium. Eventually find it by a total struck of good luck– unfortunately, they don’t start up the fights until the high season in November. We were at least allowed to look around the training ring.

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———–

During our week on the island, we ate some pretty amazing food–

“green pancakes”, made of flour, eggs, condensed milk, a green herb that is supposed to have healing properties. The “pancake” is slapped out by hand into a crepe-like shape and then thrown onto a hot griddle.  It’s filled with fruit or an egg, folded into a square, and then drizzled with more sweetened condensed milk and chocolate…. what could be bad about that?:)

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But our favorite restaurant during the week was called “Cha Cha Restaurant”– a nondescript restaurant in front of the cook/owner’s home…. definitely the least outwardly “cute” or decorated restaurant within half a mile, serving some of the best food I’ve probably ever eaten. My $2 bowl of massaman curry with sweet potatoes was heaven–the best dish I’ve ever eaten. This place was so good we ate there 3 times, and regretted every time that we didn’t.  🙂  Go now. Seriously.

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———–

If the culture on Ko Lanta could not possibly get more interesting, I should add that the island is also home to so-called “Sea Gypsies” (their term), who are indigenous people who live in the South of the Island.  Their dialect was extremely different, being very staccato, with lots of clucks and clicks of the tongue.  At one point during our motorbike ride, we accidentally came across one of their burial grounds— shallow graves with individual tin roofs placed over each grave, a plate of food left by the grave by loved ones as an offering.

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———-

When we weren’t motor-scooting around, most of our time was spent talking with our hosts, reading our books, lounging at the beach… But on our final day on Ko Lanta, we took a snorkeling tour of the various islands south of Ko Lanta on a longtail boat, a hideously loud contraption with a car engine (I think?) for a motor:
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Our captain:

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Swimming in front of a limestone karst:

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The highlight of the snorkeling trip was a site called the “Emerald Cave”, which you can swim into during low-tide. When we arrived at the entrance, we were told to strap on a life jacket and swim into the cave, following the flashlight of our beanie-wearing, fully-clothed guide. Because none of our guides spoke English, we didn’t know what to expect and we were not told anything about the cave–  we thought we were just there to swim in, see the stalag -tites/-mites and swim out again. The stalag -tites/-mites were amazing, but we had no idea what was ahead. We just kept swimming toward the beam of the flashlight, deeper and deeper into the cave, at one point the warm waters becoming frigid for the lack of sunlight.

Eventually, we began to see light at the other end. We thought it was the other end of the cave looping back around to the outside ocean. Instead, we crawled out onto an emerald green crescent of white beach, completely surrounded by 100-foot high walls of solid rock, covered in dripping green rainforest—we were in a blowhole of a volcano, in the middle of the island.  A sign told us that the spot was once use as a place for pirates to hide their treasure and is now protected as a national park.

Its beauty is difficult to describe– truly a magical, almost unworldly and holy place.  And because we had to swim through the cave to reach it, we have no pictures of it, and now its memory exists only in our minds.:)
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———-

At the end of our week on Ko Lanta, we took some pics with our host family, saw some amazing sunsets, said goodbye to Ko Lanta!
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Rolling

We’re 3 or 4 hours behind schedule on our journey south to Surat Thani, after a few – I assume – unplanned stops throughout the night. Rather than an inconvenience, the delay has afforded us a front-row seat to the villages of the south-central Thai countryside as they wake and get about their field work on a Monday. The landscape out my second-class sleeper car window faces west, overlooking sprawls of lush tropical vegetation dotted with curly-horned cattle and scatters of florescent green coconut palms stretching for a greater share of the sun. Occasionally the landscape dips down from the trackside and I can see that the palms are anchored to miles of rolling hills. Close to the horizon, the hills rise to fuzzy limestone-faced mountains, which I guess to be Myanmar (Burma).

This gets me thinking of a book I read about George Orwell, who was surprisingly (to me, at least) stationed in Burma as a British officer late during their occupation, sometime around 1920 I think. In the book, the author describes her own recent visit to the country in her attempt to piece together clues from some of the lesser-known events that took place during Orwell’s stationing. Much of the book ends up focusing on the author’s own experience during her stay, under close watch by Myanmar authorities, accompanied by a personal guide and forced to report her whereabouts, which she assumes are being quietly tracked by the people she meets anyway. She must also be careful to conceal her journalistic intentions and hide her writing materials so as not to be discovered as more than a mere tourist, and she has a few close calls along the way. In the end, she was able to discover a some anecdotes about Orwell’s time there. Mostly though, she uses the book to draw a parallel between the events in Burma and Orwell’s later writing in 1984, which eerily foretold a situation much like the one she had experienced, long after the Brits had left, Orwell had passed, and the military junta took hold.

I feel it’s been at least a year since I’ve read up on the current situation in Burma. Looking out at those mysterious mountains in the distance, I wonder what the people are doing in this instance. Is Aung San Suu Kyi still free? I’ll use this post as a reminder to study up on these things, as we may end up crossing into Burma later on for a visa renewal. For now though, miles from the nearest internet connection, I can only speculate, and smile at the cows.

Khao San Road and the backpacker trail

Khao San Road. It’s over-developed; it’s touristy; it’s almost certainly changed since its original establishment as the backpacker haven of Southeast Asia over 3 decades ago.  I came to Bangkok expecting to hate it. But like most good travel adventures, it surprised me in a way that I never expected.

From the moment you step onto Khao San Road, you know that you have stepped into an odd mix of young and disheveled backpackers, aging expats that just never seemed to be able to pick up and leave, neon signs and posters blaring at you from every angle, and a fascinating history at the interface of East-meets-West culture.  Banana pancakes, pad thai, and an array of crispy bugs roasted over large woks can all be had for less than a dollar. A large bookstore sells used books in English (hard to find outside of Bangkok), ranging from Neitzsche to Chopra that have been passed down through the years by countless backpackers before us.

The problem that I had with Khao San Road before even seeing it is that I have generally found that hanging around other travellers ruins the experience of a place, makes it lose its authenticity. More recently, I’ve begun to appreciate that it’s still worthwhile and even enjoyable to accept a place for what it is—expats, other travelers, indigenous people– everything. In fact, this realization only came to me while strolling down Khao San Road—perhaps the most over-touristed backpacker strips in the entire world, which I really couldn’t help but find fascinating.

For example: On Khao San Road, I was able to enjoy my very own, first-ever plate of real Pad Thai from Thailand, cooked right before my eyes:

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khao san noodles

khao san noodles

I had considered getting a fake Harvard ID at the booth that manufactures any fake ID that you could want in under 20 minutes, but I already had a real one! (I tried to take a picture of all of the the available IDs for purchase, when I got shooed away by a man saying “no photos…”).

Scott also enjoyed himself, by letting hungry little fish eat the dead skin off of his feet at the local spa. For some reason they were very attracted to his legs instead of his feet:
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fish spa

fish spa

Interestingly, we decided to undergo the fish treatment only due to its complete and utter weird factor, but we ended up loving it. Initially, the experience was horribly ticklish; I kept jerking my feet out of the tank and ruining the massage experience of the woman near me with my shrieking. By the end, my feet that had been aching all day from walking all across Bangkok felt incredibly relaxed, like I had not stood on them for a week. Also priceless were the horrified looks we got from other tourists walking by and looking at our feet—unfortunately we did not get any pictures.

To add to the craziness and the anything-goes mentality of this infamous road, it rained for a few minutes while we were enjoying a rugby match inside a bar, and we came outside to find this:

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flooded khao san

flooded khao san

Just another example of how something so commonplace—a little rain shower—can be transformed by this crazy but somehow charming place. And myself? I now understood the appeal of backpacker ghettos after years of writing them off so quickly. Khao San Road, I love you.