IT WAS A SIX HOUR FLIGHT from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur, and we still had a foot in each land as we ate the wonju gimbap lunch that our breakfast ajumma had packed for us. But once we touched down at KLIA Dua we were firmly focused on the task at hand; with airport formalities complete we located the bus interchange and jumped on a Star shuttle to Pudu Raya, breathing in deeply the smell of South East Asia as a blast of hot air hit us. Maybe there was still a tad of culture shock as we watched with a degree of concern from our front seat positions the driver casually leaning on the steering wheel as we screamed along at 120 kilometres per hour. He was wearing flip-flops and a mohawk, and periodically drinking awkwardly from a two litre cordial bottle. At least we had Allah on our side as he wove from lane to lane around the traffic, all the while with a CB radio in his hand, engaged in jovial repartee about the road conditions and his whereabouts.
Thanks to his superior effort it took just one hour for us to reach Pudu, so by 5 o’clock we were hunting down a hotel in Chinatown, shocked to find that the Lok Ann had closed down to make way for the new Metro line. We settled on a Chinese cheapie in Jalan Sultan, for 80 ringgit it wasn’t a patch on the Lok Ann, but for one night it was fine.
It felt very good to be in Malaysia again, we could now communicate with anyone we pleased and we chatted with the room boy who was from Surabaya, and our interactions at the train station attracted warm response when we went to buy the tickets for our onward journey.
A couple of cups of cool, fresh soy milk saw us through our tasks, then it was time to eat. We knew what we wanted and where to get it. Bak kut teh was a bit pricey at 29 ringgit for our meal, but it was full of tender pieces of pork and the soup tasted like an elixir of life, we sat at a table on the footpath savouring the Chinese spices and watching the world go by as we worked up such a sweat that we had to go home and change!
Our train to Ipoh didn’t depart until 9 o’clock so we had plenty of time the next morning for a leisurely breakfast. It was still dark at 6:30am when we headed out to the hawkers food court in Jalan Hang Lekir. The teowchew kuehteow at 5 ringgit was a good choice with rice noodles and bean sprouts nicely flavoured by oysters and wok breath. We washed it down with an ais teh tarik, 2 ringgit for a mug of the strong frothy tea that we had been yearning for. Dawn lit the sky as we lingered over our meal chatting with the friendly Hakka lady who had made a career from purveying this one dish. It was already 30 degrees.
Walking slowly in the heat we got to Kuala Lumpur Station early so we could check out the Moorish architecture, arabesques framing turrets and exotic palm trees, fans cooling the platforms and the smell of South Indian roti. Our train came right on time, and soon we were gliding through the city, clickety-clack heading north to the state of Perak. The urban landscapes gave way to kelapa sawit plantations, kampungs and quaint towns nestled in the tropical lushness.
WE ARRIVED AT IPOH’S GRAND railway station at 11:30am, not the ideal time to be out in the sweltering heat looking for a room, but we hunted in earnest checking a few options before settling on the Shanghai Hotel on the far side of town. For 35 ringgit it was a fan-cooled bargain, with a large bathroom equipped with a bak mandi for a good cool splash.
Back out on the street it wasn’t hard to find lunch – the town was like an open-air restaurant, the only trouble was deciding what to have. We sat streetside at Restoran Lou Wong for the house special of ayam tauge, succulent poached chicken served with a plate of sauteed bean sprouts and rice. It was the busiest restaurant on the block for good reason, and we shared a table with two chaps on a foodie day trip from KL.
Ipoh was a town oozing colonial charm, filled with traditional shophouses, high ceilinged coffee shops and great places to eat. We made a lap of town to orient ourselves, forcing ourselves to walk SLOWLY so that we didn’t dissolve into pools of perspiration. It seemed to be a predominantly Chinese town, but we could turn a corner and suddenly be in India, with the faces and smells of the sub-continent all around us. On a street corner we stood with a group of like-minded aficionados sucking the pulp of an aromatic durian sold by a pop-up marketeer for 7 ringgit per kilo, and down an alleyway we found a chic craft market with re-cycled street mongrels up for adoption. Mangy dogs are very adaptable creatures and they looked at ease with their change of fortune, accepting pats on their new shiny coats…
We found a shady spot to sit awhile by the padang watching a cricket match, then we headed for the market to see what other fruits were in season. The only fruit that we had tasted in the past two weeks were a few Korean melons and a punnet of baby tomatoes we had chanced from the back of a truck in Seoul – we were fruit starved and we bought a wide selection to gorge ourselves on. A hand of finger bananas (2 ringgit), a kilo each of mangosteens (5 ringgit) and belimbing (3 ringgit), and a couple of the sweetest, juiciest mangoes ever, “yang paling enak” as requested, for 6 ringgit per kilo. We headed home to enjoy our fruit feast, stopping en route at the Funny Mountain Soya Bean for a bowl of sweetened doufu fa and a take home bottle of chilled soy milk with black grass jelly. This shop was so popular that the road was choked with cars full of day-trippers slurping doufu fa as a shop boy buzzed around with trays of bowls trying to keep up to the demand.
After a siesta we had to check out the night market just around the corner from the Shanghai, at 6 o’clock it was just kicking off but their was still plenty of culinary action. We sat in the covered area under the whirling fans with an icy sugar cane juice and rojak, a light and refreshing mix of green mango, cucumber, pineapple, jambu and jicama with a piquant dipping sauce of kecap manis, powdered belacan and peanuts. Other night markets popped up after dark, and by 9:30pm in the relative cool, the streets of Ipoh were filled with diners and shoppers. We fell asleep that night to the dulcet sounds of a Chinese opera rehearsal going on in a shophouse across the street.
At 7 o’clock the next morning our neighbourhood was very quiet. The breakfast coffee shops were just showing the first signs of life and we walked almost to the local bus station before we stumbled across the early morning traders. Kedai Kopi Sin Yoon Loong was busy, with patrons filling every one of their marble-topped tables. We had a ‘roti kaya set’ and a ‘roti telur set’ with our kopi putih, the coffee beans roasted with margarine, the egg perfectly cooked on crisp warm toast, and the kaya rich with gula Melaka.
At the bus station we were advised by a well-meaning by-stander to catch the wrong bus, and the error was perpetuated by the bus driver AND conductor who both failed to tell us that they weren’t actually going to our requested destination – Indians all. Sometimes these situations lead to delightful serendipities – but not on this occassion, we just found ourselves back at our staring point at the bus station an hour and a half later waiting afresh for a bus going past Perak Tong…
We found our way there eventually, and it was worth the effort. The cave temple was fun to explore, with stairs leading up through the main cavern, decorated with Buddhist murals of Guan Yin and celestial beauties to a pagoda balcony on the limestone hilltop above the cave. It was a hot and sweaty climb, in contrast to the dark cool of the temple chambers where we sat to recover watching people pop out from grottoes and disappear up stairways.
Back in Ipoh we had a lunchtime feast at Restoran M.Salim, a Mamak restaurant where our huge plates of nasi biryani were moistened with fish curry, ayam kapitan, mutton curry and vegetable dal. The Tamil staffers smiled their approval at our enjoyment – priceless ambience for 20 ringgit.
Our afternoon siesta was cut short by the necessity to sort out our internet failure. We fortified ourselves at the Funny Mountain Soya Bean, then marched out to the Maxis office to get ourselves connected. Once up and running we went to the river to sit in the shade, now with the knowledge that the temperature at 5 o’clock was 33 degrees, with a ‘feels like’ 43 degrees observation note from the bureau. After the sun dipped we roamed around the old heritage part of town and eventually ended up at the Medan Selera night market for an icy ‘ABC’ – a particularly good version with grass jelly, peanuts, beans and melon topped by a mound of shaved ice flavoured with rose syrup, creamed corn, cendol and a scoop of ice cream. It was so sweet that images of my dentist’s face kept flashing before my eyes. It was very pleasant sitting under the trees and the evening sky chatting with Ah Chew, the noodle vendor…
We were set to leave Ipoh the next morning, but we were enjoying the taste of it too much, and at the last minute decided to stay another day. For breakfast we tried out Kedai Makanan Nam Heong, arch rival of the Sin Yoon Loong who he faced off across the street. It was difficult to choose who had the best coffee bean roast, Nam Heong might have had the edge, but the kari mee that we had with it was fantastically good with its rich gravy and pork shreds with crispy skin. We finished off with an egg tart, warm from the oven and bought a bag of ground kopi putih to take Home to our own kitchen.
We had a nice early start for an excursion, so we went on to the bus station for a bus to Kuala Kangsar – a straight-forward journey of an hour and a half through a cross-section of kampung life…
The sights of Kuala Kangsar were spread along the banks of the Sungai Perak and we walked along the shady road to the Istana Iskandariah, the royal residence of the current Sultan of Perak. Along the way, graced by sweeping palms, were the old wooden Istana Kenangan, and the golden onion domes of the Masjid ubudiah, everything laid out on a regal scale.
Back in the heart of the town we rested with a group of old men and a few sleeping cats out on the wooden pier over the river – this was the pleasure of our day. We sat chatting with Fiarani, a retired magistrate, solving the problems of the world. He said that the pier was his club, and the river carried away his worries. Water lilies drifted by in the current and a gentle breeze stirred the air.
Eventually hunger motivated us to move on – we had a quick cendol in the airy hawkers centre to tide us over, then found a bus to take us back to Ipoh.
We had ear-marked the Sri Ananda Bhavan for a late lunch, and headed straight for it with hungers to match the South Indian dining style. Banana leaves were slapped down in front of us, rice heaped on top and scoops of pure vegetarian curries dolloped all around. Crispy appams were showered to the side and buckets of dal were left for our discretionary use. We dived in fingers first and didn’t stop until our leaves were clean, finishing off with an iced masala chai rich with condensed milk, pepper, cloves and, perhaps, anise, and an iced masala milk with badam and spice in fresh cows milk.
Stepping out onto the street, the players comfort meter had climbed again to 43 degrees. We walked vaguely in the direction of home, side-tracked by the Pasar Sentral where we sought out those delicious mangga wangi again, and bought a nanas madu pineapple to go with it. Then we sought refuge in the nearby Seri Kinta Cinema. Ten ringgit bought us two and a half hours of air-conditioned entertainment. “Vada Curry” was Tamil film, not really your typical romantic drama action thriller, because the male lead, Jai, couldn’t dance well, but his love interest, played by Kasthuri, was a real peach, and it ended on a high note with good prevailing over the ‘rowdies’ after a high-speed rickshaw chase and a fist fight in a Chennai go-down.
We decided to go for ‘dim sum’ on the morning of our departure. There was a group of restaurants serving this especially Cantonese breakfast just a couple of blocks from the Shanghai, and at dawn they were already busy with diners. The Restoran Chef Fatt had the most discerning- looking crowd, tables of old men reading newspapers, and families looking expectantly at the steamers – so we went there. We opted for jasmine tea and took our ‘dim sum’ as we fancied it from the steamer laden trays which came to our table. Nothing disappointed, everything was fresh and scrumptious – the loh mai kai was a standout, pork and lap cheong in spiced sticky rice; and the usual players – char siew bao, scallops, siu mai, prawn dumplings, fish ball and yong doufu were all beautifully done, with a perfect dan tart to finish off, light and flaky, not greasy, and oh so eggy…
It was still early, so we aimed for the 8:30am bus to Taiping, conveniently departing from the local bus station. We walked there along the river, avoiding the temptation of the kedai kopi, their powerful flavours the antipathy of what we’d just eaten. We left Ipoh behind on a comfortable coach, taking the expressway over the hills and through the jungles for an hour and a half to the northwest.
THE BUS TOOK US DIRECTLY to downtown Taiping, a short walk from the Pasar Sentral which we instinctively led ourselves to. The first hotel that we came across, Hotel Malaya on Jalan Boo Bee, suited us fine. A clean room with attached mandi, fan, AC and television, overlooking the market was 50 ringgit – we made ourselves at home then went out to explore.
Taiping was much smaller than Ipoh, compact with plenty of old shophouses in the streets around the characterful market, still housed in old wooden buildings with high breezy ceilings. We bought pineapple, bananas and starfruit, and had a great lunch of nasi kandar at the nearby Restoran Bismillah. Fish curry, sauteed greens, cucumber acar, okra curry and fried bittermelon made a tasty combination – the two of us ate for 13 ringgit.
Our afternoon siesta wound up in the Taman Tasik, the beautiful lake gardens on the edge of town. We chased down the best shady spots doing nothing more energetic than identifying the birds that flittered by – bulbuls, woodpeckers, mynas, bee-eaters, kingfishers and a lovely barbet. Once the temperature dropped sufficiently we took a turn around town, stopping for some icy soy milk in the Pusat Penjaja and sate lembu in the Larut Matang food courts. Taiping’s colonial heritage ranged from well maintained to crumbling, with a lot of charming decay in between. The streets were wide and often tree-lined with little traffic congestion, and ever visible was the mountain of Bukit Larut looming 1400 metres behind the town. The next morning we climbed it.
Our day got off to a great start with a 6 o’clock breakfast at the Larut Matang food court. Wantan mee, an ais teh tarik and a couple of slices of appam balik saw us on our way. The teh tarik was like a meal in itself – thick and strong with a frothy head to rival a cappucino. It was still dark as we walked to Kaki Bukit, the way busy with early morning exercisers, walkers and small groups doing calisthenics to music. The road was pancake flat as far as Kaki Bukit with not a hint of the incline that lay ahead, we were there by 7 o’clock and decided to take the jungle trail after seeking advice from one of the more hard-core local fitness enthusiasts.
From here the trail launched us up the mountain, ascending the slope using the tangle of tree roots like a natural stairway. Squirrel, macaques and dusky leaf monkeys crashed around in the trees above us, and insects wound themselves up into ear-piercing crescendos. We paced ourselves with four other walkers on their morning constitutional, soon so soaked with sweat that our clothes needed wringing.
After thirty minutes we re-joined the jeep track and left our pace-setters behind – this was Pondok Tiga, the three kilometre mark. From here we continued along the jeep track taking frequent shortcuts where they were obvious. The road twisted through the jungle and birds began to show themselves. We had a surreal encounter with a rhinoceros hornbill at around kilometre 7 – in the steep terrain we were standing at almost canopy level of the dipterocarps below, and he perched and flew several times giving us an outstanding view of his casque. We were in awe, looking at each other with faces registering the euphoria of such a hornbill sighting.
At around kilometres 10 and 11 we passed through the area of the hill station, mostly colonial era buildings, quiet and unfrequented. We walked on to kilometre 13, the telecom towers, and ventured a short distance along the jungle track toward Gunung Hijau, the mountains highest peak. However, inviting as it looked, we were driven back by leeches, hundreds of them, and had to perform a strip search once we’d raced back to the road.
On the way down we soon had another hornbill sighting, this time two pied hornbills flapping around above us sounding like light aircraft with the wind in their wings. All the while the jungle noise increased to its midday din of siren-like buzzing of insects, and gibbons constant echoing cries. We stopped to rest and enjoy the hill station at the Landrover halt, pulling up some cane chairs on the lawn amongst the towering hoop pines. We were completely alone except for the birds, flowerpeckers and swallows, and bees tickling our bare feet as they collected salt from our skin. At one thousand metres in altitude the midday heat of the town below seemed an impossibility – it was so pleasantly cool we could barely tear ourselves away. But by 1 o’clock storm clouds were gathering and we thought it best to head down…
It came lightly at first, at around kilometre 8, big drops but few, and we continued unhindered, my sun umbrella seamlessly changing its purpose. It stopped after a couple of kilometres and we ploughed on, making good time, hardly able to believe the gradients that we had climbed so easily – our Korean training ground had put us in excellent stead for our mornings activity. But suddenly, at kilometre 2, just when we thought we were home and hosed it came again. It sounded like we were approaching a waterfall, but it was a torrential downpour roaring towards us, and when realisation dawned we dived for cover, gigantic palm fronds assisting our vastly inadequate umbrellas. Thunder rumbled like cannon fire. Eventually it eased a little and we made a dash for the ‘pondok‘ at kilometre one, arriving just as the next downpour came, taking shelter with the robust old Chinese men who liked to make a circuit to Pondok Tiga. They did deep knee bends and adjusted their stash of umbrellas which they kept secreted in the ceiling of the hut – when they decided that it was safe to depart we followed, arriving back at Kaki Bukit to find the lowlands steaming. The rain had cooled the heated bitumen roads to create an impressive vapour, and the temperature had plummeted to 28 degrees. We only then noticed the sign at the Landrover station apologising that there was no service to Bukit Larut due to a road repair – this explained everything about the solitude of our day.
We walked back to town pausing at a roadside fruit stall to eat a Durian (9 ringgit) and to buy a kilo of rambutan (5 ringgit), then stopping for lunch at Pusat Penjaja. By now it was 5 o’clock, we had covered almost thirty kilometres and climbed from 80 metres to 1400 metres – so when the young lady at the ‘Makanan sayur-sayuran Tien Tien’ invited us to help ourselves to her fantastic range of home-cooked vegetarian dishes, the result was two heavily loaded plates of everything she had on offer. Gluten cleverly disguised as squid, fake beef, artificial pork, deep-fried silken tofu, bittermelon, kobis, broccoli and greens all crisp and flavoursome, the girl at this unprepossessing stall was a wizard!
We moved on as clouds darkened the sky again and made one last pit stop at the Larut Matang to finish the day where we had started it. We bought some kuih, and washed it down with some refreshing teh o ais and iced barley. Our day was complete, and we watched from the comfort of our room when the next torrential downpour struck, and when night time fell it was to the rumbling sound of thunder.
An early start wasn’t so crucial for the next day’s more leisurely activity, but we woke before dawn anyway to the hubbub of the market below. The sounds from the meat bazaar carried up to our room – sawing, chopping and the sharpening of blades. We ate breakfast at the Bismillah, sitting outside at a roadside table which afforded the best view of the roti chef in action – and dissipated the smell of kretek. The roti canai were doughy and crisp, the dal spicy and delicious, and the teh tarik hot and frothy.
It was still cool when we set off through the Lake Gardens, at this slightly later hour busy with tai chi practitioners. We headed out of town again, pausing at the war cemetery to pay our respects to the dozen or so Australian soldiers who lay buried there amongst the Malays, Gurkhas and British. We moved on, walking another kilometre or so to the Burmese Pools, a series of swimming holes in the river at the foot of Bukit Larut. The sandy banks shaded by thick jungle made great rest spots, and we set up our own encampment a little way up river of the garbage-strewn pools by the bridge. The water felt icy cold and we cooled off in the clear pools fed by the rushing mountain stream, with little fish swimming amongst the boulders and a band of macaques leaping around in the trees above. We spent the entire morning in this idyllic locale – the soothing sound of the stream, the cool of the jungle, the quiet isolation, all conducive to a long repose.
Back in town we took our lunch at Nasi Kandar A.Rahman – a nice selection of Indian Malay curries, stir-fries and acar in an airy open-sided shop with old Masala hits playing almost imperceptibly in the background.
In the afternoon we went adventuring to the other side of town looking for the local coffee factory, but were foiled at the last by a pedestrian unfriendly overpass and instead bought durian (8 ringgit/biji), pineapple (60 sen/biji) and mangosteens (4 ringgit/kilo) from a roadside stall.
The skies were clear the next morning, and we could see Bukit Larut clearly in the half light as we headed out for the day. At the gritty local bus station we jumped on a blue omnibus to Kuala Sepetang, thirty minutes away on the coast. We got down at the mangrove reserve just before town. It was beautiful, walking through the forest in the early morning cool on a boardwalk taking us to the Sungai Reba. The tide was low and the buttressed mangrove trees were exposed, their roots holding them up as if on tip-toe. The muddy shore of the river hosted a variety of wildlife – metre-long monitor lizards, huge mud skippers, monkeys and bird life; kingfishers, swifts, bitterns and sunbirds – all easily and comfortably observed from the shady pier.
The tide turned and we moved on, continuing down the road to Kuala Sepatang, really just a characterful collection of wooden piers and houses built on stilts over the mangroves in a protected backwater of the estuary. The mangrove forest surrounded the village, and fishing boats navigated the network of waterways, adding a sense of purpose to such an appealing place. The inhabitants were Chinese, with red spirit houses, lazy coffee shops and the clack of mahjong tiles along every step of the pedestrian lanes that connected the wooden shacks. It was the kind of place where motorcyclists rode in the main street with umbrellas up for sun protection.
We found a seafood restaurant perched high above the waterway and decided on an early lunch. Our vantage point caught the breeze, sea eagles and brahminy kites soared around above, and colourful boats zipped back and forth as we feasted on fresh pepper crab, ikan goreng kecap, and kangkung stir-fried with belacan and crispy dried prawns… It was a very serendipitous outing, only coming about because we didn’t want to depart Taiping on a Saturday.
The same breezy rattler took us back to town and while Taiping sweltered in the hot afternoon sun, Bukit Larut enjoyed soaking thunderstorms watched enviously from below.
In the evening we went out to the Kedai Kopi Prima. Under a big rainforest tree the contents of two coffee shops and a hawkers centre spilt out onto the street. We sat at one of the tables on the road spoilt by the culinary choices surrounding us. We sampled the chee cheong fun, a skillfully steamed rice noodle filled with prawns, and kaya puff, amongst some other favourites, char kueytiao and rojak while a projectionist set up an outdoor cinema to entertain the ever-increasing crowds.
We began our Sunday like many of the residents of Taiping, with an early morning walk in the lake gardens. We even met a like-minded couple, ‘Jenny’ and ‘David’ who had retired to Taiping, and got side-tracked chatting, our physical exercise turning into a social exercise. So it was quite late by the time we got to the Larut Matang. The food court was so busy that we had trouble finding a table, and that meant even more food choices. We were loyal to the Gerai Minuman, but Dave was quick to line up at stall number 75 where roasted ducks and chickens were being deftly sliced for plates of nasi ayam. We sat happily amongst the melee enjoying our breakfast – one would never have guessed that it was the first day of Ramadan.
We went home and packed, then began a series of rides to our next destination, starting with a local bus to Kamunting for a coach on to Butterworth. It took just over an hour on the Lebuh Raya, heavy rain squalls slowing our progress and complicating our arrival in Penang. In Butterworth we made our way undercover to the ferry terminal and waited for an hour to cross to Pulau Penang, the hold up not improving our chances of a dry interchange as the rain continued to fall relentlessly. In Georgetown we followed the crowd to the bus terminal and found the 101 service to Teluk Bahang, a very slow ride through heavy Sunday traffic around the north of the island. The air-conditioning on the bus was set so low that our lips were blue by the time we were set down in Teluk Bahang.
THE RAIN HAD JUST STOPPED and the surrounding hills were steaming with thick drifts of white cloud rising from the jungles. The plaintive cries of koels helped to set the scene. We had arrived in a fishing village located at the entrance to Pulau Penang National Park. The houses were strung along Jalan Hassan Abbas and we walked until we came to Amal Inn – 55 ringgit for clean and comfortable lodging, and a friendly word from Amal every time we came or went.
It was 3 o’clock when we stepped out looking for lunch so the pickings were slim. Despite the fast, Restoran Khaleel was open for business so we had good nasi kandar leftovers, and found some bananas, watermelon and durian to supplement it…
In the other direction we found the park office still open for gleaning information, and some shady trees for resting under while we contemplated the outlook. Piers projected into the jade-coloured sea with shacks built along them and fishing boats moored to them. The storm had moved out to sea and the sky was an angry black, rumbling threateningly as we went home, taking advantage of the iftar treats on offer along the way. Homemade taufa with gula melaka syrup was good for us, everyone else indulged in a buying frenzy borne of extreme hunger and thirst.
We had no trouble finding breakfast the next morning. Resoran Abdul Azees was dishing out rice and curry to infidels, his business decimated by the month of fasting. The sun was well up when we entered the national park, though it was cool and dark inside the rainforest, the light barely penetrated to the forest floor. Still it was sweaty work along the undulating track to Pantai Kerachut, the jungle wet and steamy after a night of solid rainfall. At the beach was the meromictic lake, in the monsoon months bizarrely filled with both fresh and salt water in distinct layers. The sand was white, the sea green, and the horizon rumbling with the thunder from a storm we couldn’t yet see. We continued on to Teluk Kampi, the trail degenerating a little but still navigable. We saw some monkeys, had a fleeting sharma sighting and a close encounter with a thorny lizard before reaching the idyllic beach at Kampi, shaded by the jungle trees, waves gently lapping, and storm clouds beginning to gather.
It was a two hour walk back from there, we marvelled at the clouds of violet-coloured butterflies, armies of ants marching in files across the track, and the range of seed pods equipped with helicopter leaves littering the ground. We were about halfway back when the storm reached us – the wind whipped up, it blackened like night under the forest canopy, and the thunder boomed overhead. It took a while for the drops to reach us inside the forest, the gigantic leaves sheltering us while we scrambled for umbrellas, and we walked on to one of the thoughtfully provided rain shelters where we were able to sit out the worst of it, enveloped in nature.
It eased and we made it back to Restoran Khaleel reasonably dry after six very pleasurable hours on the trail. At 2 o’clock on a weekday there were better lunch offerings, and our nasi kandar came with spicy fried chicken, mackerel and okra curry, beans, cabbage, and scoops of meaty gravies. There were rambutans and cempedak for our afternoon snack, the cempedak like bubblegum with its chewy sweet flesh stretched over bubble-sized seeds.
We got an earlier start the next morning, the weather looking more ominous than the previous day with lightening flashing in the dawn sky as we breakfasted on nasi kandar with egg curry, omelettes and teh tarik. Inside the national park we took the right fork in the jungle trail for our second days adventuring, this time heading to Muka Head. This walk was a little more hands-on with lots of scrambling over headlands to pop out onto beautiful sandy beaches, the sound of splashing waves ever present. From Monkey Beach the trail climbed steeply and we’d worked ourselves into lathers of sweat when we reached the Muka Head lighthouse after almost two hours of hiking. The lighthouse, built in 1883, was a real gem; stone in construction with original wood and steel fittings – and best of all, it was open for us to go inside. From the old iron balcony we could see the entire national park and way out to sea, including mountainous Langkawi to the north. A breeze cooled our skin, sea eagles soared around the surrounding jungle, and after a brief shower the storm threat diminished, so we could enjoy a more leisurely walk back. The seaside jungle was filled with liana and pandanus, and we were lucky with bird sightings – we saw a pair of sharmas right in front of us on the track and within a few paces a racket-tailed drongo perched above. The ant armies were even more prolific, with some so numerous that their procession across the track was audible! We stopped to rest in some places just for the sake of spending time there – at Sungai Tukan we sat by a swimming pool listening to the sounds of the jungle around us; the drone of insects, the falling leaves, the birds… We had barely seen another soul on our two days of hiking in this national park.
Hunger drove us back to civilisation. Every day we turned up at Khaleel’s an hour earlier, but even at 1 o’clock the curry pots were getting low on this particular day, and our nasi kandar was purely carnivorous with fish and an earthy beef curry, black with gravy. Fruit prospects, however were always reliable and from the old man next door to Amal’s we bought an enormous durian for 9 ringgit, the pulp rich and yellow, it went well with our left over rambutans and a crisp jambu. Later we joined the pre-iftar frenzy at the stalls along Jalan Hassan Abbas, taking home some martabak, kaya pao, taufa, and cincau Bandung from the array on offer.
WE RETURNED TO GEORGETOWN THE next morning, bus number 101 delivering us back into town, conveniently passing Lebuh Chulia where we got down to look for a room. Just a few steps from the bus stop we took a peak in a small Chinese hotel, the rooms above a classic coffee shop. For 60 ringgit we got large characterful quarters at the back of the building overlooking the rooftops with a fan and air-conditioning. The room girl, Yus, was from Palembang and together we reminisced about her hometown in Sumatra.
At 9:30am the day was already heating up when we headed out. First things first – to the railway office to organise our onward transport. There was some confusion about our final destination and whether or not the train actually stopped there, but we secured two berths anyway – fate would decide the rest.
Our reason for going to Georgetown wasn’t about any twenty year old nostalgia, it was simply to taste it, the time in between meals just needed to be filled with kilojoule burning activities in order to warrant more food intake. So we mooched a little until lunchtime, before opening our account with a couple of bowls of assam laksa in a hawkers shop on Jalan Penang. The spicy soup was thick and fishy, and fresh with mint and fat rice noodles.
Retreating to the thermal comfort of a shopping mall was the next obvious activity – we spent hours in the First Avenue Plaza, emerging a couple of hundred ringgit lighter, but loading our pack with a few extra kilos of shorts, trousers and my favourite Cameronian tea. We did some half-hearted sight seeing, checking out the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, and the old Protestant cemetery which interred its first resident in 1789, but then we got distracted by the hawkers stalls spilling out onto the streets at sunset – a deliciously dark mee goreng, and popiah, a fresh spring roll stuffed with grated turnip, crumbled tofu, egg and spicy sweet sauce, was on our menu, with an icy nutmeg juice to wash it down.
Early morning was the only time that one could walk the streets in comfort. When we stepped out at 7 o’clock the next morning the ‘players comfort meter’ was at 35 degrees – the air felt cool and fresh. We found a street corner in Lebuh Kimberley busy with breakfast stalls and enjoyed lor mee, different kinds of noodles and sprouts in a dark gloopy sauce with pork and egg, with our kopi ais and teh o ais. With a couple of pink ‘puffy cups’ and some ‘pandan chiffon’ we were set up to start the day.
Taking the bus to the Botanical Gardens was the most arduous part of our excursion, we waited at the Komtar bus stand for thirty minutes for a bus number 10, then circled around Georgetown to stretch out the 8 kilometre journey to half an hour. Anyway, our destination was an easy target – the Moon gate sat like a doorway to the jungle and we walked through the round hole as if it led to another world. An athletic-looking Chinese man dripping with sweat confirmed that the path led to Penang Hill, doubtfully sizing us up he added that it would take in excess of two hours. We had found our trail.
Partly due to the late hour (it was by now 9 o’clock) this was our sweatiest escapade yet. The trail climbed sharply, and a recent fire had taken some of the tree cover, so the temperature rose off the scale and perspiration cascaded down our bodies. But after half an hour the forest closed in again and our modest altitude gain cooled the air. After an hour the trail joined Jalan Jeep and it took 45 minutes more along the steep winding road to reach the top of Penang Hill, crowded with locals who had just stepped off the funicular with not a hair out of place, ready for lunch at David Browns. In contrast, we were dripping, wishing for a change of clothes and looking for a spot to rest and eat our bananas…
The view of Georgetown and beyond spread out below was magnificent, at 820 metres we were soaring just below the clouds, and eventually they enveloped us, lowering the temperature of the hill station to an even more agreeable level.
We followed the jeep track all the way down to the Botanical Gardens, passing some monkeys, some other walkers, and some giant black squirrels along the way. Again we waited a long time for bus number 10, and during its convoluted journey back into town a torrential downpour struck. It bucketed down and we prepared our umbrellas grateful to have at least finished our walk. But by the time we reached Pangkalan Weld the skies had cleared and we skipped off to Little India for a ‘banana leaf’ lunch at the Ananda Bhavan, finished off with a very nice piece of badam burfi – maybe it was because we had just paid a visit to the Murugan shrine on the Hill, or maybe we were just lucky…
After a bit of a siesta and rehydration, we strolled down to the esplanade for the evening. Just beyond the grand colonial buildings on Jalan Light was a hawkers centre right on the waters edge. We pulled up a seaside table and watched ocean liners and cargo ships gliding by on the Straits of Malacca while we tried out the mee udang and pasembor. The mee udang was suburb with thin wheat noodles and sprouts and big fat prawns in a sweet spicy gravy. Pasembor competition was fierce, with opposing stands vying to create the best display of their fried goods ready for selection, assembly, garnishing and saucing. We gazed across to Langkawi and the mainland as the sun set, and shared an icy ‘ABC’ to finish off our meal – five star location and food, plastic tables, 20 ringgit for the three course dinner for two. At maghreb the call to prayer rang out, and the Muslim patrons who had been patiently waiting amongst the Chinese and Indian diners smiled with relief and dived into the dishes lined up in front of them.
On the way home we passed by a Chinese temple clouding the street with fragrant incense smoke; a church silhouetted against the dusk sky; a mosque lit up for the evening prayer; and a Hindu mandir busy with worshippers and flower merchants.
We emerged early again the next morning, but with a different agenda. We wandered until we stumbled across Georgetowns early morning energy centre – the street market in and around Jalan Kuala Kangsar. We breakfasted on nasi ayam with bai kopi bing in a lively kopitiam, and shopped for fruits – durian, rambutan, mangoes, jackfruit and papaya – 15 ringgits worth – we had to return home to offload!
It was still cool enough for some sight seeing, so we took a stroll to the neighbourhood of the Khoo clan, centred around the magnificent clan house. A wonderful insight into Chinese culture before the revolution destroyed it.
After a bit of a shopping ramble along Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Kimberley, where we replaced Dave’s old white dhobi shirt, we’d worked up enough of an appetite for lunch. In a nondescript alleyway off Jalan Penang was Nasi Kandar Line Clear, not even a hole-in-the-wall, just an assembly of catering paraphernalia hunkered along a wall with tables and chairs spilling down the lane. They had been dispensing curry here since 1930 and it was far and away the best we’d sampled. Served with a professional flourish and big smiles, the biryani was the greatest this side of Rangoon and, topped with chicken and fish curry full of whole spices, we were smacking our lips – it would have been worth a trip to Georgetown just to taste this biryani. Portions were huge and for 15 ringgit we both ate so much that we had to go home and recover – luckily only a few minutes away, we could actually see our room at the back of the hotel from where we sat to eat.
Browsing around Gurney Plaza filled some of the afternoon, with a stroll around Little India in the evening to finish off the day. We couldn’t resist a couple of plump and delicious vada from the iftar stalls on Lebuh Queen, but it wasn’t yet maghreb so decorum dictated we eat them elsewhere – the soy milk stall on Jalan Cintra was a more accommodating neighbourhood, so we had some healthy serves of taufa to go with it…
Neither of us slept well that night, and I was awake when the call to prayer blasted into our room at 5:50am on our last day in Malaysia, even the monsoonal deluge that began earlier couldn’t drown out the message of Allah. It was still drizzling when we stepped out at 7 o’clock, the temperature had dropped to 25 degrees, the drains were flooded, cats and displaced rats scurried everywhere, and the lady-boys on the street were looking worse for wear.
We made our way to Taitong Restoran on Lebuh Cintra, where dim sum was already well underway. The rain had not dampened enthusiasm for this breakfast treat, and even as we grabbed a table trolleys came screeching to us laden with goodies. No less than ten cheerful aunties wheeled carts between the tables offering items steamed, fried and baked to perfection. Chicken and sticky rice pao, chee cheong fun, crunchy crisp yam cake, fried lobak, siu mai and siu pao, all made an appearance at our table, in between sips of scalding green tea, with a finale of egg tarts. We left so full that we could hardly move, and could only rally for a casual stroll around town to pad out the morning before our departure.
The rain stopped and its cooling effect didn’t last for long – it was back to the same scorching levels when we stashed our bag and popped out to Kedai Kopi Ho Ping in Kampung Malabar, just around the corner for a quick lunch. It had to be asam laksa to top and tail our stay in Georgetown, with a kopi ais and nutmeg juice; a light snack before shouldering our bags, changing our ringgit to baht, and heading for the train station in Butterworth.
After the previous ferry fiasco, we allowed plenty of time to get back to the mainland – a good thing, because although we didn’t wait too long to board, our ferry sat marooned in the middle of the harbour for almost an hour waiting to dock – the ferry service seemed a little unreliable in our experience.
The Antarabangsa had just arrived when we reached the platform, a Thai train, only two carriages as far as Hat Yai where more would join us. We boarded and made ourselves at home in our cushy sleeper berths, and sought out the purser who smiled very politely and told us that the train wouldn’t be stopping at our destination. The unsavoury alternative options available to us flashed through our minds, but the purser for the Thai leg of our journey overheard our conversation and came to the rescue – the timetable had changed – Bang Saphan Yai was a scheduled halt. “Mai bpen rai” he smiled, “mai bpen rai” I confirmed. My first utterance in Thai for years, “no problem!”.
Due to our prospective arrival time, we were hoping for a late departure, but we pulled out right on time – 2:30pm from Butterworth with no hold ups to the Thai border. The Malaysian states of Kedah and Perlis were just as we remembered them, lush and fertile, green with padi, coconut trees and limestone outcrops. We reached Padang Besar at 5:30pm, which then became 4:30pm as we proceeded to the immigration control, leaving Malaysia behind and entering Thailand. Our two carriages got a Thai locomotive and a cargo car, and we journeyed on into Thailand passing through a concrete and barbed wire barrier – the border to a different world.
UNLESS I BRUSHED UP ON my reading skills, we would be illiterate, and our conversation with the ticket checker was a mish-mash of Thai, Malay and English as we confirmed our destination. Our arrival time was quoted as about 4am – but this statement was met with mirth by the other passengers, who explained that 6am was a more likely time frame.
Now Thailand was outside our window, the tracks were providing a rougher ride and jungle was smacking at the sides of the carriage as we ate our culinary welcome, chicken with cashews and little green chillies to knock our socks off.
We reached Hat Yai at 6:30pm and our carriages were shunted and shuffled as ladies patrolled the aisles selling gai tort and sticky rice – we had forgotten how good were the smells of this country. We travelled on into the night.
At 8 o’clock the purser came along and made up our beds, a soft mattress, fresh sheets, blankets and pillow cases, and privacy curtains. The young lady sitting opposite, who had been talking non-stop with anybody who came along finally retired her breathy Thai vocal chords and everybody went to sleep simultaneously. The lower of our two berths was so spacious we both fit into it and slept comfortably to the rocking motion of the train.
With no station announcements, and not knowing our time of arrival we couldn’t completely abandon ourselves to sleep, but it turned out that the purser was looking after us, and gave us a thirty minute warning at 5am, so we were ready to launch when the train halted at Bang Saphan Yai. The guard waved his flashlight in the direction of the station as we jumped down, nobody else alighted and the station was dark and empty, but welcoming with a well-tended flower garden and a chorus of bird call as dawn began to break.
Instinct directed us into town and we could always count on Thailand to feed us, within five minutes of walking we came across an open-sided restaurant hut and breakfasted on kao raat gaeng, selected from a dozen pots of freshly made curries and soups. Drumstick and prawns, chicken and oyster mushrooms, red chicken curry and melon soup – all for 60 baht.
Now we were ready to go searching for a place to stay and began walking towards the beach of Suan Luang, supposedly four kilometres away along a bitumen road. We had walked for about fifteen minutes, a temple procession had passed us with a big golden Buddha in the back of a ute, before a lady named Wau stopped to offer us a ride. I sat in the front with a big black cocker spaniel on my lap, just grateful to not be carrying my bag – it turned out to be six and a half kilometres.
WE LANDED AT LOLA’S AND were shown to a beachfront bungalow under a coconut tree. For 300 baht per night we had our own bathroom, a fan, a porch and a hammock – all essential amenities for a relaxing sojourn. It was very private and quiet, only a few other bungalows were ever occupied during our stay, and at night there was just the sound of waves gently lapping.
The beach was long, twenty kilometres of powdery sand, and across the warm shallow waters of the Gulf of Thailand sat the nearby island of Koh Thalu with the occasional fishing boat breaking the expanse of blue in between. Further to the south we could see the mountainous island of Koh Samui. A gentle sea breeze kept the temperature perfect for swinging in a hammock, either on our porch or from the range strung under the casuarinas. And regular visitors to the gigantic sea almond trees that shaded our lawn included orioles, rollers, jungle mynas, vinous-breasted starlings and a pair of racket-tailed drongoes. Further afield we saw plovers, cattle egrets and a resident pheasant coucal.
Dining options seemed alarmingly limited at first. The only obvious eatery was the Roy Tawan which served balanced but bland meals in deference to the middle-aged French clientele who revealed more sagging flesh than decency permitted, and smoked at will – no wonder the staff looked miserable. We ate there only once before sniffing out some alternatives. Fifteen minutes walk to the north along the beach we found a shack under some casaurinas where a granny could rustle us up quite good meals. Here our Thai language skills were put to the test, there was no menu, just a kitchen, so in order to eat we had to speak and we were rewarded with her excellent kao put poo with nice pieces of fresh crab in fluffy fried rice; and kao mok gai, a Thai biryani with a sweet and sour sauce, soup and vegetables, put puk.
We were only unfaithful to her once when we went upmarket and lunched at the I-Talay resort five minutes walk south of Lola’s. The tide crept in and we watched trained macaques pick coconuts from the nearby palms as we enjoyed a feast of tort mun plah fish cakes, put puk raow vegetables in oyster sauce, and choo chee plah fried fish pieces, spicy and delicious with sliced red chillies and stems of fresh green peppercorns in red coconut curry. For 400 baht it was good value – professional service, teak furniture, superb beachfront location.
But our best discovery was a twenty minute walk away through the coconut groves to the main road. We were looking for the grocery store and chanced upon a lady with a roadside stall selling homemade breakfast delicacies. Spicy haw mok, savoury kao tom (pink bananas steamed in sticky rice with red bean) and a sweet version with succulent shredded coconut – all expertly wrapped in banana leaves. She also had our favourite kao nee-o sunkaya (sticky rice with coconut custard) and lod chorng, a Thai cendol. One day we lucked some mangosteens at a neighbouring stall for just 20 baht per kilo, and another day we enjoyed a dragonfruit fresh from the tree with our morning repast – a gift from the grocers husband. So an early morning walk became our daily ritual to bring home breakfast to eat on our beachside porch.
After a few days of doing little more than swinging in a hammock, and a few more of walking to the extremities of Suan Luang, we were uber-relaxed and ready to move on – but we stayed for a few more days just to savour the serenity, watching the coconuts fall, the tide come and go, and the monsoon clouds roll by bringing the occasional cooling shower.
Our landlord, Sohfa, graciously drove us back to Bang Saphan Yai in his ute when it was time for us to go. There was a northbound train due at 8:45am, so after a tasty breakfast of kao put moo at a stall near the station, we bought our tickets and waited. When the arrival time drew near, our Thai was at least proficient enough to understand the announcement that our service was running one and a half hours late – so we had more time than anticipated to admire the orchids around the station masters office. Dave went to buy provisions and we supplemented our breakfast with iced Thai coffee, gah-fair yen, and 30 baht worth of jackfruit while we waited.
When the train finally came it was two hours overdue. The dog who had been sleeping soundly on the edge of the platform uncannily awoke, scratched and left just moments before the station bell rang and we heard the distant whistle.
Everyone clamoured aboard the old wooden carriages, we lucked a couple of vacant seats in the second class car and sat back to enjoy the ride. With no air-conditioning if felt more like we were in the scenery rather than just looking at it – coconut groves, lily ponds, sugar palms, tropical orchards, farmhouses. We could stick our heads out the window to catch the wind in our hair and the smell of Southern Thailand in our nostrils. It took only one and a half hours to reach Prachuap Kiri Khan, the peninsula had narrowed to the point that the hills of Burma were in the near distance as we approached our destination, and the station was just a couple of hundred metres from the sea on the other side.
WE WALKED THROUGH THE STREETS of Prachuap Kiri Khan feeling as though we had just arrived in Thailand, the way we had slipped in the back door made it seem like we had landed here from outer space.
The Yattichai Hotel didn’t have a room for us, which worked in our favour because we moved on to the Suksant Hotel, an unlikely-looking edifice by the bay. We were given a great top floor room with a balcony and a panoramic view of Ao Prachuap, the bay protected by limestone peaks jutting from the calm water and dotted with wooden fishing boats painted blue and green. Luxury for 420 baht per night.
Satisfied with our deliverance we went off to explore. Lunch beckoned from a noodle shop in Thanon Sarachip where a bowl of goo-ay dtee-o nahm tasted just as it should then, down to our last 400 baht, we topped up the coffers at an ATM before a cruise through the day market. Fruit had been scarce in Suan Luang, so we made up for lost time with a kilo of mangosteens, two pineapples, a papaya, a couple of guavas and a durian from an itinerant trader near the tourist office. It seemed we were on our own as far as tourist information went – our Thai wasn’t up to speed, but the answer to every question we posed was “neung gi-loh-met”. At least we left with a map.
This day of Asahna Bucha was important on the Buddhist calendar as the anniversary of the Buddhas first sermon, and a little later in the afternoon a procession wound its way through town in a ceremony to present the local monastery with sculpted candles for the rains retreat beginning on Khao Phansa the next morning. The parade ended near the pier, the candles headed for display and the rest of the procession dissolved into the weekend street market which snaked along the waterfront. It was a great place to spend the evening, with its festival atmosphere and snack-tracking par excellence. Barbequed squid with chilli lime dressing, Issan sausage with cabbage and pickled ginger, barbequed enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon, salty steamed soy beans, and tiny sweet potatoes in sugar syrup. We strolled, we grazed, we sat to eat on the sea wall. we browsed the fashion stalls, and we were interviewed by local high school students for their class project.
On Saturday morning there was barely a trace of the previous nights festival. For breakfast we wandered down to the day market, which was the hive of morning activity. Shoppers struggled with bags of goodies, peddler’s spilled out onto the street, monks begged for alms, and motorbikes squeezed through the gaps. We wound through the cacophony until we found a vendor with tables, and enjoyed a nourishing meal of johk, rice congee with meatballs, sliced pork liver and a poached egg.
The small hillock, Khao Chong Krajok then needed climbing, though as we approached we were somewhat put off by the volumes of monkeys infesting the site. Not to be easily deterred, we embarked on the climb, but it was probably the worst endurance test for the reward of a view, ever. The macaques were on the stairway in plague proportions, snickering warnings to us as we gingerly stepped around them, being careful not to step on any tails. They all had their chests tattooed, adding to their menacing-looking demeanours, and their excrement polluted the pathway and sent up a suffocating stink. The final flight of stairs was so congested with them we were too terrorised to continue and retreated, having briefly admired the view through eyes paralysed with fear. We spent the rest of the morning in safety on our balcony.
At lunchtime we went to the outdoor seafood restaurants set up along the waterfront just north of the pier – Jai Poon Lap was the only one in operation for lunch. Being a birthday eve, a celebration was in order so we lashed out and had a trevally spectacularly splayed and deep-fried whole, garnished with deep fried garlic skins and lime chilli sauce; and put puk, fried and braised with prawns and squid. It began to rain while we ate, we were sheltered under an awning, but the fishermen who had been mending their nets on the pier just wallowed in the fresh downpour. We sat for a couple of hours waiting for it to stop and the restaurant became busy – the food coming to the surrounding tables looked and smelt fantastic. These were very basic restaurants – no walls, just a mobile kitchen cart and some awnings, tables and chairs – but churning out haute Thai cuisine on mismatched plastic plates. Three hundred and ninety baht for our priceless feast.
The rain continued through the afternoon making a beautiful rainbow over the bay, but putting a bit of a dampener on the weekend night market. We weren’t all that hungry after our big lunch and half a kilo of langsat, so we just slurped on a fresh strawberry ice smoothie, and Dave perused for some gai tort, fried chicken and sticky rice, while I had a 100 baht foot massage. A very nice lady named Porn pummelled, pressed and massaged balms and creams into my feet and lower legs with smooth expertise. She worried at my pressure points with a wooden rod and dug her fingers into my flesh to the brink of my pain threshold, then apologised to the muscles with rubs and slaps from her big soft hands. When rain showers came, the cry went out “fon lair-o”, and umbrellas were raised. I just got my forty minutes in before a downpour, and everyone had to scurry – me feeling like I’d been to the gym, but only from the knees down!
Having a birthday on the Sunday of a four day long weekend when I was on holiday anyway, was a bit of a waste, but I made the most of it…
We started the day with kao mun gai – the poached version, tender, garnished simply with coriander, delicious. We then tracked across town for coffee, to an old-fashioned coffee shop on Thanon Susuek for gah-fair yen, icy, strong, sweet and creamy with evaporated and condensed milk.
Our plan to walk to Ao Manao was scuttled by a cranky troll at the ‘Wing 5’ registration post, who wouldn’t allow us to pass on foot – obviously he didn’t understand that it was my birthday…
We consoled ourselves with a durian and came to the sad conclusion that Thailand’s mon-thong variety really wasn’t a patch on the Malaysian ‘musa king’, and had to mark it down on all counts – richness, flavour, texture and aroma. We walked on, to the beach north of Khao Chong Krajok, but that wasn’t nearly as salubrious as the tourist hype promised Ao Manao to be. We returned to base and consoled ourselves further with a pineapple from our favourite fruiterer, a kilo of mangosteens and a couple of crisp and juicy rose apples.
When lunchtime rolled around we backed up for another seafood meal at Jai Poon Lap. Weather conditions were more favourable so we sat nearer the waterfront to savour the birthday dishes of tort man plah, yum moo yahng (roast pork salad), and the piece de resistance tom yum goong, so deliciously hot and sour there were tears of culinary joy rolling down my face.
It was quite a late lunch so we mooched around town for a while, then headed to the regular night market on Thanon Kongkiat for something to finish off with. The homemade ice cream cart was our first stop – coconut and durian were the winning flavours, also good was the green tea and taro, topped with sugar-palm fruit, peanuts, glaced pineapple and young coconut. All that icy sweetness then needed a leveller – tao huai nam king was just the thing, a couple of bowls of warm soy curd with hot ginger syrup and crispy pathongko pieces.
All that over-indulgence and inactivity couldn’t continue, so the following morning we hired bicycles and pedalled ourselves around for the day. After a breakfast of johk in the market, and kao nee-o sunkaya with our cha rorn in the coffee shop, we cycled north to Wat Ao Noi along a road pancake flat and traffic free. The monastery, eight kilometres away, boasted a beautiful teak wat beneath Khao Khan Kradai, a karst outcrop which housed a cave with two reclining Buddhas. We explored with our flashlight for a while, disturbing the bats and getting dusty, before returning to town and continuing south to Ao Manao.
There was a different chap on desk duty at ‘Wing 5’ when we registered, one with a friendly smile, and we cycled through the manicured neighbourhood of the air force base, crossing the runway, passing the golf course, and turning to Khao Lommuak, the 250 metre high limestone crag which dominated the bays of Prachuap and Manao. The base of the outcrop was populated with spectacled langurs, a much more endearing primate than their distant relatives on Khao Chong Krajok, who were still giving me nightmares. These furry friends were blinking adorably from behind hirsute spectacles, keeping their young in the trees a safe distance from any paparazzi. We walked on to find to find the trail which led to the peak way up above on the razor sharp crag. The path was easy to climb at first – a concrete stairway led up through the jungle to the tree line, then we followed ropes and steel poles up the cliff face to the top, sometimes having to haul ourselves up rock walls presiding over increasingly wonderful views to the bays below. After a sweaty forty minutes we were on the peak with Ao Prachuap at our feet, the bay fringed by white sand, and studded with verdant karst islands reaching out to the mainland with the fingers of low tide sand bars. In the distance was Ao Noi and Khao Khan Kradai, and the town of Prachuap Kiri Khan sat proudly in the midst of such beauty.
Climbing down was, of course, much more difficult than ascending, but apart from some sunburn, ropeburn, and jelly-legs we emerged unscathed and rode off along the palm-lined road to Ao Manao. The beach wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Low tide and a grey sky wasn’t its best look, so we skipped the beach umbrellas and deck chairs under the casuarinas, and hungrily ate a late lunch in the food court. The papaya salad, som tum, and gai yahng were a bit disappointing, but we were able to shelter from the afternoon heat before pedalling home.
The night market provided an appetising conclusion to our day. A crisp and delicious hoy tort full of fresh mussels and raw sprouts was whipped up by a fat lady who brought to life the image on the Mae Krua brand oyster sauce bottle, right before our eyes! She also made an excellent pad tai with thin rice noodles, raw sprouts, crushed peanuts and calamansi lime, and we got an icy banana shake to slurp on as we headed for the tao huai nahm king stall.
It was a very pleasant evening, it hadn’t rained all day and it was a nice time to stroll on the pier. There were always dozens of fishing vessels moored, either unloading or preparing to sail, and the deckhands were rarely idle. Life aboard a fishing trawler was unenviable, but these men were jovial and healthy with muscles rippling over heavily tattooed skin. In contrast the local genteel jogged past in football shorts or threw a line in with their buddies to delight over reeling in a yellowtail.
We decided to spend one last restful day in Prachuap Kiri Khan, the day revolving around meals and snacks. For breakfast we went back to the ‘chicken rice’ shop in Thanon Kongkiat for kao ka moo, pork hock falling off the bone, braised in casia and star anise sauce, garnished with pickled greens – 40 baht, absolutely delectable. We strolled on to our coffee shop via the day market where we picked up some kao nee-o bing (sticky rice soaked in coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves with a sweet banana and grilled until crispy) to have with our cha yen, the sweet milky iced tea coloured the orange of a fluoro safety vest, and tasting only vaguely of tea. Our fruiterer had just arrived at his dependable Thanon Sarachip location, so we got a couple of the worlds sweetest, juiciest pineapples to take home for a morning of lounging on the balcony, watching the boats unload, the tide recede, and air force cessnas circle on training flights.
We bought some langsat and rambutans while we considered where to dine for lunch – Jai Poon Lap hadn’t let us down so we headed there, just reaching the awning two minutes before a torrential downpour struck, cosying us in for another great meal. The poo patpong gahree was rich with egg gravy, the shelled crab cooked with onion and curry powder; put puk bung was braised in yellow bean sauce; and the yum talay was as good as it sounds – prawns, mussels and squid in a salad of herbs, tomato and onion with a spicy lime dressing. The thunderstorm passed quickly and the sky cleared to the finest weather we had seen in a week.
Dark clouds had gathered again by the evening, but it was lovely on the waterfront promenade, people-watching as dusk settled.
We changed our minds about leaving the next day – the weather looked good and we simply didn’t want to go, so we stayed on for an extra day and hired bicycles again for some physical activity.
We breakfasted at the ‘chicken rice’ shop, this time trying the very good kao moo grorp, crispy pork with a special hot sauce, then after our gah-fair yen at the coffee shop where we were by now regulars, we pedalled off into the morning heat picking up the breeze of speed as we headed out to Khao Lommuak.
It was just 9 o’clock when we reached the base of the peak and the spectacled langurs had yet to be fed by their adoring paparazzi, so we had the undivided attention of two troops of hungry monkeys, who played all around us, posing for photos, hoping for a snack.
The climb to the peak wasn’t quite as sweaty in the early morning shade, and we bettered our time by ten minutes, reaching the top in just half an hour without photo stops. The ‘Wing 5’ airmen were practising their take-off and landing skills, so we sat catching the breeze, watching the planes come and go with the coastline stretching away beneath us.
When we got back to our bicycles the langurs were having a rollicking good time, enjoying breakfast courtesy of some German and local tourists. We watched the fun then cycled on, passing through a more attractive Ao Manao and continuing south for ten kilometres to Klongwan, a fishing town in the next bay. We found a shady spot by the beach to sit and rest under the coconut trees beyond town, then had a nice lunch at a casual roadside eatery on the way back. Gairng som plah, hot and sour fish; green chicken curry with eggplant; and bamboo and jellyfish soup, with a fresh salad of snakebeans, sprouts,cucumber, crispy dried anchovies and pickled greens. The cook, concerned about our delicate foreign palates, was surprised and delighted that we ate it all with a resounding “ah-roy!”. We ate well for just 90 baht.
Heading back home we got as far as the ‘Wing 5’ southern entry post before the rain came. We were just signing in when the first big drops fell from the sky with a thunderclap. The sentry smiled and pulled out a couple of chairs for us to wait out the downpour. In half an hour we were off again, with a pit stop in the food court at Ao Manao for a coconut shake. The bay now looked at its best – the deck chairs were appealing and the idea of staying another day was briefly floated…
Back in town our evening stroll had become a routine which took us via the night market for soy milk and tao huai, to the waterfront promenade. We sat on the seawall looking across the bay to Khao Lommuak with more fondness now that we’d scaled it twice, snacking on tiny steamed sweet potatoes and salty boiled peanuts, as storm clouds blew across the darkening sky with greater beauty than menace.
The next morning our departure plan was a bit shaky. We went for a stroll on the pier to check out the catch, then had a curry breakfast at the eatery next door to our coffee shop. Gairng som plah; makhuea, baby eggplant with pork and aniseed; pork with pineapple; and pickled green with egg – closely followed by our beverages of choice next door.
We wanted to take the train to Hua Hin so we ambled up to the train station when the ‘254’ was due to arrive, to see how late it would be – only 30 minutes! Great! So we took the train, waving goodbye to Prachuap Kiri Khan at 10:45am.
Northbound the terrain was flat and dry, denuded by abandoned fisheries as far as Sam Roi Yot. From there it became more green and populated, and we did some high-speed bird watching along the way as our locomotive disturbed open-billed storks for our viewing pleasure. Amongst the usual snack vendors patrolling the carriages with everything from iced drinks in plastic bags to petai beans and birds eye chillies, we could also choose from fresh mud crabs, so popular that the pretty (but toothless) vendor had sold out by the time we reached Pranburi.
AFTER ONE AND THREE QUARTER hours Hua Hin station appeared like a well cared for antique amidst the condominiums of the tourist town. This place had been a tourist destination for a hundred years, and its savvy showed. The rough edges had been sanded back, even the bar district, where we started looking for a room, was neat and tidy, but we moved on around the corner to Thanon Nareddamri which was shades of Khao San with a sea breeze and without dreadlocks.
Like in Prachuap Kiri Khan, Dave was the odd-man-out here – almost every foreign man not staying at either the Hilton or Centara had a Thai partner with various shades of permanency.
We settled on the Memory Guesthouse, although there was nothing all that memorable about our 400 baht room, we just couldn’t be bothered looking further. It was almost 2pm when we went out in search of lunch, the food court on Thanon Chomsin had vendors to cook dishes to order and we enjoyed put puk moo and an excellent yum neu-a with tender beef in a spicy salad of herbs, tomato, onion and eggplant. The sky clouded with a cooling shower, so we mooched around town for the afternoon, heading for the beach when we’d had enough soliciting from massage girls and Indian tailors.
Had Hua Hin was a pretty strip of powdery white sand and coconut trees. Four navy patrol ships were moored off the coast to protect the royal residence three kilometres north of town, and the coastline was backed by hotels and apartment towers.
The town was famous for its night markets, so in the evening we were keen to check them out and headed first to Thanon Dechanuchit. This row of seafood restaurants interspersed with souvenir tat was disappointing to say the least, and although the lobster looked great, and they had the biggest prawns we’d ever seen, we moved on along Thanon Phetkasem to the Grand Market – this was more like it.
We rarely eat a full evening meal but we couldn’t resist the feast on offer here. Plah pau, salt crusted tilapia barbequed to perfection, its skin peeled back to reveal succulent flesh flavoured with a stuffing of kaffir leaves and lemongrass. It was very possibly the best fish I’d ever tasted, served with a thick lime dressing, som tum and sticky rice, this was seafood heaven for 200 baht. We capped it off with coconut ice cream; barbequed banana with a coconut caramel sauce; and a sexy beetroot and passionfruit juice. Maybe Hua Hin wasn’t so bad after all – we decided to stay another day…
Chaichat Market was in full swing when we turned up for breakfast at 8 o’clock the next morning, pausing en route to stand at attention with the populace for the national anthem. Housewives, policemen, monks, everyone was there to satisfy their daily needs. We had a delicious meal of kao na phet, duck rice with fresh greens and pickled ginger, then got some essentials – bananas, mangosteens and jackfruit, before settling down in the market coffee shop for a relaxing cha yen as we watched the world go by.
A different world was going by down on the beach. We laid out our sarong under the grove of sea almond trees in front of the Centara Hotel and whiled away several pleasant hours relaxing on the sand. Jet skis and banana boats whizzed by, ponies transported nervous-looking passengers posing bravely for photographs, and bikini-clad foreigners didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow.
We lost track of time and it was again 2 o’clock when we were looking for lunch. With choices limited at such an hour, we headed back to the food court on Thanon Chomsin for some more low-key a-la-carte. Plah tort rad prik, fried minnow fillets with mushroom and chilli in red curry paste, and put pak gai saw us through the rest of the day, with another mooch around town confirming that despite some good eats we weren’t much inspired by Hua Hin.
The Chaichit wet market was definitely one of its most redeeming features, and we breakfasted there again the next morning before our departure. Curry was very popular for breakfast, and at the eat-in stall it was selling so fast that our choices were diminishing while we waited our turn. Red fish curry, spicy vegetables, pork with beans, and soy braised egg woke up our morning palates, and we followed it up with soy milk and kao nee-o sunkaya. After a browse and some fruit shopping we headed to the Chinese temple on the waterfront to soak up the morning.
We headed to the train station when the ‘254’ was again due to pass through on its way north. It turned out that it was running two hours late – but all was not lost, the ‘172’ service from Sungai Golok to Bangkok was running seven hours late and scheduled to arrive at any minute, so no sooner had we bought two tickets than the station bell was chimed and the ‘172’ rolled in. We skipped past the scores of weary would-be passengers waiting on the platform for various other delayed services and climbed aboard, unable to believe our luck. We sat in allocated second class seats and breezed out of Hua Hin just one minute past the time the ‘254’ was scheduled to depart!
The forty minute ‘rapid’ ride to Petchaburi took one and a half hours, but it was very pleasant. The morning drizzle continued, sending a cool breeze through the almost empty carriage and the scenery became increasingly pretty as we neared our destination, with lotus ponds, green padi fields, and sugar palms filling the window frames.
IT WAS DRIZZLING A BIT more enthusiastically when we alighted, so walking the kilometre to downtown Petchaburi at midday was thermally comfortable. We found a few guesthouses near the river – Sabai Dee Resort was the best of the bunch, a bit overpriced at 350 baht for a spacious room upstairs from the bathroom, but the owner, Noi, was friendly and the building that our room was housed in was an historic teak relic. In fact the entire town was well preserved, with many old wooden shophouses from different eras, and centuries old temples, some so ancient that they were originally built as Hindu places of worship.
The weather didn’t provide much chance for exploring that afternoon, but our food sorties were profitable, especially in the evening at the nearby night market – kao raat gairng with put fak thong, sweet pumpkin and egg stir-fry; tofu and sprouts; moo raat prik, ground pork with chillies; and a banana shake all hit the spot, after our delicious but meagre lunch of gai tort and sticky rice.
First thing the next morning we checked out the day market which sprawled for several blocks on the other side of the river. We had koo-ay tee-ow nahm, noodle soup at a stall by the waterfront, then shopped for langsat and salak before finding a requisite atmospheric coffee shop for a hit of iced coffee.
Our plan to go around by bicycle was scuttled by some morning rain, so we explored the town by foot instead, visiting many of the local temples, including Wat Yai Suwannaram with its three hundred year old murals and a gilded door from an ancient Ayuthiya palace. As we sat in the wiharn taking in the scene a devotee entered and approached the monk on duty, he had a new pair of runners still in the box and sought a blessing for them – the monk was obliging in a deep chant when we left.
Wat Kampaeng Laeng was also interesting for its twelfth century Khmer prangs made of laterite still bearing traces of the original stucco. Along the way we bought some maw gaang, egg custard with mung bean paste and coconut, freshly baked then packaged for us to carry around like a trophy until we went home to eat it! So after a lunch of roasted duck in ba-mee noodle soup, we sat on the deck by the river enjoying our dessert with fresh papaya.
The afternoon was hot and languid, the best thing to do was sit in the shade of the bodhi and mango trees in the grounds of Wat Phlapphlachai until it was time for a wider circumambulation finishing at the night market for some kao raat gairng and soy milk with the works – palm sugar, sago, preserved plums, grass jelly, corn, barley, kidney beans, basil seeds and mung dal – it was a meal in itself!
We started the next day in the market also, the footpaths were lined with fresh produce including the daily flower deliveries – tonnes of marigolds, bunches of long-stemmed roses, bouquets of orchids and truck loads of lotus blooms ready for the days devotional needs. We had kao man gai and kao moo daeng, red roasted pork, in a ‘chicken rice’ shop, where I happily discovered that I could now read the menu board, then we returned to the coffee shop where the same gathering of old men sat at their regular tables inside and on the footpath, reading the news and having a joke over a gah-fair rorn.
The weather was looking more favourable, so we followed through on yesterdays plan and headed out for the day on bicycles, mixing it with the Monday morning peak hour traffic until we reached the outskirts, then mixing it with a much more formidable enemy – a troop of macaques on the road to Khao Luang. We had to run another gauntlet of them to reach the cave temple, a large sunken chamber filled with Buddha images and used as a mediation retreat by King Mongkut. An old steel plaque inside was embossed with a date of 1298, around one hundred and fifty years ago.
Our bicycles had been tampered with when we returned to them – Dave’s headlight had been switched on and there were dirty footprints all over our saddles, but the snack vendors had kindly placed a stuffed crocodile over the handlebars which put an end to any further bad deeds, and we rode off dodging the mischievous monkeys still waiting for the first handouts of the day.
We headed aimlessly into the countryside following by-roads and tracks on canal embankments through rural splendour, a landscape of emerald green punctuated with the stark white aquiline forms of stalking pond herons. We stopped here and there to rest in the shade, identifying a wealth of bird life, and surprising water monitors and farmers out in the fields. Google maps helped us to find our way home on paths only as wide as our tyres alongside lotus choked canals, to major thoroughfares, and finally back to the traffic of town, where we did some shopping in the market before heading home. Dave’s keen nose sniffed out some unusually ripe durian at ten kilometres per hour, so we wheeled back to purchase what the locals seemed to reject – only 30 baht per kilo for soft, gooey, aromatic fruit. We bought a kilo of mangosteens, yin to the durians yang; and lunch from a mobile kitchen on a samlor – the best som tum (papaya salad), gai yahng and sticky rice that we’d had, all for 60 baht. We took our perfect Thai lunch home to eat on the riverside deck as the resident water monitor patrolled back and forth in the current, and grandma enjoyed her daily remedial massage under the belimbing tree.
During the afternoon we rested and rehydrated with a refrigerated fresh coconut and a banana shake, and in the evening we couldn’t wait to get back to the night market after we’d spotted massaman gai on our way out the night before. This curry was the real deal, sweet and tart with palm sugar and tamarind and served by a cheerful Massaman, himself still fasting for another hour or so…
The same crowd of regulars were in the coffee shop the next morning, even though we turned up much later, it was a place to have a laugh and meet friends, a social institution where the odd outsider was made to feel welcome. We had patongko with our regular beverages after a hearty breakfast of johk at a busy street side stall in the market.
Getting to our next destination wasn’t as simple as it could have been. We set off at 9 o’clock, with a comedy of bad advice seeing us on the least appropriate Bangkok minivan, taking us on the longest route to Amphawa via a series of highways, flyovers and underpasses. It still only took one change of transport, but considerably more time and frustration.
BUT THE FRUSTRATION DIDN’T END with our eventual arrival in Amphawa. We found a mid-week ghost town with almost nowhere to stay. I waited with a fat ginger cat at the bus stop while Dave went scouting, and guessed that the situation wasn’t good when I was approached by the only other foreigner in town, a Japanese man desperate for advise about how to leave. Dave was gone for an eternity and came back with only two choices. We considered jumping on the next sorng tair-o out of town, but in the end put our bag down in a very dark and mediocre 600 baht room at Ban Mae Arom Homestay. It did, however, have a wonderful living room suspended over the tributary klong to the nearby Maeklong River, lined with dwellings and backed by coconut plantations.
But most of the shops were boarded shut and there was an eerie absence of residents, the main sign of life was a spiritual conference going on which involved scores of white-robed practitioners performing ‘walking meditation’ along the canal-front lanes. Add zombie movie ambience to the above description of Amphawa.
We found lunch of kao moo grorp and coconut ice cream with sticky rice, then did the most worthwhile thing we could – lounged on the teak verandah of the beautiful wooden house where we stayed, watching some afternoon showers sprinkle on the klong, and the odd long-tail zip by. It was pleasant and relaxing, and we barely moved from our repose except briefly – I went out to photograph our idleness, and Dave went for provisions, returning with taro and plantain tempura, skewers of barbequed pork with green chilli, tomato and pineapple, and an icy watermelon juice.
The tide turned sending the clumps of water hyacinth back in the opposite direction; a large water monitor foraged around the klong; and the day turned to night, increasing the water traffic which expected us to wave and smile for photographs.
Comfortable as all this was, we could glean no further information about this region than the scant little we already had, so we decided to leave the next morning, climbing aboard a sorng tair-o at 7 o’clock headed for Samut Songkran, just eight kilometres away near the mouth of the Maeklong River.
IN SAMUT SONGKRAN WE ATE a very good kao man gai for breakfast, chef smiling with relief as we ordered in Thai, then looked around speculatively for a hotel. But coming up with nothing suitable, we headed for the train station to begin the final leg of our journey to Bangkok.
Maeklong station wasn’t decorated with coloured paintwork or pretty flower gardens like the others we’d patronised. This was utilitarian in the extreme. We had coffee in a shop on the covered platform where, should the train have been there we could have reached out and touched it, and at the end of the station the tracks disappeared into the local wet market – the talaat rom hopp ‘umbrella pull-down market’.
Awnings were strung out to offer shade over the rail line and produce was laid out on wheelie trolleys, ready to be rolled out of the way when the train came through. Customers browsed along the tracks buying fresh produce, seafood, meats, fruits and vegetables. The market was a good one in its own right, but its location was pure gold. Prices were low and we bought rose apples, pomelo and dragonfruit on ‘the wrong side of the tracks, but the right side of value’. Inside the adjacent covered market prices were a tad less competitive, but one could choose from a greater selection of dry goods and seafood, and we bought some fresh gapi to take Home.
Ten minutes before our train was due, the word “rot fai” started cropping up in conversations and vendors began to move their produce back past an imaginary line. Fresh chickens, smoked frogs, chilled mud crabs, baskets of gnarled gourds, trays of exotic fruits, bundles of lilies and orchids, bouquet-garnis of lemongrass, galangal and kaffir; it all had to move, and it happened with speed and well-practised precision. When the station bell chimed and the trains imminent arrival was announced, awnings and umbrellas were folded down and trolleys were rolled off the tracks. A whistle blew from close range and everyone breathed in as the locomotive squeezed through the path that it had been granted, and within seconds of passing, out came the awnings and produce ready for sale again as if nothing had happened. We followed it back to the station masters office where our bag had been stashed, and bought two tickets to the other end of the line at Ban Laem – the service was so poorly patronised that the clerk was unable to find change for our proffered one hundred baht note.
We pulled out at 10:20am, the only others passengers in the four carriages were a scattering of locals with the spoils of their shopping trip. When our engine roared to life the market began scurrying aside again, and we ploughed through it – it seemed almost homicidal knowing how it looked, choked with people, just moments earlier. The guard allowed us into his cabin to watch the spectacle as we rolled through, the tracks being reclaimed by the market the instant we passed.
It was a slow ride to Ban Laem, the train could only manage top speeds of twenty kilometres per hour as it squealed over ill-maintained tracks throwing us around with a motion more akin to a rough boat ride than a train journey. The tracks were laid through mangroves and nipa swamps, over peaked sampan bridges and along roads where we rode along with the traffic. At one stage we met a bogged semi-trailer which we had to inch past after much discussion and measured opinion – “mai dai!” was the general consensus, but we just made it with the two vehicles scraping each other as the carriages lurched past. This was a train driver accustomed to working with confined spaces. For the entire 34 kilometre route the tracks looked disused and overgrown, but this was a living, breathing train service – perhaps the most bizarre one we’d ever taken…
After almost two hours we arrived in Ban Laem and walked from the station following the directions of people unsolicitously pointing us toward a boat pier to cross the River Thachin. In Samut Sakhon, on the other side, we similarly found the Mahachai railway station for our onward journey. There was a train departing for Wongwian Yai in thirty minutes so we grabbed some lunch snacks on the run and were soon heading for Bangkok, reaching comparatively dizzying speeds along relatively sleek tracks, the engine grunting and hissing enthusiastically.
IT ONLY TOOK ONE HOUR to reach the Thai capital, and even though we had never used Wongwian Yai station before, we were back in familiar territory, and strode with confidence to the nearest bus stop to check the available services. Normally a number ’82’ would have taken us to Banglampoo but a festival in Sonam Luang stopped us short and we had to continue by Chao Praya Express along the river to Tha Phra Athit for the final leg of our day; covering the gamut of transport options – foot, sorng tair-o, train, ferry, bus and boat…
We searched further afield than our usual haunts, wanting something a little more comfortable for a longer stay – we now had ten days with Bangkok as our oyster and we intended to enjoy it. A classic old Chinese hotel in the Samsen district fit the bill with a spacious 460 baht fan-cooled room with furniture, amenities, friendly staff and a good location, just distant enough from the Thanon Khao San circus which had spread its tentacles considerably since we were last in town.
At least the travelling fraternity had cleaned itself up a bit. There would always be those unable to judge the appropriateness of dressing for a swim at the beach when they were actually walking the streets of a capital city, but on the whole ‘flashpackers’ outnumbered the hippy set and could be found in large numbers eating egg breakfasts at lunchtime in cavernous restaurants along Thanon Rambutri.
Our own eating habits were more indigenous. We always started the day at either of our two dependable old venues. The breakfast market in Thanon Kraisi, where the same vendors still operated from the same roadside positions for years, so we knew exactly where to get a tasty bowl of johk with pork offal, traditional tea or coffee, and fresh fruits. Just one block away in an alley off Thanon Phra Sumen, we could choose from kao man gai, kao ka moo, saku sai moo (steamed pork and peanut sago balls with fried onion, lettuce and coriander), or a feast of vegetarian dishes from a Buddhist eatery.
One morning we were so overwhelmed by the choices we consumed a three course breakfast starting with fruits before we left home, then kao raat gairng, which included eggplant with ground pork, palwal with sliced pork and egg, and haw mok. We got some kao nee-o bing, piping hot from the charcoal grill, and moved on to the market where we teamed it up with cha yen sai kee-o – it was the first time we’d tried the green milk tea and it was a sensation, but we were so full we could hardly move, and we didn’t eat again until lunch at 5:30 that afternoon!
In the same alleyway in the evenings we could sup on delicious hoi tort, or just around the corner from where we stayed, on Thanon Samsen there was eye-rollingly-good pad thai available from a small eatery where three variations of this single dish was the only item available on the menu. Further along we could get take-away Issan sai grok from a street cart where we could choose from three different kinds of sausage – spicy pork, fish with turmeric, or pork and sticky rice in casings – all turned into a nutritious snack with the copious additions of raw cabbage, ginger slices and cucumber.
Still in our neighbourhood, but a few notches above our regular haunts, we found Kaloang Home Kitchen down some back lanes near Tha Thawet. The decor was humble, rustic without trying to be, built on stilts over the Chao Praya, its entrance decorated with sleeping dogs and an orchid garden. Following the suggestion of the very helpful, but rather unattractive lady-boy who took our order, we had the pla sam lee ma-muang (fried cottonfish with mango salad) and teamed it with yum pak bung grorp (crispy fried morning glory with ground pork and fried egg), and green-lipped mussels steamed with basil in a stock of lemongrass, kaffir and galangal. Everything was delicious, and we sat listening to T-pop on our anniversary of love as express boats whistled by and black storm clouds loomed over the city skyline.
The activity which consumed most of our time during our stay in Bangkok, however, was shopping. Our exploits took us far and wide, and ran the gamut of experiences from jostling in the wholesale bazaars of Pratunam “how many you want???”, to the high brow mega-malls on Thanon Rama I “can I help you, sir?”.
We trawled the shopping shrines of Maboonkrong and Jatuchak, the former air-conditioned and orderly, the latter a sweltering shemozzle, jammed with acres of goods and people; both like self-sufficient townships – and one visit is never enough…
We found some locales which we’d never visited before, like the alley market of Soi Lalai Sap, and spent time merely browsing in others like the dusty Home Industries building filled with furniture and wickerware, and Talat Mai in the bustling heart of Chinatown. Some stores we went to great lengths to visit, like the Jim Thompson outlet on Sukhumvit Soi 93 – a marathon eight hour round trip due to its extreme location. Adverse traffic conditions on the return journey were so bad that we ditched the non-AC number 2 bus halfway back and spent (literally and figuratively) half an hour recovering in Robinsons before continuing on the number 511. At least we did buy some nice Jim Thompson silk!
Krung Thep’s bus system got us everywhere, sometimes slowly but always surely. The people of Bangkok made pleasant company on these trips, always courteous, often friendly and eternally patient.
Fuelling ourselves in all corners of the city was sometimes serendipitous, sometimes cursory and occasionally forgotten.
In Siam Square we had a really good lunch at Som Tum Neu-a – a restaurant so busy that our order was taken out on the street while we waited for a table. The som tum came with sausage and crispy pork rind, and we had a whole fried fish with dried chilli and lime sauce.
Another time we squeezed into the cafeteria food court of the massive Central World Plaza, slurping noodle soup with the masses of workers who staffed the centre, now thriving again after its partial destruction in the 2010 red-shirt riots.
Each day the pile of goods in our room grew higher and more diverse. Womens apparel was outdoing the mens department due to sizing issues and degrees of enthusiasm; while the consumables division included a dozen different kinds of tea. Our most significant purchase was a 2500 baht leather bag, while some tank tops for 20 baht were the stand-out bargain. We wondered if the cleaner was curious about our shopping habits, as well as the additional medicaments which kept appearing daily on our bedside table.
One morning was given over to a visit to the Adventist Hospital in Lan Luang, where a very efficient Doctor Soontharee Imamnauysup took one look at the hookworm sitting boldly in the middle of my posterior cheek to diagnose what we had spent days deliberating over, poring through gross pictures of peoples nether regions on every web site that we could find in vain attempts to figure out what it was. We left the hospital happily ever after with a bag of antihelmintics and a lotion, and were then well placed to ourselves identify other more serious cases on unsuspecting subjects which we later spotted…
Mid-week we took a day off from shopping to do some exploration of the Ratanakosin area, starting with the wonderful viewpoint of the Phu Khao Thong, then through the neighbourhood of Ban Bhat where women were hammering out traditional alms bowls. Nearby we visited Wat Rajabhopit, a beautiful temple covered in bencharong tiles; then we continued past the tourist trap of Wat Phra Kaew which was crawling with so many scammers we had to swat them like flies as we walked past. We were even able to swat other peoples flies without breaking our stride. We then took the river express to Silom to enjoy the river views along the way.
That inspired another shopping-free escape at the end of the week, taking the Chao Praya express to its last stop in Nonthaburi. There we visited the wonderful morning market, bursting with interesting fresh produce – all kinds of animals, alive, being dispatched, disembowelled, on ice; and fruits, vegetables, eggs and dry goods interspersed with sleeping and preening cats enjoying privileged lives. There were freshly prepared salads and take-home meals and snacks, and we enjoyed a breakfast of ba mee kiao, wanton soup, in the midst of the commercial activity. We then took a boat across the river to visit the lovely garden at Wat Chalern Phra Kiat and returned to the city rested and relaxed, if a little crusted with Chao Praya river spray.
By the end of our stay in Bangkok we were both suffering shopper fatigue, but still browsed and purchased to the last. We were spending within an hour of leaving for the airport (and even buying at the Don Muang terminal) before bundling everything up for the homeward journey. If only we could have dispatched it all and continued on our way – northern Thailand was very appealing – but alas, three months had elapsed since we left, and we had promised to go back…