Paradise found, complete with rain.
Let's head South again, and let's be honest, it was going to happen sooner or later. I love train travel, especially outside the UK, where it is so ludicrously expensive, so it was always on the cards. Although the frequent buses are more reliable and certainly quicker, I just love sitting on trains. I had previously checked the timetables and the 1331 looked like the best bet. Actually, it was about the only bet as the majority of trains seem to get here either late evening or in the dead of night, so not much chance of scoring accomodation at the far end.
I got to the station in good time, to find the ticket office shut and the seller sitting eating his meal looking at a few bemused Westerners and a much more relaxed and numerous group of Thai who obviously knew what was going on. A quick scan about gave a clue. There was a blackboard with some Thai script on it from which I deduced that the 1331 was delayed until 1400. That's OK, the journey is only about three hours still getting me there in good time. As the ticket seller seemed in no obvious hurry to finish lunch I retired to the buffet for a beer and an edition of Scooby Doo on the TV, still bizarrely in English. I know from experience, there is no way they would let a train go without giving you the opportunity to purchase a ticket. Eventually, the counter reopened amidst a mad scramble, which I let subside before buying my ticket for 34B. Imagine, a three hour journey for less than a pound. The train duly arived about an hour late and off we set.
There is something magical about train journeys in this part of the world. the carriages are pretty spartan but spotless and the stream of vendors walking up and down the train means you will never go hungry or thirsty. I didn't bother eating but the boiled eggs with a little sachet of soy sauce seemed to be a bit of a favourite with the locals. After the initial shyness there is the obligatory banter albeit wothout a word of a common tongue. A bit of vigorous miming and a few facial expressions about any banal subject normally seems to elicit a favourable response. I rather enjoy it.
The railway here is single track with a few passing places and several of the numerous stations we stopped at appeared to be nothing more than huts in the middle of fields but people still got on and off. On we chugged at a steady if sedate pace as the sun began to head towards the hills of Burma. In third class it was warm but not oppressively so with the windows open and the fans going like the blazes, and the time soon passed. Another happy afternoon, of which I seem to have so many here.
Obviously we arrived in Chumporn an hour late, which as I say did not present a problem. I dodged the taxi drivers at the Station, as I have never seen the need for a taxi to walk four or five hundred yards with a wheelie kitbag, and set out for a bed for the night. Whilst looking for another place, I happened upon the Suriwong Hotel and had a look at a room for 400B. Perfectly acceptable, ensuite, telly, clean and I knew I was going to stay only one night. The fact that rooms are available on a two hourly basis may give some clue as to the type of establishment it is but at that price I am not too concerned what the neighbours are getting up to behind closed doors. In the event, my sleep was not disturbed at all. A quick lie down and a shower and it was off into the Chumporn night in search of food.
I do a bit of writing for a wonderful travellers website called Virtual Tourist and I am what is called a tip group editor for several places, London included. Part of this job entails creating pages for various restaurants and I end up looking at a lot of restaurant websites. This is no great trial as I love cooking and would happily watch chefs at work all day. Recently, I was looking a the website for the new place run by Richard Corrigan, an Irish chef I admire greatly. In common with many other celebrity chefs he offers what is called a chef's table where, for about £250 a head you can meet the brigade and then sit in a glass enclosed room watching them prepare your meal. I have news for these people. For the price of a couple of dishes of inexpensive, exquisite food and a couple of beers, all well less than a tenner, I was treated to an absolute masterclass in Asian cooking with no glass getting in the way. It was superb, so allow me to explain.
Firstly, I have no idea what the place is called as there is no English sign and certainly no English menu. Come to think of it I didn't see a Thai menu either. People just order from memory. It is not as if you are allowed a glimpse into the kitchen, the restaurant is the kitchen. It is effectively a shack with a corrugated iron roof and open to the elements. To the rear is obviously the home of the proprieters. The kitchen is so basic it is unbelievable the variety and quality of food produced. There are two gas rings with large woks. There is a freezer to keep the meat and veg cold. There is a large plastic container of water refilled constantly from a tap running off what looks like a garden hose. Towards the middle of the restaurant is a spotless stainless steel table on which is a chopping board that is no more than a lump of tree trunk. the chef controls the cooking area, and the waiter, who seems to double as sous chef, does all the prep on the chopping board when he is not waiting on table. The lady of the house waits as well and doubles vending takeaway snacks from a small booth at the front of the premises.
So, we are back to the language problem again. Not wanting to resort to laboriously going through my guidebook she offered rice (as always pronounced ri) which seemed like a good place to start. The only thing I could remember was the word for pork is moo. Actually, I have always found it slightly amusing that the word for pork is the noise a cow makes but there you go. I offered moo as a suggstion and sat down to wait. What a flurry of activity. You see on TV where professional chefs have entire batteries of utensils at their disposal, well forget that. In the three hours or so I was there I saw the chef use a ladle and the other guy had a cleaver which he used for absolutely everything. I later watched him slice wafer thin slivers of beef with it that would have made a fine steak tartare. So away they go. In less time than it takes to write about it, veggies and pork were prepared, all was thrown in the wok and the resultant dish was quite delicious. Good start. The waiter / sous obviously noticed I was taking quite an interest in his work and was deliberately standing to one side so I could watch him, which I thought was decent of him. The main chef was going like a dervish. There was a family table of about six close to me who appeared to be ordering just about everything on the menu and he was knocking it out as fast as they could order it. Everything made in the two woks, rice dishes, soups, an omelette, deep fried dishes. I suspect Messrs. Ramsay, Oliver, Worrall-Thompson et al would have been pressed to keep up, and all in front of the waiting clientele.
Well, all this was good enough, but there was a further treat in store. Later in the evening a fairly young looking guy came into the restaurant and proceeded to wander into the kitchen and start to cook a meal which he then ate. I had thought the other guy was the owner so this was a little odd. I got speaking to the waiter / sous and as best I can understand it, the new guy was a chef from a top place in Bangkok, home for a couple of days. Certainly, the deference he was shown would suggest it as a possible case. Well, if I thought the original chef was fast, this guy was lightning. The original chef / owner was relegated to commis and between him and the waiter they could hardly keep up with supplying him with the raw ingredients. Although quite full, I watched him prepare a dish of chicken pieces in a sort of sticky barbecue sauce and it looked so delicious I had to order some. Up they came in about two minutes flat and they were every bit as delicious as they looked.
The only drawback in this restaurant, and it is a minor one is the damn karaoke jukebox. You insert a coin, select a tune from a printed list and off you go. The problem was that it seemed to be monopolised by two middle aged men, one of whom introduced himself to me totally unprompted as a policeman and the other who was wearing army fatigues and a beret and I would wager was about as much Thai Army as I am. However, that is a minor quibble, and the whole experience was as enjoyable as it was unexpected. So off to bed and ready for the boat trip in the morning.
Up early and along the road to find a travel agent for the boat to Ko Tao. Certainly no problem finding one as the town is littered with them. It really is a bit of a hub for the islands of Tao, Phangan and the very popular Samui. I wandered into the first one I saw, and was promptly issued with a ticket to Ko Tao for 500B. The very pleasant proprieter told me the taxi would be there to take me to the pier in 20 minutes time so I set out to say goodbye to my culinary friends of the night before just round the corner but unfortunately the place was shut, obviously a night time haunt.
Back to the travel agency and a short and uneventful trip to the pier where I showed my ticket and promptly had a sticker stuck on my shirt, similar to the charity things you get in the street. The reason for this became apparent later as they are colour coded depending on destination. Apparently it is quite common for Westerners to get off at entirely the wrong island. I took my seat and settled down for the short journey, managing a dozette against the blaring Thai pop videos by dint of another travellers essential, the foam earplugs. I really recommend them. The crossing was a little lumpy but nothing major and the catamaran made light work of the seas, although I believe they are unreliable at certain seasons due to heavy weather.
I jumped ashore and again had to battle my way through taxi drivers, room hawkers and the like and on into town. Well, I say town, but that is to overstate the case a bit. There is a beach road which is effectively a track, another parallel road in slightly better condition a couple of hundred yards inland and a few connecting roads. The whole place is entirely devoted to tourism, specifically diving and you cannot move for English / German / Swedish bars and restaurants and outlets touting dive courses and snorkelling. I read that this island issues more dive certificates per year than anywhere else in the world. I had previously considered learning to dive when I was in Cairns in 1991 and again on Bali in 1996 so I will have a think about it, it seems like a good place to do it. I might go on one of the introductory dives to see if I like it. Actually, I am worried about my ears. I have been known to suffer quite badly from flying due to unrelieved pressure and I am not sure how they will react to the underwater pressure. I will let you know.
I had a wander around and settled on a room not far from the pier which is basic but clean and completely adequate. For 400B a night it even has hot, well warmish water, which is all you need in these climes. I took a bit of a wander last night and this is certainly not the mad party town it is touted as although that walk, and another more adventurous one today would suggest that the resort is still only gearing up for the season. Certainly, by eleven o'clock last night I was having difficulty enough finding a place for a nightcap, but I am jumping ahead again.
A shower and the obligatory dozette spent the early evening for me. I must admit that since retirement I am prone to having a little siesta in the afternoon, and the heat here really makes it essential. I wandered past the Italian / French restaurant, past a couple of pizza places, past the Hippo Bar offering imported filet steaks and burgers and the English pub who boast Branston pickle, piccalilli and Colmans mustard to go with your burgers etc. In the name of God, why? In a country offering one of the best cuisines in the world, why would you possibly want to eat "full English breakfast", "Australian Burger" or even beans on toast? It really baffles me. It is like the Brit enclaves in Spain, now diminishing I believe due to the recession, where you are offered fish, chips and mushy peas instead of tapas or paella. Why not just stay at home if that is your thing?
I eventually wandered into a little outdoor restaurant up near the filling station where the cuisine was somewhat limited but eventually wonderful. Basically it is a barbecue restaurant and there is no menu. Your choice is of what type of meat you want to barbecue, so I opted for moo again. Thre is a terracotta dish on your table with a metal stand. The owner comes to the table with an odd looking device, which I really wish I had thought to photograph as it would make this so much easier. The centre is filled with glowing charcoal coals and there is a vented top with what looked like a piece of fat in the centre to drip down and make it stay alive. Outside that is a circular reservoir which filled with stock and which you subsequently refill with hot water from a small kettle. You are brought two plates, one of assorted vegetables and uncooked glass noodles and the other with your meat of choice, in this case thin slices of what I would have described as bacon rather than pork. Having filled the reservoir with water he cracks a raw egg into it and stirs it around to create a base for a very tasty soup. You drop the veggies and the noodles into the broth to cook for a few minutes and barbecue the meat on the vented top of the device. It is all very quick, he demonstrates it to you, and then leaves you to your own devices. It works out absolutely wonderful, as you had probably guessed from the way I am writing. The whole event (and I use the word advisedly) probably took about 90 minutes, and I was amazed at the way the thing kept warm as I thought the coals would have burnt out long before. Another great meal.
Whilst eating, I was aware of the sound of a guitar, slightly out of tune it must be said, coming from nearby although I could not see it. Leaving the restaurant, and a little intrigued, I discovered the source of it and thereby ensued another of my strange guitaring experiences. The instrument in question, probably worth £20 on a good day and boasting only five strings, was being wielded by the attendant from the nearby filling station and his efforts were being listened to by his young mate. A quick introduction and there we were, sitting on the side of the road bashing out tunes on a five string guitar. I taught him my slightly jazzy Am7 / Bm7 chords like I use on "Ships are Sailing" etc. and he seemed much taken with it. Perhaps I have done a little good there for it must be a miserable enough existence standing there filling cars and bikes all day, and probably for a pittance.
Well, after my impromptu guitar lesson, it was just gone 11 and I headed down to what is suppoesed to be this mad party town. I don't think so. This town was as dead as Gordon Brown's vicarious political career is now. Not a party to be had, so off to bed again. I woke up this morning (blues song again?) and debated the idea of getting another bike to explore the island, although I had read that the roads here are in a parlous state and my walk today would certainly bear that out. The beach road becomes unpaved after a matter of yards, and the main inland road is not much better. I did see a couple of proper trail bikes for hire so I might try for one of those and explore a little more of the place.
Feeling my tummy getting a little dicky (it has been slightly for a day or so but nothing major), I decided to head back towards my digs where at least I knew the loo was in good order. This turned out to be a very good decision, not for reasons intestinal but rather meteorological, as within about five minutes of me sitting down in the cafe downstairs from my place there erupted a complete monsoon which went on for about three hours. I know we have been complaining about the strange weather in the UK lately, and the storms in Cumbria were exceptional (RIP PC Bill BARKER) but there really is nothing to compare to the sheer volume of water that falls in these latitudes during a storm. It is really something to see. The water literally races down conduits at the side of the road, often overflowing it, it hammers on the polythene roof of the awning I am sitting under and drives all but the hardiest or most unlucky under cover. Well, three hours or so of that gave me an opportunity to catch up on this, so hopefully I can find a place tonight to upload it all.
I suspect climatic conditions or sheer boredom on long journeys may allow me to keep up this blog, unlikely as that sounds coming from me. The technology of this little notebook, which I am getting to understand a little, is wonderful and wifi seems to be de rigeur in the better cafes in the region. I am not so sure how it will work in the wilds of Pakbeng of the Plain of Jars but we will see. All I need basically is a power source to work offline and then update as possible. I hardly think it will lead to a Booker prize listed book but it will be a nice memory for me.