I spent most of January away in Thailand, with two of my girlfriends from work. I’ve had an unforgettable time and I can only try to give you some impressions of the wonderful places and amazing food we had.
It all started with the dizzying chaos of Bangkok’s underbelly, Khaosan Road, with its impromptu bars and djs suddenly replacing market stalls and making us forget about jet lag as soon as we arrived. And it all finished not far from there, in the quieter streets of Rambutri, feeling more at home and less overwhelmed by the cacophony of sounds.
Away from the gangs of young travelers dancing, drinking, doing laughing gas, I found bars and restaurants full of expats from half the globe, great cocktails and even a wine bar with some decent tipple. I loved the atmosphere, the way life seems to be conducted mostly at night, people and cockroaches, markets and nightclubs, pungent food smells and sweat. Any vice and desire of the flesh, be it food, drugs, massage or sex, is catered for with no questions asked, my soul filling with this much needed darkness before returning to the UK and its rigid rules and mores. We live too much in the yin, and sometimes we badly need some yang.
In between our stops in Bangkok, was a perfect beach holiday in Koh Phanghan and Koh Tao, with plenty of time to relax and reflect at first, and for fun and socializing later.
The weather, oddly rainy for the first days of our holiday, helped us wind down and forget all the demands of our hectic lives in London. At our first bungalow at Mai Pen Rai in Koh Phanghan, we had time to read, write, think and go for long walks. The food there was simply amazing, everything cooked from scratch with vegetables grown locally. They had the best squash, sweet potato and pineapple, and their curries were always slightly different, sometimes punching us with heat.
Whole pieces of galangal floating in the soup were just asking to be kept in the mouth, releasing their frankincense-like aroma. Dishes like fresh steamed crab or mussels could be ordered in the morning and were cooked fresh in the evening. It was simple, tasty fare like this that made me fall head over heels in love with Thai cooking.
The love affair continued in Koh Tao, where we had the chance to spend an afternoon at a Thai cooking class, cooking the most traditional Massaman curry, Pad Thai and green papaya salad using only fresh ingredients. It was fun and delicious and we enjoyed every minute of it.
I had read Thai food is all about textures and a balance of the sweet, sour and savoury elements in each recipe. While eating some of the loveliest dishes during my holiday, I pondered what’s behind this statement. I found that in a well executed dish, vegetables are almost always crunchy, fresh herbs such lemongrass and mint provide much of the aroma, roots and bulbs such as galangal and garlic give a sort of background character, while ginger and chilli give the kick. For sweet read palm sugar, for savoury bring in the fish sauce and the pungent shrimp paste, for sour use lemon or tamarind juice: all these elements are almost always present in a dish, and the skilled Thai chef can balance them artfully. Of course many dishes make good use of creamy coconut milk, which works great with spices and becomes the other half of a very happy marriage when paired with fluffy basmati rice.
My all time favourites have been a Penang curry on the beach at Mai Pen Rai in Koh Phanghan, where they also treated me to the best green curry of the holiday. Best in Koh Tao have been the massaman curry at Su Chili’s restaurant, our very own Pad Thai from the cooking class (I felt incredibly accomplished then!) and a Thai-style tapas dish of sea bass tartare with lemongrass and ginger, at contemporary restaurant Kusto. I don’t tend to eat sweets, but I followed that tartare with a light and heavenly lemongrass creme brûlée, shared with my two friends. Amazing in their simplicity were also some giant bbq prawns with a lemongrass garnish, cooked right on the beach at Blue Wind Café at Sairee.
And of course there were the nights. Burmese guys were staging fire shows on the beach, enticing people to skip flaming ropes, do the limbo under a burning spoke, jump across a flaming heart. With the music always pounding well into the night, Sairee beach is a place where you can meet people, fall in love and get your heart broken in the space of 24 hours, then do it all over again.
Unlike ordinary life where the body repairs at night, in Koh Tao it’s the soul that repairs during the day. With cristalline bays packed full of corals and colourful fish, I whiled away my days snorkeling and enjoying the sunshine. I had some good reads too, and in the heat of midday and the early hours of morning I found the time for some writing as well. At sunset we would splash in the waters, taking pictures of our silhouettes against the orange sky at one with the sea.
We also found a lovely yoga evening class, and after dinner we started having daily massage sessions at a parlour by the beach, run by a bunch of rotund and energetic Thai ladies who hugged us every time we left (the 100 baht tip undoubtedly sealing their devotion towards us) and gave us jewellery on our last, emotional visit.
We were all very sad to leave in the end. Each of us three has been changed by Koh Tao, in one way or another: for some it may have been the nights, for some the days, but we all left with a bit of that island in our hearts. Farewell Sairee, we’ll meet again soon.