Sunday, January 22, 2012

Salad Days

Recently Nut and I tried a new restaurant named Veggie Veggie, right over on Phra Sumen Road a short walk from our place. We enjoyed it because it was quite a bit different than the other restaurants in our neighborhood; its specialty is salad, organic salad. As a bonus in these hot and stifling times it is icily air conditioned. Now, I love Thai food as you know but I do miss the big salads I eat back in the states. Thais eat vegetables of course but they don't really do much with salad and when they do, the dressing they favor is a kind of plain white dressing that looks and tastes more or less like mayonnaise. Except that it's sweet. I swear, everything in Thailand is sweet. But that's another story.

First, let me give you some background.

One night in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago I got this compelling urge to have some farang food. I suggested this to Nut and although she adores Thai food and is as ethnocentric as they come, she readily agreed to try it. Off we went to the nearby Irish Pub for dinner. I can't recall what else we had that night but when I spotted Ceasar Salad on the menu I ordered one for each of us. It wasn't bad but it wasn't great either and it was a far cry from the Ceasar I can put together with a blender in my own kitchen. The dressing was sweet, the lettuce wasn't romaine and there was no Parmesan cheese anywhere in sight but it did have croutons and shrimp. We enjoyed it for what it was, a cool, leafy green salad. Nut actually quite enjoyed hers and wanted to have it again. I filed her comment away for future reference.

Fast forward to the Terrace Bar of a luxury hotel near Krabi, a hotel we were checking out as a place to stay. It was too pricey for that but I figured as long as we were there we might as well take a break and have an iced coffee. On the menu -- Caesar salad, again. And again we tried it. It was served with a flourish by waiters wearing special little suits, as if that could make a difference. The verdict? Not as good as the one we had in the Irish Pub. More expensive too.

I said to Nut, "wait until we get back to Bangkok. I'll fix you a real Caesar salad."

So, a few days ago we drove over to our local Foodland, an upscale Bangkok market where you can get things like olive oil, anchovies, and Dijon mustard, things that are generally absent in normal Thai markets, things farangs like to eat. Farangs like me. Luckily, Foodland also had romaine lettuce and we already had a bag of limes in the fridge. I read somewhere that the first Caesar dressing was made with lime juice, not vinegar or lemon juice. Okay, all set.

We broke out Nut's old blender and I put together the dressing, one I've made at least a hundred times. Into the blender went the lime juice, anchovies and garlic cloves: I blended that until smooth. I added some salt, a Thai chili (instead of cayenne), some Dijon, an egg yolk and got the blender back up to full speed. I drizzled in olive oil until the mixture thickened and turned creamy. So far so good.

I poured the mixture over the torn up romaine leaves that had been thoroughly washed by my clean freak Thai girlfriend, tossed them with plenty of shredded Parmesan, added some slices of hard boiled egg, and put the dish before her. She tasted it, gave it a little chew, and then turned up her nose. Mai aroi! (translation: not delicious). I tasted my salad. Damn! The olive oil was stale. And so was the Parmesan. It was indeed, mai aroi. Double damn. She managed to eat her serving but flat out  refused seconds. And I, of course, not wanting to waste all those costly ingredients, ate the rest. Gulp.

That's why finding the Veggie Veggie was so notable.

Their excellent salads cost about 90 baht. Two cream-style soups are also available, mushroom and spinach, and we sampled both. They were pretty tasty. The place is nicely decorated and you can buy fresh greens to take home in bulk or as salad packs. Dressings are available in prepackaged serving size containers. They have wraps and sandwiches too.

A day or two later Nut went over to Phranok Market help her sister prepare for the Chinese New Year so I went back to try their Caesar salad. It was excellent. Not the same as my Caesar but good nonetheless. Croutons, bacon, and cheese bits over mixed super crisp organic greens, topped with a lovely tart dressing. Not bad for 109 baht (about $3 USD).

Veggie Veggie Caesar Salad

We've had the pleasure of entertaining several guests during the past couple of weeks -- Jane and Miles from Homer and Tina from Anchorage. Then today we said goodbye to my old friend Terry whom I last saw in college back in Buffalo in 1963. We talked and laughed about old times, old friends and the various watering holes where we hung out during our fraternity days. Our time together was too short. By prior agreement we steadfastly avoided talking politics, on which we've come to have widely divergent views. Just as well -- that might have spoiled an otherwise perfect visit.

Now Nut and I are free to "get out of Dodge" as the saying goes. We'll pack the bike and head up the road tomorrow, the road north to cooler weather and hopefully a new apartment in Chiang Mai. I won't miss the heat and hellacious traffic of Bangkok one bit.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Touring the southern provinces - Part III

I had not expected to like Ranong all that much. I figured it to be just another big city with the usual urban blight and widespread poverty but it surprised me. Overall it's clean and nice looking, a pleasant city that I would visit again. It's a major fishing port situated on the Kraburi River from which it gets its character and to me, an Alaskan traveler hailing from a different sort of fishing port, its charm. We stayed an extra day there too at a nice hotel, the Pathu Resort. Although Nut sat at poolside for a photo but we never went in the water because the weather too cool.

The restaurants in Ranong specialize in seafood and we ate some terrific dinners there. Mussels, prawns, ocean fish, crab. The crab we had reminded me of the famous soft-shell crabs I used to get once in a while on the east coast. Those mostly came from Chesapeake Bay and I have no idea if the local crab is related to that species but I know this, it was delish and we ate the shells along with everything else.

We took a ride to the far side of the estuary one evening. It was nearing sunset and I took a few photos looking back toward the city and its fish processing neighborhood.

Fishing boats - Kraburi River - Ranong

Kraburi River side channel - Ranong
Sunset on the Kraburi River - Ranong
The Kraburi River separates Thailand from Myanmar. The hills you see in the above photo are in Myanmar. Many travelers use this port as a jumping off point for visa runs. For a small fee local small boat owners ferry tourists across the river to obtain the required visa stamp.

After leaving Ranong a short ride in fierce headwinds took us across the peninsula to the east coast again, back to Chumphon. The owner of the little guest house recognized us as soon as we pulled in and made us feel very welcome. As guest houses go, the Somkiss is pretty nice: 350 baht (for a nice room with TV, wi-fi, fridge and aircon. Plus it has good parking for the bike, well off the road and out of sight.  Nut tells me that having a new motorcycle with no plates on it (it takes 30 days to get license plates in Thailand) makes the bike easier to steal so I've been drawn to hotels with secure parking. Consequently we've been paying more than usual for lodgings on this trip -- about six or seven hundred baht.

I loved the route we took on our way south to Chumphon from Prachuap Khiri Khan and wanted to retrace it going north. I took my saved GPS track from that trip, ran it through GPSBabel, a fantastic swiss-army knife conversion program to both reverse the track and, due to the 500 point limitation of my GPSMAP 60Cx, with its "Simplify" function reduced the number of points it contained. I fed that track back into my GPS and merely followed it back. See it here. All the roads are good with the exception of a few miles that are potholed and if you ever drive it you'll see very little traffic other than local motorbikes on any of them.

The CBR at the beach road north of Chumphon
We did take a short side trip to a little beach that I'm sure hardly ever gets visitors. Tong Yang beach is spectacular. It's isolated, empty and undeveloped. It may even be private property although it was marked with a road sign just as other public beaches are.
Tong Yang Beach (above and below)

On the road to Tong Yang Beach
We got back to Prachuap Khiri Khan and Aou Minou beach, which although far more beautiful, isn't quite as touristy as Hua Hin, where we lucked into a fantastic guest house for only 500 baht ($15 USD). The aptly named Private Resort is a place I'll definitely keep in my little collection of faves. It's not right on the beach but it is private, quite roomy, has good motorcycle parking, and it's cheap.

After spending two nights at Private Resort we once again retraced our route back to Hua Hin. Along the way we stopped off at Sam Roi Yot National Park where we made what turned out to be a nasty climb up to the Sai Cave.  It was pretty neat and a bit spooky and we were the only ones there.  I made the photo below from 3 others shot with exposure bracketing and then merged them into a single photo with Photoshop's HDR (High Dynamic Range) function. Unfortunately, Blogger has once again  mucked up the way it displays images if you want see full them size (you cannot), so I include it here as a full size image. The idea behind HDR is that you get the low density areas from a longer exposure jpeg that has no highlights while obtaining the highlight portion of the photo from an underexposed jpeg image. Combining the two increases the composite's dynamic range. It sort of worked but digital sensors still fall far behind silver halide films in terms of dynamic range and the sunny area is still blown out.

Sai Cave - it's no Ansel Adams but hell, I tried.
Sai Cave
Sai Cave

Nut inside Sai Cave
Time to close this chapter of my Thailand travels. We're back in Bangkok as I finish writing. I'm here because friends from the states are arriving soon, Jane from Homer, and an old college friend, Terry, whom I haven't seen in, let's see, can it possibly be that long? Forty-eight years!

Nut thought these two froggies we saw at a roadside cafe were cute so she photographed them.  I captioned them later.

Froggy conversation

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Touring the southern provinces - Part II

After seeing the hordes of tourists at Aou Nang Beach in Krabi we decided to head out of town ASAP in search of a less populated area. We drove north for a few miles and found a reasonably priced guest house where we spent the night. I can see why people are attracted to this area. It's beautiful and geologically unique. There are huge and interestingly shaped rock formations, limestone actually, scattered here and there throughout the region, including many exquisitely scenic islands. Some of those appeared in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "The beach" that was popular a few years back. Still, the huge numbers of tourists put me off to the point that I wanted out despite the urge to explore the beautiful Phi Phi Islands or even to visit a nearby fossil museum. I like being in parts of Thailand where people that look like me are in the minority I guess.

The formations are called karst towers. Found throughout SE Asia -- they're the major geologic feature of the famous Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam, for instance -- these towers are apparently the remnants of a giant coral reef that was first lifted by the action of plate tectonics and then eroded by flows of fresh water around their bases. This is what gives them their characteristic conical shape and steep, undercut sides. They are quite beautiful.
Karst tower - near Krabi, Thailand
Stunning roadside scenery near Krabi
Towering scenery along Route 4

Another view from Route 4 north of Krabi
Nut and the CBR250 - Route 4 north of Krabi
We drove Route 4 from Krabi to Takua Pa at a leisurely pace; I enjoyed the ride for many reasons. The scenery was spectacular. There was virtually no traffic. I was traveling with my beautiful Thai girlfriend (aka BTGF) with whom I'm getting along famously after almost two years together. And the new CBR was performing flawlessly.

This motorbike is a wonderful machine for touring in Thailand. Although it's too small for our big American highways in Thailand's more compact geography and tight twisty roads, it's nearly perfect. I seldom cruise at more than 50 mph over here; that's equivalent to about 5000 rpm on the tach, and at that speed the bike gets gas mileage in the range of 80-90 mpg -- the best it got so far was on the slow cruise to Prachuap Khiri Khan last week where I calculated 96 mpg (41 km/liter). At 5000 rpm the engine is still quiet too -- redline is at 10,500 rpm but at that speed she's literally screamin'. I'm still breaking it in so I never rev it that high, well, almost never. We got the 1000 km oil change and the chain lubed at a Honda dealer last week. It has about 1500  km on the clock now.

The bike is a dream to drive even when we're riding 2-up with our gear. It has plenty of gusto on the hills and it's so light and flickable that turns are easy to execute. With its high mounted footpegs and good suspension it's built for turns -- it's much more agile than the old Phantom at any speed.

Fishing boat - Karaburi
We visited some scenic, totally empty beaches on our way north to the little town of Takua Pa. These beaches are so far undevelped but I don't imagine they'll stay that way for long.

Hat Aou Khoei beach Route 4 near Karaburi
Hat Phrabat beach - Route 4 between Karaburi and Takua Pa
In Takua Pa we found a sweet little bungalow, very quiet and private, and decided to stay there an extra night. Next day we visited the Baan Nam Kem Tsunami Memorial and spotted this tsunami shelter close to it. We saw several more of these concrete structures on beaches bordering the Andaman Sea whose shores we were touring. I remember TV coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami but in the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean it was a major disaster that killed nearly 230,000 people worldwide with roughly 8,000 of those in Thailand. The Aou Nang beach in Krabi where we had dinner a few days ago was one of those places that appeared in some horrific YouTube videos in which you could see the waves as they rose up to wipe out hotels and tourists, entire towns. The quake that caused it ranks among the strongest ever recorded right up there with the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake in Alaska.

Baan Nam Kem Tsunami Memorial - December 26, 2004

We drove around to hit a few more beaches that day as well and briefly toyed with the idea of staying a night in one of the exclusive resorts we passed but when we found out what they were getting for rooms we thought better of it. One place wanted 4800 baht ($150 USD) for a poolside room. Our studio in Bangkok costs 5000 baht per month! Another resort, an upscale beach side hotel, wanted 7500 baht. Uh, no thank you, I don't think we'll be staying with you tonight.

Next stop, the city of Ranong. We had a different sort of breakfast in Takua Pa before setting out.  It was an assortment of tasty dim sum. Some of the ingredients: stewed pork ribs, fish wrapped in bacon, seaweed, mushrooms, assorted veggies and tofu. Pretty healthy and pretty cheap as well. I had to take a photo, and having done that had to include it here.

Dim sum breakfast - Takua Pa
To be continued...

Monday, January 2, 2012

Touring the southern provinces - Part I

On the road north of Krabi
Nut and I are on a tour of the southern provinces. The idea was to get out of Bangkok to ride the new bike and to see places I had never visited before. Tucked into that was the idea of visiting her son, Stayu, nicknamed Do Do, who lives with his father in the little town of Pa Phayom, near Phatthalung. To do that we would travel south on the east coast of Thailand's long arm that stretches south all the way to Malaysia. After lunch with Stayu we would cross over the peninsula to the famous west coast that fronts on the Andaman Sea to visit an area that draws millions of tourists to Thailand annually.

We left Bangkok on the 29th, the Thursday before the big New Year's Weekend. After a hard day in heavy traffic on the 8-lane highways that serve the hordes in Bangkok we arrived in Hua Hin, a tourist mecca on the Gulf of Thailand. After finding a nice guest house I immediately phoned Rety & Bruce, who had hosted me when I was traveling and Couchsurfing in Spain 2 years ago and who have been living in Hua Hin since September. They were packing for a month in Australia where one of their daughters lives, and where they will catch a few matches in the Australian Open, but they told us to head on over for a visit. We had a lovely chat and shared dinner at a local eatery. These two quit their jobs in Vancouver, B.C., a few years ago after selling their home at the peak of the market just months before the American-triggered economic collapse reduced global real estate values. With that money and some clever investing they've been able to remain job free and travel extensively. They have become true Citizens of the World. In March they will go to Italy for a few months, or maybe a year, who knows? By the time I leave Thailand next spring they could even be installed in a new villa or residence and hosting Couchsurfers again. Could another visit be in the offing?

The next day we meandered along the coast following a route I had made up with the help of my GPS software. The intent was to stay off the main roads as much as possible to avoid traffic and to explore rural Thailand and the less populated beaches along the way. A blue highway kind of trip. The ride to Prachuap Khiri Khan was wonderful. The day was cloudy and cool, the roads ran close to the ocean and the traffic was light. A very nice day for motorcycling.
Beach south of Hua Hin - Phu Noi
The coast south of Hua Hin
The CBR250 just off Route 1047 north of Prachuap Khiri Khan
Rocky ridges north of Prachuap Khiri Khan - Sam Roi Yot N.P.
The Garmin-compatible auto-routing software I'm using is available for free on the Internet and while not perfect is nevertheless vastly better than trying to devise a clever route with only a paper map. (Check it out at: Free Routable maps for Garmin. The paper map I use is one of the better ones available, printed by PN Map, "Thailand Traveling Guide, New Edition" ISBN 978-974-485-037-9, in English and Thai). Each night I sit at my Netbook with the paper map open as a reference, and build a route in my Garmin Mapsource program that takes us near beaches and other points of interest while avoiding the big highways whenever possible. I transfer the route to my Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx and then during the ride merely follow the directions it issues.

We wanted to have a swim at a beautiful beach near Prachuap Khiri Khan, Aou Minou, but by the time we got there it was cooling off and the beach was in the shade. We climbed the stairs to a temple on Kao Chong Krajok first and it took a while, quite a while. This temple was at the upper end of the longest flight of stairs I've ever climbed, 390 of them to be exact.
The middle section of the stairway to the temple at Kao Chong Krajok
Almost there! (Tired, honey? close-up below)

View of Prachuap Khiri Khan and its bay from the temple
View north  from Kao Chong Krajok temple -- Prachuap Khiri Khan
Nut was all set to swim in her Thai version of a swimsuit but at the last minute chickened out. Too cold!, she exclaimed as I took this photo. Note the long sleeves on this "swimsuit" please.

The beach at Aou Minou
Our dinner at Aou Minou. Notice the smile? I have teeth again!
Next day, New Years Eve day, found us in Chumphon after a longish ride that was almost as pretty as the one the day before. We found a cheap guesthouse a short distance south of the city and then doubled back to town for a fantastic meal at a restaurant named Prik Hom. Nut had spotted a special logo on its door that she told me meant Good Food Inside. Right, check. It was an excellent dinner that included among other delectations a huge plate of broiled giant New Zealand green mussels, and especially considering the whole deal cost only about 500 baht (15 bucks). We expected to be kept awake by fireworks for much of New Years Eve but our little place was quiet. Even the bar next door, which had a rock band belting out tunes at 8 pm, was uncharacteristically shuttered soon after we got back from dinner. We were both fast asleep before midnight.

The New Years Day ride was the longest on the CBR250 so far: 320 km in 5 hours moving (8 hours total with a rain delay of at least an hour) on the way from Chumphon to Thung Song. This trip was different in another way -- we drove in pouring rain for the latter half of the journey. For the first hour of the storm we stopped at a closed for the holiday tire shop which had a convenient roofed over area with a couple of chairs where we and the bike stayed dry until the rain had subsided into what was merely a downpour rather than the torrential rain that stopped us. We got tired of waiting so we donned our 30 baht raincoats, really just super thin plastic bags with arms, switched from tennis shoes to flip flops and hit the road again.
Rain delay -- Route 41 south of Chumphon
An hour later we stopped to take a break at a 7-11 and even though we weren't actually cold, we wanted hot drinks and a chance to stretch our limbs. As usual in the 7-11 the aircon was cranking hard, which I usually like, but on this day the place felt so damned cold we jumped right back on the bike to escape the chill.  The water splashing up from the pavement was so warm it felt good. One thing I learned from the experience: the rain in Thailand is wet like it is everywhere, and inconvenient, but it's not going to give you hypothermia.

By the way, the Royal Thai Police were supposed to be out on the highways enforcing the law, encouraging people to use seat belts and helmets, in an effort to minimize the carnage over the long holiday week. Ha! Their idea about how to do this is to set up these big roadside tents, sort of like a checkpoint except nobody's checking anything, and forcing everybody to slow down by putting up barriers to squeeze the traffic into a single lane in front of the tent. That's it! No extra patrol cars, no patrol cars at all really, no speeding tickets issued, few Thais wearing helmets. What they are doing in those tents aside from sitting around in the shade and gabbing is anyone's guess. (Drinking beer?) As for literally getting out on the roads and enforcing laws -- no, not really -- that's not the Thai way. This is why driving is so dangerous in Thailand. Nobody enforces traffic laws.

We overnighted in an upscale hotel in Thung Song and from a dry and comfy room watched the rain sheet down that evening and into the night. The next day dawned cloudy with rain threatening to come soon so we got up early, skipped breakfast, got on the bike and hustled down the road to Pa Phayom to see Nut's son. The weather forecast was gruesome -- we only spent a few minutes with him before hurrying westward to stay ahead of the rain. Later that day we saw on TV that practically the entire area we had traveled through and some of the same roads we had just driven were now under water. We were just a hop, skip and a jump ahead of the floods that have plagued southern Thailand since last spring.
Nut and her son, Staya
We made it to Krabi that afternoon. I had suspected and now knew for sure that the west coast of Thailand is teeming with farangs! Naturally. Where else would they go but to the most beautiful beaches in the country? Big hotels, souvenir shops, McDonalds, Starbucks everywhere, yech! All the things I love to hate. I had sort of wanted to visit Phuket while in this area but the glitterati scene at Aou Nang Beach in Krabi snuffed that wish for good.

To be continued...