Travelling with Alan made me realise two things.
1. Next bike tour I’m bringing better navigation. Although there are way more aggressive dog gangs, the rural roads are much more beautiful and eventful than the highway.
2. In Thailand waking up at 5am is a good thing.
Alan insisted on waking up in the 5am hour every morning so we could get on the road by 6. At first I took to this task like an arthritic hippo at the bottom of a hill but now I do it every morning. Thailand is a dream at 6am – the roads are barren, the sunrise is long and the joke* is plentiful. It’s so cool and breezy at that hour I usually end up riding about 60-70 kilometres before 10am (when the sun transforms into a merciless rain of acid).
Yesterday I got to Klaeng at 12:00. I checked into a hotel, crammed down some lunch, did some exploring and then it was 1:30. Well then . . . what to do? Usually I spend the afternoon pillaging snack stalls like a tape-worm possessed viking but Klaeng was snack deficient. There was no snack town, the markets were full and busy but only with produce and the restaurants were closed or empty. What do I do? Bewildered, lonely and weighed down by anvil thighs I decided I should relax but it was such a decisive decision that the usual relaxing (reading naked in my hotel room) didn’t feel adequate. Instead I got a haircut and drank some whiskey with a gaggle of old thai men. I felt very relaxed afterwards.
After the old guys and I were finished discussing Thailand’s political future (ambiguous and sad), Manchester City’s football squad (all cunts) and the strength of my legs (I received a thorough groping) the two old men who were left standing pointed me towards their favourite restaurant.
Marvellously hectic, ridiculously long menu and an inappropriately young staff. I was greeted by one of the older, young waiters. He was so dumbfounded by my attempts to speak Thai he refused any attempt to understand me. He waved his hand around like a washed up pop star until his mum came to sort it out. I asked her what’s delicious in Thai. She gave me a big smile and led me towards a squadron of well armed pots. Her hand swung down to point at a light broth with some ambiguous corpse looking things floating around.
“This is the most delicious thing we have.” It was chicken foot soup. I had a quick scan of the restaurant and, sure enough, everyone was eating it. Finally! No pussy footing around with fried rice or any other bullshit, this woman means business.
“Chicken foot soup hey.”
“Hahaha yes.” I don’t think she had heard anyone say it in English and the sound of it amused her.
“I’ll have one.”
It was fucking good! The soup itself was pretty simple, just chilli, coriander, lots of garlic and stock, the feet were excellent. The few times I’ve had chicken feet before I thought it was just a novelty – the difficulty in separating and spitting out bones was never worth the numbly flavoured flesh. I always wondered why people served it at all. Now I understand they’ve all eaten at this Klaeng restaurant and since then they’ve been trying to copy it but they’re all jerks so they failed.
Back to my meal. I started off by just timidly drinking the soup, thinking maybe the feet are just used for good stock flavour. As soon as I tried one of the wrinkly suckers the rest of them were all gone without another suckle of soup. The flesh was delicious and supple. You grab the wrist end and put the foot in your mouth and suck. All the flesh and skin slips of like an oily glove and leaves all the bones in a separate pile inside your mouth. Pull the bones out and savour some good shit. Seriously, it was really, really good.
For a highway town, Klaeng is very pretty. The main square, housing a lively fruit market, is framed by streets of brightly coloured terraces and wooden houses.
At around 6pm the residents of Klaeng evaccuate the streets to make way for thousands or sparrows. For the duration of the sunset the sky is filled with a loud ballet.
Usually I ride until I feel like stopping, I stay wherever that happens to be but over the last few days I’ve been riding to meet my deadline to get to Battambang and back*. Today the plan was 81km to Makham, a small town in the mountains. I arrived to find Makham has no hotel. I was sent 14km back the way I came to find Nong O, a highway town so anonymously ugly it has managed to evade the interests of both Google and Apple’s navigation. Having rode a bunch of kms in the opposite direction of my journey to an ugly highway scrap, I was rather bothered – Makham was beautiful, lively and looked eager to grant me a successful afternoon of snacking. Nong O looked as snack-laden as the Ethiopian dessert – the whole town consisted of a few homes, a restaurant selling instant noodles, a shack-like supermarket, a temple and a strangely spacious hotel.
I haven’t been inside any of Thailand’s many temples and this felt like as a good a time as ever. Unbeknownst to me it was Chakri Memorial Day and the temple was alive with a flurry of activity. I couldn’t tell what all the running around and busying was leading to but it didn’t matter because I saw they had food. I gesticulated wildly hoping the food would become available to me – almost immediately I was surrounded by a team of giggling middle aged women. They beckoned me to sit down, gave me several plates of food and some treats and then just stopped. I had quite the feast ready for destruction but I was wondering what my next move was in front of my newly acquired support network. I bowed. Their eyes all popped euphorically and they giggled again. I guessed it a success and dug in. They left to ambiguously flit around again, stopping by occasionally to ask me (in Thai) whether it was delicious and what my name was.
Despite their best efforts to rupture my stomach walls I finished the feast and asked how much it cost. Again they laughed and waved their hands as if to say don’t worry. I didn’t but I figured since they were so busy . . . being busy, I should get involved. I sat down next to some ladies peeling fruit but they shoed me away nicely – same thing with the ladies washing and same with the ladies making decorative things. Oh well, I waddled off to find someone to chat to. No one had the requisite english for me to understand what has going on but some ladies said I was handsome. All in all a good day’s work I’d say.
My hotel is surrounded by fruit trees. I can’t get at them because my arms are little stumps.
*edit. Found a ladder. Freshest and best lychees I’ve ever had.
For those curious about how Thai food in Sydney compares to that in Thailand:
The translation is quite good. In most of the restaurants in and around Thai town, and a handful of others, the food is very similar to what you would find in central Thailand. The range of dishes is similar with the exception of fried noodles and sweeter curries (like Massaman and Panang) which are far less common in Thailand, and noodle soups which are far more common. The taste is translated well but perhaps Sydney’s version is lacking a bit of sourness. Spiciness levels, surprising to me, are quite similar.
The biggest differences are the meat and the sweets – the meat in Thailand is much fattier, and although often poorer quality, it’s much fresher, usually having been slaughtered that day. The cuts are much more broad, every part of the animal is used to great success. With a few exceptions, the range of desserts in Thailand is scarcely available in Sydney. Sweets in Thailand, which aren’t eaten as desert but as snacks throughout the day, are less sweet – they are often salty and many are savoury. Besides the sugar content they are generally healthier too, with stewed root vegetables being common ingredients.
The other main difference is the timing of meals. Most meals are fair game anytime of the day. The main delineation is between snacks and mains – the mains are what we see in Sydney but the snack range here is barely represented.
This is just for Central Thailand Thailand though. Outside a handful of restaurants at home, the other Thai regions aren’t represented at all. Also keep in mind this comparison is mainly from food in Thailand to what can be found near Thaitown and a few other reputable places. Beyond those the translation is much more strained.
*Thai congee, usually served with meat and fried dough
*I’m aiming to get to Battambang on the 8th to see my friend Daisy and drop my bike off before returning to Bangkok on the bus in time for Alice’s (my girlfriend) flight.