Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Flashback: Thailand, 1999

Koh Phan Ghan, Thailand. Eight years ago

We’re looking for the perfect restaurant.

Darkness has fallen by now. Here, halfway around the word from home, and closer to the celestial equator than I have ever been, I search the sky for familiar patterns in the stars. I don’t find any.

A group of us walk along a muddy road, following the lights of the guesthouses and bars that line the beach for miles. It’s been three days of nonstop rain on this island and no boats can get in or out. I exasperatedly wrote in my journal this morning:

“72 hours of solid torrential rain. Ok, I’m impressed. Can you stop now?”

With nothing to do but sit in our guesthouse restaurant, watching the rain carve channels in the sand, we’ve formed friendships with the good folk we are now stepping out with. Since we’ve tried everything on our menu, it’s time to venture out in search of something new, and tonight’s break in the rain is the perfect chance.

A giant mud puddle yawns in the road before us and I can’t even make out the other end in the darkness. Joe offers me a piggy back ride and I accept, since my brother Josh has already veered off into the jungle and is bush-whacking his way around the puddle. That’s ok. We’re only two weeks into our three month backpacking trip together and I can tell I am going to have to look out for myself.

Joe is a tall, tanned Kiwi who’s been traveling for months with his girlfriend, Andrea. They’re giving New Zealanders a good reputation with their easygoingness, big smiles and charming accents. We met up with them a week ago in Bangkok and have been having a blast touring temples, snorkeling, watching Thai boxing and eating out together.

Two British blokes make up our party of six: Churchy and Snaksy. I don’t think I know their real names-or their relationship to each other, for that matter. Both are thirty something’s, always ready with a joke for the occasion, and speak what I imagine to be Cockney. Snakesy, the short one, never takes off his cutoff jean shorts, rain or shine, swimming or sunning, and perpetually has a fag lit. Churchy, the tall one, seems to be the more educated of the two and likes to rag on Snakesy.

From three different countries-different continents for that matter-we are united by a love of good food and that is our quest tonight as we stop and peruse a menu posted in a bamboo case on the side of the road. Down a windy path, the lights of the restaurant beckon and I can smell ripe pineapple.

“Nope, not this one” I declare, after a quick look at the menu.

“Look, they have hamburgers and Wiener Schnitzel”.

Obviously the place couldn’t be authentic Thai if it is catering to the tourists so blatantly.

We pass pub after pub, place after place and we’re starting to get hungry. There’s the unspoken feeling that this is our last night together and we’ve become better friends than we thought we would. Tomorrow the weather will be calm, the ferries will be able to cross from the mainland and we will be off, each to our different destinations. This meal had to be memorable. A feast. We would order Som Tam (green papaya salad), Chicken with Red Curry, Pork Satay with Peanut Sauce, Fried Rice with Veggies and Cashews, Coconut Curry Shrimp with Thai Basil, Fish Soup with Vermicelli and Sweet Potatoes, Curry Prawns with stir-fried Baby Corn and Lime, and mounds of sticky rice.

Finally, just as certain members are starting to mumble about “buggerin’ off” under their breath, I see it. The perfect place. A large thatched roof bungalow rimmed with swinging lanterns. Guests seated outside, at low tables that are scattered amid the trees on the shoreline where the willows meet the sand.. The sign says it all: “ The Nice Place for Your Nice Time”. The menu sends shivers up my spine and I announce that this is IT.

No one argues. I think they are all to hungry. What time is it anyway? Nearly eleven. Wow. No wonder we’re starving; we’ve done more walking tonight than in the past three days.

A bowing waitress escorts us to our table and I can hear the THUD of coconuts dropping around us. This small island exports about one million coconuts a year; it’s biggest industry after tourism.

As we take our seats, which are large pillows on the ground, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the beauty of the moment. The surf gently laps the shore just a few yards away. The moon is rising over the South China Sea and it’s reflection is splintered by the waves. Strong, gnarled trees seem to grow right out of the sand and form a canopy over our table. A few lanterns swing above us in the night breeze, illuminating a couple sitting a few tables away. They sit close, their heads together over a bowl of rice. They don’t talk, but just look into each others eyes. I think of Danny and wish for the millionth time that he was here with me.

I’ve just remembered, it’s Valentine’s Day.

Our menus arrive and I cheer up. We order drinks. Singha beer for the guys, fresh pineapple juice for Andrea and I. The food sounds amazing and I can’t believe our good fortune at finding a spot like this. The blokes have cheered up too and the jokes are rolling. Josh looks tired, his contacts are probably bugging him.

A long way down the beach, firecrackers pop and explode in the air from a nightclub. Laughter drifts down the beach and I can hear the pulse of Thai techno as a Valentine’s party gets under way. People certainly know how to party here; I can see them in the light of the moon, flocking to the club from all over the beach.

It’s taking a long time to get our drinks and Joe jokes that we should have brought a pack of cards. All we’ve done for the last three days is play Butt hole and sip lemongrass tea.

A shy, bowing, young Thai man finally comes out to take our order. He kneels on one knee next to our table and smiles and nods about 50 times as we painstaking relate ALL our dishes to him. When we fold our menus, he stands up quickly to collect them.

Too quickly.


He bashes the back of his head on a low branch and drops (‘Like a sack-o-potatoes’ said Churchy, later) onto the sand.

For a few seconds we all stare in disbelief, and then immediately feel stupid for not responding, as two restaurant staff come running and kneel next to him. He is conscience, but hurting, and they gently carry the man inside.

We sit in stupefied silence for a while. I have the horrible urge to giggle and hate myself for it. Then we talk in low voices, fidgeting with our drinks, wondering how he is and what happens next. It’s not long before we find out.

A lovely, but distraught looking Thai lady approaches our table and in her broken English explains that the restaurant is closing and we have to leave.

“ No food” she says.

Puzzled, we enquire after the health of the waiter and discover that he isn’t a waiter, he is the cook, and that he may not be cooking again for a long time. Since they no longer have a cook, they can no longer serve food, and that is that.

It’s like a bad joke, but we have no choice but to leave. As we collect our things, I see the poor man, lying on a bench just inside the bungalow. He has a bandana wrapped around his head and he’s pale.

No one feels like walking around anymore -or even eating for that matter- so we drift down the beach in the direction of the party. We’ll get in line for a plastic cup of the popular party drink, a ghastly combination of whisky, Coke and Red Bull, join the throng of all-night revelers, and will probably make some memories of a different kind tonight.

I don’t know if we did or not. I don’t remember.

Editor's Note: "Flashback" is a new feature on UtHC, relating travel stories, memories and wisdom from past experiences. Where are we going next? Turkey. Maybe the Yukon.


Anonymous said...

Great idea to 'flashback!' I normally don't read long stories .....of any kind! (no offence) But your story just drew me in! And great twist ending! I had no idea that was coming.......neither did you I guess!

Anonymous said...

great always did have a talent for the written word!

Anonymous said...

Great story. Well written. I'd give you an A. :)

J. H. Austin said...

Gah! I'm feeling sorry for the cook, and that you went hungry, and laughing too hard, and feeling bad that I'm laughing!

Superb blog. Jennifer wonders where ever you do find the time. Several of your recipes we just shall have to try.

Jeremy & Jennifer (Buerge) Austin

Zaak said...

This was a long post. Real long. Great pay off though. I was beginning to think that in the end I was just going to be envious of some food that you ate. But in the end I WON! Ha! I was probably sleeping with a full stomach that night.

Condolences to the chef by the way...

Amber said...

Isn't it fun looking back at life as a single, fancy free woman? Loved the account of your adventure, but it made me hungry with the description of the food you had ordered so I need to go make some popcorn:)


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