More on Thailand
When I went to southern Thailand this winter, it was a reunion of sorts. Years ago, I spent a month in Trang, a small industrial city that few people outside of Thailand (and many within) have ever heard of. I was ostensibly there to teach English, but I spent every spare minute hanging around the staff cook, trying to absorb her secrets through some sort of language-defying osmosis.
During a school holiday, I went shopping at the morning market with the cook, and I've never been so overwhelmed and overjoyed all at once: bushels of futuristic-looking exotic fruit, blood-soaked fishmongers dispatching fresh seafood, and clusters of noodle soup vendors perfuming the whole joint with their spicy bubbling broths.
My Trang tenure years ago set the stage for my three-month Southeast Asian adventure this winter, and I intentionally saved Southern Thailand for last. I based myself around Krabi, a low-key town on the Andaman coast that's popular with tourists as a jumping-off point for several mind-bogglingly beautiful tropical islands offshore. Many visitors give Krabi short shrift, stopping only long enough to drag their backpacks off of a bus and onto a longtail boat, but I camped out in a dingy budget hotel for one reason: markets.
Krabi's morning meat/seafood/produce market (aka the "wet market," named for the water that that keeps live seafood kicking, fresh produce sprightly, and sprays down the cement floors each day) is ginormous, while the two Krabi night markets have a reputation as a street food lover's paradise.
Southern Thai food is markedly spicy, even by Thai standards, and many dishes have a distinct sour kick. Due to its proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, a Muslim beat runs through the cuisine, too: rich coconut milk curries like Massaman are popular, as is spiced biryani rice and roti flatbreads. Fresh seafood abounds, while pork is virtually absent (it's kept in a totally separate building at the Krabi wet market); fresh herbs, leaves, and Indian-leaning spices like turmeric make frequent appearances. It's a lush cuisine—bold and colorful and endlessly complex—seemingly designed to burn itself into your cerebral cortex, both figuratively and literally.
Of course, certain street snacks know no regional boundaries: the "processed meats on sticks" phenomenon that seems to have all of Southeast Asia under its spell is in full effect here, complete with Angry Birds-shaped fishcakes on skewers. Orange-hued fried chicken confronted me at every turn, not that I mind meeting fried chicken in a dark alley at night. Fried dough balls have a place in every culture, it seems, and here they take the form of butterfly-shaped crullers, served with cups of sweetened condensed milk and pandan sauce.
I spent two nights in Krabi, at the tail end of my trip. I'd been on the road, mostly by myself, in a very foreign part of the world for several months in a row. I wandered through the night market as it was gearing up for the crowds; the calm before the storm, with vendors wooing me with samples of cinnamon-laced massaman curry and eggy pad thai. At the morning market, I was the only tourist in sight, and I was rewarded with a breakfast of a singular steamed fish paste curry and a biryani so richly flavored I'm still ashamed for ever thinking rice was boring.
At the tail end of my fact-gathering mission, I realized that as soon as I thought I had things figured out, something else would inevitably come along to blow my mind (and palate). And really, that's what I had been looking for all along.