Hua Hin and Phetchaburi
December 27, 2005
Moving Day. That dreaded, yet cherished, ritual of leaving one place for another in which one hopes that, at the very least, the new will be at least as good as the old. Ayutthaya had been very good to me and I was a little apprehensive about Hua Hin, given its tourist emphasis and that we were in the high season for travel. Tourists were rumored to be staying away from the more popular areas like Phuket and flocking to places closer to Bangkok, like Hua Hin.
After saying our respective goodbyes, Kevin, Sandra, and I took a tuk-tuk out to the train station where we sat around for 90 minutes before boarding a slow train to Bangkok for 20 B. Hualongphong, the central train station in Bangkok, was packed with people, both farang and Thai, along with the usual cluster of pink-shirted courtesy helpers, who did there best to direct us to the ticket windows. For 200 B each we got tickets on a train to Hua Hin, departing several hours later. This gave me a chance to show off Chinatown to Sandra and Kevin and to get some good eats.
We made our way to the seafood place that I liked so much and ordered up a feast. Crab curry, fish cakes, and whole, garlic fried snapper, along with the customary rice and Singha. The crab curry was just amazing, done more in an Indian or Indonesian style than a Thai style. Large pieces of crab, egg, vegetables, and chilis floated in a succulent sauce that left all three of us breathless. And the fish? Crunchy on the outside with many pieces (about four heads) of crispy garlic, the inside was tender and moist, bursting with freshness. I was in rapture over the meal, served up in a nondescript, barely-a-restaurant, fancy street stall. And the price? 630 B, about $5 a person, about a quarter of what I would have paid in the States for such skill. The Thai can cook.
Well fed, we stumbled back to the train station, making our train by the scant margin of 15 minutes. Over the course of the next six hours (two hours later than advertised) we watched the land go by at a slow pace, wondering if we would be able to find much of a room in the tourist town. I had made a "reservation" over the phone at some place, but it was unclear if it actually was a reservation, or simply an acknowledgment of a phone call. The clerk hadn't even taken my name. Stepping into the hot night air of Hua Hin around 9:30, I thought that I had left Thailand completely. Although there were the normal tuk-tuk drivers and motorcycle jockeys, there were now also fleets of massage girls.
After clearing the train station, we found nothing but European tourists. Indeed, the masses of clothing stores quoted their prices in Euros, not dollars. Silicone women with dyed blonde hair and white dresses strolled about. Fat, complacent German families, bright pink from too much sun and not enough clothing, waltzed along the main street. A Burger King restaurant was packed with farang in tank-tops and short-shorts. I thought about going back to the train station and sleeping there, but Kevin and Sandra wouldn't have thought that very nice and, besides, I needed to test my theory about Thailand.
We eventually found the place where we had "reservations", but the room was small, cramped, and had only two small beds. We tried another place. And another. And a fourth and fifth. All full. Returning to the main drag, still choked with tourons, we wandered along hoping for the best. After 30 minutes, we found something pretty good. The All Nations Guesthouse was the sort of place I normally avoided, but we didn't have much of a choice. A bar downstairs and an air-conditioned triple upstairs on the top floor for 750 B seemed like a promising start. An old British man, the owner, was working at the bar and had Premier League games on the satellite TV. Even better. The room had a balcony that, during the day, I thought, would be sure to have a view of the Gulf. My preconceived notions obliterated, I declared that I rather liked the All Nations.
After getting our stuff put away, we decided to head out to the night market for a late dinner, for all of us were hungry, especially after remembering the excellent meal in Chinatown. Although 11 pm isn't particularly late at night, the streets were completely changed from when we walked in. Very few farang were on the street, and by the time we reached the night market the Thai far outnumbered the Europeans. We found a delightful open-air stall with lots of fish on display and ordered up another feast. After the Chinatown meal, we could hardly be faulted for ordering up another plate of crab curry, a whole fried snapper with different chili sauces and green mango, and a plate of squid with chili and garlic. The squid, tender like filet mignon, was a bit too hot for Kevin and Sandra, but barely registered on my heat scale. Without hyperbole, it was the greatest squid I had ever tasted. The only words we could force out of our mouths about the crab was, "Oh, my God." And the snapper? I didn't think it could be done, but this stall, in the middle of a tourist town, beat out even the joint in Chinatown. It was as if the Thai had figured out some way to fry the fish, yet baste the inside at the same time. We picked in every corner of the fish, working it over with a precision normally reserved for communications satellites. We even got all the meat out from behind the head.
The streets were completely deserted by the time we finished feasting at 12:30 am. The night market was closing down and the Thai going back to their homes. My mood had been completely transformed by the night market and the outstanding, 600 B meal (with rice and copious amounts of Singha). When we first got to Hua Hin, I wanted to flee from the hordes. Now, I was dreaming of more seafood tomorrow and wondering why I was so distressed in the first place.
I had slept very deeply overnight and awoke at 7:30 am to find the room empty. I could hear the shower, just down the hall, going and presumed Sandra was in it. Where Kevin was, I had no idea. After getting dressed, Sandra and I took a stroll in the empty streets down to the waterfront and the beach. I was rather unimpressed. Sort of like Lake Michigan but with palm trees, there didn't seem to be much to recommend Hua Hin as a beach resort, other than the fact that it was quick and easy to get to from Bangkok.
We walked for about a kilometer along the beach, finding only a few farang and Thai setting up beach equipment, before setting back to the hotel, both of us unsure where Kevin had gone to. Our time together did allow me to get to know Sandra better. We were both at the University of Illinois for a few common years, but I hadn't met her there. Sandra had just finished her doctorate in chemistry and was getting ready to embark on her first job, which was for an etching company in the Bay Area. As computing has advanced, more and more circuitry is being placed in computer chips. Thus, the scale of everything has gotten smaller and smaller. It would be her job to help develop chemical etching processes to allow for smaller and smaller circuits. Rather than worrying about millimeters of silicon, she would be worried about how many atoms were taken off in the process. It sounded interesting.
We breakfasted at the All Nations, which had respectable coffee and good specimens of that ubiquitous travelers fare, banana pancakes. Just after finishing, Kevin arrived and Sandra went back to the room. He had originally planned on taking a train back to Bangkok tomorrow morning, but decided that the train wasn't sufficiently reliable to get him into town on time to make his afternoon flight. Hence, he had walked/tuk-tuked out to the airport and bought a plane ticket back this afternoon.
I got Sandra and myself a bed for the nigh in a smaller room and, after moving our stuff, we set out for a leisurely stroll through the day market area of Hua Hin. Most of the tourists must have been at the beach, as the market was almost completely Thai. Sprawling on and on in that unplanned fashion that is so attractive, the market had everything that a market should have: Fish, meat, produce, plumbing supplies. And lots of gold dealers. A heavy gold-rope necklace. Beautiful workmanship. The price was right. I let it go instead of hanging on.
We found our way, eventually, to the waterfront once again and an abandoned restaurant on a pier. Though we were the only people there when we came in, the place filled with lunch time diners, and then emptied as they went to some other activity. What was on the menu? Predictably enough, more crab curry, a whole fried cottonfish, and a plate of prawns with chili and basil. How was it? Predictably enough it was outstanding. Hua Hin was definitely throwing down a gauntlet in the battle for the best dining destination of my vacation. I couldn't see any beach-reason to come to Hua Hin. But, I would come here just to eat.
We walked out to something listed as a "special market", but found it mostly closed down, apparently waiting for the mid-day to pass, when presumably the farang would be off the sand. Or, perhaps, it was a Thai market, like the day-market, and just about every other market that I had been to. We took a backroad back to the All Nations, but unfortunately our backroad turned into the strip from hell, passing by the major tourist hotels. Crowded by Europeans, we escaped into a 7-11 for something cold to drink. A fat German mother brought her three fat daughters into the store. The daughters, ranging in age from about 12 to about 15, where in string bikini tops and short shorts, their corpulent bodies partially hiding the strings of their tops in rolls of flesh. They bought some ice cream and left. I wondered if they realized that there were no Thai in bikini tops and short shorts. Even if they did, did they actually care? Or was Hua Hin, and Thailand, a place where it didn't matter what they did, as they would be going home soon?
The time was drawing near for Kevin to depart and so we rambled back to the hotel so that he could get his things together. An efficient and experienced traveler, he was packed and gone in 10 minutes. I was sad to see him leave. Sandra bedded down for a nap in the air conditioned room while I went down to the bar to write for a while and have a few beers with whomever might show up. A pool game was in progress, between a young Brit and a young American. The Brit had just gotten back from Cambodia, which he apparently detested because there were a lot of beggars. He had been in Thailand for three weeks before that trip and was just now learning, under the instruction of a local drunk American who was working behind the bar, how to say things like "Hello", "Thank you", and "No, I don't want any" in Thai.
The young American proved more interesting. A truck driver from Bend, Oregon, he was on one of the many vacations that his occupation allowed him. He would drive for a few months, earning a good wage and managing, somehow, to stay in shape, and then disappear for three or four weeks, either traveling the world or hiking in the States. I was proud to find one of my countrymen doing things right for a change.
The afternoon passed and Sandra eventually woke up from her slumber. We decided that, despite the wonderful food, we had had enough of Hua Hin and that we would leave for Phetchaburi tomorrow, a bit further north and a place that promised few beach Euros. The early evening, as when we arrived, was a popular time for the beach-dwellers to rumble about through town. We headed toward the night market in search of another killer meal, taking our time to browse through the various stalls, shopping rather than buying, though Sandra did pick up a nice top. Although I still can't explain it, I actually like going shopping with women, as long as it is for stuff they want and not stuff I want. Eventually, however, we had to eat. And eat we did.
One stall seemed especially appealing, with an extensive display of freshly caught seafood that they were cooking on a grill, fully in sight of passersby, the smell permeating the area, drawing people like Sandra and I closer and closer. That was all it took.
We ordered two jumbo grilled prawns, each (with their shells on) about the size of my forearm. A plate of grilled sea scallops, delicately seasoned and tender beyond belief. A whole fried snapper weighing several kilograms. Hua Hin, with that meal, won, beating out Chinatown. I didn't think it could be done, nor would I have thought it possible in a tourist-trap, but the chefs of Hua Hin were the champs.
By the time we had finished, the only things left were bits of shells and a few bones that not even a cat could get meat off of. There were plenty of tourists out of the sort that I would normally, in my shallow-elitist hours, look down upon. Instead, at that moment, they seemed wise. If I had any room left in my belly, I would have ordered up another round of food. As it was, Sandra and I waddled back to the All Nations for a few drinks and the air conditioned bedroom.
On a dusty road far from the center of town, the bus driver waved to me that this was indeed Phetchaburi. I was just happy to get off the sweltering bus and stretch my legs, knowing that there would be some transport options to get into the town proper. A second after stepping off the bus I heard a yelp and a crash behind me and found Sandra in a heap near the bottom of the bus stairs. The driver and a few onlookers rushed over and helped the wincing Sandra to her feet and over to a bench in the shade, while the owner of the shack-bus stop ran for that universal cure-all in Asia, Tiger Balm. In sandals, Sandra had apparently slipped on the metallic stairs and toppled over, heavily bruising her upper arm. I carefully applied the White Monkey Holding Peach Branch brand of Tiger Balm to her arm and tried to calm her as best I could, while the Thai looked on anxiously. Sandra smiled and they smiled, relieved that all was fine.
A bit shaken, Sandra and I sat on the bench resting and not doing too much thinking about how we would get into Phetchaburi, or where we might stay. I knew that transport would find us when we looked liked we were ready to go. Besides, after the jolting of the bus and the trapped heat, it was really rather pleasant to sit in the shade by the side of the road and not do much of anything. Not worry about where to go or what to see. For a while, just sit on a bench without a schedule or a hurry. When Sandra seemed back to normal, her arm ablaze from the Tiger Balm, I leafed through the guidebook and picked out the Phetkasem Hotel. The signal given (no longer sitters, but rather people with a place to go), two motorcycle jockeys came over to offer their services. In my best Thai (which means English with one or two words of mispronounced Thai), I got us rides on the backs of the two motorcycles and off we sped.
The best way to see a place is on foot, but close to that is from the back of a pickup truck, preferably with a cold beer and no plans. However, the back of a motorcycle is a close third, at least in a country like Thailand where the drivers are sane and the traffic, while thick, is not suicidal. Five minutes of riding got us to the hotel where we scored a nice room for 450 B, complete with aircon and hot water and TV and a rock hard bed rivaling even the stone I found in Chiang Mai.
The attractions of Phetchaburi didn't seem, at least in the guidebook, likely to attract large numbers of tourists, which was just what I wanted after Hua Hin. After resting a bit, Sandra and I strolled over to Khao Wang, a large palace complex on top of a hill overlooking Phetchaburi, with a convenient tram to the top for those who didn't want to walk the trail. We road the tram. Monkeys ran about grooming themselves or fighting over a bit of trash. Baby monkeys and old monkeys. Monkeys sitting in trees and monkeys screeching. I was tired of the monkeys already.
Khao Wang was made up of three distinct areas, each on small separate hills on the main one, lushly forested and distinctly lacking in farang. The heat of the afternoon was not breaking and the haze hung over the city in a distinct grey cloud. The sunset from here would be wonderful, but the palace closed at 5 pm, well before the sun went down. How the guidebook authors had seen the sunset was beyond me.
We strolled slowly from one site to the other, taking our leisure as we saw fit, for neither of us had pressing plans for the night beyond dinner. The various gardens held benches that made for nice resting places as we tore through Khao Wang at the furious pace of a quarter mile an hour.
From the last area, we found an excellent overlook of the city and were treated to a small fireworks display coming up from the town, though the strong late afternoon sun kept the show to a mostly auditory experience.
With the day well gone, we decided to head toward the night market to sample the various wares of the food vendors of Phetchaburi. My guidebook indicated that the speciality of Phetchaburi was tod mun plaa, or spicy fish cake, with noodles. Not being on the water, it seemed an unlikely speciality.
The stroll from Khao Wang to the night market was longer than expected, and the heat of the day had taken its toll. Upon reaching the market, Sandra shopped while I wandered about, eventually finding a place to sit and drink a cold beverage. It was pleasant simply sitting and watching people go about their business in the market, which was really just a large open square covered with tents. After a few snacks of fish cakes sans noodles, we sat down to a large, proper meal of pork satay, mussel omelet, and a sweetened rice with slightly, cloyingly, sweet ground meat, all procured from various vendors.
Neither of us had the strength or desire to walk back to the hotel from the market, so after grabbing a large sack of more fish cakes, we found a tuk-tuk and flew back to the hotel in fine style. We were going back to Bangkok tomorrow, which meant that my vacation had come full circle, something I was unsure if I was happy or sad about. I had reached the stage where I either wanted to go home right away, or wanted another three months in-country. I had gotten so used to Thailand and operating in it that it seemed a shame to have to race off and return to my job and my stuff. Yet, there was a certain comfort at home, a certain familiarness, that I also wanted. I wanted my fish cakes, but I also wanted the Cascades and the Olympics, mountains and sea. I should have meditated on what Charles had told me in Chiang Mai, but instead I watched MTV.
I sat drinking tea and eating khao tum khai in the foyer of the hotel, grateful that it was not yet hot and wondering what to do with the day. Sandra came down after showering, slighly amazed that I had managed to order something that wasn't on the hotel's breakfast menu (which consisted of things like toast and jam), and we contemplated. She had been bit rather badly at night by mosquitoes which seemed to have left me completely alone, but was in a good mood anyways. After a short debate and some help by the friendly staff, we packed up our bags, leaving them behind the counter, and hopped a tuk-tuk out to the Khao Luang caves.
The massive, natural cave system had three central chambers, lit by oddly chosen artificial lamps, casting yellows, greens, and reds about. In each chamber there was something of interest, though I suspect that the place held more meaning for the devote than for the casual tourist. However, I thought the cave complex to be one of the best sites I had been to in Thailand.
The cool cave air, though refreshing, served to remind me that once we left it we would be back in sweltering heat once again. A few Thai wandered about the area and as usual, except for in Hua Hin, there was a distinct lack of farang. Along with the excellent food and friendly culture, the lack of farang at things not labeled as "must see" was fairly universal.
I suspected that Hua Hin was a smaller, less touristed version of beach towns further south along the gulf and Andaman coasts, but didn't especially want to put this to the test in practice. I was much happier here in the cool, moist air of the cave viewing row after row of shiny golden Buddhas than I would have been on a white sand beach surrounded by a few thousand pink tourists.
We had reached the end of the cave complex and still had a few hours before the cheap train to Bangkok left. Leaving the cave for the sunshine outside was something of a shock, as the pleasant 20 degree temperature was replaced by a revolting 35 degree one, and the quiet serenity was replaced by howling, fighting monkeys and the need to find a tuk-tuk back to the hotel.
A man with a Mercedes offered to take us back for a few thousand baht, which seemed comical to all involved. Instead of taking up his offer, we strolled down the short access road and took refuge in the shade afforded by a roadside store, along with the one farang we had spotted inside the cave. From England, he had come to Thailand a few years back and never left. I could understand this. In nearly three weeks here I had yet to see a frown, a grimace, or hear an angry word. Even when they used their car horn, it seemed the Thai were being polite and friendly. We sat in the shade for thirty minutes before a tuk-tuk without passengers showed up and whisked us off to the center of Phetchaburi, where we thought we might tour a few more wats before heading to the train station. The wat touring didn't turn out so well, but we did finally find the speciality (fish cakes with noodles) of Phetchaburi, as claimed by guidebook and managed a ride back to the hotel in the flashiest tuk-tuk I had yet seen: A three wheeled, fully decked-out-in-chrome Thai version of a Harley-Davidson, including massive ape-hanger handlebars and a covered back seat for the two of us.
As luck would have it, our predication of when the train would leave for Bangkok was slightly optimistic, as was our notion of the comfort of the train. The train that we had decided to take was a commuter train, which meant that it was packed and moved very slowly, rolling into Bangkok well after dark and a few hours later than expected. We hopped off the train on the north side of Bangkok and flagged down a taxi to take us to the Paholothin Park hotel, which was where Wallapak was living and where Sandra had spent the most time. Inside the hotel, quite Western, we found Mark and Chris lounging about. Chris was flying back to Canada tomorrow morning and Mark and I then following one.
Ravenously hungry, we walked down the street to where a few food stalls were located and I surprised everyone by downing a plate of paht ki mao, followed by one of paht seeiew. Afterall, in a few days I would no loner have access to such food. I could pay fifteen times as much for something with the same name, but I knew that it wouldn't taste the same, even had the ingredients and skill been equivalent. I was running out of time, still torn between wanting to go home and wanting to stay here, just as, I'm sure, the Brit had been years ago. The same as Charles had been decades ago. It was, I suspect, another universal of Thailand.
The advantage of the Paholothin Park was its proximity to the airport. The disadvantage was that being close to the airport meant that I was far from anything of interest. I wanted to stroll through the choked byways of Chinatown, to sample a treat here or there, to dive into the mass of humanity of Thailand on my last day in the country. But to do so would mean finding a taxi or riding a bus, and that took a lot of the charm out of it. And so I did nothing on this my last day. I alternated lounging, eating, reading, and drinking an occasional beer. I found a final plate of som tom to delight in and wondered why the proximity to the airport was such a great draw. I sat drinking coffee in the 35 degree heat next to an Italian restaurant pondering the wisdom of hot coffee on a hot day. In short, I did nothing.
As the sun began to sink I sat on my balcony and watched the lights of downtown Bangkok flicker on over a few bottles of Singha, wondering when I would return to Thailand. The country had been better to me than any I had visited in the past, besting even the mighty Nepal. It wasn't just one thing that stood out in my mind. Rather, it was the entire country that delighted me. Thinking back to my favorite moments, my favorite places, I realized that I wasn't finding specific places and times. Instead, I found a continuum of images and memories, one floating into the next in an undisturbed chain of fondness. I tried to write in my journal to find some sort of words of finality with which to end it. Some nice conclusion that summarized neatly and compactly the three weeks I had spent. But, despite the influence of the Singha, I could find so way to do this, no set of words, no matter how creatively strung together, could do this for me. I didn't want to leave and maybe, just maybe, not finishing the story might keep it alive inside of me for a bit longer than usual, allow it to remain with me for a long while. Long enough, at least, until I might return again.