Our last scheduled train journey took us from Chumphon to Trang, a small southern town that promised yet more unspoilt beaches and incredible islands to explore.
The last hour or so of the journey had us sitting opposite a small group of friends, each in their seventies, all guffawing at each others stories and side comments. It had us chuckling away with them despite not understanding a single word they said. We figured that if they were going to Trang, we were going to like it there. A lot.
We arrived late morning, totally and utterly zonked from the journey that began at 3am. The temptation to just crash out at the hotel was overwhelming, instead we opted for a spot of brunch and a heavy dose of caffeine. The hotel's restaurant was kicking out some old school blues tracks, the open fronted room, looked out on the busy little street by the station and as we ate some great spicy thai curries, we felt immediately at home (it was like Bill's in Brighton, but with Thai food).
In Trang life slows down, we had no choice to do otherwise and it was gooood. Want a coffee? 15minutes. Want a bowl of noodles? 25 minutes. Want to pay for coffee and noodles? 15 minutes. It was so nice just taking our foot off the accelerator and treading water for a while. The people of Trang are mainly a mixture of 3rd and 4th generation Chinese and indigenous Thais, and the food has a particularly strong Chinese influence. Roadside stalls are full with bright red barbecue duck, chicken and pork, wontons and fried noodles and for us, drooling has become a big problem.
There are also a couple of amazing night markets where your choice for dinner is cooked and assembled while you wait. At the night markets, time is money and so in direct contrast to the service in the day. Pad thai takes 30 seconds, spicy fishcakes 30 seconds, satay is ready instantly.
The only thing that takes the same amount of time day or night is the banana roti. A golfball size piece of dough is deftly flattened using fingertips to the thickness of tissue paper, and thrown onto a heavily buttered hotplate. A chopped banana is added to a beaten egg and then spread over the frying dough. The sides are then turn inward creating a neat square banana/egg parcel, and then it's flipped over so that the other side can get as crisp and golden brown. The roti is then chopped into squares and a generous amount of condensed milk is poured over the top. Simply delicious.
The air in the markets is filled with the mouthwatering aroma if barbecue coals. Whether its chicken, pork or corn that's being cooked, the draw to buy something, anything is overwhelming. We've tried the odd mystery item or two, Jan picked up
some delicious almond-paste pasties and I lucked out with a cake that looked like it should be solid custard but tasted like a stink bomb, this where I suggested maybe we could share.
The daytime markets are pretty cool too, these are very much like the Asian markets we see on tv, narrow, winding and go on and on and on. The stalls with delicious looking and smelling curry pastes, the fish stalls that looked more like contemporary art displays and the fruit and veg stalls that too wouldn't look out of place in a gallery. The buzz and energy in these places conversely rooted us to the spot. We gawped, we wondered and we guessed at the various items on sale.
From Trang, we had the opportunity to do some island hopping, Koh Mook, where we swam (I say swam, more like we were slowly dragged by one poor soul at the front), single file and holding on to the person in front's floatation vest, through an 80 metre cave in absolute darkness. The fearful shrieks of those afraid of the dark, echoed all around us. A brief flicker of a torch on the cave roof revealed veins of green and purple running through the smooth surface. As we rounded the last corner, sun rays shone through the water, the emerald sea looked like it was being lit from below, every ripple of the seabed was visible. We exited the cave into a picture perfect lagoon in the middle of a volcano. It looked like a slightly overcrowded paradise, the white sand and the clear water were shielded on all sides by sheer limestone cliffs, complete with creepers and ferns. It was exactly like 'The Beach' but smaller and with loads of people and no drug barons or secrecy.
Next up, Koh Kradan with its sublime tropical beaches, complete with hammocks and leaning coconut palms. Dotted along the entire stretch of this paradisiacal beach were blue signs pointing to the tsunami evacuation point, yet another stark and sobering reminder of the potential for danger in this region. After a brief stop, Koh Ma and Koh Chuak awaited. Both islands have small coral reefs that are home to a host of colourful and inquisitive fish. We acquired a loaf of bread and as we entered the water a huge school of black and yellow sergeant fish swarmed around us, their hungry little mouths saying 'but-but-but'. Co-mingled with the sergeant fish were parrot fish, moon wrasse and what looked like small snappers. The fish pecked at anything that may provide them with a bite to eat, our hands, arms torsos and legs all got nibbled at one point or another. The other people near us were experiencing the same, as squeals of surprise and excitement could be heard through the bay. We had a moment of panic when the entire school of fish suddenly darted out of sight into the depths below, we envisioned a shark or prowling barracuda and we both glanced around us urgently, thankfully it was one of our fellow passengers bombing in to the sea from the stern of the boat (and relax).
We were sad to leave Trang, it's unassuming, low key and slightly off the beaten track and yet holds so much excitement and vigour.
Next stop, Koh Lanta.