Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Koh Yao - Day Four - The Sunset Trip

With no activities planned until the late afternoon, we actually slept in until eight. We did our usual: rise, go for a swim, eat breakfast. With our backs and shoulders feeling the effects of the sun from the previous day of island hopping, we opted to stay shaded all day. We stretched breakfast out as long as we could before heading back to our villa to dig out books.

Oh, poor us…having to spend our day reading instead of getting out and enjoying it all. Quite the opposite for someone who loves to read! We played a game of “dodge the sun” all day, moving our chairs to different parts of our veranda. David was deep in to James Frey’s My Friend Leonard. I got about 1/3 of the way through Frances Mayes A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller before I had to switch the pace to No Touch Monkey!: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, a compilation of travel’s woes that I could hardly put down.

If one thing can make me put a book down, it is a spa.[1] We headed to the spa for a sunburned back treatment and a facial each.[2] Both of us giggled away in our respective changing rooms while we tried to figure out the complexities of the Thai sarong. David had nothing but a round piece of fabric to work with while mine required moves that would have been better suited for Shiva. We enjoyed tea before heading up through the terraced rice fields, still in tact, to our massage pavilion. With no doors, we were able to hear the frogs croaking nearby, birds singing, waves crashing, and the occasional prayer of a spa attendant as she visited the nearby Buddhist shrine. It was a wonderful way to spend 2.5 hours and avoid the sun.

By four, it was time for our evening adventure, a sunset trip. As the sun sets on the other side of the island, David was excited for the photography opportunities. I was excited to get into a village for some local food.

We were taken by boat, the only accessible way around the island from where we were, to a dock on the south side. From there, our guide grabbed a jeep and drove us to the other side of the island stopping occasionally to peruse a rubber plantation or take photos. Once in the village, David and I headed to the only ATM at the island’s only convenience mart, the 7-11. We couldn’t resist going inside, knowing what wonderful treats awaited us. This was no Snickers and Dorito’s shop, oh no. I immediately headed over to the hard candy section to stockpile the four small bags of Kopiko coffee candy they had and then tore off to the aisle that contained nothing but snacking seaweed, a personal favorite. David procured happy smack and bottles of Thai iced tea.

Loaded up, we proceeded to walk around the village. Comprised of only one street, it was amazing how much we had to look at. Fruit stands abounded and we would stop to try their wares, purchasing additional fruit every now and then. Seafood farmers displayed the morning’s catch. Mainly, we wandered around noticing the subtle differences between this secluded island and Bangkok. The vendors served different wares, focusing on the abundance of food in the ocean instead of land-based animals like ducks and pigs. While dogs are the street roamers of Bangkok, cats are the roamers of Koh Yao.

Of course, all of this really isn’t that subtle if you know a little about Muslim culture. While Bangkok is mainly Buddhist, the southern parts of Thailand are predominantly Muslim with Koh Yao being 98% Muslim. Both pigs and dogs are considered to be unclean. The religious nature of the island also makes it difficult to find alcohol outside of the resorts but we conquered, coming back with a huge bottle of Malibu to enjoy for the rest of the week. Traveling around the island, we came across a section with 25 huts floating over the water. We were informed that they were fish farms, a way to sustainably fish the island by raising babies, keeping them safe, and eventually turning them into our dinner. I loved a sign in front of the fish farm beach: Koh Yao Real Livelihood. Real men are fishermen.

After killing time in the village, we headed down to the dock to watch the sunset. Just as the sky was turning pink, I had the third major experience of my trip…hearing the Muslim call to prayer emanating from the mosque. I’ve heard the call to prayer in movies, on television but have always wanted to experience the real thing. I sat there, happy as a clam, listening to the call while watching the sun set on the horizon.

As nighttime fell, we headed back to the jeep to travel to dinner. Walking back to the car, our guide told me that Koh Yao has no crime. A cat was walking by the car and the guide stooped down to pet it and whisper kind things. As I climbed in the back seat, my foot hit something on the floor. Our guide had set a bag of two fried chicken pieces next to me prior to getting to the dock. I picked up the torn bag to find only one chicken piece inside. Giggling, I said “You said no crime on Koh Yao but the cat stole your chicken!” He shook his finger at the kitty, climbed out of the car and surrendered the remaining piece to the starving animal.

David and I were anxious to get away from resort food and back to true Thai cooking. We headed to a little restaurant built over the wetlands. After seating, I excused myself to the bathroom, passing through the kitchen on the way in. It was this moment that separated us from other tourists. Open to the elements with fish in just about every nook and cranny, most tourists would have preferred to go without dinner than eat here. We knew different…This is where the good stuff would be found!

We started with tom kha goong, a slightly spicy shrimp, lemongrass, and coconut soup before splitting two large fish: pla kapong keemao, a whole fried fish with garlic sauce, and pla rad prick, a whole fish steamed with Thai red chili peppers. We asked for everything “ped ma”, very spicy. Our waitress wasn’t so sure that we could handle it, hesitating as she delivered the food. As the best part of any fish is the head, we fought over who would eat the cheeks and who would eat the eyes with us splitting each fish equally in the end. We seemed to be the dinner entertainment of the night as all the surrounding Thai families watched the two farangs eat like a local. Pretty soon, a familiar and beaming face was coming over to greet us. Apparently, we had been eating at Ma’s family’s restaurant. Ma is one of our favorite locals who also works at the Paradise. She is the best English speaker on the island. Ma was very excited that we were at her restaurant and blushed when we told her that the food was the best we had had on our trip so far. She questioned us, “Even better than Paradise?” “Way better than Paradise. Paradise food too bland”. She laughed and said, “Yes, international food for tourists.” She happily brought over her brother, the chef, and sister, our waitress, so that we could pay our compliments directly to them. Before dinner was over, the call to prayer was once again traveling across the island. I would hear it once more, the final prayer call of the day, while waiting to return to our villa.

By the time we got on the boat, the village was a ghost town. With no lights to dull the heavens, the sky seemed to be hurling stars at us. We felt like a part of the Milky Way, never before so visible to our bare eyes. It was a familiar sky but with its sharp differences, like how the Big Dipper was straight up and down instead of sideways, a reminder of just how far from home we really were. The half hour boat ride back was the highlight of my day…nothing but the sound of the boat cutting through the calm water, guided by the twinkling of stars.

We walked the beach line back to our villa, not stopping to socialize. We had a big day planned the following morning, emphasis on big.

[1] Note to self: life’s ultimate pleasure may just be reading a great book while being pampered at the spa. Oh, and I must be fed dates.
[2] Special shout out to Stephanie and Nyron: If it wasn’t for you dressing David up in girl’s clothes and giving him a girl name as a child, my husband might have just been a different man. A man who doesn’t enjoy the spa or spa nights and that would be a damn shame.

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