Thursday, September 18, 2008

Koh Yao Island - Day Seven – Village Lunch Venture Sans Natalie

As Natalie posted previously, we had a horrible evening filled with chills and sweats. In the middle of the night I was saddened at the thought of missing our big opportunity to eat lunch at Man’s home. We were VERY honored to receive the invitation. I forced myself back to sleep each time my body awoke in hopes that I would feel better in the morning. Luckily for me, it worked. However, poor Natalie was forced to accept missing “Rex Manning Day” because she was too ill to travel to the other side of the island, much less eat.

I was instructed to be at the pier at 10:30 a.m. to catch the employee shuttle to western-extending Tha Khao Pier.
Man met me at the scuba diving hut and we boarded the longtail boat for the 30 minute voyage. Upon arrival at Ban Tha Khao I had some time to visit the local hut-stores that carry everything from hanging blowfish lamps (think Chinese paper lantern…then replace paper with petrified blowfish corpse) to virtually every item that can be carved from coconut. Our island friends handsome Gokce and beautiful Gokce had visited this village the day before and purchased a coconut carving of a Mangosteen, which is only Natalie and my favorite fruit in the whole world. Our jaws dropped when we saw their carving and we were sad we missed that shop during our sunset trip to the village a couple of days earlier. With a heavy heart, knowing my wife was violently ill on the island, I sought-out the Mangosteen artist and purchased the most detailed one as a surprise.

While I shopped, Man procured a rental car for the 30 minute drive from the pier to his family’s rice and fish farm. We hopped into the Suzuki Samurai, rolled down the windows and navigated the coastline to the southern tip of Koh Yao. After passing rubber plantations, another pier, and a scooter dealership we arrived at his family home. I was told that in Thai culture the groom moves to the bride’s family compound (Man showed me his old village and his boyhood home on the way back to the Paradise that evening). Each village is broken into family areas where cousins, mothers, nieces and nephews all build homes close to one another. Man’s area of the village consisted of five or six homes that ringed a large rice field less than 20 meters from the waters of the Andaman Sea.

When we arrived at the compound I was immediately excited as this was a REAL experience – not a paid tourist day trip. I had been invited as a friend to a Muslim home to enjoy seafood prepared by the “best cook on the Island.” I was conscientious to honor my hosts and express my gratitude while avoiding social gaffes.

I stepped out of the Suzuki and immediately sprang toward two trained monkeys that were on the property. They were coconut harvesters that can clear a tree much faster than any human.[1] Man drew my attention to the rice field that he works twice a year. Once to plant…then watch for months…then again to harvest. The rice is sold by the family at the local pier so they can purchase other goods.

At this point I noticed that the members of his family were coming out of their homes to catch a glimpse of the American. I felt like Gilbert Grape’s mother when she goes into town to bail Leo out of jail for climbing the water tower – all eyes were on me. My eyes were wide open to absorb my surroundings.

Moving closer to the water we passed an area where the daily fish catch is prepared for meals and market. There were two cats snacking on a fish head treat. Cats can be spotted throughout southern Thailand where upwards of 95% of the population is Muslim. You will probably not, however, see a dog in southern Thailand as I learned that Muslims consider dogs to be dirty and therefore cannot be touched or fed.

Man’s family, as he told me, is very fortunate.
They have the land to grow rice and they also purchased a fish farm. The farm is an investment that should return profits in a few years. For now, much of the money they get from selling their fish goes to the farm cost. We boarded another longtail boat in order to get out to the fish farm in an island-protected cove that was filled with 20 or 30 other floating fish farms. Man said that longtail was “authentic” because it smelled like fish with gills peppering the seats and a wet net in the center. He snapped a picture of me and his brother-in-law just before the water seeped into my pants.

The fish farm is a family affair and requires a lot of work.
[3] They purchase 10-12 different types of small, live fish, prawns and rainbow lobster at the pier and place them in separate holding areas in the fish farm grid. Each grid square has a cloth cover and a net on the bottom to stop the critters from escaping into the open water of the sea. After many months of daily feedings the fish are huge and ready to sell for a healthy profit. I learned that one of the reason rainbow lobsters are so expensive is that they will not eat fish, dead or alive.[4] The farm owner must gather muscles and clams from the sea floor and feed them live to the lobster. The other animals in the farm are fed small fish that are caught daily or purchased from the market. The two coolest things in the farm were fish that were nearly two feet long that look like small sharks (down to the appendage that resembled a dorsal fin) and the white snapper that grow to nearly 5 pounds.[5]

Lunch was served in an absolutely beautiful home built on pillars over the sea with a welcoming front patio area filled with potted plants and benches. It was long and narrow with wooden floors through which you can see the water below. There was one bedroom, a long hallway with a refrigerator and storage areas, kitchen with a small stove and rice cooker, bathroom, and back patio. Immediately after removing my shoes and crossing the threshold Man stopped me to share his excitement over a plaque awarded to his brother in law for being a champion Muay Thai fighter. I took a picture, which made Man very happy. I learned that all Thai boys must learn Muay Thai to defend themselves and their families - take that NRA!

His mother-in-law and wife were working furiously in the kitchen as they had been all morning. They caught the white snapper, grouper, prawns, clams, oysters, and blue crabs that morning and had been preparing for my arrival. All of the seafood was from the family farm – one that I could have hit from the table by tossing my plate Frisbee-style with the right tail wind. I was told that the family always eats on the floor of the home but that they found a table, chairs and colorful tablecloth for my visit. I was looking forward to a traditional meal but I was honored by their special efforts.

As we spoke on the patio I learned that Man’s wife was due to give birth to their first child the next morning. They were going to travel by boat to the Krabi hospital to be induced but for now she was busy keeping the family fed – what a trooper! We also discussed the land and home prices on the island. While all ocean-front property was sold, there were other beautiful places for “you and Natalie to raise your family” as Man put it. He must really like us to show me all of the available real estate nearby. The hill behind his home looks south over the Andaman Sea towards Indonesia “is only $150,000 and you can build a beautiful home for $80,000.” Don’t tempt me – if non-Thai’s could own land I may do it. As a bonus, the owner of the hill will receive numerous poisonous jungle cobras - free!

Meanwhile, the table was loaded with plate after plate of colorful dishes with delectable smells, hot chili dipping sauce, rice, and water. There was enough food for six with just two hungry men ready to eat. We did our best to consume as much as possible. I had an especially hard time because the illness the night before, boat ride and fish farm excursion made my stomach a bit touch-and-go. I did not want to insult Man or his family by eating too little or so much that I was ill. Needless to say we had a ton of leftovers that were all bagged-up for Natalie to enjoy if she felt better. THE FOOD WAS FANTASTIC!

Spicy Grouper Curry.
Wood BBQ White Snapper.
Spicy Seafood Salad.

After lunch, and before our miniature banana desert, Man and I called Natalie in our cabana. She sounded miserable – later she would tell me that my call came-in during one of the worst parts of her day in terms of illness. Based on her tone we decided to hurry and catch the next boat home after stopping at the pharmacy.

Thai’s love their king! The King provides cheap healthcare[6] and free education for his people. While some hospitals and doctors are better than others (i.e. the hospital on Koh Yao itself is regarded as a bit sketchy by the locals) the overall healthcare system is very accessible. The pharmacists of Thailand assist in minimizing the cost by filling a vital role in healthcare services by diagnosing minor issues and providing prescription medication. Man and I were able to describe Natalie’s illness and for less than $1 I was able to get Natalie three days worth of two medications, one for upset stomach (take before eating) and the other for nausea (take after eating). In the states the only non-prescription options available for her ailment would be Pepto-Bismol and Tylenol – a nausea prescription would require a primary care physician visit, $20-$30 co-pay, waiting days or weeks for the appointment, plus the prescription cost. You have to love capitalism’s grip on the US healthcare system.

With medication in hand we waited at the pier for our shuttle back to the Paradise. The sky was turning grey and a few rain drops hit my skin. Regardless, four of us rode on top of the boat roof to feel the wind in our hair and to enjoy the beautiful island and bay views.

When we reached our resort Man and I quickly walked to our cabana to visit Natalie. He waited outside while I went in to raise the dead. After a few minutes Natalie scraped herself out of bed to say hello and thank Man for his caring friendship, translation services at the pharmacy, and wonderful seafood leftovers. We were both relieved to see her up and moving around as we had been very worried about her all day. Remember, his wife is going to have a baby the next morning and he was at our cabana helping to care for Natalie – what a great friend!

Later that evening I went to the restaurant to get Natalie some bread and me some rice. She was so ill that I had to take the hot rice and cold lunch leftovers outside on the beach to enjoy (poor me!) in order to keep her nausea at bay. Poor Natalie was struggling to keep her bread down so she took an “after” nausea pill and zonked-out after we discussed my adventure and I shared photos.

I spent the remainder of the evening watching BBC and reading.

This was such a great day I wish that Natalie could have joined me. I love traveling for the adventure, food and people – not landmarks and pampering. This day was genuine and rewarding.

Special Note: One of the photos above of Man and his wife was from that day (see Natalie's leftovers on the bench). I have been e-mail pals with him since our departure. She gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby boy on July 6th.

[1] We learned all about Coconut Monkeys during our first trip to Thailand when we visited “Monkey School.” It was a frightening experience because the adorable monkeys have three inch teeth and are incredibly strong. I had a monkey climb my body like a tree while my hands were bound together.
[2] The opposite is true in Bangkok where Thai’s are predominantly Buddhist. You will see packs of roaming street dogs everywhere in the city – often in heartbreaking situations.
[3] It could be said that “It takes an entire family compound to raise a lobster.”
[4] This is a fact I could not support with a Google search result but I trust the fish farmer over Wikipedia and the LobsterFacts blog.
[5] Wasabi and chopsticks anyone?
[6] I was told that regardless of the ailment, it costs Thai’s less than $2 to see a doctor and get all the required care.


  1. Too ill to go to the other side of the island? I was too ill to go to the other side of the villa to vomit!

  2. You are too funny! I wish I could have been there because that sounded awesome!


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