Click through to follow Chef Jason Tom on his 40th Birthday Month throughout South East Asia!
Day 1-5: Phuket & Koh Phi Phi
Listening: Neverland is home to lost boys like me, and lost boys like me are free.
It took a 17 hour flight to Dubai, a three hour layover, a 6 hour flight to Bangkok, a 6 hour layover including an hour and a half bus ride from one airport to another, an hour flight to Phuket and then two hours in a minibus to get to the hotel. It was only then that I could begin to rest.
I’ve never really been too affected by jet lag, but this time it was a mutha. Be a shark just keep swimming. The problem when you just keep swimming is that sometimes you catch a second wind and it just blows you way past when you should be sleeping. That’s what happened to me.
I stayed in Patong which I knew would be a bit of a circus, but I figured, go see the clowns for one night and that would be that. I had seen the clowns in Bangkok it was entertaining, and really this was the same. Touts for ping pong shows and go go bars, as well as big nightclubs along Bangla Road were spouted at me as I was pawed at and was pushed to “look! Look! Free show!”
Shortly after sundown, a night market emerged. Food. Lotsa food. Fresh food. Street food.
It takes a while for me to get amped up when I’m traveling on my own. Food, eating, meals, it’s all social to me. Share a snack. Order a bunch of dishes and share. Taste a million things.
When I drop into a country, it gets a bit overwhelming. It’s like I’m overstimulated and I can’t figure out what to get. To be honest, I was hungry, but I wasn’t. I felt like I should eat but I was ravenous. Maybe I had been held over well by the stewed pork noodle soup that I got at Don Mueang Airport, but I really couldn’t decide and it took me a long time to pick.
I settled on a fresh young coconut (not a euphemism), something I had been craving for almost a decade now, and these little crispy, creamy, savory egg cups. They were filled with little bits of salty pork or sweet potato and came with some phrik nahm pla.
So I wandered around town for a good part of the night. It’s super touristy in Patong too. Russians, Europeans, Aussies, Chinese... You see them all. It took me til 6am to fall asleep.
I was up at 8:15 to catch a minibus to the ferry to Koh Phi Phi. The minibus was to pick me up at 9:15, but I wanted to make sure I had time to run to 7-Eleven before getting on the road. 7-Eleven everywhere else in the world is way better than what we have in the States. From prepared foods to snacks to beverages, it is a cornucopia of amazing products. If you ask anyone who works with me, they’ll tell you that I’m a beverage whore. Big. Fat. Whore. For. Drinks. So, when placed in front of the refrigerator case at 7-Eleven, I can’t walk away with anything less than 3 beverages.
Mangosteen juice, canned coffee, and canned Thai tea. Sounds like a great start to the day for me.
The minibus ride was long and I was kind of dismayed to drive past a night market that I totally missed that was bigger than the one that I had settled on, but c’est la vie.
Koh Phi Phi is completely different than I expected. I knew it was touristy. I didn’t realize how touristy. It is densely packed town near Tonsai Pier. I booked a hotel over near Ao Dalam. It was a maze of alleyways and lanes all of the way there. Fruit smoothie places, snack shops, Thai massage shops, and tattoo parlors lined the alleys along with bars, restaurants, guest houses, and hostels.
After checking in, I asked the desk clerk where the locals eat and where they get food. This was confirmed by the instructors of the dive school that I booked. One of my instructors even pointed it a bunch of places on the way to the pier the next day. #localguidesrule Unfortunately, that first day I had some sinus issues which affected the equalization of pressure in my head while diving, so I had to nix diving for the rest of my time on the island. So I didn’t get to milk more information out of the instructors. Maybe I’ll come back at the end of my trip.
I was pretty disenchanted with most of what I saw on Koh Phi Phi. I refused to eat at the places that were obviously geared towards westerners. I did not come all of the way across the world to eat hamburgers or pizza. #nahyo.
The day I got to the island, I was in a rush to get to the dive shop so I stopped a a random place near the shop. It wasn’t bad... but it wasn’t great. The mango in the salad was over ripe and the spicy noodles were really not spicy.
Later in the day, I found a place that I would return to the next day. It was called ee-sanh gaeng. I had a fantastically fresh som tam, complete with dried shrimp, and a duck salad heavily garnished with mint. Absolutely delicious. It beat the heat like I needed it to. In the heat of Thailand, I like to eat a lot of smaller dishes. It keeps me from feeling weighed down.
Ee-sanh gaeng was run by a young, rather rotund woman with cheeks the size of mangos. She was quiet, quiet, quiet, THEN VERY LOUD!!! She would sing with whatever Thai pop music played on the radio, and was generally a great host. She realized that my pal Junko (and I) had sunburns, so she made sure the fans were blowing on us on the second time we came in for snax. She was obviously a force of nature and understood the true meaning of hospitality, whether you’re dealing with asshole party kids, lost vacationers, or weary travelers.
The second day in Koh Phi Phi and the last morning in Koh Phi Phi I had Khao Tom for breakfast. It’s a Thai rice porridge, soupier than the Chinese congee or jook. The first time was at a comfortable restaurant that was the only one that Junko and I found open at 7:45. The first one was good and it came with head on shrimp. But the reason we had it’s again is because the next morning I saw a little pop up street stall in the alley near the ee-sanh gaeng. I looked in the patrons’ bowls and had food envy. I knew that I would have it before I left the island, and I did. There was chicken,pork floss, fresh ginger, cilantro, and, most importantly, a soft boiled egg. The yolk was as orange as blood orange zest, deep and intense. It was rich and delicious. I seasoned it with an off brand of Maggi Sauce and some chili vinegar. I had never housed a bowl of porridge as quickly, ever in my life. Two bowls cost 100 Thai baht or just over $3. Worth. Every. Penny.
Over the course of the four days that I was on Koh Phi Phi, I visited the local food market a number of times getting everything from som tam to morning glory, fried chicken to kanom krok (Thai sweet/savory coconut puddings), iced cappuccino to fresh donuts. It was a place hidden away from a lot of the bars and hostels, but in an island town as dense as Tonsai is, nothing is really that far or that hidden away.
Another hidden gem that I was clued into was the banana and pineapple woman. Being that it is an island, a great many things are transported there for use and for sale. This woman grows and sells local bananas and pineapples at a little stand just past a row of bungalows. They were the first (and definitely not the last) finger bananas of my trip. And the pineapples were so sweet and tender that the core wasn’t tough or fiberous. It was just a little crunchy. It was sweet, juicy, and delicious.
I think the one disappointment on Koh Phi Phi was the pad Thai that I had. Everyone told me this place called Only One Noodle had the best pad Thai on the island. I ordered squid and egg pad Thai and it was... fine. Nothing to write home about, all evidence to the contrary. I’m sure when I make it to Bangkok the pad Thai will be out of control.
My pal Junko and I just got back to Phuket where we will stay the night before collecting my buddy Mark from the airport and heading to Khao Sok National Park. I hear the food there is awful. Good thing I’m not there for the food.
Note to reader: I have not included all of my meals and snacks. That would be excessive. #obvi.
Day 5-7: Phuket and Khao Sok
Listening: It's oh so quiet. It's oh so still. You're all alone, and so peaceful until...
It turns out that I would get a crack at that night market that I saw as I drove out of Patong. For the night in Phuket that Junko and I would be staying before meeting up with Mark, Junko booked a hotel on a remote beach, which also happped to be 3 km from Patong Beach and had a shuttle that would take us there.
The shuttle dropped us off at a mall in the middle of Patong called Jungceylon. If you have never been to a mall in Asia, all I can tell you is that they make malls in America look like a joke of a strip mall. They’re huge and sprawling. This one had an outdoor courtyard that happened to be having a street food festival. Junko and I bypassed it as, I could see a whole lot of polish, but no thug. We pushed on.
“Da Hood Market” was the name of the night market that I had seen. We arrived just as everyone had started to sell their food. Some were still setting up rows of seafood, skewers, and cut fruit, while others were cooking up display dishes to entice customers.
Three things that will bring me to a stall are:
1) Crowds - if everyone is clamoring for something, you had better believe that I’ll throw an elbow to get me a taste.
2) Work ethic - if I see stall workers getting their hustle on, prepping their food, and getting ready for the crush, I want to support them.
3) Swagger - if you look like a cook, act like a cook, hold yourself like a cook, move like a cook, don’t give a f*ck like a cook, I’m pretty sure the food is gonna be legit.
Since it was so early, there really weren’t any crowds. But our first snack of the evening came from two young ladies that were rocking it out folding dumplings. They had four types and we chose the pork and chive dumpling. Delicious. They had a perfect sear and juicy filling. The dipping sauce, I doctored with a good amount of chili paste to add a little pep to the super simple soy and vinegar.
The major part of the evening’s meal was from a guy who was killin’ it on the wok while smok8ng a cigarette with 3 inches of ash hanging off the end. Mad swagger. I’m not sure if we ordered the wrong things or if the skills didn’t match the swagger, but it was an okay meal. Chicken and wide rice noodles were overly sweet. There was no edge to the dish. And the wok fried morning glory was swimming in liquid and was a little bit over cooked. It was sad.
Just up the street fro Da Hood Market was another smaller night market that had a bit more variety. There was not only your run of the mill banana pancake, fruit shakes, and pad Thai stalls, but there were tapioca dessert stalls, sushi stalls (couldn’t pay me to try that), durian stalls, shoe stalls, makeup stalls, and women’s underwear stalls (people were trying them on, no lie).
Attached to that night market was an indoor fruit and seafood market where Junko and I bought road snacks for the trip to Khao Sok. I dealt with a great fruit vendor who let me try snakefruit for the first time. Imagine a darker maroon angry looking strawberry with a tough, hard, spiney skin bunched together like bananas. You peel them like a lychee and they have a soft sweet and sour flesh that surrounds a pit like a lychee or rambutan. It was okay, but I wasn’t sure I would want to eat a whole bunch of them.
We walked away with some more finger bananas, some longan, and some time mandarins. Had I thought that we would have a place to put the produce, I would have bought some adorable pineapples.
The next morning, Junko and I met up with Mark at the Phuket airport and took the long drive up to Khao Sok National Park. It was about two and a half hours in the car with no piss breaks and only some water and fruit to subsist on. By the time we got there and finished checking in, it was 3pm. We were starved and since there wasn’t much around besides other guest houses and tour agencies, we ate at the guest house. I had a passable, but not extraordinary chicken soup with tamarind, chili, and lime.
The bungalows that we were staying in were pretty basic accommodation. No hot water. Fan, no a/c. Mosquito nets. And the lock 9. The door lock was a mini luggage lock. Budget for sure.
The three of us went walking around town, and didn’t find much to entertain ourselves, so we came back, had dinner, and booked our tour for Cheow Lan Lake and the surrounding caves. After that, since there was nothing to do, we crashed. It was 7:30 at night. So sad.
The next day we were up at the ass crack of dawn, some because of jet lag, some because we went to sleep crazy early, and some because we just couldn’t lay there any longer. Breakfast was included with our tour, and this is where an insane patter became all too apparent.
During lunch, Junko and Mark got their food, and I ended up waiting for an extra 10-12 minutes for mine. They both got their mango smoothies before I got my beer. Dinner, they all got their meals, and I waited forever for pad Thai. In the morning for breakfast, they both got their omelettes first. I waited. Mark got his mocha. Then they told me that they couldn’t steam the milk for my latte. After the boat trip, when we got dinner, again, my pork noodle soup was the last to come out by a good stretch of time. The owner Khong was an amazingly nice human being. His daughters were all cute and sweet as pie. But I think they were all fucking with me. #letslaughatJT
The long tail boat ride to Cheow Lan Lake was actually quite relaxing, though the benches were really only rated for 30 minutes of comfort, 40 minutes if you sit on a life vest. It was an hour and a half boat ride to the raft houses where we had a mediocre lunch, and then headed off to the caves.
The caves themselves were pretty cool. Apparently, it was where the communists hid from the government back in the day. The lake itself has only been in existence since 1982, when the Thai government built a dam for hydroelectric power.
The hike to the cave was about an hour through dense bamboo jungle with all sorts of wildlife, like butterflies, lizards, and spiders. Inside the caves, there weren’t nearly as many stalactite or as stalagmites as I expected. There was a constant flow of water through the cave, sometimes up to my neck, and slick rocks that I balanced on in my rented rubber shoes. There were enormous spiders, as well as tiny ones, and bats galore. There was one section of the cave where I turned to Mark and joked, “Is this where The Goonies was filmed? Am I supposed to slide down this?”
Upon exiting the cave, we headed back to the raft houses for a while. Some people swam. Some kayaked. Some just stood around ripping butts. Mark, Junko, and I reformulated our plans. Originally, we wanted to do an overnight stay at the raft houses. We decided last minute not too and we were kinda glad we didn’t. They were also basic, but even more basic than our bungalows. Shared... disgusting bathroom. And you’re in the middle of nowhere. Originally we wanted to do a tubing excursion, but because it was the end of the dry season, the river was low and we were told that it would not be “funny.” So instead, we decided to rebook our flight from Surat Thani to a day earlier and we decided to get out the very next day.
I love nature. I love peace. But, sh!t... I needed more to do, better food, people to stop fucking with me or something...
So we high tailed it at 6 am the next morning, to Surat Thani to catch a flight to Bangkok, and that’s where the birthday festivities began to kick into high gear....
Note to reader: I did not include everything that I consumed during this time. If I did, it would all be mediocre food. Hold on til later. #trustmeonthis