Chanthaburi

29th MARCH 2019

My second leisurely breakfast in Trat is a carbon copy of yesterday’s tomato and onion scrambled egg, washed down by a strong filter coffee. I leave town around 10.00am, heading North-West on smooth, flat roads that have a safe, one metre buffer zone at the edge for cycling. The morning part of my ride is refreshingly easy, as I cruise past brilliantly green jungle under an increasingly cloudy sky. Up ahead there’s an ongoing display of lightning flashes in the direction I’m heading, followed by long, heavy rumbles of thunder. Before long I’ve cycled into the rainstorm, so take shelter beneath a roadside canopy that looks like it normally covers a fruit stall. Scooter riders are stopping to pull wet weather ponchos over themselves or to hide under bus shelters as heavy rain batters noisily onto the ground. Half an hour later I emerge and continue cycling in a dripping environment that has been cooled down nicely by the deluge.

Language barriers abound when I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe for lunch, but two guys who look like students step in to help. One produces his mobile and gets me to say words out loud into his phone so they are google-translated into Thai. Then it becomes a bit of a game where they will say Thai foods so I can read the English translation. What flummoxes me is that the Thai word for pork sounds like ‘Moo,’ when all my instincts tell me that ‘Moo’ should be cow. It’s all good fun, although we’re not progressing very far with ordering my food. In the end I just point to what the two students are eating, give a Thumbs Up and hope for the best. A tasty bowl of noodles duly arrives, complete with chunks of ‘Moo’ and some small, puzzling meatballs. Not the worst result.

The afternoon heats up once the clouds have dissipated, but I’m still feeling quite fresh when I roll into the riverside town of Chanthaburi around half past two. I reach the Traveller Hostel, just across a bridge into town on a narrow, busy street. The owner is a friendly bloke with excellent English, who calls himself Peter in the same way that many Asians choose a Westernised version of their own name. I leave my bike at reception, chain-lock through the back wheel, and head upstairs to what must be the tiniest room I’ve seen on the whole trip. My consolation for overnighting in a large cupboard is that the effects of air-conditioning kick in almost immediately in such a confined space.

For dinner I walk back over the same bridge I rode in on, finding a Plastic Chair Cafe for a basic rice meal with chicken and pork strips, before stopping at a 7-11 on the way back. I stock up on snacks, and also manage to find the elusive large bottle of sunscreen I’ve been searching so long for. It costs the equivalent of £10, which means I’ll be paying much the same price as I would in the UK. Still, I don’t think sunscreen is a product you can compromise on, especially if you’re a Scottish guy cycling in the tropics. At night I try to plot an itinerary that will take me round the coastal route to Bangkok. I work out that I’ve got around 350km to cycle and have twelve days left to complete the distance. This is a pleasingly comfortable ratio, even for me. With this in mind I eat all my intended road food snacks for tomorrow and mark the day down for exploring Chanthaburi instead.

The next morning I have such a lazy start that I almost miss my morning meal at a cafe that stops serving breakfast at 11.00am. After stuffing myself I wander back through the narrow alleyways of the Old Town, awash with tourists, gem shops, stalls and cafes. At the river’s edge there’s a community of old wooden shacks on stilts, looking a little out of place, but now protected and occupying prime position in the trendiest part of town. I amble through the tight, shady streets and visit a handful of Buddhist temples, leaving my shoes outside at the entrance to each one, before making my way back to the hostel via a milkshake bar.

Peter is there at reception to greet me, saying he can take me out for food tonight at his favourite street food cafe at the night market. I’m more than happy to agree as you always discover much better places with the help of local knowledge. We go there by motorbike to find the night market is absolutely jam-packed with people, and so stupidly busy that there are no free seats at his chosen cafe. We hang around for a while, but have to resort to a Plan B as the tables just aren’t clearing. He takes me to a restaurant a couple of kilometres away that looks far more upmarket, a place he normally comes with his family for Sunday lunch. I’m asked if I would like to try some regional Chanthaburi food, which is music to my ears, and Peter orders three dishes to share between us.

The first plate is a crispy appetiser of what appears to be fried green beans with tiny dried shrimps, which has a nice crunchy, seafood taste. I enjoy the starter, although it turns out to be fairly mediocre compared to the main courses that follow. The first looks like a large version of the clear chicken soups I often get as a side dish in Plastic Chair Cafes. However, when I take a spoonful I’m just not prepared for the mixture of flavours ! At first I get a lemony, sour flavour that makes me suck my cheeks in, before I start to experience an unexpected sweet taste. Then, about twenty seconds later a warm spiciness kicks in. Blimey ! How the Hell do they make a dish that goes from sour to sweet to spicy in one mouthful ? Peter has obviously watched tourists trying this before and is sitting there grinning, waiting for my reactions to the taste changes.

The third course is my favourite though. It’s a dish that’s local to the Chanthaburi area called Moo Chamuang, which is a kind of sweet and sour pork-belly curry in a thick brown sauce. What makes it unique is the use of Chamuang leaves, only found in this region of Eastern Thailand, which add quite a sour flavour to the sweet, tender slow-cooked pork. I can say without any doubt that these three courses add up to the best meal I’ve had on the entire trip !

While chatting over the meal I find that Peter has had an interesting life. He’s forty-five, from Chanthaburi originally and spent ten years working as a tour guide all over the country. His career came to an abrupt end when he fell foul of his employers, who just happened to be in cahoots with the Russian mafia in Pattaya. When he unwittingly took on a driving job for one of their rivals, his employers took him to an uninhabited island offshore and beat him up, knocking out a couple of teeth in the process. He pauses his story at this point to show me the gaps. The Russians were just going to abandon him there, so he said they could take all the money in his wallet and he’d also pay them his fee from their business rivals. The thugs were happy with this and acted like they were all mates again, but this episode had shown Peter what they were capable of. Wisely, he decided to get out immediately and move back to Chanthaburi. His decade in the industry wasn’t a complete waste though – he is currently providing material for a Thai novel which explores the seedier side of being a tour guide.

It’s been an enjoyable and fascinating evening, and all the better for some local insight. Peter insists on paying for all the food, which is a bloody decent gesture. The bill comes to 350 Baht, which converts to less than £10 to feed two people in a posh restaurant with probably the best meal I’ll have in Thailand.

I’ve enjoyed my time in these Eastern provinces, a little bit away from the regular Thai tourist trail. Trat and Chanthaburi have both been unassuming, yet very likeable towns, and I’m glad I was able to spend an extra day in each. My new, relaxed schedule for the rest of the trip means I’m now able to get a proper feel for the locations I visit instead of just rushing straight through. Kind of how a cycle trip should be.

 

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