I wouldn’t describe myself as high maintenance… but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m easy either. I enjoy the finer things in life. I feel comfortable in high heels, pencil skirts and a crisp white blouse. I LOVE a man in a suit. Date night that includes a show at the Kennedy Center and dinner where the portions take up 2 inches on a 12 inch diameter plate make me smile.
But I recently spent the perfect day braless and barefoot with a man who wore a linen shirt and pants with (gasp) zip off legs, eating food out of boxes in plastic bags and LOVED every minute of it. But it didn’t hurt that we were in Koh Samui, Thailand.
The day started with a breakfast of mangosteens, longon (dragon eyes), and rambutans (if you don’t know what any of these are, look’em up. Then go to a country that grows them and eat them. You’re welcome). After breakfast we hopped on our rented scooter (250 baht/7 dollars per day, rented from the hotel) to tour the island.
Thankfully this was our second day with the scooter because I have to admit the first time we took one of them out for a ride I was as nervous and tense as a virgin bride. Odd, because anyone who knew me 10 years ago in Taiwan will laugh at the ridiculousness of me being scared on a scooter. In Taiwan we tore around on those things like they were a second set of legs.
Oncoming traffic – no problem we’ll dodge each other. Two point turns at major intersections – only if there’s a cop watching you. Otherwise take that right turn with the rest of the cars. After partying all night at DNA or Music Church (when I say partying I don’t mean polishing off a light bottle of chardonnay), we’d hop on our scooters and meander home while the sun rose and the morning joggers and tai chi practitioners stared at the crazy foreigners (sorry mom and dad, I swear I’m responsible now)… Ah life is good when you’re young, invincible and traffic laws are mere suggestions.
So with that history you would think that getting back on a scooter would be no issue at all. Nope. Leaning into that first turn my stomach was in my throat and every muscle tense (jeez living in the good ol’ US of A has turned me into such a pussy).
But that was yesterday. This time I was feeling excited. We jumped on the scooter and drove along Koh Samui’s main road checking out the buffalo in the fields, heaps of coconuts, dodging the napping stray dogs on the side of the road and other motorists, which sometimes consisted of 3 or 4 people crammed on to one scooter. A favorite scooter past time for young men, some looked as young as 10 or 12, is driving while placing their foot on the back license plate of a friends scooter allowing them to tear around caravan style through the streets. Fun fact: KohSamui has the highest traffic accident rate per capita in all of Thailand (very glad I read this on the flight going OUT).
The entire trip took us about 2 hours and through a grand total of six traffic lights. For travelers interested in doing Koh Samui on the cheap, you should consider staying on the west or north ends of the island. It is definitely less touristy and a hell-of-a-lot cheaper. I saw signs advertising rooms for 250 baht. Internet access was 12 baht a minute in Chaweng, 1 baht (30 cents) a minute in Ban Mae Nam (up north).
For lunch we stopped at Krok Mai, a roadside local spot with a charcoal grill up front where salt-crusted red snappers sat lazily roasting over smoke.
You know a place is going to be good when the only people you see are locals and they’re all staring at you like they’ve never seen a foreigner walk into their favorite lunch spot before.
We ordered roasted catfish with red chili dipping sauce, grilled pork, papaya salad, chicken with basil and chili, and fried chicken wings. They stuff the cavity of the catfish with lemongrass, ginger and turmeric then roast the fish whole over charcoal. It comes with a dipping sauce of red chilies, lime and herbs. Bright and flavorful, with a hint of smokiness. Slices of grilled pork were dipped in a sauce of green chilies, cilantro, shallots, fish sauce and lime. Fantastic finger food.
Chicken with basil and chili was simple but packed a surprising punch. We tried the same dish at a couple other spots but no one came close to the same bold flavor of Krok Mai’s version. The ground chicken was beautifully caramelized (not the case elsewhere) and the basil tossed in at the very last minute so there wasn’t even a hint of bitterness.
Chicken in Koh Samui was a pleasant surprise. Typically I find chicken on small islands unusually gamey. There’s little fat and it never seems like the chicken had enough to eat before being eaten. Not the case in Koh Samui. Fried chicken had that perfect crunch that you get when you manage to get the fat layer to crisp up along with the skin.
Back to the villa for a dip in the pool and a little down time… then on to the night market in Lamai. For those who have never been to a night market, get thee to a country that has them! Vendors throw up little stalls and sell all kinds of nick-nacks, clothes, shoes, etc (women’s underwear is a shockingly popular night market commodity in Taiwan). But the best part about night markets is always the food: chicken satay, pad thai, noodle soups, curries, pastries, grilled meats and fish.
We ate grilled corn, thai omelets, fried chicken, pad thai, and mango with sticky rice and coconut milk. Total cost including two beers and a bottle of water, 250 baht (about $9). We took our loot and headed for a spot on the beach. Thai pop music was playing over large speakers on the back of a pick-up truck next to a pop-up beach bar. All around us families, couples, and friends enjoyed similar treats.
The cooking process of the Thai omelet reminded me of dan bing in Taiwan, a savory fried flat bread with scallions topped with a fried egg and drizzled with chili sauce. The street vendor in Lamai scrambled eggs with a little seasoning sauce, also called Maggi sauce (Thailand’s version of soy sauce, similar in color and also soy based) and rice flour that had been mixed with a little water. That mixture then went into a cast iron pan with 2 inches of hot oil. The flour and the egg mixture puffs up and becomes crispy around the edges.
Next come the chopped oysters and shrimp. The omelet is then flipped. Crisp bean sprouts are added just before the whole thing is folded up and put into a Styrofoam container. A little bag of thick chili sauce gets thrown in with every order so that the diner can apply the sweet, spicy sauce to their liking.
Mango with sticky rice and coconut milk was the biggest and best surprise of the night. My favorite food experiences are when you eat something that you’ve had a million times before, but somehow it manages to surprise and delight. Because this common Thai dessert is so simple if each ingredient isn’t perfect the result is ordinary at best. But when it’s served with sweet tree ripened mangoes, fresh coconut milk and perfectly executed sticky rice, with just a tad a salt to round out the sweetness of both the mango and coconut, you realize why every Thai restaurant in the US has it on their menu. They’re all hoping to recreate that childhood memory of eating this sweet and refreshing dessert while digging their toes in the sand, chasing friends and siblings around while their parents sit nearby sipping Chang beers and listening to the waves break over the beach.
We ended the night with a neck and shoulder massage in Chaweng. Sitting in big comfy chairs while a tiny but strong Thai woman worked out all the knots and aches. 200 baht ($7) will get you an hour of this bliss. Shoulders, neck, and scalp get the majority of the attention but they end it by drawing the tension out through the hands and feet. I think about the pain my whole body is in after a week of 10-11 hour shifts at the restaurant and immediately I begin to devise a plan to smuggle one of these tiny miracle workers into my carry-on. I am convinced that a nightly massage is not a nicety but a necessity.
Back to the villa where we lay on the bed and stared out on the ocean and the lights of the shrimp boats that dot the horizon. My hair is sticky and curly from the humidity and I smell of salt and sunscreen but I don’t care. There’s absolutely nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.
Life at this moment is absolutely perfect.