Friday, January 18, 2008

Heading south...

This is how winter should be… 80 degrees and balmy, my shirt sticking to my back, hair frizzed out from the humidity, 3 showers a day to keep cool and swatting away blood sucking mosquitoes the size of golf balls.

Princess and I arrive in Phuket Wednesday afternoon. Lots and lots of farang around – “hippie” backpackers living out the Bohemian dream, college kids, older folks enjoying life after kicking the kids out of the house and finally being able to travel. It’s a mixed bag, people from all over the world and of every age.

After an hours wait at the airport, we finally get a “legal” taxi. We have been cautioned to use only the legal taxis in most parts of Thailand. The illegal taxis at the airport cost twice as much and will often change their price once they have your bags in the car. They will also try to take you to a trinket shop or a tailor who offers to make you the finest silk suit – with the taxi driver earning a percentage of whatever sale is made. Our driver tells us that there are only 45 legal taxis on Phuket, an island larger than Singapore. I find this a little hard to believe, but we did wait an hour at the airport and had quite a lot of offers from not-legal taxis. Outside of the airport there are many ways of getting around – motorbike taxis, the legal ones wear red vests. Just wave one down and hop on the back of the scooter! Then there are what I like to refer to as “truck-trucks”, it’s like a tuk-tuk, only instead of a modified motorbike pulling a passenger carriage, it’s a very tiny truck with a seating area for maybe four people in the back. And when I say tiny, I mean tiny, like a clown car with a passenger carriage on the back. With the motorbike taxis and truck-trucks, you have to agree on your price first. It’s a good thing I have Princess with me. I hate to haggle, but Princess, she loves it and she didn’t earn the nickname “Princess” because she’s nice…

We head south down a busy roadway past Wats (temples) and shopping malls and an oddly astonishing number of hip, urban looking furniture stores. It’s a strange dichotomy to see a Wat next to a shopping mall. The farang influence abounds here. But for the fact that there are no front lawns or sidewalks, the area we are in could almost be considered “suburban” by Western standards. Busy roadways, houses packed densely together, strip malls. There are no beaches around and the scenery isn’t particularly noteworthy. Just past a cashew factory on a busy street, we see the sign, “Pat’s Home - Thai Cooking School”. Princess and I look at each other quizzically. The taxi heads up the dirt driveway, past another house and a parcel of land for sale (the for sale sign shows a picture of a shopping mall with a fast food restaurant and a coffee shop), and next thing we know, we are standing at a brass gate in a garden sanctuary surrounded by orchids, birds of paradise, star fruit trees and coconut palms. Song birds fill the air and its as if we are 1,000 miles away from the urban sprawl.

a few garden shots:

the outdoor breakfast table:

We are greeted first by a young, bouncing beagle eager to play and in want of attention. “Pad Thai”, “Pad Thai” a voice calls, then says something sternly in Thai that I imagine is something along the lines of “get in the house”. Pad Thai retreats and heads for the door. Pat greets us with an outstretched hand and a warm hello. Like all the Thai people we have met so far, she is welcoming and gracious. We remove our shoes at the entrance of a large outdoor kitchen where Pat holds her cooking lessons (and where I’ll be having mine). She ushers us through and into her house. The house is very western in style, but for the large alter at the top of the stairs displaying Buddha’s, photographs of monks and jars of incense.

the outdoor teaching kitchen:

After settling into our room, I head downstairs. Pat is sitting on the settee and I make myself comfortable on the stairs. We fall into easy conversation about food and cooking and I feel as if I am talking to a friend. She asks me what I would like to learn, so I open my notebook and turn to the pages of food that I hope to eat while in Thailand. I want to make a Kaeng Pa (“jungle curry”) and I would like to make the curry paste from scratch. Pla Som Rod (“fish with three tastes”); a deep fried whole fish with a spicy, sweet and sour sauce. Pad Thai, since mine always comes out like soup and way too sweet. Maeng Kum, which there isn’t a direct English translation – but it’s little morsels of pungent aromatics wrapped in a cha ploo leaf and served with a sweet and salty fish sauce. And, last but not least, sweet, sticky rice with mango. This is a staple food of South East Asia and I lived off of it for three weeks on a trip to the Philippines (I’m addicted to it). I have tried making it several times and it never turns out. Also, from the basic recipe, it can be made into little cakes, stuffed, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled or turned into many other sweet little treats…

“Great”, Pat said. “Can you be ready to go to the market at 6am tomorrow?”. Can I? I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to sleep I’m so excited!

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