Curry Hunting: Bottle Beach, Thailand

16 Jan

Photo by E. Dohrmann

(the following is an excerpt from my journal during a trip in SE Asia...)

“Shit!” This is the sound Evan makes after he’s ripped the zipper of its track on his new (knockoff) “North Face” backpack. Or as he explains it, it wasn’t that he was pulling too hard as he tends to do with everything, but that the zipper miraculously achieved this on its own.

“My mom jinxed me ” he continues, sliding the zipper back and forth along its now “off” track, “she reminded me in Bangkok to check out all of the zippers before I bought it.”

I finally look up from my book and smile, knowing that he’s not really talking to me at this point, he’s merely having a conversation with himself out loud like he tends to do when he knows I’m lost in the pages of a book.

“What?” He asks, noticing that I have finally noticed him.

“Nothing,” I reply. But my smile remains. These are the things we complain about on our journeys: busted zippers, itchy mosquito bites, ants in the sugar.

“Well, it’s alright. It was only $6.00,” he concludes, resorting to using the second zipper. “I think these guys planned ahead, making sure there are two zippers for every track in the likely case one will break.”

By “these guys” I assume he means the four-year olds that were probably forced in to sewing these packs, and the words on the page of my book begin to blur as I recreate the dim or even worse, fluorescent lighting conditions they must endure. But maybe the four-year olds only sew actual North Face backpacks, and the knockoff stuff sold in Bangkok is actually sewn by adults. I consider the idea for a moment but my train of thought is broken once again by Evan.

“I wonder how long the ferry takes,” he asks, scanning out of the catamaran’s window into the abyss of sea water. “And after that, I wonder how long it’ll take us to get up to this so called ‘Bottle Beach’.”

Knowing Evan, I recognize this tone of voice– it’s less of a question he’s asking and more of a statement–it’s genuine curiosity mixed with concern.

He and I in fact, share the same concern in this instance. The entire reason why we’re going out of our way to get to Bottle Beach, or Hat Khuat a remote beach on the norther part of Koh Phangan, is because of my sister and brother-in-law, who have been urging us to go since their return from an earlier trip to Thailand. The success of this particular journey resides in a recommendation made by my sister who insisted that we would love this location. At this particular point in our travels, I’m left wondering if she even knows what my idea of a good location is. Obviously that’s not her fault; she wasn’t with us on the beaches of Tahiti, New Zealand, or Bali. No, it wouldn’t entirely be her fault, at least in Evan’s eyes it would be a culmination of faults: Tara’s, mine, and his for ever listening to us in the first place. But all we could do was wait until this catamaran docked so that we could find a taxi to take us to Chaloklum, and from there get a long tail boat  to get us to Bottle Beach.

I finally put my book down, a detailed account of the famous predictions of the prophet Nostradamus, when we find a ride to take us to the other port. Getting into one of these taxis takes a little energy. They’re actually pickup trucks that are converted to hold several passengers. The back of the cab is covered and lined with two opposing benches. The “roof” is connected by bars that attach to the sides of the cab. Riding in one of these things gives you an imprisoned feeling, and it occurs to me that if I saw people riding around in one of these contraptions in the United States I would immediately assume they were convicts, or at least mental patients.

But Evan is particularly fond of this one, as it has a hammock in the back. “I need one of these,” he remarks, and I’m wondering which one of “these” he means, hoping its the hammock. “Can’t you just see us camping in a truck like this? It’s got everything we need–and this hammock is awesome,” he says, grabbing the woven fabric in his hands and swinging it back and forth. I wince, but eventually smile at the thought of the two of us traveling around in one of these trucks, but I remain quiet. He reads my silence.

“What?” he asks.

“Nothing,” I respond, but my smile remains.

“The beach here looks nice,” Ev comments as we both scan the sandy banks lined with palm trees in front of us. Again, I note the underlying meaning in this statement: “why can’t we just stay here? Is it really worth it to spend a day trying to get to this remote place? How great can it really be?” Truthfully, I’m starting to wonder about this myself. But I’m able to talk myself out of any doubts. We promised Tara and Dan that we’d make the trek. How bad can it be? And if it turns out to be a complete disaster then we’ll always have Ko Tao, the next island we’re scheduled to visit after Ko Phangan.

I think of Laos as I watch the children lining up along the sidewalk with large buckets of water. Around the New Year it becomes almost ritualistic to splash all oncoming traffic with water, and at this point we’re used to holding our breaths, shielding our backpacks, and preparing for the shocking chill. Usually the cold water is a relief on such a hot day, and throughout this trip I’ve been continuously grateful we’re travelling in SE Asia around New Year. As our truck gets ready to pass a large group of water-bearing young ones, Evan suddenly ducks and takes cover in the bed of the truck and I find myself completely unprotected from the oncoming splash. Evan is now hysterically laughing, taking in the sight of me completely drenched, hair in the eyes dripping large beads of water onto my bag, but finally manages (through muffled laughter), “I’m sorry, I didn’t think you’d get that wet!” We laugh together and the mood in the truck is instantly lifted as he joins me on my side of the bench, puts his hand on my knee, and we both stare out of the taxi through the bars. Here we are, two American convicts/mental patients searching for our paradise in Thailand.

They say your family knows you better than anyone. I don’t really know who “they” are but in most cases there’s usually a perversion in their logic. Because I know as well as anybody that just because you’re related, doesn’t mean your family members know jack about you. However, this is not the case with my sister. I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older I say things that I swear came out of her mouth. Some women fear that they’re turning into their mother. Not me; I fear I’m turning into my sister. No offense to her, none at all, it’s just that when you can hardly see the already too blurry line that separates you from someone else it can be a little scary. But I guess I should be grateful for this; grateful that we are so close, that I have a best friend who knows me better than I know myself at times, who can read me as if I was an abridged version of Cliff’s Notes, who can also talk endlessly about books, restaurants, travel details, politics and celebrity gossip. I suppose that’s all one could ask for from a sister. But it’s frightening the way she can read me, even from thousands of miles away she manages this.

And so here I find myself on Bottle Beach, simultaneously cursing her and adoring her for once again knowing her little sister so well. In short, Bottle Beach is paradise. Or at least, it’s our version of paradise. The small bay, only reachable by boat, is lined with palm trees and is no longer than 400 metres wide, and the accompanying hillside is dotted with rustic, quaint bungalows. On our first full day there I ask Evan to participate in one of my writing exercises called “reflections.” Usually, this consists of a fifteen minute free-write where I jot down series of thoughts about a particular place or moment. Sometimes this exercise results in my writing muse bearing gifts of profundity and eloquence, everything from a beautifully detailed and descriptive passage to a provocative one-liner for a prompt inspiring a new writing exercise.

And then sometimes I do this exercise with Evan. Evan’s “reflections” are literally thoughts he blurts and dictates, and that I record. I thought I’d include a few of Evan’s so you could get his perspective on things. After all, this is our trip and it’ll be boring just reading things from my point of view.

Reflections: Evan

1. I hope our backpacks are still safe in storage upon our return to Bangkok

2. This place (Bottle Beach) is so relaxing that you don’t even think twice when they bring you a pineapple juice when you’ve really requested a lemon juice

3. I predict that the mosquito tennis will be better here than any other place we’ve played so far [“mosquito tennis” is what we’ve dubbed zapping mosquitos with our new electrified tennis racquet]

4. Is it possible for me to get “curried out?” After six straight days in Laos, where I ate nothing but Thai and Indian curry for every meal, the answer remains a resounding “no.” But only time can tell.

5. The water in this ocean feels like you’re standing in your own pee. All of the time.

 

We have two nights on Bottle Beach, a wonderful escape from Hat Rin’s Full Moon Party goers. We’re tucked away in our own private bungalow with deck.  The water here is tranquil, clean and warm. The first night is spent trying to out-smart a cockroach that found its way into our bed, trapped in by the mosquito net. The roach wins out after we lose sight of it during a moment of distraction, and we go to bed tossing and turning, knowing we never did find it. Our days are spent in delight, either lying on inflatable rafts in the ocean, or reading and playing music on our balcony that overlooks the secluded beach and turquoise water. We eat bowls of spicy curry and drink countless banana shakes that are made with coconut milk rather than cow’s milk, watch screenings of Tarantino’s classics at the guesthouse next door, and I find a soccer ball under the deck of our place and spend hours juggling in the sand. At the end of our stay I come to two very important conclusions; the first being that I can consider myself more than fortunate to have a sister that loves me enough to share the secrets of such a spectacular place; and the second one being that the answer is no, Evan will never get “curried out.”

Prawn and Pineapple Curry*

serves 4

Spice Paste

  • 4 bird’s eye chillies, seeded
  • 4 Asian shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 lemon grass stalks, white part only, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated kaffir lime skin
  • 1/2 in long piece of galangal root, finely sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

Prawns

  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1.5 cups coconut milk
  • 4 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons palm sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 cup pineapple wedges (fresh preferred, but canned is acceptable)
  • 3 makrut (kaffir) lime leaves, shredded
  • 16 raw prawns, peeled and deveined
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind puree
  • 1 cup Thai sweet basil leaves

Using a pestle and mortar, pound the spice ingredients until a thick paste forms. Alternatively, you may use a food processor and add 2 tablespoons of hot water. Blend until combined.

Heat oil in a wok or saucepan. Saute onion until softened. Add the curry paste and cook 2-3 minutes to develop the aroma, then stir in half the coconut milk, the fish sauce, palm sugar and fresh lime juice. Cook for 4-5 minutes until the mixture begins darkens in color. Add the remaining coconut milk, pineapple wedges and the makrut (kaffir) lime leaves and simmer for another 5-7 minutes, or until the pineapple has softened.

Add prawns, tamarind puree and basil leaves. Stir well to combine. Simmer for 5-6 more minutes or until prawns are cooked through and pink. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and lime wedges, and serve over hot rice.

*check your local Asian markets for some of the more obscure ingredients in this recipe. You’ll be glad you did.

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