When you arrive in Ao Nang, 15 kilometers from Krabi on the south-western coast of Thailand having haggled with the taxi driver like the Lonely Planet guide tells you to, and clinging to your seat throughout the adventurous trip (English-style – on the ‘wrong’ side of the road – which takes a little getting used to every time) along a bumpy, sun-dried road, the first thing that strikes you is the forest. It is all around you, behind the houses, spilling over onto the tarmac of the roads, clinging to every cliff and emerging from every recess: the forest closes in around you wherever you look, dense, tropical and mysterious. It makes you feel tiny, threatened and enraptured all at the same time.
The second surprising thing, if you arrive in April, is the heat: as soon as you step outside the sinister embrace of the air-conditioning, you feel faint and the momentary temptation to run after the taxi-driver and ask him to take you away in the safe, cool lap of his passenger seat, is hard to resist.
The initial impression of Ao Nang is like a punch in the solar plexus while your guard is still down band you’re still waiting for the bell to signal the start of the round. A few hours later, when you start to get your bearings amid the brimming nature, intense aromas, insects, colors, just when something wild is grabbing at your insides, it is a shock to find in the first shop you see – as if you were in your local supermarket! – all the usual brands, standing out in unreal clarity. Nestlé, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Bayer, Nike, Adidas – these are the passwords that hurl you back home, with gloomy familiarity, artificial but inevitably effective, so that it seems pointless to have traveled all this distance, to have been shaken halfway across the globe for hours inside a steel tube.
The same applies to the music on the radio: Thai pop (at least the ‘commercial’ kind) is not at all oriental – apart from the language – but depressingly similar to the pop contest products of the Italian market. As you sit there at a bar table, pondering under a complaining fan, like in a fourth-rate film noir, how hard it is to find something genuinely ‘foreign’ no matter how far you go – lo and behold something ‘foreign’ appears, in the form of the fruit shake you ordered a few minutes previously from the waiter in two different varieties of English. Now, it is nothing more than crushed ice and fruit – mango, as a matter of fact – but the perfume is so intense and the pleasure so strong and unexpected that suddenly your taste buds make you delightfully aware that you’re abroad.
Fruit is the first great surprise in store for you in Thailand. Sweet, opulent, perfumed, it delights the palate like it never could at home. Mangoes, in order of appearance, then bananas (small ones), limes, pomelo, coconut (enormous and green, nothing like the hairy rugby balls sold on Italian beaches), durian (a type of smelly but sweet pineapple adored by the Thais), lychees, watermelon, green mandarins, papaya, melon (also green, and like cucumber) …. not to mention pineapples! There is no beach, however isolated, without barefoot, toothy kids offering it to you for a few bath: they sell it cleaned and in a spiral shape, cut lengthways into quarters, and you can hold it by the stem like an ice-lolly and bite it: ripe, delicious, pulpy.
But fruit is not limited to shakes, snacks or the end of a meal in Thailand – it is used throughout their cuisine. Scooped-out pineapple is used to serve ‘fried rice in pineapple’, for example, one of the most popular first courses, while lime is the “secret” ingredient of all fish dishes on which it leaves its unmistakable blend of sourness and sweetness. Fish is the crowning glory of Thai cuisine, and how could it be otherwise? There are other types of meat, of course, in this rich cuisine which also offers chicken, pork and even beef, all in abundant quantities: grilled, fried (in the same batter used for Japanese tempura, and served with apple or coconut sauce), roasted, in sweet and sour (with almonds or peanuts or hazelnuts) or spicy sauce. If, like me, you’re not from a coastal area, the abundance of fish will seduce you into eating it every day while you’re here.
In all restaurants, both on typical and tourist menus (which can be difficult to avoid), we discovered that the usual way to dress seafood salad is with lime (naturally), onion, ginger, coriander, lemon grass and chilli pepper, the latter in doses that your northern, western palate will get used to even if you expressly requested a ‘light’ version. Seafood salad dressing is unvarying whether the main ingredient is squid, octopus, cuttlefish, crab, jumbo shrimp or whatever else the catch of the day has brought the chef. The result is always unbeatably fresh, which is fantastic in such a hot climate, light, yet at once satisfying. The staple fish – the ones for what we would call the main course – are (at least in the Krabi area) barracuda, monkfish and swordfish and are usually grilled (‘Thai-style barbecue’, it says on the menu). Lobster is less common, but you can find it if you look hard enough. Apart from the ubiquitous rice in a thousand versions, the first courses are soup or Japanese-style noodles. The Japanese influence is there, but it’s secondary. In Thailand , they use cutlery, not chopsticks, and we were never offered green tea (except in a massage parlor). Here they drink water and beer (the local Sikha is industrially made but drinkable). If you avoid the tourist traps, prices are very affordable and, as sometimes happens, the best quality is often found in the least pretentious-looking places. In the ten days spent in Ao Nang and its surroundings, up and down from the beach hiring wooden boats to take us to the enchanting nearby beaches (such as Poda, Chicken Island, Rha Ley) we passed a very basic-looking bar-restaurant several times. It had a blue sign saying “Angie Kitchen – Home Made Yoghurt Bread – Pizza Seafood and Steak”, but we always ended up eating somewhere more pretentious. Then, on the last evening, almost by chance, we went to try the cooking of Angie, a lady of undeterminable age who shuttled between the kitchen and the terrace where the diners sat, aided and abetted by her very young daughter. There, between the snooker table and a TV showing English football, under a mosquito lamp, against all expectations we ate the best meal of our trip. A truly excellent dinner (would you believe it?) which knocked us back just five dollars or so. The next day, as we left this mysterious land seemingly governed by noisy, smiling youths (at least in this area), where the tide changes the face of the coastline overnight, the fruit seduces and the forest frightens, we took with us the memory of the best meal of our trip – thanks to Angie and her blue sign.
Stefano Sardo is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office