Nakhon Si Thammarat, described by the Rough Guide as "the cultural capital" of Southern Thailand, is a city with enormous importance in Theravada Buddhism, the religion observed by more than 90% of Thais. Visitors typically stay on the commercial end of town, where modern supermarkets offer multiple floors of shopping and Internet places nestle alongside jewelry shops. There seems to be a general transition around 5:00 PM, with stores closing and street carts firing up for the night shift.
The drive from Khao Sok Park passes through Surat Thani, best known as a jumping off point for visits to Koh Samui. For us, the main attractions were lunch and a monkey training school.
Just outside Surat Thani we stopped for lunch at a place that appears to have no English-language sign. Around the corner, long strings of firecrackers were exploding in doorways for good luck (Chinese New Year, January 2006). We were spared the smoke and flying bits of red paper, but not the fire! Lunch started innocently with fresh squeezed tangerine juice, crunchy vegetables with hot shrimp dipping sauce, and a mild vegetable and tofu stir-fry. We then received a chicken curry with the foot sticking up: chicken around here appears to be mostly skin and bones and so nothing is wasted. The real shock, though, was the sauce in this chilli curry: it starts off hot, and just keeps getting hotter. A milder catfish curry, a winter melon soup, and lots of rice did little to ease the pain. Fortunately, we got soothing desserts of various jellies and chewy rice confections in coconut milk with shaved ice.
After lunch we headed to a school that trains male pig-tailed macaques to pick coconuts. This reduces the cost of labor (and, presumably, the danger to humans) of picking coconuts. According to the Thai-speaking host at The Kadaejae Training Monkey School, some of the monkeys are raised in captivity, while others — said to have better instincts for picking — are captured from the wild. While a good graduate will pick 500-1000 coconuts per day, the really talented ones are trained to do shows for visitors (and command more than three times the price of regular working monkeys).
The show monkeys demonstrate picking skills, such as climbing trees, twisting coconuts until the stems break and, when necessary, using their sharp teeth. Of course, untying knots on visitors' wrists, riding a tricycle, and shooting baskets are part of the show. Make sure you have a lot of room on your camera's memory card.
The Nakorn Garden Inn (as with many Thai words, there apparently is no agreement on how to spell the name of this town in English) has two floors of rooms arranged around a courtyard. The air conditioners in the modest rooms are operated with a remote control. If you plan to hang out in the lounge just inside the hotel lobby, make sure to wear insect repellent.
The National Museum's exhibits cover a broad range of history and pre-history, from basic artifacts of daily living to antiques from various periods of Buddhism. In addition to basic crafts, there are numerous examples of fine art, from nielloware (etched gold with a black inlay) to fanciful walking sticks. A new wing adds displays more relevant to daily life. These included a rather loud childbirth soundtrack; a very detailed explanation of courtship and marriage rituals; and lots of food- and cooking-related implements and techniques. While we were in this display a group of Thai Buddhist monks came through. They tend to be ordained before the age of 18, so it seems logical that they would be continuing their studies. On the way out, we browsed the display of coconut shell souvenirs made by a school for the deaf. Spoons and bowls, yawn, but the large "crayfish" was irresistable.
Wat Phra Mahathat may be the most important Buddhist shrine in Southern Thailand. Adjacent to its extensive grounds is a market where you can pick up religious items, cookwares, and snacks. But before we could cross the street to the entrance, we were attacked by women selling offerings such as incense and flowers: they thrust them into your hands and then demand money. It's a bit of a racket, but the temple's own sales booth inside doesn't seem interested in shutting it down.
One of the first buildings you notice is the ornate Viharn Luang, the building used for the ordination of monks. Seeing the door open, we peered inside and stayed a while to observe the ordination of a young man hoping to become a monk. (I had never realized how uncomfortable it can be to sit with one's feet pointing backwards for long periods of time. Perhaps there is a connection between this prostration and Thai massage?) While the proceeding was rather solemn, we did become in some sense a part of the spectacle (the monk presiding over the ceremony apparently made references to us, and the family later posed for pictures). At the national museum, I had studied the exhibit showing the various stages of the process and here it was in real life. If only my studying Thai phrases had such an immediate payoff.
The main temple compound is ringed by subtly individual gold-leaf covered buddha figures, and displays innumerable antiques and small altars in several buildings. My memory is something of a blur; the heat and humidity, long pants, and a heavy backpack had me struggling up and down stairs and chugging from my water bottle. Watching market vendors make cookies for "hungry ghosts" provided a pleasant diversion. Thin strings of batter sizzle in a hot wok and then are rolled up and become crunchy when cool.
After lunch, suitably recharged, we visited the Shadow Puppet workshop of Suchart Subsin, the nation's acknowledged master. We toured his museum, with its extensive collection of puppets, and then sat down for a brief demonstration. The art of shadow puppets is steeped in ritual, but at the same time, incorporates contemporary elements. Three students appear before the master. The first has learned well and is released, while the second and third need more training but decide to leave anyway. Each has different adventures. The first student finds love and, presumably, happiness, although his potential mate interrupts their discussion to take a call on her cell phone. The other two try to steal a motorcyle, then try to fly an airplane and end up bailing out in parachutes. The shows ends with "okay, bye bye." All of this is depicted by moving puppets made from thin sheets of cowhide behind a sheet backlit with a single incandescent bulb, accompanied by a mix of singing and speaking. It's pretty strange, but if I could understand Thai, I'm sure it would be quite entertaining.
In a brief demonstration in the gift shop, we saw why the process of "carving" a puppet is slow and labor intensive. This might explain the variable inventory. On one visit we found beautiful, intricate, full-sized puppets that took several days to complete on sale for as little as $100. The next year we found tiny specimens suitable for decorating a Christmas tree, as well as carvings designed for framing. And of course, there are plenty of t-shirts.
Shopping opportunities in Nakhon Si Thammarat run a wide range, from local handicrafts to exotic groceries, from amulets to electronics. Thai vendors selling the same types of merchandise tend to occupy adjacent stores, so comparison shopping often requires only a short walk.
Yan lipao baskets are woven from the inner fibers of the yan lipao fern stem, dried to a natural light brown or dyed black. Generally speaking, the finer the fibers, the higher the price. We found beautiful baskets in a variety of shapes (including small ones with clasps to use as purses) at Nabin House, which also has a branch in Bangkok. Heading South toward Songkhla we visited the government-sponsored Nakhon Si Thammarat Handicraft Center. Here two women demonstrated various stages of the process, including stripping the vines down to the thin cores, and working the vines through a screen of thin bamboo fibers (these provide support for the piece, which is destinated to be the top to a box). The pieces at the center were not up to the same level of quality as those at Nabin House, but the prices were perfect for modest gifts. (From next door, schoolchildren regarded us with surprise and excitement as though they had never seen foreigners before; maybe they hadn't.)
Down the street from Nabin House, there were a few shops with large collections of nielloware. Nielloware is a very old art form that involves applying or oxidizing an amalgam of metals (such as silver, copper and lead) to create contrast with an etched gold or silver surface. The museums featured spectacular pieces that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars; here the choices were more modest. Now... what am I going to do with a heavy silver bowl with a band of gold nielloware around the lip?
In a neighborhood of cookware shops we pondered heavy mortars for grinding herbs and heavy cast iron pans for making khanom krok. Fortunately there were many smaller items for personal use and for friends — as well as woven plastic beach mats for later in our journey.
Around the corner from Nakorn Garden Inn is the tourist friendly Bovorn Bazaar, home of a coffee shop, bar, Internet shop, and several restaurants. We dined a couple times at Nok Chan, enjoying a variety of well executed dishes. For presentation the award goes to a simmering (sterno-powered) tureen of squid stuffed with its own eggs, poaching in a light, spicy broth. Perfectly fried crispy fish filets were a crowd favorite, topped with fried basil leaves, fried lemongrass shreds, and green peppercorn clusters. A pot of translucent "glass" noodles (mung bean threads) was stirred to reveal numerous large shrimp in a tasty sauce. We sampled several soups (pig knuckles, chicken and medicinal herb, hot and sour seafood) before finding a real winner (a rich hot and sour coconut soup with more-than-jumbo shrimp). One winning salad included fried crab, shrimp, squid, and greens, while the other featured barbequed pork neck meat, a tasty, fatty cut with crisp edges and a mildly peppery sauce. Vegetable dishes like morning glories with Thai oyster sauce, ferns with garlic, and rainforest greens stir-fried with eggs rounded out the meal. (Actually, these stir-fries usually arrived first, while the barbequed meats arrived last.) Finally, we had a kua kling of sliced beef. Kua kling is a Southern dish that starts off seeming mildly hot and builds and builds so that by the time you've had your fill it's too late to avoid the burn. This one had good heat, but the beef was a bit tough.
We closed with young mangosteens, picked at an immature stage and tasting a bit like a green apple, and a layered gelatin dessert or cookies from the market adjacent to Wat Phra Mahathat.
One night we headed out to the night market in search of dessert roti. Eventually we found a place with many tables and a widescreen television showing a soccer game. The cook was working in front, near the sidewalk, and the quality looked good. The place was jammed, but we didn't mind waiting. We got five plates of thinly stretched fried bread with sweetened condensed milk and granulated sugar for dipping. It wasn't difficult to fall into bed after such a rich finish.
Bovorn Bazaar was home to another favorite restaurant, Krour Nakorn, where we sampled both the breakfast and lunch menus. The open air design allows a lot of natural light, the better to see the restaurant's large collection of antique coconut shredders. Most of our morning options included khanom jin — a decent portion of "Chinese" noodles traditionally made from fermented rice but more often tasting like regular packaged noodles — with a choice of toppings including a traditional mild peanut-based sauce, a spicier sauce with pulverized fish, and a rich green curry. Some of the more adventurous diners ordered a "rice salad" with scallions, bean sprouts, dried shrimp powder, powdered chiles, and various other items. I found the combination a bit "scratchy," but then I'm not the biggest salad eater. With our coffee or tea we had a choice of desserts (yes, even at breakfast), included various chewy items in syrup and/or coconut milk. The red beans were tasty, as was a dish of slightly smoky sticky rice in salty-sweet coconut milk.
For lunch the range was much broader. We shared small portions of fish mousse (steamed in little baskets formed from leaves stapled into a square); son-in-law eggs, similar to Chinese-style salted or preserved eggs, served in a mildly sweet tamarind sauce; a red curry with pork (I think it was pork); a green curry with chicken and thai eggplants; mixed vegetables in Thai oyster sauce; and a fried fish in a slightly sweet sauce. Our mouths were not burning, so we skipped the coconut milk desserts and finished with a bit of fruit.
Located on the historic end of town, around the corner from Wat Phra Mahathat, the well known local restaurant Khanom Jin Muang Nakhon served up a huge spread. The usual platter of vegetables included a couple of cool salads of marinated cucumbers, daikon radish, and other vegetables to soothe a burning palate. Memorable courses include a pair of crispy fried mullets seasoned with turmeric and garlic (or shallots, or both); of course, if you are not comfortable taking fish off the bone, this might not be your best choice. Pork satays with peanut sauce, a medium-hot beef curry with bitter little pea eggplants, and a mild masaman curry of chicken (on the bone) provided richness. A chicken soup was cleansing, and prepared the palate for a dessert "soup": three small bananas cooked in palm sugar syrup served in a shallow bowl of salty-sweet iced coconut milk. So good. And quite sustaining for an afternoon of shopping and sightseeing.
One Sunday morning we took a walk to the local market to graze on various favorites. Unfortunately, pickings were slim, so we turned the corner and walked several blocks to the Sunday market, an immense sea of stalls spilling out onto the sidewalk. Here we had steamed pork buns from one stand, fried chicken from another, and pad thai noodles from a third. Standing and eating in corners or empty areas of sidewalk was somewhat awkward; perhaps we should have taken our booty to a park, cafe, or back to the hotel. But there was plenty to see and buy in the market after we filled up, so perhaps it was all for the best.
After a final breakfast of noodles, we headed South toward Songkhla where we would be staying at a hotel situated on the beach, near many excellent restaurants.