eat: just-caught mantis w/ yellow curry, beachside in Rawai
As I mentioned while drooling over pandan-flavored deserts, I’ve spent a few (very hot) summers in Singapore. This past year, I also got to travel in Thailand while my husband was teaching summer writing classes at NUS. Bojan only had two days for travel between his Saturday and Monday obligations, so Phuket was the obvious meeting place for a short meet-up.
I was a bit nervous about leaving the comparatively remote Chiang Mai for what was a city of tourism in earnest, mostly because I have the same romantic notions of “traveling off the beaten path” as the next scarf-clad poet. We made the most of the low season, though, sequestering ourselves in a beautiful resort on the nearby Kho Yao Yai island, and at a serious steal. But for all its grandness—artful landscapes, sequestered spas, intricately-carved teak, a kind and gracious staff— I was a little uncomfortable in my knowledge that this resort was clearly intended for the kind of traveler I don’t always want to be. It’s all ornate Thai-ness, packaged tidily with the other luxurious amenities travelers expect, but it’s separated from a remote and poor fishing village by just a stone’s throw.
The food options, as you might be able to envision, consisted of a lavish but largely westernized buffet. I had no idea how the locals were actually living on this small island, nor what kind of food I’d encounter if we ventured there—which we didn’t in the short day and a half we had. We did have some excellent meals in old Phuket Town, where we stayed for one night upon return, and where I learned a bit more about the cuisine in Phuket.
The absolute culinary highlight of my trip came after my husband left, and after an absurd display of my own desire, boarding on desperation, to make the most of my time in a country I knew very little about. You should read “make the most” as “avoid tourist traps and experience Thailand for real“— whatever it is that “real” means. You probably also know that Phuket is a tourist hub. Here, you can ride a down-trodden elephant on the side of a highway, or rent four-wheelers to traverse through small patches of jungle. You can hire either a yacht for many, many dollars, or, if you’re less baller, a shared day-long boat tour, wherein you hop between island bars with increasingly drunk holiday-goers. And many people come to Phuket for these reasons.
Eventually, I’d made it my mission to leave resortlandia, which I kept choosing based on ludicrously low hotwire deals and my own desire for ease and comfort, staying on as I was in Phuket for a week by myself. I told the cab driver who picked me up that I wanted to go to the local beach, where I knew I’d be able to find some local seafood stands. We weren’t communicating very well (I speak absolutely no Thai, which isn’t helpful in this regard), and since it was beginning to rain, he instead took me to a mall. Australian families burnt to a crisp, westernized stores, nail salons—you probably get the picture.
You can probably also see the irony in my decision making: I was coveting authenticity but making choices that would keep me secluded from it. I actually got frustrated with my driver for doing what he thought I’d want, though he’d have no way of reading my mind. After insisting Rawaiiii, Rawaiiii, in near tears—all of my anxieties at traveling alone and not being able to communicate imploding on the poor guy— I finally made it to my destination hours later, starving and depressed.
My previous understanding of what the word “shrimp” means: shattered. Mantis. Why oh why had I never eaten even bigger shrimp? At Rawaii market, you can buy the seafood alive and fresh from the catch, and you take it to one of the numerous open-air cafes across the corridor. Seeing these guys turn their gracious circles made me salivate. So I bought them up, alongside a little lobster, and made my way to the restaurant the woman who sold me the fish recommended.
Moments later, the little lobster was returned to me, simply grilled, alongside my many huge mantis, now bobbing in a fire-hot yellow curry. The lobster was fine, but the mantis—oohhh, readers, the mantis—was so tender and lush, having soaked up all of the curry goodness, which is so complex. I thought back to the cooking class wherein we mortared-and-pestled a green curry paste, and knew I was eating the yellow counterpart: think more lemongrass and add coriander, freshly ground chiles and ginger. All kinds of yum.
I ate and ate and washed it all down with a large Thai beer, crying this time from pleasure, so happy I was at least able to laugh at myself on the taxi ride home.
read: Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap
While alone in Phuket, and only rarely throwing petty temper tantrums, a Thai-American author kept me company. Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing investigates the divide between Thai communities and the farang (foreign) tourists that frequent their hotels and restaurants, often creating a disturbing presence. It should be required reading for anyone who finds themselves vacationing in Thailand like I was, a big stinkin’ farang myself. (I even used the word, proudly, with the aforementioned taxi drive. Way ta go, self.)
Anyways, perhaps even more so because I was on the other side of the divide than the complex and compelling Thai protaganists, I found myself craving more from each character in most of the stories, as if the “tour” (something each story here certainly isn’t, but it becomes tempting to read them as such) were too short. Usually, Lapcharoensap finds and settles on a compelling image to end with— an image of motion that makes an argument about the ongoing conflict of real lives. They’re the kind of unraveled endings that can sometimes be infuriating, but they work in a collection like this, stories with dramatic plot elements but in which the larger questions are internal: how to navigate the world, especially given it’s a world that directs you wherever it wants, making one follow its inexplicable wills.
I was granted that time in the novella, “Cockfighter,” which is told from the perspective of a young girl, Ladda, whose father accidentally becomes a rich and powerful man’s enemy by beating him, outstandingly, in a cockfight. It’s interesting how time works in that piece: we begin in the thick of trouble, are ferried back to understand how the characters have found themselves in that trouble, and then move through the thick of it past the point where the story began. When I finally got to Ladda’s story, I was relieved to stay with her and root for her, as if the other stories were the many glasses of water I’d been drinking, waiting for the meal to come.
I’ll be looking forward to reading longer works by Lapcharoensap, since the more important struggles are internal and, I think, take some more time to tease apart (to whatever degree you can tease those things apart). They helped me learn a bit more about Thai culture, but, importantly, they also made me ask the right questions of myself as a tourist—why was I there? What were my desires about, really? In a recent interview of his with Yuka Igarashi @ Granta, Lapcharoensap speaks on this, beautifully:
“You can’t take a vacation from the self, and all of that cheery stuff. I have a beloved uncle in Bangkok who—upon being informed that I was going to Angkor Wat for the first time— simply pointed out his window and said, ‘If you want to see some rocks and trees and mud, you don’t have to go to Cambodia. You can just step outside of my house.’ Which is a gentler way of saying the same thing, I suppose. Sooner rather than later you’re always confronted by the hollow ring of the enterprise. And that hollow ringing, more often than not, is being issued from nowhere else but the cavernous recesses of your very own self.”
For further reading & eating, see more:
- Mook Dee: seaside restaurant where I brought my freshly caught mantis & lobster. I highly recommend.
- Raya House, in Old Phuket Town, was recommended to us by the locals and is apparently where Thai royalty prefer to nosh when in town.
- The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen, translated by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. This is the first full English translation of one of Thailand’s most famous works of literature– over 1,000 pages and hundreds of years old, these stories were originally shared orally.
- “Language in Revlot: Contemporary Thai Short Stories,” feature on contemporary Thai fiction by Mui Poopoksakul at Asymptote.