We only meant to pass through for a couple of days. Helene yearned for the seaside, and I was keen on exploring the Thailand lying off the tourist trail. The train brought us to this town on a sunny afternoon, and two weeks later, we can’t bear the thought of leaving. You could say we’re in love.
We like this place so much, in fact, I’m not gonna divulge its name on this blog. (You’re welcome to ask me nicely in private, though.) Let’s just say it’s a couple hours away from Bangkok, on the coast by the seaside, and it lacks a bar scene and wide mastery of English, thus making it less desirable for tourists than Kho Samui or Phuket.
Welcome to our Happy Place.
Ocean with a View
In Happy Place, Thailand, the Ocean beats on the jetty to wake me up. On the first day, Helene and I felt endless wonder at this, but nowadays, Helene jokes that she’s getting fed up with the constant woosh-wooshing of the waves. It’s certainly inconvenient if you wake up and need to pee, but I can hardly complain.
By the terms of our trip, this represents a major splurge for us: at $25 USD/night, we enjoy a balcony on the sea, right off impeccably-clean rooms, with a fresh change of sheets and towels each day. (And yes, before you ask, my ecological conscience itches pretty hard.) Did I mention our toilets can flush, the sink doesn’t simply empty on your feet to a drain on the floor, and there’s hot water pressure in the shower? I know: mind-boggling.
Hill Tribe Beans
We make our first stop, usually around noon, in a tiny local café called Coco House. My mid-day jolt of caffeine consists of iced espresso: an espresso shot, mixed with condensed milk, and poured over a mountain of ice, Thai style. Helene, for her part, prefers the iced americano, whose only difference lies in the use of sugar instead of condensed milk. Both coffees are made with an espresso machine, and the beans are brought in from Chiang Mai in the north, where they’re grown by a Hmong hill tribe.
The Coco House became our favorite hangout spot in Happy Place due to its excellent coffee, and the warmth of its owner, Tchim, a gentle, smiling woman who just opened her café a week before we arrived. We also befriended the three year-old Nimoy, who insists on helping out whenever the adults prepare coffee for us. She’s easily the most adorable barista I’ve ever seen.
Bounty from the Sea
Right from our hotel balcony, we can spy the fishermen plying their trade at the bay’s mouth. A fishing vessel accosts the pier from time to time, and pick-up trucks rush to fill their backs with fresh catch, destined to local markets and restaurants. Two years of living in Alberta, and it’s the first time I can think of a reason to own a pick-up.
Fishing is a way of life in Happy Place. A walk along the seaside promenade will take you past various mackerels and shrimp left to dry in the sun. The sun-dried shrimp are ground into a paste, used enthusiastically in the local cuisine. The crabs you might see running along the beachfront below end up in som tam, Thailand’s spicy papaya salad.
When it comes to dinner, the few species caught by the fishing boats, or sometimes simply by a villager with a net, can be seen all over the beachfront restaurant menus. Crab, shrimp and squid constitute the staples, often complemented with a few larger catches: moonfish, grouper, butterfish, mackerel. No fish on the menu is garanteed, as its availability squarely depends on the boats’ luck in hauling them to shore. A few days of stormy weather, and your favorite fish is nowhere to be found.
Dinner on the Promenade
Once the sun sets on Happy Place, it’s time to enjoy all that the life in a small Thai seaside town has to offer. Although the night market and a few other restaurants offered us great memories, none made us return with such enthusiasm as restaurant Demer.
Demer, a small, family-run restaurant on the promenade, consists of a simple, rustic roof, separated from an open-air kitchen by a wall. Like its competitors, Demer offers mostly seafood dishes, ranging from $1 USD for the Thai staples such as crab som tam, to $7 for a fresh whole grouper, deep-fried and served with a handmade sweet and sour sauce. Add $5, and you’ve got yourself a bucket of ice, bottles of soda water, and a bottle of Sang Som Thai whiskey.
We spent leisurely hours at Demer, savoring the seafood and everything from tom ka (spicy coconut soup) to pad thai (Thai fried noodles). Helene has befriended the restaurant’s cat with offerings of shrimp tails. For my part, I exchanged smiles and raised glasses with East Asia’s friendliest group of bikers, whose Harley-Davidsons clash with their preference for Whitney Houston and Thai crooners.
The Call of Cuttlefish
Then, the sound of a squeaking wheel makes me drool with the eagerness of Pavlov’s dog. The sound comes from a street cart, which a white-capped, gentle-mannered Thai man pushes up and down the promenade. Hung to dry with color-coded clothing pins are magnificent dried cuttlefish, which the man grills over charcoal and presses repeatedly with the turn of a crank. Served hot and with a spicy, sweet, peanuty sauce, it’s a real steal at $0.80 per cuttlefish, easily the best I’ve ever had.
On calm evenings, green lights dot the horizon beyond the man’s pushcart: these belong to small boats fishing for cuttlefish, who are drawn to the colored spot. Straight from the ocean, they are sold in the market behind our hotel, dried in the sun that bakes my skin, and grilled on the curb by a man who sells it to me with a warm smile.
It’s easy to take roots in a place like this.
A Time and a Place
Time, alas, marches on, especially when you want it to stop.
Two weeks after arriving in Happy Place, we had to leave it again lest we overextend our Thai visas. We paid one last visit to Coco House, where we were treated to a poignant farewell by our new-found friends.
Tchim gave us two photographs as a souvenir. The first one depicts the King and Queen of Thailand, an auspicious and significant gift considering the love of the Thai for their sovereign. On the second, a younger Tchim smiles for the camera. Tchim took the time to write a long message in English, all the more heartfelt and poignant for the effort it must have taken her, expressing her friendship and fondness in a language she can barely speak.
Back in Bangkok, the thought of other Happy Places keeps me sane. In Happy Place, we found the first reward of travelling slow: we stumbled upon a place where we can be content to while the night away, learning rudiments of Thai in small cafés and restaurants.
What defined this experience for us is both a place, but also a time. Things change fast the world over, including ourselves. Perhaps we will come back here, a few weeks or a few years from now. With luck, we will enjoy Coco House’s espresso again, or share some of our shrimp with Demer’s cat. But like many places before it in Thailand, the vanguard of foreign tourism has already begun its incursion: retired Europeans, led by their young Thai wives, have made their way here, and they’re hungry for fish and chips.
It’s, sadly, entirely possible that in a few years, we will barely recognize our favorite spot under the concrete of a beach resort. I can only hope these changes leave our favorite business owners and their employees rich, and content in their life.
“Secret” places are hard to find, especially in tourist-heavy countries like Thailand. I’ve discovered a few through my travels by looking for places described by guidebooks as ‘uninteresting’, which has led me to places without tourist trappings but with plenty of local character. You should determine what you really want out of a travel experience, and take a chance to step out of the guidebook: at the least, you’ll be treated to a slice of life you rarely get to experience in tourist-heavy areas. As with food, the locals are usually a great source of information on travel destinations. They tend to go to places where fewer tourists go, and get to enjoy lower prices and more authentic food. The downside is a lack of tourist facilities, less English spoken, and poorer bar scenes: and if you’re like me, that’s actually all positives.
“Secret” places are hard to find, especially in tourist-heavy countries like Thailand. I’ve discovered a few through my travels by looking for places described by guidebooks as ‘uninteresting’, which has led me to places without tourist trappings but with plenty of local character. You should determine what you really want out of a travel experience, and take a chance to step out of the guidebook: at the least, you’ll be treated to a slice of life you rarely get to experience in tourist-heavy areas.
As with food, the locals are usually a great source of information on travel destinations. They tend to go to places where fewer tourists go, and get to enjoy lower prices and more authentic food. The downside is a lack of tourist facilities, less English spoken, and poorer bar scenes: and if you’re like me, that’s actually all positives.
Sounds like the perfect place, we found a little bit of peace on kph Samui at the Jungle Club. We didn’t want to leave but had to fly to KL to get our Thai visa ( thanks to Asia air!)
we’re heading back to Thailand on Sat and would love to know more about the location of your secret place!
Your photos just seem to pop. What kind of camera are you using??
Didn’t have the cuttlefish when I was in Thailand. Strong taste? Subtle?
Nice post and description. Your final point about the constant change and development in Thailand is a good one. I have a similar place in Thailand that I really like, far off the beaten track. It is mentioned in Lonely Planet, so not much point in hiding it – Chiang Khan. Quiet and laid back, last year when I first visited it had no bars or nightlife, just people living quietly. However it’s featuring more and more on Thai travel programs, which is seeing more Thai tourists visiting.
This year when I visited, it now has a small pub, and some businesses have been bought out by people from Bangkok and converted into a postcard shop or a little open art gallery. I worry that next it will be Black Canyon, MK or more ugly concrete buildings scarring the view of the Mekong.
But this seems to be the progress in Thailand, and all my wishing cannot make it stop.
Thanks so much for sharing with us Dan. That Tom Yun Gung looks out of this world.
You should be sponsored by each country’s tourism minister :o)
Sorry for the late response everyone!
Scott: Dunno if you’re still in Thailand, but if you are, drop me a line through my contact page! I’ll set you up. 😉
Brian: Thanks for the compliment! I’m using, surprisingly, a P&S: The Canon G10. It lacks the DoF at midrange that a DSLR would offer, but I LOVE the macro lens on it… As for the cuttlefish, it’s close to squid, if you’ve had it. Hard to tell the difference. It’s pretty chewy, with a nutty taste similar to fish. The sauce is spicy, sweet, and full of peanuts, so it complements the taste of the cuttlefish really well!
Andy: Ah, man, once the Black Canyon gets there, it’s all downhill. 🙂
Humberto: That would be really nice. Wish I could get paid to tell you all how awesome these places are! Hehe.