Monday, December 14, 2009

Saraburi Road Trip

There are few things lovelier than a weekend in the country; especially when you live in a frantic, challenging and polluted city [not to mention you have a cold cos the temperature has dropped to 30°C ha ha ha]. Therefore, this past weekend I eagerly – thinking about all the fresh air – took up my Thai friend Jenny’s gracious offer to go visit the lovely province of Saraburi, located about 120 km north-east of Bangkok, and stay at her family’s country home.

After hitting the spectacular annual Jim Thompson outlet sale at BITEC and spending the GDP of a small African nation, we picked up boyfriend (Kevin from Texas) and headed for the highway. I relatively short and enjoyable 1.5hrs later we arrived. We dump bags, have a quick squiz at our surrounds for the next 24hrs and then headed back out again, this time to Pak Chong (Nakorn-Ratshima province) for a late lunch/early dinner. The drive up is nice enough, we pass highway corn stalls (very yummy), smoke stacks, giant Buddhas, plenty of paddy fields and dozens of 7/11 stores. The area of Pak Chong is snuggled on the west side of Khao Yai National Park, a favourite weekend haunt for “green” Bangkokians [also the scene of many pop/jazz/folk concerts].

We head to what turned out to be one of the funkiest restaurants I’ve ever been too. The place is called Bann Chai Nam (house on the river bank), and it is the site of a restaurant-cum-museum that’s stocked to the brim with an almost endless array of brick-a-brack and collectables. We were fortunate (or early) enough to snag a river-side table (there are about three split levels) that afforded a lovely view of a serene river ambling by. This turned out to be the perfect spot for beers, people watching and Thai food (which although good, was nothing mind-blowing so I won’t go in to detail).

Anyway, I digress, back to the museum side of things. The place is stuffed full of oddities like a menagerie of porcelain dolls, decrepit arcade machines [sth along the lines of shoot the Mohican!], old rocking horses and go-karts, coca-cola bottles from various eras, a multitude of advertising paraphernalia, turn-of-the-century crockery, kooky furniture, a plethora of tin toys and soldiers, a rusty old rickshaw, an inordinate number of ‘40s & ‘50s household items like sugar canisters and even an old wooden tram! Honestly the list just goes on and on and on... this is really one of these times where words (and space!) fail me. You really had better go check it out for yourself. The place also functions as a guest house, with about five rooms out back where you can spend the night in a austere “convening with nature” kind of way.

After that we head back home, via two more vital stops: one for a beef burger (the Texan), the other for ice cream (the girls). Our first port of call is Farm Chokchai. To go in to all the variants and vagaries of this place is way beyond this scope of this mere post, so I’ll just say that it’s a cowboy (or “dude”) ranch for Thai city-slickers. Men, their womenfolk and kids can come on out for camping trips, horse riding, sheep rustling, cow milking and all manner of down’n’dirty farm pastimes. I should also mention that it’s damn popular and on this particular Saturday night the car-park was packed and the farm’s road-side food stalls were doing a roaring trade. Kevin declared his burger to be “edible” but not the best ever. Only let’s be fair, the man comes (nearby Houston) from one of the world’s best beef-producing areas, so I reckon his standards are a little high. So I would say his “fair” assessment is probably on the stingy side ha ha ha. Although I was salivating over the yummy looking ice cream at Umm..! Milk, Jenny made me hold on (albeit sampling a very tasty chocolate milkshake) saying she had somewhere even better for our diary fix. And so we hitch our wagon and head off into the sunset...

Stop two is Dairy Farm, about another 15min down the highway. So chosen for is diverse and yummy organic ice cream flavours. I was expecting ho-hum chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, but, low and behold, we were confronted with banana and cheese [and no, sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t dare], white wine and lychee, pumpkin and orange sorbet... Servings come in adorable little cups, like a red mouse with pointy-up ears, that patrons get to choose and keep as a little memento [mine is now a receptacle on my desk for loose change]. I decided to be semi-daring, going with the aforementioned lychee/white wine combo and a more traditional cookies’n’cream flavour. Both were delicious, and I mean that in a highly-positive and real lip-smacking-I-want-another-serving-or-two kinda way. The shop also sells a variety of organic home-made breads, pastries, dairy products and condiments.

I will now fast-forward (I don’t think you want/need to hear about our nocturnal drinking) to the following day, mid-morning, after a well-deserved sleep in. We head out of our lovely country abode and down the road a very pleasant 20m to the local Wat Ton Tan Market that takes place every Sunday. Started just a few years ago by the town’s entrepreneurial mayor, the market has quickly grown in popularity and girth. It now boasts some 100 food, plant, clothing and nick-knack stalls; along with a traditional dance show and boat rides (about Bht 50 in a long-tail boat on the river for an hour). There is a nice floating/covered platform where you can have an impromptu picnic once you’ve gathered all your goodies, which in our case was quite considerable. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, back to the food. Basically the stalls are all own/run by locals farmers and what not who want to make a little extra cash. All the purveyors are exceptionally nice, dressed in traditional clothing, selling very unique and delectable food and are more than happy to offer advice and free tastings of their wares. We took the military approach to proceedings, first doing reconnaissance, e.g. one slow lap to take in everything and survey are dining options, followed by a second lap for purchasing (and later on a third for take-away).

And so, lap two produced two bowls of spicy beef noodles, one tamarind tea [not so good], one plate of kanom pak mor (delicious glutinous rice wraps with veggies inside), vegetable spring rolls, spicy pomelo salad, friend chicken, sweet sticky rice in bamboo leaf and last, but not least, for dessert an amazing soft sweet bread with bright green dipping custard (sang-ka-ya) that tasted like Betty Crocker cake icing. Honestly, I truly believed at the beginning of our feast that our eyes had indeed been bigger than our bellies, but the carnage that followed and lick-cleaned plates would attest otherwise. I also have to admit that later in the day when Jenny nipped out to take Kevin to the bus (he went back ahead of us to do work like a conscious farang) she managed to find for me a delicious treat that I mentioned having only once (a gift from my boss) and have been hankering after every since. Basically it’s a very thin pancake that you fill with fairy floss (aka cotton candy). I know, it sounds bazaar, but it’s really one of THE tastiest things ever. I managed to polish off the entire bag of floss along with 15 pancakes in the course of the afternoon whilst reading my book and lazing in the sun.

Getting there: As I mentioned above, I took the easy route and hitched a ride in my friend’s car. Alternatively you can take a mini-van from Victory Monument (VM), taking 1.5-2hrs and costing around Bht 80. From the Siam City Hotel VM is easy to reach. Simply head out the front, and immediately turn right as though you’re going to the BTS. But instead of crossing the road, heading south, go the opposite way and head up the freeway (north) for one block. Shortly thereafter a shopping centre called Century One will appear on your right-hand side. On the far side of this centre you will find the bus station snuggled into a small soi-like area. Here you will find buses to Saraburi and about another dozen destinations all over Thailand. The vans are very safe, reliable and cheap. Only drawback, you must await until the van is full to depart, there are no set times; sometimes this can take up to half an hour, so be prepared. But, once on the road, these babies fly (and without stops usually, so don’t fill-up on liquids prior to your trip!).

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