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Escape from Phuket Airport

@karenblumberg finally leaving the airport

I want to start with a disclaimer. This is based on the true story of one woman and her experience with the Phuket Sandbox. It is not the story of any other person who may have participated in or attempted to participate in the Phuket Sandbox. All similarities to characters and events in this particular saga are intentional if the character in the saga is named Karen Blumberg and the event is her plane’s arrival to Phuket from Frankfurt on July 3.

When the Phuket Sandbox idea was announced months ago, Karen and I immediately jumped on a plan to fly her to Phuket to meet up. To us, the Sandbox scheme seemed ideal: two weeks on Thailand’s biggest island, albeit during the rainy season, free to eat and shop wherever we liked in Phuket as long as Karen maintained a two-week reservation at a SHA+ hotel. It had been more than a year since either of us had traveled internationally, she from New York and me from Thailand. The Sandbox seemed like a good way to get her to visit without an onerous 2-week quarantine stuck in a hotel room, and we imagined that she would be free to do as she wanted once she checked into her resort. We thought that it would be best if Karen stayed at a hotel near us, so she booked into the Anantara Layan.

Like magic Karen received her COE (Certificate of Entry) almost immediately. But we started to have second thoughts about the price of the Anantara. So Karen looked through the list of SHA+ hotels and hit upon a resort in Bang Tao that boasted a two-week package costing US$400. So of course Karen switched her reservation to that place. She paid her deposit, took a pre-flight COVID swab test and awaited her flight date.

But when the plane landed at Phuket International Airport, Karen’s name was called out first on the flight, as she was listed as an “ASQ” passenger on her COE. “ASQ” is short for “Alternative State Quarantine” and, going by Karen’s COE, she had two whole weeks of quarantine in the Anantara Layan Resort looming before her even though she had switched her reservation to another place. It turned out that the other place had not been approved for the Phuket Sandbox program after all, but had failed to tell any of its unfortunate customers, so Karen had not thought to switch her reservation or change her COE pre-flight.

“How did she get into the country?” the intended resort’s reservation desk asked when informed of Karen’s predicament at the airport. They then agreed to refund the money Karen had paid. But the COE was a trickier matter. While immigration officials were fine with changing Karen’s COE to “Phuket Sandbox” from “ASQ” provided she make a new hotel booking (at an approved hotel this time), hotels were wary of making a booking with a passenger whose COE read “Anantara Layan” for fear of doing something illegal. They could not believe that immigration officials were fine with Karen changing her documentation. As a result, we were stuck in a true Catch-22, a traffic jam of bureaucracy if you will.

It looked like Karen could either be sent back to New York without seeing us at all, or be relegated to a pricey 2-week quarantine, or be stranded at the airport as the warring bureaucracies pushed and pulled against each other, a la Tom Hanks in the movie “Terminal”.

But luckily for us, the lovely people at Twin Palms were willing to book Karen after our assurances that we had secured an okay from Thai Immigration for Karen to enter Phuket. Also entirely coincidentally, because Karen was a passenger on the first Thai Airways flight from Frankfurt to Phuket since the pandemic, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was at the airport. She alone was the person with the power to cut through the red tape jam, setting Karen free from the airport. “You are so lucky I am here!” she told Karen as she helped her fill out the necessary documentation to change her COE to “Sandbox” from “ASQ”. And with a stroke of the computer key, Karen was freed (as were all of the immigration officials sent to watch over Karen during her 5-hour ordeal).

After a post-flight COVID swab test result read “negative”, Karen was free to join us with her precious cargo in tow. It was this:

My sister Chissa set to baking a box of these biscuits immediately as a way to celebrate Karen’s release into the semi-wild.

The biscuits were delicious, as was the pie that Karen baked us a few days later.

Which is our way of saying, it’s all good now. Every night, Karen returns to her hotel to sleep, checking out of the hotel every morning to spend the day with us. At this moment, Karen is working on her third pie, with a mixed berry filling this time. We have run out of Cool Whip but still have the Haagen-Dazs vanilla hidden away somewhere in the freezer. Many more calories await us in the days to come.

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Disappearing Thailand

There are few things that people dislike more than whatever makes them feel old. So although Drake seems like a very nice guy with lovely taste in shoes, I have to say that I want to jump out a window every time I hear him on the radio (I would never voluntarily put him on (except for “Hotline Bling” (OK GRANDMA))) because I for the life of me cannot understand why anyone would enjoy listening to that. Does it seem to you that he’s just mumbling over the top of a track laid down by that band that played at your cousin’s bar mitzvah because they offered a 10 percent discount? Mumbling, but without his headphones on, so his words have nothing to do with the beat? Mumbling about his feelings, which you don’t care about, because you have things to do and just want to go about your day? I mean, what are people thinking? Is it just a case of dominos falling, like, oh since that person listens to Drake, I should too? To me, Drake’s music feels like that one friend you have who just will not get off the phone, no matter how many hints you drop about stuff boiling on the stove. Please get a therapist, Drake, who is surely reading this right now. For my own sake.

Something else that makes me feel old: remembering the Sam Yan area as it used to be. There used to be a real wet market there. There were street food vendors and restaurants who were worth the trek from Sukhumvit and driving around the block five times to try to find a parking space. Now, some of them are still there, clinging on by their fingernails to the clientele who have been coming to their shophouses for decades, but not for much longer — Chulalongkorn University, which owns this land, has given notice that the remaining eateries have 3 years to clear out. This makes me sad for two reasons, and those reasons are called Nakorn Pochana and Jok Samyan.

jok

Preserved egg congee at Jok Samyan

I don’t think there is a Thai person in Bangkok who hasn’t heard of Jok Samyan (245 Chula Soi 11, 02-216-4809), regardless of whether they are a Chinese-style congee fan or not. Jok Samyan is one of the most famous street food vendors in the city, period, up there with Polo Fried Chicken and Thipsamai. Unlike Polo Fried Chicken (which now has an indoor A/C room and delivery service) and Thipsamai (which now has a velvet rope and at least six line cooks), Jok Samyan hasn’t really changed much since when it first started out. They still stir their congee out in front of their shophouse every day, and still make their peppery meatballs (their real claim to fame) by hand before every service.

Thais get all “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” when you ask them what makes a good jok. They will tell you it’s all about “patience”, like they are Axl Rose or Will Smith in that golfing movie with Matt Damon. What they mean is, it’s about how smooth the porridge becomes, and how the rice grains get cooked into a nearly uniform whole. Although Jok Samyan is a street food place, their congee does get that silky, the individual grains broken down for the greater good. Put in a barely-cooked egg and you have one of the greatest street food dishes that Bangkok has to offer.

 

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Curry crab at Nakorn Pochana

(Photo by @karenblumberg)

Nakorn Pochana (or “Nai Hai” as regulars like my parents like to call it, 258-260 Chula Soi 11, 02-214-2327) is another eatery that has been in the Chula area for generations. Different people like different things here: for my mom, it’s the wide range of stir-fried greens, always crisp, always fresh,  never bogged down in oil. For my husband, it’s the khao pad nam lieb, or fried rice with Chinese olive, cooked in a claypot and brought to the table fluffy and aromatic with olive and garlic, accompanied by a plate of cubed lime, chilies and slivered shallots. For others, it’s the stir-fried crayfish, cooked until the shells are crispy and crack under the pressure of your thumbs to reveal juicy, sweet tail meat. For me, it’s probably the curry crab, probably my favorite (aside from Raan Pen) in the city. Like beauty, your favorite dish is in the eye of the beholder (or taster). Only the best restaurants can do that.

The reason for this is probably because of the cook, who has been working the woks since he was 19. He is now 53. Nakorn Pochana plans to move to the suburbs within the three-year timeframe, but the chef may not go along for the ride. Oh who am I kidding, the chef is married to the owner, Khun Chariya. All the same, “Thais today do not have the kwam od ton (determination or perseverance) to be good cooks today as they did before,” said Khun Chariya. It’s something only an old person would say.

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A day with Worapa

The finished product: our kanom yodmanee, under Khun Worapa's direction

The finished product: our kanom yokmanee, under Khun Worapa’s direction

Chin (www.foodtoursbangkok.com) is always full of surprises. A lot of the time, those surprises involve exerting oneself via a long, brisk walk and some elbow grease, so I always try to psyche myself up before our next excursion. This isn’t because days out with Chin are an ordeal. It’s because I need to hide the fact I am terribly lazy and would prefer to burrow myself into the faux-leather confines of my mother-in-law’s hand-me-down couch, pretending to watch “Outlander” for all the historical information on Jacobite Scotland, and not for a reason that rhymes with “Shmamie Shmaser’s shmass”.

But I’m excited for today, because @karenblumberg is with me and the surprise du jour involves trekking out to Samut Songkhram, where we will learn how to make a Thai dessert known as kanom yokmanee — “bundles” of cooked pearl tapioca flavored with pandanus leaf extract and rolled in fresh coconut flesh. Before we get there, however, we stop off at “Thalad Rom Hoop” at Maeklong, so named because an honest-go-God train runs through the center of the marketplace about four times a day. This necessitates display tables on retractable rollers and awnings that can be pulled back, hence the market’s name.

When the market is not busy hiding from the wrath of an onrushing train (that is traveling at roughly 5 mph), it is busy selling the stuff that most Thai wet markets sell, like the famously delicious Thai mackerel:

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

Steamed pla tu Maeklong

And offbeat snacks that I mistake for fish meatballs, like these rolled-up balls of potato and coconut, grilled just enough to form a thin crust over a fluffy, soft center like a sweetened, globe-shaped French fry:

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

Mun tip on the outskirts of the market

But gradually, it becomes time to finally head over chez de Khun Worapaa Thai cook whom Chin discovered after sampling some of her wares at a nearby temple. Thai desserts are often a tricky proposition because they sometimes manage to incorporate a jarring, almost metallic sweetness that tends to set teeth on edge. Unfortunately, this becomes the only thing that people remember of them, instead of the fresh ingredients and old-fashioned methods of preparation (usually steaming and boiling, if they are old-fashioned central Thai sweets). Worapa’s desserts, however, come from 100 percent natural ingredients — most from her own garden — and as a result, bear natural, almost muted flavors and a delicate balance of sweet-salty that is the standard signature of any true Thai dessert.

Before we cook, though, we have to eat. Luckily for us, Khun Worapa has lunch covered, too, setting out a jungle curry flavored with fish entrails and Thai eggplant, a sour curry of maroom, a type of thick-skinned gourd broken open to reveal a soft, custardy flesh meant to be scraped from the peel like an artichoke leaf, and this flaked fish stir-fry that Worapa assures us is made entirely of fish, instead of being bulked up by breadcrumbs like at other vendors’:

 

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Flaked fish stirfry with chili paste and lime leaf

Like any good cook, Worapa has control freak tendencies. This becomes obvious once she starts critiquing our eating technique (“Why are you piling everything on your plate at once? Why don’t you try everything one at a time? Your food isn’t going anywhere!” and “Why don’t you sit up straight? You will be able to fit more food into your stomach if you don’t slouch!”), but her friendly patter only enhances the dining experience, because we love being bossed around as long as it comes from a Thai person who cooks good grub.

Alas, the time to put us to work draws near and we begin to slow down. Karen confesses she is nervous, because we have just learned we will have to stir the tapioca mixture in a copper pot over the stove for a full hour in order to get it to the proper consistency. What kind of consistency? Think super glue, but stronger — something you can build a brick wall with. Worapa says this kind of back-breaking labor forms the heart of all Thai dessert-making: “The ingredients are cheap,” she says. “It’s the labor that makes up the value of a dessert.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, you have to make the tapioca mixture. It’s a package of tapioca, mixed with 2 glasses of pandanus leaf juice (squeezed from a handful of julienned leaves that are steamed), a glass of coconut water, and 3 glasses of rose water steeped overnight from Worapa’s own pesticide-free roses (in summer, Worapa advises using jasmine instead):

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

Rosewater with steamed coconut flesh in the background

This mix is earmarked for the copper pot, which conducts heat more evenly and acts as extra insurance from burning.  We take turns stirring this big pot of green, which is quickly taking on the appearance of Ghostbusters slime. Those of us not stirring our arms off are set to work on yet another backbreaking job, scraping gobs of shredded flesh from halved coconut shells:

Getting to work

Getting to work

Worapa has opinions on both work fronts: “Shave from the rim!” she instructs Chin, before telling me how I should place my hands on the wooden paddle as I stir. All of this must work, because before long we have a pot full of a thick, heavy, glutinous green mass and two trays full of coconut shavings to steam (steamed coconut keeps for longer than the fresh kind). After only 50 minutes (!), the tapioca is ready to be poured out and cooled, before it is hand-rolled and covered in coconut.

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

Pouring the tapioca out to cool

The taste is as it should be: slightly sweet, salty from the coconut and fragrant with the smell of pandanus and rose. We go home with our newly-made candies sticky in our bags and our bellies bulging with food, and we fall asleep in the car with our hands smelling of fresh leaves.

To learn more about cooking with Worapa, contact Chin of Chili Paste Tour at chilipastetour@gmail.com.

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