Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Thailand

If you were a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo recently flying southeast out of Bangkok, Thailand, you would, in all likelihood, come across a poor specimen of the expat breed in the town of Ban Phe on the Gulf of Thailand. That particular expat would be muttering to himself, trying to work up the courage to eat a piece of fresh durian. By a remarkable coincidence that would floor a Kipling or a Conrad, that miserable expat is me. I spent several years in Thailand thirty-some years ago, as a volunteer missionary for my church, then came back in 2003 to take a TESOL course at TEFL International, in Ban Phe, so I could teach English in Thailand. I stayed a year and a half to teach English. But in all that time, I’m ashamed to admit, I couldn’t bring myself to eat a single slice of durian – a fruit so entwined with Thai culture and cuisine that to refuse its embrace is tantamount to blasphemy.

I left Thailand in disgrace, a traitor, in my own mind, to all things Thai and wonderful. Last March, when the sour economy finally caught up with me and I was out of work, I decided to try my luck back in Thailand. I came back to Ban Phe, to work as a communications specialist for TEFL International; the school is booming as more and more college graduates decide to come over for the one-month TESOL course and then fan out across the length and breadth of Thailand to teach English in public schools, universities, and Buddhist wats. The demand has never been greater for certified English teachers.

As I boarded my Delta flight at the Hubert Humphrey terminal I vowed that this time around, I would eat the fruit of the durian, come hell or high water. As luck would have it, I arrived in Ban Phe just as the monsoon season struck, so there was plenty of high water. Still, I would have to face Durio kutejensis sooner or later. I opted for later. In the meantime I again plunged into the sensual delights of this quiet little port town on the Gulf of Thailand. A plate of fried rice with fresh crab costs 35 baht – about one dollar. I scarfed baked cockles on the half shell. I bade local sea-side chefs to drop a half dozen peacock mantis shrimp into boiling saltwater and then savored them on a bed of green papaya salad with sticky rice on the side. And all of this cost less than a dinner at the local Red Lobster back home.

I swam and lazed on the free public beach outside of town. A word of caution, though; wear scuba slippers when you swim or snorkel, there are spiny sea urchins and occasional outcroppings of coral that can do more than just tickle your feet. I hired a song-tiaw for two dollars to take me up into the hills to tour rubber plantations. (A song-tiaw is a golf cart on steroids that is ubiquitous and for hire to go anywhere at anytime in Thailand.) An overnight trip to nearby Rayong for shopping, or Chonburi for a movie with English subtitles, is within the budget of the meanest backpacker; the bus is the equivalent of $1.20 and a clean, air-conditioned room in a guesthouse is about 4 dollars per night. Bangkok is only two hours away by bus, and the air-con bus in Ban Phe leaves every hour on the hour for the Big Mango. Cost: about five dollars in US dollars.

The open air markets in Ban Phe feature weird and wonderful artifacts for the tourists who stream down from Bangkok on weekends. Ever wanted a fossilized blowfish lamp for that certain someone? How about a big bag of fish paste or dried squid? Best of all are the sea shells, at unbelievable prices. I have seen bright cream-colored auger shells, goldmouth snail shells, scorpio shells, gorgeous abalone shells with their mother-of-pearl inlay and a galaxy of twinkling cowrie shells. A bag of them that you can barely lift will set you back two-hundred baht. That’s about $7.00. Finally (gulp!) the open air markets feature rows upon rows of durian, either dried or made into a taffy. Next door to the markets are little booths that sell all sorts of meats and fish stir fried with plenty of nam plaa, chili peppers, and . . . durian. Every time I come across these establishments I lower my eyes in shame. I cannot even force myself to try the durian taffy, let alone a full-course meal featuring the fragrant fruit.

It’s a little late in the day to begin explaining the durian, but perhaps you’ve never heard of them, even though I can’t get them out of my mind. Throughout Southeast Asia they are called ‘the king of fruit’. Their taste has been compared to a custard spiced with cardamom, cloves and chili peppers. The fruit is a bright, bilious yellow. They grow on trees that soar fifty or sixty feet into the air, and they are encased in a green thorny carapace that can make the whole fruit weigh up to seven pounds. The fruits are not harvested until they plunge to the ground. Walking to and fro through a durian plantation in the cool of the evening, you would be well-advised to wear a hard hat. You would no more consider having a sit-down dinner without durian in Thailand than you would a barbeque back in the States without mustard and ketchup. It’s the smell that makes the durian infamous, and well I know it! I have ridden in buses with Thais who have cheerfully cracked open a couple durian for the long trip, filling the bus with an odor that can only be described as dried vomit overlaid with fermented gym socks. Compared to that awesome fragrance, changing a baby’s diaper is a stroll through a French perfume shop.

So there you have it – my confession. Even though I can speak Thai, read Thai, have many Thai friends, and now have a career in Thailand, I cannot, I will not, partake of the durian. Every other expat I know has sampled the durian and survived to brag about it. Some depraved expats have even developed a taste for it and gobble it down as lustily as the Thais. But I will go to my grave as durian-less as a newborn babe. Please pass the mangosteens.

About the author:
Tim Torkildson divides his time between Thailand and the USA, working as an English teacher in Thailand, and a free-lance blogger in America. He is currently helping to support the Thai essential oils industry at http://www.essentialoildetails.com/
 

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