I’ve got two lists when it comes to looking for accommodation while travelling: ‘basic comfort’ and ‘cheap essentials”.
The checklist in use for the next few days is the ‘cheap’ list, as I try to preserve a rapidly depleting bank balance. A bed is an essential, naturally, as is a roof over my head. As for flushing toilets, hot water and – the ultimate backpacker luxury – aircon, well, I can do without.
And so I introduce Sonya’s guesthouse on the island of Koh Lanta. My home for almost a week, a place where I can relax, switch off and have some ‘me time’. A holiday within a holiday almost. Complete with a hosepipe for a shower!
I’d found it on the Agoda website, coming in at a budget saving £3 a night. I was shown to my bed in what can only be compared to a fan cooled barn- except the fan doesn’t cool it that much.
“The bathroom is outside, and there’s another through the restaurant,” I’m told.
It was what’s known as a bucket shower, in that there’s a tank of water and a bucket. Its how the locals do it, and I know because you see plenty of them at it along the railway lines when you pass by on the train. There’s a hosepipe that fills the tank, and a mirror. And that’s it.
I’m what’s officially known as ‘roughing it’, a week I’d set aside to live cheaply, eat less and drink water to help save the budget a little. I’d managed to set my record of 60 Baht (£1.20) for a day’s living when I travelled here, mainly by living on 7-Eleven sandwiches and bottled water for the day. I admit, when I saw how basic the dorm was, I contemplated a move the following day to more comfortable digs, but chose to stick it out for a while.
I was so glad I did – I grew to absolutely love it. The main reason for this was the food, admittedly – it was quite possibly the best I’ve had in Thailand – but also the friendliness of the family that runs the place. By the second day, I almost felt part of their family, welcomed every time I arrived back, asked how I’d slept every morning, it even got to the point where I was writing my own food orders on their order pads and helping myself to drinks from the fridge.
On top of all this, I found a little bit of a beach which had my name on it. It was empty, apart from a few other lucky travellers who had discovered it, it was lovely white sand, blue water and was in a great position for many fantastic sunsets. On my first day when I arrived, I stopped at a couple of places to sit down and take it in, only to be quickly chased up for food and drink orders. Then I found a hammock near a place called Fisherman’s Cottage, a bungalow resort on the beachfront. I laid in the hammock, gently swaying and watching the sun set, for a good couple of hours, and not once was I pestered to order anything. Best of all, it had wifi, a clincher – I’d found my spot and called it home.
The week for me was all about relaxing and catching up on my blog. The following day I went back to Fisherman’s Cottage and ordered some food, a Coke and opened up my laptop.
In between uploading I’d be writing, and when I wasn’t writing I was trying to catch up on a mountain of messages from friends asking how I am and what I’m up to. And that was the general pattern for the next few days – writing during the day, uploading and laying new posts out during the night, but always making sure I was at my favourite spot at Fisherman’s Cottage for about 5pm, in time to watch the sun go down over the Andaman Sea with a nice cold Chang in my hand.
But I couldn’t come all this way without actually checking out the island, so for £6 I hired a pretty cool looking scooter for a couple of days and took myself off for a tour. I’d set myself a personal challenge of finding some deserted beaches, and it didn’t take me long to complete it. The island is lucky enough to have some beautiful beaches dotted all the way along its western coastline, and just 10 minutes ride from where I was staying brought me to a stretch of white sand with nobody on it.
I rode further, and again, another beach with nobody on it. I continued further, with an aim to reach the southernmost point, part of a national park, and what a fellow guest at Sonya’s had told me was a must see.
He was right – a fantastic part of the island where a rocky outcrop divides a beautiful beach from a rocky beach, with stunning blue waters, thick jungle all around and wild monkeys. Oh, and there were about three people on the beach!
I rolled out my t-shirt, kicked off my flip flops and laid back. I’d found a bit of paradise, and it was great. The monkeys kept dropping by with a cheeky look at my day bag, blatantly thinking of making a raid on it, but I kept my eye on them. Infact, they were great fun to watch, running around with their babies, playing, swimming and looking for food.
Every now and then I’d also have a hermit crab scuttling nearby, and if they weren’t running back to their hole in the sand, they were busy throwing little balls of it out. Beaches aren’t normally my thing unless there’s a frisbee or a volleyball doing the rounds, not to mention a beer, but I’m growing to love being able to switch off and just be amused by the wildlife around.
I also kept myself amused by making myself a nice new blog header (see above!) which took me a bit of time, but then what else have I got to rush back for? Apart from the sunset in a few hours, absolutely nothing. And it feels great!
After a good few hours, where in the end I became the only one left on the beach, I got back on my scooter and rode back north looking forward to another amazingly good yellow curry at Sonya’s. I came across a sign pointing to some waterfalls, and decided to squeeze in a quick visit while there was still some daylight. I rode along a dusty and rutted dirt track, overtaking a few elephants heading back to their camp, and came to a place where motorbikes are supposed to be parked. But my quick visit quickly hit the buffers.
“You can’t get down there to see the waterfall mate,” said two fellow bikers.
“Why not, am I too late?” I asked back.
“Nope. Too many King Cobras according to the guides.”
Good enough reason I thought, and quickly rode back along the dirt track to the safety of the road!
It was by the junction I came across one of my favourite moments on the island. Happily riding along, I saw an elephant being washed at the side of the road – except there wasn’t anyone washing him. After a double take, and trying not to stick my motobike into a ditch with my surprise, I saw exactly what was happening – the elephant was washing himself with a hosepipe!
It was brilliant to watch, and soon a large crowd had gathered to take similar photos and videos. A memorable sight!
It wasn’t long before once again I was thumbing my way through the delightful menu at the guesthouse. The food at Sonya’s is all freshly prepared by the family. When I’m in the indoor shower, next to the kitchen, I can hear them pounding the spices in the pestle and mortar just a few inches away on the other side of the wall. The whole place fills with the most amazing smells when it hits the pan. Its no surprise that the guestbook is filled with comments praising the culinary magic that goes on in there, thanks to Luke and his family. Infact, it got to the point where I was actually looking forward to dinner every night, browsing through the menu and choosing yet another different dish to delight the tastebuds – quite an achievement for the restaurant considering I’ve lived on curry, rice and noodles for almost three months now!
It actually inspired me to enrol on a cooking course, something that I’d not really considered, but now having expanded my Thai palatte considerably further than just a green curry, I realised time was running out if I did want to properly learn how to make the stuff.
“Go to this place. Gordon Ramsay uses it,” says Luke as I look through the bright yellow pamphlet.
I don’t quite believe the Gordon Ramsay sales pitch, but it didn’t matter as I found that in the morning session you learn how to make Tom Yum soup. If you haven’t tried it anywhere, you must – I hadn’t until Alissa on the tour had it nearly every night and made me have some. I’m so pleased I did, as it quickly became one of my favourite dishes if I was in a ‘spicy’ mood.
It’s a hot and sour, clear soup full of lemongrass, galangal (its like ginger) chilli and lime. It comes with chicken or prawns, and while it doesn’t sound that spectacular, I can assure you its fantastic. I had no idea how to get such incredible flavours out of it, so I laid down my £20 and pulled on an apron for a morning of cooking.
Our teacher is Chien, who is also the owner of the Black Pearl restaurant on the island, and who it turns out, actually did teach Gordon Ramsay some of his Thai cooking skills.
“He came over here and I went to Krabi to teach him,” he tells me, skilfully chopping away at his lemongrass.
“Now he sends his staff to me too, they come over here and learn how to cook and pick up some of my recipes.”
I was impressed, and naturally the journalist came out from inside me.
“What’s he like,” I ask, trying not to take off a digit with the ridiculously sharp knife.
“Ah, I like him. He’s a bit grumpy sometimes. And he swears a lot,” Chien says, before going into his own expletive riddled impression of him. It made us all laugh.
And so I cracked on with my soup – and as a little Brucie bonus, here’s my recipe, written in my terms of understanding.
Half a stalk of lemongrass, sliced into inch-long lengths.
A thumb-sized lump of galangal (fresh ginger will do)
3 Kaffir lime leaves, ripped up and stem removed
1 Shallot, skinned and crushed (don’t chop it up!)
1,2 or 3 small chillis, depending on how hot you want it (I went for two, and it was hot enough!)
A few mushrooms of choice
A few scrapes of grated carrot (optional)
Half a tomato, quartered.
A spring onion, chopped up
Some fresh coriander
1 Chicken stock cube
1tbs fish sauce (not my favourite, so I only put half in)
1 tsp of brown sugar
1tbs lime juice
Basically, you boil the water, add the stock, throw in the lemongrass, chilli, galangal and shallot and boil together for a minute, mixing it round.
Then, throw in your thinly sliced chicken or prawns, add the fish sauce and sugar. Let it bubble for 30 seconds. Then put the mushrooms in and wait another 30 seconds. Chuck in the tomatos, carrot and lime juice, give it another 10 seconds on the heat and its done – easy as that.
Incredibly, mine tasted just like it does in the restaurants here too. A lot of that is down to the fresh ingredients that Thailand is lucky enough to have growing out of its ears, but when I get back to the UK, I’m searching out a place that does this sort of food to make my own. Its delicious!
We went on to make three more dishes – chicken with cashew nuts, pad Thai and a Penang curry, all of which were stunningly good and a credit to Chien who admits he’s tweaked his recipes over the years to get them as good as they clearly are. I can see why Mr Ramsey trusts him.
Full of a four course dinner before midday, it was yet another day on the beach to snooze it off. I did have one vital job to do though, as it’s mums birthday back home. I got a bit creative and logged onto Moonpig to make sure she at least had a card. Hope she likes it!
After six wonderful days of relaxing, eating, swinging on hammocks and watching the tide and sunsets, it was time for me to go. I had a diving course to get to, and it involved a trek across Thailand and north to the island of Koh Tao.
I said goodbye to Luke and his family, wishing them well for the future. Sonyas isn’t well publicised and its not in the Lonely Planet (Though its probably only a matter of time before it finds itself in there) and that’s why it was such a fantastic discovery. It’s a little gem, a home away from home, and it was a pleasure to spend some memorable days there on what was a beautiful and relaxing island.