A great escape: Phuket

You might be thinking, why in the world do I need an escape when I’m already in Johannesburg, a long way from home.  Well, if you’ve read my post, Caught in the fray, then you know that this past month has been a roller coaster ride of battling illness, finishing up work, and trying to wrap my mind around leaving a community to whom I’ve grown quite fond.  You might also recall that my initial travel plan was to follow the summer and that changed when I agreed to take this assignment in Johannesburg during their winter.  So, I’ve been craving the sand, beach, and sun for nearly 5 months and since I now have to go back to the States for a tonsillectomy, I couldn’t resist a little getaway to Phuket to get a sneak peak of the travel that I hope to complete in the near future.

Due to the hustle and bustle of work, I allowed someone else to plan this getaway, a highly recommended travel advisor.  This trip was also far different from the rest of my travel because I had only one week, specifically wanted a little pampering since it was the week of my birthday, and for the first time, wasn’t traveling solo.  You see, I’ve met an amazing man here in Johannesburg, and when I was recovering from my first bought of tonsillitis, I thought a parting trip would be a great way to create fun memories and an upbeat goodbye.

We flew from OR Tambo to Bankgkok International to Phuket International.  This is Bangkok.

We flew from OR Tambo to Bankgkok International to Phuket International. This is Bangkok.

I was initially supposed to wrap up my assignment by July 25th, so my thought was to fly to Phuket and then travel straight on to Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, illness persisted, so by my second bought of tonsillitis, I realized I was going to have to extend my work assignment to finish everything, and this trip would just need to be “a great escape”.   So, after more visits to the doctor, pleading for permission to travel and medicine to take on the road, and promising to get a ton of rest, we boarded our plane.

Amari Resort - seaside rooms and pool

Amari Resort – seaside rooms and pool

Phuket is about an 11 hour flight from Johannesburg, so when we arrived at the Amari Resort on Sunday morning, we checked into our seaside hotel, relaxed into our plush, ocean facing room, and let all the stress of the past month wash away with the sound of the crashing waves.  Since I was still under the weather for the first few days, we took short trips to Patong Beach, Bangla Road, and the local market, but mostly enjoyed the resort accommodations which included beautiful swimming pools, a spa, and plenty of shaded napping spots.  It was just what I needed…

Phuket Town Market  - lots of fresh fish and live turtles

Phuket Town Market – lots of fresh fish and live turtles

Now, this type of travel – sheltered in a resort community and doing everything with a partner – made me realize that I wasn’t getting a true experience of the culture, so I signed up for one solo day, a Thai cooking class.  Thai is my favorite food and I couldn’t resist learning how to make some of it for myself.  And since my nocturnal companion enjoys his restful mornings, he was happy to send me off on my own at 7:30am.  This day of cooking started with a trip to Phuket Town

Waida, one of our chefs, explaining the food and spices at the Phuket Town Market.

Waida, one of our chefs, explaining the food and spices at the Phuket Town Market.

Market, which opens at 3:30am for all of the local restaurants to buy their fresh ingredients for the day.  When our group of 8 arrived just before 9am, it was still teaming with local patrons, well stocked with delicious foods, and drawing us in with it’s vibrant colors and arouma.  Waida, one of our chefs for the day, divided our group into two groups of four and then took my group of four through the market to teach us about local Thai foods and the ingredients that we would need for

Curry spices - Phuket Town Market

Curry spices – Phuket Town Market

the day.  As she showed us what things were called, what they looked like and how they were used, she also added a gastronomy lesson of each food’s nutritional value and what affect it might have on our body or when combined with other ingredients.  It was a fantastic education and as we walked along with Waida, she handed us ingredients to taste.  We started by tasting fresh donuts dipped in a green coconut type cream, an unexpectedly delicious combination.  Then we tasted a Rose Apple (champoo), that is very common in Thailand and tastes like a cross between an apple and a pear.  Next was a Longan (lamyai) or “dragon eyes”, named because of it’s resemblance to an eyeball when it is shelled.  It is translucent in color, sweet in flavor, and closely allied to lychee.  We then peeled back a bamboo shoot to taste the sticky rice that had been prepared inside it and were off to learn how both coconut milk and coconut cream were made.  It was a delectable experience and the ingredients were so fresh, that I might be disappointed with all future Thai food that I eat outside of Thailand.

Phuket Thai Cookery School

Phuket Thai Cookery School

After the market, we were off to Fisherman’s Village, where the cooking classes would be held in a seaside classroom, with elevated seating and an overhead mirror in the classroom, rows of counters and stoves for cooking stations, and large tables on a patio where we would all taste our dishes after they were prepared.  It was a warm, balmy day with lots of sunshine and we were all ready to dig in.  We put on our aprons, pulled out our

One of our chefs teaching us how to make Tom Kha Kai, chicken in coconut milk soup.

One of our chefs teaching us how to make Tom Kha Kai, chicken in coconut milk soup.

pencils, and got started.

The first dish was Tom Kha Kai, literally translated means “boiling galangal chicken”, which is actually chicken in coconut milk soup.  We watched as our chef expertly prepared her ingredients, then walked us through timing and cooking for one versus many.  Once we watched her complete the dish, we all tasted it and were then off to our own station to attempt to replicate her results.  I’ve got to tell

Me making Tom Kha Kai - prep work.

Me making Tom Kha Kai – prep work.

you I was very pleased with myself!  In restaurants back home, I often don’t eat Thai soups because they are so spicy, but fresh ingredients have a completely different spicy flavor and make a world of difference.  I was able to create a soup that I will enjoy over and over again.  The hard part will be trying to find the ingredients outside of Thailand because palm sugar is not easily replicated.  In all of our dishes that day, we would be using palm sugar, a kind of sugary paste, fresh coconut cream, some type of chili or chili sauce, and fish sauce.  The essence of most Thai dishes have the 4 S’s – sweet, sour, salty, and spicy, in varying degrees.

Our next dish was Pad Thai, a common dish with fried noodles and traditionally, prawns.  It varies in flavor from the north of Thailand to the south; the north

My Pad Thai

My Pad Thai

typically creating a fairly bland dish, and the south a much spicier one.  This dish has lots of ingredients so the preparation is key and often takes much longer than the cooking time.  My finished result is pictured to the left and although it looked beautiful, I think I need to work on perfecting the combination of flavors a bit within the cooking process.

The next dish was Som Tam or Papaya Salad, one of my favorites.  Waida was our teaching chef for this dish and she has lived outside of Thailand in Australia for about 3 years so she fully understands the challenges of trying to find the same Thai ingredients that make these dishes so flavorful.  As she taught us how to prepare this salad, she offered numerous suggestions for substitutions and took pride not only in the right combination of ingredients and flavors, but also it’s presentation by cutting vegetables with various tools that added more surface to absorb the sauce and offered a prettier presentation.

Chef James and his tasty green curry.

Chef James and his tasty green curry.

Our last dish of the day was Kaeng Kiew Wan Kai, literally translated as Curry Green Sweet Chicken.  James was our teaching chef for this dish, and he was full of fun, flare, and fabulous, just like the dish itself.  Despite what I initially thought, a curry doesn’t cook for all that long, so the trick is bringing out all of the flavors of the ingredients in a relatively short time on the stove.  James also insisted that a curry is only going to taste good if you stir in

My green curry

My green curry

circles, add lots of love, and literally cook with a smile on your face.  Preparation and the order that the ingredients are added is very specific so our group got a little help with those, but I was again very pleased with my finished dish.  We also had dessert that day, but it was the only dish that we didn’t prepare ourselves.  It was Khao Niew Mamuang, or Mango with Sticky Rice.  It takes time for the rice to absorb the sauce that makes it sticky so we watched the preparation of the sauce but left the rest to the professionals.  It too was delicious and just the right amount of sweet at the end of our buffet of dishes.

Throughout the day, I had the opportunity to talk with the rest of the group, 3 other couples from Brisbane who didn’t know one another, and a chef in training from Moscow.  Apparently, many Russians have been visiting Thailand and they go back to Moscow wanting to enjoy the same Thai food, so Michail was sent by his current restaurant owner to learn how to make Thai dishes to add to the menu.  Our teaching chefs also had interesting stories that they shared with us through the preparation of their dishes and then at the table while we enjoyed our creations.  This day was a gluttonous treat and the little bit of culture that I was craving on this getaway.

So, although I’m taking a little hiatus from travel, I’m grateful because the hiatus is going to give me the opportunity to travel home with palm sugar and green curry powder, ingredients straight from Thailand so that I can treat my hosts with my newfound Thai cooking skills.

Sunset over Kata Bay

Sunset over Kata Bay

Our final days in Thailand were filled with other fun experiences, like a Sea Canoe excursion to Phang Nga Bay, relaxing Thai massages, and a trip to Kata Beach.  Thailand will remain on my list of travel destinations for broader cultural exploration.  Still revelling in gratitude for my sneak peak.

Many thanks to Megan Fineberg, Managing Director at Travel Experience Meadowridge, who made all the arrangements for flight and accommodation.

Contact: megan@constantiabergtravel.co.za and +27 21 715 2850.

My Cooking Experience was courtesy of Phuket Thai Cookery School.  Our Sea Canoe excursion was courtesy of Sea Canoe.

Please note, all of the opinions in this article are my own.  I included the contact information for our Travel Agent and excursions solely because some of my blog community have requested specific information.  

 

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