No Raincheck Required
By Jennifer Gampell
Trang in the rainy season reminds me of London. Unlike the daily bursts of tropical deluge followed by bright sunshine I've grown accustomed to after living through seven Bangkok rainy seasons, the weather in Trang-at least during the weekend I visited-consists of unremitting drizzle and ominous gray skies. "How will I ever write anything interesting about THIS?" I groaned as I stepped off the plane into the damp overcast morning.
My fears were groundless. At first I thought I'd lucked out because my trip happened to coincide with that of the town's favorite son, prime minister Chuan Leekpai, and the citizenry was on its best behavior. But in short order I discovered that the inhabitants of Trang are just naturally friendly. The town motto is "Trang People Have Helping Hands and Open Minds"-I was told this by Ms. Suntaree Sungayut, head of the National Archives, Trang Division who gave up a free Saturday afternoon to chauffeur me around-and the slogan is spot on.
In Trang it's amazingly easy to meet the local luminaries. In town for less than four hours, here I was being driven to the governor's house and even accorded an impromptu audience with Governor Chalermchai Preechanont himself! Ages ago I lived in London for five years. On those interminable days of incessant rain, not once did anyone ever offer to show me the Lord Mayor's residence, or any other celebrity's home either for that matter. (My cousin lived around the corner from Paul McCartney but that never won me entrance into the abode of the cutest Beatle.)
The unpretentious two-story wooden Governor's House sits atop one of Trang's many verdant "hillettes"-they're too low to be called hills-known as khuan. The governor really rolled out the red carpet for me, though that wasn't particularly difficult since the enormous drawing room is carpeted in fire-engine red. Not only did he show me some of his favorite artifacts like a pair of 100 year-old elephant tusks and a collection of hammered Khmer silverware, he also toured me through the breezy second floor of the 80 year-old Thai-style house. And if that weren't enough, the governor's wife and daughter served me a snack on the official banquet table (cold water accompanied by oranges, longan and guava slices if you want to know). And I got an exclusive peek at the gubernatorial kitchen with its refrigerator door covered in cutesy magnets from around the world. (The Governor's House is open to the public once a year but Governor Chalermchai gave me his personal assurance that interested visitors can always call to arrange private tours.)
"Now what shall we do?" I asked Ms. Suntaree. It was still raining. I really wanted an architectural walk through the town center to check out the beautiful turn-of-the-century Sino-Portuguese wooden buildings, but that was obviously out of the question. "Let's go to Prime Minister Chuan's house and talk to his mother," she suggested. "Meh [Mother] Tuan loves chatting to visitors."
Oh sure. Of course. A writer with no compelling reason like needing background for an important political or economic article gets an audience with the Thai prime minister's mom. I mean what journo would ever expect to waltz right up unannounced to10 Downing Street in London and interview Tony Blair's mother? But this is Wiseskul Road in Trang and practically anyone can saunter past the lone guard in front of Chuan Leekpai's home, located a few hundred meters down the road from another famous central Trang monument-the clock tower. Inside the peaceful, wooded compound are a variety of caged birds, a small roof tile atelier and enough tables and stacked-up plastic chairs to accommodate around a thousand people.
Meh Tuan, a sprightly 87 year-old woman with gentle eyes and gray hair pulled back into a bun, greets her guests at a large table outside the modest residence. She proudly shows me the current visitors' book-she's got several-filled with comments from around the world. Personally, I couldn't stand people traipsing through my garden at all hours of the day, but the amiable Meh Tuan says she doesn't mind at all that buses begin disgorging hordes of curious onlookers as early at 6 am.
Each time I try to leave, Meh Tuan opens another conversational gambit. She recounts selling dried coconut in Penang over 70 years ago (for use in making coconut oil). Like proud mothers everywhere, she talks about her successful offspring. She describes going out on the provincial campaign trail for Chuan until a few years ago when it became too tiring. (Now she records cassette tapes instead). She walks slowly into the house and returns with a plate of bananas. A nephew turns up with a bag of oranges to share. Not wanting to be caught stuffing my face when Meh Tuan's important son and his entourage return from a town meeting, I finally depart after half an hour.
Sunday morning dawned, you guessed it, wet and gray. After a Saturday spent hobnobbing with the glitterati, I craved a more prosaic itinerary. A substantial portion of the town's population (especially the men) begin the day in one of the scores of local coffee shops. These characterful old wooden structures with sepia photographs on the walls and round marble-topped tables aren't coffee emporia in the Starbucks sense. Instead of baked goods behind glass, tasty snacks are set on plates at each table (you only pay for what you eat). The coffee-or tea-is made by pouring water heated in a huge metal boiler through a cloth strainer into a small glass with half an inch of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom. It ain't a cappuccino grande but it sure hits the spot!
The coffee shop custom was brought to Trang by the Chinese immigrant traders who established settlements throughout the province during the 19th century. The town boasts many important Chinese temples and an annual vegetarian festival that supposedly rivals the notorious one held in Phuket. The parade starts at the huge Kiew Ong Eiar shrine. I'd heard the shrine was having its decennial repainting for this year's festival and figured it was a safe bet I wouldn't meet any local celebrities there.
The enormous roasted pig splayed out on a slab of wood under a small offering shrine at the front of Kiew Ong Eiar-meat isn't allowed inside the main buildings-doesn't exactly qualify as a celebrity, but succulent moo yang roasted with garlic, sugar and spices is nonetheless a Trang culinary classic. Two voluble and informative workmen took an hour out from their weekly day off to give me a personalized tour. With a fresh coat of cream-colored paint and bright red and gold accents, the building looked new although it dates from 1952 when it replaced the original 1904 shrine. My charming guides dragged down old photographs, unearthed English translations, and showed me the individual shrines of the one female and eight male Chinese deities feted annually during the first nine days of the waxing moon in the ninth Chinese lunar month.
Enough culture for one day. I'd only opted for the shrine visit instead of the monthly Trang bullfight because I couldn't imagine anyone would watch bulls fight in this weather. When I finally decided to check out the bullfight anyway, I discovered that in Trang as in London, certain Sunday traditions are sacrosanct, rain or shine. Pick-up trucks and motorcycles lined the Trang-Pattalung road for hundreds of meters on either side. Inside the rudimentary stadium, two stands of covered bleachers and a V.I.P. viewing stand were arrayed around the muddy ring. The first (and probably last) bullfight of my life was somewhat frustrating. I couldn't figure out why people in one stand had to leave after each round, why touts kept taking bets after a match had started, or why watching two large creatures slipping around in the mud with their horns locked was so exciting in the first place.
During my whirlwind visit to Trang I also discovered the noisy, puce colored three-wheeled tuk-tuks (supposedly the only ones of their kind in Thailand) that will take you anywhere for THB10. And the special Trang cake that comes in a variety of flavors-coffee, orange, pandanus, banana, taro or in deluxe three-flavored combinations. Many people also pointed out the large funeral posters displayed like public notices in coffee shops, restaurants and blank walls all over town. Trang funerals apparently go on for days and are renown for their spectacular food.
My two days in Trang turned out to be quirky, informative and filled with surprises. What more could a girl ask from a weekend? I couldn't imagine having had any more fun even if the sun had been shining!
Copyright © 2000 Jennifer Gampell