While most travellers arrive on Koh Phangan’s Thongsala pier with nothing but Sangsom buckets on the brain, one should take the time and stop in this bustling little port town for a day, or at the very least an evening before being herded up by taxi drivers and shuttled off across the island. Why on earth would you want to stay in Thongsala? Well, aside from heaps of markets peppering the town, loads of local leather artisans displaying handcrafted works and a handful of great restaurants and pubs, Thongsala is the best places to go for cheap and cheerful meals, period.
Every afternoon at around 3:30pm, the parking lot next to 7-11 gets swarmed with vendors setting up for the evening rush. I’m talking of course about a night market! On the grand scale of things, this particular market is miniscule in comparison to those in larger cities such as Chiang Mai and Bangkok, however it holds one thing in common; delicious meals for rock bottom prices. With a pretty good selection of grub you definitely won’t go hungry here and best of all, you can grab a beer from the convenience store to enjoy with your meal without paying a premium for it.
If you’re not feeling like an alcoholic bevy, one thing I would strongly recommend trying is Nam King sai Chao Guay, or Ginger tea with grass jelly. There is a tiny stall that sets up every night just steps away from 7-11 that serves this delightful and healthy drink and it’s made even better by the vendor who sells it. Her name is Annabelle, a charming lady in her 60’s (but one would never guess that) and she is beyond friendly and lovely. Given the chance, she will talk your ear off and tell you loads of good stories. Not only is she incredibly fluent in English and Thai, she had studied abroad in China for many years so she is also very well versed in Cantonese. The fact that she spent a good portion of her life in China has also influenced her cooking and the woman whips up incredible Hong Kong style congee that is famous throughout town. Hungry locals always drive up on their scooters to place their orders for take away, and there is usually a bit of a queue. A sure sign letting you know you’ve stumbled upon a real gem.
She’s like a jack of all cooking trades, selling homemade Ginger Tea, Congee,and the ubiquitous South East Asian jelly known as Chao Guay, all of which can be served multiple ways. If the aromatic fragrance of spicy ginger tea doesn’t entice you to her stall, then surely her warm smile and charismatic personality will!
The first time I had tried Nam King, her eyes positively lit up when I had piqued interest and sat down on the wooden stool next to her humble mobile kitchen. We started talking and I obviously took great interest in the food and ingredients. Her smile broadened as she had explained the painstakingly long process it takes to make both the grass jelly and soft soybean curd that’s used to accompany the ginger tea. You can tell she takes great pride in her cooking; everything is made fresh every single night. Talk about pouring love and dedication into your craft, it is most certainly reflected in her dishes!
Let’s just take a step back here though, you might be scratching your head in confusion thinking “What in the hell is grass jelly and why the hell would you eat that?!” As most westerners that haven’t been exposed to Chao Guay, it might look or sound unappealing but reserve your judgements until after you’ve tried some! Grass jelly is made from boiling down a slightly fermented herb (that’s closely related to mint) with a little bit of cornstarch for several hours and then cooled to a jello like consistency. Once it’s done cooling, it can be cut up into a multitude of different shapes (little cubes seem to be most common but I’ve also seen long strands) and usually served up as a dessert or inside drinks, milk tea and coffee being the most popular.
It is almost translucent black in color and has a very subtle tea flavour to it. Traditionally, it is served with sugar syrup or with brown cane sugar sprinkled on top. My personal favourite however, would be “Chao Guay sai Nam Keng”.
Have I lost you yet? That basically translates to grass jelly with ice in Thai. A generous portion of cubed grass jelly is served in a bowl with crushed ice and topped with off with natural sugar, a perfect treat for a ridiculously hot day. If you’re feeling really fancy you can get some fresh fruit thrown in too. Grass jelly is thought to have medicinal properties in Asian cultures as well; apparently it helps lower high blood pressure, prevent indigestion, acts as a diuretic and since it’s derived from a plant, it’s extremely low in calories. All together a pretty healthy treat, just ask them to go easy on the sugar as Thai’s are notorious for liking their desserts (and drinks) sickeningly saccharine.
So, now that you’re all caught up on Grass Jelly 101, if you ever get a chance to try the stuff DO IT! Better yet, if you’re ever on Koh Phangan, stay in Thongsala for a night and swing by and say hello to Annabelle! She’ll happily serve up some Chao Guay hot or cold, as well as some great conversation. Just be sure to arrive early, the jelly is so popular she usually sells out quickly. Needless to say, I’m hopelessly addicted to the stuff and really keen to see how other countries in South East Asia prepare this intriguing snack.
Next stop, Krabi province…Railay beach here I come!