Every weekend, the sleepy little island of Koh Kret — a tiny, circular jewel in the middle of the Chao Praya River — transforms itself into a food festival, market, and social center.
Thai people come from miles around to shop and eat — and, by that, I mean they both shop and eat simultaneously, constantly. Virtually every vendor and shopper has a snack going: a steaming bowl of noodles, a plastic bag full of corn kernels and condensed milk, a cup of musky-smelling stew, or a tray of marzipan animals:
Everyone seems to be eating a little of everything all the time. How do these people stay so thin?
And — they have lots to choose from. While I’m careful about my choices, locals have the immune systems of tigers, so they glide from vendor to vendor, eating without hesitation. You might start with fresh fried fish balls:
Then transition to the beautiful little corn dogs, with one end of the dog exposed and sliced into fourths to create a shrimpy little tail:
And perhaps pick up a bag full of local green vegetables dipped in batter and fried to crispy perfection:
And then snag any of several thousand colorful, hand-crafted sweets, each one executed by pastry chefs who work with all the precision of a jeweler:
Having just come from a Shangri-La breakfast, I was stuffed, stuffed, stuffed — but even I couldn’t resist trying a tiny, hand-woven basket of coconut flakes stained with blue vegetable dye:
The flavors, though, were tuned to Thai tastes: so instead of a sugar-fest, my basket tastes mostly like bean paste, with just a little hint of coconut and the most distant sweet flavor you can imagine (like sugar with the volume turned waaaay down).
I was not brave enough to try the delicious-looking fish curries, served in take-home pots made of the famous Koh Kret clay:
But, you know, there was shopping to do:
And friends to chat with:
And when all was said an done, a convenient temple where we could reflect on our culinary and financial sins:
A day at Koh Kret is sometimes blisteringly hot, sometimes shady and cool; sometimes packed with clamoring crowds, sometimes serene and silent; sometimes a barrage of overwhelming sensory overload, sometimes a perfect little moment, like a crystallized piece of eternity, revealing its facets only to you.
I remember the chef I greeted in Thai, who replied, “Thank you so much for speaking our language to us.” I remember the shopkeeper (selling a cure for obesity) who offered me a sample, and who (when I acted comically offended) patted my arm and said, “You don’t need. You beautiful.” I remember the pungent odor of fish, the sweet smell of coconut crepes, and tall iced coffees, layered with condensed milk and ice.
In its way, Koh Kret is a little microcosm of all of Thailand: contradictory, delightful, raw, unfiltered — magical.