Ao Cho, a small and little-known beach on Ko Samet, is rather unusual. It has the same silky coral sand and tepid water as the island’s more popular beaches, but its rickety boat pier, spooky old banyan tree, concrete horse statues and, to use the words jotted in my notes, “random crap lying around,” all set it apart from the more popular beaches. In this unlikely place, I found the best meal on Samet.
Like so many memorable travel experiences, this one materialized unexpectedly. As I snapped some photos of local kids splashing around the pier, an irresistible scent wafted from a corner of the bay. The welcome smoke of a portable charcoal stove approached, and within minutes I had ordered a plate of som tam (green papaya salad) along with Isaan-style kai yang (grilled chicken), a bag of sticky rice and half a pineapple for dessert.
Perched at a beach-side table rendered from a scrap of a long-since retired fishing boat, I enjoyed an adept balance of sour, sweet and spicy in the papaya salad, complemented by charred hunks of tender chicken and filling bites of sticky rice. The pineapple was so juicy that no beverage was necessary to ease the formidable spice from the chilies. A slight breeze, laughing children, gently lapping surf; dining in paradise for three US dollars.
While the meal itself was terrific, watching it being prepared was half of the pleasure. The vendor, a soft-spoken young man with a round, sun-darkened face by the name of Muuyon, carried his two baskets balanced on a shoulder by way of a long bamboo rod, before carefully placing them on the sand at my request. One basket contained the grill and a rubbish bin, the other filled with ingredients.
Within a few meters of the sea, he pounded the thin strips of green papaya along with fish sauce, chilies and other ingredients using a mortal and pestle, pausing every minute to turn the pieces of chicken on the grill. A laid-back beach dog — often enviable creatures as far as I can tell — licked its chops nearby.
Muuyon stuck around while I ate, sitting quietly under the banyan while soaking in the scenery that accompanies him every day. He told me that he hails from a rural part of Northeastern Thailand and now lives in the mainland village of Ban Phe, ferrying to Ko Samet each morning to sell food to tourists. The signature Isaan fare that he offers is especially popular with the many wealthy Thais who head to Samet for quick breaks from Bangkok.
Sticking mostly to the central and southern beaches, including the larger Ao Thian and Ao Wang Duen, Muuyon huffs it for hours under a hot sun, periodically switching his heavy portable kitchen between shoulders. After paying for rent back on the mainland, he’s able to send a little cash to his folks back home in his village. He’s one of many Thais and migrant workers who eek out a living from tourism.
I can never help but notice people like Muuyon while covering Thailand’s more touristy destinations. They choose this sort of work rather than sticking to the farms or migrating to the cities to drive tuk tuks and motorbikes, labor in factories or set up street carts. Those with a bit of luck and dedication might save enough cash to open a souvenir shop, small eatery, or perhaps a travel agency if their organization and language skills can hack it.
Encountering Thailand’s countless impoverished people — seeing the desperation in some of their eyes — always pulls at my heart strings. The Thai economy continuously strengthens, placing the Kingdom somewhere between the “first” and “third” worlds, but a shockingly high amount of the wealth ends up in the hands of an elite few. Opportunities for the poor to improve their situations are rare.
Whenever possible, I try to put money into the pockets of people like Muuyon. Usually with a humbleness and genuine kindness that masks their plight, these are the people who make Thailand such a special place. It’s good to support them from a moral standpoint, but anyway, it’s most often the Muuyon’s of Thailand who make the best meals.