Monday, April 21, 2014

Pie and the Sky, Mekong Style

It took me almost twenty years to get to Nakhon Phanom. When I finally reached this small northeastern city, I stared at jagged, irregularly shaped mountains silhouetted against the Laos sky on the other side of the Mekong River and wondered what had taken me so long.

Not on the tourist circuit, Nakhon Phanom is one of the most peaceful places I have ever found in Thailand. My hotel, grandly called the Windsor, was a perfectly preserved example of mid-20th century architecture, timeworn, a bit shabby, but still holding traces of elegance. It had rooms for as little as six dollars; I splurged and took the high-end thirteen dollar option with its long bank of windows facing the street. I planned to stay a while.

The Windsor offers free Nescafe but every morning I was sitting in a sidewalk café called Good Morning Vietnam, watching people take their children to school on motorcycles and listening to caged birds sing from a building across the street. Nakhon Phanom has attracted a large Vietnamese population throughout its history and the young woman who made my coffee was the daughter of people born in Vietnam. The blue building with its melodic birds hanging from its curved front looked like photos of buildings in Hanoi, a style that was found all over this Thai city.

The ubiquitous concrete shophouses that remain a drab and mottled grey in most of Thailand were painted in bright and imaginative colors here. Every block contained several dashes of brilliant hues, sometimes combined in one building. Color and coffee, both done well—Nakhon Phanom was obviously meant for me, and I extended my stay for two weeks. And that was before I met Khun Noi, when I began to realize there were layers to this city that were even more dazzling than what initially came to my attention.

Opposite the city’s street market were shophouses, most of them open in the front and selling everything from children’s bicycles to mango and sticky rice. In the middle of them was a storefront window with mannequins and one of the mannequins was wearing a dashing pair of lace-up, calf-high, red plaid boots.

This was an unanticipated jolt of chic that was impossible to ignore. I pushed on the door of the shop; it was unlocked. There I was in a room filled with women’s clothing, all alone.

 “Are you open? Hello?” I called in the direction of the dark room that lay beyond an archway. Nobody answered.

The clothing was all western, much of it vintage, on neatly categorized racks—blouses, skirts, dresses, ballgowns. Sprinkled about on dressmaker forms were confections that looked as though they were meant for tiny ballerinas, short tulle skirts with strapless bodices and a large tulle flower near the right shoulder. Each was a different color—blue, sea green, and pink, of course and each might have fit me when I was ten. And then there were those boots—I wanted them. If not for me, I knew the perfect ten-year-old who would get them as a present.

As I stood and stared, a grumble emerged from the back room and out came a shirtless man wearing a sarong. His hair was tousled and he obviously had been taking a nap. He shrugged off my apologies and asked me if I liked his clothes. “No,” he told me, “the plaid boots aren’t for sale. I have only one pair; they’re from Japan for cosplay. I bought them at the Cambodian market in Aranyaprathet. It’s where I find everything here.”

“Do women in Nakhon Phanom buy your clothes?” I asked him, and he nodded. Suddenly this quiet city took on a new dimension of sophistication that I would never have guessed from what I saw on the street every day.

Khun Noi spoke no English and my Thai skills are minimal, but he was a man fluent in style and I was besotted with the clothing that he had discovered. He let me roam around the back room where the walls were lined with shelves of shoes; the pride of his collection was a pair of Christian Louboutin six-inch shocking pink platform heels. When I moaned softly, he showed me the pair he had found for himself, black canvas hightops covered in silver spikes with the signature red soles.

I left with nothing but I was haunted by a scarlet chiffon accordion pleated skirt, its double hem rimmed with thick gold thread. It had an elastic waist which I normally detest but in this country that meant it could be worn by me. It was twenty-three dollars and Khun Noi wouldn’t budge on the price. He knew I’d be back, and later in the afternoon there I was.

This time his girlfriend was there, an exquisite young woman who spoke English and loved the clothes even more than I, since they all would easily fit her. While I saw the shop as a kind of museum, for her it was a walk-in closet. We chattered happily while Khun Noi meticulously ironed every pleat of my new skirt; he insisted upon that, and wrapped it carefully in tissue paper before handing it over.

Khun Noi wasn’t the only one in Nakhon Phanom to scour the market at Arayanprathet for used clothing. The flat streets were dotted with stalls of clothes but after his shop, everything else looked tired and uninspired. I was more attracted to the hardware street, where glass bricks in different patterns were framed as a display and small objects that looked like an array of costume jewelry turned out to be low tech burglar alarms to hang on a doorknob.

The only flaw I found were the local taxi drivers. “Taxi” is a misleading term because there are none in Nakhon Phanom. To get around town, tuktuk drivers had the monopoly, in oversized versions of the Bangkok species which here are known as Skylabs. My first encounter was with an enterprising soul who demanded around three dollars for a quick trip along the river. Since I’d traveled that morning to reach his city from a spot in another province and paid about 2.50 for a seat in an air-conditioned van, this seemed exorbitant. Besides I like to walk. Soon every Skylab driver in town had seen me strolling miles beyond my hotel and after the first week they began to offer me the local price of a bit over one dollar.

Then came the day that I went out of the city, to a museum that was within the Vietnamese community, a house and garden that had once been the habitation of Ho Chi Minh. I persuaded a Skylab driver to take me and bring me back, promising to pay him very well indeed. The trip seemed to take the driver far beyond his depth; I was the one who had to ask for directions once we passed through the elaborate gates to the Vietnamese village, and when he saw I was planning to actually enter Uncle Ho’s home, the man looked thoroughly confused. Although I asked him to wait for me, the instant I walked through the museum gate, I saw the Skylab putt slowly down the road in the direction from which we had come. And when I finally came back out, there was nobody waiting for me.

When I arrived back at my hotel at last, there was the Skylab driver. “You didn’t wait,” I said and he replied cheerfully, “I didn’t want to.”

Fortunately, walking is the best way to explore the city and every day I headed for the Mekong which is faced by an array of half a dozen temples, gleaming to match the sparkle of sun on the water. My favorite had a collection of chickens roaming its grounds, co-existing happily with several placid dogs. At night, this temple’s buildings were illuminated, glowing golden under a few well-placed spotlights. Sitting on a bench under a small cluster of trees to enjoy the sight, I heard something heavy rustle above my head. I was quickly on my feet, looking for a monitor lizard, which are huge and sometimes aggressive. Instead I saw the chickens roosting in the branches above, settling in for the night.

The Mekong has become an integral part of the daily life of Nakhon Phanom. A long concrete promenade runs for miles along the banks of the river; parts of the walkway are shaded by old trees and others are sprinkled with playgrounds for children and exercise equipment for adults. Old villas and an elaborate cathedral anchor one end of the promenade; a large park stretches at the other end. Every night a small boat gives a river tour that drifts down the Thai side of the Mekong, up along Laos, and then back across to Nakhon Phanom. It leaves at twilight and encompasses a sunset for the grand sum of under two dollars, a Mekong Happy Hour complete with cans of cold Beer Lao. I was on board almost every evening.

But perhaps the most distinctive thing about this quiet provincial city is that it’s one of the few in Thailand that serves slices of apple pie.

A short distance beyond the park at the promenade’s end is a bright blue house. A sign announces that this is Ali Blah Blah Bistro and there are usually people sitting at tables on the inviting veranda, chatting and eating. Inside, the bistro is bright and cool, with plush sofas and comfortable chairs and a pastry case that nobody would expect to find anywhere outside of Bangkok—or perhaps Seattle.

This isn’t too surprising, because the woman who makes the pastry and presides over Ali Blah Blah lived in Seattle for years. Beau Suwannapruke worked at Café Paloma in Pioneer Square. She has studied chocolate making in Switzerland and the art of pastry in France. After the birth of her son, Ali, she began to think of bringing him up in her hometown, on the banks of the Mekong. Now they both live in Nakhon Phanom, with Ali Blah Blah Bistro at the roadside edge of the riverside property that belongs to Beau’s parents.

Ali Blah Blah is a family enterprise. Beau is the head and heart of the business, but a cousin makes coffee drinks in the afternoon, her mother is often at a corner table shaping tray after tray of crisp, buttery, and addictive cookies, and an aunt takes care of Ali during the day. Other aunts bring feasts of grilled chicken and papaya salad and sticky rice to the veranda and persuade Beau to take a break from the kitchen. Although the pastry is Western, the business itself is very Thai.

Beau often uses food grown in her family’s yard for her desserts but the recent addition of multinational superstores—the Dutch-based Makro, Britain’s Tesco, and Big C from France’s Carrefour—expanded her range of ingredients. Although she buys local fruit at Nakhon Phanom’s street market, a recent purchase made at a superstore led her to the creation of Cape gooseberry apple pie.

Pie is new to Thai palates but the flavor combination of sour-sweet is traditionally Thai and Beau found a winning blend with apples and gooseberries. The proof of her success is that other coffee shops are beginning to offer pie by the slice, so Beau is ready to move on to new horizons. Crepes made to order, both sweet and savory; an occasional pasta dish—“Perhaps,” she says, “we’ll serve meals and become a real bistro.”

Meanwhile her strawberry tarts, her chocolates, her cakes frosted with the bright, clear flavor of pandanus or mango, and her artfully constructed pies continue to attract a growing local clientele and foreign travelers who search for good coffee, an unexpected treat, and a conversation with Beau Suwannapruke. Just one of the many delightful surprises that wait without fanfare in Nakhon Phanom—next time I’m there, I just might not ever leave.


Sherry said...

First time I've read your blog... now I have a real goal - to come back and read more and more until I've read them all..... I am in awe of your abilities. To travel alone confidently and with such grace. To write so transportingly. Thanks for letting me come along.

Janet Brown said...

Is this the Sherry I know and love? Thank you so much!

Sherry said...

Right here in Salcha. Comes up as Anchorage because of ACS connections and I haven't been able to convince it otherwise. Technology is very stubborn.

Janet Brown said...

I often appear as Bremerton or Federal Way myself. No choice in the matter...

Judy Dent said...

Loved reading this before going to sleep Janet, except now I'm hungry for apple pie. I will now put this on my list of places to visit when returning to Thailand.

Judy Dent said...

Loved reading this before going to sleep Janet, except now I'm hungry for apple pie. I will now put this on my list of places to visit when returning to Thailand.

Janet Brown said...

i think you'll love it--and the Windsor is reminiscent of the Cathay!