Kaeng Krachan: Jungle curry in a rainstorm

Island Eats #1

Look away from your device right now, if you can, and picture a trip you’ve taken. Any trip, be it to a Thai island or elsewhere in Asia or anywhere at all, at any time in your life. Don’t sort through your travel memories like a file cabinet, trying to pick one out. Just settle on whichever memory pops up naturally.

Once a trip is on your mind, is there a specific memory that bubbles up first? An image? A conversation? A smell or taste? Perhaps all of these and more? Relax, and allow that memory to come into focus. No matter where you are right now, take yourself back to that very spot. Let all of your senses revisit it.

Visualizing past travels in this way can be fun, maybe even cathartic during this weird era of quarantines and airport hazmat suits. I don’t know about you, but the memories that materialize for me are often not what I’d expect.

Thinking of Ko Lipe, it’s not the brilliant blue water or marine life that comes to mind first, but rather the taste of a strong espresso as I chat with a black-bearded Spanish acquaintance at an inland cafe. Looking back to Chumphon, my mind settles on a spontaneous picnic with my sweetheart after we’d pulled into an empty beachfront lot and laid out a mat in the shade of an umbrella tree. Sitting here in Bangkok today, I can feel that Gulf of Thailand breeze on my skin.

So where am I going with this? Two points:

  1. No matter how much I (and perhaps you?) plan and prioritize ‘must-do’ attractions and activities, and no matter how many photos I post to social media, the travel memories that most-often return to me years later tend to be of the ordinary, unpredictable moments. The smell of a longtail boat engine. The feeling of a companion’s head resting on my shoulder as I gaze out the window of a bus after dark. The thick, tropical air in rainy season.

  2. Food is involved in many of the travel moments that I recall most vividly. Meals are like waypoints in any day of travel, be they a fine-dining splurge or a late-night khao man gai or a 30-baht box of noodles from a vendor on the train. No matter where or what you eat, all five senses are there at once.

My mind started down these tracks of travel memories as I recollected a July 2017 trip to Kaeng Krachan, the largest national park in Thailand. Headquartered only around 160 km southwest of Bangkok in Phetchaburi province, its 2,915 square kms of mostly undisturbed, old-growth wilderness reach deep into the Tenasserim mountains, which form a rugged stretch of the border between Thailand and Myanmar.

The park is one of 17 protected areas in Thailand that join others across the border in Myanmar to form a roughly 63,000-square-km expanse of contiguous jungle. Covering various forest types, from deciduous to tropical evergreen, this Dawna Tenassarim Landscape is one of the last viable stomping grounds for wild Indochinese tigers in Southeast Asia. It’s also home to Siamese crocodiles, clouded leopards, sun bears, Oriental pied hornbills and many other endangered species.

But when I look back on that trip, what springs to mind first is not the vastness of the destination. Nor is it the key natural attractions accessible within the national park. It’s one detail: the taste of gaeng pa or ‘jungle curry.’

A storm arrives

After battling the Bangkok traffic, we reach the park’s namesake reservoir by mid afternoon. The sky threatens rain as fog settles on pineapple fields near park boundaries. Our first order of business is to find a bite before I start collecting info for the Travelfish guide that I’m tasked with writing. Noticing a bright Thai-language sign with the words, Rim Kaeng (‘On the Reservoir’), we turn downhill and wander into an empty restaurant. Thunder rumbles in the distance.

We’re the only customers seated at the heavy wooden tables sheltered by an open-sided pavilion. The reservoir extends in front of us. Many trees and potted plants hang around the property. Rising from his TV-watching seat by the kitchen, a thin Thai man in long hair and jeans puts a classic rock mix on the stereo, perhaps to please his rare farang guest. The Eagles, Steve Miller Band — that kind of stuff. Among other dishes, we order a bowl of gaeng pa with gai pa, ‘jungle curry with jungle chicken.’

The thunder draws closer as we relax in air so moist it’s like a steam room. A few drops patter on the metal roof. No more than a minute later, a torrent crashes above us as strong wind blows raindrops inside. We snatch up our things and move to a table at the center of the restaurant, but no place is fully beyond the reach of the howling spray. Thunder cracks. The classic hits keep playing through it all, lyrics of Have you ever seen the rain? by CCR barely audible over the storm.

The storm creates a stir back in the kitchen, delaying our order as the husband-and-wife owners emerge to remove fabric coverings from hammocks and yell for the cats to come inside. The wind picks up again, tearing a large branch off the tamarind tree that drapes over the restaurant. It hits the roof with a bang.

Finally, the sky calms enough for cooking to resume. The scent of sizzling finger root, fresh peppercorn, chili and tree basil fills the air. Finished with Thai eggplant and bites of free-range chicken, but no coconut milk, the dish is intense and extremely aromatic. My eyes water as I spoon the broth up with rice. Indeed, eating ‘jungle curry’ is like venturing into a jungle via the tastebuds.

Over the next few days, we make the most of Kaeng Krachan. We hike to a distant waterfall, burning the leeches from our ankles as we stride. We spot wild elephants, venomous pit vipers, flocks of hornbills and gibbons swinging in the canopy. We speak with indigenous Karen people who are fighting for the right to live on their native lands. We follow a steep and bumpy road up to a 1,000-meter-high camp, and gaze at fog folding into layered mountains at sunrise.

And yet, almost four years later, the Kaeng Krachan memory that returns most vividly is that jungle curry in a rainstorm. For as much as travel writers and ‘influencers’ and marketing teams make dazzling tourist attractions out to be the whole point of travel, it’s always the moments in between that stick with me. 🌴