Samui Wining & Dining
POPPING TO THE SHOPS
Stand by for a serious culture shock when you go food-shopping, Thai style!

Stand by for a serious culture shock when you go food-shopping, Thai style!Thailand is a constant source of wonder and surprise. And that’s said with respect – no condescension at all. Even if you’ve lived here for 20 years, again and again you’ll just shake your head in awe. But, if you come here for just a few weeks, it can be overwhelming. So much so, in fact, that the vast majority of visitors to Thailand rarely venture out on their own. They stay unthinkingly, safely, close to their hotel and pick through glossy leaflets of organised tours. There’s a comfort in this kind of distance – being a part of all the sights and sounds yet being insulated, too. It’s a rare foreigner who ventures out on their own. And that, in so many ways, is a pity.

          

The most rewarding thing about a visit to Thailand isn’t the sights; each golden temple is much the same as the next. It’s the culture. It’s the way in which Thai people get on with the normal things in their lives. Well, that’s not quite true. To be exact, it’s the difference between this and the way you would expect to do exactly the same ‘normal’ things back home. That’s what’s so fascinating – the difference between your expectations and everyday way of life, and theirs. Even though so many things look the same over here – the smartphones, the cars and taxis, the police directing traffic, the kids on their way to school, the modern-looking hotels, hospitals and banks – all of this sits on top of a way of doing things, and an outlook on life, that will often bring you to a halt with its strangeness.

          

Of course, the biggest problem is the language. Many people in Thailand can’t speak English. Samui is different. Here, English-speakers are needed and in demand. Even small local Thai restaurants have found it to their advantage to have a least one person who can communicate with foreigners. Stand by for a serious culture shock when you go food-shopping, Thai style!But the communities here still share one identical current with Bangkok. There is one level of the culture that caters for foreigners and tourists, and another and separate culture where Thai people congregate. And nowhere is this more focussed and apparent than when it comes to food and eating.

          

To delve into the way that Thai people regard and approach food would (and has done!) fill a book. It’s nothing at all like you’re accustomed to – as you may have realised after seeing a bank teller munching from an undercounter tray of noodles while serving customers. But here we’re looking at something more basic – something you’ll be able to go hands-on with for yourself – getting out and going shopping in a local market. Not the sort that you’ll find in places like Nathon, which appear in the early evening and cater for people wanting to sit and eat meals. But the sort where you go to buy your ingredients; seafood, meat, vegetables, fruit and suchlike.

          

There are two ways to do this. The first is that you go with Thai friends – then stand in the background, uninvolved, while they do everything for you, like your own personal organised tour. The more adventurous way is to go it alone. This takes some courage. It’s uncharted territory,Stand by for a serious culture shock when you go food-shopping, Thai style! like those ancient mariners’ maps marked with ‘here be monsters’. It’s a hundred times more difficult, scary and embarrassing and thus, equally, as many times more rewarding. This makes for real holiday photos, and with tales to tell to match. This is the real Thailand. And it might not turn out to be at all what you’re expecting!

          

Firstly, assume that nobody is going to speak English. Expect this and go prepared. No, you don’t need to start learning Thai phrases, but you do need to be prepared to point, mime and wave your arms, look apologetic and smile a lot. And take a notebook and pencil: you’d be amazed at how many words a simple sketch is worth. Also make sure you have plenty of small banknotes – 20s 50s and 100s. And no, you can’t use your credit cards!

          

So . . .what to expect. Firstly, you’ll probably be stared at. True, Samui has its share of Thai women with farang boyfriends, so foreigners are not uncommon. But one, or two, on their own will raise an eyebrow or so. Also, don’t hassle, be patient.Stand by for a serious culture shock when you go food-shopping, Thai style! You’ll be attended to when they’re ready. Thai people can be surprisingly shy, but a broad smile from you will usually work wonders. Tip: take a bag to carry everything you buy; it’s embarrassing to struggle with lots of plastic carrier bags while at the same time trying to leaf through a pocketful of small banknotes. And don’t worry about being overcharged – this is one place where it isn’t going to happen.

          

Second: you’re going to experience sensory overload. This is nothing like a trip to Sainsbury’s or Tesco. Here, apart from the canvas roof coverings, everything’s out in the open. Prepare yourself for the sights of strange fruit, lots of internal organs on display, blood pooling in the corners of tables and trays, perhaps even raw skewered rodents, trays full of grasshoppers and fresh and fried insects, and whole fish complete with eyes, teeth and innards. Try not to shrink away from the smells of over-ripe fruit, garlic and spices, wood smoke, drying seaweed, fermenting pork, and the inevitable wafts of bad drains that come and go. The upside? No chemicals, no E-numbers, no preservatives, no insecticides – everything is just about as truly ‘organic’ as you can get.

          

Third: go with the flow. Deliberately make it part of the experience when you get things wrong. There are all sorts of tantalising stuff that comes wrapped up in tubes of banana leaves, for example. The first one might be mango and sticky rice. But if you get stinky grey egg and mushy vegetables the next time around, welcome the learning curve and chuckle about it.

          

And when you get back, looking around at the anonymous, shrinkwrapped, antiseptic offerings at your local supermarket, you’ll sigh. After Thailand, popping to the shops will never be the same again!

          

 


 


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