Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
Our mission was simple: Bring one meal and one bottle of whiskey across the sea for dinner.
A friend and I were on assignment in the south of Thailand when we got the call. Another friend, an Italian chef who works at a hotel in Bangkok, was on the other end. By chance, he was staying on an island nine miles off the jigsaw coast, a boat ride away. He lured us with visions of an empty paradise and the promise of an island picnic. "Prepare to get wet on the way over, though," he said, with his thick Roman accent, "and don't forget the whiskey. Pear-fect. Ciao."
It was monsoon season in the Andaman Sea--a time when the islands are buffeted by short but vigorous storms, the kind that dissuade all but those in search of solitude from venturing there. During the high season, these islands in Trang are crawling with tourists--journeying backpackers, Scandinavian families, Bangkok weekenders. But there were seven people on Koh Kradan last week.
The second leg of our sea voyage was less forgiving. Here, in a deep channel that cuts between limestone islands, the water gained strength and speed like a stream running downhill.
The night before our voyage, we ate in a Chinese/Thai restaurant in Trang. The food was delicious--stir-fried wild mushrooms with garlic, fried rice with chunks of sweet crabmeat, and a sour fish curry--and as we ate we thought about what to bring the next day. "Be careful tomorrow," warned the waitress as she brought the bill, "sometimes it's rough out there. But it's the best time to go. So quiet."
The following day we visited a few more spots in Trang, tying up loose ends for a food story. As we buzzed through the quaint town on motorbikes the answer to last night's question billowed across the road, like a culinary smoke signal. Two stout, round-faced Thai ladies worked an enormous oil-drum grill. It kicked out enough smoke to stop you in your tracks. Chicken thighs and pork jowls--marinated in a Southern Thai blend of tamarind, garlic, sugar, black pepper, and fresh turmeric--popped and sizzled over the slow burn of mangrove charcoal. Pear-fect.
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
We bought a huge bag and had the ladies wrap the chicken and pork in butcher paper for our trip. It was about 2 p.m., and in this heat the meat would still be hot by the time we reached Koh Kradan around 5. We stopped for a bottle of Scotch and drove straight to the pier.
Distances are hard to predict if, like me, you're unfamiliar with the sea. As we boarded a longtail boat--a slender, wooden craft about twenty feet long, with a four-cylinder car engine slung to the back--the island of Koh Mook, our halfway point, looked only minutes away. The sky was the color of wet cement and the wind was starting to gust. But our skipper said "no problem" (mai pen lai!), wrenched the cord on the rusty outboard, and we cast off.
The trip to Koh Mook took longer than I expected, as our boat was rudely slapped around by six-foot swells. I was soaked from the spray, as was my camera, which I hid beneath my seat beside our parcel of precious barbecue. We briefly took shelter in an empty cove on Koh Mook, the sort of place you might expect to shipwreck. There, the skipper removed his cell phone from a ziplock bag in his pocket, and made a call. He was deciding whether to make the final crossing to Koh Kradan, which once again looked no more than a stone's throw away. I wondered who might be on the other end; this mysterious person taking hold of my fate. The skipper nodded to himself and smiled, fired up the engine, and we were off.
Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
The second leg of our sea voyage was less forgiving. Here, in a deep channel that cuts between limestone islands, the water gained strength and speed like a stream running downhill. Ten-foot waves batted around our little boat like a cat does with a ball of yarn; we rocked and lurched in ways that seemed to defy gravity and good sense. The skipper remained calm, cut the engine, and for about ten minutes we floated in silence, trying not to disturb the increasingly angry sea by surrendering to it.
As we slipped past Kradan in the current the waves began to subside in the island's shadow, and the engine was ignited again. Only a couple rogue waves spilled over the prow now. We slipped over the island's reef into calm water, beached the boat, and shakily disembarked after a two-hour journey.
That night, sitting on an empty beach under a sky bright with stars, I felt the sand beneath my feet and shuddered at the stupidity of the trip. We unwrapped the pieces of chicken and pork bought hours before, and poured some much needed drinks. The meat was still warm. It was sweet and smoky with a sticky tamarind glaze that tasted of sour fruit. But there was also a touch of sea in that chicken, a reminder of our trip across it, and that some things are better off eaten on shore.