“We can organise another holiday together – in Thailand. Can choose an island with many seafood.”
My Thai colleague and friend W–i reflected one day in our free time during one of the meetings when my team gets to meet in person. Ordinarily we are dispersed across the Asian region. We were reminiscing a trip his family and I previously made, whitewater rafting and street art photo shooting in Perak, Malaysia.
“But which one?”
“I know the right one, and I will choose the best time. After the rainy weather is over, but just before tourists come. We will have the island to ourselves.” He grinned knowingly, confident of his local insider knowledge. “And it will – must – have seafood. Lots of good Thai seafood. You will see.” This was the first hint of the axis of the holiday.
And so we took a census of colleagues who want in, picked a suitable long weekend, and left it to him to make the arrangements. Later on he informed us that we shall be going to Trang province, with an option of two islands (or both) depending on how we feel: Ko Sukon, and Ko Laoliang.
Ko Sukon is a rural island in the Trang province, in the south-western part of Thailand. It was our first destination for the holiday. It is a ‘local’ island, which means that it hasn’t really got transfers easily laid out for non-Thai speakers. Nor is it really structured for receiving tourists – there are zero touristy attractions or amenities, souvenir shops, etc. There are no bars and no ‘nightlife’.
However (or maybe consequently?), there is the charming idyllic village life, and a simple enjoyment of its rural charms. The community is Muslim, which is typical in this part of Thailand.
The Journey to Ko Sukon
We all flew to Hatyai for the first rendezvous. We would all meet up with an old friend of W–i’s was going to act as our guide and organiser throughout the trip.
Hatyai itself is a highly popular tourist destination in the region, so this is the easy and unremarkable part. Well, except for this sign in the immigration area prohibiting hippies entry into the Kingdom, with a thorough description of ‘hippy’ attributes. 😀
It’s a baffling sign, really. I wonder what had happened once upon a time to make this law necessary.
Anyway, back to the journey. Ko Sukon isn’t the easiest island to get to. The most practical route still requires a road transfer from Hatyai to a jetty in the Trang province (quite long – I fell asleep), and then a boat transfer to the island.
Arriving in Ko Sukon
It’s a pretty nice resort, with the basic amenities and in that sort of unpretentious, easygoing ‘local target demographic’ styling. If you’re Southeast Asian yourself, you’ll know what I mean. We were housed in chalets that open out to the beach.
The beach is spacious and reasonably long, albeit not quite powder fine. It’s a great beach for children. The breakers are gentle and the sand lovely to play with. Lots of shells and hermit crabs creeping along.
There isn’t a great reef or seagrass or other habitat to explore, but you can still see quite a bit of fish snorkelling – especially early morning when they’re out feeding.
The Mission for the Best Thai Seafood Ever
The resort has a restaurant. (By the way, I don’t know their recipe for the breakfast rice porridge but it was the best rice porridge I’ve ever had then and since).
However, simply ordering food from the restaurant was not what my friend had in mind. He was going to get his seafood from all over the island. W–i was a man on a mission.
Village scenes on Ko Sukon
The life on Ko Sukon is quite slow-paced. The villagers farm rice and fish for seafood, and keep some livestock and chickens as well. They tap rubber as a cash crop. In fact, for a Malaysian, the look and feel of this island feels bizarrely just like home – but those rural parts that are fast disappearing. I will let the pictures show this.
On Ko Sukon, what you’d have to do is show up when the fishermen (and women) would typically come back from harvesting/gathering/fishing, and have a look at the take.
Gathering our Thai seafood
We visited about 3-4 different parts of the island for our seafood.
As would be the case with nature, there are good fishing days and then there are poor ones. When we were shopping, the shellfish take aside from some crabs wasn’t that great. So W–i bought the crabs and we moved on.
We bought whatever seafood we fancied from the different places – if they had any. There was even some kind of weird lobstery thing that we bought from the house of the fisherman.
As they were just brought in, it was all very fresh. Very little seemed to be packed or frozen or stockpiled or sent away. As far as I can tell, the fishermen seemed to fish for what the island would eat – or the island eats what the take may be. I did see a small fish farm at the restaurant where we had lunch, though.
Clearly my friend was shopping while hungry and it began to occur to some of us that he seems to be shopping for imaginary numbers of people. By the time we got to considering the fish, an intervention was administered to keep the seafood purchases within sane levels.
Afterwards we stopped at a restaurant and asked them to cook it all up for us. I thought that was pretty cool, that there are restaurants that are ok with just providing the cooking service for foods you bring in yourself.
It’s not easy to get a true blue Southeast Asian, who isn’t into seafood. Go look at the map and see what kind of landscape this region is composed of. Much of it is an archipelago. It stands to reason that much of the regional diet necessarily comes from the sea.
You might say the region is rather dependent on it.
That said, in modern times, industrialisation of fisheries have led to severe declines in fish stocks around the world. I knew this from my earlier training as a marine conservationist, but it is hard to really get a feel for local severity and context, even though there have been some attempts to help consumers to make sustainable seafood decisions.
That is, until I watched Sylvia Earle’s prize winning TED talk, which I highly recommend watching to the end. It was convincing enough that I decided I would no longer eat wild-caught fish unless I know it was caught via a relatively low impact fishery.
Reflections in Ko Sukon vs the city lights
Ko Sukon is fairly self-sustaining in terms of food. Their livestock is free range, and feeds on the foliage on the island. Rice is farmed for their staple food and they grow vegetables on the side. They fish what is available, and simply don’t have the seafood when it’s not. They fish for what they gauge would probably be eaten, give or take, and then stop. Fish again tomorrow.
They are not vegetarian, but by and large this way of life is sustainable. In fact, going completely vegetarian while maintaining nutrition requires importation of substitutes which would render the community less self-reliant and sustainable.
In these sorts of locations I observe one thing: the people don’t have the mindset that they have to have what they want when they want it. And this is the main reason why the lifestyle can be sustainable.
The world can supply our need, but not our greed
Until they begin to acquire a different mindset. That of ‘maximising productivity’, ‘maximising profit’, and of competition between themselves.
It doesn’t mean rejecting modern advances, it is about how you approach something. You can do exactly the same work – farming for example – and behave very differently depending on whether you see the point as being about producing food, or producing money.
It is we in the city that need the ‘slow food’ movement, the ‘local food’ movement, the sustainable labelling, the ‘reduce meat’ movement. I myself have begun to zone ‘no meat’ meals in the week for this reason. But there are places in the world where this is kind of already their way of life, because it’s the original way of life. And that’s why I am not ideological about this.
The Completion of Thai Seafood Craving
I guess our Ko Sukon trip was essentially a foodie trip. And there’s not a lot of places where such a trip can be done better than in Thailand. Thai seafood is undeniably incredible, especially when prepared fresh.
I don’t usually do that kind of trip but I enjoyed this one. Probably because it involved a sort of treasure hunt style of gathering the different seafood.
And then there were the variety of sauces that W–i’s wife concocted while we were waiting for the food, to eat young mango with!
I mean, I would have said that fruit shouldn’t be ruined by savoury sauces. Even in my own country, I’m not a fan of rojak buah. But then I tried it, and I take it all back. The Thai sauces weirdly really works! I will never again dispute whatever culinary advice M–d has.
With W–i’s seafood obsession fulfilled for the time being, we looked onward to the next part of the trip: glamping on Ko Laoliang!