A few weeks back I was lucky enough to visit Samut Songkhram with my best Thai friend, her then-fiancé-now-husband and my boyfriend. Specifically, we were there to visit the Don Hoi Lot area that sits along the basin of the Mae Klong river, and is famous for its salty mud banks that make it an increasingly popular eco-tourism destination.
My friend and I had first found out about this area and its messy activities from Farang Pok Pok, a show from Travel Channel Thailand hosted by Thai-speaking American Luke Cassady-Dorion, and which takes in different parts of the country and all that they have to offer. Having quickly fallen in love with the cutesy, authentic, cut-the-tourist-crap nature of the show (and having equally fallen in love with Luke himself), my friend and I decided we had to check out Samut Songkhram. And what a relief that we did – we couldn’t have beaten the place if we’d tried.
For tourists, the area is mainly famous for offering what is called ‘mud-skiing’. Admittedly, a little bit of deception goes on here – clearly, to start with, there is so now snow to ski on. Nor are there even any skis. What you end up with is a kind of surfboard laid on the mud banks, the idea being to lay one leg on the board and have the other at a right angle on the ground, pushing yourself along. You slide along easily but somewhat uncontrollably, and the result is undeniably fun. Sure, it looks weird and wacky when you watch it on TV or even when you watch someone else doing it in real life, but it is the sort of thing you know you want to try, and for good reason.
In Farang Pok Pok, Luke stayed at a home grataeng – a kind of homestay built on stilts right out over the water. On this part of the river, the tides vary considerably – since this particular home grataeng had significantly upped their prices since getting media exposure from the likes of Farang Pok Pok, we chose to stay elsewhere, but even on our stilted homestay at the edge of the water, the tide level would vary from anything between about a foot deep to right up lapping the walkways on the maybe twelve-foot high house. In fact, our host insisted that during the year’s highest tide, one of his three guest rooms is unusable since the water is so high it reaches floor level in that one room.
We spent one night here, enjoying a relaxing evening of excellent food and chilled company before our day of adrenaline-filled activities. We had the place to ourself, sharing a large but basic room between the four of us – two huge mattresses on the floor with plenty of pillows and covers, two large mosquito nets, and a traditional and basic but beautifully clean bathroom attached; think squat toilet (but with a hose if I remember rightly – which is more than I’ve got where I am writing this post from at the moment – but more of that another time) and cold water shower, i.e. bin full of water with a small bucket for ladling water over yourself. In all honesty, the basic amenities befit the place and anything remotely more luxurious would spoil the atmosphere – everything here is about really chilling out and having fun, not worrying about whether your pores are going to suffer from the lack of hot water.
Late into the evening our host left us to go on his overnight fishing expedition, and while my friend and her fiancé headed to bed, the two of us switched off the lights on the large communal wooden platform area, leaving only the rather inexplicable collection of fairy lights to illuminate the forgotten ‘happy new year’ banner (this was in July – whether it was for western new year in January or the Songkhran festival for Thai new year in April, taking it down was well overdue), and relaxed with a beer under the stars in the night sky. Bliss.
Said beer, along with other essential supplies for earlier in the evening like Thai whisky, coke, crisps and cigarettes, had been purchased from the neighbourhood shop, perched on the other side of the river from us and accessible only by boat – so across we went with the help of our willing host. The same shop, seemingly being the only one around, also sells petrol and insecticide and further doubles up as an estate agent, selling local houses. You name it, they’ve got it.
Back to the house – ours was by far the nicest-looking one from the water, so a real pleasure to head back to – and we were treated to food that was by far the highlight of our trip. It is the food that all of us recall so fondly now and give as our main reason for wanting to return; it is perhaps even the main reason my friend did return just a couple of weeks later with her fiancé’s family. Everything local and almost all fish and seafood, based purely around what our host had caught on his latest fishing trips. Omelette, grilled fish, steamed fish, fish soup – the whole lot was incredible.
Our overnight stay included dinner that evening plus breakfast and lunch the following morning, and the amount of food provided was a million miles from stingy. Special mention has to go to the chak-am, purely for the level of conversation it both provoked from the Thais at the time we were eating it, and for the conversations it has also inspired among them since. Essentially, the two Thais in our group were sure this very tasty vegetable, with its questionable gloopy white topping, was cha-om; much to the amusement of our host, who assured them that no, it was not cha-om, but chak-am, a vegetable local to this area of Samut Songkhram which did not show up much on menus or in markets elsewhere.
For me, the endless amusement this lot got from having mistaken one vegetable for another doesn’t quite translate into English – perhaps it is a linguistic thing, perhaps it is linked to the Thai obsession with food that I am discovering more and more (I have talked about it before, but only now am I realising its true extent – they think of nothing else!) or perhaps there was at play something else altogether that I missed. Either way, believe me when I say that this cha-om/chak-am incident has come up in conversation countless times since, much to the amusement of all who are involved.
In fact, I am guilty of having got myself caught up in the joke too, even without fully understanding the reasons for the hilarity – on my recent return to Samut Songkhram for a day-trip to the Mae Klong railway track market, I couldn’t help but jump on the bandwagon when I saw chak-am on sale there, and asked the stallholder if that was what it was. Needless to say she was thoroughly impressed that I knew what it was, doubly impressed when I told her I had tried it before, and triply impressed when I told her that, no, it hadn’t been at the relatively touristy Amphawa floating market as she suspected it must have been.
The following day’s entertainment kicked off at a pleasingly slow pace – we had been told to get up whenever we were ready, as we would need to wait for the tide to go out before we could do anything anyway. Having no real schedule or time limit to anything, even when you are leaving the same day pretty much after these activities, adds to the relaxed feel of the place and is just as much part of the appeal as feeling a little bit grotty after having had only a bucket shower.
After breakfast we set off in our long tail boat, a little way down water and off one of the river’s branches a little. As we approached our landing spot, one of the smaller muddy flats on the banks of the river, monkeys were playing on the opposite banks – most were just messing about on the ground, but two were having such a fight in the branches of one of the trees that the loser ultimately fell out and came crashing into water! Thankfully, it seems, monkeys can swim.
Our mission here was to plant mangrove tree saplings straight into the mud. The mangrove trees help to provide a canopy of vegetation along the banks. They offer an important habit to much of the area’s marine life, but many of the province’s mangrove forests were depleted as a result of the arrival of shrimp farming in the area in 1984, and within just a few short years only one per cent of the original stock remained. The planting process is a rough one – dig a small hole, shove the root in and smear some mud over with your hand (or foot – far less messy!) to seal. Do this a few times and you are done and ready to move on to the next stop – but not so fast…the real challenge here is in even getting out of the boat and standing up on this quicksand-like mud without sinking, let alone planting trees without losing yourself to its depths.
Next up was mud skiing – exhausting and impossible to keep up for any length of time. After a while all that remains to do is lay in the mud and soak up its goodness, rolling around, throwing it at friends, massaging it into your skin, making a DIY face mask and so on. The salty, plasticine-like perfume of the mud might not be entirely pleasant, but it is addictive all the same, and impossible not to get a taste of – whether you want to or not – both on the boat ride here, as pieces fly through the air in the chop and spray of the water, and right here as you lie in it. But this stuff also cakes itself to your skin like no-one’s business, and taking a dip in the comparatively clean and flowing water of the river itself is refreshing, though it’s still no easy feat to get the mud off.
On to check out the locals’ fishing methods – everything is farmed here from clams through prawns to oysters and mussels, and we saw the whole lot in progress. Fishing is big business in these parts, but also involves hard work – our host told us that he rarely gets more than four to five hours’ sleep a night, and at the busiest time of year works for three months solid as orders pile in for seafood to be eaten around Thai new year. As his son steered us round the poles that are home to the growing seafood, along came our host on his own boat with his latest catch – a huge bucket full of bounty, with raw prawns freshly caught from the water only a few moments before, likely still at least a little bit alive, and ready for us to taste. The taste is incredible – with a freshness I have never tasted before, in many ways similar to the taste of freshly shucked oysters, and yet so much better even still, and enough to make you realise that that very taste in an oyster is not the flavour of an oyster at all, but simply the salty flavour of the sea itself. ‘Wow’ is all I can add – an absolute must-try, and not just on a restaurant menu but here on the ocean.
Finally, we took to the water again for a spot of something closer to regular skiing – the same surfboard comes out again, but this time tied to the back of the boat to drag you around behind it, jet-ski style. In water that is no more than a couple of feet deep, it is the kind of jet-skiing made for those who are afraid of jet-skiing (like me!) Of course, falling off at least once is obligatory as you try to keep your balance with the boat turning corners, creating ripples behind it and doing its best to throw you off course.
Back home to shower off, change clothes (expect everything to be CAKED in mud!), eat one final delicious meal and head off to catch a boat along the river, a songthaew to town and a minibus back to Bangkok – with more idea of what ‘sanuk’ really means than you’ll get anywhere else.