By Bart Walters:
“We live walking distance from a little fishing village on the Gulf of Thailand called Ban Ampur. There are a cluster of waterfront seafood restaurants that all have one thing in common. The food you eat in them comes from boats bobbing in the water right in front of you. “Fresh” is the main ingredient in Thai food.
In Thailand, where restaurants outnumber people, deciding where to eat can be challenging. Most of these places are all the same business model; Chinese family-style. The only way to separate them is to discern the specialties of the house. You end up choosing a place to eat based on a favorite dish that one place makes better than all the rest. On this night we were on the hunt for our favorite, Black Pepper Crab.
Good Black Pepper Crab means Si Nuan (pronounced see-noo-wan), a mega-restaurant that can easily hold 500 people. Saturday night at Si Nuan means being in loud, noisy, crowded and busy Thai seafood joint with battalion-size families marching in and setting up camp.
We drank most of a bottle of wine at home before venturing down the beach. You really have to prepare yourself for the sensory assault you’re walking into. It’s like being in a huge aquarium full of aggressive fish. I find it best to give in, plant myself right in the middle and hit “record”.
Si Nuan is a concrete and tile megalith; a faded green, two-storey colonial style building with terracotta tiles covering the over-sized roof. The inner dining room can host 300 people at long picnic-style tables seating parties of 10 to 20 each. An outer dining room on a wide covered porch seats another 100 or so at big round tables. Recently they’ve added open-air seating on the grass and sand that goes all the way down to the water.
All the seafood is displayed in live tanks and concrete holding pens full of circulating water and all manner of sea creatures. One would have to be a marine biologist to identify all the species available for consumption. My girlfriend and I wandered up and down the display like we were at Sea World.
Finally we settled on sitting outside under the stars. We had an excellent view of the little harbor and the biggest outdoor sports screen I’ve ever seen showing Rafael Nadal whipping the daylights out of someone at the French Open. There must have been 100 people congregating around the concrete tables scattered over the sand and grass.
Suddenly, my Thai Princess put her nose to the wind and declared, “Tilac, foon toc”. Loosely translated; “Sweetheart, it’s going to rain”. In an uncharacteristic “take-charge” move, she transported us inside before we ordered. We captured one of the only small tables in a strategic location with a waiter that understood the meaning of the word “tip”.
Within in minutes we were enjoying frosty beers and had food on the way. I praised my girl for her tactical restaurant prowess and she expressed her admiration for the smooth 100 baht teaser slipped to our waiter.
As forecast, the sky ripped open and the restaurant became smaller by about a third. Rain-soaked families scrambled to move food, shoes, grandmothers and baby strollers under the giant hat-shaped tile roof. Service and consumption resumed within 3 minutes. Dislocated tribes soon put down roots again and restarted their respective parties. We were way ahead of them thanks to my girlfriend …the weather girl.
Equally predictable was the seating of a large family directly across from us at a table for 15 or so people. They arrived in groups of three and four, some wet from being seated outside and some just arriving with dripping umbrellas. Immediately visible was a classic character at most Chinese-Thai family get-togethers; The Drunken Director.
This forty-something Thai woman, wore the telltale puffy “birdhouse” of hair favored by upper-middle class ladies. Stomping flat-footed up to the head of the table with a tumbler full of Johnny Walker Red and ice, she immediately began barking orders to waiters, rearranging the seating and dragging chairs from other tables. All this she did without her glass ever once touching the table.
After they’d all been seated, then rearranged by The Drunken Director, then seated again, we could begin to delineate who was who in this ever-so-typical Thai family. The Drunken Director was seated near the head of the table by her husband; another common feature of the Thai entourage … “The-Quiet-Guy-Who-Pays”. Dressed from head to toe in Lacoste golf clothes and sporting a really sweet Omega watch, this guy didn’t have a hair out of place. He thoughtfully listened, drank beer and checked his phone every ten minutes. He did a good job of pretending to listen to his whisky swilling wife pontificating to her younger twin sisters seated to her right. They openly ignored her, carrying on a conversation with each other instead of listening. The Quiet-Guy-Who-Pays was jealous of their immunity, I could tell.
Seated to the quiet guy’s left was no one. A space left empty by a teenage son who was busy outside on the terrace in an animated private conversation with someone on his pink cell phone. His shirt was also hot pink as were his old-school Converse high-tops. His skin tight black jeans matched his eyeliner. My girlfriend dubbed him “The Pink Panther”. By the time he sashayed in and took his place at the table, the family was well into its first course. I could see that for him, it didn’t matter if all the shrimp were eaten … he was a vegetarian. He was the only person the Quiet-Guy-Who-Pays talked to all night.
Watching one of these big families consume food in large quantities can be a gruesome sight. The Drunken Director didn’t have the patience to wait for food to be passed, so she got up and walked around the table, drink in hand, to reach over everyone and grab handfuls of food. She’d stand there chewing with her mouth open and talking at the same time. The others ignored her. They were busy eating, or talking or on their phones, or smoking, or all of the above. Big plates of food hit the table and carcasses came out. Depleted Heineken bottles congregated on the metal drink cart displayed like battlefield trophies. This garish theater of gluttony was repeated at every table in my line of sight.
Breaking the spell of this carnivorous carnival was the only real child of the bunch and obviously the baby of the family. She was a cute little pig-tailed muffin, with pink silk ribbons in her hair and a “Hello Kitty” T-shirt to match her stylish older brother. However, she didn’t turn to The Pink Panther when the 4 Pepsis she consumed started her doing the “pee-pee dance”.
It was her older, university-age, brother with the boy-band hair and two cell phones that came to her rescue. In all, he patiently escorted baby sister to the little girl’s room once for every cola consumed. He entertained the squirmy toddler throughout the entire evening; the consummate big brother.
The table was a beehive of activity. People getting up and sitting down; other groups joining for a drink and a nibble; the action never stopped. One thing remained constant; the cotton-haired old lady anchoring the far corner. Her hair was like a long-bristled brush, snow white and growing straight up in kind of an exaggerated flat-top. She wore a blue Chinese Nankeen print garment that could best be described as a housecoat. The twins, I’m assuming her daughters, took up positions on each side of her. They deftly cracked crabs, shelled shrimp and deboned fish, keeping the old lady’s plate piled high and beer glass full.
With a maelstrom swirling around her, the elderly elf steadily and deliberately devoured an alarming amount of sea harvest. She only stopped to sit back and have shells and bones taken away. Once a fresh plate was in front of her, she picked up her utensils and went to work. She wasted no energy talking. She had come to eat.
After two hours of full-contact consumption, the Quiet-Guy-Who-Pays summoned the waiter and produced his Platinum Card. The signal was sent out table-wide that the party was over … at least the free part anyway. Members began to peel off every few minutes, each walking by Quiet-Guy-Who-Pays and acknowledging him with a touch on the shoulder or the passing sniff of a Thai kiss from the younger girls.
Boy Band Brother appeared to have a hot date and excused himself, ear to phone. The Pink Panther was back outside, rejoining his private conversation, twirling car keys around his finger. Apparently he had somewhere to be as well.
The Drunken Director was already in the car passed out on the passenger seat. The twins wrestled Old Cotton Top away from the table and into to the backseat. The sugar-fueled pig-tailed princess leapt into the car and wiggled on her sleeping mother’s lap.
Behind the wheel, Quiet Guy ensured all members were on board and appropriately buckled in, and then slowly rolled out of the parking lot, stopping briefly to tip the car attendant 50 Baht. The big silver sedan was riding low; as full as their bellies.
It could have been Saturday night anywhere.”
About the Author: Bart Walters is a retired advertising executive from Orlando, Florida. He is now a part-time real estate developer celebrating his 10th year in Thailand. Bart lived several years in Bangkok, spent 3 years on the island of Phuket and now resides in Ban Amphur on Thailand’s eastern seaboard.
Editor’s note: I have corresponded with many fantastic people during my time with Escape Artist but Bart Walters is by far one of the most entertaining and genuine people I have had the pleasure to be in contact with. Bart writes about life in Thailand and permits me to use his work in exchange for a link back to the charity website that raises money for an orphanage in Thailand. Please take a moment to visit the site, donate if you can and help support a good cause. Please go to http://www.care4kids.info Thank you.