Jan 18 2012
It’s true that most travellers only see the southwest Thai mainland through the windows of a minibus, en route to the Andaman Sea islands. If you’re into rich culture and a unique local food scene, however, you might consider spending a day or two in the mid-sized provincial capital of Trang. At first glance it doesn’t seem too special, but for those willing to look a little deeper, Trang offers hidden treasures to be uncovered.
In Trang you’ll find an intriguing mix of cultures, including southern Thai, Muslim Malay, and Fukien Chinese. These have fused over the years into a subtle yet distinct Trang cultural identity, which shines through in the spicy southern curries, renowned bakeries, endless depictions of the beloved provincial mascot — the endangered dugong — and perhaps most of all, the locally grown, wood-fired Robusta coffee, better known as kopi. Over a recent visit I sifted through the endless options to find two traditional Trang kopi shops that stand out from the rest.
First there’s Sin-o-cha, located right next to the train station at the corner of Sathani Road and Rama VI, where you’ll find an inviting open-air cafe atmosphere that manages to be clean and cosmopolitan without sacrificing that old school Trang kopi shop charm.
Now, I generally take my coffee black, but when I found Sin-o-cha’s kopi to be as black as a moonless mid-winter Alaskan night, I considered adding a little nom sot (milk) or nom kot (sweetened condensed milk). At first sip, however, I found it wasn’t necessary. The brew has a distinct, nutty, smoky richness that’s very bold in flavour but not overpowering in bitterness. Trang kopi’s sun-drenched southern Thai mountainous origins, wood-fired roasting, and even the hard work and pride of the local farmers and roasters are all detectable in a single sip. This is coffee with a story to tell.
Trang kopi is also very strong, so it’s wise to put something solid in your belly along with it, and on this account Sin-o-cha delivers. The shop not only gets high marks for its kopi but also its sandwiches, spicy (!) rice plates, and its version of the Trang cake, a wheel of spongy goodness available throughout the city in taro, durian and coconut flavours, to name a few.
Heading down Rama VI Road away from the train station you’ll find Yue Chiang on the left, directly at the corner of Soi 1. There’s no sign in English, but the cafe is hard to miss — it occupies an ancient Chinese-style wooden building. It wasn’t a surprise when the owner proudly divulged that the cafe has been run daily by his family for more than 100 years.
Yue Chiang is filled with worn but classy round tables and chairs that look about as old as the building, and the faded turquoise walls feature equally faded framed photos of ancestors and famous monks. Yes, it’s rustic, aged, and even a little dilapidated, but charmingly so. It’s easy to imagine people coming to this exact place 100 years ago for the exact same thing you’ve come for. A mystique like this isn’t easy to find in our Starbucks-filled world. (If by chance you’re heading to Kuala Lumpur, there’s a similar great little spot you should check out there.)
Yue Chiang’s ambience might not be altogether inviting — don’t expect an English menu or a uniformed waitress to greet you — but the owners are a sweet older couple who are happy to share the little English they know along with their tried and true selection of kopi, local curries, slow-roasted grilled pork or muu yang (another local specialty), and Thai- or Chinese-style treats. The sticky rice snacks filled with pork and beans (khanom pat jang) and rice flour cakes filled with sweet taro (sala pao) are both tasty co-stars to the main draw.
Like Sin-o-cha, Yue Chiang offers rich, dark, wood-fired local kopi that’s guaranteed to wake up even the most tuckered of travellers. Unlike Sin-o-cha, however, Yue Chiang serves their kopi automatically with sweetened condensed milk. I found it similar in taste and presentation to the famous kaffe sua of Vietnam, and indeed Yue Chiang’s kopi could give even the most perfectly brewed cup in Saigon a run for its money.
If you find yourself in Trang, do kick up your heels at one of these authentic kopi shops. If you’re anything like me, you’ll leave the islands a day early to get one more taste of that delicious brew.
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