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 food, however, you might consider spending a day or two in the mid-sized provincial capital of Trang.
In Trang you’ll find an intriguing mix of cultural influences, including Southern Thai Muslim, Malay and Chinese. These have fused over the years into a subtle yet distinctive 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. We sifted through the endless options to find two traditional Trang kopi shops that stand out from the rest.
First there’s the aptly named Kopi, 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.
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 Kopi delivers. The shop not only gets high marks for its brew but also its sandwiches, spicy (!) rice plates, steamed sala bao (stuffed rice flour buns), dim sum, Chinese herb soups and a 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 Sino-European wooden building. It wasn’t a surprise when the owner proudly divulged that the cafe has been run 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 a century 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 grob (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 Kopi, Yue Chiang offers rich, dark, wood-fired local kopi that’s guaranteed to wake up even the most tuckered of travellers. Unlike Kopi, however, Yue Chiang serves their kopi automatically with sweetened condensed milk. We 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 us, you’ll leave the islands a day early to get one more taste of that delicious brew.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 23rd January, 2015.