Since it has become a world-class seaside destination, Phuket has somehow drifted away from the main interests of many Thai travelers. First, the prices of everything, including simple local meals, have become exorbitant enough to make even well-heeled Bangkok dwellers flinch. However, during our recent trip to Phuket and Koh Yao Noi in Phang Nga, thanks to our lovely local guide, we came across this fantastic place that is truly charming both for its scrumptious tastes and value. Called Piang Prai (เพียงไพร), the place has been a favorite eatery for both locals and long-term residents here in Phuket.
Located near the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project at the Bang Pae waterfall, Piang Prai has a good ambiance of natural outdoor. Their dining pavilions overlook a big lake with a backdrop of lush green mountain with the remote, echoing, sounds of the gibbons. The place is known for Thai dishes, some even rare and ancient, and a bunch of southern-style Thai dishes.
Our first order is the yellow curry of crabmeats and cha-plu leaves (wild betel or Piper sarmentosum) served with rice vermicelli. For those frequenting Phuket, you might have already known that this is one of the most popular local dishes of this island resort. Among the must-go places for this particular dish is Raya and Wan Chan in the city, but here it is at Piang Prai – rich, creamy, balanced spicy with pungent aroma of the Thai southern style turmeric-based curry paste. The wild betel leaves also give its distinct aroma and the mouthful of fresh and succulent crabmeats are just so very awesome. Another thing that makes this dish so great is their vermicelli – blanched to al dente, perfect to go with the creamy curry. I just found a new place for this favorite dish of mine.
Thanks to the amount of rains it gets annually, the Thai southern sphere is always abundant with interesting fresh vegetables. Many are sourced naturally from the surrounding mangrove areas and wetlands. They also have a lot of torch gingers or the locally called dok dala which, somehow, has been eaten fresh for its health benefits (its biting taste is good to curb bloating). We order a plate of spicy salad of torch ginger flower with fresh shrimp, cashew nuts, and sliced shallot, dressed in seasoned preserved soy bean paste. The flower, finely julienned, is crunchy and faintly aromatic. It might sound weird to eat fresh flower, but in this case, it tastes really nice and, somehow, natural. The key to the good taste here is to mix everything, including the cilantro which usually is considered a ubiquitous garnish in Thai cuisine, well together. Or, if you, like us, didn’t know that, you can also have it in individual bites with everything together in one heap and a dollop of the dressing on top. 😀
Thai southern dishes also feature lots and lots of eye-opening (based on my limited city borderline) vegetables. If you have a chance to browse their fresh markets or some local places that sell rice vermicelli (kanom cheen stalls), one thing that you will notice right away is their variety of fresh vegetables. There’s no place else in Thailand that serve one-dish meal, whether it is the kanom cheen (rice vermicelli topped with your choice of curry), or rice and curry or any dish at all, together with a big tray of fresh vegetables. Try eat at a local place and you will see a communal tray of fresh vegetable readily available on the table wherever you are. Whatever you order, that fresh perk is always complimentary. 😀
That brings us to the next dish of namprik goong siep (chili paste with crispy shrimps, southern style) served with this beautiful greens. Goong siep is one of Phuket’s delicacies. It is their traditional way of preserving their much-loved seafood item. Unlike sun-dried shrimps normally found elsewhere on the coasts, Phuket crispy shrimps are stringed together and dried, and it is, well, crispy and salty, adding to the taste of the chili paste.
You eat that chili paste with those vegetables. The most interesting one is the peppercorn seaweed that tastes a little salty with bursting sea water inside.
Hor Mok, or curried fish cake, is also another Phuket’s famed food. Unlike hor mok made in other parts of Thailand, Phuket’s version is always made into a mousse texture with their unique turmeric-based curry paste building up the core flavour. Locals have hor mok as a staple protein source from morning until lunch. Places that sell rice vermicelli in the morning also serve hor mok as a side dish. Places that sell lunch also serve hor mok as a savoury dish that goes well with steamed rice.
As you can see, we also order a plate of winged bean salad. This is not a southern dish in particular, but definitely a Thai one. Versions of winged bean salads have been emulated over the time, with the beans blanched or fresh but definitely finely sliced, with or without pork, or with our without toasted coconut shaves. At this place, being in Phuket where bolder tastes are better preferred, they serve theirs with fresh winged beans, simply dressed with lime-based dressing, toasted cashew nuts and lots of fresh shallots. Lovely!
Piang Prai started out as a small, homemade, family-run place. But since their foods are stable and good, they later expanded according to the demands of their fans. They have a big menu of Thai food. You can also come here and order some rare items such as ma hor (an ancient Thai appetizer made from a piece of fresh fruit and a savoury), la tieng (another Thai appetizer made from a net of omelette stuffed with savoury), crispy rice crackers and coconut-based shrimp dip, and much more.
The best thing here, however, is no matter what you order, they also have this complimentary banana fritters for you when you are finishing your meal. Look at the picture and you’ll know that this is a well-prepared banana fritters. Crispy and aromatic for they adopt the ingredients of the local banana fritter recipe (kluay kaek) that is loaded with shredded coconut that healthily add to the flavoursome crunches. And the icing, although definitely not traditional, does not hurt either. It fancies up the fritters while adding to the lovely light sweetness. We love it to the last bite.
And now that you might be asking for the price. For everything on the table, we paid just less than Bt1,000. What do you think? A real value, isn’t it?