In the Land of Palms and Waterfalls
Enchanted by the north of Thailand on previous trips, we had planned our third visit to the country to get an impression of the south. We landed at Phuket and made our way across the Sarasin Bridge, past stalls bearing row upon row of dusty, spiky pineapples and dark green, shiny water melons to join the coastal road that would bring us to our resort at Khao Lak. Even here, only an hour or two into the country, we were struck by the extraordinary amount of road signs to nearby waterfalls.
It took us a while to find the resort, hidden as it was between massage salons and tailors‘ shops and those selling all the other things that Western tourists need. Chong Fah means „Hole in the Sky“ and our resort is named after the local waterfall. It is a modern hotel where guests are accommodated in luxury bungalows surrounded by tropical plants that you access via walkways. An infinity pool with dark blue tiles offers an alternative to the shallow sea on the narrow stretch of beach beyond the rather ugly concrete wall.
We were welcomed with a coconut jelly with a purple drink made from the local butterfly pea, which the smart customer relations lady spelled out to us to avoid any unpleasant confusion. She placed a matching garland of purple flowers and tiny white buds that were threaded through narrow lengths of bamboo around our necks. This felt deliciously cool and wet on our hot and bothered bodies! Our room was heavenly, with an outside shower and jacuzzi.
It was so hot outside, that after a short walk round the hotel grounds we soon came back to the shade of our balcony to rest on the sunbeds before dinner. Willi later went for a swim, while I dozed to the faraway clattering of crockery.
We took advantage of happy hour to order a couple of cocktails before dinner, which was served on the terrace behind a screen, to protect us from the wind and rain. My grilled tuna salad, served with the tiniest of carrot and cucumber strips, turned out to be rather spicy, but the stir-fried duck with peppers was marvellous. Willi had shrimp and vegetable tempura followed by a very mild grilled chicken breast. We almost fell asleep on our balcony, where the temperature was more pleasant than in the room, listening to the waves pounding onto the rocks below the hotel wall.
I awoke early to the sound of Willi exiting the room to go jogging. It was very humid but not unpleasantly hot as I drank my early morning coffee outside. Gardeners were weaving silently in and out of the narrow pathways between the bungalows. The sky was already uniformly blue.
Mesmerised by the waves breaking evenly and lazily and the black dots that were actually boats carrying diving tourists and were moving swiftly across the horizon, we took time to enjoy a splendid, leisurely but not too copious breakfast. The customer relations lady recommended that we should visit the Ban Nam Khem Tsunami Memorial Park, so that’s where we headed for.
The wave-shaped memorial is situated right on the coast, where a simple café with trestle tables under roofed areas decorated with plants in coconut shells looks out onto the squid fishers‘ boats. The park itself, a green area amply equipped with toilet facilities and statues and the inevitable souvenir shops where I bought a straw trilby-style hat for 130 baht, was full of rather small school children, all of whom would have been born after the tsunami. Two little boys were amusing themselves by placing first a little plastic turtle, then a spider on the path in front of us and were delighted when I squealed.
We visited the tiny museum which I found disappointing at first. There were some paintings and a few photos and maps illustrating how far the fishermen’s boats had been flung into the interior of the land. It was not particularly spiritual and honoured the work of the Thai army after the tsunami more than anything else. On reflection, though, the Thai soldiers did do a fantastic job clearing up the debris and rebuilding the area and it must have been heart-breaking, sickening and devastating work.
A particularly lovely golden Buddha presides over the park. There is a tunnel to walk through, which offers views of a dilapidated fishing boat caught in the tsunami. On the wall opposite are memorial tiles bearing the names of victims, most of them tourists and many of them children and Germans. The Memorial is sponsored by Thyssen Krupp. It saddened me that the pretty white fountain near the exit was not working and that the plaster was beginning to crumble.
We spent the rest of the day at the Chong Fah waterfall. Like all the waterfalls, Chong Fah is a National Park which means that you pay for the privilege of walking there. We paid 400 baht for the two of us to cross the 1,100 m up and down the stony ground in the rain forest. As we started, there was a strange sound like an electric bell coming from the jungle. We realised later that this was the communal chanting of crickets. Peaceful stray dogs accompanied us to the first tier of the falls and back. The approach was a little adventurous for me, involving a walk across a river along a tree trunk and another across a rickety narrow bridge.
People were bathing at the first fall. Sweating rather profusely, I parked myself on a flat stone while Willi walked up a suspicious-looking slope to levels 2 to 4. My walk was neither particularly difficult nor very long, but still not acclimatised to the humidity, we were both glad to call it a day. The road back to our resort took us past several gum tree plantations, which despite the dull weather looked beautiful.
Our hotel was offering an Asian buffet that evening, so we sampled bamboo flower salad and sushis and chicken and fried squid and fishcakes. Later there was prawn with minced pork and massandan chicken curry and stir-fried seafood. For dessert I chose rice-skin dumplings with pandana leaves filled with a peanut and sugar mixture that tasted like soft peanut brittle.
The drive to Takua Pa, a fairly large border town on the way to Khao Sok, was uneventful, then our road took us into the jungle and became steep and winding. Only a few metres before we reached our lodge, a 3 m long snake, grey and rather dull-looking, crossed the road just in front of the car.
Our lodge, just outside the park, was being run by a young Spaniard. After a sweet drink in the open restaurant area that could have been hibiscus juice, we were shown up a steep and slippery slope to our comfortable bungalow, nestling under an ornate wooden roof and surrounded by ferns and fronds and leafy plants. It began to rain, drizzle at first, but by the time we had reached the Visitors Centre in the National Park the rain had become quite heavy. So we decided to embark on the 90 minute drive to the Ratchaprapa Dam, also known as the Chiew Larn Lake, on the other side of the 739 square metres of rainforest.
We were held up by tree-felling just outside the town. When we reached the lake, it had stopped raining, but the surrounding karst mountains were enshrouded in dark, threatening cloud. Passing through the modern town of Phanom, we approached the lakeside via a bridge which afforded a view of a row of tourist huts and moored boats. The main pier is a few kilometres further on and then the road just comes to an end; all travelling is done by boat from here. We wandered round the few shops and cafes, spent 5 baht for the use of a toilet and photographed the colourful cloths tied round the prows of the boats and, in contrast, the dark, graduated contours of the mountains and the looming rocks that constitute the islands in the lake. A boatful of tourists zoomed in, all wearing plastic macs.
Most people either come here for the day and take a boat trip to experience the jungle wildlife from the water or book in at one of the many resorts on the craggy, jagged lakeside. Water sports, hiking, elephant trekking and visits to amazing caves are also popular here. Obviously we were not going to do any of this in the short time available. (Later a young Belgian couple at our resort told us that they had seen not a single animal on their boat trip, so we did not feel we had missed much).
It was literally throwing it down in Phanom on our way back and the sky was dismally black. At the place where the workmen had been felling the roadside trees, the stop signs had been removed, so it was more than a scare when a heavy trunk came thundering down right in front of our car. Willi managed to swerve so we were not hit by the crown and a workman cried out in shock. The resort itself was not only dark but also wet and very slippery. I enjoyed a simple meal of stir-fried chicken with cashews, which was delicious but much spicier than the one I make. Willi had sweet and sour pork. The homesick Spaniard had put Paco de Lucia on the audio system.
After a very wakeful night during which we had to resort to switching on the noisy air conditioning, we met the Thai owner of our lodge, a charming woman, at breakfast. She served us a good meal with boiled eggs and what she called „ fruit shake“, a sort of smoothie.
It was very hot and humid but there was no rain so we were keen to have a jungle walk in the park. At the Visitors Centre extremely loud Thai pop music was violating the natural surroundings. We started on a waterfall trail, up and down hill on a good track that was occasionally rutted by roots or criss-crossed by low slung lianas. The only animals we met were the langurs, not the exotic spectacled variety or elusive gibbons, just the common brown monkeys. There was also a fat millipede and several colourful butterflies. The first waterfall was difficult for me to get down to and not very impressive anyway, so I waited while Willi clambered down and we decided to turn back. We hadn’t walked far when we noticed a pool of blood between the toes on Willis right foot. It reminded me of a photo of a leech bite, that I had seen in one of the guide books, and lo and behold! after a few seconds of careful scrutiny, we discovered a fat leech curled round Willi’s ankle bone. He flicked it off easily, which is a good job because if you have to pull a leech away, it can vomit into the wound and thereby cause an unpleasant disease. Presumably the leech was already saturated. Only seconds later the ankle was full of uncongealed blood and we found a pool of blood between the toes of the left foot, too!
Apart from monkeys and leeches we were fascinated by a pair of very beautiful insects which looked like dragonflies, but which I now believe were cicadas. We stopped to photograph them, while not far away, a pair of monkeys were mating. We stopped to admire the acrobat act of a langur baby, guarded suspiciously by its mother. Then wet from head to toe from the humidity and the heat, returned back to the hotel to change and clean up Willi’s wounds.
The walk had really sapped our energy, so we took our time before setting off in the afternoon. Very dark blue butterflies fluttered to and fro as we left our resort and headed for a local viewpoint in the car. A family posing for selfies against a background of blue mountaintops and tiny pink orchids told us that it was the king’s birthday and everyone was celebrating. We had seen the yellow T-shirts that the father was wearing on sale at many of the local shops, with the unlikely slogan BIKE FOR DAD scrawled across the front, but would only realise the full significance of all this later.
Sure of finding liquid refreshment near the Visitors Centre, we returned to the park and sat in the shade at the Tree Tops Hotel with a coconut water for me and a coke for Willi. It was deliciously cool there overlooking a river with a strong and noisy current and for once, we were in no hurry to move. Despite the dark clouds collecting overhead, it was still dry after we had finished, so we drove a few kilometres further to Monkey Temple on the main road. Steep open metal steps led up the side of a rocky hill, presumably to some sort of shrine. We were content to wander between the peaceful long-tailed langurs which were climbing up and down the ropes that the monks had erected between the trees. Shrill-coloured cockerels accompanied us towards a white Buddha altar in a cave, illuminated by naked light bulbs. We would have liked to have had a chat to the monks, who were crowded together on the terrace of a small temple, but the rain came fast and heavy and we left.
We followed a lorry laden with dark, shiny palm nuts for a while, passed an almost naked veteran woman fishing with her bare hands from a makeshift wooden raft in a murky river and stopped at a palm nut depot. This was surrounded by a few very basic huts on stilts, at which the womenfolk were cowering on their doorsteps under scrimpy awnings chatting and chewing and podding pulses. It caused quite some amusement that we wanted to film the goings-on, but the local people were happy for us to do so. It was interesting to watch the producers throwing the clusters of fruit over a low wall onto a paved area, squashing them and thus releasing the nuts.
After the rains, our resort was a glistening, dripping jungle and the plants, freshly washed, doubly beautiful. We enjoyed prawn cakes and spicy green and red curry. And slept like babies.
To reach Ranong, we had to retrace our route to Takua Pa and head north on a coastal highway flanked first by rubber plantations then oil palms. On the coastal side of the road that occasionally afforded glimpses of the Andaman Sea, we could just about make out shrimp and tilapia farms. Just before we entered the town, a small, bald hill to our left caught our attention. This is Grass Hill, loved by the Thais mainly because it is something of an anomaly here, devoid of vegetation but covered with a blanket of thick grass.
The Hidden Resort really lives up to its name. It’s a smart, modern place with huge glass window fronts facing the sun, making the rooms stifling hot and leaving no room for privacy. There had been very little thought for practical details such as where to hang your clothes and put your suitcase. The swimming pool was still under construction. We were given a warm welcome and delicious sweet iced jasmine tea with honey and lime.
Ranong is famous for its hot springs, but first we parked the car in the shade near Raksa Warin Park and Arboretum and crossed the suspension bridge over the rocky Hat Som Paen stream. This was was full of squealing, splashing children enjoying the water and families on picnic blankets. On the other side of the bridge, the gates of Wat Thaporam stood wide open. I would like to be able to say that this was inviting, but in fact the temple complex was anything but welcoming.
Just beyond the gates, a group of men were sitting in a circle on plastic chairs, apparently indifferent to their surroundings. Apart from many flea-bitten dogs and cats, the complex was almost empty. We strolled up a gentle slope to have a look at the colourful temple buildings, following two child monks in saffron and orange robes, then turned to pass in front of the tiny one-roomed houses where the older monks live. The doors were mainly open, revealing a rudimentary toilet and shower room beyond the bedroom. An older monk was nodding off on his balcony in the company of a couple of mangy cats. Altogether, the temple was not particularly appealing and not half as interesting as the hustle and bustle of the food and drinks stands lined up on the road outside the temple.
Beyond these are three hot mineral springs known as Mother, Father and Child. The entrance to the springs, which have been cooled down from their natural temperature of 65° C to provide pleasant pools for dipping into, is free, though you pay to visit the tiled paddling pools. There were people everywhere, mostly locals, relaxing on benches or on the low walls surrounding the curvy channels dangling curious hands and tired feet into the precious water. Further along, a huge open hall, the “health ground”, provided a clean floor for people to rest on after treatment. There were panels with precise instructions on how to use the facilities. Some ladies were nestling against the broad pipes that transport the hot water on the side of this hall. A small group of exuberant lady-men called out to us as we passed. The atmosphere was very festive and totally relaxed.
It would have been pleasant to wander through the woods to the large Buddha statue smiling benignly down at us, but we were anxious to see more of Ranong and left to look for the port. We found a fishing port, which was smelly and overrun with stray dogs with a couple of really old ships in dock. A burly man growled “What you want?” when we stopped the car to decide whether or not to look around and we interpreted this as an invitation to leave. Following the signs to Grand Andaman Pier, we ended up at a gigantic car park, totally full. This appeared to be the place where people start their trip to Victoria Point, the small town on the southernmost point of Myanmar which is a free trade area and meanwhile well-known for visa-runs.
Our limited time in Ranong was not enough for the two-hour trip, so after a few minutes’ drive along the khlong during which we came across a man walking his goats on tatty ropes and a woman herding her dark bristly pigs with a fat stick, we decided to follow the signs to Saphlan Pla Pier, at which you can take a longboat to the islands. The area has practically been taken over by the Burmese and is far from attractive. An acrid smell of fish, some of which is spread out on nets outside the lowly shops and dwellings to dry, invades the nostrils and muddy water in puddles on the docks insults the eye. Afterwards I read that cars are often stolen in the area, after all it’s easy enough to ship them discreetly from here. We never had the feeling that we were in danger here, but instinctively remained inside our vehicle; there was no incentive here to go exploring.
How different Ranong town turned out to be! The busy modern town was dominated by yellow since many shops had the “Bike for Dad” T-shirts dangling from wire hangers outside on the pavement. People were eating at the dim, scrubby food market – not the kind of market that would attract European visitors – and a Chinese market hiding behind tattered canvas off the high street was almost completely dark. We discovered a bright Chinese temple down a side street, which was closed. There was obviously plenty more to discover here but it was becoming dark and we were beginning to feel hungry. What’s more, the red and yellow warning lights that suddenly appeared on our dashboard had made Willi restless.
The restaurant at our resort was luxurious and the food delightful. After prawns “in blankets”, I ordered stir-fried seafood with rice while Willi tried deep-fried crabmeat. Willi’s brownie with ice looked delicious, but my own watery grass jelly, a purple mass in an insipid syrup crowned with a ginko and toddy palm, was a total disappointment.
The warning signs in the car were no longer lit when Willi switched on the ignition the following morning, so it was with a great deal of relief that we tucked into our eggs Royale and Benedict respectively. We also enjoyed the company of a friendly family from Phuket on the next table and chatted to the owner of our hotel, a corpulent but self-assured 26 year old designer who managed the business with her sister. Consequently, we had a late start that morning.
The road to Chumphon on the east coast leads first to the Kra Isthmus, the narrowest part of the Malay Peninsula, measuring only about 45 km. On the way, you pass a very pretty beauty spot, the Ngao waterfall in the national park bearing the same name. The military police checked Willi’s ID card here and at the car park, a sweet little runaway puppy with a cheeky patch over one eye was being cuddled by other visitors.
For about half an hour, we drove through a hilly area in which pawpaw trees thrived next to attractive houses in idyllic settings. But further along the road, construction work was going on and ugly quarries replaced the forest. At places, where dramatically sheer drops had been hacked into the landscape, the hills looked potentially dangerous.
Only 100 metres away from the border to Myanmar, separated from it by the wide, muddy Kra Buri river in which a varan was thrashing its horny tail, a gaudy monument documents the Kra Isthmus. On the one hand, a certain amount of expense and effort had been put into this area, but in contrast, the souvenir stands were closed and the riverside itself, where a toilet block had been erected, was neglected and dirty. Further down the river we came across two Burmese gents with a longboat carrying a paddle, while a young lady bearing that white paste on her cheeks that help you identify a Hmong woman reclined against a motorbike with side-car and fiddled with her mobile.
Just before the road works started, construction work for a dual carriageway, pale-faced Burmese women behind stalls laden with gleaming steel pans, all neatly stacked, were selling green and white variations of Thai dim sums, salapao, which looked and smelled heavenly! It began to rain and by the time we entered Chumphon, it was throwing it down, monsoon-style. So we could not see much of Chumphon, though we passed a number of ships and fishing boats moored on the Paknam coastal side of town on our way to the Novotel.
The rain was nothing short of torrential, so while Willi jogged along the coast, braving the strong winds and the downpours, I chose to rest in our huge room. It did, however clear up for a brief period, so we drove to Prince Chumphon’s shrine, a few kilometres further down the coast. At a local shopping area not far from the hotel, a man carrying plastic bags was wading through the muddy water which reached half-way up his shins. The trip was depressing. At the shrine itself, the rains came crashing down again and there was clearly no point in trying to leave the car.
We had an early dinner at La casita, a simple, tiled café belonging to the hotel. After two red and revoltingly sweet cocktails, I had tumtim fish (which was probably sea bream) in a salt crust while Willi was tempted by the grilled beef with pepper sauce. In lieu of gin and tonic, there being no tonic available, we had a nightcap of planter’s punch in the hotel bar before turning in.
Although it looked depressingly cloudy outside, it was once again hot and steamy the following morning and this time, Prince Chumphon Veteran Memorial Shrine was buzzing with mainly local tourists. A model torpedo warship greets the visitor a few metres from the shrine, a reminder that Prince Chumphon was the proclaimed Father of the Royal Thai Navy in the early twentieth century.
The shrine itself is a little kitchy but there are some interesting features. One is the firecracker tower at which the local people flock to redeem their vows. We were startled and perplexed by the first explosions we heard. One inner shrine, bursting with roses and decorated very sentimentally, is dedicated to Prince Chumphon himself. Popular music from WW 1 floats on the air and numerous dedicated visitors venerably mount the few carpeted steps carrying single yellow flowers or joss sticks or with hands joined together in prayer. From here, there is a lovely view of the coast. To one side of the complex, a herb garden preserves the types of plants that Prince Chumphon liked to use for medicinal purposes.
Chumphon town looked much more attractive in the sun which emerged in the course of the morning. In between pleasant houses and gardens, plain kites in gaudy colours, handsome basketwork furniture and bonsais were being sold at roadside stalls and nurseries. The town seemed to stretch forever once we left the centre, a jungle of petrol stations and banks and high-rise buildings. It took us some time to find what we were looking for: a temple called Wat Phra Thart Sawi, next to the river Sawi, which claims an exotic legend involving an ancient king and an albino crow.
When we did eventually find the building, we felt rather disappointed because not only was the temple unspectacular, but it was also closed to the public while the famous chedi was being restored. A hoard of slovenly dogs approached as we left the car, but it was the puncture that Willi noticed that worried us. He had no choice but to change the wheel to the sound of hammering and chiselling beyond the walls of the main temple, watched not only by the stray dogs but also a single monk reclining under the wooden roof of the monks’ residence. The same monk kindly indicated a toilet block when Willi had finished, but the swish tourist toilets were also closed. At least he was able to wash his hands there.
Fortunately there was a professional-looking garage on the main road, a family business, and here we had our punctured tyre mended rapidly by a neat and tidy mechanic for the very fair price of 150 baht before leaving for Chaiya.
Chaiya is one of the oldest and most historic towns in South Thailand and it was easy to locate the famous Phra Boromathat temple there. Phra Boromathat is a working temple. As we entered the main gate, a couple of young monks were trying to frame and decorate a portrait of the king in honour of his imminent birthday. We stepped into a courtyard which was lined with golden buddhas. One side of the courtyard seemed to be dedicated to buddhas with their eyes closed. At an altar containing the famous Buddha relics, a pregnant lady offered flowers and prayed.
The rest of the temple complex was very humble. Cockerels and chickens fluttered past squawking loudly between the piles of rubbish lined up between wooden houses on stilts. Toilet and shower and classrooms were fitted in concrete blocks. All over the complex, huge puddles bore testimony to violent rains. The museum, reminiscent of a simple wooden church in pale blue and white, was closed.
How different the Wat Suan Mok turned out to be! First of all it was difficult to find. We discovered the Dhamma Heritage at first, an international meditation centre affiliated to the Wat Suan Mok, situated in the woods near a hot mountain spring , a small pool amongst flat rocks. A couple here pointed to the main road that we had just left and indicated that the temple was on the other side. A parade of stalls selling most things but particularly eats and drinks announced the main gate.
The temple complex is situated literally in the middle of a dense forest and was full of mosquitos and other flying insects including the tiniest of flies that infiltrated the eyes and nose. It was cooler than in the town of-course but extremely humid and rather dark. Monkeys flitted from tree to tree with a rustle of branches and the main temple was in a swamp after the rains! There was also a “spiritual theatre” with posters created by the temple’s visitors that gave food for contemplation and a “Dhamma ship” whose function remained a mystery. I felt very serene here and could seriously imagine coming here during a mosquito-less period for a ten-day meditation course, immersed in nature and at peace with the world.
Conscious of still having to reach Surat Thani and find our next lodgings, we left Chaiya and headed for the large, sprawling town. We were amused and charmed by the gaily-clad students at the Nursing College who flocked across the flyover in lime green capes and white caps. Willi thought he knew approximately where the resort was situated, but as the area became increasingly rural with only a few isolated huts, we realised we had no idea where we were. Out of the blue, a car stopped in front of us bearing the words RESCUE so Willi stopped the driver and asked if he could help us. Though the two “rescuers” spoke no English, they recognised the address of our lodgings and drew a map, explaining in Thai that we should head for the next main road ahead and turn right until we had crossed two bridges. At this point we should turn right again. They gave us their mobile number and drove off.
As it happened, we missed the second turn and had to make a detour, but when we reached the correct turning, there was our rescue vehicle again! The two of them accompanied us a further fifteen minutes or so along a country road until we reached a row of six coloured bungalows in a plot that we would never have identified as our destination, since the name was written in tiny flowery Thai letters only. We all entered the plot and were immediately “greeted” by three or four unfriendly dogs. A lady appeared and spoke to our bodyguards. It became obvious that they were not expecting us and the two friendly Thais asked once again if this was really the place we intended to stay at. Then a man came onto the scene and we gathered that they had simply forgotten our booking. Our two rescuers declined our offer of a coke in the simple restaurant and left, whilst we made ourselves at home in our large but rather basic room.
The dogs had been locked away when we approached the outside restaurant for dinner. A sulky monkey on a chain, who refused the fruit that was brought out to him but drank a small carton of milk from a straw, rattled around on the wooden balustrade that separated the restaurant area from the khlong. The choice of meals was very limited but we dined well enough on chicken in green curry and three large Leo beers.
The lady who served our breakfast did so in her long-shirt nightdress. She automatically brought us a plate of “American breakfast”. The monkey had a chocolate drink.
It was easier to find our way back into the town than it had been to find the resort the evening before and we found the city pillar bathed in fresh sunshine. The pillar, one of the first of its kind in South Thailand, is a collection of pretty, white shrines in an octagonal square surrounded by flower beds. It is a place of intense worship. There are elephants everywhere, small ones and larger ones, in marble and carved out of different woods and cut out of hedges, black ones and white ones, plain ones and intricately decorated ones. Some are for sale, alongside yellow flowers and colourful garlands for offering. Joggers completed their circuits round the temples as we rounded the buildings at snail’s pace. It was a refreshing place, with charm.
Crossing the road we stopped to pause at a pavilion by the river and watch a young lady combing her mother’s hair there, the long-tail boats speeding past towards the islands and the passing of fishing-boats. The main road was covered in yellow bunting for the king’s birthday. Numerous loudspeaker-vans passed by blurting out messages that were secrets to our ears. On the other side of town we passed one of the largest food markets we had ever seen here.
Don Sak was our next stop. Here you find the main ferry harbour for the boats that leave for Ko Samui and the other islands . The harbour is rather dirty and smelly – a motley odour of urine and waste and fumes from the boats. A beggar drawing his bow across the single string of a simple instrument that he held on the pavement was not attracting much sympathy. There was plenty of custom for the ferries though and a long line of stinking vehicles were lined up to wait their turn.
The town is dominated by the fishing industry along an estuary and a market which backs onto this river. We tried to walk along the fishing port, but this is easier to negotiate by the colourful, freshly painted Muslim fishing boats than on foot. Tiny salmon-coloured prawns were drying in the sun on rags in the side-street that leads to the meat, vegetable and fruit market. The fish had already been sold; only a few scavenging cats were licking up the odd shiny scale or bloody entrails left on the floor. We admired the loganberries and a fruit that we had not consciously seen before. This turned out to be a snake-fruit. A strange, frizzy-haired lady-man with his hair pulled back, wearing a blue- striped long-sleeved T-shirt over the silky, green paisley fisher-pants that are usually worn by women, split one of these fruits with his long finger-nail and offered it to us after checking first with the vendor if she minded. It was similar to a very sour lychee.
The road leading out of the town passed through a lovely temple complex that looked most inviting and led to a sort of cemetery. We pressed on along a long rural road running south parallel to the coast until we reached a signpost advertising Laem Prathap, the perfect place for spotting pink dolphins. We had vaguely hoped we would see the dolphins from the coast, but in fact you need to hire a boat and venture much further into the sea to spot these beauties. The village, which the internet describes as picturesque, was nothing of the sort. We parked outside a German restaurant, of all things, called Zum Grünen Baum, where a local woman addressed us in German. The village was an untidy dump and the tourist boats, which would have cost 1,000 baht to hire, the lady said, nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless we stretched our legs here , passed a few taciturn fishermen who were mending their nets with their womenfolk, climbed the few steps that led to a viewpoint, fingered a couple of revoltingly pink plastic dolphins and cheap T-shirts hanging outside a shop and left, eyes glued to the coast, just in case.
A kingfisher caught our attention on the telephone wires along the very rural stretch that took us to the town of Khanom, where we were booked into the small La Pes Resort. A very attractive and educated young lady called Natasha welcomed us to our new temporary home, a simple but not unpleasant cabin painted in dark greys and black. She suggested we might have time to visit the Hin Lat waterfall before dusk. The fall is only 10 minutes’ drive from the resort but it took us a while to find the right road and when we did, it was in an abominable state! We followed it to a place where the rains had literally lifted the concrete off the road revealing shocking holes and tough roots. We could have walked for a short distance from here to reach the falls, but did not realise we were so close and turned round instead.
At the coast we stopped outside the Golden Beach hotel and had a stroll along the Ao Thong Yi beach, walking mainly in cloud, followed and accompanied by inquisitive stray dogs alongside the extremely rough sea. The beach could hardly be described as beautiful, cluttered as it was by a great deal of debris. Little white triangular mussels were clinging onto abandoned flip-flops, their dark brown shiny flesh pulsating in and out of the shells. Plastic bottles and rusty cans were nestling up to branches and other organic matter washed up by the mighty waves. It clearly was not the bathing season.
Towards our resort, however, a bridge over the estuary provided the perfect place to take photos and watch the riverine activities of hundreds of boats of every kind. The light was fading and the boats illuminated by lanterns. At the food market which we wandered through, vendors were pouring brightly coloured liquids and thick aromatic sauces into plastic bags for consumption at home. Raw squid and glistening fish slid off flat plates. Frittered fish and delicious-looking grilled meats were handed from perspiring vendor to craving customer. Sweet sticky bits and bobs in alarming colours disappeared into paper or plastic bags for later. Green-headed celery and pale-bottomed pak choi waited patiently for the next customer next to glossy tomatoes and rough-skinned mangoes. What a way to work up an appetite for dinner!
And what a dinner! This was cooked by Natasha who invited us to join her on a low platform which I had mistaken for an altar. She explained the limited menu and suggested we should try squid with garlic and black pepper and a fried mackerel. Both were very tasty, though we were at first a little put off by the organic rice, which was purple! That night, the mosquitos also had a bite or two.
Breakfast at la Pes was a little odd, consisting as it did of awfully sweet cappuccino, beautifully decorated with syrup and coffee beans, and a plate of two fatty sausages with bacon and egg and a waffle drizzled with honey.
We could not resist the urge to photograph the fishing boats on the estuary again, now illuminated by the kind of sunshine you expect to be blessed with in Thailand, before leaving town. We also stopped to get a closer look at a Chinese temple. The faces of the local women were almost all white, not from obviously smeared paste, as we had seen in other places, but clearly artificially created by make-up or perhaps chemicals.
Further down the coast, at Tha Sala, we crossed over a bridge where hundreds of boats could be seen moored in the distance and a very attractive-looking restaurant lay on the bank in the shade of the bridge. We were attracted to some huge rafts that were presumably used for the fishing of crustaceans and some nets of fish drying in the sun like open-winged angels. The nets were propped at an angle on the type of plastic baskets that we use for laundry to absorb the maximum heat of the sun in the open fields. The goats and chickens seemed to take no notice of us or the fish. Naturally we got out of the car to take pictures and naturally this caused quite a sensation. Head-scarved ladies on motor scooters nearly fell off their bikes with amazement. Some ladies peeping behind huts, presumably those of the salters, started to giggle and show their husbands the weird tourists that were taking photos of their fish.
Undeterred, we carried on to the coast. Here, on the beaches, shrimps were being dried on plastic netting. The men drove plastic buckets of the seafood to the shore and the women raked them over and over again on the plastic sheets to separate them for drying. The people were friendly but not over-communicative. Under a huge tent, young lads and women were slitting and emptying little fish and unfolding them to dry. Baaheng basilya, butterfly fish, they called them. They were happy for us to watch but did not wish to be filmed. At a site next to the tenting, fish shells were being broken, raked and dried, perhaps for fish paste or fertilizer.
Nakhon Si Thammarat was theoretically only a good half an hour’s drive from here. Although we reached the town with no difficulty, the numbering and naming of the streets here were unfathomable to us and we had to ask the way to our next demure, Tree Home Plus, at a garage. The owner of the garage was eager to be of assistance, but he did not know where the street was either, so he very kindly phoned the guest house for us. It was only about 200 metres from his garage. When we arrived, only a Thai-speaking cleaning lady was present. She showed us our generous, spotless room and handed us the key, but was unable to give us the wifi code. Minutes later, the owner’s wife appeared on a scooter in her nurse’s uniform, gave us the code, urged us to walk to the famous Wat Phra Mahathat temple, indicating with a careless wave of the hand in the general direction we needed to take and rushed off again.
The temple is a sanctuary and the complex was amazing. It boasts a 77 metre high chedi which houses Buddha relics and is claimed to be covered in around 1000 kilogrammes of pure gold. The chedi was covered in scaffolding, unfortunately, but was impressive nevertheless. Passing all sorts of smaller temples, we reached a massive gold and silver market selling everything from teapots to necklaces, mobile phones and golden Buddha statues. And souvenirs galore. But what I wanted were niello-ware earrings for my girls. Nakhon Si, as the locals call their town, is famous for this jewelry, in which a black mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphides is used as an inlay on engraved or etched silver. The finished rose and daisy designs I picked are both delicate and versatile. Outside the market, iced drinks and various sweets were on sale, including bamboo sticks filled with sticky rice and lumps of caramelised nuts served on a square of banana leaf.
To visit the ancient chedi and the holiest of the temples, female Western visitors are required to done a white cotton dressing-gown affair. Thus attired I was allowed to enter the Great Noble Relics Stupa, which is set in a sort of garden of plain grey chedis. The queue of tourists pushed us gently into a small crowded chapel which you could not walk around for fear of treading upon kneeling worshippers. The chapel had a low, slanting red wooden ceiling and a staircase at the highest point of the roof which led to two golden statues. The stairs were, of-course, out of bounds and guarded by fierce and furious demons. Outside the chapel, the visitor is invited to go round the very holy chedi to admire a couple of gongs and a huge number of Buddha statues, most of which were covered with partly peeling gold leaf.
It was very peaceful to wander round in the shade of the minor outdoor chedis afterwards and the long walk back to our guesthouse was certainly interesting. The monks’ residence on the opposite side of the road was almost as beautiful as the complex itself. I was fascinated by the shops selling birds in cages that hung outside in the late afternoon sun and by the street lamps which bore little golden figurines featuring the signs of the Chinese zodiac. In a side street, we came across a salapao factory and as we were passing, a local tradesman was carrying a tray of steaming dumplings into his vehicle. I asked if I could take a picture and was immediately rewarded for my cheekiness by being handed one of the dumplings. Willi was given one for himself. We dug our teeth into the soft, rather bland dough, peeling the paper off the bottom as we did so and relished the sweet-salty meat filling. They were nothing short of delicious!
After a quick coke to wash this down at a nearby restaurant, we retired to our room for a cool-down and a shower. The owners, Nat and Phum, were at home with their teenage daughter, Phreo, whose main job was to interpret. They were concerned about our breakfast and our plans for the following day. We assured them that a traditional Thai breakfast would be just fine and they gave us some tourist tips, then the lady of the house presented us with a home-made dessert, a baked custard in pumpkin, on the house. The entire family was so sweet!
Having walked a good 6 kilometres in the heat that afternoon, we decided to dine at the nearby restaurant where we had enjoyed our coke. Earlier on we had noticed very fresh-looking fish and perky greens and herbs being piled onto a huge ice-filled slab and were convinced that we would find something good to eat. What I had failed to notice was that this restaurant also provided full-time entertainment in the form of the traditional shadow theatre.
The restaurant was packed with very friendly guests who did not stare at us. A funny little stout Chinese man with a thin grey plait hanging down his back literally barked instructions to his staff down a microphone. We selected our fish from the cooler and ordered two beers. The fish came extremely charred and accompanied by a bowl of rice and a basket of fresh undressed salad – raw green beans, mini- cucumbers, a watery green something and fresh green herbs. All the time, the intricate shadowy animal-human heroes on the theatre screen were having long dialogues that were punctuated by drum rolls. It was a really pleasant evening. We didn’t understand but found the dialogues soothing.
We had assumed that we were the only guests staying with Nat and Phum that night, but at the large breakfast table set out on the terrace the next morning we met two couples of our own age, a Thai woman, resident of Paris, with her French husband and her friends, an English-speaking Thai couple from Phuket. Nat was also there. He presented with us with a rice soup with minced pork and egg, fried garlic and grated ginger and chopped chives and coriander. This was taken from a styrofoam container and came in tiny plastic bags fastened at the top with miniscule elastic bands and had clearly been bought at the market. Bananas and pomelo segments were also on the table for us. Nat made me a pot of green tea while Willi helped himself to instant coffee. The Thai friends had bought their breakfast at the market stalls and had spread them over the table to share. They brought us a glass of smoothie , which they had made in the communal kitchen and insisted we try another salapao, this time with a sweet plum filling. Later we were joined by a Thai lady from the north who was working in Nakhon Si and Phum with her daughter. It was so convivial, with simultaneous conversations going on in English, Thai and French. They wanted to know all about our journey and were impressed by the photos of snow in Sulzberg that we showed them on Willi’s tablet.
Later we observed the cleaner from our room. For all the modern devices that Nat had installed in his guest house, the cleaner was sitting on her haunches over a water tap in the garden, where she proceded to wash the breakfast things in a plastic bowl!
Dek, the English speaking gentleman from Phuket, had recommended that we visit Kiri Wong in the Lansaka district, about 30 km away. Kiri Wong is a “cultural village”, known for its vegetable, herbal and fruit production. Formerly destroyed by flooding, it is now a self-reliant community with the purest ozone in the country. We pulled up at a simple information office which was completely empty, so we used the toilet facilities and took a photocopied map of the village from a pile on a desk and started to explore on foot. Opposite a colourful temple, there was a stand offering sweets and the lady selling them gave me a sticky piece of something to taste. Hoping it wasn’t durian, which she had on her counter in tiny tubes and decorative boxes, I popped it in to my mouth. It was mangosteen jelly with nuts in, rather good, actually.
Another shop further along the street was selling cotton Thai-dyed T-shirts and bags in pastel shades, joss-sticks and ointments and herbs and teas. The range of herbal cosmetic and medicinal articles was amazing. We bought a bag of dried banana jellies and a pot of mangosteen paste as a small gift for Phum.
The woman in that shop took us next door to a raised terrace where silk shawls were being painted. With flourishing gestures, a short, grim-faced man was applying a brownish liquid in flowery motives to large squares of natural cotton, which looked and felt like silk. We asked if we could film, but he refused, categorically and without raising his eyes from his work. Once this application had dried, women were washing the shawls, stretched over nets, with natural green and pink dye and letting this drip off. Had the artist been more approachable, I might have invested in one of these lovely shawls. As it was, nobody here seemed the slightest bit interested in doing business.
We stopped to admire the almost alpine view on a bridge over the river. Behind us, we watched as a man loaded his garden rubbish – huge piles of it – onto the banks. He was not the first to do this and not all the rubbish was organic, so the banks of this river were sadly turning into a tip. A couple of cows were also tethered here.
On our way back to the temple that we had seen at the entrance to the village we passed various eating places, which suggested that an attempt was being made to cater for tourism in the village. The temple was not particularly spectacular, apart from one object which remained a mystery. It was a huge painted cart. I suppose it was a funeral chariot, a vehicle for transporting the coffin before cremation, since there were also two funeral halls in the complex.
The temple that we had seen on our way to Kiri Wong and which we stopped to visit on our way back to the city was much more ornate. I particularly admired the reclining Buddha and the very gaudy statue of Buddha wringing his hair, which always fills me with emotion for the “humanness” of the action. I was enraptured, then, as a soy dog suddenly started to growl at me from under a car and proceded slowly towards me, growling. Soy dogs are never alone, so within seconds I was the centre of attention of about 5 or 6 dogs all crouching towards me, all barking. Willi, already back at the car, was oblivious to all this. In an attempt to call attention I cried out “Hey”, repeatedly and as loud as I could. This had the effect of causing a small crowd of local visitors also to cry “Hey!” but not of inciting help of any kind! The dogs got nearer and nearer, tails in the air, barking with increasing aggression, and I was really scared. At the last minute Willi realised what was going on and came to the rescue, shouting and gesturing at these fierce animals. Once their leader had backed off, the other dogs slunk away.
It then began to rain, hard and fast, as it does in Thailand. But just before the famous bike ride was to start at 3pm, nationwide,in honour of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 88th birthday, the rain stopped. The main road was packed with people waiting on the pavements, policemen waiting to coordinate traffic solutions, vendors waiting to sell water, organisers waiting to clear the road of straggling onlookers. We waited patiently on the main road, outside a café, with a young Thai family whose teenage daughter posed for about a hundred different selfies. The bazaar across the road started to boom out European and Thai pop music, creating a festive atmosphere and the tension mounted. Then the cyclists appeared, literally hundreds of them, not racing, but biking sedately, silently. A few spectators clapped and a couple even cheered, but on the whole there was a total anti-climax. It was so quiet that it was almost weird!
Once the thick of the cyclists had passed, we carried on along the typically Thai streets that run parallel to the main street, streets where the concrete is broken in places and high kerbs with corners chipped off keep you out of huge puddles, where about twenty rows of hideous electric cabling hang dangerously low and wooden bird cages and furniture vye for space with carelessly parked motorbikes. The low-built shops in these streets reminded me of India. Eventually we arrived at the main road and asked the way to a pretty unique temple, Sao Thong. The monks at a nearby temple sent us in what I was convinced to be the wrong direction, so we asked again. While we were doing this, a thin, toothless old lady rushed up to me and thrust a heavy bag of grapes into my surprised hands. She went on to stroke my face then covered my hands with her own and said: “I love you!”
What is special about the kuti or monks’ residence at Sao Thong, adjacent to Wat Wang Tawan Tok , is that this unique, traditional wooden building recently won a prize for excellent restoration. Built on raised platforms, the residence is set in a leafy compound and indeed the monks were very busy gardening that afternoon. They were wearing rather brief orange clothes, including shorts that revealed religious tattooing on their legs and a shoulder-free vest with a pocket at the front for tools. This was such a contrast to the long robes the Buddhist monks usually wear. While we were admiring the residence, a coconut harvester, a chained-up monkey, grinned at us from the top of a pick-up.
The walk back to our guest-house was long and I was certainly foot-sore. It took us first along the main road, which was full of bunting and lead to the pretty city pillar shrine. Here there were numerous stands offering food and drink to the people who had turned out for the bike ride, which covered 25 km and was still taking place. We shared a coconut water and watched, fascinated, as one vendor put something that looked like barbecued snake, but was in fact dried fish, through a tiny mangle before serving it. People were jogging or walking round a sports field here. The main road came to an end when the remains of the thick old city wall appeared and we carried on along the road which leads to the ancient temple which we had seen the day before. On the street we could see people waiting for doctors or dentists in rows on plastic chairs in modern, air-conditioned waiting rooms watching TV. But there were down-and-outs on the streets, too. Finally, a giant screen and a marquis with yards and yards of white and yellow coloured fabric decoration announced the finishing point for the bike ride. It was getting dusky and the cyclists were beginning to come in in dribs and drabs.
Exhausted and hungry, we had a chicken curry dinner at the shadow theatre restaurant again.
Breakfast the following day was no less special than the day before. This time we were given a strong-flavoured chicken broth with rice and chicken meat. Dek and his friends had been shopping again and offered us some very strange food including barbecued eggs, which looked rather mouldy but were fine to eat, samwong fruit and coconut jelly and cream served on banana leaf. We offered the grapes that we had been given and gave Phum the mangosteen paste.
The garden was completely waterlogged from intense rain during the night, but it remained dry, if dull, for our drive to Krabi. Willi stopped at a garage to fill the tank just outside the city and it was here that I decided to fiddle with my camera, experimenting. Within a few seconds I had inadvertently deleted every single shot on the memory card. Irretrievably, or so I thought. This made me so utterly dejected that I now remember very little about the day’s journey.
We actually never entered Krabi town, for our resort was situated in Ao Nang on a pleasant beach. The Krabi Resort was green and quiet and the staff rather stiff and cold. We quickly found a shady spot where the beach was protected by trees and a pleasant breeze made the heat more bearable and promptly ordered a glass of just about drinkable white wine. Dinner, which was supposed to have been taken outside overlooking the shore, had to be served in the dining room, where we were virtually the only guests. It was a disaster, my filet mignon was not eatable. After dinner we wandered around the shopping street in Ao Nang for a while and had an early night.
Breakfast was fortunately much better than dinner. I tried a local dish called kanom tan, or toddy palm cake that was filled with pandana custard.
I spent this overcast day relaxing by the pool, treating myself to a frozen mocha cappuccino for lunch. Willi jogged and swam. In the late afternoon we enjoyed a walk along the beach. Then it was time for dinner, which we had in the restaurant area of the village, overlooking the beach. For the first time in my life I tried catfish which came with black pepper sauce and a baked potato and with delicious black noodles. Willi could not resist the pizza. The Two Oceans Cabernet Sauvignon was the best wine we had been served in Thailand.
The sky was grey again as we drove further along the bay to a much nicer stretch of beach on our way to Phangnga. Phangnga is mentioned as a destination you should not miss on your trip to South Thailand. It is a marine park which covers 400 square metres in which some 40 limestone islands and pillars rise majestically and picturesquely out of the sea. But to enjoy it, you should really be having calmer seas and bluer skies than we were having on this trip.
We drove to the end of the town, to the Customs House, where the long-tail and speed boats take you for a 2 – 3 hour trip round the islands and were accosted by rather aggressively business orientated captains and touts more or less all the way. So we decided to turn back and enter the National Park at the entrance to the village. Here it was utterly calm, there were no tourists and the headquarters were manned by quiet, friendly people. The park is blessed with a very rustical and very empty restaurant and decent toilets, but after only a few metres of exploring the coast, we realised we were trespassing on land that had been allocated to the park workers and turned back. There was a mangrove nature trail to be followed, but this ended after a few yards because the bridge across the riverlet was completely broken. What amazed us was that the park seemed totally void of monkeys and birds, only the occasional butterfly fluttered past.
A few kilometres from the park, we turned into a side road leading to the Ngao Pier, where we thought we might get an impression of prices for the boat trip for later on the trip. There was plenty of space to park here and a small pavilion indicated that people DO catch boats here, but that morning the place was deserted. Though within seconds an old man caught up with us, his son on his heels, and the younger man explained the rates to us. By the side of their chaotic property, where a primitive drinks stand stood on the road, a really long long-boat was resting in an open shed.
Phuket was waiting for us. Willi chose the back roads to reach our resort and the journey took us literally a couple of hours. After passing some small settlements and a few simple beaches we hit Pattong. What a nightmare! Pattong was like Mallorca! It was crowded, almost European, overrun with vehicles and altogether distasteful. OUR beach, Karon beach, was further up the coast and one of the nicest, cleanest beaches I have ever been to.
I did not take an instant liking to our modern hotel, but it proved to be one of the most pleasant on our stay. At reception we were greeted with icy cloths with frangipanis and a small bowl of cut fruit with a glass of iced water. We were situated at the northern point of the small town which features restaurants and shops, so we had a look round for a suitable place for dinner and enjoyed a stroll on the splendid beach before treating ourselves to a cocktail overlooking the sea. I could happily have stayed here all evening listening to the lapping of the waves, but we had decided to dine at the Red Chopsticks, where we shared starters of spring rolls, chicken satay and deep-fried prawns followed by rock lobster thermidor in my case and grilled tiger prawns in Willi’s.
Every time I woke in the night it was pouring down with rain, so not surprisingly all the furniture on our balcony was dripping wet in the morning. However breakfast was delightful, pepped up with flat noodles with chicken, rice with minced pork and baby corn with bean curd. I also tried sweet rice dumplings, bright green, which resembled our local Spätzle.
I spent all day at the pool with long periods in the jacuzzi in the afternoon. We had dinner at the hotel, which turned out not to be the best idea, for the Andaman Sea Platter was a plate of totally dried up and tasteless rock lobster, squid, tiger prawns and mussels. Fortunately the wine was good. We were the only guests, so we had the duo to ourselves.
Breakfast was once again a fine affair, featuring rice with shrimps and pineapple and pad thai and lotus roots in syrup. Our plan was to spend the morning on the beach and round the pool, then slowly make our way to our next hotel on the other side of the peninsula.
The Serenity is a time-sharing place and our rooms were grand, though a little worn. However there was no beach to speak of, only a thin stretch of dirty sand on the other side of a low concrete wall with a rough, murky sea beyond that. The sky was cloudless, but grey. To cheer me up, we ordered a bite to eat. My tiny round toast with shrimps that could have fitted into the palm of my hand cost the equivalent of 8 EUR!
We drove to Rawai beach. This is the home of the sea gypsies, the swarthy fishermen. Along one side of the coast there is a market street selling pearls of every description and other touristy things like joss-sticks, which I actually bought, and shells. But the highlight of this market are the stalls of fresh fish and seafood. Fish I had never seen before: red and yellow specimens, green and blue ones and cockles and whelks and flat shellfish in the most gorgeous shade of salmony pink. There were oysters, too. But the most fascinating specimen was a rainbow-coloured lobster. On the other side of the same street were simple restaurants where the fish you had just bought was cooked to your liking. In the alleyways between the restaurants, dark-skinned children were playing in the puddles. Coarse –featured women were sitting on upturned crates on the beach to mend the nets. The atmosphere here was very special.
Moving on towards the Cape of Promthep, the southernmost part of the island which offers beautiful sunsets, we had read, we encountered several buses and indeed the cape was full of tourists. The souvenir shops and cafes were large, professional businesses. Huge signs reminded the tourist that smoking and the consumption of alcohol is forbidden here. Beyond two flights of steep steps, a broad, modern promenade looks south. There being no sunset, photo-clicking Asians were trying to capture a rather diffused sun that was attempting to burst through the cloud. A group of Indians were relaxing on a bench under an enormous, really lovely tree whose sturdy trunk was tied with coloured fabrics.
Completing the circuit, we drove on to Ya Nui beach, which is a very popular picturesque cove. The beach was clean and the sand powdery here. The next beach up the coast is Nai Harn, also quiet and certainly recommendable. Inland, smart villas are sprouting up visibly and there are areas where more German can be read on the signs you see than Thai. Warnings about car theft are not seldom. The area also appears to specialise in elephant trecking.
Our next stop was at Kata Noi, where I used the bathroom facilities at the wonderful Katathani Hotel, a dream , which dominates one end of the beach. Kata town, very well developed, was very much up-market, much more exclusive than Pattong and clearly a favourite place with older and more affluent tourists.
The traffic beyond Kata was unbelievable, though more or less under the control of wild gesticulating, fiercely whistling traffic police. So by the time we reached our resort, we were hungry. Willi’s chicken in red curry was delicious but my own sea-bass, accompanied by crisp and succulent stir-fried vegetables, totally dry.
The sea that had presented itself so murky the previous day was a silvery stretch of mudflats in the morning. It was very peaceful and the islands in the background very green. Waders tottered along the shore whilst we tucked into a good breakfast. An inquisitive monkey kept his distance. Willi went for a short walk on the sand while I rested my intestines.
Phuket town was on the agenda. We parked outside the famous Blue Elephant Restaurant, which also markets spices, including the dried galangal in my spice cupboard. Walking along the shady side of Krabi Road, we reached the stretch of textile shops on Thalang Road. This street is amazingly colourful, for besides fabrics to die for displayed in windows and hanging on the pavements, the houses themselves, in Sino-Portuguese style, are anything but drab. These houses were built by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and are still tourist magnets. Stucco in contrasting colours and golden gates and intricate carvings appear when least expected. At the end of the road we came across a golden dragon in a sort of amphitheatre. A coconut vendor was beheading his fruit and handing over straw-filled nuts to the thirsty. An old, grey-haired man wearing only a pair of baggy shorts was rooting through the rubbish bags. A shop in Christmas mode was selling short, skimpy Christmas costumes and other superfluous ware.
The area we visited next was less up-market. We were stopped countless times by taxi-drivers who could not understand why we rich tourists could possibly wish to walk around in the heat, but the truth is, we like a bit of adventure. Gaudy buses were parked outside gold shops, which you can spot a mile away, because they are all completely red and gold. We were looking for a specific temple, but wandered into the grounds of a Thai school instead. A gardener was busy picking up rubbish there with one of those long pincers, but nobody stopped us. Eventually we found the Put Jaw shrine which stands next to the Chui-Tui temple, a modern replacement of a wat that was destroyed by fire.
The wall outside the temple complex is grey, cool and modern, but such a lovely, calming contrast to the jumble within. On the door of the 200 year-old, purely Chinese Put Jaw shrine is a list of “instructions” so that the innocent tourist makes no faux pas. In front is a wrought iron container for burning joss-sticks. Within, you can find the fortune sticks, a jar filled with sticks which you juggle till one falls out, forecasting your future. In the next room you can burn gold leaf. The shrine was full of Chinese and Taoist deities.
As I left the building, a woman stopped me on the steps and pushed a thin booklet into my hand, urging me to read it and spread the word. The pages of cartoon drawings explaining how a good Buddhist should behave were partly translated into English. She opened a page which said that parents are buddhas and should be respected and revered as such and told me, with the help of a young woman who happened to pass by, that she had two daughters and a son who is a lady-boy. She was clearly distraught by this, so I tried to convey the message that it is only important that one’s children are good people.
Meanwhile I had lost Willi, who had ventured into the Chui-Tui temple next door. We stopped to rest in the shade of a breezy hall, then I visited the temple. The doors of the shrine were magnificent renderings of fierce watchmen and equally formidable guard statues were protecting the front of the temple. There were many, many statues of unmistakeably Chinese gods and demons and prince-like figurines impaled on metal sticks and offerings of fruit and drinks and tigers and dragons all over the place and I found myself wondering what all this has to do with Buddhism as I understand it. As we left the complex, we noticed a bright red firecracker house near the gates.
To visit the Bang Nieuw temple, which comes into its own during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, we opted to take the car. Wikipedia describes the festival as “a colourful event held over a nine-day period in October, celebrating the Chinese community’s belief that abstinence from meat and various stimulants during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar will help them obtain good health and peace of mind.” During this time and in the nine oldest shrines, people mutilate themselves by piercing skewers and knives and even swords into their cheeks and mouths or walk over burning coals. These ceremonies do, sometimes, lead to serious injuries and even death. You can find some extremely gruesome pictures of all this on the internet. But the temple was deserted that afternoon and the only wickedness here was in the faces of the Chinese demon figures.
Back at Serenity, we settled down to a couple of cocktails with harmless names like “Kiss Me” and “Cosmopolitan”. In the dark, fishermen were wading past our hotel, swishing through the shallow water. Dinner, with garlic bread and satays followed by red curry with roast duck and for Willi an Aussie Burger, was excellent.
Breakfast was a bright and breezy affair, after which we set off for the Big Buddha. You can see Big Buddha from miles around. The huge, shimmering white statue made of marble slabs smiles benignly from the top of a hill and offers a spectacular 360° view of the island. Work is still going on at the construction and there is still a lot of scaffolding in place at its base, but the site is very spiritual despite mass tourism.
Past the clothes check you follow tourists of every conceivable colour and attire on a pilgrimage up the hill. You can’t miss the donation boxes, many of them, for the Big Buddha Fund. The entire project depends on these funds. At the base of the statue we came across a group of South Koreans in black T-shirts with a white printed message who were praying and chanting together. They then joined other tourists to walk round the statue, ringing the small bells hanging head-high from a rod. The wind was doing a bit of jingling, too. Different golden Buddha statues for every day of the week stood, sat or reclined according to the attitude represented.
You could argue that the complex is kitchy, but Asians do like kitch and there was plenty of adoration and faith evident amongst the visitors. The administrators have also ensured that there is plenty of space and eating and other facilities are all in place. On the way back down the hill there were a couple of elephant-riding spots, but we had no time for that, since we were bound for the Chalong temple, the most famous of Phuket’s wats.
At Chalong it was very hot and dry with perfect conditions for photography. The whole complex is set in perfectly manicured gardens and is a delight, but the highlight is without doubt the colourful Grand Pagoda. To describe this building would take pages and that is why we take photos. Inside the magnificent building we were checked for appropriate clothing by a girl with beige paste on her face. The hall was full of golden Buddha statues and people weaving in and out of these to get the perfect selfie. Up the steep staircase you reach an outside gallery, the floor of which was so hot, that I found it difficult to walk.
We skipped the exhibition hall and made for the Poh Than Jao Wat a few metres away. On the way, we were startled by a reel of firecrackers and stopped to watch as a uniformed lady entered a plain brick tower to set them off, causing clouds of smoke. In the temple, under the auspices of a giant Buddha statue and several smaller ones depicting former abbots, I imagine, people, mainly young and among them some children, were shaking the fortune sticks rhythmically and performing strange rituals with wooden “stones”. I got the impression that there was more fun than religious intention going on here.
Satisfied with our trip to Chalong temple, we intended to have a look round Phuket port, but never found it. We stopped at a khlong viewpoint where fishing boats were moored further along the river and fishermen were sorting fish remains on the road. And we paused at the Khao Khlad viewpoint. We discovered the aquarium and a pleasant promenade on the peninsula east of Phuket town. And we found ourselves navigating a curvy road into the hills where another viewpoint was situated. We even came upon a pearl outlet that we had been looking for days .
Chalong town, on the way back to our hotel, was very small and sweet. It relies economically on excursions to the islands and to Phangnga which you organise through agents, mainly. Scores of people were disembarking from small but powerful speedboats. The staff in the many cafes and restaurants were getting ready for business later on in the evening. But we had had enough tourism for the day and were happy to enjoy a pina colada and a mai tai at the hotel, where a rainbow was lighting up the horizon. We ordered red snapper. Mine was nearly raw.
EIGHTEENTH DAY This was our last morning in the south of Thailand and strolling along the thin strip of rather unkempt beach near our hotel, where a man with a bucket was softly removing the top sand to catch tiny crabs, we had time to reflect on this trip. This had been another adventure with unique experiences and had increased our awareness of the Asian world. We had been safe and had experienced many moments of happiness. Would we come again? Probably not. The world is a big place and there’s so much more to discover!