Friday, 27 September 2013

Not Much Lacking in Khao Lak

Regular contributor John Borthwick visits an on-song Andaman alternative to Phuket. Long, unsullied beaches. 

No jets-skis, sun-loungers or tuk-tuk mafia. Take me there! 

Laid-back Khao Lak, in Phang Nga Province on Thailand’s Andaman shore, is the place. Its 25-km string of beaches still looks much as it did a decade ago — a slumbering coastline of palms, sea-pines and low-rise resorts. This languid shore has always been a favourite with long-stay northern Europeans, with its discrete, upmarket resorts (none built higher than a coconut tree) catering for those who want to get away from all the others who are getting away from it all. 

The tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 hammered Khao Lak hard, with some 4000 people perishing. The subsequent rebuild was well planned and the result might be described as business as unusual. That is, the locals have kept their sands free of the grids of rent-a-chairs that often bedevil Thai resort beaches. Even better, they’ve also ensured there are no off-song banana boats, howling jet-skis or tow-kite speedboats.

Bang La On (often known as Khao Lak Town) on the highway at the south end of the Khao Lak coast is an ever-stretching ribbon development of mini-marts, tailors (“Johnny Armani” and co.), dive centres and restaurants, plus souvenir shops that sell “same-same-not-different” tat, albeit at wildly varying prices. 

Bang Niang, further up the highway, is where most of the limited nightlife happens, with bars, restaurants and a few clubs. My favourite eating place here is Blue Mist restaurant, a rambling wooden structure on the beach (near the JW Marriott), where we feast grandly on Thai seafood, chicken and vegetable dishes, plus cocktails. Over-stuffed and chuckling for 350 baht ($12) a head. This family-friendly, snoozy, honeymooning sort of coast is known as the Gateway to the Andaman. Be sure to step through that gate at least once. 

Blue Mist restaurant. Pics: John Borthwick

Take a daytrip (or longer) to either Koh Similan or Koh Surin mini-archipelago, both marine national parks, that sit just 60 km offshore. There is superb snorkelling and diving at each, with dramatic swim-throughs, prolific marine life and stunning visibility. The islands are open November to May, but closed during monsoon season. 

Meanwhile, inland, are five national parks, including the great rainforests of Khao Lak and Khao Sok parks. The latter is like a freshwater version of Phang Nga Bay to the south, near Phuket. Its giant Ratchaprapha reservoir is the liquid jewel of Khao Sok and one of Thailand’s under-sung wonders. 

Next day we’re on the Klong Sok River aboard lazy kayaks. Enormously high trees ripple above us — can you get reverse vertigo from looking upwards? The river is silent, the paddles too, and at times we round a bend to spot an electric-blue kingfisher. Or a viper snoozing peacefully on an overhanging limb, which is exactly where we leave it.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Power of Phuket Town

As I'm walking through the quaint, narrow streets of Phuket Town, I'm struck with an uneasy feeling. 

Something is wrong. Different. Very strange. 

It's not the noticeable lack of tourists in shorts and thongs. 

It's not the fact that this part of Phuket has been beautifully restored, with the historic Sino-Portuguese terraces a showpiece of the island. 

It's not even that there are really cool bars and coffee shops along these quiet streets. 

Then it strikes me. Where are all the power lines? You know the ones - the tangled mess of seething, sparking death that usually hover just above head-height. The incomprehensible and crazy black jumble of wires that are such an integral part of South East Asia's streetscapes...

How does this man know which wire to touch?

In 2009, at the bequest of Phuket's mayor, the power of Thalang Rd and Soi
Romanee in Phuket Town was moved underground at a cost of 20 million baht. More streets in Old Phuket Town followed the year after. 

The result is a view free from the eyesore of wires, a bonus for tourists armed with cameras and locals who take pride in the aesthetics of their town. 

What is wrong with these pictures? No wires!!

Old Phuket Town is a unique attraction on the island, the historic heart of the island dating from when it was a tin mining centre. The beautiful Sino-Portuguese mansions lining the streets, with their lovely wooden shutters and intricate detailing - were once the homes of tin barons who brought great wealth to the island (whilst pillaging the island of its natural resources and beauty - but that's a different story!) 

Interestingly though, wire-free Soi Romanee was once the red light district of the area, with one source claiming that the word 'romanee' means "naughty with the ladies"! It's now a highlight of Phuket, with galleries, cafes and gift shops making it a lovely place for tourists to stroll.

Reflexology shop on Soi Romanee. Pics: Julie Miller

Monday, 9 September 2013

Koh Samui's Cool Mummy

Last week I wrote about Koh Samui's most dubious attraction, the Grandmother and Grandfather erotic rocks. This week I write in praise of the island's coolest and most bizarre icon, the Mummified Monk.

I first discovered this shrivelled corpse by accident several years ago as I was circumnavigating the island by rental car with my daughter Jo. We were not only intrigued by the dried banana-skinned body displayed in a glass case, but also delighted to discover that he's not only wearing orange robes, but also sporting a pair of very stylish Raybans - probably fakes, but this is Thailand after all. 

Why? Why not! I'm assuming his eyes are covered because the shrunken eye sockets might offend, but it also gives the mummified monk the air of a very cool dead dude. No disrespect intended. 

So who is this Rayban wearing monk, and why has be been preserved for all eternity behind glass? 

Born in 1894, Loung Por Daeng entered the temple as a novice during his 20s, but disrobed and married a local woman who bore six him children. When he was 50, he decided to rejoin the monkhood, adopting the name Phra Khru Samathakittikhun. 

After studying in Bangkok, he returned to his home on Koh Samui where he meditated in a cave, Tham Yai in Lamai. He later established Wat Kunaram and its temple school. 

Two months before his death (at the age of 79), he requested that, should his body not decompose (clearly he had some sort of vision - no pun intended), he would like to remain at the temple and be placed in an upright coffin on display as a symbol to inspire future generations to follow Buddha's teachings and be saved from suffering. 

In his final seven days of life, he concentrated solely on his meditation and the path to enlightenment, dying in the same position that he sits today. 

It is said that a pure life and clean diet contributed to the slow rate of decay of the monk's body. 

And while his withered corpse is a curious and perhaps shocking sight for western eyes, it's a reminded that for Buddhists, death is just a step towards nirvana and a better existence.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Getting Your Rocks Off on Samui

When it comes to great ‘sights’, the island of Koh Samui is a little lacking. Day-tripper ‘must sees’ include the Big Buddha on the northern tip of the island, a mummified monk wearing Ray-Bans, a view from a mountain in the middle of the island, and Chaweng Beach. Not exactly sights to blow your mind, right?

But I copped more than I bargained for on a recent whistle-stop circumnavigation of the island. An eyeful in fact.

Yes, Koh Samui’s most dubious attraction is a pair or erotic rocks. A fat old willy and a corresponding vajayjay, within metres of each other. Truly. People actually come to gawk at these, and to take photos (you can guess the artfully framed pics: sitting on the giant cock, touching it, putting it in one's mouth - talk about being desperate for titillation!)

Sorry, Mr Kee Hua Chee - I couldn't resist using your photo!

The rocks are formally known as The Grandmother Rock (Hin Yai) and Grandfather Rock (Hin Ta) - rather creepy, as I don’t like to think of old people’s bits being on display. Poor old grandma has a constant barrage of waves breaking into her privates, while grandpop ... well, let's just say it's not the most flattering depiction. Rock hard though, gotta hand it to him...


Nature ... she's a cruel bitch. But hey - whatever gets your rocks off...

(in case you’re wondering, these uncredited pics are nabbed off the internet - I couldn’t bring myself to take my own shots!)