Goodbye Thailand, Hello Europe

It has been so long since I wrote my last Thailand post and even longer since I visited, I wonder why I am doing this. Maybe just to wrap up cleanly before I start my summer holiday posts. We went to Vienna, Prague, Salzburg and the Black Forest but more on that later.

On our last full day in Phuket, we chose to skip the planned trip to the James Bond islands and spend the day on our own instead. We swam in the sea, lazed around on the beach, picked up our laundry and went souvenir shopping in the local markets of Patong. We especially loved the miles of new plantation we drove past. It was incongruous but in a very nice way to see the bustling city and the green hills in such close juxtaposition.

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We were on our way back to rest a while before we had to leave for the Phuket Fantasea trip and show when we got a call from my husband’s colleague. He and his family had similarly opted out of the day trip and gone parasailing instead. We all sign off on risks and stuff before operations and adventure sports, fearing but not believing that the worst would happen. Sometimes it does. I might have overdone the drama here. His wife had had a hard landing and broken her leg in multiple places.

What followed was a total, crazy nightmare. The kids and I went to the hotel while my husband ran around trying to get medical help. The government hospital in Phuket was not much better than in India and refused to do anything till the next day. We had all been hoping that they could get her in a cast and let her fly back to India the next day where they would have help and all would be well, but she had got a clot in her legs and DVT can be a real risk so that was out. Also, travel insurance does not cover accidents related to parasailing. They put that in quite clearly. So after a lot of craziness, she was moved to a private hospital and payment in forex arranged for her surgery.

Meanwhile, we had missed our bus for Phuket Fantasea. The kids and I were not too worried but my husband knew how much he had paid and was a little sad. Our lovely travel agent Rita, stepped in at this point and offered to drive us there herself once my husband had finished the hospital work. We were too late to enjoy the whole place but would be able to have dinner and catch the show. I have to make a special mention of her. Rita is SUCH a lovely person. I have not written a TripAdvisor review either and I will. She arranged all our trips, gave us huge discounts and then did this. She chatted most pleasantly with us about her trip to India and views on Bangkok and Mumbai on the way to the hospital, where we picked up my husband, and then dropped us at the venue. We were forced to disturb her later at night as there was some confusion regarding our minibus but she took care of everything. Full, top star rating for her!

Lower rating for Phuket Fantasea though. The white tiger in the house on a higher floor was frankly creepy and we never even went up to look at it. The show was circusy and fun to start with but I was totally bored by the end. I might not have been in the right frame of mind for such merriment perhaps. Not that there was much. Merriment.

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Till the last minute when they snatched our phones away, my husband was busy coordinating stuff. No chance of our enjoying the place I guess.

We flew back the next day, taking our colleague’s children with us. Without them to care for, he had checked out of the hotel and into the hospital. The surgery went off smoothly and they returned a few days later. His wife made a full recovery.

And that was it. Phuket. A great holiday with some anticlimax. But the funnest of all the beaches this year (Bekal and a short weekend in Goa being the others). And in a little over a month it will be time for Europe. A different place and a different break with different company. Hopefully just as much fun!

Day Trip to Phi Phi Islands

2nd April

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We had booked ourselves on a day trip to the Phi Phi islands. Our day started with a ride to the rather posh marina (what kind of people live here? Do they all own boats?) in our air conditioned van. I mention the a/c because we noticed the cool-cooler-coolest style setting which took us back to the early non fiat/ambassador cars in India.

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Our trip went something like this. We took a speedboat first to Monkey Beach. There are monkeys in Bangalore – relics of greener times – so there wasn’t any novelty there. We stayed in our boat and took pictures and left the monkeys alone. I truly believe it was the right thing to do.

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Then they told us all about birds nests which are some of the most expensive cooking ingredients ever. These nests are used to make soups and jams and what not. Not available at 7 eleven, naturally!
People pay to lease out space on the islands where the nests are found and then they can take home all they want. Kinda like leasing a gold mine!

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After that, we had to pick between scuba diving and snorkelling. My six year old really enjoyed the snorkelling. The beach was a bit polluted with very many tourist boats and I don’t know what fish and coral the scuba diving people got to see.  Coral reefs are endangered the world over and are fiercely protected here. They told us that being found with coral in any amount in our luggage would get us in very serious trouble with customs!

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Then we went for lunch at a coral island resort. The cool thing here was that the restaurant was on the sea. Not on the beach, but on the SEA! We waded out of the boat to the steps that took us up to the restaurant. A first for us for sure.

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The view from our table was something like this

Then to Maya Bay where we swam a bit. This place is famous for being where The Beach was shot. It is a beautiful, isolated lagoon. This place was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami but they seem to be better prepared now. There are marked Tsunami escape paths and several new trees have been planted.

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Finally, a quick stop at a private (khai) island for no apparent reason but helping them earn commission. Then back to the marina to change and return to the hotel for dinner.

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On thinking it over

This was a special day for us but for our guide, this is his job. Like how I go to work and back. I couldn’t help but wonder if he found it boring too. Surely his glib pleasantries must be rehearsed and automatic by now. There was a moment when he was telling someone not to stand and disbalance the boat when his gritted teeth showed through his smile. I wondered what the boat  trip would be like if he were to talk about what he was really thinking. A journey full of very existential discussions perhaps.


And also, what is with the genetics of these people? The women have not one ounce of superfluous flesh anywhere. And in those tiny bikinis they wore, we would know!


Being on an office  trip, I had not packed any swimwear at all and was forced to stand by as my family frolicked in the water. It took a Pakistani lady (from a group that came a few minutes after us) wading into the waters in her burqa to shake me out of my self importance. Who cared what people thought of me swimming in my clothes anyway? When we finally came out and I was drying myself off in the sun, I told my husband about my newfound epiphany. Then he explained to me that the children attached to the Pakistani contingent had been naughty and entered the water on their own. Their irked father had ordered his wife to bring their offspring back and the poor woman had had no choice but to wade in in all her clothes. I was very sorry for her but also deeply grateful. But for her, I would not have got into the wonderful warm, shallow waters on the best day for swimming ever!

Something Fishy

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1st April

“What time do the rest of the office folks get here?” I asked my husband, rubbing my eyes sleepily.

No-wait. Hold the line a minute. I’ve gone off the rails.

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you. Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about. And in opening my report with the above spot of dialogue, I see that I have made the second of these two floaters. I shall have to hark back a bit.

I have been chattering away about 4 nights in Phuket without a word of explanation on how we came to be here on such a short trip in the first place. I published my first travel post on this blog almost exactly two years back when we went on our annual family trip with my husband’s work colleagues. We have been doing this for the last three years without having ever ventured outside our home state of Karnataka. This year however, we went all the way to Phuket.

Having got here a day before most of the office gang though, we grappled with the problem of what to do before everyone else got in. Especially since it was pouring cats and dogs. The kids were quite content to run up and down the bunk bed but my husband prowled round and round the room in a manner that would have caused comment in a caged tiger. I was very relieved when the monsoon finally gave up and we were free to hit the  beach.

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The office people had reached and checked in by the time we came back. Being hollower than the Grand Canyon however, they were on the lookout for lunch. The catch being that it had to be vegetarian. We went foraging and at a few minutes walk, found a Thai restaurant that promised to serve some, and all of us trooped in. Now the food at Novotel (both dinner and breakfast, NOT the pizza we had eaten for lunch) was very nice so we were hopeful of finding something good here too. This was sadly not to be. The entire team, people differing on a wide range of topics and ideas, were as one on this. So a tip for vegetarian people holidaying in Phuket: Airbnb.

After lunch, we headed to the beach for a spot of parasailing. Parasailing in Phuket is a bit like Goa and a bit unlike. Unlike because you take off from and land on the beach – not in water. Similar because it is equally unsafe. All the kids had smooth landings but the adults jerked down mostly.

After that, all the people who’d come in that day wanted to sleep a bit, but we were all rested and ready for a spot of retail therapy! I had done my research well and knew that the place we needed to be at was Jungceylon.

Our hotel had a free shuttle to Patong but we didn’t know that and we took a taxi. Taxis in Phuket are expensive compared to India. We didn’t rent a car or scooter during our trip and I am not sure about the pricing but it would make sense to look up the hotel’s arrangements if you are staying at one. The tuk tuk though very exotic (not for Indians, we own the autorickshaw and phatphati) costs exactly as much as a taxi.

Jungceylon is a huge huge mall and there is no way you can see it all over the course of one evening. We managed to see most of the ground floor. If you are from somewhere with a currency conversion ratio in your favour, you will have much to do here. Being from India, there was a sense of sameness about both the things to buy and the price. There are tons of shops and it is easy to get carried away but honestly except for souvenirs there is nothing that you don’t get back home. Holiday shopping also makes for difficult returns!

There is a crazy variety of cosmetics and beauty stuff. Then there is Thai silk. But at those prices, it ain’t no silk. There are two Jim Thompson outlets at the Bangkok airport and one at Phuket if you really want to buy Thai silk for your home but my recommendation would be to go to one of the many Thai tailors and get a tailored silk dress. Years ago my dad visited Thailand and returned with lots of Thai silk material for my sister and me. Having no idea what to do with it, we took it to our local tailor in Karol Bagh who fashioned some very Delhi salwar suits out of them. 🙂  They turned out well but don’t try this at home! The local tailor is definitely the saner choice.

The Jungceylon food court has a cafeish vibe and the food was rather nice too. I can vouch for the sticky rice with mango and the green curry (made veg by the simple expedient of opting for None Of The Above when asked to choose between pork, chicken or fish) was lovely. As we were leaving, my son spotted a fish spa and asked to try. He found it ticklish at first and then he loved it! The fish were all gathered round his feet and literally jumping out of the water to have a go at his legs. I have no notion what he had on his legs and feet that the fish loved so much but it worked. He came out all smooth and soft I was sorely tempted to try as well but it was late and we had to leave.

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PS. I bought this outfit from a brand called Island Girl. It was so floaty and white and pretty and like something out of a music video! Sunset on the beach sort of thing. Didn’t get a chance to wear it on this trip but Phuket, I’ll be back.

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PPS. Wodehouse on the beach is a great idea!

It’s a new dawn and a new day

31st March:

1:30 pm(Local Time): Finally in hotel and beyond exhausted! Kids did not sleep at all on flight. We are zombies on feet.

1:35 pm:  There is a bunk bed in room!

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2:00 pm: All showered and eating pizza. Will sleep.

6:30 pm: Awake! Feel like new person. It’s been raining and is super hot and muggy out. A/C in room most welcome. What can we do though?

9:00 pm: Had super lovely evening. Crossed the road and were on beach. This place is lovely. Clean and pretty. Like a clean Goa. After getting our feet wet for a bit, walked down to roadside cafe for milkshakes and icecreams. Coconut icecream – big hit! Had some fiercely contested games of Connect4 with boys. This is a very Goa like market with identical sand toys, sun dresses and hats. Skipped these and went to 7-eleven for water. Why do hotels ration out drinking water in this absurd manner? Returned with shampoo (the Novotel fair trade shampoos are very very sad), brownies (kids need snacks) and a coconut lip balm. Seems too mild for our dry uru but for warm and humid Phuket would be just right.

While on topic of Novotel bathroom supplies – we stayed at the Novotel in Zurich and were surprised to note that there was no way to lock the door from within. This Novotel comes with a nice and sturdy double turn lock which would be hugely reassuring were it not for the glass wall with the frosting undone in the shape of the Novotel logo leaving you exposed to all when within. This is a family room, what were they thinking? My younger one stationed himself outside while hubby was within and provided us with a running commentary till I realized what was happening and herded him off.

But on the plus side, Novotel is on Karon beach which is not too crowded (like Patong) and not too remote (like Kamala) but just right! Also, it is across the road from the most  lovely shallow beach which is perfect for swimming in.

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Effects provided by Google

11:00 pm: Sat about pool chatting with office folks for bit after return. Then all had dinner at Tai. Boys continued to eat generic pesto pasta and pizza margherita but husband had Thai item and self made do with fried rice. That being the only vegetarian item on the Thai menu. Was well made with many different veggies. Rich and flavourful. Found it hard to eat well after a while in Europe but the Thai people are rice eaters too and think can do very well for myself here!

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Flight to Phuket

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30th March, Thursday
Trip gets off to inauspicious start. Was wrapping up travel checklist while waiting for airport taxi when mom asked when we were returning.  Husband and self chorused – ‘Tuesday/Monday’. As usual have been paying no attention to what other has to say with result that have applied for one day less leave than needed. Hurried call to boss to explain situation met with pained silence at other end. We are in middle of release and this is not welcome news. Not much he can do though at this stage but say OK which he tries to do as ominously as he can. Oh Oh Oh! Now need to update Out of Office message.

 8:30 pm: Packed clothes for boys for extra day. Realized have nothing suitable for self. Wonder what can buy in Phuket?

8:35 pm: Tripadvisor says top two items to buy in Phuket are Olay Total Effects and Tiger Balm. I could use the balm.

9:00 pm: OFF!

PS. Can 4 nights in Phuket be described as ‘Taking Thailand’?

Holiday at Bekal

I had started this blog with the solemnly stated intention of writing about travel, especially green and responsible travel, and I have written about practically everything but. So I am pulling up my socks for once and getting down to the task at hand.

I have mentioned before on this blog that we try and get in a holiday with family at least once a year. Usually it is with my side, because we always spent our time with my husband’s family at their home in Ghaziabad.

So this year for our post Christmas – pre New Year break, we drove down to Kanhangad near Bekal in the Kasargod district of Kerala. I should mention at this point that we are very poor pre-holiday researchers, usually contenting ourselves with consulting our good friend – a self styled Phd on most topics under the sun – and going where he tells us to go to do what he instructs us to do.

So he told us to go to Bekal, mapped it on Google, lent us his car and packed us off. My mother-in-law, my parents, my brother and his wife, my sister+spouse and kids, self+spouse and kids – all packed into two cars with severely rationed luggage.

I am not rambling here by the way. I bring all this up merely to underscore the importance of planning before embarking on a trip of any sort. Because Indian Railways runs a perfectly good train from Bangalore to Kasargod. You get on at 10:30 night and reach at about 9 in the morning, probably refreshed after a good night’s sleep and all set to enjoy your day. Totally unlike us who staggered in at five after a ten hour drive with no lunch in us and desperate for tea. It was a good thing therefore that the Kannan beach resort was so designed to please.

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Turning into the driveway of what looked at first glance to be no bigger than a biggish home, we found ourselves at this cosy and welcoming place – right on the beach! We gulped down our welcome drink of coconut water and repaired to our rooms for a quick wash up before meeting at the restaurant for the promised high tea.

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Taken from the website of the Kannan beach resort

A gripe here about the interior decor at Kannan. I wish common sense hadn’t been sacrificed at the altar of pretension and I really wish they would do away with the complicated sliding doors. They are very pretty no doubt. And it feels nice to be in a living space that opens out on two sides to the beach. However, the cons of the thing start to hit you as soon as the mosquitoes swarm in and you have to push and push to close the damn thing. Thereby earning your meal.

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The meal now was nice and filling but surprisingly expensive for such a small place. In fact all of our meals were like that. Breakfast was rather meagre with no cooked food except one Kerala item. My husband and I faithfully tried every new dish but for less adventurous eaters (namely my mother in law) there was no option but eggs and fruit. Also, every meal had to be ordered an hour in advance. And till you have had to estimate the hunger of thirteen people including four children an hour before they are ready to eat, with little room for error (since the restaurant staff are not very flexible) you really haven’t done much. However, the restaurant itself was quite pretty with no walls and opening onto the beach.

Food woes aside, this is a lovely place. It is not as popular a beach getaway as Goa for instance and is cleaner for that. There were no water sports or beach hawkers or anything like that. Just the ocean and us. We spent most of our days between the beach, the pool and the hammocks.

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A quick word here on the green quotient. Although there was no waste segregation to speak of, I was relieved to find no black plastic liners in the bins. Only brown paper bags. So while it was not the best arrangement, it was better than most. I faithfully segregated my waste and was happy to note that the housekeeping staff did not mix them up. The housekeeping staff were also very quick and efficient and impressed me. What did not impress was the state of the bathrooms. Under-lit, a bit leaky and dingy on the whole. A little maintenance is definitely needed here.

Continuing on the green factor, there is a small kitchen garden on the premises. I doubt it would be enough to contribute much to the restaurant but it was fun for the kids to see the brinjal and tomato laden plants. Last point, they allowed us to fill our water bottles from the RO filter in the restaurant and we returned our daily quota of bottled water unused. So points for that as well.

While walking on the beach one evening, I noticed an open fire in the adjoining property and on inspection found that they were burning leaves. Now open waste burning is a punishable offence as stated by the NGT and I debated with myself on whether to confront the miscreants. Wisdom prevailed however – it is always my policy not to argue with people holding sickles. I opted to discuss with the hotel management first.

Enquiring of the management staff, I was told that this was the culture of the people living next door. This remark was confusing. I asked them if there was a cultural significance to the daily burning  of leaves in the evening and we realised we had been talking at cross purposes. It seems the neighbour was unwilling to sell his land to the resort at a mutually agreeable price but was annoyed because his access to the main road was now cut off. This daily burning of leaves was by way of being a mark of protest and looked down upon by the hotel as being unseemly.

My husband who has a Ukridge-ish turn of mind wondered how much this plot of land would cost in such a small village and whether it would be worth our while to buy the place and lease it out while retaining rights to holiday at our convenience. I should mention here that Kannan is crazily advance booked at season time – all the way up to Feb 2018 I believe, and relatively last minute travellers like us can only manage fill in the blanks style dates. Anyway, I liked my husband’s idea but had formed my own notion of the situation and assured my husband that I had no desire to spend my evenings burning leaves so it was probably best if we stuck to being visitors.

The only time we left the resort at all was on a trip to the Bekal Fort. The Bekal fort is about fifteen kilometres from Kannan. I took the trouble to research this time and concluded that there was a lot of walking to be done and it was probably unsuitable for children. I was mistaken in this but we were a small group that ventured out that day.

While driving in the area, we noticed what we had previously missed. We saw a number of flags that appeared to be Pakistan flags which confused us till we realised that they were in fact flags representing Islam. We live in such troubled times, even ordinary people like us can’t help but feel worried by overt displays of religion. But they are not after all very different from people putting ‘Om’ signs on their doorway. And who knows which came first? The insistence on religious identity or the fear that it  will be taken away from you.

Anyway, we reached the fort in good time. It was not much of a walk to the parapet and even though it was a very sunny day, we weren’t too tired to enjoy the spectacular views from the top. I would definitely recommend a visit to Bekal fort to anyone in the neighbourhood!

I found a stepwell on the grounds of the fort. There wasn’t much water and no one to tell us about the history, especially the water history of the well which was such a shame. Rain fed open wells and step wells are an important part of our environmental history and teach us water management – preserving and sharing. Far removed from our present day over-exploitation of borewells.

Movie buffs might remember the Bekal fort from the lovely ‘Uyire’ or ‘Tu hi re’ from Bombay. Surprisingly the mossy walls from the song are all immaculate and dry now. I am not sure if this is a function of the dry weather or a clean up act which would be a pity since I rather like the mossy version.

On our way back we stopped at a small roadside cafe to eat our lunch and had an amazingly varied and delicious repast, served up super fast by the smiling manager at a ridiculous price. I can’t recall the name of the place but it was right next to the Fatima supermarket and had a ‘palace’ in the name. Also, Fatima supermarket sells some rather yum biscuits which are the sort of thing that come in handy on long road trips with children.

Kasargod borders on Kannur somewhere (I know because I saw it) and while we did not buy anything at all, partly because we had no room in the car, if you are in the neighbourhood it might be worth your while to check out the textile market. Kannur cotton retails in Bangalore and is rather nice.

So that’s it! All my Bekal experiences neatly summarised. What do you think then?

Bekal

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The fountainhead of this outpouring
is the edge of land, a curious thing
Too slippy and shifty to be solid ground
Not yet water – that is further beyond

The pull-push forces of Newton’s theories
on that strip of sand, experimenting on me
The waking cries of restless crows
Sheets struggling to cover intransigent toes

A kettle comes on with urgent hisses
A child soothed back with paternal kisses
The restaurant wakes up with the clinking of spoons
iPads switched on to inane cartoons

The minutiae of my life on their usual track
Implode on me, demand me back
Break in on my peaceful reverie
But the waves are still calling out to me

Soar crash sigh, soar crash sigh
Like a gently repeating lullaby
Pulling me in towards the deep
And infinite silence of the sea