Wonderful South East Asia – Part IV

I return to the familiarity of the big city, Bangkok, early at around 1 in the afternoon. I will be staying overnight and taking a flight the next day to Phuket. But in the meantime I make a beeline for the hotel I stayed in at the beginning and drop off my bags, before hitting the bus terminal for a ticket to Ayutthaya.

When I arrive in Ayutthaya it is indeed just gone 4 p.m. and the bus has stopped on a rather subdued main road. The only thing that indicates that I have arrived at the last stop is when the last few passengers disembark, and the inspector shuffles on up the aisle and says Ayutthaya. I get off the bus but can see little by way of indicators or signs of where tourist sights are. Perhaps there were signs along the way, but I didn’t see any. I notice a small group of men sat on a wall near the bus stop, but don’t look at them. Instead, I elect for silly tourist pretending he knows were he is going option instead, and as I haven’t the first clue were I am going or what it is I have come to see, I am at a loss – this is one of the caveats of impulsive behaviour.

As a matter of damage limitation I turn towards the moto guys and one of them enthusiastically approaches me, ‘where you go’ he says, but probably noting the vacant expression on my face he tactfully follows up with ‘you want see temple?’ ‘Yes, temple’ I reply. Tuk tuk man quickly suggests that he takes me around all the temples, on an excursion that takes two and a half hours. We agree a price and we are off.

The first impression of Ayutthaya when you are coming through on the bus is that it is a very clean very nice city, pleasant to look at with monuments on main roundabout junctions (mainly Stupas) and portraits of King Bphumiphol everywhere. It also looks quiet sleepy in parts. However, the real beauty is in the ancient temples and ruins, and there are lots of them spread over a wide area of the city. I could quite happily spend the whole day slowly taking in the various ruins and walking through the parks. Many of the ruins are dotted about in parks were you will see elderly citizens jogging or walking, while others just sit by the ruins in quiet contemplation. Taking a tuk tuk around saves lots of time and is convenient if you are making a flying visit, but otherwise, a very pleasant and easy day could be had here followed by an overnight stay. I thought that Ayutthya was easily the most peaceful, magical and mystical of the places I visited throughout the whole trip.

The journey back into Bangkok seems to take longer and this is followed by a crazy taxi ride back to the hotel. I mean, this taxi driver is driving like a maniac, which seems to be a common behaviour of Bangkok taxi drivers. They weave in and out of traffic at high speeds and leave little margin for error. I must say though, that if the same proportion of car drivers existed in Phnom Penh then I could imagine the capital of Cambodia looking like one big demolition derby, and everyone would be driving around in what would be the equivalent of stock racing cars. The taxi driver in Bangkok however was driving like he was preparing for Le Mans. I wasn’t happy.

I spot a billboard notice on one of the numerous towering hotels that form the
Bangkok skyline advising ‘DRINK, DON’T DRIVE!
 An understandable piece of advice given the way Thai people drive…just don’t drive, do anything but drive!

A quick meal at the hotel restaurant and a freshening up and I take the train to Nana station and walk around the Nana area, just to see what all the fuss is about. I have to say I was totally surprised by what I found. Bustling markets line the main Sukhumivit road and Hijab covered women brush shoulders with working girls and Katoeys. It is a surreal scene but people move in overlapping circles here. At times walking along the Sukhumvit road reminded me of the Broadway that one sees in the 80’s movies. I turn onto a main street, again, can’t remember the number, and as I walk along it, I find Uzbekistani, Pakistani and Egyptian restaurants. If I didn’t know where I was I would have thought I was in the middle east.

I peruse the menu of the Egyptian place, fried brains in gravy….umm….nice…I settle for a kebab and sit within the cool, austere setting, typically Middle Eastern. There are several families in the restaurant, mainly Muslim judging by the well covered mothers in black Hijabs. A middle-aged western fella walks in with a young girl around 20. She looked Thai, but I couldn’t say with certainty if she was, but the other customers didn’t bat an eyelid. They didn’t flee in disgust, they just sat, talked and ate their meals. I found this remarkable and thought yeah, this is the way it is supposed to be, people just getting on with it and without ugly displays of disapproval, judgement and hostility. Each to his, or her, own! Outside, an old Egyptian man sits and takes a pipe while observing the life passing. Young Thai women sit out in the street at sewing machines working away. What an incredible city and what an incredible country Thailand is.

I am excited about returning to Kata town and seeing more of Phuket.

The following day begins with an early breakfast and another farewell to the hotel staff. My flight is midday and I will be greeted by a taxi driver arranged with my accommodation in Kata. I do love Kata so. But this time around I will be on my own. When I arrive in Kata I check into my hotel and have a beer before going straight to the beach and the reggae bar. But this is not before the proprietor of the hotel lays down the ground rules as he says in his unintentionally funny way “I don’t mind you bringing girl back to your room. That is no problem. But I don’t want any fucking in the pool! If I see a condom in my pool I will fucking kill everybody!”  I had to stifle a grin at that point.

I take it easy for the first evening and go around a few of the bars where I get talking to a Swedish couple and a Swedish Biker chick. The Swedish couple are thinking about visiting
Cambodia, so as you can imagine, I was in my element imparting my experience.

Kata really is a little piece of paradise that you just want to return to again and again. One forgets time. I looked at my watch one afternoon and realised that the time didn’t actually mean anything…it may as well just have displayed in big bold letters ‘your time dude…your time’.

One thing that I don’t understand though….the joggers!? Sorry folks but I gotta get this off my chest….

Now, during the day the sun bares down with intensity sending temperatures to 35 degrees centigrade, probably more, but despite this, I see people jogging all over the beach?? What is that about???

I am sorry folks, but I thought the idea of a holiday was to wind down, kick back and relax. I feel the bile beginning to rise up within me as I wonder, why? Why do these people bother going on holiday? Why don’t they just go back home to their 8 till 9’s and then transport their overworked bodies to their overpriced gym’s in their overpriced cars to finish themselves off?

Spare yourselves the cost of the 14 hour flight and accommodation, PLEASE! I mean for goodness sake…get a life…..

….and get some clothes on while you are at it!!!

Sorry about that…now where was I…yes…Swedish women…and German ones too…

Kata attracts lots of Swedish and German tourists and I have to say, a lot of the women are very tall and statuesque, and very good looking. I did try my luck with a stunning German girl who had been staying in the same hotel with her friend, who I had seen leaving with some big biker dude. I seized the opportunity to talk to her but I think she was self conscious about her English. She needn’t have been as I barely speak three words of German and her English was excellent. More likely that I just wasn’t her type, but you gotta try.

I also discovered that the Swedish really know how to let their hair down and have fun. I stumbled upon a bar out in the sticks…on the way to Naiharn beach and happened upon a group of Swedish fellas, dressed like bikers, one of them owning a bar in Karon. They were trying to get a gorgeous Thai girl working behind the bar to reveal more of herself. Then the bidding started, as the loudest of the group took the girls hand and proceeded to stroke my face with it. It was all harmless fun and the girl was going along with it, reminding them every now and again that she did have a boyfriend and she wasn’t taking bids. She was stunning, with a body that was…well…

I got to see most of Phuket’s beaches and, wouldn’t you know it, if you’ve seen one beach, you’ve seen ‘em all. Well, that is not strictly true because while they are all basically similar, as in blue waters, crashing waves and golden or white sands, each offers its own unique vista. My beach-hopping has enabled me to make some observations, such as a comparison of Karon beach with Kamala beach and Kata Noi with Leam Sing beach. By the way, when I was in Surin beach there were lots of kids there who appeared to have been part of a coach party. There were two coaches with Khmer writing on the sides, which is unmistakeable. I assumed then that these kids were Khmer or from Surin. Which leads me to the question, does Surin beach have any significant connection to the actual place Surin, apart from the obvious. Answers on a postcard please!

Nai Harn beach is my favourite beach of them all, as it offers the relative tranquillity of Kata Noi but with much greater outward scenery and less developed surroundings. Rawai beach, which is not a great distance and an enjoyable walk, from Nai harn is itself not a great beach, but the outward vista is breathtaking – the best of the bunch. Rawai beach is not particularly geared to tourism, as there is a large fishing community there, so I understand, and they are eager to preserve Rawai for the local fishing community, which is understandable when you see how development can encroach on a town.

When I was in Phuket last year, I embarked on a crazy walk  – Crazy walk Part I – from Kata beach to Patong beach, cutting through Karon and up a winding mountain road passing the impressive Meridien hotel and eventually descending the hill into Patong. However, I would not recommend anyone do this, as there are no footpaths on the road, making it very hazardous with traffic flying by you frequently. The uphill sections around the mountain are also accident blackspots. The road is also almost entirely up hill once you pass Karon.

I decide this year to walk from Patong beach to Kamala beach and begin with a bus ride from Kata to Phuket Town, where I jump a bus to Patong. The bus ride was amusing because the full bus found it an awful strain climbing the mountain road to Patong and almost juddered to a halt at one point. I recall walking this hill, but I didn’t think the bus was going to make it and I had visions of us all rolling back down hill and ending up in the tennis courts of the Meridian Hotel. Eventually the bus makes it somewhat miraculously to the beach and I begin in earnest walking along Thawiwong road until it ends. I continue along the coast line and I am happy that there is a walkway this time, but after a couple of kilometres this disappears, there are some excellent vantage points from this extremity of Patong beach. The path thereafter takes a gradual upward gradient and the roadside view becomes dense shrubbery and trees with the odd shack nestling within. To my right side are the hills covered in lush green forest. I am wearing loose clothing, brown cotton pants that are airy, in the traditional pyjama style with strings that tie around the waist (bought during the ambush at Banteay Kdie), sandals (a bit silly to be wearing for such walks), a cotton shirt and my wide brimmed hat. My back pack holds several bottles of water and a bottle of sunscreen.

The road takes on the familiar winding I was acquainted with the year before when I did the Patong walk. The road snakes around the hills and mountains and I steadily stride the steep uphill sections of the road only to plateau and then descend steeply down. The downward descent is often more strenuous than the uphill climb, as you are working to resist your own downward momentum. The plateaus are short lived and only ever give way to an even steeper climb. The endless passing of cement trucks is indicative of the great change and development of the various coastal towns of Phuket, these trucks are also unnerving as they trundle downhill often straddling both lanes. Walking along these roads is not the safest thing one can do, but I enjoy the walking, the solitude and the surroundings, as well as the unknown at the end of it.

I eventually meet the mother of all descents but instinctively know that it isn’t going to be the last. I move steadily forward with purpose and scan the surroundings of which are scant only for shrubs, trees and rocky faces tamed by sheets of mesh wire to prevent rock slide. All I hear is the sound of my own footsteps punctuated by the sound of a passing cement truck and one or two motorbikes.

Having practically tiptoed down the hill steadily and for what seemed an age, I am now on a plateau again and take the opportunity to rehydrate. There is a long winding stretch of road ahead and I expect more upward climbs, confirmed later by a monster upward climb and still no signs for Kamala beach.

Eventually I reach Kamala after what proves to be a more arduous journey than the Kata to Patong journey and find myself approaching a town that is very local in appearance, with shops set back far off the road to each side. At first glance it reminds me of the kind of town that one sees in the spaghetti western films, just a trifle more modern, and as I make my way into the town along the main coastal road that cuts through it, the sun is on my back and casts my shadow on the pavement ahead of me, the lone silhouette of a man with a wide brimmed hat and baggie trousers, it is Grasshopper coming into town.

The light is beginning to take on a twilight quality as the sun becomes enveloped in cloud. Kamala is a serene town, small with locals going about their business, clusters of shops along the road, a tourist bar or two and some restaurants. Many local residences are also obvious here. I see one or two tourists but Kamala is much quieter than Kata town or Karon. There is however, a huge hotel complex on the beachfront ideal for those seeking a beach holiday but this is well hidden from the main road and easily bypassed.

After spending some time on the beach, to recharge my batteries, I walk along it until the end, passing gangs of local teens playing football on the beach. I figure that I will end up back at the entrance to the town.  I decide on a tuk tuk back into Patong and enjoy a meal and a drink on the beach as night falls and things begin to pickup as tourists dressed for a night on the town begin to emerge. At the beachside the sea is hypnotic, as the waves appear in random strips of rolling white, emerging from the sapphire blue and breaking on the darkened sandy shore. I decide on a walk through Bangla road before getting a tuk tuk back to Kata, and find that it is as busy as I remember it to be but even at this time, around 9 p.m. but it still has a way to go.

On the way back from Patong I am reminded why I actually avoid using tuk tuk’s in Phuket. The tuk tuk drivers basically drive like madmen in what amounts to a hair dryer on wheels. The object seems to be to offload passengers as quickly as possible so that they can go after the next fare, only they nearly kill you in transit. The tuk tuk I am sat in is taking the winding mountain roads, which are now in complete darkness, at speed. More than once the driver rapidly gained on other traffic as we approached tight bends with the intention of overtaking, all the while I am saying in my head ‘no…please…don’t overtake on a fucking beeeeeeend!’

He does this several times, an action that to me is tantamount to having a death wish. He then hits the long stretch of coastal road along Karon at full throttle and I am thinking that he has some sort of hybrid tuk tuk, souped up and turbo charged, because he is now overtaking 4×4 jeeps like a man possessed. A bizarre flashback of a film I had seen years ago pops into my head, Death Race 2000, and a character played by Sylvester Stallone called Jo Viturbo. I imagine the tuk tuk being one of the race cars bombing it through the town with a running commentary ‘and there he goes, Jo Viturbo, loved by thousands, hated by millions’. The thought certainly reduced the heart rate and made me laugh inside.
Thailand definitely does things to you.

In the next and final part…modes of transport in phuket…local curiosities…