Venturing Further Afield

With just three days to go we wake to overcast skies and decide that this is the day we can venture out to see some sights. Outside the hotel we negotiate a price with the taxi driver who spends his time there and set off down the busy road parallel to Lamai Beach, first to see the Grandma and Grandad rocks. After a slow ride through the traffic the driver makes an abrupt turn left down a narrow, bumpy lane, winds between some buildings and comes to a halt in a car park behind a welter of assorted stalls and shops-their number somewhat out of proportion with the numbers of sight-seers around.

Our driver indicates the way we should go-a passageway through a shop piled high with hats and gaudy toys. The character of the beach here is changed from wide sweep of sand to cliffs and prominent rocks-none more prominent than the ‘Grandad’. And it is immediately obvious how the rock acquired its name.

P1000081

We clamber up to see the rocks from different angles then return to the taxi. The driver has brought a companion along for the ride, although we are not sure who she is-his wife, perhaps?

Next we wind up into the interior of Koh Samui to stop at a temple complex and I’m glad I thought to fling a thin sarong into my bag to aid modest dressing for temple visits.

Inside a gilded, glass case adorned with offerings and flowers sits the ‘mummified monk’, a disquieting exhibit, his sightless eyes staring out of his leathery face.

Leaving the main road we drive up through lush plantations of banana trees and orchards of rubber trees, each trunk circled with a band and a small cup for the trees’ sap to drain into. Then it’s on and up again until we reach a rutted track and pull into a parking area bordered by a fence. Behind the fence are elephants, prepared and ready to take tourists for rides through the forest. A stall sells bananas for the punters to feed them and there is a charge to photograph these exploited animals. We know that many elephants that work in this way are ill-treated and we have not come to see them, but to look at the waterfall.

While it is not exactly a raging tumult, the waterfall is impressive enough and surrounded by immense, tall trees. It is not seething with tourists but those that are there are either bathing in the pool or draping themselves in the path of my camera shutter. And I can imagine how different it will be when the rainy season is underway. In comparison to the Grandma and Granddad rocks the number of stalls on the path is restrained, consisting mainly of piled up coconuts and a few souvenirs.

Our driver and his silent companion are [justifiably] not much inclined to act as tour guides, dropping us at each location and waiting for us to return, although our questions are answered and our expressions of appreciation acknowledged.

We return down the track and head towards another beach area. Here is an impressive shrine and another [enormous] glass case containing a vessel and what appears to be another mummified monk-this one even more spooky, peering out at us with sinister stare. The vessel in which he sits is itself surrounded by dozens of model boats.

The beach here is stacked with the hard, white shapes of dead coral, beautiful but a telltale sign of poor sea health. But the area is almost deserted, the shrine showing signs of neglect. Clearly this is not a well-known site.

We have one last site to visit, a temple complex that quickly becomes my favourite The entire venue is snake themed, the temple walls adorned with vibrant scenes rendered in terracotta and best of all, outside, a long staircase leading to the beach is flanked by beautiful cobras, their mouths gaping as they reach the base as if to snatch the unwary person descending.

It’s the end of our whistlestop tour, but we’ve discovered there is much more to Koh Samui than beach life.

Lamai and Food Heaven

P1000011

The road that runs parallel to Lamai Beach passes the front of our hotel and teems with all kinds of traffic, from endless convoys of scooters to chugging, motorised kitchens, their driver negotiating the twists and turns while a bubbling vat of something delicious sizzles away next to them. While the traffic is not fast, it’s difficult to cross over without the help of the security guard.

All we can manage, having limited our daytime sleep to two and a half hours in order to try and adjust to Thailand time is to stroll across to the small bar and restaurant facing the hotel. Here we can sit upstairs in summer clothing on an open balcony and watch the world go by in all its fascinating variety while we sip a Chang beer and enjoy the balmy warmth-a novelty for us, coming from our UK winter.

We peruse the menu. I’m confident that here in Thailand I can find a variety of benign meals to suit my very contrary constitution, which eschews spicy things. And I do. Thai food is choc-a-bloc with stir fried vegetables, delicate rice and noodle dishes and fresh, delicious seafood. So I plump for fat prawns and broccoli with fried rice. In the unaccustomed heat a selection of a few, modestly proportioned dishes is perfect.

It’s all we need for today and having managed to stay up past ten we retire early, hoping to sleep all night. The room is spacious, though gloomy. We are unable to fathom the workings of the coffee machine and will need water and non-dairy milk so a foray into the mini supermarket along the road will be necessary tomorrow.

The day dawns hot [35 degrees], blistering as we make our way to breakfast, which offers every possible need or desire, including, miraculously, soya milk!

And while it’s too hot to do much, other than loll about in the shade, reading, Lamai Beach stretches in a sandy curve fringed with coconut palms, a steady breeze mitigating the searing heat.

The mini-market is a treasure trove for oat milk, beers and water but yields no coffee-making equipment, not so much as a pack of filters. We step across to the coffee bar across the street instead, where air conditioned comfort and some creditable pastries are available.

The evening temperatures are perfect and a short walk across a bridge takes us to an open market square where an abundance of food stalls provides an evening meal, and a lively bar with a music stage provides the entertainment-a competent covers band with a charismatic girl singer. We can sit in the open eating freshly grilled kebabs and sipping from a delicate coconut then enjoy some stomping music. How much better does it get than this?

A Long Journey to the Sun

P1000046

Winter sun. The post-Christmas adverts are full of it, and as the UK drowns once again in a deluge of depressing damp, these old bones itch with a longing for hard, brittle, hot sun to dry them out.

We leave our house at lunchtime, taking one last look at the flood lake that covers the water meadows behind our house and head off to get the airport coach. Health issues preclude early morning starts for me and these days we overnight at an airport hotel; this time it’s the Hilton, being the only hotel with easy access to Heathrow terminal 2. It’s fine except that, as is usual in chain hotels the room is over-hot with no fathomable means to turn down the temperature. After I’ve removed the too-plump duvet from its cover we finally get to sleep.

We’ve decided to get out of our winter sun rut and swap the West Indies for Thailand, having not been for some years. The flight is long to Bangkok and followed by another, domestic flight but perhaps some passengers will have cancelled due to the sudden, rampant appearance of ‘Coronavirus’ that is running riot in China; in truth we’ve vacillated, considered aborting the trip, although since there’s no advice from the foreign office for Thailand, no money would be refunded were we to cancel.

We’re armed with face masks and hand gel for the journey. There’s more than enough time for a coffee and to tug on my flight socks for the 11 hours to come.

Thailand is 7 hours ahead of us so there’s some darkness as we travel forward in time to Bangkok. I am happy enough to while the hours catching up on films I’ve missed, watching three movies in a row, meanwhile there’s a reasonable meal and later a snack.

At last the Thai Airways plane touches down at Bangkok and there is that unfamiliar bombardment of warmth/fumes/humidity as we exit, stretching our legs for the long, long trek through Suvarnabhumi Airport, which must have some of the longest airport walks, endless tubes to get to check-ins, desks, bag-drops, international, domestic, immigration and the rest.

Here we don our masks, stifling in the unaccustomed warmth and join the collected mass of bodies queueing to get our fingerprints scanned, our passports scrutinised and our photos taken. There are ‘health check’ points, though not for us and more than half the fellow-travellers are sporting masks, as are we. The wait is long, hot and airless.

Despite our continued route through on to a domestic flight we must undergo more security before we are allowed into the gate area for the flight to Koh Samui. I’m alarmed when our water is discarded and subsequently discover that no water is available to purchase at the gate. I’m starting to feel thirsty and get the ominous, prickly feeling that precedes cystitis. There is no option except to fill a bottle from the fountain, an unknown. I decide to take the risk. and while it tastes rank it’s better than dehydration.

There is not much more than an hour to Koh Samui and when we arrive we step out into a green, flower-filled oasis, the airport buildings airy, open-sided huts. This is reputedly the ‘world’s most beautiful airport’ and I’m not about to dispute it.

In the taxi to our hotel I gaze out, somewhat stupefied by lack of sleep, though grateful for the air-conditioned cab. By now we’ve been up for 17 hours and have yet to acclimatise to the fierce temperature.

At hotel check-in all I can do is nod wearily and sign things, before we stumble to our room and fall into bed.

We are here…

Our Lives in their Hands

We are all in others’ hands. From before we are born, to being brought up, to getting an education, to driving our cars or stepping on to a bus or train, to earning money, to visiting the GP; in every single area of our lives we depend on others for our safety and wellbeing.

I watched a news report from Syria, in which a sick baby, afflicted with a hole in his heart had to be rescued from his incubator when the hospital treating him was bombed. The young paramedic carried the baby, drip and all. in his arms and held him during the bumpy ambulance ride. The baby gazed calmly up into the medic’s eyes and reached towards his face. After this journey the baby needed to transfer to another ambulance and a swap of personnel. This young child remained calm and trusting as he was passed from one pair of arms to another.

The extent of our dependence on others is never so stark as when we fly, stepping into a vehicle and surrendering ourselves to the mercy of the pilots and crew.

Trust in each other has to be the most important factor in conducting our lives. On an international scale, when we as nations don’t trust other countries, this is where conflicts are likely to arise. To behave in sneaky, underhand behaviour leads to double-dealing and confrontations. How much better to be open, to allow free movement and to share knowledge.

You could live on an island, become self-sufficient, never communicate. What kind of life would that be? Those currently in quarantine from the Coronavirus and others incarcerated on a cruise ship and isolated from the rest of us are finding life dull and difficult-even for two weeks; and this is with the benefits of internet communication. The admirable ‘Abels’, trapped in their cruise ship cabin are passing the time by becoming media stars. Elsewhere there is quarantine blogging from bored internees.

We are off to Thailand. We’ve deliberated long and hard, consulted others, read up [probably too much], prepared, acquired masks and gels. We’ll comply with any checks and instructions, steer clear of crowds, wash our hands. We’ll go to our destination and relax. We’ll be depending on others-and so will everybody else…

A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

Downhill for Wrinklies

            In the photograph, we are both smiling. The image is deceptive. Husband is smiling a deep, broad grin, signifying his abject happiness with the activity we were undertaking. I am doing my utmost, mustering, at best, a grimace that may be mistaken for a smile, given that we were swathed in helmets, dark glasses and various items of protective padding. The snap was taken after I’d hit the rock that projected me over on to the stone-laden, rutted slope but long before we were anywhere near the base of the mountain; hence the grimace.

            The mountain was Mount Doi Suthep, just outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and we were being nursed down a rough, muddy, rock-strewn descent by two enthusiastic, young men. One of them, ‘O’, had the misfortune to be at the back of our group where he’d acquired the herculean task of getting me, the ancient, terrified snail of the group from Point A, the top of the mountain to Point B, the base via the horrifying precipices, ruts and mud that was the trail.

            To the young, Thai mountain bikers we were ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’, titles we were to be addressed by throughout our stay. ‘We must look very old’, I remarked to Husband, although we were charmed by the term, feeling that it was some mark of respect. Within our cycling group of eight we were not only the oldest by far but generations apart from the other three youthful couples, who surged down, leaping their bikes over boulders and soaring over the ruts in an effortless glide.

            ‘Good, Mama!’ encouraged ‘O’ as I negotiated a successful transfer from one rut to another. He must have wondered if we’d be down before nightfall. At times we briefly caught up with the others as they stopped for a water break or to take some photos; then they’d be off before I’d got the lid off my bottle.

            When I think of that day now, I know I would never have undertaken the challenge if I’d known how difficult it would be, and perhaps this is one of life’s lessons-that ignorance is somehow bliss. I can now look upon it as a kind of achievement, though nowhere near the hard won achievement of ‘O’, who got me, ‘Mama’, to the base.

            I must also point out that ‘Route 1’, our chosen way, was the easiest option. Others chose to follow a route across the mountain which involved, at times, cycling a death-defying channel along the summit, the width of a cycle tyre and with sheer drops either side, or a route which involved carrying the bike for some distances and calf-burning ascents.

            At last the trail levelled and changed gradually to gravel track. It led to a beautiful lake fringed with little thatched huts on stilts. We came to a halt, shed our trainers and climbed, wobbly-legged, onto a palm mat around a low table, already decked with bottles of cold water and coke. ‘Which lunch option would we prefer?’

            During the next few days a circle of dark, black and purple bruises appeared around my thigh. Throughout the course of the ensuing three weeks it changed colour, but remained. Vestiges remain today-a bracelet of honour and testament to the accomplishment of mountain biking down Doi Suthep.

Long Live Story Telling

                Here endeth Fiction Month on Anecdotage. If you’ve read and enjoyed the stories, check out ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’[by my alter ego, Jane Deans]-available to download from Amazon[http://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA]. 

; or send an email address on a blog comment to enter the draw for a free download before the end of December.

                Thanks to everyone for your visits, ‘likes’ and comments. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the response. It has given me food for thought. Stories are never going to go out of fashion and can be enjoyed by all, from the very young to the very old.

                Now for the confession. Besides the [very real] conditions of Alice Munro’s success and National Novel Writing Month I did have an ulterior motive for preparing all those stories for November. I was away. In an indulgent, luxurious, hedonistic moment last April I booked a month long trip to Thailand, which is where we have been while ‘Fiction Month’  was enjoying its own heady moment in the sun.

                During the last couple of years I’d become increasingly aware that a large number of friends, acquaintances and family members had been to Thailand, indeed many take repeated trips there. This intrigued me. Why was it such a popular destination? As usual, ‘word-of-mouth’, photos, books and the internet are not enough. I have to see for myself. November, a drab, colourless, draughty month in the UK, seemed a good choice of time, the three destinations we’d chosen would give a fair snapshot of this gem of the East. We would avoid a good deal of the welling Christmas frenzy and the long, dark nights.

                To arrive to Bangkok from the UK in November is to step out from a chiller cabinet into an oven and feels as if a hair dryer is being trained on your face. The first hurdle is to negotiate the winding pen that houses the immigration queue, the second the queue for a taxi, the third the hour long drive into Bangkok centre, where the traffic seems at a constant standstill in the shadow of the concrete, elevation of the sky-train. Despite all of this it is a teeming, colourful, chaotic wonder of a city with beautiful, exotic temples, tall sky towers, crowded night markets, waterways with packed water taxis, a wide, winding river, gaudy tuk-tuks, street stalls selling a fantastic variety of bizarre identifiable and non-identifiable foods-[fried locusts being a popular option], ‘Irish’ pubs, ‘Australian’ pubs, bars with tiny, barely clad girls, bars with less tiny, glamorous, deep voiced ladyboys and a vast range of restaurants selling some of the most delicious meals you could hope to enjoy.

                An evening’s entertainment in this whirlwind of a metropolis need consist only of sitting in a bar and watching the street activity, a ceaseless, moving drama playing out each and every night until late and followed in the morning by an almost eyrie calm, the streets having been miraculously cleaned and tidied.

                We stayed five nights, by which time Husband had developed a persistent cough as a result of the poor air quality. We moved on to destination two…