Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sailing, Scooters, and Street Food in Phuket, Thailand

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Ska and water just seem to go together.

As an antidote to the high-mileage Germany trip, we planned our vacation in Thailand to be low stress, staying in one place, Phuket, with no particular agenda.

That is, no agenda other than to check out the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta sailing scene. At one time, when we first found out we were moving to the UAE, we thought it would be fun to charter a boat, get some of our USA crew to fly in and sail in the regatta. As time went on, and we did a little research, we had second thoughts. So often, what seems like a good idea when you are talking over drinks with friends seems like not such a good idea when it comes to the follow though.

Race headquarters was always quiet when we wandered through.
Race headquarters

In short, we found that the choice of racing boats available to charter was slim, and the week of sailing would be very expensive – Mark estimates about $20,000 USD when you add up hotels, food and drinks, and everything. So instead, we decided to time our Thailand vacation to coincide with the regatta so we could check it out, thinking that we might possibly end up racing if we got an offer.

Five days of racing! Six parties! That’s what some of the promotional materials said. According to the official web page, “The Phuket King's Cup Regatta is Asia's biggest and most popular regatta. Inaugurated in 1987 to celebrate the 60th birthday of His Majesty the King of Thailand, the event has been held every year since during the first week of December.”

The King and his OK Dinghy circa 1967

The royal family are long-time sailors. I read a story about a regatta in 1967, in which the King and his daughter sailed in the single-handed OK dinghy fleet. In the final race the Princess, who was behind in points for the regatta, spotted a shift and tacked, crossing ahead of the fleet. Overcoming challenging 20-knot conditions for a petite 16-year-old, she won the race and thus tied for first place with the then 40-year-old King.

“When a father and daughter finish equal first in an international yachting competition, it is history. But, when the equal winners are a King and his daughter, the Princess, it is immortal. That day, 16 December, thirty-seven years ago, has now been enshrined as Thailand's National Sports Day, in honour of the occasion.”

The people we talked to in Thailand love their King. I read a bit of history, and they have an interesting political story. Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that has never been colonized, thanks to a series of strong and politically astute rulers who were able to maintain the country’s autonomy during four centuries of European conquest. In 1932, a bloodless coup ended the absolute monarchy and the country became a constitutional monarchy, with a Prime Minister as the head of government and the King as head of state.

Despite the fact that Thailand provided “assistance” to Japan during WWII, it emerged as a US ally afterwards. Thailand went through years of political instability during the Cold War, as did many developing nations. They have had 17 constitutions since the first one in 1932. Recent decades have seen political upheaval as the country has struggled to establish its democratic process.

Today, Thailand is a newly industrialized country. We saw two large production facilities with names that we recognized as we passed through Phuket Town: Rolly Tasker Sailmakers, and Amway.
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Celebrating the King's birthday
Thai people wore yellow shirts in honor of the King’s birthday on December 5th. Aura, our concierge at the hotel, told us about the Thai colors of the day. The King’s color is yellow because he was born on Monday. We watched a news program on television showing the King greeting thousands of birthday well-wishers in Bangkok. At age 85, the King looked very frail. We wonder how much longer Thailand’s Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces, Upholder of the Buddhist religion, and Defender of all Faiths will be able to serve his people.

Sawasdee Village main pool and bar
Sawasdee Village pool
Our hotel was the Sawasdee Village, which Mark found online. Sawasdee is the word that is often said when making the traditional Thai greeting, or wai, with folded hands and bowed head.

The hotel really is a little village, very quiet and relaxing compared to out in the streets. There are two areas, the Sawadsee and the more upscale Baray Villas.

Initially, we had a room in Sawasdee, small but charming, with a large bed covered with lacy mosquito netting. Outside each room is a tiny outdoor seating area with a table and benches, next to a little stream with koi fish swimming in it. There is also a nice pool with waterfalls and a swim up bar.
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Baray Villa bedroom with foot spas

Curious, we asked to see the Baray Villas. Aura graciously showed us into one of the units, and we were overwhelmed.

Two spacious stories, a private jacuzzi,  and a deck that opens into the Baray Villas pool. Upstairs, a spacious bedroom twice as big as our Sawasdee room, including a sofa with his and hers foot spas.  “Maybe for your last night here?” Aura suggested.
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Private deck and pool access

“Only one night?” I said. “That’s not enough!”

Mark and I agreed – there was no comparison between our nice but small Sawasdee room and the Baray. We were there to relax. We arranged to move to the Baray for our last two nights.

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"Try to relax!"

The Sawasdee Village does have a lot of amenities, including beautiful fountains and floral decorations. My favorite thing was the two hanging chairs that looked like bird cages, strewn with pillows and just inviting you to flop down and relax with a beverage. The great thing was, we could, since we knew that we would be there all week. There was no hurry to go anywhere.

Where are all the sailors?
Where is everybody?

Finally, in the late afternoon on Saturday we walked the few minutes down to the Kata Beach Resort and Spa, regatta headquarters. We strolled the beach to the end of the little bay where we found a sign that said “Regatta Meeting Point.” This is where the sailors would line up – or “cue” – to catch a ride on a longtail boat to their moorings.

This was the racers' hangout, and the few sailors we talked to, we met here at the Ska Bar.
Ska Bar has a great view

Up a few steps perched on the rocks above was a place called Ska Bar. The real racing didn’t start until Monday, but still we thought we might meet somebody who was there for the regatta, and the Ska Bar looked like exactly the kind of place that sailors would gravitate to, with its Bob Marley reggae. So we ordered a couple of Tiger beers.

Before long, a couple of guys showed up who looked like sailors. Sure enough, they were sailing on a Beneteau from Sunsail Charters. This was their first King’s Cup Regatta – they race back home in Russia. We talked a little bit, and they left.

“Back in the day,” Mark said, “I’d have to report that. Contact with a Russian.”

Longtail boats
Longtail boats have motors on super long shafts

Being from the West Coast of the USA, Mark and I are used to sailing in big regattas. We were already starting to get the feeling that this part of the world is different. I knew from my research that there would be large dinghy fleets, including windsurfers, while the keel boat fleets were smaller.

Yet, from what I am reading, keelboat sailing and racing is building in this part of the world.

We were interested in seeing how the regatta unfolded but, in truth, we basically lost interest in finding a boat to race on. We were there to relax and soak up the local color, and since we are getting in plenty of sailing in Abu Dhabi these days, we were OK with not racing in Phuket. And, it has occurred to me, we probably would have been in a crowd that doesn't speak much English, if any. All that would be fine, if we knew the boat and crew. We are enjoying sailing with the Italians, and listening to them.

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Let's roll!

So, if no sailing, then what? Motor scooter, that’s what! It was as easy as walking across the street to one of the many little shops that have a few scooters for rent, handing over a passport for security, and paying 300 baht, or about $10, per day for a scooter. Which, by the way, is less than an average taxi or tuk-tuk fare. At that price, we could get one for each of us.

Kai motorcycle with Brian
My son Brian and daughter Kailyn, 6

I am adventurous, but I’m not a motorized biker. I leave that to son Brian and daughter Nicole. And soon, as I have recently seen on Facebook, my granddaughter Kailyn! Oh, boy.

One of these days I will drive a motorbike but this trip was not the time to try it. For one thing, the traffic moves on the left, not the right, side of the road. Usually. I was happy to hang onto the back of the bike behind Mark. He’s an experienced motorcycle rider, and I trust him. At least most of the time. I only had to point out a few times that he was driving on the wrong side of the road.

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This baby saw me taking her picture

As we rode around I was amazed to see scooters with small children being carried by their mothers, no helmets, entire families on one scooter, a pregnant expat woman with no helmet zooming up the winding road on the south end of the island, girls in Phuket Town dressed up for work sitting side-saddle daintily holding their purses. They all looked so un-terrified, not needing to hold on.

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The first thing we did was head north through Karon Beach to Patong Beach. On the flight over, we ran into my friend Jenn on the plane. She and her husband were going to Phuket for the 4-day National Day weekend, and they were staying at the Holiday Inn in Patong. Jenn is a 20-something girl from North Carolina, and she said, in her cute accent, that they were staying in Patong because “They say that’s where all the action is!”

Bang-La Road, Patong Beach
Bang-La Road in Patong Beach

Patong is bigger than Kata or Karon, but it’s organized the same way, with a grid of main roads parallel to the beach connected by side roads and walkable alleys lined with little shops. We were lured onto a colorful street, so we parked the bike and walked. Before long we realized that we were in the heart of the “she-boy” nightclub district. It was only lunchtime, so none of them were open.

I don't know what this little guy is, but I hope he's well cared for.
I felt a bit creepy doing this
We stopped in front of the Tiger club, and before I knew it a guy was in my face, shoving a little furry creature into my hands wanting to take my picture! Against my better judgment, I handed him my camera and he began snapping photos until I grabbed my camera back. He wanted 100 baht, about $3 USD. I handed it over, while Mark said “Don’t do that again!” I won’t, I won’t. It happened so fast! I hope the little guy isn't endangered, and is well cared for.

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Karon View Point looking north to Patong

After a Thai Taco lunch, we decided we’d had enough of Patong Beach and sped back through Karon and Kata, up a beautiful winding two-lane road lined with lush tropical forest to the Kata Noi Viewpoint, where we could see the Kings Cup racing. We thought it looked like very light wind, and we were right. Winds remained light all week.

Bob Marley seems to have achieved the status of a deity here.
Bob Marley lives on in our hearts

We stopped at a restaurant/bar perched on the hillside overlooking the Andaman Sea and Kata Bay. We didn’t know it at the time, but the After Beach Bar is a bit of a legend. As is Bob Marley – the people in Phuket seem to love him. I highly recommend the grilled squid.We would have stayed for the sunset, but we didn’t want to drive the motorbike in the dark.

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Umbrellas for hire

One morning we rented a couple of beach chairs under an umbrella on Kata Beach. The beach is lined with hundreds and hundred of these chairs for hire. A beach bar is always nearby, as well as little beach restaurants that serve satay, pizza, fresh fruit, whatever.

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People really let it all hang out on the beach

Very few women wear one-piece bathing suits, no matter what their age or physique. A long time ago I read something that Cindy Crawford said to the effect of, “If you want to wear a bikini, wear one. You are what you are.” Apparently a lot of other people think the same way! I was actually glad that I took the leap this year and started wearing bikinis again, for the first time since I was in my 30’s. I would have felt overdressed in a one-piece.

The beach sunsets were gorgeous.

One of our favorite things to do on the motorbike was cruise along Pak Bang Road, where a festival was set up for the King’s birthday. Vendor booths sold t-shirts and souvenirs, including little cared soaps in hand painted boxes that caught my eye. But what really amazed both Mark and me was amount and variety of street food. Fried seafood and spring rolls, chicken and shrimp satay, barbecued chicken, pork loin and pork ribs, and the most beautiful fruit. Intricately carved pineapples, beautiful pink dragon fruit, mangoes and papayas … I could go on and on. And many things that we weren’t sure quite what they were.

This Auto Bar was right around the corner from our hotel.
Mark said he's never seen a place with this many bars

And the bars! I don’t know what the liquor laws are in Thailand, if any, but it seemed that every food cart, every shop, in fact every concession had at least a few bottles, both beer and hard liquor. You could buy a drink and take it shopping with you. Our two favorites were the Auto Bar, a refitted VW van right around the corner from our hotel, and the Black Canyon Coffee Company, which had an Elvis impersonator that Mark thought was great. He insisted I pose with Elvis.

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Don't drink this! It's not whiskey!

Gasoline for motorbikes is sold by the bottle – in whiskey bottles that make it look alarmingly similar to booze. Little carts are set up in front of clothing and souvenir shops, motorbike service shops, or outside of town on a cart along the roadside – self serve, self pay.

Probably the most memorable things we did was the elephant trek. We decided to do this instead of taking a tour boat to one of the offshore islands for lunch and snorkeling. While I sort of couldn’t believe that we weren’t even getting out on a boat, our beautiful accommodations at the Baray Villas convinced us that we would be happier keeping to Plan A, which was to stay in one place. The trek was Mark’s idea as an alternative.

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According to their website, Kok Chang Safari is
rated best by Lonely Planet

We read some reviews of elephant trekking on TripAdvisor. Of course, they were mixed. Some people said don’t do it, it’s cruel to the animals. Others said the animals were well cared for, and it was a wonderful experience. We picked Kok Chang Safari.

A long time ago, I found a book in the little Richmond Yacht Club book sharing shelf called Travels on My Elephant by Mark Shand. It’s by a British traveler who I much later found out happens to be the brother of Camilla, wife of Prince Charles. Shand decided to buy an elephant, ride it across India, and sell it at the elephant market. I kept the book on board Wildcard for several months, but didn’t get far into it. When I was packing to move to the UAE, I threw it into the shipment, on a whim. When it arrived here, I read it.

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A mahout is a special kind of person.

That book taught me a lot about elephants, and I have to say it made my experience so much richer. After reading it, I understood that elephants are mischievous and playful, and that they need to have a job, be told what to do, and sometimes be disciplined. The person who rides the elephant is a mahout, and it’s a lifetime vocation beginning in childhood. They learn how to communicate with and understand the elephants.

We chose the longest trek, 50 minutes for 1000 bht, which would take us through jungle and to a viewpoint where we could see the Andaman Sea. Our mahout spoke little English, as far as we could tell. He communicated with the elephant with grunts and one syllable words, but also with us. Sometimes he let the elephant stop and graze, other times he urged her on. How old is she, I asked? 55 years. Just like me! Once I knew she was a female my age, I felt a kinship with her.
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It was muddy and slippery going downhill after a big rainstorm.

At one point, our mahout jumped off of the elephant's head, where he rode, and told me to slide forward onto her neck. He took my camera and handed me a hibiscus flower. I had read that this is a special treat for guests, but it’s also good for the elephant because it give their back a rest. I rode the rest of the way on the neck while the mahout walked, taking photos of Mark and me.

“You’re taking a lot of photos,” Mark said.
“Big tip for me!” he replied.

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To my untrained eye, the elephants appeared healthy and content. When our trek was over, our elephant got a bath, which I know they love, and then she went to the kraal, or corral, where she began happily snacking. I think she had a good time with us.

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Nice suit! Now for some shoes.

Some of our final hours were spent at the tailor’s. Honestly, I suspect that from the beginning, this was the Mark’s purpose for going to Thailand. He needed new clothes! Mark has a eye and a touch for nice fabric, and he is picky. He tried out two tailor shops in Phuket, a small one across the street from our hotel where he had one pair of pants made, and a larger one near the Kata Beach Resort, Jaspal Tailors, who have shops in all the cities in Phuket. Jaspal was where he went hog wild.

Two coats, three pairs of pants, two shirts … somebody must have been drinking. We liked the salesman, who was very attentive. We had two fittings and a final try-on, and they delivered the lot to our hotel.

But … do you notice anything in the photo? Oh, those feet.

Not only did Mark order clothing, he also got a recommendation from the tailor for a place to get shoes custom-made. He had ordered two pairs.

They drew an outline of Mark's foot in June's book.
June promised the shoes will fit.

So on the last afternoon, Mark said we needed to go to the leather place in Karon Beach. When we got there, the little lady who minds the shop said there was a problem. Mark turned to me and said, “I think she said the factory burned down last night!” Never mind, she was calling the shop’s owner to come and explain. Meanwhile, would we care for a beer, wine or perhaps liquor from the shop’s bar?

Mark got a cold beer, I got a pretty decent glass of red wine, and before long a lady zipped up on a motorbike. “I’m so glad you come!” she said. The shoes weren’t ready because she decided that her shoemaker didn’t have the skill to make the style Mark wants, so she found someone who could.

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We'll be right back!
“I ship them,” June said. But where? Shipping to UAE is expensive. We finally negotiated to have her ship them to my daughter’s house in California, much to her relief. Then, the issue of payment. Let’s just say we put our trust in June, and she and Mark zipped off on her motorbike to the ATM. When they returned, the other lady was showing me some of their special stingray leather purses, and I saw one I liked and I convinced Mark that I should have it.

It’s a beautiful purse, although I have to admit, the thought of it kept me awake all night. Buyer’s remorse is a bitch!

Our hotel was a 5-star spa, and massage places were everywhere. You might be wondering: did we get a massage or spa treatment? No. Mark is extremely ticklish and hates anything like that, and I am not a big fan of them either. That's just the way we are. But I did get my toes painted by a cute girl named Ping Pong.

Mark and I are still learning how to travel together. He likes the cities and the shopping more than I do; I prefer more physical activities and seeing nature. But we both like exploring new places and cultures, and our eating and drinking styles match. Maybe that’s what’s most important.

Here are some street scenes and other random shots.

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This was a long one … thanks for reading!


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Steve Taylor said...

Really awesome pics of phuket, great photography.