Sunday, August 31, 2014

Phetchabun, Middle Earth in Rainy August

Fresh Veggies
A bag of Chinese cabbage plucked fresh from the hills of Phu Tub Berk cost 80 Baht per bag. And per bag, there were about 15 of those, inclusive of snails, slugs and many other unidentified slimy crawlies as they ventured out on my kitchen top. We go to the markets in Bangkok to buy one for our home cooking, it cost 30 Baht. Compared to what was freshly harvested which was only 5.3 Baht thereabouts. 25 Baht, that's how much going into transporting fresh produce from their source to our nearest market for our convenience, the real cost is one sixth the selling price.

Nice Little Place
It was the weekend before Thai Mother's Day. We decided at the last moment to go for a road trip. It was 400km from the city to the area of Khao Kho and further onto Phu Tub Berk, the province of Phetchabun. Not much accommodations could be found on Agoda. The hoteliers there may still be trying to figure out what is GPS and what is GPRS, so any attempt to locate them will be futile using the IT avenue. We had to source from local Thai forums, spot the numbers left by reviewers and called them guesthouses up. The guesthouses on the highlands operated in a more or less backwards fashion compared to what you would find in well established spots of Thailand. In addition, don't expect grand amenities and large compounds.

Accommodation on Phu Tub Berk
Our lodge on Phu Tub Berk had no air conditioner. The larger establishments had found no interest in the area yet. Most of the operations remained small, with accommodation simple and containing only between 5 to 10 units each. However, the view of the surrounding was spectacular, especially those located high on the peaks. And high, it was about 1400m above sea level on Phu Tub Berk. Naturally, it was cooling. Averagely, temperature drops at a rate of 0.65 degree Celsius per 100m, so this central highland plain at Phetchabun not too far from Bangkok was a good venue to escape the heat. In the late afternoon, the rain clouds enveloped the rolling hills, it was about 22. And in the early morning, it was 18 when we were there.

Our first destination was Khao Kho from Bangkok. Took Asia Highway 1, turned off north onto 21 after Saraburi towards and pass Chai Badan. After a great long distance towards and just passed Phetchabun on the same route, left on 2258 and there was where the driving fun uphill began. A distance later, right onto 2196 and that was the main scenic route into Khao Kho. It was a picturesque area of rolling hills that were lush and vibrantly green. The shadows crept across the terrain between moments of sun and shade. The breeze was humid and cool turning my hot tea cold in no time. There was no throng of tourist from Bangkok, just a scatter. It was not peak season yet, that was supposed to be set in year end winter. And so the camping grounds were deserted, only a small number of bright yellow and blue tents assembled. Home stays and accommodations were clustered together where the best hilltops were. Most offered an open roof where visitors could ascend to take in the early morning seascape of clouds. I did not.

A new Camping Ground

Where the lone Guard Stayed
I went adventuring to stumble onto a new camping ground high on another peak far away from the better known viewpoints when the sun rose. The elderly guard was more happy to see company from his many nights of lone sentry and his sleep over in a tent set up among construction materials. He said he was not sure what the place was called, and that the owners were striving to have it completed by the end of the year. It will be one of the best spots I could ascertain. From between where the two contemporary wooden housing set like futuristic space docks lined to the horizon, the morning fog was thick like a disorderly yet majestic blanket after a night of slumber. Dark crest of a hundred mountains peaked from the white in layers far into the distance. He chatted much with us and told of the sunset that few knew, where the landscape will be painted crimson with shadows of the mountain lords in vision. Well, I never got to see that, next time when I return I will. We bid him farewell after I had loaded my memory card with countless shots. Another car came panting up the steep narrow road, the lone guard happily greeted the next explorer.

The Sense on Khao Kho

Breakfast with a View
I did not want to have the complementary cheap sausage and eggs breakfast back at our resort. We headed back into the main Khao Kho region to a renowned resort called The Sense and had breakfast with a view. That’s when I had to pay for equally cheap sausage and eggs breakfast. Never mind the quality, I just wanted to make my tummy stop growling. The sight was well worth it. We sat outdoors overlooking the valley, I spent more time fiddling with my camera then putting food in my mouth. The Sense was one of the most expensive and up market resorts on Khao Kho and I saw the reason why. The setting was magnificent. In cable TV we have pay per view, The Sense was pay for view.

The Temple
Situated some distance below where the upcoming camping ground was, the crowds were building up at Wat Phra That Pha Kaew. She shared the same view of the mist filled valleys from a lower height. It is very typical of Thais on their holidays to go pray at any temples they spot along the way and so that temple was like a magnet drawing crowds into her compound. Thais prayed there for good luck, lottery, good health and wife not to discover their gigs. I should have been there earlier, I was there at 10. By then, all her narrow roads were plugged with cars parked inconsiderately and we had to engage aggressive challenge mode with oncoming traffic making their way downhill. Eventually with car parked, it was nice to stroll in the cold morning air and at many occasions be shrouded in mist. Temples in Thailand do have themes, and for Wat Phra That Pha Kaew it was balls.

A Ball from Heaven
Lord Buddha there has balls, many in fact. He fancied shiny crystal balls and pilgrims can sponsor a ball for the construction process to a tune of a few thousand Baht. There were also large balls embedded on the flooring that looked like Thor was having a game of marbles with Buddha and gave it a flick too much. The ordeal out of the temple was something as we tried to leave. Some pricks parked inconsiderately blocked my car and I had to make a hundred turns to get out. Then again the challenge mode against oncoming traffic on the already narrow roads made worst by cars parked alongside. My entire merit making beforehand was gradually washed away by my thunderous curses which lasted a good half an hour.

Moai @ Khao Kho
Back to our resort and a good bath, we navigated north towards Phu Tub Berk after checkout. Along the way, we stumbled onto Moai Khao Kho featuring one of those Easter Island statues that said "dumb dumb" in Night of the Museum. It was a cafe serving simple meals and coffee at inflated prices. These Moai things are sprouting up all over Thailand far out from Bangkok where natural attractions are. I had spotted one similar cafe back when I was at Suan Peung. I was told there are a few more across the Kingdom. Crowd magnets and a good pit stop on long journeys they are indeed.

It was a nice Drive
After paying for pricey beverages, we looked for 2331 via GPS and found our way there. 2331 was a steep incline on snaky entrails like roads where my car guzzled petrol. I swear I could hear her 2.4 gulping thirstily with disregards to expense. More curses followed diminishing my recent good karma at the temple as I struggled to overtake the so many slow moving heavy vehicles climbing up the narrow mountain road. At times I was the cause of traffic as I drove slow to take in the view. I could feel the aura of curses regarding me resembling monitor lizard emitting from the cars that overtook me.

Just Vibrant
The vista, it was so full of foliage compared to the last time I was there in 2009. Back then, I came smacked in the middle of winter. It was cold dry and dusty, the landscape was brown and deprived of moisture. Only brown sandstorm stirred by the vehicle upfront I remembered, only the barren mountains. This trip, it was different. It drizzled too many when the dark clouds met the pavement. My fog lights were on casting yellow as we maneuvered within the misty magical landscape. The outside temperature, my dashboard read, rapidly dropped to a low 22. And when we emerged out from the dark clouds as we climbed, there was gentle sunshine and the clear blue skies that painted the vegetation in tones of luminescence green. It was such a pleasant drive as we headed in and out of the clouds hovering at different heights in the landscape.

And the Skies Opened, in the Middle
At times we stopped at the hill tribe markets, on many others we parked on muddy pits to enjoy coffee at the shed perched on viewpoints so awesome. Cafes and lodging of all sorts had sprung up so many compared to the region's desolated past. In fact on this middle earth trip, I had too much coffee and many more tea, it kept me sleepless in our lodge listening to the howl of the midnight gale. The winds were in full force, the clouds were pushed up the cabbage farms marinating them in full moisture. The results of which were bright green leafy vegetable so fresh when the sun rose while the farmers did their picking. The morning spectacle was astonishing as the sun hung low. Below was a breathtaking canvas of striking white clouds so inviting like a vast sea of cotton yield, and above the stark gloom of the dark rain clouds. The sky opened in the middle.

Just Brilliant
Trips to the central highlands I reckon, is for nature oriented lovers. The nature reserve offered hiking to clandestine spots, and a number of waterfalls along the driving route were good convenient stops for Som Tam meals. They suck, they really do and they went on tourist price tags, they were just for filling my hunger. There were one or two good eateries, an interesting one was Chinese on Phu Tub Berk. No pubs, no nightclubs no karaoke up there. To BYO and enjoy wine out the decks in the cold dark nights. There was a Seven Eleven but only on Khao Kho I found. There was no Starbucks, but I found a good too many local cafes. You most likely get an overdose like I did if you visit thus. There was no petrol station in the mountains, I had to fill from an ancient petrol pump where petrol was first drawn up a glass measuring cylinder. It was generally more costly too at 50 Baht per liter. When to go will never be in April summer. I had thought only December was good, like most Thais making their journey north to experience what they call extreme cold of winter. But it will be just barren dry land unlike in the rainy season August I went. It was like an attractive Windows screensaver, except when the wind blew the grass swayed making waves in unison, the cloud shadows creeping the vibrant fields.

Full set of photos are at

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mae Rim in the Off Peak

Look, No People
Previously in the winter peak of 2013, I had witnessed Mon Cham turned Mon Jam. And, in my travels, I had always only coincided my plans to match with the seasons, such as visiting northern highlands during the winter and the southern islands during the summer. These plans to get the best out of my money's worth. On me recent business trip up north, we decide to detour up the hilly terrain of Mae Rim during our spare time. It offered me a chance to witness how these normally packed attractions were like in off peak.

Rain Clouds Came
Climate wise, the highlands of Mae Rim was surprisingly cooling and acceptable. Humidity levels was high compared to winter yes. Strawberries for the picking were not in season and sights of makeshift stalls left in disarray waited for the coming November. Gone were the hordes of stampeding visitors, like creatures in all colors of the desert gathered on the last watering hole. It was serene, it was peaceful. We had our afternoon tea by the edge of the mountain, the sun shined as white clouds drifted low above our straw capped shack. Only our chats, and the annoying toddler next to ours streaking his cry across the otherwise tranquil canvas of nature.

And so it Rained
The rain clouds crept up the slopes onto the peaks. Mon Cham was shrouded in fog, the temperatures dropped to a cool 20 Celsius or so. Then it drizzled as we chitchatted in the gentle melody of splashing afternoon raindrops. My colleague told, sometimes the best the northern highlands can offer is not necessary in the coldest month of December. Come north, after the rain, before the cold. It won't be chilly, but hot it will not be. There's a window there for a pleasantly cool expedition without the swarms.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sui Sian Chinese Restaurant at Landmark - One Pig Rule

This is Singular
I had been yearning for good Dim Sum in Thailand. And this is not like in Hong Kong, Singapore or Malaysia where authentic Chinese tasting Dim Sum are in abundance. Most Dim Sum in Thailand had been "customized" for the local taste, and "degraded" to fit the local budget. I had been listening to radio every morning commuting in traffic to work, 2 hours in notorious Bangkok jams. And over the air, repeatedly for so many mornings, the advertisement by Landmark for their Dim Sum buffet with unlimited servings of Peking Ducks and Suckling Pig. Peking Ducks, Suckling Pig, Dim Sum... listening to them almost every day. Put my cravings for good Chinese food into the equation and the result was me arriving one Sunday morning, hypnotized by the drone of adverts and hungry on the 10th floor of Landmark where Sui Sian was. Sui Sain, the water goddess, I wanted to see if she could make a hungry man happy. She did, she really did.

So Awesome
Prawn dumplings, were full bodied with real prawns. The small pool of broth which the steamed delicacies soaked in were rich in flavor. Every chomp of them bite sized steaming wraps housed in bamboo baskets were authentically Chinese in taste. I was home with every bite, that was the way it should be, Dim Sum as I knew it. The crisp Peking Duck skins surgically removed by skilled chef hands were wrap in thin paper like Chinese pancakes right at the counter and served fresh. Together within and complimenting in taste, a slice of spring onion stalk, a stick of cooling cucumber and a dash of sweet black bean sauce. The thin layer of duck fats oozed as I bit into the crafted savory and it was an explosion of ecstasy. I had not had Peking Duck for ages, a good Peking Duck that was. Next came another star of the feast which was a full tray of Suckling Pig roasted to perfection. A good thin layer of pig fats and some lean meat beneath a layer of crispy skin well seasoned with Chinese flavors. I took a piece of accompanying white Mun Tou, had a dash of sweet black bean sauce spread on it, had a single square piece of Sucking Pig placed atop. It was beyond excellence. Unfortunately, the fun stopped there, one single piece of Suckling Pig. Sooner than expected, the pig was no more leaving only an empty plate, all us patrons had our share of indulgence.

China have their single child rule and Landmark have their single pig rule. I eagerly waited for the next full plate of Suckling Pig to be whisked out from the kitchen but it never came. Why? Because they only had one Suckling Pig. So on with the other Dim Sums I indulged and then visited the counter again some more. But no pig, because they had only one pig. Tables that filled later visited the counter and still there was no pig, because they had only one pig. In my two hours there since my first taste of Suckling Pig, I accumulated mileage re-visiting the counter that could had me exchange for a domestic flight but still no pig, because they had only one pig. And then I asked one of the staffs, I want to eat pig, and she said pig was coming. It never came, they had only one pig. Pity those who came later in the buffet session at Sui Sian, because the goddess only blessed the restaurant with one pig and it was gone. No more pigs were descending from heaven because Landmark hotel had only ONE SINGULAR PIG. Landmark... . . maybe they have their unspoken One Pig Rule. One pig, gone, no more pig. That was the one singular disappointing pig, I mean bit, of my lunch at Sui Sian.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Bloc of Recycled Containers

Fancy Place
Along Ratchapruk spots a trendy hub. It's made up of recycled containers housing cafes and a pub. Good to go in the evening as the containers will be less of a solar oven, and you can have hip dessert, coffee or tea alfresco on top of them boxes. The Bloc, a poser focal point, people go there to be seen. Heaps of young girls frolic amongst the containers taking selfies. There was a restaurant, I may try the next time. Yet again, Bangkok never fails to amaze. There is always something good around the corner for me.

Dessert Galore

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Dog that Swam Back to Koh Lipe

The dog that Swam Back
Everywhere we went strolling, there was always a dog nearby. And there was a big bunch out the newly opened Seven Eleven enjoying the cool breeze as them doors opened and closed. Dogs on Koh Lipe seemed the luckiest mammal. Most had no owners and venture freely anywhere and everywhere on this speck of paradise. People loved them, people enjoyed watching them. These seaworthy dogs played along the shores and sometimes headed out into the sea to beat the heat. They were all friendlies, though we were told by the hotel staff to be weary of some in the more obscure parts of the island where the dogs were not used to much human contacts. In Idyllic resort housed a resident dog. It was there every day. Weather intentionally or not, I wished it there to stay. The dog had a legend. A loner not accepted by the other packs that roamed the island, it often got into fights. Thus it was once transported and let loose on Koh Adang for its own safety. Smart dog appeared in Idyllic the next day, it swam across the ocean back to where it wanted to be. Idyllic let it be from then on, and hopefully for a long long time to come.

After a Swim

Play the Water
Basking and Smiling
Sunrise Beach
North of Sunrise Beach
In front of Idyllic
Long Tail Boat
Artificial Sunset

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

My Memorable Boat Ride, Koh Lipe Low Season

Overcrowded But it did not Matter
So different, so very much different in this low season compared to 2 years ago. The schedules of boats crossing over to Koh Lipe was limited to only one trip a day, 11:30 am. So was the return trip back, started at an early 9 am. What was so very much different was the chaos getting on board the speed boats. There used to be a queue system but during the low season it did not happen. First I will blog about the leg from Pak Bara to Koh Lipe. I got queue card number 1 for I was early. It did not matter anyway when we were lined up for boarding. The native islanders, many, strolled right in front of me and boarded. The boat was overloaded but so what. As long as the boat did not sink at the pier, it should make it to the island.

When we arrived near Koh Lipe, as the sea was rough near shores, the speed boats were unable to approach. As such, we transited on a floating platform set out in the deeper water. It was the start of spoilage to my idea long awaited holiday. We had to buy additional tickets for getting on to long tail boats to get on shore. The she-boy handed us slips of paper and pointed us to queue over somewhere there. We realized 20 minutes later it was a wrong queue, it was for a private charter to one of the resorts. So we asked the impatient she-boy again and she annoyingly pointed us somewhere over somewhere again. I think she was having a bad artificial vagina day problem or something. Anyway, we finally got on shore after shoving among hordes of people who were unable to comprehend a queue system, all trying eagerly and impatiently to jump onto the long tail boats.

Scramble for It
Now, the trip back. I will have to describe it with the lingo of Singlish in order to fully illustrate in words how it really went. To begin with, there were no queue cards issued. Again this was unlike 2 years ago. We were all bundled up in disorderly scattered groups on the beach. Where there were shades, there were some of us. Under the trees, under the shack, and all over the wooden bar selling fruit smoothies to fight the already searing morning heat. And then, it was 9.30 and them operators announced it was time for boarding. Everyone rushed for the boat and I really meant everyone. The kiasu syndrome I had not seen in a long long time suddenly come out in all kinds of pattern and color.

In Thai culture, everything should be rather orderly, just like how we see Thais queue up for trains and buses. But here on Koh Lipe, with the perfect mix of nationalities, things started to turn strange. On the onset of boarding, the Singaporean (me) and Malaysians sprinted faster than cheetah to the front of queue. Then the China woman cut queue and board the boat without tickets ignoring the commands of the Thai operator. Then the Singaporean (me again) and Malaysian kiasunisim come out full battle order and hell broke the queue line. Then the Thais in the queue buay tahan and also anyhow start to cut left right center and upside down. We all had a wild time crowd at the boat try to squeeze our way up. Malaysians and Thais then, in a strategic move, released their tiny kids to stream up the boats through cracks in order to chop seats. And then the China woman's husband shouted for her to get off the boat because she board wrong boat (yes she is bimbo + kiasu + kiasi beating us Singaporeans and Malaysians). Then she squeeze herself out in the market of chaotic rojak Thais Malaysians and Singaporean snatching seats. By right the bulky angmohs will come from behind and bulldoze us to the corner, but they decided to let us kill ourselves first. Perfect storm.

Long Tail Boats to Island
See, during the low season, not only were the schedules limited because of the perceived lower number of travelers, so were the number of operating boats. As such, if there were, and always were, greater number of travelers then what the number of operating boats could take, did not matter. Just pack us all on board without safely concerns. The operators told us, this happened because they can never predict the number of native islanders who will be making the crossing as they have the rights to board without pre-bookings. They had to take them all in, and the islanders were immune to the concept of civic orderly queuing system. So boats will be packed to the brim on some days, passengers had to crowd and some sat on the aisle and everywhere a butt could fit. The planned departure of boats from Pak Bara to Koh Lipe will also likely be delayed. They waited for passengers who arrived on later flights in Hat Yai as there were no more scheduled crossing after. This year, I tried Easy Lipe speed boats, I was totally not impressed. My 11.30 am departure was delayed a good hour, it ate into my quality island time. I wished I had used the same Ploysiam speed boats as I did 2 years ago because they were the one that left on time. It was an unpleasant experience, definitely was, the journey to and from Koh Lipe during the low season.

Rough Seas
I Should Have Use This
Storm Clouds
Under Repair
In the Shadows

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Koh Lipe 2 Years After

The last time I was here 2 years ago, I did not see a Seven Eleven. Neither did I see natives clad in purple vest which were labeled with big numbers like a soccer jersey. Those were the inhabitants who provided official taxi services on the island. It cost only 50 baht per person for getting from anywhere to anywhere. The walk from Seven Eleven to our resort took a good half an hour. Not wanting my fingers to break away from the strangle of heavy plastic bags loaded with a huge assortment of sodas, we hopped on one of those Taxis. A sidecar made of welded rods attached to a smoky putting motorcycle that went breathless ascending the slightest slopes, that what it was.

Taxis in front of of Seven Eleven
The rider, a tiny and tanned elderly man. His complexion told the story of the island's salty wind and her blazing sun. He was a native and told us that the men in purple came about only recently. It was established to ward off the rampant Burmese operated taxis who stole the business of the community. Well at least now, we can be sure whatever we spent on the island goes to the islanders genuinely to help, in the long run, create a better paradise for us city dwellers to indulge. Seated on a thin layer of PVC wrapped foam they called a cushion, we throttled over rocky gravel and speed reducing humps made from harbor ropes laid across the island roads. It took us less than 10 minutes to arrive at the beach where our resort was. We alighted, bid farewell, and he gave us his number so we could call him anytime should we need his service.

Fresh Road
There were times of inconvenience on some days as we tried to walk from Sunrise to Pattaya beach. The pathway was blocked. It just so happened that during our stay on island paradise, they were going through a revamp of the island's connecting roads. New fresh concrete was poured and laid to dry, entire stretches of roads were closed off. We were patient and we stepped gingerly alongside. It sure was an obstacle course stepping over clusters of rocks and moving pass the reeking dustbins. Dogs did not bother and went ahead to walk on the still soft concrete. They left cute paw prints. Some in-considered visitors thought themselves were dogs too, they saw what the dogs did and did what the dogs did. Their sandal prints were large and unimpressive. We listened to the taxi drivers complained some days, they said the roads were built too narrow for two way traffic. Taxis sometimes had a game of fencing with their handles on some of the tighter sections. And on other days, they complained that the roads were encroaching into their homes, the land areas declared by deed.

Waves of Low Season
Was it the season in particular or was it pest population boom? Cockroaches, they invaded our room. I never did had a pest problem last time I was there at Idyllic Resort. One morning, I found an unfortunate bloke who drowned in the leftover instant cup noodle out the balcony, the other day one died next to my shoe for unknown reasons. And one fine scary night, one was terrorizing us by flying all over our room and we in panic called for DDT to be sent from the reception. Only it never came in time to ease our fear of the winged devil smacking into our faces. We conveniently engaged a cat which was always out front of our corridor. Without his consent of any meow, we seized him in the middle of his balls licking routine and let him loose where the roach landed. Cat turned attention from balls to roach in an instant as roach scurried on the tiled floor. Cat 1, roach 0.

Sewage Storage
The island this season, much to the dismay of us tourist, many of the resorts underwent major renovations at the same time. New buildings were being erected creating rather an eyesore, large heavy logs were suspiciously pulled out of the sea after dark. Much of nature remained the same, it was the roads and taxi services that had changed. Water was still suctioned from underground for our use, and electricity still pumped from generators central of the island. We were still able to get strong GSM signal which allowed us to upload statuses during our boat trip all the way from Pak Bara to Koh Lipe. The dogs still woke early to greet the sunrise with me during morning shoots. Contrary to what many websites had portrayed, there were ATMs on the island and they do dispense cash. Let's see how more Koh Lipe will change over the next few years, hopefully not too much. It is her rustic nature that is the magic.

The cove on Sunset Beach
Building Materials
Where Natives Dwells
Morning Walk
The Dog and The Sea
Chillout Chairs
Under the Shade
Boats they Rocked
Helpful Child
An Idyllic Afternoon