Sunday, September 21, 2014

Floating about in Khao Sok

Panvaree Resort
It was off the grid. It was off everything in fact. No GSM signal, we were out of touch with the world. Not a bad thing really the 3 days I was there at Panvaree Resort, floating lodges on a vast artificial lake behind a dam. They had two generators, one diesel and the other petrol driven. And to drive the air conditioner in up to 2 units while on partial occupancy, they burnt 20 over liters of petrol from 5pm to 9am the next morning. When all her 12 units were occupied, Panvaree ran the diesel brother, and it burnt 80 liters. No wonder the resorts in Khao Sok were expensive, everything from food to petrol, needed to be couriered by boats. There came a narrow wooden boat enough for one just after sunrise, he was selling pork dumplings and fried Chinese dough.

In the day time it got hot. Windless at times and humidity naturally high, about the only thing to do other then bath ourselves a hundred times over was to jump into the lake. Below beyond where my legs threaded water, an abyss of deep blue green. It was 60 meters to the lake floor I was told. Not my idea of relaxation although I love the water. Because, when one does not see bottom and with a bit of uncontrolled imagination, ancient giant monsters, grey swirling tentacles. Fear, shrank the size of my testicles. I did not like it too, where accidentally should into the water my iPhone fell, I could not see and retrieve it neither. Our guide, in the midst of this laughter, his walkie-talkie took the plunge. It was followed immediately by a much larger panic plunge of himself diving after. It was too late. If only they had made walkie-talkies that floats.

Our Room
It did get bored at times, all cooped up on a small resort isolated. Canoed, jumped in the lake, those were all there was to do. Kinda felt like Singapore in a way, limited landmass, living out in confined space. Walked to the restaurant for free tea, walked back to our unit. Climbed the ladder to the sleeping quarters beneath the ceiling but could not nap because it was an oven. Every unit has the capacity to sleep four. 2 on the big bed below, and 2 above where the oven I mentioned was. The marauding crowd that came the next day, Saturday, however could not care less about that. Some units slept more than four to max out whatever they had paid for. I was waiting for their unit to overturn like an iceberg and capsize.

While we were there on Friday, we had the whole resort to ourselves. The staffs were friendly, our dinner was truly enjoyable. Meal was followed later on by drinking and chit chats with the staffs. We learnt some were natives of Khao Sok whose villages went underwater when the dam was built. Others came from far away provinces to work in the hospitality segment waiting tables and as a tour guide. The water deep dark and still, the occasional pleasant breeze blew into the tungsten tinted restaurant. In the pauses between chats, the songs of insects, an occasional firefly blinked green in the darkness of night.

While it was still Quiet
Saturday was noisy compared to the Friday I had arrived. If it is peace you want, weekdays will be the time to go. Serenity, tranquility, steam floated from my hot tea in the early morning of sunrise before breakfast was served. Notebook opened, faced the mountain range, fantastic concentration punching keys making my presentation for the work week to come. That was only till later at 10 when the full crowd arrived. As usual, it began with exploring the tiny property, then the selfie shots, the feeding of fishes and then the looking for some corner to relax and literally melt in the heat and humidity. Inherent to Thai culture is alcohol. Heavy bellied businessmen took on a table and left their wives and kids to auto roam. They started drinking just after arrival and all the way over lunch and dinner into the after dark. What else was there to do for them I guessed.

The Greenery
In our package, there included a trip to coral cave. Into the long tail boat we hopped and our favorite boatman took us into the lake. Still recovering from his hangover drinking with us the night before, he made our journey very entertaining as he joked and chatted along the whole way. He stopped when he observed me focusing hard on subjects to shoot, he was pleasant, a good photographer’s friend. If Eddie Murphy had a half brother from a Thai mother, it would be our boatman. They way he spoke, the way he spewed out the stand up jokes, they way our boatman naturally was. That smile with a twitch of impending mischief.

Getting off the Raft
We had to trek a long distance into an enclosed lake. That body of water was connected to the main lake by underground waterways. I had mutated into a life form accustomed to only machine driven lifts that brings me from floor to floor. Stairs and climbing is alien to me. That trekking to our destination, my legs became jelly. We had to ascend steep into the forest made worst by the muddy walkways wet from rain. There was loud cracking in the tress above from time to time. We saw them monkeys, they were mocking my perspiration drenched body. I made it alive to the lake within eventually after 3 quarters of an hour.

Arrival at the Cave
Those engines they used on shoulder type grass cutting machines, they modified it to have a propeller attached. Tied it to about 30 odd large bamboo poles bound tightly together and what they got was a raft. That was our exciting transport across the lake to the opposite side where the cave was. If there were waves, passengers seated on the bare bamboo would have toppled over easy. Camera, phone, whatever that sinks will be gone into the abyss. Over the next hour when we waited our turn, none capsized making the journey thru and fro. That was when I deemed it safe to board. And so the coral cave we arrived.

Light Sabers in Action
A small cave, totally unlit. Our guide held modified florescent tubes driven by batteries and ushered us into the cavern of stalactites and stalagmites. Within, there were a number of groups, each lead by the light saber the different guides held. I think they got the idea from watching pirated versions of Star Wars. There were fossilized corals within the caves. This area was once under sea level. Many eons ago before the rise of the continents, it was an undersea cave.

And so after the short tour, the return ride on the raft which was followed by more mocking from monkeys in the forest, we returned to our resort in the evening. Tired and sticky from preparation, jumping into the lake was extremely pleasant. Except for the noise from all the other nine units now fully occupied and with most guests then trashing about all over in the water. Saturday, full occupancy. There was no more peace and quiet like the evening before, unless if I pushed the running generator into the lake to stun all of them. But that would kill all the fishes too. The dinner followed, sumptuous and fish from the lake again. It was a full board package, all meals inclusive.

The Morning
Panvaree, located in the shadows of surrounding high limestone caves. The water we bath in came naturally from the lake drawn to high tanks on the landmass next. The water we flushed went into septic tanks below our lodges next to pontoons. The treated fluids, yes they flow back into the water we floated in. So, try not to think too much. On the journey back, Eddie Murphy again. It included a detour to some corners of the national park where the limestone structures shot straight up from the water. That was why Khao Sok was nicknamed Guilin of Thailand. Wondered why Thailand is always naming attractions after the other wonders, why has it not been the other way round when you visit Guilin where Chinese will say Guilin is Khao Sok of China instead.

In the Lake
Where we left for the Resort
What Lies Beneath
Fishes at Panvaree
Sunset with the Peaks Painted Yellow
Dumpling Seller
While there was still Peace on Friday
Feeding the Fishes
Bamboo Raft
Kinda Exciting
Saturday when the Crowd Came
Still Peaceful Friday
Touring the Lake
Gulin of Thailand

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