Sunday, December 28, 2014

Wora Bura, I remember your Spa

By the Beach
On arrival early in the morning, we contacted the Spa for our pre-booked session knowing that we will not be able to check into our rooms until after 12. Spas, they all smell alike, the aroma of an entire lemon grass forest squeezed into a tiny space, it was pleasant. Rooms, rustic with a heavy touch from the colonial era. The polished handles of water taps that had rounded knobs, reminiscence of eras gone by. Two massage beds with holes for your face and always that mysterious bowl with orchids directly below. The next room featured a large Jacuzzi tub and a shower. And where the hissing was coming from, the steam bath in yet another adjacent room. Our package started with a 15 minutes steam bath to get our pores working. I would have preferred a proper bath before my spa, but it was not part of the course. So my perspiration and stickiness plus the steam were not at all too comfortable for me.

The Spa Underwear
Oh, there it was again, the peculiar black genderless underwear. We put that on before what followed next, being scrubbed from top to bottom in grounded coffee beans for 15 minutes. What was the therapeutic nature of the coffee I had no idea, but it felt good when my back was rubbed. Masseur however, did not rub between my butt cracks, and sides of scrotum. Those were no-touch zones. As the intense scrubbing continued, I was flipped over for more till I nearly dozed off to the constant sound of how you rub salt on a fish. I was being marinated and what almost always followed next is into a baking oven. Since cremation was not part of the spa treatment, we were told to bath ourselves. That’s where I used the residual coffee all over my body for the butt crack and sides of scrotum.

45 minutes of aromatic massage. Marinated again, in the lavender oil I had chosen previously. I told my masseur to focus on my palms and aching lower back from countless hours of desk bound computer work. I soon succumbed to slumber as the masseur worked on my back. And when I was awoken gently to flip, I was drooling down that face hole. That was when I knew the purpose the bowl filled with flowers below every massage bed.

The Zoo
Our rooms were ready at 2 after our lunch. Well matching the price paid for and instilled with wooden styled furniture of mainly dark wood. A large bathtub looked into our bedroom separated by wooden window sills we could close. A change into swimwear and to the pool I went, who wouldn’t want a lazy afternoon under the salt laden Hua Hin sun. Everyone did and literally everyone. The pool was a zoo, of screaming children and Thais immersed fully clothed. As with all other resorts here during the weekend, it has always been a zoo. The pool was big and perpendicular to the sea. There was a poolside bar, it was deserted. At the end of the pool facing the sea, it overlooked a bar with a variety of alcohol laid out tasteful in a row, ready for mixing into concoctions of sinful cocktail. After some pool time, the earlier than normal dusk arrived, the so called “Thai winter” season had set in.

Tamboon by the Hotel Beach
Food wise, dinner was not too impressive for my palate. I have had better hotel food. It was a company dinner and so the reason I was dining there. In Hua Hin, you just gotta have seafood cheap and good around town. In the morning, breakfast was impressive. Wide varied and appetizing. It was also when I discovered the official time for Thais to have breakfast nationwide was between 8.45 and 9. Even King Nareasuan did not have a place to sit. I saw the actor who played King Naresuan, I did not know his real name. So, be early for breakfast on weekends before the crowd sets in. A pleasant stay in all, avoid weekends if can.

Rough Seas
Swing under the Vines
Spa Room

Friday, December 26, 2014

Hua Hin I-Am-On-Vacation Syndrome

Chilling Out at Hua Hin

Hua Hin does beat all places in surrounding Bangkok to top herself as the number one dress pretty and walk around to be seen destination. Bangkokians who travelled there looked like they came out from Esprit’s summer fashion posters. They dressed pretty to be seen eating as gingerly as possible on English cakes or cookies. They also feature that raised pinky when sipping from English teacups both men, women and the undefined.

Bangkokians can also been seen in their fancy I-Am-On-Vacation outfits near any inanimate object that had a hint of I-Am-On-Vacation in them such as the road signs, that old bicycle and always the bright red letter box. For some reasons, they are always attracted to letter boxes. It is believed that Bangkokians on vacation ritually wear the same I-Am-On-Vacation outfit into bed so that the next morning, the first thing they do is a selfie and a post to Facebook and Instagram.

Middle East ain;t It?
Anyway, it had been near to a year since my last Hua Hin trip. We left early, very early at just before 7 and reached in 2 hours. It was wise to do so. Saturdays are when Bangkokians make their mass pilgrimage to the seaside town. Any later and it would have taken 4 or even 5 hours to reach our destination. Stayed at Wora Bura, it was a good hotel, but pricey. Colonial styled she was and that added uniqueness of sorts to our stay. Hua Hin had changed much. On this trip we discovered that Camel Republic had sprang up. The Middle Eastern influence had arrived in this seaside town. Great magnet for seflies in I-Am-On-Vacation outfits. We had to pay get in, so we did not.

For good cheap live seafood picked from buckets and have their lives BBQed painfully outta them for our enjoyment, it would normally had been the shores of Cha Am. But we found a new place this time round. And it was the area around Khao Takiap where a small peak of a granite hill with a temple on top extended out to sea. Laid on the outcrop facing the sea, a restaurant. I think the whole town was there for lunch. So we went elsewhere. The fishing boats were all moored along the dock alongside the road leading in. The fresh catches were laid out for purchase in concentration denser than those in Cha Am. Opposite the road that divided, the row of many simple restaurants that produced a wide array of gastronomy from the fishermen’s catch.

Wilaiwan Interior
And to Wilaiwan for lunch. Nice cottage styled restaurant, yet another picturesque venue for I-Am-On-Vacation pinkie raised tea sipping. I was skeptical if the food was as good as the place looked. I took my skepticism back when I had a mouthful of the spaghetti that had dried tomatoes, bacon and grinded basil which made the dish green. Spectacular, if it can be a word for taste. That was what I would call that awesome creation. The Wagyu burger was not at all too bad, but I did not know how much of a Wagyu cow was actually in that patty. Many Thai restaurants had gotten to know of the new Wagyu word and are profusely acquainting their dishes with it. It was just like when everyone was going nano this and nano that. There was nothing nano about those products, other than naturally occurring nano bacteria. Anyway, the burger was cooked right, had that trait of juiciness within and the searing on the surface I liked. The French Fries that accompanied was aromatic in flavor, not your average fries done in normal cooking oil. Till this day I wondered, what did Wilaiwan fried them in. There was this red mysterious BBQ powder of some sort sprinkled over them which made the taste even more dazzling. Wilaiwan tasted as good as she looked. Not every themed restaurant in this country I know can achieve that.

Hua Hin Hill Vineyard
And then there was Hua Hin Hill Vineyard. Food was not impressive at all. I had the spicy bacon spaghetti. Home delivered spaghetti from The Pizza Company actually tasted better. This vineyard was located deep within the mountain range westwards and she was pretty isolated. She produces what is known as new latitude wines (aka, wines produced in the wrong climate). There was a crowd at the wine tasting station, girls accessorized like a Christmas tree in their long flow white dresses, again the I-Am-On-Vacation syndrome where iPhones and Samsungs were heavily involved. The vineyard offered elephant rides among the grape vines and I bet the huge chunks of elephant dung are use to fertilize them grapes. I did not know how good these wines were, but the last encounter with such wines by a seasoned drinker was - “please put this wine away”. Still, maybe things had changed just like how Hua Hin had evolved, and Thais had figured out the art of wine making.

Lone Monk on the Beach
Hua Hin is now filled with so many attractions. With 2 artificial floating markets now and many more artificially inseminated cultural sites such as Santorini, I wonder how long more will it be before the Pyramids of Egypt are plagiarized there. A relative of mine from Singapore who visited said “only the blue and white colors looked like Santorini she visited”. She was not too impressed with her stay in this seaside town. However, to many, Hua Hun is a place still to get excited for. For me, she is a pleasant stone’s throw away from city life. To be in a pool surrounded by clear skies not obstructed by tall buildings, the sound of the reverberating sea to accompany.

The pool in Wora Bura

Fresh Catch at Khao Takiap
The street of Khao Takiap
Where our food Comes From
Along Khao Takiap
Boats at Khao Takiap
Wora Bora

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