Thinking & Feeling

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Horace Walpole

Sunday, 2 May 2004

Amazing Thailand - Part 8 - Taboos, FantaSeas and Goodbyes

So after breaking my most strictly enforced childhood rule of not riding motorbikes (sorry dad!), and feeling suddenly rebellious at the ripe old age of 30, I decided to go completely wild...

We wound our way over the hilly pass between Patong and Karon to return to our neighbourhood, and there to rendezvous for my appointment with ... a Tattoo artist!
I had been toying with the idea of getting a tattoo for several years, but could never quite decide what, or where, and had never got to the point of actually doing it. I didn't want anything big or aggressive, and new I needed something that had meaning for me, and that I wouldn't hate after a while. Plus I had never seen any place that I'd want to have one done at. Somehow all the tattoo parlours I have seen in South Africa are seedy, biker-type joints, and just didn't feel right to me.

I had been discussing the possibility with Richard throughout the trip, and we had actually been into a few to look at their pictures and see some in progress. Richard has a stylised Gecko on his left shoulder, which I have always liked. I also found myself fascinated by the geckos in Thailand which are really cute and are everywhere at night. I was also buying little toy geckos as gifts for children etc. During our Island day trip I had sketched a design with two geckos in a kind of yin-yang shape, to represent my 2 boys.

That night we took the sketch to one of the local Tattoo shops, and showed it to the resident Tattooist, Nom. He went and sat down. We meanwhile started looking through his albums, finding various designs we liked... 10 minutes later Nom appeared and showed me his vastly improved design based on my sketch, and I thought he was just sitting back waiting for me to chose something from his collection! I mentioned colours and he again wandered off. He returned having shaded the picture beautifully. I liked the picture so much that I told him I'd do it - but I felt it was a little big. He promised to shrink it for me, and I arranged to meet him the next night.

And so there we were back at the designated time, swigging red bulls (which cost only Bt12 there (R2!)). Nom as promised had shrunk his design and showed me versions at 80, 70 and 60% the original size. I opted for the 60% one. I was slightly nervous about the pain factor, as I had heard people say it's excruciating. I asked him about it, saying 'If I have given birth with no pain relief I should be ok, right?'. He just smiled and shrugged. I thought that was a bit ominous, but I think he was probably thinking, 'How the hell should I know lady?'.

My chosen spot was my right shoulder so I straddled the chair, while Nom traced the design onto carbon paper. Having been told it would take about 1.5 hours I was mentally preparing myself for the long haul, and braced myself. Nom is pretty meticulous about hygiene, and everything is carefully sterilised and covered etc, so there was no problem with that. He started by tracing the design onto my shoulder with the carbon paper, and then got us to inspect it to make sure it was exactly the way I wanted it. It was. He then lifted the tattoo gun thingy-magig, or whatever it's called, and I prepared myself for the worst.

Ok it *IS* sore. The feeling is a combination between being sliced with a scalpel and burned with a soldering iron - but it gets to a point of pain and no further, and I found it quite bearable. I do think I have a high pain threshold though, and I am quite good at being able to zone out and breathe through pain. So I was focussing through it, while Richard was bouncing around taking photos. I told him he could stop thanks, as that was getting distracting!

After a while I noticed the TV in front of me and asked for it to be turned on. Nom chose the DVD 'Kill Bill' to watch, which I thought was a bit macabre under the circumstances. Once watching TV I was actually easily able to distract myself from the pain of the tattoo, and was fine. Then in no time he was finished! It only took 30 minutes. The quoted 1.5 hours was total time for chatting, tracing, cleaning up - everything. So it was actually over really quickly.

So there you go, I am now sporting 2 green and blue geckos on my right shoulder...

That left us with only one more day and night of our holiday. The next morning was our birthday! I officially turned 30 and Richard turned 40. It was a perfect warm and sunny day. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast, and then went out to enjoy the last few hours of our bike hire. We rode up to the look out pint on the way to Chalong, and took photos of the view of the beaches. We also went past Kata and Kata Noi beach, and generally just enjoyed being in the area.

We had arranged to go to the Phuket FantaSea show that night to celebrate our birthdays and to enjoy the last night of our holiday in style.
"Inspired by Thailand’s rich and exotic heritage, Phuket FantaSea not only showcases the charm and beauty of Thailand, but also enriches ancient Thai traditions with the wonder of cutting edge technology and special effects. The result is a stunning 140-acre theme complex, packed with a multitude of activities and entertainment: a festival village with carnivals, games, handicrafts and shopping; a 4,000-seat restaurant offering a grand buffet of Thai and international cuisine; A breath-taking Las Vegas-style theatrical show, where state-of-the-art technology and special effects enhance the beauty of Thailand's Myths, Mysteries and Magic in a wondrous extravaganza certain to delight everyone."
This was in fact the most expensive thing we did the whole trip (relative to the other prices, costing Bt 3000 (R500) for both of us), but only one of few very touristy things we'd done, and we thought it would be an exciting and entertaining experience. Also having seen the African Footprint production in Cape Town earlier this year, we thought it would be interesting to see the contrasting cultures and heritages in a similar show.

We collected at our hotel and taken through to Kamala Beach (the other side of Patong) where the Theme park is situated. We met some young British honeymooners on the way, who were telling us how they had managed to avoid being ill by eating only 'safe' food like spaghetti bolognaise. I could not believe it, and I reckon you probably have more chance of being ill by eating non-local food anyway! Twits.

On arrival at FantaSea the sky opened and the rain came pouring down, there was a bit of chaos and uncertainty after that with people scattering all over. We followed a crowd and soon found ourselves in the Huge Kinnaree Buffet restaurant. While there was a huge a mount of food on offer, and it was fairly varied, and we certainly ended up eating far more than we needed, it was interesting to note that the food was neither more elaborate nor better tasting than the cheap food we had been eating from the bungalow restaurants and street vendors. So the rule that more formal and expensive is not necessarily better definitely holds up here. Never the less it was nice to be able to sample some weird and wonderful things including sweet black jelly lumps covered with crushed ice and corn kernels, as well as sushimi and roast duck with the head still on etc!

To be honest I wouldn't recommend this restaurant, and it's better to take the option without the meal (which is a bit cheaper), as you can get reasonably priced drinks and snacks out in the general theme village area. However since it was bucketing with rain when we arrived, the buffet was actually probably the best bet on that day, and once we staggered out with full bellies, the rain had ended and the evening was becoming quite lovely.

We wandered around the games, entertainment and shops in the 'village' until it was time to go in for the 'Legend of a Kingdom show'. This is strictly controlled and all cameras etc have to be handed in before entering the theatre. The show was brilliant. It was very varied and very professionally produced. There are were loads of animals involved from 30 elephants, to water buffalo, goats, donkeys, doves and even chickens (I still don't know how the chicks were trained!). They showed the history, heritage, dance and skill through a series of re-enactments of battle scenes and dances, as well as some circus, magic and comedy type acts. During the battle scenes there were flashes so bright you had to close your eyes, and massive booming explosions, as well as people flying in on chords and people shooting through holes that appeared and disappeared in the stage floor. It was really impressive and that fact the elephants could stand there dead still throughout was amazing. They are extremely well trained, and from what we saw, very well handled too.

After the show and waiting in line to get our cameras back, we again mingled in the village area, and this time the young elephants from the show where out on display. I think they like them to socialise with people to get more tame and relaxed etc. Both Richard and I got a chance to sit on a 3-4 year old elephant, which was fun. I was afraid of standing on the poor things leg with my shoe, but they assured me that it wouldn't hurt him. Again people were amazed at seeing this. It really does seem that South African people are most used to and comfortable with trying new things, as most other people seem to just stand back in fear. I felt privileged to be allowed to sit on such a big and majestic animal, and didn't find them at all frightening.

I think a lot is said about the elephants in Thailand. They are used a lot, and they are very much part of the Thai culture and work force. They are used the way horses and mules are used in other countries. Apparently in some place they get over worked, neglected and abused, but all the elephants we saw seemed to be well looked after and well treated. While being fully used in daily life these huge animals are also very much celebrated and revered, and elephant tributes can be seen everywhere. They definitely play a big role in the Thai heritage, including mythical tales of flying elephants and strong friendships with elephants who save their young friends, or who lead their riders to victory etc.
"There is a strong bond between the Thai people and elephants. Elephants hold a revered place in society, because of their symbolic importance to monarchs, religion, and the nation as a whole."
"THE ELEPHANT has been a cultural icon of Thailand since ancient days. Inhabiting the lush mountain forests long before the rise of the first civilizations in the land that is now modern-day Thailand, these intelligent pachyderms (as zoologists insist on calling them) were found apt to domestication by man. Their great size and enormous strength were harnessed in many ways, and they became man's ally in labour and warfare. It is doubtful if the abundant teak trees of the northern woodlands could have been exploited so fully without these leviathans to haul the trunks (pardon the pun) to the rivers that were the highways of old. Elephants played their part too in the numerous battles fought between the armies of Thailand and Burma. Towering over the field of combat, fully panoplied and girded for war, they must have been an awesome sight.
But the elephant came to mean much more to the Thai people than a mere beast of burden. It has become a symbol of fortune, and the superstitious will pay to pass beneath the animal's body and receive a share of the luck that it carries. White elephants, through their very scarcity, adopted an importance of their own, and became the rightful property of the reigning monarch. This led to the super imposition of a white elephant on the red field of the national flag of Siam, as Thailand was once known. Early Siamese coins featured an engraved elephant, and their images can be found in abundance in the compounds of many of the older temples.
The Asian elephant, the species found in Thailand, is renowned for its intelligence and is known to actively think about its actions, rather than merely memorise instructions. The creature also has a fine memory and the expression "An elephant never forgets" entered the English language long ago. The term "White elephant", meaning something given that is not wanted, entered western speech many years back, and it is reputed that this originated in old Siam. It was the custom of the monarch to bestow the highest praise by giving a royal white elephant to a courtier as a mark of especial favour, together with a tithe of land to support the animal's needs of grazing and forage. The same gift could also be given by these shrewd rulers to show displeasure, as no land would be provided, and the gift that could not be refused had to be fed at the offender's expense.
Nowadays the elephant is more fully occupied entertaining the multitude of tourists who visit Thailand, but its magnificent image lives on, advertising many modern events or attracting visitors to the numerous shops and factories that cater to their demands."
So ended our last evening in Thailand.
The next morning it was time to pack up, and get ready to say goodbye to a country that had always held a great amount of magnetism and intrigue for me. I had already fallen in love with the place, as so many people do, and was torn between wanting to stay there forever, and been keen to get back home to my children.
We spent the last few hours waking around one last time, and spending the last of our cash. Richard also decided to get a small yin-yang tattoo inside the curve of his gecko's tale, so we visited Nom, who was happy to accommodate our last minute request. The last hour before our airport transfer arrived I indulged myself with a last Thai massage, and I floated back to the hotel just in time to find the minibus packed and waiting for me. Telling myself I'd be back. We waved goodbye to the Andaman Seaview, and then Karon Beach and then Phuket and finally Thailand as we headed back to Kuala Lumpur.
We had a long wait in Kuala Lumpur airport, as our plane had been delayed. We shopped until the shops closed and then stretched out on some very uncomfortable chairs, with some endless Malaysian soap opera being televised from every direction. It got freezing cold, and then just as I managed to doze off we were called to board our flight. It was already 2am. The flight home was fairly uneventful. We had a 1-hour wait in Johannesburg, where we wasted no time phoning home and waking the kids at 6:30 am. It was the first time speaking to them in 2 weeks. I half expected them to cry and be upset. Instead they spoke calmly and both sounded really mature and grown up.
We arrived back in Cape Town about 2 hours later, and I virtually ran through customs to get out to see them. Sadly due to a mix up and oversleeping, our friend did not fetch us as planned, and no one was there at all! That was the last straw for me, and I burst into tears. Richard quickly got a taxi to take us home, and 30 minutes later there we were. The boys greeted us calmly and happily and were more keen to tell us about their adventures than hear anything about us... they did want their presents though!

So that was our trip. I'm now working hard, and hoping to be able to save enough money to go again, and hopefully take the children along with us next time.

Saturday, 1 May 2004

Amazing Thailand: Part 7 - Back in Phuket

So as you'll recall the last episode saw us returning from Bangkok and Ayutthaya and arriving back to the luxury of our Phuket Hotel, where we had another 5 nights.

It was nice to suddenly be without a schedule, we decided just to take it easy the next day, and not have any specific destination or activity. After our sumptuous buffet breakfast we strolled down to the beach and had a swim in the warm water. Cape Town would be so much nicer if our water was warmer. I really battle to take the plunge and swim here. The water is almost too warm in Thailand, but the swim was divine.

The rest of the morning I wondered around the local area and the shops specifically, while Richard relaxed in the hotel room. We then went down to a travel company and booked an island trip for the next day, and made arrangements to hire a motorbike for the day after that. By late afternoon I had also negotiated a deal for a massage so the 2 of us trotted down to one of the nearby Massage shops and had side-by-side Thai massages. A full hour of bliss! Costing Bt200 (R34) each with a bottle of water.

Some people complain that they find the Thai massage painful, but I thought it was wonderful. They do manipulate you a fair amount, and I imagine if you are not flexible it could hurt, but after 6 years of yoga it was simply wonderful. I'd love to have one every day! When that was done we lay contentedly, before floating off for a relaxed evening meal, at the bungalows outside our hotel.

The next day after breakfast, we were collected for our island trip. We were taken to Chalong Pier, where we boarded our Speedboat for Raya Island. The journey was fast and exciting. Raya Island is close enough to not take hours to get to, but far enough away that you are not right near the main land. The trip takes 30-40 minutes, we stopped at Coral Island on the way to drop some people there, and though cheaper, it looked a bit small and sparse. On arrival at Raya we knew we'd made the right choice. Raya is exactly you image of what a tropical island would be. Crystal clear warm water and squeaky clean white sand. A small beach with a few deck chairs and umbrellas, one or 2 other people, palm trees, and cute little bungalows hidden in the foliage. It was beautiful.

We were told we had an hour to relax and swim before going of on the snorkelling excursion. We were also served a platter of beautifully presented fruit, which our guide had sat and cut up on the beach. Again everything has attention to detail. Food is never just plonked down. It's always visually pleasing and creatively served, as well as being delicious to eat!

So we were all set in our swimming gear, and back on our boat ready to go around the back of the island to the coral cove for snorkelling. Which was something I had never done before (unless splashing around and half choking to death in a Port Shepston lagoon at 7 years old counts). On the way around the island we spotted 4 or 5 dolphins frolicking in the water. Unfortunately as we got close they shied away, and apart from one or 2 glimpses they were gone... it was very exciting though. The boat stopped at Raya Cove and we were all given goggles and snorkels, which we fitted and then leapt in and it was amazing!

On the other side of the island we had only seen very pastel coloured fish, which while pretty, had very much blended with the colour of the sand. Here in the red and brown coloured coral there were fish of every different size, shape and colour, and the goggles were great. I stayed on the surface, so that I didn't have to get the dynamics of blowing water out of the snorkel figured out, which had not managed before. It's hard to describe just how stunning the underwater life is. I was very keen to touch a fish, and finally did manage to when the said fish decided to taste my outstretched finger and BIT me! Those little teeth were damn sharp, and I was less excited to be swimming amongst all those fish after that. I was a stupid thing for me to have done in retrospect, but it was just a nip and I survived. All to soon our time was up and we were hauled back into the boat to continue our journey around the island, back to the beach where we started.

We were then loaded into a tractor-trailer (there were 6 in our group, the 2 of us and 2 older British couples) and we wound our way over a bumpy dirt road past loads of development to a restaurant in the centre of the island. The amount of development happening there is actually frightening; in a year or two the place will probably be teaming with people. It's a pity. Apparently now you can stay overnight in the small bungalows for Bt700 (R120), whereas a Villa is under development which is set to be rented out at Bt17000 (R2834) per night! WOW. Presumably the villa will sleep 4-6 people and be staffed, but still the contrast is immense.

As we arrived under the shelter of the restaurant it started raining. It was actually lovely as it became quite cool, and was perfect. I day of swimming in full sunshine would have been bit much for me and my fair skin. The lunch was delicious and we were given about 4 different Thai dishes to share, and a soup each, and rice and noodles, and sliced fruit after. We ate far too much, but it was delicious. Strangely the British couples were amazed that I could eat with chopsticks and were pointing and staring. At first I thought they were commenting on the amount of food on my plate, until I realised that they in fact wee thinking how 'clever' I was too be eating with chopsticks. Weird, I though most people could. Quinn can more or less eat with them already at 4 years old.

We finished the afternoon wondering around the beach, lying on the deck chairs and swimming, until we were told we had to go back again. We would happily have stayed there forever, and were very sad that they day was over. It was a wonderful experience, even though I hadn't been that excited about it at first, an island snorkelling trip is very recommended.

That evening we took a long walk down our beach and ended up finding an interesting night market, and there we discovered a vendor selling fried bugs! There were big white worms, huge cockroaches, locusts, beetles etc etc, and people were buying and eating them! It was like Fear Factor challenge. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me, and although we looked again the next night it was nowhere to be found. I think it may be a once a week market. I declined to taste them!

The following day we rented a motorbike after breakfast, and after a few test rides, to make sure he remembered Richard picked me up, and off we went! It was drizzling on and off so we had to be careful, but we decided to make the trip inland to Phuket town, to see what it was like. On the way we stopped at another elephant trekking spot, because I wanted to feed the elephants again. There were also Gibbon monkeys ate this spot. They are SO cute. They are tailless, and have long fluffy arms and legs and are either black or light brown. They have really expressive faces. I enjoyed touching them and interacting with them. It's hard not to encourage them, even though they are meant to stay wild, because they are so tame, and so curious too.

We then carried on to Phuket town, which was surprisingly far away. With the roads being slightly wet, and Richard's sense of direction being less than brilliant I was doing a lot of back seat driving. After finally following my directions we found the town and then the Cashew Nut factory we were looking for. Here workers were churning out loads and loads of cashews. A Japanese tour bus arrived at the same time we did, and they were swarming all over. They rushed to the shop and couldn't get enough of the cashews, they were literally sending thousands of Baht each. I must be way cheaper than their Japan cashew's price.

We looked around the shop, and tasted quite a few, as every variant was available for tasting in several places, and the shop assistants kept shoving them at me. They were nice, but not all the flavour combinations worked. We eventually bought a few packs of plain nuts, but found that they weren't all that cheap compared with home.

We went on to a big covered market. I found a coconut stand and ordered on to drink. For Bt10 (R1.50) I got a whole coconut, with the top chopped off, and a straw. The juice inside has a subtle sweet taste and was very nice and cool to drink. Yum. We also found a pile of pomelos (like large grapefruits) in the fruit section. There were pomelos there the size of my head!

The rest of Phuket town was dirty and dingy compared to the beach areas, and with the rain there wasn't much to see or do, so we decided to head back via Patong Beach.
I had a prearranged appointment for 7pm, so by later afternoon we decided to push through back to Karon instead of spending the evening in Patong.

Next: what was my appointment for?