Our time in Phuket drew to an end yesterday. Before we left, JD was keen to say goodbye to "Vicky" [below] who runs "Pegy Club", the hotel's kids activity club which JD attended a few times. He enjoyed getting face-painted as a tiger and, later, as Spider-Man.
Our plane from Phuket left at 7.20am, which meant waking up at 3am to get a taxi for the hour's drive to the airport. Two flights and another taxi and we finally arrived back home in Kunming by 3pm. Unfortunately, my recent and excessive western food intake has led to a return of the gout which used to plague me for a decade, but from which I haven't suffered for many years. My ankle is badly swollen and I'm hobbling to get around. Hopefully the medicine, some rest and a return to a more healthy diet will see it improve within a few days.
We did an island-hopping trip today. JD loved the powerful speedboat which took us around to three local islands. The promised snorkelling was a bit of a disappointment, but JD was able to see (and try to catch!) a few shoals of brave green fish who swim near the shore to be fed. The weather was good and, apart form some overcrowding on the islands, we enjoyed the half-day adventure.
Our holiday continues to be great fun. The free buffet breakfasts are great and set us up for the day, with the promise of an evening meal out at a restaurant later in the day. We've taken a local bus for 45 minutes into Phuket Old Town for some shopping, found a Tesco superstore for western goodies to bring back to China and seen a passing festival on its way to a temple.
We had seen weather forecasts threatening rain every day, but we have had dry, sometimes pleasantly overcast, days so far. We've been making good use of the swimming pools here and JD's confidence in the water has grown rapidly. He particularly loves swimming underwater and has been on the waterslide dozens of times (occasionally with me!). The warm sea and sandy beach are also within five minutes walk and we've been there a few times too.
Ava, JD and I took two plane hops down to Phuket in Thailand today. I'd been warned that the island was a touristy, nightlife nightmare but our hotel claimed to be quiet and family-friendly, and the flights were cheap, so we decided to take a chance. And it's fantastic. Our huge room has a kitchen and walk-in wardrobe and could sleep five. The balcony opens directly onto one of the four swimming pools. Downside? It's occupied by 95% Russians - "the zombies" as we call them - never smile, never interact with others, never look where they are walking. Such a dour lot. But we are looking forward to our week here.
Thailand was great for clean toilets, easy transport, delicious food and amazing friendliness, but it certainly disappointed when it came to spotting examples of poor English (Thaiglish?). A few wrong spellings, but nothing like the hysterical stuff I see so regularly in China. My favourite however was this clothes shop [see photo]. It was full of cotton garments for sure, but not a green one in sight. Odd!
Having satellite TV in Thailand sadly led to copious channel-hopping. One evening I amused myself for 20 minutes listening to a Muslim "call to prayer" until Ava wrested the remote control from me! But my favourite waste of time was the "Panda Live" channel [see photo] which transmits a live feed from Bangkok Zoo of one of its pandas. Bearing in mind these lazy creatures only move once every few hours, and then simply to scratch or chew bamboo, it has to one of the most pointless programmes ever... apart from Big Brother, of course
We left our lovely hotel this morning (though not before Ava took this rather disconcerting photo of me reading my sci-fi mag!). A taxi from the hotel took us to the airport where we met up with Ling (from Lampang) again, who is taking a holiday in her hometown of Kunming. Getting a taxi once in China proved more difficult, however, and eventually we all squeezed onto a bus. It's nice to be "home" again, though we all remarked about the awful state of the toilets in Kunming, compared to what we've got used to in Thailand!
With Ava's shopping all done, I felt we should see at least a couple of the main tourist sights in Bangkok, although I've done them by myself in the past. We entered Wat Pho by mistake (thinking it was the more famous Wat Phra Kaew) but liked the enormous resting Buddha there [see photo above, right]. By the time we got to the neighbouring, correct Wat, they had shut the gates there for a long lunch.
Ava decided to use the time to have a Thai massage [see photo, right] at a fraction of the cost of one in Kunming, apparently, while I researched river boat tours in my guidebook. In the afternoon we got to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace [see top photo, left] though with some parts being repaired under scaffold and others cordoned off for services it wasn't as impressive as I remembered. Also, Ava took umbridge at being forced to hire and wear a gaudy cape to cover up a tiny section of shoulder flesh! To me it's an oddly insecure "god" who gets upset at the sight of a T-shirt or toes pointed in his vague direction (as another tourist got told off for). But I guess as tourists allowed to wander around snapping photos in a "sacred" place we have to play by their rules.
The one thing I had failed to do on my previous visits was to have a river and canal boat trip. So I persuaded Ava to hire a boat and go exploring with me. With a bit of bargaining we managed to get a "long-tailed boat" to ourselves for the same price as a boat shared with a tour group (though our "hour" was more like 40 minutes, and the promised "floating market" was more like a couple of moored boats selling trinkets). Still, it was nice to see another side of Bangkok and exchange smiles and waves with local kids playing in the (very dirty) water.
Faced with the choice of a bumpy half hour on the back of a truck followed by another half hour on a slow ferry, just to get to the bus station for the journey to Bangkok, we opted for a speedboat today to get us off Ko Samet island. It didn't work out much more expensive, as it turned out, and was a lot more fun. Just the two of us, plus the driver, bouncing over the waves.
The bus to Bangkok was quite slow in the amost perpetual traffic jams of that city, after which we took a taxi to the delightful four-star "Ambassador Hotel". Ava's friend-of-a-friend got us a fantastic room there at half price (£20/200RMB a night) which included aircon, free newspapers, fridge, satellite TV, superb international breakfast, free gym, free swimming pool, etc. A very nice antidote to Bangkok's heat, humidity and pollution.
After a few chats about out future together it seemed clear to me that, whilst marriage, living together, starting a family etc were all going to be big challenges requiring a lot of thought and planning, both Ava and I were talking about, and assuming, a shared future. Simply getting engaged in itself seemed free of difficulties though, and a public sign of commitment. And where nicer to propose than over a meal beside the quietly lapping sea on an idyllic island? Once Ava was convinced it wasn't one of my jokes, she finally said "Yes". So that was a relief! We're not rushing into any further plans or dates just yet. We looked at engagement rings but couldn't find anything that we particularly liked, so that's something we'll shop for again, once we're back in Kunming perhaps.
Ava and I signed up for a round-the-island cruise today. Hot, sunny weather had Ava scuttling for shade at first (white skin is as desirable in Asia as tannned skin is in the West). But a cooling breeze eventually tempted her out of her cocoon [see photo].
The trip included a couple of stops for snorkelling which we really enjoyed, freshly cooked lunch, a chance for some fishing (the crew caught and grilled a couple of fish, but none of the 7 passengers managed any catches), and a trip to a fish farm/zoo (which included small sharks, large turtles and various pretty and ugly fish).
Ava had bought three different bikinis for the holiday(!) and was keen to try each, having not had a chance to wear them before. So once we got back to our bunglaow, and spurred on by our snorkelling adventure, we had our first swim in the sea opposite our balcony. Very warm water and we were the only people in sight. A sudden downpour saw us scuttling back to the beach - well we didn't want to get wet!
After a fun overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Ava and I got an early morning bus and boat to the island of Ko Samet. We'd been warned that the northern beaches were busy and beery, so we headed down to a small resort in the south. They had a great bungalow with air-conditioning and a private balcony at just £20/200RMB a night, right on an empty beach, 10m from the clean and warm sea. Just what we needed.
Our bungalow was quiet, secluded and right on the beach [see red circle]
Oli and Ling drove us to Chiang Mai (1½ hours) this afternoon and are staying at the same guesthouse as us tonight. I spent some time in Chiang Mai a couple of years ago with the LEAF family (same guesthouse then too!) but was very open to revisit some sites of interest or do another elephant trek etc. But Ava's mind was very firmly set on the famous Sunday night market there and so, while Oli and I sauntered around and tried various snacks, Ling and Ava rummaged through every craft and clothes stall they could find!
I've had a recurrence of my dizziness problem today. No idea why, but a bit of a worry.
Ava, Ling and Oli
We've been very lucky so far with the weather. We tempted fate by visiting Thailand in their rainy season but, so far, any rainfall has been when we've been travelling by in car or asleep in bed. And the rain made for a rather spectacular waterfall at the park Oli and Ling took us to today [see photo]. We climbed up the path by the cascade of falls above for some way, but the heat and muidity wore us out sooner than we had hoped. The girls opted for a Thai massage while Oli and i explored the hot water springs nearby. In the evening we enjoyed a lovely meal with Daeng and her son Tempo. We move on to Chiang Mai tomorrow.
Thailand has some of the most impressive Buddhist Temples in the world and there's a real danger of visiting too many, too quickly and finding them all much the same (getting "templed out" is the technical term!). But Oli and Ling drove us out to Wat Phrae today and it really is a stunning collection of buildings.
With some parts dating back over 500 years, the temple felt active, "lived in" and cared for (without being overly restored). It seemed like there was something of interest or a new architectural style awaiting around every corner. Yet we saw very few other foreigners there, being some way out of (an untouristy) town. I particularly enjoyed a large gong which, when stroked in a certain way, emitted a low humming noise. An energetic party of uniformed school children started it with a stick until I showed them how to do the strokey/hummy thing and after that it was all they wanted to do!
After Wat Phrae we drove into the countryside to visit a large plaster Buddha perched on the top of a hill overlooking Lampang. Ling and Ava have quickly become best buddies [see photo], as I suspected they would, chatting in away in Kunming local language and sharing all sorts of "in-jokes"! The Buddha was fun to see, but more impressive were the hundreds of butterflies collecting pollen from the surrounding flowers - fluttering movement as far as the eye could see.
In the evening, Oli and Ling rang the changes with dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. Quite different from the Thai food we have been enjoying so far, but also delicious.
Ava, Jack & Guy, Ling, Oli's hand!
Ava and I arrived safely in Chiang Mai yesterday and were met by my old friends, Oli and Ling (who used to work at my school). It's great to see Oli [the hand in the bottom right of the photo!] who I haven't seen for a couple of years, and his wife Ling [right in photo] who I last saw in Kunming over a year ago. They drove us to Lampang, where they live and work, and are kindly letting us kip down in their spare room while we're here. We've had some delicious meals with some of their friends too - the food has been a real highlight so far.
Daeng, me, Pim, Ava
Another reason for heading to Lampang was to finally meet up with Daeng and Pim. They both work in the International School that "recruited" Oli and Ling. Daeng and I have been exchanging 2-3 e-mails a week for well over a year now and I already felt I knew her quite well despite only meeting here face-to-face today. She and Pim showed us around their pretty little school and we'll meet for a meal in a few day's time. The rain's holding off so far...
Ava and I fly off for a fortnight's holiday in Thailand later today. It will be her first time to see the country (outside of the airport, anyhow) while I saw it twice before. It's nice to experience it together this time though. We are hoping to meet some old friends of mine in Chiang Mai, and then head on to an island for some sun (though it's currently rain there, apparenlty!) and perhaps do some scuba diving. Then we'll return via Bangkok for some retail therapy. Back mid-August (...and if you are a Chinese burglar reading this, I have a big dog guarding my flat! ...and congratulations on your excellent English language reading skills, too!)
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