Sunday, June 8, 2008

Thailand Trip: Phuket

After dinner we went by Tuk Tuk to the night market. This is always great fun to do - the drivers go so fast, certainly not a ride for the faint hearted; the cost was 30 Baht, just under $1. The night market in Chiang Mai was much bigger and more varied than the one in Bangkok. We got all the shopping here that we had been looking for.

We hailed a Tuk Tuk to take us back to the Empress Hotel. The driver wanted to charge us 50 Baht, but we laughted and said "No way - 30 Baht" he nodded, it was a good try.

We left the next day for a long drive to Mae Hong Sorn. First stop is the elephant camp. We bought a huge bunch of bananas to feed to the elephants. Everywhere we looked there were elephants trying to grab the bananas. If you stood still for long a trunk came over your shoulder seeking out whatever goodies you might have. The elephants here have the tourist well trained. I saw several people have a whole bunch of 20 or more bananas whisked out of their hands by a grey trunk.

We watched the elephants having a bath in the river, they just loved it. The round balls of dung that the elephants were discharging were being collected by young girls with huge baskets standing down river!

We sat and watched the elephant show. It was great fun. Elephants pulling and stacking huge tree trunks, and playing mouth organs. It was obvious that the relationship they have with their mahouts is excellent.

We then drove to the orchid farm. We were all given an orchid to pin on our shirts when we arrived. There were some beautiful coloured orchids. There was also a butterfly farm which we went into. It was very hot and in the butterfly house, humid too. We were glad to buy a cold drink and sit in the shade for a while.

We learnt a bit about orchids. There about 25,000 species of orchid in the world. 1000 species in Thailand and 500 species in Chiang Mai alone. An orchid plant lives for about 15 years, however we were told it could live longer depending on its care.

We then had a long drive through very steep and winding mountain roads, round hairpin bend after hairpin bend, until we stopped for a picnic lunch. We stopped in a lovely spot. Sitting under straw roofed picnic umbrellas with cows grazing round us, the sound of tinkling cow bells was most relaxing.

All too soon we were under way again. We again wound our way up and down these steep hills and hairpin bends. We saw several forest fires; some were burning right to the edge of the road.

We had another much needed break when we visited a hill tribe. These people were not that primitive, they had water and electricity laid on to the village. This tribe used to grow opium but the government are now teaching them other farming skills like growing rice, rearing chickens, ducks and pigs. We wondered how many of the villagers still grew opium up in the hills away from the prying eyes of the officials. By the look of some of the old women, we thought that quite possible.

We were all getting hot, tired and dusty. The last stop on route was a very pretty riverside park with a cave that had quite large fish in. Nobody seems to know how deep or how far the cave goes, but it is a very pretty and refreshing place. There was an old water wheel there that interested Ralph. It was pulling up water from the river and putting the water back in the river! seemed pretty pointless to me!

We eventually arrived at Mae Hong Sorn and are booked into the Tara Hotel. After dinner it was an early night. We were all tired after today's trek throuugh the mountains.

After a good nights sleep our first visit was a short ride to the river where we got into the long tailed boats for about a half an hour's trip up river to the village of the Karen people. The boats are great fun but not too comfortable. It was a beautiful ride up the river with thick jungle on either side. The lack of any wildlife in a jungle like this is strange. Otto said that the people had killed all the animals, even the rabbits. They had also, in the space of only 50 years, cut down all the teak forests and now had to import the teak they required from Burma.

We arrived at the banks of the river where the Karen tribe live. These people came over the Burmese border in 1991 to escape the slavery in Burma. They were farmers in Burma but the Thai government have let them stay but won't let them start farming. The only money they get to live on comes from tourists like us. The Burmese border is only three miles away up river. The women of this tribe wear their wealth around their necks as brass bangles. They start wearing these bands as young as eight years old.

It looks very uncomfortable, they never take them off. We had all bought sweets for the children. The Karen people seem happy, clean and well fed; they have charm and dignity too. The children have a nice school where they go every day, although not today as it's Saturday. We stopped at the village for about half an hour and then boarded the boats and went back down river alighting at the elephant camp.

After having a drink, feeding the elephants with the bananas we had bought, we mounted our elephants and off we went for an elephant trek through the jungle.

We started off going down a very steep bank into the river. It was a bit scary as the elephant went down the very steep bank. It was a lovely ride. Our elephant waded through streams and up jungle paths. It was great fun, and being so high up on elephant back you can see everything so well.

After lunch we had the afternoon to relax. We went and spent the afternoon by the pool.

After a good nights sleep we collected our picnic boxes and started on the long trek back through the mountains.

We stopped at a big cave. We had to drive along dirt tracks to the place where the cave was. It was a huge cave with a river running through it, and it had stalactites and stalagmites. We had an option to go and see some cave paintings but it meant climbing up some very steep precarious looking steps. We decided not to go. The others in the group disappeared up into the roof of the cave, the guides were carrying lanterns and we watched the lights from the lanterns slowly disappear.

It was very hot and humid in the cave. We were offered a ride on a raft through the cave but apparently it was a long walk back once you got to the other side, so we declined.

When the group came back they said how difficult they found it as the steps were very steep and tall and several of the girls said their calf muscles were really aching, I'm glad we stayed behind.

It was a lovely spot with a pretty river, we talked about having our picnic lunch here but it was too early for lunch.

We stopped about an hour later on top of a hill for our picnic. The hotel had packed a very good picnic box we had chicken pieces, salad, rolls and a drink all very welcome and appetising.

We arrived back at Chiang Mai just after 5pm. After sorting out our cases we went off to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok.

After a short flight we arrived back at Bangkok and got transferred to the Sheraton Hotel.

After an overnight stop at the Sheraton we catch a flight the next afternoon for Phuket. We are staying at the Dusit Laguna.

Phuket lies in the Andaman Sea off the southwest coast of Thailand, and is linked to the mainland by a short bridge. It owes its wealth to rubber, tin and tourism.

We came to Phuket to relax after our tour round Thailand. There is a super swimming pool here, there are massage girls on the beach and the grounds of the hotel are lovely. It is nice to see and hear birds again. There is a lot of surf pounding onto the beach. There are lots of tall trees and grass and lots of shade to lay in. We reckon we can tolerate this for a week!

It is very hot in Phuket but thankfully, we have lost the high humidity that we had in Bangkok.

We spent a relaxing day by the pool which is the best we have ever seen. This evening there was a cabaret at the poolside. This was very colourful, fun and full of life.

The following day the sea had calmed down and the water sports were active. There is a choice of sailing, parascending, sail boarding and pedaloes.

I had a massage on the beach. I can't say I enjoyed having a massage in public, but when in Rome........ The masseuse's name is Tuk Tuk and she was very good. You can also have a manicure or pedicure which I may have tomorrow.

There are beautiful sunsets here. When we retired to bed the Benny Hill show was on T.V. we wondered what the Thais make of Benny Hill!

The following morning at breakfast we marvel at the amount the Japanese can eat. I really don't know; meat, noodles, fruit, cornflakes, yoghurt, porridge and a sweet cake - I would be sick if I ate that lot for breakfast. And they are all as skinny as pipe cleaners, there is no justice!!

We are taking a trip today to the James Bond Island. Our first stop is to a rubber plantation. This was really interesting. We were shown how the trees are tapped. I was surprised on how quickly the white rubber liquid started pouring out straight away. It was collected in a half coconut bowl. It only takes about half an hour for the rubber liquid to set. It is then put through what looked exactly like an old fashioned mangle to get out the water. It is put through the mangle several times until it is a flat sheet about 1/4 inch thick.

Away from the coast it is really hot and humid. After a short drive we boarded our long tailed boats and off we went through the mangrove swamps, it was like being back in Florida.

We stopped at a fishing village on stilts on the water. It was a fish farm and it smelt like it! There were lots of little shops, but we were rushed through these to see a rather seedy and pretty boring mosque. We were then rushed back to our boats. Why we stopped here I know not! It would have been much more interesting to learn something of the fish farming techniques.

We left the fish farm and had a super cruise through wonderful island scenery. We went through a cave with stalactites and stalagmites and eventually arrived at James Bond Island. The scenery was spectacular. As we alighted on the sandy beach I could almost here the dwarf in 'The Man with the Golden Gun' saying "Welcome, Mr. Bond".

The little island was unknown until the film company used it for the film; it is now a popular tourist stop. It is a small narrow island, only about 100ft wide.

Back into our long tailed boats for another very interesting and spectacular ride back to our starting point which was about ten miles from the island.

We spent a couple of days just enjoying the pool, the food, and the evening entertainment.

We took a trip to the pearl farm. We went by boat to Pearl Island. We had about an hour's talk on the culture of pearls. It was a very interesting and amusing talk. He said pearls were like babies, you implant the oyster and you never know what will appear - but whatever it is, you love it!

We saw the biggest pearl in the world. It had travelled the world on show but was now back at the island where it had been found. It was big, mis-shapen and I thought very ugly, but priceless, apparently.

We were shown how half pearls were made by implanting a half circle of plastic into the oyster and the oyster then makes a protective coating of pearl round it. It can't reject it, as it is stuck inside the shell with glue. They use the half pearls for earrings and pendants, after first filling the inside with mother of pearl. We had a very good man talking to us he was clear and humorous and made sure everyone saw and photographed everything he showed us. He told us that there are only 20 experienced pearl culturers in the world. All the best pearls come from the South China sea area, and it takes 15 years to learn how to farm pearls.

We then enjoyed a Thai lunch in a big open restaurant with a view of palm trees and the sea in the background.

We then went to the beach and swam in the sea. There was quite a strong current but not dangerously so. I don't normally like swimming in the sea but this swim was great and I will always remember it. It is how I'd imagined a tropical island to be. There were good fresh water showers to get rid of the salt.

This evening we took a Tuk Tuk to the Sheraton Hotel. There is a very good system here, free transport to several hotels where you can use your room number and the bill will be debited to your account. When we got back to our hotel the poolside entertainment tonight was Thai martial arts, a bit slow and tame we thought!

There was a beautiful sunset tonight, a fitting end to a great holiday.

Our last day in Phuket. We generally lazed around As we left for the airport the Kuoni rep gave me a box of orchids as a going away present which was a nice touch.

We flew home by Emirate Airways and were not impressed with this airline. The check-in system was a disgrace, the worst we have ever encountered.

We loved Thailand, especially the elepants. Once we had left Bangkok and went up country we lost the humidity which Ralph and I hate.

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