Wednesday, 30 July 2014

There's a rat in the kitchen...or is there?

It is hardly cause for acute alarm when there is evidence of a tiny mouse in a flat, particularly when you co-reside with poisonous centipedes, burping toads, cockroaches, geckos and the occasional snake.

The first tell tale signs of our furry visitor were little pellets of black poo in my wife's knicker drawer.

It was early days in our epic challenge with this uninvited guest but in retrospect, it was the first indication that this was no ordinary rodent.  Subsequent weeks were to confirm this was no less than a super-rodent with an apparent weakness for junk food and  a perverse interest women's underwear.

Over recent weeks this little fella has become increasingly cheeky. Reluctant to encourage his nocturnal wandering around my wife's lingerie, we decided to close the kitchen door overnight. The next morning revealed that he had chewed through the door frame (presumably in a desperate attempt to escape and surround himself in lace and silk) leaving a significant pile of wood shavings and brick dust on the floor. He has also scaled the highest shelves in the kitchen and deliberately tipped my emergency rations of pot noodle on to the floor below, splitting the carton and allowing him a salty and very unhealthy snack.

Having developed a worthy respect for my adversary, I was slightly hesitant to revert to the local Chinese anti-rodent solutions that can verge on the barbaric. Instead,  I tried opening the kitchen window and closing the internal kitchen door in case we had blocked his means of escape. Things looked encouraging for a couple of days except that a large Huntsman spider took advantage of the open window to gain access and take up residence in the cupboard under the sink where he remains getting bigger and more grumpy. When there was no immediate sign of super -rodent, we deluded ourselves that he had returned to his family in sleepy rodent-ville, deep in the Hung Shing Ye jungle.

And then one evening, two days later we saw him , darting under the gas hob towards the pot noodles and he did not look like a rat or a mouse. He (or she) actually looked quite cute (ish) with pointed ears and legs that splayed out at the back like a squirrel. This confirmed sighting presented the perfect opportunity for our friends to play the role of expert zoologist and confident identifications ranged from a possum to a ground squirrel and even a mongoose.

Meanwhile our bananas were being eaten in greater quantities and when I left some English muffins on my desk inside my rucksack after a late night out, he find those and gobbled them too.

We had clearly exhausted all diplomatic avenues and it was time for tough action against this unilateral and unprovoked terrorist rodent attack. A trip to the hardware stores in the village highlighted a number of solutions. First I was offered a small clear plastic bag from under the counter with a skull and crossbones crudely printed on the side above a forbidding label saying 'poison'. The storekeeper refused to take any payment but insisted that I must not accept it if I had children or maybe he meant if I wanted to have children. In another store I was offered a solution which, judging by the illustration the side of the box, was like fly-paper for mice and rats. This highly effective adhesive pad would ensure that any passing rodent would just simply stick to it. But what then, I thought?

Finally, I stumbled across the perfect solution. For a mere $35 Hong Kong (less than £3-00) I procured an intricate wire cage with a spring door that can be baited, in this case with the obvious choice of English muffins, banana and a pair of lacy panties from Marks & Spencer. This will be humane, effective and Monsiuer Rodent can be released into the wild several kilometres from my pot noodles and my wife's underwear.

So tonight is the big night in our struggle with super rodent. The bait is set and the lights are dimmed. Game on my little furry friend. The morning will reveal if I have finally outwitted my elusive opponent and he can be returned to the wild with the other rats, possums, ground-squirrels and mongeese. Or will this be the year of the rat, after all?  

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Paradise Lost- Pulau Pangkor

Even the male leaf monkey turns his nose up with disgust, having tentatively inspected my squalid hotel room from the balcony outside.

Perhaps inevitably, the Pangkor Bay View Hotel does not offer a view, except of a rubbish strewn wasteland and it is certainly nowhere near a bay. Sadly, this crumbling concrete edifice located a few hundred meters up a scruffy narrow road, is entirely devoid of any charm, rather like the rest of the island.

Once upon a time, this was a natural unspoilt gem, sited just off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia in the straits of Malacca. A few humble fishing villages, some quiet white sand beaches and the forsaken ruins of a 17th century Dutch fort, reminding visitors of the days when this was a strategic maritime spot in the lucrative spice trade and later in tin and rubber.

As the ferry from Lumut passes the naval base and approaches the traditional fishing villages of the east coast of Pangkor, it seems surprisingly sleepy and undeveloped. It’s not difficult to imagine how, not long ago, it was a romantic island paradise, popular with Malaysian holiday makers and a few western back-packers. Now very few visit except organised tour parties of hysterical local students, those imprisoned behind the high fences of luxury resorts who could be in Barbados for all they know and those few who still pay any attention to Lonely Planet.

The mountainous spine of the island is thick with dense steaming jungle but the periphery is lined with a smooth black tarmac road that separates the forest from the sea.  Along the east coast piles of refuse are either stacked in stinking heaps near the traffic or just distributed casually across the beaches and on the forest floor. Polystyrene food cartons, plastic bottles, discarded food waste, soiled nappies, plastic bags; an impressive smorgasbord of shite.

Teluk Nipah is a handsome U-shaped bay with two boulder strewn islands guarding each end of it, which has been tragically ruined by callous disregard on the part of humanity.

Concrete bunkers have been built on the shoreline to accommodate tacky shops selling “I love Pangkor” T shirts. The narrow strip adjoining the road looks like an abandoned seaside refugee camp complete with rusting barbeques, discarded kayaks, wrecked jet-skis and dilapidated temporary buildings. Hundreds of faded orange life jackets hang from every tree on temporary string lines, ready for a maritime disaster that may have already occurred. Giant black Hornbills perch on the fence of a deserted restaurant being fed sticky rice and crisps by bored tourists and those greedy Hornbills won’t hesitate to share anyone's lunch.

Surly and recalcitrant youths sit on motor scooters and rev the engines before screaming away in to the distance.

This is high-season but there is an unmistakable atmosphere of mass resignation and desolation as a white plastic chair is washed in the surf and the high water line is marked by a thick strand line of marine rubbish. There are more pariah dogs to be seen patrolling the beach than tourists sunbathing and a single converted fishing boat tows an inflatable raft at high speed across the polluted bay.

There are no high-rise resorts in this small soulless village so the greed of international corporate groups and global capitalism cannot be blamed for this local man-made disaster.

At least that monkey has the good taste return to his jungle home in the mountains and I can escape from this lost paradise on the first ferry back to the mainland the morning. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Learning Cantonese, I think I’m learning Cantonese, no I don’t think so.

For someone who has exhibited little or no aptitude for mastering second languages to date, learning Cantonese is proving to be several steps too far.

Only two lessons into an intensive course of eight, at the Panda Cantonese Academy on Lamma Island with my devoted and proficient tutor, Dilys, and things are already looking ominous.
Cantonese is monosyllabic which should make it simple. Unfortunately, it also has a number of tones that must be mastered before vocabulary can be attempted or grammar properly grappled with. Some text books insist there are no less than thirteen tones but Dilys has decided we will stick to six, which is more than enough for the time being, as far as I am concerned.
Because of these different tones, one word can have multiple meanings depending on which tone is adopted and making basic errors can have quite devastating consequences on your social life. 
For example, “Ngo Hai (6th tone) Stuart, “means simply “I am Stuart”.
However, “Ngo Hai (1st tone) Stuart,” means “I fuck Stuart”.
As you can probably appreciate, this is quite a crucial difference in translation when introducing yourself to the neighbours in Hung Shing Yeh or, even worse, exchanging friendly banter with schoolchildren on the ferry.
One tiny and subtle variation in pronunciation can mean the difference between approving nods of amusement and being arrested.
And when I use my new list of stock Cantonese phrases on local shopkeepers and café owners, they just look at me blankly as though I might have uttered Russian, Hebrew or even Welsh rather than their own Mother tongue.
Tragically, during Lesson two, things descended rapidly from mild embarrassment to utter humiliation.
At least at school you could mime along with the more linguistically gifted or just mumble enthusiastically in the back row but at these intensive one to one sessions at the Panda Academy, there is nowhere to hide.
To be fair, when I was asked to repeat an audio Cantonese conversation between Mr Wong and his boss Miss Cheung, I was still suffering from a slight hangover from a night at the Happy Valley racecourse the night before.  My mind went in to a blind panic as the dialogue speeded up to the pace of near normal conversation.  I started looking at my notebook in desperation when Mr Wong says “Ho Ho” as I thought it might be some sort of Christmas comedy being acted out featuring a Chinese Santa.
This caused  the usually patient Dilys to accuse me of “Chut  Mau” or “cheating” though literally translated it means “chucking the cat out of the house”. I feared that Dilys might chuck me out of her house so poor was my performance.  I am confident she would have done if I had not been persuaded to pay for the first eight lessons in advance.
Poor Dilys has just emailed me the recording of today’s lesson but I am too embarrassed to listen to it. 
Lost in translation without a GPS.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Successful psychology for bus trips in Laos

The bus station at Vientiane is crowded, chaotic and thick with hot choking diesel exhaust even at this early hour as I grapple with wads of the incomprehensible yip currency to pay for a small bag of satsumas from a hawkers stall near the ticket office.

I am still trying to mentally calculate whether this modest polythene bag of fresh fruit has cost about 50 pence or £50 as I look for the 0800 Express VIP service to Luang Prabang and remind myself of the first psychological tip for bus travel in Laos. Never take any notice of the name of the bus or the bus company for invariably, the luxury implied in the name is inversely proportional to the luxury experienced on board the vehicle in question.

For Premier Class Luxury VIP express think squalid rusting wreck that leaves two days late and breaks down in  muddy lay-by in the middle of a jungle.

Like most journeys in this region, this one starts early in the morning or early in the evening.  Arrive in the dark or leave in the dark-take your choice. Having squeezed my frame into the last remaining vacant seat for the 10 hour bus journey north, a painfully cheerful Australian man with a white beard and spectacles politely informs me I am sitting in his seat.

I am immediately reminded of a famous management guru book you might be familiar with called "Who moved my cheese?" Without wishing to reduce a rather tedious best-selling self-help guide to a sentence or two, the mantra is that if something changes just go with the flow rather than waste a lot of energy resisting that change which will in all probability achieve nothing at all.

This is particularly relevant to seat allocation on buses in south-east Asia.

Having located an alternative spot, the 0800 VIP express departs promptly at 08.23 sharp which introduces the next psychological tip after the cheesy one. Remove your wristwatch or indeed any other device that might reveal the time and secrete it deep in your baggage. Ideally, just smash it into a thousand tiny pieces because the south-east Asian bus network does not work to the same time zone or convention that you might be familiar with.

Next, you must meditate very deeply indeed and cast aside any tangible consciousness of the destination that might be printed on your ticket. That way you will only feel delight and a mild sense of excitement when, after less than 2km into your ten hour journey, you feel yourself grinding to an unscheduled halt outside a scruffy tyre repair shop or fuel depot on the outskirts of town. The bus remains here for no apparent reason for an indeterminable time while one of the posse of assistant bus drivers smokes a cigarette with the owner of the aforementioned tyre repair shop and shares what appears to be some sort of raucous joke or anecdote that is evidently highly popular at this ungodly time of the morning.

All the time the agony of the armrest digs more deeply into your forearm, the man behind continues to pummel his knees into your lower spine and that cute baby you made funny faces at while waiting at the depot is now screaming at full throttle.

Often there are tell-tale signs of when progress may re-commence. On the 0800 VIP Express to Luang Prabang it is when the engine stalls, which is does infallibly every time the driver attempts to engage first gear. As the engine stalls I can feel my body relax slightly as he restarts the engine and we draw away uncertainly from the kerb.

Laotians and Cambodians must have a much more highly developed sense of self-control than us Europeans. They are sanguine and philosophical about the entire bus travel affair. If there is only a cardboard box to sit on then that will have to do. If the bus is six hours late it cannot be helped. If the clutch scrapes and slips making an excruciating grinding scream as we engage a steep gradient there is little that they can be expected to contribute.

There is no question in their mind of complaining to the driver, demanding a refund or spontaneously starting a fight with the man behind with the restless knees. There is little value in writing to the bus company or taking up the matter with the local MP. Even a sigh of exasperation or a sardonic raised eyebrow is a waste of energy on a hot day in the tropics.

They must have all read that cheese self-help book or more likely, have never felt the need to.
By way of contrast, I have observed that North Americans often seem to make the most impatient and intolerant of travellers. I remember hearing an American complaining volubly on an English train when he was asked for his ticket by a surly inspector for the fourth time on the same relatively short and much delayed train journey.

“Jesus H Christ, what sort of dammed fool train service to do call this anyway?” he demanded.

Fellow passengers all tutted silently and turned their heads away from his rudeness having wanted to ask the same question for decades but always lacked the nerve.

Strangely enough my travel companion for the next 10 hours is a young American man from Washington DC called Chip. Chip is wearing a very suitable khaki outfit and has that well groomed Ivy League look about him with thin brown curly hair, high cheek bones and clear blue eyes.  I notice he has unusually thin and bony knees for an athletic looking chap and he tells me that he has spent six months travelling to get over a broken relationship but will be returning to his steady job in banking next month. He was rather keen on Indonesia and Albania.

I wondered sadly if the love of his life had been unable to reconcile herself or himself to a life with a banker with knobbly knees.

Disproving my theory about Americans, Chip kindly offers me the aisle seat and proves to be taciturn, diffident and most importantly, still. We exchange a few words of pleasantries but as seasoned bus travellers we both respect that in such cramped conditions the maximum amount of mental space must be offered to one's fellow travellers.

This could, I suppose, be another tip. Always be very tentative and gentle in all attempts at conversation with fellow travellers in the hope that this courtesy might be reciprocated. Never put your face in someone else’s and progress to tell them your entire life story in a ten hour uninterrupted monologue. You might well  find that you are left stranded on the side of a remote mountain road during a toilet stop as only your neighbouring passenger will raise the alarm to the driver if he has left without you.

The road to Luang Prabang winds, dips and turns relentlessly through the beautiful mountainous countryside of Laos, a poor nation of about six million souls where 85% of people are subsistence farmers scratching a modest living from the earth and from the abundant Mekong river and its many tributaries that appear and disappear in the valleys as we rattle and bump our way north. Gazing out of the stained windows I casually observe that while rivers meander more on the flat, the road winds more when on the steeper gradients. I am pleased with my private observation but taking my own advice, decide not to share it with Chip.

The old Laotian man across the aisle introduces himself in English and tells me something about the scenery pointing out a fish market and two Chinese cement factories-the only industrial buildings seen over 500km. Mr B lives in Luang Prabang and does some work as a tour guide. Life expectancy for men in Laos is only 58 so it is impossible to guess his age but he has deep lines etched into his dark bony face and his sharp jaw a gives him an air of distinction. Smartly dressed in a pressed blue shirt and wool trousers he could be a university academic or the district chief of police.

With alarm, it suddenly occurs to me that he could also be my minder that the people in Bangkok had warned me about.

I smiled at him warmly trying to convey innocence, honesty and honour in one complex grimace but he only looks back blankly.

Not deterred by my contorted facial expressions, he tells me he also speaks Lao and Czechoslovakian. He studied agriculture for five years at a university just outside Prague in the late 1970’s.  I could only try to imagine what a young man from the mountainous tropical jungles of Laos would have made of a snowy bleak winter in communist Prague.

“Some days it was minus 30 degrees Celsius” he tells me, as though reading my thoughts.

Monday, 23 July 2012

10 out of 10 for Vicente

There are four official warning levels issued by the Hong Kong Observatory during Typhoon season (1,3, 8 and 10) but the first unofficial warning was the gecko in the sink on Saturday morning.

That evening the light in the harbour went distinctly faded and fuzzy as we crossed on the Star Ferry from Tsim Tsa Tsui, as though there was a sandstorm brewing somewhere in Kowloon. Elizabeth reported that her doorman had said something about a typhoon when we bumped into her by the Star Ferry terminal on the central side but we thought little of it.

Then there was a sudden torrential rainstorm during dinner in Central and again on the ferry returning to Lamma Island.

By Sunday morning the sea, which had been like warm brown washing -up  water all week, suddenly felt cool and clear during our morning swim at Hung Shing Ye. Seeing a fish at all is a rarity in Hong Kong waters, which are mostly polluted and overfished but today there was a large shoal of over-excited small silver fish rising and causing a rapid pattering noise on the surface of the water.

By Monday morning it was raining seriously and the official Typhoon warning level was Number One. A tropical storm was developing in the South China Sea but it was still 400km away so this was only a cautionary measure.  No need to panic. Just don’t plan any solo sailing trips across the Taiwan Strait and think about bringing your washing in. I thought it appropriate to tie down the pot plants on the patio, just to enter into the spirit of things.

During the course of Monday the tropical storm somewhere in the South China Sea had turned into Typhoon Vicente and rather than tracking harmlessly west towards Hainan Island, it had turned right 90 degrees and was heading north; straight for us.  Level One was quickly upgraded to Level Three. It was time to start lashing things down.  

The rain was now beating down outside the French windows and squally winds bent the trees over like straws. In the bay, just 92 steps below our patio, the wind was picking up spray from the surface of the silver grey sea and whipping it across the surface of the water. There were now two dozen river trade vessels and coasters visible between the squalls, anchored up in the West Lamma channel, hoping for some shelter from Vicente.

By 5pm we were at Level Eight and mighty Vicente was on his way. He was edging north-west at about 20km per hour towards the Pearl River Estuary and Hong Kong.  At sunset the wind was raging, the rain smashed down in great sheets and for once, there were no mosquitios. I spotted a small frog trying to take shelter in one of my shoes left outside the windows and left him to it.

The night hours were quite magnificent as the storm created an immense din of rain, wind lashed trees, howls, and cracks interspersed with the distant smashes of broken pots and glasses. Sometimes inexplicable scraping noises like a large boulder rubbing against a tin roof. In the background, the steady chorus of frogs croaking and groaning their approval.

Being in the lee of a reasonable sized mountain, we felt we could safely open the patio doors and watch the entire nocturnal display of natural raging violence, as large unidentified flying debris swept past the window. 

Later, the wind changed direction to the south-east and leaves and small pieces of vegetation were being blown in and plastered against the windows by horizontal rainwater spraying in all directions. The patio chairs, carefully stacked and pressed against a sheltered wall were found lying on their back in a hedge on the other side if the flat. It was time to shut the doors and lock them.

By midnight just as we went to bed the warning was raised to Ten for the first time since 1999.  A huge potted plant tied by me to a steel railing was effortlessly bowled over. The bamboo bowed and ducked as wave after wave of rain was smashed down on it by the winds. Lightning flashed through the darkness but the sound of thunder was lost in the cacophony created by the wind.

The next morning the worst was over and it was possible to survey the scene of the worst teenage party you could imagine. Every path littered with branches and leaves of every shape and size. Our sea view had expanded by 25% as the top section of a tree in front of us had been chewed off and spat on the ground. Even narrow spindly branches from hedges had been savagely ripped off by the Typhoon, which had never reached closer than about 30 km from our home. It veered west again about 2am and headed for Macau but that was close enough for comfort.

The tall trees on the beach which families had shaded under last Saturday had been uprooted and dumped on the sand. Water poured from the steps of the Concerto Inn as the rainwater carved a completely new river channel for itself through the small hotel's grounds and via the beach outside to the angry grey sea. A large fallen tree was propped up by a split and partially crushed corrugated iron fence. Our neighbour, Ros, told me it was the worse she had seen in 40 years in Hong Kong. Another neighbour, Annie had been so scared she crawled into a corner of her flat with her dogs- kept away from the windows and hid on the floor praying for it to end. She seemed very shaken.

A typhoon like Vicente is a powerful, frightening and dangerous phenomena though there is also something magnificent and exciting about nature brushing aside mankind with all of our modern sophisticated technology leaving us to quake helplessly in its path. For that reason, I think its 10 out of 10 for naughty Vicente.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Filipino Polar Bears

You don’t expect to see polar bears in the Philippines but having seen a chicken being checked in for the Manila flight at Iloilo airport, nothing surprises me in this part of the world.

I was returning from the noise, colour and partially controlled chaos of the annual Iloilo Paraw regatta when I saw the distinctive tail feathers of the chicken. They were sticking through a gap in the top of the cardboard box that was slightly too small to accommodate it. Its owner did not look the least concerned about its welfare as it joined his other baggage on the black conveyor belt, bound for the aeroplane hold.

I had been fortunate enough to be the (paying) guest of Mr Reinhold Schaeffter, at his newly opened, Bear Island Paradise Resort.

Three life-size stone polar bears greet you on arrival at the resort at Tigbauan, just down the coast from Iloilo city. Even though the freshly painted white bears are not real you still can’t repress a feeling of concern for their comfort and welfare as they stand in the concrete car park as the afternoon sun beats down with all its indiscriminate brutality.

Reinhold is a charming German banker (if you can imagine such a thing) who gently patrols his resort in his swimming trunks and straw cowboy hat like a benign King surveying his kingdom. He pauses once and a while to exchange pleasantries or share an anecdote with his loyal subjects.

He is a small man, probably in his early seventies, with parted white hair, a small red face and twinkling eyes. Queen to this modern day monarch of Bear Island is his elegant wife, Shirley.

The delightful small resort might be Reinhold’s folly, his investment, or even a sentimental gift for his wife to whom he appears totally devoted. No-one is quite sure.

Designed by a local architect, it is very luxurious by local standards with well-appointed cabanas, a huge swimming pool and freshly tended gardens. Unlike the Shangri-La or the Marriot though, locals are encouraged to come and picnic in the grounds for a nominal fee and neighbours just pitch up to use the bar by the pool or meet with friends.

The resort sponsored and hosted the local jet -ski championship reception. It was a lavish affair with outside caterers and fresh white linen tablecloths. The local picnic parties could hardly believe their good fortune. For their modest 150 peso fee they discovered that champagne, fine seafood and roast suckling pig was included amongst the fountains and the palm trees.

The local Mayor, a young good looking man with an expensive Manila haircut and manicured nails, is often seen enjoying a quiet drink in the shade or in animated discussions with his host.

From the terrace beyond the infinity pool, white or blue triangular sails of paraws, the traditional sailing canoe with two bamboo outriggers, skim downwind towards the fishing villages further down the coast. Local children scream and play in the surf.

I suspect we might be the first and only guests in the resort and the charming staff or Reinhold’s Angels as they are known are inexperienced but extremely attentive. There isn’t a restaurant yet but breakfast and snacks are fixed in Shirley's private kitchen. Dinner can be taken at a neighbouring hotel a short walk down the beach.

At dusk a small army of frogs appear on the lawns waiting patiently for the garden lights to be switched on to attract the bugs. During a power-cut Reinhold and Shirley organise buckets of water and offer the use of one of their private apartments.

One evening after a private traditional German dinner hosted by Reinhold and Shirley complete with sausage and Bavarian ale, we continue conversation about Vietnam, London and the plight of the Euro, over seven-star Metaxa.

“We must help the Greeks in very way we can” says Reinhold as he offers another glass of the liqueur.

We raise our glasses and toast the Greeks.

And given the current state of the European economy, that’s a pretty majestic gesture.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Bangkok's Rustic Retreat

Some people never quite get to grips with Bangkok.

For many visitors it is a city with plenty of heart but little soul and no discernible centre.

For others it can be just a little, well, overwhelming.

Even for those that thrive in the city's polluted air and congested, bustling streets, there comes a time when a retreat is required. A rural idyll perhaps, where the only noise is the soft tinkling of cow bells and the rustle of banana palms, swaying on a sweet coastal breeze.

Maybe that was running through Bronwen Evan’s mind when she and her husband Surin bought a piece of scrubland overgrown with tussock grass, weeds and rattan vines on the side of a hill next to the Gulf of Thailand. They set up a small resort there and decided to call it Faa Sai.

Faa Sai literally means clear skies but also has spiritual connotations of a higher place or pure heaven” explains Bronwen, as we climb the shaded path spanned by dry tree roots that leads from her charming little resort up the steep tree studded hill behind it.

“The locals believe the air here is very pure” she says, as a butterfly floats above her head.

Here at Faa Sai, hidden away, about 250km south-east of Bangkok and not far from the old maritime city of Chanthaburi, it’s not just the air that’s pure.

It feels more like pure Thailand and isn’t really a tourism area at all.

“From our garden” announces the young waitress as she places a huge plate of sliced tropical fruit in front of us. Those three words make quite an apt motto for Faa Sai. Pineapple, banana, jack fruit, mango and papaya all grow here and they taste wonderful.

The area surrounding the resort is fertile and abundant and Chanthaburi has a rich history as a trading area for the Chinese, who came in their sailing junks in search of the hardwoods and other forest products more than five centuries ago.

You can still see why those early traders made the effort, if you take a just short bicycle ride or make a longer trip by car into the charming city of Chanthaburi, about 40mins drive away.

Carefully tended cashew orchards, fish ponds surrounded by low banana trees, gridded salt ponds with large sacks of salt for sale at the side of the road and countless fields of peppers and spices.

It’s probably much the same sight that the early Chinese traders witnessed in the 15th century.

“Our mission is just to preserve a small natural habitat” says Bronwen who developed a love of green spaces during her childhood in New Zealand and has won a number of green awards for the resort over the years. The water at Faa Sai is solar heated, indigenous plants and trees are grown in the gardens, they grow much of their own food, re-cycle the water and train and employ local people.

Having said all that, it always feels informal, homely and welcoming and never like being part of some devout eco-project.

From the resort it is easy to walk to the nearby beach or cycle to the private smallholding complete with fish pond. Here the huge black fish are so friendly they greet you if you peer into the clear water that reflects the blue skies above. Swallows swoop into the water to drink.

Revealed by the sound of cow bells, Uncle It, the gardener, tends to the cattle while his young grandson completes his school homework in the shade of a Bodhi tree, its huge heart shapes leaves shielding him from the afternoon sun.

Bronwen admits that neither the cattle nor the fish are ever likely to reach the tables of the Faa Sai restaurant.

“The animals the have become more like pets” she admits.

Her guests tend to be European families with a sense of adventure who want to see something of rural Thailand before heading for the beaches of the Ko Chang archipelago to the south or ex-pat and Thai executives and their families from Bangkok who return again and again just for the peace and quiet.

Bronwen organises a huge range of tours to the local sights but often guests are content just to sit by the swimming pool with a trashy novel or two while their children run about under the flame trees and explore the extensive gardens.

She still has her high-powered corporate job in Bangkok and her precious week-ends are spent managing the resort and tending the gardens with Surin.

Catching the two of them serenely toiling in the heat with rakes and hoes, it is apparent that Faa Sai is as much a rustic retreat from Bangkok for them as it is for their guests.