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.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Christmas at CocoCape

There is a resident three legged dog at Coco-Cape Resort, Ko Mak where we are spending Christmas.
The waiter says she is very old and she hobbles around the dining tables sadly before collapsing in the sand.
Thankfully, even on Christmas Eve, there are few signs of traditional Christmas festivities except the model Father Christmas resplendent in a red velvet suit. Santa has been inserted into the bows of a dilapidated wooden boat dragged up on the beach. He is holding some reins but as the boat points into wind it looks more like he is holding the painter of a speedboat. In the stern of the blue boat a hammock has been rigged, presumably in case Santa should feel the need for a siesta later on his journey. Instead of presents, there is a loosely assembled pile of coconuts.
It’s a worrying sign that the staff have taken to wearing those cheesy Santa hats in the burning sunshine and 30 degree plus temperatures. They wear them with an excited pride and I have even seen one or two wearing them off duty.
“Are you staying just for Merry Christmas or Merry Christmas and Happy New Years?” they ask you cheerfully as you scramble out of the pick-up truck to check in.
There is no chance of a white Christmas here but the wind has been very strong over the last two nights. Our small hut sits on stilts above the ocean and as the tide rises under us and the sea batters the shoreline powered by the strong northerly wind, it’s like being at sea in a storm in a boat that does not move.
The young Polish couple in hut next door confessed that when they were awoken at 3am by the sound of crashing waves underneath their bed they feared a Tsunami had struck.
It’s very romantic to lie in bed at night with the doors of our hut opening onto the restless sea with white caps visible in the darkness. I insisted on leaving the door open and dispensing with the mosquito net only to be eaten alive by sand-flies seeking shelter from the gale.
In Thailand, the backpackers, perverts, winos and free-loaders have all returned home for the festive season and Ko Mak was never really their scene anyway. No cars, no night-clubs, sleazy bars or high rise hotels here.
Our fellow guests are mostly young families from Scandanavia or Eastern Europe escaping the biting cold of home, some romantic couples from Asia avoiding intrusive family questions and, of course, the single ladies of a certain age.
These affluent professional women in their forties who holiday conspicuously on their own are becoming more prevalent in Asia. Accompanied by no more than a laptop computer, or a more likely an IPAD, they seem to take traveling in isolation to new extremes.
While families or couples may smile benignly in your direction or exchange a brief greeting en route to breakfast, she will avoid eye contact at all costs. She will even find an urgent need to rummage for something on the treeline rather than pass you on the beach. She swims alone in the pool early in the morningand she eats alone in the restaurant in the early evening, engrossed by private data on her computer screen.
There is something quite deliberate and focused about her solitude.
No roast turkey this year. Just huge deep fried prawns and delicious seafood at the beach café.
No bracing walks through snowy woods and fields with the mad big eared one. Just endless swimming in perfect blue seas, an occasional massage,or a gentle cycle through shady rubber plantations.
No Queen’s speech to avoid this year. Just quiet talks on the end of the sun- bleached timber pier which stretches out into the Gulf of Thailand.
No port and stilton. Maybe just a glass or two of local Sang Som rum which softly erodes the brain and stimulates weird dreams of ships captained by Santa Claus and beach parties with dancing three legged dogs.