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.

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