Michael Lück
Michael Lück
Location: Hong By Starlight, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Once again we packed our bags and headed off to the airport. Of course, we took a tuk-tuk! You have no idea how spacious they are: We got our two bags, two carry-on backpacks, and us into one single tuk-tuk - and it wasn't even cramped! In the by now so common tuk-tuk manner we were driven swiftly to the airport, where - just as it was in Ubon Ratchathani - first security checks were already done at the terminal door. All luggage was screened and passengers had to walk through a metal detector. Pretty useless if you ask me - I gave up on removing my pen, wallet, keys, and cell phone from the pockets, and those detectors didn't even go off! Anyway, courtesy to being an UA Premier Executive member we had access to the Thai Airways lounge, which is always welcome: Free food and drinks, and free Internet access. And the waiting time goes by much faster in a much more comfortable environment ;-) But we didn't have to wait that long anyway, and we boarded the good old A 300-600 for the 1:20hr flight to Phuket. The flight was once again nice and friendly, with a meal service. Arriving at Phuket, John awaited us at the airport. I have known John for quite a few years now, through the tourism research discussion forum TRINET. He owns SeaCanoe in Phuket, an ecotour operation that tries to do the best possible job, and be a real ecotour operator. It was good to finally meet him in person, and it was incredibly nice of him to come all the way up to the airport (about a one hour drive), just to pick us up and drive us down to Patong, where our hotel was. We had a good chat about this and that, and the drive was over very quickly. He dropped us off at the Deevana Patong Hotel & Spa, which we also booked through the Internet. What a nice hotel! It looked beautiful, at check-in we were sat down (instead of the common standing at the counter), given cold towels and a cocktail! That's how we like it, haha! John bid us farewell until we'd see him a couple of days later on one of his trips.

It was another hot day, and thus we made good use of the pool. We also walked around the town, and it was quickly confirmed what we expected: A typical tourist town, with everything geared towards western tourists. I already knew what to expect, but it was still a bit shocking to me how open it was: There were lots and lots of white men in their 50s or older (mostly from the UK, Germany, and the US), with a young Thai girl. What was interesting (and a bit unexpected to me) was that they all walked down the street, holding hands. It almost looked like "normal" married couples, fresh in love. What we also realised was that it didn't seem like prostitution in the classic way, i.e. for a short time, but more like a "holiday romance" (or at least the illusion of one) - and of course paid for as well... Often , we saw such couples sitting at the dinner table at restaurants, and not even exchanging one word. I guess the bedroom performance is more important than language skills and any conversation...? At about 5pm we went towards the beach, and it was surprisingly large. The sun started setting, and it turned into the most beautiful sunset we had ever seen. The red of the sun was almost unreal! We kicked our behinds for not having had the camera with us. Oh well, this is paradise, and we had two more evenings!

Next day, we walked around town, and found a spanking new shopping mall of a size that puts any mall in NZ to shame. Even better, in the mall was a supermarket with a variety of food that is beyond imagination. I lived in Germany, Canada, New Zealand and Scotland - and have never seen such a supermarket! The lollie section alone was huge (and we bought lots, haha!), even with lots of imported stuff from Europe, including my favourite Haribo wine gums, and German and Swiss chocolate!
We also spent time at the pool again (of course with a cocktail...), and I started reading a book I got from Renee when I was home in February. It was "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini. If you get a chance to read this book, please do so! It is a fascinating book, very touching, thrilling, and one of those books you can't put down before you have finished it. it is about life in Afghansitan, long before the Russians invaded it, and up to the years the Americans came... I finished it on the flight back home... And at 5pm we were back to another wonderful sunset at the beach - at least we thought we would... But today it was cloudy, and although it was beautiful, it was not even close to what we had seen the evening before. Anyway, we had tripod and camera with us, so we took a few photos. Oh, have I mentioned yet that we also liked the Singha beer? ;-)

On Saturday, we got picked up by John at about 11am for our adveture out on the water. The transfer by van to the pier took about an hour. On the van with us was John, Lottie (an independent film maker from the UK, who was working on a documentary on birds nest soup - a delicacy in China), and an Australian family. On the boat we met the rest of the gang and headed off towards Phang-na Bay National Park. On the way we got a nice snack with some really yummy food. John and his crew gave an introduction to the area, but also a briefing on saftey and behaviour on the water. On the way, we also saw a number of Bramany Kites hovering behind the boat, and diving through the air to the watersurface in order to catch some chicken skin, the crew chucked out for them (see photos).

Not long and we reached the first hongs (btw., it was close to the famous "James Bond Island", which is basically a rock in the water where tour operators take thousands of tourists all the time...). Every inflatable kayak had a guide and two passengers. Mario, or Thai guide with an Italian name, was really nice, friendly, knowledgable, and spoke English very well. He paddled us through the hongs and did a great job. You get close to the rock wall of the island and wonder where you will go, until you are under some overhanging rock, that gets lower and lower. Eventually, you have to lie down flat in the kayak, and have the cave ceiling about 5cm away from your nose! At times it gets pitch dark, and only torches can help navigate the system. After a short while daylight reappears, and the cave opens up to a spectacular lagoon, surrounded by very high steep cliffs - almost like a fiord! At times it is an almost eerie feeling there, very quiet, little wildlife. But we did indeed see a monkey high up on the wall, and a few mudskippers on mangrove roots. Mudskippers are amphibians, and basically fish with two front legs and a tail. We went back out again, and into the next hong. Again, it was breathtaking, and sheer beauty! After quite a while there, we went back to the boat and had a wonderful dinner. Freshly grilled fish, shrimps, salads, etc. An impressive buffet, especially for the location, i.e. on a boat! We also had time to take a kayak on our own and paddle around the area. It was wonderfully calm - the calm before the storm! - and Neil, Lottie and myself paddled around a bit. Well, Lottie and I paddled, and Neil relaxed ;-) When we got back to the boat, the sun started setting, and it was quite spectacular. Dark rainclouds and a thunderstorm came closer, and the dark light made the sunset look even more impressive! At sunset each group, together with their guide, built a little offering, made of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense. When it was dark we hopped into the kayaks for the final time and paddled to a nearby cave, lit the candles and incense and let the offerings float. It was a very beautiful sight, and quite touching, except for the British brats that kept shouting, laughing and splashing around - they spoiled the whole thing a bit :( On the way to and from the cave we could see plenty of dinoflagellates, tiny organisms that light up when wave energy hits them. Holding your hand in the water and they light up! Quite a funny thing to see. The only time I have seen this before was from a ferry from Oostende to Dover on the English Channel - there, the whole sea was lightning green! Back on board, we headed back to the pier, and were brought back to the hotel. Each person received a CDRom with lots of information about the area, photos, etc. A valuable and welcome treat at the end of the tour!
Below a number of photos about the trip. The guy in the red single kayak is John Gray, and in front of me in the yellow kayak is Lottie...

At the hotel, we once again encountered a few of our favourite neighbours: Cats! They were everywhere, and to our surprise very clean. They are a different breed (I saw those in Fiji as well), and much smaller than our domestic cats. The ones on the photos are fully grown. I wish Stella and Jamie were that size, haha! Back at the pool after sunset, it was great to swim, because another thunderstorm came close - VERY close. It was suddenly bucketing down, and we left the water when the lightning was right above us ;-) The rain drove a number of toads out of their hiding and we saw a few jumping around the park-like grounds of the resort.

Next morning, we once again had to get up early. We took the hotel shuttle to the airport for our final leg back to Bangkok. But this is - as you have guessed - another story, and will be told in the next blog....

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Chiang Mai (2)

After I posted the last blog last night, I got an e-mail saying that my pants had shrunk (thanks a lot, Chris!). As a matter of fact, they haven't shrunk, but I have been growing taller! ;-)

Well, back to our story.... that guy was indeed at the hotel at 8:30am sharp. Sounds like a good start :) He took us out of the city, and after about an hour or so we arrived at the Mae Tang Elephant Park. We just got to buy a ticket for the complete package, including feeding elephants, an elephant show, elephant ride, an ox-cart ride, lunch, and bamboo rafting.
First we could buy some sugar cane and bananas to feed the elephants. It was actually quite funny to watch Neil, because he wasn't too sure about these large animals. He found their trunks a bit snotty and smelly. And they are much more hairy and the skin is much thicker and rougher than it looks like...;-) But he did well, and after a short while I took turn. Second, the whole herd was led to the river for their daily morning bath. It seemed as if the animals enjoyed this routine, playing around in the water. Then they had an elephant show, which was the part I was a bit uneasy about. But for most of the time it didn't seem too bad, and the tasks the elephants were performing didn't seem to stressful. What amazed us were two elephants who were painting pictures. Using paint brushes with their trunks they drew paintings of a tree and some flowers. One even signed its painting with its name. Had you shown me the painting before, I would have said "right, they asked some kids in the village to draw the pictures and then sell them as done by elephants...". But we SAW how the elephants did it (see photos)!
After the show we were led to the "docking station" to climb onto the elephants and have a ride. We expected a short stroll around the area there, but the ride took quite a while, crossing the river a couple of times, climbing quite a steep hill etc. Every few hundred meters they stopped at a place where we were supposed to buy additional bananas and sugar cane for "our" elephant - call it a fuel stop - money making everywhere!
Overall, the elephants seemed to be taken good care of. In fact, the guidebook I had explained that these elephants are quite lucky: They used to be working elephants in the logging industry, but after the governement banned all logging these animals became literally unemployed and thus redundant. A few elephant camps were established around Chiang Mai with a focus on tourism. Mae Tang is one of them...
After the ride we were transferred onto an ox-cart for a ride down the hill to the restaurant. You should try and steer two stubborn oxes - they tend to always favour the right hand ditch.... We were fed a surprisingly nice lunch, before we departed on the last part of this package: On bamboo rafts we were floating down the river for a bit more than an hour. It was actually a beautiful and tranquil ride in very shallow water. A few small rapids brought about some excitement, but most of the time it was very calm. Half way down the river, suddenly a few women disappeared in the middle of the stream, in the water to their hips, and pushing some sort of floating mini-mart in front of them. You could buy ice cold beer and soft drinks. Again, money is being made everywhere.

Overall, this whole package was actually quite nice and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Without having proof for it, I would say that the whole thing was run by a small community. It seemed that nobody got a salary, but everybody in the village was just working for this venture. A bit upstream they were in the progress of building what appeared to be a new resort with bunglows to provide accommodation on site, and not being dependent on the daily trips from Chiang Mai...

Our guide picked us up at the end of the rafting experience and then drove us to a snake farm. We went in, and immediately thought that it is a grotty, dirty, sad place. Animals (snakes and others) were living there in very poor conditions. Worst was the so-called show, where two "very brave" guys handled a few snakes, including some cobras and pythons. Their idea of entertainment was throwing the snakes around, teasing them, frightening them, putting them in to their mouth, etc. In short: Disgusting! We didn't want to stay any longer and left very quickly to get onto the last part of this day trip: A monkey place! This place was actually quite funny, and it was amazing what the monkeys did. They were almost human. As soon as they got close to you, they came and cuddled, played, and joked around - just like kids. Hopping onto Neil's and my head, this particular individual started searching for fleas immediately - in vain I must stress! The poor guy on the picture was called "Dech" - I'll leave it to your imagination how the Thais pronounced his name...

Overall, quite a good day, with my usual bad conscience whenever I look at animals in captivity. Apart from the snake farm, however, it looked as if it was at least acceptable, and not overly cruel.

This was our last day in Chiang Mai. Next day we took an early flight to Phuket, probably the most known tourist mecca in Thailand. But that is another story, and will be told in my next blog...

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Chiang Mai (1)

Ok, a few words about the train ride! Well, we were excited about the trip, and were very much looking forward to a nice dinner in the restaurant car. When we got to our little cabin, it was actually quite dirty. A Thai lady came around and tried to sell us breakfast. She took the orders for next morning, and the menu looked nice - we ordered ham, eggs, coffee... She also saw our beer, and immediately was disappointed, because she knew she wouldn't sell any to us. But that did not end her resourcefulness, and she tried to sell us whiskey (we had the feeling "under the table", i.e. in her own pocket). We happily declined, and asked for the restaurant car. We repeatedly were told that the "bar" was at the rear of the train. Starting to get hungry, we made our way through the 2nd class (which was another most interesting journey in itself...) to the "bar"! The moment we opened the door it hit us: About 40+ degrees Celsius, all windows wide open, noise that loud that you can't hear your own words (both from the music, but more from the train), smoke everywhere, colourful disco lights, and drunk Thais at the tables. There was also the open "kitchen", which might have significantly contributed to the heat. Since all tables were taken, we were seated next to two half drunk Thais, who took no notice of us. Being totally perplex I even ordered a bottle of beer, although all I thought was "I have to get out of here NOW". Well, we gulped down the beer and went back to the cabin. Neil ordered some "dinner" instead, and I had a sick tummy, so gave it a miss. After a while we tried to get some sleep, and while I managed to get a little bit of sleep, Neil was awake most of the night, complaining that the pillow smelled like Chinese food, vomit and god knows what else. He was right! Anyway, the train made its way up north, and every now and again it stopped for an hour or so for no apparent reason. Early in the morning "breakfast" was served. Oh dear, the most expensive unedible breakfast I have seen. I just ate the ham, but the egg was pure rubber! The coffee came in a mini plastic cup, and was actually not all that bad. Oh, and by the way, you don't even want to know how the toilets looked like! After a few hours into the journey they were flooded with p*** - after all the ride was quite shaky, and there was nothing to sit - just a hole in the floor... We were longing for the train to arrive in Chiang Mai, and a hotel with clean sheets and a bathroom! In all the excitement (not) we even forgot to take any photos - shame on us!

Arriving at the railway station, we got a cab and went to the hotel, and boi what a relief: It was a beautiful hotel, clean and friendly staff. We just loved it! The location was perfect, right on Chayapum Rd., between the old and the new part of the city. The Amora hotel was the ex-Rydges, and had all we needed (except a pool). The best part was the bar right next to the entrance. It was here that we started drinking a cocktail every time we got back to the hotel. After all, cocktails here are cheaper than beer or wine, and particularly this barman knew how to make it. Coming in from the heat, a Singapore Sling or a Pina Colada went down quite nicely ;-) But hey - a beer (mostly Singha) was never rejected by us either...

The first day we just relaxed and wandered around the immediate surrounding. There was a beautiful night market almost next to the hotel, and we went shopping a lot. In retrospect, it was the most beautiful and enjoyable market we had seen in Thailand. And we were lucky, since it wasn't a daily market, and the only time it was on while we were in Chiang Mai.

The next day was dedicated to a stroll through the old part of the city, and its temples. Very quickly we learned that in Thailand you are never far away from a temple, a buddha statue, or a cat! And we loved all three. The temples are just amazing, and one is more beautiful than the next. Neil, as a fashion photographer, saw hundreds of good spots for a fashion shoot. But even I was overwhelmed by the variety of temples, and couldn't put down my camera. The following is just a collection of SOME of the huge amount of photos we have taken (btw., all are clickable to be enlarged).

Of course, Chiang Mai is not all about temples. We really enjoyed strolling over the various markets, including another night market. But that was not as nice as the one we saw the previous night. Our hotel also offered a free shuttle to the "airport shopping mall", a brand new large shopping mall. We were silly enough to do that, but it was actually quite disappointing. Just like any other mall, and not much to see or buy, really. The only exception was a section of Thai crafts and we bought incense and candles there. And - not to forget - a cute little restaurant with surprisingly good food! The menu was in Thai only, but they had pictures next to the text, so we had a rough idea about what we ordered. Neil had one of his many Thai Green Curries (his all time favourite), and I had some sort of shrimp dish, which was very nice as well. Of course, you can get the western food here (and all over the city) as well, from the Golden Arches to BK, KFC, etc...

While we were looking at the many temples, some guy talked to us, and offered us a trip to an elephant camp, and other things. Neil got sucked in right away, and we agreed with him that he'll pick us up at the hotel at 8:30am next day. But that is another story, and will be the next blog...

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