Thailand – the wrong side of the river

A comfortable location on the wrong side of the river

A comfortable location on the wrong side of the river

It was an original and exciting thought to celebrate a birthday abroad although when Lars told us where we’d meet I had conflicted views. You see, I like Thailand – a lot, to be truthful – and was very enthusiastic about visiting again but I’d been in Phuket before and anticipated finding it further down the toilet than it was last time. As a centre of gravity for the worst kinds of tourist activity it has form and, despite retaining areas that remain essentially Thai, it embodies most if not all that the dark side of Thailand has on offer. The island is continually ravaged by development – much of it illegal – that ranges from pretty bad to goddamn awful and is a prime example of what I strive to avoid.

The shuttle boat

The shuttle boat

But the Kantary Bay hotel on Cape Panwa looked good; it ticked a lot of boxes and had hosted our fellow revelers before. It also provided, we were assured, a very nice beach, excellent bar service and egg and bacon at breakfast. But what attracted me most was its location at the southernmost point on Phuket, which is far, far away from the Gomorrah-like Patong Beach.

Dining terrace alongside the river

Dining terrace alongside the river

The city from the quiet cool bedroom

The city from the quiet cool bedroom

Mission Control hadn’t seen Thailand and flying into and out of Phuket without experiencing something more of the real thing seemed a wasted opportunity. We had to work out how we’d make the trip and enjoy the celebration but still see more of the country than Phuket had on offer. I wanted to see Bangkok again and there was also the not inconsiderable opportunity to get some exotic birding under my belt, so to speak.

The answer was simple – we’d aim for Bangkok and have a few days there either side of renting a car and driving south. That way we’d see some of the country and enjoy the freedom of the open road. The eight-hundred and fifty kilometres would present wonderful opportunities to see aspects of the country that tourists often miss and we’d be able to take in a few sights while we enjoyed the freedom of the open road. Of course, anyone who’s seen the traffic in Bangkok or feared for their life in a tuk-tuk would appreciate that there was a downside to the idea but, what the heck? All I had to do was keep the traffic accident statistics out of any conversations.

The excellent shaded pool at the Peninsula

The excellent shaded pool at the Peninsula

Chao Phraya traffic

Chao Phraya traffic

Bangkok looked and smelled as I recalled it. It is exotic and quintessentially Asian; a heady combination of decrepit buildings and spectacular temple roofs; spice, traffic fumes and drains. The monsoon was about done and the humidity was promising to reduce – in fact, every Thai we mentioned it to assured us with absolute certainty that the rainy season had finished the previous day! Bangkok is evocative and mesmerising but it’s also crowded, dirty and noisy. To enjoy it fully you need two essentials; a bedroom that insulates you from the noise and a refuge from the humidity but with those essentials taken care of you can get on with absorbing the essence of a wonderful city. Just watching the busy and congested river as well as what floats down it is an experience in itself.

Reflection of the hotel across the river in an office building afternoon

Reflection of the hotel across the river in an office building afternoon

So we parked ourselves centrally, alongside the Chao Phraya River, in the Peninsula Hotel – a place that gets it and knows how to take care of you. And we made that point to a manager over chilled drinks on the dining terrace one evening. He was preoccupied, however, with a recent post on that bane of hoteliers, TripAdvisor. Apparently the hotel [together with it’s complimentary, atmospheric and liveried river shuttle] had been marked down by a recent American guest because it was located ‘on the wrong side of the river’. I guess ‘wrong side’ implies there is a ‘right side’ but after several visits I’ve yet to work out what there might be a right side for.

Houseboats with flags celebrating the Nation,on the left, and King Bhunibol Adulyadejs on the right

Houseboats with flags celebrating the Nation,on the left, and King Bhunibol Adulyadejs on the right

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Dear diary – another sunny day?

Sometime during the year I lost sight of the schedule. After moving and taking time to draw breath we were sufficiently organised to find a way of moving around the diminishing towers of unpacked boxes and leave for a while; we were set for travelling. All it needed was a modicum of organisation in order that the few fixed points punctuating the calendar dovetailed neatly into any plans that developed. We had to be at the wedding of course – a grand weekend affair at an English country house could not be missed – and I had to vote in the Brexit referendum, which required some time in Cambridge even if I made a postal vote. There was a birthday gathering in Thailand and a short trip to Dubai. Those apart, it looked like there would be plenty of time to fit in some spontaneous peregrination.

It would take just a little planning and a few simple decisions. Simple, that is, until Sweden presented something that we hadn’t accounted for – a long, hot summer. It’s difficult to describe the effect of summer on a nation that lives half the year in dark, cold winter. As soon as the sun peers over the horizon Netflix and jam-making are discarded for al fresco dining in what are still single-digit temperatures; fallen leaves are swept from patios with gusto; excited chatter echoes over garden hedges and the air fills with the aroma of barbecue lighter. In the streets and supermarkets those long Scandinavian shorts appear – the ones with tie-strings, utility buckles and pockets on the knees – and on the beaches people huddle behind windswept dunes while their blond-haired children frolic in the bone-chilling water. But in 2016 it was different. Above average temperatures and long, sunny days made it feel just like the Med and you didn’t need a fleece blanket if you sat out in the evening.

The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.

The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.

Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.

Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.

Sweden’s summer can be a hard mistress but she does provide the perfect excuse for fleeing to warmer climes. But as the warm spell lengthened from days to weeks and then months there was little need and no justification in leaving. In fact, those arrangements that we had made were appearing more inconvenient as the year sweltered on and it became galling to leave the hammock. We swam in tepid water until early October and started a re-reading exercise as the summer’s supply of essential books was exhausted. It was too hot on some days to do more than lie in the shade with a cool drink.

I left the blogosphere inside with my tablet and just let the summer sweep me along whilst ensuring, in the interests of tradition, that the legacy of James Pimm was upheld and the fortunes of Tanqueray maintained. And as a measure of catching up, a few posts covering some aspects of my 2016 carbon footprint follow this.

A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same

A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same

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Go on – impress me

The beach at Palm Jumeirah - access is just a passport copy away

The beach at Palm Jumeirah – access is just a passport copy away

Dubai has an undefinable quality; it can amaze and depress; enlighten and shock but never, I’ve found after many years living there, leave one unmoved. You can love it or hate it in equal measure and, sometimes, endure both emotions simultaneously. When I received a request a few days ago for a copy of my passport my initial reaction was of disinterest but it quickly changed as I learned that ‘they’ were requesting an update because my passport had expired. ‘They’ are not the police or the immigration authority or any other quasi-governmental body. ‘They’, in fact, are the inept leisure division of a crap developer that issues access passes to the beach.

Dubai has a wearying reliance on bureaucracy and I suspect it may have cornered the world market in rubber stamps. At every turn, it seems, a document is required from individuals who are at once detached, uninterested or, frequently, merely absent. You need a stamped and signed piece of paper for just about everything in Dubai whether it’s bringing in your piano, buying a bottle of wine or shopping for a local SIM card. And you have to provide a copy of your passport to get it. I once estimated that I have probably provided over two hundred and fifty copies in exchange for passes, approvals, authorisations or, that singular invention – the ‘no objection certificate’. So there must be literally millions of passport copies floating around the Emirate and where they all go is one of the great Mysteries of the Universe. In an endless danse macabre passport copies are stamped, signed, stapled and – well, from that point on I have no clue. They just disappear after they’ve been taken so if you visit two desks in one organisation the second desk will have no knowledge of your passport existing. A further copy will be demanded and if you are unfortunate enough to be sent back to the first desk – the usual procedure when five administrators are tasked with doing the work of one – they won’t be able to find the first copy and you’ll have to copy it again. Next day all three copies will have disappeared so it’s likely you’ll have to start all over again. Where do all those copies go?

One of the pools at the Palm Jumeirah beach

One of the pools at the Palm Jumeirah beach

The process is numbing and takes time but if you want the freedom to run child-like through sunshine in a landscape of tax-free salaries as you seek consumer Nirvana, developing patience and a personality that provides for circumspection become essential because in Dubai most things eventually get done and most things work. For individuals like me, with little or no patience, an administrative foray can be a very bumpy one but at least I’ve grown out of banging tables and demanding to know where all the copies go. That question, always greeted with a smile, is never really answered because no one really knows; it’s just a requirement, you know, to make the copy, stamp it and sign it. It has occurred to me that there is perhaps a secretive government department going around in the dead of night, cruising silently in unmarked vehicles and collecting copies of passports. But that would be silly, wouldn’t it?

Dubai’s idiosyncrasies often defy analysis, inducing an impassioned response. But then, with eye-watering speed, perception can be turned on its head and one is lost in all the things that Condé Nast Traveller and the Sunday Times tell us it is. Last year, while my mind was on packing cases and contract exchanges, the gourmet tower at Dubai Marina was completed. Now renamed Pier 7 it is a circular building linked to the Marina Mall and with a single themed restaurant on each level. The views over the marina are spectacular and, at night, even cynical travellers like me can’t help but be impressed. Dinner or drinks in balmy air on an open-sided terrace high over the water has to be one of Dubai’s most striking experiences. And in another example of the city state stretching a visitor’s sensibilities to extremes, an extension to the already gargantuan Mall of the Emirates has opened. Of course that delivered yet more restaurants as well as a vastly expanded Vox cinema complex. Our old favourite, Gold Class – with its wide seats and Coca-cola on call – was gone. In its place was a cinema restaurant experience called ‘thEATre by Gary Rhodes’. This puts watching a movie with a tub of popcorn to shame. If you like your food and reclining sofas ‘juste pour deux’, semi-private viewing-rooms, a waiter on hand when you need a drink or snack or just like spending a couple of hours watching a movie the way Donald Trump probably does, then this is for you. Dubai’s apparently endless capability to knock your socks off has left me non-plussed once again.

My Passport, by the way, was copied several times when I was in Dubai a few weeks ago and is valid for another seven years.

Dubai Marina from Pier 7; not to be missed

Dubai Marina from Pier 7; not to be missed

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One step at a time

Blakeney - church and saltmarsh

Blakeney – church and saltmarsh

Moving home is never easy although I guess it can be a lot worse than what we’ve experienced over the past year. It’s taken much more mental energy than I would have thought possible and it’s also been somewhat distracting. So, along with a range of other pleasurable activities that weren’t a priority as we rebuilt walls in the old place and removed them in the new, posting an occasional blog was put on the back burner. In any event, the exercise would likely have gravitated towards anecdotes surrounding delayed sales, clarifications of legal easements, moving packing cases across Europe or getting the piano to the auctioneers so describing events seemed just a bit too much like sharing personal angst.

The dust has settled now and life has taken on a complexion that looks normal so taking the time to set out some thoughts with a passable Pinot is back on the agenda again.

The past year wasn’t all moving boxes, retrenchment and decanting furniture; we broke surface for air to visit Dubai and Thailand, had a couple of short breaks in Germany and enjoyed some summer being Swedish in Sweden. Getting away from it all – which will fill some posts shortly – kept us sane and provided perspective.

When I was younger and needed some thinking space I’d go up to Norfolk and walk the East Bank at Cley where the saltmarsh and sea air is cathartic. We did that this weekend and stayed at the excellent Byfords in Holt. It snowed a little, was very cold at times, sunny and windy by degrees and the Brent geese were everywhere. Being back in Cambridge today has the feel of home for the first time – most of the boxes are gone, new furniture is in or due for delivery, cables have been tidied into ducts and the new bookshelves are full. Climbing into bed is once again a choice, not a necessity.

Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea

Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea

 

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What if a politician was washed up on a Turkish beach?

A while ago in India we passed a festival site. We knew we were approaching something from several kilometres away as a fair amount of debris was spread far and wide. Amazingly, several million pilgrims had attended during that day but by nightfall they were all gone – every single one on them. Back to their towns, villages, huts or, as happens too frequently in the sub-continent, a roadside somewhere. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Several million – gone in hours and nothing to show but some paper plates and Styrofoam cups.

On a Saturday afternoon it takes something like two hours to clear sixty thousand people out of the Emirates stadium after an Arsenal home game – less when they lose to West Ham.

But in Europe, that international symbol of cooperation, understanding and mutual back-smacking smugness, that can’t happen. Despite being around three times the area of India politicians of every country and any complection are telling us how difficult it is to absorb a number of refugees that is something around fifteen times smaller than that of the pilgrims who gathered at that festival. Our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, told us yesterday that ‘absorbing refugees would not help ease the international crisis’. Today after any human being with even a modicum of compassion was moved to heart-stopping despondency by the story and images of little Aylan Kurdi, he had the audacity to look painfully at an interviewer and express his earnest view that Britain is a ‘moral nation and we will fulfil our moral responsibilities’. 

And tonight I hear that in Hungary refugees are being dealt with away from the glare of international media in an ‘operation zone’ because they are ‘a German problem’.

Politicians, eh? Well, forgive me for thinking that the whole lot of them are a bunch of self-serving, two-faced hypocrites whose only ‘moral obligation’ seems to be to themselves.

I think an allocation of 15000 refugees in each European country would disappear far faster than you could say ‘hari krishna’ and they’d be far more grateful than those Arsenal fans bemoaning the price of their season tickets. Why is it so hard to reach out and take care of these put-upon and unfortunate people? Have we really got to a point where it’s OK to let this happen and say it’s someone else’s problem?

A pox on politicians; may they rot in hell. God help us all.

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“Er, waiter – what’s that tune?”

I have a friend – we’ll call him Charlie – who, like me, takes his food very seriously. He also likes music a lot but being a chap of deep convictions he believes that the qualities of each are such that they are best indulged separately; put simply, he doesn’t like both at the same time. He tells me that when he wants to listen to music he’ll choose it carefully and enjoy listening to it. Conversely, when he eats he doesn’t want music disturbing his meal. I understand that and I agree with the view he takes, albeit less demonstratively [I am English after all and we tend to avoid making a fuss] if the combination is on the sensitive side. Charlie, however, is not given to compromise. So, to my increasing admiration as well as my continuous entertainment, the first thing he does on entering a restaurant softened by ambient music is to ask that it is immediately turned off. Of course, that doesn’t always go down well but he knows what he wants.

I’m a novice at this and not a wholly committed convert to Charlie’s cause but I’m not slow in having a word myself if the circumstances call for it. In my view the customer should decide as to whether he wants music while he eats and I’m not best pleased at having anything imposed on me in the belief that it will enhance my ‘customer experience’.

In Sicily we’ve been staying at a very new hotel – the Masseria della Volpe in Noto, which has just opened. This restored farm has a breathtaking setting that brims with innovation and Italian design. But to return to Charlie’s territory – its restaurant has an outside area that soothes the souls of its clientele with quiet classical music that is discernible, if you want to listen, well-chosen and unobtrusive. It’s very subtle and I found it pleasant enough. I was taken aback, though, when I asked the waiter about it because his immediate response was ‘would you like me to switch it off?’ This hotel is new and had a few [relatively minor] teething troubles but, if it continues in this vein, it might just turn into that rare thing – a venue where guests’ actual preferences are put first.

The peaceful view from the belvedere at 'Volpe', with the volpe symbol.

The peaceful view from the belvedere at ‘Volpe’, complete with volpe sculpture

In case you’re wondering – I didn’t ask that the music was turned off and the service, food and hotel were excellent.

We moved on to Tuscany, where we returned to Il Pellicano at Porto Ercole. The hotel is rated very highly and here, where there are more staff than you can say ‘buon giorno’ to if you had all day, I did ask them to turn the music off. Il Pellicano rightly prides itself on its five-star luxury service and I have to confess that we were looked after very well. Staff here glide silently through the hotel in twos and threes with choreographed ease, nirvanic expressions on their faces; their sole purpose to make their guests’ visit memorable. Nonetheless, the restaurants and bar were polluted by the worst kind of ‘ambient’ music; tuneless, invasive, unidentifiable piped background noise that was more suited to a shopping mall food hall. An American one at that. Of more concern was that I couldn’t find anyone who was actually responsible for it. No one knew what it was [my guess – an Art Farmer jazzy flugelhorn tribute selection, but I might be flattering it]; no-one knew who had chosen it; no-one knew why it was actually playing and, amazingly, no-one seemed to have authority to silence it. It was as if I had asked them to turn off all the lights in the foyer. A waiter made a valiant effort when I first complained and lowered the volume but only managed to change the track to a different version of the same stuff. When I reiterated that I would prefer it off completely he sadly advised that he would need to speak to his manager. Moving on to the black jackets didn’t help; my concerns received more smiles, some patronising hand-wringing and sympathetic understanding but the noise continued in tuneless irritation all evening. And all day. We ate outside the hotel after that. 

Il Pellicano's terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever...

Il Pellicano’s terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever…

It’s a funny thing, a hotel’s perception of service. In Il Pellicano service has reached a state of almost flawless perfection; eager faces and greetings at every turn, waves and smiles, immediate help with baggage or directions, earnest understanding of the guests’ needs and close attention to their every word [which I rather liked, actually]. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it’s become a well-oiled process that no one questions. So years of practice means that switching on the music in the morning has become a box that requires ticking. The operation is successful, but the patient dies; one night we had *spigola al sale. Staff buzzed around us, one bringing a serving table, another re-arranging ours and topping-up water glasses; our wine was relocated to make way for the food and yet another assistant brought roasted vegetables before re-arranging the table again. Under the paternal gaze of the maitre d’ the steaming dish was displayed and set before us, the salt ceremonially cracked and the fish lifted carefully off the bone, cutlery arcing like a conductor’s baton. But by the time this culinary two-step was complete both the dining plates and the vegetables were cold. And in the background the flugelhorn medley moved to double-articulation.

Now I’m certain that each person involved fulfilled their duties perfectly, yet the meal was actually a failure.

I hope that the Masseria della Volpe continues to put its guests’ preferences first and I’ll go back to find out. I know that Charlie, thankfully, will continue to keep restaurants thinking about what their customers want and not what convention suggests. As for me, I still can’t get that flugelhorn nonsense out of my head.

 * This is a local speciality consisting of a whole sea bass baked in a herb-seasoned crust of sea salt.

if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as sea below the hotel

… if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as the sea below the hotel

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Sicily – gazing into the sunset

Ragusa Ibla

Ragusa Ibla

Sometimes you just have to get away.

On more than a few occasions during this past year or so I’ve felt that sanity would only be preserved by getting into the car and heading for the sunset. Essential work on the house, on-off moving dates, packing crates, keeping the peripheral life-forms that are estate agents at arms-length and – perhaps worst of all – agonising over what to keep and what to dispose of have sometimes felt like insurmountable problems.

You get by it of course, but while squeezing the content of a four-hundred year old farmhouse into a much smaller and completely modern apartment remains a work in progress, life – at last – appears to be taking on a measure of control. That didn’t seem possible even a few weeks ago. Yes, luxury problems when you consider the unspeakable horrors that people are suffering around the world in Asia, north Africa and the Middle East but those are problems almost too big to comprehend and strangely, where one stores dozens of photo albums and what one does with a large portfolio of artwork of nothing more than sentimental value have taken on a disproportionate importance.

Now, with curtains hung, most of the boxes unpacked and some of the furniture relocated we have carved out a little space for ourselves and have, at last, got away – to Sicily, which is draped in wild flowers and the green of early summer. Days are now filled with the scent of wild fennel and orange blossom; nights with calling Scops owls and barking dogs. You feel history here and you find perspective; to be in Sicily is to immerse oneself in Baroque splendour and indulge in culinary delight so the hours spent seeking shade are punctuated with cous cous di pesce and moscato-flavoured granita.

There is a timelessness about this place that is almost somniferous. It’s in the decaying buildings and the muted colours; the easy friendliness of Sicilians and the undulating cultivation. And it’s in the food – a coalescence of influences that simultaneously stimulate the senses and calm the spirit. Essentially, a perfect place to take time, walk narrow streets and live life for a while without an agenda.

Long lunches, a glass of chilled grillo and the shadow of weathered stone give you time to ponder and absorb its essence but with it comes the realisation that, for all its history and all the influences that make it such a magical place, this most fascinating of islands remains ancient and unmoved by the comings and goings of its visitors. Occupation is transitory; Greeks and Romans to Byzantines and Muslims; Normans to Spanish and Bourbons have come, left their mark and eventually gone. Now it’s generation TripAdvisor, grading antiquity and hotels on a scale of five.

I guess the unique richness that permeates time here is the result of Sicily mellowing across eons and that was probably just fine until the advent of mass tourism and Sicily by Car. Lunch, in view of the sea or in a stone-paved piazza, is frequently memorable but the ingenuous mood it generates can evanesce quickly. Like the intricate details on balconies and hand-cultivation of steep hillside plots, Sicily’s road network – aside from a few kilometers in the north and east – belongs to a time past. Even the shortest of journeys requires an unreasonable degree of concentration as potholes, mis-aligned joints, adverse camber and seemingly random deposits of tarmac or concrete combine in common assault. Sicily doesn’t do maintenance – manutenzione – and, as though that weren’t enough, encounters with Sicilian drivers are often heart-stopping. No, Sicily isn’t the place to come to if you like to drive, need to be busy or move around a fair bit – this is the place to run to when you want new life breathed into you; what you get here is something else – ringiovanimento; rejuvenation.

Clover field at Enna

Clover field at Enna

Duomo in Ragusa

Duomo in Ragusa

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