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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Sicily – down on the farm

The guy at the car rental desk didn’t say ‘forget about it’ once, which was disappointing. This was, after all, the land that spawned mobsters and, ultimately, The Sopranos. We’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and, on occasion, been victims of the minor scams that proliferate in and around car rental agencies. Sometimes it’s been difficult to shield oneself from the national pastime of adding little ‘extras’ to the bill like refuelling, booking or administration fees, drop-off charges that weren’t mentioned when you made your reservation or, as I’ve just read in an exasperated forum post, the cost of two replacement wheels. In Sicily it was autostrada tax, which isn’t a great cost and wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, if the money was spent on improving the roads. It’s not, of course. But the island is huge so despite there being a cute rail system between the main points you need a car if you want to get off the beaten track.

We had rented the smallest car available – an essential asset where streets are narrow, parking is impossible and most of the oncoming vehicles are on your side of the road – before setting-off for a little agriturismo near Siracusa. The route from Palermo through Termini Imerese and Catania is autostrada all the way to Cassibile. There wasn’t a lot of traffic but as we bounced and swayed our way down the uneven surface I became increasingly convinced that either one of the distracted drivers hurtling past me – I was driving at 130kph or so – or a hidden pothole would inflict catastrophic damage on our already battle-scarred banger. The roads really are in a very sad condition, but then a lot of Sicily looks a little threadbare. I read that public works tendering is unprincipled in Sicily; that once a contract is let for a road project it’s sold on to a lower bidder then sold on again so that the work eventually ends up being undertaken for a fraction of it’s real worth. The autostrada felt and looked like it had been constructed with cheap cutlery.

Once I’d lifted my eyes from the road, however, the landscape provided expansive, sun-bleached vistas. It was parched and pretty much given over to cultivation so it was interesting and not interesting at the same time, so to speak. Then, as the terrain broke up and became steeper, the hill towns of Enna and Calascibetta came into spectacular view; a perfect place for a break and a perfect chance to take in, for the first time, the unique essence of Sicily. We drove up to Calascibetta and sat in the square beside local residents – Enna gets the tourists – and lunched on panzerotti [bread filled with vegetables], a glass of vino rosso and our first gelato. It was so pleasant in the shade of the huge trees – I didn’t realise at that early stage of our trip just how rare an experience that would prove to be in Sicily – that I barely stirred as a Short-toed treecreeper paraded in front of us.

Andrea Corso had recommended we stayed at Pozza di Mazza and we got there just as the afternoon turned golden. It was all pan and barrel tiles, stone walls and terraces in the open. The rooms were airy, the pool excellent and the quiet, green garden immediately delivered a Black-eared wheatear.