Thailand – Amazon saved me

Sunset at Cape Panwa - 850km later
Sunset at Cape Panwa – 850km later

The Coral Hotel was an engaging experience; way off the beaten track and a minuscule enclave of clipped grass and ‘Le Monde Sauvage’ artifacts. But whilst the surroundings were delightful there was an undercurrent of self-indulgence surrounding it that was essentially French. The food was – well – Thai but subtlety bastardised and so allowed guests baguette with their morning coffee and Gauloise. I guess that once you’ve made that sort of concession you’ve lost the neighbourhood, so to speak. But the hotel setting – little chalets scattered among the trees and facing a tropical pool – was very pleasant and a refreshing antidote to the traffic. A few steps from the elevated dining terrace took you into rural Thailand, the forest edge and onto a long, deserted beach. It was exquisite but all the time, though, my mind was drawn to that Emmanuelle film from the mid 1970s and its idealised, romantised and eroticised representation of a perfect, but unashamedly Francophile, Thailand.

We left the hotel with its French contingent in a smokey huddle, intensely debating the day’s issue, to continue our drive south. We were off the tourist beat and on minor roads that would eventually connect again with the still ‘under construction’ Phet Kasem Road. There were few vehicles and the drive took us south through villages and plantations, past small fields with single livestock and wretched buildings whose purpose and product were frequently unidentifiable. And at every point smiling kids waved while some of the dustiest and most contented-looking dogs I’ve ever seen either slept the morning away at the roadside or sat up somnambulantly and scratched with enthusiasm.

Rubber trees tapped
Rubber trees tapped
A family's income can be dependent on one animal
A family’s income can be dependent on one animal

The poverty we witnessed was a stark contrast to the smug complacency of the previous night’s acquaintances and, as the vista unfolded alongside us, made for some deep thoughts about the nature of tourism in the country. Most people I’ve spoken to about Thailand haven’t ventured outside the fleshpots and tourist-orientated centres that exploit the indigence and deprivation of a largely subsistence agricultural economy in which something over half the population is engaged. Unemployment is officially ‘low’ but those without jobs frequently gravitate towards rural family occupations or unskilled work that are outside Governmental influence and aren’t recorded formally. The economy was projected to grow and revitalise the tourist industry with the announcement of the ‘Thailand 4.0’ initiative last year but the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has imposed a year of mourning on the Nation. This has had a direct and adverse effect across most sectors. In practice the slowing of the economy means less for rural regions and encourages further population drift towards areas where tourist-related employment promises opportunity. That in turn generates social, cultural and economic pressures with consequential demands on natural resources and the environment. Tourism and its income are increasingly important to Thailand but the pressure imposed on its population and environment is unsustainable. In some respects the Thais are their own worst enemy although all tourism doesn’t need to be exploitative; some travel companies take a more circumspect approach and you gain a sense of this if you look at what Responsible Travel has to say.

Intensive cultivation along the road
Intensive cultivation along the road
Getting dinner
Getting dinner
Roadside shrine
Roadside shrine

Back in the traffic on the main road the landscape became open and expansive. Roadside shrines glimpsed between heavy trucks and rickety buses were set against a distant backdrop of verdant hills and plantations. We passed through the outskirts of unglamorous Surat Thani, a regional transport interchange with an airport and ferry access to Ko Samui and the Gulf islands. These larger towns present a very different Thailand from the beach resorts that come immediately to mind when tourism is mentioned.

Roadside cattle
Roadside cattle

1-amazon

There were still extensive areas of uncontrolled – and unattended – roadworks but I became a little more comfortable with the erratic and occasionally heart-stopping manoeuvures of other road users with the help of a gem in the madness – Café Amazon. These surprising and charming road-stops with their green and black uniformed baristas are associated with PTT service stations and are built on a standard layout that includes shops, toilets and food stalls. The coffee – ‘do you like your cappuccino cold or hot, sir?’ – came in biodegradable cups if you didn’t sit in the pretty little cabins and was passable, if not entirely authentic, but then I wouldn’t order pad thai at a Sicilian Autogrill. The invariably winsome staff more than made up for any inadequacies in the product and the banana cake set us up perfectly for re-entering the fray.

Watch for trucks and other traffic
Watch for trucks and other traffic
Yeah, OK
Yeah, OK
Off Cape Panwa
Off Cape Panwa
A fixed point during our time in Cape Panwa; meeting for a cold drink at sundown
A fixed point during our time in Cape Panwa; meeting for a cold drink at sundown

Once we’d turned off towards Phang-gna, however, the traffic cleared and we were frequently on deserted roads. The driving experience changed, the road became less straight and the scenery more spectacular. As we neared Phuket the influence of the tourist-dollar began to show itself in improved roads and street lighting, better building and a veneer of increasing opulence – and fewer dogs. Then we were over the bridge and onto the island. The main drag avoided the worst excesses of the place but as we approached and passed through Phuket Town the traffic intensified, smiling children were replaced with crowds; mopeds were interspersed with tourists on scooters and emboldened Westerners sporting distasteful tee-shirt slogans appeared among the Thai faces. But we were soon through it and at Cape Panwa, with 850km completed and the sun setting across the bay.

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Sicily – forget about it

A trip to Sicily has been on the back burner for quite a while and here I am, at last.

The Mediterranean’s largest island has been high on my list of places to visit, not least because of the combined attractions of wonderful food and wine, a vast wealth of history and a sun-drenched landscape that is clearly spectacular in parts. But despite all that and as well as it being the archetypal holiday destination I’ve tended to put off visiting for a couple of reasons. First, the locals have done a pretty good job over the past 2500 years in eradicating the native vegetation and, second, they shoot anything with feathers that’s not a hat or a bedspread. I know there are worse places – Sicily’s not as bad as Malta, for example – but when considering the undoubted delights that I’d find here I’d struggled with the notion of developing a lasting affection for a land bereft of birdsong and comprising nothing but olive groves, vineyards and endless rows of cultivation. For someone who finds equal joy in an unsullied natural environment as he does immersion in a cornucopia of culinary and cultural abundance this would present, you’d appreciate, something of a dilemma.

The excellent Andrea Corso helped on the birding front. As the foremost expert of everything that is birds or birding in Sicily he was the man to call and duly provided both reassurance and guidance on where I should visit and, perhaps more importantly given my fear of being seduced by the gods of a land that played host to tourisme de masse, where to avoid. It was disappointing that he would be off the island while I was there.

I didn’t have to be in Sicily for long before feeling the first, subtle headiness of intoxication; I was captivated right from the caffè and cornetto at Palermo airport. There are birds – not a lot, but some and worth travelling for, too – and there are a few areas of native scrub and woodland – again, not a lot – that remain more or less as they were when the Greeks first settled here around 750 BC. And in-between, the vast, cultivated landscape is bespeckled with towns on precipitous cliffs, evocative vistas disappearing into heat-haze, breathtaking Baroque extravagance, awful road surfaces and scruffy, litter-strewn villages.

And then there’s the food and wine – enough to make even the most reluctant suitor submit.

Tenerife; our best coffee – El Médano

My Tenerife journal couldn’t close without mention of the best coffee we found. A tiny bar, about half-way along the promenade to the west of the town, served a very reasonable espresso from a machine that uses those little foil capsules. Same friendly service from a barista who shrugged gloomily at the price he had to charge us but one of the few people we met who understood our laments. Not for aficionados and not for purists, but the best we had.

Tenerife; bananas and eating brightly

I suspect that, as a travelling companion, I might sometimes be less than easy. When searching for the next destination and one that yours truly will find relaxing and recreational Mission Control is tireless in her pursuit of something different. I’m an unforgiving customer, convinced as I am that life is too short anyway and most of us don’t work that out until we’re careering the downward slope on a tin-tray. By virtue of this home-spun philosophy, which I accept doesn’t stand up to detailed scrutiny, I tend to be picky, demanding accommodation suffused with an air of contentment; views, nature and heritage; excellent food and beverage within a reasonable getting-back-afterwards distance and, of course and always, incomparable birding on the doorstep. That might appear an unreasonable list of requirements – actually, it does when you see it written down like that – and even unfair but when you’ve mumbled agreement to a trip from behind a newspaper and found yourself a short while after gazing in awe at wild elephants and Greater Indian Hornbills in Kerala or counting Horned Puffins coming to roost over Cannon beach in Oregon you tend to get a little blasé.

The delightful courtyard at Hotel Rural El Patio

So I wasn’t as alarmed as one might think when Tenerife and banana plantation were mentioned in the same sentence, despite having initial reservations about both. I’m not good at crowds and plebeian tourism for reasons no more complicated than wanting to make my own decisions about how my time is spent but the option was there and we were able to use Stansted by pinching a couple of last-minute seats at the back of a Thomas Cook flight.

We’d been in contact with the hotel from England and called again after arriving in Tenerife as we’d received no confirmation. That wasn’t a concern, we were assured; everything was in order and we were expected. I can’t imagine hoteliers taking such a relaxed view in northern Europe but, here we were, turning off the road at Bar El Guincho, through a suicidal blind road junction and following directions on hand-painted signs. The informality of arriving at Hotel Rural El Patio was a little daunting and that, coupled with some reviews we’d read before travelling, indicated that we might require a change of plans next morning. I’m suspicious of reviews but there were a couple of common themes emerging from the generally positive feedback we’d read about this place – there were several mentions of ‘uncomfortable beds’ and one specific reference to the coffee at breakfast being ‘vile’. Now there’s a word that leaves little room for interpretation. As things turned out, there was no immediate cause to worry. The hotel comprises a charming group of buildings set around a large shaded courtyard – the eponymous patio – and proved to be a quiet, pleasant place to stay although the beds reminded me of some youth hostels I’d flopped in when I was a student. It was pleasant to find rooms without TV and telephones.

El Patio

Our host responded to our enquiry about having dinner locally and as far off the tourist route as we could be by recommending El Trasmallo, just on the other side of Garachico. They served local people, he said; the fish is fresh. He called them; they had fresh fish and would be pleased to see us. I’m convinced that here, opposite to what we expect in the north, the authenticity of a restaurant increases in direct proportion to the lighting level and amount of surfaces that can be wiped-off with a damp cloth. El Trasmallo was flooded with fluorescent strip lighting and would comfortably serve as an emergency operating theatre should the clouds and fog we’d been in all day turn into a serious weather event. So, in glaring white light we chose our fish before skidding gently across our plastic seats and sipping our chilled fino aperitif. A superb ‘Cherna’ would be grilled and served with fried garlic. We’ve come across this fish before – it’s a kind of grouper and, although not quite the same as that we’re used to in Florida or the Middle East, it is a tasty, white-fleshed fish that has a big flavour. It was served in typical Canarian fashion with papas arrugadas and mojo. The food was good; perhaps a little too much olive oil, perhaps presented a little too rustically but cooked and served with immense and justifiable pride. The attention of our cook as we ate suggested that slightly different priorities were at play than we’ve seen in more than a few ‘sophisticated’ venues as the evening turned into something that was very much about substance over style. It was also pleasant to buck convention and drink chilled red Tacoronte-Acentejo that had been produced just down the road. A superb occasion and we weren’t allowed to leave without a small glass of ron miel or ‘honey-rum’. This interesting blend of honey and rum is a local tradition and, I suspect, probably very addictive. It certainly seems to have addicted the visitors that roam the Tenerife forums trying to purchase it.

Next day the courtyard of El Patio proved to be the delightful foil against the south of the island and first impressions of Tenerife that we’d hoped for. Sunlight and dappled shade, quiet save for Canarian Chiffchaffs and rustling banana leaves with clouds slowly drifting over the green cliffs above us. El Patio’s owners were delightful and the staff helpful but the beds proved to be, how do I put this – unique. And the coffee was, without any fear of contradiction, as vile as vile could be.

Tenerife; why is the coffee so bad?

Like most places on the island the coffee in the hotel was unpalatable. I don’t mean ‘not good’ or ‘it was alright’ and nor do I mean ‘could have been better’. It was simply undrinkable. Mission Control thinks I get snippy when I don’t have coffee in the morning and I dispute this in the strongest terms. Nonetheless, she was hesitant about getting in the car with me and embarking on a journey that would take us along precipitous and dangerous [according to the concierge] mountain roads without me getting a caffeine fix beforehand. She hasn’t yet accepted that all men complain about women’s map-reading and that it is not an idiosyncrasy relating to a lack of coffee before the trip starts. I’ve never been able to convince her of this and couldn’t convince her then so we walked the few kilometres across to Los Abrigos in the hope of finding somewhere that could deliver. One restaurant proudly displayed signs indicating that it was in the Michelin Guia Roja and that it did, indeed, offer good Italian coffee. But it opened only in the evenings so we tried the local bar on the main road, which was open, busy and looked a likely candidate.

Well, we  did get coffee that was drinkable. The dark-eyed but grim-faced beauty who was serving listened intently with disinterest to our pleadings for an excellent drink and tried to impress us by capping the grey-coloured offering with cream from an aerosol. We stopped her just in time. It wasn’t enjoyable and, once again, you have to ask yourself why a country with such a sunny climate has so many freaking tables dotted about on pavements, under sunshades, surrounded by potted hedges and otherwise perfectly located when it can’t produce a decent cup of freaking coffee.

How did Spain get in the European Union?

Looking out to sea from Los Abrigos the previous evening