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.

Advertisements

Thailand – a walk in the park

Bang Rak backstreet
Bang Rak backstreet

I like to walk and, in my view, the best way to acquire the feel of a place is to walk it; just pick a couple of points and walk between them. You set the pace, take your time and if you’re in a city like Bangkok, where you get to hear, see [and smell] it, the experience is completely immersive. We had a couple of days before we started the drive to Phuket so I wanted to show Mission Control an aspect of the city that was just a little off the tourist route and busy with life; people working, eating, shopping and living. So we took our shuttle boat across to the right side of the river and threaded our way along backstreets towards Lumphini Park. You could debate whether temperatures approaching 30C and humidity in the high 80s combined with continuous traffic, unsettling aromas, flea-bitten dogs and hawkers reduced or enhanced the intensity of the experience but I struggled to get her to engage; it was, in fairness, a little sweaty.

Potted plants and mopeds crowd the pavements
Potted plants and mopeds crowd the pavements

The walk from Chao Phraya river takes you through the Bang Rak district; past housing and go-downs, local restaurants and hotels, shopping malls and street-food stalls. It’s bustling, noisy and surprisingly colourful in the muted sunlight, providing as it does a rewarding and instant snapshot of Bangkok. Wealth and poverty rub shoulders with locals and tourists; there are temples, a Hindu shrine and even a cathedral as well as Patpong, which is famous for its night markets and red-light area. Bang Rak feathers out on either side of Silom Road; an artery of heavy traffic and public transport that forms a spine running through its centre.

Different businesses
Different businesses

On the eastern side Lumphini is the biggest area of green in the city with massive trees, clipped grass and secluded paths. The park provides shade for myriad gatherings; jogging, cycling and group aerobics. People meet to improve Tai Chi, others are boating and some are simply giving their kids a day in the park. You can get dance lessons or watch free concerts and there was even an all-join-in singing session in progress when we arrived, not that I could follow the tune or understand the words. The tourist authority offers birding in the park and it does have a reasonably long list of recorded species, despite there always being more people than birds. It needs a bit of luck and an early morning but it provides a glimpse of Thailand’s rich avifauna but unlike the parks in London, where we sprinkle crumbs for sparrows and encourage squirrels to feed from our hands, Lumphini is overrun with two-metre long water monitors that seem to just about tolerate the human visitors, as long as we keep our distance. It really does feel foreign.

Remember the noise and humidity I mentioned? Bangkok can become very oppressive and uncomfortable after a day plodding through its atmospheric neighbourhoods and so a culture has evolved that provides for an altogether quieter and more tranquil environment – the roof terrace. There must be at least twenty sky bars in the city, each expressing its own degree of cool and each striving for a unique identity that tends to make them all, well, a bit similar. Nonetheless, a sundowner high above the cacophony as the sun sets in spectacular hues through the befouled atmosphere is an essential experience. At the corner of the park we were near the So Sofitel hotel and so, leaving crowds of joggers and monitor lizards in our wake [and after taking our lives in our hands by crossing Rama IV Road], lost no time in getting our feet under a table at the Park Society. The drinks were perfectly chilled, the music was ‘Buddha Bar’ American and the clientele mostly Western; none of it was really Thai at all but then, why would someone from way down there want to sit on a rooftop drinking white wine when you have a business and a family to feed?

Bangkok excites me and it is exhilarating but a walk through Bang Rak has me wondering how many of the aficionados of cool at Park Society took a moment to count their blessings.

Even if the telephone line doesn't work someone will be around to fix it
Even if the telephone line doesn’t work someone will be around to fix it

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

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

 

Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

Red kite inspecting us
Red kite inspecting us
Golden eagles over the garden
Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater
Egrets on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer
Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013’s record breaking summer
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine

 

Beam me up, Rakesh

Pristine forest near Thekkady

I like India a great deal and love travelling there but it’s been difficult to whip-up enthusiasm for my recent sojourn amongst friends and acquaintances. Despite everything the sub-continent has on offer a fear of flying is commonplace; one said that he’ll only go if he carries his own food and another that he feared he’d be injured in a traffic accident and die in a foreign land surrounded by flip-flops. On the other hand, birders warmed to reports of my seeing 125 species in two days – including the very hard-to-see Wynaad Laughingthrush – whilst justifying their own reservations on the absence of cornflakes. By and large, though, the mere mention of the place evokes visions of chaos and a foreboding of parting company with bowel control.

I readily agree that standards of hygiene and driving are not what many of us are used to but both dangers can be avoided with a little care. After many visits and a reasonable amount of immersion in the culture, I’ve never felt that either presented a terminal threat. No, the thing that distresses me each time I visit is India’s apparent inability – and this is putting it simply – to sort itself out. Poverty is still rife, infrastructure is inadequate or absent and the consequences of corruption are widespread but the thing that irks me most; the issue that has me ranting into my masala dosa and coconut chutney is the ever-increasing and ubiquitous spread of garbage. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in India but all around you, in the streets, beside the buildings, lying in heaps and just getting under your feet is the detritus of 1.2 billion people. In Kerala alone an estimated 6000 tonnes is generated daily and most of it is apparently lying around.

It was alarming to find plastic in the dung of wild elephants and plastic bottles, paper plates and food wrappers deep in pristine evergreen forest. When I asked about it friends and even individuals involved in the management of national parks shrugged their shoulders at failed collection legislation and offered rueful excuses. Most blamed corrupt local government; local government apparently blames the State. In 2000 the Supreme Court of India issued a directive based on advice provided by the Centre for Science and Environment in Dehli. This called for all local governments to set up proper waste processing facilities by the end of 2003. Whilst several took some action the majority merely ignored both the directive and their garbage-strewn fiefdoms. In Kerala, NGOs and Community organizations such as Kudumbasrees* have been motivated with initiatives such as the ‘Clean Kerala Mission’ but despite success in some areas such as Paravur and Kozhikode [which was declared India’s first litter-free city in 2004] the heaps of solid waste and their associated pollution continue to increase.  

Black-shouldered kite
Sundown in Kochi

I took to browsing ‘The Hindu’ while I was in there. The local English language newspaper is a serious publication and a good read, with a history going back some 130 years and a circulation of nearly 1.5 million. It reports on issues like the problem of garbage, fly-tipping and landfill disputes in a fair and balanced manner as well as other aspects of life in southern India; fascinating stories of Bollywood stars sat alongside vacuous promises from government officials and reports of yet more fatal road traffic accidents. The seriousness of the reporting and the depth of detail were seductive – from reading the accounts of how problems were being identified and how officialdom was dealing with them I was beginning to  think that there was real concern for getting to grips with the carpet of plastic bags and bottles. That was until another report caught my attention and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. There was positive and expansive news that India is progressing well with its planned mission to Mars. Yes, Mars. Out of the heaps on non-biodegradable waste and open sewers is emerging an orbiter that will be sent to Mars in October to survey the Martian atmosphere. In collaboration with NASA it will attempt to detect the presence of methane, which I found ironic given the mountains of waste generating it down here.

Try as I may I can’t understand why India, with its breathtaking cultural diversity but so many earth-bound problems, is spending billions on a space programme – and one that is hell-bent on exploring Mars, too – when so many of its populace have to crap on the ground that the water table is being polluted. Could it be possible that the search for methane is just a ruse and that this mission is really a disguised effort to find the ultimate landfill in the sky?

Space might be the Final Frontier but I hope by the time India’s base on Mars is in operation the Intergalactic Garbage Police are fully in control.

*Kudumbsree – this is a worthy initiative set up by the Keralan government in 1998 with the aim of eradicating poverty through the empowerment of women. Its literal meaning is ‘prosperity of the family’ and it enshrines microcredit, empowerment and entrepreneurship.

View inside the Biodome of India’s Mars base