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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Thailand – just follow the directions

Dusk at Coral Hotel
Dusk at Coral Hotel

Our ‘Bangkok in a day’ tour completed, we were ready to head south to the hellacious Phuket. It’s difficult to overstate the kaleidoscope of elements that contributes to experiencing Bangkok; from breathtaking cuisine – we’d dined on exquisite Miang Kham* in the riverside Thiptara restaurant and meandered through street food stalls – to the people; charming, respectful and gentle in a manner that is disarming to hubristic Westerners; and that river – rich in horrific and mysterious flotsam. We’d wandered along Charoen Krung Road to shop at Robinsons and I’d established a relaxed stand-off with the security officers who never quite understood my dawn excursions, bush-shaking and pishing** in the hotel gardens.

In the taxi to Suvarnabhumi airport to collect the rental car I was mindful of the wealth of advice provided, guidance published and concern expressed about driving in Thailand. Statistically we were in the second most dangerous country in the world with something approaching 24000 vehicle-related deaths a year; that’s about three an hour. I had been counselled on the risks of drunks, un-roadworthy vehicles, insurance scams and corrupt police. In short, choosing to drive was madness.

Emerging onto a moonlit sea
Emerging onto a moonlit sea

The rental desk was deserted and the assistant who arrived to deal with her only customer [locals and Asian visitors were using a presumably cheaper outlet next door] was only matched in her warmth and enthusiasm by her apparent lack of experience. Whilst putting some of that down to language it became clear as we struggled through the process of processing booking confirmations, passport copies and driving licence details that she probably hadn’t done this before. I began to have visions of being angrily accused by a moped-riding drunk in baggy shorts and tee-shirt before being pulled over by corrupt police to find that the one piece of paper you must carry in Thailand was still at the airport. My fears were compounded when the SatNav I’d pre-ordered was respectfully presented to me in a box – cellophane intact – with a perfect set of instructions in Thai. That was swiftly followed by an invoice for the rental charge – £1200! This disjunctive and time-consuming exchange was all very good-natured but with distance to drive and the day disappearing I was relieved when her senior colleague arrived. Within minutes the SatNav was programmed, its cost moderated – she’d used the purchase price for each day of the rental – and we were wedged into a tiny but shining new car with the smiling staff waving us off at the kerbside.

Bang Saphan beach at dawn
Bang Saphan beach at dawn
Poolside at Coral Hotel
Poolside at Coral Hotel

Now – the aforementioned perils aside – all we had to do was follow the directions. Straight down the Suvarnabhumi Road to the Sirat Expressway; along Ratchadaphisek Road, join the The Rama II Frontage Road and head for Prachuap Khiri Khan. The roads were pretty good and the traffic surprisingly benign but we encountered an unexpected problem – the SatNav couldn’t pronounce Thai. We were reduced to floods of laughter at the American-accented gibberish and were forced into the nearest service station to buy a map that would facilitate our journey towards Huahin.

Once out of Bangkok the road degenerated into a straightish dual carriageway but, as one would expect, it was sort of different from what we see in Europe. A lot of incomplete road works necessitating diversions, U-turns and – frighteningly – some unmarked two-way stretches were interspersed with random traffic signals and junctions that often defied comprehension. Numerous potholes, missing bits of road and debris encouraged heavy trucks, tractors and pick-ups full of schoolgirls to swing erratically from lane to lane but it became clear very rapidly that none of this concerned the Thai drivers; they simply ignored everything in a headlong rush to get where they were going. It was truly nerve-racking but in time I became more confident and once we’d reached a velocity approaching that of the traffic it was akin to floating down a river on a log.

Pool from the restaurant at Coral Hotel
Pool from the restaurant at Coral Hotel

We had an overnight stay booked at Coral Hotel in Bang Saphan but it was almost dark as we arrived. The SatNav, which we’d by then begun to interpret, garbled a left turn onto an unlit, narrow road heading into the forest but there were no signs and the road was too small to be on the map. We could see no indication of where we should go, turned back, retraced our steps and tried again before eventually seeing lights. We emerged into a rural setting that boasted a supermarket, a rail crossing and a single traffic light. I decided to try – map in hand – to see if anyone could point us towards the hotel and was ushered to the centre of the store where a youngish guy was ministering to a hoard of local residents. This was the pharmacy and he was, I guessed from the way he was consulting each customer before dispensing pills and tubes of ointment, the local doctor. I was at the back of a queue but quickly became the focus of animated attention, being foreign and all. We collectively established that we were indeed on the right road and that we should cross the railway, turn right at the signal and look for a sign. Whether that would be transcendental or physical I couldn’t tell but the garrulous crowd quickly turned its attention back to the doctor and we headed further into the trees. Eventually a hand-painted notice directed us along a sandy track that broke through the forest onto a beach, edged with coconut palms and bathed in moonlight. A short distance further and we pulled into a bijou tropical paradise, adorned by beautifully presented Thais and a small group of trendy, French guests. For all the world we had emerged in the film set of Emmanuelle.

Waiting for Emanuelle to appear
Waiting for Emmanuelle to appear

So, we’d passed the first test by avoiding death on the highway – narrowly, at one point – and were in a tropical paradise.

*Dried shrimp, roasted coconut, roasted peanut, shallot, ginger, lemon wrapped wrapped with betal leaf and served with palm sauce.

**If you’re not a birder then this explains pishing.

I use a SatNav, especially when I’m in the Middle East and have to tackle remote places but I’m not a big fan. Here’s a post from some time ago.

pool-and-sky

 

No problem Sir!

Polished, waiting and ready to serve
Polished, waiting and ready to serve

Anyone who’s spent any time on the roads there will know that traffic in India is an absolute nightmare. Road discipline is patchy at best and the application of basic common sense breathtakingly absent; vehicles hurtle into blind bends or career towards each other in hoards down the centre of bumpy, narrow and fragmenting roads before lurching aside only to avoid a collision. For the remainder of the time they are, well, anywhere on the road but most frequently in the oncoming lane. Drivers continually sound their horns while ignoring road signs, line markings and speed limits; more worryingly, received knowledge is that any obstacles in the way – be they cows, people, cycles, carts or other vehicles – must be either ignored or passed, depending on what speed they are moving at. Crowds of pedestrians spill out into the roads due to badly parked vehicles and rubble-strewn verges, vying for space with innumerable ‘two-wheelers’ and seemingly suicidal truck and bus drivers – especially those ferrying pilgrims.

And most numerous of all, the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws – ‘tuk-tuks’ – weave in and out of the traffic trailing clouds of blue smoke and constantly tooting their horns to generate a of noise and chaos. Put simply; it’s bedlam. There are rules, of course, but as they are ignored with single-minded thoroughness by everyone, including the police, foreigners require a car and driver if they aren’t up for any of the public transport options that the sub-continent offers. And anyway, my days of sitting three to a seat with people that don’t use underwear were over years ago.

In Kerala this week we left the relative safety [and luxury] of the delightful and highly recommended surroundings of the Raviz for a few days in the forests of the Western Ghats, a mountainous region away from the humid coastal plain. Our driver, supplied by the genuinely helpful people at the hotel, was selected, I’m guessing, for his command of English rather than his ability to coordinate hand and eye movements but we didn’t know that at the time. Smiling and positive in the hotel coffee lounge where we were introduced, he readily agreed that our journey of some 160km would be a benign but wondrous adventure, punctuated with invaluable local knowledge, pearls of cultural insight and occasional roadside stops for fresh pineapple juice or opportunities to snap shimmering vistas. To each of my questions he smilingly replied, ‘no problem, Sir! I should have known better.

As we set off I asked him if he was clear about the journey, the route we’d take and so on – the kind of amiable banter that one enters into in order to bond with someone who will, after all, be an enforced travel companion for the next four or five hours. His response was to gaze serenely into the middle distance, raise a finger in assertion, and, with a gentle shake of his head, reply, ‘God will take us there’. That, I believe, and the accompanying whimsical smile, was meant to reassure us but my faith in divine intervention, frail at the best of times, had evaporated with the fumbling gear changes and sudden braking. A brief shadow of alarm passed over Mission Control’s face and, as our little car meandered erratically across the tarmac I was advised in the most unambiguous terms that I was expected to wrestle control of the vehicle from him in the event of a confrontation with a truck, overloaded two-wheeler or washed-out road.

From previous experience I know that driving in India can be somewhat eccentric and I’m not a nervous passenger but I was already fighting the urge to grab the wheel and drag the car back onto our side of the road, especially after a bus full of shrieking worshippers avoided us by so narrow a margin that the car was filled with an intoxicating aroma of incense, garlic and body-odour. Interspersed with changes in velocity and sudden lurches, our progress became increasingly hesitant and he clearly sensed something in my tone when I asked if he actually knew the way, especially after he’d stopped and engaged in animated conversations with several taxi drivers, a shopkeeper and, at one point, a cyclist who pointed back in the direction we’d come.

At that point the road was climbing through 2000m on hairpin bends alongside precipitous drops into forested ravines. We should have been about 15km from our destination and less than an hour from the hotel but we passed a road sign that informed us we still had over 60km to go – two hours at least. Rather than invoke a spiritual solution in the face of my polite irritation our driver, clear now that my patience had gone the way of the setting sun, merely refused to answer me when I asked where the hell we were and when the hell we’d reach the hotel. I clearly wouldn’t take silence for an answer and my persistence eventually elicited a slow, deep breath and the adoption of an appropriately formal tone before he replied with dignified resignation, ‘I have no absolutely no idea, sir.’ This was surprisingly disarming and took us both aback as this is the last thing you’d expect your driver to say when you are high in the mountains of a foreign land with darkness closing in and an unknown distance still to cover. After all, that was the only reason he was there.

Well, we eventually arrived and it was dark, some two hours later than planned and a mysteriously unaccounted-for 75km extra on the journey. 

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in India tells us in its latest statistical report [for 2011] that 140000 people were killed in road accidents during the year [cows, dogs and elephants are not mentioned] as the consequence of ‘one road accident every minute, and one road accident death in less than four minutes’. It also lists the causes of fatal accidents and, while acknowledging that the majority of these are due to the fault of the driver, a significant number – I calculate that to be around 20% – is due to other related causes that include issues with passengers.

I can’t find the data but I suspect a great many of these involve the driver being murdered.

Taking Mum shopping

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Road through Kollom

Just follow the signs, dummy

Brahmin bull in the road

Look out for pedestrians and monks

Another road hazard to be passed