31 July, 2013

Our Phuket Odyssey (20th July - 27th July 2013) !

(Pic courtesy : Vic Krishnan)

Where do I begin ?  

Do I begin with the sereneness of the place or with the warmth of the people there ?  Do I begin with the natural beauty of the landscape or the inner beauty that resides in the hearts of the people there ?  It is a very difficult choice and not one that I choose to entertain. 

We spent one week in Phuket – one glorious week and Phuket and its people have left an indelible imprint on our hearts and our minds.  The only other place that has come close or an even par where natural beauty and personal warmth go, is Bali.  The Balinese too, are a very hospitable people and this was the one feature that we found remarkable even among the Thai people.  It made a world of difference, that one week.  Especially going into a place like Phuket from a place like HK which, all said and done, is emotionally quite sterile, was like dropping into a warm bathtub after trudging through the cold weather outside.  The warmth just envelops you, it encompasses you, it disarms you, it takes you over – mind, heart and soul.

The Thai people are quite a remarkable lot.  They go through a lot of hardship, from what we could see.  They work hard for the money they earn and more importantly, they take pride in what they do.  Almost every morning, at breakfast, there used to be a smiling Thai lady at the egg station, who would cook eggs, the way you wanted them cooked.  I’ve come across many chefs who do the same thing in many different countries that we’ve visited but this lady was special.  There would always be a wide, broad toothy smile every morning she was there and one would be greeted with a loud “Sawatdee Kha ! Good Morning Kha” when one stepped into the restaurant for breakfast.  She was, quite literally, the life of the restaurant, so much so that people actually missed her when she was not around.  We did too, when she was not around in the restaurant.

The housekeeping staff at the resort could not speak much English, nor could the security ranger who used to do the rounds of the resort to make sure everything was alright and the place, secure.  But in their own warm way, they made communication easier.  They make people realize that all it takes to humanize things is just a smile.  To them, it comes so naturally, almost as if being warm is ingrained in their psyche. 

 It was predominantly evident the next morning, at breakfast, when people of many different nationalities converged at the restaurant.  No one knew each other, yet there were friendly smiles and cheery “Good Mornings” floating all over.  Since the resort has standalone suites, there were plenty of instances where our neighbour would be on the porch at the same time as we were and a wave and the ensuing chat seemed completely normal there.  While walking down the path we would either run into people or see them relaxing on their porches.  There would be smiles, waves and a little chat.   That is what Phuket does to you.  It peels off that layer of wariness, that cloak of guardedness that people normally learn to wear around themselves in cities like HK.  Like I said earlier, it totally disarms you, it beguiles you, it woos you with its simple yet pure warmth, sincerity and cordiality.  

We took a boat trip to Phang Nga Bay one of the days we were there.  While on the boat, I was chatting up our tour guide and she was telling me about her family, who were sea gypsies.  Her grandparents had a thriving coconut business and they used to just trade in all sorts of coconut products.  They lost much of their land during the Tsunami and since then just have a small business, supplying fresh tender coconuts to a few restaurants in Phuket.  They have, however, begun tapping rubber trees for sap and are trying to extend their income with rubber farming.  Life has not been easy yet her confidence, her pride in what she does for a living shone through just about everything else.  There was a genuineness about her, a silent dignity that one could not help but respect.  Yet again, despite everything life has thrown her way, she was a person who warmed the heart with a realness that was refreshing.

There were three scheduled stops on the boat trip.  Two of those stops involved the boat laying anchor quite a distance away from the islands.  To get to the islands, we had to hop on to little canoes and the canoe guy would paddle the canoe over to the little island.  Now, water is not my element.  I have never ever been a water person but once we got onto that little canoe, as it kept bobbing like a cork in the water, the feeling that encompassed me was one of sheer awe, respect and reconciliation with Mother Nature.   One look around and all I could see, as far as my sight would permit, was a vast expanse of clear blue water.  It did not scare me in the least.  It was actually reassuring.  The only thing I remember is being filled with this immense sense of peace.  Despite a number of canoes in the water, there was a stillness, a serene tranquility.  The only sounds I could hear were the gentle sounds that the water made as it lapped against the sides of the little canoe and the occasional shrill chirp of the many different species of birds.  Chirps that split the serene air like lightning does to a sky darkened with clouds.  Just as lightning serves to illuminate the dark clouds, these chirps just served to accentuate the tranquility.  Despite so many human beings around, the sensation that filled the mind was one of harmony.  We were at that place and time in life when humans were in complete accord with nature and the feeling was beyond description, the essence way too wonderful for words to capture, in its entirety. 

There is something about the place that simply encourages you to be yourself – no put ons, no facades – one is comfortable with the person one truly is.  For that matter, nature seems to work on this theory too.  Nature in Phuket, if it has to be described in one single word, is unrestrained.  It behaves the way it wants to, when it wants to.  We experienced nature at its mellow best and also felt its rough, forceful strength, all in a space of two days.  

We were over at the beaches almost every single day and each time, nature had a different facet to display.  Nature, especially the waters in Phuket do not seek, they demand respect.
Our first trip to Kata Beach did leave us feasting our eyes at the charm of the sea.  The waves were frothing and foaming at the caps, but were still gentle.  Even well into the water, the waves actually seemed to caress.  The experience was anything but scary.  It was a welcome reprieve from the heat.  

We went over to the same beach a day later, expecting pretty much the same thing but this time around, nature had totally different plans.  That day, the waters simply claimed the entire beach.  There was no beach, there was just water, everywhere.  The local people were stacking sandbags around the edges of what was supposed to be sandy beach area, in a desperate attempt to prevent the waters from rushing up onto the roads.  The beach chairs had all been pushed away to the fringes and actually had to be tied down to prevent the sea from claiming them.  Even as one gingerly stepped into the waters, one could feel that the sea was in an unrelenting mood that day.  It was not to be messed with and people on the beach that day had absolutely no choice but to respect nature’s wishes.  Two youngsters almost seemed to dare the ferocity of the waters that day only to be tossed around with absolute impunity.  The waves toyed around with them until they retreated.  

That morning, it was not difficult to imagine how it must have been a few years back, when the waters rose from the ocean like a wall.  Yes, the waters in Phuket have a charisma, the waters in Phuket have their own personality and they answer to no one. 

Another thing that stands out in Phuket is the ability of humans to co-exist with the other creations of nature – as in the little insects and creatures that have a right to inhabit this planet just as much as we humans do.  The natural ecosystem there is amazing.  It is a very common sight to see huge centipedes or millipedes crawling along next to you as you walk.  One day, we found a scorpion leisurely crossing the road, its tail and sting swinging from side to side like a pendulum.  Mesmerizing sight, it was.  Spiders, wasps, huge bumble bees, lizards, ants, frogs – they are all around and they live their lives, the humans live theirs.  They co-exist peacefully.

Even the butterflies out there seemed more friendly – they were gracious and sociable enough to merrily come and perch on us when they felt like.  The bees do too, sometimes.  

We went over to the Butterfly and Insect garden and it was a completely different experience.  There were butterflies of all shapes, sizes and colours, flying free all over the garden.   Stand still for a few minutes and a few butterflies soon deem you fit to be explored.  It is quite a magical feeling, to have a butterfly perch on you.  They move, slowly yet surely with those feather light touches from their colorful wings.  Their antennae move, a gentle tickle that just makes one forget everything else and revel in just that moment.  Somehow, those little winged beauties release this feeling of warmth and happiness that seem to gush from the heart and if I were to describe my feeling (when a butterfly landed on me) in just two words, it would be “light and free”.  During those few seconds or sometimes minutes, everything else ceases to exist – there is you and there is the butterfly or sometimes, butterflies.  One butterfly in particular, decided that my face looked like a doable nature walking trail and took a walk all over my face. That is one experience I will treasure forever, for, that little winged creature simply filled my mind with everything that is good and right with this world of ours.

The Thais are indeed a very religious people as is the Burmese community (quite a substantial number) in Phuket.  During the week we were there, two or three days were special Buddha days and as we drove past the lane leading to the Big Buddha, we could see thousands of Buddhist devotees lined on the streets, waiting for transportation towards the Big Buddha, high up on a hill.  We made our way to another temple Wat Chalong.  It was almost like one of the village fairs there – abundance of hawkers selling all sorts of food, children with balloons, people praying and amongst all this there was the deafening din of firecrackers being set off as offerings to God. 

The Elephant Ride through the forest was a new experience for all of us, though not one that I would ever want to repeat.  It is like one of those slow roller coaster rides, with the sudden dips and the stomach lurching climbs.  It was me and Pecan on one of the elephants while Daddy and Macadamia had another elephant to ride on.  I, for one, spent almost every single minute of the half hour ride hanging on to my seat for dear life, for, there were instances when I thought it was going to happen – me falling off a huge elephant, that is.  At some points, me and Pecan were hanging on to each other and Pecan saying things like “ok. Be prepared for a broken bone or two” did not quite help right then.    The elephants in this particular safari respond to voice commands alone because for a major portion of the ride, the mahout does not even sit on the elephant.  You cannot possibly imagine the kind of scenarios that went through my mind as we lurched on through the jungle – just me, Pecan and the gentle giant elephant.  The mahout was walking at a leisurely pace as though it was the most natural thing to do right then.  Now I am a person who feels dizzy when I look at anything from a height and looking at the uneven jungle terrain from atop an elephant’s back was quite disconcerting, to say the least.  I was rather adequately terrified and with the elephant’s huge ears flapping around my feet while I was being swung around like a toy, ahem … it was not exactly a reassuring situation.  

 Another reason why we, as a family, have decided not to do this sort of stuff again is because we actually felt bad for the elephants.  They are extremely intelligent animals and this, in a way, is their means of earning their food.  It rankles because that’s not how it should be.  I vividly remember the moment when the mahout asked me to step on the elephant’s head to get on to the seat and I refused.  I somehow shimmied up into the seat, all the while hoping that I didn’t unceremoniously land on my butt in front of whole load of mahouts but right then, I just could not bring myself to climb onto the head of an animal that has been, by circumstances, forced to earn its living.  The mahout was extremely amused when, at the end of the ride, we actually said “thank you” to the gentle giants with the wise eyes.  We really wish we could have fed them at the end of the ride but it was late evening and it was time for the elephants to shower.  So off they went.

This world of ours is definitely a small place.  We visit many different places through a lifetime and yet, there are some that leave their mark on our minds.  An indelible mark.  Many a times, if we actually care to give it a thought, the places that capture spaces in our hearts, minds and souls for an eternity, do so with things as straightforward as simplicity, genuineness and warmth.    

As we got onboard the aircraft at Phuket International Airport, as the aircraft taxied onto the runway,  gathered speed and took off, there was no “Good Bye Phuket” – not in my mind, not in my heart, not on my lips.  It was simply “Au Revoir, Phuket.  Till we meet again.”  I know we will, sometime in the future, for, Phuket, with its open arms, its warmth, humility and hospitality, is a place I’ve rather hopelessly fallen in love with.  

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