Monthly Archives: November 2014

Lipstick palms on Phuket…of botany and the verve of Jack

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A place of serenity for the writer’s retreat

“Do you think someone plants all those ferns in the palm trees?” I ask Jo as we paddle idly in the pool.  Another day of writing was complete and we were now cooling off after a massage in the nearby ‘massage studio’…How will I ever leave this serenity?

“No, they’re epiphytes, plants that live on others. They root by themselves and just grow,” says Jo.

“See how some of the trees have ferns and those ‘spiky’ plants. And they’re orderly, as if it was landscaped,” I muse as I gaze out to the pool-side palm trees, each massive trunk in a cosy ecosystem with its ‘house-guests’.

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Into the massage studio

“We have a theory in our family,” Jo continues, “trees are like people; some are more fun than others, maybe that’s where the party is, more booze, better snacks?”

“Hah, that’s good!” I said, quite taken by the notion of trees as a party venue.

Jo and I have often chatted about nature, but never more than at this writer’s retreat in Phuket.  The garden cascades in all directions from the central pool, a who’s who (or rather, a what’s what) of a botanical garden.  The coconut palms reign supreme, tall and imposing over the stockier white washed date palms, bamboo somewhere in between. Frangipani trees dot the lawns and verges, their fragrant flowers a fond reminder of my once middle eastern gardens. Those years when the kids played in gardens of jasmine, orchids and rainbows of bouganvilla. When they climbed houses built in exotic trees that we didn’t know the names of…when we drank sundowners with the melodic call to prayer as a backdrop.  Gardens have always been important to us; they’ve helped root us to a country, provided solace in foreign lands.

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Lipstick palms

This garden seems to reach out to us writers that are happily ‘entrenched’ here for a week.  It’s animated yet calming, even the water nymphs call out.  One day, a lovely water-lily suddenly appears in its glazed pot, a little blaze of silken petals. As one might announce a birth, I summon the group that morning…”the lily has bloomed, do stop to appreciate it everyone!”

“I love that grouping of palms just there, beside my villa.” I declare in the general direction of Jo as we luxuriate late that afternoon on teak recliners.

“Skinny stalks of subtle lime” I alliterate, “burnt orange and lush lemon.” I continue, getting carried away with the literary thing.

“Those are luscious lipstick palms,” Jo happily jumps in, seemingly bursting with botanical knowledge.

“Well they would be, wouldn’t they!” I sigh at the resplendent scene before me, as if to breathe it in for posterity.  “Ah, I think those are the palms that when Europeans first set eyes on them, they were named the red sealing-wax palm.”  I picture the slow drip of hot wax, the delicate stamp of a signet ring.

The Royal Embassy Resort is owned by Phil, a New Zealand transplant, and his lovely Thai wife, Ari.  It’s a secluded, intimate setting and we’ve been treated like royalty. Even by day six, I can’t stop admiring the effortless bounty of nature that surrounds us.  It’s also mirrored in the cuisine; delicious offerings served on banana leaves, intricately carved fruit and magenta orchids adorning tall, frosty drinks.

Normally I’m engrossed with the architecture of a country and though I’ve traveled through Thailand before, I am endlessly captivated by the effortless melding of nature into everyday life here.  Could it be the stark contrast to Kazakhstan where I now live for some of the year? From the sparseness of the vast steppe to the overwhelming abundance…yet I remind myself that each country has its own beauty and uniqueness. 

The view from our ‘writing room’ has transfixed me throughout the week.  Yellow, snow-white and tangerine butterflies dance around fluttering palms.  Delicate frangipani flowers cling to trees, pink hibiscus blossoms drift in the breeze, birds linger and browse the floral wares: inspiration at every glance.

As if writing and meeting new people weren’t enough to occupy the week, we were encouraged to limber our bodies and minds with an early yoga session on the lawn each day. I had affirmed to our yoga instructors, Anne and Melanie ( Anne was the wonderful facilitator of the retreat) that I wasn’t a fan. Much to their delight, I quickly ‘purged those negative thoughts‘. It was difficult not to; with the night dew still clinging to the grass, we focused on ‘a drosti’ and executed the ‘warrior pose’ while glancing at tall bamboo, a favourite palm or gazing out to the misty hills beyond.

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The waterlily has bloomed

Beyond the tranquility of our garden retreat, the neighbourhood slowly came to life. Tuk-tuks puttered in the lanes beyond our view, pans clashed on outdoor stoves, roosters cock-a-doodled, a broom swished across the corner store porch, and stray dogs barked in raucous anticipation of the new morning.  Now this was the way to greet the day…I was happily convinced.

On day five, a new friend Barb from Halifax announced that she’d received a visitor as she opened the door to her villa that morning.

“Jack came to say good morning, he was right there to greet me,” she said as she laid happily in ‘child’s pose’ at the end of the yoga session. I admitted to being envious. We all treasured the rare encounters with Jack and, though he hadn’t actually enrolled in the retreat, we considered him as one of us, nonetheless.

The following day as I opened my door to greet the thick, humid morning, there he was. I was honoured to have been chosen for some personal attention.  White hair soft as feathers, black ears erect not droopy…he allowed me to caress his silken curves until it was time for yoga.   Yes, Jack is a rabbit that we all came to adore.

“Gosh, it must be sad for him to be alone here,” I wonder aloud to Phil one day after an impromptu tour of his admirable collection of Thai antiques.

“Well, Jack’s the only one left; all of his erstwhile mates have been savaged by the neighbourhood strays.”

“That’s terrible, how has he managed to survive?” I ask, reminded of the similar fate that met Pebbles and Bambam, our sons’ childhood rabbits (yes back in that seemingly serene garden.)

“Oh he hides, he’s wily, that Jack rabbit!” Phil says in his lyrical Kiwi strains.

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The beloved Jack

There was evidence enough that the beloved creature played an important role at the Royal Embassy. On returning from an outing one evening, sun dipping below the horizon, we came upon Phil and Ari sitting by the poolside. Jasmine, their silken dog lazed on Ari’s lap and in the chair between, completing the family vignette, sat Jack in perfect contentment. I shall never forget that scene, there he sat…a rabbit called Jack on a chair for cocktail hour at peace with his family, it was absolutely heartwarming.

On the final evening at the Royal Embassy Resort, only Barb and I had stayed on.  The other writers had flown back to their homes in the U.S., KL or Dubai; the rest had returned to their homes in Phuket, the island they had come to love.  Barb and I made our way to what had become our favourite restaurant, ‘Bua’, perched on stilts overlooking the gentle waves of Kamala beach. Bua, the omnipresent lotus, sacred symbol of this fertile land, rising up from muddy waters to attain perfection. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the week that had just been, yes, it had pretty much been perfect.

“Well, my dear, cheers to a wonderful week, we were meant to be here indeed!”  We chunked our coconuts together, setting the Pina Colada aswirl. It didn’t matter who had voiced the sentiment, we would part the next morning knowing we’d made a friend for life.

Early the next morning we took one final walk together, turning left from our resort

Hibiscus and Saturday morning laundry

Hibiscus and Saturday morning laundry

instead of the usual right, taking us into a ‘normal’ neighbourhood which was just beginning to stir that Saturday morning. Boys cycled down palm lined streets, past lovely homes both grand and simple, some with kitchens and dining rooms exposed to the elements.  A mother and grandmother tended to the laundry, graciously pausing to pluck a luscious pink hibiscus for each for us from their garden.   As if in prayer, we met our hands to our heart, as they do here…to convey a genuine thank you.  I will dearly miss that heartfelt gesture and the gentle Thai people who smile so freely…who welcome you to their land with open hearts.

A gift of hibiscus

A gift of hibiscus

 

We passed yet more varieties of palms that Jo, my botanist hadn’t yet identified for me (actually my mentor at summertimepublishing). They were interspersed with a few spindly rubber trees. Introduced for commerce, rubber trees arrived in Phuket at the start of the century, plantations once covering forty percent of the island.

“I hadn’t realized that rubber trees are tapped like maple trees to harvest the white goo that oozes out.” I slapped the trunk with my palm. “I really hadn’t grasped how it’s transformed into rubber, I got the full picture when I read about it this week”, I confessed to Barb.

 

Barb, in front of yet another variety of palm

Barb with yet another variety of palm

“Thank goodness it wasn’t just me, I hadn’t realized that either until I was here,” she conceded comfortingly. Later as I snapped a photo of Barb in front of yet another variety of palm, I vowed to improve my botany knowledge for the next trip!

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The view at The Indigo Pearl

It was time to depart and I left the quiet, unique resort to spend my last two nights at the Indigo Pearl with only a small inkling of what awaited. I had booked the starred resort online, splurging a little at my husband’s encouragement, but I had not imagined the sheer luxury or the captivating history.  This resort, rather unexpectedly pays homage to the tin mining industry that had once been so important to the Phuket economy.  The lobby and restaurants were opened to the verdant grounds and scattered amidst this stunning backdrop stood fascinating remnants from bygone mining days.  Old tin presses become art, tin florets hang on walls and sit on taps, untold flirtations integrating design and history.

Tin becomes art!

Tin becomes art

My suite overlooked the pool; fronds of massive, milky palms flapping like wallah-less punkahs over my patio, I was now truly in another world. And then I noticed the bathtub; perched on the patio and posed towards the verdant vista, candle already burning with exotic oils filling the air. Truly, how can I leave this paradise!

 

The beauty of a treetop spa

The beauty of a treetop spa

 

After a back and neck massage in the treehouse style spa on the second day (where even the chilled towels are proffered with magenta orchids atop), I venture outside the gates…it’s time to head to the beach. And as wonderful as it had felt to be ensconced within the walls of the pampering five star hotel, I was happily back into the heady chaos of Phuket street life.   Vendors jostle for business, aromas of barbecues waft through the air as the Andaman sea crashes its waves onto the pristine shore.

I find the perfect spot on the white sand and settle myself. But something isn’t quite right; I conjour sweet memories of my boys building sandcastles and frolicking in the sea waves. Images of a family holiday on Phuket tug at my serenity, urging to be let in. Wonderful memories, now lingering and bittersweet in my solitude. No fellow writers to share my thoughts with, no friends beside me with whom to relate these golden images.  This experience has run its course I confess to myself, though seemingly not before I cheer myself by having my second massage of the day…yes the second!

A bathtub with a view

A bathtub with a view.

Come on this is ridiculous, you should be finishing those writing assignments, completing that gift list, even sending your hard working husband a postcard!

But no, recalling that I had strolled past a thatched roof structure, housing twenty or so rudimentary low, wooden tables, I am drawn back by the promise of one last Thai massage. It’s full with foreigners in varying degrees of un-dress, it just doesn’t matter here!

”Only 300 Baht (under 10 bucks) OK?”  And I yield to the matronly Thai lady who catches my eye, her hand enticingly swishing her bottle of oil, a welcoming smile on her expectant face.

“I’m in!” and if not on a new spiritual plane, at least I’m soon cheered!

Someone recently mentioned a study that showed most people’s first deep sigh comes seven minutes into the massage; mine was at two, at the most!  Relaxing and more ‘real’ than the resort experience, I succumb.   Kids run about as momas and grandmothers alike knead and cajole the ‘stress’ out of us spoiled tourists. They keep a watchful eye on their brood during the hour long session, chatting in Thai to their colleagues beside them, nattering at the kids as they play simple games with leaves and sticks.  Vendors bells ting ting, as it approaches dinner time, the local mosque’s call to prayer echoes in the air. I’m returning here with hubby and those grown sons of ours, even if it’s just for this experience alone!

View to the Andaman Sea from the massage hut

View to the Andaman Sea from the massage hut

The massage is glorious. The sound of the waves just a few meters away is natural mood music, the view of simple fishing boats bobbing and coconuts swaying on a nearby palm tree further encapsulate my trip. But it’s time to go home. I smile, barely managing to pick myself up off the woven Thai mat, slowly slipping on my flip flops. Dodging the daily afternoon rain, I opt to have a quick Singha beer at the cafe across the street and chat to a couple from Germany.  They’ve just arrived on the island and of course I suggest the Royal Embassy Resort to them.

“They even have a pet rabbit named Jack,” I tell the friendly couple.  “He likes to be petted,” I say fondly, already missing the little guy.

Coconuts hidden under massive fronds

Coconuts hidden under massive fronds

 

It’s time to go back through that gate that takes me to the opulence of the Indigo Pearl.  I don’t really want to leave this scene where people chat freely, where everyday culture is revealed and I’m absorbed into the pleasantly chaotic scenes.  So I stroll wistfully through the gates returning the smile from the security guard, with one last glance at the tranquil sea.  It’s my last night here and I might just have to have one more soak in that glorious tub… 

A writer’s retreat in ‘Siam’…a market wander

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An entrance of brooms and hanging baby chairs

In the humid labyrinth of aisles, back corners and shelves, I yearned for that special piece to present itself. To call to me, to beckon escape from this musty, neighbourhood market. We were on a writing assignment…to find something elusive or inspiring to write about in this potpurri of, well…everything.

I passed the welcoming display; a hodgepodge of wispy brooms, sponges and spades, of dust pans in yellow, pink and blue. I noted tickley feather dusters, hoses, and hanging baby seats…wicker tightly bound. They perch precariously on many family ‘vehicles’, the ubiquitous scooter.

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A ‘bike vendor’ with the market’s entrance beyond

There were knives, rakes, tape measures and plastic prayer alters. Rainbows of stacked carpets, bento boxes, scales…and pots and woks and saucepans. Of vases, washtubs, fans both new and defunct…and rows and rows of glasses waiting for champagne and beer, dejected and dusty. Past plungers, packs of straws and Chinese waving cats for prosperity…for luck.

Still, nothing spotted that spoke of a keepsake from this writer’s retreat, from a nation once known as Siam. A country of lush bamboo, tall palms, temples and tuk-tuks. I wished for a momento…the fragrant garlands and orchids don’t last.

The humidity climbed, fellow writers melted as we shared my small woven fan when we converged somewhere between the plastic stools and ironing boards…Could they not plug one of these fans in…we despaired as we eyed the myriad of oscillating cooling devices.  Is the time almost up, can we escape soon?

No there was more. In the corners lurked hulla hoops, parasols and porcelain of fake delft blue.  The tool section stacked with clunky hammers, chisels, trowels and wrenches. They competed with dull saws, plugs and keys…and long, dark, rusty nails. My father would love poking around these crammed shelves, examining pipe widths and plyers; a handyman’s trove of treasures.

My mother would peruse the rice steamers, the Thai cushions and then announce she’d buy a cooking utensil. Something to ladle with, to stir with… to playfully chase those naughty grandchildren with.

Mercifully our time had elapsed and I manoeuvred through the tight aisles out to the welcoming sunshine, defeat admitted as I dabbed my drenched brow and neck.

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Steamy pouches of spicy sauces

And then I spotted it, dangling from under a vendor’s umbrella. He was parked there, just on the left, selling delicacies of fish, skewered meat and sauces in tiny, steaming pouches. Offering rice in banana leaf parcels, a toothpick to close.

The object was forlorn and worn. Small and intricate, stitchings of green and orange. It wanted to join my collection of gleaned treasures from far away lands and adventures, from gifts received.

Only fifty baht was taken with a genuine smile, with a Kob Kun Kaaaa. I tucked it quietly away and made my way back to the writing group, a sly grin embracing my face.  I’d found it. My small, delicate rice vessel speaks of days gone past, of workmanship under thatched roofs…of Thailand.

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My friend and mentor, Ms. Jo at lunch

Each day is unique at a writer’s retreat and on this day, after the market and writing session, we left the resort for a working lunch in a restaurant on the sea. It was a gloomy afternoon, ideal for sharing our ‘market writings’ as we dined on grilled shrimp, spicy calamari and icy Chang beer. Unique interpretations of our assignment; some mysterious, many funny, a few suspended reality and suddenly we were transported through a secret portal to an alien ‘space’. Yet another was deep with metaphors, sad and brooding, like the stormy weather that was closing in on us. Words enchanted and rolled around us…just like the melancholy waves rolling towards us.

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The brooding sea on a Phuket beach

Beguiling and inspiring, just as the day we were having.