Category Archives: Thailand

A Bangkok love story…art, elegance and companionship

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“Siamese pink was the navy blue of Thailand and Mr. Thompson had a way of combining this with colours no one had dreamt of. He was a talented colourist, above all else.”

Our hostess, I’ll call her Lily, shows deference to her ‘boss’ as we slowly wind our way through the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. To build his home, Thompson sourced six traditional structures which were dismantled, loaded onto barges, then floated to the plot of land he had bought in 1958.

As a former architect, Thompson would not only fashion an elegant residence which became a landmark in Bangkok, but his preservation of traditional Thai buildings would encourage wealthy Thais to better preserve their heritage.

Jim Thompson was the founder of The Thai Silk Company. Throughout the late fifties and into the sixties, when one’s ship docked or plane landed in Bangkok, one naturally made a beeline for the company’s trendy shop. In the early days Thompson would often be there, draping customers in vibrant silks with his refined, creative eye. It is recounted that few women could resist the newly exotic, must-have fabric…or indeed Thompson’s charms.

If you had a little money or notoriety, you might garner an invitation that evening to his renowned home, the heart of Bangkok’s social scene. Thompson treasured it and shared its unique ambience most evenings by hosting drinks and dinner parties.

“It’s in the evening when the house is at its best,” Lily says dreamily as we approach the large drawing room with its stage-like design open to the elements; the orchids, the palms, and the klong, a backdrop in silhouette. “It is magical when the soft lights illuminate centuries old buddhas, tapestries, sculptures and rare paintings. But it’s also when the mosquitoes come out and maybe even the spirits.”

I do wonder if Jim Thompson’s spirit is felt. He disappeared on Easter Sunday 1967, and in the years before that tragic time, he built a legacy of bringing Thai silk to the world and awakening the need to preserve Thai and Asian artifacts. He collected these with passion. It is still inconceivable to many that all these years later, Jim Thompson’s disappearance remains a mystery.

Thompson had exchanged a former life as an architect and a stage designer, to serve as an OSS (forerunner of the CIA) operative and a major in the US Army. Landing in Bangkok at the end of the second world war, the urbane, soft spoken American was charmed by the cities vestiges of old-world character, its canals, floating markets and the royal history of Siam. That first visit captivated Thompson and he returned to the US hoping to convince his wife of the possibilities of a new life in Bangkok. Instead a divorce ensued and he returned to Bangkok a bachelor, thus beginning another phase in his fascinating life.

My first visit to the Jim Thompson House was in January 1989 and for nostalgia’s sake, I now allow myself a journey of discovery, and a little sentimentality on this trip. A silk-bound book, House On The Klong, is in my handbag. Purchased on that initial visit, a note on its inner sleeve reads… Merry Christmas to my traveling companion, Christmas 1989

It was penned after six months of backpacking with that traveling companion and six more of teaching English in Japan. We had fallen in love on our through journey Thailand, India, Nepal and China. Today, he’s my husband and I love that he’s the guy who ported my backpack far and wide. The travel companion with whom I’m lucky enough to still be discovering the world with.

Returning together to Bangkok with its bejewelled temple roof-lines, its hectic waterways, evocative streets and to Thompson’s home, brings floods of memories.

img_4026It was more soulful and quiet then. Without tour guides and with only occasional travellers, one had time to savour; the objects d’art, the finely carved doors, the priceless collections of Chinese blue and white, the delicate bencharong, five coloured porcelain.

Back then one could easily gaze out across the murky canal and hear the click, clack, click, clack of the silk looms in Bangkrau, the small village of Muslim weavers, long since swallowed up by the city.

The boardwalks of their Thai-style homes were lined with hanging skeins of freshly dyed strands of silk, their thinest of threads teased from silkworm cocoons. Not long after settling in Bangkok, Thompson began acquiring lengths of the weavers silk fashioned for sarongs; pasins for the ladies and pakomas for the men. Many of these weavers would come to produce silk for his company, bringing them wealth they could scarcely have imagined. Thompson would have no idea that in just a few years, the weavers would become his neighbours, just across the klong.

One of Bangkrau’s old Thai structures would provide the main part of Thompson’s home, the renowned drawing room. It was a charmed setting where movie stars, writers, politicians and the social elite were entertained by the generous businessman. It is fondly recalled that Thompson would re-tell the same fascinating stories night after night with the exuberance of a first-time story teller. Music by Thai performers floated towards the drawing room as an accompaniment.

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As we meander through the luxuriant garden, Lily points to the spirit house nestled in a corner, its precise location chosen by a Brahmin priest who specialized in such matters. It’s said that it took a full morning to locate the spot as a complicated set of astrological charts were consulted of the genealogy of the compound spirits, traced back 2000 years. Spirit houses are tiny abodes and replicas of Thai-style house or temples which must not fall under the shadow of the main house. For the Thais, there’s an innate believe that spirit houses offer a residence for the guardian spirit of the house and surroundings.

“There are four things the spirit house must have,” Lily enlightens us, “food, water, incense and flowers…oh, and a candle is nice too.” On this day, orange marigold garlands appease the spirits and please our cameras.

Jim Thompson would grow the ancient process of silk weaving and with other investors, form the Thai Silk Company in 1948. Almost instantly, its fine silk was sought-after worldwide. Before this, silk was considered old fashioned and something that your elderly relatives wore to a family wedding perhaps.

This would change as Jim Thompson’s silk soon graced photo spreads in magazines, exhibited in expensive stores and orders filled worldwide. The entrepreneur was seemingly indefatigable. Along with opening a company retail outlet and overseeing a thriving company, Thompson would also consult as a costume designer for movies such as The King and I, and Ben Hur…with specially designed silk of course.

Thompson had little free time, a recognized rebuttal after his disappearance which asserted that he had time to be a covert agent. But despite his frenetic schedule, he did find time to trek into the jungle, ideally emerging with an unknown species of orchid of which he was fond of; another rebuttal as to how someone knowledgable with the jungle could disappear in it.

Fittingly and perhaps in memory, the Jim Thompson House and gardens are fragrant with orchids poised in Chinese blue and white pots, with lush lily-padded ponds and replete with antiquties…I leave reluctantly.

The next day, I decide to visit Thompson’s first residence, The Oriental Hotel. On my way I turn onto a side street from what was once a worn elephant trail, New Road, the first proper road in Bangkok. It is the area where colonial-styled embassies congregated and antique shops opened for the travellers who began to trickle into the city at the turn-of-the-century.

I stop at a showroom, its sweeping decorative rooflines delightfully incongruous with its former use as a tractor repair shop. It stands defiant amongst modern buildings. As I admire antique handicrafts, I meet the second-generation shop owner. She patiently explains lipao, a beautiful dark climbing plant used for weaving and intriguingly, solves the mystery of why bamboo rice holders must to be smoked periodically. You’ll want to know it’s to prevent mites, of course. I then broach the topic of Jim Thompson.

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“Oh yes, we remember him,” she says. “I recall when I was a small girl he came to buy a valuable Thai headdress which was part of a matching pair, he owned the other one of course. It was put on my tiny head and very heavy.” I smile at the recollection and mention that I’m writing about the famed silk legend.

“What do you think happened to him?” The shopkeeper seems genuinely curious.

It is not a surprising question as three or four theories persist.

5-moonlight-bungalow-todayFirst and perhaps the most widely accepted is that Thompson innocently set out for a jungle walk from the Moonlight Bungalow where he was staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands in 1967. After an Easter church service followed by a picnic, the others had retired for an afternoon siesta. Thompson said he also planned to rest.

He didn’t however and a scrape of a lawn chair and the crunch of footsteps on gravel were heard sometime later. Thompson’s friends assumed he had decided to walk, which he was inclined to do at every opportunity. Despite weeks of full-scale searches, no trace of him or his body was, or has ever been found. Did he meet his demise accidentally plunging into a ravine or falling into a tiger trap set by local tribesmen?

A planned suicide theory persists, but is most often debunked, “Jim would never have done that to his friends and business,” a former colleague insists.

Other theories involve a kidnapping, a secret departure to start a life elsewhere (a few supposed sightings were reported in places like Tahiti), or a planned escape underground with his past OSS career having caught up with him.

What is known is that family, friends and colleagues waited tortuously for weeks and months in the hope that Thompson would stroll back into his beautiful home.

“I really don’t know,” I confess to the shop owner. “Even I’m a little haunted by it, I can only imagine the grief of his those that knew and loved him.”

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I take my leave and walk the short distance to the legendary Oriental Hotel, more imposing and glorious than ever. Commandeered by the Japanese during the war, the grand old Oriental was threadbare and worn-at-the-heels after liberation. American soldiers and liberated Dutch, British and Australian prisoners of war had also sought refuge in it’s once glamours surroundings.

Thompson, ever a designer, was serving as an unofficial political advisor to the American embassy at the time but couldn’t resist the charm of The Oriental. “We could make this a great hotel again,” he is quoted as saying to Germain Krull who became one of his partners. Thompson relished the opportunity to use his creative skills, yet the partnership lasted only a year with Thompson being squeezed out.

He continued however, to live in its revolving-door lifestyle for a year or two more, setting up his first silk shop. Framed prints pay homage to his time at The Oriental. In one print, Thompson’s parrot, Cocky, is perched on his shoulder in front of his home. It is said, the verbose parrot died of heartache when his master did not return.

I stay for a late lunch, taking in the elegant surroundings and the glimpses of Thai silk all around me; the furniture and cushions, the staff’s vibrant sarongs and jackets…patterns and splashes of smokey greys, oranges, emerald greens, tawny browns and of course siam pink. Jim Thompson’s colourful signature is everywhere.

This is still where the rich and famous gather and I notice some dressed for lunch as if for a cocktail party. Short silk dresses and sarongs mix with gentlemen in linen jackets and polished Gucci shoes. Thompson would be pleased. “He was a terribly elegant man, always dressed immaculately in Thai silk,” gushed one admiring lady.

Despite numerous affairs with married women, a few apparently more than ready to leave their husband, the bachelor never remarried. “He was rarely alone, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lonely,” mused one of his confidants.

 

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I gaze out to the Chao Phraya river and watch the myriad boats ply the waters. Orange robed monks and tidy businessmen catch ferries, tourists alight at the hotel’s dock, long-tail boats speed past with their bright strands of fabric flapping from their prows. Elegant Thai roof tops have given way to modern buildings.

I remove the silk covered book from my bag and write of yesterday’s visit to the House…Bangkok, Feb. 25th, 2017, A return to the lovely and beguiling Jim Thompson House, yet this time with one of our sons. And what a joy to still be discovering and finding inspiration with my traveling companion...it’s been some twenty-eight years after all…

Notes from a Thai Island…singing birds in bamboo cages

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IMG_0285 (1)We packed our pens and notebooks for a grown-up field trip. With our hats donned and cameras poised, the destination was Koh Panyee, in the inlet of Thailand. I had been here before with my family. This time however, a writing assignment was on my mind.

The village of Koh Panyee is surrounded by shadowy, fingerlike mountains. Reaching up from calm waters, they are serene, yet evocative and mysterious as they entice visitors into their enclave.

As our longboat glides into the harbour, we circumvent fish lines and crab traps, and groups of traditional longboats. This is how one arrives in Koh Panyee…for it’s a village that resides on bamboo stilts.

IMG_0305Sturdy longboats have long been the desired mode of transport in these waters. A solid column rises from their prow like an IMG_0426upturned tail. Adorned with vibrant tassels of cloth, I’m told they protect the safety and spirit of the vessel.

Thai people believe that each mode of transport possesses a spirit, so best to honour and respect it. The swishes of cloth compliment the often brightly painted vessels and provide a grip for fishermen to drag their boats home into shallow waters.

Koh Panyee’s population is descended from just two seafaring Muslim families. Settling here at the end of the 18th century, the fishing trade that they established is still evident as we disembark on the simple dock. Bamboo fish traps rest on knotted planks, tangles of nets cluster on poles and colourful netted piles lay at the ready.

A puzzle of spartan homes and shop fronts greet visitors to Koh Panyee. This once secluded island has welcomed tourism. ‘James Bond Island’ is nearby which attracts  sightseers and snorkelers alike.

IMG_0310After disembarking, we wander the humid labyrinth that offers the usual array of elephant printed skirts, frocks, sarongs and slouchy bags. By day five in Thailand, we’re a little more discerning and hope for something unique.

And we soon find it. Fresh water pearls are here in abundance with their milky shades of cream, lemon and white, on offer for a pittance.

A vast array of sea shells is also displayed, much of it having been fashioned into jewellery, key chains and tinkling chimes. It crosses your mind…does it eventually all get sold?Perhaps stuffed into suitcases and carried off to other lands where it’s appreciated…or sadly, perhaps not?

And then there is the abundant coconut merchandise, carved into spoons, bowls and combs or left in its organic form of IMG_0306cooling coconut juice. Hollowed coconut shells appear stuffed with orchids, hanging here and there, thriving in the sultry air.

I notice slivers of bamboo that have been coaxed into welcome mats, baskets, water buckets, paddy-bins and rice vessels.

Rice is vital to daily life; what with carrying, threshing, winnowing and measuring of its vital staple. Pliable cane is also abundant and forms the basis of many kitchen essentials.

IMG_0325Most of all the bird cages speak to me. Intricate strips of bamboo have been crafted into round, square or hexagonal enclosures. They’re not gilded, but somehow the earthy material seems less restrictive for the ruffled birds that inhabit them. Cages hang in most store fronts, between narrow strips of buildings and in shady corners of simple homes.

The lyrical chirps and serenades seem to lighten the lanes and distract from the still, suffocating air. I ask about the cages as I approach a shop.

Sawadee-kaa,” a man greets me as he comes forward from the shadows of his home to his shop front. His batik sarong is knotted at his lean waist and he seems open to conversation.

“Bird competitions very important in Southern Thailand,”he tells me with a knowing smile.

“High status to have winning bird. Which bird can sing best, longest, maybe happiest.” TheIMG_0387 affection for his feathered friends radiates from his eyes.

“What kind of birds do you have,” I ask, noticing multiple cages in his home.

“Red-whiskered Bulbul,” he says proudly, “the best, sing better, ka?  Must have tropical fruit first, no sing without sunshine.”
“Hmm, I didn’t know,” I admit, and it dawns on me that I’m surrounded by more than just pet birds. They’re performers, competitors, even prize winners. And they’re discerning.

“Rainy day very bad,” the shop keeper assures me, motioning to the patter of rain on the tin awning above us.

IMG_0321I discover that competitions are cancelled if there’s rain, for seemingly the birds are only willingly to serenade when the sun shines. Competitions are held in open fields with the location only revealed to those who enter, and maybe to those who want to bet a bhat or two. And perhaps not surprisingly the earthly competitors are men…it seems it’s a man’s pastime.

I linger at the cages, watching the birds flutter and flit. It’s easy to adore these delicate aviary homes and appreciate the valuable species inside them. I check the latches of their tiny doors; and yes, they’re most certainly locked.

We make our way out of the covered market street, desperate for a breath ofIMG_0356 air. The chatter of school children greet us as they slide into their shoes that await outside the classroom doors. The open-air school transports me back to schools that my sons attended in Qatar and Oman with their hallways open to the elements. As here, I find it creates a joyous, uninhibited atmosphere as children go about their studies and play. Happy memories of my children’s early school days flood back to me and I am transported by the familiar scene.

IMG_0363This island school is awash with colours of pink, baby blue and sea green; uniforms for both girls and boys alike IMG_0351are a soft pink. The youngsters play tag, giggle for photos and gather for after-school band practice. It’s difficult to pull myself away from their carefree presence.

But the moment is soon lost as yet more tourists pace through the school yard. I peek down a side hallway for quiet. I delight in a scribbled note on a chalkboard in both English and Thai. I gaze out to the calm of the scenery that encloses Koh Panyee. Yet more boats crammed with eager tourists are edging their way towards the stilted settlement, eager to see the sights – part of me is dismayed with our intrusion.

IMG_0367I imagine there is a serenity that returns to this community at nightfall, when the tourists retreat and the waters are silent from boat engines. Around 1700 souls live here and I’ve been welcomed into their unique way of life. For the villager’s sake, I hope their culture is preserved despite the continuous curiousity of tourists.

Today, I was yet another of those tourists. I took away some strands of pearls and appreciated the ‘little things’…like intricate bamboo bird cages, smiling children absorbed in their school day and the camaraderie of fellow writers on a field trip that we Phuket Paradise Writer’s, happily found ourselves on.

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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.