Chaya and Her Phuket

Apologizing for being a tad late, she led us to her car, which was double-parked in front of our hotel. She is Khun Kritchaya or Chaya for short, founder of Phuket Heritage Trails and a Phuket native.

Chaya-and-team.jpgChaya with my team

Spend a few hours with her and you will learn to appreciate Phuket. She talks about the people, its history and its food with a real passion for her town. In her little sedan, she drove us all over town proudly introducing her Phuket to us. She said she aims to promote the culture and history of her hometown in a responsible and educated manner, to present the essence and beauty of Phuket Town.

Tunk-KaOur first stop was lunch at an excellent local restaurant in Rang Hill overlooking Chalong and a bit of Phuket town. Rang-Hill-ViewTunk Ka Café is perched on the side of the hill and has managed to become an institution in Phuket since it opened sometime in the 1970s. Tunk-Ka-mealIt was an excellent sampling of local food in a beautiful surrounding with a magnificent view to boot.

From authentic Thai cuisine, we then moved on to a Sino-Portuguese house. Baan-ChinprachaAt Baan Chinpracha House, we had a peak on the lifestyle of the wealthy. Built in 1903 during Phuket’s economic boom from the mining industry. It is today a landmark as well as a cultural and historical center. family-photosThe property is still in the family and the current owner, a sixth generation descendant still live upstairs. Although occupied, the owner has opened up certain areas of the house to the public. chinpracha-kitchenThe ground floor somewhat acts as a museum.

Chinpracha-livingroomAs you enter the house, the living room greets with a little table and stools (reminiscent of that from my grandmother’s house, truth to tell). The main attraction and the most striking in the room, however, is the inner courtyard that opens to the sky for light and ventilation. chinpracha-courtyardA beautiful fish pond decorated with plants around it added to its charm. And I must say that it had me at the sight of the Machuca floor tiles.

Blue-ElephantNext door and another outstanding Sino-Portuguese house, the 100-year-old Governor’s Mansion is home to the Blue Elephant Restaurant and Cooking School, a famous cooking school from Bangkok.

Then we drove 6 kilometres out of Phuket town, passed a bridge to Ko Siray.  It is worlds away from the modern and swanky, teeming with sun-baked tourists of Phuket’s west coast beaches. swanky-resortsThis small island with magnificent hilltop views and scenic roads is home to the largest Sea Gypsy Village in Phuket. Sea-GysiesAlso known in Thai as Chao Leh, the sea gypsies are known to be the very first inhabitants of the Andaman coast regions of Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Due to their exposure to sun and sand, many of them have reddish colour hair. Facially, their features are quite different from the inhabitants of the lands they pass through. Today only a few thousand remains and only a small portion of them are still nomadic. sea-gypsies-happyThey live a simple life – they fish, they sell and they buy beer and they seem genuinely happy and content.

sea-gypsies-boat-makerI recall Chaya telling us how as sea people, they understand the behavior of the sea. During the 2004 tsunami where Phuket was one of the hardest hit, the sea gypsies were spared.  While the others stopped and observed, they ran straightaway to the hilltop for shelter when they saw the receding sea.

The island of Phuket is ethnically diverse and Thais are relative newcomers here. A flood of ethnic Chinese started coming from Malaysia and Singapore in the 1800s to explore the local tin mines.   Many settled in Phuket to run the mines and, later on, built the town hence the many shophouses in the Sino-Portuguese architecture similar to Penang’s Georgetown.shophouses The town today is a mix of of different ethnic race and scattered around the island are Chinese Taoist Shrines, Thai Buddhist Temples they call Wats and Muslim Mosques.temple Chaya’s itinerary had stops at a Chinese temple, a Buddhist temple and a fascinating nunnery where she temporarily resides at the time of the tour.nunnery

And before returning us to our hotel, we passed by Soi Romanee. This charming little street that connects Thalang and Dibuk Rd. is one of the oldest in Phuket Town. soi-romaneeIt was once stigmatized as a den of brothels and opium houses for the tin miners. Today, it is known as one of the most attractive lanes on the island as it was the first to be renovated. soi-romanee-guesthouseToday’s Romanee is a charming little street full of life and quaint little bars where you can sit and soak up the ambiance.   There’s even a jazz and blues performance that takes place on the last Sunday of each month from November to April.

Though few tourists linger here, the Old Town is one of the more culturally interesting places on the island. It is an intriguing mix of old and new, simple and sophisticated. Phuket Town is an infusion of current art, music, and food attracting a style conscious crowd, mostly Thais. Once reduced to an abandoned shell, shophouses and homes have been refurbished into restaurants, bars, and guesthouses that are worth exploring and discovering.

And with this, I wish you all a Happy Hearts Day!

New Year Cruising

“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.” — Ashely Montagu

 New-Years-at-High-SeaCredits: JSprague Digi in Deeper course materials

This year, 68 of my family members from all over flew to Singapore for a grand reunion. For the first time, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins took the time and effort to fly from all over and spent New Year holidays together, on the high seas to boot.

mariner's-of-the-seaInside Royal Caribbean’s Mariners of the Seas

A perfect venue, truth to tell, as none of us could go very far—not saying though that the ship isn’t big and off-shore excursions aren’t aplenty. It was contained enough to allow us to catch up.  Some met each other for the first time.

new-year-in-patongFireworks before the New Year in Patong Beach

It was an experience I surprisingly enjoyed. Being the traveler that I am, I thought that this was merely something I had to do, an obligation of some sort. The destinations were nothing to rave about but the togetherness was awesome. It was something unexpected… Which are usually the best, yes? You know what they say— “the things you don’t see coming tickles you the most.”

Port Klang

So the destinations weren’t great, they weren’t total disappointments either. Our first port of call was Port Klang. What is there to see in Port Klang, the principal port in Selangor state of Malaysia? Nothing much though we heard that it is a haven for local foodies—good enough for us (by us I mean my immediate family).

bak-kut-teh

Seafood aside, Klang is famous for its Bak Kut Teh, in fact they say that this pork rib soup which has become a staple in Malaysia, Singapore and some parts of Indonesia started here. Considered a breakfast food, BKT, as locals call it, is pork ribs (or other parts of the pork meat) slowly simmered in an herbal broth.

restoran-bak-kut-teh-facade

Across the AEON Bukit Tinggi Shopping Center, about 30 minutes away from the Star Cruises Terminal, we randomly chose Restoran Bak Kut Teh. A small shop sans the fanfare – open air and round tables and stools to sit that serves (in my opinion) quite a good and (I assume) authentic BKT.

restoran-bak-kut-tehFood tripping with the family

The Bak Kut Teh has an herbal taste (of course), salty with the hint of sweetness; meat was falling off the bone. Extremely enjoyable with soy sauce, garlic and a bit of chopped chili.

Phuket

Next port of call was an overnight in Phuket. Arriving Phuket at 11AM, it was too late to do much so we decided on a late lunch in Old Phuket Town and a massage after. We took the tender to Patong Beach and haggled with one of the many vans peddling their services to take us to town.

old-shop-house

Old Phuket town shines with personality with its rich history. In this old quarter, you will see beautifully ornate old shophouses, quaint cafes, Buddhist and Chinese temples, and some grandiose Sino-Colonial mansions once occupied by Phuket’s tin barons of years ago.

Raya

In the middle of town, on New Dibuk Road is a two-storey Sino-Portuguese house converted into a restaurant.

green-tint-windows

Tinted glass windows and wooden shutters, hard to find Machuca floor tiles,

Raya-interior

stairs

rustic ceiling fans, vintage posters, a wooden staircase,

old-bar

and an antique bar, this old house exudes old colonial.

raya-dishesL-R: Pork with Kafir Leaves; Deep Fried Sea Bass with Shallots and red chilli in Tamarind-Lemongrass Sauce; Green Mango with Dried Squid Salad

The food, known to be THE Thai restaurant in Phuket; its specialty is said to be the Crabmeat Curry served with rice vermicelli. Being a sucker for all things crab, this was a definite winner. Big chunks of crabmeat and the strong curry muted by the addition of coconut milk produced a subtle creamy curry dish. The deep-fried sea bass with shallots and red chilies in tamarind-lemongrass sauce and the pork with Kafir leaves were fantastic too. When in town, do visit Raya Restaurant if you can.

We could and should have walked around town, but we opted instead for a massage. We could and should have gone to the spa just around the corner from Raya. On a previous  trip (a post I still owe) the boutique hotel I stayed in offered a discount at The Raintree Spa when booked through them.

RainTree-Spa

It was most satisfying, in all the right ways—service, skills, and ambiance. I should have known better than to indulge our driver but, hindsight is always 20/20, so yeah… We could have saved the 30-minute drive to the spa he recommended (name and place I won’t even bother to tell) and used it to walk around the charming old town instead. And to think, I convinced my whole family to that massage.

Koh Phi Phi

Thank goodness for Phi Phi Islands.

Phi-Phi

Praised as one of the most beautiful beaches in Southeast Asia, thanks to the film “The Beach”.

white-sand-beach

A 45-minute bumpy (because we decided to sit in front) speed boat ride from Phuket, the Phi Phi archipelago comprises 6 islands boasting of white sand beaches, stunning limestone cliff and turquoise water, many parts ideal for snorkelling.

snorkling

tourists

Popular with backpackers even before the movie, but the world seemed to have flocked here after the film was shot in 1999. In spite the crowd, the limestone outcrops that swept the archipelago still impressed.

phi-phi-2

Back on Dry Land

But more importantly, I can now bid goodbye to small and compact and say hello to big and spacious.

Bangniang Beach Resort is a newly renovated beach resort located in Khao Lak, a beautiful corner of the Andaman Sea and a popular jump-off point to the Similan Islands.

After 4 days of exploring the sea, it was time to do some land survey.

The resort is just a few minutes walk to Bangniang Beach

Chicken with Basil

and there, before we fly back tomorrow to the real world, we spent the rest of the day exploring more of what Thailand had to offer —  taste -wise.

Located just north of Phuket Island is one of Thailand’s most peaceful resort destination

—blessed with beautiful sunsets and

sprawled with natural and comfortable bungalows, cool beach restaurants and beach bars.  It offers an array of activities from fishing village excursions to waterfalls and cave hikes.  No less than three National Parks surrounds this resort town.  And if none of these activities excites, spending the day unwinding on the beach that seems to go on for miles, might be the answer.

This charming resort town shows very little signs that 6 years ago, more than 4,000 people died here when the tsunami struck its shores.  The only signs of that fateful day were

these warning street signs and

a police patrol vessel carried almost 2 kilometers inland (that fateful day) to where it sits today.  The boat was left where it landed and is now maintained as a memorial.

Khao Lak still remains relatively unknown and has not yet been intruded by the mainstream tourists, which makes this place ideal for those seeking quiet solitude.

Useful Information:

Bangniang Beach Resort
53/10 Moo 5 Khuk-Khak Takuapa
Phang-Nga 82190
Tel:  +(66)076 443 473-4
email:  reservation@bangniangbeach.com
Chongfah Resort Khao Lak
54/1 Moo 5, T.Kukkak, Takuapa District,
Phang Nga 82190 Thailand
Tel : (66 76) 486858

Scenic Sunday

Similan Diving

Clockwise:  Me all set to go, MV Koon, a friend about to do the giant stride.

I could hear someone enthusiastically banging his tank and I instantly knew there was something major up ahead.  I examined my surroundings and there it was, gracefully gliding through the great expanse of the sea, coming toward our direction.  Yes, this was what we came here for.  And suddenly the exhaustion vanished.  A sense of calm never fails to envelop me whenever I encounter this gentle giant gliding through, perhaps enjoying the attention too.

Strong currents hit us when we reached Ko Bon Pinnacle from the blue.  It pays to be fit because just reaching the Pinnacle is a work-out all its own.  This near vertical slope is where manta rays are frequently spotted playing.  There are a couple of cleaning stations on the reef and manta sightings are almost guaranteed.

This occurrence will continue until the next day, in different dive sites, mostly in the northern part of Similan.  It was awesome and is always a privilege being with them in their domain.

The Similan Islands was declared a national park in 1982 and is rated top ten among the world’s dive destinations.  The impressive boulder formation also continues below the surface with diverse landscapes of canyons, boulders, coral gardens, caves and walls.  It is also home to an amazing variety of marine life.

The southern coast consists of those smaller islands (described on previous posts) that are numbered from one through nine and is balanced by the larger northern islands of Ko Bon for its beautiful piece of landscape, Ko Tachai with her attractive sandy beach above and plateaus beneath with probably the most colorful coral gardens in the park.  Richelieu, the 3rd island of the south was also a highlight of our dive trip.

A relatively small dive site and a bit too crowded with divers all vying to see the huge extent of marine life in the area. Whale Sharks are usually sighted during the months of April and May but for some reason, they elude me once more.  And so my pursuit of that elusive butandings continues.

Here’s some underwater snapshots to take pleasure in:

Huge Batfish

Cuttlefish

Yellow fusilier

Harlequin Shrimp

Lionfish

Moray eel

Octopus

Puffer fish

Seahorse

Shrimps

This is either a squid or another octopus

Tomato Clownfish

Us, posing for the cam during a safety stop.

*  All photos courtesy of R. Formoso of Subaquatic Scuba.


Island No. 8

The tide was getting high and the swell stronger.  As we were wading to the shore, I got caught in one big swell and almost lost my camera to it.   😮  Whew!  Gotta get that underwater casing soon.

Climbing those boulders would have been easy if I had worn my aqua socks, but instead I wore slippers and it keeps slipping off my feet so I went barefoot.

Chris, our divemaster went barefoot — he seemed fine!

Thought it would be a walk in the park but the boulders were rough (at least to my delicate soles   :-)) and hot from the sun.  I felt like I was walking on hot coals.  Seriously.  The soles of my feet hurt for 2 days, I think I got a 1st degree burn from it.   😯   It was all worth it though.

The gorgeousness of the entire island made it seemed all right.

A word of caution:  it can get a bit unnerving once you reach the top especially if you have a fear of heights like moi!  I made sure I stayed out of the edge… unlike my two friends here:

I tell you, it really is best to stay away from the edge! 😛

It looked inviting from our dive boat, the wonderful granite rock formation intrigued us no end.  It was a no-brainer, we had to take time off from our dive and head to this bay called island No. 8, also known as Donald Duck Bay, The Boulders and Shoe Bay (Ao Guerk in Thai).

All describing this prominent large boulder that seemingly stands upside down unsteadily balancing on its tip.  It could resemble the cartoon character or a boot, depending on which angle you see it from.  Our angle resembles neither – so I call it “The Boulders”. Going back to our dive boat though, we caught a glimpse of Donald but the water was splashing so much, I dared not take out my camera or I’d surely lose it this time.   😕

It is said that the rocks were formed around 65 million years ago from hot magma and polished to its actual shape today by the weather and the sea.

The picturesque bay is where the National Park office is located and is a favorite anchorage of the live-aboards.  And why not?

Scenic Sunday

Living aboard MV Koon

Credits: Drama Queen Quickpage by Daniela Austen

Call us crazy but at the height of Bangkok’s uprising, we were on the plane to Phuket, via Singapore of course.  We were to embark on a 4 -day dive safari.

Located along the coastline of the Andaman Seas and the Indian Ocean, Koh Similan or the Similan Islands comprises of 9 granite island covered in tropical jungle and is best known for its wonders beneath its clear aquamarine waters.

The Similans is located about 100 kilometers northwest of Phuket International Airport.

It is more than an hour drive to Thap Lamu Port where we boarded the MV Koon, our home for the next 4 days.

Briefing before a dive with divemaster Chris

As it takes about 3.5 hours to get to the Similans, most dive trips are by liveaboard if one wants to fully explore the dive sites.  There are hydrofoils, however, being offered from Phuket for a 2-dive day trip.

We left Thap Lamu Port just before sundown and our journey started with a bang (literally).

Thais, being Buddhists, always light a few firecrackers, I suppose, to drive away bad spirits and be blessed with a safe journey.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

And blessed we were, with a beautiful sunset which will be a daily happening for the next 3 nights.

Sunrise from 2 different mornings

Not only were sunsets spectacular, the sunrises were dazzling too.

We also had a regular visitor that came to play!

MV Koon is operated by Flying FishDiving Evolution and fits 16 guests.  Aside from a couple of foreigners (1 American and the other Spanish), we practically had the boat to ourselves.

The cabins, albeit tiny were comfortable, making good use of space.  Toilets and showers, although shared, were clean and not too cramp.

I like it that the dining area was al fresco.  We spent most of our hours on board here. My only complaint was the food.

Fruits all day long! 😀

It was pretty good but I would have preferred more authentic Thai cuisine.  We (at least those of us who could take hot & spicy) almost always end up sharing the crew’s food.  Heehee!   😀

A typical day

Eat. Dive. Sleep.  That was pretty much what we did aboard the MV Koon.  It was a good life on board the MV Koon.  Our home while in the Andaman Seas.

Up next… exploring the beautiful Island # 8 also called Donald Duck Bay.  Stay tuned.

Useful Info:

Flying Fish Diving Evolution
Contact No.:  +66 7648 5595
Email:  info@flyingfishdiving.com
Website:  http://www.flyingfishdiving.com