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