Friday, 25 April 2008

Back Home

After a couple of weeks away, we are settling back into the usual routine at home. Jenny has gone back to nursery summer school. She was fine with it for the first couple of days but this morning she kicked off a right little tantrum and declared she did not want to go to school so I had to drag her there. I hope it is a one off and not a sign of things to come. It is only another week anyway and then they get three weeks off before the proper term starts. It will be good to get Ben and Jenny both out of the house. As much as I love them, I am looking forward to daytimes without being hassled for attention.

We have renewed our membership at the gym so I have been for the last few days. they have a little gym challenge going on at the moment. It is 20 minutes runnng, 20 minutes stepping and 5 minutes push ups. You total up the calories and push ups and the top three in the gym get a t-shirt and gym voucher. I do like a challenge so I had a go even though I haven't exercised for a month. I had to plod along on the running machine because I know if I push it, I will tear my feeble achilles tendons. I banged out a very respectable 460 calories on the stepper and struggled to 135 on the push ups. I am optimistic that one of those t-shirts is mine.

Gil is back in Phuket. We saw him and Daeng earlier in the week for a quick meal. We will go around their house tomorrow for a little bbq and to watch the football. Marco arrives back in Phuket next week so I expect there will be a few serious boozing sessions coming up.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Hot Springs, Ranong

So we're back home. After our nice stopover at Ao Manao, I needed to go through Ranong and do the tedious border hop thing to get another three month stamp in my passport. I dropped off the family at the hot springs in Ranong. It would be a nice place for them to while away an hour or two while I sorted out the passport.

It turns out the immigration office in Ranong has just moved - it is now 1km further along the road at the longtail boat pier. So after a slight delay finding that, I did the usual routine. Stamped out of Thailand, got a longtail and crisp 10 dollar bill for the usual rip off 800 baht, went across to Burma, stamped in and out and then back to Thailand to stamp back in.

As I headed back to the hot springs, the heavens opened and the rain came down in a big way. Luckily, I had already moved all the bags inside the car so they would be safe while I did the visa trip. I found the family hiding under a sala. There was no way we were making the 4-hour drive back to Phuket in this rain. We had a full load so the bags and a couple of people were in the back of the pick up. The rain wasn't going to stop any time soon so we booked into a resort for the night. We then spent a bit of time relaxing in the hot springs. The water is so hot that you can barely dip into it, but once you get in and adjust to the temperature it is very soothing.

The next day we finished the drive to Phuket. It was a great trip and I really enjoyed it but it is also good to be home.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Ao Manao, Prachuap Khiri Khan

I have done the drive from Phuket to Nakon Nayok and back again many times now. I have done it in a day but it is a bit crappy driving the car for 12 hours solid so we now always do stopovers. I have visited most of the obvious stopover points on the route but this time on the way back we tried a new place - Ao Manao. What a lovely little gem of a place it turned out to be - I can't believe we have not visited before.

Ao Manao (Lemon Bay) is just south of Prachuap Khiri Khan. We have stayed in Prachuap several times and I have always thought it was a nice little town. It is by the sea but the beach is not particularly good. There are some nice little eating spots along the seafront. There is a big temple overlooking the town from the top of a hill. Around the bottom of the hill are lots of playful monkeys that you can safely feed without getting bit.

At the south end of the beach is a small airforce base and if you drive through it you come to Ao Manao. I was expecting a small bay with maybe a few bungalows around. It is actually a long sweeping beach enclosed by two spectacular headlands with an island out smack in the middle of the sea. It is a beautiful little beach. The sand slopes into the sea very gently and the water was absolutely placid making it perfect for the kids to play.

There is plenty of accommodation and although it is pretty basic, it was ideal for our group which was now up to 8 people as we were carrying two of Pon's friends with us back to Phuket. We got an 8 bed apartment (2 floors, 3 rooms) for 800 baht. There are plenty of eating and drinking places along the beach and the food is good and very reasonably priced.

The whole area is maintained by the Airforce and apparently they occassionally close it the public for airforce functions. However, generally it is open and they are very welcoming. I found the whole area very charming and we will definitely make this place a more regular stopover on our drives to Nakon Nayok.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Leaving Nakon Nayok

Today is our last day in Nakon Nayok. Tomorrow we start back for Phuket. We will take a couple of days driving. I need to stop at Ranong on the way to do another visa hop over the border to Burma and back for another 90 day stamp.

I do like Nakon Nayok and every time we visit I ask myself the same question, could I actually live here? I'm sure Pon would be happy to move back close to her family. You could set up a very comfortable life here. If we sold our house in Phuket we could build a bigger house here. Set it up just the way we want it. We would get UBC (satelite TV) so I would have my football and western TV.

The cost of living here is so cheap that it would make our finances much better. The people are incredibly friendly, the food is great and the scenery fantastic. There is a bit of nightlife, lots of restaurants and often stuff going on. You could even set up a small business here much more competitively than in Phuket. Nakon Nayok is only an hour from Bangkok and two hours from Pattaya so there are easy options for a bit of life.

The area generally has a lot going for it but still I have to say I always come to the conclusion that I don't want to live here. I think Phuket still offers me a much better lifestytle. Playing in the rivers and waterfalls of Nakon Nayok is fun for a while but it would wear thin after a couple of weeks. In comparison, Phuket offers so much more. The beaches and the islands are so much more varied. Phuket even has waterfalls although they are not that great.

Phuket also has much better facilities. I think about all the things I use there. The shops, the cinema, the gym, the internet, and so much more that I use all the time in Phuket and which is just not catered for in the same way in Nakon Nayok. Phuket has much more nightlife, more restauarnts, western food outlets, all the amenities you could want. It just has more of almost everything than nakon Nayok. Yes it is more expensive but then you are paying for the luxury of living on a tropical island with all the amenities that you need.

Then there is schooling. Visiting Nakon Nayok is really great for Ben and Jenny. They get so much attention and the people set such a good example for children that you know they would grow up to be good people. But I really doubt if I could find a decent bi-lingual school here and the education on offer here would just limit them for the rest of their lives.

The final clincher for me is that I would just feel a bit isolated here. I enjoy spending time with Thai people. They are so hospitable and there are always lots of people around. However, I still want western friends as well. I want to talk to people with a similar background and mindset as myself as well as Thais. As much as the Thais are great company, there is just a limit to how much depth of conversatin you can have when you are trying to use a second language and speaking with people from a very different background.

So Phuket still gets my vote for home. Maybe Nakon Nayok is something I would consider when I am old and ready to hang up my boots but for the moment I still want the life of Phuket.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Pon's Family

The thing that always amazes me about Pon's family is they are so happy. Pon is generally happy and good fun and it seems to be a trait that runs in the family. She still has her mum ('khun yai') but her dad died a long time ago. She used to have two brothers and three sisters. The eldest brother and sister have both also died. That leaves her with two elder sisters and one younger brother. You will rarely see them without big smiles on their faces.

The elder sister is Daeng. She has three children, two girls and a boy. The eldest girl has just finished university, the younger is still at university while the boy is 13. All three of them smile a lot. Their dad died quite a few years ago - death somehow seems to be more common in Thailand although statistics say their life expectancy is almost the same as in the west.

Daeng is very funny. She beavers away working at her restaurant all day but always with a smile on her face. In the evening, the Thai whisky often comes out and she gets wobbly drunk. For some reason, she does not understand a word I say. I know my Thai is far from perfect but most Thais seem to be able to understand it. Daeng always looks to Pon for an explanation of what I have said. Apparently, in her younger days she was very pretty but hard work, bearing three children and drinking whisky does take its toll.

The younger brother is Gah. He is very funny with an infectious laugh. He is a motorbike mechanic. This week he entered a motorbike race. I took the rest of the family and we followed him. We drove for an hour to find the dirt race track. It really was in the middle of nowhere along potted roads and dirt tracks. He got lost several times and arrived late. When we arrived there was a comical race to get him to the starting line on time. The race started and Gah was at the back of the pack for two laps. Then his gears failed and he was out of the race. Gah came back to us laughing and the whole family was in hysterics. We all pottered off back home.

Gah has a wife, a young boy and two step children from his wife's first marriage (her previous husband died).

The eldest sister is Dan. She lives in Trat. Two years ago we were in Nakon Nayok waiting for three weeks for the British Embassy to process a birth certicate application for Ben. I didn't want to stay in Nakon Nayok for three weeks so I said we should go somewhere. Pon said they had a sister in Trat and I fancied visiting Koh Chang so off we went.

As we drove I asked when they had last seen this sister. I was surprised to hear it had been 12 years. I asked when they last spoke to her on the phone - they did not have her phone number because 12 years ago nobody had phones. So they had not had any contact for 12 years. How the hell are we going to find her, I asked. She had a stall at the market, they said, we will go there. I figured we had no chance of finding her but we went to Trat market and amazingly, there she was.

It was a lovely seen - a bit like those heart-tugging TV reunion shows. Her face dropped as she saw first Pon and then her brother. She could barely talk as she struggled to hold in the tears as Daeng and Khun Yai arrived. The family she had not seen for 12 years and probably did not expect to see again. Now they are all in contact again and call each other often.

Finally there is Khun Yai (Thai for Granma). They are not sure exactly how old she is but it is 70+. To be honest she looks much older. I wouldn't say a bad thing about her to the family because they adore her and she is a lovely old lady. However, she is hideous to look at. She still has the old Asian habit of chewing betel nuts with tobacco. It turns their teeth black. Add to that a generally hard life and what you have is a wizened old lady with a handful of pure black teeth and a mouthful of tobacco and betel. It is not something to look at while you are eating your food.

Still she has obviously done a great job of raising her children who are all so happy and well-balanced.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Nightlife in Nakon Nayok

Nakon Nayok is a fairly typical provincial Thai town. Pleasant and charming enough but without any real points of interest. It is not the biggest town and is pretty quiet but there are a few nightlife options. I do like to watch my English football and there is nowhere out in the sticks where we are that has it. It is a 15-minute drive from the countryside where we are staying into Nakon Nayok town.

We have found a couple of live music bars that also have the football on a big screen. This is ideal for us as I don't care about the commentary and Pon loves her 'Peua Cheewit' Thai music bands. 'Peua Cheewit' roughly translates as 'for life' so I guess we would categorise this music as folk or country. These music bars can be found everywhere in Thailand. They are usually rustic style buildings with solid wood furnishings and a relaxed atmosphere. If the band is good then they are popular and the bands usually are good. Thais love their music and seem to have plenty of playing ability. I remember once going to a party where someone pulled out a guitar and started playing a few songs. She was good but then she passed the guitar to another friend and he was also good. In the end, as they passed the guitar around, it seemed like half the Thais there could strum out a decent song.

After satisfying my demand to see the football, we decided to finish the night by checking out the local nightclub. There is only one nightclub in Nakon Nayok and it was busy. As usual, they had a live band. this time it was the typical Thai club band doing a selection of covers of Thai and western classics. These bands tend to be very simlar across the country, they are very energetic, usually switch singers regularly and inevitably do 'Hotel California' and 'Zombie'. Still they are usually technically good and this band was no exception.

The club itself was also a typical Thai style nightclub. No dance floor, they just dance around their tables and in the aisles. Everyone was very friendly and of course lots of them wanted to say hello to the only farang guy in the club. One thing I just cannot help commenting on - just how many stunningly beautiful Thai women are there in this country? Wherever you go out in Thailand, there will be beautiful young women. They like to dress up glamorous for a night out and yet they still know how to look stylish and classy. Some of these young women make a few of today's hollywood actresses look plain. There are beautiful women everywhere in the world but there cannot be many countries where such a high percentage of the women are so stunning. Anyway, I'm married with kids so I shouldn't be dwelling on such things.

Interesting to note that out here in the sticks, the local cops are still very strict on opening hours. At 01:15, just fiftenn minutes beyond the allotted closing time, they raided the club and ushered everybody out for after hours drinking. No big deal, they just made is plain it was time to go home.

Songkran in Nakon Nayok

Songkran (Thai New Year) is just about over. It is celebrated across Thailand with what must be the biggest water fight in the world. It is great fun and makes perfect sense since this is the hottest time of year but the rainy season is only a few weeks away.

It is however also a remarkably dangerous celebration. Several hundred people die every year in related road accidents. It is not surprising when you see what is going on. People line the roads throwing water at passing cars and motorcycles. Other people load up the back of their picks ups with bins of water and drive around throwing it at any person or vehicle that comes in range. And of course there is plenty of drinking involved. It is all done in good spirits and is a fantastic celebration but it is not surprising a lot of people have accidents.

Can you imagine what would happen in the west if we had an annual celebration that caused such carnage. In the UK, we have bonfire night and every year a few people get burn injuries or occassionally even blinded. It always causes a bit of controversy. Imagine what would happen if 400 people died - the celebration would just be cancelled. In Thailand, they are not going to stop a good party just because a few hundred people die.

This is my first Songran in Nakon Nayok. Not surprisingly, considering playing in water is actually what they do here all the time, it is an ideal place for Songkran. My wife's family live in the area near the dam and Nang Rong waterfalls. Over the last few days the whole area has been heaving with visitors from Bangkok taking their holiday here to play in the water. The river is a heaving mass of revellers floating down on truck inner-tubes, kayaks and assorted floating devices. The side of the river is lined with salas where the families picnic all day on the incredible assortment of local food that is available.

On the surrounding roads the water fights are in full swing. Pick ups slowly cruise around while the occupants in the back throw and soak up as much water as possible. Everyone is laughing and dancing and it is just one huge party.

Ben, Jenny and myself do stick out a bit as we are the only westerners I have seen in all the time I have been here. We therefore get lots of attention. If we take an innertube for a float down the river then for sure everyone we pass will wave and splash water. Ben and Jenny revel in it.

Pon's family have a small restaurant by the river. They have been very busy for the last few days trying to meet the demand but it is a good money earner for them. It is good for me as well because I get all the food and drink I want prepared how and when I want. And since all the locals know us, we don't need to pay for anything. We get free lifejackets for the kids, free floats, free boat rides, free mangos, it is just an endless stream of hospitality.

Ben has started going down to the river by the restaturant on his own for the last couple of days. He is such an outgoing character that within minutes he will start making acquantances with the people there. It is funny how quickly everyone gets to know him. I will go down to see him and wherever we go, people I have never seen are calling 'hello Benjamin' like he is an old friend.

Well the crowds are drifting away today and the area will be back to normal sedantary life style. The normal influx of visitors will happen again next weekend but I expect we will have left by then.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Nakon Nayok

So we are in Nakon Nayok. The visit to the wife's family home is a ritual many expats in Thailand will recognise. While most of us tend to live in the well developed resort areas such as Phuket, our wives' families often live in more remote country areas. Family ties are important in Thailand so the wives want to visit and usually like it if hubby comes along to.

Don't get me wrong, I don't need to be dragged along. I love travelling around Thailand. There is so much to see and the hospitality really is genuine. However, once you have been to the same village a couple of times you have seen it and there isn't really anything new to do. So I limit my visit to Nakon Nayok to once a year. We will be here for five or six days. I find that is about the right amount of time for me to really chill out before I start getting tetchy and bored.

I guess I am quite lucky in that my wife's family home in Nakon Nayok is a beautiful little area. It is only 100km east of Bangkok in the foothills of Khao Yai National Park. There are rivers and waterfalls. There is a huge 3km-long new dam with a great lake behind it. This means that they can release a steady supply of water into the main river so that they have water all year round.

The area is a popular holiday retreat for the wealthier Thais in Bangkok. They come to play in the water, kayak down the rivers, etc. There are many local bungalow resorts and the land prices here have really rocketed since the dam was completed. The area seems to be very much off the western tourist trail - it doesn't even get a mention in Lonely Planet.

This visit is absolutely great for our kids. They have the time of their lives playing in the water and with the local kids. My wife of course is delighted to see her family and they will just picnic and natter all day. I get the VIP guest of honour treatment and I am introduced to an endless stream of local characters who embarrassingly all remember my name when I have no chance of remembering theirs. Drinks are constantly thrust into my hand and it is impossible to not eat. The only possible complaint about the hospitality is that at times it can be a bit overwhelming. It is difficult to find a quiet hour to yourself to just sit and read a book.

Thanks to the booming land prices here, my wife's family have a nice new home. When I first visited I was taken aback by the shack they lived in. It was a ramshackle old concrete pillar building with wooden boards and corrugated iron roofing that made one hell of a din in the rain. It was basic living and a real eye-opener to how Thai country folk live - and yet are so happy.

Fortunately, about 20 years ago they bought a 1 rai plot of land for 7,000 baht. Two years ago, they sold that plot of land for 1.4 million baht - how is that for inflation! Enough to pay off the family debt and build a nice little house. It is still cold showers with water pumped from a well but it is a far more comfortable stay than it used to be.

Anyway, tomorrow is Songkran so it will be water fight day.

Friday, 11 April 2008


After our stops at Thung Wua Laen and Cha Am Beaches, we headed for Kanchanaburi. It is not actually on the way but it is a small detour. It is less than three hours drive from Cha Am and I have always wanted to see it.

This was our first ever visit to Kanchanaburi so we decided to stay two nights. That is nowhere near enough to fully explore the area but it is a chance to look a round.

If you don't know the area, this is the place where the Bridge on the River Kwai was built. It is not actually called the River Kwai - that was a creation of the movie - but the basis of the story is true. This is the area of the death railway where in WWII, thousands of allied pows and locals were forced by the Japanese army to work under intolerable conditions building them a railway. 100,000 pows and locals died and the few survivors suffered incredible hardship. This horrible part of history is a sombering backdrop for what is actually a beautiful location.

We made our way to the river to look for accomodation and were soon given an interesting option. You can rent big rafts for a trip down the river and an overnight sleep on the river. These are big solid wooden affairs that can easily accommodate 20 people or more. You have a choice of basic rafts or a party option with karaoke or a disco. Since there were only six of us we went for the basic option - 2000 baht for the trip. The Karaoke rafts have their own generator and DJ provided and cost 3,500 baht.

They are towed by small motor boats down the river and you make a few stops along the way. We saw one of the war cemetaries, a well known local temple where one of the nuns meditates by floating in water (mae chee loy nam). There is also a fairly standard monkey show. In the evening you are moored up at the side of the river. You are sort of in the jungle but not actually very far from civilisation. There is a little shop and showers on the bank.

The only problem is all the other rafts are also moored here and the disco rafts make one hell of a racket. Still they all finish by midnight. You sleep out in the open air so a good supply of insect repellant is essential. I only slept for three or four hours but that was okay. At 3am I couldn't sleep so I sat at the back of the raft sipping a beer and watching the sky. It is amazing how many more stars you can see when you are away from all the lights of civilisation. It was actually very beautiful and relaxing.

The next day we found a nice bungalow resort in town by the river (1400 baht for two good air-con bungalows). We checked out the famous bridge and the nearby war museum. We did a little fun train trip across the bridge and back for 20 baht each. There are lots of great restaurants along the river so we had a good eat up in the evening.

There is still much to see in Kanchanaburi so we will have to come again. I want to see Erawan National Park and the waterfalls (although this is not the best time of year) and also the big dam and lake. Still we had to go because we wanted to reach Nakon Nayok before Songkran so they will have to wait for another time.

Cha Am

The followimg day we drove north to cha Am. It is only another three or four hours drive from Thung Wua Laen Beach.

I have been to Cha Am a few times and the place is slowly growing on me. You get plenty of western tourists here but still the majority of visitors are Thai, mostly coming down from Bangkok.

This visit is the first time I have seen Cha Am really busy. Rooms are normally easy to find and pretty cheap but we had to look around for a while before we found a big bungalow a little overpriced at 1700 baht. Still it was by the beach and big enough for us all to sleep.

The beach at Cha Am is quite a thin strip of sand and is set up with rows of deckchairs and tables so you can eat and drink on the beach. The waves were a little too big to let our little-uns play on their own so we had to keep them nearby on the beach. The problem is they have ponies riding up and down the beach which is a little worrying when your kids are running around. Jenny had a couple of close shaves.

They have jet-skis and banana boats and all kinds of goods being hawked up and down the beach so in that way it is a little like Patong. The good thing is the prices are much more competitive here (again they are aiming more at the Thai market). Ben and Jenny were very entertained with two polysterene airplane kites that kept them happy for an hour or two at 50 baht each.

The water is distinctly dirty and digging in the beach to build a sand castle pulled up all sorts of rubbish like polysterene and plastic cups. I guess it is difficult to avoid spoiling the environment a little when you get so many visitors.

There are lots of food and drinking options in the evenings. All in all, Cha Am is a decent option for a day out.

Thung Wua Laen Beach

We are now safely in Nakon Nayok. We took five days driving up here making stop offs on the way to make the trip as leisurely as possible. The first stop was Thung Wua Laen Beach in Chumpon. That was about five hours drive from Phuket.

It is a nice enough beach. The good thing is there are a lot of little bungalow operations there so you can find a decent bungalow for well under 1000 baht a night. Our whole family of six is travelling so we need two bungalows a night and we found a decent deal for 1400 baht.

The beach is long and straight and slopes gentle into the sea. When the tide is out it leaves a few pools that are good for the little-uns to play. There are plenty of restaurants along the beach and a few bars.

You get a lot of Thai visitors here which I always think is a good thing because they set everything up so much more competitively than when they are aiming at the foreign tourist market. There's one big resort at the north end of the beach called the Cabana. There is meant to be good diving here so you get a fair few divers and dive instructors around.

I thought I would be able to find a bar with live football but at night the place is incredibly quiet with just a few bars and none of them have the full UBC package. I went out with Pon and after we had given up on finding the football we settled on a bar with a live blues band. It is amazing how good some of these little bands are in Thailand. They were playing in the open air in front of a handful of guests for 1000 baht a night between them. Yet still they knocked out three hours of good entertainment.

The bar was run by a young British guy and his wife (he was slaughtered but happy). They had a handful of expat locals and just a few tourists guests. Still it was a cool night out. And the beer was 45 baht a bottle - that is what I mean when I say these resorts are so much more competitive.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Jenny Starts Nursery

We go away on Sunday but since we had to pay the summer school fee for Jenny and since summer school started on the 1st, we decided we might as well send her there for a few days. To my amazement, she is totally unphased by the whole experience. We dropped her off for the first day and there were a few tears when we left her. However, when we picked her up she was happily playing and the teacher says she had no problems.

For the next three days we dropped her off at school and she happily waved bye-bye without any fuss at all. She does not seem to think it is a big deal at all. I really thought she would not like it and it would be a big drama every day. It just goes to show you can never be sure how kids will react to something new.

Ben continues to impress with his remorseless drive to push everything to the next level. If there is something he wants to do then he is never satisfied and always wants to take the next step. It is good to see but hard work to keep up. Swimming is his current project. Last week he really impressed me by learning to snorkel. This week he took his arm bands off and he can actually swim!

He is not quite there yet. He can only swim while he is wearing the snorkel but it is good to see him getting his head down and frantically paddling across the pool. He is so pleased with himself for every advance he makes that I worry he is going to run out of normal thrills and end up being some kind of extreme sports freak. Anyway, I guess the next step will be to get him some swimming goggles and see how he does swimming with them. That is probably a few months away yet but you never know with the speed at which he is improving.

So on Sunday we set off for Nakon Nayok. It is a long drive and I really can't be bothered with doing a 12-hour stretch in one go so we will take at least two nights stop on the way. That way it becomes a much more leisurely and enjoyable trip.

The aim is to reach Nakon Nayok before Songkran (Thai New Year - 13th April) and to leave a few days after so that we avoid the main traffic mayhem that comes at this time of year.