Friday, 17 October 2008

Another Visa Run

I have just finished another 3-monthly visa run. It is a strange requirement that even when you are married to a Thai and have Thai children, you still have to jump through a few hoops to maintain your legal visa status here. I often think about applying for the 1-year visa extension and putting an end to this visa run necessity. However, when I look at the amount of paperwork I have to get together for this application, I just can’t quite be bothered to do it. Besides that, I actually quite enjoy having to do a trip every 3-months.

I have mentioned many times before, I like to take the family along and turn this chore into a trip. This time, I decided to go the Hat Yai direction and jump over the Malaysian border at Dannok. The last time we went this way we stayed over two nights and it all seemed a little too rushed. There was too much time driving and not enough time looking around. This time we took four nights.

Our first stopover was Krabi Fishing Park. I was looking for an alternative to staying at a beach and a friend suggested this place. You would never find it if you didn’t know where it was. It is a small lake in a scenic location just a few kilometers before you reach Krabi. There are a few shelters around the lake and there is a small restaurant. You just settle down in one of the shelters and drop your line in the water. Ben and Jenny did all the fishing. They never had a chance to catch anything as they splashed their rods in and out of the water but they thoroughly enjoyed trying. Pon and I sat in the shelter and took full advantage of all the restaurant had to offer.

The park has a few bungalows. They are basic affairs but ideal for the get-away-from-it-all feel of the place. We spent the evening sipping beers on the balcony while enjoying the solitude. It was good start to the trip.

The next day we went to Hat Yai. We would stay two nights. I enjoy basic accommodation when we are out in the country but when I am in a big town like Hat Yai, I want a decent hotel. Places like Hat Yai are just too much hustle and too tiring to have to come back to a grotty hotel. We settled in at the Asian Hotel – fantastic value at 880 baht a night. It is not exactly 5-star but the rooms are comfortable, it has cable TV, hot water and a bath. You can easily find a hotel for 500-baht but it is just not worth the saving.

The next day I did the 1-hour drive to Dannok and the visa-hop routine. We did some shopping around Hat Yai and checked out a few of the local bars and restaurants. All good. I like Hat Yai. There is nothing very exciting there but there is a lively feel to the place.

We spent our final night on the way home at Thale Noi, near Phattalung. It is a large lake that is a bird sanctuary. The main thing to do there is take a boat across the lake and enjoy the scenery and birds. The north half of the lake is quite shallow so it is like a field of lotus leaves and other foliage. There are lots of herons, cormorants, kites and all kinds of other birds that I couldn’t name. It is all very picturesque. It is just a shame they cannot find a quieter mode of transport to enjoy this tranquility than the chuggering longtail boats. It would be a stunning trip if they could replace that ear-bursting noise with a nice gentle hum.

My wife Pon has an uncanny talent for making friends with the locals. She seems to attract them without even trying. Almost anywhere we go, we will end up having a few drinks and a friendly chat with some local characters. In Hat Yai, we had a fantastic seafood meal for half price after the restaurant owner decided she wanted to spend the evening chatting with us. In Thale Noi, we could hardly get the guesthouse owners to accept our money for the beer.

All in all, a very good trip. Doing it in 4-days is definitely a much more civilised pace than 2 days.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Vegetarian Festival

It is that time of year again in Phuket when everything gets a bit weird and mystical -- especially around the Phuket Town area. It is the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. It is a truly extraordinary festival and it is right up there with the strangest sights to be seen anywhere in the world. There is a lot of information on the net about the festival. The official website is here. There is so much going on that you could easily spend the full 10 days exploring and enjoying the events. Indeed, many people from all over the world come and do just that.

There are 9 temples spread around Phuket Town and the surrounding area where the activities are centered. There are lots of food stalls around all of them serving a wide range of very good vegetarian food. In the evenings there are displays around the temples such as walking across hot coals or climbing blade ladders. The main focal points of the festival are the processions. Each morning, a procession sets off from one of the 9 temples and marches around Phuket Town and back again. This is where you can see the famous body piercings. There are ‘mediums’ or ‘shaman’ who pierce their cheeks and other places with a bizarre assortment of objects ranging from skewers and swords to spears and bikes.

Every year, we make an effort to see at least one of the processions. We also go to a few of the temples, eat some vegetarian food and do a little ‘wai pra’ at the temple.

However, my absolute top recommendation for the festival is the final night, which this year is tomorrow – 7th October 2008. If you are only going to make one visit to the festival then this is the time to go. This is the night when they call the gods to ascend back to the heavens. The crowds start to gather around the route in Phuket Town from the early evening. They start lighting fireworks and firecrackers all around town and they keep it up all evening until it slowly builds up to an incredible crescendo. On this night, the procession comes through town at a charge. As they come through, the crowd bombard them with firecrackers. The air is full of smoke and flashing lights. It is a truly spectacular sight.

We always go to the area around the clock circle in front of the Metropole Hotel. The final procession comes charging through around 11pm until midnight. Then everybody heads to Saphan Hin for a mass celebration.

If you are free and you haven’t seen it before, you shouldn’t miss it. Ear plugs are a good idea.