Beaches and Beach Bums
For most of the year I enjoy living in Chiang Mai – about 700 kilometres north of Bangkok. For most of the year this small city is comfortable, relaxed and enjoyable. For most of the year the climate is kind, with quite a chilly winter and a refreshing rainy season when everything goes green again.
But in March and April – and this year in February as well – Chiang Mai was bleugh.
Forest fires to the north added their pollution to the smoke and haze caused by farmers burning off rice stubble or dried cornfields getting ready for the next crop. For several days in March, Chiang Mai’s air quality index (AQI) showed that the air pollution in my adopted hometown was the worst in the world.
For days I kept every door and window in my apartment closed, with air conditioners and air filtering machines running at top speed. If I ventured out from my home it was with a facemask covering my nose and mouth trying to filter out the PM2.5 – nasty little particulates that block people’s airways and attack innocent swimming and walking critters’ lungs.
Not a life for a goldfish and not a life for me – so onto an aeroplane that trudged and clawed and fought its way through the smog and eventually slithered down through clear skies to land on the island of Phuket, in the Andaman Sea, about 1400 km SW from Chiang Mai
And fresh air
As I started to write these notes the AQI in Chiang Mai was 183 – in the UNHEALTHY range – but everything is relative. A few weeks earlier it was 296 – perhaps in the DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT TAKING A DEEP BREATH zone.
While I was in Phuket the local AQI was between 7 and 36.
- Aaah! Deep breath … and drop the shorts.
Getting sunburned in awkward places
Phuket used to have just one naturist resort, the Lemon Tree, but a new place opened up a year or so ago and has quickly captured First Place not only in Phuket but, I think, in the whole of Thailand.
Peace Blue Naiharn (www.peaceblueresortphuket.com) is a very new resort close to the beautiful and quiet Naiharn beach and the less tranquil and more commercial Rawai beach in the very south of the island. The resort is delightful – small, friendly, relaxed – and offers a weekly boat trip to a quiet nearby island where guests can swim, snorkel or sunbake naked.
About half a dozen of us – from Australia, Singapore and the UAE – jumped onto a speed boat at Rawai beach, zoomed off to a quiet stretch of coral for a bit of snorkelling and spying on the innocent lives of unsuspecting fish, and on then to another secluded beach where ours was the only boat … for lunch, more snorkelling and sunning before returning later that day to the resort.
Peace Blue has just twenty or so rooms or two-storey villas around lovely salt-water swimming pools, and is within walking distance of scores of restaurants, bars, mini-marts … and places where a good rub is just a dollar or two away.
One day I walked the three kilometres from Naiharn beach back to the resort and counted ninety-six restaurants, five places offering to do laundry (one kilo of dirty clothes washed, dried and folded for about two dollars), sundry scuba diving and tour offices, a few art galleries offering generic gilded paintings of elephants or of the lord Buddha, motor bike hire shops, 7-11s … and thirty-five (yes – 35) massage shops.
Towards the end of my time on the island I enjoyed several days in the Neramit Hill village, but I don’t think I saw a single massage place. This quiet part of Phuket is inland from the beach and not as commercial. It is home to the superb Thong Dee Restaurant (www.thongdee.com), scores of local tuk tuk drivers and their dinky little red or yellow vans, and the delightful Phuket Gay Homestay.
This home is also a small place with just five comfortable guest rooms, great breakfasts, welcoming hosts (who took me on brisk early morning seven-kilometre walks around the almost totally dry Bang Wad Dam) and a lovely clothing-optional saltwater swimming pool.
My time in Phuket started and ended with an all-over tan and not too many awkwardly burned body parts.
Good food and great art
There are never awkwardly burned bits at the Wok Pagoda Restaurant high in the hills overlooking Kata Beach – just great food and superb views. The Wok Pagoda’s menu is driven by Chef Tummanoon, whose food I have joyfully eaten for many years at restaurants in Chiang Mai and Phuket.
This restaurant is owned by the man who used to be my boss at a school in Chiang Mai. He is an artist, an architect, an entrepreneur and a man with a vision for the future.
A day or two later I joined him in a private dining room at his Kata Noi beachside resort for a slow and delicious meal – smoked salmon and Parma ham starters with a zesty sake served cold and hot, followed by local crab soufflés, a bottle of a French rouge, some Australian lamb chops and a lemon sorbet to finish – as we looked at my former employer’s stunning new artworks in industrial steel and motor mechanical enamels.
Several years ago I helped prepare an exhibition catalogue for a solo exhibition that I think was called Beach Bums – a collection of his paintings of young men and women seen on the beach below his hotel. The latest works take the earlier paintings and where there was oil on canvas there is now industrial steel with each mosaic piece coated in numerous layers of auto paint and welded to a steel base plate. The works reflect light and every viewing angle gives a new dimension to the “painting”.
Not far from Kata Noi is Phuket Old Town where visitors will find the lovely On On Hotel, lots of street art / graffiti, and scores of delightful old Sino-Portuguese shop houses, many of which have been converted into teahouses, restaurants and artists’ studios.
Some of the works exhibited may have very limited appeal, but I particularly enjoyed the woodblock prints of famous artists and nature studies by Monthian Yangthong at his eponymously named gallery, I Mon Artgallery. Just a little further along the road is a gallery owned by Rittipong Nupan whose works were more colourful than the woodblock prints and featured tremendous energy and passionate themes relating to his work towards gender equality.
Happy New Year – and pass the Cold Water
The brilliant colours in Rittipong’s works and Mom Tri’s “steel painting” were reflected in the gaudy Hawaiian shirts worn by many of the local people as Songkran was celebrated.
The Thai New Year’s Day (which for some reason is always three – or four – or five – days) is built around 12, 13 and 14 April. Originally it was a time when people paid their respects to their elders, gently pouring water from silver bowls over arthritic hands and bowing politely and wishing grandma and grandpa good health and long life.
These days Songkran is a wet and wild festival – especially in Chiang Mai – another reason for my escape. Giant water pistols, buckets of iced water, garden hoses and just about anything that can be used to drench passers-by is called into play. For many it is possibly the most exciting time of the year … but for curmudgeonly old coots like me, who observed his seventieth birthday in the middle of the festival, it was a time to seek quieter and drier hideouts.
At Patong Town, the island’s commercial and touristic hub, the beach was used for new-moon parties and huge sand sculptures commemorated the New Year. Patong beach is a pretty two-kilometre stretch of soft white sand. Apart from the days of Songkran, it was a quite surprisingly nice place to spend a few hours swimming and sunning and watching the Chinese tourists parasailing above the bay or riding noisy jet skis out beyond the marked swimming zones. Four or five dollars will get you a sun bed and umbrella on the beach for a day, and strolling vendors come by to offer henna tattoos, fried prawns, home-made woven hammocks, cold drinks or bamboo flutes.
Long lonely beaches
Far to the north – about an hour’s drive from Patong and about ninety minutes from Cape Phromthep (featured image, left) – is the ten-kilometre Mai Khao beach where I took a lovely apartment in a brand new condominium right on the beach: Baan Mai Khao.
Baan Mai Khao has a couple of hundred apartments, three main swimming pools and numerous other swimming pools fronting most of the ground floor rooms. Just a few steps away along the beach are luxury resorts – Renaissance, Marriott, Anantara, Sala Phuket – with their fine dining options – but immediately next door is the Micky Monkey Beach place – a few grass cottages, a bare foot bar and a small and cheap and very good restaurant.
Despite the rapid development of this area, it is still very quiet and each day I was able to drop my swimming costume and swim and stroll along the long beaches with no one closer than about half a kilometre.
The clean sand is coarser than at some other beaches, but the waters are so much cleaner and greener. At the end of a day of beach strolling my poor old feet felt thoroughly sandpapered.
Several years ago I stayed at a tiny place in this area – I think it was called Sunset Cottages – and again enjoyed naked walks along the beach. But one day there was great excitement at a nearby hotel as one of their guests had apparently decided that too much sun and sand and sea was too much for him and he hanged himself from a beachfront tree. On my way to dinner the evening before the event, I had walked past the tree he later used to end it all.
- Sandpapered feet are resoundingly trumped by the ending of a life
Phuket has many other beaches – Paradise, Freedom, Kata Yai and Noi, Kamala, Layan … and then there are Surin and Laem Singh beaches. Surin is another long quiet stretch of sand, sprinkled by a few umbrellas and sun chairs, and serviced by a few food vendors dotted among the shoreline trees. Patong it is not. But for me, its main claim to fame was the fact that it is now the only way to get to the tiny secluded Laem Sing beach.
Some time ago there were pathways down the cliffs to the beach, but a change of ownership changed the rights of access. It is now a twenty-minute mini-Ironman challenge to get there. First you either climb over rough rocks for ten minutes or paddle through waist-deep surf, holding your beach goods and towels and books and sun lotions in a bag high above your head. A “path” of sorts is then reached, with sandbags trampled into rocky crevices, a few bamboo footbridges, a few rope handrails … and then you have reached a small, silent, tree-lined beach with no one around at all.
- Aaah! Deep breath … and drop the shorts.
After swimming naked for a while I strolled down the beach to the far end, with my towel over my head as a sunshade. I turned for the return journey and discovered – to my embarrassment and to the delight of numerous camera-wielding visitors, that there is a lookout spot high on the cliffs looking straight down onto “my” apparently secluded beach.
I was glad to be able to throw the towel around my waist – one never wants “over-exposed” photos, after all …
Never throw in the towel
This could well be the catch cry of all great sportspeople.
While I was in Phuket, the Monte Carlo Tennis Open was in full swing – and full backhand and full high lob and slam. One of the players on centre court was Rafael Nadal, and I was surprised by some of the on-screen statistics for this brilliant player.
Although his age (thirty-two) is a bit lower than my three-score and ten, there were some remarkable similarities. He and I are both 185 cm tall, and we both weigh about 85 kilogrammes. OK – he is left-handed and I use my right. He can play tennis rather well and I can’t. He is Spanish and I am not … and his career prize money of about US$100,000,000 is slightly higher than my lifetime earnings …
Ah – wishful thinking – I’d better start taking lessons!
Perhaps I’ll never be a world-class tennis player or a Michelin-starred chef or a star of the stage or screen … but I do have a talent for finding a beach or a swimming pool where I can work on that all-over tan … and I am looking forward to returning to Phuket to become a world-class beach bum once again.
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2019.
Journey April 2019
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship