Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Palaces, snakes, tigers, oh, and a small earthquake!

FIRST my glass of orange juice began to slop from side to side, then the chairs, tables and walls began to tremble and finally the whole hotel shook as an earthquake rocked my holiday in Thailand.

I just froze but thankfully the quake, which measured 6.7 on the Richter scale and killed more than 20 people in nearby Burma, had weakened to a 3.0 by the time it reached me.

It was a truly scary moment in a holiday laced with incident and excitement from palaces, snakes and long tailed boat rides in Bangkok to tigers, microlighting and hill tribes in Chiang Mai and shows and beautiful gardens in Pattaya.

Heathrow’s horror charge of £7.25 for a sausage sandwich was soon a distant memory and a tiring double flight via Hong Kong was eased by a delicious meal of shrimp at the famous Cabbages and Condoms restaurant in Bangkok on my first night.

Our first full day was packed with fearful fascination at the threat of a King Cobra striking out during a visit to the Red Cross Centre, wonder at the grandeur and majesty of the Grand Palace toured in pantaloons to cover our shorts and disbelief at the fearsome humidity. We had to refuel with beer at the Rosabieng restaurant where we also enjoyed a delicious dish of deep fried duck followed by mango ice-cream.

Next day we visited the Ancient City, a site covered in replicas of palaces, temples and other buildings from all over Thailand, and I was treated to the slightly surreal sight of a man selling honeycombs slung on strings from the crossbar of his bicycle!

A hilarious session on gin and tonics in a bar near our hotel that night was followed by a slightly fragile trip the next day to the famous Damnoen Saduak floating market complete with long tailed boat trip. Nothing like a roaring car engine two feet from your ear to clear a hangover!

We took things a little easier that night, but nearly met a fate worse than death while having one last drink in a bar. A few sips into our stay we became aware that nearly half the women could do with a shave and we carefully drank up, made our excuses and left with our backs firmly to the wall!

A few visits to local markets and it was time to fly north to the jungles and mountains of Chiang Mai where we’d hired a guide, Paul Collins of Best Tuk Tuk Tours who was outstanding and made our holiday. His encyclopaedic knowledge took us to places no coach load of tourists will ever see and all in his charming three-wheeled tuk tuk, a character vehicle if ever there was one.

Our hotel, the Centara Duangtawan, was excellent despite the earthquake and our wonderful stay in the area included visits to the stunning Doi Suthep temple, a variety of craft centres from silk and wood to laquer and umbrellas, an elephant camp, Tiger Kingdom where we sat quietly with some of these magnificent creatures and a visit to a hill tribe including the famous long-necked Karen women. We even had a nine-dish lunch by an idyllic reservoir.

It was just one delight after another and discovering the Lemongrass restaurant barely 200 metres from our hotel was heaven, some of the best food I have eaten at ridiculously low prices, less than £24 for two of us including drinks.

I rounded my Chiang Mai stay off with a bit of pure indulgence. I went microlighting 1,000ft over the countryside just after dawn, crossing paddy fields, cruising above temples, forest and jungle and rounding it all off by crossing a huge dam wall and heading out over the water, king of all I surveyed. I won’t forget that trip for a long time.

The next day we flew back to Bangkok and hopped a taxi down to Pattaya and the little Seaside Guesthouse which was neat, clean and just what we wanted.

We visited giant Buddha figures, the magnificent all-wood Sanctuary of Truth building, Underwater World and an old favourite of mine, Nong Nooch botanical gardens which were stunning.

The humidity was crippling and towards the end of our stay the weather turned with three colossal thunderstorms in a single afternoon and another gigantic storm the next day which sank parts of central Pattaya under four feet of floodwater in barely an hour.

Nighttime included the neon delights of Pattaya’s famous Walking Street, relaxing at the Beer Garden 100 metres out to sea and enjoying a very good rock band at the Classroom bar at the top of our road. We also enjoyed a visit to the famous Tiffany’s transvestite show which was very slick and professional.

All too soon it was time to fly home, but I will be back and some wonderful photographic memories will keep me going until then.

Meeting a long-necked woman from the Karen hill tribe

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