Freebies: worth every penny (alternative title: Our Trip to Phuket’s Surin Beach)

‘Freebie’ is the sweetest word in the English dictionary. Well, it’s not actually in the dictionary but if Webster would just give it the go ahead, it would rank up there with with the best of them. My manager called me into a meeting nearly three weeks back, saying she wanted to have a word with me. I figured that either I’d done something I wasn’t supposed to or I hadn’t done something that I was supposed to. Turns out that she was pleased with my recent performance so, as a reward/incentive, she gave me three nights at Twin Palms Resort on Surin Beach in Phuket including airfares. The timing was perfect. My girlfriend has been working really hard over the last three months and was in dire need of a break. Needless to say, I scored enough brownie points to last me quite a while. Better still, when my manager tried to book it, the only available room was a penthouse.

I grudgingly accepted.

Twin Palms Resort in Surin Beach, Phuket

Twin Palms Resort in Surin Beach, Phuket. Stunning and the service is fantastic.

Twin Palms Resort is on Surin Beach in Phuket. About twenty minutes from Patong’s red-light madness, Twin Palms is beautiful and only a one minute walk from the beach. Surin is a gorgeous stretch of white sand with only a few bars, clubs and shops sprinkled along it. A few high-end resorts and some mansions up on the hill have baited some high-end eateries into staking claims in what is otherwise just a nice little village on a beautiful stretch of Thai beach. It certainly isn’t a party place like Patong or Pattaya and that suited us well. We just wanted to unwind for a few days. Besides, Patong’s only really any good if you’re single, with the boys and not scared of VDs.

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Surin Beach.

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My girlfriend and I are easy to please. We get happy over simple things like not having any dirty clothes in the laundry basket or finding out that they’re showing The Karate Kid on TV on a Saturday night (the original, of course) so a lavish penthouse a few metres from a spectacular Thai beach was enough to make us feel like temporary millionaires. Two stories, open-plan, luxuriously appointed, an in-room bar that has surely been responsible for many horrible hangovers and a private rooftop pool. What more could someone who can’t afford any of that ask for?

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We made the most of it all. Poolside cocktails, daily massages, a fancy yoghurt-coffee-sea salt-some-other-condiment scrub for my woman, swims in Surin’s beautiful turquoise waters, luscious lunches on the beach and in-room dinners were the norm for three and a half glorious days. The hotel’s club on the beach, the trendy Catch Beach Club, even served Leffe Blond which is, at the moment, my favourite beer (my favourite beers change quicker than the US government’s understanding of the fourth amendment).

Catch Beach Club. Location really is everything.

Catch Beach Club. Location really is everything.

Palm trees: they just make a beach ‘beachier’

On the third day we took a day trip on a lovely Chinese-style junk through Phang Nga Bay. June Bahtra Cruises run a great operation. They pick you up from your hotel in a nice mini-van, drop you off at the marina then it’s straight onto the boat. We motored out of the marina and cruised through Phang Nga’s green waters at a leisurely pace. As you head out, mangroves and tall green hills border the bay, providing a stunning backdrop to its emerald waters.

Once into Phang Nga bay, small but tall islands covered in greenery rise starkly from the water. After a couple of hours we traded the junk for a colourful long boat and motored onto our first stop, Kho Phing Kan. It is imaginatively called James Bond Island after a few scenes for The Man With The Golden Gun were shot there in 1974. Like most of Thailand’s famous (and gorgeous) islands, it was as crowded as an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day. Long boats pull up, dump their passengers and back out so that other long boats can squeeze into the same tiny speck of beach to do the same. The place, though, is absolutely stunning.

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There are a few stalls there that sell exactly the same things: shells, bracelets and typically gaudy souvenirs. Then it was onto our next stop. Koh Panyee is a small fishing village built on stilts over the water. The local population of one thousand are descendants of Indonesian fisherman who arrived two hundred years ago. They now speak Thai but have hung on to their Muslim roots. They rely largely on tourism dollars to survive, hence my reluctance to haggle with one of them over the price of a sarong that I bought as a birthday present for my sister (sis, if you’re reading this and I haven’t sent it to you yet, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!). I paid her more than she asked for. Good deed for the day: done.

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Clothing shops, jewellery hawkers and food vendors line the laneways. Locals rely largely on tourism for their income.

The gaps between building reveal more about the village than the laneways full of shops and food vendors

The gaps between building reveal more about the village than the laneways full of shops and food vendors. It’s just a small country village that just happens to sit three feet above the sea.

A huge mosque was being built. It’s the only building in the village built on solid ground. The rest of the village is on stilts over water. Even the small soccer field used by the two hundred local school kids rests on a bed of floating drums. Unfortunately, our camera’s battery called it quits as we toured the village but we managed to snap off a few photos first.

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A floating soccer field. Yes, it wobbles but it is an ingenious idea.

Cheeky local kids having fun

Cheeky local kids doing what kids do best: being cheeky.

On the return trip, the junk anchored and we were offered the opportunity to take a dip. Everyone seemed to procrastinate. As they stood around wondering what to do, I was mid-air, diving off the bow doing my best impersonation of Greg Louganis (sans cranial claret-leak). Before you know it, everyone was jumping off behind me, doing their best impersonation of Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School (sans The Triple Lindy). A few glorious minutes later and we were drying off and heading back to the marina.

That night was, sadly, our last. We returned to Singapore the next day but after three nights on Surin Beach, I finally understood why everyone loves Phuket. Up until then, Patong had been the only place I’d visited there. Its seedy atmosphere and endless opportunities to test your morals leave an acidic, hangover-ish taste in your mouth. Surin Beach, on the other hand, is a world away. It’s closer to the tropical paradise you see on Thai postcards and it’s free of… well, hordes of hookers, drunken revellers and chances to do things you’ll regret.

Surin Beach: what a place.

And ‘freebie’: what a word…

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Italia, ti amo: Part III

I’ve found it hard to start each post in this series about our trip to Italy a fortnight ago. I mean, it’s Italy. Where do you start?

My girlfriend and I began our Italian adventure in Follonica, spending two nights with some family of mine that I met for the first time. Then we headed south, spending four nights in Positano on the magical Amalfi coast.

Well, what do you know? I started.

Our last night in Italy was spent in Rome. I wish we had more time to spend there, even just to walk the streets.

Australia has only been settled for a little over two hundred years so the oldest thing of interest that you’re likely to see there is our ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, now in his eighties, sculling a schooner of beer in under three seconds. Understandably, I was frothing at the prospect of seeing ancient Roman ruins so first stop: the Colosseum.

That such a thing was built two thousand years ago and that it is still standing today is astonishing. I hope they didn’t waste any money on an extended warranty. This thing was built to last.

The arena floor is gone, revealing a network of chambers below. They were used in much the same way that people use basements nowadays: they held boxes of crap that they didn’t want to keep but couldn’t be bothered throwing out and guys pashed girls down there after school.

sfgsfdgIMG_4914The Colosseum reminded me that technology doesn’t say as much about a society as the imagination with which they harness it. Stonemasonry and brick making might not sound like technology to kids raised with tablets and touch phones but stonemasons were the Silicon Valley geeks of bygone eras, masters of a technology crucial to building castles, fortresses and places of worship. What they accomplished using the technology available to them is astounding.

Right next door is the Forum. We didn’t get many good pictures of it but in its time it was an impressive space. Also next door is the Arch of Constantine (what a neighbourhood). It was built to commemorate Constantine’s victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

The arch of Constantine was built to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

These letters used to be in bronze. They extol the virtues of the emperor Constantine.

The letters in the inscription above were originally in bronze. When new, this arch would’ve been a phenomenal sight. It still is.

The detail on the statues and reliefs is brilliant.

From here, we walked across town to get to the Trevi Fountain. A tip: forget taxis. There’s so much worth seeing and the atmosphere is the best thing about Rome. Soak it up as you walk. Stop and have a coffee and a cannoli. Take the chance to sit amongst the hustle and bustle.

En route to the fountain, we crossed the Altare della Patria, a monument built to honour Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy. Its erection stirred up some controversy as it destroyed much of Capitoline Hill. Its gaudiness hasn’t won everyone over, either. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive structure with sculptures all over it.IMG_5067test

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After winding our way through some cool little cobblestone lanes, we reached the Trevi Fountain. The crowd surrounding it was thick. I was instantly bothered by it but after working our way to the water’s edge, I was gob-smacked by this work of crazy frickin’ art (sorry, I’m writing about Italy and running out of decent adjectives).

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The Fontana di Trevi is a sprawling work of art. It’s hard to gauge its scale in the photo above but to me, the main figure of Oceanus in the centre looked to be nearly three metres tall.

The fountain is said to depict "a virgin shepherdess who showed the spring to soldiers seeking water" according to a 16th century writer.

The fountain is said to depict a virgin shepherdess who showed a spring to soldiers seeking water, according to a 16th century writer.

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Oceanus, the divine personification of the World Ocean which was said to encircle the world.

In the centre is Oceanus, the divine personification of the World Ocean which was said to encircle the world.

There’s a legend that says that throwing a coin into the fountain will ensure that you return to Rome one day. Around three thousand euros are thrown into the fountain every single day. Talk about a money spinner. Clement XII: my hat goes off to you and your remunerative vision. Well played, sir. Well played.

All jokes aside, the money is used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s needy. Well played, Rome. Well played.

Call me cheesy but one thing that I really wanted to do in Italy was to sit at a cozy cafe or restaurant table in a cobblestone lane while sipping on an espresso (loafers optional). We visited a few in our short time there. Every one we entered had great coffee and cakes, fresh pasta, very affordable house wine good enough to make it onto any wine list in Australia and an atmosphere worth traveling to the other side of the globe for.

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Back alleys and lane ways in Sydney should be avoided. In Rome, they should be sought out. Cafes, restaurants and stores line these romantic little thoroughfares.

IMG_5075Something I haven’t mentioned but that deserves to be said is that Italians are cool people. My grandfather is Italian and I can pass for an Italian, so a quick “Scuzzi…” from me has most locals firing off a barrage of rapid-fire Italian at me but my girlfriend is an Australian of Indonesian descent so she looks like nasi goreng but sounds like a meat pie and she was treated well wherever we went, too. Italians are laid back with what Australians would call a “she’ll be right” attitude. Feel like chilling out? Too easy. Late bus? No problem. Worried about something? No worries, she’ll be right.

Even after only one night there, I could go on and on about Rome but, frankly, I’m running out of adjectives. Besides, I’m no travel writer. What I am is a lucky man who gets to travel and explore with his awesome woman, a guy who has been fortunate enough to visit Italy in his lifetime.

Italy. There’s no place like it. It’s romantic and full of style, it boasts amazing food, scenery and architecture, the people are warm and the place is drenched in history with modern buildings swarming around historical artifacts of immense significance, like a living city-museum. And the fact that I have roots and people that I can call family there makes the place beautiful in a way that I just can’t articulate.

L’Italia è un posto meraviglioso. Ti amo, Italia.

Well, what do you know? I articulated it.