ON a sanguine Siam Sunday, in the month of monsoon madness, I am flying through a chunky carnival ride of clouds. I am travelling from Bangkok to Thailand’s Trat region, lurching through the sky and big Buddha bellies of bursting water over thirsty rice paddies below. I am enroute to Koh Khood, the Thai island which is home to Peter Pan and Tinkerbell resorts, and beaches of the same nefarious names. But up in this scatty sky, I am wondering if this is where my fairy-tale ends. After one aborted landing, we eventually reach terra firma and I rapidly swap my terror for travel writing. Silver linings? This story is full of them.
I amble through the Thai Muslim/Hindu village of Ban Nam Chiew, past vibrant blue, aqua, orange and red timber fishing boats which contrast against the angry August sky. Ban Nam Chiew means “fast current” in Thai, and it’s apt, as this is a village which is moving with the times. During the monsoon, there is little fishing to support this tiny population which has, instead, embraced tourism. For $41, visitors can buy a two day/one-night package which includes local food, a homestay with a village family, and craft making such as traditional farmer’s hats. Ban Nam Chiew is also known for its sweet crackers crafted from coconut milk or cream, mixed with rice or tapioca and topped with brown sugar, shallots, coconut-diced carrot and sea salt.
And it’s smart women such as Tourism Project leader Surattana Phumimanoch who are embracing this change.
“The purpose of the village is for tourists to have a look and see our way of living,” she says.
“Fishermen can’t work in the monsoon season so this project will make extra income.
“This village is unique in that the Muslims and Hindus have lived together for more than 200 years. A lot of the new generation live away from the village and come back and realise the potential.”
Sated from this success story and a local seafood lunch, I board the boat for Koh Khood, the last island in the Gulf of Thailand before the Cambodian border, and what the Thai’s call “paradise on earth”.
Thailand’s fourth biggest island after Phuket, Chang, and Samui, the lesser-known Khood has such high-quality pepper, it exports this spice to Europe. You’ll also find superior seafood here. On this humid hour, I scramble onto the sticky seat of a “songtaw”, a Thai truck with two long bench seats and bars, and rollick along the island.
Outside, the emerald countryside is as lush as a Sydney socialite, peppered with pointy Thai rooves, rich rice paddies, and locals in conical hats.
I am meant to be island-hopping, snorkelling what the postcards promise are pristine waters, but the weather has dampened that plan, so instead, the next day I hop back into the sweaty songtaw, and explore the island. There’s a Thai’s fisherman’s village at Yai Bay, home to giant grouper, crab, lobster and pineapples, and a glistening golden Buddha statue. I feast on barbecued prawns for lunch at another seafood village and burst into the Gulf of Thailand ocean at Tinkerbell Beach, just as the sun explodes through the clouds for a few precious minutes.
I am staying at Cham’s House, which pays homage to an ethnic group in south-east Asia which is believed to have originated in Borneo and who, during the cruel reign of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, suffered a disproportionate number of killings. Here, it’s peaceful, where only the croaky night bushes have frogs in their throat. Outside my room, the ocean gushes peaceful platitudes at me, while inside, the geckos are goading me to write. But what? I am scratching for a story and a silver lining, knowing it’s out there somewhere. But where?
It’s a smooth flight back to Bangkok where I seek refuge at the Rembrandt, a glorious hotel surrounded by serene side streets or “sois”. If you’re looking for an Australian travel writer in bustling Bangkok, chances are you’ll find them in the Rembrandt’s Executive Lounge at 5.30pm, where the drinks poured are almost as tall as the tales told here. It’s a comforting corner in this hectic city, in the tradition of foreign correspondent’s clubs all over the world. If you squint, you can almost see the ghost of the world’s great writers lurking in the corner. I repair to the hotel’s Rang Mahal restaurant where I feast on this city’s finest Indian fare. It’s washed down with Granmonte shiraz, wine made by an award-winning female Thai wine maker who studied in Australia and whose vineyard I visited on a previous trip.
On my last day, I am a lazy lizard, floating in the pool, drinking beer with pizza, stretching out those tired travel muscles in a Thai massage and even having my hair washed and blow dried, before the flight home. While the hairdresser scratches my scalp, I keep mining my mind for the story. And as a travel writer, I should have realised, it is just this. Travel doesn’t always go to plan. It will pour big Buddha bellies of rain and you’ll be gasping for a snorkel that may never come. Travel, like flying, comes with unexpected turbulence and you will feel uncomfortable, even scared. But if you wait long enough on those sticky songtaw seats, there will be a breeze. Some seafood. A simple story about a fishing village turning to tourism. And even a break in the clouds. And you’ll take your monkey mind and plunge into the ocean, and smile at that silver lining.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Thai Airways http://www.thaiairways.com; Bangkok Airways http://www.bangkokair.com; and the Tourism Authority of Thailand https://au.tourismthailand.org
I’M gambling with God. Dicing with Dharma. Betting on Buddha. This adventure unravels in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, in Long Shan Temple. And I’m essentially playing Taiwanese two-up but it’s not money I’m chasing, it’s love. Of all the temples in Taiwan, it’s here that people flock to seek answers to their lives. Want love? Money? Health? Success? Come to the Department of Deities. I’m lured into the temple by the peaceful hum of devout Buddhists.
Around me, people are playing some sort of interesting game involving two blocks of wood. And just when I think it’s all lost in translation, out of no where, a Californian Chinese woman whose name I later learn is Su Lin, shows me how it’s done.
“First you take a stick which has a number on it. Then, in your head, you tell Buddha your name, where you are from and what you are asking for (in my case: love),” Su Lin says.
“Then you take the two blocks of wood. If they both land face up, Buddha is still thinking about your request. If they both land face down, your request will not happen. If one lands face down and one lands face up, your request will come true.”
I nervously drop the blocks of wood. One lands face up and the other face down. Su Lin and I jump up and down like we’ve just won lotto. She takes the original number I selected and goes to a little cabinet from which she takes a corresponding piece of paper, all of it written in Chinese characters. She still doesn’t know my wish.
“Oh, you are very lucky,” she beams. “You will marry a man of honour.” I am then required to thank the Goddess of Mercy. Thank her? I could marry her myself for such good fortune.
This is a story of love and lanterns. At Hsinshu city, south of Taipei, the 2013 Taiwan Lantern Festival is underway to celebrate the last day of Chinese New Year and the first day of the full moon. If you think you’ve seen lanterns, think again. Every conceivable object has been transformed into an object of art. Delta Energy has also constructed the world’s largest outdoor projection screen which is 100 percent recycled at a cost of US$2 million.
Yes, things are changing in Taiwan where it’s a spell-binding blend of old and new. Here, 2000 year old lantern festivals and traditional food from its diverse regions, combine with concepts like conservation. The yin and the yang. For more contemporary Taiwanese experiences, head to Kaohsiung MRT in the south-west, where its Dome of Light ceiling has earned it the title of the second most beautiful tube station in the world after Montreal. At the nearby Ten Drum Ciatou Creative Park, they’re calling it “A Revolution of Drum Art” where an enterprising group of Taiwanese drummers – who performed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics – are taking tourists on a new beat. If you’ve enjoyed the show, you can even take a drum class.
Back in the north, about an hour east of Taipei in the usually sleepy village of Pingxi, the Sky Lantern Festival also takes place at this time of year. The traditional festival is held here, the home of waterfalls and mountains, as to have the smallest impact on the environment. Around 200,000 people congregate to write their wishes on a lantern and send it into the night sky. In my case, again, it’s love I shoot off to the stars.
According to Su Lin, the woman I met at the Long Shan Temple, should I meet my love, I must return with him to Taiwan to thank Buddha for making my dreams come true. I’m writing out wedding invitations as we speak.
The Global Goddess travelled to Taiwan in pure style courtesy of Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy cabin. Launched in February 2012, the new Premium Economy experience features a more quiet, spacious cabin than the traditional Economy Class with between 26 and 34 seats per aircraft. The seat pitch is 38 inches – six inches more than Economy Class – and the seat itself is wider and has a bigger recline. Special features include a large meal table, a cocktail table, footrest, a 10.6 inch personal television, an in-seat power outlet, a multi-port connector for personal devices and extra personal stowage space. Premium Economy passengers are also allowed 25kg of luggage and have priority check-in at dedicated counters and priority boarding.
How to get to Taiwan from Australia: Cathay Pacific has multiple flights a week to Taipei via Hong Kong from six major Australian cities, including at least three flights daily from Sydney; three from Melbourne; daily from Brisbane; seven weekly flights from Cairns and Adelaide; and ten weekly flights from Perth.
WHERE in the world are all the men? As a travel writer I have trekked the globe looking for good stories and good blokes (usually in that order). Sure, I can always stumble across a decent yarn, but finding a fella is not so simple. Some people have even accused me of becoming a travel writer JUST so I could find a man. If that were the case, I’d be a spy. Far more glamourous. Then again, who am I kidding? I can’t keep a secret. So, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, and spilling the beans, let me tell you where you CAN find a man. But first, here’s some places you might wish to avoid.
I stumbled across these two nice boys one late afternoon at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Unfortunately, despite their snappy fashion sense, they advised me they were already in love. With Buddha. So I moved on.
This one I found at Montreal at the Comedy Festival. Unfortunately, it was summer, and I like my blokes to be brave, so unless he can handle a bit of cold weather, he's not the one for me.
In Salem, I discovered there are actually more witches than lawyers. Still, that’s pretty handy if you are getting divorced and want to cast a spell on your ex. But I was unable to conjure up a boyfriend.
In Dubrovnik, this lovely old man looked like a prospect. Until he told me he was waiting for someone. Much younger than me.
In Brisbane, things are so dire, you’d think every man was dead.
So, where in the world are all the men?
NEW ZEALAND! According to a report released yesterday, a stack of hot tradies have been flocking to Christchurch to rebuild the city after its 2011 earthquake. Things are so good there for single women, there’s four men for every woman. That’s right, I’ve travelled the globe and they’ve been sitting right under my nose all along. So Happy Valentine’s Day. I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got a plane to catch.