The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand – http://www.tourismthailand.org
THE River Kwai is a jade jewel as late afternoon concedes languidly to dusk. The longtail boat in which I am travelling roars and sputters like an indignant politician up the infamous waterway towards the floating jungle rafts I have come to know and love so much. Travel writers don’t particularly like returning to the same place – there’s too much world to explore – but there are some destinations which become firmly etched in your psyche. And so entrenched in your soul you are unwittingly lured back. And for me, this is one of them, in part for its brutal war history involving the bravado of Australian soldiers and in part for its sheer natural beauty.
He doesn’t know I’m coming back to this place with no electricity and where internet connection is notoriously unreliable on the limited generator in his village. And anyway, I wish it to be a surprise visit to an old friend. Six months ago I found myself on my third trip to Thailand’s romantic River Kwai Jungle Rafts and I told him I’d be back for the next chapter of his story. But even I didn’t know it would be so soon.
I first met Sam Season several years ago, and over the years I have been speaking with him about the most salacious of all subjects: love. Regular readers of The Global Goddess will remember this 22-year-old tour guide, a Mon man from one of the earliest tribes to live in South East Asia. Considered neither Burmese, nor Thai, the Mon exist in a small slither of land along the River Kwai, not far from the Burmese border. The Mon number some 8.14 million people but I am remain captivated by this one man. This man called Sam.
At night, he paints his face in traditional Mon markings but speaks with an English accent plucked out of a south London pub, with a smattering of Aussie twang – picked up solely from the tourists with which he works every day. He moved to this particular village when he was 9, and has been studying to finish High School since, in between working 6 days a week at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. And Sam is in love with a girl called Jaytarmon with beautiful long black hair who lives in a neighbouring village down the river. But access to this girl, like internet, electricity and hot water, are elusive in these parts. And to complicate things more, Sam is being pursued by a girl in his own village, who cooks for him and washes his clothes.
Last month I returned to the River Kwai Jungle Rafts on a last-minute work trip. Word travels fast in these parts and I’m sitting at dinner when a young man, his face painted in Mon tribal markings, walks up to me, his arms outstretched and in that unmistakable Aussie/British accent says: “It’s so good to see you, why didn’t you Facebook me to tell me you were coming?”. We laugh, hug and chat politely for a few moments and I tell him I am here to collect the next chapter of his love story. He blushes, coyly. “Well, it’s complicated but a few things have changed in that direction. I will explain to you tomorrow.” The one thing I have learned about my many visits to this beautiful region, and this young man Sam, is that you must take your time. Pause. Enjoy. Sway in a hammock and daydream. Listen to the river gurgle like a baby. And the story will eventually float down the rapids towards you.
The next night after dinner and by the light of a kerosene lamp, Sam pulls me aside to give me his next chapter. And he’s excited. He’s learned that a scholarship exists in Australia for which he may be eligible. He’s going to apply for it in one year, when he feels his English is adequate. He tells me he has only told his parents and me of his dream. “I really want to go for it,” he says, “I think it will change my life. I want to help my parents and we have a house but it is just bamboo. I want to build a house for my parents. I need to keep going with my dreams.”
I ask him about the state of his love life. He has finished his relationship with the girl in his village who cooks for him because “she is not nice to tourists. How can I introduce this girl to my family when she acts like this?”. So Last January Sam phoned Jaytarmon after an absence of a year. “I said Happy New Year, it is a New Year and I want to start new things with you. The past I just want to forget it. You can punish me however you like but please apologise me but don’t push me away,” he says in his broken, yet impressive English.
“She said it may be too late and that maybe she has a boyfriend. I said ‘I don’t want to have anyone else, please give me a second chance’. I told her ‘you are the one who can keep going with me for my whole life’. I told her ‘I have tried another girl, she doesn’t work out for me, but you are one of the best’.
“I asked her ‘when can I call you?’ She said maybe once a week. She just wants to test that I will keep going with this to test me. So I call her once a week, sometimes twice a week. We talk about our daily work and how many tourists.”
We wade into the murky waters of sex. “We are traditional Mon people. If we kiss we need to be married.” I ask him whether this mysterious girl with the long black hair is still beautiful. He doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, awesome. I want to listen to her voice.” He pulls out his iPhone until he finds a photo of her, laying dreamily on a bed with her hands in her chin. “I look at her photo every night before I go to bed.”
IT’S all so covert it’s like I’m a character in a spy novel. I am instructed to have my bags packed ready to go for Monday morning. There’s no itinerary and my plane tickets arrive in the cab on the way to the airport. I am whisked through customs and immigration and before I know it I am on an empty Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. I have no idea what I’m doing or who I’m meeting apart from this sliver of information: “You are on a fact-finding mission for the Thai government”. My imagination gallops like a wild bush brumby. Am I being summoned to Bangkok to learn something from the Thai government or do they wish to learn something from me? I scan my mind for what I could teach them. I have become somewhat of on expert in Brisbane’s disastrous dating scene and am convinced they wish me to confirm the unbelievable tales about which I have been writing for some time. Yes, Your Honour, he really did say his three favourite things were his gun, sex and bible. No, he can’t spell. Not even his own name.
Nine hours later the plot thickens. There’s a sign at the airport with my name, and a woman checks my passport just in case I am someone else masquerading as me. A private car with a female driver, whose name I later learn is Fa, ferries me through a series of dark back alleys like we are being tailed, before we arrive promptly at the Rembrandt Hotel and I am hurriedly shuffled to the Executive Lounge and checked in.
The next morning a familiar face sidles up to me at breakfast. I realise it’s the Rembrandt’s General Manager Erik Hallin with whom I had dinner at the hotel’s signature Indian restaurant on my last trip to Bangkok just six months ago. We talk politics, the reason I suspect I am really in Thailand. Since last November, protestors disgruntled at what they say is a corrupt government run by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been taking to the streets of the Thai capital in what have been largely traffic-disrupting, but peaceful protests. Erik informs me that occupancy of his hotel is running at 70 per cent, which isn’t bad but “people are scared off by the protests”.
“You learn to walk everywhere in this city,” he says wryly.
From what I can piece together, the Thai government has called me, and three other colleagues – one from Sydney, one from Melbourne, and the other from Auckland, to write a piece proclaiming it’s “business as usual in Bangkok”. Except there’s a few hiccups with this scenario. Problems which becoming increasingly more apparent as the week wears on. The day I arrive, disgruntled rice farmers from rural Thailand have also joined the democratic protestors, claiming they have not been paid under a rice subsidy scheme instigated by the Thai government. And, less-widely reported, so have rubber plantation farmers. And they are trying to block Yingluck’s physical return to Government House with barricades established in key parts of the capital.
At first it does seem like another day in Bangkok. If anything, it’s a bit more quiet than usual, like the capital is nursing a New Year’s Day hangover. I wander down to the protest site and take some photos. But after lunch things change swiftly. A restaurant owner asks me what I’m planning to do next. “I’m just going back to my room to do some work,” I reply. “Good he says. The traffic is very bad, the fighting has broken out again. But don’t worry, you will be safe.” Given the protests have been peaceful, I take his words “fighting” to mean little more than a war of words and return to my hotel room to work. At 6pm I turn on the BBC and am shocked. At this stage, three people have been killed and dozens others have been injured when a grenade was tossed and riot police moved in on the protestors. I meet my Sydney colleague Rod Eime http://www.traveloscopy.com
and we head down to one of the protest sites and there are crowds of people, but no violence in this particular area.
By the end of this one night in Bangkok, four people are confirmed dead, 64 are injured and there’s speculation by witnesses that the police, not the protestors, tossed the grenade. Our planned visit to the “peaceful protest” site is rapidy cancelled by the Thai government, along with a press conference that evening, with “bad traffic” cited as the reason. Wading into another country’s politics, as a foreign journalist visiting for just a few days, is a risky business. You snatch a glimpse, often polished by the PR machine, and are then diverted. And the truth remains the casualty.
A local journalist, who didn’t want to be named for fear of deportment, tells me over breakfast that it is essentially “business as usual” in Bangkok, but warns me to stay away from the protest sites as things can escalate rapidly.
“I’m not concerned at all. The Thais will sort it out in their way. The best thing for this country is for the Generals to take over. Forget what other countries say. It is Thai culture, it has been happening for hundreds of years. Let them sort out what they’ve got to do,” he says.
“Today is going to be a an interesting day here. (Exiled former Prime Minister) Taksin’s ex wife saw a fortune teller in Burma who said if Yingluck didn’t get back into government today she never will.
“The Thais are very superstitious. I don’t know whether there will be more violence. But no one is particularly perturbed.”
It is a surprisingly peaceful day but despite the obvious casualties, there is another victim in this scenario: tourism. Thailand relies heavily on the tourist dollar, particularly from Australians who have long held a love affair with the Land of Smiles. Mark Armsden, a mate and former colleague from our Gold Coast Bulletin news reporting days some 20 years ago, now lives in Bangkok and handles the PR for Tune Hotels. He’s passionate about how the situation is impacting on Thailand’s key income earner: “If you think the protests are having little effect on tourism, speak to hoteliers, tailors, restaurants and bars and other local businesses between Sukhumvit 33 and MBK. Then speak to the thousands of young working Thais who rely on the service charge they earn to supplement their income – this nonsense has been devastating on the “spine” of Bangkok tourism….and that’s before you get down to the river and all the businesses that rely on tourism there as well. You should also check on how devastating it has been on the flag carrier (Thai Airways) as well.”
Mark’s opinion is one echoed all over Thailand. Perhaps it’s our isolation as a nation, but Australians adopt an interesting approach when it comes to violence overseas. We hear there has been conflict in a city and we avoid a country altogether. We’re strangely conservative like that. But the reality is somewhat different. Even in Bangkok, while the protests were exploding in some parts of the city, it is business as usual in others. We dine at the exquisite Naj restaurant on high-end Thai food while the protestors are outside. Attend a Muay Thai boxing class. And there’s plenty of parts of Thailand that remain unaffected. Along the ravishingly beautiful River Kwai, a tour guide tells me the situation is having a massive impact on tourism, far away from Bangkok.
“It’s high season here and we should be full but we’re not. This is how we make our money, from tourism,” he says.
On Saturday afternoon and back in Bangkok in a beauty salon, I ask the girls whether there has been any more strife since I’ve been down in the remote River Kwai. They laugh and talk to each other rapidly in Thai, the only word I can understand is “farang” which means foreigner and I ask them what they are saying. “Farang knows more about Thai politics than Thai people,” they giggle. I fly out midnight Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon the situation has changed again, when a woman and child are killed, and 22 more people injured, in a grenade attack near a popular shopping area. In recent months, a total of 19 people have died and hundreds more have been injured. As far as I know, none of these have been foreign tourists.
But as we know, perception is everything. After the 2012 Bali bombings in which 88 Australians were killed, we all boycotted Bali. But we were also the first nationality to return. We may be a conservative nation but we are also resilient. So spare a thought for Thailand and those who are dying in the name of democracy, whose livelihoods rely on the tourist dollar and do what Aussies do best. Bounce back. Your neighbours need you. I’ll certainly be back, apart from the fact I love this city, I’ve got a Brisbane dating report to deliver to the Thai government.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Airways, Rembrandt Hotel, Bangkok and the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. For more information go to http://www.tourismthailand.org
POISED TO PARTY IN PHUKET
One of the Global Goddess’ favourite places on the planet is Phuket. I love the beaches, the bars, the vibe. I’m not talking the crazy Patong part, but other parts of the island which embody the Thai’s verve for life, without bumping into southern-cross tattoos on every corner. This year, I was lucky to go to Thailand not once, but three times and twice to Phuket in which I explored the emerging beach club scene. One of my favourite places is at XANA in the Laguna Phuket precinct which is kicking off the official start to Phuket’s high season with a Carnival party on December 14. Hang out in this stunning beachfront location with its 35-metre pool (there’s even chairs in the pool on which to relax), state-of-the-art sound system and a food and cocktail menu (does anything beat a lychee martini?). XANA’s onsite accommodation Angsana Laguna Phuket is also offering 30 percent off room bookings throughout Carnival. http://www.xanabeachclub.com
THE BEST OF BRISBANE
For those of us not heading overseas this summer, a new Brisbane Marketing campaign is designed to remind us of all of the great reasons to take a break in Brissie during the summer holiday season. This innovative campaign reminds Brissos of their own backyard with beautiful destinations such as Moreton Bay, Redlands, Logan, Ipswich, the Lockyer Valley, Scenic Rim and Somerset all just a short drive away. Think Brisbane, think boring? Think again. Locals and visitors can spot dugongs in Pumicestone Passage, hot-air balloon over the countryside, or camp on the white sand of North Stradbroke Island, among a swag of summer experiences. And, just launched this week, Brisbane’s award-winning hotel The Emporium is paying homage to the European Summer through a new cocktail menu promising a glimpse of the Amalfi Coastline, sunset at Cannes, and a cliff top at Santorini. There will be classics with a twist, summer punch mixes, gin specials, this Pavlova martini (pictured below) and Emporium favourites. The Global Goddess is thirsty already. http://www.brisbanemarketing.com.au and http://www.emporiumhotel.com.au
HEY MR TAMBORINE MAN
Still on the subject of Queensland (it’s hard to get The Global Goddess off of this), gorgeous Mt Tamborine, in the Gold Coast hinterland, has just welcomed its first six-star accommodation with Skylodge – an exclusive luxury residence. We’re talking modern timber, glass and linear steel, to maximise the views down the valley, and all those quintessential Queensland features like wide verandas, a corrugated iron roof (which makes the most divine sound when it rains) and weatherboards. The lodge is designed for joint stays with friends (did someone say girls’ weekend?) or families, and even couples can hire a single room. You can also order private yoga classes, in-house massage, a serenading violinist and a personal chef on request. The whole lodge costs just $1800 a night and boasts two suites. http://www.skylodge.com.au
BEST SPA NONE
Environmental advocates EarthCheck have just released a global spa standard which outlines 12 benchmarks which should be followed by those wishing to meet an internationally-recognised standard. These include: water consumption; energy consumption; water saving; water source; water sent to landfill; waste recycling; community commitment; community contributions; paper products; treatment and cleaning products; pesticide products; and staff wellness. Given the growth in the spa industry in the past 15 years, Taking off her face mask and putting on her green hat for a minute, The Global Goddess reckons it’s important to main standards to support sustainability. And did you know, the word spa originates from the Latin salus per aquam which means “health through water”. I’ll drink to that. http://www.earthcheck.org
SPEAKING OF SPAS
While we are still speaking of spas, The Global Goddess would like to shine the spotlight on one in which she’s been interested for a while. AYANA Resort and Spa Bali was the international resort destination selected for filming of America’s Next Top Model. While she is neither a top model, nor American, The Global Goddess reckons this secluded resort, perched on cliffs above Jimbaran Bay, looks pretty spectacular. There’s 290 rooms and 78 private pool villas and I believe some innovative spa treatments here. And another language lesson: AYANA actually means “place of refuge” in Sanskrit. Any day now. Any day. http://www.ayanaresort.com
A GORILLAS in the mist afternoon is rolling smugly in over the emerald mountains of Kanchanaburi and I am slung equally low and languid in a hammock, overlooking Thailand’s River Kwai, contemplating life and love. Not my life, nor my love, but that of a man called Sam. Sam Season.
Sam is a Mon man, from the displaced Mon people, considered one of the earliest tribes to live in South East Asia. Not considered Burmese, nor Thai, the Mon exist in a small slither of land along the River Kwai, not far from the Burmese border. The Mon number some 8.14 million people but I am captivated by this one man. This man called Sam.
Sam, 22, a tour guide at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts, is a paradox like the story of his people. A heady blend of naivety and worldliness. At night, he paints his face in traditional Mon markings but speaks with an English accent straight out of a south London pub, with a smattering of Aussie twang – picked up solely from the tourists with which he works every day. He moved to this particular village when he was 9, and has been studying to finish High School since, in between working 6 days a week at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts.
And Sam is in love. But love, like most things along the River Kwai, is complicated. I first met Sam two years ago when I visited the River Kwai Jungle Rafts and he told me of a girl in a neighbouring village, a girl with beautiful long black hair. A girl who made him blush. A girl called Jaytarmon. I told him what I knew of women “tell her she has beautiful hair, women love to be complimented on their hair,” I urged. And then I left, to go back into the “real world”, one of electricity, hot showers and easy internet access, all these things elusive to Sam. That, and the fact he doesn’t own a boat to visit Jaytarmon in the next village, relying on tours to the cave to try and catch a glimpse of her and her luscious locks. I leave, urging him to follow his heart.
So, when I returned to the River Kwai last week, I was thrilled to see Sam again. “We need to talk,” I told him, “I need to know about a certain girl.” He laughed. “I can’t believe you remember that. Well, there’s been some progress”. It was the final half hour on my last day when Sam and I finally snatched a moment to chat. “About six months ago I sent a message to her telling her that ‘I’m really missing you’. I said I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She wrote back asking me why. She said everything has stopped now and what was between us was finished,” Sam says, looking frustrated and confused.
But matters of the heart are never simple and it turns out Sam is being pursued by a girl in his own village, who cooks for him and washes his clothes. “Who are you going to choose between, the one who loves you or the one who you love? I don’t know which one yet. This one at the moment is fine. She does everything for me. But I’m still missing Jaytarmon,” he says, as he pulls out his mobile phone with two photos of the gorgeous Jaytarmon on it.
And Sam has plans. Grand plans. He hopes to stay at River Kwai Jungle Rafts for two more years and then save enough money to go to college for four years to become a car mechanic. He aims to open a garage at the border, between Burma and Thailand. There’s not a lot of cars down in these parts but Sam likes old cars. “You’ve got to think about doing something that is possible. And you must have a family and kids. When you are old your kids can take care of you. Jaytarmon’s mum really likes me. I have the green light from the mum’s side, but the daughter is still a yellow. I want to go to college and return back to the one I’ll always love.”
Our short time is up, and just as I walk away Sam points out the other girl. The one in his village who washes his clothes and cooks him food. “She’s good enough for me?” he asks. I turn and look him in the eye. “Follow your heart,” I say, before catching the boat home.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Scoot Airlines (www.flyscoot.com); The Pullman Bangkok King Power (www.pullmanbangkokkingpower.com); The Tourism Authority of Thailand (www.tourismthailand.org); and the Ibis Bencoolen Singapore (www.ibishotels.com)
LIKE the second installment of The Hangover movie I have awoken, this time, in Thailand. But it’s not bustling Bangkok in which I find myself, but Phuket. And while the four key characters remain kinda the same, the game has changed somewhat. Jon, a late-night radio presenter from Perth, is cast as Alan, possessing a dearth of resort wear (this bloke doesn’t even own thongs), a bright red ukulele, and a large but empty suitcase. Katie, an online editor for a family and kid’s magazine, is small and simply adorable and decides she wants to be the baby; in turn Rebecca, another children’s magazine editor and delightful to boot, elects to be the tiger; and apparently, and if this is an indicator of this trip, I am voted as Bradley Cooper because “you’re the reliable one”. Now, you know when The Global Goddess is voted the reliable one on a trip, things are very, very wrong.
You see, I have found myself somewhat surprisingly, on a trip to research Phuket’s Laguna Family Festival. Say Phuket and The Global Goddess thinks cool swims, cold beer, hot days and even hotter men, preferably in that order. I do not generally use the words family, and holiday, in the same sentence. It’s a bit like the concept of a “joy flight” or a “fun run”. Wrong, people. Just wrong. But Phuket is also trying to cast itself in a different light, away from the madness of Patong and thus stages an annual event to show visitors that there’s plenty of family fun to be had. And if it’s fun I must have, no matter what form it takes, then fun it must be. So here’s The Global Goddess’ guide to Phuket fun, for little kids, and the big kids in us all…
A maverick Malaysian, we are told, has set the record for the fastest ride down one of Phuket’s longest waterslides at the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort pool. Apparently, his journey took him 40 seconds. All I can say is there is something dodgy about these statistics, as me and my mates manage the same trip in all of 15 seconds of absolutely howling, screaming fun. I reckon I could do it even faster if I borrowed the green Burqini of one of the resort guests in the pool. Ask yourself, how long has it been since you’ve been on a waterslide and then go and get yourself on one. It’s one of the most fantastic things you’ll have done in a very long time.
If you want Candy then look no further than the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort. For here, every morning, this gorgeous two-year-old elephant who is named after a hard lolly, meets resort guests and allows the little ones to ride on her. For the bigger kids, get yourself over to either the Banyan Tree or Angsana Laguna Phuket, to meet Lucky. The Global Goddess got lucky all right, when this larger elephant planted a whopping great kiss by placing her trunk right over The Goddess’ nose and mouth. While the other guests got a polite peck on the cheek, I got the full vacuum treatment. I found out later that Lucky is a female elephant. One person’s violated is another person’s perfect day, that’s all I’m saying.
At the Banyan Tree, Phuket, while little kids are enjoying such things as their own Sunday brunch, board and video games, arts and craft, big kids like me are free to ride their bikes around this enormous resort. A highlight of this property is the whirlpool in the centre of the property’s main pool near the spa sanctuary, where you can float on your back and be dragged through the water’s current, ending up under giant taps. Big kids will also enjoy their own luxury private spa villa, where it is practically criminal not to skinny dip…in my opinion.
At Angsana Phuket little kids will love the Tree House Kids Club, while both little and big kids can indulge in the family spa treatments where mothers and daughters and fathers and sons can bond during double spa sessions. The Global Goddess is unsure how much relaxing little kids need, but there seems to be a market for this, and who am I to argue with anyone providing pleasure and making money at the same time?
But probably the nicest kid story of this entire journey takes place on the nearby floating Muslim community island of Koh Panyee. Here, the kids wanted to play football which proved to be somewhat difficult without any actual land on which to build a field. Much to the initial amusement of the island’s adults, the kids tied together bits and pieces of wood like a raft to design a makeshift field and became so good at the game they gained third place in Thailand’s national competition. The adults ate their words, so to speak, and built a proper floating football stadium for these kids.
And that’s the whole point of this story, really. It doesn’t matter if you’re a little kid or a big kid. Life is about daring to dream, creating and most of all, having fun. It’s about screaming your guts out on your first waterslide ride in 30 years, swimming naked under the stars, laughing with a bunch of new mates and realising we all pretty much want the same thing: health and happiness. Head to Laguna Phuket, you’ll find fun there in spades. Just look out for amorous elephants.
The Global Goddess travelled to Thailand as a guest of Laguna Phuket. To find out more about the precinct, or the Laguna Family Festival which runs until October 31, go to http://www.lagunaphuket.com
IT’S a torrential Thailand Tuesday and I’m stuck in the middle of a tropical downpour when I decide my only course of action is to steal Lucille’s golf buggy. A decision made more interesting by the fact her personal butler is behind the wheel. “But where’s Miss Loo Silly? What happened to Miss Loo Silly?” GiGi, the butler asks me frantically. “I can’t see her, she must be shopping,” I blatantly lie as I encourage GiGi to drive like the wind which is howling around us. GiGi, as it turns out, doesn’t need any encouragement, her relationship with Loo Silly strained at best, venomous at worst.
I’m staying at the Banyan Tree Phuket and the concept of butlers is foreign to me, but not to Loo Silly. Loo Silly grew up in Hong Kong with a Filipino Amah and is accustomed to having hired help. I, on the other hand, grew up in country Queensland, and made my own bed. Loo Silly was six before she bought her first Barbie Doll accessory – a jeep. I’m 42, and my Barbie is still hitchhiking. Loo Silly’s family celebrates special events by drinking Moet from an authentic 1911 Melbourne Cup they own. Mine drinks Spumante from plastic cups, to save on washing up. And thus begins what is an unlikely and fabulous friendship between the two of us. Over in her villa, our other friend, the earthy and lovely Rhianna, has captured the heart of her butler, Pop Tart. I also have a butler, with the more sedate name of Sarah, but I don’t see her again after I check in and offer her the use of the spare bedroom in my cavernous villa.
We’re in Thailand for a week but not the Thailand I know. My Thailand is one of $50 a night beach shacks and all-you-can drink Chang beer down at Nai Trang beach on the island of Phuket. But this time I’m several beaches away at Bang Tao, at the luxurious Banyan Tree. I learn later that Loo Silly has trekked back to her room in knee deep water in the rain, a cloud of angry smoke billowing from her head. Around the same time, GiGi decides to go missing in action, only appearing again when it’s time to pack up Loo Silly’s room. She’s standing at the front reception as we wave goodbye, having taken a photo of Loo Silly and given it to her, and smiling maniacally. Pop Tart has not only taken a photo of Rhianna, but framed it and told the next resort to expect her arrival. There’s still no Sarah and certainly no photo. “I think I know why GiGi hates me,” declares Loo Silly as we drive away, “I found out her name is not GiGi but Geek.” One stark fact remains: Geek and Loo Silly will never be BFFs.
We fly on to the Banyan Tree Koh Samui where again, we’re each in a luxury pool villa which triggers a series of late-night skinny dips, the sounds of my friends splashing happily away into the night through the rainforest which divides us. I’m thrilled, as apart from the requisite Banyan Tree bath robe and slippers, there’s some orange chunky thongs which the Thai’s call flit flots. And flit flot around in them I do. Around my room, around the pool, around the resort. What I don’t realise at the time is that no one else has these in their room, they are not part of the resort wear, and I am wearing someone else’s shoes. In Thailand I discover I am a closet kleptomaniac. First the golf buggy, now other people’s footwear. What next for me, a cute small child or two?
We end our journey where we began, at the Banyan Tree Bangkok where I first discovered I was entitled to have two items of laundry cleaned for free. I’d only just arrived and couldn’t decide whether I should simply sling my underpants on a long stick and poke them out the front door like a flag of surrender. Loo Silly would have known what to do – she once made her Amah go clothes shopping for her, tried on all the clothes and then sent her Amah back to the shops with the items she had discarded – but she’d already gone to bed, having somehow managed to locate and arrange a personalised shopper for her return journey to Bangkok.
It’s late when Loo Silly and I leave Bangkok, the airport a heaving mass of humanity and that distinctly disappointing smell of holidays come to an end. Loo Silly is back to Melbourne and I am bound for Brisbane, Rhianna long since departed for Bali where no doubt Pop Tart has informed the island of her arrival. There’s still no sign of Sarah, GiGi was last heard partying on Phuket and I’m now the proud owner of an orange pair of flit flots.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of The Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Banyan Tree. To book your own luxury Thai holiday, go to http://www.tourismthailand.org and
AS is so often the case when The Global Goddess travels, the adventure begins before the plane has even arrived at its destination. In this instance, I’m on a Thai Airways 777-300 bound for Bangkok. I’m in seat 53H and in seat 53K sits a 40-something woman who admits she’s never flown before and is a tad nervous about her journey and subsequent arrival in Bangers. Now, on the one hand I want to assure her by telling her she’s seated next to The Global Goddess – her sister advised her to sit next to a woman (yes, because no woman in history has ever killed anyone. Much). On the other hand, I don’t quite have the heart to tell her The Global Goddess is also a terrible flyer and in terms of occupational hazards, this is a bit of biggie. I do, however, get through it by fuelling up on red wine and prescription pills which make me slightly hysterical and prone to simultaneously laughing and screaming out “we’re all going to die” at the slightest sign of turbulence. Or provocation such as running out of wine. I tell the cabin crew member to save us both time and just leave the bottle of red on my fold-down table.
At this point, I should also confess that the woman in the seat in front, by way of apology for taking too long to load her oversized carry-on bag into the overhead locker and standing with her crotch in my face, decides to pat my arm, but instead tweaks my left nipple, thus ensuring it throbs all the way across the Gulf of Carpentaria on my north-bound journey. I don’t quite know how to ask in Thai for ice, or paw paw cream for my affronted boob, and given I’ve already secured the wine, I sit in silence for the next 9 hours, clutching the bottle and cursing my lack of Thai language skills. For years, I’ve been travelling to Thailand and I only recently learned that instead of commenting to locals that the weather was “hot” (yes, I’m such a witty conversationalist), I’ve been telling the Thais that I’m “spicy”. Not the sort of phrase one should be tossing around Thailand with gay abandon.
The nervous woman next to me also has the name “Rachel” tattooed on her inner right forearm which causes me to wonder whether it’s the moniker of a loved one, or whether has sister also advised her to have her name on her arm in case she gets lost. I’m not poking fun, we all have to start our travelling somewhere. More power to her. In any case, the plane lands and I never see The Girl with the Rachel tattoo again. For I have the grand fortune of staying at the luxury Banyan Tree Bangkok, and I’m pretty sure “Rachel” is off to some seedy back street – such is her game face.
A prestigious black private car with my own driver is waiting for me at the airport. Like most Australians, when it comes to posh, I feel like a complete and utter fraud and half expect the Thai police to stop the car just as I’ve opened the free water. I take great care not to tell the driver that I’m “spicy” and instead tell him that I speak “a little” Thai. Who am I kidding? Apart from “hello”, “thank you” and the surprisingly handy “no worries” – all three phrases I repeatedly confuse with each other – I speak bugger all.
At my hotel, the staff checks me in and curiously take my photo on their iPad. I suspect they’ve never quite seen such a dishevelled Australian woman replete with airline chicken fried rice stuck to her dress, a couple of red wine stains and coming off the effects of the cache of prescription pills in her handbag. A little cup of crazy? I look like I’ve drunk the whole bottle.
And hence begins my Banyan Tree journey to Bangkok, Phuket and Samui, which is characterised by a big lap of luxury, a whole lot of laughs, and a misadventure or two. Stay tuned for next week, to find out how The Global Goddess copes with Living the Thai Life.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of The Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Banyan Tree. To book your own luxury Thai holiday, go to http://www.tourismthailand.org and
IT’S an uncharacteristically cool December Sunday afternoon and I’m toasting the festive season with some friends in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley at a leafy, outdoor bar when we’re approached by a woman asking for money. Two things strike me about this woman: she appears intoxicated and she’s with a group of friends when she asks whether she can have some change for a phone call. Whether she is genuine or otherwise is not for me to judge. Rather, it’s our reactions that interest me more. We’re all awkward and embarrassed. And frankly, don’t really know how to handle the situation. I look the woman squarely in the eye and say: “No, sorry, thank you.” She pauses for a brief moment, as if she’s comprehending her next move, then she simply looks back, and says “Have a Merry Christmas” before moving on to the next table.
The uncomfortable situation sparks a conversation among us. Did we do the right thing? Should we have handed her money? Would she have actually used it on a phone call or to buy alcohol? Australians are about as comfortable with begging as we are with tipping. Both scenarios are not part of our vernacular and we are clumsy when presented with them.
A few years back, I wrote a story about confronting poverty when we travel for The Australian newspaper in which I stated: “Many tourists, with just a few short days to experience a city, grapple with ways in which to address the issue without making situations, like begging, worse. Few things test your character and mettle more than being exposed to extreme poverty, and the way in which you handle it can linger long after your plane has departed the impoverished land. At best, many travellers feel ineffectual and embarrassed, and at worst, some transform into the uncaring, ‘ugly Westerner’.”
At the time, I quoted a travel writer mate of mine Kristie Kellahan, who regularly volunteers in orphanages throughout south-east Asia, who suggested contacting aid organisations, such as the Red Cross, to assess the needs before you visit a country.
Kellahan, who works with a Buddhist orphanage in Thailand’s Chiang Mai, advises travellers to think about what they are giving and avoid pushing Western values on to different cultures.
“People come to visit the orphanage and want to give the children reams and reams of toys and lollies and coke and ice-cream,” she said.
“What would be useful would be to turn up with medicine for baby formulae. But that doesn’t seem very exciting to those giving.
“You would prefer people bring educational supplies, things like blank exercise books, pencils, sharpeners and things like nappies for the babies.
“By supporting kids selling post cards and chewing gum, it encourages families to send their kids to the city and they may be missing out on essential services back home like education.”
In my article, and with the advice of some incredible people working in the field of responsible tourism around the globe, I penned a list of things which travellers might consider before they arrive in a country and are confronted with the ugly truth of poverty.
So, what does this all mean back in Australia, the relatively Lucky Country?
Australian comedian Corinne Grant recently penned an excellent post “This Christmas We’re All Human” on The Hoopla in relation to this issue much closer to home.
“Any one of us could find ourselves in a difficult situation—a catastrophic illness that bankrupts you, a bad marriage break up that leaves you without a cent to your name, an undiagnosed mental illness rendering you incapable of making the sorts of decisions necessary to fend for yourself effectively. Becoming homeless is, frighteningly, far easier than many of us think,” Grant wrote.
In a timely reminder, Grant talks about the impact the sparkles and baubles must have on people who have nothing. Heck, I’m intimidated every time I see a Christmas advertisement from a major grocery chain in which (a) everyone appears to be middle-class and white (b) there’s an over-representation of white linen frocks and boat shoes and (c) everyone seems to be loving every other family member sick. I suspect, like me, that’s not the reality for many Australians. And, I imagine, even more devastating, if you are poor. (And let’s not forget if someone hadn’t loaned a certain young couple a barn in which to birth their baby, we may not be celebrating December 25).
“This time of year is miserable for the homeless. Many of the services they rely on close for Christmas or run on limited staff. Not only that, but everywhere they look are the cheery, tinselly reminders of a happy world full of food, family and love that is out of their reach. It must be crushing,” Grant wrote.
But what I took most away from her thoughtful post was her advice: “Next time someone asks you for change, look them in the eye. Give them money if you like but if not, smile at them and say, “Sorry, I can’t today.”
On Sunday, with Grant’s advice fresh in my mind, I looked that woman outside the bar squarely in the eye, and wished her a Merry Christmas back. It doesn’t solve the world’s issues, far from it, but for a brief second, we connected as fellow human beings. And surely, that’s really the reason for this season.
To read Corinne Grant’s post in full, please go to www.thehoopla.com.au. There’s a host of wonderful charities who assist those less fortunate at this time of year, including Vinnies – www.vinnies.org.au; The Smith Family – www.thesmithfamily.com.au; and Lifeline – www.lifeline.org.au.