emspace thoughts

What's floating around in Em's brain today?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Combining Work With Play

People who chat with me on MSN will know how easily I get hooked on silly little online games that will quite easily waste away hours of my time that could be spent on more constructive things, like cleaning the house or writing articles for batgwa.com (which is now live - quick plug).

In an effort to curb my spending on these games, I signed up to a scheme with iwin.com, where you subscribe to $9.99 a month and this will allow you to download one game per month (in other words, you get the game for half price). Trawling through the offerings to use up this month's quota, I came across "Plant Tycoon" and after playing the demo, I finally found a game that forces me to go and do something else for a bit when I am playing it - therefore freeing up my addiction for a little while to say go and clean the oven or write a quick article.

As a result, I have managed to raise $2000 today in my virtual garden centre, but have also written four articles, vacuumed the lounge, cleaned the kitchen, done two loads of washing and written a National Day speech for my dad!

The idea is simple, you run a greenhouse and starting with some seeds, some soil and some water, you have to grow and cross-breed your plants in search of the ultimate goal of the 6 Magical Plants. On the way, you have to tend to your plants, sell what you grow in your garden centre, decorate the place and upgrade your tools. Easy enough, but then the added complication of infestations, dodgy delicate plants and the bug-catching mini-game will make it more interesting.

The great thing is that this game runs in real-time (that you can speed up or slow down to a certain extent or pause). That means you need to allow at least an hour (or 5 hours in slow mode) for your plants to grow. This gives me time to go and do something constructive before I come back to the reward of my fully grown plant.

Pavlov was a genius!


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

(Thanks lepra for taking us to get these tasty mooncakes!!)

Hope you have a great reunion with your loved ones!


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Em & Tony's Excellent Adventure

It's been barely 8 hours since I touched down again on British soil, but I'm really eager to get all my thoughts and memories down in writing about what has been an incredible and sometimes surreal trip to Phuket. So after a couple of short naps and my head still wondering exactly what time it is, I'll recall and re-live the experiences from the last 12 days in what promises to be a pretty long entry!

Our journey began with a trip on what is currently our favourite airline - Singapore Airlines (SIA). They are currently heavily promoting the fact that they are the first airline to be flying with the mega-plane Airbus A380 and it does look pretty awesome. When we finally get to heading over to Australia, we will definitely have to take a trip.

The great thing is with SIA is that they feed and water you very well and their seats are about 20% more spacious than your average economy seat, with plenty of space under the seat in front for you to stash all your bits and pieces (or in the case of my hubby, stash his legs). Of course, you can't forget their excellent entertainment system, which meant that I didn't actually get round to even reading their in-flight magazine as I tuned into "Pirates III", some Ronald Cheng movie and the Japanese epic "Oh-Oku" to pass my time on the flight.

Talking of food (regular readers of this blog will know you can't get away from it!) - on the first morning of the flight, due to the eating arrangements on the flight into Singapore, the transfer time at Changi Airport and then the flight out of Singapore into Phuket, we actually had THREE breakfasts! So when we finally arrived at the hotel on Sunday morning, our bodies were wondering what was going on!

Seventeen hours (including the 1 hour transfer from Phuket airport) after leaving home, we finally arrived at our hotel - the Pacific Club and Spa in Karon.

After booking this hotel, I had spent hours and hours reading up the rave reviews about this hotel and it almost seemed I already knew what it was like and it did live up to our expectations, except for one or two rough edges. As it was the end of the low season, there were renovation works going on, which we had already been warned about, but they upgraded us to a bigger room for free and they held regular pool parties with free food and drink when they had noisy work going on. Hey, anything with a free lunch is always good!

They had laid out the towels on the bed in the shape of a pair of swans and decorated them with the soaps and body lotions and stuff. This caused a funny moment when my husband went to freshen up and called out to me from the bathroom, "There's no soap!" It turned out that the soap was carefully balanced on the swan's back, so we quickly dismantled the structure, but not before taking a pic of it.

The weather was beautiful, but we were absolutely shattered and the full sized fridge provided for us to "stock up for ourselves" was empty, so we gave in to our post-flight nap attacks before taking our first excursion out to the exotic 7-11 at the bottom of the hill. Then we retired to the hotel roof to make the most of the sunshine before the precipitation stakes rose.

The first few days were spent just finding our feet and acclimatising. We figured that we had a fair amount of time, so we'd arrange all the activities to the second week. We ventured down to Karon beach on one occasion and it was nice there, but they charged to rent the sun-loungers there and sand got everywhere (well, it is a beach afterall), so we figured it was much nicer to spend the rest of our sunbathing sessions on the hotel roof instead, where they have a waterfall swimming pool, free sun loungers and a drinks service!

In the evenings, we took a rather extortionate taxi ride down to Patong in search of food and some shopping. The thing about Phuket is that there is no public transport infrastructure. If you know how and are patient enough, then a songtheaw (public truck bus) is only 20 baht (30p) but they are few and far between. All other times, especially if you are a tourist, then you are at the mercy of the taxis and tuk-tuk drivers who will charge you 250-300 baht (£4.20-£5) for the 10 minute trip from Karon to Patong. I kinda resented this for the first few days because it was something we hadn't budgeted for, but in the end, I just resigned to the fact that we were on holiday and the money had to be spent.

The other huge variable is in the price and quality of the food that you get. On our first venture to Patong beach in search of fresh seafood, we were fortunate to stumble upon a great deal by "Patong Bakery & Restaurant", where they did a seafood basket - containing 1 spiny lobster, 2 rock lobsters, 4 tiger prawns, 2 squid, 1 crab, 1 chilli fish and some shellfish - all for just 1500 baht (£22.50) including cooking and you get free salad and fried rice. That was beautiful, especially the garlic sauce that they braised the squid and prawns in. Tony really enjoyed the chilli fish, but that was a bit too hot for me.

When you find something as great as that, you fall into the illusion that everywhere is the same standard. Boy were we mistaken. The following day, we decided to try somewhere else and as the guidebook had mentioned about "Patong Seafood Village", we thought we'd give it a go. Unfortunately, this place charged by the gram and wasn't as nice as the first place, so coupled with a little over-zealous selection of tiger prawns, we ended up spending three times what we'd spent at the Bakery and getting less and worse quality food. We walked away from that one feeling a bit sore and vowed we would stick to the Bakery for any more fresh seafood.

We weren't really there for pubbing and clubbing, so we didn't stick around too long in the infamous Bangla Road, next to the Thai Boxing arena and the trucks that drive around promoting the fights blaring out "TOMORROW NIGHT TOMORROW NIGHT - MUAY THAI - THAI BOXING!" on a megaphone. It was really just a thoroughfare for us to get to one of our favourite air-conditioned haunts - Jungceylon. It's a shopping centre that only opened at the end of last year and comprises of a lot of western eateries, such as KFC and Haagen-Dasz, a huge Carrefour supermarket, a Robinson department store and a basement area the specialises in "traditional crafts" and includes a couple of massage places. We liked it because it had air-con, it was clean, there were security guards saluting you as you walked in and there was loads and loads of ice cream everywhere! There is also a small games arcade on the first floor, where you can shoot some zombies or drive a fast car for 10 baht (15p) a go!

The only bit of real sightseeing we did in the first week was going to Wat Chalong, which is billed as the most important Buddhist temple in Phuket. Maybe it is built to be functional, but when you compare it to the hugely impressive Kek Lok Si in Penang, it seemed like it wasn't very well run. I guess the customs must be a little different in Thailand, but there was something about allowing reckless tourists to set off firecrackers in what is supposed to be a quiet place of worship that just seemed wrong. Also, they were eager to dump your incense offerings pretty much as soon as you had put them in the ash pots - at least in Malaysia and Hong Kong they let them burn for a bit before they clear them out.

After that disappointment, we decided to make up for it by visiting the Tesco-Lotus hypermarket and go nuts on cheap Hershey's and fruit gummys. Well, we had to justify our 1100 baht (£15) taxi fare somehow!!

After four days of sunshine and just a few spots of rain in the evenings despite the weather forecasts being stuck on "scattered thunderstorms" throughout the trip, they finally rang true on Thursday afternoon, when it started to rain and the storm lasted for the rest of the weekend. So we headed to Central Festival shopping centre to avoid the rain - this is where we discovered two of our favourite places in Phuket - Oishi-Ramen and Fuji Japanese Restaurant. The disappointments of the first few days were washed away with the rain when we finally found somewhere that did tempura ramen for 70 baht (£1.10), sashimi set - that's 4 types of sashimi, miso soup, sticky rice and tofu - for 140 baht (£2.20) and mixed steak (fish and meat) set for 240 baht (£4.00). Well, we had to make up the losses from the £75 meal somehow and these were tasty. Fuji also did the best tasting watermelon juice (according to Tony).

As a shopping centre, Central was a bit more established and more upmarket than Jungceylon, so there was more to see and the prices were more reasonable. There was also some kind of mini-concert going on there, but we didn't have a clue about who they were. The band seemed quite popular though because all the usually highly attentive sales assistants were too busy standing outside to catch a glimpse to hound you into buying something.

Thanks to the friendly folk on Tripadvisor, we followed a recommendation to contact a chap called Richard to join in with his Friday night social for forum members. These take place every Friday night and to join in, you just have to contact Richard to book your space. We were a little apprehensive about spending the evening in the company of people we didn't really know, but as it was a barbecue (and Tony never says no to a barbecue) and it was something to do on the Friday evening, we threw caution to the wind and just had a good time. We met a few friendly Aussies and one fellow Brit who had been in Oz for a year, who was a great laugh.

The barbecue is at a restaurant called Mammas and Pappas and for just 150 baht, you can eat as much as you like from the freshly cooked selection of chicken, sausages, burgers, pork and the infamous "asparagus wrapped in bacon" that Richard kept raving on about. The taxis that picked us up from the hotel then came back and took us onto the Sunshine Bar on Rawai beach, where you sit around a bar, order in a few drinks, watch the staff dance around a pole, which after a few drinks our fellow revellers went on to try and climb. The mamasan there is crazy (I think her name was Kimmy) and seemed to take a liking to Tony who made her laugh hysterically whenever he caught her eye. There is also a katoy (ladyboy) called Nancy who works there with a waist to die for! The place isn't sleazy and it's just good fun if you let your hair down and join in with the dancing. It may have been pouring with rain outside, but we were having far too much fun to notice and when 10pm came round and the taxis came back to pick us up, many people were reluctant to leave.

What do you do in Phuket when it's blowing a storm outside? Well, we went for a massage! We also decided to book in at the services floor at Central for the little pampering things we'd promised ourselves. I went back for a haircut, with a stylist that looked like a shorter Thai version of Eric Kot with Craig Charles dreads, and my husband had his teeth done by a dentist who was constantly on MSN.

It was at this time when we were safely inside, we didn't realise that the storm was so bad outside that it had caused a plane to crash at Phuket airport. As we were leaving Central that day, I received a text message from my bro asking if we were okay and it was only when we arrived back at the hotel that we realised what had happened and I got a little freaked out. The thought of those 88 people that had died, who should have been enjoying their holiday like we were - it really brought home how fragile life is and how we should enjoy each precious moment we have. It was very sad and I think it touched the hearts of everyone on the island.

We had arranged to go elephant trekking on the Monday morning following the crash, but out of respect for the incident and also the lingering damp weather, it was postponed. However, the skies cleared up by lunchtime, so we decided to make the most of our holiday and booked a taxi to the zoo.

The zoo in Phuket is not government-owned, so many of the controls that you would expect from a licenced zoo were non-existent. This made the whole experience a lot more exciting and also a lot more scary! As soon as we walked in, we were met with a big sign that said "Take picture with Tiger - 200 baht". Tony's a bit of a tiger nut, so he was straight in there, but when he came face to face with a fully grown tiger that looked decidedly peeved with the hot weather and the guys poking around at him with sticks, then even he became very nervous. I was totally chicken and wouldn't go near. It was even more unnerving that one of the tiger handlers only had one arm! They kept telling Tony to put his hand on the tiger's back, but the tiger showed that this was not a good idea by growling and thwacking him on the arm with its tail. Tony didn't need telling again to keep his distance.

The zoo also had quite a large crocodile population and after we visited their enclosure, we sat down to watch the scheduled "Crocodile Show", which sounded innocent enough, but turned out to be another incredible scene, when two guys wearing just a vest and shorts performed stunts like croc-wrestling and sticking their heads into the animals' mouths! Afterwards, for a small tip (I think we gave them 160 baht) they let you lean over and hold the croc's tail whilst they took your photo. We stayed for the elephant show, which was nothing spectacular, but Tony felt it was quite cruel. We didn't stick around for the monkey show after seeing the gibbons looking miserable in their cages. Also, our driver was eager to take us down to Promthrep Cape to take a look at the views of the bays - and what amazing views they turned out to be!!

Sunshine greeted us on Tuesday morning for our earlyish start to go elephant trekking. We'd arranged this through Richard and I'm really glad we did. He picked us up from the hotel and took us to a bar near the reserve, where he gave us a short briefing about the background of Kok Chang Safari and more importantly some tips on how to get the attention of the park's resident wild gibbons Charley and Lum Yai. It was a very informative talk and I felt that it gave you a much bigger picture of the backgrounds of the elephants and how they had been rescued from the cruelty of hard labour and mahouts with sharp hooks. He also told us the story of how Charley and Lum Yai were rescued from the streets of Bangkok where they were made to pose for photos with tourists, drink beer and smoke cigarettes. This is the reason why they were not afraid of human interaction, but also the reason why there are strict rules not to feed them.

We weren't sure whether our backsides would survive a one-hour trek, so we just took a short 20 minute ride. Unfortunately, our elephant met with a wild pig on the track and became very obsessive about hunting it down. As our mahout said: "It wants to have a boxing match with the pig!" This was not good when we were on its back and it decided it wanted to try and charge down the hill after the pig, which had already run away. Luckily for us, the mahout managed to keep it on track and we got to the end without too many bumps!

Our fellow tripmates had decided to go for the hour-long trek, so we had to hang around at the drinks shack (couldn't really call it a bar) for a while. Charley was hanging around and he soon came over and plonked himself on our table. The driver started playing with him and we followed Richard's advice to try and gain his trust by grooming him. It was like a monkey massage parlour, but they were extremely clean (Richard said they get shampooed once a week by the staff) and after about half an hour, we had Charley sprawled out on the table napping away contentedly. It was a truly amazing experience, especially for a city-girl like me who is not used to getting so close to nature. Lum Yai made an appearance just as we were leaving and when she saw Tony grooming Charley, she quickly pushed Charley out of the way and grabbed Tony's arm as if to say "Groom me!".

I had read numerous reports about the excellent sailing tours with Captain Mark on Tripadvisor and also on his website, so I made a last minute booking with him after we arrived. Originally we had tried to book for the first week, but it was a relief that we had booked for the second week, when we saw the weather.

The Wednesday morning was absolutely glorious and by the time we reached the pier, the sun was firmly wedged over the occasional white fluffy cloud in the sky. There was an Australian family with us on the trip, who were a little reserved at first, but when we got to know them a bit, their two little girls became very talkative. One of them wasn't very well, but still came along even though she was sick for most of the journey. Captain Mark lived up to his reputation as being a very friendly, very passionate and very caring guy.

Tony and I travelled on the top deck, soaking up the rays, salt water and sea air. The morning was kicked off with a snack of fried chicken, coconut sweets in banana leaves and fresh pomelo, bananas and a fruit that resembled an overgrown Longan.

The trip to Koh Phanak took about two hours and about half way there, Captain Noi stopped the engine, raised the sails and we just sailed by wind power. It was so relaxing! When we reached the island, Captain Mark took us over to the caves in his little dinghy and we went caving. Unlike some of the other tours, where Mark says they just dump you and leave you to wander, Mark provided us with torches and led us through the caves, which have not been "commercialised", up and down, in and out of the streams and into the Mangrove Hong. (A hong is an enclosed lagoon which is flooded in high tide and are often inaccessible.) It was quite breathtaking to suddenly see light at the end of the tunnel passage and find yourself in the midst of lush greenery and surrounded on all sides by a cliff face and forests. Looking up at the sky above you and the hundred foot high cliffs was incredibly humbling. Mark then showed us some of the wildlife around the little pools such as the miniature crabs and mudskippers and pointed out the dolphin rock.

The second spot we visited was the Fairy Cave, which had many stalactite and stalagmite formations that resembled everything from an ice cream sundae to a cascading waterfall, shimmering as the torchlight hit the mineral deposits within. This cave ended with two "windows" from which you peered out into a permanently flooded Ancient Hong. It was like something out of an old Chinese fairy story and definitely looked like an ideal spot for immortals to hang out.

As lunchtime approached, we jumped back into the dinghy and sped over to a secluded beach, which we had all to ourselves. Captain Mark's cook Yah had bought some fresh prawns, caught that morning, from a passing fisherman and we had a picnic lunch, consisting of barbecued prawns, chicken curry, tom yum goong, vegetables and rice. Delicious and beautiful!

A short rest after lunch, making the most of our private beach and Mark was back to take us onto the next place. This was the Pirate Cave and this was the only time in the entire trip that we met other tourists. Mark had done an exceeding good job of avoiding the crowds. There was a bit of chaos as we docked at the Pirate Cave because a group of mad canoe guides and their naive charges had just arrived and some ended up capsizing as they tried to bump us or push us out of the way. Erm... hello - canoe vs dinghy?? Anyway, we headed towards the haunted inside of the cave with Mark's torches and saw the grand platform, where the pirates of old used to gather and meet (and hand out their punishments - hence the ghost!). Mark showed what a kind bloke he is by making sure that some of the other tourists were ok when they were trying to negotiate the darkness of the caves with the light from a mobile phone and camera flash.

Our final trip was around to the other side of the island to the Bat Cave. Mark and the Aussie dad paddled the dinghy into the cave and the rest of us shone the torches upwards to look for the bats. You could certainly smell them! Sure enough, we found some colonies and again, being able to see something like this first hand is such a fantastic experience. There was another hong at the end of the batcave, but unfortunately the tide was too high for us to get through in the dinghy.

The day out sailing was definitely the highlight of our holiday! We were muddy, soaked through and definitely salty by the end of the day, but we were still totally up for it and it was such a great feeling. Being in a small group made it all the more personal and there is no better guide that you can have than Mark! He served us up with watermelon on the way back and there it felt strangely liberating to eat your watermelon, spit the seeds over the side of the boat into the sea and then chuck the skins overboard! I didn't care that my shirt and face got covered in juice, I was having a great time and loving every minute!

As the holiday drew to a close, we decided to go for a long massage on the last day and then head back to Patong Bakery once again to make the most of what we couldn't get for those prices back home. A 2-hour massage at Jungceylon cost 650 baht (£10), which isn't the cheapest, but we liked the environment and the service. We thought it would be quite relaxing, but after a long hard day at sea the day before, the massage actually drew out all the aches and pains we had picked up like a proper Thai massage is designed to do. It was good, so good that when we walked out of the spa afterwards, we were like robots and had to take things really easily for a while for fear of just collapsing into a little heap on the floor.

The folks at Patong Bakery recognised us and welcomed us back in the ever-friendly Thai way, anticipating we had come back for the seafood basket. As before, it was beautiful - my favourite was the squid - I have never eaten a squid with a steak knife before and give me this rather than a steak any day!

If you had asked me in the first few days of the holiday whether or not I'd miss Phuket, I would've definitely said no. However, when the time came to leave, we both really wanted the holiday to last longer. The second half of the trip had really stepped up and we ended up having a really fantastic time. Everyone in Thailand, from the hotel staff to the people in the restaurants and shops had been ultra-friendly and helpful (with the exception of one stroppy taxi driver who drove a beamer and didn't like hills). Everyone and everything were just so chilled out!

Still we had to go and after dropping off my 22,000 baht for the hotel bill (bargain!) we headed back to the airport to begin the final adventure - the flight home with a 5-hour stopover in Singapore, where we had a brief meeting with a friend and picked up some mooncakes disguised as spacetoys!

As this is likely to be my last long trip for a while, I'm glad that it turned out so well in the end. I think if I was to visit Phuket again in the future, I wouldn't spend so long there, but I'd definitely go back to see Charley and Lum Yai and take another sailing trip with Mark. Of course, there's the seafood and massage now that we know where to get it!

Some classic highlights to remember:

- the 15 year old tuk-tuk driver who didn't know where he was going and then when he finally reached the hill that the hotel was on insisted on getting his tuk-tuk up and ended up scraping the bottom of it along the ground with a horrible grinding noise

- the taxi driver who we nicknamed "Jimmy" every time he asked us "where you go tomorrow"

- Tony identifying candidates for Wife Nos 2, 3 and 4

- Tony telling me to be careful when I slipped at the zoo and then nearly falling flat on his backside himself

- the tailors trying to guess Tony's nationality and failing miserably... Japan? Malaysia? China? Indonesia?

- going into the herbal sauna at the hotel and rushing straight out because I couldn't breathe!

- the driver nearly knocking over a 70-year old bloke on Bangla Road because he was too busy pointing out the sights to us

Singapore Airlines: http://www.singaporeair.com/saa/index.jsp
Pacific Club Resort & Spa: http://www.pacific-club-phuket.com/
Tripadvisor Phuket Forum: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowForum-g293920-i5037-Phuket.html
Cathy & Gary's Travel Pages: http://www.cathyandgarystravelpages.com/friday_night_bbq.htm
Phuket Zoo: http://www.phuketzoo.com/
Sailing with Captain Mark: http://www.phuketsailtours.com/

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