We flew EVA Air (a Taiwanese airline) to and from Thailand on this occasion, on an excellent business class deal. Janie and I were both hugely impressed by the quality and professionalism throughout the journey.
But on the flight home from Bangkok to Heathrow, the strangest thing happened; I was transformed into Kung Fu Pandaman.
It seemed a benign enough flight and interaction at first. Lillian, the air stewardess in the picture above, handed me, amongst other things, a pair of pyjamas for the flight. I have not worn pyjamas since escaping the clutches of my parents’ mores around 1980, so I attempted to return the pyjamas to Lillian.
On the outbound journey, my polite, “no thank you” to the air hostess was simply accepted. But when I tried similarly on the return journey with Lillian, she abruptly said, “you must have them,” and insisted that I retain the pyjamas.
Then, when clearing up after dinner, she again challenged my attempted rejection of the pyjamas. “Our pyjamas are wonderful. You will love them. In fact, you must try wearing them.” Janie captured this exchange in the picture below; it could be argued that Lillian’s entreaty came with menaces.
I asked Janie what she thought the protocol or etiquette was for donning aircraft pyjamas. Janie’s view was that these business class seats were so individual and private that I could change into the pyjamas discreetly in situ, but that if I felt self-conscious about doing that I could change in the loo.
Self-conscious – moi? Change in the loo – moi? No way and not on your nelly, respectively.
As I donned the unfamiliar garb, I felt a strange transformation coming over me. Was it my unfamiliarity with nightwear? Was it the glass of port I’d had with my cheese? Or was it a more profound transformation than that…
…suddenly I felt that I had supreme martial arts skills. Only my deep-seated good manners and concern for other travellers prevented me from releasing a bestial roar…
I rose to my feet and Janie gasped, in awe and wonderment, “oh my! It’s Kung Fu Pandaman”.
“Wham bam, thank you ma’m”, I replied; an ejaculation quite out of character for me, but not, it seems, for someone who is transforming into Kung Fu Pandaman.
I imagined that my superhero transformation was to some purpose; perhaps the plane was about to be hijacked or the pilots were all about to fall sick; something of that kind, requiring a superhero to restore calm and safety for all passengers.
But strangely, no superhero requirement was forthcoming. Which was a bit of an anticlimax.
“On second thoughts”, said Janie, “perhaps you look more like Tai Chi Pyjamaman”.
“Z/Yenshin!” I said, as I started to transform back to the reality that awaits when we land.
Tragically, when we got off the plane, I “forgot” to take my pyjamas with me, just as Janie “forgot” to take her pair too. Stewardess Lillian is no doubt still stewing over the pyjama rejection.
Our original idea for this relaxation break holiday was perhaps to go to an Ayurvedic place, where we could have a healthy, restful and reasonably private retreat. But on exploring the options, we couldn’t find such a place with tennis courts, nor could we find an Ayurvedic place that would let us eat and drink like normal people.
So this choice, the Banyan Tree Spa Sanctuary in Phuket, seemed like an excellent compromise. Several tennis courts, several restaurants, our own pool villa and massage treatments thrown in as part of the deal.
We did end up working up our own sort-of routine, to such an extent that we have both become a bit institutionalized after nine whole days of it; but that is institutionalized in a good way.
Here is a description of a regular day, which was pretty much all of them.
We’d rise quite early (it gets light around 6:15/6:30) and take some coffee and fruit before playing tennis 8:00 to 9:00. Three excellent courts; our court was one of two AstroTurf (other brands of false grass are available) courts, very bouncy, very true. I’ll go into the tennis a bit more later.
Then back to our villa to shower and get ready for a late breakfast; we’d get down around 9:45/10:00; breakfast stops serving at 10:30, so that’s plenty of time to chow down. I’ll describe the breakfast in more detail later too.
Again back to the villa where we would probably find our cleaner, Jeap, still doing sterling work on our place, but she’d mostly be done. Then we’d have our villa to ourselves for several hours, during which time we’d read, sunbathe, swim, jacuzz, and/or possibly hide from the sun a while, possibly steam. Sometimes I gave the uke a go in this earlier part of the day. I had a good swim each day; 40 “lengths” which really meant 20 lengths and 20 diagonals, or put another way 10 circuits – probably the equivalent of about 25 lengths of my bodyworkswest club pool.
At 16:00 every day we had massage, together, in our massage sala at the end of the garden, which was an amazing luxury. Initially we tried different masseuses each day, but on day six we both had exceptionally good massages and the young women, Guitar and Nan, seemed to work especially well together as a team. (Almost all the Thai staff take an English name or nickname, some quite strange words as names to our ears. One was known as August; one was known as Peach.) Anyway, we arranged for Guitar (Janie) and Nan (me) to look after us for the rest of our stay, which seemed to please those two (who indeed are good friends) as much as it pleased us.
The treatment was 90 minutes, including a pre massage footbath ritual and a post massage relaxation with fruit and ginger tea.
We’d then enjoy the last of the light, perhaps on the terrace or from the villa, before enjoying the early part of the evening before dinner. Benjy the baritone ukulele often got his slot in that period.
Then shower again and dress for dinner. I describe the meals later in the piece too.
When we got back to our room after dinner, the evening service will have cleaned and tidied up pretty efficiently. Not only that, but each night they left a little present (mostly gimcrack to be honest) and a little treat, such as honey pots for steam cleansing or some kaffir lime and salts scrubs for the outside bath or some special relaxing tea for a bedtime drink. Janie particularly liked the night that they changed all the sheets and pillow cases into satin ones and put candles all around the bedroom. They also bedecked Tom-Tom and Ditsy-Dot, much to their delight.
We had specially requested one of a handful of recommended villas, one of which we got, 212. The next villa, 211, also on our list, had a tree/sewer problem when we first arrived and the couple in there had been relocated while the problem was fixed. The staff kept apologising to us for the noise, but in truth it was mostly so far away and short-lived we barely noticed.
Then by chance we were asked to share a buggy back to our villa on the fourth evening (strangely the only time we were asked to share throughout our stay) and we meet the nice German couple from 211 who have just moved back into their villa. The Frau asks if we have seen the iguana (by which she surely meant monitor lizard) which had been appearing in their garden since they returned. Naturally, Daisy wants to keep up with the Schmits and spends hours looking out for the iguana/monitor lizard the next day…and thereafter…all to no avail.
The GM of the hotel, Sriram Kailasam, came to see us at breakfast on our penultimate full day, so naturally Daisy complained about the absence of a monitor lizard in our garden. After all, 211 had seen one and our villas are supposed to have equivalent benefits.
The GM said that he had received complaints about the monitor lizards before, but always previously about their presence, not their absence. Indeed, he told us that one client could not be convinced that he hadn’t seen a crocodile.
Well, perhaps the GM fixed it for us, because on the very last day, ever so briefly, Monty The Monitor Lizard popped in to say hello and goodbye. He didn’t stay long enough for a photo, but that’s monitor lizards for you.
Wild life in our villa
Despite the rarity of the lizard visits, there was an abundance of wild life in our garden, especially frogs in our divine lily pond and a great many birds – some in search of the frogs, we feared.
I particularly liked one frog who seemed to wait up for us on the patio step and then do a performing leap when we got back from dinner. Janie saw him many times; I only cottoned on to him towards the end of our stay. But the amphibians, like the reptiles, seemed to have ticked a box for no publicity in the photo department.
…plus a little list, in increasing rarity of visit order:
Eating – Breakfast
The breakfast is an extraordinary spread. We saw some folk chowing down on vast quantities. We ate well in the morning without going mad.
There was always a juice of the day and we usually tried it. It would tend to be something like “pineapple and mint” or “pineapple, orange and strawberry”, but occasionally would be something too weird like “beetroot and carrot”. There were dozens of juices to choose from each day.
Janie would always make up a plate of tropical fruit for us to share. We’d pretty much always have the signature Bircher Muesli or a yogurt each.
I liked the noodle soup as a main, steering away from the traditional bacon, sausage etc. stuff of which there was loads. I soon tired of the fish, shrimp, chicken and beef balls, but picked up on Janie’s point when she said that she preferred noodle soups with slices of meat. Realising that there was always some sort of chicken or pork dish available (intended for rice, hash browns or fried noodles) I took to picking up a few slices (and some of its gravy) and thus enhancing a noodle soup which I had made up with just noodles and vegetables. Delight.
Janie soon migrated to the meat dishes with some rice or fried noodle and away from the soup altogether.
Eating – Dinners Chronology
First night – Thai food in the Saffron restaurant. Tried signature dishes, i.e. satays and fish cakes to start and a prawn pad thai noodle dish. Highlight though was a curried pork (crispy belly). As much rice as you like, choosing from four kinds in this restaurant. Also some nice rice cracker/thai papadom-type things, some sorbet between courses and little petits-fours at the end of the meal. A fruity Riesling to go with it. Excellent food – we’ll eat here several times I’m sure.
Second night – we fancied just simple food tonight so opted for a bar meal of crudites and wagyu burgers. Washed down with some Marquis de Riscal red (perhaps not so well suited to this climate). Slightly comedy (or tragedy) service for this simple meal in a very quiet bar, but a very nice duo playing and singing pleasant songs made up for it.
Third night – again avoiding the main restaurant buffet, we reverted to the Saffron for another splendid Thai meal. We ordered less this time having learnt our lesson the other night. A shrimp starter to share, followed by a peppered pork ribs dish and a duck curry, plus a plate of morning glory in oyster and garlic sauce. Some more of that fruity Riesling. All very delicious.
Fourth night – with the buffet shifted to the Thai restaurant tonight, we thought we’d shift to the main Waterfront restaurant. We opted for a simple meal of fried calamari to share, followed by grilled white snapper and mash (Daisy), seafood pasta (me) and spinach to share. Switched to a very flavoursome Sauvignon Blanc for the European food. Good meal.
Fifth night – we felt obliged to try one buffet, opting for the seafood one which is more in the style of a barbecue. Tried a few different things, including sushi, a seafood soup and then the barbecued shrimp, lobster and snapper. I also tried a little seafood and spinach lasagna – a bit bland compared with the pasta of the previous evening; indeed all of the food might be described as such in truth. Daisy tried a variety of deserts which didn’t please her all that much, apart from the ice cream and some home made chocolates. I made a small desert of just those highlights. I opted for the Sauvignon Blanc while Daisy opted for the Riesling that night. Great to try the variety of food the once, but the experience confirmed our view that we prefer to choose our own dishes and focus on a smaller quantity of finer food.
Sixth night – Saffron restaurant again. Mix up with our table resolved without pain and suffering. We tried signature dishes of sea bass with a light sweet chilli sauce and a barbecued chicken with a sort-of curry sauce (unexpectedly dry), preceded by a shrimp ball thing with a sweet chilli dip. Riesling for both of us. The least inspired of our Saffron meals so far, the dishes sounding more interesting than they proved to be.
Seventh night – Tre restaurant – right on the other side of the estate beyond the golf course where the double pool villas lie. We took a buggy to and from this one (normally we walk to the restaurant and merely buggy home). Really posh nosh, this restaurant. Lovely aspect too. The chef is mad on mushrooms and truffle oil, almost to a fault. We shared a starter of cheesy stuffed pasta with frothy cheesy sauce, followed by a halibut with langoustine dish for me and a very fancy chicken dish for Daisy. Pomme puree and a very fancy-pants salad to go with. Even more than the other restaurants we got lots of amuse-bouche and little extras action, including petits-fours even though we had no desert, no coffee and indeed barely room even for the delicate little sweets.
Eighth night – back to Saffron restaurant to try a slow cooked longhorn beef dish which closely resembled my “famous” Guangdongese braised beef dish, except this was with tenderloin rather than brisket. We also had the pork belly curry again which was again excellent. We started with a rather yummy prawn and green papaya salad to share. That Riesling is a perfect food match with this type of food so we stuck to it.
Ninth night – back to Tre. Janie loved the pasta starter so much last time we had it again. For mains, Janie had a John Dory dish with brioche and basque-style trimmings which looked spectacular. I had a sea bass dish with a herb thingie, which looked less inspiring but was equal to or even exceeded Janie’s John Dory. Riesling for Janie, Sauvignon Blanc for me.
Tenth night – back to Saffron for a reprise of some of our favourites; the satay starter, the duck curry, morning glory and the slow cooked pork ribs. The chef came out to see us for a chat; he didn’t seem the type to chat much, not in English anyway, but I think the GM tipped him off that we had been full of praise for his cooking. That Riesling for the last time, just a couple of glasses.
Weather forecasts in/for Phuket
We subsisted in unwarranted fear of poor weather for most of our stay, mostly because we looked at weather forecasts and thought we understood what they meant. What we hadn’t factored in was the very different use of symbols for Phuket compared with home. This difference seems to apply to any weather website, even “our own” such as the Met Office or the BBC. For example, this rain symbol…
…which was showing for several of our days, for Phuket seems to mean, “perhaps there’ll be a passing shower at some point in the day…or perhaps not, probably not, to be honest”, whereas for the UK that symbol would mean, “relentless gloom, at best dank, at worst bucketing down, guaranteed for the whole day.”
Again, several days showed this symbol…
…which for Phuket seems to mean, “perhaps there’ll be a passing thunderstorm at some stage today, but probably it will just be nice and sunny all day, just like it was yesterday and indeed almost every day”, whereas for the UK that symbol would mean, “SEVERE WEATHER WARNING: THUNDER AND LIGHTNING DANGER. DO NOT LEAVE HOME UNLESS IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL OR YOU WORK FOR EMERGENCY SERVICES.”
Daisy picked up a rather untimely back injury just before we set off, so we were in some doubt whether she would be able to play. But we are pretty sure it is a piriformis strain, so stretching with due care on the tennis court, swimming and massage are a good prescription for this particular injury.
We had some good battles on the bouncy, skiddy AstroTurf surface provided. Most days we saw little if any other tennis activity. But as misfortune would have it, Day Two was a bit of a fiasco, as we got to the courts really late and suddenly the courts were packed. On the stroke of nine (indeed Janie swears they marched on early) a European couple turned up for our court, so that was that.
Day four, when I am one point away from a rare victory, the same European pair turn up about 8:45. Determined to send the message that we want our court for the full hour, I proceeded to “lose” several points, indeed a couple of games and take enough breaks between games to get close to the hour. Why this pair didn’t use another court is a mystery (I thought they might be German people, but later thought I heard them talking Italian). Anyway, they hung around obediently waiting for our court. Cometh the hour, I thought Janie might steal a draw as a result of my diversion, but I managed to finish the match off successfully at one minute to nine.
That was a rare win for me on Day Four. Forgetting the abandoned Day Two match, we played eight, of which Daisy won three, I won three and we drew twice. I found it very hard work on that surface, whereas it really suited Janie’s precision, skiddy style of play. I think she’d roll up a strip of that AstroTurf and take it with her everywhere if it were possible to do that. Mercifully it is not.
Outbound Journey, 11 February 2017
We whizzed through Heathrow Terminal 2 so had plenty of time to relax in the Air Canada lounge – we were flying Eva (a Taiwanese Airline) on an excellent Club deal.
It was a pleasant enough flight – we had pre-chosen our grub from an enhanced menu for those who pre-choose, so had a lobster tail and fish in a creamy sauce with mash – very nice. Also a rather interesting fish tortellini as our snack meal. Lie-downable seats meant that we both got a reasonable amount of sleep on the flight too.
The transfer at Bangkok and the short flight to Phuket was a bit of a rude awakening after the relative peace and luxury of the Eva flight. The business of going though immigration on arrival reminded me of our previous visit to Thailand in 2001; not by similarity but by contrast. On this occasion, the airport was heaving with people and we queued for what seemed like an eternity. Our previous “immigration” by road from Laos was a sleepy, deserted border post – so deserted early in the morning we had to break the border to get in to Thailand and had a devil of a job explaining ourselves on exit.
The short internal flight was a packed, smelly noisy plane; the mechanical noises from the undercarriage were positively alarming. In particular, the big Russian “gentleman” with Soviet-style territorial ambitions sitting next to me was no fun. Then the chaos of Phuket airport on exit – somehow we did manage to find our agent’s courier (“Coco The Clown”, I named him) and off we went in the direction of tranquillity.
We got to the Banyan Tree around 21:00, which just about gave us time for some basic orientation, transfer to our lovely spa pool villa and back to the main hotel Saffron restaurant for a delicious Thai meal before bed.
Return Journey, 22 February 2017
I shall write up the return journey separately in the coming days, as I think the world needs some time to get used to the idea of seeing photographs of me looking like Kung Fu Panda at 30,000 feet.
If you are trying to get maximum publicity for your charity, it’s probably not a good idea to name your charity in Latin.
But if your charity’s main objective is to prevent and stop human rights abuses through gathering visual evidence with which to influence the powers that be, then maximum publicity is not top of your agenda.
The term “videre est credere”, as even a Latin scollop like myself knows, means “seeing is believing”, which does encompass much of the ethos of the charity.
Brian Eno is the charity’s patron and it was through him that I was invited to this function, held at Brian’s studio. I had been to a previous function there for Videre, a few years ago when the organisation was still much smaller and even more “early stage” than it is now.
The function was mostly party; far more low key than Brian’s free-form parties, but still a most enjoyable mingling with interesting people, many of whom from arty walks of life I encounter rarely these days.
Brian said a few thoughtful words on how increasingly important it is to have credible, video evidence to expose abuses of power. A couple of the Videre people also spoke and showed some sample video.
Naturally, given the nature of the work Videre does, there is an element of caution around discussing exactly who does Videre’s work and where they are doing it. As the organisation gets a bit older (it is now 8 or 9 years old) there will be more of an historic trail of case studies, I suspect. Much (but not all) of the work is in Africa and you wouldn’t need a PhD in international relations to guess the identity of some of the countries.
I wish there was more that I could do for this organisation. I guess they’ve reached the stage where raising funds is a key constraint but charity fundraising of this kind is a specialist field; not mine. The skills they need for their actual operations are also quite specialised. The areas where my expertise might help (governance, strategy, risk etc.) seem well covered; I chatted with some very interesting people from the charity’s board and its network of helpers.
Still, I know what Brian is like, so I suspect there might come a time when I get tapped up for something I might do to help Videre and for sure I’ll be a willing tapee.
Several of us had agreed a get together for the first weekend in February, although most of us for one “busy life” reason or another didn’t much fancy that weekend.
In the end, we bowed to the inevitable and rescheduled for early April instead. I sensed Andrea’s mild frustration with this change of plan and in any case she and I hadn’t had a proper catch up for ages, so I suggested that she and I meet up for dinner early February anyway, but midweek.
So that’s what we did.
In the end I thought that a meal at Chez Ged would be the best place for a proper catch up, much like a similar catch up I had with John White at mine in December.
Again, it was Alastair “Big Al DeLarge” Little who did most of the work, not least an amazing borscht and then his signature veal ragout.
Al also had some Radicchio Rosso di Treviso (Il Tardivo, obviously), which Janie loves in her salads and which I thought would add a little something to the salad I made to accompany this meal. I’m glad I did that; I had forgotten that Andrea lived in Italy for a while, so she recognised the special radicchio straight away and said she thought that she hadn’t tried it since her days in Italy.
I was out of Italian red that evening (tut tut) but had a very jolly Spanish red that could do a similar job.
Anyway, the homely-yet-cheffy meal did the trick; it gave us a chance to catch up on each other’s news and prepare psychologically for the slightly bigger gathering to come in April.
Andrea sent me a note the next day saying that she was going to attempt to cook a borscht for her and Amy at the next available opportunity. I might have to wait until April to find out how that went. Messy business, making borscht, in my view. Best left to the experts like Big Al.