video: fast-track shopping


As if the daily grind of grocery shopping wasn’t enough, try having to navigate around the train schedule, too, like these shoppers at the Maeklong Railway Market outside of Bangkok.

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faster than a speeding tuk tuk

sook jai

Couples traveling together to Thailand this month can speed their way through the traffic at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport faster than you can say, “no tuk tuk, no massage.” Register at one of the “Amazing Thailand, Amazing Romance” counters – located on both the East and West concourses – by providing some basic information and receive a heart-shaped sticker and a key chain with the Thailand tourism mascot, Sook Jai, which entitles couples to use the “premium lane” for a fast track through the notoriously congested immigration process. Befitting a country known for its embrace of a third gender, the program applies to same-sex couples, too. I think I feel an emoticon coming on.

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killing time at incheon

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With six hours to kill in Seoul’s Incheon Airport – before connecting in Beijing and only then on to home – what’s a weary traveler to do except take random photos of unsuspecting travelers and chance objects? After all, I’ve just slept through an overnight flight from Phuket with miles and miles to go before I sleep again.

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the journey home: part one

let the great journey begin

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happy endings

paresa wedding

It seemed propitious that on my last afternoon at Paresa (my final day in Thailand, for that matter) an adorable couple tied the knot on the high lanai while I was having lunch. A new beginning twinned with a happy ending; it was a perfect bookend to my adventures in Southeast Asia. Now, to packing.

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patong beach

patong

Patong Beach is the main tourist resort in Phuket, just south of where I am staying at Paresa. It’s the center of cheap shopping on the island and probably more famous for its nightlife than the mile-long crescent beach that stretches the length of town. (Think Cancun by way of Southeast Asia.) The shape of the bay being a natural funnel, Patong was also one of the worst affected areas of Phuket when the Boxing Day tsunami struck in 2004. The giant wave caused a great deal of destruction to the waterfront and immediately inland. But you wouldn’t know that today: the town is built-up and teeming with European tourists – plus enough Russians to call for street signs posted near the six-deep beach to be written in Cyrillic. Thanks but no thanks, Patong Beach; I’m not spending my last day in Thailand struggling to discover your dubiously hidden charms. I’m tuk-tukking it back to my villa.

patong beach

tsunami warning

patong beach gals

crowded with russians

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speeding home by starlight

stars in their multitudes

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upon a floating gypsy village we come

After leaving JBI we came upon Ko Payni, a floating gypsy village at the head of Phang-Nga Bay. Anachronistic as that sounds, it was nevertheless established by nomadic Malay fisherman near the end of the 18th century. (Check out the brief video clip or double-click the panoramic below to get a sense of the scale of the environs.) At that time Thai law limited land ownership solely to people of Thai origin, so the resourceful gypsies built a settlement on stilts, skirting the law on a technicality while giving themselves easy access to the fisherman’s life. As the community grew prosperous, it expanded and today the village is home to some 1,500 people, a mosque, and even a football pitch, all built on barnacle-covered poles over the sea. As I arrived late in the day, I had time for little more than a coffee and a quick poke around, but it left me wondering what the village must be like in the moonlight – and at bed time as the water laps beyond the gaps of the wooden slatted floors.

gypsy panorama

ko payni

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how do you like my island, mr. bond?

speedboat express

Hidden away in my treehouse above the sea, I’ve seen very little of the island of Phuket aside from a brief trip to the market. That changed today in a fit of inspired whimsy: I chartered a speedboat off the eastern side of the island and spent the day freewheeling the Andaman Sea. After dropping anchor for a quick picnic and swim on a stretch of beach at Ko Thanan, we headed north towards Phang-Nga Bay, past dozens of islands created by mainland fault movements. Each island is, in fact, a single, massive limestone monolith, upended vertically and pocked round the base with caves which only reveal themselves during the low tide. (Limestone being soluble, the caves are the result of thousands of years of tidal erosion.) You can take a sea kayak and paddle inside the caves if the tide is right, but my timing was off, so I settled for a pee break masquerading as a swim stop beneath the dramatic cliffs before continuing northwards – in a sudden lashing rain – to Ko Phing Kan, or James Bond Island. Used as the setting for the secret lair of Christopher Lee in The Man With the Golden Gun, JBI has become the most famous part of the newly established Ao Phang Nga Marine National Park. In point of fact it’s two islands: the towering Khao Phing Kan, literally “hills leaning against each other,” and Ko Tapu, or “spike island,” where Scaramanga hid the solex laser. If I had to be a super-villain I couldn’t think of a better place to hideaway and plot world domination.

beach at ko thanan

limestone eroding

phang nga bay panorama

james bond island

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loose-limbed and light

sunset spa

I was wrong about that massage being redundant the other day.  So wrong, in fact, that I’ve retreated back into the spa at Paresa today for something called Thai Boran Massage, an ancient Thai-style massage that dates back 2,500 years. Using no oil, the rhythmic treatment utilizes scented herbal pouches instead, concentrating on pressure points and stretching to stimulate circulation and relax muscles. I’ve had more than my fair share of massages but this turns out to be 120 minutes of bliss. When all is said and done, I feel amazing: relaxed, yet energized; loose-limbed and light. Even better, I’m not left dripping in oil.

herbal boran pouches

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in the kitchen with noon

in the kitchen with noon

Because a visit to the local market did nothing but whet my appetite for Thai food, I press-ganged Chef Noon into a brief cooking lesson in the show kitchen at Paresa. Three courses plus dessert sounded a little daunting at first but with lots of room to spread out, ingredients at the ready, and the guiding hand of Chef Noon leading me step by step, it was enlightening. Nothing too fancy; just a beginners excursion into Rattanakosin, the modern era of Thai cooking, which happens to feature a strong Chinese influence: woks, deep-frying, noodles. Goong Sarong would be our starter, a simple yet visually impressive prawn marinated in pepper, salt, and coriander root, wrapped in vermicelli noodles and deep-fried. Next, we moved on to a red curry. The secret, I learned, is to first cook the curry paste in a little oil, add your meat – we used duck breast – then coconut milk and bring it to a boil. Take it off the heat and stir in eggplant, grapes, pineapple, to allow the flavors to be drawn into the soup. Bring it to a boil a second time, adding chilis, basil, and a soupcon of ever-present fish sauce and remove from heat again. The whole process takes about five minutes. Letting the curry rest infuses the broth with the fruits and herbs, giving it a heady smell and marvelously rich taste. (And in so short a period of time – I was amazed.) Chicken stir-fry was the most easily accessible of the courses: deep fry lightly breaded chicken pieces until golden brown and allow them to drain on a paper towel. Heat a little oil in a wok, quickly frying peppers, onion, chili, and cashews. Season with oyster sauce and soy before mixing in the cooked chicken and voila, dinner is done. The results were more impressive than I had imagined, but dessert is where things really got creative. Tiny sweet Thai bananas battered in rice flour and coconut, deep-fried and served with a scoop of ice cream. There was enough batter left over that I thought I might show the chef a few tricks of my own. Thickening the batter with a bit more coconut I tossed spoonfuls into boiling oil, rolling the resulting pillows in a mix of white sugar and coconut. Beignets, I told her: fried dough balls. A bit frightened at first, Chef Noon and Fern, the curious Sales Manager who stopped in to watch us, soon gobbled them up, proving that in the kitchen we’ve all got something to learn.

mise en place

curry, soy sauce, spices, sugar

vermicelli wrapped shrimp

thai red curry with duck

chicken stir fry with cashew

deep fried banana

my beignets

fern with chef noon

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morning moon

morning moon

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paresa

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Perched high on the cliff side, over azure blue waters and a picturesque panorama of the Andaman Sea, Paresa is more than just a hotel: it’s Phuket’s best kept secret. Imagine the Swiss Family Robinson, if they were smart enough to build themselves a treehouse made of teak in the tropical forest, an outdoor shower, a fully stocked bar, and a private infinity pool cantilevered over the cliff, and you begin to get a sense of the luxury adventure that awaits. Add a team of Angels on call to do your bidding – plus a private beach club along the marvelously under-crowded Kamala Beach – and your search for the perfect idyll has ended. Or at least my search has ended. What need have I with the rest of this island when my jungle villa awaits? Cocooned, the outside world falls away. And while I’m due at the spa any minute now, for the first time in my life I’m thinking a massage might actually be redundant.

kamal beach - paresa

paresa 2

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waking up in phuket

waking up in phuket

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next stop: cambodia

tom yum crisps

But first, snacks. Tom Yum crisp: an addictive, crunchy mix of dried shrimp, lemongrass, squid and cashews – and surely the oddest airport breakfast I’ve ever eaten. Good as it is, I’ve a sneaking suspicion I’ll be tasting it again at 35,000 feet.

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