Thailand is a country of contrasts and diversity – full of surprises and immense interest to anyone who visits….quite captivating really.
The north boasts mountains and forests, with tourists welcoming the clean, fresh air, the ethnic tribes of the region and what nature has in store for those who arrive.
Places such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son are popular – and rightly so, as they offer stupendous scenery, vivid, lush greens, beautiful winding rivers, temples on mountain tops and age old customs with workmanship to envy.
Compare that to the flat central belt of the country, Bangkok and its environs, the rice paddies, ancient capital cities, the powerful Chao Phraya River with its fleets of boats and the plethora of activities both night and day to suit all tastes.
Then there are the islands of the south, Phuket…with its lively nightlife and attractive beaches…Koh Samui, having contrasting coastlines and inland forests…Krabi…the place to go kayaking among the ancient, towering karsts of limestone and secret caves…Koh Chang, quite a paradise and mixture of amazing sights. And, of course Ko Pha Ngan, the backpackers favourite – especially when the Full Moon celebrations explode into revelry.
Having toured them all with the exception of Ko Pha Ngan (at 85 I don’t think I’d fit in!!!) I still wanted to experience more of Thailand but in an area very different to all others…the Province of Rayong.
So, as usual after a 12 hour flight from the UK (more about that British Airways experience in a separate article), I based myself in Bangkok for a few nights to combat the jet lag and visit more of what the city has to offer.
Fed, watered and rested, I stood at my hotel exit, when at exactly the agreed time, a Thai called ‘Am’ (full name unpronounceable to us westerners) pulled up in his spotlessly clean Toyota, powered by LPG, loaded my luggage and set off for the 90 mile drive south to my destination – the Tree Roots Retreat at Thapong, Rayong Province.
Oh, sorry, I need to make an admission. On my second night at the Bangkok hotel, I had an accident, slipped on the wet, marble floor of the bathroom, flew into the air and crashed down onto my left hip….ouch! Result…chipped bone which left me hobbling around like Long John Silver for the next 18 days.
But – ‘divine intervention.’ Well, perhaps? The place I was to lay my head and from which my planned itinerary of the region was to begin, turned out to be a blessing indeed. Not only the owner and designer of the Retreat, a man from Jersey named Aaron Le Boutillier, but also Crispin, his second in command (another Brit), their wives and the Retreat’s local Thai staff, all understood my predicament, made every effort to help, brought meals to my room and even drove me around to different venues in their own cars.
The place itself? Well, if your wont is for five star swish, a choice of international restaurants, humungous swimming pools surrounded by row upon row of sunbeds, uniformed staff and exorbitant prices, then this Retreat is not for you!
It’s number one feature is location and what its owners have done with a plot of land only a five minute cycle ride to the long, sparsely populated beach, with its clean water lapping the sand and where tourists lucky enough to have chosen to stay, can pick any spot to indulge their buoyancy fancies.
Accommodation is in the form of nine beautifully built and spacious bungalows, which overlook the small squeaky-clean swimming pool. Books, books and more books are piled on the teak steps up to the room’s mezzanine, as well as filling shelves against the walls. The usual coffee/tea maker and a floor standing fridge do look tiny when measured against the enormous king size bed with its foot thick (and snuggly comfortable) mattress. The bathroom is cavernous and the shower water hot – just the opposite to the very efficient and controllable air-conditioning system.
WiFi, yes! TV set, no! And who needs one to compete with the sounds of nature, which trigger ones senses in the total absence of road traffic noise? Cheeky Minor birds, with their hilarious walking performance come close, cocking their heads as if asking ‘where’s my tidbit?’ Eagles can be seen soaring high above where one is lounging in total beanbag comfort on the veranda, as you watch other birds flit to and from the many amazing tree-root features, which gave their name to the resort. Ambience, serenity and a feeling of contentment are the result (at least so for me).
Then WOW! At the other end of the spectrum, Aaron offers his alternatives…a huge fully equipped gymnasium, two sizes of boxing rings, a large foam covered area where he demonstrates training to established converts and beginners alike. Lessons and practice in many forms of martial arts come next and, with comparative ease, he seems to insert his sense of relaxed control into a persons mind. With Yoga also available, it’s no wonder folk come from all over the world to immerse themselves in what is on offer. Clever stuff.
Oops, I nearly forgot the ‘Coffee Shop’ which offers a staggering range of the stimulant – all made from beans freshly ground as you watch – then turned into just about everything from ‘knock your socks off’ expresso to a frothy Cappuccino….fresh fruit and the omelettes at breakfast go down well, too.
Quite jealous when watching Aaron and his students practice because my ongoing ‘limp’ syndrome preventing me from joining in, Crispin more or less shovelled me into his car and drove us to Rayong Aquarium – and I’m glad he did.
A fairly new building on a low promontory, what is on show is certainly first class in every way. A crazy low entrance fee and we were inside. Tank after tank of meticulously maintained structures and diversity of species including corals, shy ‘Nimos’, ferocious looking black-tip sharks, flubbering squid, venomous stone fish, flapping rays…all were arranged along curving, darkened pathways, overhead clear plastic dome tunnels and enormous pools. Don’t miss this attraction, it’s worth every penny and every hour spent there.
Although I was not able to venture alone from the Retreat, I was, on more than one occasion, invited to join the owners at differing restaurants dotted along the beachside road. There were certainly enough variants to tempt tourists and locals alike. Fresh fish, lobster, prawns and squid were, naturally featured in a number of them as well as the amazing choices of traditional Thai dishes – yummy!
Now well ensconced into the Tree Roots ‘family’, satisfied but not satiated – and I might add, not in the least feeling sorry for myself, I was introduced to something very different indeed. Only a few hundred yards away lay another surprise – another retreat – this one called, Elsie Evans Art Retreat. Set in about a half acre, a redoubtable Scottish woman had designed and built a haven (or one could even say, a heaven). Modernistic in style yet perfectly fit for purpose. There are four, individual bungalows available for guests yearning for time and space to improve their artistic forays. They join other folk eager to visit for a few hours and have a dabble into a world of individual desire and fulfilment, whatever their standard.
The cavernous studio is flooded with natural light and full of every kind of artistic tools and material one could wish for. Even yours truly ‘had a go’, got at least a pat on the back for effort, looked, listened and learned from this really nice woman. Intimidating?…well I suppose so on the outside – but there was no doubting that a heart of gold lay beneath that formidable exterior, as she demonstrated, nudged and encouraged her ‘pupils’ to experiment, to try, to make mistakes and then rectify them.
Then yet another surprise. So intent and immersed in the wonderful world of crayons, pencils, chalks, paints and brushes, that to hear Elsie announce in her broad North Scottish accent, “Come on you lot, leave your stuff where it is – I’ve done your lunch,” shook us out of our reverie. What a woman! Well being an old Lancastrian, I could manage to see past her outer layer and note the twinkle in her eye. Thank you, Elsie.
Despite my injury and – at first – downright despair knowing that I would not be able to undertake the quite hectic itinerary I had planned, I left those two Retreats with somewhat of a heavy heart. What I missed was made up for with dollops of common sense, relaxing surroundings and loads of understanding and kindness.
That then ended the tasty filling of what I entitled this piece as ‘A Bangkok Sandwich’.
As Arnie often said… “I’ll be Back!”