Wet.. Set.. Go..

One of the most important festivals in the country, Songkran is a celebration of the traditional Thai New Year. During the day, locals visit temples, offer delicious home cooked meals to Buddhist monks and pour water on small Buddha statues, a symbolic gesture representing the cleansing and absolution of one’s sins. Known for its water festival, this holiday is especially cherished by young people as they splash water on each other with buckets, water filled balloons and water guns. Most major streets in Thailand are closed to traffic to allow numerous young people to use them safely as arenas for water fights. The festival also involves lavish traditional parades with intricately decorated floats, dancers in colourful clothing and a spectacular fireworks display, which the locals believe fends off misfortune.

First-hand account of Thailand’s wildest festival – Songkhran

One of the most important festivals in the country, Songkran is a celebration of the traditional Thai New Year. During the day, locals visit temples, offer delicious home cooked meals to Buddhist monks and pour water on small Buddha statues, a symbolic gesture representing the cleansing and absolution of one’s sins. Known for its water festival, this holiday is especially cherished by young people as they splash water on each other with buckets, water filled balloons and water guns. Most major streets in Thailand are closed to traffic to allow numerous young people to use them safely as arenas for water fights. The festival also involves lavish traditional parades with intricately decorated floats, dancers in colourful clothing and a spectacular fireworks display, which the locals believe fends off misfortune.

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Myself and a group of friends had the opportunity to witness this amazing show of tradition, fun and music this April when we had visited Phuket on a work trip involving some real estate investments. However, on being insisted upon by my partners there, we chose to extend our tickets and we were not disappointed one bit. Thankfully, we had extended our hotel stay in time, as just a day before Songkhran, we had hordes of incoming tourists mostly from Australia, Russia and China thronging reception counters at every hotel asking for rooms.

On the D-Day (this year it was 12th April), we woke up to music & drumbeats, to which we made our way to the main road. There were beautifully decorated floats with traditional dancers, floral décor etc., and moving alongside were small children singing some traditional songs. This beautiful parade went on till almost early noon, and then we saw few small pick-up vans having people spraying passerby’s with water. The first water hit was the final wake up call for us since we were still a bit sleepy partying from the earlier nights. If anything was to describe the impact of the water spray, I would put it in two words.. ICE COLD !! The trucks had loaded barrels of water with ice and people were spraying ice cold water on people in other vehicles, pedestrians and mere onlookers. We then realized that it was going to be a wet, wild and cold day for us. Hurriedly, we managed some plastic covers for our mobile phones and we headed out to the famed Soi Bangla for what turned out to be one of the best experiences of our lives.


Walking into Soi Bangla was like walking into a huge open air discotheque. Massive speakers installed along the pavements, blaring techno hits being played by bare-chested DJs.. foam machines spewing out thick white froth onto the crowds.. it was total mayhem. Beer bars had brought their best offers out and at THB 50 to a Chang or Tiger.. it was a no-questions-asked deal. Most bars had also converted their fronts into small raised stages, where bikinis clad dancers from all over the world were adding to the street bacchanalia as well. The entire road that usually takes 10 minutes to complete by walking, took over half an hour due to the huge crowds that had built up by then. The party spilled over to the beach at Patong, where a massive stage had local bands playing live music, sometimes known rock songs and mostly local hits. We met our hotel staff there who playfully smeared talcum powder on our faces making us look like white faced ghosts. Now this brings to me to an interesting point.. that, back home we have Holi where we use colours to celebrate it.. but here in Thailand, it plain talcum powder !! Sweet !!! The only preventive measure here would be to safeguard your eyes from the powder as it can lead to severe irritation after sometime. But thanks to hosepipes being used to douse the crowd with water, one can easily stand in front of the spray for some time and wash off any powder from the eyes. We partied for few hours on the beach before walking back through Soi Bangla which by now had become a madhouse. The entire scene reminded me my adolescent days of watching late night MTV Grind, minus the swimming pool.

There was enough police and private security all over the place, but it was great to see them enjoying alongside the crowd while managing them as well. One cop was breakdancing and controlling the traffic signal which was good fun to watch. On the way back to our hotel in the evening, we were told by some local friends that the party will continue non-stop for 3 days till the festival ends with locals offering prayers to the Lord Buddha. We were really tired and had a flight back the next day so we forced ourselves to head back to the hotel and after cleaning up, stepped out for dinner.. only to get drenched by the ice cold spray guns again.. and at that time, we made a promise to ourselves that if it was just one opportunity in a year to visit Thailand, it must be during this magical period of Songkhran.

 

 

 

 

 

Beach Bumming in Phuket

In all my 15 years of traveling to South East Asia and of which 12 years to Thailand, I can only say that I have fallen head-over-heels with this Land of Smiles and especially its beaches. I simply cannot get over the sunsets over the Andaman when viewed from the western coast of Phuket and so much so, it has led me to buy my own home on the island. Though the following listing is in no order of preference, I do have my personal weaknesses for a few of them, and I am sure you will feel my leaning towards them in my blog below;

1. Nai Thon Beach

Nai Thon
Nai Thon, Pic Courtesy: Surajit Mitra

Starting from the north of the island, and just about 10 minutes from the airport is Nai Thon Beach which is closest to peaking on my list.  A narrow stretch of sand fringed with leaning coconut trees makes up this very pristine beach, usually frequented by the residents and guests of the few condos and resorts nearby. Definitely not featuring on the touristy listings handed out by hotels and agencies, this beach can spoil one’s senses just by the color of its water and its white sand. Freckled by few nice restaurants and massage shops across the parallel road, the area has only a handful of commercial joints to get bothered by. The best way to reach here from the main Phuket strip is through the lush jungle road connecting the beach to Laguna, another premier Phuket area.

2. BangTao Beach

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Bangtao, Pic Courtesy: Phuket.com

Driving into Laguna from Nai Thon, one should head to BangTao Beach & Layan Beach, which again are god’s gifts to beach lovers like me. BangTao in particular is a favourite amongst the expats living in and around Laguna and hosts world class beach clubs like Catch Beach Club etc. This beach is also one of the reasons why many expats choose to buy properties in the area and due to its non-commercialized nature, provide the much need peace and exclusivity, unlike the Patong Beach in the entertainment zone of Phuket. BangTao is also one of my favourite beaches for a sundowner and some fresh seafood but one has to accept the slightly higher prices of F&B which have been kept keeping in mind the clientele visiting.

3. Kamala Beach

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Kamala Beach, Pic Courtesy: Phuket.com

Although rom BangTao, further down south of the island, one would pass Surin Beach first,  and I choose to give it a pass. Not because it is not pretty, but due to the fact that it’s slightly more commercialized. Therefore, my next stop is Kamala Beach which is, by far, the most sought after address in Phuket today. Due to the beautiful waters, long stretch of sand and a lovely view into the bay, it has become the favourite of many high end resorts and condo developments. However, it is not surprising to note that even at almost a 100% premium on real estate prices here as compared to rest of Phuket, there are hardly any available inventory to buy. Very aptly, the Millionaires Mile which is a winding beach hugging drive peppered with the swankiest of resorts and residential properties, is a must pass-through for anyone driving through. Kamala also has many bars & restaurants on the main road, and the famous Phuket Fantasea show is right there as well.

 4. Freedom Beach

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Freedom Beach, Pic Courtesy: Surajit Mitra

A short drive from Kamala brings you to a very non-descriptive point on the road, where only the initiated will know of a rough path leading up a hill. Drive for around 10 mins on a bone-rattling path, to reach a gate where the local caretakers of the zone will ask for 200 baht (foreigners) as entry fee. If you see, none of the other beaches charge a fee but Freedom Beach demands it. The most hidden and private beach in all of Phuket is a golden strip of sand with calm lagoon-like waters with very very (I mean very few) visitors at all. It requires a walk down a steep gravel path to reach the beach and is also accessible through the sea from Patong as well. There are loungers available for 100 baht and a small restaurant serving beers and basic Thai food. One can spend a few leisurely hours here without any vendors bothering you with their wares and also the calm clear waters allows for a swimming pool experience and also is a great place to snorkel as well. Be prepared for a sweaty trek back to the parking lot where one gets rewarded with a free bottle of chilled water to replenish ones energies. Clearly one of the best I have seen so far in Phuket.

5. Karon Beach & Kata Noi

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Karon Beach, Pic Courtesy: Phuket.com

My next stop would be Karon Beach & Kata Noi. Passing the maddening stretch called Patong, one drives through some beautiful hilly roads to reach Karon Beach, an ideal wide beach for summer bummers and also for surfing. This beach is one of the few where one can surf with waves coming in as mountains. Lots of summer umbrellas and lots of parking spaces makes this an easy visit. The main road is stashed with eateries and shopping areas, and my favourite here is the fresh food market. There are few live music bars where a few beers with Pink Floyd playing to the retreating sun is an experience hard to forget. Stay back for dinner at Kata Noi area where there are amazing fresh food joints serving OMG sized lobsters and the likes. Kata Noi is also a relatively smaller beach, where one, during the day, can spend time lolling around in calm clear waters.

Kata Noi Beach, Pic Courtesy: Phuket.com

6. Nai Harn Beach

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Nai Harn, Pic Courtesy: Phuket.com

Further down south, one reaches the southernmost tip of the island and at Nai Harn Beach. This gem of a beach is inside a nook and thus doesn’t get any major waves or currents. I read somewhere that it features amongst the top 5 beaches in the world. Well, it doesn’t surprise me at all as the beach itself is like a painting, allowing you to take in the sights and sounds while sipping on a San Miguel in one of the few lovely cafes on it. Very few tourists and mostly sun-loungers as visitors, it makes for a very family friendly visit. There are also very few hotels or residential complexes around so much lesser crowds as compared to many others.

Apart from the above there are many more beautiful beaches like Mai Khao, Nai Yang, Paradise Beach etc in Phuket but I have always enjoyed by visits to the above listed few and will continue to visit them in the years to come. No wonder Phuket is called the Pearl of the Andamans and I will vouch for every letter in that description.

Living ‘n’ Loving Phuket

Taking a trip across the island of Phuket in Thailand was something I had wanted to do for a very long time. Having done some 20 odd trips across the years, I now fondly consider this jewel of the Andaman, my second hometown. These trips involve potential real estate investors rattling away financial jargon or friends discussing the upcoming bar-hopping night, but the ones where it was just me driving around were the most enjoyable so far.

Travel Tip: Books a Toyota Yaris or another cheaper alternative just one day before landing there. Since the system allots one to you, you will almost always get an upgrade at the counter as the cheapest cars will already be booked (only in a prepaid situation). Talk to agencies like ASAP or Thai Rent-a-Car kind of smaller players as they will go out on a limb to accommodate your requests, unlike the very large brands which don’t really bother if you need any last-minute adjustments.

So, it was the Altis with a 1800CC 1.8VL 16 valve intelligent engine which I was offered. I was driving up the hills of Kathu effortlessly, which on a Yaris felt like being ferried along with a wailing pregnant hog, especially on the climbs.

Though I do own my apartment in Bangtao, an upmarket & expat infested beach area in Phuket, I almost always choose to stay either in Patong or Kata beach areas just for the energy those places bring to you. The bars in expat zones are priced for expats which is exactly what we Indians yearn for. Add some live music to the scene and its akin to Jannat for our desi hearts.

Ok, so apart from my work schedules which usually got over by 3pm or so, I did manage to catch some very local happenings. like Loy Krathong in October last year and the Vegetarian Festival early this year. The Loy Krathong is a prayer offered to the Water Lord to be kind to the crops and keep the nation prosperous always. It’s a complete visual delight to watch beautifully crafted flower arrangements being adorned with colorful candles and being set off into the waters. Some areas like Chiang Mai, up north in Thailand, still allow the lit lanterns to be set off into the sky but the government has realized the safety hazards involved and have decided to ban it in Phuket and surrounding areas.

Now comes my favorite part. The food during the festival. Oh my god, if there was ever a food scarcity in Cambodia or Laos that time of the year, you know where it has all landed up. Fresh seafood, amazing fusion food, deals on drinks everywhere. My favorite has always been the Som Tam Goong, translating to Raw Papaya Salad with Seafood.

 

Depending on how you like your spices or your capacity to handle it, you can get a plate full of aromatic veggies with prawns and squid all over in a spicy sauce that will make you go running towards a Chang or a Tiger beer to wash it down. Romantics are advised to stay away from any PDA (public display of affection) or PLA (post lunch action), as your partner is sure to faint at the over-killing garlicky emotions you would be expressing post such a lunch.

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One of my favorite drives in Phuket is the one from the Airport to Bangtao via Nai Thon beach, avoiding all motorways and through Sirinath National Park, a dense & lush forest where one’s driving skills are tested on every corner. This route demands a stopover at Nai Thon Beach, where the white sands and crystal clear blue water make you feel like surrendering to nature. For those wanting to stay here, there’s upmarket Pullman Resort as well as a very few luxurious serviced apartments here.

Further down towards Bangtao, one would pass Phuket’s most expensive residential zone, namely Trisara Avenue (named after the villas there). The one enters Laguna, a beautifully manicured mega residential and resort zone home to luxurious resorts and smaller residential buildings like the one I own a flat in. Having tracked property prices here for over past 3 years, I have realized that, with upwards of 15% net gains per annum, if there is a place one should invest in the place is Phuket.

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An important tip to remember while driving In Thailand is that honking is severely frowned upon. Our Indian driving license works fine to rent a car as a tourist, but that doesn’t give us the right to blow the horn every two minutes. Lane discipline is quite well adhered to, despite many westerners feeling otherwise. They drive on the same side as us so that makes life simpler. I would highly recommend renting a self-drive car over hiring a tourist vehicle.

You will enjoy the sights more and the flexibility of doing your own thing. If the loud side of Soi Bangla in Patong or the serene beaches of Bangtao and Mai Khao have satiated you enough, take a 3-hour drive to Krabi. Stop by at PhangNga and take a cheap ferry to James Bond island, have some local coffee made by Malaysian immigrants. At 20 baht a cup, iced or hot, it’s the best you will have on the island. Have the ice cream made with fruits on an ice slab. The hot banana or peanut butter pancakes/crepes at a roadside stall. Get a foot massage (while at it, try not falling asleep and snoring). And most importantly take the off-the-beaten roads. Thailand on wheels is one the most beautiful journeys you will take in your life. Enjoy and Khaap Khun Khraap!