National Geographic Photo of the Day

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Kingdom of Thailand – Day 10 (June 23rd 2009)

Had to wake up early today, cos the flight wouldn't wait. The front desk had forgotten to book the car to the airport, so there was a bit of last minute bungling before they found a taxi. The driver kept negotiating the price and toll till we reached the first expressway. When we got there, Dad gave him 50Baht more than he'd asked, and he gave Dad a hug and said “Thank you vellllly much” before he left.

Bangkok airport is a masterpiece, marvelous design, easy on the eyes, yet intricate.

Just after we checked in and were about to go for the security check, a “Suwatdee Khrup” startled us and we found a smiling Thai airways rep who enlightened us in great detail of the facilities we could avail at the information desk (of which he was particularly insistent on the tours and hotel bookings he could do for us, when he learnt we were on the flight to Phuket). He asked us how we could “spend some time and get info” because there was quite some time left before boarding began. The minute we mentioned that our bookings were all made and we'd already arranged what we wanted to see, the poor bugger's smile disappeared and he said “Oh, very good, please go right ahead then sir”.

Spent some time window shopping at the electronics and watch showrooms in the airport. Mostly we were just doing price comparisons of stuff we already had (like my Longines watch) or that we'd bought in Bangkok (like the cameras), though I did see another Fossil watch that I liked. Still the range was a bit limited and I'd be back at Bangkok's international duty free on the way back home (Phuket ---> Bangkok ----> Chennai), so I thought I'd just wait and see till then.

The 10.55 flight to Phuket got there around 12.15 in the afternoon. When the flight taxies off the main runway, you can see that the runway is right next to the sea. Phuket's airport was chock full of touts looking to grab the live bait that stepped off the plane. Once again, Americans and Europeans are few and far between thanks to the recession, even considering that its off season in Thailand now. Phuket city (and the hotel) is 30km or so from the airport and our private minivan (courtesy the hotel, not the touts) took us there quick via very good roads with greenery on either side all the way.

Phuket seems a bit like Pattaya, but with the more laid back feel of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Restaurant chains are less numerous, but the road network and public infrastructure are still brilliant.

There was a guy at the lobby who (even before we got the rooms ready) tried to talk us into a scuba diving trip. Didn't work. A bit of time later, we headed up to the rooms with our luggage and the bellboy in the lift. The bellboy tried to coax us into a boat cruise and canoeing. Looks like agents are ubiquitous. Can't let your guard down in Phuket for a minute.

Freshened up and went back downstairs for lunch followed by a quick walk. Around 4.15pm we had our private minivan take us to Kamala Beach – pretty far from the hotel (Mum was tsunami-phobic and insisted on a hotel well away from the beach). This stretch of sand is so tranquil, but a memorial here reminds us of the lives lost in the Tsunami. When the very waves that make this beach so attractive slammed down on it and destroyed so much property and swept away people in the thousands regardless of their nationality. There are clearly marked escape routes and instructions to be followed (separate for tourists and locals) in the event of an earthquake here. While locals are supposed to run further inland, tourists are instructed to run along the beach until they get to the road leading up to a safe spot. Along the beach with a Tsunami heading your way?? Oh well, if you're a tourist, tough luck... Played with a plump little cat for some time, wondered whether he even realised all that had happened here so many years ago....

The driver did his best to persuade us to book another tour through him (without the reception needing to know) but he didn't hit the target.

Headed to Phuket FantaSea. Its dubbed a Cultural Theme Park. But its more like a carnival / amusement park where everything's a bit more posh and refined for the foreign tourist. We got there right at opening time. An artificial waterfall greets you at the entrance, with a pond teeming with colourful fish.

Right inside the park the first building to the right has an entry to the “Tiger Jungle Adventure”. This goes through a series of rooms with live displays including ringtail lemurs, deer, hamsters (in a huge pen with all kinds of stuff for them to play on), a reticulated python (on a glass ceiling right above your head), 2 white tigers (in a large enclosure that reminds you of an Indian palace), and a spotless and huge white room with 2 pure white peacocks, fluorescent lighting, white albino crows, white doves, and white cockatoos – all so clean and well maintained – not to mention the pure-white clad lady in the same room who showed us the way to the next display ;) .

There are lots of souvenir shops here inside FantaSea (apart from the wonderful surroundings, green grass, water, elephant rides etc) and all the stuff inside is pretty expensive (one particular piece – a globe bedecked with jewels all around is worth 3,000,000 Baht). Plenty of fairground games like dart throwing and shooting among many many others all over the place.

The much hyped restaurant at this theme park is the Golden Kinnaree. This hall seats upto 4000 guests at any one time, though I'd hardly call this a great achievement considering that the tables seat 10 people or so each and seats are pre-assigned (the number is on your ticket) to maximise seat distribution, so you're seated mostly with other people sitting right next to you or across the table. A large Indian marriage hall could do that easily if you're gonna seat people like its a mess. Note that I mean only the seating arrangement, the decor, the seats and tables themselves are all pretty good.

They promote this buffet as the “World's greatest” in their ads. Bah, humbug I say. Bullshit. Its good, there is a pretty nice spread, but nothing special. There wasn't even any mousse, cheesecake or ice-cream at the dessert section. Decent? Yes. But nothing to write home about. These guys could learn even from the buffets at The Residence at Park Sheraton and Anise at The Taj. Above and beyond the 400 Baht they charge (per person), just for the food, they don't even give you a free drink, leave alone the silly seating arrangement.

Around 8.40pm we headed to the “Palace of the Elephants”. A large theater reminiscent of the Music Academy hall at Chennai, albeit with a much more elaborate stage and lighting and sound system. The show here which starts at 9pm is the highlight of FantaSea. They charge you a bloody lot for it too – 1500 Baht for a normal seat, and 1750 for one right down the centre of the auditorium. This place does seem to have a one-pricing policy though. The majority of Thailand's attractions and hotels have dual pricing – they charge tourists a hefty premium over locals. But they do it in an underhanded way by writing lower prices in Thai numerals below the price in the normal numeral.

The concept of this show is similar to Alangkarn – showing similar scenes, elephants and such. Differences here include the larger number of elephants and the kinds of tricks they did, the larger scale, the heavy use of pyrotechnic and other special effects, laser shows, a great number of magic tricks, more kinds of dances and martial arts etc. Its more a difference of scale and more technology. The trained animals running across the stage during a love song really had us all smiling – roosters, lambs, pigeons, even tigers. The roosters were the funniest – one of them even slipped and got back up and ran the right way. Of particular note are the trapeze artists who perform far above your heads in UV reflective outfits in a section of the show devoted to their death defying acrobatics. The falling paper in this section of the show combined with the UV light would have us believe we were in a strange glowing land where snow was falling. Wonderful work on the effects and the trapeze. The show almost justified the price, 'almost' because with the number of people visiting they could have reduced it a bit and still made ends meet. Still, a wonderful show.

For anyone visiting Thailand and wondering whether to see all the shows, give Siam Niramit (in Bangkok) and Alangkaarn (in Pattaya) a miss and see this one instead. And Tiffany's is more than enough, you can well afford to drop Simon's cabaret in Phuket from your list.

We'd had to check-in all our recording devices at the entrance of the Palace of the Elephants and we collected them after the show. Mum and Dad still carried the balloons they'd caught at the end of the show (it literally rained balloons).

And so we left and got into our minivan as the driver drove us back to the hotel. Tired with today's sightseeing, we didn't need any encouragement to hit the sack.


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