Travelling with a sullied reputation
MNL-BKK-HKT. Arriving from Bangkok into Phuket, was like a time warp. While the Suvarnabhumi airports'ss all arching glass, steel and canvas, Phuket is like a clean polished granite and white wall 90's air port, similar to Bangkok's old Don Muang. Thailand is no stranger to tourist boycotts either by Nature [tsunami] or by political upheaval [red shirt vs. yellow shirts] at one time forcing an ASEAN Summit out of the country and blockading Suvarnabhumi - making Phuket the only way out for international tourists. At least the reasons for the boycotts are not silly unlike our own. Remember the tank crashing into the Peninsula Hotel lobby's Christmas Tree? So Keystone cops vs. Rambo-Robo-cop disaster recently played in front of the country's main grandstand, shouldn't surprise anymore.
Arriving at night, Phuket looks like a quiet, well manicured and neat resort destination. Its rustic enough to have structures far away from each other. Roads are neat Thai standard dual carriageway and the traffic at this time is mostly tourist mini buses and limos, Toyota Grandias and Camrys. We vere of into a road which happens to be a long paved garden parkway, circumnavigating a lagoon and forest, leading to several huge beachside resorts. Imagine the environs of Punta Baluarte and instead of large estates hiding huge mansions, the road threads together these large and very new resorts.
As is the case of sprawling resorts, access to the rooms of the Renaissance which only go four storeys high is via golf buggy. The rooms are almost as upmarket as the Shangri-La Boracay, with organic toiletries. Impressive, save for the strange omission of complimentary toothbrush and toothpaste. At least the internet was free. Its got the now standard balcony, halogens all over, twin closets, glass walled tub and typhoon shower stall and just an area rug under the huge bed. The buildings seemed to be designed to yield or allow through passage of tidal waves in case another Tsunami strikes.
The meaning of intermodal transportation
As journeys go, it was a long one but I did not find it all that tiring. Our hosts provided us with shuttle bus to avoid our having to battle the mid morning traffic to NAIA 1 as C-5 flows like molasses. As usual for 10AM to 12NN, traffic on the feeder roads to NAIA 1 was packed. Ford booked us on Thai Airways to Bangkok, transfer to Domestic terminal within Suvarnabhumi, to Phuket, as the PAL labor situation is still not stable. NAIA 1's rehash has been quite effective now that the curbs at departure were sealed with glass and air conditioned. The rest of the way is the same, but somehow, the air conditioning was up to task and there's new floor covering.
It works but its confusing
At Bangkok, there was some confusion locating the gate of the connecting flight on the TV monitor as flight TG221 was code shared with the whole STAR Alliance - Austrian, ANA, JAL, you name it... The shopaholics were disappointed at the limited purchasing opportunities at the Domestic terminal side of Suvarnabhumi, but that gave us plenty of time to take it easy. For some strange reason, we were bussed to the huge twin deck B 747-400 to take a stairs to go into an air bridge which itself was connected to the building.
Finally, at the beach
Dinner was by an aptly named Sand Bar, where, like the trend nowadays, the floor is sand. Sand quality was close to Caramoan or El Nido quality, but not Boracay. Still, the crashing waves felt rather ominous. The bar is a vertical pile of sea pebbles encased in glass and back lit. The Kiwi Press just had their turn for the 2-day launch and drive event. Converging at the bar, they were downing bottles of Phuket beer, a sweetish lager, which turned out to be San Miguel Premium beer, brewed by SMB Thailand. Anticipating more Thai food the next 2 days, I settled for an Australian rib eye and a Ceasars with grilled prawns. You can never go wrong with prawns in Thailand. The rest of the night found us nibbling toasted pita bread, chips, cashew with fried basil leaves. I had a series of Caipirinhas, each glass different from the last. The staff must really be green. I asked the staff if the Tsunami hit this area. Apparently, this area where we are have a high end Marriott, the high end Turtle market full of high end boutiques and and an even higher end Sala resort, did not exist then. The young staff told me that its quite a long drive up north to the site where the Tsunami catastrophe hit hard 6 years ago.
Dawn breaks for work
Typical of the tropics, the morning was humid but it was a nice pleasant walk to at the Sand Bar. The building looks like inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's simple straight lines, surrounded by Agoho [Polynesian ironwood], which seems to be all over Phuket. Besides the usual fry up international breakfast buffet, the astute waitress offered my TV talent mate double boiled chicken soup with rice. He must've looked hung over so the service staff made a good batch for all of the drunken carousing Filipinos of the night before. I wonder if that is the purpose of the special of the day?
Excellent design and Opera at high noon
We had a briefing in a very tastefully appointed hall. The acoustics and the fabric walls blended well with the video screen presentation by Ford's European design staff flown in for this important launch. What was impressive is that Ford made further refinements to the Euro Fiesta after learning several lessons from the world's most demanding customer in car noise, vibration and harshness - the Asians. After which was an early Thai lunch, then the obligatory photo with 12 new Fiestas at the front of the hotel. Just to amuse our hosts, some of us started singing "My Prayer" in pidgin Italian at the photo op. Filipinos just have to be different.
Right hand drive
Our Thai minders were smart enough to do a circumnavigation of the nearby lagoon road so as to acclimatized us notoriously boisterous Filipinos to right hand drive. With sirens wailing, the local Highway Police in maroon and yellow livery, were in the lead. We were the 8th of the ten batches of international motoring press that Ford was flying into Phuket so they had the convoy drill pretty much a matter of course. I was to drive in 2 shifts at 70kms each, switching between 1.4 4-speed automatic and 1.6 twin clutch 6-speed automatic.
Phuket's roads are as pristine as anywhere else in the Kingdom. Our first leg took us to near empty dual carriageway highway 402. Caring for turtles in Mai Khao, where the Renaissance is located, happens to be a big thing here and a major tourist attraction. Patong is the more popular and more commercialized part of Phuket, which is way south of the airport. Our convoy crossed into the Phang-nga Province and from the Provincial capitol, we could see Phang-nga Bays's hundred islands, all sheer cliff limestone islands. One of these islands featured as the hideaway of the Bond villain Scaramanga, played by Christopher Lee, in the film "The Man with the Golden Gun".
Hill and dale
We made a stop on a highlands cafe called Thung Kha with a view of several valleys below. After driving through a long winding road, we stopped at Haadson Resort in Khao Lak. There's a long stretch of white sand here but the waves are as violent as ever. We had pandan or lemon tea, with honey. The bunch of cottages on stilts serves as a vacation home too. From here it was only a short hop to some sort of a memorial, though no one from here seems to acknowledge it as such.
Boat in a farm
Patrol Boat 813, Buretpadungkit, of the Royal Thai Police, was one nautical mile away from shore when the Tsunami struck. The waves carried the ship some 2kms inland and deposited it here on a solitary farmer's village. Our last stop was the Lam Pee Waterfall, which cascades in 3 visible steps within the Lam Pee mountain and Tai-Muang Beach National Park. From here, we were just 42kms away from the Renaissance and a beach side barbecue was next.
Special of the day, ordinary noodles
Our last morning had the staff prepare Pad Thai noodles as the special of the day instead of chicken soup, probably after seeing that Filipinos have a high threshold of getting a hangover. Our Phuket Bangkok flight was cancelled forcing us to take an earlier flight into Bangkok, which will only mean more time in Suvarnabhumi waiting for the Manila bound flight. This morning, I finally understood what those big red flags on the beach meant- NO SWIMMING! Well with waves the size of a Ford Fiesta, who would?
Western translation, poor adaptation
Back at Suvarnabhumi airport, the bldg. is already showing signs of the inappropriateness of taking the Paris design into the tropics. First, the clean glass support "worm" like look of Charles de Gaulle 2 airport needed an extra layer of tubular steel buttressing to withstand typhoons. Since the airport is all glass, tripling the air con capacity couldn't deal with a typical hot tropical noon. They tried canvas to soften the light, but it only improved where the fancy boutiques are. The main bridges into the security and immigration are so far from the gates. Its one of the longest terminals in the world to walk through.
High end indeed
Speaking of boutiques, Suvarnabhumi now rivals Singapore and Hong Kong in the full range of designer goods on sale. They even have one off watches that are not seen just anywhere. There was free internet at the gates and we had a smooth flight home. Manila bound passengers were about 60 per cent of the air craft and I again had a 4-seat middle row to myself. I guess no one really wants to tour our country what with the kind of Police we have.
Oh the car? It was nice for the European design team to admit to us Asians that we are a far more demanding car culture than the average European. The young Germans, Brits and Aussies said that we were more particular about rattles, vibration, stereo quality, plastics and steering feel versus Europeans, while Europeans are particular about handling and top speed. Thanks to Asia, the Fiesta is a far better car than it would have been and our tests bear it out. The Fiesta rides better than the average Japanese car available locally, and the seats still uses springs, which far kinder to the back than the all foam seats of the Vios and City. Seats alone makes it a winner in the sub-compact class. Both the 1.4 4-speed auto and 1.6 twin clutch 6-speed has enough grunt to cut and thrust with our nation's Japanese and Korean regulars. The Fiesta's electronic power assist steering combines responsive feel and excellent [light] weighting. By listening to the preferences of the Asian market, Ford rehashed the Fiesta to maintain Euro speed and handling with Asian levels of quality and NVH that betters Asian expectations. Now, if only Asians were not so brand loyal. Ford hopes that its "kinetic design" look, not like anything seen in Asia, will change Asian perceptions of European design.
As for Phuket, it wasn't a beach holiday because, perhaps, we came off-season. We did not see Patong nor did the Filipinos indulge in retail therapy as it seemed they were some ways off. Our resort was more an oasis of calm rather than rip roaring White beach or Pacha in Ibiza. Its like the off season Ibiza's rustic-chic agritursimiso, without the rustic. Perhaps Phuket is in a transition, from hip secluded destination to quiet modern trendy. Those who want even more peace and isolation can fly to the new trendy destination in Thailand, Koh Samui on the quieter waters of the Gulf of Siam. Still, with newer, nicer designed and more quiet resorts, Phuket is a welcome change from Pattaya. After several trips to Thailand, we've more or less made up our mind about: Bangkok for shopping and dining, Chiang Mai for highlands and Phuket for beach, but never mind Pattaya. No wonder Thailand will be spending 60B Baht to expand Suvarnabhumi from 40m passengers to 60m a year.
Its in the sand
The Sand? Not any nicer than Palawan or Caramoan or even Anvaya. Boracay is still the one for me.