Complete and utter shock - best description by far of the look on his face when a bunch of people came up behind him and screamed "Happy Birthday!!"
I love it when a plan comes together, and with the help of our friends, this one worked out way better than I thought it would. All the pieces just fell into place and there we were, in Thailand with our besties. So fabulous!
Of course, there was much excited chatter over breakfast about the where's and what for's and how everyone got there and when was this planned and all the nitty gritty of how to lie to one's spouse continually without getting caught (for surprise birthday planning purposes only)! It was so fun to finally be able to talk about it! I think I said previously how difficult it was to plan a surprise like this when the person you're planning it for is never more than 3 feet away, but all the lying and subterfuge was so worth it!
As is our usual custom when on vacation, we have a pool day followed by a tour day and then a pool day again, so we're not always on the go but get to relax as well as see the sights. So we spent our first day lounging around at the pool, all of us jetlagged of course and it was great to just chill and dip in and out of the water. We were all best friends with the bar staff by the end of the day (of course, when are we not??) and after an early night, we were ready to see what Thailand is all about.
Ahhh...blissful pool days...
First, I have to say the people of Thailand are just so lovely. Kind, polite, thoughtful - nothing was too much trouble. A few examples: The mattress in the Snodgrass room wasn't so great. Petrina asked for a few extra pillows as a bit of a bolster, and when the housemaid figured out what all the pillows were for, a new mattress was delivered post haste! Every morning the restaurant staff kept the same table for us. They even delivered a birthday cake for Daz, would leave roses for the ladies and had no problem with dashing to the restaurant next door if someone wanted something in particular. There are a million scooters in Phuket, just about everyone rides one so there's thousands on the roads, swarming all over the place, sometimes with entire families and crates of chickens balanced on the handle bars. People are weaving in and out, turning left and right and heading back the wrong way, and yet not one blast of a horn, no bird flipping, no road rage. It's just accepted that sometimes people need to cut in, or don't quite know where they are and miss a turn, or are in a hurry, and it's all ok. They're let in with a smile and a wave and everyone goes their way with tolerance and kindness. Just beautiful people and it's for good reason Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles.
Traffic chaos...or is it?
After breakfast we were picked up at the hotel for an hour bus ride to the other side of Phuket Island, to join our canoeing tour of some of the scenic islands of Phang Na Bay. You're probably quite familiar with them, a few James Bond movies have been made there, The Beach of course, various others. As we travelled across the bay, it was really quite sad to see how much trash was in the otherwise incredibly clear blue water and our crew scooped up as much as they could as we motored along, to dispose of properly later. Plastic water bottles, straws and balloons were the main culprits unsurprisingly. Our first stop was a "hong" which means "room" in Thai. We hopped in our canoe with our guide and paddled through a dark cave with millions of bats on the ceiling and came out a few minutes later into the centre of the island, the most beautiful room of jungle and water, birds and monkeys chattering. We went to several island locations in the bay, all beautifully unique, and ended up at James Bond Island which was, of course, jam packed with tourists! Our crew served an incredible lunch onboard the mothership and we stopped at a lovely white sand beach on the way back to swim and snorkel. A perfect day enjoyed by all ended with drinks and dinner at the resort, followed shortly thereafter with the chilly bliss of our airconditioned room for some shut eye!
Canoeing and James Bond Island
Our next excursion took us around Phuket's various must see tourist locations starting with the big Buddha. Our guide was amazing, shared so much information about the history of Thailand, the people, the culture, life in general for the locals, the philosophy of Buddhism along with some funny random facts, some of which I'll list below. The big Buddha is being built as a gift to the people from the previous King and hasn't been finished yet. It's surrounded by shrines and the view is amazing from the top. Faced completely in marble tiles, we bought one to write our name on and it's kind of fun to know that tile is somewhere on the Buddha! There were bells and little metal heart shaped tags hanging from the trees, all for good luck. Monks in their saffron robes were meditating, reading the newspaper, chatting, snoozing and praying as we walked down the hill back to our bus. I think I was surprised to see a monk reading a newspaper but I don't know why I should be - did I really think they did nothing but meditate all day? On our way down the mountain there were quite a few elephants tied up on the side of the road, used for trekking and shows, so distressing and sad. More about elephants later though.
We stopped at a temple, rather a collection of temples all with different uses, some of which we were able to enter. Many Thais there, praying at the shrines. As we walked around there was a huge cacophony of firecrackers going off. There's a beehive shaped brick building near the entrance and when prayers have been answered, people buy crackers and the attendants put them in the brick hive and set them off to give thanks to Buddha.
Did you know cashews are extracted from their shells by hand in Phuket? Very hard work that could be automated, but many people would lose their jobs if that happened, and so it's been decided not do so in order to keep people in the area employed.
Old town Phuket is a time capsule of Sino-Portuguese architecture from early last century, stunningly beautiful buildings some of which have been restored and others in a very sad state of repair. Narrow streets of markets and food vendors, scooter rentals and massage parlours (the real ones - they all have signs in the front saying "No Sex") and every shop has a huge pile of shoes in the front, because shoes are never worn inside anywhere.
Sino-Portuguese architecture, Phuket Old Town. Copyright © 2018 Speck on the Globe
Bangla Road. Wow. Not sure what I can say about Bangla Road in Patong. We went there the following night for dinner and to check things out. Dinner was amazing of course (it was interesting to watch the family next to us eating - they ordered about 10 crabs, and the order came with a person who's only job was to crack the crab for the patrons) after which we took a stroll down Bangla Road. So.Many.People. Strippers on balconies, live sex shows, "Tiger" shows (which ironically feature no tigers, but goldfish, ping pong balls, turtles, razor blades, blowing out candles but not with a mouth...I could go on, but why?), noodle bars, fake handbags, lady-boys, massages (any kind you like), live music, Muay Thai fights, many many old, fat, extremely happy Aussie men with a lovely young Thai lady on his arm (or was she??? Did the Aussie get a bit of a "surprise" later??) - an entire street of thousands of people looking for anything and everything and finding it all available to them. We had all discussed going to a Tiger show, because thats what you're supposed to do in Thailand, but after being stopped by a thousand guys trying to get us to pay to go to one, we decided not to. I'm not squeamish at all but I'm just not sure I need to see anything like that. I mean, there's no UNseeing it right? Anyway, we found a fabulous bar with a great Philipino cover band and had a blast and lots of drinks before entrusting our lives to an insane Tuk-Tuk driver who careened over the dark, dark mountains like a bat out of hell to get us home. Interestingly, a review of that ride home took place over breakfast the next day, and all agreed that we felt lives were definitely in danger along the way to the resort and we probably wouldn't do that again. (note: No pics of Bangla Rd., it was so crazy busy and not really appropriate blog material anyway!)
At Bangla Rd. Wow. Eye-Opening - to say the least!
There was one more surprise in store for Daz. We were having a resort day, chilling out over breakfast and then heading to the Snodgrass room for drinks and tour planning. Unbeknownst to him, Alexandra and Julian had arrived at the resort from Australia that morning and I absolutely flew down to reception (under the guise of needing to use our own bathroom) as soon as I knew they arrived (there's that lying and subterfuge again). I returned to the Snodgrass room giving an Oscar winning performance about gastro-intestinal issues to explain why I was gone so long, and just as Darrin was opening a gift from his parents, A&J walked in and said "Surprise!". It was so wonderful of them to come all that way for a few days to see him and he was a little teary I think.
A few of use decided to go to the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, and for me this was one of the (many) highlights of the trip although it was also very sad. The sanctuary rescues old and infirm elephants, buys those that are being mistreated and rehabilitates them back to jungle living in a home free of abuse. We watched a video at the beginning of the tour showing how elephants are "broken", the abuse they're subjected to in the logging and tourist industries and the terrible things done to them being sold on to owner after owner for their entire lives. It was so heartbreaking but so wonderful to see them free in the sanctuary, able to interact with other elephants, wander around at will and be happy after a lifetime of exploitation. Each elephant has it's own keeper to make sure they're safe (some of the elephants are blind, or have injuries that have never healed, or are elderly and need a bit of help getting around). Such incredibly majestic animals and if you ever visit Thailand I highly recommend you go check it out - it will touch you in ways you have never imagined.
Monkey Hill was crazy - so many monkeys! Cute little babies, watchful mothers, big wary dads - they were all over the place and we were warned to be careful of phones and cameras because they'll come along and grab them from you! I don't mind saying we were a bit wary ourselves - no one wanted any monkeys jumping on them or anything like that and there were so many it was hard to keep an eye on them all. Every so often a fight of some kind would break out among them, lots of squabbling and screeching and running about. It was fun to see them but also a little intimidating - they're so sneaky and quick! Our driver took us to a restaurant way out of town after this, a place only locals go to and when we got there it was only us in this huge, rather rickety dock/pier/restaurant and it felt kind of run down and creepy. Even so, the menu looked great and despite Thai/English language difficulties, we managed to make ourselves understood and we had the best Thai food ever! I have no idea where it was or what it's called, but the food was amazing! Interestingly, by the time we left the place was jam packed full of local people. Looks can indeed be deceiving!
Sadly before we knew it, our return to Mexico was upon us. Alexandra and Julian were staying a few days longer than us, so we extended for two days so we could spend more time with them. The Seattle contingent needed to head back though, so we had to say goodbye to them. They were returning via Beijing and had a tour of the Great Wall planned for their stopover!
We had a relaxing few days at the resort doing nothing much more than lazing by the pool, walking along the beach, reading and napping and then all too quickly it was time for the Aussie contingent to head out and not long after we did too. We were smart this time though. Rather than subject ourselves to the guessing game of "What on EARTH is THIS?" when food was served on the flight, we opted to buy our own snacks in Thailand before we left, because the options available in China were not anything we would consider eating, and we were scared of the food on the way back.
Spicy duck tongues and crab ovary biscuits we found in China. That's a hard no.
To our dear framily (yes Stephanie, I stole this from you!), Kelly and Petrina, Andrew and Maria and Alexandra and Julian: Thank you so so much for making this such a fabulous birthday for Darrin. We love you and miss you all very much. To those who couldn't make Thailand but sent their love and birthday greetings and kept the secret, we love and miss you all very much too and your messages for Darrin's epic 50th truly touched his heart. We're so thankful for all the wonderful people we have in our lives!