Nuns and Sea Gypsies

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but like so much else in Thailand the unassuming, yet sincere, spirituality of the Thai people really got to me and provided much food for thought.

The Thais we met were so courteous and friendly, their smiles so wide and genuine and their kindness to each other and to the animals with whom they shared their streets so apparent, that it was difficult not to think that somehow our materialistic, hyper stressed, hyper angry Western society has got things very, very wrong.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine that life in Thailand is all rainbows and unicorns, but people in general did seem more relaxed, more satisfied and more genuinely happy than in any other place I’ve ever been. It’s had me thinking ever since.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

One of our most remarkable days there was spent with Chaya NaTakuathung who leads ‘Meet the Locals’ tours in Old Phuket. I started the tour thinking that we were going on some nonsensical fake tourist-y bullshit thingy and finished several hours later feeling like I’d had a profound spiritual experience. If you ever find yourselves in Phuket, don’t hesitate even for one second before taking a tour yourselves.

Chaya is a fiercely intelligent, immensely knowledgeable, super friendly guide who speaks perfect English and is driven by a genuine desire to show tourists a side of Phuket that only the locals get to see.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

She squealed with delight when she discovered that our group was just women, as that way she could take us to visit a local Buddhist nunnery, where no men are permitted to enter.

The nunnery is an oasis of tranquillity in the middle of the noise, chaos and bustle of Old Phuket. As we walked through the carefully tended gardens, the traffic noise seemed to melt away, together with our Western preconceptions and anxieties. The rhythmic chanting of the nuns at prayer was immensely moving and contemplation seemed easy in this simple, serene environment. I understood nothing, but didn’t need to, the energy in the room was enough.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

 

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The nuns there were a mixture of permanent nuns and women on longer term retreats – as signified by their shaven heads – and other women and girls who were just attending on a short term basis, for short retreats or for counselling, who can keep their hair as it is. Chaya herself had spent many retreats at the nunnery and you could see that there she was surrounded by friends and mentors.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And I started to realise how smart it is, to have a place where you can just go for a few days when you need to regroup and recharge your batteries; where teenage girls can receive advice from wise older women or where you can just spend some time thinking and relaxing and contemplating and praying. I had ended up paying thousands of $$$ for that retreat experience and it still felt like a wacky and self-indulgent thing to do. Instead in Thailand it is an ordinary part of everyday life. They understand that sometimes we all need a bit of down time, simplicity and space for contemplation.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Time just to sit, hang out and finally smell the flowers.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

After a visit to a temple and an excellent meal, Chaya then took us to visit the village of the sea gypsies, or chao le (people of the sea) in Thai.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The chao le are a nomadic people of Polynesian heritage and strikingly different in build – much taller and sturdier – than the diminuitive Thai people. They used to live out to sea and come to land only rarely but in recent times they have created one or two settlements along the coast of the Andaman Sea, though they still make their living by deep sea fishing, diving deep without scuba equipment.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Their village was destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but they didn’t lose a single member of their tribe. When their elders saw the sea draw out dangerously far from the coast,  their deep understanding of the sea meant that they recognised the warning signs and urged their people to move to higher ground.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Their rebuilt village is nothing but a shanty town, and the people are obviously heartbreakingly poor, but after a while you stopped noticing the shabbiness. What I shall remember more is how clean the kids’ clothes were, how litter was bagged up neatly for disposal, how everyone was smiling and laughing. Soccer balls were being kicked, kids of all ages were playing together and whole families lounging on their verandahs waved and smiled and invited us into their homes to share their evening meal.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And as I watched, I started to understand that these people were rich. Rich in wisdom, in generosity, in friendships and fun, and that maybe it is we who are the poor ones.

At the nunnery my soul had been touched, with the sea gypsies it was my heart. In both places, and very in different ways, I had been shown the wisdom of simplicity, of community, of sharing, of smiling, and that maybe our relentless chase after the material has left us Westerners greatly impoverished as a result.

I’m still not sure quite where all these thoughts will end up, and certainly they were displaced for a bit by the materialistic orgy of Christmas, but boy, were many chords struck.

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Fancy Hotel of the Week–Villa Chan Grajang

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Fancy Hotel of the Week-Villa Chan Grajang. Well, it’s not quite a hotel, but an absolutely stunning and very large private villa, but since it comes equipped with its own Thai chef, large staff and the most wonderful housekeeper ever, it feels like you’re staying in your very own exclusive boutique hotel and therefore seems to work for the purposes of this ongoing series (which I’m sure none of you remember, it’s been so long since I last did a Fancy Hotel post).

 Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to go to Thailand for a retreat with life coach Susan Hyatt was the fact that Miz Susan doesn’t do anything by halves. When she was organising her retreat she went straight to a website called AwesomeVillas.com which, awesomely, specialises in, you guessed it, awesome villas. Except that the villa we ended up in – the Villa Chan Grajang overlooking Surin Beach – was more than awesome. Stupendous and sensational are superlatives that come to mind, and, judging by the collective intake of breath that occurred when we all arrived, I guess breathtaking would fit the bill too.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

As you all know I have a terrible weakness for stunning architecture (an astrologer friend blames it on my moon in Libra), and, after living in Kinfolk in last week’s blog post, this was more akin to taking a vacation in Architectural Digest.

I was so happy here. The lines and symmetry of the buildings were incredibly soothing to the eye and to the soul; the saltwater pool was the perfect blue and the perfect length, and the minimalism of the buildings just served to enhance the spectacular planting and views. Everywhere you looked there was a new vista or detail to observe – a reflection, a shape, a shadow or a texture. My eyes were drowning in beauty, yet relishing every moment and it felt almost spiritually uplifting. It was an object lesson in how our surroundings can affect our moods and mental well-being for good or for ill, and one that I need to apply to my own untidy bedroom and office.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Obviously we had to find out who was the lucky owner of such gorgeousness, and after a few judicious moments with Google, Susan worked out that it was the artist Damien Hirst. Which figured, as its cool white lines were not so very different from the cool white lines of his restaurant Pharmacy, which I used to live close to in my Notting Hill days. I don’t think I’ve been so jealous of a person in my life.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Mr Hirst, if I promise never to call you a charlatan again, will you invite me back to your astonishing house?

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The beauty of the villa was only enhanced by the tranquil presence of Pom the housekeeper -  one of many people I met in Thailand who are beautiful both inside and out -  and her wonderful staff. I adored the Thai way of decorating with fresh flowers and little flourishes. The Thais take such pleasure in beautifying the everyday, which is another lesson I need to take to heart.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The view from my bedroom

The food was faintly astonishing too – with mindboggling depths of overlapping spices, flavours and textures, presented again in the most beautiful way. Believe me, the overly salty and sugary Thai food you can find in the US or UK bears little resemblance to the subtle intricacies of the dishes we were served. In my next life I want to come back as someone who has a live-in Thai chef. Surely that wouldn’t be too much to ask?

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I loved this place. Loved, loved, loved it and couldn’t bear to leave. One day I will return. That’s a promise.

 

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The villa was even gorgeous in the rain

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Did you notice all the beautiful women in this post? My fellow retreaters were some of the loveliest, kindest, most creative, thoughtful and inspirational people you could wish to meet. It was a privilege to get to know them.

The Villa Chan Grajang is available to rent through Awesome Villas. Please take me with you.

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Fish and Spices–the Wet Market in Phuket

 

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

This woman was everything, everything

Dear hearts. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I killed some pixels in the service of this blog.

I have no truly compelling excuse, but have been busy with a new freelance job researching and writing a weekly travel post for Seattle Refined  (all enticing ideas for travel which will appeal to a Pacific Northwest audience gratefully  received).

Then most of October seemed to be swallowed up by a two week trip to Thailand, and the resultant packing, unpacking and crippling jetlag. Brace yourselves now for total Thai overload. I am totally, ridiculously obsessed with the country, its people and dear god, the food.  

Just to whet your appetite, I attended the magnificent Blue Elephant cooking school in Phuket Town on the last day of my trip and part of the class involved a brisk walk round the most fabulous wet market. We only had half an hour or so here as part of our workshop, which was tragic really, as I could easily have photographed here all day, every day for the rest of my life and not got bored.

All human, and, so it seems, aquatic, life is here, chaps, and I learned much about Thailand and its people.

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I learned that smiling is Thailand’s national sport and the Thai people are Olympic-level practitioners.

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Possibly because their babies are Olympic-levels of cute.

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Though I wasn’t quite sure about this comedy tee-shirt ( and neither, it seems, were they).

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I learned that Thais are also quite amazingly beautiful.

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

As is their seafood.

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com
Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

They enjoy hacking at things with big cleavers.

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Yes, that is a frog.

They will eat all parts of an animal (as is only right and proper).

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Yes, that is blood. 

And they are somewhat fond of chillies in all their forms.

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And there is no such thing as too many coconuts.

Phuket - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I would give my eye teeth (if I knew what they were) to be able to shop in a market like that every day. Wouldn’t you?

Come and visit the markets of Campo de’ Fiori, Rome and the Cote d’Azur with me. Markets make me happy.

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