Elephant Hills

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Khao Sok National Park

From Karon Beach, Phuket it was a 3 and a half hour journey by minibus up to the Khao Sok National Park where Elephant Hills, Thailand’s first luxury tented camp, is located. We arrived in time for lunch before checking into our accommodation for the night. Although remote, the camp has all the facilities – ensuite permanent tents, a swimming pool, wifi, bar and shop. The tents have proper beds, lighting etc. and are surprisingly spacious.

Our first activity was canoeing down the Sok River. This was a guided canoe so all we had to do was sit back and enjoy the views as our guide did all the hard paddling. The scenery was stunning, although the rain did put a literal slight dampener on things! We arrived close to the elephant camp and then moved on to Elephant Hills most famous attraction: the elephants themselves.

All of the elephants are female since males can become aggressive, and all have been rescued. There is no option to ride the animals – the aim is to keep their routine as close to what they would choose to do themselves. Since the elephants enjoy being bathed and fed, those are the activities that the guests are allowed to take part in. We first watched a couple of the animals playing in the waterhole (above – getting themselves muddy) before we moved to the bathing area. We used a hose and coconut husk to scrub mud from their rough hide. With three of us to each elephant it took a while until they were judged clean (or became bored and wanted to wander off).

 

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Washing elephants is surprisingly hard work!

Then we moved onto the feeding station. We were shown how to prepare fruit, sugar cane and elephant grass, then how to wrap medicine parcels to supplement their diet. Some elephants had a preference of what they wanted to eat, discarding what they didn’t want. My elephant ate everything before it!

 

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Two elephants competing for food

From here it was a ten minute drive back to our accommodation and time for a well-needed shower before the evening activities commenced. These are all optional and so we missed the documentary on elephants but made it in time to see a dance performance (by children from a local school) and a cooking demonstration on Thai curries including a taster. Eight pm was dinner time – buffet style. Guests sit at long tables so it’s quite a social atmosphere. Drinks at the bar are also very reasonably priced.

The jungle is surprisingly noisy at night but the beds were comfortable and so no one was too out of sorts the next morning. Breakfast was buffet again, with a good mix of cooked and cold foods. After getting drenched on the canoes the day before we all invested 30THB (approx. 75p) in plastic ponchos just in case.

We had a 45 minute drive to visit a local market where we had a little free time, before heading on to the Rajjaprabha Dam. The dam was built to help with flood prevention and to provide power, creating the Cheow Lan Lake. It was about an hour by long tailed boat out to our home for the next night – the Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp. This is a floating camp consisting of tents very similar to those in the main camp.

 

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Arriving at the Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp

The whole camp floats on top of the lake, each tent coming with its own two person kayak. Even out here we had power (provided by solar panels) and hot water, but had to do without wifi or phone signal which was quite liberating. After checking in we had lunch and that afternoon’s activity was a jungle trek (which I will admit I gave a miss). Those of us who remained at the camp could take out our kayaks – there are monkeys in the area, wild elephants (though no one saw one) and I even saw a bat swimming in the water.

 

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The interior of the tents

It was incredibly relaxing being on the water. On the following morning we took a guided kayak out further into the lake than we felt comfortable doing alone. At lunchtime the next days group arrived and we left in their boat, headed back to civilisation and then on to Krabi…

Previous post: Karon Beach, Phuket

 

 

 

 

Karon Beach, Phuket

The best time to travel to Phuket is during the dry season – November to April. However, work trips tend to be off-season and so I am here in September, the height of the monsoon. As I type this it’s actually dry and sunny, but it has rained during my trip quite a lot. I have been told though that this is the rainiest September in years and it has not been a washout by  any means. For the thrifty traveller, hotel rates can be around 50 per cent lower at this time of year so you can get a bargain or treat yourself to an upgraded room. I travelled with a group of Flight Centre agents courtesy of Etihad and Centara Resorts.

We stayed at the 5* Centara Grand Beach Phuket, located on the beachfront at Karon Beach. Karon is a tourist town with plenty of shops and restaurants but without being as seedy as near neighbour Patong. There is a good mix of accommodation with the big chains such as Centara, Hilton, Movenpick etc. but also locally owned hotels. From Phuket airport it is around an hour’s transfer south. In Karon itself there is a road running along most of the beach so the Centara Grand is one of the few absolute beachfront hotels in the area.

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Relaxing in the adults only pool at Centara Grand

The great thing with the Centara Grand is that it’s great for families, with kids club, lazy river and waterslides, but for couples there is an adults only pool and the option of spa rooms (with Jacuzzi on the balcony) and pool suites which are more secluded and quiet. The property is a ten minute walk along the beach into town as well.

In addition to the Grand, Centara have two more properties in Karon. We went to see these the day after we arrived.

Centara Villas is a 4* property set into the hillside about 5 minutes drive from the Centara Grand. It’s far smaller, with only around 70 rooms, all in a Thai villa style. All the rooms are the same inside but you can choose to upgrade to Oceanfacing, Spa (again with the Jacuzzi on the balcony) or Pool Villa. This resort is steep with lots of steps so not one for those with walking difficulties. This would be great for couples who want a quiet authentic Thai feel. Although not beachfront, from the pool area there is a path leading down to the public beach, so access is easy enough.

4* Centara Karon Resort is right in the heart of Karon town, less than a five minute walk to the public beach. This is probably more of a family resort but does have four sections: the Terraces, lead-in rooms good for friends and couples on a budget; the Lagoon which has more spacious rooms for families (and the pool here is full of kids! Not for those wanting peace and quiet); the Tropicale section which is much quieter, and The Cabanas featuring pool cabana style rooms. Despite being surrounded by shops and restaurants, there is very much a resort feel and with rooms off-season starting at around £50 per night B&B, it’s perfect for a budget break, and is excellent for families.

 

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One of the three pools at Centara Karon

We only had one full day in Phuket, so what better way to finish it off than with a night out in infamous Patong! Yes,there are ping pong shows and seedy bars. Yes, it is loud and busy, and I wouldn’t want to stay there for long, but a few hours on Bangla Road can be fun. We headed to Monsoon, a bar with live music and cheap drinks (beers for less than £2, spirits and mixer for around £4). Fun was had by all and we headed back home around 2am to get some rest before our next adventure: Elephant Hills (next blog post).

 

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The guys enjoying shots on Bangla Road

 

 

 

 

Keeping Up Appearances – Part Four

Belgravia

Maria was taking tea with Celine in the morning room when Sam arrived home.

‘We decided to call upon one another since we are both now social pariahs and no one else would care to visit,’ Maria told him.

‘Well, I’m sure that Celine’s company is preferable to those prissy ladies we used to encounter at those dull dinner parties,’ Sam replied, sitting and accepting a cup from his wife.

Celine smiled at Sam and put her cup and saucer back on the tray. ‘I will leave you two alone. You must have a lot to discuss. Sam, do you mind if I use your piano?’

‘Celine, you must treat it as your own. The reception rooms of this house are for you to use freely, how many more times can I tell you.’

As soon as she’d gone, Maria turned to him, her face serious. ‘Sam, are you angry with me?’

‘No! Why on earth should I be angry?’ he lied.

‘You’ve barely said a word to me since the doctor came. Are you not happy about the baby? I thought that you would want an heir.’

‘Maria.’ He took her hand and kissed it. ‘You know that I am not good when it comes to emotional matters. I will admit that I have not behaved appropriately. I am still getting used to considering myself married, after all!’

‘Well, it has been almost a year now,’ Maria reminded him. ‘At least the rumours that we were forced into a sudden wedding have abated now that no child has been produced as of yet.’

‘Your sister must be disappointed,’ Sam remarked. ‘I’m sure she was the one who started that particular piece of gossip. But I am sorry. I entered into this arrangement on the understanding that we would always maintain our friendship and that I would do my best to give you a proper marriage.’

Maria looked away, fidgeting with her skirt. ‘I know that you don’t love me. I don’t expect you to suddenly fall head over heels like we are in a fairy tale, but it is harder than I thought. You rescued me from marriage to a man that I hate. For that I am, and will always be, grateful.’

‘And you saved me from becoming a pompous and lonely old man.’ Sam took her face in his hands, gently forcing her to look into his eyes. ‘I am not in love with you, Maria, as you are not with me, but I do care for you. I can promise you that I will do my best to make you happy, and I hope this child will do that for you.’

She smiled finally. ‘You are a good man, Sam. No matter what everyone else says.’

‘What does everyone else say about me?’ He threw his hands up in mock distress. ‘I thought they all loved me.’

Maria giggled as he put on his act for her, David’s disapproving shadow just visible from the corner of his eye as he silently removed the tea set. He was not sure for how much longer he could keep up this charade of a life, different players performing various roles that even he could not always keep up with. Maria, David, even Daniel once the Hamburg child materialised, all complicit in different compartments of Sam’s life, none of them knowing the whole truth of how Samuel McCarthy had ended up in London. The perfect figure of a well-travelled gentleman, in reality a scared child running from his past, keeping up appearances in any way he could.

 

 

The Strangler Vine – M.J. Carter

 

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The Strangler Vine  by M.J. Carter (2014), Penguin

The Strangler Vine is the first novel in the Blake and Avery series (two currently published, with the third due out next month). Historical crime is huge at the moment, and this novel shows why.

We meet Ensign William Avery in Calcutta. The year is 1837 and he is working, rather unhappily, for the East India Company. Apart from the friendship of fellow Englishman Frank, Avery hates everything about India: the food, the weather, the people. He is in debt and in love with the beautiful Helen Larkbridge who is courted by far more senior and handsome men than himself. In short, he dreams of returning to England but with no prospects and no money to pay for the voyage, he is trapped.

Then Avery is made a strange offer. He is commanded to track down Xavier Mountstuart, a writer who has disappeared while researching his new book. His association with the Company, and the controversial nature of his writing, mean that the Company want him found, dead or alive, so they can settle the matter once and for all. His companion is to be Jeremiah Blake, a former Company man who fell in love with India and out of sorts with the British way of doing things. The two despise  one another on first sight, and it seems an impossible task, but Avery’s great hope is that Blake’s knowledge of local languages, and of the terrain, will keep them alive at least.

Their search takes them north into the Kali-worshipping Thugee territory, the home of infamous gangs of bandits who are said to befriend travellers before robbing and killing them. These legends are the reason Mountstuart went north before them, but nobody seems to have seen him, and those who have won’t speak of him. There is danger everywhere, on all sides, and Avery and Blake finally are forced to work together if they have any chance of saving themselves.

This book was shortlisted for several awards when it was published and I could immediately see why. I know nothing about nineteenth century India but Carter brings the sights and smells to life. I cannot say if it is perfectly authentic but it feels that way, and the contrast between Avery and his hatred of anything ‘foreign’, that ridiculous colonial viewpoint when in another country, and Blake’s love for his adopted land, is a great vehicle, highlighting the issues of colonialization. The story came first though and the action never stopped, the pair hurtling from one situation to the next, the eventual resolution satisfying. One for any fan of historical fiction, but particularly those who enjoy thrillers and adventure.

 

 

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh (2015), Vintage

I thought that I was going to hate this book, having read mixed reviews, but I have to say that I ended up enjoying it. Perhaps it helped that I read the interview with author Ottessa Moshfegh (click here) from the Guardian last week. It is an interesting read to say the least, but coming to the novel with a different perspective made me read it differently, I think, than I might otherwise have done, and I do think it warrants its place on the Man Booker shortlist.

Set in 1964, Eileen tells her story from the present day, her outlook on life as a septuagenarian informing her view of herself as a twenty four year old growing up in small town Massachusetts. She lives with her father, a retired cop who spends his days in an alcoholic haze. Her mother is dead and she is not close to her sister though she lives not far away. Eileen works as a secretary in a boys’ prison. She despises pretty much everyone around her apart from Randy, one of the prison guards, who she has a crush on and occasionally stalks. To say that she is disturbed is to put it mildly. She lives in filth, her father sleeping in a broken recliner seat in their foul kitchen (Moshfegh describes this in such a way that I was glad not to be eating when I read this), Eileen on a camp bed in the attic. She barely eats, occasionally binges, and has an addiction to laxatives to make herself feel better. She saves her money and dreams one day of escaping to New York, even making a test run in her barely functioning car, only to almost asphyxiate when the emissions from the faulty exhaust build up.

Everything changes when the glamorous Rebecca Saint John arrives in town. A Harvard graduate, newly employed as the prison’s first ever director of education, she befriends Eileen and becomes her new obsession, Randy the guard instantly relegated. Eileen tells us beforehand that Rebecca is going to be the real star of the story, building the suspense with little hints so that when Rebecca finally arrived on page 92, I was desperate to find out who she was, what was going to happen. You know it’s something big, something that will change Eileen’s life forever.

Eileen is not a likeable character. Even the future version of Eileen thinks her former self odd. She is part unreliable narrator but is also more honest than any of these other so-called ‘unlikeable women’ who are so popular right now. The book is part confessional, an older woman unburdening herself on the page. She is a difficult character but more real for it. The pacing of the novel is brilliant. You are waiting for the inevitable climax to take place but when I did not guess at what was ahead, though the clues were there. It managed to be both extreme and yet still sat within the realms of plausibility. This is not always a comfortable book to read but if you are a fan of noir, then Eileen is certainly as dark and cold as a Massachusetts winter.

Reviews of other Man Booker shortlisted books:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

Books – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Books – The Sellout by Paul Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem – Peter Ackroyd

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Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem – Peter Ackroyd (1994)

This is a book that I first came across some time ago and had on my TBR list of novels set in Victorian London. I was reminded of its existence last week when I saw that it has been made into a film, The Limehouse Golem, which has just been shown at the Toronto Film Festival. From reading the review of the film, it seems to be quite different to the book. I will reserve judgment until I can see it but I think that the film may change the story into a more clear-cut murder mystery which should work well. The book attracted rave reviews when it was published over twenty years ago, and I enjoyed reading it. The question that I kept asking myself was: would this book be so well reviewed if it were to be published today?

We open with a striking and short chapter (two and a half pages) depicting the execution of Elizabeth Cree on the 6th April 1881. The description of this ritual is incredible. The sounds of the howling prisoners, the strategic placing of the coffin so that the condemned woman had to walk past it on her way to the gallows. Horrific. Cree has been hung for the murder of her husband John, dead through arsenic poisoning. Although Elizabeth plead her innocence, she seems to accept her fate rather willingly, even refusing to wear the hood as she is prepared to be hung. Is she guilty?

But there is more than one murderer abound it seems. The first known killing by the Limehouse Golem occurs on the 10th September 1880, the body of Jane Quig, a local prostitute, is found in three separate parts. The murderer’s modus operandi is to provide the public with as gruesome a death as can be managed, taking inspiration from the famous real-life murders of the entire Weir family in 1812. But who is the Golem? It is Inspector Kildare’s job to find out.

The atmosphere of the novel is spot on. I was straight into Victorian London. We follow Elizabeth Cree’s early life from poverty to the music halls where she meets Dan Leno and finds success on the stage. Ackroyd brings in many real-life characters and as well as Leno we have Karl Marx and George Gissing sitting together in the British Museum reading room. We even meet Charlie Chaplin’s parents. I love the addition of the trial transcripts to tell part of the story rather than writing these chapters in straight prose.

I trusted the facts in this book implicitly. The research is impeccable and is brought to life in a series of wonderful vignettes showing the lives of these well-known real-life personalities. Where I think the book falls down a little for me is that most of these well written segments have absolutely no relation to either the murder of John Cree or the mystery of the Limehouse Golem. There are tenuous links between John Cree’s visits to the British Museum and the inclusion of Marx and Gissing who study there at the same time, but as interesting from a historical point of view as these chapters are, they slow the pace of what should be a thrilling crime novel. Very little time was spent with Inspector Kildare in investigation the Golem, though I notice that his is the lead role in the film. I was also curious as to how Dan Leno ended up in the title of the novel since he is not a lead character, nor even a suspect in the murders, but I notice that the book is titled The Trial of Elizabeth Cree in other countries.

Overall, if you have an interest in historical fiction or Victorian London, you should enjoy this book. If I had picked it up as a crime or mystery novel alone then I may have been a little disappointed. There is a great twist (although I did guess it a little early) and the chapters written from the point of view of the Golem are fascinating. I just would have liked to spend a little more time on the mystery and less time following Karl Marx on his household visits

Keeping Up Appearances – Part Three

Missed Part Two? Keeping Up Appearances – Part Two

Belgravia

Sam was glad for the opportunity to hide away at the Olympia the next day. He had forced himself to go and congratulate Maria the day before, and had been surprisingly cheered by her contagious excitement. It was better than David’s continued sulking but the theatre accounts held a strange attraction today that he had never felt before. Figures on the page – they made sense when nothing else seemed to.

‘Sam!’ Daniel came charging in, startling Sam so that he blotted ink on his page.

‘Daniel, can I help you?’ Sam sighed heavily.

‘I hope so.’ Daniel sat down. ‘Ned Bennett. He has told everyone that he’ll be the lead in the next play.’

‘Well I have told him no such thing. And when could I have? I have been in your company for the past few weeks, with barely a moment to myself.’ Sam slammed his pen down.

Daniel watched his friend warily. ‘I see your point. He’s just a… I mean to say that he has a face that aches to be punched! And he enjoys poking fun at me, I swear.’

‘Have you tried ignoring him?’

‘Yes! But he won’t leave me alone and I am convinced that he’s having an affair with one of the ballet girls.’

‘Well, as long as she is a consenting adult there is no harm done.’ Sam gave up on salvaging the paper and ripped it neatly in two, pressing the two sides together to absorb the ink. ‘From what I’ve seen, the man can act but he is too temperamental. He has been late to rehearsals on occasion, and I’ve smelt the gin on him myself. He will have his uses but you will always be first choice, as long as I’m the manager here.’

‘Oh. Thank you.’ Daniel was mollified. ‘Of course, I’ll say nothing to Bennett. I’ll allow him his fun. But what goes on with you? You seem all out of sorts. The idea of being a father does not appeal?’

Sam leaned back. ‘It has come as rather a shock, I admit. Relations between Maria and I have been rather…strained of late. I had not expected it.’

‘No.’ Daniel was not surprised. Maria had taken Celine into her confidence, and occasionally his wife let small grains of information slip, knowing that Daniel would never say anything to Sam. ‘At least Maria seems happy, though of course now all Celine can talk of is when we shall start our own family… But I shall leave you to your sums.’

No sooner had Daniel left than his nemesis, Ned Bennett was disturbing Sam’s peace.

‘I want to talk to you about my future here.’ Ned leaned forward over the desk, provoking Sam to move back in response. ‘I know that Danny is back, and I appreciate that he’s done well for you, but I have something more to offer.’

‘And what would that be?’ Sam’s face clearly betrayed his distaste at this over-zealous approach, but Ned did not seem to notice.

‘I don’t want to cause offence, only I have worked at the Theatre Royal in the past. Drury Lane.’

‘You have mentioned that to me once or twice.’

‘Yes,’ Ned missed the sarcasm. ‘Anyway, you must realise that there’s a reason why you struggle with reviews. At the Royal, all the critics come out in force on opening night, whereas here you are having to bribe third rate journalists like Langston just to turn up.’

‘There is not much I can do about our location, Mr Bennett. We are not at a fashionable West End address, and for some of these so-called professional critics, that is all that matters to them.’

‘Ah, but they could be enticed, I know that they could. See, I know how these men think and they don’t hold with a negro in the plum parts. As an occasional novelty perhaps, and they’d even stomach him in the comic roles. Your Falstaff or Bottom, still good roles.’

‘And you would be my saviour?’ Sam stood and retrieved his jacket from the stand in the corner. ‘I do not think so, Mr Bennett. From what I’ve seen you are a competent actor but Daniel Johnson is a step above. The men you speak of are not worthy of pandering. If they cannot recognise talent then they have no business earning a living as critics.’

Perhaps by confronting his fears he would find peace, he thought. Time to go home and speak with his wife.