Maybe I’m just jaded after two months of unrelenting haze in Kuala Lumpur that has burned my throat and prevented me from breathing deeply? Maybe I’m just tired after moving house and having a handful of minor illnesses playing Sardines in my body for a month? Or maybe this is what happens when you are too simply too lucky?
I’m here in Phuket. It’s my third Phuket Paradise Writers Annual Retreat, held in a charming boutique hotel where the food is great and Anne O’Connell, our leader, simply does a brilliant job at keeping us inspired and entertained. So far so good, right?
Today we had the grown up equivalent of a school trip. We were taking a minivan the one and half hour drive onto the mainland and then a longboat out to Panyee Island in Phangna Bay – a place maybe better known for James Bond Island.
Today, in Thailand foreigners are not allowed to own land or property and if they do a local must own 51%. Back in the 18th century, foreigners could not own any land at all. It was then that a bunch of Malay muslim fishermen decided to make a home at Panyee, only, in order to get round the law, they built their homes on the water. On stilts. To this day, the community lives happily outside the law. They made a living from fishing and pearls. Only now the Malay have gone and, instead, it is the Thai muslims who live here, still fishing and pearl-diving but also taking advantage of the tourists that flock there.
Now here comes the ungrateful bit…
Lucky me has lived in Brunei and seen the sprawling stilted water village of Kampung Ayer off Bander Seri Begawan. Koh Panyee is proud of its gold-domed mosque, its schools, its health centre. Kampung Ayer had those too.
After our 30-minute longboat ride (did those on primary rainforest rivers on Borneo) through a landscape that was exactly the same (to me) as the geopark Ian and I had visited off Langkawi, we reached Panyee. Immediately we were immersed in a labyrinth of stalls selling exactly the same items (to me) as at Borobudur temple near Jogjakarta a month ago. I’ve seen stalls selling floaty fabric stamped with elephants in Cambodia and on Bali. And the carved animals, cloth bags and serrated wooden frogs you scrape with a bit of wood so they croak. After your gozllionth you too want to croak. It’s hot. It muggy and frankly, it’s boring.
Our task that day was to be assailed by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes and then be inspired to write a story based on one of those senses. I certainly wasn’t going to be inspired by the shops. Oh no. Still, I was determined to find something that, to spoilt old me, was different enough and new enough to catch my attention.
It was about this time that Dave Kinnell came into my mind. We met Dave almost 30 years ago in Dubai. He was a helicopter pilot and came from ‘Oop North’ in the UK. We went on many trips with Dave and his girlfriend Sandra during those early years and as one stunning landscape after another came into view and yet again we stopped the car and had a photo stop to admire the mountains, Dave would say, “Eee, lads. It’s just like Yorkshire!” Which of course it wasn’t, but the irony of the sentiment was that it seems that wherever we go in the world we often focus on the sameness rather than the difference of a place.
And so, as I wandered the wooden walkways of Panyee, I was thinking how very like a South-East Asian Yorkshire it was. Same tat for sale, same fishing nets being mended, same unsafe planks to walk on, same headscarved smiling women, hunkered on low steps half-watching their toddlers and half keeping an eye out for a punter. It was hot. I was hot. I did what I simply can’t help myself doing when I am a bit bored and walk ahead of everyone else. I resolved to keep my grump at bay at decided to focus instead on the positive.
Opening my eyes a little wider than the unhelpful tunnel vision I’d been employing I took on the eyes of the photographer, looking instead for shots that could adopt a cameo role in my day. Sure, I’d seen lobster pots before, but maybe none so beautifully piled outside a door? I’d seen plenty of boiled-sweet-coloured bougainvillea but none no starkly contrasting with the tattered sheets and blankets that had become the wall to someone’s verandah.
We turned right at last and Anne and Carol stopped to sample what looked liked honey roasted Bombay mix – speckled red with chilli and green with kaffir lime leaves. A scoop hewn from coconut lay there offering free tastes. We tasted. Surprise surprise! It was made of dried shrimp, powerfully hot and quite delicious. Who
knew you could make a sweet and spicy snack from smelly old dried fish? Once bagged in cellophane, the mix resembled Marks and Spencer pot pourri. My spirits lifted further when I spied a stall selling rather pretty rattan handbags that would make perfect gifts. I bought two.
The sound of soft drumming skeined towards us from a building at the end of the lane where children in pastel pink blouses and black shorts moved around a courtyard. We had found the school. It was break time and while the classrooms to the right were filled with tinies taking a nap, just a few feet away a music lesson was in full swing. The nappers slept on, oblivious. The school was calm and cool despite the heat. Its paneled walls were painted too in pastels and, with the bay on one side and the mosque and mountain on the other, it was a privilege to be able to immerse ourselves in the serene simplicity of the people. We took a few group photos. They tell a story all of their own. Look how on the edge I was!
Beyond the school I saw something I really had never seen before. In no way was this like Yorkshire.
In 1986, inspired by the FIFA World Cup, the kids of Panyee were desperate to play football but, having no land, were forced to improvise. They made themselves a floating football field from scraps of wood and fishing rafts. Desperate to reach competition standard they worked hard and made it to the semi-final of an inland tournament. Since 2011 Panyee FC has become one of the most successful clubs in Southern Thailand. More recently sponsors have helped with the construction of a new FIFA standard field. The team now wins national competitions. A film about the field can be seen on YouTube.
Fuelled by the floating field of dreams it was time to fuel ourselves with lunch. As we sat down at one of the many restaurants, everyone started to show off their purchases. I still felt complacent. I knew many of the items were not really Thai, so had not been tempted. But then Anne showed us some pearl jewellery that was both well-priced and beautiful and my fingers began to twitch. Had I missed the boat now? Was I too late to go and look a little closer at the shops? It seemed not and with a few minutes to spare before our longboat arrived, I too succumbed and happily so.
In summary, then, sure, much of the day was a bit same-old but had I not opened my eyes to the many sights that were worth absorbing, the new tastes that were on offer and my ears to the music that emanates from women admiring each other’s purchases, I would have missed out on much that was enriching.