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Window on the Gulf of Thailand

Ask most people what GOT stands for and they think of a popular TV show.

This week's feature is a GOT of another kind - the massive Gulf of Thailand (see the map at the end) with three, also very popular – and different – holiday destinations. Let's look at them, moving in a clockwise direction around the gulf.

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Koh Samui, Thailand

Although this looks like every woman's dream for multi-tasking, it is actually the 20-metre high Goddess of Mercy and you'll find her on the Thai island of Koh Samui, close to the Laughing Buddha at Wat Plai Laem, a very popular temple completed in 2004.

In Thailand the goddess is also known as Phra Mae Kuan Im. She is very highly revered and known as the protector of women and children, the sick and the poor and, with her many arms, can help numerous people at once. But wait, there's more - one Buddhist legend, attributes a thousand arms to her! 

We dropped in at Koh Samui's small port town of Nathon during a cruise from Singapore. Fishing is a huge industry in the Gulf of Thailand, and at night the horizon is sprinkled with the lights of hundreds of boats. We were told that the green lights which from underwater squid confuse with the moon, encourages them to rise to the surface, and be caught more easily.

As is the usual practice, on arrival at the wharf, we had been bombarded with people wanting to sell us taxi tours of the island. One woman approached us and suggested her son could drive us in her car. His name was Om (above, with his 'mother'). I am not sure he was her son but he turned out to be a very good driver and, as he is also a tour guide, he shared plenty of information about the island and was endlessly patient with our requests for photo-stops.

 


SEE MORE ON THIS VIDEO....

Throughout south-east Asia, drinks such as these are tasty and cooling. If you are concerned about those worm-like shapes in the cups - don't be! The locals love to add slurp-worthy coloured noodles to sweetened coconut milk and fruit juices, and it adds to the enjoyment.

Peanuts are another popular snack, sold in many places.

The population of Koh Samui is 65,000, but around 1.5 million tourists visit annually. This means the island is very much geared to tourism and roads can be busy in peak season, while temples and other places of interest may be crowded. It is only a small island - about 25 kilometres long and 21 kilometres wide – and so a round-island trip, with many breaks for sightseeing, takes just a few hours.

Koh Samui is located off the east coast of Thailand's Kra Isthmus and is Thailand's second-largest island after Phuket.

There are many Buddhist temples on Koh Samui and at least twenty-five of them are worth visiting if you have the time.

Elephants are of great importance in Thailand, and white elephants are rare and given special significance, often considered sacred and symbolising royalty. In Thailand and Burma they are also considered symbols of good luck.

The graceful lines and colours of temples have underlying significance. The use of ornamented multiple tiers is reserved for roofs on temples, palaces and important public buildings. Two or three tiers are most often used, but some royal temples have four.

Those upraised points are lamyong, sculpted in an undulating, serpentine shape. The blade-like projection suggests the fins and the feathers of Garuda, a mythical half man-half bird creature.

 

Possibly the most popular temple for visitors on the island to visit is this Laughing Buddha at Wat Plai Laem.

It is always worth remembering that respect is important when visiting such places. While temples may seem like a fun place to visit and photograph, they have deep significance for local people, and when visitors wear revealing clothing it is most offensive to them.

Please meet the thirty-metre high laughing Buddha himself.

And what better deity than this to bless your marriage? This happy couple certainly thought so.

As we travelled on around the island we stopped by to see Wat Sila Ngu a red terracotta temple, intricately carved. Each of these marks has been cut by artisans using blades and chisels, and the craftsmanship is amazing.

Wat Khun Aram has one of the world's most bizarre relics. Read the account of why a monk now sits in a glass display case nearby!

The body of this mummified monk, a highly revered former abbot of the temple who was also a meditation master, and able to predict his own death, has sat in this glass display since the 1970s. Devotees bring flowers and incense in tribute. 

At our final stop at a waterfall, we found this fellow being fed by visitors. I touched its trunk and it ‘whuffled’ at me and I could feel the air as it sniffed my hand. I felt very sad as it was hobbled with chains and will probably stay that way for life – a terrible way to treat a beautiful animal.

Needless to say he and his friends provided plenty of cellulose-rich material to create the elephant dung paper being sold on the premises.

Back in Nathon at the waterfront, we are reminded that many visitors come to Koh Samui not to see Buddhist temples, but the beaches and watersports.

Others come for diving and snorkelling around the more than forty breathtakingly beautiful islands in the vicinity.

More information on Koh Samui.....

More information on Thailand....

 


 

Pattaya, Thailand

Pattaya lies at the top of the Gulf of Thailand, technically in the Bay of Bangkok, a couple of heavy-traffic hours east of Thailand's capital. We were lucky enough to have a good friend and tour guide, Poom, to show us around the town and let us into secrets not everyone finds in the oft-maligned place.

Pattaya is an enigma. Its various sections help to explain it a little, Poom told us. To the north is the luxury area; south is the place for 'night walking'; and the centrel is home to shopping malls. Visit the latter for Tesco, department stores and discount outlets.

While many people think only of the colourful side to Pattaya, there is more to it than just that. Here, at Wat Khao Phra Bat, at the Monument of Kromluang Chomphonkhetudomsak, the founding father of the modern Thai navy, locals pray and burn incense. Nearby, noisy fireworks erupt at regular intervals from a brick tower, as a sign of respect.

This view back across Pattaya Bay from Phratumnak Hill, is the ideal place to come to enjoy the sweeping view, especially at sundown which is so popular that sunset times are posted here. Stay on to see the city lights over the water.

Jomtien Beach, in the southern part of the city, is popular with families, as it is more calm. It's also the place to come for parasailing, or simply a place to sit under the many shady sea almond trees. If you love watersports and swimming, check out the many other bays around Pattaya.

Where there are groups of people, there will always be food available, and here are quick snacks ideal for nibbling as you go.

If this is more like your mental image of Pattaya, that's because this city is a busy place, catering to many needs - most of them commercial.

Of course it is not difficult to locate the red light areas, the ladyboy shows, and almost anything else you can think of. The signs are explicit, often in  English....

....although many Russians have immigrated to the area recently, so don't be surprised to see Cyrillic script on signs. Love it or leave it, there is plenty for everyone in this town. 

In the big shopping malls, you could be anywhere in the world, with luxury goods....

...and dining chains and such as Sizzler, and this Japanese restaurant.

More about visiting Pattaya....

More information on Thailand....

 


 

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

On the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand and now in Cambodia, Sihanoukville (pronounced shnookville) was named in 1964 for ruling Prince Norodom Sihanouk. After some terrible decades of war and repression, Cambodia is now becoming popular again with tourists, and is not too spoiled. Yet! Sadly tourism, and all it brings, is not always the best thing for an emerging nation.

To see the city best, smile and give in to the entreaties of the tuk-tuk drivers posted at any entrance to the city. In our case it was the gates of the wharf, so we hired a man called Mr Li to show us around. Your transport can look like this (above), or else you may be offered a seat on a carved lounge in the back of a utility.

Word to the wise: Negotiate prices beforehand and be sure of what you and the driver have agreed.

As a market lover, it was a no-brainer to ask Mr Li to take us to the main city market, Psar Lu, and leave us there for an hour. Just inside the entrance was this glittering display. Howevere, as a mute commentary on the wide division in this city, as I was taking this picture, right behind me a legless man was lying on the ground, begging for money and food. The landmines in this country have claimed and maimed many people like him, and it is confronting and terrible.

Cambodian food sits somewhere between Vietnamese and Thai food. These bundles are probably the equivalent of our sausage rolls: quick, neat, easy to carry and eat, and very tasty, with rice wrapped around vegetables, spices and meats.

Choose a build-your-own Cambodian salad...

...pandan-flavoured jelly and coconut for dessert.....

.... and maybe a slice of rice and sesame seed cake to take with you.

For those with bigger appetites, this range of fried fish, meats, breads, noodles, and vegetables is a feast.

But as a bread baker and lover of all carbs, these, similar to Indian pappadams, caught my eye. I waited to see how they were made.

They could hardly be simpler. Large flat discs were toasted over a charcoal fine before heaping in a basket. And yes, in case you are wondering, I bought a couple to nibble as we finished walking around the market. They were crunchy and slightly sweet, and possibly were made with some rice flour. Without an English-speaking guide I couldn't find out more.

When our driver returned, he promised to show us some of the sights of this town with a population of around 200,000. The prominent Golden Lions Monument (Vimean Tao Meas) is located in the middle of the traffic circle between Sokha and Ochheuteal beaches. The monument was constructed in 1996 and the gardens around the monument have become a popular evening hangout for the locals, particularly teens. 

Ochheuteal Beach is popular with tourists for its shady beachside avenue, with places to relax, buy a cheap meal and even get a massage. Some say Otres beach is better.

The beach is known for people like this woman who carries her entire 'shop' suspended by a yoke on her shoulders. Her ingredients are on the left, but on the right is a stone charcoal-burning stove. I tried to pick it up and couldn't, yet she carries it all day. Little wonder she was happy to squat for a moment as I took her photo!

The seaood in these waters is tasty - and immense! Just some salt and a squeeze of lime completes the effect of these giants.

With tourism comes development. Sihanoukville is now seeing resorts like this one, Sokha Beach Resort.

While themain building is elaborate and luxurious and could have been lifted from any beachfront location, in the grounds stands this authentic Cambodian terracotta pavilion.

Yet, such are the contrasts in this country, that just half a kilometre away we pass a tribe of monkeys on the road, then a little later, buffalo and goats meandering down the tarmac.

Finally, high on a hill above the town we visit the star in the crown of this city.

The Wat Leu Buddhist temple overlooks the harbour and surrounding area. Ornate, covered in gold.... 

......every inch carved and decorated, it has Buddhas galore....

 

... and more gold than most people see in a lifetime.

Calmly making their way through all this, dozens of monks in saffron and maroon robes ignore the tourists and their cameras as they go about their day's work and studies.

And here is my new little friend who came up and talked to me while I was exploring this temple.

The face of new Cambodia, she wears a shirt with a badge that shows the world cares about her, and her country, as both struggle to gain a foothold in the modern world. The badge reads Enfants du Cambodge an international NGO dedicated to assisting children of Cambodia.

More about Sihanoukville.....

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The Gulf of Thailand

 

Text and photos: ©Sally Hammond 2016

Video: ©Gordon Hammond 2016

Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled to this region independently.

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