Friday, December 17, 2010

Next stop: koh lanta

After a week it was time to move on - with some reluctance, especially as the weather has been gradually improving. However the night we left it started to rain heavily again and continued right through until breakfast. We had a leisurely drive up via old Takua Pa, well up into the hills above the port, then by back roads through mountainous heavily wooded countryside, and down the other side to Phang Nga, mostly in sunahine, dodging the clouds - very beautiful part of the country.
This is the start of the limestone countryside that stretches from Krabi well up the coast and produces spectacular jagged mountains and islands out into the Andaman Sea. Then continuing on through Krabi eventually to the car ferry to Koh Lanta. This is a jolly affair, brightly painted with landscapes and palm trees but otherwise a purely utilitarian vehicle that wheezes its way across the narrow strait.
In fact there's a second, smaller ferry too, because the island is split in two by another narrow stretch of water.
The Layana is a much grander affair than the Haadson - owned by south Africans, the rooms are arranged in small pavilions around a huge lawn that somehow gives the place a colonial feel. There is a huge pool leading down to the beach and restaurant and bar for sunset views. The beach is much smaller than at the last place, and rather more populated, but still a fantastic place to be.
We spent five days here and it was hard to find fault with anything - the staff friendly and efficient but not at all formal, fantastic food, both Thai and European, comfortable room, beautiful beach, and excellent weather.
We also dropped by some of the beach bars at night for a Chang beer and the inevitable fire juggling show accompanied by Thai reggae. Laid back or what?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A tear to Simon's eye

Sad isn't it that here we are in a tropical paradise and we are still thinking about the semi final and final of X Factor? Thanks to modern contrivances in general and youTube in particular, we have been able to see most of it ... so in honour of its finale, how about this for next year's winner's song? I'm not saying they're formulaic or anything but...

Some chords on the piano
Singing quiet and low:
The judges look worried, where’s this gonna go?
But I’m going to convince them
That I really know
How to sing a true X Factor ballad well.

So bring in the strings!
Soaring above me
You need violins
To make people love me
The chorus takes wings
The start
Of a wonderful part
I’m gonna make the audience sigh…
And bring a tear to Simon’s eye!

Now – we – bring - in - the - drums!

See Cheryl, Louis, perking
Dannii starting to sway.
The beat’s kicking up now, this song on its way;
And I’m starting to convince them
That I really know
How to make a true X Factor ballad swell.

So crank up the beat
And add a few-ew-ew grace notes,
Sounding so sweet,
The way to ge-eh-et ace votes.
The audience know
I’ll go
To the big final show:
This song will send the ratings sky high
And bring a tear to Simon’s eye!

And so expectancy, the bridge is building suspense -
The melody rising, it never relents -
Orchestral score, and what’s in store that makes us so tense?
A big note and a big key change…


A big key CHANGE!
(Choir: So crank up the beat)
And over the gospel choir
(Choir: Sounding so sweet)
And I’m really really really on fire!
They’re out of their seats
On their feet
And they’re sure it will beat
The others with this climax here right now!!!


But then a pause, and quiet somehow…
A Christmas number 1 will sell and how…
And bring a tear to Simon’s eye…
Just piano chords again – wooo-ooooo…..

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Another winter in the warm

As the weather closes in over Britain it's time to head once more for the warmth of SE Asia. Must be the first time I've ever seen it snow in London in November, with apparently worse to come.

So it is that Ian and I can be found struggling though the snowdrifts to Stansted, in my case for nine weeks, in his for five, of gentle touring and general R&R.

OK, I'm exaggerating a little, but there was snow on the ground, and given the 8.30am flight time, we decided to set off the night before and stay at an airport hotel. This made it rather an epic journey especially as we were routed via KL, with a four hour wait, then to Krabi airport, followed by a 90 minute drive to our destination. All in all just about 24 hours door to door.

But well worth it when we saw our first destination, the Haadson resort, at Bang Sak beach, just up the coast from Khao Lak at one end of a huge almost deserted bay backed with stands of tall casuarina trees and coconut palms. The unbroken, empty beach stretches in a gentle arc 10km long, with just a few hotels hidden in the trees. The sea is a pale, almost milky aquamarine, and warm as a comfortable bath.

We have a little villa, one of a group on an island in a lagoon behind the beach. There are very few guests here and the whole place feels calm and peaceful. We can sit out on the verandah at night listening to the crickets and geckos and the waves breaking on the shore. The staff are very attentive with smiles all round (though they could do with a few more CDs for the music selection - they have a fondness for the sort of 60s tracks covered by filipino bands in every hotel lounge in the world - we are getting a little bored with Hotel California and Desperadoes). We are often the only guests in the restaurant, where we heave gone every night as the food is so good, and have worked our way right through their Thai menu.

We did get to chat with an elderly German couple - you know the type: wizened sunworshippers - a bit down because it has been cloudy most of the two weeks they were here. The conversation started up over the kittens that provided a cabaret every night under our feet, fighting, running after butterflies, mewing, wide-eyed, for scraps and generally being cute as only kittens can. One had a strange twist at the end of its tail like a question mark. I said it must have been in a fight. 'Ah no,' said the elderly German man soberly, 'we have seen many like this! They are not pure-bred!' Feeling a Fawlty Towers moment approaching rapidly, I quickly changed the subject.

Long walks along the beach, passing a few locals skipping school or fishing, and barely another tourist. Though the weather has been mixed, actually the cloudy days suit us as a gentle introduction and allow us to do a lot more walking than we would under full sunshine. The later part of the week has been more sunny, but we have had the odd sudden violent wind and thundery downpour too.

Slightly sobering are the hints of the tsunami in 2004. To the north on the point between our beach and the next bay, is the remains of a hotel now abandoned, its grounds stripped bare and the buiding open and forlorn. They are now making a Spanish film about the tsunami there (and at another location), building fake collapsed buildings out of plywood and polystyrene. Solid looking tsunami shelters have been built at intervals along the coast, with big staircases and high concrete platforms. Further north at Takua Pa there is a memorial for those who died in the area. Everywhere there are signs marking out evacuation routes to higher ground. The tsunami here was 4m above sea level, and for a long way behind the beach the ground is flat with lagoons at sea level; so it's easy to imagine the effect. But generally you have to look hard to see the physical effects, six years on. No doubt the impact on the local community has been much more severe than anything visible.

We have ventured out a little to Khao Lak and Takua Pa, which was in ancient times a great trading town, supplying spices to India, and whose name is said to derive from the Tamil word for cardamom - but there is little remaining to hint at this. But this is really a place for total rest and relaxation. Just off for my massage!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sun sea sand and sleep

Could this be the laziest holiday ever? I hope so. A few years back the idea of spending a week at the beach every day would have been anathema. But somehow it becomes more and more attractive, with the bus pass years rapidly approaching.
To be fair, I did spend a week in Bangkok, but this was bookended by weeks at Jomtien in Thailand and Negombo in Sri Lanka.
So a blow by blow account of this holiday won’t make much of a blog. Instead I’ll mention a few highlights and give you a link to the best of the pictures.

New Year’s Eve in Bangkok’s Silom Soi 4. Always good fun but I’m in danger of becoming a cliché!

Going out with the fishermen in Negombo, on a traditional wooden catamaran, entirely wind powered – and these things can move fast! Probably this will be the last generation to use them – motor boats are already appearing on this beach. It was amazing to see the way the boat twisted and moved with the waves, the outrigger having lots of give – a level of sophistication that probably goes back a thousand years or more.

The elephant orphanage at Kandy. Every day the elephants come down to the river to bathe, in family groups that they have built largely themselves – mostly they are young who have lost their parents through illness or poaching. There were over a hundred elephants there, and you get a sense of the different personalities and great variation in appearance – tall and short, skinny and fat, spotty trunks and plain. And a general sense of benign tolerance of the tourists flashing away around them.

Assiduous readers will remember my entry on weird signs that I have seen on my travels. I’m afraid my favourite sign at Wat Arun in Bangkok has been updated, although it’s not much clearer!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NY? Yes we can - the pictures

You can see an album of pictures from my New York/New England trip here:

NY? Yes we can - final


Clouds drift in from the Atlantic on a keen breeze

I wake up early and peek out of the house to see the mist rising over the lake. It's a gloriously sunny day and the light dapples through the trees and plays over the piles of leaf fall we have brushed to the corners of the deck. Just the odd raucous duck to disturb the peace.
I am falling in love with New England.
But it's now time to dash off again, and I drop Lincoln back at the station. Minutes later, Andrew arrives on a train out of New York and we start the gentle drive up to Provincetown where he also has a weekend place. This is all working like clockwork - I've managed to pack so much into a few days thanks to my friends' generosity.
It's always easy driving in the US and the roads are mostly quiet at this time of the year. We drive along the long sand bar that is Cape Cod passing pine woods and many small communities, although you don't see much until just before Provincetown when suddenly there it is across the last curve of water, with its huge stone Renaissance tower incongruously marking the town like one of those giant map pins in Google Earth.
Marking the Pilgrim Fathers' first landfall, it seems alien in this clapboard environment of little painted houses and picket fences. Andrew takes me for a walk around the town. Very different from his previous visit in high summer - we discover that this is Women's Week - and it certainly feels like it! The town is full of ladies of every size and shape and we are in a distinct minority.
Andrew shows me some of his favorite spots and then we walk out over the breakwater, a long line of rough granite boulders that stretches out to the far beaches on the last twist ot the Cape, which curves back in on itself here with a final flourish, forming a natural harbour. This explains why the place thrived as a fishing community in this remote location. Then it went through the familiar route of attracting artists, becoming a gay resort, then becoming more of a mainstream destination - much like Key West and other picturesque remote sites.
All the time we are here the air is crystal clear; brilliant sun, with fluffy, heavy, self contained little clouds blustering past; and a constant Atlantic wind that cuts right through you. Invigorating, energising even, but I'm glad I brought a few warm things on the trip.
I think that Andrew is enjoying a quiet break from the city. We both potter about, visiting galleries, me doing some photography (hard not to take a good picture in this place). On the Friday we ate in a well known Italian restaurant (also full of the gals!) and on the Saturday we collaborated on a home made dinner in their apartment. Fish of course.
The flat itself, right in the centre of the town and about 3 buildings back on a narrow plot, is spacious, bright and airy and has a spectacular view of the town and the harbour, filled with fishing boats (mostly I imagine for sports nowadays).
Finally I am reaching the end of the trip and I drop Andrew back in Boston, flying out on Sunday evening from Logan Airport.
It's seemed much longer than 10 days - I've managed to pack so much in, although it's actually felt quite relaxed. After a fairly frazzled summer (workwise - the weather was far from frazzling, one of the worst in London that I can recall), it's just what I needed. Thanks chiefly to my many friends who encouraged me and were generous with their time and ideas. It certainly won't be another 7 years until I'm back - in fact I've got the American bug again after a distinct lack of enthusiasm that must have something to do with the George W era. It's no accident that the gap since my last visit almost exactly covers the period from 9/11 to the Presidential election.

Post script:

Grand Central Station

The buzz about the election all the time I was in the US was een amazing. Everyone I met there was a huge Democrat supporter and was desperately hoping for an Obama win. Now that we know he's succeeded, I hope he will lead a generational change in attitude that can be sustained in the coming years despite the enormous problems. There are many powerful forces in the US that will do everything in their power to undermine his efforts. But the fact that the American people have elected someone with an African father and a Muslim name says a lot for American openness and its ability to reinvent itself, and I feel optimisitc.

Monday, November 17, 2008

NY? Yes we can! 7


Fall foliage - early morning view, Chester, CT

And off to Chester (the town not the cat). Rather guilty now that I have taken up the offer of a visit to J+L’s place in Connecticut, because it means Lincoln taking time off to go up there with me. It’s a couple of hours out of NY. I rented a car from the local train station and we head up to this tiny town (it would be a village in the UK) right in the thick of the fall foliage season. A lovely little place of brightly coloured timber houses and old mills in a deep wooded valley. I remember my first visit to New England at this time of year with Ian and it’s every bit as spectacular as my memories. Their little house is very cosy and very real, and I can understand why they love this getaway from the city. It’s got a huge deck, completely covered today with leaf fall, looking out over a pond in the middle of woods, with ducks and beavers. Delightful. Lincoln takes me to a restaurant in the town where they specialize in local farmers’ produce and with a very classy menu. I’m really impressed with the way food has improved in the US, a bit like the ‘slow food’ movement in the UK, perhaps.

NY? Yes we can! 6


The newly restored G U G G E N H E I M

The culture continues, as I descend on the Met. Where do you start in this huge place? I decide you can’t do everything so I focus on taking pictures of statues – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Renaissance, modern and even post modern (in the shape of a Koons exhibit on the roof) – it’s all here. Standing on the roof, looking out over the park on yet another beautiful day, I decide I’ve got to come back soon. It’s just too good to miss, and plenty more to see.
In the early evening I met up with another long lost friend, Kathleen, and we have a long chat in a bar by Washington Square as the dusk descends. It’s great how you can just pick up with old friends after many years and it seems like you haven’t been away – a bit like my feelings for New York right now. And to see how they are thriving.
Now it’s time for the big debate. L+L have invited A+A and another friend (the guy that knew the hair guy at Billy Elliot) and we have a great time cheering and booing the candidates in the final debate. Obama and McCain really do come over like pantomime hero and villain – Prince Charming and the Baron, Robin Hood and the Sheriff. It’s hard to remember feeling this excitement in politics – the stakes are even higher than the Blair election in 1997.

NY? yes we can! 5


Koons, me and a Central Park skyline

I stayed the night very comfortably in New Jersey and then it was back to Manhattan for a bit of a cultural tour. I had a wander round Chinatown and the Bowery, getting some great pictures of the fire escapes. This area was once way down there at the bottom of the heap, but there are signs of change, just like all over Manhattan. As with Hong Kong when I visited after a similar gap, everything seems to be on the up and up. Reflecting on what I’ve seen so far, there are some areas (like around Times Square) that are barely recognizable compared with my first visit 25 years ago. I suppose if I had been away from London for 7 years I would experience the same thing. Lots more green, no litter, no graffiti, and generally more prosperity – at least at this end of the island. And lots more beautiful people – the derelicts and the obese have given way to the well heeled and the well toned in this wealth and health obsessed age.
I found the New Museum for contemporary arts, a wickedly wilful and contemporary building but with a fairly uninteresting exhibit (as they say here).
Met up again with Joel for lunch (kept him waiting having got confused with the time shift – or just another senior moment?) and he took me to another NY institution, Keen’s Chop House, on W 36 St near Times Square. It has an 18th C atmosphere and claims descent from that time, with more dark oak and hundreds of clay pipes hanging from the ceiling – no doubt it was a terrible fug in here before the smoking ban – and I had a very pleasant steak and of course more lively conversation from my host.
Next up, MOMA, another Rockefeller foundation. It’s on the site of their old town house and has expanded a number of times – the latest providing some spectacular white spaces that will need some filling. There was also an outdoors exhibition of factory built homes, exploring what could be done to provide quick help to victims of disasters such as Katrina (something of a rebuke by implication to the current administration).
More food with Joel (and with Paula and Kenny). This time it’s Italian – Tony’s di Napoli, an old school family all-you-can-eat place where the pasta just keeps coming! Very tasty but I’m starting to feel like I will burst. A third Broadway show now – I took J+P to see Gypsy with Patty LuPone (another NY institution apparently!) She was born to play the lead role in this, belting out Everything’s coming up Rose’s until the roof came off to the inevitable standing ovation. It seems a little old fashioned now but still a great evening and maybe good to get a feeling of Broadway in its heyday.
After all that I managed to keep awake until 2am in a bar, Therapy, with Lincoln and a colleague of his (of ambivalent sexuality!) It’s in Hell’s Kitchen, at W52 St between 8 and 9 Ave, now the latest trendy area, which no doubt I would have been scared to visit all those years ago. Now it’s full of expensively, tastefully designed bars like this. Almost empty though on a Tuesday, and you are aware that the bar culture here is very different from London. No popping in after work for a drink in the week – everyone is down the gym. No-one seems to drink much any more in fact. And so, back for a well deserved sleep – my roomie Chester is getting used to me but I think disapproves of my night on the tiles.

NY? Yes we can! 4


'How ya doin'?' 'Marvellous!'

Another day, another treat with different friends. I met up with Joel, my old childhood pen pal, in the morning for a long walk around Wall Street, across Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn Heights and back. Joel is always in good form and feels like the ultimate NY guy. (Running joke: Joel: How ya doin'? Me: Marvellous!)
Though he has never walked across the bridge, so I had one up on him!
I still remember the address he wrote from all those years ago, 1342-43 Street. He has never been back there and I think the memories are not happy ones. But we both still remember when he came over to the UK at the age of 16 and I think it made a real difference to his life. I’m glad we got in touch again about 10 years ago.
Later he drove us through the tunnel to NJ to their home and I met Paula again and their family, Howard Amy and their baby. They dote on her like crazy – but I guess that’s what grandparents are meant to do. They have a huge and very comfortable house on a new retirement estate, where they seem to have a bunch of good neighbours. They threw a party in my honour – to see this strange English guy that no doubt Joel has talked about before, and the house was filled with conversation – everyone talking at once and having a great time.

NY? - yes we can! 3


A Manhattan Sunday brunch - Lincoln, Angelo, Andrew, James

Sunday brunch is a NY institution, and nowhere is apparently better than l’Artésanale over near Andrew’s. I take L+J over to meet Andrew and Angelo and they got on very well, especially as it turned out that James and Angelo share a very similar Italian American upbringing and were soon swapping anecdotes about their families (Angelo being the only one in his family likely to vote for Obama). This café is one of the few where you can get decent cheese in the US: they just don’t ‘get’ cheese somehow – but here they have a cheese larder with that classic delicious smell wafting out.
Then back to Times Square with A+A to see Equus with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths. Another great treat as I had not been able to get tickets when it was on in London. (Text from Y just before it started: ‘Enjoy Harry Potter’s willy you perv!’)
I never really rated DR in the movies but reports were good, and I was very pleasantly surprised. He put in an amazingly good performance in this intense production and with Griffiths really held the play together. The set was also spectacular, part Stonehenge, part circles of heaven looking down on the boy’s horse-god fantasies. The climax, even though I knew what was coming, was still shocking enough to make you shudder.
Later to the Algonquin for cocktails – another great NY institution.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

back to new york? yes we can 2


Lincoln and James at Kykuit on a glorious autumn day

It’s an early start as Lincoln has arranged a tour of the Rockefeller mansion up at Tarrytown, a pleasant train ride up the Hudson Valley on a brilliantly clear and sunny morning. Kykuit is built on a bluff overlooking a beautiful bend in the river (beautiful because, we are told by the guide, the family bought up the opposite 40 miles of bank and gave it to the nation as a state park, to preserve their view). The house is very tasteful, in French chateau style, built by John D Rockefeller and lived in by three generations of the family before being handed over to the National Trust. It’s cleverly designed inside, and has a homely, intimate feel, despite its size. There’s also a superb modern art collection developed by Nelson Rockefeller. The gardens are extensive and elaborate, making good use of the changing levels and in many different styles. The many Rockefeller descendants still live on the estate in many houses spread over 4000 acres, and can be glimpsed on their private golf course. JDR was a Baptist and devoted his later years to giving away much of his Standard Oil fortune. He and his family created many of the cultural centres around the US, as well as buying up land for national and state parks. On our three hour tour the guide was one of the best I’ve had, giving real insight into the life of the family.
The trip is turning into a Rockefeller homage, as when we get back to Manhattan, Lincoln and I go up to the Top of the Rock(effeler Center), one of the best vantage points on the island, with huge panoramic views uptown over Central Park, and downtown with the Empire State Building centre stage and the rest of the cast clustering round. Of course, the twin towers of the World Trade Center would have been just behind once upon a time, and I’m reminded that I was in a similar vantage point on top of them just a few weeks before Sept 11th, on my last visit here in 2001. The centre was built in the depths of the depression to help stimulate the economy – a bit of altruism by JDR that I’m sure has paid off well in the long term. It’s a great bit of urban planning, the first real precinct in NY, spreading cleverly across three city blocks and centred on a public plaza, where they are already ice skating despite the unseasonal warm weather.
Later I drop into Andrew and Angelo’s apartment downtown. It’s my first visit though I’ve had many reports, and it lives up to its reputation as a meticulously detailed jewel of a flat. The view from the roof is stunning (even though the Empire State is now only peeking from behind a banal building that’s just sprung up) but it’s a great little oasis in the intense urbanism of the mid 30s – and looking out you can see many such little escape valves sprinkled across the roof tops, between the water tanks and lift overruns. Andrew was away but it was good to see Andrew again and chat over a Moroccan tagine – he’s starting to get more time but still very busy in his work.
Later I walk to Times Square, busier and buzzier than ever, and look for the Billy Elliot marquee. Yes, another treat – the previews of the Broadway production have just started and this was one of the spurs for my visit. (Really getting one up on Ian and Yasser!) I’m treating Lincoln and James and they (and the rest of the audience) love it, even though there are a couple of major glitches with the machinery that bring the show to a shuddering halt – and they cut the curtain call number. They have introduced quite a raft of small changes, and one or two substantial restaging in the second half, but it’s still very close to the original, with all the songs and dance numbers, and a brilliant cast (including Hayden Gwynne from the London production. The kids are as fantastic as any cast I have seen (I think I’ve seen 6 London Billys!) and the accents surprisingly authentic to my ear anyway. Then Lincoln springs a surprise – a friend of a friend is doing the hair and wigs and he sneaks us backstage to have a look. Later we meet up with them for a drink – really delightful and welcoming guys and classic gay New York boys. The hair guy is stunning and says he was a Billy Elliot himself, training in dance and no doubt hoping to get up on the stage one day. I’m flagging by the end – it’s hard to believe I’ve only been here 36 hours or so.

back to new york - yes we can! 1

Friday 10 October 2008

After a beautiful afternoon in Central Park, it’s hard to remember why it’s taken me so long to come back to New York. My last visit with Yasser was in August 2001 – the end of a 4 week trip. Since then, I’ve been reluctant to come back – blame it on Bush!
And if there’s anyone to thank for me coming now – apart of course from all my friends – thank Barack Obama and Billy Elliot.
The weather is just about perfect as I wander arund, people watching and taking in the buskers. Everyone is making the most of this Indian summer. (A friend later insists this is an American term dating from the days of the pilgrim fathers – whereas I always thought it came from the Raj.) Lots of people with prams, old ladies in wheelchairs with their latino maids, kids playing ball, people just lounging on the Great Lawn and grabbing the last chance to top up their tan. I walked for miles and sat by the lake: leaves just starting to turn and the sky a spectacular Wedgwood blue. It’s a beautiful park, New York’s jewel in the crown.

I’m staying at Lincoln and James’ apartment at 88th and Lexington, just in from the Guggenheim. Really great location and so kind of them to let me stay. It’s a comfortable place and good for the subway on the main uptown/downtown lines. The first evening they take me to a neighbourhood Italian restaurant, Spigolo on 2nd Avenue, where, sitting outside, it feels like a balmy Mediterranean night, which the food suits perfectly. We have a long chat about NY and the election. Obama mania is everywhere – posters, canvassers on the streets, and he’s on the cover of every magazine. By midnight I’m ready to collapse having been up since 2am EST, and bed down in their study with my roomie, Chester – a blind ex-stray cat long haired, very skinny under the longest hair, and with a well established routine that probably means I’m getting in the way – ut he’s friendly enough.