Recent trips and recommendations
Thailand - Trang Gang
Even the rainy season fails to dampen the spirits of Dea Birkett and family
Saturday September 11, 2004 -
It was a bad beginning. "Not cul-ture," moaned my 11-year-old, Storme. In her pre-teen drawl, culture sounded like a swear word. "You're always wanting to do that sort of thing. It's so bor-ing. Why can't we hang out on the beach?" We
were arguing about Thailand before we even left for the airport. I suggested
we sample a shadow-puppet show and stroll around the eccentrically decorated
wats (Buddhist temples). Storme, post SATs, just wanted to flop. Her dad was
unhappy with the whole itinerary; he wanted to ditch our first three nights in
Bangkok and head straight out for the southern province of Trang. He'd been to
the Thai capital 10 years before and his abiding memory was the traffic; taking
3 hours to get in to town from the airport. I even argued with myself; wasn't
10 days in Thailand pushing the limits for a family holiday with a pre-teen and
toddler twins? Especially when we weren't after adventure, but a bit of relaxation
and stimulation of the not-too-demanding type. Only three-year-old Savanna and
River were looking forward to it. They enjoy long-haul flights because of the
constant TV - rationed at home - and the meals with lots of little bags to open.
But here we were, being whisked into the centre of Bangkok on the new toll road, reaching the Amari Watergate hotel within 20 minutes.
In fact, rather than being the biggest drawback, getting about Bangkok was a major attraction of the city. Brightly painted long-tailed boats sped us through the back canals and along the main Mae Nam Chao Phraya river; the modern skytrain, hanging high above the frenetic streets, whirled us above the city as if on a magic carpet; and the street-level three-wheeled tuk-tuks , which seem to have been constructed from battered tin cans and sound like power saws, squeezed us through the grid-locked taxis.
But our hotel was so central, close to Siam Square, that we could walk slowly
to most places, including the Erawan shrine, perched on the corner of two major
shopping streets, where for a few pounds we paid half a dozen dancers, with the
familiar towering golden hats and long pink and turquoise silk dresses, to perform
for us and for the Gods. As we sat at their feet, waving our receipts so the
Gods knew we were the ones to thank for their entertainment, the dancers snaked
their arms around and took tiny steps, as if wound up by a large key. "That," I said to Storme, entranced, "is culture." She
sniffed; she hates her mum being right about anything.
Staying in a very nice hotel in a very cheap place is a good system for families. We could all have a seafood feast at the sidewalk cafes for a few pounds; we stocked the fridge with juices and beers bought in a local supermarket to avoid mini-bar prices; and, while Kevin and I wandered into seedy Patpong for the evening, the hotel could arrange a very reasonably priced babysitter so our children were spared being dragged around girly bars just because their sad parents wanted to see what they looked like. But if, at any point during the day, the heat and turmoil of the city became too much for us, we always had the air-conditioned oasis of our comfortable room to retreat to.
Our hotel was built on top, literally, of Pratunam wholesale clothing market, so we didn't have far to walk in the humidity to find cheap Pucca T-shirts for the kids and Paul Frank T-shirts for me. We also had to buy an extra suitcase. I am not recommending you do the same - it could be illegal - but I will say that the T-shirts are very, very cheap.
Paul Frank monkeys weren't our only animals. The kids squealed when we spotted a baby elephant swaying along the sidewalk, like a dog might back home. Such a huge beast ambling along, with baskets of fruit for sale hung over its broad back, rushed around by besuited bankers and framed by skyscrapers, is what makes Bangkok so intriguing. The city is like two jigsaws jumbled up together - one a picture of Thai dancers, elephants, tuk-tuks and spindly golden wats. The other of futuristic tower blocks, businessmen, stretch limousines and glass-fronted designer shopping malls.
All this modernity seemed far away, but only a short flight, from Trang, a seldom-visited southern province where, it turned out, our three were the only European kids in a population of 70,000.
It was the rainy season, so Storme's hope of hanging out on the beach didn't
look so good, even to her; the sea was choppy and the sand soggy. We took to
the pool, swimming in the warm rain, rather like taking a bath and having a shower
at the same time. Only when the thunder and lightening began did we retreat indoors,
watching the palm trees take a bow to the storm. "How long is the rain going to last?" Storme asked the receptionist. "Three months," she
We were staying at Amari Trang Beach Resort, the only international hotel in the whole province, on the edge of Had Chao Mai national park and a short bike ride from the ramshackle fishing village of Pak Meng. On a fine day, we could walk along the beach and see monkeys and rare black herons. On wet days, the C-word was our only retreat.
Our first cultural experience was the food. Storme was given a cookery lesson by the hotel's chef, learning to make tom yam goong , a spicy shrimp and lemon grass soup. From then on, Storme wouldn't go a day without eating at least one bowl, defying the 15 grams of bird chilli in each serving. Like my back-bending Thai massage, the principle seemed to be - if it hurts, it must be good for you.
The twins sheltered from the storms by learning the gentler art of batik painting,
colouring in the exotic fish between their wax outlines. (We parents are now
the proud owners of several batik T-shirts and a full set of batik napkins painted
by our children's own fair hands.) I could tell the C-word was losing its stigma
when, at the suggestion of a trip into the nearby town of Trang, even Storme
Trang has no sights, but plenty to see, and most of it has been seen by very few tourists before. We visited Suphap the wood carver in his shed, where he hammered out the shape of a manatee, the seal-like mammal that roams around the Andaman sea. River picked up a hammer and tried to be a sculptor, too. But the prize for the most bizarre and smelliest visit went to the stingray skin factory. Yes - the fish called stingray, whose skin was peeled from its white flesh, dried, and made into wallets and handbags. Apparently, you can spot a fake stingray handbag, if you ever happen to need to, by trying to set it on fire. A genuine stingray won't burn. Thankfully, we only learned this after we had left the factory, otherwise Storme, despite the overpowering smell of rotten fish, may well have risen to the challenge.
Trang's shopping was not designer T-shirts, but strange fruit that fascinated the twins. Spiky red rambutans, so easy to peel, were their favourite. The flowers, too, looked as if they had been plucked from the pages of their storybooks, and were large enough for fairies to be hiding inside. We bought small woven bunches, laying them as offerings at the street corner shrines. Without realising it, the kids were taking lessons in Thai etiquette, learn-ing to remove their shoes before going inside, to wai (place their palms together as if in prayer and touch the tips of their fingers to their chins) as a greeting, and never to point, not even at the exotic fruit. I don't think even the three-year-old twins are too young to begin to understand how to show respect to other people and other cultures.
Our trip to Thailand may have had a bad beginning, but it has a happy ending. Savanna and River can wai like the best of them. Their dad agreed that Bangkok was a good place to stop off for a few nights. Storme conceded that culture wasn't so bad after all. And I, secretly smug, patted myself on the back for risking Thailand for a family holiday, and coming up trumps.
Then, of course, there was the tom yam goong. Despite all the cheap T-shirts, the best thing we brought back was the recipe.
Getting there: Kuoni (01306 747008, kuoni.co.uk)
has three nights' room-only at Amari Watergate Bangkok and six nights' B&B at the Amari Trang from £918pp,
including international and domestic flights with EVA Air (evaair.com) and transfers.
Further information: Tourism Authority of Thailand (020-7925 2511, thaismile.co.uk).
Country code: 00 66.
Time difference: +7hrs.
Flight time: Heathrow-Bangkok 12hrs, Bangkok-Trang 1hrs.
£1= 68.35 baht.
For more thoughts on Thailand see