“Do you think someone plants all those ferns in the palm trees?” I ask Jo as we paddle idly in the pool. Another day of writing completed and we were now cooling off after a massage in the nearby massage studio. How will I ever leave this serenity?
“No, they’re epiphytes, plants that live on others. They root by themselves and just grow,” Jo says knowingly.
“See how some of the trees have ferns and those ‘spiky’ plants. And they’re orderly, as if it was landscaped.” I muse as I gaze out to the pool-side palm trees, each massive trunk in a cosy ecosystem with its ‘house-guests’.
“We have a theory in our family,” Jo continues, “trees are like people; some are more fun than others, maybe that’s where the party is, more booze, better snacks?”
“Hah, that’s good!” I say, quite taken by the notion of trees as a party venue.
Jo and I have often chatted about nature, but never more than at this writer’s retreat in Phuket. The garden cascades in all directions from the central pool, a who’s who (or rather, a what’s what) of a botanical garden. The coconut palms reign supreme, tall and imposing over the stockier white washed date palms, bamboo somewhere in between. Frangipani trees dot the lawns and verges, their fragrant flowers a fond reminder of my once Middle Eastern gardens. Those years when the kids played in gardens of jasmine, orchids and rainbows of bouganvilla. When they climbed houses built in exotic trees that we didn’t know the names of… when we drank sundowners with the melodic call to prayer as a backdrop. Gardens have always been important to us; they’ve helped root us to a country, provided solace in foreign lands.
This garden seems to reach out to us writers who are happily ‘entrenched’ here for a week. It is animated yet calming, even the water nymphs call out. One day, a lovely water-lily suddenly appears in its glazed pot, a little blaze of silken petals. As one might announce a birth, I summon the group that morning…”The lily has bloomed, do stop to appreciate it everyone!”
“I love that grouping of palms just there, beside my villa,” I declare in the general direction of Jo as we luxuriate late that afternoon on teak recliners.
“Skinny stalks of subtle lime,” I alliterate. “Burnt orange and lush lemon,” I continue, getting carried away with the literary thing.
“Those are luscious lipstick palms,” Jo happily jumps in, seemingly bursting with botanical knowledge.
“Well they would be, wouldn’t they!” I sigh at the resplendent scene before us, as if to breathe it in for posterity. “Ah, I think those are the palms that when Europeans first set eyes on them, they were named for the red sealing-wax palm.” I picture the slow drip of hot wax, the delicate stamp of a signet ring.
The Royal Embassy Resort is owned by Phil, a New Zealand transplant, and his lovely Thai wife, Ari. It’s a secluded, intimate setting and we’ve been treated like royalty. Even by day six, I can’t stop admiring the effortless bounty of nature that surrounds us. It’s also mirrored in the cuisine; delicious offerings served on banana leaves, intricately carved fruit and magenta orchids adorning tall, frosty drinks.
Normally I’m engrossed with the architecture of a country and though I’ve traveled through Thailand before, I am endlessly captivated by the effortless melding of nature into everyday life here. Could it be the stark contrast to Kazakhstan where I now live for some of the year? From the sparseness of the vast steppe to the overwhelming abundance… yet I remind myself that each country has its own beauty and uniqueness. ￼
The view from our ‘writing room’ has transfixed me throughout the week. Yellow, snow-white and tangerine butterflies dance amongst fluttering palms. Delicate frangipani flowers cling to trees, pink hibiscus blossoms drift in the breeze, birds linger and browse the floral wares: inspiration at every glance.
As if writing and meeting new people weren’t enough to occupy the week, we were encouraged to limber our bodies and minds with an early yoga session on the lawn each day. I had affirmed to our yoga instructors, Anne and Melanie (Anne was the wonderful facilitator of the retreat) that I wasn’t a fan. Much to their delight, I quickly ‘purged those negative thoughts‘. It was difficult not to; with the night dew still clinging to the grass, we focused on ‘a drosti’ and executed the ‘warrior pose’ while glancing at tall bamboo, a favourite palm or gazing out to the misty hills beyond.
Beyond the tranquility of our garden retreat, the neighbourhood slowly came to life. Tuk-tuks puttered in the lanes beyond our view, pans clashed on outdoor stoves, roosters cock-a-doodled, a broom swished across the corner store porch, and stray dogs barked in raucous anticipation of the new morning. Now this was the way to greet the day.
On day five a new friend, Barb from Halifax, announced that she had received a visitor as she opened the door to her villa that morning.
“Jack came to say good morning, he was right there to greet me,” Barb said as she laid happily in ‘child’s pose’ at the end of the yoga session. I admitted to being envious. We all treasured the rare encounters with Jack and, though he hadn’t actually enrolled in the retreat, we considered him as one of us, nonetheless.
The following day as I opened my door to greet the thick, humid morning, there he was. I was honoured to have been chosen for some personal attention. White hair soft as feathers, black ears erect not droopy, Jack allowed me to caress his silken curves until it was time for yoga. Yes, Jack is a rabbit that we all came to adore.
“Gosh, it must be sad for him to be alone here,” I wonder aloud to Phil one day after an impromptu tour of his admirable collection of Thai antiques.
“Well, Jack’s the only one left; all of his erstwhile mates have been savaged by the neighbourhood strays.”
“That’s so sad, how has he managed to survive?” I ask, reminded of the similar fate that met Pebbles and Bambam, our sons’ childhood rabbits (yes back in that seemingly serene garden.)
“Oh he hides, he’s wily, that Jack rabbit!” Phil says in his lyrical Kiwi strain.
There was evidence enough that the beloved creature played an important role at the Royal Embassy. On returning from an outing one evening, sun dipping below the horizon, we came upon Phil and Ari sitting by the poolside. Jasmine, their silken dog lazed on Ari’s lap and in the chair between, completing the family vignette, sat Jack in perfect contentment. I shall never forget that scene, there he sat… a rabbit called Jack on a chair for cocktail hour at peace with his family. It was absolutely heartwarming.
On the final evening at the Royal Embassy Resort, only Barb and I had stayed on. The other writers had flown back to their homes in the U.S., KL and Dubai; the rest had returned to their homes in Phuket, the island they had come to love. Barb and I made our way to what had become our favourite restaurant, ‘Bua’, perched on stilts overlooking the gentle waves of Kamala beach. Bua, the omnipresent lotus, sacred symbol of this fertile land, rising up from muddy waters to attain perfection. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the week that had just been.
“Well, my dear, cheers to a wonderful week, we were meant to be here indeed!” We chunked our coconuts together, setting the Pina Colada aswirl. It didn’t matter who had voiced the sentiment, we would part the next morning knowing we’d made a friend for life.
Early the next morning we took one final walk together, turning left from our resort
instead of the usual right, taking us into a ‘normal’ neighbourhood which was just beginning to stir that Saturday morning. Boys cycled down palm lined streets, past lovely homes both grand and simple, some with kitchens and dining rooms exposed to the elements. A mother and grandmother tended to the laundry, graciously pausing to pluck a luscious pink hibiscus for each for us from their garden. As if in prayer, we met our hands to our heart, as they do here to convey a genuine thank you. I will dearly miss that heartfelt gesture and the gentle Thai people who smile so freely… who welcome you to their land with open hearts.
We passed yet more varieties of palms that Jo, my botanist hadn’t yet identified for me. They were interspersed with a few spindly rubber trees. Introduced for commerce, rubber trees arrived in Phuket at the start of the century, plantations once covering forty percent of the island.
“I hadn’t realized that rubber trees are tapped like maple trees to harvest the white goo that oozes out.” I slapped the trunk with my palm. “I really hadn’t grasped how it’s transformed into rubber, I got the full picture when I read about it this week,” I confessed to Barb.
“Thank goodness it wasn’t just me, I hadn’t realized that either until I was here,” she conceded. As I snapped a photo of Barb in front of yet another variety of palm, I vowed to improve my botany knowledge for the next trip.
￼It was time to depart and I left the quiet, unique resort to spend my last two nights at the Indigo Pearl. With only a small inkling of what awaited, I had booked the resort online, splurging a little at my husband’s encouragement, yet I had not imagined the sheer luxury or the captivating history. This resort, rather unexpectedly pays homage to the tin mining industry that had once been so important to the Phuket economy. The lobby and restaurants were opened to the verdant grounds and scattered amidst this stunning backdrop stood fascinating remnants from bygone mining days. Old tin presses become art, tin florets hang on walls and sit on taps, untold flirtations integrating design and history.
My suite overlooked the pool; fronds of massive, milky palms flapping like wallah-less punkahs over my patio, I was now truly in another world. And then I noticed the bathtub; perched on the patio and posed towards the verdant vista, candle already burning with exotic oils filling the air. Truly, how can I leave this paradise!
After a back and neck massage in the treehouse style spa on the second day (where even the chilled towels are proffered with magenta orchids atop), I venture outside the gates… it’s time to head to the beach. And as wonderful as it had felt to be ensconced within the walls of the pampering five star hotel, I was happily back into the heady chaos of Phuket street life. Vendors jostle for business, aromas of barbecues waft through the air as the Andaman sea crashes its waves onto the pristine shore.
I find the perfect spot on the white sand and settle myself. But something isn’t quite right; I conjour sweet memories of my boys building sandcastles and frolicking in the sea waves. Images of a family holiday on Phuket tug at my serenity, urging to be let in. Wonderful memories, now lingering and bittersweet in my solitude. No fellow writers to share my thoughts with, no friends beside me with whom to relate these golden images. This experience has run its course I confess to myself, though seemingly not before I cheer myself by having my second massage of the day… yes the second!
Come on this is ridiculous, you should be finishing those writing assignments, completing that gift list, even sending your hard working husband a postcard!
But no, recalling that I had strolled past a thatched roof structure, housing twenty or so rudimentary low, wooden tables, I am drawn back by the promise of one last Thai massage. It’s full with foreigners in varying degrees of un-dress, it just doesn’t matter here!
”Only 300 Baht (under 10 bucks) OK?” And I yield to the matronly Thai lady who catches my eye, her hand enticingly swishing her bottle of oil, a welcoming smile on her expectant face.
“I’m in!” and￼ if not on a new spiritual plane, at least I’m soon cheered!
Someone recently mentioned a study that showed most people’s first deep sigh comes seven minutes into the massage; mine was at two, at the most! Relaxing and more ‘real’ than the resort experience, I succumb. Kids run about as moms and grandmothers alike knead and cajole the ‘stress’ out of us spoiled tourists. They keep a watchful eye on their brood during the hour long session, chatting in Thai to their colleagues beside them, nattering at the kids as they play simple games with leaves and sticks. Vendors bells ting ting as dinner time approaches. The local mosque’s call to prayer echoes in the air.
The massage is glorious. The sound of the waves just a few meters away is natural mood music. The view of simple fishing boats bobbing and coconuts swaying on a nearby palm tree further encapsulate the mood, but it’s time to go home. I smile, barely managing to pick myself up off the woven Thai mat, slowly slipping on my flip flops. Dodging the daily late afternoon rain, I opt to have a quick Singha beer at the cafe across the street and happen to chat to a couple from Germany. They’ve just arrived on the island and of course I suggest the Royal Embassy Resort to them.
“They even have a pet rabbit named Jack,” I tell the friendly couple. “He likes to be petted,” I say fondly, already missing the little guy.
It’s time to go back through that gate that takes me to the opulence of the Indigo Pearl, though somehow I don’t really want to leave this scene where people chat freely, where everyday culture is revealed, where one is absorbed into the pleasantly chaotic scenes. So I stroll wistfully through the gates returning the smile from the security guard, with one last glance at the tranquil sea. It’s my last night here and I might just have to have one more soak in that glorious tub… ￼