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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Laguna Phuket International Marathon - 8 June 2014 - 10.5km

Soon after I'd booked myself in the 10.5km race at Laguna Phuket International Marathon, news came of the coup-not-coup-ok-it's-a-coup d'etat by the Royal Thai Armed Forces in Thailand.  Immediately on the heels of this development, Hong Kong raised its outbound travel alert for Bangkok from amber ("monitor situation; exercise caution," which I might add, should apply to all the countries we visit, amiright?) to red ("adjust travel plans; avoid unnecessary travel") to black (the alarming "avoid ALL travel" warning.)

However, more dire for inbound travellers to Thailand is not so much the stern travel advisories from their home countries.  No, ma'am.  The part that impacted them the most was the Thai military's attempt to curb unrest by imposing a nightly midnight to four a.m. curfew in Thailand (and this was already shortened from the original 10 p.m to 5 a.m. restriction.)  This curfew was lifted, to the relief of many tourists, merry makers and marathoners, on 3 June, 2014 for only the resorts of Phuket, Koh Samui and Pattaya.  Five days before the start time of my marathon.  And from the exuberant posts that were left on the organizer's Facebook page, the freedom to revel to the wee hours of the morning or to crawl from the warm bed to the starting line at 4 am - take your pick - couldn't have come any sooner.*

Early morning walk along Bang Tao Bay - at Dusit Thani Resort in Phuket.

Now personally, coup or no coup, I was really looking forward to this short weekend in Phuket to race at Laguna Phuket.  One reason was that I'd not been back to this island in 15 years and I really wanted to see it in its present state; back when I worked for Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts, I used to shuttle from Singapore to Phuket every six weeks or so for a couple of years.  The entire development was an ecological disaster that has since turned into a stunning environmental wonder.  Once an abandoned tin mine and declared by the United Nations Development Programme as "too environmentally damaged to have any development potential" due to the severe chemical leaching of its soil, it has been transformed into a thriving, award-winning and sought-after prime real-estate community with high-end homes and resorts on Bang Tao Bay, one of the best beaches on the island.

Walking through the open hallways of Dusit Thani resort in the early morning.  The Starting line is just across that lagoon.
 
 
So readers of this blog will know that I'm now a wee bit particular about the race routes.  (By the way, I couldn't make much sense of the map's markings at first (picture, right,) but I loved all the colourful and detailed illustrations all the same.)  I'm happy to report that the 10.5km route was relatively flat and did not have any U-turns, but that didn't mean it was particularly stimulating, scenery-wise.  More often than not, I felt like the course was designed to showcase the many residences that were for sale at Laguna Phuket, judging from the proliferation of standing banners, billboards and showrooms that dotted our course.  Towards the end, I wouldn't have been surprised if we were made to run through an actual show house and had pacers who doubled as real estate agents, ready to handle  escrow arrangements at the finish line. 

Running round one of the lagoons (a former tin mine) between the 2 to 3km mark.

Some of the real estate banners on our route.

A boon to the banner printing industry in Phuket.

Tempting to check out a three-bedroom villa for sale at the 7km mark.

Another giant billboard, this time for the lux Banyan Tree Residences, at around the 9k mark.

The last 200-metre dash round the lagoon to the Finish line.

My post-race victory saunter: six runs down for 2014; six more to go.
I like seeing what is served at the Finish lines; it always reflects the cultural palates of the destination.  Here in Phuket, it's heaps of rambutans and fried rice with chili.
So would I race this again next year? Probably not.  It was a pretty unforgettable course. And it didn't help that the one time when I succumbed and paid the organizers the princely sum of USD25 for a photo of Weng and me dashing through the finish line, all I got was a crummy blurry image in a low-res JPEG (for crying out loud) file.  Not cool.

Next race in July: Cooler temperatures at The Age Run Melbourne 2014.

(* Note: As of 16 June, 2014, the curfew was completely lifted so all is back to what passes for relative normalcy in the Land of Smiles.)
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Best Restaurants in Phuket: Of Mangroves, Seafood and Colonial Retrospectives



I don't usually do much research prior to going on a trip. Never been a fan of guidebooks, TripAdvisor or even travel TV shows.  I know there are pros and cons to this type of vacay non-planning, and whilst I generally still like to leave the sightseeing aspect of my trips to the fates and furies, I recently decided to veer off my own beaten path to take a more academic approach to the feasting part of my weekend jaunt to Phuket.  

Hence, my new-found discoveries:  Bang Pae Seafood Restaurant (that gorgeous bowl of clear tom yum goong above is divine proof of how good it is) and Raya, renowned for its authentic Thai  cuisine that counts locals, celebrities and even members of the royal Thai family as fans.


But first, Bang Pae Seafood Restaurant.  This little alfresco wonder situated next to a mangrove swamp (picture, above) is not exactly easy to find.  Even with the helpful services of Google Map and GPS, pinpointing the right turns when I was driving up and down the eastern part of the island was a little challenging.  But it was there at the end of a little road that was populated by shrimp farms and six laid back water buffaloes, one of which was munching away on road side grass with the other five having an early afternoon group bath in the nearby pond.


As far as we could tell, there were only locals dining at Bang Pae - always a good sign.  Guess that's not a big surprise as this restaurant is off the grid to the hordes of tourists that invade the more popular sites of the island. The waitress recommended some of the dishes, taking care to ask exactly how much spice we can handle (hint: when in doubt in Thailand, say "mild" as that is "medium spicy" to the rest of the world's palates,) and we happily stuffed ourselves with the following courses:

Papaya salad with the most (and largest) fried dried shrimp - still in their shells - I've ever seen.

Stir fried fern with garlic and oyster sauce.  I've never had this vegetable before - which is ubiquitous in Phuket - and I really like it.  It tastes and looks like the love child of choy sum and kale with curly tendrils in the mix.

Steamed whole fish with tamarind, chili and lime.

Ahh..my perennial go-to comfortfood. Fried vermicelli with fresh shrimp, egg and choy sum.

Fantastic place for a leisurely lunch or dinner - for humans and mosquitoes alike.


Next on the must-try makan trail is Raya, located in the heart of Phuket town - a hodgepodge of scruffy streets populated by primarily Thai-Chinese residents on a small grid.  Singaporeans and Malaysians will find the town's colonial Sino-Portuguese architecture familiar, especially the narrow double-storey shophouses with the five-foot walkways in the front.  Some have been gentrified and re-gutted to become boutique hotels, hipster coffee outlets and art galleries, but most still stick to selling hardware tools, household cleaning items, and school uniforms as they have done for decades.

And it is just off the main town's thoroughfare - Soi Thepkasattri - on New Debuk Road that we found Raya in a charming two-story shophouse that belies its substantial size and depth within. 


The first thing I noticed upon entering Raya were the striking mosaic floor tiles which reminded me of the many shophouses of my childhood days.  My second impression was how comfortably homey the restaurant felt, with its mismatched floor fans, long wooden tables, antique stained glass, exposed electrical wiring, faded 1930's Shanghai posters and scuffed walls.  Arguably the best restaurant in Phuket, Raya's virtues have long been extolled by locals and international media titles such as Gourmet Traveller, CNN and Travel+Leisure.





After marveling at the interiors (and what other diners had ordered,) we finally settled at our table in the blessed air-conditioned section of the house.  The menu is quite extensive, but luckily, it is helpfully sectioned into categories such as "Popular Dishes," "Phuket Specials" and by main ingredients such as Curries, Seafood, Noodles and so on.  There are generally two sized portions for each dish so I would recommend the smaller ones for those who'd like to try as many Raya specialties that can be humanly sampled in one sitting.  But for those who truly can't get enough, Raya's chef and owner Khun Kulab, like the efficient team at Yung Kee Restaurant in Hong Kong, is super equipped to pack any of her dishes for out-of-town diners to bring onboard the plane ride home.  

So these are what we ordered, plus the Singha beer. (I'm only bummed that we didn't get to try the caramelized braised pork belly and the deep-fried barramundi with shallots and fried tumeric this time around.)

Crab meat with curry and coconut milk - this is the must-order signature dish of Raya.  Serving it with rice vermicelli makes for a nice springy contrast to the curry.

Every Malaysian will find this noodle dish very familiar.  I love the fresh squid (I'm a total calamari fan) and the golden shallots add a crispy fragrant kick to the "wet" noodles.

Stir fried Pak Meang - they don't normally serve it with egg but I'd asked for the substitution as I wasn't too keen on the dried shrimps.

Bang Pae Seafood
Open daily from 10 am to 8 pm
About nine kilometers from the Heroines’ Monument towards Ao Por Pier and only a few hundred metres further down the road from Bangpae Waterfall and the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. The restaurant is on the right-hand side of the road. Look for the big red sign.
Telephone: +66 (0) 87 887 5785

Raya
Open daily from 10 am to 10 pm
48 New Debuk Cross Road, Amphur Muang Phuket,
Phuket, Thailand
Telephone: +66 (0) 76 218 155 / +66 (0) 81 376 6958
E mail: rayarestaurant@gmail.com

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