SHE IS HER OWN HEROJULY 2019
Huma Qureshi sashays in wearing a beautiful red gown and what follows is unexpected to say the least. In the video put out by Netflix, within four days of a release of a film that has done really well at the box office and is almost a users' manual for toxic masculinity, the actor in a fun way tries to put a stop to mansplaining. Using a pacifier called Shush, that is clearly a throwback to her character of Shalini Rizwan Choudhary, who is searching for her daughter Leila in the eponymously-named show, she displays how easily it can shut patriarchy. "It is easy to use plug-in technology and allows users to silence their silencers," Huma says in the video. While the entire sequence is entertaining, the last bit is what makes the message hit home. When the director tells her, "This is too intelligent, you need to look sexy," Huma promptly stuffs Shush in his mouth.
Talking about the campaign, Huma, fresh from her outing in Leila, says, "I loved the way that this entire video has come out. The OTT platform is known for its discerning content and so what is heartening to see and experience is the way that they chose to market it. Rather than doing two to three interviews, one press conference and one or two dances at malls, they pitched it in a manner that was in consonance with the content." Huma points out that though the idea was inspired from a video made by Marion Cotillard where she said that men should look women in the eye and not the chest, Netflix took it up and made it their own.
While its purported aim is to promote Leila, Huma does agree that the various OTT platforms are at the forefront of portraying women taking charge of their lives, be it Shefali Shah in Delhi Crime, Radhika Apte in Ghoul, Dia Mirza in Kaafir and of course she herself in Leila. "It was a long time in the coming and this is just the starting point as it will go further. It is nice, refreshing and rather liberating to see women being the prime movers rather than being rescued by men and I am glad to be a part of the process. It is a beginning point where a lot of actors, actresses and stories would follow. It is a great and healthy trend and I hope it stays that way," says Huma, her characteristically deep voice flavoured by excitement that is evident even on a slightly patchy phone line.
She points out that while Shalini is a lot like her, "the character was liberating in a lot of different ways. I feel that while doing some of those difficult scenes, where despite everything she kept her dignity, maintained her resolve to find her daughter, I also internalised some of her strength."
Huma was sold on the story from the word go. "When I got that call from Open Air Films and met Deepa Mehta (who directed the first two episodes of the six part series), I knew I had to do it. I was really hoping that they do not meet other actresses or go to anyone else. I would have been heartbroken. For me, it wasn't just a role or a film. It was much more than that. I wanted to be a part of this journey as it was trying to put across a very different story," says Huma, who with her very first outing in Gangs of Wasseypur had grabbed eyeballs, describing why she decided to take up the project.
While she has never been a wallflower in any of the roles that she has played, be it the bisexual Muniya in Dedh Ishqiya or Pushpa Pandey in Jolly LLB 2, it is in Leila where she has come into her own. Rather than how she looks, the emphasis was on what her character was like. In the entire series that runs for about six hours, Huma is mostly seen wearing the same set of clothes, her hair in disarray, face sometimes covered with grease or mud. "Deepa had a vision and as an actor, you are waiting to be pushed when you have that right material and the right character where you can really give it your all. Somewhere not all opportunities are equal and not all roles are as demanding. I felt that Leila was the right moment for me. I am grateful that I have been given that space to play a character like Shalini with all her strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and everything," says she.
To play a character minus the gloss that is the norm in the Hindi film industry, her approach was different. "I read Prayaag Akbar's book (on which the series is based) and the script. I was involved in every possible draft. But as for a physical reference point, like a film that I had seen or a character that someone had played, there was none," she says and goes on to add that Deepa kept on egging her to push her boundaries.
Huma points out that often when the protagonist is a strong woman, the references are usually very alpha. Deepa, however, wanted her to attempt something which was a little offbeat. "We wanted to find a very different kind of feminine energy which could be vulnerable, a woman who could cry and feel for the child and at the same time be a little cunning and be a survivor despite everything and keep her dignity," she says. In pursuit of that goal, the director asked Huma to play it a little differently. "She kept telling me, let's do something new and not something that you or I have done before. Let us find a new expression of a woman who is strong yet vulnerable. Her constant reminder was not to bring my bag of tricks and be predictable or display the obvious emotion. When a director believes in you and keeps emphasising that you can do it, it is very comforting and liberating as it means that I could just be myself and not worry about how I am looking on screen. My endeavour was to look convincing and get into the skin of the character rather than trying to figure out where the light had been placed," she says and laughs.
In a show that had some really disturbing scenes, including one where drugged women roll over leftover food as part of a penance, there is one which Huma found the most difficult to execute. In Episode 1, where Sapna, the maid is washing her face, Shalini shoos her away and then sanitises the faucet. "It was a difficult scene to do as I felt that Shalini is a horrible person. I had to first grapple with my own personal emotion as to how I could play someone so evil. It was so wrong and how can I treat someone like that was the question that came to my mind. But I realised that I have to do it as it was important to show Shalini as someone who is grey and privileged, who takes these things for granted. It was important to make people realise what we end up doing in day-to-day interactions," she says. Moreover, when the tables are turned, one realises that there is no difference between a Shalini and a Sapna. The only difference is that of circumstances.
Besides Deepa, the series had two more directors, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar. As an actor, does it enrich the journey or does it result in continuity-related issues? Says Huma, "Each director brings his/her own energy and point of view to the same material. The script was constant but in a state of an evolutionary process. We wanted to portray Shalini as someone at the starting point and show a general growth in her character as the series progressed. It is such a character-dependent show that her journey, her search and her coming of age form the main thrust of the story. So, I had to work very closely with all my directors to make sure that the journey was possible," she says.
The show depicts a totalitarian regime which controls how its citizenry acts, reads, speaks, dresses, eats and marries. Talking of history and the world in general, which find a reflection in art, Huma points out, "Whenever a totalitarian regime takes over, the first thing they try to do is control literature, arts and culture. There have been instances like the burning of the library in Alexandria or the bombing of the statues in Bamiyan. These are just attempts to rewrite history as it is usually written by the victors. It is always easy to rewrite and re-define your past based on what your understanding of the present is. For me, that was very special because there have been so many instances in history where people have come, taken over a country and tried to rewrite history from their point of view."
So would she say that the show is a reflection of contemporary times especially since many people on social media called it anti-Hindu or Hindu-phobic and started a movement to unsubscribe to the web platform? "That is a question for Netflix to answer," she guffaws and says, "It was not Hindu-phobic and that was never the intention. The show is set in a land that is similar to India, which is called Aryavarta. If the show was to be set in China or Portugal or wherever, we would set it in those times and take references from there. Moreover, people who actually saw the show did not think of it as such."
Of course, Deepa did modify the script depending upon what is happening in the world. There is a scene where they had planned to show young child labourers being chained to their workplace. Just at that point, migration of children was happening from Mexico to the United States. They were kept in shelters, which were like cages and Deepa insisted on getting the structures redesigned to reflect that. "When you read about what is happening in America, where Donald Trump is trying to keep babies away from families of immigrants, we do feel helpless. During the shoot, we did read a lot of articles about what was taking place in many countries. Of course, as viewers, you will find a lot of parallels around the world. In that sense you are free to draw as many of them as come to your mind depending on your aptitude or level of understanding or reading. But the idea was not to talk about any specific community in any way," asserts Huma.
Having been a part of the industry since 2012, the actor's learning curve has been pretty sharp. She says, "I like the way you've decided that I have evolved. I am still evolving. I am the ugly duckling waiting to become a swan," she says and gives out another uninhibited laugh that has peppered the conversation. But that is not surprising given the fact that Huma is unabashedly a Delhi girl.
She admits to liking everything about the city. "There is nothing that I don't like. I grew up in South Delhi so my entire life was within a five-kilometre radius. Gargi College, GK M Block market, South Extension and Connaught Place are places that I visited so very often," says the Delhi girl whose father Saleem Qureshi is a restaurateur who runs Saleem's, a chain of restaurants in the city.
But what about the way the capital treats its women, given the fact that Huma picks up content that has headstrong women. "Why just Delhi, the entire world treats its women in a way that is problematic. The fact that when a crime against a woman is committed, the family tells the woman to sit at home because the society and the times are bad. That disturbs me a lot. Delhi is notorious for its crime against women and there is a massive need to have a revolution for better safety for women and also for a better space for women in terms of being negotiators within our homes or institutions," she asserts and starts to talk about Shush again. However, time has run out but Huma surely has much more to talk about at another time.
rain songJULY 2019
Delhi has some of the finest dining places with rooftops from where you can actually watch the rain and the rare vision of a storm heaving down. Options include Ama Cafe in Majnu Ka Tila, The Potbelly Rooftop Cafe in Shahpur Jat, Crazy Kitchen Rooftop Cafe in Satya Niketan, Lavaash by Saby in Mehrauli, Sky Bar Vasant Kunj, Lodhi — The Garden Restaurant and more. Carry your favourite book, grab a window seat, order a cup of hot chocolate or just tea and pakoras and let the rain wash away all your troubles.
The more adventurous ones can embark on a road trip to Delhi's favourite paratha joint at Murthal. About 50 km from Delhi, this is a long enough distance to make for a good drive, but short enough so that you do not feel tired. And then there are the parathas waiting for you, like the pot of gold at the end of a proverbial rainbow. Just what the soul doctor recommended for the monsoon.
Turn a shutterbug
Delhi has a number of monuments and the washed, cleaned look is something that is a sight to behold. Head to Humayun's Tomb, Qutub Minar, Deer Park, Safdarjung's Tomb, India Gate, Lodhi Gardens and Red Fort which form incredible backdrops for photographs. Trust us when when we say that you will capture their beauty in all their hues.
Discover the city aboard a Ho-Ho bus
It is either too hot or too cold in the city but monsoon is the season when you can actually hop aboard a Ho-Ho bus. Take a tour of the city when it can present its most pristine avatar. The best part of course is that you can stay as long as you want at a place or give it a complete miss depending upon what you like. It is the smartest way to witness the best of Delhi's monsoon season without getting wet while travelling.
Book cafe hopping
There is a reason why the monsoon is the favourite season of bibliophiles. When Delhi's skyline turns a shade of grey and the clouds hang low, it is just the time to curl up at one of the many book cafes that the capital has. Head to Ivy & Bean, Kunzum Travel Cafe, Cafe Turtle or any other in your neighbourhood that have a special place in your heart.
If you are one of those who loves to embark on a long, rambling walk in the rains, there are a number of places which we can recommend. There are Kamla Nehru Ridge, JNU Parthasarathy Rocks area, Delhi Zoo, Connaught Place and Lutyens zone, all of which are a sight during the rainy season. Walk hand in hand with that special someone or alone, the experience will be worthwhile.
Visit art galleries
The scent of rain on parched earth inspires our artistic sensibilities as well. Often the city witnesses innovative art exhibitions related to the season during the time. Spend the day admiring the works and in the evening relax with some tea and snacks at famous cafes and chai points near the gallery area. The National Gallery of Modern Art in the India Gate circle as well as Triveni Kala Sangam and the cafe which is attached to it as well as Prakriti, a space which sells artistically designed pots, bonsais and fountains are some places to soak in the season.
Attend a monsoon festival
There are monsoon festivals aplenty in the city, some rooted in our culture like Hariyali Teej and others which redefine art and culture. These are unique as they preserve disappearing traditions and cultural practices. This is the place to pick up hand-made products, Indian crafts, immerse yourself in music, theatre and more.
Dance in the rain
Sometimes it is impossible to go out on a rainy day in Delhi, especially when there is back to back traffic. So just stay at home, enjoy a film marathon or binge on a web series. For those who love music, there are always the melodies which celebrate the season. Make it more filmy and sing along or even dance to your favourite numbers.
postcards from a hilltopJULY 2019
We had arrived and were still a little uncertain about our whereabouts, for it seemed like we had reached the edge of nowhere, 4,400 m (14,435 ft) above sea level. The twisting mountain road girdled an enormous open-air statue of the Buddha and coiled back on it. We climbed out of our vehicle to get our bearings. Like the gilded Buddha, we were alone in an amphitheatre of towering mountains, flexing their biceps at a blue sky. To our left, the little village of Langza, a clutch of whitewashed cottages in a remote fold of Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, tumbled down an uneven slope. Farmlands, a startling slash of green trapped in a monochrome canvas of an arid landscape, filled the valley below.
"Hello!" We called out to a local lad who strolled by and asked for directions to Lara"s Home Stay. Even as he pointed to the cottage, another youth, who would be our Man Friday for the duration of our two-night stay, came scurrying out to help us with our bags. Most travellers, many of them on motorbikes, tend to whiz past Langza or just stop briefly to admire the view and take a few photographs before moving on to their next stop. We, however, opted to use it as a base to relax and catch our breath on our rather hectic drive through terrain that had been challenging yet savagely beautiful.
We had traversed roads that traced the lip of river gorges; fluttered down slopes like ribbons blowing in the wind; ducked under the overhang of vertical cliffs and rattled over bridges that straddled glacier-fed streams. We had paid our respects to the many Buddhas enshrined in ancient monasteries, draped over lonely peaks and made unscheduled stops to admire the handiwork of a divine artist: towering limestone pinnacles; the subtle shades of monochrome mountains with licks of grey, pink and gold; rivers that fielded the reflection of distant snow peaks...
At Langza, we stopped to savour the indulgence of Spiti rather than rush through it like an impatient voyeur looking for thrills at every turn. We looked out of the window of our spotless attic room with en suite facilities and plump quilts rolled up at the foot of our cosy beds and let the easy calm of the small mountain village, surrounded by fields of barley, flood our senses.
That evening, we had tea at Fossils Dhaba which claimed to be the highest such establishment in the world. It was a simple open-air ‘eatery", comprising a makeshift kitchen tucked away in a cavern and a scattering of plastic chairs and tables. However, its setting and the view it commanded of Langza valley and the encircling mountains made it one of the most amazing hole-in-the-mountains cafes we had ever visited. We lingered under a string of fluttering prayer flags long after we had slurped the last strand of Maggi noodles (perhaps it was the mountain air and water that accounted for the delicious taste) and drained our second cup of tea.
Back in Langza, we watched local children skip across the embankments of chequered fields whose ears of golden grain glistened in the rays of the setting sun. Puffs of blue-white wood fire smoke fluttered out from the rooftop of cottages as households prepared their evening meal. The mooing of cows, the bleating of goats and braying of donkeys filled the air as a young shepherd herded livestock back to the village.
Over a simple, yet wholesome meal of daal, rice, a mixed vegetable stew and chicken curry (we had momos with spicy dips the following day for lunch), our host Lara shared details of the everyday life of the 140 residents of the village. Every cottage has a barn for their livestock and each household takes turns, in rotation, to herd the animals of the entire settlement to the grazing pastures each day. Small as it might be, Langza is divided into two zones — higher Langza and lower Langza. He told us of how melting glaciers trapped in the high reaches watered the farmlands and how residents survived for months in isolation in the icy grip of winter. And during those freezing months, it was not uncommon to see the elusive snow leopard stroll by. He suggested we trek up to the neighbouring Fossil Hill where the remains of ancient sea creatures and crustaceans are embedded in rocks, betraying the fact that these mountain ranges were once submerged in deep oceans...
We walked across to Fossil Hill, the next morning (sadly, the relics of the pre-historic sea creatures have been scavenged by tourists) and imagined what alien life forms it must have supported when it was 20,000 leagues under the sea.
There were no illusions as we set off from our ‘deep sea" adventure to visit two neighbouring villages that laid contentious claims to the ‘highest in the world" tags.
Our first stop was at the little village of Hikkim (population around 170 souls) which, at an altitude of 4,400 m (14,435 ft), took pride in the fact that it had the highest post office (Pin code: 172114) in the world. We don"t subscribe to the practice of sending postcards to ourselves but this was one occasion when we were tempted. Indeed, a large part of the post master"s job here is stamping postcards that tourists send to themselves and friends. The post office remains closed for around six months of the year during winter when the snow-bound region is literally cut off from the rest \of the world.
Two kilometres further down, we had reached the end of the road. A signpost at the head of Komic village at an altitude of 4,578 m (14,980 ft) and with a population of 114 souls declared that it was the ‘highest village in the world connected with motorable road." We strolled into the fortress-like Tangyud Monastery and paid our respects to the incarnations of the Buddha enshrined in the main altar which was adorned with ancient tangka scroll paintings and colourful murals.
A monk in the driver seat of a large tractor greeted us as we emerged from the monastery. Change, we figured, was inevitable even in these remote reaches. Not so! Not in Langza at least! A Japanese guest, who had checked in at Lara"s Homestay that evening, protested. He had visited the village seven years ago and as far as he could tell, very little had changed since. Lara agreed. "The only real change one sees here is the seasons!" he exclaimed.
the heart of the oceanJULY 2019
They say you never tire of Thailand simply because it is that spot of earthly equilibrium where you reclaim your axis no matter how many times you have been-there-done-that, no matter how overdone or overwrought you are and no matter how much more exotic everybody else's vacation is. If you want to re-centre yourself, find your mojo, get away from it all, you simply catch the next flight to Thailand. For it is there that life seems friendly again. And as they greet you with the words "Sanuk, Sabai and Saduak," which means "be happy, well, and content yourself with what life offers you" or "Mai Pen Rai," which means "don't worry, everything is alright," they somehow don't sound hollow or placatory simply because you are at the most hedonistic and vibrant tourist economy there is. In fact, it is about the embedded life philosophy of a people who are mindful of every small moment, celebrate life in the simplest of activities and stay amazed at every possibility of finding value in everything, from the swirl of the hot sauce to diving in the deep waters, even serving you in a leaf. And they walk the thin line between need and greed remarkably well to rescue you right back to the universal truth, you are what you think and do. In the moment. Which is why it is extremely unfair to define Thailand in clichés. For it surprises you when you least expect it. And your escapade becomes your inner journey.
Tourism in Thailand has changed quite a bit from the last time we knew it. It has become even more experiential, conscientious, cultural and intensely individual. That's why the tourism authorities are dispersing the crowd from the overrun tourist towns of Bangkok, Pattaya and Chiang Mai to cosy, idyllic spots in the hinterland, opening the heart of the country as it were through the fringed palm of the beaches so that you become one with the people - blending with communities, becoming a next door neighbour, walking forest trails and making friends with elephants. So this trip is about unpeeling the soul and taking off the wrapping paper of theme park glitter, skyscraper club views and the lure of sexual abandon. Young Thais have taken on the baton of re-introducing their land and want you to know that the stray rock clusters in postcards are remnants of an old desert and that they can turn you into an addict of Thai coffee.
PATTAYA NOT THE ONE YOU KNOW
Mention Pattaya and the immediate recall will be of its row of beachfront hotels and strip malls, the nightclubs and bars, dances and musicals, in short a magically conjured cluster given to priming every kind of human desire. But what if we told you it caters to desires you never knew existed within you. And so it is that we head to Na Jomtien beach, a little out of Pattaya, yet far far away from the noise and with stunning aquascapes that are about to become a theme, azure blue waters stretching into infinity, their calm depths broken by dots of distant islands, and their reassuring stillness defying the changing moods of time itself. Simply put, you can master the art of doing nothing here. Just put up your feet, let the breeze blow through you, turn you inside out and curl up under a beach umbrella with a book, digging your feet into the sand, burrowing in like a crab. After all, there are plenty of live grills and cocktails to turn you into Epicurus himself. In fact, Na Jomtien helps you embody his true philosophy, which is to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterised by ataraxia - peace and freedom from fear - and aponia - the absence of pain - and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.
We find our sweet spot at Renaissance Pattaya Resort & Spa, complete with overhanging sit-outs that do not interfere with the perch of other guests and a perfect infinity pool that tempts you to fall off the edge into the beyond. But what we like most is the careful attention to detail and the zero use of plastic. Yes, across all hotels on this stretch, you are served water in sealed glass bottles in rooms, given a tumbler to refill and carry through the day and supplied with paper straws. Of course, we love the family suites that could make for perfect group getaways and a cache of activities to keep children busy. Pleasure resorts usually end up indulging the adult but here, be it in the beach toy sets in each room or the animal floaters in the pool, this thoughtfulness is at once inclusive and brings out your inner child, too.
Of course, if you are into sailing and like the elegance of colonial state rooms, then the Ocean Yacht Club, overlooking a marina that has the best boats, from a hand-made wooden antique to state-of-the-art ones, is undoubtedly the best bet. This estate-style sprawl with rolling greens skirting the cool waters gives a Riviera feel and a walk along the jetty on a rain-kissed afternoon is just the ticket. The Club has its own qualified maintenance staff and massive lifts for moving yachts but for smaller boats docked on land, the owners simply have to call when they want to go cruising, and the boat is launched in the water upon their arrival. But it is at the 360-degree deck view sky room that we catch the first rains of the season dissolve the horizon in a haze and the palms sway with elemental fury. Yet within moments the clouds break up, revealing an afternoon sun that lends colour to the choppy waters, a purple daub here, a cerulean there, blue and green in between, tossed and tousled about with change of season.
It is the tempestuous sea that makes the Jomtien beachfront the best location for eateries, most of them having platform extensions for the surf to curl around temptingly during high tide. Normally you would want to gorge on local seafood grills and tempura but we are pleasantly surprised on our first night by the Bacco beach restaurant and wine bar, done entirely in hardwood and radiating from a column-like cellar cum bar in the middle. Bacco serves simple, rustic Italian food that makes for easy comfort picks on a night of great music and 300 wine labels to pick from. We had not gone looking but its oven-baked pizzas and classic pastas and bakes remind us that glocalisation of the food kingdom is not necessarily a bad thing.
Of course, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. So no experience in Jomtien is complete till you have visited Legends of Siam, Thailand's first and largest theme park, spread across a massive 1,00,000 sq km. This recreates various periods of history, from the Ayuthaya kingdom to the royal descendants, replicates the whole country's history and geography in miniature, complete with architectural landmarks of the port cities and the rice terraces of the countryside, displays artworks and sea-faring traditions that define the evolution of a people who are as much rooted to their past than you would believe them to be. As we are welcomed by a traditional dance ritual and board a train to go around the campus, what catches our attention are the huge statues of Hindu gods. At the centre is Lord Indra on Airavata, protecting us and rewarding our good deeds, followed by that of Ganesha and Brahma. There is, of course, Lord Buddha but Theravada Buddhism, as it is practised in Thailand, does not exclude the Hindu traditions that once came from the Khmer rulers and coopts them beautifully in rituals. A statue of Indra or Ganesha is mandatorily installed
at the gateway of each house to ward off the spirits. Neither is Buddha democratised as a cult God whose pictures and statues can be used at random unless it is for worship. So no Buddha motifs on clothes, T-shirts and souvenirs here.
This is as close to time travelling as you can get - walking the grand colonnades, the stately pavilions and merchant bazaars of the old kingdom, staring at the elaborate parapets and alcoves of old mansions and courtyards, embellished with the finest and curvaceous woodwork, growing rice and building tenements with the farmers, frolicking with elephants in the village and having fun rides at the temple fair. And when suitably tired, listening eagerly to the legend of Baan Maenak, the woman who came back from the afterlife to avenge her death, discovering the secrets of black magic, watching a folk play and then watching the sun burn its brightest by the river, where the women hawk goods in their boats. This walkabout is not just about visual splendour but testimony to a shared mercantile legacy of south and southeast Asia, where traditions merged and innovated to evolve their own grammar, where no guest felt like an alien and where there was an ennobling feeling of belonging beyond borders. Quite a melange of cultures like the steaming hotpot we are served and the indigo ikat and organic cotton that we know so very well back home.
Still, if there is any must-do that you must tick off if you are so close to Pattaya, then you must try the globally rated Oasis spa in a tropical garden on the Chateau Dale estate on top of the Big Buddha Hill. Surrounded by water channels and rain-washed foliage, the silken rustle of aqua and the occasional chirping of a bird, you feel you are in the tropical Lanna kingdom with aromatic herbs and oils. The masseurs here do a fine job of blending tradition with modern treatment regimes. The best part about the Thai massage is that it is born of eclectic traditions. So it is not too forceful but slow and relaxing which involves stretches, twists, traction and passive yoga moves. And at some level, the communion with your masseur is instinctive. For she won't let go till she has worked out your knots of resistance. Nice and easy.
Of course, if you still miss the rhythms of Pattaya town, do take a round of Walking Street. Not for the go-go girls but to see how cliches drown out the big picture of it being a culture cauldron like no other. Like the fact that it happens to be a spirited showcase of world street food, from Turkish ice-creams to Afghan grills and roasts, from pan-Asian toss-ups to Indian dhaba. We come across contradictions coming together in a food fusion like no other, an Indian-style paratha stuffed with bananas and other local ingredients or the soft layered but crispy Thai omelette with fish sauce. Some places just keep it simple, serving "coffee and beer." Oh, and let us not forget the shop names - Honest Gems would have you believe that the pearls are real while Healthy Pharmacy has a kind of a doctor's sincerity attached to it. Everybody has heard about conspicuous consumption. But probably nobody has ever heard of compulsive consumption. In Thailand's eat streets, that's an easy affliction. At some corner, you would definitely get food at odd hours of the night.
RAYONG BECOME AN ORCHARD HAND
Driving up ahead of Pattaya, we find ourselves racing through plantation country, rich rubber, juicy tapioca and, of course, lush tropical fruits. So blessed are the highlands that rise from the cliffs that the foliage here is almost fleshy, abundant and dense, growing wild on a moist soil, entwining into each other and claiming every crevice made by the earthworm. There's the blue sky above and life sheathed in green below, the tarred road the only proof of human intervention. This is durian country, the Thai variant among the most expensive in the world. Our guide tells us that a varietal called Ganyao at Nonthaburi can cost as much as 20,000 baht, or about $600 for a pulpy, gooey, creamy indulgence. Of course, the fruit cannot be carried into a hotel, as it is smelly and stains easily. We find out all these at Suphhatra Land, a fruit orchard which is an eye-opener for the potential of agro-tourism, where every fruit can be had raw and picked up as chips, purees, preserves, sauces, crackers, savouries and what have you. A trolley ride takes you through the orchard laden with a mind-boggling variety of fruits in all shapes, colours and sizes. The thick tropical canopy around us is broken by canals and bridges. They say the best durians grow when the fresh water mixes with the sea water that enhances the mineral and salt content and, therefore, their flavour. The farmers almost treat the fruit as a lab-grown speciality, covering it with bags and wire to keep out birds and animals, mothballing it to keep out pests and insects and growing it with organic fertilisers, molasses and yeasts. Some varietals are even capped with shades to protect them from the intense sun and over-ripening them in the process. Even the one we are allowed to take a picture of is a readymade fruit strapped to a branch! There's no getting close to the real thing.
Of course, it is the fruit buffet here that has tourists teeming over counters. We love the spindly rambutan, looking like a sea anemone really, but cut through and you have a pale pink flesh that tastes citrusy, a cross-flavour of litchi and grape. The santol is quite the battle too, as you have to suck the cottoned white fibre off the seeds, sour and sweet. There's the snakefruit, the mangosteen, the starfruit and rose apple but how can one say no to half-feet long mangoes bursting ripe and lusciously sweet! For us at that moment, a sliver of durian can wait. The best pick, given our palate, is of course the salad of green papaya, slivers of which are tossed about with organic vegetables grown in the garden. A dash of lemon, sweet chilli sauce and a hand-pound paste of aromatics and spices - that's what does the tangy trick. For carnivores, there are chicken satays with roasted pineapple squares but then that would be cheating on the concept, wouldn't it?
With nature's bounty in the backyard and fresh catch from the sea coming to the beach shacks, food is an obsession in Rayong. Little wonder then that this is fast emerging as the seat of culinary tourism with even the Marriott - yes it has the most expansive private beach - hosting classes for guests. We pick up basics, like finding the right ratio of chilli and prawn paste. Then there are fish sauce, palm sugar, a sour ingredient like tamarind or lime and cooking oil. And they are always preparing meat on the bone. Coconut milk is only about adding a luxuriant touch and has nothing to do in everyday food. That fresh feel is all because of pounding in a mortar and pestle. Most local chefs tell you that food processors make a mash and sludge of everything but it is only the repeated roll and thud in the mortar that slowly releases the essential oils in herbs and spices, intensifying the flavours, accents and the fullness of a dish. Anthony Bourdain once recorded in his Thai travels: "In fact, the method for pounding the paste was considered so integral to the home that it was said a Thai man chose his bride solely for the sound she made with her mortar and pestle. Short, sharp whacks of barely controlled aggression were ideal. Not surprisingly, the emphasis on women in the kitchen led to other cooking-related euphemisms in Thai conversation: a womaniser was referred to as a nah maw (pot face); a man who cheated on his wife was said to have tasted another woman's nam prik (a spicy chilli sauce)."
No local market in Rayong is complete without a row of food stalls and women bringing in their mobile carts to rustle up everything from starters to main course, all done hygienically and without cluttering or messing around with food waste. The drill is the waste has to be dumped at a pre-determined site by midnight for clearance. For a nation that is defined by its food economy, the rapid disappearance of waste and the spick and span streets the next morning definitely merit another story.
But it is the half circle arc of the sea, fringed by forested hills to the west, from our bay view room at the Marriott that is unparalleled. And you could be easily forgiven for staying in, watching the waters change colours with the heaving clouds above, sometimes a silvery white against the deep churning storm-grey ones. At other times, they are a dark Prussian blue with the clouds rolling in hither thither before coalescing into a menacing thunder roll. Yet another time, they could be a uniform cyan, absorbing all the colours of a moody sun. The waves here are curling and nudging, rather than slapping and hard, almost courting you from all sides. The rocky outcrops and dead corals occasionally break the long beach walks on powdery sand, reminding you how the sea once came into the land long, long ago. However, nothing comes close to the sea at night, the waves cresting and colliding with each other to form a gentle swell that comes way in and stops just short of the beach bar. The stars are just about a sprinkle through the cloud cover. Yet, through a tear in the distance, half a moonbeam spotlights the waters in an operatic moment. And the ocean breeze calms your inner core. How can you feel alone when the sea can read your mind and is determined to put up a show just for you? Certain moments are best not recorded on camera but felt in their enormity.
KOH SAMET ISLANDER FOR A DAY
The water's cold around this island, the jet skis bob up and down as their anchors get pulled by the angry tide and the bathers dot the shallow curve along the inlet. There are islands all around, the sea a heaving mirror of an overcast sky, the clouds breathing down into a funnel on the horizon, a mad play of an artist's brushstrokes. And then there are the cliffs, far away from the beach, around a bend, stubborn and scar-faced despite the whiplashes of the water and the giant surf sprays that froth around them. We walk on the rocks that will some day turn into boulders and become stumps over time. Standing on high ground, the beach is but a distant buzz of civilisation, the swimmers mere dots in the water, the speed boats and para-sailers bursts of colour as the waters turn purple mysteriously. It is here that we find Sylvia of La Dolce Vita, an elderly woman in white dress and hat, laces and frills, perching herself on an outcrop, letting the wind take her umbrella and surrendering herself to the vista before her. Not before recording her solitary moment with a selfie. There's a smile on her bright red lips as she realises nobody else can be a constant companion but the sea. And the tourist police, who actually follow you without you knowing, making self-exploration a safe option for solo travellers.
We keep going, climbing down to a cove and dip our feet in the shallow green waters. Somehow this unkempt corner is a silent solace with twigs and branches strewn about and the tide leaving behind puddles, wriggling with tiny crabs, shellfish and bits of washed up sea weeds and corals. No spa massage can quite beat the breakers gliding all over you as you lie on the sand. But that's just us, the lotus-eating kind. For others, there's no end to possibilities of the water world. Deep dive with pufferfish and manta rays, swim among the black-tipped sharks, stingrays, barracudas, multi-coloured ferns, corals and star fish, slice through the waters in jet skis or reel in the fish. For the less adventurous, there's canoeing and kayaking. For the land-huggers, there are the ATV rides through the villages, the cycling around picture-book town squares and clock towers, the long walks through the quiet settlements with locals opening their homes to gorgeous food and deft massage. Nobody leaves without a beach massage at about 250 to 300 bahts. We casually enter a home unit, where the grandmother rustles up lunch for her grandchildren returning from school while the mother and her girls attend to customers in neatly arranged lounge chairs and floor mats that can easily be curtained off as cabins for full body treatments. There's a certain domestic efficiency and warmth that makes these parlours incredibly safe and trustworthy. And after a late lunch of lobsters, you wouldn't mind walking into the sunset. Literally. But the clouds and sprinkling gusts of rain are no less ideal for siesta.
Most boats from the mainland arrive at Na Dan Pier on the northeastern tip of the island. From here, the first beach you will hit is Sai Kaew, the most developed and the best place for nightlife. Yes, the parties here are to die for but there's an unofficial curfew. Koh Samet has learnt from the mistakes of Maya Bay, the beach made famous by Europeans and now shut down to heal after the disastrous effects of over-tourism. The beach had at one time 5,000 footfalls, far beyond its carrying capacity of 170 people. The sharks had begun migrating from its waters and marine life was dying. As nature heals it back, Koh Samet believes in rationing experiences. Day visitors are numbered, the resorts have to keep to environmental compliances, the shacks have to clean up the sands and human shrillness is not allowed to shatter the tranquility. This is the middle path that can keep us anchored to the larger purpose of Creation. If you ever drive into or out of Pattaya on the glistening highway at night, you might just see a dark silhouette of Buddha perched above a hill with a fiery halo of earthly lights behind Him. The glow is unmistakable, a guiding light for the eternal traveller.