The Geckota E-01 Sports recently was put through its paces while exploring temples and jungles in the Far East...
When I lived in the Middle East in the 1980s our TV entertainment was at the mercy of the local service which comprised almost entirely of traditional Arabic music and culture. In English, we had only one daily local news broadcast at 18:00 hrs read by a very BBC elderly British lady expat. This was followed by a single achingly vintage US TV cop drama such as the Rockford Files.
Hence the advent of the personal VHS video player was an absolute godsend. Every month my parents would send a tape with my favourite UK programmes, foremost of which was Michael Palin’s original travelogue Around the World In 80 Days. To this day, if I need to be inspired to travel, I re-watch an episode. I desperately wanted to visit all the exotic locations Palin was exploring and gain some of those iconic stamps in my passport - New Delhi, Bombay, Cairo, Singapore and Hong Kong. 25 years later I had all the stamps many times over except for one elusive destination which conjured up the greatest juxtaposition of cultures; a meeting point for the ancient spiritual Far East and the impact of glass skyscraper modernity - Hong Kong.
Then by luck in 2014 my son and his wife both secured excellent teaching jobs in Hong Kong and over the last 5 years my wife and I have been able to explore and fall in love with this amazing city over numerous visits. There is still a tiny bit of Britishness, in the street names, whispers of a last outpost, but the city is now overwhelmingly Chinese and is run as a Special Administrative Region – a euphemism for China retaining a capitalist bastion and not undoing everything that had been achieved up to the 1997 handover.
Our family did live in the heart of the city, in Wan Chai, for a while. They rented a very small flat at an eyewatering price per square meter but soon they felt the need to escape from the non-stop 24-hour city and moved to a smaller island just 25 minutes ferry ride from the city. They chose to retreat to Lamma Island which is a cross between a peaceful traveller’s enclave and an untouched jungle paradise.
There are no cars on the island and the population is small but at weekends it seems like half of Hong Kong has taken the ferry to Lamma’s main village, Yung Shue Wan, to briefly escape the city. The island is a magical place and acts like an immediate detox from the vibrancy of the nearby metropolis. Property is relatively cheap compared to HK, Lamma has some great beaches and a couple of small villages which have a surprisingly good selection of restaurants and open fronted Aladdin’s Cave shops. Just 30 minutes’ walk from the villages and you will find yourself in thick bamboo jungle where velociraptors roam. Joking aside, Lamma is famous due to one of its more unsettling residents - the Golden Orb Weaver Spider.
These hand size beasts which appear blue in colour are clearly visible in the trees just feet above your head and have been on the island since the Jurassic Period. They have no natural predators and while the rest of the dinosaurs vanished, these spiders in South East Asia did not. Whilst I fully appreciate the evolutionary quirk of these residents, I still tend to duck down, close my eyes, and run fast as I can under their webs.
Lamma is the perfect place from where to explore Hong Kong. Having stayed 24/7 in the city itself it can be a little overwhelming. Like many capitols it never sleeps but when you have 7.5 million people crammed into an area the size of Derby the effect is multiplied exponentially. Melting pot is an overused travel writers’ term for globally diverse places but I cannot think of a better way to summarise Hong Kong. As I eluded to earlier there is a remote Britishness poking through the overwhelmingly Chinese influence but the multitude of expat nationalities who call Hong Kong home give the city streets an almost unique culture. Like Hong Kong has become a micro-society where everyone is welcome and can find a place. It is a city where you cannot decide whether to look up or down as you explore.
At street level you could I initially be forgiven for thinking that you are still in an old Chinese town with vibrant markets, temples and the bustle of sampans on Aberdeen harbour. At second and third floor level the ancient is offset by garish neon signs offering everything from watch repair, medicine and 24hour tailors.
Then for the next 88 floors there is nothing but gleaming glass, sometimes disappearing at the top as the buildings penetrate the low cloud and fine rain. At night as the bright lights take over and bathe the wet streets in a rainbow of colours the combination of these elements fires the imagination and in my mind the owner of the White Dragon noodle stand asks me if I am a Blade Runner?
Watch Shopping in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is also a wonderful place to buy and look at watches; it is arguably the best watch source city I have ever seen. There are several outstanding institutions well worth a visit if you find yourself here. On Lyndhurst Terrace there is the wonderful Vintage Concept which stocks a fine selection of old Rolex’s. On this visit there has an impressive GMT Master display in the window.
Inside there is a Rolex for every taste but as they specialise in 100% mint vintage you may need to save up your Hong Kong dollars! My dream Rolex 1016 from 1968 will sadly have to remain a dream… On the same road you will find one of only three Bremont boutiques outside the UK which welcome the idle watch enthusiast and serve bubbly as you peruse the latest models.
But by far my favourite watch shop in the city is Ken Watches. There are four branches, and they stock the best selection of pre-owned models anywhere. Watches to suit every budget at excellent prices. In Ken’s Rolex Submariner collection this month were several highly sought-after Bond models.
Trust me, Ken really is worth the effort to visit. On my last visit, I bought a mint Omega Seamaster Titanium 300m for considerably less than an identical watch was selling for via a well-known UK dealer at the same time. He then proceeded to fit the watch personally to me ensuring that the links were even numbered, and the clasp was exactly across my lower wrist, such was the need for balance. A wonderful service.
Which leads me nicely into my chronometer travel companions…
The watches of choice?
As you will already have suspected it pays to have good equipment on such travels. In 40+ degrees and 90% humidity the human body struggles and you find yourself sweating from holes you didn’t know existed. I made a rookie traveller mistake on my first HK visit by wearing a leather strap on my Breitling. By the end of the trip, the strap had begun to develop an aroma as it never really dried out, so Military style or rubber were both packed for later trips.
I eventually weeded out rubber as sweat collected rather unpleasantly under it and after one day I eliminated steel! The Oyster bracelet on my Explorer 2 became way too tight and miserable when my wrists began to swell.
On this current adventure I planned carefully and came equipped with not one, but two, Geckota watches thanks to Tim Vaux. My personal and trusted S-01 which admirably continues to take all the knocks life throws at it and a new model for me – the E-01 presented with a militay style strap and alternate Sailcloth strap. Once you have become accustomed to the smaller 36.5mm face of the E-01 it really is a gem to wear. It is much lighter than the S-01 but equally keeps Geckota’s trademark supreme legibility in all conditions. Perhaps intentionally, it has the slightest suggestion of a vintage Rolex Explorer– not in any way a copy – but my son commented that it looked like an old adventurer style watch on me – which Geckota should take as a fine compliment.
I like to think the E stands for Exploration and quite happily allowed my loan E-01 to adopt this persona.
I was well accustomed to the ZULUDIVER Classic Bond I wore it on as this too was my own strap, but I was new to the Sailcloth. While I was with Geckota recently they photographed my Rolex on Sailcloth and when the image appeared on a large PC screen there was a collective intake of breath clearly showing that everyone thought the watch looked stunning. There and then it was decided that this strap would be the perfect companion for a South-East Asian trip.
Departing HK, destination Thailand…
I had never been to Thailand until this trip. My wife had been there, and our son and his wife have been numerous times due to its proximity to their home, so it was arranged that I needed to be indoctrinated and we would all leave HK for a new 4-day adventure exploring as many 14th Century ancient Thai temples as Chiang Mai could muster.
We were travelling during the Songkran water festival which would make it a particularly auspicious time to visit the temples on what is effectively the Thai calendar new year. Whilst the Gregorian calendar is operated for international business and much of everyday life Thailand also uses in parallel a Solar Calendar which corresponds to what is known as the Buddhist Era. Hence our visit was in April 2562 B.E.
I will never forget the first time I saw an Egyptian temple. No matter how big or impressive you imagine them to be – they are bigger and more impressive. The temples, or Wats as they are locally called, in Chiang Mai had the same effect on me. As ancient buildings go, they are stunning, and their green and calm compounds generate a level of peace that is compelling.
All Wat sites have similar layouts. There is the main temple itself, most of which in this region date from the 1300s and 1400s. These central buildings are generally in amazing condition and it is evidently important to the local population that the temples look their best. Every effort is made to maintain the visual impact they have commanded for 600 years. Inside each temple is a grand Buddha statue which is the focal point for pilgrims and worshipers.
These central temples are flanked on all sides by many other statues of The Buddha made from exotic materials such as jade and amber, all of which are of a slightly different design. Within the compound is also a Chedi, or large stepped tower which houses the Wat’s most holy relic. These stupas are typically clad in polished gold leaf which make them truly dazzling in the bright Thai sunlight. One can only imagine what late Middle Age travellers must have made of these visual wonders. But it is not all gilt and beauty. The entrance to every temple is guarded by fierce Naga, huge statues of semi-divine mythological half-human, half serpent beasts which no doubt would have struck fear into even the hardiest early explorers.
As our odyssey went on it became clear that Chiang Mai was not my impression of a-typical Thailand. It is true backpacker territory where the more curious traveller will come seeking something other than a beach or Patpong. In the narrow back streets, local restaurants sell amazing home-cooked Thai food and the weekly Sunday street market (on the aptly named Walking Street) is kilometre after kilometre of artisan crafts thankfully without a tacky souvenir or fake Rolex in sight.
Local craftspeople offer beautifully carved mango wood or woven materials alongside street food stalls selling delicacies. This market is not just for tourists as the whole town turns out to support it. It was the perfect place to find a bar, order some Chang beer, and watch a fascinating world go by.
Every day in Thailand we explored a different temple, Wat Phra Singh being for me the most impressive. We were lucky to see a particularly rare Buddha statue moved with great reverence to a more prominent position by the monks in the festival. On the final day, we scaled hundreds of steps to visit a temple high in the jungle hills.
It had the most impressive Naga at the foot of the steps who seemed to challenge your presence in the temple. A reminder that the journey to enlightenment is not to be undertaken lightly.
Final thoughts at the end of the trip
All too soon it was over and as I sat at the airport awaiting our return flight to Hong Kong I was left with a profound sense of discovery. As Air Asia took us over the oldest part of the town I looked down as the ubiquitous James Bond book on my lap and at my other now trusted partner in travel – my Geckota E-01. Throughout the 40+ degrees of Thailand it had not missed a beat. I had opted only for the sailcloth strap and was glad to have done so as it spent a lot of time very wet. In the overwhelming heat of this country I have to say the E-01 made a better travel partner than the S-01 simply due to the reduced weight and mass of the watch so when you next feel the need to explore, I can thoroughly recommend one.
If your travels take you to either Lamma Island or Chiang Mai then make the most of both these off-the-beaten-track locations. Neither will disappoint and both will give you a true sense of adventure which we all need from time to time.