Thursday, 18 January 2007

THAILAND December 2006, January 2007

Off we went on December 25th with Emirates.
The main advantage of flying out on Christmas day was the price of the tickets, the taxi however was obviously more expensive. We had hoped for a relaxed flight, assuming most people wouldn't want to travel that day ... well, we were wrong! The queue at check-in was huge and the Boeing 777 was absolutely packed.
I however was impressed by the service and facilities on board. The in-flight entertainment system was amazing.
A short stop-over in Dubai, changing planes and Bangkok finally felt in reach.

BANGKOK:
Suffering from jetlag we landed at Bangkok's new stunning airport. Once we picked up our luggage we went to get a taxi and this is where we figured out you need to go one level lower than the floor you seem to be automatically guided to. When you just follow the flow getting out of the terminal you get to the limousine services that charge 800 Bath. If you go down one level you can take a public taxi that will cost you approximately 300 Bath to go to the city centre.
So, we jumped in a taxi, told him to take the toll road (prepare some money for the driver, because he will ask you to pay at the toll booth) and 20 minutes later we arrived at Swiss Park Hotel on Sukhumvit Road. This hotel offers good value for money and the staff is friendly and efficient. But, next to the hotel a new skyscraper is being built and construction work goes on all day and night > 24h/day!!! When booking a room, make sure to ask for pool side (room numbers ending on 2,3 or 4 are the safest bet). Don't allow for anything else because it is impossible to sleep or relax when you have Bob the Builder on Red Bull going on a frenzy.
For me it was the first time I had a pool when staying in Bangkok and it was great! Chilling out at the pool is a nice way of coping with Bangkok's chaos.
Unfortunately the combination of jet-lag, constant air-con and the heavy air pollution turned out to be a perfect recipe for throat-nose-ear infections.

On our way back from the islands we also stayed at Swiss Park Hotel for the last two days. Since we came back from Koh Phangan earlier than expected we needed another hotel for a couple of days. My partner managed to find us Zenith hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 3. Now this hotel was definitely in another league. The lobby and restaurant are really nice but try to get one of the refurbished rooms. The main asset of this hotel however is it's large Sky Pool on the upper floor of the hotel. This makes the hotel quite unique.



The neighbourhood isn't particularly great but it is very close to Nana BTS station on Sukhumvit.
We were also looking at other hotels in Bangkok and two really seemed to jump out of the crowd. The Davis Bangkok seems absolutely stunning and Napa Place seems to offer something different, but it's prices have just gone up and I think it will have trouble competing with luxury hotels that offer swimming pools and larger rooms.

On previous Thailand holidays I used to stay in Old Bangkok, just north of the Banglamphu area. Guest houses like Shanti Lodge and Sri Ayuttaya (behind the national library) offer a nice alternative when looking for a place close enough to the old city centre but far enough to be a bit more chilled. Shanti Lodge has a more hippie new age vibe to it, while Sri Ayuttaya offers decent rooms that will be more quiet.

Remark:
The difference between old and new Bangkok is huge. When staying near Khao San Road, being mainly surrounded by other travellers one could think that in order to fit in you need to be wearing rags, dreadlocks and a couple of henna tattoos. A trip to the Thai shopping malls will quickly open your eyes and make you realise that the local youth is very trendy and fashionable. Compare this to the crowd you find near Khao San and you soon put things in perspective.

TIPS for starters:
Farang Untamed Travel is a must buy magazine when you arrive in Thailand. In this magazine you will find an extensive overview of things to do plus restaurants, bars and clubs in Bangkok. You also get much useful information about the islands. 99 Bath well spent if you ask me ;-)
Get a Nancy Chandler Map of Bangkok. These colourful maps are extremely useful.
When booking hotels www.sawadee.com is the best online booking site around. It is fast, reliable, offers great service and you pay less than booking direct.
When wandering near Khao San Road, try to pick up a Khaosaner magazine for the info and map inside.
When going clubbing, you will need your passport as ID ... it's not a matter of age. Even Keith Richards wouldn't get in without his passport ;-)
Get a Thai SIM card and you will save a lot of money on your text messages and calls. You can pick a Starter Kit from Happy for 199 Bath (check for the "Ready for International Calls" mention).
For continental flights (and even international flights in SE Asia) Bangkok Airways provides the best experience considering it's fares are very reasonable. It is easy to book online with Bangkok Airways and the level of flexibility and service you get is truly amazing. If Bangkok Airways flies to your destination, just fly with them and you won't be disappointed.

Things to do near Sukhumvit Road:
Try the Sky Train or also called BTS, you can't miss it and it is worth giving it a try. It also is a nice way to cool down when the temperatures are soaring, because of the aircon inside. Jump off at Siam, and check out the shopping malls. Paragon is the newest most exclusive one where you can actually buy a Ferrari if you would want to seriously splash out. MBK (Mah Boon Krong) however offers more "realistic" goods at normal/local prices and is just one Sky Train stop further along the road, National Stadium, or within walking distance of the BTS Siam station.

Things to in Bangkok (not near Sukhumvit Road):
Lumpini Park is a nice getaway from the constant noise and pollution and is easily reached by Sky Train.
Go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market (see Nancy Chandler map).
Also visit Suan Lum Night Bazaar (Nancy Chandler maps are available) to guide you around. This night market is situated next to Lumpini Park.
When staying in the older part of Bangkok you can easily visit the Grand Palace, all the different Wats (temples) such as the temple of the Lying Buddha, the temple of the Emerald Buddha and many more. The Grand Palace is definitely worth visiting.

Places to Eat/Drink near Sukhumvit Road:
Cheap Charlie's (from Sukhumvit Road take Soi11 and after approx. 250m you will find a little street and Cheap Charlie's to your left) is a relaxed place to have a couple of drinks to start the evening. It's rather a shack with some chairs and tables but it offers a nice atmosphere and obviously cheap drinks.
Check out Suk 11 just around the corner from Cheap Charlie's, this guest house offers a very different feel than the other places on and near Sukhumvit Road. But you won't have the luxury of a pool ;-)
Very close to Swiss Park Hotel on Soi 11, posh restaurant Zanzibar offers fantastic food, a nice surrounding and a live band that mostly plays jazzy tunes. Food was really excellent when we went but it came with a price tag. The more upscale places will charge you VAT and service charge, while the "smaller" places don't.
Restaurants Cabbages & Condoms and Crepes & Co are two popular spots on Soi12.
The shopping malls offer a good selection of restaurants. In MBK you will find a variety of really nice Japanese restaurants, like Kobune. I even had to ask for a doggy bag because I couldn't finish the huge sushi plate I ordered ;-)
If you fancy a good coffee, have a look near Asok BTS station next to Sheraton Grande. You can see a Boots chemists (part of a shopping complex) and at the top of the stairs there is a little coffee stall that offers really good value for money. The coffees are cheap but really good actually, especially when compared to other strange brews I tried in Bangkok that also were labeled "coffee".

Places to Eat/Drink in Bangkok (not near Sukhumvit):
Near Khao San, on Phra Arthit Road you will find a stretch of little bars and restaurants. The furthest one down the road, called Hemlock, served very nice food in a very nice atmosphere and with excellent jazzy music in the background. The difference in price with eating at a more upmarket place near Sukhumvit is huge. At Hemlock you can have really nice food at very affordable prices.
Having a drink on Khao San Road will never feel like an exclusive luxury happening but a place like Silk Bar definitely has a more upmarket feel to it. On Rambuttri Road, parallel with Khao San, Cinnamon Bar also offers a very different look&feel from what one would expect in this area. Definitely worth a visit.
Wok masterchef Ken Hom's favourite restaurant in Bangkok seems to be Ban Klang Nam, a floating seafood restaurant on the Chao Praya river. We tried to get there but the taxi drivers were asking a ridiculous amount of money to drive us there.
If you want to impress your partner with a fab place to have a drink, definitely try Sky Bar on the 64th floor of State Tower but don't trip over when you get your bill.

Clubs in Bangkok:
The most popular clubs in Bangkok still seem to be Q Bar and Bed Supperclub both on Soi 11, with the latter being the most trendy. But we must emphasize that these clubs are the most popular when considering a mixed crowd of locals, expats and travellers. I was however completely blown away by the stretch of superclubs at RCA/Rachada (BlockD). These places seem to cater mainly for locals but even midweek there is such a buzz it is frankly impressive. Clubs Flix and Slim look very trendy and are packed every night. Hip-Hop seems pretty big nowadays with the local youth and Slim mainly caters for the Hip-Hop crowd. Flix however mainly plays house music and according to my girlfriend this place has to the most funky women's toilets ever. In front of these clubs you will find an impressive amount of tuned cars all nicely aligned, giving the entire scene a Fast & Furious-feel.


KOH LANTA:
After having spent 4 days in Bangkok we flew out with NokAir. Unfortunately none of the budget airlines seemed to be flying on Krabi at that time. So we had to fly to Trang, a central travel hub in South Thailand. Trang isn't particularly funky, but it is just a functional stop-over on your way to another destination.
Remark: In the past, Bangkok Airways used to fly on Krabi and they even had flights from Krabi to Samui. This was the ideal island hopping solution because it easily got you from one side of the peninsula to the other. NokAir has recently (15th Jan 2007) opened up a new route flying from Bangkok to Krabi, something that was only available through Thai Airways in 2006. You can still get from one side of the peninsula to the other side by using Bangkok Airways' flights from Phuket to Samui.

Arriving at Trang's airport isn't a particularly exhilarating experience. We got our luggage and rushed to KK Tour & Travel because calling them from the airport, we were told that the busses were packed and it was very busy to get to Koh Lanta.KK Tour & Travel has several daily air-con vans between Trang and Koh Lanta but with it being 30 December, many people wanted to travel to the islands.
We fortunately managed to get on a crowded mini bus and off we went for a bus ride of hell. Obviously the trip will take you double the time that was mentioned, it will be packed with screaming kids, but the frustration you accumulate during this drive is the worst thing. Whenever the driver stopped, he got out of the bus, had a cigarette but left everyone stuck inside. On the first ferry he managed to park the mini bus in such a way we couldn't get out and waiting for the second ferry he got out again, lit a cigarette and was having a walk in the fresh air while we were again stuck inside. When the bus wasn't driving the temperatures inside were soaring and I started to lose it. Seemingly nobody could actually open the door of the minibus from the inside and all windows had been closed off using metal wire (probably in order to optimise the air-con). We eventually managed to get out for some air but our mind was made up: No more mini bus rides from hell!!!

When we finally arrived on Koh Lanta, we were dropped at Ban Sala Dan (north of the island). Trying to avoid the overly pushy taxi drivers, we went to have a drink in a nearby hotel and we called our resort, Kantiang Bay View. 30 minutes later a pick up truck showed up and we had a free ride to our resort.
It must be said, Koh Lanta doesn't make a great first impression. The beaches look very nice, but the "backyard" is a huge mess. The tsunami aftermath is still very visible and once you leave your resort you will stumble upon debris and waste. The little dodgy shops near the resort look terrible and are far from being "inviting".
On arrival at the resort nobody welcomed us, we just were entitled a "follow him" in order to be led to our rooms. So again, not a fantastic first impression. This was quite a shock! When compared to islands like Samui and Phangan, Lanta doesn't score very high on the "friendly welcome" scale.
The rooms were not great and the bungalows were packed close together. We were both tired from all the travelling and our first feeling on arrival was far from good.
So in the evening we decided we would try and leave one day earlier than expected and avoid mini buses to get to our next destination, Koh Phangan.

Luckily we had indeed picked the best beach of the island and on the same beach you also find the Same Same But Different restaurant, which offers a very nice setting on the beach.
We soon found out the food at our own resort was actually very good too. The restaurant offers a nice setting right on the beach.



The Why Not Bar, ran by super-cool-dude sea gipsies, was a fab place to have a drink in the evening and was on the same premises, making it ideal for a late night drink.







For New Year's eve the staff of the Why Not Bar had set up a bar on the beach and we had a fantastic New Year on the beach! By the way ... a tip from my girlfriend: try the Pina Colada with fresh coconut milk!






Slowly this place started to grow on us. The beach was absolutely fabulous, the food was excellent and the bar on the premises was a really cool place with excellent drinks and good music.





We rented a scooter and drove around the island. This indeed confirmed that Ao Kantiang is probably the best beach on the island but it also confirmed the island hasn't that much too offer.


In Ban Sala Dan (the "capital" of the island and main entry and exit point to the island) we were even stopped by the police because we weren't wearing any helmets. The police had set up a barrage and all westerners that were driving scooters without wearing helmets were pulled over. It took us some negotiation and we even ended up calling our resort. Someone from the resort was close-by and he popped by to help us out ... we managed to drive off without needing to pay a fine. Needless to say our appreciation for the resort we were staying at grew throughout our stay.

After 6 days it was time to leave and head for Koh Phangan. Definitely avoiding the mini buses we took a boat to Phuket (stop-over at Phi Phi), a taxi from the pier to Phuket's airport and we managed to get on an earlier flight to Samui, thanks to Bangkok Airways' flexible and friendly staff.


Conclusion:
Koh Lanta left us with mixed feelings. It doesn't have the warm friendliness of many other Thai islands, nor does it have particularly spectacular scenery.
I think we were very lucky to have stayed on Ao Kantiang at Kantiang Bay View Resort. We ended up really enjoying our stay and the positives were definitely outweighing the negatives.
I however don't understand why the prices for scooters, rooms, etc are so much higher than on Koh Phangan, that isn't linked to the mainland and doesn't have an airport neither. Is it the nearby Koh Phi Phi that has made this island the next to best island if you can't stay on Phi Phi and thus boosting the prices? (e.g. a scooter on Lanta will cost you 300 Bath while on Phangan it will cost you 200 Bath, the bungalow we were staying cost us 2000 Bath while on Phangan our much more impressive bungalow cost us the same 2000 Bath)
Out of curiousity I went to ask for prices at nearby resorts on Ao Kantiang, such as Baan Laanta Resort & Spa and I don't even want to know about Pimalai Resort. Well, the place we were staying seemed to be bargain on this island.
The big resorts and the prices doesn't make sense to me. Why would one want to go to an overpriced resort on an island that actually hasn't that much to offer and that is difficult to reach? I'm all for islands that are not overly developed , but this island didn't have the charm of an unspoiled island nor did it have the infrastructure of "bigger" islands like Samui.
The island is of course struggling with the tsunami aftermath and it is amazing at which pace everything has been rebuilt. Local authorities have now created Tsunami escape routes and safe areas, which are well indicated all along the island's risk zones. One can try to imagine the impact the tsunami has had on daily life and on the people affected by the loss of family and friends, but I don't think we can grasp the scale of it. When I say Koh Lanta isn't the most welcoming smiling place, I am aware of the fact that such a statement is easy for me to make when at the same time it must be really difficult for the locals to keep up a brave or smiling face after the traumas they have experienced. They went straight back to providing services to travellers, seeking good times, after having been through such a traumatic experience themselves. By the way, you now notice that many private houses are being built on hills and definitely not near the beach anymore.





KOH PHANGAN:
So we landed on Samui and from this charming little airport we took an overpriced taxi to Big Buddha Pier. We had to wait for the ferry leaving at 4PM and taking us to Haad Rin. On arrival at Samui airport we were seriously disappointed by the weather. It was heavily overcast and it looked like it would stay like that for a long time.



While waiting for the ferry we asked another traveller who had been on the island for a while about the weather and he said it had been very sunny for the last 7 days but that it just went clouded today. We felt better hearing this and hoped for more sunshine the next days. We came from a sunny island after all!
On our arrival at Haad Rin, I called our resort, Sarikantang, and they came to pick us up straight away. I had stayed at this place in 2005 and they still remembered me. We received a really friendly welcome and the place hadn't lost any of it's charm. The bungalows had even been "improved" with a mini fridge, TV and DVD player. But this resulted in the bungalows becoming more expensive in the process.
We were staying in a really nice beach front bungalow with open air bathroom. It all looked fabulous.
The staff is amazingly friendly and will go to distances to help you out in any way they can. This place is being ran very professionally with great care for personalised service with a smile.




My girlfriend treated herself to an afternoon at the Spa of the resort. The setting was absolutely great, she enjoyed it very much and she was showing off her baby-soft-skin afterwards :-) My skin felt like sandpaper compared to hers ;-)
My only negative comment about Sarikantang would be the food and the restaurant deco. I remembered this place as providing excellent food, but on this occasion I was mostly disappointed by it. The entire resort looks absolutely charming but the restaurant could do with a bit of a make-over in order to have the same feel as the rest of the place.



So far the good news. The bad news was that the rain was pouring down ... ALL day and night! So, we were staying in a fabulous resort on a fantastic beach but the weather was absolutely lousy! Watching DVD's and trying to make ourselves comfy wasn't our idea of a beach holiday. One evening I even went out on a scooter, in the rain, to Mr K ("Chicken corner", near Cactus) to get some take away food for a DVD night... not the ideal scenario, but you try to make the best of the situation. By the way, Mr K does some really nice food and does excellent "luxury" sandwiches. It's not the most cosy place to have food, but ideal for take away.

The next day we checked the weather forecasts and it was looking pretty grim. Rain, clouds and stormy weather for the next 6 days ... Haad Rin had in the meantime become a collection of big puddles and felt deserted. Very strange because only a few days ago the place was buzzing with the Full Moon Party. We asked a local expat shop keeper and she confirmed that the weather was too extreme for the season. We knew that Koh Phangan could experience some rain in January (more likely than the other side of the peninsula), but normally you don't get constant rain for a week.
So, we needed a solution! Since there were no flights anymore from Samui to Krabi (Bangkok Airways had them in the past, but canceled the route) it would take us too much time and effort to get back to the other side of the peninsula, plus we still had a flight booked from Samui back to Bangkok. The solution: returning to Bangkok earlier than initially planned! We contacted Bangkok Airways and just about managed to arrange for an earlier flight to Bangkok. Everybody was fleeing the islands because of the weather, so there were huge stand-by lists at the Samui airport.
My girlfriend found us a great hotel on www.sawadee.com and so we were unfortunately leaving Koh Phangan after just a couple of days.


TIPS for starters:
On arrival at Koh Phangan and even at the ferry on Koh Samui you can find handy little magazines like Go Phangan (formerly known as Phangan.info) and Phangan Explorer.
Don't drink an overload of "buckets" (local party drink) and jump on a scooter. The mix of alcohol and concentrated Thai-style Red Bull will diminish your perception of how drunk you really are.
Wear flip-flops on the beach! Especially on the party beaches broken glass and cigarette buds often cause injuries.
When going to the Full Moon Party, don't take any valuables with you. Pickpockets will target digital cameras, money, etc. Avoid carrying bags and if you need a wallet, physically attach it to your clothes, or yourself, with some wire or a chain. Boozed out travellers are an easy prey! Try not to leave any valuables in your room neither, rather ask reception if they have a safe. FMP night is an ideal time for burglars to break into guesthouses because most of them are deserted anyhow.


Places to Stay (or not to stay in some cases):
My favourite resort when staying in Haad Rin, still is Sarikantang. It is very well located on a fantastic beach, Haad Seekantang, offering a relaxed getaway from the party beach while being very close-by at the same time.
Next to Sarikantang you will find Coco Hut, which also offers nice beach front bungalows that are very nicely spread out on the beach. The view from the deck is absolutely stunning but to my feeling you get better value for money at Sarikantang. When I stayed there, Coco Hut had a less friendly feel to it, it felt more like a "holiday factory" but maybe other people will experience this differently.




If you want to experience a different Koh Phangan, the beaches Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai & Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi at the North-East of the island offer a nice alternative. These two beaches offer a more secluded feel and are ideal if you are looking for something neither too busy nor too isolated. You will need a pick-up to get there, or go by boat. The road towards these beaches goes straight through some rain forest and is absolutely fantastic. I wouldn't suggest to try it with a scooter because the monsoon regularly reshapes this road into something you'd rather tackle with a 4-wheel vehicle.


On Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai, Dolphin is definitely a guest house with a rich ambience, set amidst jungle grounds that are right on the beach. It is run by a Kiwi-Thai couple and they turned this place into something great, with a bar that offers really cool loungy sitting decks.



Only problem is they don't do bookings, so you might find yourself ending up next doors at White Sand Resort, which actually isn't a bad deal neither. Even though it lacks the atmosphere you find at Dolphin it provides with large clean airy bungalows in a nice setting perpendicular to the beach.




The other beach, Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi, has a different feel than it's big brother "Yai". It has a hippie-feel to it, but I personally think it is all a bit more ramshackle. I tried staying at Baan Panburi, but the beach bungalow I was led to was absolutely not up to standard. This place heavily relies on a Lonely Planet quote from years ago for their advertising. I wasn't impressed at all by this place and I left 15minutes after getting there. I ended up at Thong Naipan Beach Resort & Spa, which wasn't fab neither but at least it offered better value for money at the time I went. When looking at the prices now, I am amazed how much they went up ... I remember paying 800 Bath in March 2005.

Places to Eat/Drink:
When staying in Haad Rin there is a multitude of places to have a drink or some food.
The Shell offers good Italian food in a nice setting, that feels a bit more chilled than most places in Haad Rin.
Om Ganesh is located right at the ferry in Haad Rin and has undergone some major refurbishment over the last few years. It offers good Indian food at reasonable prices.
Nira's Bakery offers good pastries and coffees but they come with a higher price tag.
A couple of more recent places offer a more upscale dining experience. Kinera has recently opened and it's warm dark red interiour sets it apart from the other places on the Haad Rin beach strip. The cuisine is mediterranean with an extra Italian touch. Emotion of Sushi offers decent sushi and cocktails in a loungy place.
If you feel like having a drink or you want the party vibe in the evening, just walk down to sunrise beach from "Chicken Corner" (Mr K) and once you reach the beach you can have your pick. Cactus is a popular place but there are so many bars to choose from.
When staying at Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai, Dolphin is the best place to have a drink. As a lounge bar this is as good as it gets. On this beach most bars are part of the guest houses or resorts.
At the other side on Ao Thong Nai Pan Noi you can find a couple of extra bars like the Jungle Bar, Rasta Bar and Outlaw Bar.
Seesha Bar on Chaloklum offers a completely different experience. I haven't been there myself but just have a look at their site www.sheesha-bar.com.



KOH SAMUI:
I never really went to Samui on purpose. I got stuck there at one occasion and ended up staying at P. Chaweng Guest House. A French expat, running a bar on Samui, recommended this place to me and he even went in to negotiate a better price. I think it only cost me 400 Bath for a nice clean room with air-con, tv and a mini fridge. It was great! I was really tired and this place was ideal to actually have a nice sleep and relax a little. It is not a funky place to stay but just offers really good value for money. I ended up staying an extra night because I really enjoyed having a decent quiet room.
Chaweng however didn't impress me at all. It felt like one big tourist-trap stretch of bars, shops and restaurants.
The next day I rented a scooter and went on a discovery ride around the island. Luckily not all of Samui has the same feel as Chaweng and you can still find some nice beaches that aren't too busy. Some of the resorts I saw on the island looked really great.
I don't understand why, but the taxis on the island are so overpriced compared to the rest of Thailand. Last time we were at Samui airport we had a few hours to kill and I thought it would be nice to go have a drink at nearby Billabong Surf Club on Bophut beach, but the taxis were charging such ridiculous prices we just stayed at the airport.
If I would ever end up on Koh Samui for a few days again, I think I would stay at Gecko. This place seems to offer nice bungalows with a trendy feel to them.

So far my Thai Blog ... I hope this information will prove useful.

More pics can be viewed on my Picasa Web Album:

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg, good blog ! I hope next time to drink a Sangsom with on Haad Thong Nay Pan

Cheers

Steve from Thong Sala
http://www.phangan-guide. com
and also now

http://stevekohphangan.spaces.live.com/?lc=1036

Anonymous said...

greg can u suggest to me some good websites to book bungalows in koh phangan? thanks

Gregory T'Kint said...

Hi 'Anonymous',

Well actually Steve from Phangan Guide seems to have a good reputation for taking care of his customers:
http://www.phangan-guide.com/english/

I have always booked direct, but if you want to book based on the latest info from the island it is probably good to go via someone local. E.g. road works or nearby resorts being built can all affect your experience.
Please also check my latest post June 2008 for more info:
http://gregstraveltips.blogspot.com/2008/08/koh-phangan-june-2008.html

All the best,

Greg