Thursday, 14 August 2008

Koh Phangan, June 2008

Weather, what to expect?
We really needed a holiday so we decided to risk it and go to Koh Phangan in June. It is not really the best time to go to the islands but since we got soaked during our last visit, in January 2007, we thought it couldn't be worse anyhow. And guess what? It wasn't! The weather was much better actually. During our first few days on the island we saw quite some clouds, but afterwards we experienced loads of sunshine for most of our days.
Prior to booking our flights we had checked the weather forecasts for June and it seemed that June was actually the best out-of-season month. There is a dip in rainfall in between 2 monsoons according to Lonely Planet's When to Go pages. Another useful source of information is the Thai Meteorological Department web site, but don't be fooled by the icons published on the weather forecast web sites. The most reliable sources are actually the locals and expats. We checked Camille's Samui Weather blog quite often and got in contact with Scottish expat Ray, living and working on Koh Phangan, and Steve who runs the, initially in French, Phangan Guide web site. They all said June should be fine ... and it was :-)

It wasn't exactly our first time on the island, so we decided to stay in Haad Rin for just a few days only. We have both outgrown the FMP scene, so we needed to select a second Place to Stay on the island. In order to choose the next location/beach where we could stay I asked for some feedback on TripAdvisor and Twitter. Steve and Ray came back with some suggestions and it seemed that their suggestions "overlapped" greatly and that the North-West of the island would offer what we were looking for.

North West:
Steve really knows the island and his suggestions were really excellent. We ended up with the following shortlist:
Sunset Cove and Blue Ocean Garden on Ao Chao Phao beach and Cookies Salad Resort and Salad Hut on Haad Salad beach, they all looked great! We ended up chosing for Sunset Cove because Salad Hut was fully booked, Blue Ocean Garden didn't have a pool and Cookies Salad Resort was unfortunately suffering from noise from a nearby construction site (new resort).
We didn't regret our choice at all! Sunset Cove was just amazing! When we initially booked we were told the front row bungalows were all fully booked, but when we got there we were fortunate to be able to upgrade to a front row bungalow due to a cancellation.

It is really difficult to explain what makes Sunset Cove such a great place. There is just something about the atmosphere at Sunset Cove. The staff is very friendly, smiley and super efficient but in a very chilled way. Management makes itself unnoticeable but is constantly there to accommodate its guests. You take a plunge in the pool at night and the lights in the pool will go on without anybody saying anything. You are strawling on the front deck at night and again the lights will go on (no IR sensors, just people caring).

When coconuts need chopping down because of the obvious risk they pose, the coconuts are being sliced open and offered to the guests as a free drink/snack ... just a nice attention.

I lost my sunglasses while staying at Sunset Cove and I asked if I could put up a note at the reception area. I just scribbled something on a piece of paper and 5 minutes later when I went back to reception they had printed an A4 sheet and had placed it in a very visible spot. I thought they were going to show my own note, but no ... they exceeded my expectations, again!

Also, when you order a drink, staff will bring it to your bungalow, the pool, etc without needing to ask for your room number. Nobody ever asked for our room number when we had a drink or food, but all the bills were 100% correct at the end of our stay. We were a little worried about this at first, so we took some notes just to make sure. We shouldn't have it seems, because everything was billed correctly.
The bungalows looked good and were actually very functional. I especially appreciated the bathroom that could be cooled down by leaving the door to the room open (with aircon on). The shower was outdoors, which is great, but having the rest of the bathroom inside actually makes it more comfortable. Also the extra little frontroom at the entrance of the bungalow is separate from the bedroom and contains a fridge, TV and DVD player and is cooled down by a fan. This setup works really well actually. The deco of the bungalows is not the most trendy or modern you will have ever seen, but this should not be an issue at all.
The pool at Sunset Cove is the socialising hotspot and the infinity-setup of it works really well.

Food and drinks at Sunset Cove are good but if you fancy a change of scenery one evening, you can just walk to Blue Ocean Garden's La Dolce Vita restaurant for some Mediterranean fusion food.
Another added advantage of staying at Sunset Cove is that Ao Chao Phao beach is easily accessible from Thong Sala and you can get around pretty easily on a scooter. Once you go more up North, the roads become really tricky. There is a lot of construction and road works going on which makes some beaches more difficult to access.
Sunset Cove is nr 1 on TripAdvisor, and it is well deserved.

While staying at Sunset Cove we went to check out the nearby beaches and other places we considered staying at some point. This is when we realised that Ao Chao Phao beach is actually very accessible and a good "basecamp" if you want to explore other parts of the island.
One evening a group of us went to Haad Salad beach for some drinks at Cookies Resort and food at Salad Hut. Cookies Resort is a nice place, with great owners, but unfortunately the nearby construction of a big resort is causing some daytime noise hinderance. Not what you want on your relaxing holiday! Currently Cookies is not easily accessible, even on a scooter it can be quite tricky but this might change once the road works and nearby resort are finalised. Give it another 6 months and make sure to check the TripAdvisor forums or Phangan Guide. Once these issues are resolved Cookies will be a great Place to Stay. And it currently is a great place anyway for some evening drinks or food with a panoramic view of the beach. Cocktails are really good!
Salad Hut looked really nice, but it had a more family with kids kind of feel to it when we saw it daytime. So it might be less appropriate for a romantic getaway, but this could just be a biased view based on a one-off. The food at Salad Hut really did live up to the expectations and its reputation ... it was great!
Mandalai on Chaloklum Bay is a weird one. Amidst a fishing village you have this trendy looking hotel and bar, but it just doesn't seem to make sense. Go and check it out for a "feature", but be aware that it is smaller than it looks on their web site and you don't exactly get idyllic surroundings with it.

Haad Rin:
We stayed in Haad Rin a few times in the past and I must say I really like Sarikantang. In my eyes this is the best place to stay when you want to be near the "action" but at the same time be able to escape the madness. Sarikantang itself offers really nice accommodation and has a fantastic Spa (hoovering above the beach). Last time we stayed at Sarikantang, we were not impressed by the food but this issue had now been solved. The staff is very friendly, smiley and efficient but unfortunately the expansion of Sarikantang and the need for more staff and procedures has also caused it to lose a bit of its family-ran business feel. It now feels like a well-oiled machine, but that also means it loses the human touch element a little. E.g. you need to pay a deposit (not physically but billed to your room) for your key, you need to pay a deposit for every DVD you borrow, restaurant staff is being motivated by an "employee of the month" bonus, ...
Don't get me wrong these are minor issues and I would certainly go back, because I still believe this is the best place when staying in Haad Rin. Also, Sarikantang organises a free transfer from the ferry on arrival.
Make sure to ask for the masterplan map (a jpeg floorplan of the resort, the URL has moved unfortunately so I can't link to it) before booking accommodation. Previously we stayed in Deluxe First Row bungalows (numbers 24 or 26 are the best options).

This time we opted for a more recent bungalow of the Seaview Deluxe type (nr 59) which had nice deco but the indoor bathroom still wasn't indoor enough to just leave the sliding doors open in order to cool it down with the bedroom aircon. This bungalow was ok, but we still prefered the bungalow type we stayed in previously.


North West:
Well I mentioned them already, but here you go again: Sunset Cove's restaurant, La Dolce Vita at Blue Ocean Garden, Salad Hut's restaurant and Cookies Salad's restaurant.

Haad Rin:
I'll keep this one really short: Emotion of Sushi! You don't expect fine dining or trendy eateries in Haad Rin, but this place manages to offer something different in Haad Rin. Upstairs is where you have sushi in a nice chilled Zen environment and downstairs you have a lounge bar that serves really good cocktails. It seems this place has now been consistently serving great sushi for almost 4 years and the expat lady who owns and manages it does a great job.
You find Emotions of Sushi near Haad Rin beach, on what is called Seagarden Road (one of the side streets of the main street that runs parallel with the beach).

> Koh Phangan is definitely going up-market. It now is more difficult to book the most expensive rooms at resorts, they seem to go first.
> In general, the web sites of hotels and resorts have drastically improved in just 18 months. Most hotels and resorts now have really slick looking web sites that load much faster than they used to.
> Social media are really efficient when planning holidays, because, er ... their social ;-) TripAdvisor is a great tool and when I posted a question on Twitter, I got some really interesting feedback from Ray Nimmo who actually has his own IT/Web Design company in Thong Sala and who currently is developping Phangan Google Map.
> Make sure to also check out, because the amount of information is amazing and Steve has a good reputation for taking care of his customers.
> Scooters ... hmmm, be careful! Ray had warned me about this, but on our night out from Ao Chao Phao to Haad Salad we decided to take our scooter anyhow. On the way back, just oustide of Haad Salad, we got chased by stray dogs and needed to swirve in order to avoid road works. We managed to avoid both the dogs and the road works, but when we finally got back to Sunset Cove we said "never again!". A scooter might be ok for bopping about daytime and for short distances, but at night when its pitch black just get a taxi!

For more information and Tips for Starters for Thailand, please visit my previous posts.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

From Bangkok to Koh Phangan

On our latest holiday to Thailand, my girlfriend made it her mission not to fly Bangkok Airways because the price of the flights was artificially high. In comparison to what we paid to fly Singapore Airlines from Manchester to Bangkok, it just didn't seem to make sense.
I was initially going to write an extensive post about the available options to get from Bangkok to Koh Phangan, but I actually found a really good overview on so I won't be reinventing the wheel on this occasion.
There indeed is an extensive list of options available, so I will just explain which options we were considering and what we finally chose. And, was it worth not flying with Bangkok Airways?

The options we were considering:
1) The bus-ferry combined ticket with Lomprayah or Seatran Discovery. We finally didn't go for this option because we would lose an entire day and bus rides are not my favourite means of transportation.
2) The night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani. We almost went for this option because the first class cabins are really ok and you get some decent catering on-board, please have a look at the Seat 61 web site and make sure to watch the videos. The added advantage of the night train is that you don't have to pay for accommodation that night, which means extra savings.
3) Flying to Surat Thani with AirAsia and taking a ferry to Koh Phangan.

We opted for flying with AirAsia:
The flights with AirAsia were really cheap, so we decided to fly into Surat Thani and take Raja Ferry from Donsak Pier to Thong Sala on Koh Phangan.
At the AirAsia check-in it became clear pretty quickly how AirAsia manages to offer really low fees. The luggage allowance is pretty low at 15kg/person for checked-in luggage, so we were hammered with excess luggage. Since we don't really master the art of travelling light, we needed to pay an additional 2,000 Baht. A cost we would also incur on the way back ... this reduced our initial savings, but we were still much better off financially in comparison to flying with Bangkok Airways. A tip: if you have excess luggage, have a snorkel or flippers sticking out and put a few Padi stickers on your luggage. It seems that diving gear (and golf gear) won't be charged to the same extend. I am not sure about this but someone explained this to us while we were queueing to pay for excess luggage, so it might be worth giving this a try?
On arrival at Surat Thani airport, the entire process of getting to Koh Phangan was painless. At the airport (which is quite small) the buses of Phantip Travel are waiting to take customers directly to the ferry, Raja ferry in our case. You get on the bus and pay a combined fare for the bus and ferry (450 Baht to Koh Phangan, much less to Koh Samui). The bus ride takes about 1h30 to Donsak Pier. There are several "terminals" at Donsak Pier, but the bus drops you at the correct one in function of where you are going. When traveling to Koh Samui you leave from a different pier.
At Donsak Pier there is a restaurant where you can have some food and a drink while waiting for the ferry. While we were there, a girl was selling accommodation on Koh Phangan. She was very knowledgeable about places to stay on the island and was an independent "agent" really. Her prices were the same than what you would pay by booking direct and she offered good advice, although she "forgot" to mention construction noise near a resort when people were informing about it.
Raja ferry itself, was what you would expect from a ferry really. Big, ugly and not really comfortable ... but it got us to Koh Phangan in about 2h30.

To get back from Koh Phangan to Bangkok we had booked an early flight from Surat Thani (no choice anymore), which meant we had to spend a night on Koh Samui. We decided to stay near the Nathon pier on Koh Samui.
Since we now had to get from Koh Phangan's Thong Sala pier to Koh Samui we booked a Seatran Discovery ticket to get us to Nathon. This boat would supposedly take us directly to Nathon pier, but on our arrival on Koh Samui we weren't very impressed about the fact that we now had to jump on a mini bus to actually get to Nathon, which implied more luggage dragging.
The hotel we were staying at on Koh Samui had arranged a taxi for us at Nathon pier, so it all went a bit pear-shaped timing wise. We decided our taxi driver shouldn't be the victim of this so we called him back and waited for him to come back and pick us up at the pier, where we were dropped by a bus... The taxi driver was really friendly and he confirmed some stuff for us concerning our early ferry to Surat Thani the next morning. Basically you have to go to Phantip Travel's office in Nathon and from there they handle everything for you to get to Surat Thani Airport. Transport to Nathon pier, ferry and a bus from Donsak pier to the airport. It is all stress-free really with Phantip Travel, you just have to know where their office is in Nathon and be there in time.

Conclusion, was it worth it?
Hmmm, we did end up saving quite some money which allowed us not to worry about money for the rest of the holiday. We kind of made this an incentive. "If we don't fly Bangkok Airways, we will just treat ourselves to everything we want." Spa treatments, food, drinks, ... all paid for by not flying Bangkok Airways! Well, except for our night out in Bed Supperclub/Bangkok ;-)
If you think in Pounds, the money you save by not flying Bangkok Airways could be negligible. However if you compare this amount in Pounds to its Baht "purchasing power" equivalent, you get a very different picture.
Would we do it again? Go through the hassle of extra buses, longer ferry trips and wasting time to save money? Not sure really. I think it would strongly depend on the amount of time we can spend in Thailand. If you have more time than money, then the alternative transportation means are worth it. If however you have more money than time, then it's a no-brainer > go for Bangkok Airways and save yourself the hassle!