Monday, 22 May 2017

Times are a Changin’ on ol’ Koh Samui



#thailand
 

We gathered some of our old and new Thailand salts together for a chat about Koh Samui and how they remember it. Roderick Eime spoke to John Borthwick, Rob Woodburn, Deb Dickson-Smith and his own daughter Shalia.

Modern luxury resort complex: Anantara Koh Samui (supplied)


Like so many places in Southeast Asia, the old timers roll their eyes mystically and relive the times before the great tourism revolution at the end of the 20th century.

Their grey-flecked beards and sun-parched skin speak of a life spent under the tropical sun when life was simple and the beer was cheap.

Koh Samui village c.1980 (samuiandkoh.com)


Nowadays, the idyllic islands that dot the coast around the Gulf of Thailand are laden with modern ‘charms’ like multi-star resorts, paved roads, retail havens and bars and clubs aplenty.

Koh Samui is the poster child for resort island development in the region. These days the postcard primed, white sand beaches are lined with some of the best resorts in all of Southeast Asia. With more than 18,000 rooms and occupancy rates close to 70 per cent being quoted, direct international flights have added tens of thousands of new visitors to the island annually.

Shopping malls and retail plazas, like the massive complex on 48,000 square metres of land in the tourism area of Chaweng are transforming Koh Samui from the semi-secret haven to a sprawling tourist metropolis.

According to a report in the Bangkok Post, a marked shift in demand is bringing more Asian visitors and families. The top three source markets are, according to the report, Germany, the UK and Thailand which contribute more than a quarter of total arrivals. But here come the Russians, with 15 per cent of total visitor arrivals now from the Russian Federation.

Deb Dickson Smith
is a specialist family travel writer from Australia. She travels with as many as five kids in tow.

“It’s an obvious choice for families really with a great choice of family-friendly resorts, friendly locals who welcome children and plenty of safe swimming beaches. In addition to obvious activities like swimming and snorkeling, kids can take part in anything from football golf to elephant rides.

“If your kids are like mine and are budding junior zookeepers, it’s worth checking out some of the animal attractions. There are in fact plenty of animal attractions in Koh Samui, as diverse as the animals they exhibit and include a butterfly garden, a crocodile farm, snake farm and monkey shows.”

Shalia, 21, from Sydney came with uni friends for a bit of beach R-n-R and some partying. She had a mixed experience.

Ark Bar Beach Resort (supplied)

“We stayed at the Ark Bar Beach Resort and it was fine. Clean, comfortable, affordable and close to the action

“The locals are great, so patient, but some of our fellow travellers from around the world must have left their manners at home. They left a lot of trash on the beach. Bottles mainly and it really bothered me, almost as much as the captive animals.

“I loved the walks up to the waterfalls and swimming in the pools, but I can’t recommend the water slides. I think they’re dangerous, but the boys loved them and we all ended up bruised after a few slides.”

John Borthwick is another with a long memory and experience on Koh Samui going back decades. He has some advice for new visitors too.

“Arrange a hotel airport pick-up, and use the shuttle wherever possible because Samui’s taxis (“my-meter-not-work-today” … and every day) are pure banditry. Don’t start a taxi journey without agreeing on the price.

“Samui has one of the worst accident records in Thailand, in a country with accident stats ten times that of Australia or New Zealand. If you rent a motorbike, jot your will, wear that helmet and have an Australian motorbike — not just car — licence (or else your insurance won’t cover you).

“Rent a car then head off on the good around-island road. Look for (slightly) off-the-beaten track, west coast beaches like Lipa No, Laem Nan or Natien. On in the north, try Bang Bor and Mae Nam.

“The Secret Garden, tucked away high in a mountain gorge, is a tranquil grove of Ramayana characters, dancers and concrete angels that was sculpted by a Samui native, Nim Tongsung who began his task at age 77 and worked until his death at 91. A labour of love in a place of peace.

“Skip the so-called “mummified monk” and “Buddha footprint”.

“Wander the gauntlet of Chaweng’s cheapo clothing stalls and boutiques, plus its beer bars, restaurants and cocktail lounges. Or head to Soi Green Mango, a full-tilt bar zone that specialises in loud music, cold beer, dancing and occasional mayhem. Bophut is the quiet alternative, with small, more stylish bars.

John, Deb and Shalia span the commonest demographics for Aussies and Kiwis heading to Koh Samui and Thailand. While each are deeply fond of The Land of Smiles, sensible precautions should be taken – just like a trip anywhere in our rapidly evolving world.



"Our first tourists on Koh Samui had free accommodation," the president of the island’s tourism association told me some years ago, adding that, "Visitors had to sleep at the temple because we had no hotel." Those first visitors arrived 45 years ago. This formerly hotel-free zone now draws several million visitors a year.” – John Borthwick, Australia



Thirty years ago, Koh Samui was a semi-mythical island known only to a few intrepid adventurers prepared to make the big effort to get there. Seasoned traveller, Rob Woodburn, was one.


Rob Woodburn in rudimentary accommodation "back in the day" (Rob Woodburn)

Back in those days before everything became Instawhat and Snapthat it took some time to make your way from Bangkok to the island of Koh Samui.

By 1983 this island already had the reputation of a quasi-mythical destination. But like the protagonists in Alex Garland’s The Beach - published 13 years later - it took a certain type of traveller to summon the effort to reach Koh Samui.

It took a long and stifling bus or train ride from the capital south to Surat Thani where we then made our way to the waterfront to lobby for a place on the overnight ferry. Places were limited and the ferry didn’t always run, so it was usually full. Piracy was a real threat but we lived in the optimistic hope that backpackers being such a scurvy lot, no decent brigands worth their salt would waste time on us.

The ferry was a creaky wooden vessel that sat low in the water and powered by a noisy, oily engine that thudded away all night and belched noxious black smoke. It had an enclosed upper deck transformed into one gigantic futon on which all foreign passengers sprawled for the night. Getting to know you was easy.

In the early morning we arrived at Na Thon on the island’s west coast where small trucks painted in gaudy colours were parked nose to tail along the quay awaiting new arrivals. As soon as we set foot on dry land the touts’ chants erupted.

“Anyone Big Buddha? “

“Come Chaweng, very good!

“Lamai, Lamai, you love it sure!”

Few of us knew any real detail about these respective destinations. Amid the ruckus, we found ourselves piled into the back of the trucks which then sped in convoy along the rough coastal road.

Fortune saw me dropped off at Chaweng, a glorious stretch of beach with scant guest accommodation. Best Beach Resort had 10 huts facing each other, five-a-side, over a path leading down to the sand. Everyone shared the one toilet and shower. Crude it was, but clean and comfortable - provided you’d thought to bring your own mosquito repellent, toilet paper and torch batteries. There was very little available to buy on the island and power only for a few hours a day.

Meals were cooked in a rudimentary kitchen set up in the nearby jungle, basically a hot wok and some seats. Stir-fry was the order of the day, sometimes with noodles, occasionally with fresh fish but mostly fried rice.

But who cared? We had Chaweng Beach practically to ourselves. The only travellers I saw were those staying at the same place. Later I moved south a bit and scored a hut right on the point between Chaweng and Lamai with uninterrupted sea views. This was my private paradise for a while. I made one trip to Big Buddha but it seemed far too popular in comparison.

Koh Samui, for me, will always be that solitary hut beside the black rocks on the Point. I haven’t been back, so have no idea what’s happened since they built an airport almost slap bang on top of Chaweng and resorts began sprouting like sweet peas on steroids. And I have no desire whatsoever to know.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Songkran celebrations kick off in Bangkok

Bangkok – The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) kicked off this year’s Songkran celebrations with an Amazing Songkran Joyful Procession on 8 April in central Bangkok. The event, presided over by H.E. General Tanasak Patimapragorn, Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, marked the opening of the Amazing Songkran Experience Festival 2017, which is taking place in Bangkok’s Benjasiri Park from 8-13 April, and will give everyone a taste of the Thai New Year in the different regions of Thailand.
Nationwide Songkran celebrations kick off with colourful Bangkok extravaganza
H.E. General Tanasak Patimapragorn (centre) is joined by Miss Pranee Sattayaprakob, Deputy Permanent Secretary of BMA (left), H.E. Mrs Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul Minister of Tourism and Sports (2nd left), Mr. Kalin Sarasin, Chairman of TAT Board of Directors (right) and TAT Governor Mr. Yuthasak Supasorn (2nd right), at the opening of the Amazing Songkran Joyful Procession

H.E. General Tanasak Patimapragorn said, “The Amazing Songkran Festival Experience 2017 allows both Thais and international visitors to enjoy a deep appreciation of Songkran in Thailand and understand how it differs from region to region while uniting Thais in a spirit of respect and fun.”
After an opening ceremony which evoked Songkran traditions, the Amazing Songkran Joyful Procession took place on 8 April from 17.30 to 20.30 Hrs. and took a route down Sukhumvit Road, from the Phrom Phong Junction to Pathum Wan Intersection. The colourful procession, which opened the national Songkran celebrations was made up of six parts: 1) Amazing Blossom of Siam; 2) Songkran Goddess, Krini Devi who represented Songkran 2017; 3) Myths and traditions of Songkran told via floats, flowers and dances from the five regions of Thailand; 4) Green Songkran, represented by eco-friendly cars and the Earth of Green Songkran Show; 5) Songkran traditions of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar; 6) The final parade will showcase classic and distinctive vehicles including rickshaws and tuk-tuks from many parts of Thailand.
Nationwide Songkran celebrations kick off with colourful Bangkok extravaganza
The Amazing Songkran Joyful Procession showcased tradition, dances and colour from all the main regions of Thailand
.
The grand processions kicked off the five-day Amazing Songkran Festival Experience 2017 which will see the Sukhumvit side of Benjasiri Park divided into Four Zones until 13 April.
Zone 1 is where visitors can pay respect to the Buddha image, experience the ancient traditions of Songkran and learn how to make scented water and flowers displays in fun workshops.
Zone 2 showcases Songkran traditions in five regions, including Pee Mai Muang in the North; Boon Duen Ha in the Northeast, the ethnic Mon-style Songkran in the Central Region, and the Sri Maharaja Songkran from the East, as well as local costumes and the fishing culture from the South.
Zone 3 is where Songkran related snacks and desserts from all regions of Thailand can be sampled, including Khao Chae – a dish of steamed rice in jasmine-scented iced water served with savoury accompaniments.
Zone 4 is the event’s main stage which features shows and entertainment, including Thai Blind Boxing and a Miss Amazing Songkran International Beauty Contest.
Nationwide Songkran celebrations kick off with colourful Bangkok extravaganza
In the Amazing Songkran Festival Experience 2017, visitors can learn about the traditions of Songkran and understand how they differ across Thailand.
  
Mr. Patimapragorn concluded, “We hope that after having enjoyed a glimpse of how Songkran is celebrated distinctively in different parts of Thailand, Thais and international visitors will be inspired to head upcountry to enjoy Songkran in a traditional setting.”
During the 2017 Songkran Festival, it is estimated that the number of international tourists traveling to Thailand to join the fun will rise 10 per cent to over 470,000. This will generate revenue of 8.05 million Baht, an increase of 17 per cent over the same New Year period last year.
The Amazing Songkran Festival Experience 2017 takes place until 13 April from 16.00 to 20.00 hrs. and from noon onwards on 13 April 2017.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Vietjet Thailand - Possibly the Worst Airline Service in Thailand?

Vietjet scores just 4/10 on Skytrax and 5/10 on airlineratings.com
Dear Readers

As you know my name is Stu Lloyd.

Only my mother calls me Stuart.

When she's angry.

But today is my turn to be angry.

You see, i've just been rejected by Vietjet Thailand to board my domestic flight because my assistant had inadvertently booked me as 'Stu' ... three whole letters short of 'Stuart'.

I've already explained that if another person by the name of Stuart Lloyd turns up, I am prepared to give up my seat for him.

Otherwise, in all probability that's me, not some cheap imposter.

Especially as I have a confirmation email, a passport, and a phone number which all tally with the information supplied.

"Even one letter wrong we don't board people," said the smug manager -- who'd I'd summoned in the vain hope of getting some sense out of -- with a sense of petty power and pedantic pride.

Understand, this is a new airline presumably looking to establish market share in the super-competitive Thailand market.

What I got was policy, policy, policy.

With so much seeming pride in her own disempowerment by process.

I asked her for other alternative solutions, but was stonewalled.

"So there's no other solution, possibility or alternative way to sort out this situation?"

"No, we are a low cost airline."

And that makes what difference to the need to delight customers???

When pressed on what other alternatives, options and solutions there were? Blank.

I asked her to call the most senior Vietjet person in the airport.

Then it escalated. Suddenly she's threatening to call airport police and they are here ... all -- count them -- six of them. Because I was "so impolite".

As I might well be, knowing I've been dumped from my flight, will lose my return tickets with zero refund, and will miss my specialist dental appointment that evening.

An interesting customer service strategy.

The officers are bemused when they see me: so THIS is your trouble maker??? The guy standing at the counter tapping out this blog on his laptop.

It seems she's most aggrieved by the fact that I took her photo which might identify her by her ID badge. (Which it didn't.)

The police ask me to delete it from my phone. Which I do right in front of their eyes.

She then, in Thai, accuses me of lying.

I surprise her by responding to her accusation in Thai, which rather shocks her.

"So now you're call me a liar. Fantastic! This just keeps getting better."

No wonder Vietjet scores just 4/10 on Skytrax and 5/10 on airlineratings.com

The standoff just kind off fizzles out, I glower at her, and return to writing this. The police shuffle off.

Net result: I missed my flight. That ticket and the return a few days later were deemed "invalid". (As worthless as the 500 Rupee notes I was issued in India a few days earlier.)

My assistant later spoke to the reservations department in Vietjet, who were a little surprised by that decision and action by their front liners.

And an airline veteran friend I spoke with laughed at the treatment meted out to me, incredulous that I should not be boarded, especially on a domestic flight, for that reason.

Anyway, I enjoyed a fantastic flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Thai Airways, and returned with the super perky smiles and energy of Thai Smile.

I can also fly between Chiang Mai and Bangkok with Thai Air Asia, Thai Lion Air, Nok Air, and possibly others too.

So, Boo to you, ThaiVietJet. You clearly stated you did NOT want any of my future regular business, and you sure as hell will NOT get it.

And hopefully you, dear readers, won't support such behaviour either.

I may have been three letters short in my name. But I suggest VietJet is three letters short too ... in the A.R.T. of customer service.

#vietjet #thaivietjet #worstairlineservice #shitservice #vietjetthailand #boo




Sunday, 21 February 2016

Tuk Tuk Tales in Trang

Immaculately restored tuk-tuk  (R Eime)
The ubiquitous auto-rickshaw, known lovingly throughout Thailand as the tuk-tuk, is a cheap form of personal transport and taxi-cab. Its name is derived from the sound made by the little two-stroke motor, which in English would be more familiar as ‘putt-putt’.

Here in Trang, the vast majority of tuk-tuks are owned by their drivers as opposed to Bangkok, where the uniform colour indicate they are company owned. Many have been in the same hands for decades.

To demonstrate their much-loved place in Thai urban folklore,
bridal couples in the Trang 20th Anniversary Underwater Wedding Ceremony
were photographed with immaculate collector examples in prominent city locations.  (R Eime)
For the ‘spotters’ among us, the design of the DKA Midget began in 1957 in the Daihatsu factory in Japan. The idea was for a compact, economical vehicle for light duties in the many narrow streets of Japanese cities. After an appearance on a TV show, the idea took off and soon the tiny taxis were finding their way onto streets, alleys and workplaces all around the world.

They even enjoyed some limited success in the USA as a light freight and delivery vehicle. They were even used around large factory sites like Boeing for transport. The tuk-tuk taxi was marketed in the USA as the Daihatsu Trimobile AP (all purpose) ‘Safari Wagon’

1959 US sales brochure for the 'Trimobile'
Trang is one of the few places left in the world where you will easily see the early MP5-derived 'frog head' models that trace their history and design back to the originals from the late 1950s.

The tuk-tuk is powered by an air-cooled 305cc 2-stroke, single cylinder engine with a power output of around 9kW. In many places of the world, upgrades to LPG are available. This was in response to some congested regions where the little 2-strokes can get a bit smoky, especially if not properly maintained.

Kuhn San has owned his frog-head tuk-tuk for more than 30 years, diligently
painting and repainting it in the original factory colour. Kuhn San
 is not so meticulous about the trimmings, with a Mazda
steering wheel, Honda stickers and a Toyota bonnet badge. (R Eime)
While cheap and effective forms of urban transport remain in demand, you can expect to see tuk-tuks on the streets of Thai cities for some time to come.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Consuming Trang: A Tasty Bake


The famous sweet cake from Trang is a Thai nationwide sensation. Roderick Eime samples this delightful treat.

When Kuhn Yee Keng was just 19, he started baking cakes in the family kitchen in Trang. In 1956, the busy kitchen turned out just 20 cakes a day using tough manual processes. Now 60 years later, his tasty fruit cakes are sought after all over Thailand, not just in his home province of Trang.

Kuhn Yee now operates five stores across Trang, producing up to 800 of the 500g cakes on a busy day and helped by family members who must often ferry finished cakes from one store to another during busy periods.

DSCF7533

“Because we do not preserve in rum like many traditional fruit cakes,” Kuhn Yee tells me via my guide Suree, “they are best eaten within three days, but can stay fresh for up to a week.”

This alcohol-free process also makes the cake attractive amongst the sizeable Muslim population who live predominantly in the south of the country.

While the recipe was once a closely guarded secret, Kuhn Yee is now happy to share his famous recipe on one of his many TV segments on Thai television.

Main ingredients include eggs, sugar, butter and blended fruits such as mango, tomato, plum, raisins, banana and nuts like cashews.

These famous ‘tasty bake’ cakes cost around 50 baht and can be enjoyed any time of the year, but are an ideal complement to tea or coffee.

More information about travel in Trang (Official Site)

Related: Trang offers tasty Thai treats for food lovers


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Summer in Siam by John Borthwick





Summer in Siam by John Borthwick

"I walked out the door, a bit dazed. I had ten dollars and two not-quite diamonds, and it was summer in Siam." John Borthwick's first day in Thailand seemed far from auspicious — but it has been uphill from then on. Dropping him in the middle of everything from three-day tribal weddings, elephant polo follies and pristine islands to Pattaya's bacchanalian nightlife, Thailand has kept John and his pen constantly on the move.

One of Australia's leading travel authors, John Borthwick has gathered here the best of his years of Thailand adventures, plus a swag of vivid tales from his wanderings in India, Xinjiang, the Himalayas, Borneo, Bali, Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Paperback
Bangkok Books
Bangkok 2006
232 pages 395 Baht
ISBN 974-85129-2-4

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Top 10 Thai Luxury Resorts



NZ Let's Travel magazine recently polled some of the top travel writers about their choice of luxury Thailand resorts. Here's their verdict:

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Two ways to do Phuket - Pool villas or resorts



While I have become a regular to Thailand, my visit to Phuket was the first time I'd stayed in this famously rumbustious resort town. No, I'm not going to dwell on the kaleidoscope of entertainment options assaulting you as you navigate bustling Bangla Road - there are better sites for that information - but rather on choosing appropriate accommodation to suit the kind of relaxation you, you partner and/or family have in mind.

The raucous New Tiger nightclub is one of the 'colourful' venues
along bustling Bangla Road (source: phuket101.net)

To illustrate my point, I stayed two nights in each of two contrasting properties. One, a sprawling 665-room resort, the other, a secluded 16-villa private sanctuary. And, as you can imagine, there are plenty of options in between.

Apart from selecting the style of property you want to stay at, location is another prime consideration. Taxis around the island can be exorbitant by Thai standards, so you don't want to be taking them everyday to get to your activities. If you want your action close to riotous Bangla Road, then there are several branded hotels within an easy stumble from the front line melee.

Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort & Spaphuketarcadia.hilton.com

Set on a massive 75-acre plot, the 665-room Hilton is around 25 years old but has had numerous rooms upgraded as recently as 2011 in the Deluxe Plus category. Entry-level Deluxe are the same size without the recent decorative refurbishments, but are no less comfortable. Above that are the more spacious Junior Suites, but these are yet to undergo refurbishment. There are a dozen or so super-plush Hilton Suites, but I wasn't able to view these.

One of the seven buildings at that make up the
Hilton Arcadia Phuket (supplied)
The resort comprises seven distinct buildings and includes The Spa, children's club, tennis and squash courts (yes, remember them?), extensive business and conference facilities, a massive, scalable ballroom and a fitness centre. There's across-the-road access to upscale Karon Beach or you can swim in any of the three pools.

Refurbished Deluxe Plus room (supplied)

Access to downtown is via a 30-minute cab ride, not something you want to be doing every day. The resort also offer their own transfers, but these are not always available or practical.

While this type of resort is fine for families and groups, it might not appeal to honeymooners or those seeking peace and quiet. For this rejuvenating purpose, I would recommend something like:

The Bell Pool Villa Resortthebellphuket.com

Self-contained pool villa at The Bell.
Like having your own resort. (supplied)

You can insulate yourself from as much of the outside as you want, making this almost a Howard Hughes experience.

These fabulous 3-y-o villas are fully self-contained behind a high wall and gate with private (8x4m) infinity pool and cabana. Separate bedrooms, living area and kitchen means you can blissfully enjoy your own company (or that of loved ones) while you make your own meals or have them delivered from the kitchen. Need to get out a bit? Stroll down to Zhong, the in-house restaurant, or take the free shuttle to nearby Kamala Beach or downtown Patong.

Breakfast served in your private villa (supplied)
See more images of The Bell Phuket

Perfect for couples, but expandable using the separate bedrooms, each villa can be configured to accommodate up to six persons, seven at a pinch.

There are just 16 villas, 14 standard and two 'Presidential', the latter being able to sleep 8 persons thanks to a fourth bedroom. Watch a movie on the big screen TV or use the nifty Apple TV device provided. There's a private (chargeable) wine 'cellar', free Wi-Fi and spa treatments at the exclusive in-house salon.

So, take your pick. Join in the throng or find your own private hideaway, the choice is yours.

 ~~~~~~~~~

More information on Phuket and Thailand can be always be found at: www.thailand.net.au