Friday 29 January 2010

Rose Garden Golf Club -- TEE TREES


Khunying Valee, whose passion for roses got the whole Rose Garden complex started, never played around in her life. Sorry, that should be 'never played a round in her life.' She wasn't a golfer. But that didn't stop her envisioning an 18-hole championship golf course as something that would complete the Rose Garden's checklist of attractions.

So in 1972, she could be seen on hands and knees planting flowers and supervising the instasllation of the grass fairways. She insisted that acacias, casuarinas, rain trees and mahogany, among others, would in the long run add a picturesque uniqueness to the course, not to mention affording much-desired shade for golfers who strayed to the edges of the fairways.

The club was opened by none other than Thailand's first lady golfer, Her Majesty Queen Rambhai Bharni, consort of the late Rama V11.

'But the idea is not to make the clubhouse like a palace,' explains Khun Kris who takes us to the club. 'Rather we want it to be welcoming enough, but focus on the athletes.' He's right about that, the red-brick clubhouse is far from palatial. He introduces us to club manager Khun Chukiat, himself a golfer who plays off a four handicap (my handicap is usually just turning up to play).

Chukiat is an affable gent who gladly piles us into a buggy to drive us around and show us his course. It's early but already a queue of buggies is lined up with their cargo of Japanese and local golfers. 'Their company pays for them,' explains Kris of the Japanese. 'It keeps them away from Patpong.' (Well, they can always go there after the golf I think to myself.)

Another thing I think to myself is that there have probably not been so many Japanese in this area since 1943 when the Thai-Burma Railway was in full swing.

Some of the club's 300 caddies, in bright yellow shirts and funny red conical hats, mill around getting things prepared. Caddy #1, who started in 1972, still works here. She'd know the course pretty well by now.

It is indeed beautiful. Nice and flat for a start, with fairways lined by palms and pink blossoms, and all those trees Khunying Valee planted are now mature and stately, lending an air of establishment to the course. British magazine Golf Monthly gushed: 'The Rose Garden course offers perfect relaxation and serenity in one of the most attractive floral settings imaginable.'

But the bouquets (geddit?) don't stop there ...

It also named this course as one of the top 25 in the world. Golf Magazine in the USA placed it in the top 24 in 1993. Conde Nast Traveller Australia in 2003 put it as one of the best 15 courses in the world. All this for just 1500 baht green fees, too.

With the whirr-whirr-whirr of irrigation sprays, and bird calls, and fragrant flowers on the breeze, it's certainly a calming course (much needed if you play like me).

Chukiat shows us the courses signature hole, a long 590m par 5 hole off the blue tees. It is a stunning vista, where one tees off across the water, down the fairway with its greenbelt either side. He then points out that each and every hole has twin greens. Jing jing!

What a fantastic idea, I think. A choice of holes, like a billiard table. Or two chances of sinking your ball. Brilliant! Maybe even a mug golfer like me has got some kind of chance. He soon cuts my fantasy short by explaining it's purely for rotation purposes to conserve the green.

Bugger!









Thai massage: Rose Garden Riverside -- RUBBING SHOULDERS

So there we were having a wander around the Thai village at Rose Garden, when Khun O introduces me to his two resident herbal medicine experts, Khun Panya and Khun Peera. Both specialise in herbal medicine, but Panya is also qualified in Thai massage (and musician in the village show each afternoon) and Peera is a certified yoga teacher.

O is extolling the virtues of Panya's massage skills: 'In fact we just had a guy in here the other week who's had shoulder problems for years, and Panya managed to fix it.' My eyes lit up ... I've been carrying an excrutiating shoulder injury for the past few weeks and nothing, nothing, seems to be able to shake it. I've tried massages at Wat Po and, er, many more dodgy places besides.

Panya nodded his head; asked me to open my shirt. He fixed me with his one good eye (the other one seemed to be drooping like an unwatered sunflower). He got me to do a series of movements with my arm. Ouch! He nodded his head sagely, and looked at Peera. He nodded his head. To the layman it seemed that they were saying: 'This guy's got a sore shoulder.'

Peera massaged the back of my shoulder blades. Panya then started probing away at my upper right arm. Ouch!

'Sen thinni,' he said in his quiet, soothing voice. This line. Sens are the energy lines of the body, according to the ancient practice of Thai massage. There are something like 72 of these coursing through our bodies. Whilst the pain seemed to be at the very apex of my shoulder, the sen line he worked back and forward was lower, near the inside top of my bicep. It seemed to be knotted and angry, certainly painful to the touch as though swollen.

Back and forth, back and forth up the limb he worked. One of those pleasurable/ painful sensations made famous by the Divinyls song 'It's a fine line between pleasure and pain ...'. I groaned and winced and ooh-ed and aah-ed.

Panya's gnarly hands built up the intensity. Stronger, deeper. Poking, probing. As if he was playing my artery like a guitar string. Even harder now. Aaaargh! Then SNAP!!! @#%$&#!!! He finished with a vigorous flourish that made me scream an expletive at unacceptably loud levels.

He stepped back with a smug grin. 'How is it?' Khun O asked.
'Don't know, I can't feel anything for the pain.'

Panya got me to try and roll my arm over. It felt looser, less traumatic than it was before.
'Come back and see him again tomorrow.'

That afternoon, my shoulder went into violent voluntary spasm, as though there were an entrapped alien trying to dig its way out of it. I didn't sleep very well on account of the pain. I looked in the mirror and it seemed bruised from where he'd poked and prodded and pushed.

I returned the next day for the next session. This time it was only Panya. He gave me a lighter and shorter version of what he'd done yesterday, then stepped back with that self-satisfied smile again.

'He says it should be OK now. Do nothing for one week, it should be better.'

Well, I've been on anti-inflammatories and headache tablets for much of this week (as you could probably tell by the fevered writing!). But last night I skipped them and the shoulder feels about 95% fine today. I mean I can even lift my coffee mug with my right arm now.

Funnily enough I was having dinner with a friend in Bangkok recently and he said his friend had a really bad shoulder and this bloke fixed it right up. 'At the Rose Garden,' he told me. Small world, eh?

Tomorrow it will be one week exactly. So I reckon Panya's done it again ...

PS: By the way, the Rose Garden does have its own Arusaya Thai Wellness Spa where Panya and Peera's herbal compresses are used, among other treatments.

Rose Garden Riverside -- A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

A bloody rose garden -- why would I be interested in seeing that? My companion, however, was keen and had made arrangements for us to stay here en route to Kanchanaburi. Grumble, grumble, yeah, whatever ...

Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. What an enchanting place with a fascinating family history behind it. You see, this 70-acre landscaped park-cum-hotel complex sits on the banks of the languid Ta Chine River about an hour or so -- depends who's driving and who's navigating -- west of Bangkok. And it's home to Thailand's longest-running cultural show (39 years and counting), antique Thai houses, a spa, an organic farm and a real canalside floating market.

We are shown around by Khun O, whose grandparents were cruising along the river one day in the 60s and spotted a beautiful Pikul tree. It happened that that land was for sale, and they bought it, building a wooden weekender where they could de-stress from the pressures of office (his grandfather was Dr Chamnan Yuvapurna, then lord mayor of Bangkok and Thon Buri). His wife, Khunying Valee, was an avid gardener with a soft spot for roses. Soft spot? She soon had eight acres under cultivation, and was supplying to Bangkok florists.

Passers-by started dropping in to admire the beautiful flowers. So she added a restaurant. Some guest houses. More people came so she built a small hotel, then added a Thai village and a cultural show, showcasing the traditional Thai way of life.

Bespectactled O speaks in rather British tones, gained whilst studying chemical engineering at Imperial College, University of London. 'It's got a lot of uses in understanding fertilizers, ammonia, urea, etc,' he laughs about his specialization. 'The essence of local wisdom is passed on verbally from generation to generation, and you can see it best in Thai herbal medicine. It's the heart of our local wisdom.'

He introduces us to Khun Panya and Khun Peera who specialise in herbal medicine, and sit pounding turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, camphor, lime, salt, and few other secret herbs and spices into herbal compresses. The turmeric-dominated waft is at once uplifting. (See my next blog about their massage treatment.) We try our hand at creating and wrapping compresses

'If you eat all the correct food, all the answers are there for preventative medicine,' says O, himself very slim. 'Exercise, daily massage, eating the right herbs.' He's big into organic food, and over the river, a 10-acre organic farm has been established growing basil, lemongrass, starfruit, guava, betelnut, etc. 'For Thais you don't have to go to the market, this is self-sufficient,' explains his offsider Khun Kris who gets us to try some delicious crispy fresh tempura lotus, butterfly peas and watercress. Delicious! We wash it down with a variety of hot herbal tees.

We wonder around the village to the clatter of bamboo dances. We paint silk umbrellas, watch potters potter (and immediately think of the movie Ghost), sample oh-so-fattening-but-who-cares coconut and banana snacks, watch rice planting and sifting, and enjoy seeing Japanese tourists splashed by elephants in the short elephant show. Clarification: the elephants themselves weren't short, the duration of the show was short.

Little known fact #47: to measure an elephant's height, measure the circumference of its foot then double it. Or measure its erect penis ... it appears about the same as its height, jing jing.

Save room for a good meal at the Rose Garden. Khun O suggested we try the Pad Thai at the riverside restaurant and it was brilliant by anyone's standards. Coconut ice-cream helped to cool off the chilli burn. Or you can pile into the buffet at their other restaurant. (It's OK, you can work off the calories with a lovely bike ride around the property afterwards.)

Then it's showtime: the Thai Village cultural show is a delight, even if you've seen bigger, better variations of this elsewhere. You see there are 150 performers all drawn from the staff of the hotel, including 60 gardeners. They kick off with the usual vivid costume dances from various provinces, then build to a rousing finale with a handful of elephants doing their thing. The Muay Thai show is fiery and fun, and the ken-do like knife and sword fights (using real blades) is edge-of-the-seat stuff.

'Touch wood, we only once had to send someone to First Aid,' says O afterwards. That's all very well,  but how many did he have to send to the cemetary?

We've had a great time here. Interesting, engaging, fun, eduational, informative (gee, anyone would think I'm being paid by the adjective). As we're driving out along the tree-lined avenue, my companion says: 'I still didn't see any roses.' Oh yeah ...

There's so much else going on here, the roses have become a side show. Maybe they should change their name, because the Rose Garden is really far more exciting than it sounds.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Kanchananburi Resorts, River Kwai, Rose Garden and Roundup

Over the next few days I'm going to bring you some of the highlights of Kanchanaburi province, just a couple of hours northwest of Bangkok.

If people know Kanchananburi at all it's usually because of the Bridge on the River Kwai -- see my earlier postings on that. But, as I discovered, there's so much more to it than western military history. There's actually a ton of Thai military history (ding dong battles with the Burmese over the years), water sports, cultural villages, beautiful nature, and hopefully tame tigers.

So check back soon for my blogs on:

The Rose Garden Riverside http://www.rosegardenriverside.com/

The Royal River Kwai Resort & Spa http://www.royalriverkwai.com/

Lake Heaven Resort and Park http://www.lakeheaven.com/

Erawan Falls

Tiger Temple

Plus some top tips for dining and clubbing in Kanchanaburi city ...


Bangkok -- Sukhumvit boutique hotel -- MAC BOUTIQUE SUITES



Location, location, location. No, that's not a typo ... it's the old real estate mantra underlining the importance of position. And Mac Boutique Suites is slap-bang in the middle of so much that you want to be in the middle of.

Try a two minute walk to Nana BTS station. Which itself implies all the nocturnal delights of renowned Soi Nana (soi 4). But in fact, the hotel fronts onto Soi 7 which itself resembles a tropical Oktoberfest it has so many cavernous 'biergartens'. So you won't die of thirst here. Then walk out the back entrance to Soi 11, and you have Indian restaurants, 24-hour cafes, an Aussie pub/cafe, Bed Supper Club, Q Bar. The joint is jumping. You'll find yourself asking for extra hours in the day.

Surprising then that this 62-suite hotel -- which feels deceptively large -- seems so quiet. Oh, apart from the wallpaper in the corridors ... that, dear readers, is so loud you can actually measure it in decibels.

I'm not sure I can describe it in words, and my camera doesn't have a setting that will enable it to capture the verdant vividry of that particular shade of lime green. Suffice to say that epileptic sufferers should exercise extreme caution. But that's just the designer's way of softening you up for what's to follow in the room ... I thought an animal smuggler had forgotten to take their herd of zebras home with them. Turns out to be the living room sofa and chairs in animal print velvet. Benghal tiger skin print, according to the hotel's website. I never realised benghal tigers had flecks of gold thread in them.

The obvious segue here is that the rooms are large enough to swing any member of the cat family in. (Just as there are mantras in real estate, there are mantras in travel writing, and that is to always go for the obvious segue.) I am treated to a royal suite -- they have a larger presidential suite which, at 91 square metres, is big enough to swing several giraffes in, while a herd of bison re-enact the stampeding across the plains). Royal suites have a huge living room with TV/DVD and a guest bathroom. Lots of dark wood and gold fittings. The bedroom itself is nothing fancy -- although two folded towel elephants (see photo) is impressive -- but has everything you'd need and expect including another TV/DVD player and a writing desk, and the bathroom is quite tight but does include a bath tub as the name implies.

Mac also has junior suites and smart suites. Think of them in terms of MacDonalds: junior burger and chicken McNuggets respectively.

On the subject of food, the hotel has just opened its very own Indian Restaurant with 100% halal food. (There are quite a lot of Arab customers given the Kuwaiti origins of the owner, who is called Mac.) So you can dial 1601 and get room service of MacFishTikkas, MacRoganJosh, MacMasala, etc. But no fries with that.

In the room, you'll also enjoy free wi-fi internet. But why stay in the room when there's so much of Bangkok on your doorstep to enjoy. Yeah, good point ... why am I still in the room? I'm off to Nana Plaza, er, I mean stroll the market stalls along Sukhumvit Road. Jing jing!






Wednesday 27 January 2010

Bangkok -- Sukhumvit boutique hotel -- Seven: DAY GLOW



You've probably noticed in Thailand that just about everyone seems to be wearing the same coloured shirt on a given day. Gee, I used to think, they must somehow all call each other up in the morning and say 'What are you going to wear today?' and plan to match each other. Then I read that in fact each day of the week has a colour ascribed to it. Furthermore the days themselves are named for the various gods governing certain planets:

Sunday -- red -- Sun god Phra Arthit

Monday -- yellow -- Moon god Phra Charn

Tuesday -- pink -- Mars god Phra Angkarn

Wednesday -- green -- Mercury god Phra Phut

Thursday -- orange -- Jupiter god Phra Pareuhat

Friday -- blue -- Venus god Phra Suk

Saturday -- purple -- Saturn god Phra Sao

So no-one needs to call anyone up. Just remember the day and the colour (OK, sometimes it's hard to remember what day it is when you've been partying hard the night before.)

Why am I telling you all this? Because it's the basis of a really cool boutique hotel in Sukhumvit Soi 31. How cool? Well, so cool it made Conde Nast's, um, Hot List for new hotels in 2008.

It's called Seven, for the days in the week. And, as it turns out by luck or design, there are six rooms plus one communal area which account for all the colours. It is the brainchild of Khun Pylin (or Jane as she prefers to be called), who studied politics and economics and all sorts of serious stuff before paying her dues in the family's paint business. Aha -- so this is just an elaborate ad for a paint factory!
'I wanted to do something with colour and something Thai, so the days of the week ...' she explains.

So she set about renovating a townhouse in a small dead-end soi off Sukhumvit: 'Thais hate dead-end sois,' she laughs, 'probably because they can't use it to drive through, a short-cut to anywhere else. But to me it means quiet.' It certainly is quiet, although just a hundred yards round the corner are some great Italian and Japanese restaurants, and the bubbling cauldron of soi 33's nightlife. Phrom Phong BTS is just a five minute stroll away.

For landscaping, Jane turned to award-winning Thai Piyachanok Wijarn, who has done gardens for Cindy Crawford and Leonardo DiCaprio, among others.

As for the service approach, Jane wanted Seven to be 'small enough so it feels like home, more casual, without things like room numbers.' True, it must be the first hotel I've ever stayed without room numbers. Just colour coded walls in the corridor so you know which is yours. 'I think our guests want to stay not at somewhere five star where you get lost in the crowd but somewhere more personal, especially the communal area where you can talk to other guests.'

The communal area here off the reception area -- a breakfast nook/ reading area/ gallery -- is known as 7th Space and is resolutely red.

To my horror I am shown to the pink room. It feels like I'm sleeping in a girl's bedroom (not that I normally mind that!). Huge photo prints of orchids are sprayed over one wall. Peachy walls, pink curtains account for the rest of the room, and the bathroom -- behind a voyeuristic glass panel -- is a vivid shade of ... gee, would you call that ... puce? No it's redder than puce. I'll need to pull out a paint chart and get back to you on that one.

Jane's personal favourite is the green room: 'A sense of calm, nice sized balcony.' I like that one the best too. And I like the way all the little things like note pads and slippers match the designated colour of the room.

Each one features different Thai/Chinese photo and graphic motifs, designed by English crowd Studio Output. The interiors were done by a young Thai interior designer / architect, with Jane adding her personal stamp: 'Everything you see here I picked out, including beddings.' The linen is 300-thread count, the duvets made of goose down.

Some basic things are missing from the rooms, such as mini fridge and kettle. But higher-order techno items are are all here: DVD player, even an iPod dock, and plenty of plugs for laptops, phone chargers, etc. The hotel also gives you free use of mobile phone with local sim.

Things have come full circle. Jane having paid her dues by working the family's paint business, her mum now helps her out at the hotel. 'She helped with landscaping and she likes gardening, so she's made it more homey.'

At the end of the day, that's the feeling Seven leaves you with. A homey feeling. Where you are a name, not a (room) number. And that's enough to brighten anyone's day.




Bangkok Hotel -- TENFACE: A LEGEND IN THE MAKING


Tenface. A weird name, I think. Whatever. But it all makes sense when I find out that this self-proclaimed 'urban sanctuary' is inspired by Tosakan, the ten-faced giant from the folklore epic Ramakien. Suddenly all the over-sized and slightly crazed visages that decorate the walls and the Monty Python-esque website make sense.

Tosakan, you see, was renowned for his fusion of passion, wit and wisdom. And the hotel is trying to emulate that. Why even the hotel's concierge and entertainment guru is called Pipek, who was the estranged brother of Tosakan.

So how is this manifested? Tenface is very black-on-black. Super funky. Gold wire figurines from the Ramakien dangle in the hallway of the massive standard rooms which include a living area, bedroom and bathroom. Stylish Thai script protrudes from the walls. Wisdom and wit (if you can read Thai, that is). But where Tenface really comes into its own is the forethought of what guests might need: a leather 'Tosakan's Heart Box' on arrival contains a Thai sim card, a day-ticket for use on the Skytrain. Plus several 'take the road less travelled' cards with suggestions of what to check out in Bangkok -- not the usual Grand Palace, etc, but trendy options that their guests would possibly have an interest in like specific cool haunts in the happening Thong Lor precinct. All with Thai translation for the taxi driver. That's fantastic user-friendly thinking!

To top it off, all these spots are presented on iPod podcasts. The hotel does a great line in technology: apart from in-room Nespresso coffee machines, they lend you an iPod into which you can download movies for in-room viewing on one of the two large sets (their standard suites are as pictured above). What you don't see here is the four-poster style bed, and the good sized bathroom with tub.

Oh, then there's the pillows: guests have a choice of four types of pillows for a better night's sleep (or whatever other creative uses you might require from a pillow). There's firm ball fibre, contour massage, buckwheat hulls -- which sounds like a blues singer to me: 'ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Buckwheat Hulls!' -- and contour pillow, all of which work in different ways to make you a better you in the morning. And, let's face it, that's the name of the game.


The view is across to the main downtown of the city, but the location is the only area where I wouldn't score them 10/10. Still there's a tuk-tuk and a super-cool 44-year-old big black Mercedes waiting downstairs to transport you to Ploen Chit BTS a few minutes away.

Quirky touches include room numbers which have a ten added to them, ie, I was on the 7th floor but my room number was 17-07. A tad confusing when you've enjoyed a couple of drinks downstairs in their chic Sita bar and you find the elevator only goes up to eight!

Tenface is the brave new face of funky hotels in Bangkok. Ironic that it's drawn its fabulous inspiration from the age-old classics.






Tuesday 26 January 2010

bangkok hotel -- Ariyasomvilla: a Sanctuary in Sukhumvit




I awake to the sound of crowing roosters. Huh? Where am I? Looking through the sun-drenched floor-to-ceiling drapes offers no clues ... all I see is lush beautiful tropical shrubbery. Then it all comes back to me: I am in the very heart of Bangkok. Tucked away at the end of Sukhumvit Soi 1, to be precise. You can barely be more central than this.

Ariyasomvilla lives up to its name, meaning 'Sanctuary of the Enlightened' according to genial proprietor, Englishman-turned-Thai citizen, David Lees. The property has been in the hands of his wife Pariya's family ever since her grandfather built the house in 1942. Being the first dean of engineering at Chulalongkorn University, you can bet it was built to proper specifications.

Indeed, that house still stands in '100% original' condition, the centrepiece of the expanded hotel which opened in 2008 'just 10 days before Lehmann Brothers collapsed'. David, dressed for all the world like a mahout from Surin, affords himself a sly grin. 'It was Pariya's vision, her dream, to do this ... she was determined to do something with it to ensure the house would survive.'

The lush tropical surrounds, and the solid feeling of the rooms and the decor lends a wonderful established authenticity to the hotel. No wonder: it turns out that David spent many a year working for the Shangri-La group in Hong Kong, overseeing their landscaping and interior design operations. Pariya was a landscaper. That's how they met. The level of understated taste here all makes sense now.

'We're not trying to compete with the Shangri-Las and the Orientals,' he says, ' but if you're looking for something more sincere, more genuine ...'. The staff have a similarly affable approach to service. Switched on, but not overly yes sir-no sir.

David is hands on. He mixes with the guests at breakfast, makes sure that your coffee is on its way. He plays mein host to the cosmopolitan mix with ease and excellence. How hands on? Well, he even had the hotel's 12 toast racks designed and made to order. 'The essence of living in Thailand is you can still get people to do one-offs and short runs for you without blinking,' he enthuses. 'And they bring a lot to the product themselves, whether its ceramics, fabrics, brass or wood.'

This can best be felt in the 24 rooms themselves: beds, headboards, wardrobes were all made by David and his team. Solid wooden stuff, no corners cut. He's also a big fan of Jim Thompson's fabrics, used extensively throughout, most notably with the curtains which reach all the way to the 3.2m ceilings (four metres in the case of their 8-9000 baht a night prime suite).

'I also discovered we already had a lot of things: I'd buy things to sell but hated to part with them -- carvings, paintings, etc, tucked away.' The reception areas feel like a casual browse through an Asian antique store.

The generous bathrooms exude a soothing tropical spa ambience with pebbles and tiles and greenery.

They do have a fully-fledged spa on site, as well as a pool, a library and even a meditation hall. And a restaurant that does '70% vegetarian and 30% percent seafood,' the full-figured vegetarian tells me.
His passionate attention to the tiniest details is inspiring. 'I buy our jams and marmalades and whole-meal breads from a little bakery in Chiang Mai.'

I might not have made time for meditation or a spa here (given I am just too busy typing this up around the peaceful pool), but I walk away feeling very, very enlightened ...

They certainly have created something here worth crowing about.




Monday 25 January 2010

Fish spa -- SOMETHING FISHY AFOOT


I'd never heard of a fish spa until a few months ago, and now it seems I cannot go five metres without seeing a day spa, resort, massage place or souvenir shop exhorting 'fish spas'. I'm surprised that 7-11 are not offering them yet.

Anyway, I thought to myself: 'Fish spa ... how ridiculous that people would pamper their piscean pets to such an extent.' I mean Paris Hilton having her poodle pedicured is one thing, but having your pet fish massaged? That's just ridiculous.

As it turns out, yes it is ridiculous. But not as ridiculous as I felt when I was told that a fish spa was actually a place humans go for treatment by fish. Not the other way around. Oh!

Now apparently this madness has been going on since 1400 BC in ancient Egypt, whereby the Pharaoh's poor blistered feet were nibbled to a nice nubile finish by a fleet of fish from the Euphrates River. We're talking about the very cradle of civilisation here, folks.

But more recently it seems that Turkey is to blame. (I just got a mental image of a Turkey Spa ... where your toes are gobbled by our feathered friends.) You see, Kangal is the spiritual home of the Garra Rufa fish, which are the best at this sort of thing because these suckers -- pun fully intended -- are toothless and generate only enough sucking power (no sniggering down the back please) to remove the dead and flaky skin, not the live stuff. Hence they are known also as 'Doctor Fish'. They grow only to a maximum of six or eight centimetres, so it's not exactly like their fins are poking out of the water and the Jaws soundtrack is brooding in the background.

Now there is apparently a real scientific name for the act of the fish spa. It's called ... wait for it ... ichthyotherapy, meaning the use of fresh water fish for cleaning wounds. Drawings from the prisoners of war on the Death Railway show them waist-deep in the waters of the River Kwai whilst little fish cleaned out their tropical ulcers. In fact, in that same area, you can still get a free fish spa at Erawan Falls if you simply wade out into the waters beneath the cascades. They will nibble anything at within reach. And I do mean anything!

On that note, don't be suckered into any place that uses telapia from China. These do have teeth and are much bigger than real Doctor Fish. Just another cheap Chinese imitation on the market. So don't come running to me when your legs have been nibbled off at the knees!

The going rate seems to be in the 200-300 baht range for half an hour in the big cities, about 300 baht an hour in some of the outer areas. I recently enjoyed an 'all day if you want' session at Big Buddha on Koh Samui for 300 baht.

It is a unique sensation, dipping your legs up to calf height into the waters. Initially the fish dart for safety in the opposite end of the pond. Then slowly, tentatively, they swim back, lured by the tantalising upstream waft of my feet, which promise the multiple delights of raging tinea, psoriasis, overgrown fungal-ridden toenails, and generally years of podiatric neglect. An aphrodisiac to your average Garra Ruffa. One fish actually started humping my big toe. Jing jing!

Then the word got around: 'Buffet down the far end of the pool!' Suddenly both my feet were covered in sucking fish. There were fish sucking on other fish just to get the juices from my festering feet. It was a feeding frenzy. At first it feels like a slight electrical pulse, a tingle. Ok, I'll say it -- quite erotic. In fact there was a lady down the other end who was fairly in orgasmic rapture. (Just quietly I think she'd slipped a fish or two down the front of her pants.)

Fish jockey for position. They elbow (OK, most fish don't have elbows but the Garra  Rufa does, I'm sure) each other aside to have a crack at a particular morsel of skin. They squeeze in between your toes. All the while sucking, sucking, sucking. Those unlucky enough to be squashed by a careless foot, float off to the top, only to be reduced to a scaleless skeleton by their former best friends in no time at all. It's dog eat dog out there.

Which gives rise to another new business idea: EXTREME FISH SPAS. Wheel in the piranhas! Release the alligators! That'll make it more interesting and get rid of any dead -- or live! -- meat in a hurry.


And when it's all done, your feet are soft and smooth and generally more presentable.

It's funny the crazy human fads out of which empires and fortunes are carved. Still, gross as this might be to some, it sure beats the colonic irrigation fad that swept through Samui a few years ago.

That really proved there was a sucker born every minute!









Trip Advisor 2010 Awards -- It's Thailand for Bargains, Families, Romance and Relaxation


Breaking news ...

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Lloyd, I hear you say: this is more stuff that is months and months old, tell us something new.

Well, I promise this is real news, hot off the wire this morning. It's the Trip Advisor 2010 Awards (hey, these guys are punctual, we're not even at the end of January yet; anything could happen in the next 11 months). Now I happen to put a lot of store in these things because it's voted by real travellers, ordinary folks who've spent time in a hotel or resort and loved it or loathed it enough to spend precious time recording their thoughts on the website to warn or welcome others. And when you accumulate their opinions, and measure them against everywhere else in that city, country or the world, you get a real idea of where a hotel -- or country in this case -- is batting.

So, without much further ado, it leaves me nothing more but to ask for the envelope and announce the Thai winners in this year's awards. And the winners are ... (cue dramatic drum roll)

Top 10 Bargain Hotels in the World:

5. Secret Garden, Chiang Mai. (A very well kept secret -- I live there and I've never heard of it!)

Top 10 Bargain Hotels in Asia:

1. Secret Garden, Chiang Mai. (Yaay, Chiang Mai, go home team -- woooooh!)
4. Oriental Kwai Resort, Kanchanaburi
8. Chatrium Suites, Bangkok
9. Fern Paradise, Chiang Mai. (Wooooh!)

Top 10 Family Hotels in Asia:

2. Oriental Kwai Resort, Kanchanaburi
3. Rimping Village, Chiang Mai. (Thunderous applause, woo-woo-woo-woooh!)
5. JW Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa, Mai Khao, Phuket
8. Holiday Inn Resort, Phuket
10. Yaang Come Village, Chiang Mai. (The applause nearly lifts the roof off the stadium.)

Top 10 Hotels for Service in Asia:

1. Rimping Village, Chiang Mai (The roof is now fully off the stadium and the applause can be heard as far away as Gdansk in Siberia, where the service is terrible ...)
2. Sandalwood Luxury Villas, Phuket
4. Secret Garden, Chiang Mai. (Cue the Mexican Wave ... )
6. Fern Paradise, Chiang Mai. (... and keep it going, round and round.)
8. Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai (The crowd is now on their feet, a standing ovation. I've never seen anything quite like it.)

Top 10 B&B Inns in Asia:

1. Pak Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai. (Woohoooo!!!)
2. Baan Orapin B&B, Chiang Mai. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, oh, don't stop, don't stop!)
6. Baan Sukhumvit Inn Soi 18, Bangkok
7. Luang Chumni Village, Ayutthaya
9. Baan Hanibah, Chiang Mai (Woo-hooo-hoooooooo!!!)

Top 10 Hotels for Romance in Asia:

1. Cape Sienna Hotel & Villas, Kamala, Phuket. (See photo, copyright of someone whose permission I never sought because, well, they're getting some free publicity here, so seems fair enough usage eh?)
7. Sandalwood Luxury Villas, Koh Samui
8. Ban Sabai Sunset Beach Resort & Spa, Koh Samui
9. Silawadee Pool Spa Resort, Lamai, Koh Samui

Top 10 Luxury Hotels in Asia:

1. Layana Resort & Spa, Koh Lanta
7. Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa, Koh Samui

Top 10 Relaxation/ Spa Hotels in the World:

1. Bandara Resort & Spa, Bo Phut, Koh Samui.

Top 10 Relaxation/ Spa Hotels in Asia:

1. Bandara Resort & Spa, Bo Phut, Koh Samui
3. Sandalwood Luxury Villas, Koh Samui
7. Santhiya Resort & Spa, Koh Phangan
8. Cape Sienna Hotel & Villas, Kamala, Phuket
9. Montra Hotel, Koh Samui

Top 10 Trendiest Hotels in Asia:

2. Sugar Palm Grand, Hillside, Kata, Phuket
3. Vie Hotel Bangkok, Bangkok

Damn, those places must be trendy. I'm writing this from the Tenface Hotel in Bangkok which is amazingly arty-farty and it doesn't even score a mention!

So there you have it. My completely impartial, unbiased guide to the best of the best in the world, Asia, and Thailand. Honours spread fairly evenly, although I do think that Chiang Mai has been harshly overlooked here. I mean only 12 mentions of Chiang Mai in this honour roll seems like some sort of conspiracy ...

Anyway, good to see Thailand scoring highlight in value, romance, family fun and overall relaxation categories. But then I'm probably not telling you anything new there.



Wednesday 20 January 2010

Samui Golf -- A STEEP LEARNING CURVE



A story doing the rounds of expat circles goes along the lines of the married gent who wanted to duck off for a naughty weekend with the lads. Told his missus he was off on a golfing trip to Koh Samui. Her suspicions aroused, given he wasn't that keen a golfer, she did a quick search and found that Samui actually was the proud host of exactly -- let's count them together -- none, zero, zilch, nada, nil golf courses at the time. I believe he's still trying to surgically remove his #1 Big Bertha inserted in a strategic orifice by his wife!


You see, Koh Samui was possibly the very last place in Asia to resist the invasion of that insidious epidemic known by its scientific name of 'golf'. It was only in 2003 that she finally laid down her arms and surrendered.
 
Santiburi Samui Country Club was a grand introduction to the sport, and two more courses shortly followed. Resident golfers on the island number about 500 now, but it's obviously the tourists that keep the greenkeepers busy.
 
Santiburi I read somewhere laid some sort of claim to being 'a top 5 ranking golf course in Asia 2008'. As voted by the owner's mum, I believe. But it has hosted several Asian Tour opens and numbers Vijay Singh (no, not the Bangkok tailor, the pro golfer) among its fans. So it is a bona fide championship course.
 
Like Samui Football Golf, the signature hole here is the17th with panoramic views over Mae Nam and Phangan and conservatively 20,000,000 coconut trees. It's a par 5 (the course itself is a 6930 yard par 72).
 
Given Samui's mountainous hinterland terrain, it would be generous to call any of its courses merely 'undulating'. Steep is the word, and I didn't realise how steep until I saw my caddy packing abseiling ropes and rock-climbing pitons. Even the golf buggy was a four wheel drive.
 
At 3350 baht green fees (or 4350 once you've costed in the cart and caddy), Santiburi is considered, er, steep by Thai standards. But, just like Mr Singh's tailor shop in Sukhumvit Road, ve are having some cheaper options, sir ...
 
Royal Samui Golf and Country Club overlooks Chaweng and Lamai. Watch out for mountain goats, and do send my regards to Sir Edmund Hillary if you see him up there. Green fees 1150 baht specially for you, sir.
 
There's also Bo Phut Hills Golf Club which -- I trust this will not come as a surprise to any readers -- is located in the hills above Bo Phut. The green fees are only 825 baht but there's a catch: it's a par 27 pitch-and-putt. Perfect for those who need more irons in their diet.
 
Feeling a bit more adventurous? Head across to Suratthani on the mainland and play the Rajjaprabha Golf Course.
 
There's also Mini Golf International at Choeng Mon, and Frisbee Golf at Bo Phut (not forgetting Football Golf of course).
 
But whatever you play, and wherever you play it, just remember this golfing tip: take two pairs of trousers in case you get a hole in one. I happen to know a very good tailor ...
 
 
 
 

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Hotel Koh Samui -- Coral Cove Chalet



The taxi driver damn near causes an accident as we round a bend on the ring road between Chaweng and Lamai: He sees a sign that says Coral Cove and stops dead in his tracks. I tell him to go a bit further round the corner where it's safer to turn. Then there are two more places called Coral Cove something or other. What the? I have completely forgotten which one I have booked into, just assuming it was one place called the Coral Cove.

And you know what they say about the word 'assume': it makes an ass out of u and me.

As luck would have it, Coral Cove Chalet where I enquire is where I'm staying. I pay my taxi driver and wish him a safe onward journey. Coral Cove Chalet belongs to Khun Seni, who runs the Tourism Association of Koh Samui (I interviewed him a few blogs back, you'll remember) and he's very kindly put me up for a night here.

A wonderful tropical malaise permeates this resort. Afternoon sea breezes drift in through the open-sided reception area, and the impossibly blue waters of Coral Cove glisten just below. It is a perfect crescent of white sand, framed by massive grey boulders. Snorkelling, even scuba diving, can be done in the crystal shallows just off the beach. What a great spot. Totally quiet, yet 10 minutes either way to the bright lights of Chaweng to the north or up-and-coming Lamai to the south. Out of sheer excitement, I let out a massive yawn ...

My room is one of 43 deluxe rooms. Some are in the so-called deluxe block, others free standing. It's a good thing I'm wearing my sunglasses: All the bungalows are done out in a jaunty yellow. Some gay interior designer would probably venture it'th popcorn yellow or thunflower yellow. You get the idea. But the interior is a vivid pink that makes me feel like I've accidentally walked into a girls' dorm at a boarding school. Fortunately, those in the deluxe block are more classic muted tropical earthy tones.

Dark woods set the tone for the rooms, and I throw open the balcony door to let in the sea air. The view really is gorgeous, framed by coconut palms and banana leaves -- Seni's picked a great spot here.  It's not designery, it's not ostentatious, nor intimidating. But it's clean and comfortable. A cool place to hang out for a beach holiday. And to think that deluxe rooms start at just 1800 baht per night (with whisper quiet air-conditioning).

You'll save in other ways too. Where a pick-up van cost me 1800 baht per day to rent through other hotels in Chaweng, the staff here found me one for 1200. And helped me with my unreasonable demands for adapters, phone chargers, and other NASA-like gadgets that are the life support system of a disorganised journalist on the road.

Breakfast is served at Coral's Restaurant overlooking the kidney-shaped pool, where 30 deckchairs -- if you don't believe me, count them yourself -- slumber under umbrellas. They serve Thai, western and Chinese meals which I didn't try (honesty is my new year's resolution, we'll see how long that lasts) but the western breakfast selection I can wholeheartedly vouch for. Jing jing!

Big smiles upon check out. 'Can we call you a taxi, Khun Lloyd?'

'A taxi? N-n-no thanks, I'll walk. It's safer.'




Hotel Koh Samui -- Kirikayan Luxury Pool Villas & Spa



A tune is running through my head: 'Up on the r-o-of ...' Who sang that? I think it was some crooner back in the 60s or 70s. Anyway, way before my time. But I find myself singing this song to myself as I open the door and step out onto the rooftop of my 3rd floor penthouse. Talk about 'wow' factor ...

There's a spa pool big enough to stage an international water polo match set into the teak decking. And, amid the perfectly styled tropical landscaped roof garden, there are two over-sized day beds facing off into the coconut plantations and jungled hills. The real world is, oh, about a million miles away.

Little known fact #29: Kirikayan actually means 'dancing hill'.  And this resort promises you 'a different Samui'. It is different alright. You're looking over the traditional Samui-scape of trees and hills, away from the sea, rich in animist folklore. From the rooftop looking back you can see the ocean, about one kilometre away. That's why this is a different Samui. But fear not, they have their own beach club house at popular Mae Nam Beach, and the hotel's shuttle van can run you down there (it's only five minutes away).

This place is perfect for a party: round up your friends, put on some music -- preferably something a little more edgy than 'Up on the Roof' -- pop some champagne in the ice bucket, and you're set.

It's tempting to just sleep on the roof at night, watching satellites skidding through the stars. But there's a perfectly good king sized bed waiting downstairs for me ...

The room itself is massive, comprising a dining area with solid dining table, lounge room with massive flat screen and sofa, and a full sized kitchen, all done out in dark woods and airy tropical design. This is bigger than some people's houses back home!

But my favourite room is the bathroom. Any place with a jacuzzi bath set among pebbles and plants, under a skylight, knows how to woo even the most jaded travel writer (well, there are a couple I know that just can 't be pleased.)

Given that there's only one bedroom, this set-up reeks of romance, honeymoon, and hanky panky. (They do of course have family rooms that sleep four but that's a far less interesting story.)

The hotel grounds are wonderfully lush and sympathetic to the surroundings, the grey-tiled roofs of the 36 pool villas playing peek-a-boo between the palms. But the money shot is really the infinity pool overlooking the jungle. That's a different Samui. The little guy on my left shoulder is shouting loudly that I should just read some trashy novel around the pool, and a very feint voice on my right shoulder is whispering that I should go and lose some of those excess Christmas kilos in the fitness room.

Well, the fitness room is a let down: a couple of bikes, a treadmill that was more mill than tread, and a couple of weights. Anyway, what was I thinking? No one comes here to submit themselves to Boot Camp, ferchrissakes. So, trashy novel round the pool it is then.

If all this pagan nature is getting to much for you, you can always hop the hotel's thrice-daily shuttle into Chaweng for free. A taxi to anywhere else will run you about 400 baht from here.

But I'm not going anywhere. I'm too busy playing Tarzan. Now where's Jane got to?

Sunday 17 January 2010

Koh Samui -- Football Golf: A KICK IN THE (COCO)NUTS!




There's clearly something strange in the banana daquiris out Choeng Mon way. Football Golf -- what the hell is that???

Suitably intrigued, I pull up outside the clubhouse where a gigantic pile of coconuts is stacked into a ball-kicking figure: Coconaldo. OK, maybe I should just turn the car around and head home ... these folks are clearly nuts.

Turns out that Football Golf is exactly that: a little football, a little bit golf. 'It was a game we used to play as kids,' says British proprietor Tom, a Liverpudlian. 'We'd dig holes in the sand on the beach and kick the ball into it. Or use a chair in the backyard, and kick the ball between its legs, moving it 18 times. Golf football, you know.'

The bald redhead (if that makes sense) was teaching English at a hotel on Samui when the inspiration hit him. He eyed the coconut patch next door, with its corridors of trees. He spent the next few months breaking his back clearing the land (except for those trees he wanted to keep as natural hazards). The biggest problem was finding a piece of paper big enough to plan out the course. It turned out that the flip side of a shooting range target did the job perfectly -- exactly how Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus design their master courses I'm sure.)

He planted the grass. He dug the holes, inserting tin buckets in them, big enough to handle a soccer ball. Hung up rib-tickling signs featuring quotes from big names like George Best, Sevvie Ballesteros on funny aspects of life and sport. And Samui Golf Football was born. He did a Google search. There was no one else in the world offering this. Great! Up went the sign 'The world's first Golf Football course.' Which also made him worry privately -- if this didn't exist anywhere else in the world maybe there was a reason for it? Maybe, the Everton fan who doesn't play golf thought, he really was nuts.

Then a friend suggested it should be called Football Golf instead, 'because you are changing the game of golf, not changing the game of football'. Google search: one of these already existed in Sweden. Up went a new sign: 'The 1st Football Golf Course in Asia.'

The 18 course is a par 66, laid out like any golf course except you kick a soccer ball instead of golf clubs and balls. No caddy girls but you do get a drinks lady bringing you a free soft drink at the 11th hole.

Quite a few groups are on the course already: some just in swimmers and bare chest, others in ubiquitous Man U or Chelsea football strips. So it's not the snooty Royal Samui Football Golf Club then. My first attempts are on par with my golf game -- hooks, slices, multiple ricochets off the coconut trees. On one hole my ball rolled all the way back down, further back than from where I'd started. Cue cussing and cursing. But it's so damn satisfying when you sink, er, kick a putt. My daughter kicked, and hacked, and air swung, and dribbled, eventually getting it down: 'Three,' she'd proudly claim (she's learned a lot from her old man!)

The signature hole is the 17th. A long straight fairway, with a filthy big bunker right in the centre of it, and two off-putting mounds of coconuts on the front lip of the rear-sloping green. It's a par 5. I visualized my shot. Checked the wind direction. Nailed it. Down in three (a real three -- jing jing). Like some famous golfer said: I've got a simple way to cut your stroke count -- it's called an eraser.

An hour or so later. we were all done. I shot a below par 64, with my daughter on 54 by her count (or 756 by my somewhat more official count).

Cost: adults 600 baht, kids 300 including drink.

Open: daily 9am - 6:30pm

Verdict: Certainly a lot better than a kick in the (coco)nuts. A great fun activity for a beach holiday. But I still think there's something funny in those banana daquiris ...



Have you ever heard of Football Golf or played it elsewhere in the world???

Friday 15 January 2010

Hotel Koh Samui -- Anantara Lawana Resort and spa: A WORK IN PROGRESS




'Fifty five thousand baht? Per year, or per month?'
'No, that's per night, sir,' replies the hotel staffer showing me around the new Royal Lawana Pool Villa. Choke. Cough. Splutter. Workers and chambermaids are eager to shoo me out; after all the sheik is arriving tomorrow for an extended stay. Which sheik they won't say. Privacy and all that.

And privacy is what it's all about with the Anantara Lawana's 122 villas. At the top end, the 300 square metre Royal Villa features two bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a bath tub under the stars adjacent the pool. From here, the views are spectacular. Is that Hawaii I see in the distance?


There are delightful Asian antique furniture pieces thoughout, probably Chinese. After all, the local designer (Lawana, daughter of Khun Suwan, the resort's original developer) was after recreating the the old Chinese island lifestyle of Samui in which she grew up.

Even with the standard pool villas, each one is discreetly fenced to afford enjoyable seclusion. To the point where even the bathrooms are the indoor/outdoor type, free from peering passers-by (just don't sing too loud in the shower -- the whole island can hear you!)

But the resort's not quite there yet. You see, it has just been rebadged as an Anantara property in December 2009 and is in the process of a make-over -- something like Queer Eye for the Hotel Guy -- to give it more of that Lost World feeling that characterises Anantara's other properties (on Samui they have another at Bo Phut).

As it stands, it has a charming low-key villagey feel to it. Low-key that is, except for the eight Sky Hug cabanas, glorified tree houses for dining and drinking that soar way above the roofline, affording views to the west coast of America on a clear day. Jing jing! (Trust me, I'm a travel writer!)

In the meantime, I need a serious workout. 'We have a fitness centre just near reception, sir.' No, not that kind of workout. I need to work out how I can afford to stay in the Royal Lawana Pool Villa next time ...


Hotel Koh Samui -- Kirikayan Boutique Resort: THE ART OF HOSPITALITY



When the garden corridor of a hotel is called 'Art Avenue' you know some serious design work has gone into the place. Such is the case at the brand-spanking-new Kirikayan Boutique Resort, smack dab in the middle of Chaweng Beach. Why even the tissue boxes in the rooms look like Philippe Starck got together with Salvador Dali on a serious bender one crazy summer evening ...

This resort has just opened in December. In fact, some workmen still busy themselves with drills in the lobby as guests arrive for their cold towel and refreshing welcome drink. That's cutting it fine! But arguably the most refreshing part of this hotel is its staff: summery smiles and an infectious enthusiasm all round. Little touches like bead anklets round off the casual nautical-but-nice blue and white outfits (no black-tie stuffiness around here).

The overall appearance is, not surprisingly, tropical Asia. But more generically South-east Asian -- almost Chinese with all that red -- than Thai. And down Art Avenue there's the (tick the box) infinity pool looking right out over the magic emerald water of Chaweng Beach.

The rooms are fabulous in the real sense of the word: striking swatches of silk and daring feature walls complement the black, gold and white of a massive glass screen mural (see photo) which separates the bedroom from the bathroom. The bed is king-sized but the room is not. Space is at a real premium here unless you upgrade to the Sunrise Terrace with its seaview deck and open-air jacuzzi. Samsung has done a roaring trade with most hotels of this upscale nature; too bad they didn't throw in a DVD player while they were at it.

The bathroom is another work of art in itself. The basin tap features an intricate perspex and chrome mixer that looks like it was rebuilt from some sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci, or the early Egyptians, trying to figure out viaducts. Rain shower but no bath tub.

It's best then to spend your time lolling -- I like that word: lolling, lolling, lolling -- around the pool deck where daybeds with super-thick cushions make it all too easy for the day to slip away, for you to fall asleep, and for you to get burnt to a shade of red a lobster would envy. Yes, that did happen to me, thanks for asking. (Frangipani trees are among my favourite in the world. But for all their lush beauty and evocative romantic aroma they afford little shade.)

The pool menu scores highly with its banana shakes and cajun calamari (although, ethically, I prefer free-range calamari). However, and I'll put this down to teething problems in the F&B department, it took 20 minutes for the shake to arrive and 20 minutes to be told they were all out of calamari. Jai yen yen as they say in Thai -- chill, bro. But prices are very reasonable: 80 baht for a plate of pad Thai is good considering it's peak season at a top resort on Chaweng Beach. I like hotels that don't try and turn you upside down and shake your pockets clean because you are a 'captive' audience.

Speaking of jai yen yen, there are four massage salas around the pool, surrounded by lotus ponds, where skilled masseuses will evaporate the cares of the world. And suddenly that slow banana shake doesn't seem like the end of the world anymore.

And that, dear readers, is the real art of hospitality ...

Thursday 14 January 2010

KOH SAMUI new resort -- MAI, MAI, MAI DELIGHTFUL ...


Driving down the goat track through coconut palms in the almost deserted Laem Yai beach area on Samui's west coast, you've almost got to rub your eyes to believe what you're suddenly seeing: a massive orange-walled behemoth that heralds a world within its own world. Mai Samui.

The entrance is a grand circular door in a courtyard, stairs leading away up to reception. Bell boys smile and snap off salutes that make me think they've mistaken me for some visiting dignitary arriving on the same day. A bevy of front office beauties in earthy-toned silk complete the royal reception. But, no, it seems everyone gets this treatment.

Mai is calm and cool, all about palms and pools. Each of its 97 rooms look onto at least one pool (there are three) and, at very least, generous glimpses of the beach. A forest of frangipani trees leaves you in no doubt you are in some kind of tropical paradise.

Although the resort is just six months old, it exudes an established charm, with weathered wooden walkways, big brass bolts, and wooden shingled roofs. A modern Thai fusion feel. All the in-room amenities however, are thoroughly modern with all the latest toys in place, including an electronic tennis racquet with which to whack mosquitoes, and in-room wi-fi (although most only work on the balcony -- such hardships are sent to try us.)

As for the room itself, choice of deluxe rooms or pool villas. The deluxe rooms feature a stone bath so big you can swim laps in it. And really cool folded towel tricks: I've never seen a gibbon before, lounging on the day bed like it was so human. Well done, housekeeping!

Deluxe rooms come in around the 11,000 baht mark, pool villas around 24,000 baht per night.

Mai comfortably accommodates two groups: it's absolutely family friendly, with a kids club and a ton of land- and water-based activities to enjoy. Yet, it's also a highly romantic getaway that would suit honeymooners. (Or, listen up marketing department, newly weds with kids! How's that for a niche?)

The big advantage of being on the west coast is sunsets. BIG orange ones. And the pool bar (one of two bars, two restaurants and one bar and resturant the hotel boasts) puts you in pole position for those each evening. The disadvantage of being on the west coast is distance. You're a good 30 minutes from Chaweng here, meaning an 800 baht (one way) taxi ride or 1000 baht (one way) hotel car ride away. But this would suit a lot of people who have no interest in the gaudy gallivanting of Chaweng.

For Mai is very self-contained: a library. A squash court and fitness centre. Samunprai spa. Cooking school. Water sports centre. Mountain bikes. And peace and quiet.

With all of this here, who needs Chaweng?


HOTEL KOH SAMUI -- NEW HOTELS AND RESORTS 2010




Mushrooms. That's all I can think of when I drive around sunny Samui and see these things popping up --mushrooms in a field after a rain storm. Out of nowhere. Blink! Oh, there's another one ...

Hotels, I'm talking about. Specifically upscale, boutique resorts and spas. There are so many wonderful properties in the market already; the bar is set so high for hospitality here. Yet undaunted, nay, relishing the challenge, new players are pouring in to make Samui the capital of cool.

Where will it end? 42" LCD screen. Pah! Everyone's got one of those -- make it 84". To hell with it -- make the whole wall a flat screen. Pool villa? Everyone's got one of those. I know ... a butler in wetsuit and scuba gear dispensing footrubs underwater as you sip your Gin & Tonic in your private plunge pond. Infinity pool? Infinity is not near big enough! Make it bigger, better ... to infinity and beyond.

There's a lot of excited chatter about the new Banyan Tree Samui coming on stream soon, but the next few blogs will be about some of the hot hostelries -- some still smelling of fresh paint more than lemongrass  -- that I've been lucky enough to check out (or rather check into) recently:

Anantara Lawana Resort and Spa http://lawana-chaweng.anantara.com/
Kirikayan Boutique Resort http://www.kirikayan.com/
Kirikayan Luxury Pool Villas & Spa http://www.kirikayan.com/ (pictured above)
Mai Samui Beach Resort and Spa http://www.maisamui.com/

So check out the next few blogs for in-depth, insightful, informative reviews of the resorts above. Research, research, research ...

Excuse me, concierge, where's the pool bar?

Have you stayed at a brand new hotel or resort in Koh Samui that you want to share with us? Leave me a comment about what you thought of it.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

KOH SAMUI -- Six of my favourite restaurants, places and attractions



Sorry about the lame headline ... it's just that I don't know what else to call this selection of random favourites of mine; little inside tips that will hopefully help you to enjoy Samui as much as I do.

In no particular order, here we go ...

1/ SAMUI GO KART

Had too much of just blissing out and your body is in danger of forgetting how to produce adrenaline? A day at the races should sort you out. While Pro carts are available, unless you're Michael Schumacher on holiday, I suggest taking the regular carts which can do up to 80 km/h. If you're a really nervous driver -- which you might be after a short spell on Thailand's roads -- take the Fun cart option (suitable for kids as well, as they tootle along up to 40 km/h). A 10-minute session costs adults 600 baht, or 500 for kids. If you think that doesn't sound long, wait till you've pushed yourself around several laps at full tilt in the heat, and been extricated from the tyre barricades a couple of times (believe me, you will lose it on at least one corner -- these things are fast, combined with the fact that traditional features such as grip on the tyres apparently come as an optional extra).

A great track combining some tight corners and sweeping bends and punchy straight. Located on the main ring road at Bo Phut, north of Chaweng.

2/ CHARMING RESTAURANT

Yes this restaurant is charming, but the Thai proprietor is equally, if not more, so. What's ironic is that Khun Whatisname (I think it's Noi or Noong, something like that) is brilliant at remembering everybody's name first time. Amazing, given that he can have a hundred guests on a busy day.

What's so special about this place? Well, it doesn't look much from the road (all corrugated tin and wood) but it's right on the beach. You can choose to sit at tables under cover or out in the open. Or even deck chairs where the incoming tide will lap at your feet. Menu covers basics such as sandwiches and burgers at one end, but they really come into their own with their Thai seafood. Steamed fish, grilled fish at 50 baht per 100g, musells at around 35 baht per 100 gram. Try the steamed fish with ginger, lime and chilli or red duck curry. Heavenly. Most specials in the 250-400 baht range. The smoothies are good too. If you want beer, no problem. Even bring your own bottle of wine, no problem.

The music is courtesy of the tattoo/massage place right next door. (I highly recommend the massage place for a herbal oil session on the left of Charming as you look out to sea .)

Situated at Chaweng Noi beach, on the ring road on the left hand side just past the Impiana Hotel if you're coming from Chaweng. You'll see the big white sign saying 'Charming'.

3/ SABEINGLAE restaurant

When you find a place full of locals you know you're onto something good. This big seafood restaurant has live seafood tanks and is spread over a few nicely lit wooden pavillions. But my tip: walk all the way down to the plastic tables on the sand -- it's quieter there, and you can watch the squid boats on the horizon.

Lots of fried seafood on the menu. The battered calamari is sensational. They can also grill pretty much anything you want if you prefer (try the red snapper). Service is not perfect as they're run off their feet in high season but they try their best so it's hard to get frustrated.

On the ring road on the left if you're going from Lamai away from Chaweng (clockwise in other words).

4/ ASADOR BBQ Steak House Restaurant

Built up a king sized hunger after a day of diving, temple-hopping, swimming, shopping or whatever? Have I got the place for you ... a carnivore's paradise! How about unlimited free-flow refills of barbecued chicken and ribs (no, not chicken ribs, they're pork I presume) for 390 baht. Or for 850 baht, a platter of two steaks, 2 kebabs, 2 chops, 2 pieces chicken, and corn and veggies. Most of the steaks seem to be good imported stuff from New Zealand, Australia, etc.

You'll smell this place before you see it, as they cook everything outside on the coals. Mmmm, I'm dribbling at the recollection of it now. Lost or want to make a booking? 077-230-622.

It's on the main Chaweng Road (near the Library hotel), just where the two way traffic becomes one way traffic at Moo 2.

5/ JUN HOM Restaurant

A quiet stretch of beach, with virtually no one on it. Beautiful views of sunset over Anthong. And fresh seafood. Who could ask for more? (Well, you can, of course, it's a restaurant after all ...). This place is not fancy -- notice a trend here? -- but it's plonked right in the sand facing Koh Phangan.

Full range of local and western fare, and a seemingly endless supply of Singhas (don't ask, I just know these things from 'research').

On the ring road from Chaweng look out for their sign on the right side after OK Properties and Coconut Grove estate on the right and Santhithani estate on the left.

6/ FORTUNE TELLER

I'm not usually one to go in for wishy-washy stuff like fortune tellers (except for that one drunken night at Newton Circus in Singapore, but that doesn't count). Visiting Big Buddha I noticed this big sign in the car park: 'Fortune Teller 50 baht'. Two bucks, can't go wrong. Well, you can -- one of the zeros had fallen off his sign for a start. OK, 20 bucks can't go wrong, right? Over the next 25 minutes I learned to avoid Wednesdays, ride at 120km/h  instead of my customary 240 km/h (hell, this guy is good!) in February and September otherwise I'll be going too fast for the gods to protect me. May is going to be a good month. October onwards will be auspicious for business for the next five years. And, after consulting a couple of different charts and books, he declared a big love for me started last September. True! He also said north, central and south Thailand is fine for me, but east is best, namely Pattaya, Chonburi and Rayong. Don't know, never been there yet.

Then, and this is where I got my money's worth, he launched with dead pan face into a warning: 'Stay away from Thai foxy lady in bars and nightclubs. They will suck you like Dracula.' With that he became animated, his fingers clawing away at his own throat to illustrate the point. ' He repeated it for good effect: 'Dracula'. I laughed my ass off. He was deadpan. 'Stay away from Thai foxy lady.'

So if you want to pass some time in the midday heat or on a rainy afternoon, check this guy out at Big Buddha. I don't know whether he's any good or not. We'll see. But it's damn good fun.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just going to check out Pattaya, Rayong and Chonburi on Google before I move there ...


KOH SAMUI -- Choosing the right beach for you



Samui and Chaweng Beach are synonymous. Like Kuta and Bali. And, um, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But Chaweng may not be to everybody's liking all the time (or indeed any of the time). Luckily on Thailand's third largest island there's plenty of choice when it comes to finding your place in the sun ...

Chaweng:

Now a big, busy, bustling town with everything you could possibly want, and then a little more. It's the longest beach, measuring around 5km -- once again, if you don't believe me, get out your tape measure --and that's what probably created the attraction of Samui in the first place. Along that beach road are conservatively one hundred hotels, a thousand restaurants, ten thousand shops (most of them 7-11s), and a million massage joints. Something like that. Many of the top designer 5-star resorts are nestled in here, but there are also more affordable options for mere mortals too. Traffic on the main strip crawls along at about 20km/h (apart from tattoed and bare-chested boy racers who try and squeeze the maximum out of their rental scooters). The shopping stalls are cheap, cheap, cheap by Western standards, but not by Thai standards. Try Nathon on the west coast instead for better deals. Lots of bars, pubs, nightlife. So it's lively around the clock. Got it?

Want to be close to all of this, but want more peace and quiet? Try Chaweng Noi beach, five minutes south. Nice cove with a few hotels and bungalows right on the water's edge, and some excellent casual seafood places.

Lamai:

Lamai -- on the south-eastern shore -- is emerging as something of a succesor to Chaweng, albeit in a more tasteful direction. A brand new shopping mall has gone in that looks like a Versacci palace -- quite out of place now, but it will attract quality developments around it. Lamai is decidedly lower key than Chaweng, but plenty of new upscale resorts and restaurants and spas coming on stream now. A nice town to stroll through, checking out cafes and stalls, and an excellent swimming beach with great seafood restaurants dotted along it. Nightlife options include a lively selection of bars. About a 20 minute drive to Chaweng.

Taling Ngam:

The west coast of Samui is far less developed. Why? Who knows. Perhaps the beaches are a bit more rocky, more grainy brown sand than the fine powdery white stuff (I'm talking about beach sand here) on the other side. On the upside, you get spectacular sunsets dropping into the ocean, silhouetting the self-explanatory Five Islands, and the upthrusts of the Anthong Marine National Park off in the distance. So its romantic quotient is very high. Couple this with more seclusion, more bungalow-style accomodation, and palm trees swaying right over the water's edge, and you've got a recipe for love. (Excuse me, I've been in the sun way too long, I'll just move inside.) About a 40 minute drive to Chaweng.

Bang Po:

My favourite. Tucked away on the north west coast, a million tourists buzz along the ring road never even knowing this place exists. A few smallish hotels, a few new boutique-style operations, plus a lot of residential compounds owned mainly by Europeans straddle the road, blocking the view of the water. So there are no casual 'drop ins' ... the only people you'll see on the beach (see photo) are those who are living here or staying here. It's west enough to enjoy spectacular sunsets over Anthong, while gargling a couple of Singhas at one of the local seafood restaurants that sit right in the sand.

Mae Nam:

Nestled in front of some quite dramatic hills, Mae Nam seems to be the favourite spot for expats and long-term lounge lizards who spend a few months each year in Samui. That must say something (and once I've worked it out, you'll be the first to know.) The beach itself is a lovely crescent with beautiful views over Koh Phangan. Much less hustle here. The seafood restaurants on the beach and the main ring road are really good and cheap -- they have to be to keep the local regulars who live in the mushrooming residential developments around coming back.

Bo Phut:

This was my favourite hangout in the days of Rasta Baby, a driftwood bar on the beach with views over the fishing boats at anchor to Big Buddha. Somehow it summed up the essence of Samui then. Languid. Fun. Peaceful. Well, do you know what? Rasta Baby was steamrollered in favour of a sprawling five star resort, but Bo Phut still smells like Samui spirit even though some consider this to have more of a Mediterranean village feel. It is centred on one street lined with Thai-style shophouses, just about all of them seafood restaurants (the longest standing, I believe, being the Happy Elephant). 

Choeng Mon:

Right on the north-eastern tip of Samui looking across to Phangan, this series of coves and bays means that many developments have sprung up here but are all secluded visually from each other. Perfect. Some of the most upscale developments on the island have thus chosen to set up camp here (if you could call Tong Sai Bay or the Six Senses a 'camp'). Sorry noisy and smelly backpackers -- apply elsewhere! Fine for swimming, most of the beaches are framed at each end by rocky outcrops or headlands.

Bear your transport in mind: some hotels offer a shuttle into Chaweng, others offer hotel cars or local taxis (which are surprisingly expensive -- 800 baht from the west coast to Chaweng for example). Of course you can always rent a car (figure on about 2000 baht a day, 1200-1800 for a pick-up van) or a motorcycle, or flag a song taew van that's going your way.

So (swim) suit yourself  on Samui.









Tuesday 12 January 2010

KOH SAMUI -- A NEW SENSE OF DIRECTION: SHOOTING FOR THE STARS


Here's a funny thing. It's been about seven years since I've flown to Koh Samui, and I heard things have really developed since then (that'd be right, just after I sold my house on the beach here). Flying in low over the island to land, it was a picture postcard scene: brilliant sunshine, emerald waters, white limestone upthrusts, and idyllic unhurried looking resorts dotting the waterfront here and there.

Typical over-exaggeration, I thought, it's still the sleepy hollow I knew before. Then the plane kept on flying for a bit and we landed on Samui. I had been looking down on Koh Phangan!

Samui sure has changed. Long time friends in Bangkok used to tell me: 'Oh you should have been here in the 70s. You had to come by train. Beach front land was for sale for cents, but none of us bought because it was so damn far away and who would come to come to this island anyway?' Last seen, these friends were still working hard for a living, with severely bruised backsides from the repeated kickings they'd administered themselves for missing the, um, boat of Samui's development.

Then the airport went in, back in 1989 and everybody said that'd be the start or the death of Samui. Like a weather forecaster's each-way predictions: 'Tomorrow will be sunny, er, unless it's raining.' A lot of people nearly asphixiated on the body odour of the backpackers and hippies who washed (?) up here in their droves. Looking for that perfect piece of escapist paradise.

Koh Samui became synonymous with Full Moon parties -- nevermind that they were held across the water on Koh Phangan. But just like Byron Bay and Waikiki the mainstream mobs soon followed, lured by the magical settings they'd heard and read about about.  And watched: Alex Garland's The Beach was inspired by a setting on Samui (although it was filmed on a man-made beach near Phuket, but that's Hollywood for you.) And soon the backpackers and hippies decamped to Phanghan and Koh Tao, leaving Samui to much more monied masses. More than 1.1 million arrivals per year in  the last couple of years.  A new load of sun-seekers seems to land every couple of minutes.

The airport was renovated in 2007, becoming one of the most endearing in the world, like a bunch of bamboo umbrellas amid the coconut plantations. And gaily decorated little trolley busses. It feels fun.

I hardly recognise Samui. Where before there had been acres of green fields and coconut plantations and ramshackle rasta bars (with curious clouds of blue smoke billowing from within), now stand gleaming designery boutique hotels and sprawling resorts. Four, five and even six stars. Why even Chaweng's main road -- nothing more than a red rutted clay track before, making it a 4WD adventure ride in the wet season -- is now fully sealed and lined with Starbucks, 7-11, fish spas, 7-11, MacDonalds and 7-11.

Places like Poppies and Tradewinds that used to stand out, just blend in to the stylish streetscape now (well, not completely stylish -- it's Thailand so you're always going to have spaghetti-like scrambled strings of electrical wiring to blot the landscape). It's not nearly Patong or Kuta, but I am a stranger here nonetheless.

***

To make sense of the new Samui, I chat to Khun Seni Puwasetthawon, the MD of Coral Cove Chalet and President of the Tourism Association Koh Samui (the loud shirt pictured above is the official uniform the president is required to wear, I believe).

'Samui is an island difficult to access,' the likeable chap says, 'which is good and bad. Usually the middle and high class come to Samui, looking for 4 or 5 star, pool villas. Also more MICE [don't worry -- it means meetings, incentives, conventions, exhibitions, not rats] asking for high end.'

The high end is represented by foreign chains; Conrad, Four Seasons, etc, as well as home-grown local groups such as Six Senses, Anantara, Mai, Kirikayan and literally hundreds of others.

So what's the attraction, Seni? 'Nature. We are a green island; now we care more about environment, co-operate and keep Samui clean and green. A sustainable destination,' he says, ticking off just about all the buzzwords to call Bingo! 'Relax. Do Nothing. Nightlife, very fun. Angthong National Marine Park. Diving -- Koh Tao and Nanyuang are just 1.5 hours away. Waterfalls and mountains, fruit gardens ...' I can see now why he's the president of the association.

'Also, there are different categories of hotels to choose from 500 baht to 100,000 baht per night at Four Seasons or Everson Six Senses Hideaway.' (I scribble a quick note to myself to try request a freebie, I mean an inspection visit for professional research purposes.)

He's warming to his theme now: 'And great food,' enthuses the man who's clearly tested his island's product. 'Original Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Western. Good steak. And original Thai, fresh seafood.'

OK, thanks Seni, that's enough -- you're making me salivate. I'm off to find some grilled red snapper. Which I find, at a cool local restaurant right on the sand nearby, at just 50 baht per 100 grams. A five-star experience at a one-star price.

Aah, it doesn't get much better than this. And, no, I'm not exaggerating ...