Monday, May 26, 2014

Secret Island - Koh Laoliang

Louise Southerden discovers what could be Thailand’s last island paradise.

You’ve probably never heard of Koh Laoliang. I hadn’t, until a fellow traveller recommended it to me as an idyllic place to spend a few days. It's The Beach, he’d said, minus the hand-drawn map, the suicidal Scot, the despotic Tilda Swinton and, as I would soon discover, the hordes of sun-seeking day-trippers who daily descend on Koh Phi Phi (in Krabi province), where the movie was shot.

Laoliang is that rare thing in Thailand: a remote island national park with a gorgeous beach that isn’t overrun with longtail boats or people – only 40 can stay at a time, in tents, no day-trippers allowed. There are no bungalows or resorts either. The island, which is in Trang province (just south of Krabi), is open for only five months of the year, November-April. Even then, just getting there is an adventure.


Beautiful Koh Laoliang

If you’re travelling in a group, Laoliang Island “Resort” will arrange a minibus and boat to get you there from Krabi or Trang. If you’re travelling alone, as I was, the journey is a bit more involved.

It started with a longtail boat ride from Railay to Krabi town, where an American guy, Richard (hmm, same name as Leo DiCaprio’s character in The Beach), picked me up – on his motorbike – and gave me a lift to Krabi bus station (it was decent of him to let me use his only helmet).

There I boarded a double-decker public bus for a two-hour road trip to Trang, where I met Pon, a ponytailed metal-head (we listened to Metallica-like tunes in his ute), who drove me and two Swiss climbers (who’d just arrived on the train from Bangkok) to Hat Samran pier. From there, we got into a longtail that pointed its raised bow towards the open ocean. Our destination: two karst islands rising out of the Andaman Sea 20 kilometres away.

An hour after leaving the coast – having seen flying fish and diving seabirds on the way – we stepped ashore on Laoliang. I could hardly believe my eyes: clear, turquoise water, a dazzling white beach book-ended by high limestone walls, eagles soaring overhead, a thatched open-air dining "room" and a row of green and yellow tents. It was sublimely simple.


Welcome!

The tents are right on the beach and more comfortable than I’d expected. Each has two rooms: a bedroom with two single bed mattresses on the floor, made up with sheets and blankets, and a roomy vestibule with a fan and a light (the generator comes on at about 4pm every day).


Absolute beachfront accommodation

Tents with mattresses on the floor

Two kinds of people come to Laoliang: non-climbers (mostly couples and families with young, free-range children) and climbers (who arrive with their own gear, though you can rent harnesses, shoes and ropes on the island). The climbing here is legendary, with bolted climbs of varying levels starting right on the beach or from rope ladders that dangle into the water; there are even multi-pitch climbs to the top of the almost-100-metre walls.


Norwegian climbers Ingrid and Chris, escaping winter in Oslo

The best part of Laoliang is its peacefulness. There are no longtails speeding past day and night. There's no wifi or mobile reception. You can walk everywhere barefoot. The sun is your alarm clock, rising at a civilised hour – just before 7am when I was there. There’s a small bar with a bamboo platform and cushions, that plays music at night, but never loud enough to disturb anyone in the tents.


The bar at Laoliang Resort

It’s the kind of place where people do yoga on the beach every morning and get up early for a swim before breakfast. After breakfast, you can go snorkelling (there's a small reef you can swim out to from the beach), rent a kayak, go deep-water soloing (climbing low sea cliffs without ropes and falling safely into deep water) or just lie in a hammock with a book. Afternoons are for climbing, if you’re so inclined – when the east-facing walls are in the shade (it’s too hot to climb in the morning sun). After dinner, there’s a nightly star-show overhead.

Laoliang isn’t for everyone. It's a little pricey, for a tent, in Thailand: 1500 baht (about $A42) per person per night, although that includes all your meals. But five-star, it ain’t: you have to sleep on the floor (albeit on a comfortable mattress), there are communal bathrooms (men’s and women’s), there’s no hot water (and almost no water pressure in the cold-water showers) and the food is basic and occasionally downright unappetising. (Which is surprising given that a daily longtail from the mainland brings new guests and supplies and well, this is Thailand.)

But if you love places where nature, not what’s on the menu, is the main event, you’ll love Laoliang. Sure, there's a diesel generator, and drinking water and all supplies must come from the mainland. But in a country where "eco" is almost a dirty (or at least misunderstood) word, Laoliang is a shining beacon of hope. May it stay just as it is, undeveloped and un-fancy, for a long time yet.


The simple life at Laoliang. Pics: Louise Southerden

How to get there: Laoliang Island is 20 km off the coast of Trang province (which is south of Krabi province) in Koh Petra Marine Park and is open only during the dry season, from November 1 to April 30.

To get there, contact Laoliang Island Resort to arrange a transfer from Krabi town or Trang, for 1000 baht ($A32) each way, which includes the one-hour longtail boat trip from the mainland.

Two-person tents cost 1500 baht ($A50) per person per night (1900 baht in peak season, December 24 – January 14), including all meals, tea, coffee and water, and use of kayaks and snorkeling gear.

Follow Louise’s travels at No Impact Girl or on Twitter @noimpactgirl

Monday, May 19, 2014

Embarrassing Moments in Travel

The approach to Centara Grand Beach Resort and Villas Krabi is truly unforgettable.

Accessible only by boat, the resort is tucked into a cove just around the corner from the town of Ao Nang, backed by towering limestone cliffs and surrounded by dense jungle. The resort is terraced up the hillside, with incredible views from each room of the most prominent feature, a large phallic karst island guarding the bay and its emerald waters. If there's a resort with a more stunning location in the world, I'm yet to see it.


The bay at Centara Grand Krabi

Centara Grand Krabi

This is my second visit to this resort; but its not the glorious scenery that brings the memories flooding back - it's the jetty.

Protruding about 100 metres into the bay off the beach, the resort jetty is made not from wood, but from plastic interlocked boxes, put together a little like Lego pieces. It's environmentally low-impact; but not being fixed, it does make walking its intimidating length a challenge, with the blocks moving underfoot with the ebb and flow of the wash. There are many squeals of disconcertment as guests first arrive; and god help anyone coming back from town with a few Changs under their belt.


THAT jetty...

This jetty provided the scene for one of my most embarrassing travel moments - a walk of shame along its length, desperately trying to keep my footing supported by two burly men...

The year was 2009; the occasion a post-famil following the Australian Society of Travel Writers AGM in Bangkok. After three lovely days at Centara Krabi, our group of about 30 journalists and travel PRs was departing on a launch. But before we'd even made it out of the bay, I suddenly realised I'd left my passport locked up in the safe in my room.

"We have to go back!" I shouted. Everything thought I was joking - after all, we are all experienced travellers, who leaves their passport behind? Ahhh, me. So back we go, pull up at the jetty, and I have to hurry back along that ridiculous wobbly Coney Island ride - supported by two armed security guards so I don't fall in - while the whole group waits for me. To a casual observer, it must have looked like I was being escorted off by cops, the leader of a drug ring ... but no, it was just a stupid rookie travel mistake that will forever haunt me.

On the same trip, however, a friend had an even more embarrassing experience ... in fact, mine pales in comparison. But I'm going to share it with you, whether she likes it or not (I'm not even asking her permission - sorry Lou!)

The same group of journalists was on an island-hopping boat trip around the islands surrounding Krabi. First stop was beautiful Phra Nang Beach, location of the infamous Princess Cave. Tucked away in a dramatic limestone overhang, the local fishermen community have set up a shrine to a sea goddess who not only protects them from danger, but assist with issues of fertility. It's now a tradition to leave the princess offerings of food, drink and incense ... as well as carvings of ... umm, well, penises. Very large ones at that.

Making an offering at the Princess Cave

Needless to say, the cave has become a very popular tourist attraction, with western visitors keen to have their photograph taken amongst the phalluses.

My buddy Louise - no stranger to the sight of large appendages - was posed alongside several of the more prominent carvings (and in fact had her arms around two of them), when suddenly, one came tumbling down. The biggest, heaviest one, of course. Lou struggled to catch the falling phallus, dropping to her knees in desperation as it crashed to the sand. She then struggled to return the cumbersome object to its ... ummmm ... erect position.


Lou amongst friends at the Princess Cave

Going, going ...

...gone!

We laughed so hard so hard we wet ourselves. It was truly hysterical ... not Lou's finest hour but surely the most embarrassing.

But such are the joys of travel, those delicious incidents that stick in your mind forever, that brighten your memories and keep the journey - and the destination - fresh. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Krabi, partly because of those unforgettable embarrassing moments.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Living the Dream #3: Melissa Craggs

Kristie Kellahan continues her series looking at the enviable lives of ex-pats living in Thailand.

Who: Melissa Craggs, 28

Where: Koh Samui

Melissa Craggs

Why: Melissa's passion for holistic health and wellness led her to Koh Samui, where she now works as a Naturopath at Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary & Holistic Spa.

Life before Thailand: Melissa was working in Australia at a holistic clinic. Deciding that she wanted to broaden her horizons and live overseas rather than just be the perpetual tourist, she began to look for work in holistic resorts.
"I had never been to Thailand before but Kamalaya seemed amazing," Melissa says. "I had heard of its reputation as a truly holistic and authentic wellness resort following its win at the World Spa Awards for Destination Spa of the Year, Asia and Australasia in 2012 (which it incidentally won again in 2014). So I decided to take the leap and apply for the position - less than eight weeks later I was here!"

Melissa consulting a guest at Kamalaya

Best thing about living in Thailand: "Amazing fresh foods and an endless supply of young coconuts," she says.

Hardest thing about living there: "Missing my friends and family, especially weddings, births and birthdays."

Biggest culture shock: "The complete disregard for road rules and the need to drive extremely cautiously," she says.

Melissa's favourite Samui restaurants, cafes and bars: "My favourite restaurants are Soma at Kamalaya, Sweet Sisters and The Spa for the lovely healthy, hearty food. Orgasmic and Rocky’s for gourmet, special nights out, and Bondi’s for a place that reminds me of home- it could be any pub in Australia."

Melissa's favourite places for leisure and downtime in Samui: "Silver Beach is a great cove away from the tourist strip for a swim and snorkel. Most of my leisure time is spent shopping, getting massages and pedicures and scuba diving around the nearby islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao - some of the best dive spots in the world."

Melissa at Kamalaya

Her favourite Thai food and why: "Mangosteen because it’s the most delicious fruit I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming. I eat it by the kilogram and it’s also extremely healthy."

Melissa's favourite Thai expression:"'Mai pen rai' ('it doesn’t matter' or 'never mind') because it shows so much of the laid-back Thai character that’s so endearing."




Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The best Indian in Thailand?

Roderick Eime likes it hot - his Indian food, that is. Find out why he went all the way to Bangkok for a curry.

A classy couple enjoying the rooftop view from Rang Mahal (supplied)

Tonight I’m dining at the best Indian restaurant in Bangkok. Okay, so that may sound a bit incongruous. Why come all the way to Bangkok for Indian cuisine? Because when it’s as good as this, it’s worth it.

Rang Mahal, I’m told, was the traditional palace of pleasure and banqueting. A venue specially decorated by Indian kings with intricate mirror work and the choicest paintings, the kings would come down to the Rang Mahal to wear off their royal worries and enjoy the best of Indian cuisines, wines and music. To this extent, the reproduction is accurate and a troupe of musicians play Indian folk music as we dine.

Located on the top (26th) floor of the popular Rembrandt Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 20, right in the heart of downtown Bangkok, head chef Rajan Misra concocts a staggering array of wonderfully authentic Indian dishes.

Head chef, Rajan Misra "I'm still learning"

His mantelpiece groans under the weight of awards which includes eleven consecutive years as Best Restaurant from Thailand Tatler, top spot in Bangkok’s Top Tables Guide and top Indian restaurant in Bangkok by wbpstars.com, which assesses the best restaurants in the world.

My companions tonight include some fussy, if irreverent Aussie journos, ex-pats and the ever convivial GM, Mr Eric Hallin, who hails from Sweden, albeit a long time ago. I remind myself to refrain from ABBA jokes.

Eric takes charge of the wine and regales us with stories of the burgeoning Thai wine industry. Hang on, double take. Thai wine industry? I recall a white wine from Isaan sampled some years back that I wouldn’t use to extol the virtues of the national grape.

“We’ve come leaps and bounds since then,” Eric says, “and interestingly, the star Thai winemaker at the moment is a young woman.”

True, Visootha "Nikki" Lohitnavy is responsible for the Granmonte Heritage Syrah (shiraz) from Khao Yai and it’s pretty good by any standards. Yes, I’ll have a top up.

"I would recommend any dry or semi-dry whites like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, with chicken dish like Murgh Makhanwala and for seafood like Tandoori prawns," says Eric earnestly, "The reason why I don’t suggest Chardonnay grape is because its fruity characteristics dominate the flavour of the Indian food."

Then I almost stand when chef Misra comes to greet our table. He’s royalty around here.

One of our team cheekily inquires, “So what does it take to be a top chef?”

Treating the question seriously, chef replies: “ … consistency, continuous practice and learning. I have watched and learned from masters in India and adapted these techniques to my own dishes, so what you are hopefully enjoying tonight is a result of that and my own learning.”

I love it the way he says “hopefully”.

Signature dish Murgh Makhanwala with tofu (supplied)

Tandoori Prawns (supplied)

Most of the dishes are Northern Indian influenced with the freshest ingredients overseen by chef himself. Okay then, bring it on.

Eric signals to chef with some cryptic sign language and code words, but it’s a practiced routine and our order is on the table almost before the kitchen door stops swinging.

Deep-fried puff pastry samosas stuffed with potatoes and green peas are placed in ornate copper dishes along with Kabu Aloo Chaat (potatoes, chick peas tossed with Indian tangy sauces and herbs). You’d think this was McDonalds the way we hoe in. There is no consulting about the last one either. It’s gone.

Tandoori kebabs, chicken and prawns are arrayed before us like a royal feast. Tandoori is a Delhi charcoal oven tradition and it’s here that chef pays homage to the masters with age-old recipes livened with his own touch. Spicy sauces and soothing yoghurts work together to enhance this delicious assortment.

More wine.

It’s hard to say no to this cavalcade of fabulous food and I’m feeling decidedly full as I tackle the last morsels of Raan-e-Khyber, tender lamb leg, marinated in rum, herbs and spices and barbecued on charcoal.

Sensing our satisfaction, Eric summons dessert and ice cream and fresh fruit appear to calm our enthusiasm.

As I stumble back to my room, visions of maharajahs and maidens cavorting over their own feast, it’s easy to see how Rang Mahal garners such awards and, jokes aside, I heartily commend this restaurant and its learned chef.

Bookings are recommended. Want to see a menu? Here are some of chefs recipes.

Rembrandt Hotel, 19 Sukhumvit Soi 18, Sukhumvit Road, Klong Toei, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
www.rembrandtbkk.com