Monday, December 30, 2013

Koh Chang Cabin Fever

Award-winning travel writer Louise Southerden delights in the simple life on the island of Koh Chang.

We all have one. Some people have more than one. Dream lodgings we suspect exist only in our minds until, joy of joys, we find them in our travels. I stumbled upon mine – a simple cabin by the sea – a few weeks ago on Thailand’s second largest island, Koh Chang, which is near the Cambodian border.

Of course, coastal Thailand is littered with seaside huts. I’ve stayed in some of them. The 20 “bungalows” at Blue Lagoon are different; more like cottages, they’re built along one side of a lagoon (which is actually green, not blue, but sublimely peaceful). The beach – the long and lovely Klong Prao – is a short amble away, accessible by a simple wooden bridge.

Blue Lagoon's cute little cottages

My home-away-from-home, unromantically designated “D3”, was one of the cutest places I’ve ever stayed: a small white cottage with its own verandah and a wicker hammock right over the water (perfect for reading, though I had a near-constant dread of dropping my Kindle overboard). Inside, there was just enough room for the queen-sized bed, under a pink mosquito net, a small table, a fan, a few shelves. There was a bathroom, even hot water. But D3’s best feature was that its floor-to-ceiling French doors on one side could be folded back, opening up one entire wall, for an uninterrupted view of the lagoon from your bed.

Sheer bliss!
View from a hammock!

I could have lived there. What more does a girl need? There was wifi. There were plenty of restaurants close enough to think “let’s eat” and be sitting at a bamboo table a few minutes later; and if you really must cook when on holiday, Blue Lagoon, in addition to its restaurant, has a Thai cooking school. The cottages are side-by-side, but angled just so for privacy; in any case there’s a meet-and-greet “Blue Lagoon family” (you’re part of the family when you stay there) barbecue every Tuesday night. There’s art all over the place, from the tinkling mobiles made of coral and shells, and coloured paper lanterns in the trees, to hand-painted designs in some of the bungalows by Thai, French and Belgian artists.

Blue Lagoon's restaurant

And the whole place feels like a community rather than a hotel, because although it was built by local couple almost 20 years ago, it has been run since 2011 by a cooperative of 12 nature-loving, tree-climbing Thai and French friends who worked together at Tree Top Adventure Park, which was set up on Koh Chang in 2007 (and now operates in Pattaya, Krabi and Kanchanaburi too).

So of course Blue Lagoon is eco-conscious, and continually striving to be more so. Guests can refill their own water bottles with filtered drinking water at reception, for instance. There’s a permaculture garden, fertilised by composted food scraps from the restaurant. They make their own biodegradable soap, detergent and mosquito repellent, and are working on shampoo and conditioner for guests to use.

Quirky local artwork at Blue Lagoon

There are lots of things to do on Koh Chang: swim with elephants, ride a scooter around the island, full-moon parties at Lonely Beach. But in two weeks I didn’t venture far from Blue Lagoon or Klong Prao. I particularly loved the mornings – waking to peace and birdsong then walking barefoot to the sea for a swim – and the sunsets, when everyone would return to the beach to watch the day end in a blaze of colour. I didn’t know Thailand could be like this. Now I do, I’m going to bookmark Koh Chang in my mind, under “cabins by the sea”.

Koh Chang sunset

To get there: Buses to Koh Chang leave from Bangkok airport three times a day, cost 600 baht (900 baht return) and takes six hours to reach Koh Chang, including the half-hour ferry trip to the island.
Staying there: My bungalow-cottage cost 650 baht a night. I booked on Airbnb or you can contact Blue Lagoon directly.

Follows Louise's travels at

Friday, December 20, 2013

Travel, Love and the Single Woman

My friend, esteemed colleague and travel companion, Christine Retschlag - aka Global Goddess - has just released a collection of her wonderful and very entertaining blog posts, called 'Destination Desire - The Global Goddess, a Single Woman's Journey'. In this extract, she visits Thailand's River Kwai, where she muses about love and a man named Sam...

A Sam for all Seasons

A 'gorillas in the mist' afternoon is rolling smugly in over the emerald mountains of Kanchanaburi and I am slung equally low and languid in a hammock, overlooking Thailand’s River Kwai, contemplating life and love. Not my life, nor my love, but that of a man called Sam. Sam Season.

Sam is a Mon man, from the displaced Mon people, considered one of the earliest tribes to live in South East Asia. Not considered Burmese, nor Thai, the Mon exist in a small slither of land along the River Kwai, not far from the Burmese border. The Mon number some 8.14 million people but I am captivated by this one man. This man called Sam.

Sam, 22, a tour guide at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts, is a paradox like the story of his people. A heady blend of naivety and worldliness. At night, he paints his face in traditional Mon markings but speaks with an English accent straight out of a south London pub, with a smattering of Aussie twang – picked up solely from the tourists with which he works every day. He moved to this particular village when he was 9, and has been studying to finish high school since, in between working six days a week at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts.

I am Sam

And Sam is in love. But love, like most things along the River Kwai, is complicated. I first met Sam two years ago when I visited the River Kwai Jungle Rafts and he told me of a girl in a neighbouring village, a girl with beautiful long black hair. A girl who made him blush. A girl called Jaytarmon. I told him what I knew of women: “tell her she has beautiful hair, women love to be complimented on their hair,” I urged. And then I left, to go back into the “real world”, one of electricity, hot showers and easy internet access, all these things elusive to Sam. That, and the fact he doesn’t own a boat to visit Jaytarmon in the next village, relying on tours to the cave to try and catch a glimpse of her and her luscious locks. I leave telling him he must follow his heart.

So, when I returned to the River Kwai last week, I was thrilled to see Sam again. “We need to talk,” I told him, “I need to know about a certain girl.” He laughed. “I can’t believe you remember that. Well, there’s been some progress”. It was the final half hour on my last day when Sam and I finally snatched a moment to chat. “About six months ago I sent a message to her telling her that ‘I’m really missing you’. I said I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She wrote back asking me why. She said everything has stopped now and what was between us was finished,” Sam says, looking frustrated and confused.

But matters of the heart are never simple and it turns out Sam is being pursued by a girl in his own village, who cooks for him and washes his clothes. “Who are you going to choose between, the one who loves you or the one who you love? I don’t know which one yet. This one at the moment is fine. She does everything for me. But I’m still missing Jaytarmon,” he says, as he pulls out his mobile phone with two photos of the gorgeous Jaytarmon on it.

And Sam has plans. Grand plans. He hopes to stay at River Kwai Jungle Rafts for two more years and then save enough money to go to college for four years to become a car mechanic. He aims to open a garage at the border, between Burma and Thailand. There’s not a lot of cars down in these parts but Sam likes old cars. “You’ve got to think about doing something that is possible. And you must have a family and kids. When you are old your kids can take care of you. Jaytarmon’s mum really likes me. I have the green light from the mum’s side, but the daughter is still a yellow. I want to go to college and return back to the one I’ll always love.”

Our short time is up, and just as I walk away Sam points out the other girl. The one in his village who washes his clothes and cooks him food. “She’s good enough for me?” he asks. I turn and look him in the eye. “Follow your heart,” I say, before catching the boat home.

Pics: Christine Retschlag

This blog, and others, appears in Christine Retschlag’s first book (just released) Destination Desire – The Global Goddess, a single woman’s journey. This humorous travel and dating book is available as an eBook via Amazon for $4.99 or as a limited-edition print run for $14.99 through The Goddess herself at

Monday, December 16, 2013

Doing Phuket Both Ways

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

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

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

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

Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort &

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

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

Refurbished Deluxe Plus room (supplied)

Access to nightlife and shopping in Patpong is via a 30-minute cab ride, not something you want to be doing too often. The resort also offer their own transfers, but these are not always available or practical.

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

The Bell Pool Villa

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

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

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

Breakfast served in your private villa (supplied)

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

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

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


More information on Phuket and Thailand can be always be found at:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Khanom's Pink Dolphins

Regular contributor John Borthwick checks out pink dolphins, “pancake rocks” and a piranha-free fish spa in little-known Khanom.

Fabulous Khanom. What — you’ve never heard of the place? All the better. This small fishing town with nine kilometres of white sand beach sits on the mainland shore of the Gulf of Thailand, mid-way between Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat. It’s well south of Koh Samui and about as different from Samui’s tourist moshpit as somtam is from Caesar salad.

While some Thais know of Khanom for its rare pink dolphins, the destination is now registering on the radar of other discerning travellers. We head to the town pier to join local character, Mr Dang on his dolphin-watching cruise boat. Khanom locals are proud of their pink, Indo-Pacific dolphins (sometimes also known as Irrawaddy dolphins). There are some 60 of them, although they remain vulnerable to entanglement in the nets of local trawlers. Dang seems to have made an appointment today with several of them. As we cruise this marine national park the dolphins romp around us, ride the boat’s bow pressure wave and then, lingering in ones and twos, woof down the sardines that Khun Dang’s deckhand throws to them.

A pink Irrawaddy dolphin

Dolphin spotting from Mr Dang's cruise

We cruise further through the islands of the marine national park and come to the extraordinary geological display known as “pancake rocks” where the rock strata, that cooled in some prehistoric volcanic epoch, have separated into parallel sheets, more like the pages of a massive tome written (literally) in stone.

A stack of pancake (rocks)

About five years ago a pair of young Finnish flash-packers wandered along this coast and finding the remote beach of Hat Na Dan they had the wit (and, fortunately, also the finances) to buy a prime little slice of it. Today, Atte Savisalo and Kati Hakkinen are justly proud of their luxury, 28-room boutique retreat, Aava Resort & Spa, which was recently voted by Tatler Travel Guide as one of the “101 Best Hotels in the World”.

In Finnish, the name Aava means, “open, spacious, calm” and the experience here is just that. Endless white beach, endless blue sky and no obligations except to take a dip, read a good book, have a spa session, check the local market, and then another swim — what’ll it be, the pool or sea?

How gorgeous is this beach?

Having exhausted these possibilities, we head inland to explore the fantastic stalactites of Wang Thong Cave. A subterranean phantasmagoria of metaphor rocks comes alive beneath our flashlights — crystal pillars, frozen waterfalls and Dali-esque phantoms in silica and slow-mo time.

Our final stop for the day is a freshwater stream at Tontarn Natural Fish Spa. Now, this fish spa is not your shopping mall variety — you know, where folks sit around for 20 minutes having a “feet-in-the-fishbowl” experience. At first we dangle our legs in the cool, running stream and then, suddenly, it’s shrieks and crazed giggles all around as our toes are nibbled by small, black ki kom fish. Dozens of them per foot. Despite the din and our awful piranha jokes, after an hour we all emerge with feet still attached to our ankles — and much cleansed, right down to little teeth-graze marks on our toenails.

Going in for a feast!

Later that evening, those same feet carry us across the sands to an al fresco dinner of lamb, mussels and merlot, and much more, as served at tables beneath countless stars on Aava’s endless beach.

To get there: Fly from Bangkok to Surat Thani, then road transfer to Khanom, 90 minutes away.

Happy dolphins! PICS: John Borthwick

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Safe Travel in Thailand

Thailand is once again undergoing volatile times, as protesters take to the streets demanding the resignation of the current government. This has been a long-festering dispute, with the country polarised between pro and anti-Thaksin (former prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 2006) supporters. Even if this particular regime - led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra - does stand down, or there is military intervention, there is no guarantee that tables won't be turned and that protests won't continue in the future.

(Read this Time article for a brief and concise background on Thailand's political situation.)

For tourists, news reports of political unrest, violence and even deaths in the street are indeed disturbing, and may lead them to reconsider their travel plans to The Land of Smiles.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has updated their travel alerts for Thailand following the political unrest, urging travellers to "exercise caution", particularly in Bangkok and Phuket. It has not, however, upgraded the advise to "reconsider your need to travel" or "do not travel" except in southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla on the Malaysian border, where there are threats of terrorist attacks (a long-standing warning, due to ongoing unrest).

The bottom line for any tourist applies - avoid conflict areas, don't go "sightseeing" where there are angry mobs, and avoid getting swept up in political situations. This advice will be particularly pertinent this week, with the crisis said to be reaching a climax and with Thursday marking the 86th birthday of Thailand's beloved king.

Travelling anywhere in the world requires common sense and a modicum of caution. The few tourists who do end up in trouble have usually put themselves into vulnerable positions and ignored advice. Of course, there is the odd case of "wrong place, wrong time", but this can happen anywhere in the world, any time.

Away from hot spots, life continues as normal in Thailand - and chances are tourists will not be impacted in any way during their holiday. You'll still get the same 'service with a smile', be able to swim in balmy blue waters, lie on beaches and enjoy great food and a rich culture. You're unlikely to be caught up in political unrest in a hammock on the beach, put it that way!

Be sensible, be alert - but don't forget to have fun!

Not much unrest going on here...

Life's a beach in Thailand, if you avoid political hot spots.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Bringing Sexy Back

Upmarket beach clubs are transforming the Phuket social scene, putting the groove back into the island’s sandy shores, writes Julie Miller.

*NB - this article originally appeared in the Sun Herald on Sunday 17 November, and subsequently here at In this version, I've added an extra two beach-clubs to round out the selection.

There’s a new vibe on the Thai island of Phuket, and it’s hip, laid-back and sultry. Think sun, sand, cocktails and a chill-out beat, all served on a platter of decadence and luxury; think beautiful people, famous DJs and memorable parties under a starry sky.

Hang on a sec - we are talking about Phuket, right? That tawdry travesty with seedy girlie bars, a brazen sex industry, ugly tourists and once-beautiful beaches putrified by insensitive over-development?

Yes, it’s the very same Phuket; and the good news is, the former paradise is slowly emerging from the mire, utilising its natural assets to bring sexy back with nary a pole or ping-pong ball in sight.

While the ‘beach club’ scene has triumphed in other seaside destinations around the world (including rival Thai island Ko Samui), Phuket was a little slow on the uptake. But a recent spate of openings on the island’s west coast has transformed the social scene for both locals and tourists, and given the island destination a much needed injection of cool. And it seems the trend is here to stay, with new venues - including the international sensation Nikki Beach - heralding the peak festive season.

During the day, these swanky beachfront oases - some connected to upmarket resorts, but others stand-alone venues with pools, restaurants and bars - are chilled and family-friendly, with an emphasis on tanning, swimming and lazing as attentive staff ply guests with food, drinks and beachside comfort. As day morphs into night, so the ambience shifts; couples canoodle in cabanas and on beach cushions watching the sunset, cocktails in hand, while the music slowly crescendos into party mode. Then the club scene kicks in, with international DJs spinning discs and spurring revellers into a sweaty frenzy.

While the beach clubs tend to be (as they say in Thailand) ‘same same but different’, each one has its own ambience and unique deals to lure clientele. Here’s a taste of what’s on offer:

Nestled into the sand dunes on Surin Beach, Catch was the original Phuket beach club and the one that set the bar in terms of decor, hospitality and style. While beach barbecues and buffet lunches make it an attractive place to chill during the day, there is no pool for a post-meal dip. A popular place to watch the sun setting over the Andaman Sea, Catch really starts jumping at night as parties - including the infamous annual ‘White Party’ - featuring international DJs attract up to 700 guests.
WHERE: Surin Beach, opposite Twinpalms Phuket Resort.
OPENING HOURS: Daily 9am to 2am.
COST: Day membership ranges from 1,500 TB (A$50) pp from May-October, to 5,000 TB (A$170) in peak season (Dec-Jan), giving exclusive use of sun-beds and complimentary food and drinks up to this value. Guests of Twinpalms Resort enjoy complimentary access and sun beds.

CATCH at Surin Beach

Happy children, happy parents - so the equation goes at Bliss Beach Club, a family-friendly venue on palm-fringed Bang Tao Bay. While mum and dad sip on Blisstinis on the wooden deck, the kids play on a grassy playground next to the pool under the supervision of trained nannies. Regular events include ‘Apertivo’ between 5-7pm on weekends (complimentary finger food with drinks), and ‘Soundwave Sunday’, Phuket’s “longest running beach party” from 2pm to 8pm.
WHERE: Bang Tao Bay, past the Sunwing Hotel.
OPENING HOURS: Daily 10am-2am
COST: No minimum spend, use of sun bed costs up to 220 TB (A$7.45) in high season.

BLISS at Bang Tao Bay

Located on the beachfront at the Angsana Laguna (formerly Sheraton Grande Laguna), XANA (managed by the Attica group from Singapore) is arguably the coolest beach club in Thailand. Attracting top international DJs such as Paul Oakenfold, Frankie Knuckles and Ministry of Sound, it’s the place to party, with an awesome swim-up bar in a 35 metre pool, sandy dance floor, bespoke cocktails, excellent food and trendy decor, not to mention the benefit of on-site accommodation.
WHERE: Angsana Laguna, Bang Tao Bay; walk through the hotel grounds to get to the Beach Club.
OPENING HOURS: Daily 10am-12am (1am on weekends)
COST: Minimum spend from 1000 TB (A$ 34) per guest, which entitles you to a sun-bed, towels, use of facilities and credit in food and beverage to that value. Double pod loungers for two and VIP beach cabanas also available.

XANA Beach Club

Brought to you by the people behind Bali’s famed KU DE TA bar, the funky RE KA TA Beach Club is described as an “eclectic blend of St Tropez ‘Beach Lounge’ fused with ... Miami ‘Party Beats’ for the cocktail-sipping after-dinner crowd.” As well as offering beach chill-out by day and club beats at night, RE KA TA also has its own fashion boutique, a day spa and a restaurant featuring raw foods to round out the indulgence. Don’t miss Martini & Manicure nights on Thursday, with a free express manicure and martini for the gals.
WHERE: Kata Beach, attached to The Boathouse Resort
OPENING HOURS: Daily 7am to midnight
COST: Opening special of 1000 TB (A$34) minimum spend gives you complimentary food and drinks plus access to the pool, spa and bar.

Brand spanking new at Surin Beach is ZAZADA, located on a pristine strip of white sand lapped by the Andaman Sea. Live music, soul, funk and acid jazz mixes set this bar apart from the others in terms of entertainment, while there will also be guest performers from opera singers to street performers. Day membership includes use of the beach club facilities including Surin’s only infinity pool, beach beans bags and free wi-fi.
WHERE: Northernmost tip of Surin Beach
OPENING HOURS: Daily 11am to 2am
COST: 1500 TB (A$ 50) includes use of sun beds, food and beverage credits to that value and a complimentary bottle of mineral water.

Zazada at Surin

The beats start early at BiMi (an abbreviation of Bikinis and Martinis), with DJs setting the mood from 10am each day. Described as Phuket’s only All Day Party Beach Club, it invites barefoot chic in its thatched cocktail huts and natural salas surrounded by coconut palms flanking a strip of white powder sand. Cool down under the giant rain showers, or feast on light beach snacks featuring fresh seafood and Thai flavours at the acclaimed restaurant. BiMi access passes - distributed by selected Phuket resorts - offer preferential rates and access to sunbeds.
WHERE: Surin Beach, next door to Catch Beach Club.
OPENING HOURS: Daily 10am to 7pm
COST: Sunbeds from 200 TB (A$6.75) per day.

BiMi Day club

With its purple lighting and decor, grandiose staircase, huge shade awning and 100 beach beds, Diamond Beach Club is the most distinctive of Phuket’s beach clubs, enhanced by a restaurant featuring the talents of Michelin-starred Italian chef Bruno Nicollini. Facing west, this trendy club is the perfect spot for sundowners, with an impressive cocktail and mocktail list utilising fresh Thai fruits, fresh herbs and more than a dash of artistry. There’s also a walk-in wine cellar where an experienced sommelier will suggest wines available by the glass or bottle.
WHERE: Northern end of Surin Beach
OPENING HOURS: 10am to 2am
COST: Sunbeds from 600 TB (A$20) per day.

Diamond Beach Club

The writer was a guest of Banyan Tree Phuket and Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Festival Fever Part II

Thais love to party and they will celebrate just about anything! Plan your trip to coincide with a popular festival for the opportunity to soak up even more fun in the Land of Smiles.

In this two-part series, Kristie Kellahan reports on the top six festivals of Thailand.

Are you ready to get wet? When the April temperatures in Thailand soar, one thought is on the minds of Thai people: Songkran! Marking the start of the new year on the traditional Thai calendar, Songkran is a wet and wild celebration as the bad luck and misdeeds of the past year are washed away, leaving participants clean, fresh and ready to start the new year on the right foot.
This fun and playful nationwide festival is held for several days each year during the hottest month, April. In times past, Thais would pour a small bowl of water on members of their family to symbolise the washing away of misfortunes. The small bowl turned to a big bucket, the splashing took the streets and today you have thousands of revellers being cooled down by giant fire truck hoses! 
Many businesses and government offices close down during this time, and Bangkok empties out as residents travel to their home towns for family reunions. Expect lots of fun and laughter, leave your best clothes in the hotel, and join in with a water gun of your own.

Where: Nationwide; major celebrations in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and other big cities. 

Songkran in Chiang Mai

A sedate version of getting wet...

Hua Hin Jazz Festival:
 Do you love the sounds of saxophones? Pine for piano riffs? Jump for joy when you hear John Coltrane? If you answered yes, then make haste to the annual Hua Hin Jazz Festival, a celebration of all that is good in jazz music. Featuring local Thai musicians, as well as acclaimed artists from Japan and Indonesia, the music festival is a rare opportunity to enjoy a variety of eclectic Asian jazz performances in one venue. 
The two-day festival (held on the first weekend in June in 2013, with dates for next year yet to be announced) attracts crowds of up to 15,000, drawn to the music and the idyllic location, on the sands of Hua Hin beach. Expect fine food and wine for sale, great melodies and a crowd of cultured music-lovers.
Where: Hua Hin

Jazz action at night ...

..and during the day at Hua Hin.

World Film Festival of Bangkok: 
Movie premieres, appearances by cinema masters, a showcase for independent filmmakers and days of quality screen time... the World Film Festival of Bangkok has earned its place on the international film world calendar.
Each year (dates to be announced), more than 80 international films are screened; they are produced in all corners of the globe and cover genres of feature-length, short-film, documentary and animation productions. Competition for the honour of being singled out as Best Feature is intense.
Expect to see film luminaries walk the red carpet in Bangkok: Jean Cocteau, Roman Polanski and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have been honoured in previous years.
Aspiring filmmakers will want to sign up for workshops on how to secure funding for their film project. Advice from professionals working in the industry is priceless. 
All in all, a five-star, red-carpet extravaganza.

Where: Bangkok

Monday, November 11, 2013

Festival Fever

Thais love to party and they will celebrate just about anything! Plan your trip to coincide with a popular festival for the opportunity to soak up even more fun in the Land of Smiles. 

In this two-part series, guest contributor Kristie Kellahan reports on the top six festivals of Thailand.

Loy Krathong: 
One of the two most recognised festivals in Thailand, Loy Krathong is also one of the most beautiful. Celebrated each year on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month – usually in November – it is a photographer’s dream and an occasion relished by local Thai people.
“Loy” means to float, and “krathong” refers to a decorative floating arrangement of flowers and candles, often set in a basket of banana leaves or bread. On the night of the full moon, Thais launch these krathongs on a river or canal, making a wish and thanking the river spirits as they do so. The sight of hundreds of flickering candles in the inky night being carried away downstream is breathtaking. Folklore says that lovers who send off krathongs together will stay together; everyone who participates is promised good luck for the year ahead. 
In the northern provinces, Lanna-style sky lanterns made of paper are also released into the night sky, creating a stunning effect as thousands of floating lights are carried away with the breeze.

Where: Throughout Thailand; Loy Krathong is especially gorgeous in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Ayutthaya.

Loy Krathong - Nov 17 2013

Chiang Mai Flower Festival
: Known as the Rose of the North, Chiang Mai should be on the must-visit list for admirers of beautiful flowers and gardens. Grand Botanical Gardens, picturesque orchid gardens, a wonderful flower market and plenty of green spaces, make this northern gem a visual feast. 
There’s no better time to visit than the first weekend in February, when the Chiang Mai Flower Festival blooms across town. Expect to see colourful displays of chrysanthemums, orchids and roses in public gardens, as well as market stalls selling everything you ever needed to make your garden grow.
 The Flower Festival Parade is an amazing spectacle, proceeding through town with brightly decorated floats, Thai men and women dressed in traditional costume and a roving demonstration of Thai dancing. Fresh roses are handed out to the spectators and photo opportunities are abundant. 
By late Saturday afternoon of the festival weekend, the serious business of crowning Miss Chiang Mai Flower Festival Queen will be well underway. 

Where: Chiang Mai

Monkey Buffet Festival: 
No doubt about it, the Monkey Buffet Festival is a contender for most unique event on the Thai calendar. Held annually in November in the historic town of Lopburi, the festival culminates in a feeding frenzy for the town’s 3,000 monkey residents. Kindly providing for animals is considered a merit-making activity in Thai culture, and the monkeys reap the benefits of this generous belief. 
Long buffet tables, groaning under the weight of 4,000 kilograms of tropical fruits, are laid out for the furry friends to devour. And devour they do! The cheeky long-tailed macaques gobble sticky rice, mango, bananas, durian, pineapple and more, as they lick furiously at blocks of ice encasing other gourmet delicacies. 
Polite proceedings soon disintegrate into madness and mayhem, as the cheeky monkeys stuff themselves silly, throw food, dance on the tables and taunt the tourists who have come to photograph the spectacle. Soak it all in, but do keep an eye on your belongings: these monkeys are practised pickpockets.

Where: Lopburi province, north of Bangkok

Monkey Buffet - Nov 25 2013

Monday, November 4, 2013

Massage, Madam?

Today a friend posted on her Facebook page an hilarious account of a hairdressing disaster in Bali. Thinking she'd entered a reasonably-priced beauty salon, she soon discovered that not only was her $35 haircut going to cost just $3.50, but the hairdresser didn't own a pair of scissors and intended slashing her hair with a blunt, dirty razor. It got me thinking about my salon disasters in Thailand, the challenges of language differences and about how you often get what you pay for.

True bliss! A 'welcome' massage at the Banyan Tree Ko Samui

Fortunately, I've never had a hairdressing drama in Thailand - having said that, I've always opted for the most basic, foolproof straight cuts (complete with head massage and blow dry) and never braved foils, colour or an advanced style.

I have had the odd pedicure fail, however - note to self: do not request a pedicure with polish from a parlour on the beach. Sand is not a friend of nail polish, however dry the lacquer feels...

I've also had some extremely amusing - ie, not so good - massages in Thailand. Very few, mind - in general, I find my massages to be incredibly relaxing, therapeutic and conducted with the utmost of grace. But when you are having a massage a day - why not when they are so cheap? - there are bound to be a few sub-par experiences, which only add to the rich tapestry of the travel experience.

One memorable massage occurred in a little town in the Golden Triangle called Sop Ruak. I was with a friend, both of us in dire need of a good rubdown. I wanted a basic Thai massage; she requested a hot oil massage, and was immediately ushered upstairs to get naked. I was left in the hands of the elderly matriarch of the family - 70 if she was a day, toothless and speaking no English. "At least she has years of experience," I thought as I changed into my fisherman pants. Wrong. It seems Granny only just picked up the art (no, wrong word - butchery, perhaps?) of massage - she prodded and poked me till I was black and blue all over, ignoring my "jep"s (ouch!) and "bao bao!" (softer) requests with a brutal giggle.

As bruised as I was, my gal pal, by all accounts, fared far worse. She emerged from her massage an hour later, whispering, "I think I've just been sexually assaulted!" It seems her young masseuse was fascinated with my friend's perky white breasts, and kept giving them a squeeze, asking "you have baby, no?" Despite her protestations that no, she didn't have a baby, the young woman continued to touch her up, declaring "you very full - you have baby?" I, of course, pretended to be shocked, but in truth was laughing my head off.

The price is right...

Fortunately, experiences like this are the exception rather than the rule in Thailand, where massage is a way of life. Most masseuses - particularly those in spa resorts, hotel spas and upmarket day spas - are very well trained; as are many street masseuses, who proudly show off their graduation certificates on the walls of their salons. 

One of my most treasured massage experiences was at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where the local villagers supplement their income by offering massages to guests each night. Not only do these lovely ladies give excellent massages, but the experience also provides an opportunity to interact on an intimate, friendly and informative level, with cross-cultural sharing of ideas, language and a whole lot of laughter.

Another excellent massage program has given female prisoners in Chiang Mai prison new opportunities and the chance to start a new career when they are released from jail. These girls - most of them incarcerated for petty crimes such as theft or prostitution - are given massage training through a certified course; they then practice what they've learnt on paying clients. Everything they earn (with each massage costing 180 baht) goes into an account for them to access on their release; so clients are helping these women get a footing and a productive start to a new career. It's a win-win situation; a massage that's as good for the soul as it for the body.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Coming soon!

Welcome to my new blog, Thai Travel Tales, presented in conjunction with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (Australia).

This is a continuation of my previous blog, Kao Jai Thailand, but rebranded with a simpler, more searchable name and a lovely new design.

The same great content will grace these pages, however, written by leading travel writers and experts in Thailand tourism and culture.

So stay tuned - it's going to be an amazing journey into the Land of Smiles!