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!