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.