Thursday, February 20, 2014

Deep-water Solo + Sailing in Krabi

Award-winning travel writer Louise Southerden makes a splash while rock climbing in Krabi, southern Thailand.

“This is not cliff-jumping. We know the difference. We are climbers.” So says a sign outside a climbing school advertising “deep-water solo” trips in Tonsai, one of two beaches on Krabi’s Railay peninsula, the one where serious climbers hang out. I’m staying at the other, more touristy beach, Railay, where the distinction between cliff-jumping and deep-water soloing leaps right over my head – and inspires me to a deep-water soloing day trip myself.

Karst cliffs and longtail boats at Tonsai Beach

What is deep-water soloing?

In a nutshell: the lovechild of bouldering (climbing low to the ground with a crash-pad on the ground in case of a fall) and free soloing (the art of climbing without ropes). In other words: a way to enjoy the freedom of climbing without ropes and not die if you fall – because you climb over deep water. So the sea (or river or lake) is your crash-pad.

DWS, as it’s also called, has been growing in popularity all over the world since the mid-1990s, so it was only a matter of time before Krabi started doing deep-water solo day trips for visiting climbers – and, increasingly, anyone. That’s one of the beauties of it: no climbing experience is necessary.

I’d just finished a 3-day climbing course in Railay and had a few extra days up my sleeve, so the chance to combine my new love of climbing and my first love, being in the sea, was too good to pass up, particularly when I found out you could do it from a sailing boat instead of a noisy longtail. Trips leave Railay beach around high tide, to maximise water depth; it’s 10am when eight of us, all deep-water solo virgins, meet on Railay West beach and climb into a longtail for the short trip to the 36-foot yacht, lying at anchor just offshore.

Before we know it, our skipper, Pet, has given the order to his two crew to hoist the sails and we’re gliding across a glittering sea between Krabi’s karst islands towards our destination, Koh Poda. This is worth the trip cost alone, and everyone is in high spirits, lounging on the deck under the tropical sun.

Sailing to Koh Poda

An hour later, we’re there: anchoring beside a high limestone wall that rises straight up out of the sea. “Ready to climb?” Pet says. “Yeah!” we say, though there are ripples of nervous anticipation as we prepare to do what none of us has done before.

It feels strange stripping down to a bikini (boardshorts for the boys), slipping on a pair of climbing shoes (which are provided) and stepping into an inflatable zodiac, which takes us over to the nearest wall, where we climb up a 2-metre rope ladder that spans the undercut gap between rock and sea (this is the most strenuous part of DWS, hauling yourself up bamboo rungs as the ladder writhes in the waves made by passing longtails).

Climbing without a harness or rope really is liberating. There’s no chalk either (it would turn into a claggy paste on immersion in water), but hanging on to the rock with wet hands isn’t hard, mainly because these are easy climbs, with big holds and ledges to stand on, and the rock is sharp.

Side by side, we explore the wall, staying low or climbing as high as we dare, shouting when we’re about to jump/fall, to make sure there’s no one in the water below. The higher you go, of course, the harder the water gets. Up to 10 metres is considered fairly safe; any higher and the sea can feel like concrete. The secret to avoiding injury, Pet had told us, is to keep your arms by your sides and your feet together when you hit the water. Good to know…

How low can you stay?

The climbing is fun, until I rediscover my aversion to – and fear of – jumping from high places. So after my last jump/fall, from a personal-best height of five metres, I retire to the bench – the deck of the yacht. It turns out that DWS is the best kind of spectator sport. The participants are in plain sight, like butterflies pinned to a corkboard. You’re close to the action (so close you can sometimes get splashed when climbers fall into the water). And because you’ve tried it yourself, you know how brave they are for climbing higher than you dare.

When a couple of longtails full of backpackers arrive, the wall becomes colourfully crowded. There are girls in teeny bikinis, handsome Latin boys standing on rock ledges like Greek gods, guys with tattoos and topknots, even a woman in a fluoro lifejacket.

Count the climbers!

Most impressive are two Thai climbing guides, barefoot and dressed in long-sleeved shirts and track pants, who step out of a sit-on-top kayak at the base of the wall and climb, Spiderman-like, up and up, even swinging from one arm 10 metres above the Andaman Sea. When one jumps, he’s so high it takes him four seconds to hit the water. The other carefully down-climbs all the way back to his waiting sea kayak. That’s deep-water soloing with style: when you don’t even get wet.

After a quick lunch back on the boat – fried rice and cold beers – there’s time to go snorkeling and to sea kayak to a nearby beach, before we have to head back to Railay. I think I understand the Tonsai attitude to DWS better now. Climbing is one thing. Cliff-jumping really is another. And deep-water soloing is something else.

The Hot Rock inflatable at Koh Poda

How to do it: Krabi is a one-hour flight south-west of Bangkok, see Bangkok Airways. Hot Rock climbing school in Railay offers deep-water solo trips aboard a 36-foot yacht, for 1000 baht – so you get to do some sailing, kayaking (to a nearby beach) and snorkeling in addition to deep-water soloing.

Check out Louise’s new multi-touch ebook, Adventures on Earth, now available on iTunes.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Thailand's Most Romantic Hotels

Valentine’s Day is upon us ... when lovers’ thoughts turn to hearts and roses and chocolates and all that mushy nonsense. Thailand, of course, is an incredibly romantic destination, a favourite of honeymooners and those looking for ... well, a bit of action.

Here are my picks for five of Thailand’s most romantic places to stay:

The Siam Hotel, Bangkok:
I want my lover to spoil me, and because only the best will do, this is where I demand to stay whilst in Bangkok. Massive, stylish guest suites, with cloud-like beds, free-standing pod bathtubs, and the services of an attentive butler - more champagne, my friend! Exquisitely decorated with the personal antique collection of hotel owner and local celebrity Krissada Sukusol Clapp, this lovely hotel has a tranquil riverside location, well away from the chaos of the shopping precincts.

Banyan Tree Koh Samui:
If you’re going to stay in a luxurious villa, with direct access off the bedroom to a private infinity pool overlooking the bay, you may as well have fun ... and use it in the manner for which it was intended. Nuff said. Enjoy your honeymoon!

Anantara Rasanada Koh Phangan:
Oh my, what a view! Blinding white sand, turquoise water, coconut palms - tropical bliss. Drag yourself away from the king-size bed in your massive Ocean Garden Pool Suite - go on - and plonk down on the day bed next to your private plunge pool. Oh, and you might want to enjoy a glass of that complimentary booze while you’re at it. Truly a place blessed by nature, where the full moon brings out the romantic beast in us all ....

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort:
This is a different sort of romance ... misty views of the Mekong River and beyond to Laos and Burma, the distant trumpet of an elephant, and the tranquility of a jungle setting. This was the very first place I visited in Thailand, and it’s made an indelible impression on me. Insanely beautiful, culturally stimulating and undeniably romantic.

Phutawan Raft House, Cheow Lan Lake, Khao Sok National Park
Who said you have to spend bucketloads of cash to have a romantic weekend? Here, it’s all about the simple life - a thatched roof over your head, a mattress to sleep on, waterfront views to die for, and the sweaty embrace of the your loved one. Step out in the morning straight into the lake, a pastel mirror as the sun rises over limestone karst peaks; then do nothing. Just sit and stare at that view. And listen to the gibbons, singing their own love song of freedom. Heaven.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Koh Samet - Paradise Near Enough

Regular contributor John Borthwick escapes to little Koh Samed, the closest resort island to Bangkok.

At around 200 kilometres from Bangkok you might expect Koh Samed to be over-paved and full of ravers. On the contrary, this predominantly jungle-clad island still has clean, tranquil beaches and, during the week at least, a lowkey booze scene.

Koh Samed (aka Koh Samet) was once known as Vast Jewel Island, a safe anchorage for sailors. In the 19th century its beauty was the inspiration for Thailand's best-loved romantic poet, Sunthorn Phu, whose tale of a lovesick mermaid and an exiled prince is commemorated in the colourful statues of the two lovers on Hat Sai Kaew.

Statues at Hat Sai Kaew

Hat Sai Kaew (“glass sand beach”) on the northeast of the island is Samed’s longest and most popular shore, an 800-metre strand of fine white sands, restaurants and bungalow hotels. From here, beaches loop down the east coast like links in a silica chain that become increasingly pristine — and decreasingly busy — the farther south you go.

Wongduan Beach

Ao Cho beach

Among the island’s virtues are its woeful roads — their washboard ruts successfully repel invaders who otherwise would over-run the place in coaches, limos and tuk-tuks. To get around, visitors either ride in songthaew pick-up trucks or hire light motorcycles or quad bikes. Having explored Samed by land you might want a different perspective. Boat excursions include snorkelling, fishing or just cruising around the island. The marine life and coral here aren’t Andaman-class but there are plenty of intro dives, night dives and certification courses.

Although this narrow, 13-sq km island in the Gulf is part of a Maritime National Park, that hasn’t stopped Thai developers building tourist facilities along its best beachfronts — the controversial paradox of public land becoming privately “owned”. Accommodation ranges from ageing bungalows to new spa resorts, and plenty in between. Rates rise according to the season (mid-October to March being more expensive). Due to Samed’s proximity to Bangkok and Pattaya, weekend rooms are in demand, so make your reservations in advance.

Tip: book a package for your first few nights accommodation on Samed that includes transport from BKK/Pattaya to Ban Phe public wharf (not to Ban Phe town), the ferry hop to Na Dan (Samed’s only village) and transfer to your resort. You’ll cut out the transport hucksters, hassles and several long waits.

In general, there’s gloriously little of note to do on Samed but eat, drink, read and be lazy. Post-sunset, look out on a dark horizon that’s hung with the carnival lights of squid boats and consider that, although the term “island paradise” — anywhere — is just a marketing crock, sometimes Koh Samed can feel like Paradise Near Enough.

Fire dance at Khlong Chao. Pics: John Borthwick

Getting there: A three-hour drive from Bangkok (or one hour from Pattaya) to Ban Phe wharf in Rayong Province, then a seven-kilometre ferry to the island. National Park entrance fee (mandatory) is 400 baht for foreigners, 40 baht for Thais.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Boutique Hotels in Chiang Mai

If you’re looking for a stylish hotel in Chiang Mai, there’s no shortage of choice! I am often asked for recommendations - here are a few of my favourites:

Tamarind Village
Located in the heart of the walled city on Rachedamneon Rd (Walking Street), Tamarind is an enticing oasis and a refuge of tranquility. Accessed from the street via an avenue of bamboo, it is built around an ancient tamarind tree, with a cluster of low-rise white-washed buildings with clay-tiled roofs resembling a traditional Lanna village. An open-air reception area overlooks a shimmering pool where children splash and adults sprawl lazily on sun lounges or dine in the Ruen Tamarind Restaurant. Rooms are small but exquisite, with simple modern furnishings draped with rich, locally sourced textiles. The hotel also doubles as gallery space, with its corridors featuring works by local artists.

Anantara Chiang Mai Resort & Spa
The much-beloved Chedi hotel has recently become an Anantara, a company with a reputation for snaffling the best locations. And this property has it all - a lovely riverside setting, impeccable styling, and great accessibility to Chiang Mai’s vibrant cafe and nightlife scene. Its pool area is simply to die for; while its 84 rooms and suits all feature a river-facing balcony where guests can watch traditional fishing boats drift by. The 90-year-old colonial British consulate building now houses a restaurant service Indian and South-East Asian cuisine; and of course, it also serves high tea!

Dusit D2
This hip, urbane hotel is located right in the heart of the action of the Night Bazaar just off Chang Klang Rd. Everything about this place just makes me smile, from its spacious, funky lobby with oversized vases filled with fruit to its welcome drinks in silly, wobble-bottomed glasses. Clean lines and simple, functional design maximises space in its small guest suites; and amusing touches like silk bed balls and a nightly gift box with goodies such as fortune cookies are a sweet touch. Even the staff here are cool suspenders and Converse, they are always helpful, smiley and prepared to go the extra mile for guests. Don’t miss their daily ‘change-of-shift’ ritual - a flash-mob style choreographed dance to Cole Porter’s ‘Delovely’.

Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel & Spa
With just 19 rooms, this intimate, elegant boutique hotel wears a mantle of exclusivity. Built in traditional colonial style, it features white fretwork and a tranquil courtyard centred around a sparkling pool. Rooms are decorated with hand-crafted furniture, with accessories reflecting colonial traditions, while a formulated fragrance made from local herbs and plants wafts around the corridors, enlivening the senses.

137 Pillars House
Although I haven’t stayed in or inspected this property, it is receiving rave reviews and seems like the place to be seen in Chiang Mai. Built around a restored 1889 teak house once belonging to the East Borneo Company, it features 30 villas in a veritable botanic garden of rare northern plant species. Each spacious suite features colonial-style furniture and decor, with vintage-tiled verandahs providing a cool and tranquil place to relax and soak in the ambience.