Monday, 30 January 2012

Riverside Serenity in Bangkok

As the former deputy editor of Holidays with Kids magazine, I’m often asked for suggestions for family-friendly hotels in Bangkok – somewhere affordable, in a clean and safe area, close to transport and shops, and somewhere where the children can be kept occupied while the parents indulge in more adult pursuits (and by that I mean eating, dozing by the pool, sitting at the bar... you know.)

One property which I never hesitate to recommend – and where I’ve personally stayed on several occasions - is the old Bangkok Marriott Resort & Spa, which offers the perfect combination of style, family-friendly amenities and a great, breezy location on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. It’s probably the closest thing to a true ‘resort’ in Bangkok, a chill-out oasis in 11 acres of sprawling tropical gardens, seemingly worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the city, yet only a leisurely 20 minute boat ride from the excitement of the Big Smoke.

Now rebranded as the Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort & Spa (both Marriott and Anantara hotels in Thailand are owned by the same company, Minor), the hotel has been spruced up in typical Anantara style, with one wing already refurbished and a complete overhaul well underway. While there’s nothing wrong with the original Marriott rooms – they were always spacious, comfortable, and beautifully decorated in traditional Thai style – there’s no denying the new rooms have that ‘wow’ factor, with muted, contemporary Thai silk furnishings, backlit mirror panels, etched ancient Thai inscriptions and makha wooden floorboards. The sort of rooms you walk into and coo, “ooh, nice!” – particularly the Deluxe Premier Rooms with river views.

Lobby and atrium areas have also been redesigned, with two quirky new indoors gardens – one a Japanese zen design, the other a Polynesian tiki theme – lending a touch of the bizarre. There’s a swish new fitness centre and club lounge; while in the past six months two of its signature restaurants – Benihaha and Trader Vic’s – have been given subtle aesthetic upgrades without fixing what ain’t broke. And with such a wide choice of eateries – including top-notch Italian at the extremely yummy Brio – there’s really no need to venture off the property for a good feed.

Having said that, there’s a cute new innovation called Streetwise Guru, where guests can join a local expert in discovering the delights of street food, trawling the sois and markets of Bangkok in a tuk-tuk, secure in the knowledge that their guide has the best interest of their stomachs in mind. A great introduction to one of the city’s unsung delights, and a fantastic experience for first-time visitors to Thailand.

While Bangkok regulars might baulk at Anantara Riverside’s location on the Thonburi side of the river, I find its isolation one of its most appealing features. There’s always something mesmerising to stare at on the working river, while it always seems to be a couple of degrees cooler in the tropical garden, river thermals negating the choking smog from across the way. And if you do want to head into town for a meal or shopping, regular shuttles ferry guests across the river to Saphan Taksin pier and the Skytrain in just 20 minutes. Not ideal for a big night out on the town, perhaps, but for families, there’s no more pleasant way to travel.

And of course, the Anantara Riverside boasts one of the nicest pools in Bangkok – not the swishest or most modern, perhaps... but what a location, what a view, an oasis of serenity which screams “I’m on holidays!”

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Colours (and Shopping) of Phuket

It’s a well known fact that Thailand is a shopper’s paradise, but until recently I was a little underwhelmed by the retail therapy opportunities in Phuket. To me, its roadside markets seemed a little tired and ho-hum, a motley collection of unflattering beach wear, faux hilltribe crafts, bad designer copies and shirred cotton dresses that look like they’ll fall apart after one wash, all sold under the guise of holiday bargains.

But while I do to some degree lament the ascendancy of mall culture in Thailand, I must admit to being a massive fan of the Jungceylon Shopping Complex in the heart of Patong. Not only can you escape the tropical heat to shop in air-conditioned comfort here, but everything a bargain hunter would ever want is within its 200 stores, from handicrafts to international designer goods, all at brilliant prices. 

Here you can also indulgence in a Japanese facial, which seems to have become somewhat of a Phuket specialty, with at least three similar salons competing for business on the ground floor. My favourite is Takashi, where sweet, mask-clad girls lay you on a high-tech bed, stroke your hair, cover your face with a cool white cloth, then set about steaming, cleansing (with a bizarre vaccuming device) and purifying your skin, all for a special promotional price of 300 baht (for about 30 minutes)

*NB – there are also Takashi salons in Bangkok, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, in Central Airport Plaza.

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Phuket has its own burgeoning cottage industry, the art of batik. This oriental artform has been adopted by the island, and adapted with its own unique colours, designs and methods of production, with bright tropical flowers and marine themes a specialty.

Unlike in Indonesia where wood blocks are used to create uniform patterns, Phuket’s colourful designs are freeform, with artists painting the colours directly onto natural fibres. A synthetic bees wax is used to contain the liquid, creating pure, crisp lines and allowing the intense colours to stand alone.

The artform was apparently introduced to the island by a Javanese art instructor,  Adjaan Chuchart Ravichan, who, while teaching at Phuket’s local college, began experimenting with painting bright floral and underwaters scenes onto cotton. “The quality of light on Phuket is very bright. I wanted to capture the vitality of nature, both the tropical vegetation as well as the corals and fish that surround the island,” he’s quoted as saying.

One of Adjaan’s students, Chai Chansongsang, carried on his legacy, selling batiks on the streets then approaching local hotels who agreed to put his beautiful sarongs, shirts and scarves in their gift shops. And so a new industry was born, with the artform employing many local people in several workshops on the island. Khun Chai has also become somewhat of a local celebrity, designing batiks for members of the Thai and Dutch Royal families, and having his batiks featured in fashion shows in Europe. His fabrics also greet tourists as they arrive at Phuket, his colourful banners blowing in the breeze outside the international airport.

For tourists who’d like to learn the art of Phuket-style batik, there are free workshops available at Khun Chai’s shop, Chai Batik on Chao Fa East Road, located midway between Phuket Town and Chalong.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Two Sides to Phuket

Phuket – so beautiful, yet so ... meh. I want to love Thailand’s largest island for its beautiful, white sand beaches, its balmy blue water and its jungle-clad mountains, but it’s hard to see beyond the deck chairs upon deck chairs occupied by floppy, leather-skinned sunworshippers, not to mention the sleazy girlie bars, choking traffic and over-development.

That’s one corner of Phuket, at least. Unfortunately that’s the corner most Australian visitors see, centred around the hub of Patong. And let’s face it, a holiday in Patong is as much an institution for fun-loving Aussies as New Year’s Eve fireworks or the summer test cricket. Sun, beach, beer, chicks – Patong is bogan central, and proud of it. Party all night, sleep all day, get yourself a Southern Cross tattoo ... what an awesome holiday in exotic Thailand.

OK, I’m being a bit harsh, but Patong just isn’t my cup of tea. Nor is Kuta, or Kings Cross on Saturday night for that matter. I appreciate a party as much as the next person, but to me, the essence of Thailand is nowhere to be found in Patong.

Outside of this strip of chaos, however, there are so many gorgeous pockets of tranquillity that it’s easy to imagine the Phuket of yesteryear, before the condos and taxi mafia took over. Sitting on a wooden swing under a tree on the northern beach of Mai Khao; sipping organic, locally grown chilled coffee at a hilltop cafe; watching gibbons in a jungle sanctuary; chilling in a beach bar built into a banyan tree (Ska Bar at Kata Beach – awesome!) or paddling through the silent hongs of Phang Nga Bay on a sea kayaking trip. Even Phuket Town is a fascinating place to wander, admiring the restored Sino-Portuguese houses, indulging in a massage at Kim’s Massage (one of my faves) or dining out at Ka Jok See, the best night out on the island.

                               (the view from Tung Ka, the hilltop cafe in Phuket)

I also recently discovered the tranquility of Cape Panwa, located on a south-eastern peninsula about eight kilometres from Phuket Town. There are a couple of gorgeous resorts here; the friendly, rambling Cape Panwa Hotel, with terraced suites and pool villas overlooking a coconut palm-lined beach and an original Sino-Portuguese mansion (now a top-notch Thai restaurant and function centre); and the chic and stylish Sri Panwa, with each designer villa boasting private plunge pools and heavenly views of the Andaman Sea. This haven is a reminder that you don’t have to be too far from the action to find peace and exquisite beauty – it’s all about harmonious planning and respect for the environment.

(the divine Sri Panwa)

If you do insist on staying in the heart of Patong, however, you don’t have to completely sacrifice your sanity. The Duangjitt Resort and Spa is right in the thick of things, but its 36 acres grounds are so lush and spacious that you’d never know the buzzing throng was just down the driveway. Popular with tour groups and families, this resort features three tropical pools, a cute mushroom-shaped kids’ club, a beautiful day spa and a choice of rooms styles, from family suites to villas. Everything you need for a happy holiday, all just staggering distance from Patong’s nightlife and its jam-packed beach. Horses for courses, of course of course  – but in this case, the horses at least will be well fed, watered and rested.

                                            (One of the pools at Duangjitt Resort)

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Thailand Wish List

Another year, and 365 more excuses to visit Thailand! My resolution for 2012 is to spend considerably more time in the Land of Smiles, perhaps to even live there for several months, gathering material for my blog. And with so many gorgeous pockets of paradise to explore, I think I’m in for a busy year!

Here’s what’s on my Thailand wish list for 2012:

Trang: Give me powdery white sand, turquoise water, a hammock strung between two palm trees and fresh coconut juice, and I’m a happy camper. My quest to find Thailand’s most idyllic beach will undoubtedly lead me to the southern province of Trang, where a cluster of islands form part of the Hat Chao Mai National Park. Koh Ngai (technically in Krabi province) Koh Kradan, Koh Libong and Koh Mook all appeal to my inner Robinson Crusoe, while there’s 119 km of mainland coastline where the jungle meets the balmy Andaman Sea. On Koh Mook, I’m told the star turn is Tham Morakot, or the Emerald Cave, a lagoon surrounded by soaring limestone cliffs located at the end of a 80m cave tunnel accessible only by kayak or swimming (surely a challenge for the claustrophobic, like yours truly!); while Koh Libong is apparently one of the last remaining bastions of the elusive dugong.

Nan: Having just gained my scooter licence (see my previous blog), I’m itching to hit the road to explore the misty mountains of northern Thailand. The remote eastern Lanna province of Nan is being touted as the new Pai, combining ancient heritage and natural beauty with the colour and vibrancy of ethnic hill tribe cultures. As well as numerous temples to admire, the region offers jungle trekking, white water rafting and visits to Hmong, Khamu and Thai Lu villages, each with their own unique handicrafts and cuisines.

Koh Phangan: Hard to believe I’ve never actually been to this island, famed for its backpacker culture and Full Moon Parties. If it’s anything near as beautiful as neighbouring Koh Tao, I can’t wait ... and I have no qualms about roughing it along with kids half my age in a rustic bungalow, enjoying the hedonism of beach by day, bar by night. But then again, there is a new Anantara resort on the island, which may be worth popping into for a dose of luxury...

Koh Kood: My favourite discovery of 2011, I constantly daydream about a return visit; chilling in the sun, strolling barefoot along palm-lined Bang Bao Bay or floating in that gin-clear water. With very little development, and no traffic, taxis, ATMs or shopping centres, there’s nothing to do on this island gem located in the Gulf of Thailand but relax, swim and recharge your batteries. Tropical bliss, and a difficult one to top.

                              (The beach at Bao Bang Bay, Koh Kood. @ Julie Miller)

I will keep trying, however – and of course I’ll be writing about my experiences along the way. So Happy New Year, and keep checking in for my weekly dose of inspiration, Kao Jai style!