Upgrading our Thai Holiday - 2014
Updated: Jan 4
"Once in a while it really hits people that they don't have to experience the world in the way they have been told to." Alan Keightley
Since 2013, we've spent four months vanishing from the Canadian winter to travel the world. Independent travel means we tend to stay in modest, boutique-style hotels. But once in a while, we upgrade our holiday.
Early wake up, a simple breakfast in the enchanting open-air dining room at Thansila Resort, in Ranong, Thailand. Today we depart for Khao Lak, south along the Andaman Sea. We hitched a ride to the bus depot on the back of two motorcycle taxis, our packs perched on our back — for less than $2.
Good planning: our bus connection to Khao Lak was impeccable. Without delay we climbed aboard a two-storey bus (chosing the top floor); soon we were off. The ticket taker asked where we were headed; when I mentioned the JW Marriott he said the bus would stop at the hotel road, instead of town, which would've necessitated backtracking 15 kms.
Our good luck was holding! After a couple of hours (we were grateful for the bus driver’s snail pace), we were deposited at the appointed road. We slung our packs on our backs, carefully crossing the busy highway. A tiny sign indicated the Marriott — 2 kms down the lane with nary a taxi in sight!
Had our luck turned?
Normally, there always seems to be someone ready to offer transport in SE Asia. We were traveling with fairly small bags compared to giant backpacks (replete with smaller ones attached in front!) burdening other travelers. The giant backpacks were “turtles” while the ones with front and backpacks “snails." By comparison our packs seemed more as day bags, but were still burdesome, especially in the tropical heat. We decided to trudge down the lane. As it was mid-day, the searing heat was polar opposite to North America’s midwest in the grips of record cold at that moment). Lady Luck smiled upon us again; after less than half a km, a JW Marriott mini van approached from whence we came and gathered us up, whisking us through security gates, deposited in a massive lobby, larger than the entirety of any hotel we;d stayed in thus far. There is much squabbling on the Internet, (which reminds of the days when we traveled around the world in the 1980s), regarding the distinction between “traveler” and “tourist”. The basic premise is like this: tourists are those who book packaged vacations, don't carry their bags and stay in sanitized resorts. Travelers on the other hand seek independent adventure, head off-the-beaten track and grouse about everything along the way. Travelers are the “true seekers,” while tourists swim in roped off seas while getting drunk on cocktails replete with little umbrellas. Travel author Ralf Potts: "The tourist/traveler distinction has largely degenerated into a cliquish sort of fashion dichotomy: Instead of seeking the challenges that mindful travel requires, we can simply point to a few stereotypical 'tourists', make some jokes at their expense, and consider ourselves 'travelers' by default." Good article on being bored with the whole traveler vs. tourist debate here In 1986-87, when we circled the globe during our one-year honeymoon adventure, we fell firmly in the Traveller Camp. We are older and theoretically wiser, seeking creature comforts whenever possible.
To wit: in the tropics a hotel with pool is a must; no creepy crawler guests in the room; air-con is a fine thing, better than fan unless one is offered natural fan cooled villas in Bali; while we still carry our bags we avoid walking more than a few blocks. I do lots of research beforehand; during our honeymoon world trip we normally arrived at our destinations without a booking (as did most travellers). We leaned on Tony Wheeler's Lonely Planet Guides, particularly the famed yellow bible: SE Asia on the Cheap, the foundation for his publishing empire. Today, I usually make reservations online using Agoda or booking.com, crucial during high season. Lately, we have noticed an interesting travel trend: aging boomers on the move all over the world. Lots and lots of them! In the 80s, a backpacker over 50 would have been an exception. Currently, it has seems to be the rule. So all you boomers, if you have doubts about your ability to travel independently in SE Asia, bear in mind you will have lots of company. And it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than Florida, Costa Rica or Arizona. Normally, we do not stay in 5 star resorts, preferring small independent boutiques — an exceptional value in SE Asia (the only time we have previously stayed in mega- resorts was Vegas and an all-inclusive in Costa Rica). When we traveled with the kids around N. America we preferred the Embassy Suites. S. E. Asia is filled with incredible small guest houses and hotels, as are restaurants operated by locals.
Thanks to our Marriott loyalty credit card we'd been “comped” for two nights. Unlike "vbloggers" and "influencers," we don't chase freebies and comps - it is simply too much work. Once in a while we will stop into a top hotel for a drink by the pool.
It was a bit surreal to land at the massive Koh Lak resort as guests. The lobby was massive open-air facing the largest pool we'd seen with a beautiful beach glistening in the near distance.
Checking in was an interesting process. We were assigned our own hostess, two delicious but sticky sweet fruit drinks, then informed our room was not yet ready. We were then escorted downstairs to a private lounge replete with drinks, fruit and snacks.
Not so bad. Entirely rebuilt after the devastating 2004 tsunami, the resort was neatly divided into four large wings extending from the lobby to the beach. Swimmable canals snaked along each of the four wings, spilling into larger pools; the best rooms had direct access to the canals, but these were sold out on our first night. It was high season and the resort was full but was so huge it didn’t seem that busy. We were soon shown to our third-floor room. It was colossal and decked out with mod-cons: 40 inch TV (which we never turned on); glassed in bathroom with large natural stone bathtub; and a great deck with huge cushioned lounger, which hung over an enormous pool and swim-up bar. We played the honeymoon card once again; a pair of orchid bedecked swans nested on the king-sized bed, their necks fashioned into a heart, with more flowers in the bathroom, and exotic scented oil permeating the suite. After Elaine checked out the free toiletries in the bathroom (a record number!) we headed down to the pool level, jumped into one of the canals and swam our way to the main pool. The hotel’s propaganda noted the canals snake around the resort for over 3 kms; it was definitely the largest man-made we’d been in. How they keep it algae free is a mystery and a science, as I find it a challenge ensuring our back yard pool in Walkerville is Ph balanced.
On to the beach. We expected many resorts along this 15 km stretch of golden sand; it was surprisingly deserted. This is when we learned this exact spot was Thailand’s ground zero when the 2004 tsunami hit, completely exposed to deadly waves. It was difficult to imagine the devastation and loss of life (estimated at 10,000 but likely many more) as we walked along a calm stretch of sand as the cerulean watesr gently lapped the shore.
(Later, we watched Tsunami: Caught on Camera and were astonished that there weren't any signs of the disaster along the beach). Enterprising Thais had organized inexpensive restaurants, bars and Thai Massage shops in typical straw and bamboo huts. We were happy to see this, as eating in the resort was an expensive proposition: $15 burgers and $10 drinks!
After a leisurely beach walk, we shook the rigours of slow travel with a Thai massage in one of the huts on the beach. The Thai ladies were oh so friendly and the price was right: $25 for a one hour couples massage. Of course it was spectacular; not to rub it in too much (LOL), on a tropical beach in Thailand as the sun set into the Andaman Sea towards India.
We asked one of the gals to recommend a local beach restaurant. She quietly directed us to the furthest one, as she didn’t want the owner of the restaurant next door to hear: Ma Ma’s Greeting. “It’s the best!” she whispered.
We tucked into inexpensive and delicious local seafood soup, Thai curry, noodles and rice. Dirt cheap by western standards. We enjoyed the place so much we dined there for all our meals, for less than one dinner at the resort.
Two nights isn't much of a stay at a top resort but we did get a feel for an "instant holiday." The JW offered service staff ratio greater than one employee per guest. The most popular restaurant served Italian food, and breakfasts featured a gargantuan buffet (the price for two more than our entire two day food budget at Mama’s!). In fact everything seemed in excess — like a cruise ship only a la carte. We suspected some people had full meal plans, as there were several conventions on site during our stay. We checked the rack rate to determine the feasibility of extending one extra night. During this the peak season, our room was listed at $450 US! Far better to head down the road to the southern Andaman islands where we could book bungalows on the beach for a fa week at that price On our final day, we walked the length of the sand to a small fishing at the north end, grateful for our swim shirts, blocking out the wicked tropo sun. After the untimely death of our dear friend Bonnie Sartor due to complications from a melanoma in 2012, we have become much more aware of the harmful effects of the sun. Pack a swim shirt if headed to the tropics! At the fishing village, colourful fishing boats bobbed in the crystalline sea, palm tress swayed, the sun sparkled; it was incredibly difficult to imagine the devastation caused by the tsunami in such an idyllic scene.
Back in our room, we laughed when we discovered a scrumptious chocolate cake had been delivered while out.
We were headed down the coast to visit two Thai islands before Georgetown/Penang and KL in Malaysia. And Bali was getting a lot closer.