Monday, 26 March 2012

Bangkok Airways - Service Review

I hate flying, I really do. It’s tedious, uncomfortable but unfortunately a means to a wonderful end. So to have a travel experience that isn’t totally detestable is worth writing about, right?

I recently flew from Bangkok to Koh Samui with Bangkok Airways, a blessedly short flight of just over an hour. Usually I’m happy just to get somewhere safely, but on this occasion, I actually felt that my comfort and happiness was important and that I wasn’t just a number crammed into any available space. And I’m not just saying that because I was a guest of the airline (which I’ll admit up-front that I was.)

Privately-owned Bangkok Airways labels itself a ‘boutique airline’, and like a hotel bearing a similar status, the airline prides itself on personalised service to niche markets, all within Asia. Unlike the new breed of ‘budget’ airlines, Bangkok Airways doesn’t believe in cutting services to save costs: it’s a full-service airline, with meals served on board during even short flights, and lounge access available for all classes, including economy.

Having the luxury of relaxing in an airline lounge prior to the flight is a rare and precious commodity for budget travellers (usually we have to bluff our way into a lounge, or tag along with someone travelling Business Class). Bangkok Airways lounge in Suvarnabhumi Airport has all the comforts of a Business lounge – a courtesy corner with free snacks and hot and cold drinks, free internet access from one of several computer booths, free Wi-Fi, and a kids’ corner. My only complaint is that some of the sofas are looking a little worn and stained – it may be time to upgrade the facilities, as they have done recently in Chiang Mai Airport.

                               (Bangkok Airways' lounge at Suvarnabhumi Airport) 

On board, I found Bangkok Airways service to be polite, efficient and speedy. Even on our short flight, the food cart was whisked out, with gourmet bread rolls keeping hunger pangs at bay. On longer flight, passengers are given different meal choices, and special dietary menus are available. Leg room on the flight is reasonable, and there is an inflight magazine to read to while away the time.

Samui Airport is privately owned by Bangkok Airways, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a prettier, better maintained airport anywhere in the world. Its open-air thatched terminal is cool and breezy, and its gardens and coconuts are gorgeous, immediately getting you into the holiday vibe. Even the dinky little shuttle buses are fun and make you feel like you’ve arrived in paradise.

But it was on our return flight that Bangkok Airways really rose in my estimation, helping to make our full day of travel bearable (we were returning straight to Australia, with a nine hour flight ahead of us). Arriving at the airport a little early, we were placed on the next available flight without us even asking, saving us a boring wait. Also, our luggage was checked all the way through to Sydney, even though we were flying with another airline ex Bangkok. As it turns out, Bangkok Airways has an agreement with Thai Airways to check through all international luggage, which is a real bonus. All these extras were delivered with a smile, and as if our comfort was paramount.

Of course, anyone travelling to Samui will know that flights from Bangkok are pricier than other domestic flights offered by budget carriers. But there’s no comparison in regards to service and efficiency – Bangkok Airways is simply a class above. For a start, there are plenty of flights to choose from – 23 flights a day from Bangkok, in fact. Which means more time on the ground, enjoying your vacation – which is the bottom line of travel, isn't it?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Stay Cool, Stay Aloft

If ever there was a hotel for its time and place, it’s the new Aloft Bangkok. Officially opened in February, this stylish and affordable ‘baby W’ has already made a dent in Bangkok’s overcrowded hotel market, immediately finding a niche amongst cool, budget conscious travellers.

A major part of the appeal is its location – smack in the heart of Sukhumvit 11, a major entertainment hub oozing with restaurants, cafes and night clubs, including the very popular Bed Supperclub right across the road. It’s also an easy walk (or free tuk-tuk shuttle) to Nana BTS Skytrain, as well as a short stroll to Bangkok’s newest shopping mall, Terminal 21.

The Aloft brand has been ‘infused with the DNA of W Hotels’, its Starwood sister brand – think fresh contemporary design, the latest technology and bold use of colour. It’s even adopted W’s use of street jargon to label its public spaces: re:mix lounge, w xyz bar, re:fuel (its lobby café), re:charge (fitness centre) and splash, its pool. For all intents and purposes, it could be a W hotel … just pared back a little. It reminds me a little of Chiang Mai’s D2, and its obviously targeting the same market – young at heart, trendy and fashion-conscious, but not necessarily super wealthy.

Like D2, Aloft’s guest rooms are smallish, but functional; there’s a comfy platform bed, a corner office with free wi-fi access (a big plus!) and a plug n’play connectivity station (for recharging electronics), and a combined bathroom/dressing area with a walk-in shower. A coffee maker is a nice touch, and the Bliss Spa products (also a feature in W hotels) go down well.

Taking the hi-tech angle a step further, Aloft Bangkok is also the first hotel in Asia to trial Fingi touch-pad control for all room amenities such as the guestroom doors, lights and in-room temperature. I didn’t actually get to stay in one of the 50 Urban rooms using this system, but I was given a run-through by the hotel PR staff, and it goes something like this: on check in, you are given a mobile phone which is programmed to control everything in your room – door entry, lights, air conditioning and entertainment. This phone is yours to use for the duration of your stay – you can use it for local calls, plus it has full internet connectivity, both on and off the property. 

Other techy touches throughout the hotel include complimentary Facebook and Youtube on the fitness centre treadmills (in case you get bored during your workout) and a wine list presented on an iPad. These wines, incidentally, are sold at a wholesale cost, making it arguably the cheapest restaurant wine list in Bangkok. Mind you, I think both the restaurant and bar need all the selling points they can get – located off ground level, it will be hard to attract punters off the street, particularly when things are buzzing just outside the door.

Speaking of, Aloft guests are also given free entry into Bed Supperclub and Q Bar, just around the corner – yet another lure for Bangkok’s beautiful people.

All in all, it’s a pretty cool statement – and an awesome location to boot. But the real surprise is Aloft Bangkok’s price. Visit in the next few weeks and you’ll be blown away, with its opening rates starting at just 2,111++ baht a room (A$64), with an extra 450 baht (A$13) per night for the Fingi touch phone. After April 1, the rates will rise, but rooms will still come in under $100, which is amazing value for a really fun, perfectly located and extremely comfortable four-star city hotel experience.

                                          (The w xyz bar at Aloft)

Monday, 12 March 2012

Full Moon Survival Guide

It isn’t a promising start: the longtail boat taxi we’ve booked to take us to Koh Phangan’s legendary Full Moon Party is cancelled. The reason? The captain is drunk.

So instead we’re herded into the back of a pick-up, sitting on god knows what, totally cramped with knees under our chins, squealing with mock (and real) terror as we bump along the perilous road from Thong Nai Pan Noi. Even before we reach Haad Rin, I’m having severe reservations about the night: why have I committed to a night of debauchery at the most famous outdoor party on earth? Surely no sane 40-something-year-old woman would do this without good reason!
That reason is sitting next to me, my 21-year-old daughter. She’s totally pumped, and is already loving the adventure. As my travelling companion on this visit to Koh Phangan, we’d come to an agreement – she’d stay with me at one of the quieter, more remote beaches on the island, venturing into the madness of Haad Rin only for the Full Moon Party. I’d get my tranquil beach holiday, she’d get her party on. Deal.

Quite frankly, I was dreading it. Since its conception as an intimate druggie rave back in the ‘80s, Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party, held on the divine crescent-shaped beach at Haad Rin, now attracts up to 30,000 revellers and subsequently a lot of bad press. Tales of uncontrolled drinking, horrible injuries, even death has plagued the event; it’s the event that every teenager wants to attend and every mother fears. Even the Tourism of Authority of Thailand cannot endorse the event, despite it being a huge money-spinner – it’s just too controversial.
But now I’m here. With my kid. Who’s heading straight to that stall to buy a ‘F***-ing Cheap Bucket’ of vodka, red bull and lemonade. I’m in for quite a ride.

                             (buckets, regular and extra-large! Pic: Julie Miller)

On first impressions, Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party resembles a carnival, or some sort of dance theme park. Everyone under 30 is wearing uniform – cut-off shorts, fluoro singlets and flashing head gear, with fluorescent body paint smeared on every available patch of sweaty skin. The streets of Haad Rin are abuzz, with revellers buying 300 baht buckets of alcohol or snacking on street food. The locals are making a killing, but unlike similar events in Australia, there are no exorbitant overheads or wildly inflated prices. Even the taxis are operating under fixed prices; you may have to wait for a full load before heading home, but at least there are plenty of transport options.
Despite the fact that there are around 20,000 people here, I’m also impressed to discover there is no agro, no shoving or pushing and no queues, even at the bars or toilets. And even in the thick of the crowd, I don’t feel claustrophobic or have a desperate desire to escape – I’m happy to wander the length of the beach, simply observing the insanity rather than being part of it.

Every strip of beach has its own atmosphere, with each bar throwing its own individual party. If you don’t like the music at one bar, move on. And if you want to chill, there are plenty of quiet places to put your feet up, with no pressure to fork out for further drinks. Can you imagine the outroar if you attempted to take your own drink into a bar in Australia? Or sat for an hour at a venue without spending a cent? It’s this relaxed, chilled vibe, this “do what you want” attitude that makes this event so appealing and so easy. I can’t imagine it happening anywhere else in the world, accompanied by the indefatigable Thai smile and ‘sabai’ way of life.
Did I have fun? Yes I did. For a couple of hours at least. By 3am, I was a bit over it – I’d reached my alcoholic threshold, things were starting to get messy on the beach, and it was raining. Even the unabashed joy of watching idiots burn themselves at the flaming jump rope was wearing off. Time to head home. With one very messed-up daughter....

                                    (Flaming jump rope. Pic: Joana Miller)

Everything they say about the Full Moon Party is true. It’s wild. It’s uncontrolled. There are no ID checks, drinks (and probably drugs) are readily available to anyone with cash, and there are no safety regulations. Injuries are rife; most of them cuts or burns, from the aforementioned flaming jump rope. And I can’t begin to imagine the state of the beach in the morning.
But is it a good party? Damn straight. Like any major event, it needs to be treated with caution and self-control. Be sensible, and you’ll have a great night. I know I did.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Bangkok's Food Culture with David Thompson

There’s a saying, “never come between the Thais and their food”. Having just spent a week on the road with eight Thai journalists, I can certainly vouch for that – they are enthusiast, voracious eaters, with meals the focus of every day and a perpetual snack mentality. Seriously, they never stop, from breakfast to dinner and beyond, it’s eat eat eat ... with such gusto and relish, it makes fascinating viewing.

It’s also been terrible for my waistline – I’ve put on two kilos in a week, and that’s after refusing half the food I was offered. It’s simply not fair that the Thais can consume such quantities and remain so slender and beautiful!

For the Thais, life is a moveable feast. Their culture is not like the western “three meals a day” concept. As David Thompson, the famed Australian chef who helms Nahm restaurant in the stylish Metropolitan Hotel tells me, Bangkok doesn’t have a restaurant culture per se – it’s all about street food and home cooking.

And if anyone knows street food, it’s David Thompson. This is the man who controversially brought traditional Thai cooking back to the Thais, a Michelin-starred chef who is every bit as passionate about original Thai tastes and flavours as the locals. I was privileged enough to wander the streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown with him recently, gaining insight into the food culture and learning about the importance of eating in the Thai way of life.

I was curious why David chose Chinatown for his impromptu tour – it didn’t seem like an obvious place to begin exploring Thai cuisine. But as David points out,  Bangkok’s population was once 50 percent Chinese, a reflection of the city’s importance as a world trading hub; and this influx obviously had a huge impact on local food, contributing to its flavours, textures and ingredients.

                (fresh crab for sale on the streets of Chinatown. Pic: Julie Miller)

Wandering through the alleyways of Chinatown is an intriguing experience. “You can find everything here,  food in every form,” David tells me. “Fresh, dried, alive, cooked – it’s all here. This is the most entrepreneurial part of Bangkok – where anything goes.”

In the dim, narrow passageways, we pass stalls selling dried fish, squid crackers, smoked baby pigs, fruit and herbs. Look up and we see original teak houses, humble dwellings with exquisite architecture dating back over 100 years. Every corner, every wrong turn reveals something new, hidden treasures that reveal so much about Thailand, its history and its culture.

We pause for a half hour at Nai Mong Hoi Thod, a hole-in-the-wall eatery which David claims makes the best oyster omelettes in Bangkok. David has been a regular at this family business for several years; when he first discovered it, the family matriarch cooked up the eggy snacks over hot coals. Now her grandson is behind the wok, whipping up these delicious treats to a queues of hungry patrons.

                   (David Thompson in a back alley in Chinatown. Pic: Julie Miller)

With full stomachs (“im, aroi!), we continue our meandering, discovering an old Arabic graveyard behind a mosque, and crumbling walls devoured by banyan trees.

Wandering these streets, David says, is the key to unlocking Bangkok’s culinary and cultural secrets. For anyone who wants to find the real pulse of the city, David’s advice is to “get lost.”

 “This is a safe city, so the only inconvenience from going off the beaten track is that you might have to jump into a taxi to get home. It’s the best way to discover the real Bangkok.”

Later that day, David introduces me to one of his favourite local restaurants, Krua Apsorn, in the northern district of Dusit. Lauded by the New York Times and the Observer, this is, David claims, one of Bangkok’s superior eateries, and a great influence on his own culinary offerings.

“It’s difficult to find a good restaurant above the level of street food in Bangkok,” David tells me. “This is definitely one of the best.”

“Anywhere there are tourists, you’ll never find food with this clarity of taste or poised seasonings. It will ever be cooked with the same integrity and care.”

Of course, David’s own restaurant, Nahm, goes against this trend, offering superior Thai cuisine in a tourist hotspot. Of course, being located in a five-star hotel, there are overheads which are reflected in the price – 1700 baht for a set course, or mains around 400-600 baht. But it’s worth every penny – each bite offers an explosion of taste, wonderful flavours, purity of palette and divine aural combinations, all served share-style in traditional Thai manner.

Even my Thai companions gave it their seal of approval. And coming from these experts (who would never be afraid of bagging out second-rate food), that’s really saying something.