Monday, 25 June 2012

Best night out in Phuket

When one local recommends a restaurant, you take note; when three say it’s an unmissable experience, you book a table. The ex-pat community in Phuket, Thailand, is clearly enamoured with Ka Jok See, a quirky restaurant located in Phuket Town, and its popularity is starting to filter through to canny tourists looking for an exceptional night out without the sleaze often associated with Phuket nightspots.

Located in a quiet back street in an 18th century Sino-Portuguese house, Ka Jok See (which means ‘stained glass’, referring to one of the beautiful historic features left intact inside) is so well known amongst the locals there’s no need for signage. The décor is quirky, eclectic, with dangling chandeliers, candles and flowers setting a romantic mood.
Reasonably priced, though not dirt cheap, its menu features popular Thai dishes that suit the Western palate without compromising flavour; it is also licensed, with a decent cocktail list. But really, you don’t come here for the food; it’s more about the atmosphere, which progressively builds throughout the meal as the staff invite diners to dance between courses.
As the night progresses, so the music build from soft jazz to cabaret to techno; until around 10pm, tables and chairs are pushed aside and the dance party begins, with patrons climbing on tables, shouting, singing along – sheer madness. There are half-naked men dripping candle wax on bare chests, limbo dancers, sexy gals strutting in killer heels; and of course, the obligatory ladyboy, swathed in jewels and slinky satin, belting out dearly departed Whitney Houston hits as only a professional lipsyncher can do.
The party continues into the wee hours; so make sure your reservation is no earlier than 8.30pm, or you could be in for a long, albeit memorable, night. 
26 Takua Pa Rd,
Phuket Town
Ph: 07621 7903 – reservations essential, particularly on Friday and Saturday night.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Eco Tourism in Trat Province

I’m often asked by other Australian travellers for advice on new island destinations in Thailand. They’ve done Phuket, done Samui, and they are looking for something a little off the beaten track that will fulfil their tropical island dreams, the idyllic unspoiled paradise with blue balmy water, white beaches, coconut palms, coral reefs and beach-front accommodation.
Loathe as I am to share my secrets, the first place I suggest is Koh Kood, one of 52 islands located in Trat province, the easternmost province in Thailand bordering Cambodia. This tranquil little island is my idea of perfection, with affordable resorts in a pristine jungle setting - no 7-Elevens, no ATMs, very little traffic and no high-rise development. I spent a blissful few days here a year ago, and can’t wait to go back for a truly relaxing holiday doing absolutely nothing!

                           (Idyllic Bao Bang Bay at Koh Kood)

Koh Kood is accessible from either Koh Chang - Thailand’s second largest island, and a popular resort destination in itself - or from mainland Trat, the main town of the region. While most of Trat’s tourism industry focuses on these two main islands and the surrounding Mu Koh Chang Marine National Park, the province also prides itself on its eco-tourism industry, calling itself ‘the green province’.
For instance, the village of Huai Raeng, located near a mangrove forest, has started sightseeing boat trips through the still backwaters, showing visitors the under-appreciated beauty of this ecosystem. It has also encouraged local people to offer accommodation through homestays, open restaurants and craft stores that utilise local products such as Fish, fruit and betel leaves, and share in their industry such as night shrimp fishing.

                                  (Mangroves at Huai Raeng)

                               (Homestay at Huai Raeng)

The incentive for this form of localised tourism is not to make money; rather, it’s voluntarily managed by a group of locals who want to preserve their unique environment and share their local wisdom. 
Another village happy to showcase its traditions to the outside world is Tambon Nam Chiao, where two religions, Muslim and Buddhists, live in harmony along the banks of a canal. Here, volunteer guides, including students who want to improve their English, will take you on a walking tour of the village, along the picturesque canal lined with both mosques and temples, and through the back streets where old men groom their fighting cocks and little girls dressed in burkas are happy to stop and pose for photographs.

The winner of multiple tourism awards for ‘Outstanding Community Tourism’, Nam Chiao is proof that a village doesn’t have to sell its soul for tourism, and that the purest of products has plenty of appeal for visitors.

                                    (The canal at Nam Chiao)

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Welcome to the jungle

Guest blogger Kerry van der Jagt visits her 'happy place' on the River Kwai.

“Tighten your fanny strap,” warns the young man at reception. “Things could get rough today.” Normally, if a guy said that to me I’d smack him in the head, but at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts, near Kanchanaburi, it’s perfectly normal. After handing me a life jacket he gives me a room key with a torch connected to it and a kerosene lantern. “Enjoy your stay.” 
For first-timers, checking into the Jungle Rafts can be overwhelming, but this is my second visit and I know the ropes - and the belts and the torches. The life jacket (with or without fanny strap) is worn while floating down the river, the torch and lantern provide light in the bedrooms once darkness falls. The Jungle Rafts has no electricity, no hot water and no flushing toilets. There’s no luggage service, room service or turndown service. No glass in the windows, carpet on the floor or paint on the walls. Oh, and it can only be reached by long-tail boat. But if there’s a more relaxing place in all of Thailand to hang up your lantern I’m yet to find it.

A series of thatched huts are secured to rafts and roped together, literally floating on a bend of the River Kwai. The rooms, which sleep three, have simple ensuites, front and back decks (with hammocks) and mosquito nets. There’s also an open-air restaurant, jungle bar and floating massage hut.

For those of us who travel not just to see things, but to feel things this is as good as it gets; falling asleep to the sound of water flowing beneath your bed, waking to elephants bathing outside your window or visiting the nearby Mon village (a hop, step and sway across a bamboo bridge). 

But it hasn’t always been so peaceful in this region. During World War II the Japanese Army used forced labour to construct a 415-kilometre railway link between Thailand and Burma. During its 15 month construction approximately 100,000 people died on what became known as the Death Railway.
Today though, I’m not thinking of soldiers, but my own life. I’ve dived into the river and am floating along, enjoying the birds and the butterflies, when I realise I’m about to miss the last rung of the last ladder – next stop Bangkok.  I’ve picked up speed and though I manage to grab the bottom rung, the river is strong here and I can’t pull myself out. I’ve gone sans fanny strap and can feel the life jacket taking on a life of its own – it’s riding up at the same rate as my cossie bottom is going down. Fortunately for me (unfortunately for him) there’s a guy behind me. He sees the problem (hard to miss) and single-handedly shoves my white backside out of there. Yep, it can get a little rough in the jungle.
The River Kwai Jungle Rafts is near Kanchanaburi, 190km from Bangkok by road and another 20 minutes by boat
For history buffs
Bridge on the River Kwai -
Thailand-Burma Railway Centre -
Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and walking trail –

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Grapes and Elephants

Last week, my esteemed colleague and guest blogger Kerry van der Jagt wrote about two excellent wineries in the Khao Yai district which are leading the charge in Thailand’s burgeoning wine industry.
One of the best and most popular names in Thai wines is Monsoon Valley, based out of Siam Winery’s Hua Hin Vineyard. Established on a former elephant corral in 2004,  and spread out over 1000 rai (400 acres) this lovely vineyard produces multi-award winning wines in over 20 varietals, including Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Shiraz and Tempranillo. 

There must be something about all that elephant dung underfoot - because these are highly drinkable wines, especially its flagship range including Monsoon Valley Muscat and Monsoon Valley Cuvee  de Siam Blanc, which took out the Gold Medal at the Mundus Vini International Awards in Germany in 2011.
According to chief winemaker, Kathrin Puff from Germany, “new latitude” wines like Thai wine “teach the right to be wrong. They turn the wine world upside down.” Because of the rainy season, all the usual grape harvesting techniques have to be done twice - consequently, there is twice the hardship. “
Having said that, it also allows for experimentation and innovation - and with climate change now an inevitable part of our future, perhaps the new wine frontiers like Thailand and India can truly become competitive on the world market.

For now, however, a visit to the Monsoon Valley winery is a blissful day out from Hua Hin. Dine in the very smart architect-designed Sala Wine Bar and Bistro overlooking the vines, with gourmet Thai and international meals teamed with a selection of Monsoon Valley wines; and visitors can even express their artistic skills by designing and painting their own unique wine label, which they can take back home as a unique souvenir.

And where else in the world can you ride an elephant through a vineyard! This is when you realise that, for all its classic old-world appearance, this is indeed Thailand - with a unique and exciting new product.

The vineyard is open daily from 10am-7pm except Mondays. There are two daily transfers from Hua Hin Market Village at 10:30am and 3pm. A 15min elephant tour costs 300 baht per person, or 500 baht for 30 mins.

www.huahinhillsvineyardcom or