Monday, February 10, 2014

Holiday II: Thailand

After Christmas in Sweden, we left for New Year in southern Thailand. That turned into far more of an adventure — in the "bad things happened" sense — than we'd planned for. Excitement certainly tends to be more fun afterwards than when it's actually happening to you.

Part I: Wherein our spirited sightseers find themselves in a lodging-related pickle

Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Let's just avoid spelling malfunctions and call it "Bangkok airport". The concourse roof is modelled as a series of lotus flowers made from canvas roofing, interspersed with curved glass and steel beam walls. It's a cool design, though the final result is strikingly similar to Kansai Airport and it's wing-foil inspired design.

The excitement started when we reached Peace Laguna hotel in Ao Nang. We'd flown overnight from Stockholm and arrived in Bangkok before dawn. After a few hours at Bangkok airport we boarded a flight to Krabi, then took a taxi to our hotel and gave the front desk our booking number and confirmation.

That's when we found out that the hotel had cancelled our reservation weeks ago. The hotel never emailed us or tried to contact us in any way. No, they let us come all the way to Ao Nang to find out first-hand that we had no room at the hotel.

They said they cancelled our room when they didn't get an advance payment from Xpedia, the travel site we'd used. When we and Xpedia both pointed out that the booking was for payment on arrival, they changed their story and claimed my Visa card had failed to work. But the card has never failed before, and my bank later confirmed there had been no problem with the card at the time. They had no reason to try to access the card a month early — and again, they never contacted us about any problems even though they had our email address, street address and phone numbers.

Happy Moment
Think happy thoughts. Bangkok airport.

It was peak season so the hotel was fully booked, as were all other hotels in the area. The manager was completely uninterested in helping us find other accommodation. He wouldn't even let us use their phones to call around; we had to use our own Japanese mobile phones. Fortunately a local travel agency had a desk at the hotel, and their representative set out to help us find a room.

As we called around to find some place to stay we soon realized we weren't alone. Other guests at Peace Laguna had their reservations cancelled, or they only got some of the nights they'd booked. The travel agency rep had his hands full trying to help people with nowhere to stay. It might have been an overbooking cock-up at the hotel, but several people claimed the hotel may have been deliberately cancelling early low-rate bookings in favour of later higher-paying guests.

A bench at the airport — at least it's indoors, with food and bathrooms nearby. Not a bad option if you got nothing else. Passenger waiting for a late-night flight at Bangkok Airport.

We learned a few things about how hotel bookings actually work. A booking all by itself is just a vague non-binding promise to try to hold a room for you. To make it a binding agreement you want to pay in advance, not on arrival. If you've paid, the hotel has an obligation to provide you with the service you've paid for. So if they double-book by accident, for instance, the booking that's already paid gets the room and the payment-on-arrival booking is cancelled.

We scoured the online booking sites and found a possibly empty room for the last four nights at Ao Nang Vogue hotel. But hotel sites aren't directly connected to the hotel booking systems; when you book they send an email request to the hotel, and they will confirm or reject the booking. This hotel was just up the road, so we walked over to see if it really was available.

It was not available, unfortunately, but even though we weren't their customers — and even though we were sweaty, dishevelled, and still in the same dirty travel clothes we'd worn since Stockholm — the manager went the extra mile for us and called around to other managers in the same hotel group to see if they could shake loose a a room. This, I note, was more than anybody at Peace Laguna bothered to do for us.

And fortunately she found a room for the last four nights, including New Year, at Amari Vogue Resort further up the coast. Higher budget and more remote than we'd planned for, and we'd have to switch rooms the last night, but still as close to perfect as we could ever hope for. We had a place to stay over the New Year festivities.

Local feline
Things are looking up; at least we'll be homeless for at most two nights. Here a happy cat at the Ao Nang Tropical Resort. I hear people on the internets like cat pictures.

Part II:Their New Year plans secured through a fortuitous meeting and the aid of a stranger, our tired travellers turn their thoughts toward the increasingly urgent question of where to spend the coming night.

That still left us with nowhere to stay for the first two nights. Night was falling, and we needed someplace — anyplace — to sleep. The tour company rep had finally given up on finding us anything around Ao Nang; instead he asked a colleague to drive us into Krabi town to look for a place. At seven in the evening we boarded a car and hopefully saw the last of Peace Laguna for the rest of our lives.

Amit, the tour rep that drove us, was pretty confident we'd find something. Krabi is a sizable town with many kinds of hotels. The first couple of hotels had no rooms. Neither did the next cluster. Some backpacker places were all full. As time passed we moved into seedier and seedier parts of town, still with no place to stay, and Amit started to mumble that perhaps we could crash at his place.

Right at that point, a late no-show and a chance phone call found us a room for one night only at Andamanee Boutique Resort back at Ao Nang.

Andamanee Boutique Resort. Happiest pizza I've ever eaten. And the pool area is relaxing; a shame we only stayed one night.

Andamanee Boutique Resort is a small family-run resort hotel back aways from the town. It's quiet and pleasant, with a cluster of two- and three story buildings set around a large central pool. The daughter is the general manager, helpful and very efficient; if she didn't have the hotel she'd probably run a major corporation or a medium-sized country.

We got there at nine in the evening. We hadn't eaten since before dawn when we landed in Bangkok the same morning, and we hadn't slept more than a few hours on the flight from Stockholm. We still wore the same clothes as when we left the hotel in Stockholm 36 hours earlier. We immediately ordered — well, begged for, really — a pizza, then hit the room shower.

When the manager came with the food, she gave us a ten-minute crash course in hotel booking and management, then explained that the fault of this mess most likely lies with Peace laguna Hotel. Her father knew the former owner, but he'd passed away the previous year and the current manager probably doesn't really know what he's doing.

Both the manager and a friend on Google+ suggested we try to find a room in Thailand. Unlike most booking sites they are in direct contact with their hotels, so rooms you find there are likely to be available.

Ao Nang Tropical Resort
Ao Nang Tropical Resort. The place really looks much like this. There's other hotels almost within touching distance, but you'd never know it.

We found a bungalow at Ao Nang Tropical Resort (don't confuse it with "Ao Nang Tropical Resort Hotel"; it's a different place). Note also that Google Maps gives you the wrong position — the right spot is about here. Not easy to find; they don't even have a website of their own.

The bungalows. The atmosphere is perfect. Seriously, I hope the owners never over-renovate the place and ruin it.

It's a tiny place — just fifteen rooms in all — and while it's no more than fifty meters from the Ao Nang main street it's placed in a lush jungle-like garden that completely hides the noise and the view of surrounding buildings. It really feels like a remote forest resort. The (co-)owner is Swedish, and most guests we met were Swedish as well. There's a nice pool, a table-tennis table (a common pastime for Swedish families) and a bar and lounge area where couples were having a drink while a family was playing cards and enjoying themselves.

Table tennis
Table-tennis night. later on two Swedish families played "rund-pingis" together, something I haven't done since I was a child. It's a lot of fun.

The place is charmingly messy. That is, the front area is cluttered, the original shower pipes are replaced with a wall-mounted water heater, one unused building is tumbling down, the occasional chair or light can be broken and so on. But everything is clean and everything works well enough(1), and they seem to be renovating things over time. We both really loved this place, and I envy the kids that get to stay here. The atmosphere is great, and our regret is that we stayed only a single night.

Part III:The spectre of temporary homelessness averted, our avuncular adventurers can finally relax and enjoy their stay in Ao Nang.

Ao Nang
The main street in Ao Nang. It's all pretty much like this. Great fun, as long as you don't expect any profound culinary experiences or genuine Thai culture. Check your pretensions at the door and enjoy yourself.

Ao Nang is loud and tacky, with t-shirt and souvenir shops lining up between bars, cafes and restaurants. The food places are frequently be staffed by Indians, and most of them offer the same combination of standard Thai, Indian and Italian dishes. Mixed in you also have tour operators, tailors, tattoo parlours and massage salons.

It's infested with Swedes. You hear Swedish everywhere and shops sometimes have Swedish names. Touts will shout in Swedish, and signs will sometimes be in Thai and Swedish. A small supermarket had no English-language newspapers, but carried both major Swedish evening tabloids.

I have a sit-down and a can of ice coffee on the beach. This is as close to regular beach life as I am normally interested in. By the way, I'm genuinely amazed that customs officials never select me for a random drug pat-down. Or is it that nobody who actually carries drugs would be dumb enough to look and dress like this?

Come here, fishies.
A different way to spend your holiday. It's not for me, but I can appreciate the draw for some people. There seems to be something almost meditative about fishing — fly-fishing and angling especially.

I'm enjoying — yes, really — a shoulder massage. Ritsuko kept laughing at me as I squirmed; I wonder why. Oh, and I seem to be in my awkward in-between years right now: not nearly enough hair to cover my head, but not properly bald either.

Ao Nang is a fun, gaudy place, and were we still in our 20's I'd have loved spending the entire week there. But we're old enough to have been there and done that, so a few nights in town is plenty. We ate — you don't come to Ao Nang for the food — walked and I had a wonderful 30-minute shoulder massage. The most fun is simply to sit somewhere and watch other people enjoying themselves.

Ao Nang over with, we took a car to Amari Vogue Resort up the coast. It's about half an hour from Ao Nang, right next to a national park and fairly secluded(2). There's a nice beach for swimming, a couple of small, beautiful pools, two restaurants, a spa and a bar. Not a hotspot of bustling activity, but peace and quiet is exactly what we needed after the hotel drama and the noise of Ao Nang.

Amari Vogue
Amari Vogue Resort. The reception area is on the upper floor, and below is the Thai-style restaurant.

Amari Vogue Resort
Large, comfortable rooms.

The rooms are large and beautiful, the service very good without becoming pushy and the food is fine. We knew we had to switch rooms the last night, and the hotel upgraded our room for the trouble. We stayed only four nights, including New Year, so we had no issues with the variety of foods, but I can imagine that you might want to plan for dinner elsewhere an evening or two if you stay longer.

Monitor Lizard
This monitor lizard was an occasional guest at the poolside area. It was apparently hunting for small frogs living along the gutters and in the flower beds.

The beach at Amari Vogue Resort.

We try to go snorkeling when we can. It's a fun activity to do together and I can indulge in photography as well. Snorkeling in the area is good, if not up to the level of Okinawa. There's some coral and tropical wildlife, though the visibility can be low and there's an inordinate amount of people absolutely everywhere.

Hong Islands
The Hong Islands are dramatic; sheer cliffs soaring from the sea, surrounded by secluded white beaches and hidden reefs. We took a long-tail boat to see the islands and stop at a couple of places for snorkeling.

Hong Islands
When you actually get to the islands, you quickly discover that there's nothing secluded about the place. When we first arrived at this beach in the morning there were only a few other people around, but within an hour many hundreds more arrived. People come here not just from Ao Nang but also from Phuket and Phi Phi island.

There are corals in these waters, but not in the same way as in Okinawa. Corals seem to come in discrete patches rather than covering the sea floor, and the variety seems smaller too. We snorkeled at another spot nearby, and, later on, along the coast, and there was little or no coral there. The water seems siltier; I guess that may be a reason.

There are jellyfish, but not so much that it becomes a bother. Difficult to get a decent picture.

Brain Coral
An aptly named brain coral. A convergent solution to the problem of increasing surface area without increasing the volume, I guess.

Sergeant Major
Plenty of fish, especially these damselfish (called "sergeant major", due to the stripes). People feed them on the beach, so they're completely fearless and come rushing in schools toward anyone with a bit of food.

Parrot Fish
A rainbow parrot fish that feeds on coral, a couple of damselfish, and an unknown fish photobombing the scene on the right edge.

Sea Fan
A sea fan coral. Taking pictures while snorkeling is not easy. I must have dived down to this spot a dozen times before I got a single shot I was happy with. I love film, but in this situation digital is really much better; I could have used up a whole roll of film just trying to get this one picture.

Hong Islands
By the time we left, the beach had turned into a regular long-tail boat traffic jam. Clusters of speed-boats anchored further out do nothing to help with the noise and traffic.

It's no secret that we like cooking, and this time we went for a four-hour evening cooking class at Siam Cuisine. The program promised six dishes, which sounds like a lot to cram into four hours. We needn't have worried; the Thai dishes we made are all the kind that you quickly fry up and cook just before you eat. Still, we were busy enough that I had almost no time for pictures.

Cooking School
We're getting briefed on the next couple of dishes. Siam Cuisine cooking school.

Everyone chose their own set of six dishes. Options were strongly suggested but you could choose other ones if you wanted. Ritsuko and I made sure we chose different dishes, and Ritsuko chose deep-fried spring rolls instead of fried noodles.

Together we made fried rice and spring rolls; tom yum soup and coconut chicken soup (the difference is really only the coconut milk and chili paste); papaya salad and seafood salad; green curry and red curry (green fresh chilies or red dried in the paste), and chicken with cashew nuts. The teacher showed us how to make sticky coconut rice. Trivially simple and very good; we'll try it with mochi rice some day.

Tom Yam
Fried rice and coconut chicken soup. In the background two variants of tom yum soup. The chicken soup was perhaps my favourite — and it's really just tom yum without chili and with coconut milk to round off the flavour.

Green Curry
Green curry, made from scratch. We made the curry paste by mincing chili and spices with a mortar and pestle before using it to cook a quick chicken curry. Red curry is much the same; the colour and flavour difference comes from using green fresh chilies versus red fresh and dried chilies.

We'd cook a pair of dishes then sit down and eat, cook the next pair then eat again and so on. Brisk pace and really too much food, but you learn a lot in a short time. The real eye-opener for me was the curry; we made the curry paste from scratch with a stone mortar and pestle, and it's really a lot easier to make than I thought. The paste will last for months in the fridge, and when you make it yourself you can adjust the strength and flavour exactly the way you want it.

We celebrated New Year at Amari Vogue. The hotel had a large buffet with food ranging from traditional Thai dishes, risotto, and veal to seafood, sushi and sashimi. People immediately formed a line for the sushi; I didn't feel I needed any, but Ritsuko took a few bites. A pretty good two-person band was playing throughout the evening, and a dance troupe entertained with varying skill. The hotel room facilities manager did great success with a drag-queen impersonation of Lady Gaga. Fun evening, and a great way to finish the year.

The room manager did a popular lady Gaga impersonation.

Sky Lanterns
Sky lanterns at the break of the New Year.

Epilogue:Safely back home, our resolute ramblers can relax and reflect on the trip.

It started out as a near-disaster, but I think we accidentally hit on the best way to experience Krabi. A whole week in Ao Nang is fine if you're in your 20's, but a couple of nights are enough for an adult. A remote high-class resort is wonderful — until you realize you'll be eating at the same place about half a dozen times in a week. So a few nights in the busy town then a few nights at a quiet resort is just about perfect.

What do people on vacation actually do with their time nowadays? If you guessed "play with their phones just like at home" then you'd be completely right. Some people seem to do nothing else; it makes you wonder why they bother travelling at all really...

Andamanee Boutique Resort is a good place to stay. It's quiet and relaxing and with a big, beautiful pool, but it's close to Ao Nang so you can go there and back with minimal fuss. Seems a perfect place to bring children or elderly relatives, or if you want to mix a resort stay with the seaside party life.

And I would certainly recommend Ao Nang Tropical Resort. It's really a remarkable, quiet oasis right in the middle of Ao Nang — you can go from noisy, tacky town to run-down and atmospheric remote jungle resort within fifty steps. I want to stay there again. Now if only they'd get their online presence sorted out with some kind of website I could link to.

Amari Vogue Resort is listed as a five-star resort and I have no reason to disbelieve it. The service and facilities were excellent from start to finish. The rooms are spacious and well-furnished, the service very good and the facilities all impeccably clean and well maintained. The New Years party was well organized and a lot of fun. It was a few days of complete down-time with not a worry in the world. A rare thing for me, and something we appreciated more than anything else on this trip.

High Tide
Volleyball net at high tide. Amari Vogue Resort.

I would recommend Peace Laguna Resort only to my enemies. They can't go bankrupt soon enough, and I'll have a celebratory drink when they do. It's not that they double booked, it's he ham-fisted way they handled it. They cancelled our booking three weeks early and never tried to contact us. They repeatedly changed their excuses for canceling, and they were completely uninterested in helping us out when we showed up without a room to stay in.

From the tour operator that worked to find a room for us and the other people rejected by Peace Laguna; his colleague Amit that drove us around for hours at night to help us find some place to stay; the manager of Ao Nang Vogue and her colleague at Amari Vogue that got us a place for New Year; and Andamanee Boutique Resort that accepted a suspicious late night booking and even cooked pizza for a couple of dejected, starving guests. They all helped a couple of strangers — not even their own customers — and we just can't express our gratitude enough. They collectively turned our trip from a disaster to not just a memorable vacation, but one that became far better than the one we'd planned.

Ao Nang Tropical Resort. The polar opposite of Amari Vogue in a way, but a great experience.

You can find a set of all Krabi pictures here.
#1 Wifi does cover the bungalows as well as the front area, but you need to switch to a different router (called "dlink" in the access point list). Ask the front desk and they'll explain.

#2 There's two other hotels right next door, but compared to Ao Nang, "secluded" certainly applies.


Jordi Pujol said...

Very enjoyable trip report.
I like the embedded humor in some of the captions and the Part summary introduction with its "Odyssey" register.

Too bad about the cancelled booking, sometimes this makes up for a fun history to tell later but certainly not enjoyable at the very moment.

My dad loves Thailand and we've been planning a SE Asia tour, to be proceeded when the circumstances come together.

I'm not that interested in beaches, and that must be that I live in the very Mediterranean coast.
However, as with you, I would love sun and beach after a cold Swede holiday!

Jan Moren said...

We're not too interested in beach life either, but we do like snorkeling so beaches are sort of unavoidable as a result.

I would avoid Thailand right now. It can blow up again at any time, and you'll end up with a ruined vacation, cancelled flights or worse. It seems the country is in a destructive political holding pattern waiting for a new regent; it may be prudent to simply travel elsewhere until the dust settles from that.

Jordi Pujol said...

I did hear it in the news occasionally and in fact there was a warning thread on (I'm a bit of aviation nut too).
Indeed, not recommended as a destination right now (at least Bangkok itself).

My dad is a firm believer on the gentleness of Thai, and even if they are in anger, it's just at the government.

Anyways, hopefully in 2+ years the dust will have settled in (that's when we've got a trip planned), and I wish the Thai will be better off politically soon.