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A very cool Christmas
Friday 3 February 2012, 04:18PM
TRAVEL: "Let’s have Christmas somewhere cool,” said someone in the family. “Where?” was the next logical question. “How about the Cameron Highlands?” said I, reviving pleasant memories of a few cool and picturesque days spent on that elevated valley in the Malaysian mountains many years ago. The late-evening Air Asia flight lifted off from Phuket airport, taking us on a two-hour flight on this rather crazy rushed long-weekend trip to Kuala Lumpur. Even the long walk from our aircraft to Air Asia’s own bustling terminal, which is separate from the KL international one, did not dampen our enthusiasm for this short break in a different country. Nor was the fact that the airport was some 60 kilometres from the city, meaning we still had an hour and a half of late-night bus travel in front of us to reach the business district of the city where we had booked our little hotel for the night. For late Thursday night, KL was alive with diners eating in the many bright street restaurants that wafted delightful aromas into the warm night. We were surprised to come across one cosy street as liberally supplied with ladyboys as Bangla Rd. Our view of the green and pleasant capital the next day was mostly from the windows of the monorail and a suburban train, as we headed for our weekend rental car. But the pace of the city was definitely slower and more relaxed. If only Bangkok were like this. On the pleasant three-hour drive to the highlands, the comfortable black Malaysian-made Proton Saga cruised easily on the freeway north and climbed the mountain on the narrow winding road that was quite a historical engineering feat, cutting through tall dense tropical jungle. As the traffic thickened we began to realise that many, many Malaysian families had also said to themselves that, for the long-weekend holiday, they too would spend Christmas in the Cameron Highlands. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the narrow roads. But the little village of Tanah Rata was as I remember it. The row of old colonial-style shops on its main street always reminded of old photos of Darjeeling or Simla where the British colonial rulers and plains people escaped up to cool air and mountain views. One memorable meal was relived at the Mutiara Indian street restaurant that I had visited before: fresh-made roti, mutton and vegetable curries of all sorts and friendly staff warmly welcomed us. The oddly-named multi-storey Hotel de la Ferns, with its faux Tudor facade, gave us a fantastic room, high up. Mist blew across the balcony, which looked along the lush valley of this veritable Eden. A green golf course nestled among trees. Pine trees in the little village park bordered a clear mountain stream, and cosy houses with their white plaster and black timber imitation Tudor architecture hid away in the misty jungle at vantage points on hill tops. England is far away but a valley of it has been lovingly duplicated here. Christmas Eve saw well-to-do Indian, Chinese and Malay families enjoying traditional Christmas dinners offered at all the guesthouses and hotels, complete with turkey and plum pudding, if not much ham – this is, after all a Muslim country. A bright-green valley, patterned by low tea bushes as far as the eye could see provided a picturesque backdrop to the steaming cups of the best that the old Boh Tea Plantation could offer. Tea pickers were “plucking” away in the distance. Strawberries were overflowing from the tunnels of plastic greenhouses in nearby plantations, in this mountain land of plenty. Walking among hills rising to the mist, we were very grateful for our very cool Cameron Christmas. –Norachai Thavisin GETTING THERE: Air Asia flies from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur for less than B2,000 one way. Car rental is B1,500 a day, and petrol in Malaysia is cheaper. WHERE TO STAY: A double room at the Hotel De La Ferns (hoteldelaferns.com.my) cost about B5,000 a night.
JAMIE'S PHUKET: Phuket Mining Museum
Friday 13 January 2012, 01:59PM
If anyone is at all interested in the history of Phuket, and at the same time interested in getting a little off the beaten track, the often-overlooked Phuket Mining Museum is very much worth a look. The location is a bit odd – on a road that many people don’t know about that winds through the hills between Loch Palm Golf Club and the British International School. However, it’s great for children. Located around the large central courtyard are rooms that have been lovingly decorated and made to look like old streets or filled with old pictures and dioramas of mining techniques. Phuket made its fortune through tin mining (as well as rubber plantations and fishing) well before any tourists first arrived. There’s no mining any more, but it was tin that made Phuket, built Phuket Town and changed the face of Phuket, with many immigrants heading here from China. In the first room is a traditional island bus, while the next room is filled with old furniture, and displays of old household items. Then you have the real meat of the museum: a very well presented educational section all about geology, with information presented in both English and Thai.This leads through to the history of mining, with models of stone age people banging rocks together, and more specific information and life size dioramas about local tin mining techniques. From mining, you then move onto tin processing, a room full of technical information and photos, as well as a big bench full of rocks for kids to look at. I was very pleased when my boy agreed that sand, viewed with a magnifying glass, looks like little rocks – I love watching my kids learn. However, my wife’s favourite part of the museum is a mock up of old Phuket, a whole street with shops, a little café, a shrine and much more. It’s very well done, and you can see that the people involved in the museum must take a lot of pride in their work. The artwork is very good, with many walls painted with street scenes that have receding perspectives, so you feel like you could almost just step into the painting and take a walk through old Phuket. My daughter even tried... One of the best things about the museum is the low entry fee, although, if you’re a tourist reading this, it’s not the kind of place a tuk-tuk driver will want to take you (no commissions!). In sum, the museum suits those who want to learn something and see more than just beaches. Jamie Monk works at liveaboard dive specialists Sunrise Divers. For more information call: 084 626 4646 or visit: sunrise-divers.com You can read more about Phuket on Jamie's Phuket Blog or follow Jamie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr.
JAMIE'S PHUKET: Making a splash in Mai Khao
Thursday 5 January 2012, 01:14PM
JAMIE'S PHUKET: The Splash Jungle Water Park opened in early 2010. I think everyone agreed that Phuket needed a waterpark. Ideal for tourists, for family fun in the sun. However, not everyone was so enthusiastic when it opened. Most of the tourists in Phuket stay at the main beaches – Patong, Karon and Kata. Splash Jungle opened as part of the West Sands Resort at Mai Khao Beach, just north of Phuket Airport, and that’s 40-45km from the main beaches. Location. And then the price. Full rate is B1,495 for adults and B750 for kids. In other words, for our family of four we’d pay B4,490. It’s not cheap, although they had a “local price” for a while, and also have a membership package which works well for people like us who are likely to be back.So we drove up on a Saturday, the car park was packed with about four minibuses and 10 cars. To be clear – it was not very busy. Now that’s my kind of place – a tourist attraction without the tourists! OK, it was low season and the weather was not perfect (though I ended the day with my usual mild sunburn), but I thought there would be more people here. I know it’s not “Thailand” – this place is pure watery fun, and due to the combination of price and location, I had not been there. My wife and kids had been once on Thai national Children’s Day – there was a special promotion for the day with kids getting in for free. This time we paid up for membership, so now we are sure to go again! Inside, you have changing rooms with hundreds of lockers, then you cross a bridge over the “lazy river” which runs around the whole complex – you can drift around with or without an inflatable ring (the “river” is shallow enough for even our 6-year-old to stand up in). We drifted around it a few times, passing under bridges and waterfalls. The river would be the least adrenaline-fueled attraction! We found a chair to dump our stuff – the open areas are filled with beach chairs all shaded with umbrellas. Don’t leave valuables on the chair unattended, but towels and clothes and sandals are not likely to go astray. So the idea is to bag a chair, then go and have fun! The kids all started at the kids’ play area, but that area really is for little tiny kids. So we progressed to the slides. There are many different waterslides – 3 of them head down to the same splash pool – the green slide was pretty scary! My son went down countless times, I went twice. The first time I went down I shocked the lifeguard at the bottom by shooting off the end at full speed, 110 kilos of speeding fat panda coming down! I’m generally not into adrenaline rushes, I prefer nice and easy scuba diving or a gentle bike ride. The waterslide called “Boomerango” seemed to be beyond me. Boomerango works like this: You shoot off the highest point of the slide tower down a steep ramp, shoot up the other side and then off to the splashdown pool. I was worried that someone my size might go too fast and shoot right off the top of the ramp. My kids both went on it – they kind of wandered off without Mum and Dad for a while, they had found some school friends and did the rides with them on rings for two. Next to the Boomerango is the Super Bowl – again you launch from the top of the tower down a tube and then into this huge bowl which you spin around several times and then out and down another tube in the center. Not too scary! We were impressed by the safety at Splash Jungle. There are loads of staff, there are people to help you onto the rides and people in the splashdown pools to catch you. There are lifeguards all over the place, so we weren’t too concerned about the kids going off and doing their own thing. After a few hours we were getting hungry. We decided not to eat at the park restaurants – there are three of them, and they are not that cheap. But I enjoyed the day. Fun for me, and a lot of fun for the kids. Jamie Monk works at liveaboard dive specialists Sunrise Divers. For more information call: 084 626 4646 or visit: sunrise-divers.com You can read more about Phuket on Jamie's Phuket Blog or follow Jamie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr.  
Luxury in the jungle
Thursday 5 January 2012, 01:08PM
TRAVEL: For those in Phuket who yearn occasionally for something other than gorgeous sunsets, powdery sand and sea as azure as a property developer’s brochure, Khao Sok National Park comes as a welcome relief. No more the sound of waves on the shore, karaokes and beach discos. Here the sound effects are provided in the morning by gibbons, their whoops echoing around the hills, or by troops of macaques crashing carelessly through the trees, and in the evening by the millions of cicadas in the forest, each triggered by the next, combining into an eerie wail that goes on for minutes at a time. The best place to appreciate this has to be Thanyamundra, one of Thailand’s smallest (nine rooms) yet most luxurious resorts. Part of the Thanyapura group that includes the complex surrounding the Phuket International Academy, Thanyamundra sits at the high end of a valley, looking down on its own 60-rai organic farm and surrounded on three sides by Khao Sok National Park. Wake up early and the place is swirled in mist. As the sun climbs at the far end of the valley, the hills smoke with clouds in creation, until finally, an hour or so after sunrise, the sun breaks through. And then it’s time for breakfast. It’s all ready and waiting – your own personal butler knocked on your door the evening before and discussed the menu with you, as he does for every meal. Wherever possible, the food comes from the organic farm, so it’s fresh and tasty. The organic chicken is a special treat, and the cellar, though not enormous, is well stocked with very good wines. The butler comes and goes quietly and gently in an electric golf cart – your car is parked next to the entrance, half a kilometre away, and stays there unless you summon up the energy to go outside the resort, not easy to do when waited on hand and foot and pretty much every other part. There are no rooms at Thanyamundra. They’re all suites – bedroom, living room and two bathrooms, at the very least, with French windows in the bedroom leading to a verandah just outside.Important: each suite comes with a Nespresso machine, one of the great inventions of our age.   The service is impeccable: efficient, low-key, super-polite and solicitous without being obsequious, friendly when you feel like a chat, waiting quietly when you don’t.There’s a spa, a gym and a swimming pool that’s nearly as big as the hotel but, when it comes down to it, the winning feature of the resort is that view. It’s good for the eye, the heart and the soul. Thanyamundra is the place to get away from the getaway. To get to Thanyamundra, head north through Khao Lak and then Takua Pa. Keep right, following the road to Surat Thani. After about 60 km, the park entrance is on your left. Turn in and the entrance to Thanyamundra is about a kilometre down, on your left. For more information visit Thanyamundra.com.Thanyamundra recently placed third in Agoda’s new list of the To p 10 Eco-Boutiques in Asia 2011. It was also named one of Thailand’s “Big Six Chic Thai Retreats’’ by leading British newspaper The Independent. –Alasdair Forbes
JAMIE'S PHUKET: Floating restaurants off Coconut Island
Friday 23 December 2011, 04:56PM
If you head north from Phuket Town on the main airport road there is a small side road to the right (you’ll ned to do a U-turn)leading to Laem Hin, a fishing community where you find the very popular Laem Hin Seafood restaurant. A new jetty was built at Laem Hin a few years ago to serve Koh Maphrao – Coconut Island – and allow larger boats to dock in the area. In the water just off the island, there are several floating restaurants to choose from, among them Kruvit, Bang Mud and Kru Suwit. To reach them, you need to get a longtail boat from Laem Hin – boats leave from a wooden jetty with shallow muddy water all around, and longtails jammed in like sardines in a can. The deal with the boats is that if you spend a certain amount at the restaurant you don’t have to pay the boat. While I don’t know the exact amount, don’t be worried – I think the idea is just to stop people trying to get free rides to drink a coke. On the way out to Koh Maphrao (the ride takes only five minutes) there are fishermen’s huts floating in the water too. Is this the same Phuket you see on the west coast? I think not. Things tend to be more traditional here. We chose to eat at Kruvit restaurant (full name ‘Kruvit Raft’). Even on a grey day, quite a few tables were occupied (all local people, although I did see one farang arrive later with a Thai woman). We were met by a friendly boatman who held the longtail steady so we (especially my mum, who cracked a rib on a longtail last year) could step off easily. Nothing to worry about really; the sea over here is calm as it’s very sheltered. Kruvit has space for a couple of hundred people.  We found our table near the fish tanks. Live seafood is kept in large enclosed keep-ponds built into the raft. We ate very well too, but with a restaurant like this, eating is only part of the experience. The boat ride, the view, the fresh air, getting away from the crowds... good food is almost a bonus. The bill was very reasonable (we don’t do expensive). We do eat at Laem Hin Seafood now and then and maybe the food there is better, but hey, you don’t get that floating feeling or the boat ride...   Jamie Monk works at liveaboard dive specialists Sunrise Divers. For more information call: 084 626 4646 or visit: sunrise-divers.com You can read more about Phuket on Jamie's Phuket Blog or follow Jamie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr.
A beach of inactivity
Friday 18 November 2011, 05:37PM
  Despite its Thai name meaning ‘active’, Khuk Khack Beach is far from it. The long white stretch of sand, on the Phang Nga coast just north of Khao Lak, stretches out into the sea-spray haze on either side as far as the eye can see. It’s early on a blue morning. A solitary visitor jogs along the edge of the lapping waves from the calm sea. He is not in too much of a hurry either. On the tourist map, the beach is dotted with resorts, the dots all bunching up towards the south of the beach, although few can be seen when you are on the sand. Certainly at this northern end, there are only Adamania Beach Resort and, at some distance along the beach from it, JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort. Khao Lak resort managers will tell you that many Thai and foreign tourists, especially from Europe, come to this long beach to escape the crowded western coast of Phuket. But there are hardly any visitors to be seen this morning, and very few during the day, even though the high season has just started. The white sand is, for a good change, almost free from litter. Instead, a small army of hermit crabs scuttle happily along this morning, dragging an assorted selection of mobile homes. Their little eyes on the look out with little feelers sensing the air, always ready to retreat into their shells and shut the front door at the first hint of disturbance. A little grey and white wader bobs along on the wet sand, scooting after its breakfast of scurrying wind crabs. On a branch perches a family of birds. One takes off after an insect, flashing yellow plumage on its body and iridescent blue above its wings. Now and then wrecked holiday bungalows on Khao Lak beaches, overgrown with creeping vegetation, still provide sobering reminder of the tsunami of 2004. The sunny hours are long here – you can catch up on your reading, get tanned or to have a massage in the sea breeze. As the sun slowly sets, one looks forward to sipping a cold beer and dining on freshly-cooked prawns, fish and squid. The dark horizon ahead now shows lights of local boats that are netting your seafood meals tomorrow. The moon is becoming full for the Loy Kratong festival on the walk back to your resort. It’s very comforting to anticipate the same care-free day tomorrow...   – Norachai Thavisin To get there: Drive north from Phuket Town on the Highway 402 across Sarasin bridge into Phang Nga province. Then follow Highway 4 north along the coast in the direction of Takuapa to Khao Lak town, and further north to Khuk Khack beach on your left, some 110 km from Phuket Town.