Posts from the “Asia” Category

Koh Yao Noi – The Paradise Resort

Dawn

Dawn breaks over Phang Nga Bay

Now usually I wouldn’t divulge my most favourite places until I’d swooped in and secured the real estate at a decent price, but I feel compelled to share this one right now.

I love holidaying in Thailand, and I’ve recently discovered another little gem that joins the River Kwai and Khao Sok in my list of perfect long weekend jaunts from Hong Kong.

Koh Yao Noi is smack dab in the middle of Phang Nga Bay, a gentle 45 minute boat ride from Phuket. It’s got all the charm of Koh Samui and Phi Phi back in the day i.e. limited numbers of tourists, a fair number of dirt roads, secret beaches, fantastic and cheap food, and a laid back local populace.

There are two upscale accommodation options on the island,  The Paradise Resort and the Evason Six Senses, and for this trip the Paradise checked all the boxes:

  • A decent hotel spa
  • My own terrace with sala and jacuzzi
  • A villa on a hill overlooking the marvelous karst scenery of Phang Nga bay
  • No large groups of Russian tourists (sorry Russian tour groups, but you’re noisy and tend to wander around inappropriately in speedos and thong bikinis).
  • Quiet

I’d say The Paradise has 80% of what you get at the Evason for less then half the price, (and the 20% that is missing is made up entirely of aesthetics, more sophisticated food and a wider range of spa treatments.)

Paradise Resort

The Paradise Resort

So, after a night in Bangkok at the Eugenia, we caught the early flight to Phuket and were picked up by the hotel at the airport. After a 15 minute transfer to a marina, we waited for a few other guests to arrive and then shortly after we set off for the island.

Transfer: THB2,200 per person, one way. To leave the island we took a huge public speedboat back to Phuket which was just as convenient.

The view from my bed

Villas:  We stayed in a Jacuzzi Deluxe villa, which was perched high on the hillside with a sea view. I’m not a huge beachy person, and much prefer having grandiose open views rather than being able to access the beach from my front door. I was expecting thunderstorms too which are always more exciting when you’re up high.

Good sized room, well constructed, nice natural materials; all wooden, stone and slate inside. Great little terrace with a covered sala one end and an unheated, sunken jacuzzi. Bathroom also opened one entire wall onto the terrace so you felt like you were showering outside, (Mr H was a little concerned he could be peeped at so wasn’t keen on opening up, but I was certain it was fine).

The room was excellent value for money.

Service: The manager is a friendly Swiss guy who’d been in the hotel trade for decades. Staff were helpful, although at times a little slow to respond.

Facilities: We made good use of the spa, which was well priced and very pleasant. There was also a yoga sala on the beach and a lot of watersports options. There was a good deal of wildlife around the hotel, from hornbills to monitor lizards.

Our guide kayaking on a tiny lagoon inside a limestone island

The hotel organised a boatman and guide for the day and we went kayaking around Phang Nga Bay which was an excellent excursion.

Because we were so much closer to all the best islands and lagoons than people staying on Phuket, we could get everywhere earlier than the hordes of braying booze cruisers.

The kayaks would be strapped to the side of the boat until needed and we’d zap off in our long-tailed skiff to each location. The hotel also organised a great picnic lunch and we had plenty of water, towels, extra dry bags for our gear and sunscreen etc. Very thoughtful.

We explored all kinds of hidden lagoons a la “The Beach” and generally just pootled around with our very nice guide.

Food: The food we had at the hotel was good if limited. Un-fussy, lots of fresh seafood and locally grown produce. Buffet breakfast was generous and surprisingly varied. You could eat in the restaurant or on the beach and there was also a beach bar with friendly staff and TV to watch if you wanted. Not sure how bonkers it would have driven me if I had stayed a week and only been able to eat at the one restaurant.

Beach: The tide goes very far out on the beach here and leaves quite a muddy bay behind it. That doesn’t bother me, and there was a well landscaped, large swimming pool to use. But I know that a lot of people who don’t have the same kind of daily access we do to beaches in Hong Kong need to have their beach expectations managed.

Getting around: The resort is barely accessible by road, and is remote from the rest of the island. It’s in a great location with wonderful views of the karst islands rather than just bare ocean. There are private speedboat transfers, or you can hop on the public boats that ferry staff over to the inhabited side of the island.

We took an eyeopening ride back to the hotel one evening in a taxi. From half-way the roads were just rubble and we had to get out and push the taxi up a hill at one stage. All quite fun!

Island: The rest of the island is super chilled. It’s a mainly Muslim community so it’s not a raucous party island. Apart from the Evason, the rest of the accommodation is very simple, low-budget backpacker style beach huts. There are no penny-pinching gap-year backpackers which is a blessed relief.

We had a fantastic meal at Sabai Corner, and would highly recommend sitting there watching the sun go down and eating supper.

We also had a spa treatment and lunch at the Evason Six Senses. It was very pleasant, very sophisticated and ever so hushed. Shhhhh.

The villas are impressive, but unless I was going to the island in high season and really needed the seclusion that money buys, I wouldn’t be tempted. The hotel also caused some upset in the community when they arrived, and so the locals were unimpressed for a long while. Apparently management are now more sensitive about their role on the island and relations are slowly improving.

Price: THB15,600 for four nights! That’s around US$500. Awesome value. This included one night free which was a special deal for patrons who lived in Asia.

We will definitely be going back to The Paradise. The hotel isn’t the plushest, most sophisticated in the world, but for the budget that they must have had to build it, it has been very thoughtfully planned and maximizes the stunning location. It sits gently in it’s surroundings and the atmosphere (at least in low season when we were there) is friendly and super chilled, and you just can’t argue with value for money like that.

Koh Yao Noi is a delightful island, and staggeringly unspoiled considering that Phuket is mere minutes away.

Khao Sok – stunningly simple

Once again, Thailand comes up trumps with an easy long-weekend getaway from Hong Kong.

Spectacular karst scenery on Cheow Lan Lake

Khao Sok contains the oldest rainforest on the planet, and together with Klong Saen and Klong Nakkha wildlife sanctuaries, and the smaller adjacent parks of Sri Phangnga and Klong Phanom, it encompasses a huge protected area of 4,400km² – four times larger than the whole of Hong Kong’s territory.

What that means for us, is that there’s a great big national park about 2.5hours drive from Phuket airport where we can go to play.

I first visited Khao Sok back in 2004 and in the intervening six years, it’s barely changed – which is both surprising and gratifying.

There are a few more guest-houses and a couple more places to get a (pretty poor) massage, but not much else.

Here’s the lowdown:

Where and what?

Khao Sok is about 2.5hrs drive north of Phuket, and about 1hr north-east of Khao Lak and an hour or so west of Surat Thani.

For visitors, it’s split into two parts.  The settlement around the park headquarters along the Sok river where all the guesthouses are and from where you can trek into the forest, and then Cheow Lan Lake in the north where you can go and stay in raft-huts.

Cheow Lan Lake was formed when the Rachabrapah Dam was built in the early 80′s. A blessing and a curse, as most large hydroelectric projects are, the lake covered a huge area of virgin rainforest, causing massive harm to the local wildlife and has made the most remote parts of Khao Sok accessible to rampant poaching.

It does, however provided sporadic supplies of electricity, and is absolutely one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I’ve ever visited – beats both Halong Bay and Phang Nga Bay on that front.

Glam it most certainly is not, but awesome it is, young grasshopper.

When?

For a  Brit, one of the bonuses of spending so much time in sub-tropical Hong Kong is that when it comes to holidays I do not need to head for the beach to get some sun in my bones. Khao Sok is a real all-year-round destination.

But if you were splitting hairs, I’d say the best time is on the cusp between the wet and dry season so that the reservoir is full, the waterfalls gushing, but you’re guaranteed some sunshine, and hopefully when it’s not too busy.

I like the rainy season personally, but I’m a contrarian.

Getting there – Driving is the only sensible option.

Most tourists visit Khao Sok as an organised 2-3 day trip from Phuket, or are backpacking through as it is on the trail and it can be super cheap. This means that 99.9% of visitors have to take part in organised activities which mostly have to stick to the same schedules.

Either fly into Phuket or into Surat Thani, hire a car and drive up. The roads are beautiful, it’s very easy to find, and the scenery is spectacular. You’ll also be able to stay in the best hotel – The Cliff and River – and make your own itineraries, which is highly preferable.

First Things First:

Get a hold of Waterfalls & Gibbon Calls - Exploring Khao Sok National Park by Thom Henley. Whether you do this when you arrive at Khao Sok or manage somehow to get a hold of a copy pre-arrival, it’s really worth reading before you decide how you want to spend your time in the park. Plus, a percentage of the cash goes to a children’s educational trust.

Tells you all about the flora, fauna and history as well as having a rundown on the places to stay and eat. Invaluable.

Accommodation – Park Headquarters

You can either have a spin round the village and take a look at all the different bungalows on offer, or you can just choose out of the ones I think are the best options.

Looking down to the restaurant from our balcony at the Cliff

If you have to stay around park HQ, then I would recommend The Khao Sok Rainforest Resort. It has a few “mountainside” bungalows set up a hill that look out over a bit more scenery than most of  the bungalows which are at ground level. It’s also run by one of the best guides in the park – a poacher turned gamekeeper who will take you on some great treks, hacking his way through the forest with his machete. They have good food, and really the only reason to choose The Cliff and River over this is that The Cliff is more stylish and has air-con.

We also stayed at Las Orquideas for one night, which was new, neat and tidy and run by a very friendly Spanish chap and his Thai wife.  There’s only a handful of bungalows and it’s quite a way away from both headquarters and the main restaurant area. He’s planted some beautiful gardens, but with a THB1500 price tag, I’d take The Cliff at THB2000, or the Rainforest Resort at just THB600 instead. Sorry, but you fall between two stools.

If you want something a bit more special though, there’s only one option:  The Cliff and River, about 10-15mins drive from the park entrance. This is where a car comes in handy again. You’d be completely reliant on this hotel’s facilities and activities if you didn’t have your own transport which, in all honesty, you don’t want to be.

The bungalows c1-c5 are some of the best, being up the hill halfway between the restaurant (downhill), the spa and reception (up-hill) and a few footsteps away from the lovely swimming pool/jacuzzi. But most important are the stunning views of a sheer karst cliff rising hundreds of feet above you. Breathtaking.

The rooms are large, have air-con and TV. They have lovely terraces and cute little indoor/outdoor bathrooms. Well worth the THB2000 per night.

Take note: This is a pretty new concern. Service is friendly but a bit haphazard, and they only take cash. In the low season, they don’t have many staff, so it’s more difficult to organise massages etc (we turned up for our pre-booked massages only to be told that there was just one therapist so we’d couldn’t have them simultaneously, which kind of defeated the purpose of booking).

All of the accommodation includes breakfast in the price, and as usual the breakfast is pretty darn generous and tasty in all of these hotels.

Food – Park Headquarters

It seems there are only two restaurants that are not part of a guesthouse complex. One is Thai Herb, the other is Pawn’s.

Thai Herb is a pretty good little restaurant. It’s set on stilts on a couple of different levels and is surrounded by a very pretty garden. The food was good and it was shooper cheap. Definitely recommended.

However.

Pawn’s is a whole different kettle of fish. She cooks some of the most delightfully balanced food I’ve ever eaten. It’s not just the fact that she plucks most of the ingredients out of her back garden so that they are super fresh, she just has the chef’s gift of being able to tweak her dishes to perfection. But she deserves a separate panegyric altogether, (Oo, look at me and my new Thesaurus…)

Activities – Headquarters areas.

You can go kayaking or inner-tubing down the Sok looking for wildlife and spinning out of control. You can follow the trails by yourself through the park or hire a guide to take you off the beaten track. If you haven’t tried it, inner tubing is great fun.  It’s not just for the backpackers in Laos, grown adults are allowed to enjoy it too!

Next time we go back we are going to go and do a bit of jungle survival with a couple of likely-looking guerrilla types for 4-5 days living off the land, and weaving our own hammocks etc – all very Ray Mears.

I have to say I was a bit offended when one of the guys pointed at me and said, “Of course if your girlfriend comes we’ll have to only do maybe 50%. Not 100%.” Caustic Candy then set him straight by dislocating his shoulder in one smooth movement and telling him the story of how she lost her eye and what happened to the perpetrator of that attack.

I usually delight in chauvinism and use it against them as it makes men foolish and incautious, but as I wasn’t working I thought  I could show my hand and teach this little scalawag a lesson.

There are also options to go trekking by elephant if that’s your thing. I’m still confused about whether it’s a good or a bad thing for the lovely Lelfants, so I tend to steer clear myself. The world is a complicated place sometimes.

Wildlife and Flora.

Wild animals are obviously pretty shy and the locals say that the rise in tourists has driven many of the animals deeper into the park.

Don’t go expecting to see tigers and bears, but do expect to see their traces if you go hiking off trail. We saw big cat paw prints and evidence of bears sharpening their claws on tree trunks.

We heard and saw gibbons and macaques, countless snakes and insects as well as eagles, hornbills and lots of other birds. You definitely hear more than you see, but for me that’s the magic of forests and jungles: the sitting and the listening.

We also went to see the Rafflesia, but frankly I was more concerned I might step on one the new buds hidden in the mulch, and decided that maybe it was better to see some things on the TV, and that I didn’t really need to experience all the wonders of the world up close, if it meant I might hasten their extinction.

Permits:

Poaching is still a big issue with trapping rather than hunting being the modus operandi. I’d happily pay  THB1000 a day for a permit to visit if it meant more rangers could patrol. The permits are only THB200 right now which is very generous.

So. Lots to do and much cheapness. It’s all sounding good for Khao Sok so far.

And now, any trip to Khao Sok should really include a visit to Cheow Lan Lake, but as this post is now getting a little long, I’ll tackle that separately.