April 2014 - After twelve months in the planning finally it is time for our holiday.
My wife Sam ( 34 ) Daughters Amy ( 8 ) and Hannah ( 5 ) and me, Simon ( 35 ) are ready to go on a 20 day trip to Thailand. We are from Victoria, Australia. This will be our first overseas holiday. We have planned and organized all aspects of the trip ourselves. We start in Bangkok, head North to Chiang Mai and finish up in Phuket.
Our best/favourite resources have been trip advisor,booking.com, Richard Barrow on twitter and Mark Wiens on youtube. Here we go.....
Travel again today. Phuket is our next destination. A quick breakfast at Kamala guesthouse. We went traditional english breakfast. It was just ok. There was a Thai lady doing a roaring trade opposite, we wished we had checked out whatever she was selling. Kamala guesthouse did have the best coffee I have had in Thailand so far. The majority of the coffee is brewed filter style ( americano ) I am an espresso addict! and this one really hit the spot. We did our last minute packing. Sam did some amazing tetris work to get everything in.
Songkran again was in full swing. We were so grateful that we got to have our fun yesterday. It would have been a huge shame to miss out by one day. This festival must be seen to be believed. It does not matter who you are or where you are from, all are splashed and wished a happy new year. We decide at least three quarters of the worlds water pistols must be located in Thailand. We hope the party atmosphere continues in Phuket.
As we fly out of Chiang Mai, I think to myself that the airport reminds me of Coolangatta on the gold coast. It was a very seamless check in procedure. We though 145 baht for curry or pad thai was a bit steep - our usual serving costs about 50 baht. Tried Burger King - Big mistake. Wish we had gone Thai. After landing at Phuket, we dodge the taxi and mini bus touts and head to the taxi rank. As today is songkran there are very few taxis available. The going price to Karon was 2880 baht ( approx $90 AUD ) I laughed at the guys and lined up. We finally settled with a metered taxi on 1500 baht. This was more than all our transportation ( excluding safari world ) that we have spent in the previous 11 days. The taxi driver was Aryton Senna reincarnated. Speed limits, lanes and traffic lights counted for naught. As we travelled towards Karon we had water thrown over the windscreen whilst moving at 100kph several times. Songkran is different here. It seems to be spread along the highway and feels really dangerous. As we held on for our lives, we finally drive through Kata then Karon. The celebrations were more compact here but the Thai aspect was mostly missing. The bulk of people playing songkran were fat westerners whos main objective was to throw water at the faces of oncoming scooters. Without a doubt Chiang Mai is the place to be for Songkran. Our taxi driver seemed to be obsessed with ladyboys. It was only in hindsight that I realised that I share a name with the biggest ladyboy cabaret in Thailand.
After the taxi had taken us to the wrong Centara resort ( there are five different Centara in the Karon area alone ) we finally make it to Centara Karon Resort. During check in we are informed that the room we booked in Oct 2013. ( 7 months ago ) has managed to become double booked. We were given a lesser valued room and a dinner voucher. Not the best start to our time in Phuket. We were treated to a nice sunset from the rooms balcony. Enjoyed taking some photos. We then decided to check out the restaurant with our voucher. It was a wok themed buffet. A lot of the dishes were very good. Back to the room for movie and bed.
As usual, we wake up pretty early. It was a pain in the backside having to repack our suitcases for our room relocation. We head for an explore looking for a cafe we found on trip advisor. No luck finding this one. We decided on a restaurant called the Baron. It seemed exclusively Russian here. The food was average at best.
Thinking about it, there are no Thais here other than the ones who work here or drive taxis. My initial thoughts of Karon is that it has been overtaken and depersonalised by the tourist. All the Thai people speak good English. I said a couple of words to a vendor in the market in Thai and he asked how long I had lived there for. The menus at our restaurant are dominated by Russian and Scandinavian foods with the Thai dishes shuffled to the back.
We had time to kill waiting for our room so we went for a long, long walk along Karon beach. This beach does go on forever and is stunningly beautiful. It was nice getting our feet wet. The sun was really hot and even though it was only 9.30am we all got a little sunburned. Back to the hotel and our room is still not ready... We head back to our old room for showers. The cleaning staff had already been through and we felt a little bad for them having to do the room twice. The hotel staff gave us another lunch token for messing us around. Back to the lotus restaurant we went. I ordered a tom yum goong which was very nice. I love my food really spicy and this had some good heat. We got our usual noodle dishes, pad thai and pad see ew. Both dishes were nothing like what we had been eating in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Catered to us farang, the pad see ew had cauliflower and broccoli. Hmmmmm.
As there were not too many people in the restaurant we thought we might try our luck and asked if we could have mango and sticky rice for dessert, even though it was not on the menu. No luck, but the waiter brightened considerably that we asked. Oh you like sticky rice!! Our free lunch still managed to cost 1000 baht in drinks. Everything is dearer here. We were looking forward to going to see the Fantasea show but at 1800 baht each we are still deciding.
The hotel staff inform us that finally our room is ready. The room is great and very spacious with a huge balcony. My only disappointment is that there is no bum gun. The Thais and anywhere else in the world that uses this method of cleaning up sure do have it right.
Karon is so beautiful at the beach, but we miss terribly having the Thai people around us going about their lives. We have so much fun in the last two weeks trying to break through the language barrier and interact with the Thai people. I am not sure if I am being a hard judge on Karon but I am wishing I was back in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. I am sure Karon and Phuket in general will grow on me in time.
Time for a swim at the pool. The pool area is really nice. There are waterslides for the kids to play on. The bigger of the two slides has been taken over by a bunch of young Aussie boys which made it impossible for anyone elses kids to use. I am learning that family resorts for most people means dump your kids and absolve yourself of any responsibility. Disappointing.
After our swim, we get ready to go on our next adventure. We thought we could get a taxi for a reasonable price and see a few sights so we head down to the beach strip where all the taxis are. After being quoted 1800 baht to get from Karon to Big buddha we are feeling a little deflated. In Bangkok we could get almost anywhere by cab in the city for 200baht. Chiang Mai was 80-150baht even though it was the busiest time of year there. I feel like Phuket is a money grabbing beast that is not the Thailand we have discovered and fallen in love with.
We felt we had to suck it up and decided to head into Patong. Cab fare was 400 baht one way and the driver tailgated and flashed his lights at the car in front almost the entire trip. In Bangkok the traffic is crazy. In Phuket, the drivers are crazy. We head to the Jungceylon shopping centre. It was ok, the kids played in the Thai version of Timezone. The highlight was watching the girls play a game akin to guitar hero, except this version was played on the traditional Thai drums. We stocked up on beer and supplies at the Big C.
Finally a change in our Phuket luck. Our taxi driver on the way home drove sensibly. He spoke English very well and seemed to take a genuine interest in us and our holiday so far. I asked Ben with my fingers crossed if he was available to hire for a half or full day. He said yes, starting at 1200 baht for 8hrs or so. Told him please let us book you for day after tomorrow. We enquired at the hotel for a similar service, they charged 700 per hr with a three hr minimum. We will be so disappointed if we can't use him to see Phuket. Hopped out of the cab feeling positive towards Phuket for the first time since we landed here. Banana rotee from the street for dinner on the way home. Yummy!!
Today we are heading out to the place Hannah has been looking forward to most. Splash jungle. We booked our tickets through the hotel which came with a bus transfer too. Tickets were 650 baht per adult, 325 baht per kid with the Centara discount applied. The killer was the 400 baht per seat for a spot on the minibus. This felt like a lot at the time but after the trip we realized that it was approx a 60km round trip. As usual the drive there was harrowing. The drivers we seem to be getting drive around like you do in a game like GTAV. Splash jungle itself was pretty good. There was plenty for the girls to do. Hannah was a little under the 122cm min for the bigger slides.
Splash jungle is located right near the airport. Every 10 mins or so a plane takes off. I have to say we didn't notice them until we sat down. We had a lunch of cheeseburgers and fries. Not such a good choice. We have our seats booked on the 2.00pm bus back to the hotel. This was another fingernail biting kind of ride. Our bus trip took us back along the coast road to drop others off at their various hotels. The towns North of Patong seem to be more our thing. Much less tourists and the Thai folk going gently about their lives. The resorts here look first class. Surin beach & Kamala area stood out.
The girls wanted to go for a swim. I chose to chill on the deck chairs and got eaten alive. Sunscreen first then bug spray. Always. We strolled down to the beach for some sunset photos and people watching. I am unsure if it is the Russians or the Scandinavian people, but they love to take model like pics on the beach. Don't get me wrong, some of the girls doing this were stunning, it is just different to what we do at home and most certainly very un Thailike!!
As the sun sinks into the ocean, we head along the strip looking for a restaurant we had seen on an earlier walk. We settled on the Waroburi. We later realized that this was our landmark and we had wanted to eat next door. Oh well. The girls got mocktails, Sam a Long Island Ice tea and me a beer. We had grilled tiger prawns and some cheese and spinach rolls for entree. Girls went western for dinner, Sam a Pad see ew and I went for a spicy curry. My curry had lots of broccoli. Not Gai larn, normal broccoli. Disappointed in our food again. We had some desserts. Ice cream in tropical climates needs to be consumed quickly or you will be sipping it through a straw! All up our dinner came to 2500baht. $75 Aud for a big meal like this at home is cheap but here it would have fed us for two whole days in Chiang Mai. This is one of the most expensive meals we have had in Thailand so far. The best part of dinner was the Thai singer playing acoustically. If you're going to San Flansisco!
Slow walk home and everyone is straight to sleep. Really looking forward to what our guide and car can offer us tomorrow.
We head out early this morning to the beach and in search of breakfast. We find some nice smoothies and hire deck chairs. The girls enjoyed playing in the water while I did some photography & people watching. Karon beach will be gentle for ten sets of waves and then the odd five footer will break very close to the shore. It caught quite a few off guard and I now understand why so many tourists manage to drown here.
Back to the hotel, our Driver Ben turned up right on time. We mentioned a few things we were interested in seeing and left the rest up to him. Our first stop was Kata beach. The road here runs right along the beach, it was very scenic and reminded me of Surfers Paradise. Our next stop was Karon viewpoint. We take in some amazing views, have a good look around and take some pics. It appears at all the tourist stops there is an opportunity to have your picture taken with some animal tethered to something or other. Here it was a majestic sea eagle and a sea hawk. It is sad to see these beautiful creatures denied their freedom.
Our next stop is Nai Harn beach. This beach is stunning. The surrounds here remind me of Wilson Prom. The beach is very gentle and surrounded by mountains with islands off in the distance. We will try and spend time here when we stay in Rawai. There are still tourists but nothing like the hordes at Karon. We spot a a food cart and grab some gai yarn ( bbq chicken ) and drinks. Gai yarn generally is cut into pieces, bone and all, with a huge cleaver. Entertaining stuff.
Onwards we go to Cape Promthep. This is the Southernmost point of Phuket. You can walk right out onto the cape. We chose not to as it was quite a climb back up and so hot! Ben had our timing spot on - busloads of tourists started to roll in just as we were leaving. There is a beautiful elephant shrine at the top of the hill. Off we go again to Rawai beach. This is what Sam and I had really been looking forwards to. Seeing the longtail boats lined up along the shore line really lifted our spirits. We continue on to the Phuket orchid farm. We thought we would go have a look and get some photos. Adults 300baht, kids 150baht. The girls got an orchid as a present on entry from the owner. The flowers were beautiful and we found a decent bird collection up the back.
Moving on from the orchid farm, we head to the Big Buddha. The winding drive snaked around the mountain taking us to the top. We pass a lot of ATV bikes zipping up and down. Sadly we pass monkeys chained around the neck to a tree and a baby elephant in a similar situation. The summit of the mountain treats us to some amazing views, with the Big Buddha towering above us. There is no entry fee here which was a nice change. You could buy a little bell, write a message and hang up around the grounds. Nice touch
We move on again, Phuket bird park the next place we visit. Here they have some very exotic birds etc. We toured around the grounds, steep hills and all. The best part of the park was the parrot house which you could walk through amongst the birds. We bought some food for 100 baht which attracted the birds to Hannah. She had one on her arm and one on her head as well. I had one come and land on my shoulder too. We skipped the show as it was now 3pm and we hadn't yet stopped for lunch.
We had requested to Ben to take us somewhere with good authentic Thai food. He had a restaurant in Phuket Town in mind but as it was now 4pm we had missed lunch and were too early for dinner. Not to worry, we stopped at a service station with a restaurant attached called Tiny co. As it turns out, the food they served was the best by far that we have had in Phuket to date. From the servo.... Yep.
Wat Chalong was our new destination. Phukets biggest Wat and as like so many that we have visited and seen throughout Thailand, incredibly Beautiful. We saw two wedding parties here having photos done. One bride was in a striking red dress, the other in traditional Thai attire. We have a good look around and head off again. Phuket butterfly garden was next on the list. Here we found awesome scorpions, bird eating spiders and tarantulas which I found fascinating. Of course there were some lovely butterflies too.
Phuket Town was our next mission. We walked through the city and enjoyed the cool, hip shops and the interesting architecture. After our walking tour and all the adventures of today. We decided a massage was in order. Kims massage was the venue and before long we are all getting our feet massaged. Ben decided he would have one too. For Amy, Hannah and I it was our first time. The Thai ladies pushed, poked and popped all parts of our feet and legs. I have to say I am a big fan of this and am regretting not having done this in Bangkok & Chiang Mai. It was only 300 baht each for a hr foot massage. To finish an amazing day Ben took us to the Natural Restaurant. This is where we were going to have lunch but night has come and we are here having dessert. The girls were elated that they did mango & sticky rice. I had a nice banana dish.
Finally home, everyone is ready for bed after a massive day. There simply is no other way to see Phuket as a family other than hiring a car / driver. Ben was fantastic and charged us 1200 baht for the day. He went far and beyond his quote to us. If I used the hotel car and driver this would have been 8400baht. I can only begin to imagine what the taxi mafia would have charged. His insight into the island and also what he had learned about us has turned our opinion of Phuket around drastically. Off to Rawai tomorrow. We have booked Ben to take us to the hotel and continue our Phuket tour.
We are packed and ready for our next destination. Sam is a master at it by now. After a decent buffet breakfast at the Lotus we bid a farewell to the hotel. Amy left a note for the cleaners along with the orchids we got at the orchid farm. Ben picked us up, squeezed all of our luggage in the back and off we went. Rawai Palms is a really nice hotel. The lobby, grounds, pool and our room are fantastic.
We jump back into the car after checking in and head to Phuket aquarium on Cape Panwa. The aquarium was very nice and cheap too - 100 baht adult entry. We spent some time taking photos and head back to the Natural restaurant for lunch. This turned into an epic feast. We have asked Ben to eat with us several times and each time that he had accepted he provides us with insight into what dishes to try. We had som tam, steamed snapper, crab curry soup, massaman curry, pomelo salad, pad see ew and more. This was such a delicious lunch. Even with all five of us filled to the neck with food it was still under 1000baht. I really enjoyed this restaurant. The decor and setting was very cool and the food amazing.
After lunch we head up to Toe Sae Hill. There are supposedly many semi tame monkeys there. We arm ourselves with nuts and bananas and drive up the hill. We only saw one big male on the way up. Coming down the hill was much better. We see three monkeys on the road and slow down. As soon as the car stops we are surrounded by 20 - 30 monkeys. They just kept coming from along the cliff face. We were very excited to see these monkeys in their own habitat. My mind wandered back to the monkeys we saw on the way to the Big Buddha. The chains around their necks and the denial of their freedom must go against every instinct that they are provided with.
We finish up our day and head back to the hotel for a swim. After recharging we venture out on a walk, having settled on Nikita's for our dinner. The view there was superb, the staff friendly but the food only so so. I had a som tam, which they made super spicy for me and was good but the portion size was huge. I followed this with a pizza that was only fair. Dinner here was moderately priced and the portions huge but it was all about the beautiful location. The tide rushes in as the pier lights up creating a wonderful backdrop for dinner. Home to bed after another enjoyable day.
Rain. A deluge of rain in the morning has us worried as we have booked ourselves a longtail boat to see Bon Island & Coral Island. 2000 baht the cost. We have a buffet breakfast at the hotel, which was very good. Our boat was booked for 9.00am, the rain stopped at 8.50am. Sweet. We meet our longtail driver, get on board and disembark from Rawai beach. We feel like we are living in a post card. So beautiful. After a 20 min or so ride we skirt around Coral Island to Banana Beach. There was a much bigger beach on the Rawai side of the island that was full of speed boats and people. We played in the water, looking at the tropical fish as they swam around our feet. Sam got some great videos using her phone and the Songkran pouch we had bought in Chiang Mai. Lots of broken coral on the beach to look at. We found a lizard around 30cms long just going about his day. We finish off with a smoothie and head to our next stop, Bon Island.
As we pull up at this Island, we realise that we are alone here, aside from the restaurant staff. Now this is paradise. We are shown around by the owner Dawn. We pull up some deck chairs and watch the Hermit crabs battle for their shells. Our utopia lasted only for a little while as a party of three longtails had arrived. Some others come and go as we play around. Dawn came around to every person on the Island and suggested if they were having lunch, do it before the big party on the island ordered. We did exactly that. Our lunch was garlic prawns, pineapple fried rice and pad med mamuang. All dishes were good. We play in the water and on the beach for another hr until 3 speedboats turn up. This was our cue to leave. We have learnt that speedboats and big buses mean it's time to go.As soon as these beasts pull up, swarms of people are minutes away.
We longtail back to shore, make our way to the hotel for some rest and a swim. Tonight we headed to the fish market for dinner. We settled on BBQ @ Rawai. The host here was really nice and took me shopping for our seafood. We got some squid, huge tiger prawns, white snapper and some small clams. The kitchen cooked everything up really well. It was a great feast. The seafood cost 1040 baht. The cooking, side dishes, drinks and desert another 1000 baht. Total of $60 AUD for the freshest and most amazing seafood feast. It was a great backdrop watching the vendors go about their work. We taxi home and head off to sleep. We all are sporting some sunburn today. Ouch.
We awake to some bad news from home this morning. Our house has been robbed. We are feeling very violated and very flat. Fortunately we have wonderful family and friends to help take care of things there. We have booked a James Bond Island canoe tour with a company called Panwa Canoe Phuket. We were going to use John Gray Sea Canoes at around 16000 baht. Our guide / driver / friend Ben has gotten us a discount on the tickets. List price for 2 Adults / 2 kids was 10000 baht. We got for 6000 baht. Hotel transfers were included in this price but we decided to get Ben to drive us instead. We figured we get to avoid the crazy minibus drivers. We are picked up and head to Ao Po pier. We take a nice walk out along the pier to where the boats are stationed. Everybody boards their respective boats and we head out to sea.
Only 15 mins in and our boat breaks down. What have we gotten ourselves into. Fortunately the company's biggest boat turns around and picks us up. Now we have double the amount of people on board the boat. Had we found difficulty out at sea I am sure the result would have been disastrous. Onwards we streamed towards James Bond Island. The beautiful scenery along the way made it bearable despite that we were now double packed on the boat. Upon arrival at James Bond we transfer to a huge longtail boat which ferries us to the Island. These boats take 50 - 60 people and have no life jackets on board. The driver takes off and does a huge turn that very nearly flips the boat. You know things are bad when you can see fear on the Thai workers faces... Lots of shouting back and forth.
We get to the Island along with approx 400 hundred other tourists. Way too many people in such a small space. Lots of super pushy market vendors here. This place is stunningly beautiful but tourism has eaten this one up. In Thailand, there are no real barriers around their landmarks. You can still walk or climb over anything. I understand human erosion to these treasures but I feel a better connection to these sorts of places being able to touch rather than just see.
Back on board the big longtail arrives for a much better controlled ride back to the big boat. Time for lunch. Due to us being double loaded the queue for lunch took some time. It doesn't help when people fail to listen. The staff ask us to queue from the left and move around to the right. Lunch is served and the people swarm from all sides. Grrrr. We are at our second stop, with most on board still eating and get ready for our first canoe ride. Sam and Amy get on their canoe while Hannah and I do the same. We entered the first cave. Wow. Truly spectacular. Due to the excess people on board it feels as though the duration of the canoe ride was cut short. Everyone gets back on board and we head to our next cave. When we arrive we are told no good, the entrance is underwater due to the tide rising and we being so far behind in our schedule. The boat stops here for twenty minutes or so for everyone to have a swim or a canoe. Many people took to jumping from the top of the boat, which was fun to watch. I estimate it was an 8m plunge to the water.
We head to the next cave, the crew don headlamps and into the darkness we go. Beyond the tunnel into the cave laid a beautiful lagoon. Sam and Amy have a go at paddling the canoe back to the boat. The crew put on a little show which was very entertaining for the ride back to the pier. Ben had been waiting for us from our due back time of 4pm. It was now 6.30pm.
We stopped off at the walking market. Same old market fare here, just a little more expensive. The best thing about every market I have visited here in Thailand is the food on offer and this one is no exception. I had a spicy salad, noodles, spring rolls, sausage, pork skewers and a smoothie for 120 baht. Can't beat that. The humidity is sky high in the market. We all come out drenched from sweat. Ben picks us back up. Home, shower and bed.
Tonight with heavy hearts we have to go home.... one last day of Thailand fun. We have the hotels buffet breakfast again, the girls have one last swim in the pool. We are picked up at 12pm and head into Phuket Town. We went and checked out the Phuket trickeye gallery. This place was cool. Lots of fun was had matching the poses. We spotted a pad thai restaurant over the road and decided that this was lunch. It was the best pad thai of the entire trip.
From the museum we make our way to Bang Pae Waterfall and the Gibbon rehabilitation centre. There are many Thai families playing in the water and having picnics. A moderate hike to the falls, they would be great to see after a spell of rain. The humidity in the forest was off the charts. Ben takes us to one last beach, Nai Yang. This seems to be where the Thais go to the beach as we are the only Westerners in sight. Awesome! We get some crepes from a roadside vendor, a lovely Muslim lady. Ben takes us to the airport.
Fond farewells and the realisation that our epic family adventure has come to an end. Our flight home is uneventful. Back to reality. We have no doubt we will be back. Sooner rather than later.
In summary, I am so incredibly grateful to have been able to share this adventure with my wife and daughters. Lots of Aussies come back from Thailand having seen only Patong or Karon or Kata and come back with the impression that this is what Thailand is about. I cant stress enough how much we got out of trying to interact with as many Thai people as we could. We have fallen in love with Thailand and are already planning our next trip.
If you got through all of my ramblings, I commend you. I would love to hear of your own family travel adventures throughout Thailand.