Thursday, 15 September 2016

Travel: finding the right hotel

I've mentioned this before; when we travelled SE Asia for six months we had backpacks, but we weren't backpacking as such. 

What do I mean by that? Well, we needed to travel light as we planned on moving around a lot, but at the same time we saved enough money to be able to afford decent accommodation. Basically, we didn't stay in hostels. Well, we did stay in the odd budget backpacker haunt, but mostly we were able to stay in nice mid-range hotels... and the odd luxury splurge here and there! Touring the well-trodden backpacker route meant we were often travelling with slightly younger backpackers - it always felt nice checking in to a decent hotel for the night when we heard some of the horror stories of budget beds. Let's just say that I'm in the last year of my twenties and a bit of comfort goes a long way. Our time travelling definitely made me realise I am not cut out for slumming it - yes, I'm a princess - and those nights with no air-con and waking up to a cold shower were not for me. 

On average we were looking at spending around £30 a night, between the two of us. At the start of the trip we often went a little over this... and then by the end of the six months it was no surprise that we had to rein it in and were spending closer to £20 a night (and often less). Most of our accommodation was booked online before arriving at each destination to avoid trawling the streets with our backpacks in 30+ degree heat - I've done it on previous trips and it causes so much unnecessary stress! We also found we got some really great deals online - of course this wasn't always the case and sometimes you'll get a better price as a 'walk in', but we maximised the daily and weekly online sales to get good prices. 

So what makes a good hotel? What did we look out for when booking accommodation?

When looking online the first thing we found, for most places anyway, was the sheer quantity of hotels within our price-range. So we had to start being selective... just to reduce the time spent online and maximise the time spent actually enjoying each destination. 

There are some basics that we almost always tried to meet when booking hotels in SE Asia;
Air conditioning
Hot water 
Breakfast included
Central (ish) location

And this was fairly easy to find for an affordable price. The difference came when we were trying to find the little extras that make the stay that bit extra special. Some of the hotels we stayed in were really fancy - for backpackers at least! We knew when we were in these places as we felt like impostors with our big backpacks on and wearing our scrotty old trainers. It made falling in that big, comfortable bed all the more satisfying.

You could differentiate the good hotels from the mediocre quite easily; by entering the bathroom. Soft, fluffy towels. Korres toiletries. Intricate basins and fancy tiling. Showers so powerful you question if North Thailand really was going through a severe drought. Bathtubs.

In these bathrooms getting ready was a joy - no fraught shower experiences here! 

When it's over thirty degrees outside and eighty percent humidity, a pool becomes a necessity - not a luxury. And most mid-range hotels (that we stayed in) had a pool. Some better than others... to say the least! Infinity pools, sea views, swim up bars, swim up rooms... the list goes on. A good pool goes a long way when it's sweltering and you don't want to spend all your days holed up inside sat directly under the air-con. Although this is an option... one which we opted for on more than one occasion. Hanoi, I'm looking at you.

We met lots of travellers who saw pool days as cheating. This idea that you have to spend every minute of every day exploring, seeing new things, adventuring and making the most of every second is bonkers. Yes, you may be on the other side of the world but it doesn't mean you can't have down time. We knew once the six months was out we'd be going back to work and back to the stresses of everyday life - this trip was a chance to really unwind and slow our pace. 

Grab a good book, the complementary pool towel (another tick off the list) and make yourself comfortable. Ideally on one of the cushioned sun loungers scattered round the edge of the perfectly temperature-adjusted pool. Where there are no children screaming. One of the best places we stayed in had a no children in the pool policy - a right pain for the families holidaying there I'm sure, but an absolute joy for us!

Always a big one for me. Be it a particularly impressive breakfast menu, night-long room service, free mid-afternoon snacks or iced coffees on demand, these can transform a break from plain to perfect. A two course breakfast in Thailand meant we could have eggs benedict to start followed by cappuccino french toast with mango to follow. One fantastic breakfast buffet allowed us to have freshly baked chocolate bread and wholemeal waffles with berries... and then a plate of cheese and cured meats for good measure. 

One memorable foodie moment was in Penang, Malaysia, when I was presented with an iced coffee and plate of canapes one afternoon as a complementary mid-afternoon snack whilst writing my diary. This was repeated for the following three days with a different selection of nibbles each time. Needless to say I was in bliss!

All in the details
And of course it's the little things that make a special stay. It could be something simple like bathrobes made in local fabrics, available to buy and take home as a practical memento. Candles lit in the evening as part of a turn down service; coming back to a perfectly cosy room, smelling delicious and looking inviting is something special. Fresh frangipani blooms picked from the garden. An in house pooch to pet and snuggle at your whim. Collection M now make it possible to bring these small touches to your own home; after collaborating with a host of different artists they now give you the opportunity to buy bedding, art and ornaments, helping you to create that holiday hotel style back home.

* This is a collaborative post with Collection M. All views, words and pictures my own.


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Thailand: Ko Phi Phi and Maya Bay

Yes, it really is this beautiful. 

We came to Ko Phi Phi from Phuket; the boat cost 350 baht each (we haggled down from 500 baht each) and after rather a lot of waiting around at the port and then a two hour boat journey, we arrived! Phi Phi itself is a pretty small island with no motorised transport, so when we were dropped at the jetty we were pleased to find it was just a ten minute (ish) walk to our accommodation. Some of the more upmarket resorts will come and meet you at the boat and carry your bags for you if you give them a heads up before hand. We stayed six nights on Ko Phi Phi. 

A word on accommodation here - it's pretty expensive. We found it hard to find decent, affordable accommodation, and split our stay between two hotels. The first was Phi Phi Chang Grand Resort at around £28 a night - it was not worth anywhere near this price. I didn't want to put bad reviews of accommodation in these posts, but I think it's worth mentioning this one as a forewarning for anyone thinking of visiting. On first impressions the room was good; air con, four poster bed, breakfast included. However we soon discovered the bed was rock hard... I think we would have been comfier sleeping on the floor! The aircon was turned off during the day, and when I had food poisoning and needed to sleep it off, the combination of uncomfortable bed and intense heat soon became pretty unbearable. After a couple of nights we moved to Andaman Beach Resort - more expensive at around £40 a night but far more comfortable and they had a decent pool, hurrah! They also offered a free boat trip around the surrounding islands and to Maya bay which we enjoyed. 

As I say, Phi Phi itself is a small island and definitely has a reputation for being a bit of a party destination. In the evenings there are a load of bars open til late selling buckets - but don't let that put you off! We had heard mixed reviews of the island so were a little hesitant on arrival... but we loved it. As with anywhere, it is what you make it. 

Watch some Muay Thai - it's usually pretty expensive to see Muay Thai professionals in Thailand, but at Reggae Bar you can catch a glimpse for free. It's not quite the real deal, as it starts by opening to the audience. Basically, someone volunteers to fight (they could be a complete beginner or more experienced) and they wait for someone to agree to challenge them. The winner receives a bucket of booze (!) and the respect of those cheering them on. We then saw a semi-professional fight; two young Muay Thai boxers in training. It seemed fairly choreographed, but fun none the less. 

Go island hopping - there are loads of companies offering boat trips to and around the surrounding islands, or you can hire a long tail boat yourself (more on this later). We went on a free half day boat trip with our hotel (as above), being given the opportunity to snorkel, swim and visit Maya Bay. The sea is just so beautiful here; some of the bluest waters we saw on our trip! The beach at Phi Phi itself is a bit dirty - probably due to the beach parties every night - so it's worth getting out on a boat. 

Take a cookery course - definitely a highlight of our time on Phi Phi. We were recommended Pum's Cookery School and paid 1500 baht each to take the Pum's Little Shoes class at 4pm. This was perfect as we built up an appetite after a late breakfast (don't eat before hand!) and then were able to fill ourselves up on the delicious dishes we made for dinner. We cooked three dishes each but these were all shared as a group at the end. We had a pretty impressive spread of Pad Thai, Green Thai Curry, Noodle Soup, Andaman Fried Rice and Chicken with Cashews to sample between us by the time the three hours were up! It was a great way to spend an afternoon, and left with a better understanding of Thai cookery... and a very full belly!

Catch a film on the rooftop cinema - if you fancy a chilled evening be sure to visit Banana Bar's rooftop cinema. They show The Beach (filmed in Maya Bay) every week alongside more current offerings. We say Joy with Jennifer Lawrence, accompanied by some mediocre Mexican food, and had a lovely evening!

Hike up to the viewpoint - I will admit we didn't get round to doing this because it was so roasting hot in March when we visited. I've heard there great views from the top though, so give it a go and tell me what I missed out on!

Maya Bay at sunrise - another Phi Phi highlight for us was going to see Maya Bay at sunrise. Famed for being the secret beach in the film The Beach (with a young Leo), it is completely gorgeous... but packed with tourists. We wanted to avoid the crowds, so hired a longtail boat to take us at the crack of dawn. The how to is easy; find a longtail boatman the day before (you can't miss them) and arrange to meet them at around 6am (check sunrise times online). We paid 1200 baht (£24 in March 2016) for the private trip, but don't pay the whole lot upfront or you run the risk of them legging it with your money and not showing the next morning! You also have to pay 200 baht each when you arrive at the beach for a conservation fee. The journey takes around 30 minutes, and you'll get to see sunrise whilst on the boat and then be able to enjoy Maya Bay in peace. We visited a second time on another boat trip a couple of days later and it was packed; a completely different experience... and not a nice one. 

Where we ate...
Anna's - probably the best burger in Thailand (also does great Thai food).
Charlie's House - for great Western breakfasts and a good iced coffee, and a great fish BBQ in the evening. The blue marlin was delicious! 
PP Grand Arcade - next door to Charlie's House and also great for brunch.
Unni's - overpriced but tasty Western food.


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Thailand: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Our weeks spent in Chiang Mai were undoubtedly some of my favourite weeks of our entire six month trip. Not only does the Northern Thai capital have a whole load of things to see and do within the city (see my post on what we did here), there are also day-trips aplenty. Be it zip wiring through the jungle to hiring a motorbike and touring the countryside, or seeing tribal villages and having a go at local handicrafts; there's enough to keep you busy! While we mostly spent our time exploring the city and soaking up the culture we did go on a couple of excursions, the best being visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

Based about sixty kilometres outside of Chiang Mai, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an 'ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project' providing an opportunity to get up close with elephants in a way that is safe for both the elephants and tourists. 

Disclosure! When I visited Bali in 2011 I visited an elephant park where I rode an elephant and saw them perform in a circus-type show. At the time I didn't think twice about riding elephants, but most definitely felt uncomfortable seeing them shackled in small pens and reluctantly throwing basketballs through hoops. This time round I was more conscious of this and didn't want to fund something that is essentially contributing to the endangered status of Asian elephants. 

Asian elephants are engendered for several reasons; the loss of their natural habitat as the human population grows, conflict with local people when they encroach on villages, poaching for their tusks meat and skin, and being taken live for the tourism industry. There is a growing focus in Asia now, amongst backpackers in particular, with the dominant message being simple... don't ride them. Although elephants may seem to be these huge sturdy beasts, they are not built to carry heavy weights on their backs in perhaps the way that horses are (for instance). And the act of simply riding elephants is not the entire problem; often where elephants are used as a tourist attraction they are mistreated and neglected. Just weeks before we visited Cambodia we read of an elephant dying from exhaustion from carrying tourists in scorching heat. We were really saddened to see people still paying to ride elephants when we visited, so soon after this made worldwide news. I really don't think ignorance is an excuse anymore. 

So, what is the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary all about? In short, it is a project where (often rescue) elephants are cared for and given the freedom to live a healthy life. We saw no chains, no mahoots using hooks to control them and no mistreatment. We were told they use food as a way of keeping the elephants from escaping - of course this may not be the entire picture but it was a world away from the elephant tourist camp I saw in Bali in 2011. The Sanctuary also provides employment for local Karen (tribal) people, and helps to educate local communities about the dangers Asian elephants face with regards to loss of habitat and poaching. 

We didn't ride the elephants, so what else did we do? When we arrived in the morning we were asked to change in to the Karen clothing provided and we quickly went to feed the elephants. We were taught about elephant behaviour and the mission behind the project - our guide was really lovely an genuinely seemed to care about the elephants and the project. After lunch we gave the elephants a mud bath, before walking with them down to the waterfall to wash the mud off ourselves and give them a good clean too! It was so fun and a really incredible experience. I kept thinking to myself I cannot believe we're getting to do this. In the afternoon we had a go at making medicine balls for the elephants, which we then went to feed to them and have a final time to interact with the elephants. 

How much did we pay? Unlike many trips, there was no opportunity to haggle the price here! We paid 2,400 baht each for the full day package. At the time (April 2016) this was around £50 each. They also offer half day packages but I really don't think you'd get as good an experience doing this - I'd definitely recommend the full day. 

Without a doubt this was one of the best experiences of our trip! I'd completely recommend Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, but there are other projects such as the Elephant Nature Park also in Chiang Mai. 

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