Hello! My final stop of last month’s trip to Asia was southern Thailand. Natalie and I flew from Singapore to Phuket on Silk Air and then drove an hour north to Khao Lak. This part of Thailand was the hardest hit in the 2004 tsunami, but as you are about to see they’ve rebuilt this place and it’s now better than ever.
TRICKED BY CODE SHARE
When I told the limo driver we were going to Phuket, he said we couldn’t be flying Singapore Airlines as I’d originally informed him. I thought he was crazy–after all, I’m the travel expert, right? Wrong. It’s the first time in ages that I’ve been fooled by a code share. I thought for sure Natalie and I were flying Singapore Airlines, since that’s what was on the itinerary. I should’ve known something was up, however, when I couldn’t manage the reservation online and the flight number had four digits (a telltale sign).
Who the heck is Silk Air?! That was my question, too, when the driver said that’s who we were flying. I asked him how they were as an airline; he said they are owned by Singapore Airlines (SQ), and that was all I needed to know. Singapore is one of the best airlines in the world, and they wouldn’t have their name on anything that wasn’t above par.
From the Ritz-Carlton Singapore we drove 20 minutes to the Changi Airport. Changi is consistently rated as one of the top three airports in the world because of all its facilities. Changi has three terminals, so it’s important to know which one you are departing from. Thanks to having the flight info stored on my BlackBerry, I was able to quickly look it up. Terminal 2 isn’t Changi’s nicest terminal, but it sure does work well.
There was no line at check-in, and the agent was friendly and insisted we check one of our bags (there’s no baggage fee). To get into the main part of the terminal you have to show your ticket. The security person who looked at mine said with a big smile, First time to Phuket? I said it was my second, and as he pointed me to passport control he replied, Lovely place.
There the agents were all very friendly as well. Even the woman driving the annoying beeping people-mover cart had a huge smile on her face, even with a kid pushing his bag really slow in the middle of the hallway blocking her way.
Once inside the terminal there’s all kinds of shopping, a plush indoor garden, and a ton of people taking pictures–me included. What’s nice is you can keep your bottled water all the way until you get to your gate, which is when it’s time to go through security. That’s right–the main security checks are at each gate, so there’s no long backups. The security check is basically the same process as inAmerica, but shoes can stay on here. The biggest bummer about the gate area is there is no bathroom, so go before you pass through security.
Silk Air To Phuket
Silk Air boards 30 minutes before the flight. They had five flight attendants to work our full A320 plane with 138 seats (12 business and 106 in economy). The older flight attendant dressed in orange worked the front cabin while the four young and pretty FAs dressed in green uniforms served the back. If this had been in America, they would have had three flight attendants total working this flight. They also wouldn’t have treated us as well as Silk Air’s flight attendants did.
SINGAPORE TO PHUKET
They were not only friendly, but they were efficient. For the 90-minute flight they served food and drinks and offered passengers a free newspaper. They also had plenty of legroom, and that’s not just because I was in an exit row (FYI: no bags can be placed under seats in the exit row). Other notables: The seat-belt sign went off seven minutes after takeoff, and after we pulled up to the gate upon landing the FAs closed the business class cabin’s see-through curtain to allow the premium passengers to deplane first.
The Phuket Airport (HKT) is nothing special, but it worked. Bags came out quickly, and just outside of the exit we found our tour operator, who escorted us to our driver.
HKT AIRPORT TO KHAO LAK
We were headed to Khao Lak, and we had no idea how long it would be because our driver didn’t speak English. On the map it looked like 90 minutes, but it ended up taking just an hour and 10 minutes. It was a relief to see lots of JW Marriott hotel signs, so I knew we were going in the right direction. Although we were tired from waking up before sunrise, we stayed awake most of the drive since there were some seriously good people-watching and of course crazy drivers. My favorite was this fisherman cruising on his moped while texting.
JW Marriott Khao Lak
The JW Marriott Khao Lak is 83 kilometers (51 miles) north of Phuket airport. It’s a resort town that’s popular with Germans. On our way to the hotel I saw a bunch of Tsunami Emergency Route signs and a Tsunami Memorial Museum, so I knew something was up. Sure enough, I learned after doing some research that the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami devastated this place. Most of the coastal resorts were either heavily damaged or completely crushed, and more than 4,000 people died, including a grandson of the king.
JW MARRIOTT KHAO LAK
Since I had been in Bangkok on a Marriott-sponsored press trip, and Natalie and I had a few extra days, they invited us to their new JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort and Spa (it used to be the Sofitel Magic Lagoon). I wasn’t really into staying at a typical American chain hotel, but when I heard it was the recipient of the 2010 Condé Nast World’s Top New Hotels award, I was intrigued. The hotel has 293 rooms including 20 suites spread throughout three floors in multiple buildings that have no sign of a standard chain. The exteriors have Thai-style architecture, and the interiors were all created by local craftspeople, so it felt like I was indeed in Thailand. Nightly rates start from 3,999 baht = US$132.
LONGEST SWIMMING POOL
The PR woman asked if we wanted a room on the ground floor or one on the second floor. Normally I would’ve taken a higher floor with the extended balcony–not only because it’s a better view, but also because it’s generally safer and would ease tsunami fears (though there’s 0.001 percent chance of it happening again). But this hotel is different because almost all the ground-floor rooms have a deck that extends to Southeast Asia’s longest swimming pool. The three-kilometer (1.8-mile) lagoon-style pool is gigantic, and it took me about 20 minutes just to swim around part of it! There’s also a pool within the pool with an OK waterslide. Another section has an interesting feature with recliners that lie just below the pool’s waterline and surrounded by whirlpool jets.
The rooms have hardwood floors and are well designed with basically everything you need. The highlight is JW’s comfortable bed with Egyptian cotton linens and pillows, which is especially cozy for working in bed on your laptop using the hotel’s free Wi-Fi or watching a movie on the 40-inch LCD flat-screen TV (there are lots of satellite channels). There’s no need to bring a plug adapter because they had multi-purpose outlets. There were free bottles of water that got replenished each day, a ceiling fan, and air-conditioning. The only negative I could find was that the property smelled like sewage for a few minutes during a lightning storm that knocked out power for five minutes before the generators kicked in, but that’s it–and even that was exciting.
There’s a large glass window separating the bedroom and the bathroom with wood blinds for those wanting privacy. The bathroom had a separate closet with a toilet, walk-in glass shower, and a deep soaking tub that wasn’t too inviting with its hard edges.
JW Marriott Khao Lak Dining
The resort has eight different places to eat on property including Thai, Japanese, Mediterranean, and international restaurants. When we first arrived, Natalie ordered Pad Thai from the beach bar. I thought for sure that ordering food and having it delivered beachside was going to cost a small fortune, but after we did the conversion it was just US $7. It would’ve been triple that price in other parts of the world, and to boot Natalie said it was the best Pad Thai she has ever had. The other restaurant we ate on property was the breakfast buffet (700 baht, or US$23)–it’s housed in a beautiful modern glass building with all kinds of food stations so you could get whatever you wanted: fresh fruit, juices, eggs/omelets made to order, all the usual and unusual trimmings, pastries, breads, cheeses, deli meats… you name it. My favorite, besides the spicy chicken, was a fresh fruit and vegetable juice bar where you could make your own concoctions.
What’s crazy is that even though the hotel’s prices were so reasonable, there were multiple beachfront restaurants on both sides of the hotel that were almost as good but a quarter of the price. It was insane. At our favorite restaurant, Farmai, we were getting Pad Thai for 60 baht (US$2), Thai chicken curry for 100 baht (US$3.30), and fresh fruit smoothies for 50 baht (US$1.65). A can of soda cost 30 baht (US$1). When I ran out of Thai money I would exchange U.S. cash, and the owner would give me 580 baht for US$20.
If that wasn’t good enough, Farmai also offered massages until 6 p.m. An hour foot or Thai massage cost 300 baht (US$9.91); a manicure or pedicure was 200 baht (US$6.60). It was like a dream.
Obviously the beach massage isn’t very posh, so if you are one of those people that needs to have everything pristine, then mosey on over to the hotel’s Quan Spa. When you first sit down–even to just browse the menu–they serve you chilled grape juice and give you a scented towel. They do it again when you show up for your appointment. Natalie ordered us a couples massage (don’t tell her, but I despise them, because she’s always cold and asks for the a/c to be turned off).
Once the well-trained young Thai therapists led us to one of the many treatment rooms, they had us change into our birthday suits and cover up using a towel by the entryway. They were waiting for us in the other room next to each table. I’m not sure of the massage price, because we got that for free, but Natalie added a 30-minute body scrub that cost 900 baht (US$29), so prices are reasonable. I had a coffee scrub, and Natalie chose coconut. FYI: The therapists pretty much see you naked as they practically scrub your whole body. It felt really good, and afterward, you can shower off either in the outdoor or indoor shower. Then it’s massage time–it was nice, but my girl wasn’t strong enough and I didn’t have the heart to tell her. But at the end she had me sit up and inch over to the end of the table, then she jumped up and worked on my upper back and neck. Pretty cool.
KhaoLak Beach What’s a plus is that the hotel doesn’t get a lot of American visitors–most of them are European (lots of Germans). But what stinks is that every morning, everyone rushes out to reserve the beach chairs in the first row. I hate doing this, but if you want the good views, you gotta do it. The plus is there are plenty of chairs, so you don’t have to worry about not getting one like at some resorts. And hardly anyone lies on the beach, so you can always grab a towel and do it the old-fashioned way. FYI: The ocean water is the warmest I’ve ever felt. The temperature must be in the high 80s.
JW Marriott Khao Lak Video
Here’s a video I made of our stay at the JW Marriott.
Khao Sok National Park
Thai Tourism arranged for Nai, the owner of local tour company Green Andaman Travel, to give us a tour. Nai was awesome. He picked us up in his car and drove us an hour and 10 minutes to the Khao Sok National Park. His company arranges day and overnight adventures where you can spend the night in a treehouse. Sounds cool, but we only had time for a day tour, which included a relaxing 90-minute ride on a bamboo raft; we stopped halfway to trek through a part of a rain forest to reach a cave full of bats (see the video). Afterward, one of his tour operators made instant coffee from boiling water in a bamboo reed and served it to us and the other customers in a bamboo cup. It was an incredible experience, and the Khao Sok National Park is truly beautiful.
Khao Lak Elephant Trekking
One of the most popular activities to do in Thailand is to go on an elephant trek. The elephant or “Chang Thai” is the national animal of Thailand, and for centuries Thais have been using them for labor and transportation. We were going to go to a tour operator nearby, but they were all booked with day-trippers coming from Phuket. So instead we stopped to see some wild monkeys while Nai made a couple phone calls and reserved an elephant trek closer to our hotel. On the hour drive back Nai showed us rubber trees and explained how they process the sap (it looked similar to maple syrup).
SAIRUNG ELEPHANT TREKKING
Just a few kilometers from our hotel was Sairung Elephant Trekking. When we hopped on the massive animal we were told to fasten the seat belt, and they handed us a bottle of not-great-tasting water. Unlike in Africa, you sit in a chair and not on a saddle. It doesn’t feel all that stable, and it sure is bumpy. Our mahout (elephant handler) didn’t speak English, and unlike the time I did it in Chiang Mai he didn’t ride on top of the elephant’s neck–instead he controlled the animal from behind as we walked along some pretty narrow paths, ducking branches. About 20 minutes in we stopped at a little camp where a couple of Thai woman had a souvenir booth. The highlight here is walking down a short path for a view of the waterfall. When you arrive back at the camp 20 minutes later they offer you a $10 photo of yourselves that they took in the beginning and give you some cold sliced pineapple and bottled water. They also offer you the opportunity to feed the elephant for 20 baht (US$0.66).
Elephants eat 500 lbs. of food a day (they like bananas and sugar cane) and they drink about 60 gallons of water. But they have a bladder smaller than a dog’s… huh? I also learned that male Asian elephants have tusks and they have 40,000 muscles in their trunks. The elephant’s pace on this tour is very slow, but bear in mind they can run up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) an hour. The elephant ride costs around 1,000 baht (US$33), but your guide, if you have one, typically pays the fee.
We were really curious about what happened during the tsunami but wary about asking anyone questions since obviously it’s a touchy subject. Nai welcomed questions, though, and listening to his stories was heartbreaking. He had a successful tour business with several boats, but that day he lost them all. Even worse, he was out in the water on one his excursions that day and he knew something was wrong–but back then no one knew about tsunamis or the warning signs. That’s all changed now. He said they got lucky thanks to his quick thinking, though they did lose one tourist (a Swedish woman in her sixties) out of the 12 in his boat. He also lost a driver in one of his other boats.
He drove us through the town of Khao Lak, which was wiped out by the tsunami and now has a cemetery, museum and a few memorials including a couple monster fishing boats that were tossed inland like toys. Almost everything has been rebuilt, and Khao Lak’s economy is slowly bouncing back–most of the coastal resorts were reconstructed. Fisheries and rubber plantations are now thriving again. After doing some research I learned that the waves traveled five miles inland since the ground is so flat. It’s heartbreaking and disturbing, to say the least. No doubt the place is still absolutely beautiful, everything is so cheap, and the Thai people are super friendly and welcoming.
On our last night Natalie and I were eating dinner on the beach when a beach hawker came up to us and asked if we wanted a flying lantern. If I hadn’t seen them in the air the night before, I would’ve thought he was selling a paper bag. For 150 baht (US$4.50) these flying lanterns, also known as Sky Lanterns, make the perfect goodbye. The seller encouraged us to write a message on it before he lit the candle, making it float away. FYI: They last for up to 20 minutes, can gain more than 1,000 feet in altitude, and can travel several miles. They are made of flame-resistant paper and are 100 percent biodegradable so it seemed like a good idea. I found a company online that will sell them in the U.S. for $4.99 each, but it’s definitely not the same as sending it aloft in the dark Asia sky with the message “I love you Thailand and I can’t wait to return.”