Thailand: First Far East Adventure
As our first trip to the Far East together we chose Thailand, with 3 nights in Bangkok and 8 nights in Hua Hin. We also decided to play it safe and book it as a package deal, including transfers, through Virgin Holidays rather than booking the various elements ourselves. Visas were not required, but we needed to play catch-up on the appropriate inoculations even though we weren’t planning on venturing too far into mainland Thailand…better safe than sorry. The Far East has always been on our bucket list and we agreed that Thailand was a good place to start. It didn’t disappoint on any level.
Although booked through Virgin Holidays, they effectively outsourced most of the in-country elements. This made finding the transfer from the airport a little trickier than usual, but after a while we got it sorted and the run into downtown Bangkok was not too bad. The hotel, Rembrandt (Sukhumvit Soi 18), was excellent and in a very cosmopolitan area full of shopping malls, restaurants, bars and other hotels. Interestingly, Sukhumvit is Thailand’s longest road with many adjoining ‘Sois’ (sub-streets), so the nearby BTS Skytrain station proved to be a blessing.
After getting checked-in, avoiding the lady selling excursions and dropping off the bags, we grabbed a taxi down to Siam Square for our traditional visit to any Hard Rock Café that’s available. The roads were crazily busy and the journey very slow, so the return leg was via the Skytrain. This was very easy to use after the initial confusion over working out the fare, the direction of travel and the station names. To be fair, after this first use, we never struggled at all and actually preferred this mode of transport to the taxis and Tuk Tuks. The Skytrain is cheaper, faster and less hassle, especially in comparison to the Bangkok Tuk Tuk drivers that just want to take you to attractions and trips that you are not interested in…beware.
The next couple of days saw us taking in various cultural attractions such as Wat Arun Ratchawaram, The Grand Palace, Chao Phraya River bus/taxi, Chinatown and Khao San Road (backpacker’s area) for beers and deep fried scorpion! We found a secret ‘speakeasy’ bar called Havana Social that was located down a very dodgy looking alley and accessed by picking up a public phone in a doorway. Once inside this 1920’s Prohibition style bar, we had a few rum based cocktails and nibbles. It was mid-week and somewhat quite, but at a weekend they apparently have live music and it becomes much busier. We also ate at a place called Cabbages and Condoms (yes, you read that right), which is a ‘Business for Social Progress’ restaurant. As such, all profits support programs in primary health, education, HIV/AIDS, rural development, environment and water. It was quirky, with condom decorations everywhere, but the food was excellent. We even received complimentary condoms, instead of mints, with the bill!
Bangkok was great, but after a few nights we were happy to be heading south to Hua Hin for a week by the beach. Virgin had arranged a transfer and told us it’d be a 2 hour drive. We were picked up by a guy in a very plush minivan, just for us, with reclining seats and working air conditioning. Great, we thought, a nice way to travel and after a snooze we’d arrive for part two of our trip. Wrong! After almost 5 hours on the road, crawling along in traffic for most of the journey, we pulled into the Centara Grand Beach Resort exhausted, grumpy and ready for a beer.
The hotel was fantastic quality, with a great room and a lovely beachfront view. It was actually the hotel featured in the movie The Killing Fields, a biographical film about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which is based on the experiences of two journalists. The downside with this hotel was the clientele, with a few exceptions. The average age must have been over 70 and most were of German or Scandinavian origin. This resulted in zero sun loungers after 7am and any sense of holiday fun was met with growls and complaints. I know what you’re thinking the sun lounger thing is a stereotype and overly exaggerated, but seriously this place was unbelievable. After complaining to the manager the situation did improve somewhat, with the pool boys clearing away towels, books and even swimming costumes from sun loungers that had not been used for a few hours. In terms of fun, we were told to be quiet after someone complained about how loud we were talking in the pool…not messing about, not being drunken fools, just talking to another couple from the UK in the pool. We renamed the hotel ‘God’s Waiting Room’…miserable buggers; you’re on holiday remember, unless you’re so senile you have forgotten!
The hotel aside, Hua Hin was a fun place and we ventured out and about most evenings. We both had a pedicure and massage at a local place that cost us the equivalent of £7.50 each. There were lots of such places dotted about and none of them were sleazy and we certainly weren’t offered any ‘happy endings’. We spent one evening at Cicada Market, which was a street food and craft market with beer stalls and live music. There was a wide variety of food on offer, all lovely apart from the inedible baby octopus…far too chewy. During the ‘pool-gate’ incident we were recommended a place called Ian’s Restaurant, so we jumped in a Tuk Tuk one evening and gave it a try. Ian is English and cooks traditional European food, whereas his local wife cooks traditional Thai cuisine, and we’d definitely suggest you track it down if you are in Hua Hin. The other restaurant you should try is called Chaolay Seafood. It wasn’t far from the hotel and the seating was along a pier, mostly in the open air. This was full-on authentic Thai food for Thai people and was simply beautiful, plus the people watching was equally as good.
The beach was only a few steps from the hotel, sandy and stretched for miles in both directions. The sea was quite choppy most days and submerged rocks made it awkward as I found out the hard way, lacerating both feet quite badly. The security guard escorted us to the nearest first aider who was based inside the kids club. It was a good job there weren’t many squeamish kids around at the time as I was donating blood all over the floor! Over the next few days I discovered a new found love for flip-flops and walking around like a geriatric.
We’d booked a ‘couples massage’ session at the hotel spa and, although a lovely experience, it mentally scarred me for life! We were shown into separate changing rooms, given a locker, a robe and underwear to get changed into before meeting back in the lobby. I was a little confused and a tad concerned when I opened the plastic packet containing my new underwear. I stripped off, put on the underwear and had a look at myself in the adjacent full length mirror. The underwear was skimpy to say the least, made of what looked like fishnet stockings and realistically was a size 10 when I needed a size 16. Looking in the mirror reminded me of a net of mixed vegetables from the supermarket, with two sprouts and a baby carrot looking well past their sell by date…sexy! Apart from the embarrassment of dropping the robe to climb aboard the massage table the session was very enjoyable and highly relaxing. We certainly had a laugh about it all later over a lovely meal and drinks.
The return journey to the airport was no better than the transfer to Hua Hin and, even though we’d been asked to leave earlier than scheduled, we finally made it only 45 minutes before take-off. I like to get to an airport hours before we really need to and hate rushing, so this was stressful and I was convinced that we’d be spending at least one more night in Bangkok. However, due to everyone else having cleared check-in and security, we made it through to the departure hall in record time, amazingly having enough time for a calming beer before boarding the plane.
Thailand lived up to all our expectations and certainly left us wanting to plan a return trip to explore more of the country in the future. There are a few lessons to be learnt though; plan plenty of time for airport transfers, ban anyone over 60 going on holiday unless they can still enjoy themselves, beware of scamming Tuk Tuk drivers and stick with your own underwear at all times!
Next up is Turkey in June.