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Thai yourself to the Ropes

Rock Climbing

Rock climbing and Thailand may not be things that are linked in your mind, but Railay, near Krabi in southern Thailand, is a centre that attracts climbers from all over the world, from beginners to experts. Railay is an isthmus, reached by long-tail boat, with towering cliffs falling into the perfectly clear turquoise Andaman Sea. Mangroves and mud flats hug the coastline.

Rock Climbing Schools

There are several climbing schools offering a range of courses, from half-day to three-day or more, and prices normally include not only all equipment hire – ropes, harnesses, bolts, chocks and packs of chalk (to help hands grip slippery rocks) – but also climbing boots. The instructors are highly skilled; some are even recognised champions at the sport. Ribboning up the cliffs are more than 700 bolted rock-climbing routes, all put up since the 1980s, capable of providing practice and training to climbers at all levels of skill.

Thiland Cliffs

The cliffs vary in height, beginners being gently eased in on a cliff a mere 50 metres tall. No doubt about it, however, rock climbing is counter-intuitive and requires not only strength and agility but also gritty determination. Jamming your fingers into a small crack or clinging on to a tiny ledge and then taking pretty much your entire body weight on your hands is not something that comes naturally to most people. Fear of heights is another contra-indicator: if you’re not happy on the top deck of a Channel ferry, it is possible you’ll balk at being virtually self-supporting some metres off the ground.

Views Of A Mountaineer

It doesn’t always follow, however. The late great Eric Shipton, who in the 1930s and 1940s was Britain’s number one mountaineer, said that he felt uncomfortable looking over the viewing ledge of a skyscraper but thought nothing of teetering on the edge of a mountainside infinitely higher. Why might this be? He couldn’t explain it. Perhaps it’s because when you climb a rock or a mountain, you familiarise yourself with it; you make it, in a sense, your own; you know where its difficulties lie. Nothing of the sort with a building, especially if you have whizzed to the top in a high-speed lift.

Climb Or Watch

So, back to Thailand. With expert instructors and a perfect array of safety equipment, the worst that can happen to a wary beginner is being made to feel a bit inadequate. But if you do, you’ll be in good company, because there are lots of people who go to this secluded haven not to climb but just to watch. And there are plenty of nice places to do it from – beach hut hotels and small restaurants on and around the beach.

You can get to Railay by flying non-stop from Heathrow to Bangkok and then take another flight to Krabi, from where it’s a short and inexpensive ride on a longboat. The UK-based operator AwimAway (020 7430 1766, www.awimaway.com) offers activity and adventure tours to far-flung destinations for individuals and corporates. AwimAway can organize corporate incentive programmes at these islands, where you can organize a conference or just chill out, party, unwind or … train for the Olympics on a sun-drenched shore, on a ski slope or in the soothing scenery of a silent wood.

Getting to Phuket, Thailand

Phuket is one of the more popular travel destinations within Southeast Asia due to its gorgeous beaches, scrumptious food, great shopping, exciting nightlife and the countless recreational opportunities it offers to people of all backgrounds. It is located in the South of Thailand and is in fact Thailand’s largest island. Generally, people reach Phuket by air, bus or ferry.

By Air – The main airport is Phuket International Airport, which is also one of Thailand’s busiest airports. There are direct international flights from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Macao and Seoul. During peak periods, there are also direct charters from Europe and Australia. If you are from other parts of Thailand, such as Bangkok, Chiangmai, Pattaya and Ko Samui, there are also low-cost domestic carriers that can bring you to Phuket. The main airlines that the airport caters to are Thai Airways, Silk Air and Malaysian Airlines. There are also a number of budget carriers that flight here, such as Thai AirAsia, Tiger Airways, Firefly and Nok Air. Once you have gotten past baggage clearance, you can choose to take the limousine taxis, metered taxis or minibus services to get to your intended destination. There are also airport shuttles which run every half an hour or so. These shuttles will drop you off at Phuket Town bus station where you can hop onto local buses that will take you to all the major beaches in Phuket.

By Bus – If you are on mainland Thailand in places such as Bangkok, Hat Yai or Krabi, you can reach Phuket by bus. Be sure to buy tickets from trustworthy bus companies as there are some bus companies with reputations for overcharging, theft and overall bad service. In general, buses will drop you off at the BKS terminal which is on Thanon Phang Na in Phuket Town. From here, you can take a taxi or bus to your location. You can even hop onto a local contraption called tuk-tuk which is a cheap and fast way to travel in Thailand.

By Ferry – If you are from Ko Phi Phi, Krabi, Ko Racha or the Similan Islands, you may want to consider taking the ferry service to Phuket. Such ferry services run twice a day for about two hours. They make for very pleasant rides but the journey can be somewhat turbulent if there is a storm. There are also several cruises that take their passengers to Phuket.

Luxury Thai Holiday Villas: the Way to Stay!

Luxury Thai Holiday Villas: the way to stay!

Thailand has, over the past few years, seen a large increase in the number of private villas available for holiday rent. Here we investigate the villa market, and make our recommendations as to how to find and book a villa, and where to stay on your next holiday.

These alternatives to hotel or resort accommodation often offer exceptional quality and high standards, but a number of very second rate properties are also broadly advertised on the internet and in some cases offer no more than a room in a tired condominium in a poor location: it is important for the holidaymaker to know how to find an appropriate villa, and to understand the pricing structures generally in place, in order to be sure of securing an enjoyable, clean and properly serviced villa at the right price.

It is perfectly possible to rent your own villa in Thailand for your holiday and to enjoy not only superior accommodation, but also a plethora of services, at rates that in fact make such a holiday the sensible alternative to booking a room – or indeed for those with friends and family, a number of rooms – in a resort.

Why Thailand?

Thailand is a perfect destination for those who wish to rent their own house or villa, for a number of reasons:

- the Thais are widely recognized as a welcoming, smiling people

- The kingdom’s cuisine is world-renowned; whilst most visitors will know the famous dishes such as Tom Yam Kung, the variety of cuisines and regional specialties is great, and even a serious glutton would have trouble trying to experience the exhaustive array of Thai food dishes in just one stay.

- Thailand is a shopper’s paradise, offering unique silks, handcrafted furniture and a plethora of exotic items at a fraction of the cost of such goods in the West. Clothes, leather goods and decorative items are often at the top of the visitors’ shopping list.

- Thailand offers exceptional value for money: even five star hotels cost a fraction of what they do not only in the West but even in other Asian capitals such as Hong Kong or Singapore.

- Thailand welcomes millions of visitors to its shores annually, and personal safety is generally excellent. Any reported crimes tend to be minor, involving jewellery scams and the like, but the more experienced traveler is hardly likely to fall for these. Most visitors will feel infinitely safer in Thailand than they ever would in equivalent capitals such as London, Paris, New York etc.

Which Thai region should I visit?

The visitor to Thailand today is spoiled for choice, with villas available throughout the kingdom.

For shorter stays, we would recommend a single destination stay, so that you can avoid the hassles of travelling and fully explore your chosen location. For longer stays, why not combine a stay in two very different locations, allowing you a greater exposure to the country and its diversity, whilst taking advantage of its inexpensive domestic travel networks? (see below)

Thailand is generally divided into four main regions.

Bangkok and the central Plains

Bangkok is a sprawling metropolis which, despite its famous gridlocked traffic and teeming streets, offers a great variety of things to do and to discover, to those with patience and a will to explore. The restaurants in Bangkok are second to none, whether you seek Thai or foreign cuisines, and its weekend and other markets deserve to be explored, as do many of its lesser know temples. A cruise on the Chaophraya river – perhaps by privately chartered long-tail boat – is an excellent way of seeing much of the city without being reduced to tears by the traffic.

The North

The North of the country is home to cities such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. With tropical jungles and hills, the North attracts those looking to go trekking or seek out places of natural beauty. Do try to avoid the larger cities, as tourism is so developed here that you run the risk of simply being “processed” through a number of popular elephant camps and well-trodden hill tribe treks.

The Northeast

The Northeast is the largest region of the kingdom, yet has been largely untouched by tourism. The Northeast (or isan) is the rice-bowl of the country, and is predominantly agricultural, producing rice, sugarcane, tapioca, eucalyptus and, increasingly, rubber. Major centres include Khon Kaen and Udon Thani, and the mighty Mekong river twists along this region’s borders. The people here are perhaps the most open and fun-loving in the country, perhaps because their lives are based on village traditions where overt consumerism has been much slower to advance than in the other booming parts of the nation. Travel to the Northeast is recommended for those looking for a unique experience, to get away from the tourist crowds, and to immerse themselves in something new.

The South

The south of Thailand is renowned for its famous beaches and seaside resorts, such as Phuket, Krabi and Koh Samui. Some of the country’s most expensive holiday villas are found here. Travellers should be aware of the security issues in the south of the country and avoid journeys to the southernmost provinces: your local government’s website will post updated advisories with travel recommendations and warnings.

The vacation villa market

Holiday villas in Thailand tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either privately owned, self-contained homes, or villa units forming part of a resort complex. These are quite different propositions!

Resort Villas

The resort-centred villa essentially comprises a resort’s superior room inventory, and will be priced accordingly. In many cases, these villas will have been professionally designed by the hotel designer itself, and then sold to a third party buyer, who in turn joins the letting pool operated by the developer to provide a return on investment on the villa buyer’s acquisition.

The advantage here is that the villa occupants will generally be able to avail themselves of the additional facilities or services provided by the resort, albeit at ‘resort” prices. The disadvantage is that, for those seeking a more genuine experience, they will find themselves simply a guests within a resort complex, and considered as additional – if well-paying – “keys”.

Private stand-alone villas

Private villas are generally second homes owned by individuals, located on an individually-held land plot.

These may be rented “as is”, with the guests picking up the keys at the start of the trip and returning them at the end, either with or without a cleaning or security deposit. Alternatively, the villa may have its own staff, generally living off property but available throughout your stay to take care of cleaning, laundry, cooking or local visits etc.

Whether you choose a resort villa or privately held property, you should expect to pay a partial deposit at the time of booking, either by credit card guarantee or by a wire transfer.

Tried and Tested

We tried a number of villa vacations in Thailand, and below highlight one resort villa and one private villa – each offering an exceptional holiday but altogether different experiences.

Green Gecko, Northeast Thailand

Green Gecko is a privately owned villa located on a large country estate, surrounded by woodlands, plantations and rice paddies in the heart of Thailand’s rural northeast, near a town called Udon Thani. Free airport transfers were arranged from the airport, which is accessible via a 50 minute flight from Bangkok on Thai Airways, or budget airlines Nok Air or Air Asia.

In contrast to more mainstream locations, our stay here allowed us to discover and experience the real Thailand, off the beaten tourist track.

The villa’s architecture was traditionally Thai: an impressive wooden staircase led up to the raised and enclosed wooden deck, where our delightful private swimming pool was located, with bucolic views of the surrounding countryside and the evening sunsets. The steeply pitched roofs made of terracotta tiles gave the house an almost temple like appearance. A raised “sala” here offered protection from the strong midday sun and became our favourite spot, with its views over the pool.

Accessible from the deck in two separate buildings were the two bedrooms (each air-conditioned), as well as the living and dining room and kitchens. The master bedroom had a sturdy teak four-poster, king sized bed, with a cotton duvet and feather pillows, a large adjoining bathroom and WC and an outside garden shower. The second bedroom had a queen sized four poster, again with a spacious adjoining bathroom / WC.

The main air-conditioned building housed a dining room with a dining table and seating for six, a living room with comfortable sofas and views onto the pool deck, and a sunken area decorated with futons for lounging in front of the large screen LCD television (complete with a separate high-end home theatre system and international satellite channels). Leading off from this area (behind sliding wooden panels) was an additional WC, and a fully equipped Western kitchen (with built in microwave, oven etc), that in turn led out to a stainless steel Thai kitchen.

We must confess that this all looked very user-friendly, but that we never used the kitchens – with the exception of helping ourselves to a few iced beers from the refrigerator! As the owner is a former chef, he prepares all his guests’ meals throughout their stay, varying the spiciness or composition of these to his guests’ tastes. We were delighted to be shown around the gardens to collect a number of herbs and spices, which we were then shown how to spirit into deliciously fresh and tangy Northeastern dishes. We tried the classics too: Thai food certainly is mouth-watering, and staying at a villa like this where all meals are prepared for you, by a chef who is willing to share his secrets, was a boon!

We spent a good deal of time just lazing by the pool in complete privacy, but also enjoyed a number of excursions with our hosts to experience some of the sights and sounds of the Northeast. These included a spectacular trip in a small wooden boat, across a lake that was fundamentally a vast expanse of pink lotus flowers, interrupted only by the occasional fisherman or wallowing water buffalo (marriage propositioners, take note!) We also visited a local museum that seemed to denominate Thailand as the home of the bronze age, and a number of rowdy, colourful local festivals and wet markets, as well as silk and cobra farms. But our lasting impression was one of rural simplicity and ever-friendly locals, keen to ensure we enjoyed our stay and sample an unending variety of indigenous foods and drinks!

Green Gecko may be booked for stays of 2 nights or more via their website, where availability and rates may be checked online (from around US$280 including all transfers, service and meals.)

Green Gecko

134 Moo 13

Baan Um Jaan

Tabol Um Jaan

A. Prajak Sinlapakhom

Udon Thani

41110 Thailand

Green Gecko

Green Gecko’s sister property, Gecko Villa offers a cheaper three bedroomed alternative to those on a tighter budget (from around US$160.)

The Villas at Napasai, Southern Thailand

The villas at Napasai are located within the seafront resort complex on the luxury North coast of the island of Koh Samui, in Thailand’s southern province of Surat Thani. Koh Samui is accessible via Bangkok Airways from Bangkok, with flights taking approximately one hour (depending or aircraft chosen).

The resort is part of Orient-Express Hotels, Trains and Cruises: as such, both the villa and the resort were professionally managed, and we were able to choose between cooking up our own Thai meals after a visit to the local markets, or to simply walk to the resort’s excellent Thai restaurant in the evening.

The villas themselves were located at one end of the property, sandwiched between a steep hillside behind our house and the sea in front. Each of the villas is tiered down the hillside to the seafront. We stayed in a two bedroom villa, but three bedroom properties were also available. Beyond the two well-appointed bedrooms, our property had a spacious living and dining room with its own kitchen, a maid’s room, and, at the ground level, a private swimming pool and “chill-out” area. The main living room was well furnished and had a DVD player, satellite TV, and charming sea view balcony, where we spent most evenings.

The island of Koh Samui is a major international tourism hub and as such plenty of activities are available for the guest, from exploring waterfalls, to elephant rides, paintball, sea sports, diving, fishing, golf etc. The hotel also offers boating activities, Thai cooking classes, tennis courts, a fitness centre and a spa.

We booked online at the hotel’s own internet site, taking advantage of a special offer. Rates for a two bedroom villa are seasonal and start at around US$850++ per night, including complimentary American breakfast.

Napasai

65/10 Baan Tai, Maenam,

Koh Samui,

Surat Thani

84330,

Thailand

Tel: (66-77) 42 92 00

Fax: (66-77) 42 92 01

Napasai

Finding your Thai Villa on the internet

Choosing an appropriate holiday villa on the internet is easy using Google, Yahoo, MSN etc. Remember:

• Play with your search terms: use more specific words to help you drill down to receive a more “targeted” property. “Rural villa with pool Thailand” will give a more specific set of results than will “Thailand Villa”, and will be less likely to return a listings site.

• Where possible, book directly with the property owner rather than via a listings site – in all likelihood such a listings site will be charging a commission on top of the normal rate.

• Don’t be afraid to ask for references.

• Travel in the off season, and book early. Book ahead, as when a standalone villa is booked – it is booked!

• Make sure the property you choose has a telephone and address listed.

• Travel somewhere different! What makes a stay in a private villa memorable is the way it can take you out of the tourist centres to enjoy a more authentic holiday.

Thailand’s Airlines

Thailand’s flag carrier offers numerous domestic flights, but travelers “in the know” will turn to the local discount airlines. These offer frequent flights at a fraction of the price and in relative comfort. Try Nok Air or Air Asia.

Koh Samui is served by the “boutique airline” Bangkok Air.

It Began in Africa: Tunisia and the Star Wars Pilgrims

The North African country of Tunisia really could be classed as out of this world; the dune riddled nation provided the setting for the fictional planet Tatooine, Luke Skywalker’s desert home planet, that played a major role in several of the Star Wars movies.

Tunisia’s sparsely populated land and dusty geography provided the perfect location to create Tatooine’s dune seas, expansive desert wastes and rocky outcrop, and fans of the Star Wars books and films continue to make the pilgrimage to Tunisia to visit this iconic setting. Nowadays you’re likely to find the locals a little more friendly than the fictional Jawas, the pygmy-like scavengers of technology, or the hostile Sand people (also known as Tuscan Raiders) with whom Luke has a nasty run in with during the ‘first’ film, Star Wars – A New Hope.

Luke Skywaker’s home was filmed in a subsoil abode in the real troglodyte town of Matmata. Here, residents make their homes by burrowing into the soft sandstone and visitors can still see some of the murals and set dressing of the Skywalker’s homestead from the movie at the Sidi Driss Hotel, in Matmata.

The outside of the dwelling, where Luke observes the two suns, is part a dry, white salt flat called Chott el Jerid, that stretches across central Tunisia to the oasis of Tozeur and Nefta. The Dune Sea – the vast expanse of sand in which C3PO and R2D2 wander aimlessly is known as La Grande Dune, and the gully in which they are captured by the Jawas, is east of Tozeur at the Chott el Jerid.

The spaceport town of Mos Eisley, which was described by Obi-Wan Kenobi as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” and is a hang out for intergalactic smugglers and others from the space criminal underworld, is in actual fact Aijim – a sponge fishing town near the lle de Jerba. And if you’d want to see where Jedi knight Obi-Wan’s remote home was located, you’ll find it to the north of Aijim, overlooking the Gulf of Gabes.

Unless you can hitch a ride with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon, you’ll probably have to find an alternative form of transport. Thankfully, although Tatooine was in a galaxy far, far away, Tunisia isn’t; and Star Wars Fans will be pleased to hear that the country is surprisingly well served from the UK; there are plenty of cheap flights to Tunisia from airports around Britain.

Other destinations that are part of the Star Wars pilgrimage include: Tikal in Guatemala, which played the Massassi Outpost – the rebel base on the fourth moon of Yavin; the Palazzo Reale near Naples Italy, which played host to Theed Palace on Naboo from the Phantom Menace, and Krabi Province, Thailand which provides the setting to Kashyyyk – the Wookie homeworld.

So, grab your light sabre, don your Darth Vader mask and use the force to follow the Star Wars pilgrimage around the world.

Choosing Thailand As Vacation Destination

Offering some of the world’s finest luxury holiday accommodation, Thailand provides the ultimate getaway for you and your family. Luxury villas are fitted out to the highest standard. Aimed at the discerning traveller who needs flexibility of movement away from the holiday crowds, many property owners will help customers construct a holiday that allows them to move at their own pace. Exploring or relaxing, our clients are able to enjoy the delights of Asia.

Offering a staggering array of activities, Thailand is firmly established as the Asian destination of choice, the infrastructure is such that traveling the length and breadth of the country is easy, cheap fast and reliable. Vacationers’ minds are put at ease with world class hospitals, extremely low crime and amenities to match any country in the world. From Bangkok, guests are spoiled for choice when it comes to luxury villas for rent. Stunning locations are within hours of the capitol making weekend breaks very popular these days, High flying professionals can fly in from Hong Kong and be relaxing beside their private pool a their Thailand villa in no time, and enjoying the Thai pace of life.

Thailand Villas are attaining a global reputation for luxury, quality and value. Luxury villas in Phuket are on the same level or above of anything anywhere in the world, and regularly feature in magazines and newspapers as promoted as the peak of living. When choosing a luxury villa guests must decide whether they want solitude or a more hectic atmosphere with hustle and bustle of street markets and beach activities. Luxury villas on the east coast offer the kind of peace and quiet that is more akin to Samui or Krabi. There is a sense of remoteness here, with traditional Thai fishing villages, and quiet serene beaches dotted along the coast.

It is not just the luxury villas that people are drawn too. The Andaman coast is certainly one of the most striking areas, and Phuket is famous for its beauty and wealth of attractions. Southern Thailand stands apart from the rest of the country as being more tropical. It has the highest rainfall, giving a deeper green to the vegetation, while the geological make up of sheer limestone formations adds drama to the landscape.

Thailand also has a reputation as a golfing paradise with a wealth of world class courses that have attracted many of the best pros over the years – including American-Thai Tiger Woods. Thailand frequently stages the Johnnie Walker Super Tour and other Asian classics attracted by the excellent course facilities and clubroom accommodation found across the kingdom. These are all available to our customers and despite the top-notch conditions a first-class round of golf is possible for about US$60 to US$70.

The six provinces along the Western coast are characterized by the Andaman sea which has numerous excellent coral reefs making it a paradise for divers. The water is warm year round and so is always comfortable to swim in. The Similan islands are rated amongst the top dive destinations in the world as are the climbing sites in Krabi province meaning that vacationers will never be bored with what is on offer.