Thursday, July 2, 2009

Check into a boutique holiday


Resorts in coastal Thailand worth the trip


Thailand4-Barai A guest practising yoga with an instructor at The Barai’s infinity pool.

"When I go to Paris, I don't need to see the Eiffel Tower - I know it's there. I just want to sit in the hotel terrace, sip my coffee and enjoy the vibe of the city," says one frequent traveller.

Travelling out of Singapore only to stay put or booking into a hotel to escape the pressures of the daily grind may be the prerogative of the urbane and frazzled, but given today's flu-wary sensibilities, a resort stay overseas represents an opportunity to experience the ambiance of another country without the need to expose yourself to crowds.

Thailand2 And there is no better place to do this than in Hua Hin, where the King of Thailand has his summer residence. Many resorts in this part of southern Thailand are destinations in their own right.

Long the retreat of the Thai nobility, celebrities and the well-to-do, Hua Hin and its surrounds have grown from quiet fishing villages into proper destinations for fine living. Some of the best spas and golf courses in the country can be found here and events such as jazz festivals, regattas and vintage car rallies mark the annual calendar.

Thailand3 Keeping pace with development is the quality of accommodation. According to Tourism Authority of Thailand official Juthaporn Rerngronasa, hotel rooms in the Hua Hin area have doubled in the past two years to 10,000.

The majority of developments are boutique properties on the coast, making Hua Hin an upscale rival to Chiangmai for the number of unique resorts that it offers, some of which are the converted residences of Thai nobility.

At the compact Baan Laksasubha Resort Hua Hin (, for example, guests can mingle with Mrs Abha Kridakon, who is related to the royal family by marriage. "You can call me Abha," she boomed, before inviting you to tour her photo-filled villa on the premises.

The recently opened Yaiya Hua Hin ( is a small eco-community, "a home away from home", due to the close-knit, two-storey villas. If it's a second home, then it's one where private dipping pools crown rooftops - you step from the bedroom into the water - and where the bathroom is big enough to live in.

Said Jeffrey Lim, a partner at Architects' Regional Team, a firm that designs buildings in Thailand and Singapore: "The trend at resorts now is to have a pool in every unit and spacious bathrooms that open to the garden."

In Hua Hin, the bathroom is just the start of the experience. The following resorts can be holidays unto themselves.



The Barai, Hyatt Regency Hua Hin

Thailand5-BaraiPool Officially The Barai is a spa. Unofficially, it's a work of pure architectural beauty.

Named after "barays", or ancient man-made reservoirs, The Barai is a maze-like compound that brings to mind the corridors of Angkor Wat with a dash of art-deco flair. From the door, guests walk through semi-darkness to a wading pool maharajahs would approve. Tread the hallways and every corner throws up a surprise: Dead-ends that reveal half sculptures or a single tree soaring into the sky, sumptuous alcoves of glittering tiles and mirror, halls and portals that seem to stretch into infinity. In short, the massage is the bonus.




X2 Kui Buri

Thailand7-X2KuiBuri Whatever is said about this avant- garde resort, one thing is for sure: It's not a place that you stumble upon. X2, pronounced "Cross Two", is situated pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so guests have to be in the know.

The ultimate reward is privacy and one of the most sophisticated resorts in this part of the country. Featured in the Design Hotels Yearbook 2008, a guide to hotel architecture, X2 faces an untapped beachfront and has 23 semi-private villas that incorporate nature into the living space.

Walls are planes of rocks and the lap pool is literally at the foot of the bed. It's all straight lines and open spaces - the restaurant looks like a hangar, the communal pool looks like it merges into the sea. In short, an urbane sanctuary far, far from the madding crowd. Rates start from 4,000 baht.




La-A-Natu Bed and Bakery

Thailand6-Village The year-old, 10-villa coastal resort is a mesh of concepts that blends rice paddies and rustic materials such as bamboo and wood with sleek, concrete and glass design. It's a little mind-boggling at first, but it works.

Stay in the treehouse-like loft suite to get the Robinson Crusoe feel - with the benefit of plasma TV and an outdoor plunge pool.

The resort is well known to Thais, as it was the setting of a popular drama serial. But the highlight for this visitor is the outdoor shower that looks like a giant bean pod and the seven-course high tea (350 baht) that includes scones, panna cotta and chocolate cake. In short, cheeky sophistication. Weekend rates start from 4,800 baht.




Go: There are no direct flights from Singapore to Hua Hin. Bus and trains connect Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport to the city, but for a truly stress-free holiday, hire a taxi. The drive south takes about three hours. Prices for a return trip start from 3,000 baht ($130). Many resorts will arrange return airport transfers for 5,000 baht.

72H-AmazingThailand Get: Seventy-two Hours Amazing Thailand: Hua Hin and Beyond. Produced by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Mastercard, the guidebook compiles the finest of Hua Hin for quick-break travellers, listing shop, eat and stay choices as well as map routes, suggested itineraries and discounts for travellers who use Mastercard. The guidebook is the latest in the 72-hours series, which includes Bangkok, Chiangmai, Pattaya and Phuket. It will be available at leading tour operators in the coming months but for now, the book's contents can be found on


From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 02-Jul-2009

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Paradise reborn



With the end of a decades-old civil conflict, Sri Lanka's tourism industry is once again open for business

Mark Malby,

SriLanka-GalleCoastline It has all the hallmarks of a postcard cliché - great sweeping arcs of palm-fringed beach, breakers curling in from the green Indian Ocean, and beaches that are pristinely empty, except the odd outrigger canoe. Sri Lanka's south coast, at first glance, truly looks the travel agent's poster of paradise.

SriLanka-StreetsOfColombo Never mind that the tsunami which swept through here in December 2004 decimated these shores. Or that hundreds of kilometres north a civil war has raged for the past 26 years, sharply dividing its Sinhalese and Tamil populations.

But with the formal end of that conflict in May this year and the prospect of a lasting peace ahead, Sri Lanka looks set to finally make its mark as the traveller's destination of choice.

One Island, Many Worlds

SriLanka-LocalChildren A visitor soon realises that this island nation is far more than the sum of its beaches. From the dust and cacophony of Colombo to the cool of the hill country, where tea plantations and small towns nestle in perpetual English spring, Sri Lanka is a land of contrasts.

People come to relax in its Ayurveda spas, to sample its spicy cuisine, to scuba-dive in its clear waters. Or they are drawn by the history - ancient, abandoned cities like Anuradhapura which dates from the 4th century BC. Those in search of wildlife revel in the vast nature preserves of the south-east, where safari-goers can spot elephants, leopards, buffalo and crocodiles in a landscape straight out of the Serengeti. Sri Lanka is not so much one country as it is many worlds, cobbled together in surprising combinations. It's hard to imagine any other place that's as diverse across such short distances.

Rebirth of a Tourist Hub

SriLanka-LocalFarmer Much of its tourism was on-hold during the war years. With terrorist bombs in Colombo, unrest in various parts of the country, and fierce fighting in the north, Sri Lanka was a regular on the 'travel warning' blacklists of many consulates. That didn't stop the more adventurous tourists from venturing there - intrepid backpacker types, or those limiting themselves to the relatively calm south.

But with the conflict behind them now, Sri Lankans are gearing up for a brighter future, not just in the travel industry but in all areas of life. "People are extremely optimistic about the potential ahead and this is creating a vibrancy and 'can do' attitude that is infectious," says Mr Jerome Auvity, general manager of the Hilton, Colombo.

The Hilton has already noted an increase in booking enquiries, and like other travel-related industries, is hoping to spark new demand with promotional packing.

With much of the north and east now freed from conflict, there is clearly untapped potential waiting in the wings.

SriLanka-WaterBuffalos "Sri Lanka will be the place to watch out for in the coming years as it rightfully takes its place as a key travel destination in Asia," says Asif Ansar, a journalist. He cites previously untouched regions like the east coast or the country's north, with its rich marine life, as up-and-coming eco-tourism hotspots. "The end in fighting has opened up large tracts of jungle and beaches that were once inaccessible and unsafe to visit." It won't be long before the hotel developers and tourist touts realise the same.

Still, all signs are pointing to a bright future for a country which, even during a time of war, considered tourism a key source of revenue. "We are living in a 'golden period' in Sri Lankan history, I believe," says Mr Auvity, of the Hilton.

In Buddhism, the term "Jati" refers to the arising of a new entity - a rebirth, in essence. With lasting peace, we can fully expect Sri Lanka - particularly its relatively untapped north and east - to take a prominent spot in the pantheon of tourism.

Six Must-sees of Sri Lanka

Galle & the South Coast - colonial charm, great surfing, diving, sea-side hotels and palm-lined beaches.

Kandy & the Hill Country - tea plantations, scenic hikes, botanical gardens, Buddhist monuments, and a year-round spring climate.

Yala National Park - arid coastal plains bristling with wildlife: snap leopards, elephants, water buffalo, storks, crocodiles and langur monkeys on safari.

Ancient Cities - water gardens and sacred temples, 5th century fortress palaces, and Anuradhapura (abandoned in 1073) make up this 'cultural triangle'.

Kalpitiya - rich marine life, diving and whale-watching; take out a boat and be surrounded by hundreds of dolphins.

East Coast - off-limits during the war years, unspoiled beaches and thick jungles; see them before the hotels and tourist hordes arrive.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 25-Jun-2009

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The green heart of Iwokrama

guyana brazil border crossingImage by Sophs74 via Flickr


06/25/2009 | 05:59 PM

As we drifted down the massive Essequibo River in the darkness of the night, we heard the watery sputter of our boat's engine sounding more and more ominous. Then it failed to restart.

“We used to have radios, yes," said Lawrence, our guide. “But they never used to work anyway, so we stopped bringing them with us."

The research center was only about a kilometer upstream, but with no means to contact the observation tower and with the current threatening to pull our aluminum boat into the rapids, we might as well have been on the moon. It didn’t help that, earlier in the day, we had spotted an 11-foot black caiman – a crocodile-- in these same flooded banks. (Lawrence had pronounced it “medium-sized" and seemed unimpressed).

We were guests at the Iwokrama research station, in central Guyana, about five hours from the Brazilian border. The Iwokrama rainforest itself is one of the four last pristine tropical forests in the world, a mammoth at about 3,710 sq. km. and neighbor to the great Amazonia. The center – a fully functional research facility -- had opened its doors to visitors as a fashionable eco-tourism destination.

A word about the forests here. The South American green is different from any other green in the world. Forests are vast, endless, impenetrable, primordial; even seen from a plane, there is nothing but all this incredible greenness as far as the eye can see: no houses, no roads, no clearings, definitely no humans visible, just trees. This is the kind of landscape that reminds you of the dawn of time, the kind that makes you feel, as a human being, truly puny and temporary.

The Iwokrama research station sees itself as a model “to show how tropical forests can be conserved and sustainably used to provide ecological, social and economic benefits to local, national and international communities." It facilitates partnerships between scientists, developers, and the indigenous communities. Guides, field researchers and conservation workers are hired from the local communities in the region; they receive training that builds on local knowledge of the forest, and become much more committed stewards of the forest.

In March 2008, Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development entered into a partnership with investment firm Canopy Capital to measure, and then place a monetary value on what was christened “Ecosystem Services" (ESS) of the forest. The deal allows Iwokrama to receive hard cash for such ESS as rainfall production, water storage, and weather moderation. In theory, this model would give developing countries a reason to preserve natural resources, which in turn are supposed to be of inestimable value to the entire world.

The year before that, President Bharrat Jagdeo of Guyana—the poorest nation in South America—said in an interview with The Independent that he wanted a bilateral deal with the United Kingdom: development aid and technical assistance in exchange for conserving its rainforests. “We are a country with the political will and a large tract of standing forest. I'm not a mercenary, this is not blackmail and I realize there's no such thing as a free lunch. I'm not just doing this just because I'm a good man and want to save the world, I need the assistance."

In a speech, the Prince of Wales said it was “the ethical duty of wealthy nations, which have - perhaps unwittingly - created the problem of climate change, to find a solution." Prince Charles noted that “developing nations, which may suffer most from climate change and, consequently, unheard-of levels of poverty, are now calling on us for help." A few months after the Prince’s speech, Canopy Capital, running on charitable donations and private investment, announced its groundbreaking deal with Iwokrama. The short-term effects are already apparent: for the first time in years, Iwokrama posted a profit.

The research center also earns from tourism, which was what had brought us there. The field station offered the best accommodations in the region for less than US$100 per person a night, with meals and guided tours thrown in. The nighttime boat ride was part of our day’s activities, meant to take us—myself and three others—to spot wildlife feeding at night by the banks of the river.

With the boat's motor dead, it seemed to us that perhaps the wildlife might be looking at something else to feed on. Our hearty chuckles grew ever thinner and more nervous as the engine repeatedly failed to start. The boat captain took the spotlight and vainly tried to signal the watchtower; Lawrence grimly took out the paddles. After about twenty minutes, the captain decided to try the motor again, and after about half a dozen pulls, he was rewarded with the throaty roar of the engine and a collective sigh of relief from his passengers.

Without any light pollution for miles around, the sky was awash with stars. The moon was on the wane, however, and so there was nothing to relieve the pitch blackness of the forest. It was incredible, then, to hear Lawrence whisper excitedly, “There!" every time he spotted a creature in the dense foliage. He would shine the spotlight on his find, and the boat would travel the thirty or so feet to where there would be a tiny nightjar in the bushes. More excitingly, there was another caiman—this time the smaller, more common spectacled caiman—on the mudflats near the trail that leads to Lawrence’s village, the Macushi settlement of Fairview. This area is home to the greatest concentration of these cousins to the alligator; this particular one was hunting for fish or the occasional chicken wandering out of the village and too near the water.

Later on, we spotted a tree boa, curled tightly and anxiously on a branch overhanging on the river. “See his coils? He’s not very comfortable," Lawrence said, as we drew the boat closer. I sprang with great alacrity to the back of the boat as the current pushed the boat right onto the boa’s tree. “They’re not venomous, you know. I’ve got bitten by one, here," he showed us his hand, and with typical Macushi understatement, said, “There’s no poison…but the bite hurts."

The Macushi are only one of the scores of Amerindian tribes in the Americas; in Guyana, Amerindians only make up a minority of about 6% of Guyana’s population, or about 45,000, while another 750,000 Amerindians of different tribes are in Brazil. A good number of these tribes in Brazil—67 at last count by the Fundação Nacional do Índio—are classified as “uncontacted tribes," tribes which, hard as it is to imagine, have little or no interaction with the rest of the civilized world.

There are about 9,000 Macushi in Guyana, and Lawrence is a prime specimen of the tribe. He had gone to work at age 11, working in a mining camp as an all-around cook, errand boy, watchman; eventually he found his way back to school and finished secondary school, and then, as many in his village had done, joined up with Iwokrama to receive training as a forester and guide.

There was little that escaped his attention in the forest, and he was a quiet though eager teacher who liked to share the Macushi’s traditional knowledge of flora and fauna. He showed us a “water vine," which, when cut, would release a good amount of fresh, clean water fit for drinking. It is not to be confused with another type of vine, which released a sap that could numb and paralyze anything stupid enough to taste it. The Macushi would take pieces of this vine and throw them into a pool of water, wait a few minutes, and then gather the paralyzed fish floating helplessly on their sides. He told us of caimans fighting anacondas on the banks of the rivers, of month-long journeys in a canoe to the coast, of inch-long bullet ants that could release enough toxin in one bite to send a victim into convulsions, of the magnificent harpy eagles that are rivaled in size only by our very own Philippine eagle.

Lawrence regaled us with stories like this all the way up to Turtle Mountain—about an hour by boat from the main research station, and then another hour up from base camp. A perch on Turtle Mountain offers a stunning view of the unbroken canopy of Iwokrama, a sea of green as far as the eye can see in all directions. Down there, the forest is alive: the distinctive sound of howler monkeys, the screech of a pair of scarlet macaws flying just below us, a million insect sounds joining to make a low buzz of white noise.

Looking at Iwokrama from here, it all seems very far from the rest of the world, but here we are, right in the very heart of a new trade, potentially worth billions, in ecosystem services. During the Golden Age of Exploration, conquistadores thought the fabled land of gold, El Dorado, was somewhere in the Guianas. These days it isn’t gold that is the treasure here: now that we have pushed the environment to its limits, we have put a price on the very air we breathe. - GMANews.TV

Kristine Fonacier is a magazine writer and editor who is currently on sabbatical, working with the international organization Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) as a volunteer Communications Advisor in Guyana--an experience that has taught her to "use media for good, not evil."

Additional photos by KRISTINE FONACIER

From; see the source article here for photos and related articles.

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