Friday, 29 August 2008

Ang Thong National Marine Park - a great day out...

Ang Thong Marine Park is a fascinating archipelago of 80 or so islands to the north west of Samui, many of which rise from the sea as dramatic rock cliffs and bizarre rock formations. Caves, hidden lagoons and white sand beaches are there to be explored and snorkeling among the shallow coral gardens makes a popular and enjoyable day trip. Remember to wear a T-shirt when snorkling; it's easy to become absorbed in the marine spectacle and forget that you are being toasted.

Ang Thong, translates as 'golden bowl', occupies almost 250 sq km and includes 50 sq km of limestone islands and karsts topography. Most of the islands are close to each other making for a breathtaking panorama when sailing around the park. The park itself is inhabited by a surprising amount of asian wildlife and within the seas: dolphins, rays, turtles and frequent sightings of whale sharks by divers and snorklers.

Most of the islands are covered with tropical forests and named after their distinguishing geography, a kind of descriptive appellation, such as 'Sleeping Cow Island' and 'Three Pillar Island'.

Koh Mae Ko (Mother Island) is a must to visit. Here, an emerald seawater lake in the middle of the island is encircled on all sides by limestone cliffs, but linked by an underground tunnel connecting with the sea. Reaching the lake entails a strenuous climb of 40 minutes or so, but is rewarded with a spectacular view across the whole park

Sea caves in many of the islands have intriguing rock formations and a visit to one by canoe can make for an awesome experience. The beaches are surrounded with coral reefs which make for good swimming and snorkeling when the visibility is good. Hundreds of beaches here in the archipelago are deserted. Get a boat and find your own secret beach away from the crowds.

Other popular sites are Koh Sam Sao (Tripod Island) with an extensive coral reef and Wua Talap Island or 'sleeping cow'. The park headquarters is located on the island with basic bungalow accommodation. It takes some effort to climb up the steep 430m hill to a viewpoint offering great scenery of the entire archipelago and the mainland.

Access to the Marine Park is controlled, but several boat rental and kayak operators are licenced carriers, catering to both independent visitors and in organised kayaking/camping trips. The most common transport is by tour boats taking 40-50 people, with lunch on board. Or else you can take the faster speedboat tours, which also provide a snorkeling program. The best way is to put together a group of friends to hire a boat, as we did, and explore the islands and beaches in your own time.

The quickest way back to Samui: time flies when you're in a coma - Lucy & Jonny

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Here's a plug for Mario and great gastro-tip for you...

Our favourite (non-Thai) restaurant in Bophut's Fisherman's Village. Mario, the owner of Alla Baia offers simple, authentic, northern Italian food, well prepared, tasty and satisfying. Everything on the menu is great value for money and doesn't deviate from the original recipes established by his mother. And she comes for two months every year to check! Located 25m past the pier (the bar and marine structure) heading into the village, the best tables are, obviously, those overlooking the water.

My favourite winning combo is beef carpaccio followed by spaghetti Amatriciana - a tomato sauced based, smokey pancetta flavoured delight, especially with a chilli hit in the sauce. Other family favourites are the sublime ravioli with crab sauce, penne Arabiata and my newly discovered all time best pizza: tomato base; anchovies, capers, black olives and spicy salami - all on Mario's crisply thin pizza base, with three chopped chillies and easy on the cheese.

We like (love) fresh chopped chilli and at Alla Baia they are diner-defined - just tell the waiter how many you want in your sauce or pizza or alternatively, for non at all.

The house wine is good and, for special family occasions, the glorious Amarone della Valpolicella, while not cheap, is better value than it is in Dubai - or Venice!

There's usually a good selection of fresh fish on ice to choose from displayed out front and I can recommend the spaghetti ala vongole (clams) especially when they are at their smallest and sweetest.

I'm an unreconstructed dessert guy. On many occasions we've eaten Thai, usually at Pee Chet, and dived into Mario's just for his sublime profiteroles or Mama's tirmisu, washed down with an espresso and grappa or a liqueur - to settle the stomach.
a rare shot of the usually stellar busy Mario, relaxing at the end of service

Catching up...

Cheap Charlie's Sukhumvit Soi 11. A popular meeting point and watering hole

After almost a week with Lucy in Bandon Hospital; the same in my Dubai hospital bed and ten days back at work, catching up has been the name of my game this month. This will continue, but on the hotel side in the coming couple of weeks, as we leave for our holiday in Thailand tonight. Me and the missus meet up with Lucy and Jonny at Cheap Charlie's in Bangkok tomorrow night, before taking a short break to Chiang Mai together. I'll provide a trip report next week, hopefully.

But in the meanwhile, Pee Yok our new chef at the hotel, and around whom our plans for the redesign and evening opening of Baan Bophut's new restaurant depends so much, has slipped at home and fractured her hip, inevitably delaying plans. Poor Yok. More on this when we get down to Samui next week.

In other bad news, our interior designer, whose team are currently converting the former Room 9 linen store into our first suite, received the tragic news that her father had died today. She's on her way to Europe, and while her decorators continue the work, we're unlikely to have the Ocean Suite ready for occupancy until after she returns.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Dengue Fever - up close and personal...

Aedes aegypti mosquito obtains a "blood meal." The A. aegypti mosquito is the primary vector for dengue and yellow fevers. (Credit: Image courtesy of Cornell University)

After malaria, Dengue (pronounced deng-GAY) fever is the most common disease transmitted to and between humans by mosquitos, and the most significant emerging disease among international travelers, with a 30-fold increase in incidence over the past 50 years worldwide.

Dengue includes four distinct viruses or serotypes. All are mostly transmitted via the bite of Aedes mosquitoes which become infected with dengue after taking a blood meal from a dengue-infected person. Most cases are mild. Symptoms include fever, rash, headache, and intense pain behind the eyes, muscles and joints. There is no cure for dengue infection, but management of the disease's effects can prevent the worst outcomes.

According to the WHO, dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF), the most serious of the serotypes, is characterised by fever, low platelet count, clinical evidence of leaking capillaries, and spontaneous bleeding or fragile blood vessels. The most serious cases can lead to dengue shock – a drop in blood pressure and failure of blood cells to meet the metabolic demands of the body. DHF is a leading cause of death among children in Southeast Asia. In recent years hemorrhagic dengue, which is common throughout the sub-continent and Southeast Asia, has become increasingly prevalent in Africa and tropical America.

It's possible to become infected with dengue fever multiple times, but an attack of dengue produces immunity for a lifetime to that serotype to which the patient was exposed.

So why am I telling you all this? Because Lucy contracted DHF and I flew to Samui to be with her last week. Fortunately, she checked into the island's Bandon Hospital and started receiving treatment promptly to reduce the fever and relieve some of her discomfort. Lucy's blood was checked several times daily and only when her platelet and white cell count started, finally, to rise, at which time the DHF antibodies were detected, would the doctor agree to discharge her.

Occasionally hard to spot in her hospital issue matching pajamas and bed linen, I like to think that Lucy's recovery was hastened by the visits and gifts of 'Chicken Essence' from friends and Baan Bophut's Thai hotel staff. Here, Lucy is pictured clinging to her stock (unintended pun - ignore) of the restorative, often given by Thai's in much the same manner that westerners would take grapes to a friend in hospital.

Dengue II - the unintended sequel...

Even as I was writing the last post my own blood pressure and platelet count was falling as I too succumbed to dengue fever, having shared a mosquito too many with Lucy before she was clear of her own infection, either as we sat together in the hospital garden on the day before she was discharged, or in the car the day I took her home.

Having spent the previous week with Lucy, I had a pretty good idea what I was in for when I checked into Dubai's American Hospital last Tuesday night, but nothing had prepared me for the magnitude of discomfort wrought by the symptoms in combination.

Anyway, it's taken six days of saline drip and numerous painkillers and TLC by the hospital staff to bring me to the point, today, when my platelet count showed an increase at last and dengue antibodies were confirmed as being present, enabling me to be discharged.

My infection was as a result of my own stupidity in not taking any of the precautions to limit my attraction to mosquitos. A DEET based repellent would have saved me an awful lot of pain and a week's misery. A Dengue epidemic has been declared in Rayong province and Bangkok is seeing unprecedented levels of infection. However, the chances of a visitor catching dengue during a two week holiday are estimated at over 10,000:1 and much less if basic mosquito bite avoidance is applied.

Friday, 1 August 2008


Only half the Hotel Family Holt now remain in the Middle East, but for the last 16 of our almost 30 years in and around the Arabian Gulf, Yemen and Turkey - we that remain have lived in Dubai. Numerous articles and blogs are dedicated to the phenomenal growth of this young city, tracking its progress (?) from tiny sheikhdom and trading port to global business and leisure destination. This isn't about to become another, merely an excuse to share the irony of the sign above. And get this out of the way.

The name Bin Ladin to many readers will conjure-up an image of the World's most evil and, currently, most wanted fugitive. To us and many other Gulf expats, Bin Ladin the construction giant are significant contributors to the startling growth and modernity of Dubai and elsewhere in the region.

After 9/11, fed by the misrepresentation of Fox News (don't get me started) and other news media spawned the perception that as a race, Arabs were 'Terrorists' and Islam became inseparable in the minds of many from 'Fundamentalism'. The truth is, from a nominally christian family that has chosen to live their lives in Islamic societies for so long, among the kindest, gentlest, smartest, most generous and hard working people we have ever met, have been muslims.
There, I've said it now.

A thoughtful rant...

Having recently employed a new chef and staff for the long withheld evening opening of our restaurant, we will shortly start to promote ourselves locally. But as for the hotel, I don't think we pay for any advertising at Baan Bophut, not because we're skinflints, we spend our advertising budget on beer instead. We simply don't know where to direct our message. Let's face it, Samui's no longer a backpacker destination and the droves of travelers and gap year students who at one time would avidly devour the local brochures and listing leaflets for a cheap beach bungalow are not that evident anymore. Neither are the cheap beach bungalows.

Our target market is the new and growing breed of independent traveler. They book their own airtickets and they choose their own accommodation on their computer at home or like me, the office. Universally, they shun tour operators and packaged holidays, much like ourselves. Good for them! Airtickets they find through the numerous online bucket shops and their hotel, increasingly through TripAdvisor, who now have over 100,000,000, (you read it right, a hundred million visitors) a month checking out their choices of hotel accommodation. Thankfully, they don't all review their eventual selection.

Guest reviews can make or break a hotel. As hoteliers, we know we have a responsibility to make a guest's stay as enjoyable as we can and exceed their expectations whenever possible. Baan Bophut is a small hotel, so we've a better chance than most, but big or small, guest reviews are, to stretch a couple of metaphors, a double edged Sword of ...what's his name? The Greek guy - Damocles (thanks Google).

Guest's hotel reviews, of which TripAdvisor is the biggest repository are the best thing that could have happened to prospective hotel guests, who can now develop a better understanding of what the hotel of their choice is actually going to be like and build an expectation. If a hotel matches it or beats it, great, they get a good review. But if they fail to perform or, worryingly, fail meet the same standard enjoyed by a previous positive reviewer. Oh boy! you're in for it now.

It was with a measure of some relief that today, I noted, Baan Bophut had slipped in its TripAdvisor ranking from 6 last week to 15. As far as I could see, because of one review that scored us 3 (out of 5) and described the hotel as having a 'cold atmosphere' (that's a new one). I don't know how TripAdvisor's algorithm calculates the ranking, but I'm much happier at 15 than sixth, and so somewhat removed from the imminent and ever-present peril and sense of foreboding faced by those in the top ten.

An Irish guy, pleasant chap and a guest at the hotel with his miserable wife, once told me that his missus would give us a lousy review. I thought we'd looked after them well and asked why. "She always does" he replied (can't do the accent) "It's her time of life". Hell's teeth! How do you get around that one?

My advice for what its worth? Be objective and keep your expectations fairly low. That way you're unlikely to be too disappointed, and less likely to stiff the hotel that inevitably, can't get everything right for all of its guests, all of the time.

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