Thursday, January 28, 2010

Shopping Up a Storm in Pattaya

In Pattaya one of the best things you can do practically 24hrs a day is shop! The city caters to all tastes and budgets and never fails to offer that perfect souvenir, gift or personal memento. Here we list for you some of the biggest and brightest of the bunch.  

CentralFestival Pattaya Beach is the city’s newest kid on the block. This mega seven-storey shopping mall is located next door to the Siam Bayview Hotel in the centre of Beach Road. Opened just 12 months ago in January 2009, it’s Asia's largest beachfront shopping complex. Built on prime beachfront land over 220,000 m², this 7-billion-Baht megaproject features more than 200 fashion outlets and boutiques (such as Top Shop, MNG, Esprit, Miss Selfride), countless restaurants (Sizzler, A&W, The Pizza Company, Starbucks, Swensen’s), a Central Food Court, international supermarket, fitness centre and spa, large SFX cinema (with 10 screens), bowling alley and more.

Down the road about a km you’ll find the old Royal Garden Plaza shopping mall. This place is well known as a family oriented retail and entertainment destination, equally popular with Thai and foreign tourists. The small complex is home to many national and internationally recognised brands including Guess, Esprit, Timberland, Swarovski, Boots, Asia Books and CD warehouse, not to mention Thailand’s most common food chains: McDonalds, Sizzler, Swensen's and The Pizza Company. Besides that, the site’s main draw card is the world renowned Ripley's Believe It or Not! on the top level. This is where kids young and old come to marvel at persons and feats of daring that boggle the mind.

The Avenue is a centre for lifestyle and entertainment in a space of 40,000 square meters on Pattaya 2nd Road. The project was designed by a team of architects, from Contour Company, who put emphasis on bright and airy buildings, highlighting a large walkway which connects each shop. Notable shops include Starbucks and an Apple Store. At night the space comes alive with a bubbly night market selling clothes, brick-a-back, accessories and so on.

Mike Shopping Mall, located between CentralFestival and Royal Garden, commands a prime location in the heart of the city. There are over 200 shops here with decent prices. This is truly a shopper’s paradise for all tourists and local people alike. You might have to fight your way through a gauntlet of tour buses and then a hoard of Taiwanese tourist, but once in you’ll have limitless opportunities to spend, spend, spend! Supposedly the price for expats, tourists and Thai is same, but I have my doubts and suggest you haggle hard. On offer are knock-off bags, watches, clothing, accessories, beach paraphernalia and so on; the perfect place to pick up holiday souvenirs and presents.

Tesco Lotus is related to the Tesco retail chain based in the U.K. It is the leading retailer of consumer goods in Thailand, with a network of stores and hypermarkets throughout the country. A great place to pick up sporting equipment, household good, basic clothing, cosmetics and IT equipment.

Big C Supercenter emerged with a new concept for retail business under the theme "super center", which means the stores main focus is food and non-food items. It is simply a combination of discount store and food outlets that provide utmost customer satisfaction and quality products at very low everyday prices under one convenient roof. I good place to browse if you need foodstuffs or are just interested in seeing what the locals like to shop for.

Another new (2009) entertainment area in Pattaya is the Pattaya City Walk. This is a wide lane between Beach Rd and Second Rd. Inside the lane are small shops, an open air entertainment area, a hotel and restaurants. Over the Beach Rd entrance hangs this large and colourful sign inviting in people passing by... Not a bad spot for a leisurely evening stroll, window shop, cooling beverage and spot of people watching (always a worthwhile pursuit in this part of the world!).

Last, but not least, a little ways (about 5km) out of town can be found the Outlet Village, stocking brands like Adidas, Esprit, Callaway, Nike and a slew of local and international gold brands. Worth the trek out if you’re in the market for genuine designer threads and would appreciate a modest discount. That said, discounts can get over 50% during the Thailand’s annual Sale Season.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Gunung Rinjani: Part 2

Continued... the first portion of the trek was not good, on a full stomach, with sleep still in our eyes and lingering numb bums from yesterday’s arduous journey over from Bali, we were none of us exactly at our peak of physical alacrity. The first 1km was rough to say the least. The terrain was not just steep, but the track was littered with large boulders, gigantic trees roots, slippery foliage and tacky mud. We huffed and puffed and made our way up to the starting point... with the yellow sign board overheard declaring that we could now commence our climb up Gunung Rinjani.

And so the days wears on, we climb ever up, up, up past rest stop one (only stopping for a short 15min biscuit break... gotta keep those sugar levels high!) and towards rest stop two, arriving about 1pm. Here we flop out on makeshift platforms for some well-earned R&R whilst our porters (eight of them. Who carry all our food, water, tents, sleeping bags, mats, etc) prepare lunch. We stay flaked her for around 2hrs, enjoying the shade and immense beauty of the Indonesia forest. After a truly delicious lunch of noodle soup with vegetables and a boiled egg we re-load and head off again. At this point our guide Andy gives us the cheerful news (his a seven-time veteran of this trek) that whilst it may seem like we’ve done 50% of the work, that is only in terms of “distance”, in regards to “effort”, we’ve still got about 70% to go!!! Oh dear, that’s not good...

The last two sections of the hike, to stop three and then the rim itself, are extremely arduous, I won’t lie. By now just about every muscle in our bodies is aching and there are quite a few knee complaints going around our group of 16. The third section was not so bad, similar terrain to the morning and still in the damp/cool forest canopy, but the last section was horrendous. We not only encountered are toughest incline yet, but also loose volcano rock underfoot to boot. This is also the point at which we leave the nice shade of the forest for the open hills, bereft of tree cover. This section was the one Machu had particularly warned us about, it’s basically a case of one step forward, two steps back and clinging on for dear life! That said, we were actually quite lucky that there was a sprinkling of rain in the wee early hours of the morning that reinforced the soil with a bit of stick, otherwise we would have been slipin’ and slidin’ on our arses no doubt.  

My mother is vertically challenged (actually she’s the same exact height as me, 5 foot 4 give or take) so was having trouble with some of the more challenging sections of the climb where we had to manoeuvre up and over large embankments. My brother therefore took it upon himself (he, incidentally is not challenged at all in the height department, standing at a towering 6 foot two or so) to walk intermittently behind and in front of her, alternating between pushing her forward and hoisting her up. This actually did the trick, and metre by metre, hour by hour we made steady progress. We finally reached the summit at something like 4:30pm, give or take [No energy to check my watch at this point.]. In fact, we apparently made quite good time, so fast in fact that the porters were hard pressed to keep up with us – that and the fact that they are each carrying some 20kg on their shoulder poles!

Upon reaching the top and seeing the view only one word comes to mind – wow!!! Honestly, all eloquence goes out the window when encountering such a stellar view. The crater rim is absolutely humungous and it’s hard to comprehend just how big Mt. Rinjani would have been had the top not been blown off in an eruption. Segara Anak Lake is also impressive with its colour ranging from dark indigo blue on the far right-hand side, furthest from Mt. Baru in the middle, to deep sky blue in the middle and a vibrant aqua marine on the far left. Not to mention some brown spots up top where lava has seeped in. Mt. Baru is just about the loveliest thing ever, a min-volcano sitting smugly in the middle of its father volcano, letting out the odd puff of smoke just to say hello. Everybody is so in awe of the sight that a hushed silence envelopes the group and all aches and pains are quickly forgotten.

We spend the next hours until sunset slowly adding layer after layer (I got to about five!) as our body temperatures cool down and the high altitude chill begins to seep into our bones; a start contrast to the humid 30+ heat down below. The clouds eventually move in and at 6pm-ish we are forced to move hastily towards camp (set up by the porters who came in about half an hour behind us) as the rain ones again slaps our faces. We all basically hunker down for the night now, only creeping out around 8pm for quick dinner of rice, prawn cracker and fried egg huddled in a makeshift tarpaulin canteen, before heading back to our individual two-man tents to try and garner some sleep. Not any easy task when your tent leak (not ours thanks God!), your freezing cold, your sleeping bag is about as thick is a envelope and your too lazy to get back up and go to the loo! Despite all that, or at least thanks to a sleeping pill or two, my family and I managed to get a few hours of much-needed shut eye.

The next morning we all sleep in and forgo sunrise as it’s raining quite heavily and there is no sun to see anyway thanks to a thick pea-soup fog enveloping our camp. Instead, we rise at 7am-ish, woof down plates of banana pancake and nutella toast and cups of steaming tea and quickly head off to get a jump start on the days walking. The first hour is not too bad, in terms of weather, but ridiculously hard on the knees and mind as its one big slip-n-slide on the rocky slope. We basically all adopt a “go with the flow” strategy, whereby you don’t fight gravity but simply run down the steep bits and hope there is tuft of grass of slight incline at the bottom to halt further forward momentum. By the time we all reach the first rest stop we’re a little shattered, both mentally and physically. This is also when the rain starts to get a tad too heavy. However, we soldier on and head into the thick foliage of the forest again.

After we get going again and hit some of our beloved “flat” spots that we fondly recall from the way up yesterday, my crazy mother decides she’s now chuck full of energy and begins to merrily jog along with my brother leaving my father and I shaking our heads in wonderment as we eat her dust. We naturally stop for a few water and biscuit breaks along the way – the now speedy porters, who despite heading off a good hour after us, considerately stopping to give us provisions before powering on ahead [these men are pure muscle who masterfully ascend the mountain like mountain goats in their thong-covered hoofs]. They make it to the semi-bottom (before final 1km) a little bit ahead of us and put the kettle on, meaning when we arrive a nice hot cup of tea is waiting and our noodle soup is not far off, ahhhh. All up, not a bad way to end what was a fabulous experience and the most memorable birthday trip ever.

Getting there: Mt. Rinjani is not the easiest place to reach. The quickest way would be to fly from your home country (e.g. about THB 8,000 return, economy class, on AirAsia from Bangkok) to Denpasar Airport (Bali), and from there take a domestic flight to Mataram Airport (Lombok). Then it’s a short and lovely (amazing rural scenery along the way) 1.5hr bus ride to Senaru at the foot of the mountain. Otherwise you can do same-same us and take a ferry from Padandbai (Bali) to Lembar Harbour (Lombok), and then hop a private bus to Senaru. You can take either a large slow boat like us across the straight, approx. 5hrs, or choose a quicker small boat at around 2.5-3hrs.

Gunung Rinjani: Part 1

Last Monday was my 30th birthday, to celebrate the occasion I decided to go “big” and do something truly out of the ordinary to mark the momentous occasion. What did I decide... to climb a volcano! With this in mind, I gathered together my posse, i.e. elder brother and parents, and headed to the beautiful island of Lombok in Indonesia, lying just 4hrs north of my family in Australia and 4.5hrs south of me here in Thailand.

Lombok is approximately 4,725 km² in size and with a popular of just under 3 million, it is located in the middle-ish of the Indonesia archipelago in the province of West Nusa Tenggara, about  25 miles east of its more infamous neighbour, Bali. The island’s most developed centre of tourism is Senggigi, spread along a 30-kilometer strip of white sand and blue waters on the coastal road north of Mataram (the island’s capital city). The other hot spot is the Gili islands (Air, Meno and Trawangan), just off the west coast. These two locations are also lovely and worth a blog post but I’ll save them for another time.

To sum up, proximity to Bali is both Lombok’s blessing and curse. In reality only 40 km separate the two islands; however, they are in fact worlds apart. Indeed, overzealous tourism officials notwithstanding, Lombok is not “an unspoiled Bali”, or “Bali’s sister island”. Lombok is not Bali at all, and that is precisely its charm. Lombok has retained a more natural, un-crowded and undeveloped environment, which attracts travellers who come to enjoy its relaxed pace and the opportunity to explore the island's unspoiled but spectacular natural beauty. Lombok only receives about 500,000 visitors annually, compared to a whooping 2.5 million next door. Now do you see the appeal...

Now on with the story, after a long day of travel by bus, ferry and bus (approx. 8hrs) we arrived at our quaint guesthouse at the foot of Mt. Rinjani in the sleepy town on Senaru. We arrived at dusk, just in time to see the clouds roll in and the skies open up as the God’s began to cry (rain), as Hindu Balinese like to say. I will now make a quick detour to extrapolate on the reason for coming here – Mt. Rinjani. Now, Mount Rinjani, or Gunung Rinjani, is an active volcano that lies 3,726m above sea level, making it the second highest (after 3,805m-high Mt. Kerinci in Sumatra) volcano in Indonesia. Its first historical eruption occurred in 1847, with the most recent being on 1 October, 2004. The volcano’s 6 x 8.5km oval-shaped interior basin is filled with spectacular Segara Anak Lake (Child of the Sea), which has a depth of 200m and contains thermal pools in its azure waters. Gunung Baru is the name of the new “mini” volcano which emerged in the centre of the lake; it too is still active.

That night over dinner we are informed by our tour guide, Andy (from Oz), and local guide, Machu (Lombokian), that the trek up to the crater rim (where we shall camp the night) would take us more-or-less 6hrs depending on the weather, our individual fitness level and enthusiasm. Well, there you go, not so bad eh... wrong! They also went on the mention that the climb up was steep, steep, steep and really “not” for the faint of heart. Gulp. It was at about this point that my 60-year-old parents looked at me with a mixture of despair and fear in their eyes. What had I done! Still, as the Apollo 13 lead flight director Gene Kranz once said: “failure is not an option!” And so we head to bed with thoughts of sore knees, exhaustion and foot blisters bubbling over in our minds.

And so, after a dogged night’s sleep broken up by intermittent but insistent rain, we all rose early for a brekky of banana pancakes and molasses like sludge coffee before commencing, around 8:30am, are hike up to the lofty heavens. The 10-km-long trek is broken up into four sections: there is an initial 1km-long “introduction” phase to the “official” starting point [note: many previous enthusiasts have turned back at this point sensing impending doom!], and from there you have “rests” spots about every 3kms apart, spaced at about 2hr intervals. When you break it up like that it doesn’t seem so bad. Stayed tuned for ‘Part 2’ to hear what happens next...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lotus Spa of Siam

What I really love about massages, is that for one fleeting hour (or 90 minutes or more in some case) you can totally give yourself up both physically and mentally to something utterly divine. Phone off, worries set aside, to-do list expunged and focus on one, and only one, thing... relaxation. I first discovered massages when I was living in China and have been an addict every since.

So... on my recent trip to Pattaya I took it upon myself to check out the Siam Bayshore Resort & Spa’s fabulous Lotus Spa of Siam, which is located amid the folds of the resort’s magnificent and captivating 20 acres of lush gardens. The Spa is actually a series of small bungalows (catering for 1-2 people) connected by raised wooden walkways traversing the lagoon.

After perusing the extensive menu – they offer about 50 different massage (foot, back) and body treatments (facial, wrap, scrub) – I decided to opt for their most “popular” service, the Avatar Massage (Bht 2,640++), which is 1.5hrs of pure bliss. This session is a mix of aromatic and traditional massage styles, with a heavy emphasis on total relaxation, rejuvenation and relief of all aches and pains. Next time think I’ll give the Purest Thai herbal & Honey Body Wrap, Coffee-Coconut Body Scrub, Foot Pampering Massage or Deep Cleansing Facial a go.

I must admit that this was my first ever Thai massage. Despite being in Thailand 5 months I always find myself turning to my trusty old Chinese/oil massage out of familiarity. Today I decided to mix things up and go for the local thing. Lo and behold – it’s wonderful!!!! Far from being a painful, contortionist experience, it’s actually quite refreshing and nice to have your arms and legs manipulated in strange ways and having a 50kg lady sit on your back and slap you around!

For those of you not familiar with oriental massage, let me elucidate: you start with a shower, then it’s straight into pummelling your back, bum and shoulders, quickly followed by legs and feet, then arms and stomach, and finally head and face. Masseuses are generally very good at what they do and can usually sniff out a sore muscle or tightly-wound knot, but if you have any specific are you want worked on, don’t be afraid to tell them. Likewise if the massage is too soft or too firm, they can easily and happily adjust. But just remember the old maxim: no pain, no gain! So don’t be a softie, opt for a firm, rigorous massage (if you can stand it!) and reap the benefits the following day.

Getting there: The gardens are located inside the Siam Bayshore Resort & Spa. For more info, go to