The fourth day we left Rome and drove up through Tuscany. We took the scenic route. The weather was perfect for a “travel day” with some clouds and rain and it was a very nice trip. We ended in Siena where we had booked a room in an old monastery which had been turned into a hotel. They had kept some of the “charm” from its history with religious icons and relics, and hard beds made for nothing else than stoicism and solitary..
For summer holiday this year we decided to go to Thailand for 4 weeks of pure relaxation. We had no definite plan for our 4 weeks other than booked flight tickets, our first 5 nights in Koh Samui and the final 5 nights in Bangkok.
I was luckily able to persuade Ingunn Cecilie that we would go for handluggage only. I found it easy to travel this way and try to do it whenever I can. But don’t get me wrong – I am not more of a bacpacker than that. I like the 4-5 star hotels the most with all options available, a good clean bed and good service.
This will not be a “geo-political travel review” with focus on all different angles of travelling in Thailand, but a brief summary and a couple of recommendations, should you plan to follow in some of our footsteps ( if you see a pair of footsteps size 36 and 46, it’s probably us…).
As said, we started in Koh Samui at Chaweng beach in a hotel called Kirikayan Boutique Resort. We had booked something called a Duplex suite. It was a first floor with bathroom and livingroom containing sofa, bathtub (?!?), tv and minibar. The second floor was the bedroom. The room itself was ok, but the sofa was not very good and although the aircondition worked ok, it got “hot as hell” up in the bedroom. Besides the room, the hotel was ok and offered ok service. They had an ok swimming pool, big enough to take a few laps, sun chairs and right next to a beautiful and great beach. We stayed here for 5 nights mostly just enjoying the beach and surroundings.
For a couple of the nights we went to a restaurant close by called Poppies which offered great thai food and service in a ” bungalow garden” right next to the beach. This was also mentioned in some of the food recommendations for Koh Samui so we felt safe going here. Certainly a place we can recommend.
After the first 5 nights we took the Lomprayah ferry to Koh Tao, which is about 1,5 hours ferry ride from Koh Samui (stopping at Koh Phangan first). Here we stayed at a place called Koh Tao Montra resort, just a 5 min walk from the ferry. The hotel was rated about 3,5 stars and we felt that was about right. An ok hotel with it’s shares of “improvement areas” . We had been discussing whether to take a diving class at Koh Tao but decided to cancel as both were not equally interested. Maybe next time . We rented an ATV which we used to get around the island. You will find many shops renting out scooters, bikes and ATV’s here and their quite notorious, actually known as “Koh Tao scooter scams” so be careful. Most of the shops will ask you to leave your passport, which you never should do as they will then be able to force you to pay for imaginary damages to the bikes when returning it. I checked out and turned down a couple of the shops at first before deciding. From searching online, one of the shops not requiring this was “Lederhosen Koh Tao motorbikes and ATV”. I decided to rent here after a talk with the owner, a german man staying in Koh Tao for 14 years now. Instead of passport I paid a good deposit instead. He also had his share of critics online but I found him to be fair. We rented a 350 ATV for 5 days, returned in the same piece and got our deposit back as promised. No problems.
During our stay in Koh Tao we also met up with a friend of Ingunn Cecilie, from studies, and his girlfriend and friends for a couple of beers and some food. Nice
We decided a week in Koh Tao was enough and headed back to Ko Samui. We now booked at a bit more high-end place called Anantara Lawana where we got our own villa with pool. 11 nights of pure luxury. This is a place I can come back to. It also had a big pool down by the beach with sun chairs, bar etc., but with your private pool it’s easy to just stay there. We tried a little of both. We enjoyed both the restaurants in the hotel; Ocean Kiss and Treetops. The first one is down by the pool and the beach while the other one is actually a set of small tree-huts up in the trees. Quite nice and romantic
While staying in Koh Samui I decided to get some tailor made shirts and suit. I had originally planned to do this in Bangkok but having better time in Koh Samui I found it to be best here. I had done som research in advance and headed for “Timmy’s” in Chaweng which came highly recommended. They are certainly good at their work, reasonable price and I can recommend them for anyone else going here.
Koh Samui and Chaweng certainly also has it’s share of good restaurants and there are a couple of them we tested out that I can recommend:
- Poppies (as mentioned before), for thai food
- Otaru, for sushi
- Red Snapper, for seafood
- The Larder, a combination of french and english with a twist..
- Treetops ( at the hotel), french/international and thai
All of these also had decent wine menus.
After this last period we headed for Bangkok for the final 5-night stretch of our holiday. Bangkok is, as I remembered it to be, a very big, busy and noisy city, but with a certain charm as well. You just need to look beyond the people selling stuff on the streets, the people trying to scam you and the rude taxi or tuk-tuk drivers trying to raise the price for transport. We stayed in a nice room at Lebua which has a Tower Club with a bit more luxury feel to it. The hotel itself is great, the staff friendly and helpful at all times, the breakfast great and it’s conveniently located close to the Sathorn and Oriental pier (for tours on Chao Praya) and the Saphan Taksin skytrain station. Using the river boats and skytrain for transport is the best in Bangkok as this gets you across town quite fast. The hotel is also famous for it’s Dome at 64th floor with Sirocco restaurant and skybar. The only thing I struggled understanding was why the hotel was so rigid about people not taking pictures from the outdoor areas by the restaurants and bars. Something Lebua should improve on.
The time in Bangkok we spent doing some shopping, taking a private tour with longtail boat on the small rivers beyond Chao Praya and checking out the Grand Palace and Wat Pho ( the reclining Buddha statue). We did not go all the way in to Grand Palace because that requires wearing long pants and we did not feel like standing in line for renting these. This is also an area I think was unneccessary rigid. I can understand Thailand want their visitors to treat temples and national treasures with a certain respect, but at the same time I think they need to acknowledge that asking tourists to wear long pants, sleeves and no sandals in 30 degress Celsius is a bit too strict.
For the shopping we visited Siam Paragon, Siam Centre, Central World and Emporium which are all dominated by quite high class brand stores. We also visited the MBK centre and Asiatique which both offers a combination of stalls selling knock-off goods (copies), local arts and craft stalls and the ones selling varieties of t-shirts and dresses. They were both quite a pleasant experience. Asiatique is located right next to th river and is sectioned in different warehouses you can walk through, and you also find a nice selection of drinks and food. Asiatique also offers a shuttle boat along the river. The MBK centre was quite nice in the way that the stall owners didn’t bother you to much with their offers. They were just available as soon as you had questions.
Luckily we also catched Thomas and Jens Kristian in Bangkok on their tour through Asia and were able to spend some time with a dinner, some drinks and hanging out. Great fun!
The last day in Bangkok we also used the hotel spa for some massage and facial treatment. Very nice to be a bit pampered with after a few hectic days in the big city. And so ended these 4 weeks of joy
Tonights dinner at Ylajali:
Potato, chicken liver & lingonberries
Nyr, troutroe & chives
Raw Shrimps & dill
Smoked haddock & sourdough
Oyster grilled in its shell
Chickenskin & kingcrab
White asparagus AA
Scallops from Frøya & horseradish
Green asparagus, söl & sorrel
Bread & Butter
Smoked Swedish caviar & celery
Langoustine “Wood fired”
Sour milk & celeriac
Turbot, Hay & Ramsons
Chapter 4 :
Duckhearts and juniperbranches
Veal & Turnips
Munkeby cheese from Levanger
“Ørskog-sveler” & hazelnuts
The last days back in Seoul on this trip was spent doing some shopping in the areas of Itaewon, Yangson ( electronics market and I’Park mall), good food and drinks with friends and a trip up to the border of North Korea, the DMZ and MDL around Panmunjom. This is the border area 40 km from Seoul. On the way up there we also stopped by the War Memorial museum in Seoul and the Freedom bridge (where south korean war prisoners returned).
It’s definately a special time to visit this area with all the tension going on. At the time writing this, CNN is on in the background reporting about the escalated situation. For our own sake I hope they wait a couple of days until they start firing missiles, but obviously for the region and for the world I hope it will be resolved without a war. Of course, this is a situation South Korea has dreaded for the last 60 years and a fear they almost have learned to live with. It is hard to understand how a country is able to constantly live with the fear of war. Keep in mind the war between north and south never ended. They only reached a cease-fire armistice which North Korea cancelled some weeks ago.
The visit to the war memorial and the border certainly gives you some interesting facts about the history and the situation, and visiting the border is a very special event. The tour bus takes us up to the first check point where our passports are checked towards pre-approved visitors list and we are given visitors badges. We are then taken to the visitor center where we need to sign a waiver accepting risk of getting shot, we are given a history and security briefing and guided on to military buses for the last stretch.
Arriving at what they call Freedom house we just pass through and out the back towards the blue conference buildings on the MDL facing North Korea. From here you see the watch guards on the North side watching us with binoculars. We are then led into the conference room buildings for information and photo shoot where we actually cross the border to north korea, though under safe supervision of our own US army security guard. The stay ends with a brief bustour around the area showing some of the special views towards north korea, their 160 meter flagpole and propaganda village. Heading back to Seoul, maybe a little bit tired but also quite heavy minded as you certainly feel the tension in this area. Scary.
This year´s easter trip went to Korea, that being the southern part of the Korean peninsula. In a couple of days I will likely also have visited the border between north and south but more to come about that later. Our trip started in Seoul after a stop in Helsinki. Seoul is, no doubt, a modern city with good transportation system, very good public parks, your international shopping venue and lots of good culture and restaurants, both korean and international. But in between all the modern aspects of the town, the skyscrapers, modern cars and modern people, you will also see parts of the old Korea. The huge palaces for former governor, kings and queens, small villages giving a good picture of how people used to live a thousand years ago. You will see evidence of past dynasties and a rich cultural heritage, but also proof of many years of occupation, war and tragedies. No dpubt this is an exciting city with much to offer. We stayed in the very “international-like” Itaewon, close to the US base in Seoul. So to experience the real Seoul you need to travel outside Itaewon. We have a lot more to experience here to understand this city fully but a starting point for others might be seeing the areas of Inchadong for some shopping and a cultural tour in the small streets of Bukchon, not far from the Gyeongbokgung Palace. As “real tourists” we obviously needed to see the area of Gangnam as well. An area that at first reminded me of New York, with high skyscrapers and lots of neon lights with all of the major fashion stores and other shops. Going in through the smaller streets here you will find a huge variety of dining and drinking for all tastes.
Leaving Seoul, we headed for Gyenongju. This city is so full of cultural treasures and heritage that UNESCO put the whole city on the list. We visited various parks, temples and the national museum . It´s truly a nice place to have visited but being found of the ocean I always feel a bit lost in areas “inland”. The hotel, Hyundae hotel, was definately worth a stay.
Next stop was the city of Busan where we stayed at Novotel Ambassador just by Haeundae beach. Too bad it was a bit out of season because the beach was beautiful. The city of Busan (or Pusan) is an important port and fishing town so we visited the fish market. One floor with all kinds of different sea creatures, some more bad looking than others. One floor with all dried fish and other sea animals, and one floor where you could get some fresh cut sashimi and eat it there. Also, outside were several booths selling fresh goods. Having the fish market out of the way the next was the international market close by with all kinds of other food stands and the widest selection of phone covers you can imagine. Essentially, lots of tourist stores. The next stay we went to Shinsegae, supposed to be the worlds biggest department store. I´m not entirely sure thats true but it was big. It also had its own icerink and cinema. Being more found of shopping malls I only did some window shopping here and saved my korean Won for later amusement.
The next stop was the island of Jeju, a vulcanic island only an short hour away with plane. Jeju is a separate province of South Korea and has it´s special dialect, a bit different culture and history. I will not go into all of that now. The stay was nice. We were able to see the vulcanic caves, the sunrise peak and the folk museum.
From here we go back to Seoul for a couple of days before we head back home. From here we also plan to go up to the border towards North Korea unless the political situation escalates further the next two days. You might wonder whether we have experienced much of the strained relationship between north and south. It´s no doubt an important part of history so learning some about Korean history you get into that part too. The special situation is only evident with some headlines in the news and a couple of fighter jets flying across the cities from time to time, and seeing some military activity in the airports. More to come about the final phase of the trip.
Something many of us strive for, is finding that clever balance of work and personal life allowing us enough time and focus on the things we consider important wheher it is time with family, travels, mediation, spiritual experiences, staying fit or something else. I thought this talk by Nigel Marsh from a TED conference in Sydney was very good on the subject. Enjoy!