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Archive for June, 2009

No Passport Required Jun 30
Island Goddess

Island Girl

You are invited to join me on a virtual tour from the comfort of your desktop. Vicariously experience dream destinations around the world as I introduce you to places, people and experiences through my personal photography and commentary.
As a travel specialist, I am often asked to name my favorite place.  There are several answers to this question depending on the purpose of the trip. Each island or location has a unique personality & resonates with a specific energy.

I am an island girl in every sense of the word. I was born on a tropical island and expect to end up on one. In the meantime, I have visited & explored islands all over the world.  But my love affair with Tahiti began the very first time I laid eyes on her surreal beauty. I have been enchanted with her ever since and so we begin our journey tomorrow in the islands of French Polynesia.

No passport required. For that matter, neither is a ticket or luggage or even a travel companion. Just bring  a sense of adventure!

‘The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page’ – St. Augustine.

For Bio, see About section (above right.)

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Day 25: Farewell Siam Jun 29

Normally, I don’t take pictures of food because it rarely does justice to it. But I was impressed by the lavish Sunday Brunch served at Banyan Tree and asked the general manager for permission to photograph elements of it without disturbing the guests. They offered a  broad selection of international cuisine, all artfully presented. I was again reminded of that attention to detail I had seen throughout my journey as well as the fact that we had enjoyed consistently wonderful meals in every region.

Take  a look for yourself.

tea selection at Banyan Tree

tea selection at Banyan Tree


market station

market station


Japanese condiments

Japanese condiments

Thailand Gift PackWell, we are out of time on this tour. Island-hopping from Phuket to to Koh Samui, Krabi or Phi Phi Island will have to wait until another month as we bid adieu to beautiful Thailand and her gracious people.

This month’s raffle prize, a Thailand Gift Pack consists of a Thai Cookbook containing many of the exotic foods and dishes discussed on this tour, Thai coffee beans from Chiang Mai University’s Royal Plantation Project to enjoy after a Thai meal, an intricately patterned sarong with coconut shell clip so as to be respectfully covered when entering temples and palaces, a decorative travel journal to record observations and a portable travel clock/calendar.

Congratulations to this month’s winner, Ginny Leonard of Sacramento, CA.


FYI: CNN International announced the results of its Online Consumer Survey (OCS) on Travel and Tourism which reveals that Thailand was chosen as representing the best value for money for travellers in the Asia Pacific region. The survey conducted across CNN English websites had more than 5,000 respondents globally. Thailand came out as the best value in Asia-Pacific for respondents over China in second place and India in third.
CNN Press Release dated May 14, 2009

Day 24: Spa Heaven Jun 26
spa pavillion, interior view

spa pavillion, interior view

Ah, if there is a Spa Heaven, surely this must be it. The world-renowned Banyan Tree Spa was the last stop on our one-hour whirlwind tour its namesake, the Banyan Tree Resort in Phuket.

After resort guests have taken advantage of all the recreational activities available, they can retreat into a sanctuary for the senses. Within the intimacy of individual spa pavillions, a wide range of holistic Asian treatments are offered. I wouldn’t expect anything less.

At the very least, I recommend that you make an appointment to indulge in the classic Thai massage. A set of loose-fitting cotton pajama-like garments are provided for your comfort. The therapist will lead you into a tranquil space where a thick, cloth-covered pad resembling a queen-size mattress awaits on  slightly raised platform.

This is sometimes called “yoga massage” because you will be stretched, pulled, twisted and massaged at acupressure points while seated and prone to get the blood and the energy flowing. At times, you may feel woman-handled (or man-handled) but it is ultimately deeply relaxing. You will pay a little more at an upscale hotel spa than at budget storefronts or in open air markets. But consider the difference in experience when administered by a skilled therapist rather than an untrained person with limited English skills.

If you are enjoying a lunch break during a full spa day, the adjacent Tamarind Restaurant serves a light and healthy spa menu al fresco next to that lovely pool.  Unfortunately, it was time to leave, no time for me to personally sample either the spa or the restaurant.

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Day 23: James Bond Island Jun 24

Phang Nga BayThis scene may look familiar to those of you who have seen the film The Man with the Golden Gun. Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand is where part of the movie was filmed. Local tour companies bring boatloads of tourists to James Bond Island but there is really nothing to see, except possibly some discarded litter.  Nevertheless, the true beauty of this area is the craggy limestone towers thrusting upward out of the sea and reaching for the sky.

You can explore the caves and chambers below the jagged cliffs in sea kayaks. Your paddle guide can even steer you through to hidden interior pools. John Gray pioneered kayaking in this area and remains the most respected low impact, eco-friendly operator here.  While most companies bring hoards of visitors during the morning, his offers an uncrowded afternoon excursion with dinner and then an evening float to view bio-luminescent plankton.

Thailand T2 FAM 416Returning to Phuket, the largest island in Thailand, we head for the Banyan Tree for a quick tour. This world famous celebrity hideaway is a full service resort that consists exclusively of private villas with walled courtyards for privacy. These stunning units range from one bedroom villas with outdoor jacuzzi to extra large villas with multiple bedrooms and both exterior and  interior swimming pools.

In addition, there is a full 18 hole golf course that hosts a major annual championship and a main pool that runs through the resort as  a free-form lagoon. The resort also has direct beach access and a golf cart service to shuttle you there and back from your villa.

This is a very elegant resort with plush accommodations for anyone seeking a tropical escape in true luxury. Here is a quick glimpse of the Spa Pool Villa where Elizabeth Hurley reportedly stayed. And I’ve saved the best for last. See you tomorrow.

private courtyard with exterior pool

private courtyard with exterior poolliving room



living room

living roombedroom with interior pool

bedroom with surrounding interior pool

bedroom with surrounding interior pool

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Day 22: Elephant Walk Jun 22

“It’s time to saddle up but it ain’t no Arizona dude ranch and this ain’t no pony ride”.

 It’s a bit tricky to climb onto a full size elephant. Fortunately, they have constructed a platform at just the right height so you can step across and settle into the howdah or chair fairly easily.

Thailand T2 FAM 467

Helen, Elehant Hills









Then, you just have to hang on because it’s a wobbly ride. Taking photographs was challenging with the natural swaying motion from side to side and an occasional detour off the path for an elephant snack.

I’m going to let you enjoy the view as we trek through the jungle.

group #4, Elephant Hills

 Thailand T2 FAM 484


group #2, Elephant Hills

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Day 21: Hydrotherapy Jun 19
elephants with their mahouts

elephants with their mahouts

Elephants are very complex and sensitive creatures. They are well respected in Thailand for their grace and intelligence and serve as symbols of the much-revered Thai monarchy. In fact, the annual week-long King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in late March raises funds for elephant charities. You will see representations of elephants and references to these majestic creatures throughout your travels in Thailand.

There are quite a few elephant camps open to visitation in the northern areas of Chiang Mai , Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle. These are not all created equal. Some are working camps where you can see elephants rolling and hauling lumber, others are education centers offering supervised interactions. And yet other sanctuaries provide rescue and rehabilitation for sick, injured or abused elephants.




The Elephant Spa

The Elephant Spa

Now that our new pachyderm friends were fed, we had to take care of another need. We followed the elephants and their mahouts over to what I call The Elephant Spa, their bathing area. We were each given a coconut husk loofah and bucket of sudsy water with which to  scrub down our personal elephant. Then we rinsed them off, hosing them down gently with a garden hose, before they strolled over to the pool to “play” in the water even more. This feeding and bathing ritual is just a part of the daily care that they receive here.



Thailand T2 FAM 463We had now worked up an appetite ourselves and returned to the camp to clean up for our own supper. We would be staying overnight and try to squeeze in one more activity in the morning.

Elephant Hills is a solid 3-star moderate camp with good basic tent accommodations and generous basic meals. It is a good value for what it provides. However, it is NOT the luxury tented camp experience  it advertises itself to be. Anyone who has traveled to an upscale or luxury camp in Asia or Africa will instantly know the difference. See my Kenya Tour/Day 9/Joy’s Camp in the April Archives for a comparison.

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Day 20: Tea Time for Elephants Jun 17

We’re taking a one day detour into the jungle before we continue south to the idyllic islands and beaches sprinkled in the Gulf of Siam and the Andaman Sea on either side of the Southern Peninsula.

DSC05529Arriving by motorcoach at the Elephant Hills Tented Camp in Khao Sok National Park at midday, we had to head out immediately after lunch for a lazy river cruise. Both passengers in each piloted inflatable kayak were free to sit back and enjoy the leisurely float along the jungle waterways. The scenery was stunning with high limestone cliffs, cliff top caves and exotic wildlife. Our paddle guide pointed out plants and birds as we glided along.

 It felt a little strange to not be paddling and in essence, be chauffeured. The bulky life vests were a bit uncomfortable and unnecessary in the shallow water. But we complied with the request to don them for our own “safety” rather than kick up a fuss.  I could easily have waded to shore, if needed. I imagine it was more for their legal protection. I wasn’t interested in suing anyone because I toppled out of a boat in 2 feet of water.

my friend Helen & Ellen

my friends Helen & Ellen

We did stop for a tea break at one point. A fire had already been lit in preparation at this predetermined spot and a kettle was standing ready. We were even offered packaged tea cakes.

Elephant Feeding #1After our return to the camp late that afternoon, we had the opportunity to serve “tea” to the resident elephants. Their Thai mahouts or handlers had brought them into the feeding area.  We had our work cut out for us. Our host, the camp director, demonstrated how large quantities of fruits and vegetables were to  be cut and separated into individual baskets by all of us.

We had to get up close and personal for the actual hand-feeding. These gentle giants gobbled up the entire snack but were definitely more fond of certain items. The cut stalks of sugar cane were heavily favored over the less sweet squash and pumpkin. Nature’s version of candy.

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Day 19: Heaven Can Wait Jun 15

Rolling up the extra-wide driveway, a massive city gate looms into view. The uniformed sentry waves us through. Hmm, a full parade with floats and marching bands could easily fit on this road. It’s a sign of things to come.

Thailand T2 FAM 351In the distance, a sprawling complex appears with the main reception building in the center. We have been transported back in time and space to a recreation of a Lanna kingdom. The buildings are super-sized and rich in architectural detail. No, it is not a theme park but the impressive Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai.

I have to admit that I was quite unprepared for an entire village comprised of Asian-style palaces and villas plus colonial mansions within this 60 acre lush tropical landscape. We were only here for a one hour inspection tour and not staying overnight. But I can certainly tell you about every category of accommodation and all the facilities since we saw them all. Several things are apparent: large quantites of teakwood were used in  the construction of this resort. There are no mere hotel rooms here. The suites, single story villas and double story villas are all sumptously decorated.

Thailand T2 FAM 349The grounds are so extensive that guests are given a map and complimentary golf cart shuttle service. You could easily spend a week just exploring within the gated walls. There is an organic vegetable garden, working rice paddies (with water buffalo!) and a crafts village. The Thai cooking classes take advantage of the home grown produce as do the many themed restaurants on site. Of course, there are swimming pools, tennis courts, a fitness center, yoga and tai chi classes and even a championship golf course nearby (off property).

The real jewel in this crown is the Palace of Wellness, their Dheva Spa and Holistic Center housed in a separate Mandalay-inspired grand palace of its own. The center offers an extensive menu of Ayurvedic treatments, massages, aroma and aqua therapies.

This is truly a fantasy resort. A little over the top for my taste. But it all makes me wonder what heaven looks like.

For now, heaven can wait.

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Day 18: Shoppertunity Jun 12

The Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai is probably the most famous shoppertunity in Thailand, although the open air market is actually open for business both day and night in the downtown area. The sidewalk is lined in both directions with tiny stalls selling cheap Thai souvenirs and counterfeit designer goods.

Thailand T2 FAM 057Bypass these for the real finds. Inside the main market square, vendors have tables set up in a grid offering everything from local foods to cotton clothing to handicrafts. According to everyone I spoke to in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, this is the BEST place to shop for locally-produced items.


Thailand T2 FAM 224You can outfit yourself in a new wardrobe with shirts, skirts, a shoulder bag or backpack, sandals, a watch and jewelry. Redecorate your home with hand-carved wood furniture, glossy black lacquerware or pale green Celadon potter. Toss in some matching pillowcases and quilts with some strings of colorful miniature paper lanterns.

I was intrigued by some iconic images of Thailand, available for sale,  ready to frame and display. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the owner of the booth to inquire about the photographer. And I even noticed a few individuals dressed in hill tribe garb selling the type of richly textured hand-loomed fabrics and embroidery we had just seen in the upcountry village.

Thailand T2 FAM 226

Care to take a break from all this power shopping? Well, there are local treats in a food stall nearby that seem to be very popular although I couldn’t identify most of them. Small restaurants can also be found at intervals along the perimeter. One even allows you to select your fresh fish from the tank.

If you would like to sit down and put your tired paws up, you can get a foot massage for less than $10 (U.S.) cash. Really. Right here and now. Fully clothed. In public.


It’s a bargain. I just can’t vouch for the quality of the massage. That would depend on the person providing it. And whether he/she understands and heeds your requests for  lighter pressure. They do seem to be a little too enthusiastic. Some patrons seemed to purr with pleasure while others grimaced in quiet pain.

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Day 17: House of Silk Jun 10

American expat Jim Thompson is credited with reviving the Thai silk industry, introducing dyes that produce many of the vibrant hues we see today. As an interesting side note, his silks were used in costuming the 1956 Oscar award winning musical The King & I. It is possible to visit his former residence in Bangkok where his collection of Asian art is on display. The cluster of houses contain scroll paintings, carvings, sculptures and porcelains. If you are more interested in seeing and purchasing silk, the main store is in another area of the city.

However, a stop at the Jolie Femme Thai Silk Company in Chiang Mai offers a fascinating back-of-store tour where you can see silkworms, what they consume and what they produce. Here, you are welcome to observe and speak with employees as they work in each stage of production from raw material to spinning to dyeing to weaving.

jolie-femme-silk-shop-1The front showroom displays the finished products in a mezmerising rainbow of brilliant jewel tones. The staff did ask that I not take closeup photos to protect their inhouse designs. I understood the reason and I honored that request. No one likes to have their creative efforts “borrowed” without permission.

Believe me, the selection was so extensive, I almost couldn’t think.  I would recommend making a shopping list beforehand as a guide – a silk tie for the husband, a silk scarf for the best friend, a silk purse for me, etc. You may see a few other items to tempt you and make your birthday and/or holiday shopping easier (hint with a wink). Everything from clothing to accessories to housewares is available at prices much friendlier to the wallet than those in Bangkok. Of course, you can also have items custom made to your specifications, if you don’t see a ready-to-wear that is ready-to-go home with you.

Just be aware that sometimes synthetics are passed off as silks. Stick to reputable stores and this will not be  a problem. If you are looking for the heavier textured fabrics handwoven by hill tribes, the night market is where you want to look. That’s where we are going tonight.

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