Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Phuket, Thailand ~ And that Magical Mansion by the Sea

We can’t tell you what we ate at the Cape Panwa House on a beach in Phuket, Thailand, more than two decades ago, but we can tell you it was the dining experience that still ranks Number One in all of our years of travel. A doting waiter, clad in Thai silk, served the many courses of our meal and hovered over us as we dined in the stately colonial mansion. As cliché as it sounds, a full moon and swaying palms, as though from a movie set, provided the perfect tropical backdrop.

We dined there more than once during that brief stay so long ago. Nothing since, has compared to our experiences there.

Cape Panwa House - Phuket, Thailand, 1988
Thailand was one of our first travel destinations. The mountainous Phuket Island in the southern part of Thailand had won our hearts. . .it was everything an exotic tropical island should be for those starry-eyed young travelers just setting out to explore the world.

We’ve often pondered returning; wondering if the place would seem as magical now. . .

'The Scout' jogging the beach at Cape Panwa, Phuket, Thailand, 1988

The Panwa House was then part of the Sheraton Cape Panwa Hotel where we stayed during our time on this island in the Andaman Sea.  Most visitors to Phuket, the largest of Thailand’s islands, come for its beaches. We went for the same reason and looking back at old photos of our time at Cape Panwa we remember that wonderful beach. 

The Sheraton long ago sold the hotel and we’ve always wondered what happened to that magical mansion by the sea. We chose not to research it on the internet as we didn’t want to risk shattering those memories. . .

Fast Forward:  Phuket Island, our Second Port of Call

Our 34-day cruise from Bangkok, Thailand to Istanbul, Turkey aboard Oceania’s Nautica (aka our Magic Carpet) included many new places that we’d been wanting to visit, but another selling point of its itinerary had been getting to revisit favorite places from long-ago travels. Spending a day in Phuket was a plus. We’d not been here since 1988.

Phuket was the only port of call along our routing where we ‘tendered’ into the shore on smaller boats while our ship stayed anchored in deeper water.  If you’ve ever anchored at sea you know the ship turns with the current – like a slow moving kaleidoscope of scenery.  It was fun watching our arrival and trying to figure out where on the island we might be landing. . .

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Oceania's Nautica anchored in the Andaman Sea
And then. . . (you know what’s coming, don’t you?) . . .yes, there it was!

I start smiling when I think of the joy in realizing we were just off shore from the Cape Panwa House -- once the home of a coconut plantation owner and now nearly 100 years old – still on the beach right where we’d last seen it!

Cape Panwa House, Phuket, Thailand, 2015
It is still a restaurant, we learned, operated by the Cape Panwa Hotel, and only open for dinner so we didn’t get to try it. Our ship sailed at 6 p.m.  (The reviews I’ve read since returning home, lead me to believe its magic is still wowing diners much as it did  when we were there.) Somehow, we were happy just knowing it was there.

Phuket ~ The Same, Yet Different

Phuket, whose wealth comes in part from tourism, got its start back in the 1500’s with tin production, an industry that continues today. While the Panwa House looked the same, tourism has made its mark on the island. The contrasting beach scenes, my 1988 and current photos, are examples of the growth that has taken place:

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Cape Panwa Phuket Thailand - Then and Now (1988 left, 2015 right)
Cape Panwa is about 25 minutes from Phuket Town by taxi. bus,or tuk-tuk, those tri-wheeled carts that still give riders a thrill as they whisk you in and out of tight traffic spaces.  The town, still an interesting mix of smells and sights but the shops, food vendors and the bustle of activity they generated didn’t hold quite the charms our first visit to the island.

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Phuket Town, Thailand, 1988 left, 2015 right

We passed up visiting the tourist sites as we wanted to see the town again. It was interesting strolling the streets - squeezing past parked motorcycles when the sidewalk disappeared and dodging buses, taxis and people.

We'd ridden a similar bus to town from Cape Panwa in 1988; this was a 2015 version
Strolling however wasn’t one of the most pleasant pastimes because it was hot, incredibly hot, the temperatures were in the low 90’s and the humidity was in a similar range. That may have contributed to our reaction to the little town that had once charmed us. This food vendor below had the right idea – we could have used a fan as well!

Food vendor Phuket Town Thailand
The town is well worth a visit and should be included on a trip to the island. There are also any number of tourist attractions including: the Sri Bhurap Orchid Cashew Nut Factory, the Phuket Seashell Museum, and the Phang Nga Bay National Marine Park. Also new, since our last visit, were two retail shopping malls.

Phuket was to be the last ‘familiar’ stop until we reached Rhodes, Greece. From this point on, our Magic Carpet Ride, was headed into new territory.

We’d have another day at sea and then wake up to find ourselves in Myanmar (Burma, as it once was known) where we left the ship for a two-night stay in Yangon – a place we are so eager to show you!

To our regulars here: For a short time, I’ll be posting twice a week; one post will continue the Magic Carpet ride through the Middle East and the other will be the return of Washington Weekend, featuring Pacific Northwest getaways.

For those of you social media enthusiasts, we’ve just joined the Google+ world, where you can find links to the posts under my name, Jackie Smith. (We finally link up and I read that Google is reducing the program features – timing is everything, isn’t it?)

As always, thanks for your time. Safe travels to you. Hope to see you again soon~

Linking this week with:

Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening
Mersad's Through My Lens

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Singapore: Something Old ~ Something New

There are those among you who still are shaking your heads; trying to wrap them around the idea of anyone wanting to sail from Bangkok, Thailand to Istanbul,Turkey via the Middle East. It sounded to many like a route full of foreign ports with strange sounding names and in some cases undeveloped, perhaps even unsafe – at times -countries.

Not all our ports of call were like that.  Take, for example, Singapore. Our first port of call on this 34-day adventure is officially known as the Republic of Singapore, a Southeast Asian island country that is a sleek, modern sovereign city-state with a population of 5.4 million people.

Singapore skyline
In terms of purchasing power parity, Singapore has the third-highest per capita income in the world. It is a major commercial hub, the fourth-biggest financial center and ranks second on the list of the world's busiest ports.

It also ranks high when comparing its education, healthcare and economy with other countries in the world.

Touring the Town

We chose to explore this first port of call on our own.  For those of you who scoff at cruises because of those ‘cruise ship herd tours', let me assure you that Oceania Cruises gets a gold star for on-shore passenger flexibility. At all of our ports of call, those who wanted to take the ship-sponsored tours  could do so. Many arranged small independent group tours by use of the Cruise Critic web site in advance of the cruise. Others, like us,  just walked off the ship, planning to see the town on our own. 
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Singapore is a tourist-friendly town

NOTE: Singapore is a tourist-friendly city, which makes it easy to tour on your own.  There were signs in English to explain the history of streets and neighborhoods and public art.

We opted to take the “Hop On, Hop Off” (HOHO) shore tour bus. We simply walked to the HOHO Bus tour desk in the very modern and cruise-ship-welcoming terminal. A short wait there and we were on their shuttle bus that transported us to the tour bus hub, tucked away among those towering buildings pictured above. 

NOTE: Similar buses operate in numerous cities around the world – as their name implies you can hop off, explore a particular site and hop back on the next bus that comes along to get to the next site or stay on the bus and simply sightsee.

Hop On, Hop Off bus tours
The open-air upper deck featured on Hop On, Hop Off buses is always a favorite with us. Sunglasses and sunscreen are musts in climates, like Singapore, where we were but a few miles north of the equator. 

It was a good way to cover a lot of ground as we were docked in Singapore from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening. Admittedly a single day in a port of call isn’t long enough, but it is a good sampler of all that a place has to offer. We use these stops as research – the overview can either bring us back on a future extended land trip or we can check it off as a ‘been there, done that’ sort of place.

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Historic Raffles Hotel, left and Marina Bay Sands to the right
In our case, we had been here before – decades ago.  So it was good to compare the old places that we recalled with that which was new. Trust me, there was much that was new! Our tour took us past the old British Colonial Raffles Hotel, (which had been old even way-back-when we first visited). The Singapore Sling, a gin and tropical fruit juice cocktail, was created in this place more than a hundred years ago. The stately old hotel was miniscule when compared to the towering Marina Bay Sands – yes, much has changed since we were last here.

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Atop the Marina Bay Sands (my former boss and The Scout, top left)

We “hopped off” the the tour bus at this towering hospitality hub and rendezvoused with my former boss, now Superintendent of the American School there, and his wife.  We headed to the bar and restaurant at the very top – 57th floor. With a healthy fear of water and heights, the infinity pool that stretches some 150 meters across the rooftop Skypark didn’t call out to me – but it was spectacular.

Showcasing Ethnic Diversity

Sri Mariamman Temple
Asians make up the largest segment of the population. About 75% are Chinese, yet there are significant populations of Malays, Indians and Eurasians.

With limited time we couldn’t visit every ethnic quarter so rode through Little India’s eateries and shops en route to Chinatown.

At its entry (and near the bus stop) we – like countless others – stopped to admire and photograph Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple (opened 1827) in Singapore.

Then we wandered up and down the market streets visiting with vendors and shopping. 

There were so many restaurants from which to choose in this colorful and lively quarter that one could easily eat every meal here for a week and never visit every eatery.

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Chinese Quarter food street
Our day too soon came to an end and we climbed back on to our Magic Carpet, aka Oceania’s Nautica. We’d have another day at sea before reaching our next port of call: Phuket Thailand. Watching sail away is one of our favorite parts of cruising – on this particular sailing it seemed the perfect time to sip a Singapore Sling ~

When in Singapore, have a Sling
We know you are busy, so we appreciate the time you spend with us!  Safe travels to you and hope to see you back again soon as we head out through the Straits of Malacca for the Bay of Bengal. . . .

Linking this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Off on a Magic Carpet Ride ~ Setting Sail for Singapore

The sun had yet to rise when the ship’s engines began to rumble just before 5 a.m. and we pulled away from Bangkok, Thailand’s Klong Toey Wharf on the Chao Phraya River. We’d spent the first of our 34 cruise nights here.

Klong Toey Terminal - Bangkok, Thailand
Our Oceania Nautica was docked at one of two cruise ship terminals that serves this area. Klong Toey, closer to downtown Bangkok  - thus a cheaper taxi ride - than the other port, turned out to be a rather stark industrial area. (But then we’ve found most of our ports of call are usually in such commercial shipping areas.)

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Views of Klong Toey terminal area - Bangkok, Thailand
It took a couple hours for the Nautica to wind its way down the narrow river, passing under majestic bridge spans and near the shore and then enter the Bay of Bangkok. Sitting on our deck in that early morning hour, the air already felt thick with humidity. It was quiet.  So quiet that we heard voices of dock workers, the rat-a-tat-tat of small long-tail boats engines as they passed, the call of tropical birds and buzzing cicadas on the shore.

Chao Phraya - Bangkok, Thailand from Oceania Nautica
Our ship was small enough that it could navigate up rivers such as the Chao Phraya here and later the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, so we had a taste of what river cruising might be like as we got up close enough to see people and shrines on shore.

Honoring Thailand's royalty - along the Chao Phraya in Bangkok
It was to be a full ‘sea day’; a travel day, in other words.  We would have 14 such sea days during this Magic Carpet ride of a cruise through the Far- and Middle-East.

Our ship was a novelty as we made our way down the Chao Phraya - Bangkok, Thailand
With temperatures in the 90’s and humidity at the same level, we spent that first sea day lazing around – but not at the pool because it was too hot (notice the empty chairs). Our hard-working crew didn’t have such options and braved the heat and gave the ship a bath:

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Heat and humidity didn't slow down maintenance work on the Nautica

We would be in Singapore at 8 a.m. the next day as it really is quite a distance from the Chao Phraya River and then crossing the Gulf of Bangkok (formerly the Gulf of Siam) and a slice of the South China Sea. Although we couldn’t see land after entering the bay, it was amazing to think we were sailing past Phnom Pehn and the coast of Viet Nam.

Our route was shown on the ship's television channel
Singapore, its official name the Republic of Singapore, is an island country, a sovereign city state that is 85 miles or 137 kilometers north of the equator – that translates into: HOT, very, very hot.
In our next post we’ll take you on a “Hop On, Hop Off” bus tour of Singapore, with a look at the city’s old and new, exotic and sterile.Thanks for stopping by and spending some time with us today.  We appreciate it!

Linking this week with:

Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Room with a View. . .Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River

Bangkok – that sprawling capital city of Thailand – is bisected by the Chao Phraya river – a major waterway teeming with river boat buses, cross river ferries, tour boats, dinner cruise boats, long tail boats and river barges. While the city itself didn’t wrap us under its spell as it did a few decades ago, the river didn’t disappoint.

Bangkok's Chao Phraya River bisects the city

After our stay in the timeshare (Marriott’s Empire Place. . .Buyer Be Aware) we treated ourselves to three nights of over-the-top luxury at The Peninsula Hotel on the river. Once again, The Scout, had found us a great rate using Kayak.com even though our stay was during the city’s popular April celebration, Songkran, the Water Festival; a time the city swells with tourists.

The Peninsula on the right from the terrace of the Mandarin Oriental
The Peninsula is located on the river’s Luxury Triangle as I’ve labeled it. The triangle’s other two points are anchored across the river by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and The Shangri-La Hotel.

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Lobby of the modern Mandarin Oriental, left and historic Oriental lobby - now tea room - on right

“The room isn’t quite ready, sir,” we were told at the reception desk when we showed up in the late morning, “Please come have a seat.” We were lead to a couch and served complimentary coffee while we waited the 30 minutes it took to finish preparing the room.

The Room

It has been a long while since we’ve stayed anywhere nearly this luxurious, the kind of place you could gush over, so, let the gushing begin. . .

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Our room - Peninsula Hotel Bangkok

A small entry hall led past a closet/dressing area, directly across from a bathroom, a place large enough for a tub, walk-in shower, private toilet room, and two sinks with marble countertops. And then you entered ‘the room’ which seemed far more like a ‘suite’ to our way of thinking.

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Our room with a view

All rooms in the hotel face the river, so our favorite spot – despite the inviting bed and couch -- were the two chairs we lined up at our window; our viewing platform, from where we watched the morning sunrise and the nighttime parade of lighted boats.

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Peninsula pampering - Bangkok, Thailand

And then there were the small touches:  an orchid in the ice bucket each time it was refreshed and the all-time first: we’d left the books we were reading on the bed and when we returned the bed had been made, the books returned to exactly where we’d left them but a Peninsula bookmark had been placed to the side of each! (Sorry Kindle users, you probably can’t relate.)

The Setting

Imagine a lush tropical garden – swaying trees, a profusion of blooms, winding pathways to pools and patios. Then imagine heat and humidity so intense it seems to suck your breath away, melting makeup and exploding hairdos. . .combine those and you’ve pretty much got the setting for the hotel.

Melted makeup and exploding hair - in a stunning setting

The three-tiered pool was stunning, but again, it was difficult to spend much time lazing around it because of the April heat.

Three-level pool overlooks the Chao Phraya - Bangkok Peninsula
On the River

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Free shuttles boats

One of the real treats was being on the Chao Phraya and that was easily accomplished by hopping on one of the hotel’s four shuttle boats – restored rice barges – that make daily round trips between three nearby piers. The other hotels ran similar free shuttles so you could bounce back and forth or from the nearby taxi pier catch a long tail passenger taxi and travel the river in either direction.

The Chao Phraya flows for 231 miles (372 kilometers) from Thailand’s central plains through Bangkok and into the Gulf of Thailand. As it turned out we had one more night, literally on the river, even after we left the hotel. Our ship was docked at a port on the Chao Phraya. After boarding we spent our first night on the river in the Nautica, we began our Magic Carpet ride through the Middle East.

And so the 34-day cruise began

We set sail at 5 a.m. the next day, long before sunrise, en route to our first port of call, Singapore. And that’s when and where our next post begins. Thanks for being with us today and hope you’ll come back soon and bring some travel enthusiast friends with you!  Hello to our July subscribers!  See you soon and until then, Happy Travels!

We are linking up this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Bangkok’s Marriott Empire Place ~ Buyer Be Aware. . .

Note, we said, ‘be aware’ not ‘beware’ of Marriott’s property, The Empire Place, in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand. It is one of the company’s 58 vacation club (timeshare) properties. But it is certainly not like any timeshare we’ve experienced before. . .

Based in Bangkok

With a span of decades between our last trip to Bangkok and boarding our cruise ship there this spring (Oceania Nautica: Our Middle East Magic Carpet Ride) we gave ourselves extra time to explore this capital city of Thailand.  We traded a week that we own at Marriott’s KoOlina in Hawaii for a stay at their Empire Place.

These trades are a benefit of timeshare ownership. By trading within the brand, you know what you are getting. Well, not quite in this case, as we were to learn. . .

Morning traffic Bangkok Thailand
Bangkok is an enormous metropolitan city with a registered population of nearly 7 million people; nearly 15 – 20 million if you include the unregistered immigrants. Even with the size considerations, our first clue that this’ wasn’t your run-of-the-mill timeshare resort’ came when our determined – but somewhat frustrated – taxi driver couldn’t find it.

After a long drive from the airport in early morning commute-hour traffic he pulled into an office complex. There he conferred with a security guard to sent us packing through the neighborhood, a mix of low-rise homes and towering skyscrapers.

Our neighborhood - a mix of old and new
Finally we all breathed a sigh of relief when some two hours (yet, only $25 taxi fare) after leaving the airport he pulled up to a towering edifice called, The Empire Place. However. . .there was nothing in the signage indicating it was a Marriott Vacation Club:

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Marriott's Empire Place - Bangkok, Thailand
Now, we had researched and knew in advance of our arrival that this particular ‘resort’ is part of a full ownership condominium building. Still, I am not sure we’d fully grasped what that meant. 
We entered a vast – very clean and empty – lobby. There was no reception desk, with its usual line of guests; instead we were directed to a small office to the side of the lobby where the three staff members conferred, flipped through a notebook, and confirmed we were scheduled to stay there.

One of them showed us to our ‘home away from home’. We were to use a security key to access the elevators and our room key to make the elevator work.  In our condo, there were face cloths and a large pitcher of Bale fruit juice (looks and tastes like sweetened ice tea) chilling in the refrigerator – both adding to a refreshing welcome.

For those of you who’ve shied away from timeshares because they are too ‘cookie cutter and all look alike’ – this place is for you. Because it was a real-life condominium, the kind people live in 24/7 and quite a nice one at that – it wasn’t the traditional ‘timeshare’ layout.  We had two-bedrooms, two-baths, large living and dining room, kitchen and a laundry room. Daily maid service was provided at no extra cost (unlike our experiences at other Marriott Vacation Club properties).

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Timeshare condo - The Empire Place - Bangkok, Thailand
Our deck off the living room provided city views and from the window in the dining room we overlooked the facility’s swimming pool and tennis courts, (which sat somewhat to the back and over the pool). At 90+ degrees and 90+ humidity – very little use was being made of either the pool or courts in the daytime. There were no snack bars or pool music and only a limited number of lounge chairs. None of the normal resort-angst about saving pool lounges - we counted only 12 the day we strolled through the pool area.

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Views from our condo
Settling in to City Life

“The nearest grocery store?” we asked after unpacking the bags. Well, there really wasn’t one anywhere nearby, the staff told us. A small 7-11 convenience store a block away sold beverages and snacks but nothing like staples.

Food cart near The Empire Place- Bangkok, Thailand
Food vendors and their carts lined our street – which made walking more of a ‘turn-sideways and push-your-way-through’ experience in the morning hours when workers were lined up buying food en route to work. We were definitely in a working neighborhood and timed our travel for the non-pedestrian-rush-hour.

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View from the Sky Train's screened windows - 'The Scout' on the train
We quickly learned how to use the city’s impressive elevated Sky Train which was an inexpensive, practical way of getting around and made for some great sightseeing. We also searched out grocery stores and ate several meals ‘at home’ which always helps the travel budget. Our favorite was a place called, Gourmet Market, in the basement of the sprawling Siam Paragon shopping center, as it had groceries, take out and, of course, a wine bar where you could sip and nibble.

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Gourmet Market at Siam Paragon Shopping Center
This Marriott provides guests an opportunity to experience a real neighborhood; a feel of what it would be like to live there.  But for those who are seeking a ‘resort’ experience, be aware:

* There is no Marriott Marketplace on site.
*There are no bars, restaurants on site. Four blocks away, the Anantara, condo-hotel’s rooftop bar is open to the public. A great place to watch sunset and both drinks and food are served there, so children were welcome.
* The nearest Sky Train/Metro station, Chong Nonsri, is two long blocks from The Empire Place. You’ll need to climb a flight of stairs to access the station. Starbucks and numerous other coffee shops are found on the station’s street level.  Taxis can be summoned by building staff and they are inexpensive.
* The office provided us a printed map, but not the ‘usual’ tip sheets or resource guides for finding local grocery stores and other amenities. We scouted them out on our own.

* Take note Marriott timeshares owners:  this property does not participate in the Marriott rewards program;  you will not earn points nor night credits towards your Elite Membership. (That isn’t explained on any of the Marriott web pages about this place. It is found on the Marriott Rewards page where, rules,  item 11, lists all the Marriott properties that don’t participate in the rewards program.)

Off to the Chao Phraya
The accommodation was clean and comfortable - its major drawback, in our opinion, was its location some distance from that amazing Chao Phraya River that bisects the city. I’ll show you what I mean about amazing next time, when we move on to The Peninsula Hotel, on the riverside.

Thanks for joining us again today. If you are new to the blog, “Welcome! Hope you’ll be a regular here.” We are grateful to you all for the time you spend with us. 

Want more travel articles? Check out the bloggers participating in these linkups:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening


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