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From the Ground: Phuket Sea Kayaking Tour

By Nicole Long & Jay Austin

This private sea kayaking tour is great for a small groups or families traveling together. Our partner, John Gray Sea Canoe, is highly rated and receives positive feedback from our guests for their Hongs by Starlight tour. Guests have the choice of where to go and duration of stay at each stop. There are opportunities to see wildlife such as sea-eagles, monkeys, bats, etc.

What you can expect from this tour:

Today you will explore the stunning Thailand waters and try hard-shell kayaking in spectacular Phang Nga Bay. You will depart Phuket at 9am in a Fast Longtail Boat which will circumnavigate North Phang Nga Bay in one day, kayaking two or three of the most spectacular spots in the region. Your guide will give you basic kayaking instruction so you can paddle your own or, you can opt to paddle a double kayak with a guide. After you finish paddling, you will return to the boat and head to Koh Yao Yai for lunch at a local Thai restaurant. After lunch you will head to the last island for some swimming and snorkeling. Return back to Ao Po by 5pm and return to your hotel.

Note: All photos are from John Gray Sea Canoe.

Guest Review from Susan Fossum

An editor asked our guests for comments on whether they felt that travel agents are still relevant.  For us this is a bit of an existential question, but our guest and ambassador, Susan Fossum, sums it up very well – thank you Susan!

Dear Editor,

I am someone who has used the services of a travel agent and since I heard that you were looking for information on the subject of whether the use of these type of services were still relevant I thought that I would respond to you.

Honestly, until this past year, I have not used the services of a travel agent, but I must tell you that the services that I used this past year with Journeys Within were invaluable and I would use their services again.  In fact I have referred them already and they are being used by friends of mine as they also are impressed with what this company offers.

I am a frequent traveler -as not only do I love to travel- but I am also an RN who goes on frequent trips with 2 non-profit organizations, traveling throughout the world providing free reconstructive surgical care to children with cleft lips/palates and burns.  This past year I traveled with teams to Bangladesh, Cambodia and Tanzania.  I also am involved in organizing and putting on international nursing conferences around the world, last year one being held in Glasgow, Scotland and previous ones in Canada, Ireland and Denmark.  So lots of travel to the dismay of my 3 dogs and horses!

This past year my surgical trip took me to Takeo, Cambodia – a small village in the southern part of Cambodia.  My husband wanted to join me at the end of my 2 week surgical trip for a vacation in Southeast Asia.  As this was a different part of the world that we had not explored before, and the fact that I would be very busy up until the final day of surgery, we decided to look at using a travel agency to help us plan our trip.  Our plan was to travel not only to Cambodia but also to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  My husband happened on information in a travel magazine that mentioned Andrea Ross and her company Journeys Within.  In reading about this company we found that Andrea had spent many years in Cambodia, was familiar with the land and culture and also was supportive of the people and agencies that helped the local towns and villages.  This was impressive to us – so we contacted Andrea to find out about her travel agency and whether this would be a good fit for us.  As I mentioned, we have done most of the planning and organization of overseas trips for many years – over 20.

We came up with an itinerary that we were looking at and then sent that off to Andrea – our goals included not only sightseeing, but adventures out in the countryside that would allow us to mingle with the local peoples and cultures.  The itinerary that we ended up with was perfect for us.  All aspects of our tour were covered – we were met at airports by our tour guides, movement through the airport was smooth, all transportation, cultural events were taken care of.  Our accommodations were beyond what we had expected and supported the local communities.  And – a plus – Andrea and her staff worked with me to coordinate my surgical 2 week trip schedule so it would coincide with flights and lodging for my husband.

Using Journeys Within saved me (us) much needed time and energy.  In looking at costs, which are always relevant, for the time in country, airline flights and the experiences that we had – our trip was within a budget that we had expected.

This is a long letter and probably more that you were expecting – but I wanted to get across the point that for someone who has not used a travel agency in more that 20 years of travel – using the expertise of Andrea Ross and her staff of Journeys Within exceeded my expectations.  Thank you for the opportunity to write you and provide feedback on my experiences.

Susan Fossum

Photos provided by Susan Fossum

Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort

By Nicole Long

We have a new signature hotel partner in Chiang Mai – the Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort.  This resort offers everything our guests are looking for – a charming boutique property near the historic part of Chiang Mai along the Ping River waterfront, with good service, and a traditional aesthetic.

Nestled down a small soi (street) on the Ping Riverside, next to the Chai Mongkon Temple and a 5-10 minute walk from the Night Market, is a charming hideaway – the Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort.  This newly opened boutique property (Dec 2016) is half-wood Lanna-Colonial style and reminiscent of the traditional Thai house design from the late 19th century.  Forty-one out of the 45 rooms have a private balcony that overlooks the hotel’s tropical gardens and tranquil swimming pool, which is in view of the 100 year old Rain Tree.   The rooms are beautifully decorated with wood and rattan furniture, with accents of local textiles and handicrafts.  The four colonial suites are located in a heritage style house, with a private infinity pool and overlooking the Ping River.  They are individually themed (British-Indian, Burmese, Chinese and Siamese) and provide a private balcony, separate living space and a giant, luxurious bathroom with dual sinks, a rain shower room and a freestanding claw-foot bathtub.

In addition to the pool, the resort’s facilities include a full service spa, outdoor gym, library, conference rooms and laundry services. The Time Riverfront Restaurant, which includes a 360 degree rooftop bar, offers afternoon high tea and Thai Lanna/International fusion cuisine. The restaurant, located next to the 100 year old Rain Tree and the Ping River, gives guests one of the best views for breakfast.  Make sure to arrive early in the morning to sit at one of the much sought after riverside tables – you won’t regret it. The majority of the staff have worked at 5 star properties in Chiang Mai so you can be assured you will be receiving excellent, personalized service.

The resort is definitely what it claims to be – a romantic boutique hideaway.  Guests are given the opportunity to feel and experience the surrounding nature, traditional Lanna culture, warm Thai hospitality and ultimate relaxation.

Hotel Review: Marndadee Heritage River Village

By Courtney Ridgel

To begin with, I LOVED the Marndadee Heritage River Village.  Fair enough, this particular property suits my personal tastes, but I feel confident that I will not be alone in appreciating this beautiful hotel.

This property seeks to encompass the feeling of ‘Old Thailand’ so there is a mix of colonial- style buildings and traditional reclaimed wooden houses with tiled roofs.  The property is situated right on the Ping River, so the setting is very peaceful and quiet, and in the spirit of a Thai village, there are small decorative rice paddies on the grounds.  The owners are avid collectors of art, sculptures, and antiques so the property boasts quite a collection displayed throughout the grounds, with unique pieces showcased in each room.  In addition, the original old trees and wells (now filled in and serving as flower pots for ferns) are interspersed between the buildings, as none of them were removed when the hotel was constructed.

In general, this property will be an excellent fit for travelers who are planning to spend more time in the countryside around Chiang Mai, visiting elephants, sightseeing, trekking, etc., and is perfect for those seeking relaxation, a beautiful view and peace and quiet with a romantic nostalgic ‘old-world’ feel.  The Marndadee Heritage River Village can accommodate families, family groups and couples.  The Rice Barn Villas in particular were designed for families, groups of friends or extended families with a three-bedroom option where three separate villas share an outdoor space together in the center, and a private outdoor space to relax beneath each villa.

All that said, this hotel falls in the category of ‘outside of town’.  I’m told that the hotel is normally about a 40 minute drive from the airport but while I was visiting, it took us a bit longer due to Loi Krathong traffic and the bridge along normal route was undergoing repairs which have since been completed.  This property is not particularly well suited for travelers who prefer to be situated at the center of the action in bustling downtown Chiang Mai. Going out to eat frequently may also be problematic, as there isn’t much nearby besides the river, the scenery and the local neighborhoods along the river.  That said, this property does offer a restaurant, spa, pool, fitness room, and free shuttle service to and from downtown Chiang Mai 4 set times a day to keep guests entertained.

Muay Thai in Bangkok

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

Muay Thai, Thailand’s famous martial art style, is known for trademark elbow, knee and shin strikes, in addition to a variety of punches and kicks.  This style is thought to date from at least the 1400’s, if not earlier, and became internationally widespread through the 20th century, partially thanks to the interest of King Chulalongkorn, also known as King Rama V.  There is a legend of a famous Siamese (Thai) fighter – Nai Khanom Tom – who was captured by the Burmese army in 1774 when Ayutthaya was attacked, and the Burmese king wished to determine whether the Thai or Burmese martial arts style was best so he organized a competition.  Nai Khanom Tom was chosen to fight for the Thai style and defeated ten of Burma’s finest Parma fighters.  The king was so impressed that Nai Khanom Tom was allowed to return home, granting great renown to his Muay Thai fighting style.   Nowadays, both men and women compete in different circuits, both nationally and internationally.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

Nicole and I decided to enjoy a night out on the town and experience it for ourselves.  Our car and driver picked us up from the hotel just as the sun was setting, and drove us through town to Rajadamnern Stadium.  We were greeted as we exited the car and taken to pick up our will-call tickets and were led out our VIP seats.  The excitement in the air was electric.  Already, the light-weight fighters were in the ring, cheered on by the crowd under the domed roof.  A live band with traditional instruments played background music to add to the suspense.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

Before each fight, the contestants would participate in a sacred ritual dance called wai kru ram muay (or wai kru for short) to pay respect to their teachers, families, and to ask for victory.  Each fighter performed a dance unique to their training school. In addition to flamboyant shorts, each boxer also wore a tasseled headband called a mongkol and decorative armbands called prajioud which had been blessed by Buddhist monks to help bring protection and victory.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

To our surprise and entertainment, we found that the food options included fare such as beer, coco cola, popcorn and hotdogs, for very cheap prices, and arms loaded with snacks, we settled in to enjoy the experience.  Once each fight would begin, the locals would crowd an area roped off for people to stand at each corner of the ring.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

The fans would cheer, grown, scream and yell advice at the combatants.  In the case of one or two of the contestants, a fan club of girls with signs also descended to cheer from the sidelines.  Although gambling is illegal in Thailand, the security guards didn’t seem to mind too much as long as no one was filming the many excitable bookies placing bets.  (We strongly advise all of our guests not to participate in gambling or other illegal activities while traveling.)  The crowd went particularly wild during a knockout in one of the rounds.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

Once the title fight had occurred, Nicole and I were taken to meet one of the top fighters and pose for a photo with him before we were escorted back to waiting car and driver who took us back to the hotel.    All in all, it was a wonderfully fun and exciting experience.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel