Thursday 19 October 2017

Singapore Universal Studios and Batam Island

Towards the end of July, after chilling out on an island called Koh Chang in the eastern part of Thailand, we decided we needed a change of scenery and also a bit of fun. You can read about our month on Koh Chang in my previous post.

So we took an Air Asia flight from Pattaya to Kuala Lumpur with the intention of taking a flight over to Singapore the next day, where we could catch a ferry over to nearby Batam Island.

Air Asia is a budget airline and we fly with them often using Kuala Lumpur as our transit hub in South East Asia. We keep an eye on their flash sales and have managed to get some amazingly cheap deals. In fact, we often make decisions on where to fly next on the basis of their cheap and available flights.

But sometimes, as is often the case with budget airlines, they are occasionally subject to cancellation or delay. Unfortunately, our flight with Air Asia from Pattaya was delayed several hours and when we eventually got back to KL and our favourite Holiday Inn hotel, it was well past midnight and we were tired and hungry and a little grumpy because we’d missed our complimentary food and cocktails in the club lounge!

The next morning, when I checked-in online for our Singapore flight, I suddenly realised that the flight we had booked was mid-morning and not mid-afternoon. So after a crazy mad dash to the airport in an Uber Taxi - we managed to get to the gate just in the nick of time - only to be told the flight was delayed. Phew!

Batam, although part of Indonesia, is very easy to get to from Singapore via a subway ride from the airport and a ferry from the harbour. It is also an extremely affordable place to stay compared to the expense of Singapore and it also has a Holiday Inn Resort and Spa. And, as we had enough hotel loyalty points to stay there for free for a few days, we decided it was just the spot for some R&R before heading back to Singapore and finishing off our trip with some fun at Universal Studios.

The weather in Singapore was hot and humid and overcast when we arrived but we had a great view of the famous city skyline from the ferry as we headed over to sunny Batam.

Our hotel on Batam Island was lovely – with a fabulous pool – and I had what I now consider to be my best-ever spa experience there at the Tee Tree Spa with a full body aromatherapy massage and facial treatment. Bliss.

Back in Singapore, a few days later, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, we checked into another Holiday Inn not too far away from Universal Studios.

We have been to Singapore once before – two years ago – when we took a pre-Christmas trip from KL for shopping and sightseeing. Back then, we took in all the famous sights like Marina Bay and Raffles Hotel and we went for a Singapore Sling cocktail at the Long Bar. This time, we made the theme park our focus of attention. Universal Studios Singapore is very like the one in Orlando Florida – a bit smaller perhaps – but lots of rides like ‘The Mummy’ are exactly the same and so much fun that we went on that one twice. We found the waiting times for the main attractions much shorter than those we encountered in Orlando – maybe an hour rather than three hours without the expense of an express pass.

We had a wonderful day out – although it was blisteringly hot all day.

Feeling rested and rejuvenated by our trip we headed back to Kuala Lumpur for a quick twenty-four hours - just long enough to meet with our next Air Asia flight. This time we were looking for a bit of adventure and culture - so we were headed to a top destination in South East Asia. A country known for its breathtaking natural beauty and unique heritage - and, excitingly, somewhere we'd never explored before. Join me here on the blog again very soon to find out about our next exciting month-long destination!

Love, Janice xx

Monday 9 October 2017

Rainy season on (เกาะช้าง) Elephant Island Thailand

After an amazing and exciting month in Malaysia during the whole of June this year - exploring caves in Kuala Lumpur, helping out at a turtle conservation in the Perhentian Islands, seeing Orangutans and Sunbears in the wild in Borneo, and riding through towns and jungle on the North Borneo Railway, all of which you can read more about by clicking back through my last few posts – Trav and I decided to head onto somewhere for the month of July where we could take things easy for a while and I could get down to some serious writing and Trav could do some serious diving – all while not having to pay too much for our travel or accommodation costs.

As an easy option and with the help of a bargain-priced flight with Air Asia, we looked at travelling back to Thailand for a few weeks. We know Thailand quite well by now – having travelled extensively throughout the country - although we had still yet to discover the eastern part of Thailand and Trat Province. On this side of the Gulf of Thailand there are a string of tropical islands that are known for snorkelling, diving, jungle hiking and waterfalls. The larger of these islands in the archipelago is known as Koh Chang or Elephant Island (เกาะช้าง).

These islands are also reportedly much quieter and less-touristy than other islands in Thailand – like Phuket or Koh Samui for example – so they sounded exactly like our kind of place. There was only one catch - in July it is rainy season in this part of Thailand.

In the off-season, especially on island resorts in Thailand, you have to be aware that not all hotels or restaurants or shops will be open. Some close up for the whole season but for those that remain open in off-season that also means lower prices for tourists. We managed to bag two whole weeks in a luxury resort on Koh Chang using for a fraction of its high season price.

If you are flying into Thailand (with a UK passport - other passports holders may be offered different entry visa options) on arrival you will get a thirty-day entry visa. We intended to stay for the month and then perhaps look for an even cheaper hotel deal for the second half of our stay.

It couldn’t rain there all month, could it?

We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Pattaya in Thailand. Pattaya is a town with a seedy reputation for crime, prostitution, and drugs - so not our kind of place at all - but it was a necessary transiting point for us on our way down the coastline. 

In Pattaya, we booked a room for one night at the Holiday Inn – always our preferred hotel chain - as we benefit hugely from collecting points for stays with their customer reward programme called IHG.

On checking in at the Holiday Inn Pattaya Beach we were given a penthouse suite upgrade with a wraparound balcony and spectacular views of the beach as well as club access at the rooftop bar – meaning complimentary cocktails and canapes. Score!

The next morning, as you might imagine, it was difficult to leave our luxurious surroundings, but after breakfast, we had arranged for a taxi/minibus to take us on the seven-hour road trip down to Koh Chang.

Yes, really, seven hours – including a ferry crossing - and this is the only way we could see how to get there. The Google map shows a five and a half hour journey - but if you are heading to Koh Chang from Pattaya then be prepared for it to take you a little longer.

The journey was a little laborious but we had a very good driver, and on the ferry, we were delighted to meet a Buddhist monk in his orange robes. He was happy to speak with us and to practice his English. One of the things I love most about travelling is the wonderful people you get to meet along the way.

It was overcast and raining as we travelled but still incredibly warm and humid, and as we approached Koh Chang island, it looked beautiful in the mist. But we still had another hour or so to get to our destination – a resort on Klong Prao Beach – and our driver and car were still with us on the ferry.

On arrival, our hotel far exceeded our expectations – we had a lovely room in a palm-thatched deluxe bungalow with a covered private balcony overlooking the gardens and the pool. I decided that even if it did rain the whole time we were here, I really wouldn’t mind.

Of course it didn’t rain the whole time – only about half the time – but then I did have lots of writing to do. Trav didn’t mind the rain either because he planned on going diving and so he knew he would get wet anyway.

Sometimes, though, when we did venture out on showery days – to find a 7/11 shop for essential supplies of snacks and wine and beer - we ended up sheltering in a street side café or bar.

Not such a hardship - and it was hot rain after all!

On the days when the sun shone, it was really beautiful and we made the most of them. We sunbathed and swam in the hotel pool, or we took walks along long empty beaches, that I’m told get incredibly busy in high-season.

We also strolled along jungle tracks looking for elephants. There really are lots of elephants on Koh Chang, so we made sure to always take some apples with us so that we could feed them and stroke them and talk to them. Some are left wander freely in fields or some you meet just strolling along the road and being ridden by their mahout (elephant keeper). They are such lovely animals and this was the first time I’d ever been up close to an elephant.

There are several elephant trekking camps on Koh Chang where tourists can ride on the back of an elephant through the jungle. As I don’t agree with elephants being ridden, I didn’t go near them.

You can learn more about elephant camps on Koh Chang HERE.

One of the most wonderful things we did on a sunny day was a jungle trek by foot to the nearby Klong Plu Waterfalls. It was a testing walk uphill on slippery muddy steep tracks, but it was so worth it, as the waterfalls were magnificent – another bonus in rainy season - and we could swim in the water pools that were full of beautiful fish.

In the evenings, we were entertained with live music at our hotel bar. Sometimes we ate at our hotel and other times we went to other restaurants and bars. We also ate street food – some of the best we’ve ever had. Our favourite bar was called Sabai Bar on White Sand Beach where they had a fire dancer show on most nights (when it wasn’t raining obviously). Many of the nicer restaurants on Koh Chang will pick you up at your hotel for free in an open back truck/taxi and our favourite restaurant who offered this service is called Iyara, which is famous for its yummy seafood and river estuary location.

On one beautiful clear and starry night after having dinner at Iyara, Trav and I took a ride in a small boat along the riverbank to see fireflies. It was a magical moment to sit in the dark and the silence and to see all the trees and bushes on the riverbank twinkling with tiny white firefly lights.

Painting (public domain) Fireflies at Ochanomizu by Kobayashi Kiyochika. 1847-1915

After our two weeks at our beautiful resort, we would have loved to have stayed on but reluctantly we had to find another hotel on the island. The reason for this was an upcoming week-long Thai holiday, that we hadn’t previously known about, which would put our resort’s prices up to high-season levels.

We were lucky and found an inexpensive but very nice hotel further along the beach. This was a newly built resort and although it wasn’t fully open in the off-season as their bar and restaurant were closed, they rented out rooms, which were small modern villas built around a swimming pool that we could use. Hence the lower prices.

We decided this would do us fine. The resort was quiet and I was still working hard on structural edits for my next book. Over our month on Koh Chang, I’d planned to rewrite 30,000 words of the mid-section of the book and add another 20,000 words to the storyline bringing the novel to around 90,000 words. It was a grueling task that meant spending many hours at the laptop but at least I had a swimming pool available to swim away the knots from my shoulder muscles and plenty of Thai massage places to go to if I needed it - which I did on quite a few occasions!

By the end of July, we had had a wonderful time on Koh Chang but Trav was bored with me writing for so much of the day and the weather and rain on Koh Chang was getting steadily more persistent and that was causing bad visibility in the sea and so he wasn’t diving either. I heartily agreed that we both needed a change of scenery, so we decided to move on to somewhere where the weather might be improved, and where we could also have a bit of fun together.

So we headed back the same way we arrived in a taxi/mini-bus but this time we stayed in Pattaya a few nights so that we could make our new travel arrangements. While we were there we explored the town and saw that it was indeed a bit of an eye-opener!

But where to go next? We did our research carefully because while some regions and countries in South East Asia are in the middle of their rainy (monsoon) season in July and August, others were just finishing theirs and others were just coming into it. Spotting a bargain flight, we decided to head over to Singapore for a few days and then take a ferry boat over to Batam Island - which is part of Indonesia and stay at their Holiday Inn Resort - which we paid for entirely with our IHG loyalty points.

So in my next post, I'll be blogging about our amazing time in Singapore where we went to Universal Studios for a day and had a lot of fun - and also our lovely week spent at the Holiday Inn on Batam Island in Indonesia - before we headed back to our south-east Asian home hub of Kuala Lumpur to make the decision on where in the world we would travel to next!

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Love, Janice xx