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Journey to Middle Earth

Posted by pakin On June - 20 - 2016 ADD COMMENTS

Discovering the splendour that is New Zealand

It’s the Earth not the Moon, I think. We are walking the path that skirts the pool of geothermal geysers at the Whakarewarewa site in the town of Rotorua, New Zealand. The moon-grey rocks are smothered in mud and pungent smoke, with sporadic hissing that suggests the chemical fury underneath. The scene is alien. The air is calm, a kind of nervous calm because we know there will be an outburst. Once every 40 minutes or so, the subterranean pressure pushes the heated, underground water through the crack and shoots up a jet of spray up to 30m, drawing cheers from fortunate visitors who happen to be present at the moment of thermal activity.

It’s definitely the Earth, not the Moon, because as far as we know there’s no water, let alone a watery spectacle, anywhere else but here.

Nature can be angry and unkind — think volcanoes, which dot New Zealand — but it can also be an unparalleled blessing. The North Island of New Zealand has enough of such blessings to draw the crowds of admirers, and Rotorua is of the requisite stops on everyone’s itinerary. This pretty town sits by the lake of the same name, and like most lakes it was a benign product of violent volcanic eruption hundreds of thousands of years ago. At the back is Mount Ngongotaha, at whose peak you can look down at the scenic basin, twinkling with little lights as night sets in.

The Maoris settled here in the 14th century, and now Rotorua, a main attraction to every domestic and international visitor to the North Island, still has a large concentration of Maori population. The geothermal site at Whakarewarewa — it’s not that hard to pronounce — is actually housed inside Te Puia Maori Culture Centre where you can look at Maori craft, taste their traditional food (steamed meat), and wander the terraced platform encircling the geysers. In short, this is a perfect setting of an earthly arrangement between man and nature: how we live, wonder and bow at the mighty mountains, forests, beasts, waterfalls and their mysterious forces, and how they in turn allow us to live in peace with them.

New Zealand plays by that arrangement wisely. Besides the lake and the geysers, Rotorua over the years has added a number of attractions that combine the purity of nature with man-made elements. You can ride the Skyline gondola to the top of Mount Ngongotaha, and up there you take the mountain bike path snaking along the slopes, or ride the luge in a mini-adventure downhill. At Agrodome, visitors watch the famous sheep show — this is New Zealand, where sheep outnumber humans — a cute, well-rehearsed performance by a burly shepherd and his furry flock. It doesn’t feel like a circus but a livestock demonstration: to wit, this is what New Zealand thrives on anyway, tourism and agriculture. In the past decade, New Zealand’s is-it-the-Earth-or-the-Moon natural marvel has received a major boost from Sir Peter Jackson and his movies, first the Lord Of The Rings, then the Hobbit trilogy. In fact, I join the trip to the North Island with SF Cinema and Dtac along with the lucky winners from their campaign, to visit the set of the films that has been turned, smartly, into tourist attractions. Once again, New Zealand is adept at augmenting the reality of its land with the fantasy that increases its value.

An hour from Auckland, where most planes coming to North Island have to land, and midway to Rotorua, is the town of Matamata and Alexander Farm. This rolling, picturesque landscape of eternal green — it has over 12,000 grazing sheep — is now known as Hobbiton, and the agricultural nature of the place is now fused inseparably with its role as the location for the Shire, home of the Hobbits, the small people who become the heroes in the fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. The location scouts first came here in the late 1990s, and soon a new road was paved, sets constructed and the crew arrived for an extended shoot. True, it’s the South Island that supplied most of the Middle Earth in the two trilogies, but Hobbiton, or the Shire, was where it all began: in the book and the films, this is where Gandalf first came to Frodo (and Bilbo). The memorable scene when the grey wizard, played by Ian McKellan, blows the pipe smoke into the shape of a ship while gazing at the sunset was shot here. The guide can show you the bench where they sat, and for fans, that is huge.

In the past, visitors would go straight from Auckland to Rotorua, but now Hobbiton is a tempting stop, even if you’re not familiar with the movies. Meanwhile on the way back from Rotorua to Auckland — where you’re likely to catch the plane home — one option is to first explore Taupo area, an adventure town with various attractions, from its lake to its thundering waterfalls. But to continue in the spirit of otherworldly wonders New Zealand is so good at offering, a slight detour to Waitomo Cave is recommended. Descending the steps, you find yourself in this fabled grotto whose ceilings are covered with thousands of glow worms emitting biochemical light from their bodies. On a small raft, you float silently in the dark, save for the eerie lights from the creatures above you.

That strange feeling returns: It’s the Earth, not the Moon or any other extraterrestrial planets. Or to be more precise, it’s New Zealand.

Thai Airways flies to Auckland five times a week. The flight takes around 11 hours, roughly the same as a flight to European cities.

Located in the southern hemisphere, the season in New Zealand is in reverse of Thailand. The coldest the North Island can get is around 10C, in June and July, and the warmest months are December and January, when the temperature can go up to 25-30C.

Independent travellers prefer hiring cars to travel around New Zealand. The best way is to arrange it beforehand through tour agents in Thailand, which offers consultancy and hotel reservation, as well as plans your driving route according to your wish.

Te Puia Moari Culture Centre and Whakarewarewa geyser site in Rotorua opens every day. A day pass for adult costs NZ$51 (1,275 baht), which covers exhibitions, shows and the geyser site.

Hobbiton, the set of The Lord Of The Rings movies in the town of Matamata, opens every day with no need for reservation. Ticket costs NZ$79 (1,975 baht). Farm-stay accommodation is also available.

A large slice of paradise

Posted by pakin On March - 24 - 2016 ADD COMMENTS

A look at seven of Thailand’s best-kept island secrets

With hundreds of islands, islets and reefs to its name, Thailand is well equipped to satisfy the desires of castaways, sensation seekers and those who simply want to be pampered. Popular destinations like KohSamui, Koh Chang, Koh Tao, Koh Kood, Koh Samet and Koh Lanta offer a range of accommodation to suit most pockets but for a real getaway this summer, why not leave the tourists behind and discover some of Thailand’s best-kept island secrets?

KOH PHRA THONG, PHANG NGA

Just off Khura Buri, this island in the Andaman Sea is small – just four villages – but special, complete with undeveloped beaches and an endless brownish landscape that looks strikingly similar to the savannahs of Africa, except it’s home to bare-headed Lesser Adjutant birds rather than lions and elephants. Koh Phra Thong’s isolated beach is a draw for foreigners but an increasing number of sun-shy young Thais are being lured by the spectacular scenery.

Getting there: Phuket International Airport is your gateway to Phang Nga province. From the airport to Khura Buri district, you can get a taxi or rent a car if you prefer to be behind the wheel. Khura Buri is about a two-hour drive from Phuket on a well-paved and well-sign posted road. Koh Phra Thong is reached either from Saphan Pla Pier, seven kilometres north of Khura Buri Town or from Khura Buri Pier.

Where to stay: Mr Chuoi’s Beach Huts & Bar has thatch-roofed bungalows for Bt500-Bt1,200. The Moken Eco Village is more upmarket with a stylish cottage costing Bt2,900 per night). Visit www.MokenEcoVillage.com.

KOH KHO KHAO, PHANG NGA

This island makes Khao Lak with its long, white sand beach that serves a collection of upscale resorts feel like Phuket. According to the latest census, 725 people live on Koh Kho Khao along with hundreds of water buffaloes. During the high season, from November to February, these beasts of burden gaze at backpackers as they cycle and stroll around the small island. Most of the young visitors are seeking respite from the tourists on Khao Lak and lay down their towels on the peaceful beach on the island’s west coast. Cycling is the best way to explore Koh Kho Khao as its small paths criss-cross fields of wild flowers and water lilies. Amateur archaeologists will enjoy exploring Baan Thung Tuek historical site on the island.

Getting There: Fly to Phuket, the gateway to Andaman coast. From the airport, visitors can rent a taxi to Baan Nam Khem Pier then take a ferry to the island.

Where to Stay: With 23 beachfront rooms, C & N Kho Khao Beach Resort is an ideal place for an island hideaway. The owner, English-speaking Rungsuriya, is very informative and helpful. Visit www.CNKhoKhaoBeachResort.com.

KOH PAYAM, RANONG

Just off the coast of Ranong Province, Koh Payam is blessed by long and isolated beaches with golden sand. Ao Yai, a large bay on its Southwest side, draws the visitors for its four kilometres of beach. It’s an idyllic place to stroll and home to several species of birds including the hornbill. For a more isolated treat, opt for Ao Kwang Peep on the Western side.

Getting there: Nok Air operates flights between Bangkok and Ranong. Payam Island is about two hours on a ferry or 35 minutes on a speedboat from Ranong’s Pak Nam Pier.

Where to stay: King Paradise Resort near Ao Yai has rustic yet stylish beachfront cottages. Visit www.KingParadisePayamResort.net.

KOH LIPE, SATUN

Far and away from the crowds and city life, Lipe is a small island in the Adang-Rawi Archipelago of the Andaman Sea in Satun Province and a former home of the sea gypsies. Popular with dedicated scuba divers and snorkellers, it is famed for its beautiful reefs, crystal-clear water and icing-sugar sand and is now a hippie-chic hideaway.

Getting there: Several domestic airlines fly to the stepping off point of Hat Yai. From there, take a passenger van (a two-hour trip) to Pak Bara Pier. Lipe Island is about three hours on the ferry (Bt800/person). The first boat leaves at 11.30am and the last at 1.30pm.

Where to stay: A two-storey Breezy Bungalow at Castaway Beach Resort on Sunrise Beach. Right on the beach with uninterrupted views, you won’t find anywhere better for the magical sunrise. Low season rates start at Bt1,400.

KOH PHA, PHANG NGA

You could almost pick any island off the Phang Nga Province and treat yourself for a quiet break, but Koh Pha has the edge. This tiny islet barely bigger than tennis court is the kind of desert island you’ll find in a shipwreck comic. The islet rose from the sea following the 2004 tsunami and has nothing other than a few coconut palms. It’s an ideal place for sunbathing in extreme isolation.

Getting there: Hire a boat from Kho Khao Island and remember to make arrangements for a pick-up in the evening. Bring some water and whatever else you might need for the day..

Where to stay: The nearest hotel to Koh Pha is on Kho Khao Island.

KOH KRADAN, TRANG

With Chinese tourists flooding Thailand’s tourist destinations, finding a peaceful beach has become something of a “mission impossible”. Koh Kradan off Trang Province in the Andaman Sea is one of the exceptions, a small piece of paradise with powdery sand and excellent snorkelling on a reef just off the beach. It’s an ideal place for a holiday in a hammock. Wait until low tide and you can walk out to the reef.

Getting there: A few domestic airlines operate to Trang. Koh Kradan is an hour’s journey on a long-tailed boat from Pak Meng Pier. During the high season Phuket Ferry (www.PhuketFerry.com) operates a service between Phuket and Koh Kradan. The trip takes three hours and costs Bt1,650.

Where to stay: Reef Resort Kradan Island (www.ReefResortKradan.com) has cosy beachfront cottages.

Magic and mystery in Marrakesh

Posted by pakin On January - 20 - 2016 ADD COMMENTS

Overly persistent vendors and noisy motorcycles aside, Morocco makes for a fascinating and friendly holiday

Thousands of Thais visit Europe each year but the number who cross the Mediterranean into North Africa is considerably lower. That’s beginning to change, fuelled no doubt by the arrival of Moroccan-themed hotels in Hua Hin and Pran Buri and the efforts of the Moroccan Embassy in Bangkok to promote its country’s sites.

I start my trip from Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, climbing into a rented compact Skoda Octavia TDi for the motorway ride to Marrakesh, 240 kilometres away, the North African country’s fourth largest city.

The air’s clear and the temperature a pleasant if slightly chilly 15 degrees Celsius though much hotter in the impossibly bright sun. The road is good, on par with any European expressway and the drive is easy, at least until I turn off on to a minor road, where we are stopped several times at police checkpoints. Just as in major cities around Europe, security has been heightened in Muslim countries in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks but a few smiles and a flash of our passports do the trick and we are soon on our way.

The road narrows as we approach the world heritage city of Marrakesh and deteriorates further as we pass the city centre and Ville Nouvelle, the new town. Traffic is backed up in the labyrinth of lanes leading to the Medina – the old city behind the ancient walls and I start to juggle for a piece of road that pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, trucks and mule-power carts also feel is theirs.

We eventually make it to our accommodation – a room in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house built around an interior courtyard. From the outside, our guesthouse looks old and uninviting, the small holes in the exterior giving it an almost spooky ambience. Inside, we are stunned by the majestic arches and the flamboyance of the architecture and can almost feel the hospitality beaming through the tiles. The rooms on every storey open out to the central atrium space, which is naturally lit by a rooftop made of glass.

The room itself is thoroughly Moroccan and despite its finery, priced at a very reasonable Bt4,000 a night.

Later in the day, we walk to Place Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakesh’s world heritage square. Cries of “Monsieur, monsieur. Come have a look” ring in our ears as the vendors try to entice us to buy their fancy products. While irritating after a while, it is nothing compared to the noise and pollution emitted by an army of two-stroke engine motorcycles that are driven through the Medina at terrifying speed.

Place Jemaa el-Fnaa is not to be missed. This Unesco Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity has a dark history – it was once used for public decapitations by rulers who sought to maintain their power by frightening the public – but today is home to souvenir shops, food stalls, men handling monkeys and even the odd snake charmer or two. We are drawn by the sound of drums to one of several circles of men, who are performing in the centre of the square, telling the stories of nomads through dance and music and stand watching for a while.

As we move on, we quickly come to understand that nothing comes without a price. Here, you see, you pay. The Moroccans waste no chance to part tourists from their money and experience quickly teaches me to be generous rather than suffer their curses. Besides, I prefer to pay for this street entertainment than be bullied into buying overpriced merchandise that I don’t really like, never mind need. Many of the Moroccans are obviously poor but rather than beg, they perform to make money. And despite the crowds, the city feels remarkably safe even in the deserted Medina at night. The locals may ask for money but they do not steal.

For the Thai visitor, the Moroccans are probably not the nicest people with whom to pass the time. They push hard to sell souvenirs and mutter when you leave their shops after doing nothing more than take a few photos. The kids, who offer to guide you through the maze that is the Medina in exchange for a tip, will undoubtedly get you totally lost, sometimes deliberately, but these things don’t really matter. What’s important is the experience.

While the Red City, as Marrakesh is also known, has much to offer the visitor, Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city with a population of some four million, is something of a disappointment. Dirty, bustling and very run down in parts, it does however feel safe. And despite the extortionate fees for parking, it is relatively easy to get around thanks to a modern tramway.

Fes, on the other hand, is much calmer with fewer clamouring merchants and a ban on motorcycles in its architecturally alluring Medina. So too is the blue city of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains.

And then there’s the scenery. The landscape of this North African country is breathtaking with lakes, valleys and canyons showcased in all their splendour as you drive north towards the Sahara.

Yes, it can be frustrating at times and Thai visitors used to a more laid back lifestyle might find it more than a little overwhelming. An open-minded attitude and an enquiring mind however make a visit more than worthwhile.
IF YOU GO

Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Emirates, Etihad and Air France offer flights from Bangkok to Casablanca with stopovers in Doha, Dubai and Paris.

Making merry with a berry

Posted by pakin On January - 15 - 2016 ADD COMMENTS

Planning a trip to South Korea? Then don’t leave a visit to one of the country’s delicious strawberries farms off your itinerary

SWEET… sweet strawberries! One of the best ways to enjoy Korea’s romantic winter scenes is to experience strawberry picking at the farms and taste some of the delicious desserts featuring the seductive strawberry as the star.

During a trip to Seoul last month, I took time out to visit Gapyeong, a popular weekend getaway from Seoul and tourist destination. A gateway to Nami island, which is best known as the setting of the much-loved Korean drama “Winter Sonata” and home to Petite France, a theme park featuring small European-style buildings surrounded by mountains and a lake, the area is also attracting both local and foreign visitors eager to pick – and nibble on – strawberries

Gapyeong native Ji Won Bae, 39, left his engineering job with an automobile company in Seoul two years ago to set up the Gapyeong Strawberry Experience Farm. He has three greenhouses where he grows organic strawberries in long plots and elevated trays.

Bae greets visitors personally and after sharing some facts about strawberries, shows you how to find the best ones. You then take your basket – thoughtfully provided by the farm – and make your way round the greenhouse picking those that are deliciously ripe. Visitors tend to prefer the elevated trays, as they are easier to reach and have the advantage of enabling you to sample the goodies without cleaning them first.

Unlike many farmers, Bae does not supply his fruit to retail distributors such as markets, department stores and discount stores. He prefers to meet his consumers in person and spend time with them as they enjoy the fruits of his labour.

Gapyeong Strawberry Experience Farm is understandably a popular destination for students as well as tourists. Kindergartens often take their young charges along for the day, not least because the entrance fee is a very reasonable 10,000 won (Bt300). Adults and children over the age of seven pay 15,000 won while groups of 20 pay 12,000 won. Kids under three get in free.

Adjacent to the province of Gangwon-do, the city of Gapyeong in Gyeonggi-do is surrounded by mountains and a river. It’s easily accessible from Seoul via the Gyeongchunseon Subway Line 7 from Sangbong Station. Exiting at Cheongnyangni Station, visitors can board the ITX Cheongchun train, which arrives in Gapyeong 40 minutes later.

Another strawberry farm easily accessible from Seoul is Seng Seng in Yangpyeong county owned by Kim Gi Chun. Five years ago, Chun, 52, and her husband decided to transform their vegetable plots into a strawberry farm in the hope of generating more income. It seems to have worked, with the number of Korean and foreign visitors growing steadily each year.

Here you can do more than just pick the fruit. The friendly staff are happy to demonstrate how to make a tasty strawberry cake while offering a variety of dishes and drinks including a strawberry smoothie, Bingsu strawberry (shaved ice with strawberries), strawberry fondue, and even strawberry pizza.

Just one hour by car from Seoul, Yangpyeong is largely undeveloped. Well on its way to becoming an eco-city, it is also referred to as Greentopia and offers breathtaking scenery, cycling along the Bukhan River and a chance to explore the rich farming land that produces safe and eco-friendly foods.

The number of strawberry farms in South Korea has grown significantly in recent years, says Calvin Oh, president of the Korean Strawberry Association, and strawberry-picking tours are particularly popular with tourists as they offer the chance to sample organic fruit. This has a knock-on effect when they return to their home countries as they will make a point of buying South Korean strawberries.

Locally known as dal-ki, the country produces two species, namely Mae-Kyang and Seoul-Hyang. Today Korea is among the top five strawberry-producing countries in the world with total exports valued at US$33 million in 2015.

And visitors who time their trips for April can visit the Nonsan Strawberry Festival. The town, located in Chungcheongnam-do, is the largest strawberry producer in Korea and is accessible by train from Seoul.

In Thailand, Korean strawberries are available at Tops, The Mall’s Gourmet markets and Villa Market.

IF YOU GO

Strawberry picking is available from December through June. Farm admission fees vary from 12,000 to 25,000 won.

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