Friday 28 September 2012

The land of thousand smiles – Phuket

The island of Phuket, although small, has much to offer with its crystal clear seas, sandy beaches and the warm sun. Residing in the southern part of Thailand, the island streets bustle with people, mostly casually dressed tourists. Some of them would even be spotted wearing t-shirts imprinted with the words “I Phuket”!  

DAY 1. On 24 Nov 2011, I left my house with excitement. I was going on a business + holiday trip to Phuket. This would be my first independent trip overseas, and with a group of unfamiliar faces, no less.

My flight touched down at Phuket International Airport at around 10:45am. We were given free SIM cards to use during our stay in Phuket. These SIM cards can be easily topped up at any 7-Eleven stores around the island at our own expense. Our tour guide for this 4-day trip would be Prapatsorn Intayot, whom we affectionately call Cat. Cat picked us up at the arrival hall of the airport and we transferred by a minibus to Patong Resort. The journey took approximately 1 hour. After checking in at the resort, we started off the sightseeing tour with a scenic drive along Patong beach, Karon beach and Kata beach, eventually arriving at our first stop – Karon View Point.

Free SIM cards given to us upon arrival at Phuket
Karon View Point, located on a hill top, has a beautiful panoramic view of the three beaches – Kata Noi, Kata and Karon Beach. The closest of the beaches is ‘Kata Noi’, followed by ‘Kata’ with its sister island ‘Koh Poo’ (Crab Island) and the furthest is ‘Karon Beach’. These three magnificent bays indeed make a good backdrop for photo-taking.

Karon View Point
Magnificent view of Kata Noi, Kata & Karon Beach 

Beautiful backdrop for a group photo
After visiting Karon View Point, everyone was hungry. Cat brought us to Phong Phang Seafood to have our lunch. Located near the Phuket Zoo, Phong Phang Seafood is very famous among the locals for its affordable seafood and local dishes. It has a large outdoor seating area with a pleasant view of the sea. At Phong Phang, one can enjoy the gentle breeze while savoring the delicious Thai delicacies.

After lunch, we visited Wat Chalong, a Buddhist temple. Wat Chalong is a three-storey tall building in shimmering gold, and is one of the most renowned temples in Phuket. On the first and second level, there were many golden Buddha statues covering the floor area and paintings depicting the life of Buddha on the walls and ceilings. As I continued the climb to the topmost level, our guide told us that the realm contained fragmented pieces of Lord Buddha’s bones in the glass display.

Wat Chalong, renowned temple in Phuket 
Countless golden Buddha statues
Locals & tourists come here to pray
Fragmented pieces of Lord Buddha’s bones are kept in the glass display  
After visiting Wat Chalong, we proceeded to the Phuket Shooting Range & Activities Centre. This recreation centre offers a wide range of activities, such as Go-kart, monkey or elephant shows and a shooting range. We toured round the shooting range but sad to say, we were only there to explore the facilities, but not to play. I shall try it the next time I visit Phuket.

The Shooting Range
Are you ready for a game?
Arrow shooting
Put on these ear muffs and get ready for a shoot! 
The last stop of the day was Laem Promthep, a picturesque viewpoint at the southern tip of Phuket. According to Cat, that was the best place to catch the sunset. However, soon after we reached the cape, it started to pour suddenly and all of us rushed back to the minibus for cover.

After the brief stop at Laem Promthep, we headed back to the resort. We were given 1.5 hours to rest before heading out for dinner at Merlyn Beach Resort. Being my first trip to Phuket, not one minute was to be wasted, hence, I took a walk down to Patong Beach, which was a mere 5 minutes away. Once there, the sight of tourists reclining on deck chairs greeted me. There were also others playing water sports and beach balls. While enjoying the sound of the waves on the beach, I was momentarily distracted by some screaming in the distance. I lifted up my head in the direction of the screams and saw that there were people parasailing, ‘flying’ high up in the sky!

Relaxing on the deck chairs at Patong Beach
Jet-skiing, the water sport that I have always wanted to try 
The bustling road with many tourists
Cute signage warning about drunken people crossing the road 
DAY 2. It’s time to get some work done today. ¾ of the day had been allocated for the Andaman Travel Trade Show, a buyers-meet-sellers session held at the Rajahbat University Convention Hall. Notwithstanding, we managed to find time for shopping after the trade fair at the Phuket Premium Outlet. The weather was unpredictable though, as it started to pour when we reached there. Rainy weather did spoil the fun of shopping, especially when the walkways weren’t sheltered, but that did not deter us from some serious card swiping. It was indeed a challenge to move from one store to another, but almost everyone came back with a bundle of shopping bags and big wide smiles.

Phuket Premium Outlet
Shopping is my greatest love
DAY 3. A conversation on Phuket never deviates from the sun, the sand and the sea. Apart from the main island of Phuket, there are many other small islands surrounding Phuket, each with its own attractiveness. The island of Koh Khai was where we headed out for early in the morning. Our means of transport: a 20-minute speedboat ride from the main shore. The journey to Koh Khai is an adventure in itself, with the boat rocking vigorously due to the high tide. It was as if we were taking a roller-coaster ride at a theme park, albeit on water. Adventure soon gave way to excitement as the sandy beach came into view. As soon as we alighted from the boat, we parked our belongings on the deck chairs reserved for us, and went snorkeling in the crystal clear waters. I had always wanted to try snorkeling and now was the chance! I had great fun despite the fear of water. It was a beautiful experience getting up close with the fishes and corals and being surrounded by all the colorful fishes. We also brought some bread to feed the fishes and the more we fed, the larger the number of fishes that surrounded us! I would call these fish ‘Happy Fish’ with their endless supply of food from the tourists, won’t you agree? After swimming with the fishes, I took a break and relaxed on the deck chair, enjoyed the windy breeze and the warm sun.

Koh Khai Island
Fun time feeding the fish 

The soft sandy beaches of Koh Khai
Everyone felt tired when we got back from Koh Khai island, so it was a godsend when we were offered a complimentary spa at the Rarinjinda Wellness Spa . A big ‘Thank You’ to the organizer of this trip for that! The spa was conveniently located adjacent to the back of Jungceylon Shopping Centre. Its services and facilities included foot massage, body massage, facial, colon cleansing and detoxifying infrared sauna. We chose to take up the aromatherapy oil massage. The therapist was really good and the massage was excellent and very relaxing. I felt so refreshed and rejuvenated after the massage.

After sundown, we went to Phuket FantaSea, located on Kamala Beach. Phuket FantaSea is a 140-arce entertainment theme park showcasing the charm and beauty of Thailand and its rich traditional culture. When I entered the theme park, it seemed as if the clock had been rewound. The games at the theme park reminded me of the Uncle Ringo Amusement Park back in Singapore. It was like an old-school fun fair where you’d find games like throwing a ball to hit the cans placed a distance away. And the prize: cuddly soft toys that come in various shapes and sizes, just like the good old days. However, there are no adventurous or adrenaline-pumping roller-coaster rides of the modern world here so don’t get your expectations up too high when you hear the words ‘theme park’.

We had dinner at Golden Kinnaree, one of the restaurants in Phuket FantaSea offering Thai and International buffet. When I walked into the restaurant, my jaws dropped. The restaurant was majestically huge, with a seating capacity of up to 4000, and it shimmered in gold with its exquisite and intricate architecture. After the buffet dinner, we took a stroll around the park. The park turned into a mini Carnival Village at night with performances and souvenir stores. One of the attractions – Tiger Jungle Adventure – awed me with the animals I saw in there. Walking through a magical adventure and catching glimpses of exotic animals right in your face, it really made me wonder if the animals were real. This enchanting wonderland also boasts of the white tigers living in the grand white palace. After visiting the white tigers and some photo-taking around the park, we made our way to the much-anticipated theatrical performance, the main highlight of the theme park. The rules were strict here: the gate only opens at 8:30pm and we were required to surrender our handphones and cameras as recording or photo-taking of the show was not allowed. The performance was overwhelming, to say the least. The daring stunts, magical illusions, acrobatics, special effects and much more had the audience transfixed. What amazed me most were the animal performances, and I was even startled by the elephant show! The elephants, birds, chickens and goats all seemed to know how to do the tricks, and knew where to enter and exit the stage, just like a human performer. It totally left us wanting for more when it ended.
Entrance of Phuket FantaSea
Welcome to wonderland!
The main stage at Carnival Village
The majestic, shimmering Golden Kinnaree
Are the animals real? 
White tigers living in the majestic kingdom
All ready for some spectacular performance

DAY 4. My last day in Phuket. The morning would be spent tidying up work-related matters and after lunch, we would have some free time for more shopping. Junggeylon, the shopping mall with more than 200 stores, is a place where you can find almost everything you need. I simply love shopping in the hypermarket, Big C, for candies and food stuff for my dog. Besides this huge shopping complex, there were also a number of shopping bazaars across the road, where I bought most of my spoils. We checked out of the resort at around 4:30pm and headed to the airport for our flight back to Singapore. Goodbye, Phuket! 

Monday 17 September 2012

The Balkans: Montenegro – Albania – Macedonia

Article contributed by New Shan Travel

Mention the Balkans and a sense of mystery prevails. This off­-beaten tourist destination, located in the south eastern part of Europe, is slowly attracting visitors looking for something di­fferent. Flanked by the Balkan Mountains, hence its name, each of the countries in the Balkan Peninsula exudes its own personality and charm.

Podgorica, Montenegro – Our arrival at the Crne Gore International Airport in Podgorica, capital of Montenego marked the start of our 7-day Balkans tour. We were met at the airport by our English speaking driver cum assistant and were whisked off to lunch at a local restaurant, where we had a first taste of traditional Podgorica cuisine. After a satisfying lunch, we headed off on our city tour. Podgorica, of which the name originated in 1326, is the official commercial and cultural city of Montenegro. The city was built around five rivers, Zeta, Moraca, Ribnica, Cijevna and Sitnica. As most of the city was destroyed during World War II, Podgorica is a relatively new city with modern buildings and parks.

Kotor, Montenegro – Kotor, with its medieval architecture and numerous monuments of cultural heritage, is a UNESCO World Natural and Historical Heritage Site. It is located along one of Montenegro's most beautiful bays and is known as a city of traders and famous sailors. There are many well preserved buildings from the Middle Ages that were built between the 12th and 14th century.

Budva, Montenegro – Budva is a coastal town in Montenegro. The coastal area around Budva, called the Budvanska rivijera, is the centre of Montenegro's tourism, and is well known for its sandy beaches and diverse nightlife. Budva is 3,500 years old, making it one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic sea coast. Much of the architecture in the Old Town is of Venetian design.

Shkodra, Albania – After exploring Montenegro, we crossed the border over to Shkodra, a city located on the Lake of Shkoder in north western Albania. The only known Illyrian capital in the world, Shkoder was founded around the 4th century BC and is a significant cultural and economic centre today. Besides being one of the oldest and most historic towns in Albania, it is also the gateway to the Albanian Alps. Lunch was an exquisite affair, as we sampled traditional cuisine and downed it with Albanian Raki in a tastefully decorated restaurant.

Tirana, Albania – Tirana is the capital of Albania. It was founded in 1614 by Suleyman Pasha Bargjini, who built the first buildings that formed the nucleus of the new town: a mosque, a hammam, and a bakery, at the place where today stands the monument of the Unknown Partisan (Partizani i Panjohur). Important buildings in Tirana include the Palace of Congresses, the International Centre of Culture, the Palace of Culture, the Theatre of Opera and Ballet and the Sky Tower, etc. Our visit also included a tour of the famous Et'hem Beu mosque in Tirana and while in Tirana, we had the privilege of dining at the most prestigious restaurant.

Kruja, Albania – The significance of Kruja is related to the Albanian national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti (Skanderbeg), who fought against the invading Ottomans in the 15th century. Kruja was Skanderbeg’s capital and its castle turned into an invincible stronghold of resistance against the Ottoman threat, thus becoming famous in Europe. Kruja town lies on the side of the Kruja Mountain, about 600m above sea level, commanding a panoramic view of the Adriatic Sea. Visit the citadel of Kruja and the Museu Etnograflk, which is a preserved house. The interesting museum shows how the ancient Albanian lived.

Durres, Albania – Durres is home to Albania's main port, the Port of Durres. Founded in 7 BC, it has been inhabited for 27 centuries and is one of the oldest cities in Albania. Important buildings in Durres include the cultural center with the Aleksander Moisiu Theatre, Estrada Theater, the philharmonic orchestra, Durres Archaeological Museum, Royal Villa of Durres and the Museum of History (the house of Aleksander Moisiu). The ancient amphitheatre, which is the biggest of its type in the Balkan Peninsula and built between 117-78 BC, hosted gladiatorial games watched by up to 20,000 people.

Berat, Albania – Berat, located in central Albania, is a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town and is known as the "Town of a thousand windows", due to the many large windows of the old decorated houses overlooking the town. In July 2008, the old town (Mangalem district) was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. While the Mangalem riverfront has traditionally been a bazaar area, the residences of merchants and artisans are situated on the steep slope above. The quarter is shaped like an elegant pyramid, on top of which is the castle. The main visual characteristic of this quarter is the number of windows on top of one another. While in Berat, visit the Mangalem district (UNESCO), the castle and churches inside and the Icons museum Onufri, which has the best collection of Albanian icons from the 13th to 19th century.

Saranda, Albania – Enroute to Saranda, we made a brief stop at the “Castle of Ali Pasha”, built by Ali Pasha Tepelena in the gulf of Porto Palermo at the beginning of the 19th century. The castle is situated on a scenic peninsula and has a distinctive triangle shape.

After arriving in Saranda, we visited the Butrint Archaeological site, located 18 km away from the city. The Butrint archaeological site and museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and RAMSAR wetlands protected site. Once inside, one can enjoy the peaceful surroundings, see the plentiful rosemary plants, smell the fragrance of the eucalyptus trees and hear the crickets chirp amidst the ruins.

Gjirokastra, Albania – Gjirokastra was declared a “Museum City” in 1961 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. Initially, it was an Illyrian settlement linked to the Argjiro tribe. In 1417, the Turks conquered it and turned it into an important center of Ottoman power and administration for hundreds of years. Visitors will be impressed by the city’s architecture, the views from Drino Valley overlooking a historic landscape framed by snow-capped mountains, and the lime peaks of the Bureto and Lunxheri mountain chains. This city of a thousand steps comprises hundreds of Ottoman-style tower houses with distinctive stone roofs, wooden balconies and whitewashed stone walls. Situated very close to the Greek border, Gjirokastra has been the stage of many important events in the history of the country.

Ohrid, Macedonia – Leaving Albania, we now enter Macedonia. Our first stop is Ohrid, a city located on the eastern shore of Macedonia and is well known for its churches. With beautiful houses every step of the way, it is a natural tourist magnet. While there, we visited the Samoil Castle, Old Town, the Old Saint Clemente Church also known as Holy Mother of God Periblebtos, the Roman Theatre, the church of St John the Theologian-Kaneo and enjoyed a panoramic view from the Fortress of Czar Samuel. Due to the rain, we skipped the short boat trip in Ohrid lake. Fortunately, this was made up by a lovely lunch at a local restaurant by the shores of the lake.

Skopje, Macedonia – Our last stop on the trip was Skopje and dinner was the order of the day when we arrived, where we had a sumptuous meal at a local restaurant. The restaurant, Old City House, is a rare example of folk architecture of Skopje of the 19th century. Early next morning, we set out to explore the sights of Skopje, with the help of our English speaking guide. We visited the Alexander Fortress in Skopje known also as Kale, the Church of Saint Savior known as Sveti Spas, the Old Town, the Memorial House of Mother Theresa and the Old Skopje Train Station which was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake. We also drove out to Vodno Mountain located 25 minutes from Skopje. Once on the mountain, we made our way to visit the Church of Saint Panteljemon and had lunch there as well. After a hearty lunch, it was time to say our farewells to the Balkans as we drove back to Skopje to board our flight home.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the writer and do not represent the views of New Shan Travel.