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Issue 12
Africa Travel> Issue 12
UPDATED: February 5, 2015
Thai'd and Gone to Heaven – Part 3
Exploring the magic of Thailand
By Jo Kromberg, photographs by Jo Kromberg and Izak van Zyl

Sunset cocktails at Krabi

The relatively recent name "Phuket" is apparently derived from the word bukit in Malay which means "hill", as this is what the island appears like from a distance. And the "hill" is our next and final destination in Thailand.

The drive to Phuket was said to last about 2 and a half hours from Khao Sok National Park, yet an almost full 5 hours later we enter the busy, chaotic touristy town of Patong in Phuket. We finally arrive at Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket and what a place! After the silence of the jungle, the bustling lobby is a tad overwhelming but our wonderful and charming hosts Martin and Mathieu quickly get us settled into our stunning room and organise dinner for us.

Food glorious food

Up until this point Thai food – which is great, don't get me wrong – was our staple diet so to be introduced to various dining options such as Italian and real steak makes us giddy with delight. Since we are only here for one night we opt for both a sojourn in their wonderful Italian restaurant as well as hopping across to the buffet restaurant, where it is America night, meaning meat, meat and more meat! Mare, the Italian restaurant, is the best in Patong I am told and after a portion of their spaghetti carbonara and four-cheese pizza I absolutely concur. The food is heavenly, truly authentic and with dishes such as cherry smoked duck breast on radicchio salad, potato gnocchi with octopus ragout, carnaroli rice with black truffle and roasted porcini mushrooms with garlic cream you will not find better, even in Italy.

The hotel is huge, can accommodate up to 600 guests and is almost full. Yet the staff and management clearly know how to handle any situation and the warmth, hospitality and professionalism of everyone here made a big impression on us. It's an early start the next morning and after a quick breakfast we meet the assistant general manager of the property and are shown around. Drawing its design theme from the classic Sino-Portuguese architecture that characterises Phuket Town, this 5-star hotel is set directly on the sands at Karon Beach, backed by a green hill, and grouped around its own water park, which looks like a natural, meandering river. The accommodation is beautiful and includes very exclusive villas that come with the Club category benefits. The award-winning spa, SPA Cenvaree, is a sensory experience bar none.

Canoeing out to Phang Nga Bay's limestone caves

Centara Villas

Our host Nat very kindly organises a car to take us the few minutes up the road to our next hotel for the night, sister property Centara Villas. The minute you step into the gazebo reception and observe the view, tranquillity makes its home in your head and heart. Looking out over the entire bay, Centara Villas is located high in the hills above Karon Beach. Our host Ross comes to greet us and after a quick check-in we are transported by golf cart to our villa. The view of the sea is spectacular and all the villas are built into the tropical, lush hillside. The Zen inspired decor of the rooms induces peace and the wooden floor is set off by marble in the bathrooms and a white and burgundy colour scheme. The rain colours the sea a soft shade of grey green as we enjoy lunch at the poolside restaurant. The rain stops at about 7 in the evening and we go up to the main restaurant for dinner with a stunning view of the twinkling lights over the bay. The night is sultry and heavy with moisture. Soft lighting, ambient music and some of the most memorably fantastic food of my life set the tone for the next couple of hours. The menu is expansive but better yet, you can order off menu, which is a sign of a very classy joint indeed. We have the seared tuna and poached lobster as starter respectively and it is melt-in-mouth delicious on both counts. The Angus beef rib eye steak (for me) and the steamed calamari with chilli and lime (my partner's) is a sublime culinary victory. I could go on to describe the myriad of dishes offered here but our time on earth is finite... The resort is marketed as a quiet retreat for couples mainly, so thankfully no screaming children or loud tourists disturb you here – ever. The breakfast the following day is excellent and fully caters to the Chinese palate as well.

Centara Grand West Sands Resort & Villas

We arrive at our final destination at about 12 noon, courtesy of Destination Asia. Centara Grand West Sands Resort & Villas Phuket is set in 47 acres of lush tropical landscaping, bordering on 500 metres of pristine beach frontage on Mai Khao Beach, the longest and quietest stretch of sand on Phuket's magnificent west coast. The resort is very close to Phuket International Airport, 15 minutes by car. So says their website and it is all true. It is the size of a small country and can accommodate up to 1000 people. But the water park must be the biggest attraction and suffice to say it could make Disney World envious. After a wonderful welcome and an inspection of the luxurious, beach front penthouses we are shown to our room. It is lovely, if small but the rates here are really affordable. The resort boats three great restaurants – Italian, Thai and International. After a quick shower, it's off to the Italian buffet evening for dinner. Things like roast duck breast, carpacchio and lobster, saffron risotto and octopus salad make this a stellar dining experience.

We take to the road again with Destination Asia after breakfast on our second last day in Thailand – this time for a boat trip and kayaking with a company called John Gray. It is the perfect opportunity to canoe in Phang Nga and get the best of both worlds - by day and night. My irritation with the heat and hordes of tourists on the boat quickly dissipates as we are treated to a fabulous lunch on board. The "Hong By Starlight" experience was pioneered by John "Caveman" Gray, a larger-than-life life Hawaiian who first explored Phang Nga Bay by kayak in the eighties.

After lunch we explore the bay's limestone caves which can only be entered by canoe when the tide is just right. Our guide Boa traverses the narrow caves with the skill of a master. I experience visceral, claustrophobic fear and my heart beats like a drum as we have to lie completely flat while wading through the pitch black, barnacled cave tunnels, fragments of millimetres from your face. Some of the caves are home to countless bats and their chemical smell is overpowering. But my trepidation quickly turns to pure awe as we emerge into the inner "rooms" with the sun bright above us. The limestone caves are 700 million years old, says Boa. We find ourselves in a green lagoon or "hongs" - inner lagoon caves inside the limestone rocks that are accessed through the small tunnel openings. Once inside the hongs, time stands still and the only sound is the gentle splash of our paddles and bird song. We are totally surrounded by said limestone cliffs. Some caves have two or three rooms. We explore a few of these unbelievable caves with their ancient stalactites entrances and night slowly makes its presence felt. Back on the boat we are treated to a Thai-style seafood dinner, watching the butterscotch coloured sun melt in the warm sea.

Phang Nga Bay

Spiritual offerings

Once darkness falls, the very special award-winning Hong by Starlight tour begins. Boa showed us earlier how to make a "kratong" - a small float made from banana leaves that Thais float on the sea as a spiritual offering for future health, wealth and happiness We take our kratongs with us and kayak back to one of the previous caves with only our kratong candles and the light of the moon and stars as light sources. This time Boa negotiates the caves entrance effortlessly since the water has significantly subsided due to low tide. The phosphorous in the dark water looks like tiny fairy lights and it's wondrous. Once back inside the "room", an incredible feeling of deep spiritual peace descends on me as we lower our kratong into the sea and make a wish in the stars' and the moon's reflections. There are candles everywhere and the only sounds are the soft murmurs from the other guests in their kayaks. In all my travels this counts as one of the most special moments ever.

We return to the hotel late that night. Exhausted but exhilarated, I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep until almost 9 the next morning. The beautiful SPA Cenvaree beckons after breakfast and we opt for the "couples combo" where a feet washing ceremony is followed by an exfoliating body scrub for me and a deep muscle massage for him. I then get wrapped from head to toe in seaweed for half an hour after which I have a shower to wash it off. I then have a soothing facial and promptly fall asleep. I am awoken from my slumber by soft hands administering a deep tissue massage and promptly fall asleep. Bliss...It is with sad hearts but rejuvenated bodies and spirits that we board our luxury Premium Economy Cathay Pacific flight back home that evening from Hong Kong after the Dragon Air flight from Phuket.

The magic of Thailand lies in its beautiful nature and rain forests, its wonderful Buddhist culture and history. But most of all it lies in its people – their movements, the ways their slight bodies tread lightly on the earth, always with a smile that extends right around their faces and deep into your heart. So I invite you to come to Thailand and learn about the incredible lightness of being.

Jo Kromberg would like to thank The Tourism Authority of Thailand for co-ordinating her and Izak's entire trip, by bringing in the different partners such as Destination Asia and Centara Resorts and Hotels. You can find them at http://www.tourismthailand.org/ She would also like to thank Cathay Pacific for their wonderful flights, service and assistance in getting them there and back.

Dinner at sea under the stars on the green lagoon


Centara Resorts and Hotels:

Whether you have money to burn or are on a tight budget, Centara Resorts and Hotels will cater for all tastes and budgets. Go to http://www.centarahotelsresorts.com/index.asp

Destination Asia:

This company specialises in Indochina travel and will arrange everything for you so that you can enjoy the perfect holiday! Contact them at http://www.destination-asia.com/

The Holiday Factory:

Contact The Holiday Factory for amazing, tailor-made holidays and special offers to Thailand, Mauritius, Zanzibar and many more destinations from South Africa at http://www.theholidayfactory.co.za/

John Gray:


Getting there:

From China:

Cathay Pacific flies from China to Phuket numerous times per day from major centres. Go to http://www.cathaypacific.com/cx/en_HK.htmlfor special offers, information and bookings.

From South Africa:

Cathay Pacific flies to Phuket via Hong Kong from South Africa every day of the week. Go to http://www.cathaypacific.com/cx/en_ZA.html for special offers, information and bookings.

Cathay Pacific named 'Best Asian Airline Serving China' at 2014 Business Traveller China Awards

Cathay Pacific Airways was recently named "Best Asian Airline serving China" in the 2014 Business Traveller China Awards. The annual awards, now in their 10th year, are decided by frequent travellers who vote for their favourite hospitality groups and airlines across the industry.

Cathay Pacific General Manager China Paul Loo, who accepted the award on behalf of the airline, said: "I would like to thank all the Business Traveller China readers who voted for us, as well as our Cathay Pacific team for their hard work in making us the preferred Asian airline serving Mainland China. As Hong Kong's home carrier, we are committed to providing a quality travel experience to all our passengers and developing Hong Kong as a premier aviation hub and gateway to Mainland China for travellers from around the world."

This latest honour comes on top of a number of other awards received by the airline in 2014, including the "World's Best Airline" award in the World Airline Awards run by Skytrax and the "Best North Asian Airline" honour at the 25th Annual TTG Travel Awards.

Cathay Pacific has been making significant investments to improve its customer offering and cement its position as one of the world's most highly regarded premium international carriers, including expanding its fleet and networks, refreshing aircraft cabins across its entire fleet along and upgrading lounges around its international network.

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