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Unless you have been in a coma for the past month or so, you probably already know that Thailand's beloved King died on 13 October. The Kingdom is in a period of mourning, and this affects those who plan to visit in the coming weeks and months. His Majesty was the world's longest-reigning monarch and considered the father of the nation. Most Thais are experiencing a deep personal sense of loss, as they would if a close family member had died.
The official period of mourning is for one year for government offices. For the public it was for thirty days, and ended on 13 November. The dress code for the public was to be black and/or white, and conservative, but most Thais and foreigners living here are continuing to dress in monochrome hues for the time being. Visitors who observe the same standard will be noticed and appreciated. The Grand Palace is currently a open, although around 15,000 Thai mourners are visiting the Throne Hall every day to pay respects at the urn in which the King's body rests. Visitors use a different entrance and cannot visit the Throne Hall unless they queue up for four to six hours. Most nightlife venues are operating normally. A huge and lavish crematorium will be built near the Grand Palace for the ceremony that will probably take place at the end of the year of mourning.
This year there will be no noisy "count downs" on New Years Eve, which is expected to be somewhat muted this year. The entire football (soccer) season has been cancelled. Indeed Fifa's office, just down the hall from ours, has been dark since 13 October. The heir to the throne has chosen to observe the year of mourning rather than fill his father's shoes immediately, and a Regent is fulfilling royal duties in the mean time. Numerous public places have "Books of Condolence" for members of the public to sign.
This is an interesting time to be in Thailand. Those foreigners who have lived here for many years have sometimes speculated on what might unfold after the King's passing. People here are sad, but going about their business normally. Our office is open and operating. Many of our friends have offered us their own condolences by email, which has been been both kind and greatly appreciated.
In passing, His Majesty has left some very big shoes to fill.
The Prospects for Holiday Travel 2016/2017
We love people who plan ahead, but are prepared for those who don not. If you are thinking of visiting our part of the world from mid-December through mid-January here is a brief review of what might or might not be possible:
Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Thais tend to want to get out of the city during holiday breaks. Despite lavish decorations around Bangkok (which are worth the trip to begin with), Christmas is just another day. However, the long New Year break is when they travel "upcountry" (anywhere that's not a big city), abroad, or to beach resorts. Bangkok hotels are seldom fully booked during this period, and Chiang Mai is somewhat more difficult.
Thailand's Beach Resorts. Most hotels in places like Phuket, Krabi and Koh Samui are heavily booked and have minimum stays ranging from three to seven nights. Most have five night minimums. Hotels are very picked over, but we will gladly try.
Myanmar (nee Burma). This would be a good time to start planning to visit Myanmar in late December 2017. December 2016 is difficult but not impossible as long as you are not particular about hotels, which are pretty picked over.
Cambodia & Laos. Hotels in Siem Reap are very heavily booked, but we have been able to perform some miracles. We do have two secret weapons if you want to stay between Christmas Eve and New Years day. We may have a problem offering you a guide, however. Phnom Penh is less so. Because no new hotels can be built in Luang Prabang, the town's inventory of rooms is limited.
Vietnam. Hanoi and Saigon hotels are filling up. Hoi An is very heavily booked. Sapa is not a problem, although it will be quite cold in December/January. This is a good time to finalize plans to visit during the luscious Spring months.
India. Most of India looks wide open. Weather in Northern India is cool, which is often better than sizzling.
Bhutan. Although December and January are low season and weather is chilly, flights are pretty full and some hotels are heavily booked due to numerous festivals. This is a very good time to plan for travel in Bhutan from March and beyond. Getting rooms in some cities during April is very difficult due to major festivals.
Douglas' Blog Celebrates its First Decade
Ten years ago in November Douglas blogged for the first time. It has occasionally been his personal soap box but, more often, he has given interested folks abroad sometimes-poignant looks at life in our part of the world, while chronicling his own adventures and misadventures. During periods of political strife in Thailand, many of his 6,000 regular readers have been transfixed by his daily accounts of events that have rocked the Kingdom. During this decade he also ran a restaurant in Cambodia part time, became a widow, died of lung cancer and a brain tumor traveled quite a bit, grown hundreds of tomato plants, and became a "foreign correspondent" twice. He only writes when he has something to say and is still astonished that people read it.
The blog has recently moved to his personal website at the recommendation of our SEO gurus: www.douglas-thompson.com/blog/. He published his 10th anniversary blog on 09 November, and you will probably never guess (the date is a clue) what the topic is. His two other recent installments are worth reading or re-reading. His "war on plastic," seems to be morphing into a major magazine story that focuses on a plastic-free Cambodia (see our hotels story below). The photo blog from his most recent trip to Bhutan has some wonderful photos. We are not sure where he finds the time, since he works long hours and is already working on two Bhutan stories. He say he writes in the shower, in the supermarket and in taxis on the way to the office. "I write it in my head," he says, "and when I sit down at the computer it all comes out effortlessly" (with a helping hand from Jack Daniels).
Justin, Mark, Eric and Philip Loved Bhutan. So did John, Robert and Daniel. Meanwhile,
Three different couples and one solo traveler made extensive trips to Bhutan with us in October and November and they all really loved what they did. We are expanding the things we offer there, including hikes, bike rides, picnics, visits to schools and even a brewery tour. These were the first Bhutan guests using our own staff and our own office in Thimpu, and we are pretty proud of the performance of our team there. Eric and Philip were able to attend an amazing three different festivals in a ten-day visit. Everyone else had one or two festivals. Our Festivals calendar has been updated for 2017. Most people find a festival to be the best thing to build a Bhutan itinerary around: www.BetterBhutan.com/festivals.htm. But please book as far in advance as possible!
We have just begun to build a feedback page on our BetterBhutan.com website. We are blushing from the first reviews.www.BetterBhutan.com/fanmail.htm. We hope it will give folks a better idea what they can expect when they travel with us.
Elsewhere in Asia, Michael and Sergio made their very first visit to Angkor Wat and they loved it. In their fan letter they wrote: "Thank you for such a great trip. It was one of the best ever. You really did a great job. The guide and driver in Cambodia were fantastic. I just loved Sapheara (one of our guides) and Mr Mote (a driver). Nothing was left to chance. And we loved the whole thing. Also Micky in Bangkok was wonderful. Your company was great to deal with and I will recommend you highly. Went we plan our next trip we will be contacting you. I want to go to Burma. And Chang Mai. Next. Thanks for all your hard work! Best, Michael & Sergio."
Jeff and Mark loved Angkor (again). They travel with us twice a year and we have lost count of the number of Siem Reap visits they have made. We always find something new and interesting for them. This time they did a day of biking and really enjoyed themselves. We are not sure about the horse-back riding. (click/tap on images to enlarge)
On the Drawing Board
Cambodia's Great Eastern Circle. The Road Less Traveled, our overnight road trip between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, has been more popular than we imagined. Now, we are imagining something even more interesting: "The Great Eastern Circle." If you have a week or longer we can take you to corners of Cambodia that very few tourists bother to visit. Begin and end in Phnom Penh and visit Kompong Cham, Sen Monorom (provincial capital of Mondulkiri, which you will use as a base for exploring hill-tribe villages and waterfalls), then on to Kratie in Ranatakiri Province to visit scenic forests and a village that seems to have been left behind by China. You will visit a beautiful lake and see local stilt houses inhabited only by bachelors, waterfalls, a 12th century pagoda, superb totems and even a rubber plantation. This trip takes you through regions where Khmer is not spoken and cultures are distinctly different from much of the rest of Cambodia.
Bangkok Foodie Crawl: Three Courses, Three Restaurants is our new nightlife activity in Bangkok. Don't eat a big lunch! Travel with one of our guides by tuk tuk to experience the Thai food that most visitors miss out on. Begin with some zesty Isaan treats, then proceed beyond Huaompong Railway Station for a bowl of "guay tieu kua goi" (succulent fried noodles) with the meat of your choice topped with an runny egg plus a side of deep fried pork wonton. While you are waiting for your stomach to make a little room, we pay a visit to the nighttime flower market, and the roof of a boutique hotel bar sandwiched between Wat Po and the river, where you can have simultaneous views of Wa Po and Wat Arun, as well as late night traffic on the river. Your final stop is for some street food in Chinatown. Usually "street food" is on the sidewalk. This late-night seafood restaurant is actually in the street. (You can often reach out and touch the slowly-moving cars, though we don't recommend that.)
Between stops you see the colorful bustle of the Big Mango after dark. While there are similar tours, ours offer a premium selection of dishes. Instead of one guide with a group of 8 to 12 in four or five tukt uks, we can accommodate only two people plus a guide. If there are three or four in your party, you will have an extra tuk tuk and with its own guide. We include the guide, the food, the tuk tuk, and as much atmosphere as you san soak up. If you really want to spend an evening sitting in one of the bars on soi 4 or watching a naughty show on Surawong Road, we will gladly drop you off there at the end. This delicious evening usually runs from around 19:20 to 23:00.
New Hotels at Purple Dragon
It has been quite some time before we have added a new hotel in Hanoi. But we have made up for it with the addition of The Apricot Hotel. Apricot is a great alternative for those who want to stay in an historic French Colonial building in the center of Hanoi but who also find the Metropole's prices out of reach. Apricot presides regally over Hoan Kiem Lake. You could not probably find a better location. Beyond the imposing Colonial facade is a beautifully decorated and appointed 4.5 star hotel that marries period charm with contemporary Vietnamese design. You will love the opulent lobby. We have been quietly testing Apricot with several guests and have gotten 100% thumbs up. You will find Apricot Hotel already included in all of our Hanoi prices.
We have two new hotels in Siem Reap, the town adjacent to Angkor Wat. If you have stayed at Shinta Mani you know how perfect the hotel is. Under the leadership of GM Christian de Boer Shinta Mani was named the world's third best hotel and Asia's best hotel by CNN and TripAdvisor in 2015. Christian left Shinta Mani several months ago to open his own new five star hotel, Jaya House River Park. Located along the river more or less across the river from Grand Hotel d'Ankgor, the new property just opened on 14 November. It features deluxe rooms, junior suite and junior pool suites. Rooms are large, beautifully decorated with locally-crafted materials, and there will be a world class chef in the kitchen.
One of the most unusual things about the new hotel is that it will probably be the world's first plastic-free hotel. No plastic will be found anywhere on the property. There will be no water bottles. Instead, guests will receive a ceramic or aluminum bottle that can be refilled at more than forty refilling stations in Siem Reap. Nearly half a million plastic drinking water bottles are discarded in Cambodia every month. The government recently required shops to charge for plastic bags as a way to encourage people to use recycled or cloth bags. The refillable bottle project is part of a "Refill Not Landfill " initiative by a large number of hotels and other tourism businesses in Siem Reap and part of a larger "Plastic free Cambodia" movement. If this topic interests you, you may enjoy "My War With Plastic," one of Douglas' recent blogs.
We have also added a new mid-priced hotel to bridge the gap between our three three-star hotels and our two five-star hotels. The new Sakmut Boutique Hotel opens on 08 December. This low-rise property surrounding an ample swimming pool reminds us a lot of what you might see on a California beach. Rooms are large and contemporary. If you are looking to save some money, the new Sakmut Boutique Hotel is giving an introductory "stay three, pay two" (nights) promotion through 26 January 2017
In Bangkok, the Check Inn Regency Park has become our new budget hotel. If you are a long time customer and this sounds familiar, the Regency Park was the very first hotel we used back in the Utopia Tours days. Located on Sukhuvit soi 22, it's close to the Emporium shopping complex and Skytrain. it has been extensively renovate since we used it eighteen years ago.
Apricot Hotel Hanoi Jaya House River Park Check Inn Regency Park (Click images to enlarge)
Overlooked Adventures: Kep & Bokor National Park
This is a new newsletter feature to introduce our readers to some of the most unusual trips on Purple Dragon's website. You really have to dig to find these, but they are so different that we think they deserve a closer look. This time, we look at a trip in Cambodia that is pretty special, Kep and Bokor National Park.
South of Phnom Penh, not far from the Vietnamese border, Kep sur Mer was often called the San Tropez of Asia. Wealthy French expats built holiday homes along the sea. Even the Queen had a villa there. Kep became the high society get-away for French Indochina. Then came the Khmer Rouge, and nearly everyone fled. Those who didn't were killed. The Khmer Rouge stripped the homes of pipes and electrical wire, and left everything else to be engulfed by trees and vines. Another weekend destination the mountain-top Bokor Hill Station was also swept up in the war. Homes, a hospital and a large hotel with a casino met a fate similar to Kep's.
It was not until about fifteen years ago that Kep and Bokor ended their long sleep in the vacuum of time and were "discovered." A French fellow walked into Purple Dragon's office one day and spoke with Douglas. "I hear you grow orchids. I want you to come to Kep." He had built a small hotel with a pool. Rather than rooms there were round bamboo huts with thatched roofs. On the beach across the road you could get a pile of fresh crab for about a dollar. While he was not much of an orchid grower, he had managed to create a little oasis surrounded by the ruins of the once-festive seaside community.
The road to Bokor (now a national park) in those days was mostly gone. Douglas' first trip up mountain was a bone-jarring two hours through old-growth forest and three distinct climates. The first stop at the summit was the ruin of the young King Sihanouk's villa. Only the walls remained, and the roof was heavily overgrown with orchid plants. The Grand Hotel Bokor is not much farther. It is so cool and damp that lichens in psychedelic greens, yellows and orange grow six centimeters thick. Taking graffiti to a whole new level some visitors have carved their initials into the thick mass of tiny plants. Stand for a minute and it is easy to imagine the sounds of music, and laughter, and of the roulette wheel.
Cambodia is best known for its 11th century ruins. However, life in the 2oth century ruins in Kep and Bokor are much easier for us to understand. Purple Dragon offers this fascinating destination complete with transportation beginning in Phnom Penh. There are now several hotels to choose from in Kep, and the road to Bokor has been repaved. You also get to visit Kompot, famous for both its salt and its pepper. You can find this overlooked adventure here: www.purpledrag.com/cambodia/kep.htm
Club Sanook "Jewel Member" Categories = Wholesale Prices
As our holiday gift to Purple Dragon's most loyal customers we are offering an attractive discount on our new Member categories based on your previous travels through December 2016. If you are basic or Diamond Member you can apply expired Purple Bonus Points toward your Membership at US$ .05 per point of you have a minimum of 1,500 expired points. If you are a senior or a nearly-senior a substantial holiday price reduction is available to anyone, regardless of past travels with us in the past.
The Sapphire Membership is good for three consecutive years.
As a Sapphire or Ruby Member you can travel as often as you like during the period of your Membership, whether it be our standard packages, custom tours, or hotel-only bookings. If you are a Diamond Member you can take a $250 discount on the Sapphire or Ruby Membership cost. Cost for Sapphire Membership is US$2,900. If you travel just once a year you will probably recover the cost of the Sapphire Membership about half way through the three-year period if you travel once a year and spend an average of $7,000 each year.
The Ruby Membership is good for the Member's lifetime. Cost for Ruby Membership is $4,900. Ruby Members traveling just once a year and spending $7,000+ per trip should recover the cost of their Membership in the third year.
Why are we doing this? We want to reward our best customers with with the opportunity to continue to enjoy our corner of the world and save money in the process. We will be celebrating our 19th year in 2017--we could not have done it without you. More than one third of our customers have traveled with us at least twice. That ratio of repeat guests may not sound so bit if you are a corner store selling things in bottles or cans. But most of our customers live a world away and travel here to spend both their time and our money with us, so we think you are all pretty special.
A few important rules: Memberships are not transferrable. Prices for travel purchases at the Sapphire and Ruby level are good for the Member and one companion. If others join you and are following the same itinerary, we will offer a discount of 10% off published rates, based on four people traveling together (which is less than the published rate for two people). Since our pricing and our supplier agreements are pretty confidential, Members at this level will be requited to sign an agreement not to disclose any of the details of the prices you pay.
♥ Balcony Pub's Member Dinner Benefits Purple Dragon's Community Programs in Cambodia. For the third year in a row Balcony Pub's December Member Dinner will help us raise money for our community projects in and around Siem Reap, Cambodia. Dinner is free with the expectation that those who attend will make a financial gift to help rescue families and cover the costs of the school we support in the countryside near Siem Reap. You do not have to be a Balcony Member to attend. Douglas will be there with heaps of home-made Christmas cookies. Balcony Pub is located in soi 4, Silom Road in Bangkok. You can click on the image at the right see a larger version.
♥ Hua Hin to Pattaya high speed ferry service will begin on 1 January, cutting the driving time from six yours to about 90 minutes. The luxury catamaran can accommodate up to 150 passengers and their vehicles. Fares have not been announced yet.
♥ Thailand to Cambodia rail service is getting closer to a reality. Tracks being built from Phnom Penh to Batambang leading to the Poipet border crossing are nearing completing, as the last little "bit" from Poipet to the existing rail lines in Aranyprathet, Thailand. No final date has been set for the opening of the new line, but tracks are being laid through the center of the casino-lined "frontier" between border checkpoints that is normally for foot-traffic. Once in service this will be the first rail connection between Cambodia and Thailand since before World War II.
♥ Zipline flight operator Flight of the Gibon (see our Chiang Mai Adventure, Bangkok Adventure, and Angkor Adventure trips) has planted more than 10,000 trees as part of a reforestation project near Chiang Mai.
♥ The Hoan Kiem Lake area in central Hanoi has been turned into a pedestrian-only on weekends between19:00 and midnight. We use two hotels in the area--the Apricot Hotel and the Sofitel Metropole. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, where our guests enjoy performances, also faces the lake. Regardless of the time of year Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the best strolling areas in Hanoi and now you can do it on weekends sans cars, motorbikes or cyclos.
♥ Indian State Railways have begun to add Swiss-style glass-domed coaches beginning this month. The first route is from Visaka to the Araku Valleu in scenic Andhar Pradesh State. The next route will be in Kashmir.
♥ Management of Angkor Wat is in the process of switching to solar power. There is no shortage of sunshine in Cambodia, where electricity city is costly. The archaeological park is also surrounded by small rural communities that will be able to join the grid and forego the car batteries they use to power lights and TV sets. Angkor admission passes will increase in February to help pay for this.
♥ Myanmar has finally opened is land borders from Thailand. The new e-Visa system can also be used to pre-arrange visas for crossing at three major checkpoints: Tachileik, Myawaddy and Kawthaung. You can visit Tachieik without a visa already, but you are restricted to the market are just beyond the border.
♥ Thailand is about to offer foreigners over 50 a ten-year multiple entry visa with numerous strings attached: You must have a monthly salary of at least 100,000 baht, or have 3 million baht in the bank account, which cannot be withdrawn for at least the first year after receiving the visa, you must prove that you have health insurance that will cover medical costs of 100,000 baht, and working is not allowed. The visa is issued in five-year increments.
The Last Word
Purple Dragon has been cleansing its website of elephant rides and places where elephants paint pictures and kick footballs. While rides and entertainment seem to be pretty harmless, these behaviors are not natural. Before elephants are willing to do such things, they must be "broken," with intentional physical abuse that is called "phajaan" in Thai. There is a short video on Facebook that we can't embed on this page. Before you consider an elephant ride however, you really need to view it: https://www.facebook.com/circa/videos/1189010637832326/. If you have 54 minutes, here is a fantastic video that will change your mind about domesticating elephants:
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