Thailand – the wrong side of the river

A comfortable location on the wrong side of the river
A comfortable location on the wrong side of the river

It was an original and exciting thought to celebrate a birthday abroad although when Lars told us where we’d meet I had conflicted views. You see, I like Thailand – a lot, to be truthful – and was very enthusiastic about visiting again but I’d been in Phuket before and anticipated finding it further down the toilet than it was last time. As a centre of gravity for the worst kinds of tourist activity it has form and, despite retaining areas that remain essentially Thai, it embodies most if not all that the dark side of Thailand has on offer. The island is continually ravaged by development – much of it illegal – that ranges from pretty bad to goddamn awful and is a prime example of what I strive to avoid.

The shuttle boat
The shuttle boat

But the Kantary Bay hotel on Cape Panwa looked good; it ticked a lot of boxes and had hosted our fellow revelers before. It also provided, we were assured, a very nice beach, excellent bar service and egg and bacon at breakfast. But what attracted me most was its location at the southernmost point on Phuket, which is far, far away from the Gomorrah-like Patong Beach.

Dining terrace alongside the river
Dining terrace alongside the river
The city from the quiet cool bedroom
The city from the quiet cool bedroom

Mission Control hadn’t seen Thailand and flying into and out of Phuket without experiencing something more of the real thing seemed a wasted opportunity. We had to work out how we’d make the trip and enjoy the celebration but still see more of the country than Phuket had on offer. I wanted to see Bangkok again and there was also the not inconsiderable opportunity to get some exotic birding under my belt, so to speak.

The answer was simple – we’d aim for Bangkok and have a few days there either side of renting a car and driving south. That way we’d see some of the country and enjoy the freedom of the open road. The eight-hundred and fifty kilometres would present wonderful opportunities to see aspects of the country that tourists often miss and we’d be able to take in a few sights while we enjoyed the freedom of the open road. Of course, anyone who’s seen the traffic in Bangkok or feared for their life in a tuk-tuk would appreciate that there was a downside to the idea but, what the heck? All I had to do was keep the traffic accident statistics out of any conversations.

The excellent shaded pool at the Peninsula
The excellent shaded pool at the Peninsula
Chao Phraya traffic
Chao Phraya traffic

Bangkok looked and smelled as I recalled it. It is exotic and quintessentially Asian; a heady combination of decrepit buildings and spectacular temple roofs; spice, traffic fumes and drains. The monsoon was about done and the humidity was promising to reduce – in fact, every Thai we mentioned it to assured us with absolute certainty that the rainy season had finished the previous day! Bangkok is evocative and mesmerising but it’s also crowded, dirty and noisy. To enjoy it fully you need two essentials; a bedroom that insulates you from the noise and a refuge from the humidity but with those essentials taken care of you can get on with absorbing the essence of a wonderful city. Just watching the busy and congested river as well as what floats down it is an experience in itself.

Reflection of the hotel across the river in an office building afternoon
Reflection of the hotel across the river in an office building afternoon

So we parked ourselves centrally, alongside the Chao Phraya River, in the Peninsula Hotel – a place that gets it and knows how to take care of you. And we made that point to a manager over chilled drinks on the dining terrace one evening. He was preoccupied, however, with a recent post on that bane of hoteliers, TripAdvisor. Apparently the hotel [together with it’s complimentary, atmospheric and liveried river shuttle] had been marked down by a recent American guest because it was located ‘on the wrong side of the river’. I guess ‘wrong side’ implies there is a ‘right side’ but after several visits I’ve yet to work out what there might be a right side for.

Houseboats with flags celebrating the Nation,on the left, and King Bhunibol Adulyadejs on the right
Houseboats with flags celebrating the Nation,on the left, and King Bhunibol Adulyadejs on the right

Forget four stars; this is what I think

When I travel and stay in rented accommodation, be it hotel, villa or something in between, I don’t like surprises. I’m not thinking here about the surprisingly wonderful view from the balcony or the surprisingly good deli that you find across the road. No, I mean the kind of surprise you get when you find the hot tub is constantly topped-up with chemicals as a measure against over-enthusiastic guests passing on STDs or the landlady discreetly breeds Great Danes and lets them wander the corridors at night. So, if one wants to avoid distractions like a peeling epidermis or being woken in the small hours by the sound of bestial footfalls and low snuffling at your bedroom door then it clearly pays to do a little work before you go. Times were when I’d just look up a hotel, check how many stars it was rated at and make a selection on the understanding that I would find, within reasonable limits, what I expected. And, perhaps more importantly, none of those little surprises. Things have changed somewhat with the advent of internet review sites as they allow you to get something of an insight into what it’s actually like to be a cherished guest at your chosen venue before you book.

We’ve had a lot of fun looking through online reviews but, whilst I’m not entirely convinced that they have a lot of credibility, they are always worth a glance even if only to see if your accommodation is what it says it is. The good news – if you don’t mind trawling through grammatical errors and rants about dust-bunnies – is that personal reviews are in the ascendancy and star ratings are being given the finger. It was reported last week that the government in UK is eschewing the traditional system of rating hotels as ‘five star’ or ‘three crowns’ in favour of more ‘realistic’ customer reviews. I believe that awarding stars because rooms have wi-fi or a shoe-cleaning service is a slightly less-than-honest justification for high room rates but whilst I haven’t decided which system will be more helpful customer reviews will definitely be more entertaining. For the most part, people tend to compliment following a special experience but when it comes to complaining disgruntled folk want to share even the slightest of gripes with the rest of the world.

I’m sceptical about good reviews and won’t be convinced that a large number aren’t planted; who, for example, photographs the hotel bathroom before commending the plumbing facilities and bed turning-down service? Complaints, however, are a lot more interesting to read, unquestionably heartfelt and usually truthful even if they are for the most part excruciatingly subjective. TripAdvisor has grudgingly acknowledged this and now displays a coverall get-out-of-jail statement below each review – ‘This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC’ – so that’s alright then.

At best the disparity between star ratings causes a disappointment; there is no European [or international, for that matter] standard in terms of quality, cost or facilities provided. It’s well known that many places pay to receive the endorsement of an official body and usually write their own testimonial, too. At worst complaints are often justifiable so when that manifests itself as a bad review the amusement in reading it is tinged with guilt. I’ve looked again through some reviews of a place we’d stayed in last year to see if the opinions offered by guests would have helped me decide to stay if I was a less-experienced traveller. There were, to say the least, contrasting opinions. The names have been omitted to protect the innocent and, er, I haven’t corrected any errors. What questions would I have asked and what did previous guests say?

Is it  a quiet place to stay?

‘…aircraft did appear overhead, but were not at all intrusive.’

‘Planes coming over was a thrill…’

‘…no noise except the gentle lapping of the waves…’

‘The planes were so low at times we really thought that they were going to hit the roof. You could even see how worn the aircraft tyres were.’

Hmmm. What are the rooms like?

‘Room was not clean. Droppings of previous visitor in toilet even though the toilet was sealed with a hygiene strip, with the text: This toilet was cleaned.’

‘…not only that, our bath plug was broken for our entire stay and despite asking twice…’

‘…spotlessly clean throughout. Our room was well furnished, towels were changed daily and bed linen every other day. Everything worked! Complimentary toiletries were of good quality…’

And was the service good?

‘…we had to wait and eventually to call ‘hello’ to get someone to come and check us in. The receptionist appeared grumpy…’

‘All the guests sat in the bar area complained about the service.’

‘…staff were charming and most helpful…’

‘…the cleaner had left our bedroom door open and had left the master key card in the card holder…’

But it’s a four-star hotel so it can’t be that bad, can it?

‘Our advise is however; “If you are a frequent traveller, don’t go there!!!” [It’s] a run down hotel that has seen its best days. Why this hotel is ranked at 4 stars is an absolute mistery.’

‘They are clearly understaffed at this hotel and should really consider the star rating.’

What about the food then?

‘Food in the restaurant was really tasteless en cold.’

‘The food is terrible and yes we read all the reviews and went with a positive attitude but its all slush and mush. The beer is weak and disgusting very watered-down like the vodka!’

No decent cuts of meat, just bits hanging off bones. Very cheap food. No variety, apart from the flies landing on the salads.’

‘Chips especially got cold quickly so found the best way was to put them in a soup bowl and give them 20 seconds in the microwave. Helped also to warm your plate.’

‘My Partner lived off hot dog and chips the whole week as that was the only hot food available…’

So do all the guests go out to eat?

‘I enjoyed the buffet breakfast provided – there was plenty to choose from – cooked, cereals, toasts, fruits etc…’

‘Also contrary to what other people have written in reviews we loved the food and I am a very fussy eater.  I was waking my poor hubby up every morning early to get down for breakfast as it was so good and for the first time in my life actually got really excited about the food.’

‘…we made lunch at breakfast, with ham and the baguette rolls available, and then took them up to our room with some pastries and put them in the wardrobe (not only to stop the maid seeing them, but to keep them cool and out of sunlight). Definately saved at least 10euros a day doing this.’

Was there entertainment in the evenings?

‘There is entertainment if you hear about it as it is not advertised its usually animal shows and karoke.’

‘There are very few TV channels in the room, and most of them are in German and French. So after your dinner there isn’t much to do except for learning languages.’

Were the facilities good?

‘The edges of the pool were covered in brown scum.’

‘…pool area was never cleaned in the whole two weeks we were there…’

‘…a lot of public parking places available in front of or close to the hotel, however not guarded…somebody has stolen the rear bumper (!) of our rental car during one night…’

So, is there value for money?

‘It certainly didn’t live up to the beautiful pictures you see on the web.’

‘…we had a fantastic holiday, and thought it was excellent value for money.

‘With 4* prices it was way below what we had hoped for.’

I might have been too selective in those parts of the reviews collected here but the point remains that contributions to review sites are subjective and it has to be accepted that contributors are moved to submit a review – whether it be to praise or condemn. This means you would need to trail through a reasonable number in order to form a balanced impression and, with luck, avoid surprises.

As for me, I found the place to be exactly as I expected; staff, service and facilities a Curate’s Egg and with plenty of room for improvement as far as the food was concerned. We selected it as an overnight stay so as to avoid a long drive in the dark and, on that basis, it provided reasonable value for money. But only just; the place was threadbare and one day was enough. If I had relied on its four-star rating alone I’d have been disappointed so the reviews tempered that.

So, on balance I guess internet reviews were more useful than a star rating in this instance and there was the added bonus that it was entertaining to read what previous guests thought about it. Some of the reviews were just a little too long and just a little too detailed than was necessary. I didn’t post a review, but if I did I would have quoted James Thurber, who said [of a play not a hotel although the sentiment remains valid] ‘It had only one fault. It was kind of lousy.’



Tenerife; searching for a soul and finding a few surprises

A few days in Tenerife and it didn’t fail to live up to expectations. If, like me, you believe that travelling to foreign climes is about immersion in another culture, experiencing local character or enjoying cuisine and places that are different, this is not for you. Of course, on the largest island in the group some parts do remain unspoiled and they are frequently visually stunning but, in its headlong rush to attract and exploit the tourist, Tenerife’s identity and history have been significantly obliterated by timeshare apartments, hotels and shopping malls. There were some pleasant surprises tucked away in a destination that attracts twelve millions sun-seekers annually but, for the most part, it’s sad and breathtakingly awful.

Our rural retreat on the banana plantation was located in the north-west corner of the island; an area that has the least tourist development and which consequently retains the last remnants of the pre-Thomas Cook Islas Canarias. But we’d decided to take it slowly and see something of the south side first. The convenient overnight stay near the airport was in San Miguel de Abona, an urbanización comprising holiday rentals, a golf course, clubs, retirement villas, timeshares and shopping facilities. Oh, and several Indian restaurants.

Don't panic, we're here to help.

Have you ever read reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor or similar sites? As most people are only motivated to set the record straight when they have a grievance it has always been enjoyable to read about hapless holidaymakers blaming hotels for swollen feet, holes in the road, insects on the lawn or surly staff that don’t acknowledge a birthday. These days you can’t always trust the reviews as there is more than a little suspicion that ‘good’ reviews have been planted. They can, however, give you some insight into what to expect and so it was at the Vincci Hotel Golf, where we’d planned to crash. One positive ‘reviewer’ has photographed the newly-made bed, the bathroom and poolside sunbeds, which was useful if completely unbelievable, but less convincing was another eager contributor who enthused about the sight and sound of aircraft passing overhead on approach to the adjacent airport. Nonetheless, the hotel was clean and comfortable if a little run-down. In true Spanish tradition builders were sanding and varnishing the decking around the roped-off pool but I guess they have to do it at some time. When I first went to Spain I was fascinated by how inept the maintenance work was and how low the standard. Now, a career in construction and too many years to mention later, I’m left scratching my head at why that hasn’t changed. Pepe was not only sanding down the decking in a wind that blew the dust into the pool but was also splashing varnish onto newly-painted white walls. The electrician attending to the poolside lights had the air of someone unaware that touching two wires at once might kill you and I suspect he was the guy who wired the telephones into the rooms; it wasn’t until I had paid for access to the internet and plugged in the cable they kindly provided that I was told by the reception staff that ‘the signal didn’t reach up as far as the eighth floor’. I didn’t see mention of that on TripAdvisor.

Bargains, offers and mementos - but not of Spain

The perpetual dilemma suffered by the expatriates we saw in Tenerife is how to live in a foreign country without it  being, well, foreign. After all, in seeking an all-year tan and a cheap lifestyle there are so many things to avoid quite apart from the smell of the sewers – language, poor driving, that funny food, strange habits like keeping out of the sun and those little dark houses with small windows. Developers, being a clever sort, know about these things so rows of speculative ‘villas’ and apartments are built in the international ‘turret and pergola’ style, simultaneously presenting eye-wateringly poor design with the promise of a utopian lifestyle to an undiscerning clientele.

If you can't trust the spelling can you trust the service?

Our surroundings reflected just that; the accommodation cramming the urbanización Del Sur had at its centre, the heart of the development no doubt, the shopping plaza – a parched and shadeless citadel holding fast against all and everything Canarian. This soulless expanse of cheap bars, restaurants, empty units and peripheral expatriate services was as depressing as the couples wandering slowly through it with miniature dogs, cheap wine and cheddar cheese slices. With the developer long gone – I couldn’t help wondering if he had retired not to his own place in the sun but to a house in Hampshire or the Cotswolds – the paint was beginning to peel, the roads and footpaths were cracking and the ‘for rent’ signs in the empty shop units were bleaching in the sun. The area was livelier in the evening, but there was nothing Spanish about what was on offer – Asian favourites, tandoori specials and English beer. There was one Spanish outlet that sold souvenirs to holidaying northern Europeans; the owner was British. This was a microcosm of awfulness.

A little research provided us with the details of a local restaurant at a pretty village in the mountains called Valle San Lorenzo. The Mesón Era Las Mozas is well off the beaten track in the back streets and served a late lunch in a shaded courtyard. It is patronised by local people and survives because the food is excellent. We drank Canarian red wine – Tacoronte-Acentejo – from the oldest wine-producing area on the island and which is surprisingly good, local ham and cheese, a hot dish of beans cooked with pork and a vast salad. The drive takes you out of the tourist areas and up into the lower slopes of the mountains so your journey has the added advantages of spectacular views, greener surroundings and cooler air.

None of that foreign stuff.

In the evening we drove to Los Abrigos, a traditional but now slightly fake fishing harbour a few kilometres to the east of the hotel. We didn’t know that we could have walked along the rocky shoreline to it. It holds a few little restaurants, each claiming to sell the best local fish, but it was the temperature rather than the ambience that made it pleasant. Again the Canarian wine was excellent; a chilled bottle of Tierra de Frontos blanco from Granadilla de Abona was near perfect. The view took in hotels and apartments stretching away to the Costa Del Silencio and, beyond, Playa De Los Cristianos; inland and between unfinished concrete buildings that might be apartment blocks or might be hotels there was more development encroaching on the backdrop of the mountains. There was a pervading sense of sadness about it all – a feeling that perhaps the island had lost its soul and was still in mourning.

Tomorrow we’d head for the bananas.