RTW Qatar, Conrad Maldives, SriLanka, Thailand, Korea in 19 days

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by SST, Mar 7, 2013.  |  Print Topic

  1. SST
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    SST Silver Member

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    OK, so it's not a classical London-Rome-Cairo-Bombay-Tokyo thing, but Doha, The Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangkok, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Seoul and home across the Pacific IS in fact around the world, and I'm pleased to say that with the exception of two $135 coach tickets from Male, in the Maldives, to Colombo, we've done the whole thing in Bidness Class on miles, without shelling out the whole 400k per ticket RTW tariff, by stringing together stopovers on three one way tickets totaling about 210k apiece. I *knew* that I would get the last laugh for all the bullsh*t I've put up with from United and it's brethren flying Sfo-Lax.

    We mixed and matched UA with Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Thai, plus Trans-Maldivian (whoops: now these guys got their ounce of flesh. $900 for the two of us to fly from the Male airport round trip to the south of the island chain, maybe 100 miles in a seaplane. Can't have everything).

    Qatar was interesting, a whole new city rising up, on the foundation of two previous booms (70s oil money, and 80s oil and investments). Now they are in the midst of a third boom, bigger than the others with grand, grand building taking place. We sought out the old Souk and went and had dinner and explored. It was a great evening out, and we finished off by drinks at the W hotel bar--- a gorgeous night, balmy and pleasant.



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    Heading off the next morning from the Doha "Premium VIP terminal": a really nice, big terminal with lounges for the few First passengers (most QR flights have Business only), and Biz. Excellent food, pleasant surroundings, comfy chairs. My shower was decent. QR was, as usual, on time and the flight was perfect.

    The Maldives is this gorgeous chain of about 2000 islands in a 500 mile long chain of atolls averaging about 2 feet above high tide, with a hIghpoint of less than 8 feet. Talk about getting while the getting is good--- global warming will make this a memory in 50 years if things don't change. We could see all these pristine islands, each with turquoise water in a lagoon (surrounded by coral reefs and white sand) and the occasional resort, as we flew over. Sighting Male, the capital, is like a shock: a little island, no lagoon, with tall 15 story buildings of shabby Asian 70s quality, chockablock and jammed up to the edge, clearly bursting at the seams as all the people from the outer islands (?) go to the main city for work, leaving the remainder to fish, work at resorts, or have a humble existence. It is, I guess, ugly and there's no shining it except to say I haven't been there, and though I'm looking forward to it some time, it will be for less than a day as I leave for an appropriate hotel.

    And the amazing islets and atolls are lovely!


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    My god, water so clear you can see blocks out into the sea to reefs, and filled with amazing fish and coral. Our particular resort, the Conrad Rangali Island, is composed of two islands about 1000' apart, with a footbridge across the lagoon between them, and a little boat service between them too. They have both beach villas and over-water villas, about 8 restaurants, and nothing else on the islands. The staff were pleasant, immensely friendly, and the digs were first class. We were upgraded to an overwater villa, one of four at this west-facing walkway, and had a dead-on sunset view, with no one else able to see into our place, or to our deck, which featured a jacuzzi. It was near the adults-only beach called The Quiet Zone, with a dedicated pool out over the water.

    Had afternoon complimentary tea and sandwiches several times, a special dinner twice, and daily happy hour overlooking the lagoon. Saw three or four types of Rays, including the cutest little one (dangerous, I understand) along the beach, maybe 2' out. Big, big ones at night.

    There was a delightful little shark (2.5 ft), cute as hell, who swam around the bungalow area, along with hundreds of reef fish and a veritable aquarium store full of colorful ones! I delighted in hanging off the deck in the evening and watching the action. We had a spotlight to provide a lighted area of the water on the unit. I forgot how much fun it is exploring the reef with a snorkel.


    The bungalow itself was beautifully done, and the dead on sunset view was great.​
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    So sand and sun and fun, and a couple of great experiences, too. There is an underwater restaurant, where we sat and had a drink and watched much wildlife in action, including predators who masquerade as coral, but suck in small stuff and occasionally close their mouths. Wild. A spa dinner that featured me drinking still, cold water (what?), and great light cuisine. We ate wonderful Maldivian Indian curries, grilled fish, and had a special fondue dinner with the chef and sommelier one night in the 65-degree wine cellar.
    The snorkeling was excellent, almost up to the standards of Bora Bora, along the north end of the main island. Our reef, off the bungalow, was also filled with fish but it was a good swim out to where it was really teeming. Near our bungalow, small beautifully colored fish and larger reef fish, along with the occasional big fellow swam day and night. I actually began to recognize some of the regulars, and also noted that the tide moves perhaps 3' up and down. [​IMG]

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    We ate breakfast at Vilu, the excellent restuarant on our island, most days, and it was quiet, the food was good, and the staff very helpful. To say that we got enough to eat at breakfasts is the understatement of the year. In all, the Conrad was a great experience: Even with $29 burgers, we found meal-sharing reduced the gigantic portions of everything to a healthier, better repast, and mixing Indian vegetarian food in brought the bill down significantly, even at the Rangali Bar. Cocktails and wine were free in the afternoon at Vilu; we didn't pay to drink much except the occasional beer at the pool. The gym at the resort is excellent. Snorkeling equipment was on loan for free. The days sped by, with each evening featuring a new sunset display that amazed.
    Romantic, relaxing, and top-notch. I suspect we will be back.


    We slept well and long each night, and the trip to Sri Lanka came too quickly for everything but my wallet, and off we went to yet another vestige of the old Empire, which will be continued in Part Two when I get a chance.
     
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  2. SST
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    Leaving the Conrad Maldives was sad, but further destinations awaited. I had immensely enjoyed the undersea dining room called "Ithaa", which seats 14 and features reefs out each window teeming with sea life. A nice French Champagne at 11am, an hour almost alone down there for us, pix and delight abounding, I came away with yet another great life experience which, at 55, I hadn't yet fully imagined was quite so cool. It is incredibly profound to stand and follow around fish living their lives in their own social system, with a glass of bubbly instead of a life support snorkel.

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    The day of departure it turned dark after we ate breakfast for a couple hours... Way in the southeast there was a storm brewing. Black clouds brought back memories of an electrical storm that passed through in the wee hours, providing a great light show in my twilight memory. We had to vacate the fantastic villa at noon, and our plane didn't leave until 2:30, so we went to the Rangali Bar and the hotel "lobby" area on the big island, across the bridge. Killing time, we read and wrote and I took a walk in the sunshine which returned for our departure. Just M and me, we took off with a stop at another island to pick up five or six other people, so the steward had plenty of time to tell me of his life in the Maldives, which islands had great resorts for my next trip, and the Pilot told me he lived half the year in St. Barth's in the Caribbean, where he grew up.

    It was a full tropical downpour at the other island (maybe Conrad has a privileged position in the island chain?), and instead of a neat bridge out to the seaplane dock, the guests were ferried out to a platform, and had to stand with mostly-useless umbrellas on the undulating plane gate until their luggage was stowed and they could climb in. Then up and away for the remaining 30 minutes to Male, through the storm and into the sun again. Bought a hat from the Trans-Maldivian Airlines boutique at the little terminal before grabbing the bus to the main airliner building. Emirates check-in was flawless,and in no time we were on a bus to the plane, even though the plane was less than 100 yards away.

    A smooth flight in coach on Emirates to Colombo, we were served a little meal even though it was 90 min. Emirates has a superb AV-on-demand system, as Qatar Airways did. I listened to all sorts of great stuff, even though their headphones in coach are rudimentary. (Didn't plug in my great Etymotic set because Emirates uses that old, two-mini-plug style interface rather than the more modern one-plug mini-plug used on most players. I had an adapter at home but didn't think to pack it.). They are particularly well stocked with Classical and Opera, as well as a whole stable of popular music. For example, my guess is I could have listened to 20 hours of Bach straight if I had wanted to----so there's a whole Tower Records (RIP) right in your seatback. This is as it should be. I am so sick of American and United having not only a crappy, noise-filled electronic system, and only about twenty "selected albums" (ie: we cut a huge deal on the royalties), and all of it is dreck except for one disk I already own and am not interested in listening to. (my own mp3 player is the key, and/or the iphone, and a book, and somehow even Southwest's crappy 737s beat the major US airlines' best planes. Sad.)

    As Colombo came into view, a city of some size on the western coast of Sri Lanka, the British Empire seemed to be recalled, with breakwaters and a fort and lakes and older low rise buildings with deep red roofs. Through customs and into a car to downtown ("Fort", "Colombo 1"), we then dodged tuk-tuks and scooters and bicyclists and peds for the hourlong thrill ride through aging streets on the decrepit route 30km to town. Honking with every vehicle we overtook, it made the lime welcome drink and cool towels at the Hilton very, very welcome. I understand that a new highway linking Colombo and the airport is set to open within a year; it's badly needed.

    We got a room on the Executive Floor, and enjoyed a drink and sri lankan hors d'oeuvres at the lounge before wandering a little and having a draft up top of a nearby crappy hotel. Nothing ventured nothing gained: Beers were under a dollar, the food looked awful, and we repaired back to the Hilton, which is reputed to have two of the best restaurants in the country.

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    Indeed they were. Spices had a buffet which featured Indian, Sri lankan and other food, while the Curry Leaf outside had the most amazing festival of Sri Lankan food including fish, shellfish and vegetable curries, and a lady dubbed the Curry Queen who explained it all.

    Next day, we got up and walked the length of Galle Face Green, the famous park alongside the ocean with the Sri Lankan President's residence along Galle Rd., down to the Galle Face Hotel, a Victorian 1850s Grande Dame overlooking the ocean with manicured grounds, where we had a cocktail. Tuk tuk rides to various shopping places, including the obligatory attempt to drop us by "a good, good value place, sir!" ("No, no stops, please...") went to the famous Odel department store (a little flash of contemporary buzz filled with young trendy shoppers), and I got a foot rub for half an hour, since the old arthritis was kicking up. Didn't hurt to knock it down with a Vicodin, either, equivalent available as OTC, as I sipped a lime juice.
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    The Galle Face Hotel. Beautiful Manicured grounds out back. Great for some drinks....


    Refreshed, we returned to the Hilton to drop off purchases and an evening out at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, which is almost across the street, and a wonder that we didn't visit the night before. Amazing restaurants: we had scoped out the Ministry of Crab, where we had one of the 1 kg "Large" crabs (they go up as high as 2kg+, almost 5lbs.!) done as Chilli Crab, from Singapore. Was it hot! Wow! "Can Kun", a sort of local chard, done with garlic, and bread finished the deal: we couldn't go for more jumbo prawns (maybe 4 to the pound, done in garlic butter) or even dessert. On fire, we wandered until 9 and our car back to the airport for the 1:20 am flight to Bangkok. The Hilton, great hosts, let us keep our room at no charge, despite paying for only one night (diamond Hhonors status---- yes! Not to mention three Sauvignon Blancs over time, complimentary, which totaled 1300 ruppees, about $10 apiece, in the lobby). Sri Lanka is definitely on the "return" list, now that the civil war is over, and I look forward to getting out to Galle, in the south of the country, and Kandy and Trincomalee to the north. It was so reasonable, this really needs to be seen again, like Bali, before they catch up and everything becomes expensive.

    Colombo airport is generally unremarkable except that the Thai Airways check-in personnel are useless and worse (no seat changes, even for Business Class passengers with StarAlliance Gold Status; nobody in the lounge is even connected with Thai, and nobody could say whether there was an arrivals lounge in Bangkok we could use, but nobody would admit that they didn't know...)

    The wireless Internet in the lounge was essentially worthless, the three working computers even worse, crapped up with all sorts of tracking software someone had set to inform you of everywhere your keystroke data was going. Getting onboard an hour early was a relief, and we both skipped the meal and slept the three hours to Bangkok, where we arrived at sunup, 6:30am

    We had checked our luggage (us? First checked luggage in years!) all the way through to our late afternoon flight out to Koh Samui (Samui Island, in Thai), and took Bangkok's shiny new City Line train in to Phaya Thai station, changing to the Skytrain elevated to Sukhumvit Rd, where my tailor is.

    I have used the shop for years now, amazing fabrics, superb workmanship, half the price of Hong Kong, and things last, unlike Shanghai, etc.

    So after innumerable cappuccinos and breakfast waiting for the shop to open, I got fitted and M, my loyal stylist, selected appropriate fabrics and linings and shirt cloth and we chatted with the proprietors and then headed in reverse back out of the city to Suvarnabhumi Airport via the new train, and wandered into the domestic terminal and the equally-useless Thai domestic lounge for our trip to Samui.

    Again, I tried to get someone to change our seats, since we were given window and center, 36 K-J, twelve hours before in Sri Lanka, the prior day ("Nothing can be done"). By this time, of course, nearly all the full flight had checked in, and it was too late. The one helpful fellow, a young man at the gate, who stayed by himself rather than hanging with the purple-clad false-smiling worthless agents at the desk, explained that the plane's row numbering system begins with 31 in coach, so we were not at the back, and that he'd be happy to give us an aisle seat but that they were all taken now, and that he understood online checkin was the way to go. Finally, someone who was normal! And customer oriented! (unfortunately, I didn't waste time at the business center in Colombo, but will before I take a Thai flight again... Like Friday... We're back in business again then, but no assigned seat...)

    Koh Samui has a precious little airport, like Kona, with little buildings and open air and not much there. Avis were their usual incompetent selves until I produced a copy of my reservation and then all fell into line, no upsells and a good car with few dings, and I was driving again in Asia, something I've pledged to minimize. Holy sh-t: the Conrad is at the exact opposite end of the island, 35 km away, and people drive like madmen, along with the ever present scooters, peds in the road, and seeming laissez-faire attitude about intersections, signage, do not pass stripes and rules of the road. Still, it's not Bali or China, where I simply will not touch the wheel, so Mr California hit the road, averaging about 30kmh down through every little town to the Conrad, which is out of the way and which I have almost pledged not to leave until time for the flight back to BKK.

    How is this hotel? Amazing.

    Amazing in a way the Conrad Maldives was not. It is most definitely not an atoll island like Rangali or Bora Bora were. It is not a big hotel building like the Hilton Colombo is. It is best viewed as your own private residence on the steep side of a mountain overlooking the sea, with servants at the ready to haul you in electric carts to/from the pool, spa, beach, restaurants, lobby, etc, which are all, like your villa, in separate buildings built on stilts, or hanging off the side of the hill terraces. The beach is rocky, with a coral reef out about 40'. The infinity pool is plush, chaises in shallow water or bed/cabanas on the side. Five islands in the distance, and the Thai mainland barely visible with mountains of its southern peninsula off in the distance, leading down to Malaysia. A jetty in the bay, and free speedboat rides to the islands (we selected one tomorrow), which promise secluded sand beaches.

    And our villa: I would move here, right now. Probably 1000 sq feet, with a big patio and huge private infinity pool for our use, gorgeously decorated in contemporary wood Asian modern, a round, free standing terrazzo tub for two, beautiful fixtures, and a huge, comfortable bed with views to die for up 150' above the water level with no one able to see on the deck or into the place. Very Romantic! A bottle of Cabernet and two Riedel glasses awaited, comped, and we had amazing Thai food in the restaurant below us and about 150' away, on the terrace, enjoying the evening.

    Breakfast this morning was a feast at the same venue, and we snagged a cart down to the main pool for the day. I'm not going anywhere (as you can tell, since I've composed quite a bit here), and the only decisions left to make for the day are where to dine tonight.... Or have them make a BBQ in your villa--- it's about $140, including a bottle of wine, so this is definitely a do-able option. Rangali featured fish club sandwiches at the bar for $30 apiece, wine at $20 a glass, and dinners upward from there; Thailand is SUCH an amazing value-for-money!

    Back to my sun and the warm water---- a little music via MP3 and a good book await.

    To be continued.
     
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  3. SST
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    Headed for Koh Samui, it was clear that Thai Airways was going to touch us down in paradise on time. At the terminal, they park off to the side, and then bring out these little amusement park trams, with four cars behind a driver. You are whisked about 100 yds, and then into the area where luggage is being similarly whisked, and then out into an open air "terminal", where Avis is. Predictably, Avis denied all knowledge of our arrival, until I pulled out my confirmation. Then of course, a car was ours, and we set off in exactly the wrong direction to get to the Conrad, which is at the exact opposite end of the island from the airport. They had told me 45 minutes, and really couldn't say which way to go around the island (clockwise or anti-clockwise), so we headed down the west side.
    The driving was wild, but not excessively dangerous. I figured out my error within a few blocks, and we turned around and headed back. All kinds of scooters and a lot of bicycles, plus occasional peds who ran across the road made the whole journey a little hairy, but only when we were in the main town did it get really, really slow. There, I took great care to be Mr. Gracious, even stopping for some peds, like in California, which was dangerous and unexpected, but certainly greeted gratefully.
    Arriving at the south of the island, I followed what scanty directions I had, until we found a sign saying the Conrad was straight ahead.... How fortuitous! Except that we went right on by the unmarked road to the Conrad and drove in a circle for an extra 10 minutes, until we both agreed that this particular road, which looked like it went up the steep hill we were warned about, was it. It was. There is a guard some ways in, and they only let one vehicle up or down the hill at a time. We made it all the way to the top, and the welcome lobby, and that was the last I saw of the car until it was time to return the airport several days later.
    We were met with cold drinks, cold towels for the forehead and neck, and a stunning view of the "four or five islands" (really, that is their name) out off the coast of Koh Samui. We were whisked to our villa, on level three (about halfway down to the water), via electric buggy, past the Jahn restaurant hailed in all the reviews, and the Zest restaurant which turned out to be about 100 yards from our villa. We were shocked: the villa was about 900 sq feet, and had a huge bathroom, an infinity pool the entire length of the villa overlooking the sea, and amazing decor, As we arrived, the sunset was spectacular, and I snapped some pix. [​IMG]

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    This later one is our villa's plunge pool, looking to the west toward Thailand's south peninsula.
     
  4. SST
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    The days in Koh Samui proceeded in a relaxing fashion. Literally everything we wanted was provided for. There was a box of board games and cards in the room (even though we don't play). The TV was a big flat screen with HD, and lots of channels, including many not in English which were entertaining nevertheless. The villa's pool was heated and most pleasant. The bathtub was this huge round free standing number, which could have accomodated four. Showers in the rain booth were massive, wasteful, and utterly delightful. The main pool was wonderful, you got there in 60 seconds on an electric buggy, and the chaises were either on the side, or in a dedicated shallow area of the pool (which we selected each time). There were also free cabanas and uncovered four-poster beds which were, I suspect, cabanas in waiting. No charge. And no crowd. And the few people who were there had reasonably behaved kids, if any.
    There was a superb restaurant on the pool deck, open from 11 to 11, where we ate a couple of lunches and a dinner under the stars after watching the most amazing colorful sundown (of which I regrettably have no pictures, as it was the best of the trip). The Zest restaurant, which was walkable from our place (and there was always a buggy to return us up the hill, but we usually hoofed it for exercise), had a superb cook too, so the breakfast was outstanding and the dinners were delightful, mostly Thai food, but also some standards---- we were so amazed by the excellent Thai offerings that we only tried more western cuisine once, I think.[​IMG]
    A somewhat compressed view of the villas at the Conrad Koh Samul. Believe me, there is plenty of privacy.

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    On our last night, we went to drinks at the bar attached to Jahn, the really upscale place, which wasn't particularly expensive either, but we were too stuffed from having pizza-making lessons in the afternoon to eat dinner, and settled for drinks and appetizers from that venue, which is the highest restaurant on the hill. The sunset was enjoyable. Every day, one venue or another had 2-for-1 drinks from 6-7, cocktails only, so we stuck with that schedule, followed by dinner. The various venues served a slightly different cocktail list. By the pool, a fresh pomelo margarita was my favorite (Rum and vodka rather than tequila, I think, and the only thing that made it a "margarita" was really the salt sidecar, which I refused after the first one, transforming it into more of a Pomelo Greyhound. It was superb, and they left a lot of pomelo pieces in it, which popped and delivered fresh grapefruit when bitten, a favorite of mine.
    Up at the bar by the concierge building, it was a fruity Manhattan, which I found surprisingly good. M liked the pomelo too, but went for daquiri type drinks, frozen if possible, and reported no complaints.....
    The resort claimed to have a couple of ciders, but never quite delivered any. Beer was fine, Thai, Malaysian, and Singapore, plus Asian Heineken. I usually got Singha, preferring it light and freezing, which they delivered on in chilled pilsner glasses.
    So the days flew by. We got a couples massage, mostly complimentary as Hilton Diamond Members. We went for the complimentary speedboat trip to another island's beach (pretty lackluster. I had no money, as we were led to believe it was uninhabited, but there was a vendor with cold stuff and no way to pay. Also, the beach itself was pretty second rate, and the snorkeling was essentially poor: cloudy water, the reef way out was rather unanimated. Another couple saw a ray, but my best sighting was an eel, not too enjoyable, and some small striped fish. Actually, the fish watching right off the Conrad's jetty, which must have stuck out 300' into the sea, was the best we got: LOTS of fish on the reefs on the inside, and more fish in and around the speedboat while we were waiting to go).
    We had nice lazy days and evenings, we ate far too much, and got a lot of sun. Every member of staff, bar none, did everything they could to make your time there enjoyable, and even the guards bowed when your buggy went by, then smiled and waved and wished you a good day. Remarkable.
    Too soon, it was time to settle up the bill (the night before) for the 730 am drive to our flight at the other end of the island. Koh Samui in the morning is very different. Seems no one but a few are up, and the drive up to the airport, the other way around the island just so we could say we did the circuit, was very pleasant, not frenetic at all. As we were flying back business class, we were given the luxury of the air conditioned lounge, which brought some fine noodles and cappucinos to form a second breakfast (we went to Zest twenty minutes before they opened, and they were welcoming and invited us to help ourselves to buffet, and actually made cappucinos for us before opening.) So, other than Avis' bizarre return scheme (wait and wait and wait and hope someone will come and check you in. In the end, it worked fine, but nothing is signed at the departures, so I flailed around getting service people to call Avis, since I had no operative phone.)
    And off to Bangkok again........
    We took the City Line train back to Phaya Thai and switched to the Skytrain, and we were back at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit inside of 45 minutes. A suite was being prepared, so we left our luggage and headed off for the tailor again for fitting #2. Then, we headed for the Jim Thompson outlet which, when I visited before, required a long walk from the Skytrain, but is now fairly close to one of the new stations. It is 5 stories of Jim Thompson silks and fabrics, every pattern and color imaginable, and pretty good deals on their finished stuff. Ties were about $40 US, so I passed. We did get some gifts, and I got a couple short sleeve shirts, which are great, and about half price, maybe $35.
    Then, we looked for the Cat Cafe we had found on the internet. Rumored to be the best Cat Cafe in Bangkok, this phenomenon from Japan is a coffee, tea and dessert room with cats in it, so that people who live in tiny spaces unable to have a pet can interact and enjoy the cats (and so can tourists who miss their pets.) Mostly, we wanted to just see such a thing.
    Getting off the skytrain closer to our hotel, the "map" on the web showed an address and it looked like the place was a block or two north on one of the "Sois", the sidestreets that run off of Sukhumvit, the main drag that the Skytrain line runs above. Odd numbers are to the north, Even numbers to the south, and they get larger the further out Sukumvit you go. Our Cat Cafe was on Soi 39. We walked up Soi 39 looking for it for a long time. It became clear that once the Soi turned one way against us, it was going to be a LOT longer, as commercial spaces thinned out and residential took over. We knew it was on the second floor. Finally, not giving up but trying a new tack, we grabbed a taxi, who didn't know where this was either, and promptly drove us around the entire circuit we had just come. Asking him to try further north led to a whole circuiitous trip, the nearest northbound street being essentially an alley which he discovered after asking another cab driver, a gas station, and a couple of gate guards. No one knew where the place was until the last inquiry, then he delivered us to it using a maze of streets--- we were quite amazed when it came into sight. The setting was a two story double set of buildings with a park in between.
    Before we found the actual Cat Cafe, "Cataholic" (2nd Floor, "Ozono", Sukhumvit Soi 39, way, way up), we found a cat boarding place across the way, which had most beautiful "F1" Bengal cat (he hated me and hissed a lot, unlike my own friendly Bengal. The "F1" is the first generation in breeding, whose father was an actual wild leopard cat.) There were two Korats, a beautiful grey Thai breed of cat, several Siamese, and a number of other cats, mostly all playing together (not the f1 Bengal, who was separated in a cage.). We talked with the business owners for a while. They said that most Thais favor long haired cats, and it is expats who like all the short haired breeds, interestingly. At 90 degrees-F, I'd feel better about keeping a shorthair.
    So the Cat Cafe was fun. We went up and each ordered a dessert and tea, and sat on cushions on the floor. There were no less than six cats sitting around, some of whom were asleep, and who regularly interacted with the guests. All of the guests, mostly young thai and japanese people, were very respectful of the cats' primacy, and watched rather than tried to play with them. Sometimes, the cats wanted play; mostly they just wanted to be admired. There were two cats in a separate area, resting away from anyone, as well. During the course of our time there, one of them was released, and one of the tired cats was let into the respite room. Most of the cats were long hair, no recognizable breed, but they all were well adjusted, didn't mind a little petting, and got along perfectly.
    Thus, the Cat Cafe hunt ended. We found a taxi-meter right outside, and were back to the Sheraton in half an hour via that, since we didn't want to walk all the way down the soi again (although that would have been faster). Sukhumvit was its usual jam packed gridlock.
    We went to the Sheraton's living room bar, which we discovered on a previous trip has great jazz and free drinks for SPG Platinum members from 6-7 every night. It did not disappoint. Decent sauvignon blanc for me, a Cosmo for M, and the jazz piano was just superb. We went back each evening.
    The suite at the Sheraton was unrenovated, unlike the last time we were in, but was still huge, pleasant, and came with a butler if you wanted shoe shines, ice, coffee, etc.
    We went out days to my never-ending fittings at the Tailor, spa treatments (there is an excellent spa just one block down from the Sheraton, with wonderful treatments and reasonable prices in a wholly fancy environment, not your storefront place....) We went down to the new, gigantic Jim Thompson store, which is major-league deluxe and which, truth be told, has great merch and is not that much pricier than the outlets. We will go back to this again first next time. It is a pleasure to visit and has a nice cafe inside. This is where we learned that the Jim Thompson House, which is a sort of shrine to the shady US expat who founded the Thai silk business and was reputedly a CIA agent (who disappeared in 1950s Malaysia), lived. It is well worth visiting as it is preserved along with his art collection, and it now has an evening restaurant with it, which I suspect will be superb. The setting is that good. It's off on a Klong (canal) north of Sukhumvit closer to the main business and shopping district.[​IMG]


    We puttered about Patong, near Jim Thompson's shop, the seedy sex shops and farang bars trying to call us in. It's really not going at noontime, but gets busy and watch-your-wallet-ish about dark until god-knows-how-late. M thinks my upbringing in the midwestern suburbs causes me to be fascinated by this type of area, but it is really just drinking in the totally different nature of this amazing country's diversity. We usually spend little or no time in the wink-wink-nudge-nudge areas of Bangkok, since there's so much else to do (including desserts with cats.)
    So the frenetic traffic and the slumming around Bangkok continued. On previous trips, we had gone to the Khao San Road backpackers' district full of young people and cheap eats/drinks/tailoring/hostels/etc., and to the temple district and Chinatown, the night markets and all along the river. We had stayed at the Royal Orchid, which meant a river dock out the door, and we used the little longtail boats as great cheap transport, hopping the Skytrain for trips into the center. We didn't replicate any of that; instead, after the two weeks, we hung out at the SGS' pool one afternoon, shopped (we had a great foray to Siam Center for food and shopping--- outstanding nam sod and larb gai, the minced salads of the north), and hit the Paragon shopping area with Maserati dealers in the mall, and little traditional boutiques and clothing across Sukhumvit.
    I did the entire "market" of Sukhumvit from Nana to Asok, where the SGS hotel is, and declined all of the various offers to buy laser pointers, DVDs of movies, binoculars, ties, knockoff Viagra (genuinely labelled from "Pficer"!),and it seems that phony pharmaceuticals have now replaced phony CDs as the product du jour. This is truly sad, as at least you could browse the big display of CDs and spend some time at the booths, and looking at misspelled and poorly printed boxes of "Viagra", "Cialis", "Zithromax", etc. is not only boring but probably dangerous and certainly no fun. It was a nice afternoon stroll on a Sunday when I had some free time, though, before we were scheduled to leave (the SGS gave us a really late checkout, after 6, to accomodate our 10pm flight), and afterwards M and I met in the Living Room lounge for free drinks and jazz, before we commandeered a taxi-meter to the airport (trainfare for two was about 180 THB; the taxi ran about 400 THB, a little over $13 US, and it was easier with my new case-fulla-suits-and-shirts.)

    A couple hours in the splendid Thai International First Class lounge, where we ate complimentary dinner and I drank some excellent Johnny Walker Blue, and we were up and winging our way toward Korea. Both of us skipped the meal and slept the whole way, having some breakfast before landing at 6:30 am.
    (I should say at this point that Thai Airways redeemed themselves in my eyes because when our older 777 configured 2-2-2 in Business with the old seats was given a mechanical delay of 30 minutes, we were grabbed and escorted immediately to the "later" flight, which also left 30 minutes later, but was a brand new 777 with the excellent 1-2-1 seating and lie-flat seats, all because of my Turkish Airlines Star Alliance Gold status, as others in business were left behind. It was a nice touch, and so as uneven as their service and planes are, I see that they are trying, and have some very good people too.)
    An Incheon airport, which is massive, we had decided to take a transit tour, and we signed up for the 9am one which featured a bus ride to Seoul downtown, a tour of the Royal palace, some time in a shopping district alone, lunch, and getting us back by 3 for our 6pm return.
    Incheon is about an hour outside downtown, so we looked out the windows and took in the hills and seaside of Korea, arriving downtown as the country's Presidential Inauguration was to take place. There were police everywhere, marching in groups, all in day glo yellow, apparently armed and dangerous to deal with any potential riot or other conflagration. The Koreans had just elected their first female president, so this is perhaps an appropriate precaution. I guess it didn't hurt that North Korea had just issued a threat to the South, and of course we and our 6 other American and Canadian english-speakers were also coming to town, a reason for riot gear if ever there was one.
    So we got a nice if cursory tour of the various buildings of the old royal palace, typical indoor-outdoor pagoda oriental style masterpieces about 50' high, and viewed the lovely channelized river park, then had lunch at a typical korean traditional restaurant which was really pretty good, especially the various kim chee. M and I separated for the shopping, each coming back with next to nothing to show, and then when the group re-assembled we walked to a gorgeous Buddhist temple, and again got some time on our own. The inauguration was in full tilt nearby, and we could hear music. Seoul downtown, if that's where we were, is much smaller and plainer than I had imagined. I had supposed it would be a little smaller, but more Shanghai/Bangkok/HongKong and it was more Pittsburgh-plus-temple.
    The road back was quiet, I reviewed my pix and realized I really didn't have much to show of Seoul for the trip, but that was OK. I got a great coffee on my own in a small place for me and M, and the entire crew was envious at my ingenuity.
    We arrived back in plenty of time, and were sent to the Asiana airlines First Class lounge, as I had used extra miles to upgrade us from Bizness to "Global First" on United for the trip back home. What a shock United was! After all this time being treated like a king, even in coach on Emirates, United was, well, United.
    You know how sometimes when you return home it is comforting and very pleasing to have old aspects of your normal life to ease back into the return? Well, United Global First was not that.
    To start with, the decent food at the Asiana lounge was very, very welcome in retrospect (mushroom soup, petite canapes, cheeses, a full club sandwich, noodles) since United's three hour delay on the tarmac led to the entire "First" food being overcooked and inedible. It was truly the worst food of the trip, bar none. Also, the flight attendants were cursory in their welcome, brusque and officious in their demeanor, and acted as if we were lucky to be going anywhere at all. Same old United. Even when they joked, you could tell that they were so sick of their jobs it was only for show to smile. I was awakened for breakfast after 8 hours by a hurried "I can feed you now", instead of "Would you like breakfast this morning, sir?" Ick. The seats were nice: fully flat. So the "hard product" of Global First is fine, and only the "soft product" (food and people) lacked, and boy did they.
    Before we got home, United had sent us each an email offering 7,000 miles in our accounts, and then followed up with a survey in which I gave them the unvarnished truth, and we'll see what we get after that, especially since M's AV system was on the blink the whole way, constantly re-setting (she didn't care, but notified the FA as we were landing, and was admonished by the woman that she should have "told us earlier"..... More demerits).
    In all, it was a superb trip, and any downsides were more than obscured by the wonder of it all, and as I write now the whole thing sticks with me; I suspect it always will.[​IMG]

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  5. SST
    Original Member

    SST Silver Member

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    Finally, I should say a few words about the food on this trip. Amazing. The fish in the Maldives was wonderful (more so in Vilu or Mandhoo than in the Rangali Bar or the buffet); EVERYTHING we ate in Sri Lanka was good, especially the Chilli Crab per above (I would go back to the Ministry of Crab in an instant); The restaurants of the Conrad Koh Samui were uniformly decent, especially the Thai food; and in Bangkok, I just cannot say enough about "Face" (a favorite of ours off of Sukhumvit); and the various small places we hit inside Siam Center and Terminal 21, both new shopping complexes. No weight was lost on this trip.

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    Typical fruit plate at breakfast, Conrad Koh Samui
     
  6. desamo

    desamo Gold Member

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    Given that our next trip includes two of the same places, I love your trip report!
     
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  7. merice107

    merice107 Silver Member

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    Great report!
     
  8. suenam

    suenam Silver Member

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    Very nice report! Thank you.
     
  9. SST
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    We repeated the trip to the Conrad Maldives a month ago (one year later). This time, the route was SFO-LAX-HKG-BKK-CMB-MLE-SIN-SFO, mostly by Cathay Pacific. The Conrad is one of those special places---- if they hadn't screwed up the HHonors reward program with massive devaluations, I might book it again next year (and perhaps every year), but they've disrupted this paradise for a (formerly) loyal Hilton afficionado, and I have reduced my Hilton stays to <6 per year, favoring Starwood and Hyatt instead. Got 54 nights at Starwood in 2013. Enjoying my Suite upgrades, too, something Hilton almost never delivered upon.

    Hilton's loss, as I discover new and different programs. I will consider an update post, Stay tuned
     
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  10. SST
    Original Member

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    Some other notes on our second trip to the Conrad Maldives:

    1) Here a year later, there are NO status-based (diamond) upgrades. If you want an over water bungalow, you have to pay (rather steeply) for it. Yet I have to say: my gosh, the "cheap seats" (our beach bungalow) was AMAZING. I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again in the basic digs--- the beach bungalows are fantastic, and in many ways superior (closeness to civilization, unique and amazing design, that outdoor shower and the wonderful bathtub cabana. Initially off-put, it was instantly forgotten as we settled into 8 days in this superb setting.

    2) This trip to Sri Lanka on the way featured a train journey down to Galle, which we mercifully did in the barely passable first class "private coach" of Rajadhani Express attached to a Columbo-Galle train early in the morning (1 train per day has this first class service: the rest are jam packed 3rd class). The Galle Fort (where we stayed in the Galle Fort Hotel, a beautiful mansion turned into great lodgings) is a wonderful relaxing destination, good food (especially at the hotel, and at the nearby Amangalle resort), This second trip to Sri Lanka was a joy.
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    3) Conrad Maldives is STILL a First Class destination, amazing in its size and concept of luxury. We had lobster at the Rangali Bar 5 nights out of the 8, along with a split Indian vegetarian dish or salad, and enjoyed this healthy evening repast immensely. The breakfasts are, if anything, even better than they were on the first trip: such an amazing buffet type of breakfast is so extensive I challenge anyone to claim they did not pig out each and every morning, or that the quality of the ingredients was not top-notch.

    4) Mandhoo is still our favorite restaurant, with its "tea" every afternoon at 4, followed by a walk over to Vilu for cocktails to finish off the afternoon, then the Rangali for music and happy hour. We had the Fondue Dinner again (sublime), and I can't say enough about the staff. Even though we were there days after the generator fire caused daily power outages, during the couple hours without power we snorkeled, wandered down the beach (saw a little shark among thousands of small fish at one point), and headed for the main pool for refreshment and cold beer, which was certainly welcome with no AC in the villa. The staff were uniformly welcoming, professional, and seemingly glad to see us.

    5) The Conrad is an amazing place. Behold the view from 30 feet off our patio, with colorful fish in the water one step off the sand. One hell of a relaxing vacation:
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    Last edited: Mar 2, 2014
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  11. SST
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    On our last day, before we checked out, I saw this tiny shark maybe 1 foot off the beach, adorably swimming along, minding his own business:
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    (Another resort as viewed from the seaplane)

    We headed back to SFO with a three day stopover in Singapore on the way back. Enjoyed a wonderful tea house we remembered from an earlier trip:

    Had superb malay food at Singapore Zam Zam near Arab Street:

    Did the Singapore Night Safari, which was really worthwhile, and of course had plenty of wonders to eat at street stalls and hawker markets.

    Looking forward to the next trip being to the Park Hyatt Maldives, (Hilton's loss due to the points devaluation will be Hyatt's gain). Tickets booked today for a year from now.....!
     
    Last edited: Mar 2, 2014

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