Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Holistic School Opens in Haad Yao

The west coast of Koh Phangan has over the last few years become a centre for yoga, holistic practices and spiritual endeavours. The healing arts of yoga, reiki, tai chi, Pilates and meditation are much in evidence. Agama Yoga has created a New Age university to attract acolytes wanting to teach yoga. And now we have Serenity Residence creating a school in very much a New Age mould. Woolly thinking and commercial interest find another way of joining forces.

The Serenity Residence mission statement reads:

"Each person finds identity, meaning and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace."

Like with Steiner Schools in the UK, the emphasis is on personal development. There is nothing wrong with that. The opposite, a Gradgrind philosophy of memorising information to deploy in a dehumansing world of profit and machines, is far from desirable. However, a balance must be struck. Children need to learn to read and write, do sums, name capital cities, understand the science of climate change, be able to read the fine print on interest rates as well as discover they like finger painting and playing the guitar.

The world outside of Koh Phangan is interested in academic qualifications, syllabuses, systems for child security, eye checks and the whole panoply of concerns of a parent that has to take responsibility for a child until it can take care of itself.

That is why the spelling mistakes on the school website are very worrying. Even more worrying is the sentence construction that lumps together big ideas of 'self-actualisation' and 'collective responsibility'. Where was the responsibility to put an apostrophe in 'everyones'? Big assertions without details of implementation or the need to spell check should be a red flag for parents. These nebulous ideas might make sense when you are cross-eyed and bristling with pranic power but fail to fly in an educational context where performance can be measured by exams.

The good news is that the fees are reasonable - just 4,000 Thai Baht a month. There is also facilities for school lunches, and there is a school bus. The average class size is just 10.

The name 'Serenity Residence' demonstrates the commercial core to this enterprise. The residences are a group of apartments for short and long term rental. They can probably be bought by anyone with the cash. It is a business geared to those looking for yoga holidays. It is a small step to move into the ex-pat market: those who fell in love with Koh Phangan and higher consciousness and want to subject their children to sunshine, sea and limited educational resources. I wish they had done more to disguise the off-shoot nature of the school. It could have been called 'Serenity School'. Or maybe not - that still sounds like a yoga school.

Friday, 23 June 2017

How to get from Koh Phangan to Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phangan is ridiculously laid back and the beaches are ridiculously beautiful. The same is even more true for the two Phi Phi islands. One island is so laid back it is deserted (Phi Phi Leh). The other island is jungle that gives way to a perfect sandy beach. There are the cliffs at Phi Phi and of course the scenery used in the movies. Phi Phi just off Phuket doesn't have the Full Moon Party, or even the Half Moon Party, but it does have perfect beaches. Thus, those beach junkies visiting Thailand will certainly want to check out Koh Phi Phi as well as Koh Phangan.

There are 2 companies that currently offer travel packages to get tourists from Koh Phangan to Koh Phi Phi. They are Seatran Discovery and Phantip Travel. Of the two Seatran is slightly more expensive for online booking (1,100 THB) compared with the Phantip price of 900 Thai Baht.

The Seatrain service departs from Thongsala pier at 8am. It is a combined ferry- bus-ferry ticket. The bus gets to Chaokoh ferry pier at 3pm and gets you to Koh Phi Phi at 4.30pm.

Phantip Travel uses a different route. Passengers take the car ferry from Thongsala to Donsak, and from there transfer to a bus. The journey starts at 7am and you get to Koh Phi Phi at 4pm. Thus for the 200 Thai Baht saving you get a journey time that is 30 minutes longer.

In terms of comfort, reliability, safety and level of service there is very little between the 2 companies. The Seatran Discovery boat is a bit faster than the Raja car ferry. However, the Raja is a much bigger boat and can deal with worse nautical conditions.

You can book tickets from Koh Phangan to Koh Phi Phi online here. It is a straight forward process. You receive an instant email confirmation. The prices are the same as if you bought them at the pier in Thongsala. Best to book early if you are planning to leave Koh Phangan after a Full Moon Party.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Hotel Groups in Koh Phangan

Kupu Kupu Beach Villas and Spa in Plaay Laem

Since tourism really got underway in Koh Phangan in the late 1980s the majority of guesthouses, hotels and bungalow resorts in Koh Phangan have been independent operators. In most cases the family owning the resort would also be managing the resort. However over the years this situation has become to change. Leasing resorts has become popular and there is the slow emergence of a new level of capitalism - hotel groups. 

The Full Moon Party has been the making of Haad Rin. It guarantees an influx of thousands of visitors every month including the highly lucrative Christmas and New Year period. This made land on the Haad Rin peninsula valuable as accommodation is needed for the hoards that descend on the party. As a result many of the resorts are leased out by silent owners. A few leases come up for renewal every year, often at increased prices. This has driven up prices, especially during high season and party times. 

The first recognisable chain hotel appeared first in Haad Rin. It was the Best Western Phangan Buri Resort. It tried to bring international standard 3 to 4 star rooms to Koh Phangan. It ran for many years before changing to Buri Beach Resort in 2015. It seems the attraction of chain hotels in Haad Rin faded away or the lease got too high. 

In Thong Nai Pan Noi the hotels did so well that they created the opportunity for sister resorts elsewhere in Thailand. The best example of this is Panviman which started life as a small hotel on the headland that developed into a luxury resort at the same time as launching a Panviman resort in Chiang Mai. 

The same story is repeated by Santhiya Resort that takes over the hill at the northern end of Thong Nai Pan Noi. Its lanna architecture, lavish pool and high end customer service has been replicated in Santhiya Koh Yao Yai and Santhiya Tree in Koh Chang. 

Slightly different is Buri Rasa on Thong Nai Pan Noi. Originally the site was Star Huts, then it got partly taken over by Baan Panburi Village before it eventually became the 4 star Buri Rasa Hotel. Baan Panburi Village was the template to capture the flash packer market who wanted air-con bungalows next to the beach. However, the owner realised that he was going for the cheaper, less lucrative end of the market. He moved Baan Paanburi to Thong Nai Pan Yai where it slowly declines from neglect and will surely soon be replaced. 

The vacated space on Thong Nai Pan Noi was used to build the latest luxury hotel for the area - the Buri Rasa. This is not the first in a chain. Rather it is the second rendition. The original is Buri Rasa Village in Chaweng in Koh Samui. The concept was to aim for the middle-high position. To offer air-con, cable TV, swimming pool, restaurant and gym but to charge in the region of 4,000 Thai Baht a night rather than 20,000 Thai Baht that many big luxury beach hotels charge. 

It looks to be a winning idea as a series of financial shocks since 2008 has diminished the spending power of European visitors to Thailand. The numbers have partly been made up by increased tourism from China but these tourists often come on package tours where the operators bargain heavily for group discounts on mid-range rooms. Aiming for this market seems to make short term sense. 

A fairly recent addition to the chain hotel pool in Koh Phangan is the Kupu Kupu Beach Villas and Spa. It is a smart resort in Plaay Laem on the West Coast. It has 32 luxury villas and 2 suites. The resort combines traditional crafts and materials with cutting edge design. There is La Plage Restaurant that focuses on Thai food and fresh seafood and there is also a spa by L'Occitane. The resort also boasts a beach front pool and its own yacht for group excursions. 

Kupu Kupu has quickly established itself as one of the best hotels on the island. The business model is repeated at Kupu Kupu Barong (Bali) and Kupu Kupu Jimbaran (Indonesia). In each case the resorts have produced traditional resort architecture with a modern twist. They also feature beach locations and extensive spa services by L'Occitane. This chain has successfully captured market share of the high end of the accommodation spectrum in Koh Phangan. 

The last hotel to make this list is Rasananda in Thong Nai Pan Noi. Although this is a one-off hotel with no sister establishments the owner has decided to team up with the management brand of Anantara. They manage several hotels in Bangkok and across Thailand. 

It seems as Koh Phangan develops and moves away from cheap wooden bungalows on the beach it has inevitably attracted outside brands and hotels built to a certain formula for success. There are not any Hyatt hotels or Conrad hotels yet (they are in Koh Samui), but perhaps it is just a matter of time.

Although the traditional hippy backpacker to Koh Phangan will see all this as further evidence of the decline of Koh Phangan as 'cool destination' and how he or she is being priced off the island, other visitors might welcome the attempt to bring better service to the island and maybe who knows proper car rental by a company such as Avis or Hertz and maybe even jet ski hire without the scams.