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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review: Santhiya Resort and SPA (Koh Yao Yai), Thailand - An Indian Tourist/ Vegetarian Perspective

Introduction


“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin. Today we are going to present a review of SPA cum Resort which sets a new standard for hospitality sector. I recently got married was looking for a perfect honeymoon destination which gives best ROI and was not bullish on my pocket but yet wanted extravagance experience. In order to accomplish this goal, we (me and my spouse) narrowed down on many locations outside India. I am based out of Hyderabad (India), and best destinations which I short listed were: Greece, Turkey, Male, Mauritius, Bali, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Me and my spouse sat down to fix up a budget under INR 2 Lacs. We also managed to ring fence the week (last week of May 2016) for our maiden honeymoon. The first challenge was to identify one location out of 8 above listed ones. Our preferred choice was Greece, but due to political and immigrant crisis in that country, we had to knock it off. The next option was Male and Mauritius. We realized, we wanted 7 nights and these places were good for max 4 nights and there was not much left to do after 3-4 days at these locations. Additionally the island transfers were quite costly. We did not want group tour from travel portal hence we had to find our own hotels, transportation, sight seeing. Left with Bali, Singapore, Srilanka and Thailand, we discounted Bali as air fare was quite high (INR 80,000 return tickets for two people). Singapore is a very busy and bustling city, and we wanted a solace, we had to drop idea for Singapore and Srilanka. We were left with Thailand as a final option, which most Indian young guys relate as bachelor destination and not a honeymoon destination. But we were convinced, and will tell you why. Having figured out the country for our honeymoon, the next task was to identify key destinations for our honeymoon. I being a vegetarian in country regarded as mecca for sea-food, I had to find destination & hotels very cautiously. We split our 7 nights to cover 3 cities of Thailand - viz Koh Yao Yai, Phuket and Bangkok. 


Getting to know about Santhiya Spa & Resorts 

I was browsing for hotels and resorts in entire Thailand (mostly 5 Star properties)to make my honeymoon special. First thing I did was to block air ticket. We had option to choose from Air Asia, Thai Airlines and Singapore Airlines. While Air Asia was cheapest of the lot, however it had own challenges that you need to pay for everything - luggage, food etc. We wanted no frills- Singapore Airline was super costly and had long travel time. We zeroed on Thai Airlines which had direct connectivity to Phuket with a layover at Bangkok. We got decent deal of INR 54,000 to and fro which covered two cities of Thailand. Next step was to look for a Hotel/ Resort which would come under my budget and at same time provide extravagance experience as alluded above. 





I came across an Island called Koh Yao Yai while searching hotels. It was beautiful island in Phang Nga Bay (Strait of Malacca) also known for famous James Bond Island. On further browsing, I found that this island is in middle of the bay which had extremely beautiful white sand beaches and green water with steep rock islands in middle. It simply caught my attention. So I decided I would like to go to this island for sure as it provides perfect solace to newly weds and love birds. Being tropical rain forest also added additional beauty to this island. There are very few resorts on Koh Yao Yai and Santhiya was rated best. I checked the hotel website and saw the pictures, I was truly amazed, especially the water fall pool. I felt those were photoshops. The price tag was also under my budget. I booked Ocean facing room with Bathtub immediately. I had an option to choose from Pool ocean facing room which was slightly costlier. All I was concerned about was if I would be able to get a vegetarian food or not. I left it to my destiny to experience it later when I reach in person. 


Airport transfers and Visa on Arrival 

We took Thai Airways (TG330) from Hyderabad (RGIA) Airport to Bangkok. The travel time was little over 3.15 hrs. The flight was brilliant and had excellent crew. We landed in Bangkok for a layover and in order to travel to Koh Yao Yai, you need to come to Phuket first. 




Word of Caution - Visa on Arrival : This was first adventure of our trip. When we landed at Bangkok International Airport, we were told that Visa on Arrival is needed for boarding the flight from Bangkok to Phuket. All this while we were under impression, that our Visa on Arrival procedure will take place in Phuket, but we were proven wrong. Our next flight was just after 1.5 hours from the time we landed at Bangkok. We had to rush to immigration counter to get Visa on Arrival to find second shock of trip - there was line of over 200 Indian waiting for Visa on Arrival. We were perplexed as we knew, we might miss our connecting flight as there was no way we could get our visa in next 1.5 hours looking at the crowd. But as they say, Thailand is known for their hospitality. My spouse moved out of the line and met Visa Officer, stated our plight about next flight. Thai authorities were kind enough and escorted us out off the long queue, and got our visa stamped on priority. Please note - for genuine cases, Thai authorities are willing to help, co-operate and even guide, provided you have proper documentation. They checked our flight tickets and time, and granted us Visa on Arrival for 2000 Bahts (INR 4000). 


Travelling to Santhiya (Koh Yao Yai) 



We boarded our flight to Phuket just in time. We landed at Phuket International Airport just about 11.30 AM. Phuket airport is on banks of Andaman ocean making your landing scary but adventurous.  We collected our checked-in luggage at the international belt. As we stepped out, we queried about airport transfer of the resort but it was costly close to 1300 Baht per person. So we decided that we will travel on our own. In order to travel to Koh Yao Yai, from Phuket you need to take a ferry to Koh Yao Yai island. We stepped out off Airport arrival lobby where many tours and operators offices were present. We contacted one of them. In order to reach ferry point (also known as Pier) we had to take a taxi to one of the several piers present in Phuket. One thing to remember, you need to bargain well with taxi operators. Finally we got a taxi (Honda Accord) for 600 Baht (INR 1200) which I thought was high. Bang Rong Pier is the best way to reach Koh Yao Yai. My suggestion will be to come out of the airport and try for a Tuk-tuk or negotiate for Bang Rong at price range of 350 Baht. We travelled from Phuket Airport to Bang Rong Pier which is hardly 15-20 min away but taxi operator charged us a bomb. The taxi will take you through outskirts of Phuket city within small highlands and finally we reached Bang Rong Pier. Pier is a point where river meets the sea/bay/ ocean. We got down and checked for ferry which could take us to Koh Yao Yai without further delays - we were given two option (a) Speed Boat which will take 200 Baht each and will take approx 30 min and (b) next option was to take long-tail boat, charging 150 Baht and would take approx 1 hour. 



Long tail is traditional Thai boat made of wood and is being used for centuries. In modern times, these long tail boats have been fitted with diesel engines to make them quicker. Hence we opted for Long Tail Boat. There are just 3 long tail boat trips through out the day and we were lucky, we got 12.30 PM Long tail boat for Koh Yao Yai and we were set. The boat cruises at slow speed so you tend to enjoy every moment of this long boat transfer. It started drizzling on our way as we passed through some majestic mid water landscapes and small hills arising out of ocean and the dazzling greenish blue color of the water will make you spellbound. 

There are two piers on Koh Yao Yai and some private piers of the resorts. If you take a long tail boat from Bang Rong Pier, it will take you to Klong Hia Pier in the Northeast of the island of Koh Yao Yai. Once you land in Klong Hia Pier of Koh Yao Yai, you still need to take 40-50 min ride to reach Santhiya resort. There are cabs available Klong Hia Pier, which will charge you between 500-600 Baht oneway to Santhiya, we bargained well and got deal for 500 Bahts. The island itself is made up of small hill and tropical forests all over, you will pass through small tropical villages on your way to resort. The roads are narrow but good - you won't feel bumpy ride. 


Getting to know about Santhiya Resort & SPA

 After 12 hours leaving Hyderabad in India, we finally arrived at the main gate of Santhiya. This is the moment we had been waiting for last 3 months. From outside, you would feel you are in middle of jungle with wooden tourist shelter house. You will be assigned a designated hotel steward for your entire duration of the stay. 



There was a large wooden gate as we enter and steep decline of 80 degree, the hotel cart would come up to pick you up from the main gate. Interestingly, these carts are designed to look made of wood. 



The mystic smell of Lemon Grass with encapsulate your senses as you enter towards the main lobby. While coming to lobby, you will pass through small clean water drain which has lot of exotic fishes. You will love to wait for a moment to greet those fishes. 



First thing you will be offered is a wet towel (lemon grass scented) which should easy your travel sickness if any. Santhiya, is made up of traditional Thai Wooden Architecture. Every place in the resort is made up of teak wood. That's true, even your room is made up of complete teak wood which has its own aroma, and will make you feel as if you are living up in a wood house, finely crafted wood facing the sea. The first bench mark of Santhiya is top notch customer service/ hospitality. Every staff in hotel would greet you smilingly with 'Swaadee Khap' - a Traditional Namastae if I may say so. The service of the hotel staff is extremely swift. In no time, we were allocated our Wooden, Sea Facing King Size room (Santhiya Supreme Deluxe Sea View) which had an open bath-tub in balcony facing the sea. Most of the resort's restaurants are situated near the lobby which is next to white sand beach, while the guest rooms are scattered all over a hill in several acres. A shared free shuttle (wooden) cart will take you towards steps of your Room. 


Santhiya Supreme Deluxe Sea View - An Insight, Quality & Build


This 60 Sqm. room is situated on the top of mountain, in one of the resort’s two-story low-rise buildings, The Santhiya Supreme Deluxe Sea View offers the perfect vantage point to watch the glistening sunset over the horizon.It provides exotic wood design detailed to perfection. It comes with fully loaded room features listed below: Air Conditioner, Balcony, Electric Kettle, King Bed, Mini Bar, Refrigerator, Shower, Sitting Area, Sofa Bed, Telephone, TV, Cable channels, TV Remote Control DVD Player, Safety Box in Room Wardrobe/Closet, Desk, Complimentary welcome fruit basket on arrival, Bath Tub, Shower, Hairdryer In Room, Luxurious bathroom amenities - Slipper and bathrobe. The size of the bed is just right, which has curtain hanging from all four corners. 



The bathroom is also made up of exotic wood design and every inch of wood work is a master piece in itself. You have a scented oil lamp in the bathroom which mixes with smell of teak to produce exuberant fragrance that will cheer your senses. You could directly view the ocean and a small hill directly from your bed. 




The sea changes its colors several times a day which is a mystic experience in itself. If you are lucky and skies are not over cast, you can witness golden sunset right from your room. The bath tub in the wooden balcony of the room has its own USP. 



Two people can sit in the bath tub and share exotic wine while gazing the lights over the ocean. It could be most romantic evening that you would ever witness. We told Santhiya management that we are a honeymoon couple. They gifted us a bottle of Red Wine worth 1500 Baht as complementary offer. 






It surely gives you a high, as you are treated like a king in this resort. There is also a complimentary basket of fruits along with local cookies like honey dipped banana chips. 



The room slippers are made up of Thai Silk and you are allowed to take it back as a souvenir. Also note, this resort offers you a discount of 15% if you dine in one of their restaurant. You are also given 4-6 (500 ml) bottles of mineral water every day. 


Food and Drinks

Being a Jain in Thailand is not easy. With increased travel of Marwari, Gujrati & Jain community to Thailand, veg food is not problem in Bangkok. However Phuket does offer some challenges - not in terms of non availability of veg food, but very limited variety of Veg Food. Koh Yao Yai  had similar challenges as well. But that does not mean you will have no option of Veg Food. 



At Santhiya, we were pleasantly surprised with one page full of Veg option on their menu. But, yes the variety may not be best. I hogged a lot of Green and Red curry along with Sticky rice. There are no Indian foods on their menu, but there western and thai cuisines are very satisfying at their restaurant. Kindly note - service tax and VAT is quite high in Thailand - i.e. 17%. If you are a guest at Santhiya, it offers discount on food upto 15% in their restaurants, There are three restaurants in total and all are close by few steps away. The food is always served hot and fresh. With increased Vegan and Vegetarian tourists, you can simply replace any of the non veg dishes with Veg just by asking the restaurant staff - 'No meat, egg or fish' and they will take care of the rest, They understand Indian vegetarianism and will offer you with few of the options. 






My 3 days stay at Santhiya was never a challenge because of the food. You can also explore few open beach restaurants (not part of this resort) and food court of other resorts adjacent to Santhiya which are somewhat cheaper. One time meal at Santhiya for a couple (1 dish and rice) cost upto 400-500 Bahts. They have an online menu - which you can go through while planning to stay at this resort. This is what we did too. 

We chose, complementary breakfast package - and trust me, breakfast will not disappoint you at all - its Kingsize. Breakfast is the major USP/ Highlight of this great resort. There are several options right from choosing types of bread, juices, fruits, soups, noodles, rice, potatoes, coffee/tea and even cakes. 


Breakfast is served hot and is served at restaurant at the upper hill. It has majestic view of hill in the bay along with cozy swimming pool. Tourists from all over the world at this resort assemble in morning for breakfast and interact with each other. Its amazing.  Breakfast is available till 10.30 am in the morning. We normally used to settle for 10 AM for a very heavy breakfast which would take care of our lunch appetite as well. We often used to do quick swim before our breakfast in its serene swimming pool. 

We usually had our dinners in room, where we would order for steamed rice. We had ready to eat Dal/Paneer from MTR which we carried along with us. It came really handy as we were missing Indian food post day 3.  Post our dinner, we would often go down to the beach for a romantic walk on a boat-bridge/ Resort's pier. 


Overall Verdict & Feedback

Our honeymoon was extremely memorable, thanks to Santhiya, everything that they did for us made us feel special. Extremely courteous staff, superb room service and brilliant global crowd (guests)  added cherry on pie. 

Tips:

a) Carry some precooked Indian food if you are planning for a longer stay - you can buy MTR from any local store in India before leaving. You may also carry Indian Dip Tea bags (Thai tea is very diffrent from Indian) 
b) There is no ATM on the island, get your rupee / dollars converted at Phuket/ Bangkok airport
c) Avoid visa on arrival if you have a connecting flights.  Its better to get visa done at home then stand in long que at the airport which may result in your connecting flight getting missed
d) Bargain well with Taxi drivers and boat owners doesn't bargain - hence no choice
e) Let your resort know that you are on honeymoon or anniversary - they will surprise you pleasantly well
f) Leave your passport and wallet at room
g) Travel light and carry slippers (though hotel will provide you one)
h) Advise to carry UV Cream and sunglasses
i) Carry few basic medicine like for loose motions, fever, head ache and nausea
j) Don't litter - take care of local ecology and be respectful to culture
k) Drink lots of fluids and fruits to stay hydrated



We would rate Santhiya 4.9 out of 5 for setting a standard for other top hotels and resorts in the country.

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