William picked up my call. He had visited Siem Reap and recommended a boutique hotel, the HanumanAlaya, an “affordable oasis” run by a friendly family. He would send a brochure and ask a colleague to call me after the weekend with advice on the Andaman Sea resorts.
That afternoon an email arrived with links to the relevant sections of Audley’s informative website. In the post I received a high-quality brochure together with a personal letter, a planning and price guide, and a copy of the Audley Traveller magazine. It was a very impressive beginning.
The following Tuesday Mark phoned to discuss options for Thailand. He had lived there for several years and said that Krabi town wasn’t particularly interesting but the area was one of the “most devastatingly beautiful” in all south-east Asia.
Audley only works with the boutique Tubkaak Krabi, which was beyond my budget, so he recommended the Ramada Khao Lak. He had been “blown away” by this hotel, which he said belied Ramada’s mid-range image. We also discussed the Sarojin, an exceptional five-star in Khao Lak with superb online reviews. He said it had “amazing” food and service, but I would need to increase my budget by around £1, 200 to stay there.
On a more modest scale, for Bangkok he chose Chatrium Hotel Riverside, where a “really huge apartment” cost £120 a night.
I was starting to worry about Mark’s overuse of superlatives but he redeemed himself by telling me about some unusual excursions including a public transport “city safari” and a guided cycle ride along the jungly bank of the Chao Phraya river. Within 24 hours I was emailed a costing for the trip, a beautifully presented itinerary that included descriptions and photographs of the hotels and their locations and further ideas for sightseeing. This was also sent in the post.
The bill came to £5, 180 including hotels on b & b basis, private transfers, all flights and three excursions with private guides.
This was the most expensive quote, but price isn’t everything. Audley came up with the sort of intimate hotels I prefer and wouldn’t have found easily online. All had been recently inspected by its staff. And you may feel that having a personal consultant on tap to answer every question is worth paying up for, especially if you want to get away from the tourist hordes.
Kuoni’s brochure is a precis of its website, which I found easy to navigate. It gives fairly detailed information on resorts and beaches but there are no hotel location maps. I phoned the dedicated “Thailand Personal Travel Experts” line on 30 but still had to listen to a menu of general options. It took time to track down someone in head office who had been to both Krabi and Khao Lak. I was starting to lose heart when Polly from the Birmingham office picked up the call. She apologised for my being given the runaround, said she had been to both resorts and would be delighted to help me.
Krabi Town was quite busy, she said, but it was still laid-back and tourists weren’t hassled; with regard to scenery, the bay had the edge over Khao Lak. She admitted that there was one side-street of girlie bars in Krabi Town and it now had a McDonald’s. I said this would put me off so she suggested staying at the Centara Grand, which has its own beach around the headland. She hadn’t visited the Sheraton Krabi (which had a special offer) but said reports on it were very good.
Khao Lak in Thailand
Khao Lak was “definitely more peaceful, just some shops and bars, no nightlife”, and the Sarojin was the best hotel she had ever stayed, at with “amazing service from the moment you arrive, a true five-star hotel”. We discussed riverside hotels in Bangkok. I suggested the low-rise Anantara Riverside which is a personal favourite – and a bargain. Kuoni doesn’t feature it because it is across the river from the city centre. Polly suggested the 700-room Royal Orchid Sheraton as the price was really good. For Siem Reap she recommended the 206-room Tara Angkor, 15 minutes from the temple complex. The quotes were emailed to me – with detailed flight timings – within 24 hours.
The bill came to £4, 100 b & b based on the Royal Orchid Sheraton Bangkok, the Tara Angkor and the Sheraton Krabi, private transfers and all flights. Upgrading to six nights at the Sarojin would have increased the package price to £5, 653. Kuoni’s quote was based on international flights with Thai Airways. Flying with Eva Air – used by the other agents – would have reduced the cost to £3, 600.
Polly was friendly and highly professional without being pushy, keen to share her personal experience of the resorts. I would be confident booking through her.
Thomson Holiday Shop
I dropped into my local Thomson Holiday Shop. After telling Sue about the side-trip to Angkor, she went away to consult someone in a back office and returned with Premier Holidays’ Faraway brochure. I gave her my dates and budget and said I would look at the brochure over the weekend and get back to her.
By the time I reached home Sue had left a message saying she had quotes for two holidays based on my requirements. This was very keen; I hadn’t even discussed specific hotels yet. I suspect that high-street travel agents are keen to steal a march on online competitors.
The lowest offer was based on price not location: the Rembrandt on Sukhumvit Road (no river view), the Borei Angkor (on a dull hotel strip outside the centre) and the Krabi La Playa (basic “bronze” level). Using better hotels would have added considerably to the cost.
I asked if there was anyone who could give me more information about the hotels and resorts. Sue suggested either looking on the Premier Holidays website or putting the hotel names into Google to get their own websites, which should have more photographs.
The bill was £3, 894 b & b for the basic package, including all flights and transfers; £4, 787 using the superior Royal Orchid Sheraton in Bangkok and Amari Vogue in Krabi.
I felt that offering an attractive price was the sole aim of Thomson sales staff. Especially when Sue – as a sign-off to our final conversation – said that if I booked in the next 24 hours she could reduce the base quote to £3, 700. A nice attempt to grab the business, but I was left to do my own research on the hotels. The higher quote compared very unfavourably with the superior hotel choice and service from Audley.
Trailfinders prides itself on its knowledgeable agents. I called after browsing the easy-to-navigate website which lists tempting lead-in prices for a big choice of Thai beach hotels. Daniel in the Manchester office confessed he hadn’t been to Thailand yet, but said he “sold it all the time” and had “a fair bit of knowledge”. If I wanted to speak to someone who had been to Krabi and Khao Lak he could arrange this.