Songkran Escape Artistry
by John Borthwick
How — where! — to escape sodden Songkran, Pattaya’s annual festival of road carnage, ceaseless drenchings and blow-in bogans? There is still somewhere to run, somewhere to hide. But book now!
For escape artists who need “out” from Pattaya during April’s 10-day water riot (or at any time of year), Thailand’s neighbourhood offers good options, some economical, some pricier. Check out these nine escape hatches, in alphabetical order.
Bali. Fly direct from Bangkok, hit Denpasar, do not stop at Kuta. Go northeast to Tulamben for diving; directly north to Ubud for dining, resorts and (if you must) all that New Age stuff; even further north to Lovina for surf-free seas; or west to Canggu for waves. Rainy season has ended, Easter is over — and April is a fine time to be in Bali. Tips: for highland tranquility, head to Tagalallang north of Ubud. For good surf minus the Kuta circus, Balian or Medewi.
Burma. Cross by land at points like Ranong-Kawthuang (southwest) or Mae Sai-Tachilek (northwest) or fly Bangkok to Yangon. Check carefully your visa requirements (and Thai return status) well beforehand. Recommendations include Myanmar’s Andaman coast beaches like Ngapali and Ngwe Saung, the road (or train) to Mandalay, Pagan’s plain of two thousand temples and, if you have the time, a leisurely Pandaw cruise on one of the world’s great rivers, the Ayeyarwady.
Cambodia. “Cambo” is easy to reach via several Thai border crossings and regular coach services, as well as with flights to the capital and Siem Reap. Go for an on-line pre-arrival visa where possible. The great Khmer Angkor Wat complex is an “ought-to-do” in this lifetime, and nearby Siem Reap dishes up multiple eat-drink-sleep-play options. In Phnom Penh, it’s now time to skip the tired “war porn” sights like the Killing Fields — Cambodia has much better things to be remembered for. Sihanoukville aka “Snookyville” on the Gulf is a beachhead of nothing special to do but live well.
Laos. Luang Prabang is still a slice of Buddhist Brigadoon on the Mekong. Temple City — there are some 33 golden-spired wats here — is a place of sundowners by the river and monks collecting alms in the morning. A 1990s World-Heritage listing arrived in time to beat the massed trippers and fast-baht developers who might have turned this former Laos royal town into a Phuket-on-Mekong. Climb Phu Si Hill, visit Wat Xieng Thong, go upriver to the Pak Ou Caves. In the National Museum see the piece of moon rock that Richard Nixon presented to the Kingdom before he then bombed the smithereens out of the country.
Malaysia. Ride the rattler, or bus, to Butterworth then cross over to Penang Island. Its World Heritage-listed George Town as a Chinese-Indian-Malay spice pot of great food, sepia memories and theatrically-poured kopi tarik. Drink history in at the Hong Kong Bar on Chulia Street or quaff elegantly in the waterfront E&O Hotel. To mutate Dr Johnson's quip about London: whoever is tired of George Town is tired of life ... laughing, drinking and conversation, too. Alternatively, try another island: Langkawi, a relaxing, intensely green and well-mannered place whose beaches resemble Kuta in Purdah.
Maldives. It’s far more expensive than a week on the beach at Snookyville, but Bangkok Airways flies direct to Male. You’ll want to book a resort package beforehand. Your Male Atoll options include diving and surfing resorts (such as Cinnamon Dhonveli), honeymooning (Centara Ras Fushi) and many, many more resorts. Heading to the Outer Atolls by float plane reveals a vision of pearl islands stitched like buttons to a turquoise sea.
Nepal. K-K—Kathmandu is recovering from Nepal’s large earthquake of 2015 about as well as any 600 year-old cluster of gods and temples, mud brick, timber and lives can. Fly direct from BKK. Springtime brings on the Himalayan wildflowers and the rhododendron forests in bloom. A late-season trek in the Middle Hills gives you a change of altitude and attitude that Pattaya can never match.
Philippines. A favourite Pattaya persons’ April escape route. Fly Bangkok to Manila, flee the capital’s traffic and lurk merchants, and sample Spanish-flavoured towns like Vigan or Laoag in north Luzon. Or bump into own your neighbours in Angeles and Subic. Boracay’s White Sand Beach is overcooked these days but if you have enough spare loot Palawan’s El Nido region is still one of the loveliest, best-preserved zones of corals and cocktails in the whole Pacific.
Vietnam. The place is booming and if you can cross the street in Saigon (they’ve never shortened its “new” name to Ho City, perhaps for obvious reasons), surviving its tsunami tides of motorcycles, then you’ll probably want to quit the cities while you’re ahead. Try the cool, former colonial hill station of Da Lat, or the former prison island of Phu Quoc in the Gulf, or a number of beach towns such Nha Trang up the Central Coast. The old port of Hoi An is still authentic; meanwhile, way up north near China, the terraced, mountain town of Sapa with its hill tribes and cold, cold nights illustrates beautifully that timeless travelogue/travel blog cliché about “Welcome to a land of contrasts.”