No Buffet for Thanksgiving This Year

For the past several years we have had Thanksgiving dinner at Old Country Buffet. I know that it appears at times that I don't like OCB, but we have more buffet meals at OCB than any other. The reason is that OCB is the only "American" buffet in this area and any other involves leaving the state.

This year we decided that we would make Thanksgiving dinner at home. There are somethings about a

Aleenta Resort near Phuket

There are tourists who like to be in the middle of the action, like to be within easy walking distance of shops, bars, restaurants, tailors and tour agents .. and for you there is Patong and other main beach areas. Other visitors to Phuket are looking for a bit of seclusion and maybe a hint of luxury too, and Phuket has plenty of quiet beaches with very nice resorts in a different world to the crowds of Patong. The Aleenta Resort advertises itself as being in Phuket, but actually it's just off Phuket over the bridge and turn left. It's in Phang Nga province, far less developed that Phuket, and an area that we have explored a lot in recent years (check out blog posts about Phang Nga Bay, Bang Riang Temple and Tha Sai Seafood for example).

Aleenta is certainly a "getaway". I recommend you have transport if you stay here, hire a car to get around and explore. Or just spend a few days relaxing at the resort. Most of the rooms are private villas, ranging from one to four bedroom villas. The four bedroom place is HUGE, with 1,000 square meters of space! Some villas are beachfront and some are just behind the beachfront ones. Want a quieter place to stay? Here it is ... but don't moan that it's too far from the shops or nightlife!

Aleenta Resort Beach Aleenta Resort - Room

(above) Beach at the Aleenta and view from a room

There are several restaurants and bars on site. Maybe you can wander up the beach and find a local place, but otherwise it's a bit of a drive to find other dining options. I can recommend Thanoon Seafood right by the bridge on the Phang Nga side. There's a spa at the hotel and yoga, and they do weddings too. Yeh, I would stay here if I was about 10 times richer :)

Aleenta Resort - Beachfront Room Aleenta Resort - Spa

Aleenta Resort - Booking & Information Links

Aleenta Resort - Info, Rates and Reservations
Aleenta Resort - Reviews

Phuket Hotels - More Info & Online Booking

Jamie's Phuket Hotel Recommendations
Top 10 Phuket Hotels 2016
Book Phuket Hotels at Agoda.com

Bird-In-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord, Bird-In-Hand, PA

It has been about a year and a half since I have been to the Bird-In-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord in Lancaster County in the town of Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. This buffet has not been one of the buffets in this area on my short list of where to go because it has been higher priced and at times has been inconsistent. We were in Pennsylvania recently and we discovered a coupon for $2.00

Mandarava Resort (Karon Beach)

Another new hotel in the Karon beach area, Mandarava opened earlier this year (2013) on the hillside towards the north end of the beach, near the well known Pacific Club resort. Seems like a lot of newer hotels in Phuket are being built away from the beach. I guess there is no beachfront left or, if there is, the land is just too expensive. Mandarava has quickly become popular, looks very nice and the owners seen to understand the power of TripAdvisor reviews (too much power if you ask me!). We've had several customers in the dive shop this week staying at Mandarava, and so I've heard a few things about the resort. It's in the hills, so not by the beach. Probably about 10 minute walk to the beach. Lots of hills to climb to get to the resort, or to your room, as the rooms are on different levels. For sure they have a shuttle bus and hotel car, but will it always be there exactly when you need it?! It's all very green, jungly ("lush" would be a word you could use, but not a word I like) and there are several pools and little waterfalls built into the resort. I can imagine it's very relaxing.

Mandarava Resort Pool Mandarava Resort - Panoramic Deluxe Room

(above) Mandarava is in the hills, so you get some great views from the pool and from some of the rooms

There are 130 rooms, built into villas with split levels - the upper floor rooms mostly have some kind of seaview ("it's over there between the land and the sky"), while ground floor rooms either face a pool or the green jungle. The hotel has it's restaurants and bars of course, or you can walk to the main street at the north end of Karon in about 10 minutes. The location up the hill and just *slightly* out of the main strip would appeal to some, not to others. When I look at the reviews (see link below) it's the location that brings the overall score down. I'd say if you are unable to walk up hills, find a place to stay by the beach! Otherwise, the hillside is nice, you get views and can catch any breeze that's blowing.

Mandarava Resort - Standard Room Mandarava Resort - Sunset

Mandarava Resort - Booking & Information Links

Mandarava Resort - Rates and Reservations @ Agoda.com
Mandarava Resort - Reviews

Phuket Hotels - More Info & Online Booking

Jamie's Phuket Hotel Recommendations
Top 10 Phuket Hotels 2016
Book Phuket Hotels at Agoda.com

Buffets, Inc. Changes Its Name

During the last week in October, 2013, Buffets, Inc. the parent corporation of Old Country Buffet, Ryans, Country Buffet, Fire Mountain, and Hometown Buffet changed its corporate name to Ovation Brands, Inc. A new logo was unveiled at corporate headquarters in Greer, South Carolina at the same time. The new logo is white and blue showing a plate and spoon.

The company claims that the name was

Centara Grand Beach Resort (Karon Beach)

I find it hard to keep up with new hotels in Phuket! Every year there are new resorts, or renovated resorts with new owners. In the first few years of this Phuket blog, I wrote lots of hotel pages, with suggested hotels all over the island. More recently I have added pages with Top 10 lists - best hotels, best romantic or family hotels etc. But it's been a long time since a hotel "review" - about time for a new one. Now, the hotels that are recommended here are normally recommended due to reputation, or "what I've heard" as a resident, or comments from customers at the dive shop, or top marks when I look at reviews on Agoda. I don't work for a big online travel company or anything like that, don't get free hotel stays .. last hotels I stayed in with the family were in Khao Lak and Hua Hin on our holidays. Here in Phuket, we have a house, so why stay in a hotel?!

The Centara Grand Beach Resort is right at the north end of Karon Beach. It opened a couple of years ago and does get great reviews, and to me it looks like a great place for a family holiday hotel. It's quite a big hotel, run by the Centara group who also have the Centara Karon, Centara Villas, Centara Kata and Centara West Sands resorts in Phuket! The facilities look to be very good including a kind of water park (well, a slide and a 'lazy river' at least)

Centara Grand Centara Grand Beach Resort

(above) It's all about water ... pools and the beach nearby too.

Centara Grand is right by the sea, so you have beach access, but actually you have to walk about 1km to the main center of Karon with lots of restaurants, bars and a few shops. Or take a taxi which will be 200 Baht each way. Karon beach is much much quieter than Patong to the north. I'd imagine the Centara Grand as ideal for families or couples who might book some tours for the day, and then have an evening with dinner, a few drinks and enjoy the resort for a couple of hours. For sure Phuket has a lot to do, but it's nice to have a resort to come back to after a day out and relax in the pool or have a massage!

Centara Grand - Family Fun Centara Grand - Spa and Massage

Centara Grand Beach Resort - Booking & Information Links

Centara Grand Beach Resort - Rates and Reservations @ Agoda.com
Centara Grand Beach Resort - Reviews

Phuket Hotels - More Info & Online Booking

Jamie's Phuket Hotel Recommendations
Top 10 Phuket Hotels 2016
Book Phuket Hotels at Agoda.com

An Open Letter to Anthony Wedo, CEO and President of Buffets, Inc.

Dear Mr. Wedo:

A week ago I published an article on this website in review and reaction to your appearance on the television show, Undercover Boss. One could look at why you decided to go on television on this "Reality Show" as either a publicity "stunt" for your restauants or to actually show your sincerity about helping a business that has seen two bankruptcies in managing several chains of

The Boss of Buffets, Inc. Goes Undercover To Find Out What We Already Knew

A week before the airing of the CBS television show, Undercover Boss, on which Anthony Wedo, CEO and President of Buffets, Inc. corporate owners of Old Country Buffet, Ryans, Hometown Buffet and Country Buffet, we told you here that this show was coming. This is a reality show in which a boss of a corporation is disguised and put into the retail outlets of his own company to discover first hand

Oregon Dairy Country Restaurant and Buffet, Lititz, Pennsylvania

It has been five years since I have been to the Oregon Dairy Country Restaurant and Buffet in Lititz, PA. I am not sure why it has taken me this long to go back - other than perhaps the other buffets in this area that always come to mind first. This is a nice, small buffet that is just off the main tourist area in Lancaster County and one that like some other buffets in this area is located

To Pai, Mae Chaem, Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai and Home …

As I said, we came down the mountain in near zero visibility and though it was a relief to be able to see again, my hopes for clear skies and perfect conditions for taking pictures never materialized.  Still I like driving on cloudy days.  The soft muted light which dulls photos is strangely seductive for me when driving long distances.

At the bottom of the mountain we rejoined the 107, following it all the way to Mae Taeng where we turned right onto the 1095 heading toward Pai.  People complain about the many tight turns and rough conditions on the road to Pai, and sure there are accidents every year, but I can’t help but think there would be more if the road were in better shape.  People drive too fast as it is, so a better road surface would only encourage greater speed.  

It is probably a good idea to take a coffee break along the way and there is no shortage of places to stop.  Baan Pa Pae was the place we chose to stop at and it was a lovely place perched on the side of the road.  Looking out near the tops of the trees one got the feeling of being suspended high in the canopy and the wet misty conditions only made it more romantic.

For me the drive is perhaps the greatest attraction on these trips and destinations provide a direction to travel and places to rest up before continuing down the road.  Arriving in Pai we set about searching for a place to stay.  Enquiring at several places, we found some were full and others just a bit overpriced.  My wife, with the aid of her iPhone, kept looking until she found a really nice place right on the river and close enough to the walking street that we had no more need to drive that night.

We enjoyed walking up and down the street, eating, shopping, people watching and topped it off with a massage.  There was even a parade with everyone being invited to a local temple for a traditional Pai celebration of the end of Buddhist Lent.

In the morning, after breakfast, we continued on through Mae Hong Son where the road turned into the 108, headed for Khun Yuam.  We had intended on staying at the same place we stayed last time we were in Khun Yuam but when we drove up, the place looked deserted and not as inviting as before.  We made a quick, yet reluctant, decision to keep driving.

We turned off the 108 onto the 1263, hoping to find a place to stay on the way to Mae Chaem.  This road was the worst of our trip with many potholes, so our progress was slow.  There were roadside signs for a place to stay so we stopped to check it out, finding an Australian biker already there, drying out after a wet cold day on the bike.  I talked with him while my wife inspected the room and found it not to her liking.

Even in the dimming light, there was nothing for it but to continue on to Mae Chaem where we assumed there would be a better selection of rooms.  It was quite dark by the time we made it to Mae Chaem, which made finding a place to stay that much more difficult.  Stopping at a market to eat, we asked one of the vendors for suggestions.  She directed us to what she assured us was the best place in town.

Turns out she was right, but to my wife’s great disappointment, the four lovely bungalows were all taken and we had to look elsewhere.  Just down the road we found a place, not nearly as nice, but it would have to do.  We needed to get some rest before tackling the next section of road.

In the dark the night before, the 1263 had turned into the 1088 and now we were to take on the 1192/1009.  This is twenty kilometers of torturously steep, narrow and twisty road with blind switchbacks and signs warning you to honk your horn before proceeding around these bends.  I have done this road before and know the risks, so I settled in behind a local truck and followed him up the road, allowing him to run interference for me.

You come out just inside the main entrance to Doi Inthanon Park, half way up the mountain, on a road labeled 1284 and turn left to continue up a very nice road to the top of Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand at 2565 meters above sea level.  I suppose it would be nice to visit the mountain on a perfectly clear day, have great views and take amazing photos but every time I have been on the mountain it has been cold and misty.

So this visit felt very familiar, though a little more wet than usual.  Still by being patient I did get a few pictures when the mist parted momentarily.  My wife got a lot more shots with her iPhone because I was too worried about getting my camera wet.  After taking in the sites we headed down the mountain and turned left onto the 108 for Chiang Mai.

Typically we go to Chiang Mai to visit a good friend when she flies up from Bangkok to visit her parents.  She not only spoils us with a lovely place to stay but she drives us around to interesting places we would never find on our own.  Without her we are a bit lost so thought we would find a hotel close to the weekend walking street.  Somehow I thought it was held on Saturday but I was off by one day so our conveniently located Hotel M on the corner ended up not being quite so convenient.

The room was quite small but we had a very good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast downstairs at the Coffee Club, on the corner of Rajadamnoen Road.  We were eager to check out the new shopping mall Pramenada on the outskirts of Chiang Mai but in spite of a great meal at Duke’s, we left disappointed with the shopping experience.  Before heading home the next day we had to make a stop at the old Airport Plaza Shopping Mall to look for things my wife couldn’t find at the Pramenada.

The drive home from Chiang Mai on the 118 was uneventful but pleasant and we got home just before dark.  It had been a wonderful trip and a great break from our routines but it was really great to be back home, to see Cookie and sleep in our own bed.

Baan Pa Pae for coffee on the way to Pai.

The Pai River next to our hotel.

Hotel in Pai.

View from our balcony.

Inside our room.

The road to Mae Chaem.

The road to Mae Chaem.

The highest point on Doi Inthanon.

A shot of the gardens on Doi Inthanon.

Classic shot of one pavilion taken from the other.

Closeup of the other pavilion. 

The Coffee Club.

Our room in Chiang Mai.

2013 Phuket Vegetarian Festival (Part 2)

So, as I was saying a few days ago in Part 1 of my Phuket vegetarian festival 2013 report... Due to a mix of rainy weather, tiredness (staying up until after 2am painting our living room 2 nights in a row) and general apathy, I was really not feeling any great excitement for the vegetarian festival this year. Hard to summon up the energy for an early morning at the shrine when it's drizzly and I had 4 hours sleep. So that changed on Friday 11th October when I was in Phuket Town for the big Jui Tui Shrine procession. I think it was all the firecrackers that woke me up! Now I was looking forward to an early morning at Kathu shrine on Saturday 12th October. Kathu is the area of Phuket where I live, between Phuket Town and Patong beach. It's a historical area and was the center of the tin mining industry in Phuket in the mid 19th century, maybe even the most important town in Phuket for a while before Phuket Town became important due to easy access to the sea via the wide Bang Yai canal (which is not wide any more!). The canal did reach as far as Kathu, but was smaller there, only navigable by small canoes. Kathu was where Chinese miners were camped sometime after 1825 when Chinese theater artists came to perform, got sick and cured themselves by sticking to a special vegetarian diet. And thus the festival was born.

Well, I wanted to be there earlier than 6am, but I am not a morning person! So, got there just after 6am. For Kathu, that's a bit late. The shrine was packed already, and many of the Ma Song were already pierced and ready to go. First guy I saw had candle piercings ...

Pierced by candles, Kathu shrine, 12th October 2013

Oh, and hooks through his ears too. Many other piercings were already done. Damn, I really do need to wake up 5am next year! They start early in Kathu, as the procession starts here and they walk all the way into town and back. From the shrine into town as far as Sapan Hin shrine is about 10km each way. On a hot sunny morning, do you want to walk 20km with this in your face?

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Pierced Face at Kathu shrine

Pierced face at the Phuket vegetarian festival 2013

(above) I was hoping for the eyes-rolled shot here .. and I hope that's not real ivory. Historical note - Phuket used to be a major port for the shipment of elephants to India. The province was full of wild elephants 200 years ago and the next province Phang Nga means "broken elephant tusk".

Getting pierced at Kathu shrine, Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2013

(above) Getting pierced. Some of the Ma Song were still getting their faces done after 6am. This guy we see often around Kathu and we always stop for a chat. I see him every year with different piercings. Here he in 2012, and 2010. In real life, he's a local policeman .. see here.

And then, time for the main procession to begin. Groups of young men gather to carry the statues of the gods. Many of the pierced Ma Song have already left. Drums sound inside the shrine, and blessings are given to those who will carry the gods ...

Ma Song giving blessing

My friend Tim and I wondered who is actually in charge here.. no specific order seems to be given to start, but everyone knows their place. The noise, colour, faces and traditions of this festival never cease to amaze me. I am totally not sure if the Ma Song are for real. Are they possessed, in a trance, very good actors? The guy below I see every year. In normal life he looks like an average guy. On the day of the Kathu procession he appears from the shrine bent over like an old, old man.

Ma Song at Kathu shrine

The guy being held aloft seems to be the most important of the Ma Song in Kathu. He's carried through the streets, though I have seen him get off his perch a couple of times. He leads the procession of the gods out of the shrine.

Ma Song in Kathu Shrine, Phuket Vegetarian Festival

And then follows a crazy 25 minutes when I take about 200 photos as the emperor god statues are carried through Kathu village through a constant barrage of firecrackers either thrown or held out on bamboo poles by the local residents of Kathu. Next time, aside from waking up earlier... earplugs and a facemask. Essential.

Vegetarian Festival procession in Kathu village, Phuket, October 12th 2013

Firecrckers, firecrackers and firecrackers!

Firecrackers as gods are carried through the streets, Phuket vegetarian festival 2013

Phuket vegetarian festival 2013 street procession in Kathu village

It's madness! And now they head off through the old village of Kathu towards Phuket Town. On this day I decided not to follow them. Maybe next year I'll do a 20km walk with the procession. That should be an experience. I bought myself a set of white trousers and shirt this year intending to use them on the crazy last night of the festival in town, but never went. Might be ideal for a long walk on the day of next years Kathu shrine procession. The festival next year looks like it will be from September 23rd - October 3rd. There is so much going on during the processions, so much energy, that the quiet moments are sometimes overlooked. Last photo for 2013 ... in Kathu village, a female Ma Song stops to bless a small child.

Ma Song blessing a small boy in Kathu village, Phuket

If you can tell me what that young boy is thinking .. I might better understand this festival. Until next year.

Driving Mountain Roads in Northern Thailand …

Chiang Rai is a great staging point for exploring Northern Thailand.  The options for day trips are many and include places like Mae Salong, Doi Tung, Mae Sai, Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong, Pha Tang, Phu Chi Fa, Phu Sang Waterfall, Phayao, and many other interesting destinations in and around Chiang Rai.

Occasionally one feels the need to travel further afield, as we did this last week.  Taking advantage of my wife being on holiday from her university studies, we decided it had been too long since we had been to Pai and beyond.  So we arranged for family to watch the house and dogs, packed up the Fortuner and off we went.  We covered a total of 1167 torturous but beautiful kilometers and went from 365 meters at home to 2565 meters above sea level on top of Doi Inthanon.

First we headed to town and then off in the direction of Chiang Mai.  At Mae Suai we turned right onto the 109 headed for Fang.  Our first stop was to visit friends in Fang on the 107.  Visit complete, we continued on the 107 to our first destination, Doi Angkhang high in the mountains.

It is quite a steep and twisty climb up the mountain but that is exactly what I was looking for on this trip.  We arrived in time to search around for a place to stay.  Things had changed a lot since the last time I had been up there so we needed to checkout the options.  The cottages located inside the park were full and we didn’t feel like staying in budget accommodation, so fortunately we found a room at the Angkhang Nature Resort.

There were a surprising number of people with the same idea we had of missing the winter crowds, but we were fortunate enough to get a very nice room for 1600 baht.  Most of the visitors were Thai families but the second day a number of French tourists checked into our hotel.  When the temperature dropped to 10 at night we were glad to find the switch for the thermal pad built into the bed, and were soon all toasty and comfortable for the rest of the night.  We liked the place so much we extended our stay one more day.

We got up early the first morning, to try our luck at catching the sunrise from a popular mountain top viewing point.  The sunrise was not great but it was still and interesting experience with all the people milling around and my wife bought some small gifts from the girls selling handicrafts.

After a wonderful breakfast back at the hotel, we walked the three kilometer loop through the park exploring every display and side trail.  They were busy getting things ready for the winter rush, planting strawberries and flowers.  Still it was very lush and green after all the rain we have had this year.  The fruit trees were eerie looking stick figures, far bigger than I remember from my last visit.

Later in the day we drove to Ban Nor-Lae to look from the Thai military camp over into the Burmese encampment on the opposite hilltop.  Later we went to Ban Khop Dong which turns out to be a very appropriate name for the village, with their little shacks perch on the cliff edge above the basket like valley and their terraced farms.

After our second night at Angkhang Nature Resort, we got up early and hit the road for Pai.  Overnight the remnants of a tropical storm had settled over Thailand and we found ourselves shrouded in cloud and mist as we headed down with nearly zero visibility, at least until we were better than halfway down the mountain.

As it turned out the sun didn’t come out for the rest of our trip but somehow I enjoyed the misty forests and cool weather.  Even with limited photographic opportunities, I still came home with a couple hundred shots.  I was merciless and soon pared that down by half when I returned home.

In part two I will cover Pai and beyond but for now I want to share some photos from Doi Angkhang.
Angkhang Nature Resort

Our accommodation.

Enjoying the view from the balcony.
The sunrise scene.

Our view during breakfast.

Planting the terraces for the peak winter season.

Budget accommodation back on the hillside.

Flowers.
In the peach grove.

Vegetables in front and peach trees across the road.



Time for a lunch break.

More flowers.


Looking across into Burma.

Weaving scarves for sale.

I think you can guess which one I would choose.

Buying avocados.

Handicrafts for sale.

Khop Dong Village