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Thailand - Khaolak

My Friend, 'Chang Noi' (Little Elephant)

Chang Noi and Deng; their planned marriage never materialised - Click for larger image He was a big man in stature with a big heart; a quiet Thai man who was always willing to help. Public transport is almost non-existent in the area but if I wanted to go anywhere Chang Noi would always be willing to take me in his pickup truck. And when I wanted to come back I just had to call him. He never asked for or expected anything in return.

He was one of the unfortunate people who was in the wrong place at the wrong time on that fateful day, 26th December 2004. He and Deng planned to marry but she is now alone. In Buddhist tradition she shaved her head after his death.

When I met Deng and her father again in May 2005 they were OK but finding life tough. Their livelihood was the Lotus restaurant and bungalow operation that they had been patiently building up over a number of years. Nothing remains any longer. What was once their business is now just a piece of barren land.

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Khaolak Revisited

During the winter of 2001/2002 I was in Chiang Mai. I already had a flight booked down to Phuket but was not looking forward to the high prices, beaches full of fat Westerners and greedy locals. My first visit to Phuket in 1992 had been very enjoyable but every time I returned it had become more tacky and was moving further away from the version of Thailand I enjoy.

I met a German couple while out elephant trekking. I spoke to them about my dilemma and they told me about a place I had never heard of before called Khaolak. It was on the mainland north of Phuket and they happened to be going there in a few days time. It was great advice. Alex and Claudia went on to become great friends and I later attended their wedding in the pretty Bavarian town of Passau.

I went ahead with my flight to Phuket airport on the north of the island but, instead of heading south towards the beaches with a million other farangs, I went north (over the bridge to the mainland) and within two hours I had arrived in Khaolak for the first time.

I immediately felt at home. The whole area had a nice feel about it with none of the annoying aspects of Phuket (apart from a few Indian tailors). There were a few fairly upmarket, established resorts where the guests kept themselves to themselves. A handful of bungalow operations existed with a small infrastructure of shops and restaurants.

Khaolak is perfectly situated for dive trips to the fabulous Similan Islands but even so, only a few dive operators had set up in the area. One of the first things I did was to get myself booked on a liveaboard dive trip to the Similans.

I'm not a 'beach' person but I liked Khaolak. It's a beach resort but I hardly ever visited the beach. Beaches bore me after about 10 minutes. I much prefer meeting and talking to the locals. As a result of doing this I made several Thai friends in the area.

I spent a couple more months in Thailand during the winter of 2002/2003 and spent a fair amount of that time in Khaolak. I came to Thailand to live in November 2003 and made more trips back to Khaolak during 2003 and 2004. Probably my best ever visit was in September 2004 when I travelled with my Thai girlfriend.

It was low season but the weather was perfect. We checked into one of my favourite hotels at Bang Niang beach - The Beach Resort - and had a fantastic few days. The hotel was perfect. The rooms were very comfortable and the landscaped grounds beautiful. In the mornings I would get up early and just sit on the balcony listening to the sea and to the birds singing while watching the sun come up.

We were the only people in the hotel, we had the pool to ourselves and a full complement of staff to look after us. What's more, because it was low season all this came at a bargain price.

It couldn't have been any more ideal. I vowed then to return the following low season once all the tourists had gone home. Sadly, this was not to be. In about three months time an unprecedented event was to take place that would change everything.

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The Asian Tsunami

While enjoying a family reunion at Christmas in Singapore with a group of people that included a couple of Thais and lots of expat Brits, news starting breaking about a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The first reports were confused and unclear as to how serious the problems were.

BBC reports coming in about Phuket actually showed TV footage of Hat Yai, my home town in Thailand. Hat Yai is too far inland to be affected by tsunamis but the earthquake that triggered the tsunami shook some tall buildings causing masonry to come crashing to the ground.

The Thais in the group made some phone calls home and heard about friends who had been caught up in the disaster. The TV reports started to mention death counts. First it was tens, then hundreds. After a while I realised that it would be hundreds of thousands. The Boxing Day excitement had changed to an air of sadness and disbelief.

One member of our group had friends out on dive boats in the Indian Ocean and he was also planning to visit Aceh to go diving. Aceh of course was at the epicentre of the earthquake.

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Khaolak After The Tsunami

Foreigners are more aware of places like Phuket and Phi Phi islands and it was these places that grabbed most of the headlines about the disaster as far as Thailand was concerned. However, it soon became apparent that the Khaolak area had been very badly affected.

The worst affected area was one I had spent a lot of time at - Bang Niang beach. I wanted to go back to check up on the friends I hadn't been able to contact by phone. Sadly, this didn't happen until May 2005. The following account and photos describe what I found.

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The Beach Resort

The Beach Resort was where I stayed on my first visit to Khaolak. It had the exact balance of comfort and value that I wanted and I was very happy there. The staff were always friendly and even on subsequent visits when I stayed elsewhere I always called in for a chat. They always remembered me and always greeted me with big smiles.

When I visited the area in May 2005 I was told the manager at the hotel had been killed. When I saw what the huge wave had done to buildings I was amazed that anyone survived such a powerful force of nature.

The hotel has now been divided into two. The half that contained the two-storey accommodation and reception has been sold to the very upmarket La Flora hotel next door. The buildings are still standing but they are probably beyond repair.

The half of the hotel that contained the swimming pool and bungalow accommodation is now just waste ground and I don't know what will happen to it. It is prime real estate, being so near to the sea in a popular resort area, but many Thais are now afraid of another tsunami occurring.

The Beach Resort; pre-tsunami - Click for larger image

17 Sep 2004

The Beach Resort; post-tsunami - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

Arriving at The Beach Resort used to be a very pleasant experience. When I went back after the tsunami this is what I found. People I knew, including some of the hotel staff, had lost their lives and a once beautiful area had been turned into a huge, muddy building site.

The Beach Resort swimming pool; pre-tsunami - Click for larger image

16 Sep 2004

The Beach Resort swimming pool; post-tsunami - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

The hotel had a wonderful swimming pool and when I visited with Iss in September 2004 we had it all to ourselves. The hotel grounds were lush and the abundant greenery made it a very relaxing place to spend time.

The Beach Resort; pre-tsunami - Click for larger image

16 Sep 2004

The Beach Resort; post-tsunami - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

What was once a lush, peaceful, tropical retreat is now just a construction site. The beauty and tranquility will return but it will take a long time and it will never be quite the same.

What was once a beautiful, lush resort was reduced to mud and rubble in about 12 minutes - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

Some of the buildings survived but were reduced to shells with everything inside completely wrecked - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

Previously lush, green, tropical, landscaped grounds are now just mud and building materials. The building shells remain but have been completely wrecked. I do not know whether the insides can be refurbished or if the buildings will have to be demolished and then rebuilt.

I spent a wonderful few days at the Beach Resort three months before the tsunami and this is how I want to remember it - Click for larger image

15 Sep 2004

Never underestimate the power of nature - Click for larger image

15 Sep 2004

A reminder of how things were before the tsunami. From my balcony the views were beautiful but it was much more than that. The peacefulness and tranquility of hearing only gentle waves and birdsong made the hotel a perfect location to rest the soul and relax completely.

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La Flora

I have to admit that when development started going crazy in the area I wasn't that happy. Simple buildings were torn down (including a lovely little cocktail bar right on the beach), to make way for luxury hotels and resorts.

However, when work had finished on La Flora I was most impressed. No expense had been spared and it was a fabulous looking place to stay. I took a look at the rooms in September 2004 and even though the low season rates were half the normal price it was still beyond my budget.

The rooms were beautifully decorated, each had a bathtub and every bathtub was filled with water with jasmine petals floating on the surface.

This is where HM the King of Thailand's grandson was staying when he was killed by the tsunami.

Entrance to La Flora; pre-tsunami - Click for larger image

17 Sep 2004

Entrance to La Flora; post-tsunami - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

La Flora reception. Everything about La Flora was high class including the staff working inside. The hotel hadn't been open for very long at all when I visited in September 2004. The amount of money invested was huge and everything was destroyed just a few months later.

La Flora beachfront restaurant; pre-tsunami - Click for larger image

17 Sep 2004

La Flora beachfront restaurant; post-tsunami - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

The restaurant and bungalows looked out at the sea only yards from the beach. It's difficult to believe that these two photos are of the same building.

Road leading to the beach; pre-tsunami - Click for larger image

17 Nov 2003

Road leading to the beach; post-tsunami - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

On the road going down to the beach there used to be a lot of signs on the corner for the establishments further down. Now there is just one mangled sign for La Flora. La Flora is still closed at the time of writing but will possibly be open for business later in 2005.

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Selling Up And Leaving

Many Thais were too afraid to return after the tsunami - Click for larger image As to what will happen about the other businesses that were destroyed, who knows? After surviving such a traumatic experience many of the locals are now afraid to return. There were lots of 'For Sale' signs around and it appears that a lot of people just want to sell up and leave the area.

Much of this has to do with emotion, rather than logic. I read somewhere that this kind of thing maybe happens once every 400 years. It could happen again soon, but it is more likely that the people who suffered will never experience another such event in their lifetimes.

Many Thais have an irrational fear of ghosts and this was something I heard from many people. Ghosts of people killed in a violent manner are particularly feared as Thais believe they will want to seek revenge.

A woman selling food and drink to the construction workers told me that beach front land is being sold for Bt10 million per Rai.

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Lotus Restaurant

Lotus restaurant when I discovered it for the first time - Click for larger image More confessions. When I first found Lotus restaurant it was just a rustic bamboo and thatch construction in the traditional Thai style as shown by the picture here. At the back was a pond with a good number of fish, and wading birds would swoop down to snack on them. It was totally idyllic.

The owners were nice people and employed a couple of sisters from Myanmar to wait tables. They were really sweet girls, poor as church mice but as happy as anyone I've ever met. They were 18 and 23 but looked several years younger. The girls are on the left in the photo and I am behind them.

Happy days with my friends at Lotus restaurant - Click for larger image I went back to the restaurant every time I visited Khaolak and became friendly with the people there who always greeted me like a long lost son. It was nice. I was disappointed when the original restaurant was demolished to make way for a modern one and I was doubly disappointed when the pond was filled in so that bungalows could be built on the land.

However, I realise that people need to make a living. Life is tough in Thailand for the majority of the population.

I was sorry to see the original bamboo and thatch structure replaced but it was better for the owners - Click for larger image

17 Nov 2003

Where a quaint little Thai restaurant once stood there is now nothing - Click for larger image

12 May 2005

When I returned in May 2005 I was expecting to see the remains of the restaurant and bungalows after the tsunami. What I did not expect to see was absolutely nothing, not even a trace that once a restaurant and bungalow operation existed on this piece of land.

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Rebuilding Khaolak

The task of rebuilding the area is huge. Fortunately for Thailand there is an abundance of cheap labour from nearby Myanmar and poor areas of Thailand, such as Isaan. As I was walking around in the morning dozens of trucks full of construction workers were turning up.

Trucks full of labourers arrive each morning as reconstruction gets underway but it is a huge job - Click for larger image

The construction workers live temporarily in the partially completed buildings they are working on - Click for larger image

These construction workers live in corrugated shanty accommodation or inside the shells of the buildings they are working on. Entire families exist. Skilled craftsmen might be able to earn Bt250 a day. Labourers will be lucky to earn Bt150 a day.

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More Images From May 2005

Steel and concrete could not withstand the force of the water - Click for larger image
The mangled remains of shops and businesses is a common sight in the area. These shops aren't even near to the beach. Steel reinforced concrete has been pulled apart like papier-mâché and balsa wood.
The once spotless beach is now full of debris - Click for larger image
I have been to this particular beach at Bang Niang several times. It is normally pristine and although it never gets crowded there are usually a few sunbathers. Now there are no tourists and the locals have stopped bothering cleaning up the rubbish for the time being. There are far more important tasks to attend to. Eventually it will be restored to its former glory but in May 2005 it was still looking a sorry state.
More evidence of the power of the sea - Click for larger image
Reinforced concrete accommodation on the beachfront was shifted around like Lego bricks by the force of the water. Seeing what the tidal waves did made me realise just how powerful force they were.
The water came a very long way inland - Click for larger image
At Bang Niang the water came in a very long way from the sea. The main road is hundreds of yards inland but the water wrecked several buildings standing there.
Many expensive buildings had only recently been completed before they were destroyed by the tsunami - Click for larger image
These luxury villas were only completed in 2004. I saw them just after they had been finished and they were impressive to say the least. After so much time and money had been spent building them they were completely ruined by the tsunami just months later.
After the tsunami, normal life just stopped - Click for larger image
This small row of shops with a guesthouse at the far end was thriving in September 2004. The nearest shop in the photo was a travel agent and outside used to sit a shiny 4WD jeep for rent. I had rented it for a day eight months before taking this photo. Now there is nothing and not even a sign of what was there before.
Foreign business owners also suffered - Click for larger image
It is not only the locals that were affected. Many foreigners have invested in the area and diving is popular because of Khaolak's proximity to the wonderful Similan Islands. This dive shop is still standing but the inside has been gutted and severely water damaged. Not only will the buildings take time to rebuild but it will be a while until the tourists start to come back in any meaningful numbers.
Normal life will return to Khaolak eventually but it was the hardest hit area in Thailand and the recovery will take a long time - Click for larger image
Business has all but stopped in the area apart from that of rebuilding the infrastructure. This row of shops was almost completely closed apart from one small restaurant that cooked me a tasty breakfast which included some fabulous German bread. It was very authentic and not sweet like bread made in Thailand often is. I was convinced it had come from a German bakery somewhere run by Germans with a German baker but the Thai girl who runs the restaurant had baked it herself.
There were some surreal sights, such as this boat beached several hundred meters inland - Click for larger image
What the photo doesn't show is how far inland this beached police boat is. It is about a hundred yards past the main road on the other side of the sea. There is a small estuary and the volume of water that swept in on 26th December 2004 must have been absolutely colossal.

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October 2006 Update

Tsunami Hazard Zone - Click for larger image It's been about 17 months since I last visited Khaolak. I should have gone back sooner but I don't particularly like beach resorts, especially ones with lots of farang tourists. I need a reason to go and that reason came in the form of friends from England arriving in Thailand for a holiday.

Whenever I arrive in Khaolak on the bus from Khok Kloi I look out for a few familiar sights. First is the small 'Sunshine' minimart run by my friend, Mook, and then a bit further on is the Seadragon dive shop. Opposite Seadragon, a little Thai guy by the name of Mr Aoo sits outside at a desk helping people to find accommodation.

Well, on this trip, I saw none of these. I found out later that the small business Mook had been trying to build up finally failed. When the fairly large 'Nang Thong Supermarket' opened it hit her business and then when the tsunami came, that was about the end of the road.

The widened road at Nang Thong - Click for larger image On my last visit the minimart was closed but I thought it might reopen. On this trip though I saw that a number of 7-Elevens have opened in the area and that must have been the final straw. She has closed the shop and gone back to live in Trang.

Seadragon is still there but the owners have moved to new premises 400m further along the road going towards Bang Niang. Mr Aoo is still around but now has a small shop and no longer sits outside.

The section of road that runs through central Nang Thong has been widened considerably to three lanes and pedestrian sidewalks are being built. There are lots of signs on the road telling drivers to slow down but huge trucks still thunder through at crazy speeds.

The tsunami water didn't come as far inland at Nang Thong as it did further up the coast and the area around the road remained fairly unscathed. It's a bit of a different story though closer to the beach.

Signs at Bang Niang beach - Click for larger image I had a long chat with one of the girls at Happy Lagoon II which is now completely unrecognisable to how it looked when it first opened. The Indian tailor shop next door has now gone so it wasn't all bad news.

Tick was working on the day of the tsunami and told me how people started talking about the 'dry sea' where the sea receded prior to the tidal wave coming in. She just ran. If a few more farang tourists had done the same instead of standing on the beach taking photos, then maybe the death count wouldn't have been quite so high.

I stayed at Bang Niang in order to be near to my friends who were staying at the 'La Flora' hotel. I am familiar with Bang Niang from previous visits but it has changed tremendously. The guest house I stayed at was new, as is almost everything there, because the tsunami destroyed everything.

Emerald Guest House is located at Emerald Plaza. The manager told me that the owners have lots of business interests and they sound extremely wealthy, owning lots of other properties as well as shrimp farms.

Will this Khaolak dive shop ever reopen? - Click for larger image Just a few years ago, much of this area was owned by locals who had set up small businesses. As Bang Niang started to transform itself into an exclusive, upmarket resort, big business started to step in and when the tsunami occurred it seemed to work in their favour.

The Beach Resort, which was a wonderful place to stay and not expensive, never reopened and was bought by the group that owns La Flora. If I want to stay there now I will have to pay about 10 times as much.

My friend, Deng, and her parents never reopened their restaurant but they didn't sell the land. This was probably a good move. The little parcel of land is now surrounded by construction work that will eventually become expensive hotels and the value of the land will continue to increase in value.

Ongoing construction work in Bang Niang - Click for larger image I was expecting a lot more to be finished since my last visit but the area still resembles a huge construction site. The reason is that far more is being built than was there before.

The original La Flora is just about back to how it was before the tsunami apart from the outdoor section of the restaurant. The extension to the hotel which is being built where the Beach Resort used to be is still underway.

I was told it would be finished by the end of 2006 but that seems optimistic. Obviously, the owners would like to get it opened as soon as possible so it is operational for the 2006/2007 high season.

Prior to the tsunami, some shops had started to be built on the beach road. These were never completed and have become temporary workshops and accommodation for the construction workers who, from what I could work out, are mostly Burmese.

Thais and Burmese varnishing sunbeds in Khaolak - Click for larger image The ones not working on actual building work varnish wooden sunbeds so that fat, wealthy farangs can sun themselves later to acquire the boiled lobster look they covet so much.

I walked around the Mukdara Beach Villa and Spa Resort. Initially, I entered through the main entrance but thought the security guard was going to shoot me. He was dressed in full army uniform and the reaction was as if he had just seen an assassin. He was so upset by my presence that I just apologised and left.

If you walk into the hotel from the beach though there is no security so I don't know what all the fuss was about. These upmarket places are very 'nice' but, at the same time, there is something I find quite depressing about them.

Tsunami Trauma Recovery Unit - Click for larger image The staff are all hi-so and very elegant and polite. Farangs lounge around eating, sleeping and reading but there is no life in these places. Thailand - with all its street life - is a wonderfully exciting country to be in but nothing like that exists in five-star resorts. I found the whole experience bland, clinical and boring.

The Thais I met while walking around Khaolak were different to the Thais I am used to meeting. For starters, they spoke a lot of English. Many gave the impression of being just a little too smart around farangs and the wonderful Thai innocence was lost. The best way to spoil Thais is give them lots of exposure to farangs.

Mukdara Beach Villa and Spa Resort in Khaolak - Click for larger image Farangs as a race are an arrogant bunch with very little humility. The ones in the big hotels looked at me as if I was nothing because I wasn't staying at the hotel. Farangs working in Thailand - business owners and dive masters, etc - seem to have an arrogant air about them to do with the fact they live in Thailand and look down on people who they assume are just tourists.

When you factor in high prices which are aimed at tourists who don't have a clue about what things should cost in Thailand, this is the reason I dislike going to tourist areas now. There is absolutely nothing I like about these places. Give me a filthy, downmarket but honest and genuine provincial town with genuine Thais any day.

Young Burmese construction site workers in Khaolak with their families - Click for larger image My friend, Deng, has opened a small car wash business which is staffed by three young Burmese. Burmese workers were a common theme in the area because they are cheap to employ. I've met plenty of Thais in the past who only earn Bt150 a day so I dread to think how little the Burmese are being paid.

It seems that every country now is having big debates about immigration but no one objects to getting an abundant supply of cheap labour.

For a number of years I felt very comfortable in Khaolak. The move upmarket had already started before the tsunami but the tsunami accelerated the process. Small, independent business owners had managed to eke out a living but when the tsunami destroyed everything, many just didn't have the capital to rebuild.

This allowed the big boys to come in and there has been a lot of land grabbing. In two to three years time everything will be just about complete. The final result will look very nice but vacations in Khaolak will be expensive. Even if I wanted to spend my money there I wouldn't choose to because it is such a soulless experience.

Ongoing construction work in Nang Thong - Click for larger image While he was in office, Thaksin had a vision for tourism in Thailand. Thaksin's preferred tourists would buy Bt1 million 'Thailand Elite' membership cards. They would shop in places like Central Festival and Siam Paragon, spending huge amounts of cash in Thailand.

They needed suitable places to stay, obviously, and now that the idea to develop Ko Chang into Thailand's premier upmarket resort seems to have been dropped, Khaolak (Bang Niang especially) is filling that role.

It will suit a lot of people but it doesn't suit me. If there is no street food available and no requirement to speak Thai, then it's not a part of Thailand that I want to be in.

Emerald Guest House, Bang Niang, Khaolak - Click for larger image A lot of money was raised in the relief effort after the tsunami but I don't know where it all went. Deng is in the process of having a guest house built and when I met her she was seriously worried about where she was going to find the Bt300,000 that was needed the following month. I think she was hoping that I might cough up but unfortunately I am not looking to invest in any such venture.

The first thing Mr Aoo said to me - after not seeing him for 17 months - was did I want to buy a guest house for Bt12 million Baht? Obviously, being a farang, I have Bt12 million spare to invest in a Thai guest house as do all farangs.

It is a well known fact in Thailand that every single white Caucasian person on the planet is obscenely rich. It turned out that if he found a buyer he was in for a big commission so trying to buyer was dominating his thoughts.

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Khaolak Now

I have been living permanently in Thailand since 2003 and for a long time I have had absolutely no interest in Thai tourist resorts, such as Khaolak. As far as I am concerned, they are just expensive, artificial places for naive tourists. I haven't been to Khaolak since 2006 and I have no plans to return. I can't, therefore, give a current update.

As Thai tourist resorts grow they have a tendency to become increasingly tacky, and the locals in those places become increasingly greedy. I have no reason to believe that Khaolak is any different.

The tsunami had a big effect on the nature of Khaolak. At first there were lots of small, independent accommodation operations, but many of these folded after the tsunami. Many large operators moved in and started to build large, luxury resorts.

Different types of tourist visit Thailand and they all have their favoured destinations and agendas. Backpackers head to Bangkok's Khaosan Road and follow the well-established banana pancake trail through Thailand. Sex tourists head straight to one of the well-known sex tourist resorts beginning with a P.

So-called 'Digital Nomads' and many of those who regard themselves as being intellectually superior than other foreigners in Thailand go north to Chiang Mai.

Khaolak these days seems to cater to tourists who have money, but no real interest in Thailand, and who are happy to remain inside an expensive five star resort for the duration of their vacation being pampered by the polite staff. That's fine, but not of interest to me personally.

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Visit Thailand

Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.

One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. I always use Agoda to book hotels in Thailand. The company was established in Thailand and has great local knowledge, as well as a huge inventory of hotels.

If you click on one of the destinations opposite you will get a list of hotel deals from Agoda. It's generally a good idea to book on-line because you will get a good room rate and you won't suffer the disappointment of arriving at a hotel to find that it is full.

I book hotels regularly in Thailand and I have always found Agoda to be the best on-line travel agent. At times I have spent a lot of time researching hotel prices and although other deals sometimes look better at first I always end up returning to Agoda.

If you don't wish to pay for your hotel at the time of booking, Booking.com normally allows you to pay when you check in at the hotel. Some people prefer this method, but I have always found Booking.com to be more expensive than Agoda.

If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined. However, you will normally find that Agoda is the cheapest and therefore you can save yourself time and money by just booking through Agoda in the first place.

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