Monthly Archives: January 2012

Udon Expat Club

Udon Expat Club By Steve Graham

The offer of free coffee and snacks on the 4th floor of Panyavejinter Hospital was too much of a temptation for this sad man to miss, so I took my sorry self to a recent meeting of the Udon Expats Club with a view to finding out what was on offer.

Udon Expat Club

Udon Expat Club Meeting December 2011

Personally, I am not really into this sort of thing; however, a club that helps its fellow members to fit into a new lifestyle in Thailand away from their country of origin could be something I would be interested in, especially if there’s lots of coffee!

This club has been running for about three years with the idea of helping expatriates with advice on immigration, finances and visits for those who are in really isolated areas.

At the beginning of this meeting, new members introduced themselves before moving onto details of a DVD and book exchange system that had been proposed in the agenda and also a discussion on how best the club could give charitable donations to worthy causes in the Udon Thani vicinity.

To liven up the monthly meetings, there is a presentation by an individual or group connected to Udon Thani or on a subject that would interest the members attending. I was fortunate enough to listen to a group from Udon Thani’s Air Traffic Control, who spoke in English about their duties and were prepared to answer questions from the audience once they had presented their presentation and short video.

Of particular interest to me was the fact that charter planes from China, The Philippines and Switzerland use Udon Thani airport for freight. In addition, the air traffic controllers have been working round the clock during the recent floods last year.

Udon Expat Club

Guest Speakers at the Udon Expat Club Meeting

One question from the audience concerned the amount of training that an individual would receive to do the job. We were informed that after four months of tests, candidates would spend a year training, followed by the completion of one year of work experience before being qualified. Starting salaries are around 15,000 baht a month, so is above the average wage for Udon Thani, but doesn’t really blow your socks off!

Once the lecture was finished, members discussed the possibility of having a future presentation by a teacher explaining how to learn the Thai language and various entertainment ideas for the future enjoyment of the membership.

Before the meeting closed, there was a heated debate concerning administrative matters that seemed to have been outstanding for a considerable period of time; however, this did not detract from the obvious will of the membership to have a club that was for the benefit of all members and one that would also benefit the local community as well.

If you are interested in joining, application forms can be found on the internet www.udonexpatclub.com and at the time of going to press, membership costs 600 baht a year or 3,000 baht for life membership. So, if you are interested in keeping up to date with all things ‘expat’ that are going on in and around Udon Thani, why not take yourself to the monthly meetings which is on the last Sunday of every month (usually) at the Panyavejinter Hospital. I believe that you will get out of it as much as you put into it!

Central Plaza – A work in progress

Central Plaza – A work in progress By Steve Graham

If you are like me and have spent a considerable amount of time in Udon Thani, you will remember the swimming pools and water slides that used to be on the roof of Robinsons about 10 years ago. This facility was great at the time as my kids were really young and I could let them cause havoc all day while I drank the odd Singha and slept the day away. For some reason it closed at the same time as my kids grew up, inevitable change I suppose.

Central Plaza Udon Thani

New Look Central Plaza Udon Thani

Now that Robinsons has been reborn as Central Plaza, major building work is underway to make this shopping mall the biggest in the Isaan region. An estimated investment of 5 billion baht is being spent in time for the influx of foreign tourists and shoppers expected as the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) opens its borders to free trade in 2015. In fact the complex is due to be finished in March 2012 which is pretty quick considering work started on the expansion back in September 2010.

To get the latest information and the up to date new design of the building, I thought I would speak to Khun Tanin Pakdeepinyo, who is the Shopping Center General Manager of our soon to be finished Central Plaza in Udon Thani.

He started by explaining that there are approximately 1000 labourers working on the site at the moment, which obviously helps the local employment situation and that the area when finished will be 30,000 square meters, making it bigger than the Central Plaza at Khon Kaen (my students please take note). The Khon Kaen Central Plaza caters for middle Isaan customers, so Khun Tanin explained the four factors which contribute to the Udon Thani customer base.

Tanin Pakdeepinyo Central Plaza GM

Steve Graham from UdonMap.com interviews Khun Tanin Pakdeepinyo Central Plaza GM

First, the Thai people living in Udon Thani, the staple customers that will always be there rain or shine. Then, there are the customers from Laos who believe in the Central Plaza brand name and travel across the friendship bridge to fill up their cars before returning home. Next, there is the expatriate community that live in Udon Thani. Khun Tanin believes that there are about 10,000 foreigners living in Udon Thani and that their individual disposable income is considerably more than the local population if you believe the research that states that the average wage in Udon Thani is about 48,000 baht a year. Finally, there are the Thai labourers who work overseas and send back approximately 2 billion baht a month to families in Udon Thani (figures verified by the banking community I am informed).

In addition to these four factors, Khun Tanin explained that there are nearly 100,000 Chinese living in Laos and they are also a recognised customer base. Add to this the visitors from Vietnam and you have a large consumer platform to base future strategy.

I asked how the shopkeepers feel about all the turmoil that is taking place during the expansion and renovation that is taking place and it was explained to me that the retailers as well as the customers are happy because they know what to expect in March 2012, once the grand opening has taken place and everything gets back to normal.

For example, parking during the building work is a bit of a nightmare and I am certainly looking forward to being able to park at Central Plaza on a Saturday afternoon without the cross country obstacle course I have to sometimes endure. What looks like a new car park is well underway and looks to make life a lot easier on that front.

I was interested in what Khun Tanin had planned for the foreigners living in Udon Thani and how he saw Central Plaza catering for their needs. I was informed that the majority of foreigners are with their families, so the strategy is to make the experience a family one. I happen to agree with this idea as there is nothing worse that having the wife and kids moaning at you as you spend your Saturday afternoon doing the shopping.

Most companies have a system in place for corporate responsibility and Central Plaza is no different. Donations to various projects are reviewed on an individual basis and include contributions to local temples, assistance to those affected by flooding in Udon Thani, learning and teaching materials for local schools and also support for the aged. I believe that the old age pension in Thailand, if you qualify, is only 500 baht a month, so some kind of assistance to old peoples’ homes is a very worthy cause.

Central Plaza Udon Thani

Central Plaza construction January 2012

One question I had to ask was about the road that used to run in front of the main entrance of Central Plaza before the building work began. Where did it go? It now seems part of the main building. Khun Tanin was able to answer this by explaining that the road was a private road and so could be built on as part of the project. I had done some research on this matter and was advised by a secret source that if you look at the older maps of Udon Thani, you will not see that road marked on the map. The road was added later on private land.

Competition from other countries and companies is welcomed by Khun Tanin as the 2015 deadline for the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement approaches. Central Plaza has conducted research and believes that they can trust their staff, that they have belief in their brand name and that the systems that they have in place will progress according to plan. Khun Tanin told me that he welcomes the opportunity and was ready for it.

Future plans for other projects were also discussed, albeit some areas were not, as they are still classified as secret. However, with stores destined for Italy and China, it doesn’t take the brains of an Archbishop to work out that there is plenty of scope within the boundaries of the ASEAN context for further expansion.

So, there you have it. A work in progress and not yet like the finished product; however, work has been completed very quickly and it looks as if the inhabitants of Udon Thani will be once again spoilt for choice when it comes to shopping at Central Plaza. Now where did I leave my car?

Centara Hotel & Convention Centre Udon Thani

Udon Thani’s Indispensible Hotel The Centara Hotel & Convention Centre By Jeff Petry

As I walked into the Centara to chat with the staff about their newly reopened hotel, I noticed a change in the place.  It wasn’t just the recent renovations that caught my eye – the whole atmosphere seemed different: like someone showing off an expensive facelift they’d just received.  In fact, this was pretty much the situation here.

Centara Hotel Udon Thani

Centara Hotel Lobby

Before I’d taken three steps inside, Khun Thananya, the amiable Public Relations Director, and Khun Phantipa, the lovely Catering Manager, asked if I was from Udon Map, and escorted me to a comfortable sofa.  After recovering from my initial shock at their state of readiness, I was handed a print-out detailing all aspects of the new Centara, from its rooms to its restaurants to its meeting facilities and its spa, fitness center, and pool.  I was thinking to myself, “We’re not in Udon anymore;” or rather, “Welcome to the new Udon Thani.  And the new Centara.”

The Centara is Udon Thani’s largest hotel and main convention center, and is joined at the hip to Central Complex, itself now undergoing complete reconstruction.  When completed around April, these two behemoths will have indisputably staked out their territory as the beating heart of Udon Thani.  Most everyone in the area will come to see what is now available in Udon, and virtually every VIP, from the Prime Minister to the Royal Family, will have slept in the Centara and enjoyed her charms by the end of 2012.

Centara’s Public Relations Manager

Centara’s Public Relations Manager Mrs. Thananya Chowurai (left) & Catering Manager Ms. Phantipa Chiemwichitra (right)

A quick note on the name: Mr. Suthikiati Chirathivat, Chairman of the Executive Board of Central Plaza Hotel (Public) Co., Ltd. (CENTEL) said that after much discussion several years ago, they finally settled on “Centara” to be their new hotel brand. He stated that “although ‘Central’ is more famous here in Thailand, especially in the retail business, for the hotel’s international customer base, it doesn’t really reflect ‘Thai-ness’” and the depth and quality of their product and service.

However, “Centara” does sound more Thai, more exotic, but still links the association with the group – “Cen” from Central, which has a reputation spanning 60 years, and “Tara,” coming from the Thai language meaning “Water”.  Worth noting is that Centel’s Fast Food Division includes KFC, Mister Donut, Baskin Robbins, Auntie Anne’s, and Pepper Lunch.  Obviously, we’re looking at one of Thailand’s major players here.

The hotel looks deceptively small from the outside, given the virtual world that lies within: a place one could easily live for ages without ever having to venture outside its walls. There are 259 newly renovated rooms and suites in the hotel, each offering a minimum of 32 square meters of space. There are also 21 Suites, ranging from 42 to 128 square meters in size, with a separate living room and a bedroom equipped with a king-size bed.

Centara Hotel Udon Thani

Centara Hotel Twin Room

All rooms come with the latest mod-cons, as you would expect of a hotel of this caliber in the 21st Century.  The details can all be found on their corporate website (see link below), but to give you an idea of (Internet) prices, we’re talking roughly 1900 Baht for a Superior Room and 2300 Baht for a Deluxe Room, which many tourists will find very reasonable indeed, given the Centara’s facilities, service, quality, and location.

There is a business center for those needing the latest equipment for their work, as well as secretarial services on offer.  The wide array of restaurants ensures you won’t tire of the regular cuisine in the main restaurant, which would actually take you a long while to work through on its own. And master chef Peter Lai, a very young 59-year-old Hong Kong Chinese, always seems to be around, guaranteeing the quality and diversity of scores of scrumptious dishes.  There are breakfast and lunch buffets every day, and dinner buffets on Friday and Saturday nights.

After indulging in Mr. Lai’s offerings, you may want to work some of it off at the fully equipped Fitness Centre, including weight & Yoga Studio, or pamper yourself in the Jacuzzi, Sauna, or Steam Room, take a dip in the Swimming Pool, or ease your muscles with a traditional treatment at SPA Cenvaree, “the place to get body, mind, and soul back into shape.”

Restaurants include the Ban Chiang, for Thai & International cuisine; Luk Fatt, for Chinese food; Deli Corner, a bakery shop & café; the Lobby Lounge for snacks, drinks & light refreshments; the Pool Bar featuring light dishes and drinks; Karaoke @Tune for those who enjoy this type diversion, complete with 7 private rooms; and finally, a la carte in-room dining, available 24 hours a day.  With all these choices, you’re not likely to go hungry at the Centara.

Then, there’s the second half of the name: “The Convention Centre,” the first choice for many planners, both professional and personal, for meetings, conferences, conventions, presentations, product launches, incentive groups, weddings, and private celebrations of all kinds.

At 2,900 square meters, the Udon Thani Convention Centre will hold up to 3,000 guests for a reception and 5,000 people for a concert. The 11-meter ceiling makes this a versatile space, and indoor sports can even be staged here.

The Tung Sri Muang Grand Ballroom has a capacity for 600 guests, and a total area of 700 square meters. For smaller events, the room divides into two equal sections as Grand Ballroom 1 – 2, each with a capacity of 300 persons.

There are five additional meeting rooms, each measuring 100 square meters with a capacity of up to 80 guests per room, making them ideal for breakout meetings or for seminars or receptions. For a slightly larger event, the Ban Phue Banquet Room will hold 100 guests within its 135 square meters, while the 300 square meters Na Yung has a capacity for 200 guests.

The hotel also operates a separate Halal Kitchen to ensure appropriate catering for guests who follow a Halal diet.

Should you wish to stage a full-blown, “hi-so” wedding ceremony, you need look no further than the Centara for this as well.  They can provide all you need for the big event, starting from the arrangements of traditional lustral water ceremony to the reception, and much more.

As I sat in the restaurant sampling dish after dish, for purposes of this article of course, I was expertly handed off between the PR Director, the Catering Manager, the Chef – who had just served a huge group upstairs – and I was now enjoying the lively company of Food & Beverage Director Mr. Vichit Chatthong.

He was telling me about the host of extras available for wedding receptions, including decorative ice sculptures, flower arches and stands, traditional garlands and corsages for the wedding party, guest books, multi-tiered cakes, and so on. Plus, a special rate for an overnight stay with complimentary meal voucher at the resort.

I was surprised to learn that he also organized and arranged events outside the hotel, for those wanting to have a wedding or ceremony at a place of their choosing – at home, or perhaps in an idyllic natural setting.

We also discussed the different charities and programs he has been involved with over the years with the Central Group, including training ethnic Karen students in Mae Sot to work in their hotels, and much more.  In fact, many of these hospitality industry professionals with whom I had the pleasure of speaking have worked with each other on and off for twenty to thirty years in different Central properties throughout Thailand.

Finally, pet-lovers will be pleased to learn that they can bring their precious animals to the Centara as well, given a few reasonable rules, which can be found on their website, but include the following: Your pet must be clean and shampooed prior to arrival; only one dog per booking is permitted to stay with you and can weigh no more than 20 kilograms and must be trained to obey your commands; and, as the owner, you will be responsible for cleaning up any “accidents” that occur within the hotel grounds.  A fully refundable cash deposit of 2,000 Baht is payable upon check-in.

I was tempted to sample some of the “Exclusively for Him at SPA Cenvaree” treatments on offer before leaving, but decided to postpone this to another time.  The Swedish Massage was particularly enticing, a full body massage designed to stimulate blood circulation and break up lactic acid build-up in the muscles. Also on offer was the Jurlique Men’s Vitality Facial: a deep-cleansing and purifying facial designed specifically for men’s skin.

Those interested should visit www.spacenvaree.com, where you can review the various programs and treatments, shop online for spa products and chat with a spa concierge about your upcoming visit and personal treatment needs.

I thought I’d met most everyone at the hotel by the time I left; however, the very friendly GM, Mr. Chaiphun Thongsuthum (Jok) met me in the lobby on my way out, inviting me and all my friends to come experience the new, improved Centara.  Based on my brief encounter, I can highly recommend it, and believe that most visitors will be pleasantly surprised by all the Centara now has to offer.

Much more info can be found on the Centara Udon Thani website at www.centarahotelsresorts.com/cud/

You can also contact the friendly, well-trained staff using the info below:

Centara Hotel & Convention Centre Udon Thani
Tel.:  +66 (0) 4234 3555
Email:  cud@chr.co.th