I am slightly ashamed to admit that I've been travelling to Bangkok for 22 years now and today marked my first visit to Wat Po. (By contrast, most tourists have ticked this off within a couple of hours of touching down on their first visit. I can vouch for this, because I think most of Thailand's 14 million tourists were there when I visited it this morning.)
Thursday, 31 December 2009
I am slightly ashamed to admit that I've been travelling to Bangkok for 22 years now and today marked my first visit to Wat Po. (By contrast, most tourists have ticked this off within a couple of hours of touching down on their first visit. I can vouch for this, because I think most of Thailand's 14 million tourists were there when I visited it this morning.)
Now I know my Thai is elementary at best, but Koh means island, right? So I'm going to spend the day exploring the area and working out why it's called an island when, to me, it just looks like it sits on the banks of this mighty river.
Actually I started my research yesterday but, sorry dear readers, have nothing to show for it yet. You see I got pretty caught up in the festive spirit that is palpable in Bangkok at the moment ...
A few doors up from here, I glimpsed a great photo opportunity of the sun setting on Wat Arun, which took us down some pokey alley behind the Grand Palace and next thing I knew I had a Singha beer in my hand and was sitting in The Deck restaurant with grandstand views of one of the icons of Bangkok's historic skyline. Then we hopped a tuk tuk to happening Phra Attit past Sunam Luang, a park with a million trees lit up by fairy lights, and fairground attractions and stalls. Next thing I new I was enjoying a foot massage (one hour in air-conditioned comfort for 220 baht). Then a stroll through the cool cafes, shishah bars, and market stalls toward the global nomad's unofficial headquarters -- Kao San Road. The place was pumping.
Next thing I new I was in the Brick Bar, enjoying brilliant live Thai pop bands (think English ska, circa early 80s, only the Thai lyrics are more intelligible). And so to bed with a weary head at some ungodly hour.
So, in conclusion, I still don't know why this is called an island ...
I will try and resolve the mystery by the end of today. As a reward I have a bottle of Moet in the fridge in readiness for a big new year's eve celebration tonight. I'll be doing the midnight countdown and watching the always-amazing fireworks show from the rooftop of this cool little hotel.
Just hope those long-tail boat drivers are on the Sang Som whiskey tonight too and don't start too early tomorrow morning!
Thursday, 24 December 2009
I am now writing this from a lovely pool villa at the all-new Anantara Lawana villas at north Chaweng, the ound of gushing spas and birds chirping from bamboo trees outside an utter, utter distraction to my writing as you can imagine.
Over the next few days, I will throw myself into researching the Anantara, the Kirimaya resorts (x 2), Coral Cove Resort, and Mai Samui Resort. It's the sort of selfless thing I do for you, dear readers, festive season notwithstanding. While others nurse egg nog round a log fire, I am working, working, working. Still I don't look for sympathy from you, becuase I know it won't be forthcoming ... not even at Christmas time.
I'm looking forward to checking out and sharing Samui with you. Been about 7 years since I've been here, and I hardly recognize it. But, the quality of the development is what excites me: a lot of good taste on show ...
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Nestled off Soi 21, it's not an easy walk to the BTS station; in fact I resorted to an adrenaline-pumping motorcycle taxi on a couple of occasions to get me to Asoke. (And I believe that no-one is every truly deeply religious until they've ridden on the back of a Bangkok motorcycle taxi in peak hour!). They're also a couple of hundred metres on the other side away from the MRT station.
BBH tries hard. The red colour scheme is not for me, but, hey, it seems to work for the billion or so Chinese on the planet. I am told each room is uniquely different. I hope so. A high red feature ceiling in my room. Red stripes on the wall. Some gold sanskrit lettering. All these take your attention away from the fact that the room itself is pretty basic, and the bathroom needs an overhaul. Oh, and I had to walk up three flights of stairs to my room.
But the service you can't fault (I'm resisting inserting the old gag 'because there isn't any'!). Internet is available via a couple of computers in the lobby, available at 150 baht per hour and high speed wi-fi is available in room. The receptionist was kind enough to let me use the computer offline for free, though.
There's also a cozy coffee corner, and a nicely lit outdoor garden.
If you are looking for a breakfast that's going to inspire and shape the rest of your day, you might be better off staying in bed. It does the job is what I'll say. But what is worth springing out of bed for is the range of complimentary half day tours included in your room rate. No catch. Just let them know when you want to go, and you'll be picked up and shuttled around to see the highlights of Bangkok, or to the Grand Palace. Yes, Amazing Thailand right?
However, if I've been a little hard in marking BBH down, it's all reflected in the price, rooms typically available at around 1800 baht per night. A lot better than what you'd find in your own country for that sort of money.
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
Location-wise it couldn't be any more convenient, literally a hundred steps to Asoke Station, where both the BTS skytrain and the underground MRT train system service all points. But while they've done an amazing job of reducing the ambient traffic noise, not even triple glazing combined with Bose noise-cancelling headphones is going to cut out the brrraAATTTTTT of a tuk tuk hitting top speed at 4am outside your window. So it isn't the cliched 'oasis of calm'.
But it does offer leisure and business travellers a range of well-appointed rooms and suites with arguably among the comfiest beds I've slept in anywhere in the world. The colour scheme is beige and cream (fairly neutral by boutique hotel designer standards, who seem to think that 'boutique' is a license to revisit some 1970s LSD fantasy trip, with the net result that you can't get your eyes to close no matter how jet-lagged you are).
And mirrors. What is it with the mirrors? All leaning up against the walls and corridors, like they ran out of hooks to hang them with. Oh, those crazy boutique designers ...
On the plus side of the ledger, though, the lemongrass scent throughout the hotel is instantly soothing, and the bathrooms are really large with generous-sized bathtubs, and DVD players in the room. Hi-speed WiFI is available in all public areas and rooms, free of charge, plus there is a business centre and 'technology concierge'. The staff are all thoroughly engaging, in both Thai and English.
The breakfast is a good offering of Asian and Western style dishes, more than enough to set you up for the day. Note though that once the kitchen is closed at night (around 10pm) you won't be able to get room service meals. There is however a 7-11 across the footbridge directly opposite (in Bangkok nowhere is more than 5 metres away from a 7-11).
The rates here are generally around the 2200-2500 baht level per night. Overall: very pleasant staff, a pleasant stay, and damn good value. Would stay here again for sure.
For a massively sprawling metropolis, Bangkok only seems to have two major roads --Silom Road and Sukhumvit Road -- and then 500,000,000 little side sois (streets) which emanate off them in a mysterious labyrinth. I'm going to focus on Sukhumvit Road here because it's a fascinating microcosm of humanity.
Well, actually, not so micro ...
Little known fact # 3: Sukhumvit Road runs east from Bangkok for approximately 400 kilometres before it reaches Cambodia. [What happens once it hits Cambodia I'm not sure.] But let's bring it down to a manageable level and just deal with the half dozen or so kilometres from the centre of Bangkok ...
Anything and everything you could possibly want or need out of life is represented in this stretch. Whether it's shopping, transport, entertainment, fashion, accommodation, markets, anonymity, or other proclivities way Way WAY off the radar, Sukhumvit -- like the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores -- dishes it up around the clock. The quirky, the cutting-edge, the dark, the futuristic ...
Unless you live here among it, you're going need a place to stay and explore it. So I'm going to be tipping you into a number of fresh, fun, funky and affordable boutique hotels which have mushroomed from the fertile topsoil of Sukhumvit. Here's a shortlist of boutique hotels in Sukhumvit Road I've stayed in and will be reviewing shortly:
S15 Sukhomvit Hotel www.s15hotel.com
Dream Hotel wwwdreambkk.com
Bangkok Boutique Hotel www.bangkokboutiquehotel.com
Admiral Premier www.admiralpremier.com
There are hundreds more, of course. Some bigger, some smaller, some sleazier, some classier, some you wouldn't let your most pesky worst childhood arch-enemy stay in. Which sums up Sukhumvit Road ... there's something for just about everyone.
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
But what makes it feel even more Christmassy are a couple of things that I came across in the last few days. One happened to me. The other I read in a newspaper.
The lady in my condo's administration called me into her office. 'Is this your 20 baht?' she asked, proffering the green note worth about 55 US cents. 'Someone found it outside your door.' As my apartment is at the end of the hall it was in all likelihood mine. But, it is soooooo humbling that someone found it, and thought to get it back to its rightful owner, handed it in, and then the condo admin staff took it upon themselves to find its rightful owner. (To put it in context, 20 baht nearly buys you a lovely lunch plate of pad thai noodles, so it's not an insignificant amount to a local, especially, say, a cleaner.) I am ashamed to say if I'd found it, I would have pocketed it.
That same day I read in the Bangkok Post where a taxi driver in Bangkok had found a sports bag in the back of his cab. In it were passports, a camera, a video camera and a few thousand dollars of cash. Finding a hotel key card, he called the hotel to see if those people were still guests. Indeed they were. He then arranged to have the whole lot returned to the very relieved Middle Eastern owners of the cash and goods. That this could happen in any major city in the world -- where size and anonymity often compromise moral scruples -- is heart-warming.
And it's these thousand little acts of kindness that I encounter every day that makes me so thankful for living among the good-hearted Thai people. Kon Thai jai dee! It kind of feels like there's Christmas spirit in the air every day year round ...
As for me, I'll be celebrating Christmas on Koh Samui and New Year's Eve in Bangkok with fireworks on the Chao Phraya River. Look out for my postings on these shortly.
Question: As a tourist, have you encountered incredible honesty in your dealings with Thais? Tell us about that.
Sunday, 13 December 2009
After my last blog on Winter in Thailand, I decided to duck down -- OK up -- to Doi Inthanonon, a couple of hours' drive or ride on Route 108 south of Chiang Mai. You can make a day trip of this by stopping off at some of the craft villages en route, such as the woodworking village of Ban Tawai.
Picture a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. From the main road turn-off, the Doi (nothern Thai word for mountain) is about 47 kilometres. Soon, the wind was crisper. The tree type became conifers, or pine trees, and the air immediately cooler. Was I in Europe somewhere?
As we climbed nearer the summit, two gorgeous gold and granite stupas came into view, situated on the highest points of the mountain "according to air density". Check these out for the amazing views of the valley, as well as the intricate mosaics and stunning gardens. Make an offering to Budda while you're there with lotus flowers for sale.
Just a few kilometres later a blue sign announced we'd arrived: The Highest Spot in Thailand. A quick photo op at the sign, and then it was on with an extra shirt. Twelve degrees celsius! Song taew vans shuttled visitors to the top, a convoy of silver tourist mini-vans, and to my delight a group of motorbikers on Harleys and BMWs, all the way from Phuket and Bangkok, came throbbing along too.
Everyone was in scarves and woollen caps, rubbing their hands against the cold (anything less than 34 degrees is considered freezing to Thais!). Then more photos from the car park, overlooking a cloud forest far far below.
Savouring a hot mocha I chatted with a park ranger. He confirmed it has never snowed on Doi Inthanon, but ice crystals form on the leaves at this times of year. At the end of December the mercury plunges to MINUS 3 degrees celsius at night.
So there you have it. No White Christmas likely this year, but if you want to experience a Thailand winter, this is one of the places to put on your itinerary. I'll blog soon on other popular winter destinations which are currently enjoying high season: Pai in north-western Thailand, and Khao Yai in central Thailand.
Today it's off to do the canopy zip-lines at Jungle Flight, and I'll write up a comparison between this and Flight of the Gibbon, another zip line rated as Thailand's top attraction.
But first, a boiling hot mug of something ...
Thursday, 10 December 2009
But I am here to tell you that this morning when I awoke at home in Chiang Mai, the temperature was warmer in my air-conditioned bedroom than it was when I walked outside. So, either I need to call the landlord to fix the air-con, or else winter has arrived ...
Talking to a local this morning he was saying there's been ice on the trees at Doi Inthanon (that's a couple of hours south of Chiang Mai). At 2565 metres, it is Thailand's highest point -- well, possibly excluding some behaviour at Full Moon parties I've heard about. It wouldn't surprise me if it actually snowed there, because I rode through Inthanon a couple of months ago and damn near froze my vital bits off. Blue lips, chattering teeth, retracted undercarriage.
So has it ever actually snowed in Thailand and can I expect a White Christmas? There seems to be accounts of snow in Chiang Rai province in 1955. I read it on the internet so it must be true! (Ok, in the interests of professionalism I'm going to research this one more.)
Anyway, I'm going to be wearing my scarf today as I head up to check in and check out the Alpine Golf Resort about 30 km north of Chiang Mai. And I'll stop at Central on the way and see if they stock thermal underwear. It's not easy being me.
Thursday, 3 December 2009
The Light & Sound Show is staged for only 10 days in late November/early December each year, bringing to life the death of the Bridge, it's last few days before it was taken out of action by American bombers (For the younger readers, yes, the Americans have been doing this sort of thing for a while!)
In typical Thai fashion, of course there's a whole lot more to it -- a huge huge fairground, with horse rides, stalls, games, food, Harley display, and music. Sanuk maak as they say (good fun!). Last night was a real blast -- caught up with a Thai police friend of mine, Khun Ek, and before I knew it I was riding on the back of his Harley Davidson at the head of this informal parade through the streets of Kanchanaburi, through the crowded fairground, then sat down on hay bales to feast on spit-roasted lamb. Money can't buy that sort of experience!
However, for 150 baht, you can get a grandstand seat at the Light & Sound show, enjoy the story and the fireworks. It was doubly spectacular with a full moon last night. You'll see the Bridge in a whole new light (oh, bad pun. Groan!)
Show is weekdays at 8pm till 9pm. Fridays and Saturdays showtime 7pm and 9:30pm.
To get to Kanchanaburi:
Kanchanaburi to BKK return is 07:19 and 14:44 daily.
You can also get here by bus or mini-bus, often running from Khao San Road in Bangkok. Cost about 140 baht and takes about 2.5 hours.
Here's a list of Phuket golf clubs to get started with ...
+ Blue Canyon Country Club www.bluecanyonclub.com (see my blog on this course)
+ Loch Palm Golf Club www.lochpalm.com
+ Red Mountain Golf Course www.lochpalm.com
+ Phuket Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa www.missionhillsphuket.com
+ Phuket Country Club www.phuketcountryclub.com
Happy hacking! See you at the 19th hole.
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Sitting in the tepid tropical water, with glass of wine in hand, looking up at the palm trees is to completely free your mind of any worldly cares. What’s happening in the wider world beyond the wooden privacy screens doesn’t matter anymore. Had enough of wallowing in the shallow end? Retire to the king-sized day bed in the sala (gazebo), where the mini-bar can keep you continually and easily refreshed. Then as twilight sets in and a full moon rises, run a hot bath infused with frangipani petals in the tub which is set into the side of the pool. Aaah, I feel the heat seep into those poor overworked muscles of mine [pause for sympathy] as my favourite playlist is piped in from the iPod dock.
Then there’s the villa itself. All dark woods, and bright silks. All airy and light, with sliding glass panels that let the outdoors in. Or the indoors out. In the words of that Australian Crawl song: ‘The garden’s full of furniture, the house is full of plants.’
Don't dream it's over. At The Eugenia it's certainly not.
Footnote: Thailand has a number of colonial style hotels where you can experience that olde worlde flavor. Try the Author’s Wing at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok (over 130 years old) , the Sofitel Centara Grand Resort & Villas (since 1923) in Hua Hin. There is also a colonial wing at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi in Chiang Mai.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
If there's one thing that's going to get my blood pressure screaming up into the red zone it's the utter frustration of trying to hit a little white plastic orb 300 metres across a perfectly manicured lawn into a little cup someone has placed deviously just out of sight, around the bushes, over the water, oh, mind the sand trap on the right. And don't forget the green slopes down off to the right so aim a little left. But slice it a bit because there's right-left crosswind blowing. Grrrr. Now replace your divot. Seriously, where else in life do you put up with so much crap and go back for a second helping?
Even just typing this I feel my blood boiling just that little bit more. However, if what I just described somehow turns you on, and you feel it's challenge you need to, um, rise to then I have a cure for you: it's called the Blue Canyon Country Club in Phuket.
Since 1991 the likes of Bill Clinton, Gary Player, and Nick Faldo have sung the praises of this club. But arguably its biggest fan is some guy called Tiger. In fact, there's even a hole they call 'Tiger's Hole' after a particular shot he played here in 1998 on the 13th hole.
Now picture this hole if you will: it's 390 yards from the back tee to the flag for heaven's sake. Uphill. Over a water canyon (yes, I know all the clues are there in the name of the course.) Now if you look very closely you can just see the white flag fluttering above that line of trees. That's your goal. Now most golfers go the safety shot, and plonk it over the water, leaving then a fairly straightforward drive up to the tee (or several drives in my case) from there. But not Tiger. Oh no. In a no-guts-no-glory move, he's nailed his Big Mother club straight at that flag. Canyons and bushes be damned. He's on in one, a 270 metre drive straight to the green.
You get the idea. But it's actually the next hole, the 14th that is the Canyon course's signature. Arguably one of the most beautiful holes in golf, straight down to the pin just in front of the lake below, where, conservatively, there must be 57 million golf balls languishing at the bottom.
So that's the Canyon championship course. If you still like water, there's also the Lakes course which I prefer because at least you can take a buggy around (I'm Ok at that sort of driving.) No that carrying your clubs is a problem, because there are somewhere between 400-500 women caddies on hand to lug all your stuff for you, fan your fevered brow, and offer club and shot selection tips. (That's all I need -- a woman telling me how to drive, haha!) Well worth the 250 baht fee.
Then it's back to my favourite, the 19th hole. At this club, it feels more like you're checking into a 5-star resort. Rarefied air. Waitresses padding around. Cool breeze. And iced water to wash my blood pressure tablets down with.
Aah, it doesn't get much better than this. I love golf ...
Question: Have you golfed in Phuket before? Leave a comment on your best course/game (or alternatively your most frustrating hacking round).
Balls. Cojones. Call them what you like. But the developer of Phuket FantaSea has elephant-sized ones ... you see, Phuket FantaSea is the work of an absolute visionary. Someone who said You know what this beach-and-bar island needs? It needs a 57 hectare cultural theme park with a 4000 seat restaurant and parking for 200 tour buses. Think Las Vegas by the Andaman Sea.
Yes, you could be forgiven for thinking he'd been out in the sun too long. This could've been the biggest white elephant ever. But who's laughing now? Ten years on, and the place is brimming nightly ...
I'm immediately put in mind of Disneyland, albeit an Asian interpretation of it, and the Lost City. Bright lights beckon. It is magical. It is romantic. It's fun. There are sideshows and souvenir stalls. Animatronics. Jungle adventures. Elephant rides. Tiger petting (doesn't sound right -- should that be patting?). It's an epileptics' nightmare with a million popping camera flash bulbs per minute.
The evening starts with an every-man-for-himself Thai buffet, which is an extravaganza in its own right, with the cavernous hall adorned by gargantuan kinnaree winged figures. I was expecting Food Aid style C-Rations but the food is surprisingly tasty for such a mass venue.
Then, unbuckling your belt a notch or two, it's show time. Now here comes the hard part. I'm in a conundrum: you see, you have to check your camera in at the door but how do I possibly do justice describing a theatrical illusion show -- that has attracted even the likes of David Copperfield over the years -- with words only??? Hmmm.
I scarcely knew where to look there was so much visual richness and texture and action going on. From bucolic traditional Thai village scenes to ancient kingdom capitals to -- hahaha, here come twenty chickens scuttling across the stage, and a dozen goats, and one, two, three, four water buffalo -- and, wow, where did those glow-in-the-dark trapezing acrobats appear from? Thunderous applause. Vivid silk costumes in rich reds, blues, pinks, purples, blues and greens. Fire eating. Dancing laser lights. Rain showers. And then the rousing finale with a dozen elephants daisy-chained trunk-to-tail. (I think: if the one at the back loses his footing, he'll rip the backsides out of the other eleven! Siegfried and Roy would have nothing compared to that.) Wow! WOW!!! Bravo!!! Amazing Thailand!
Then it's back to the reality as the crowd shuffles out, scarcely believing what they've seen. Oh great, it's only 11pm so now we can go and see the other cultural theme park on the island: Patong. And that's a fantasy of a completely different sort ...
Saturday, 28 November 2009
In Phuket this weekend, attending the Andaman Travel Trade Show 2009. And if there's a phrase I 've heard more than 'Hello sexyman where you go?' it's 'Pool Villa'. While Patong is all still reassuringly about the beach and babes and bars, the rest of Phuket has gone upscale ...
My big question is what happened to the Phuket I first visited in 1988? You know, the little tropical island I used to tootle along on my rental scooter along dusty red dirt roads on? Now it's all multi-laned expressways, mega-malls, and Las Vegas envy. Which seems to suit most people fine.
Chatting with Bangornrat Shinaprayoon, the director of Tourism Authority of Thailand (Phuket), she seemed happy that the tourists were back. I can vouch for that -- my flight here was so full it was standing room only. And the Anantara Resort (did I mention pool villas yet?) is running 100% this weekend. And, judging by the number of coaches double parked at Phuket FantaSea last night, I'm not Robinson Crusoe here.
|Anantara Phuket Pool Villas|
Special interest groups, more high end, wedding groups -- we're getting more popular with pool villa rooms and luxurious rooms that wedding groups like,' Khun Bagornrat said.
It seems that the Tsunami and various incidents are yesterday's news here with 5 million tourists in 2008, and probably only 12% fewer this year (below the national average of around 20%). 'It's not a nightmare, but it's been a bad dream for the past year, ' said Nampetch Tipaxsorn, marketing communications mananger for Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort and Spa. 'But then we had sweet dreams for so long, so this forces us to give more to the customer; not lower rates but more service, more value-added.'
In the next week I'll be blogging on some top-end Phuket experiences: luxuriating in pool villas, golfing at Blue Canyon, a night out at Phuket FantaSea.
Now if you'll just excuse me. I just need to cool off in the pool ... attached to my master bedroom of course. It's not easy being me!
Monday, 23 November 2009
‘What a load of shite, eh?’ says Dick Lee, in a thick cockney accent. The octogenarian former-HQ dispatch rider is building up quite a head of steam about the seven-Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai. It is 52 years since the movie premiered to worldwide acclaim, but he is not alone among ex-POWs who still voice their disenchantment.
A friend, Paul, remembers attending a screening for veterans in
But perhaps the biggest idea of how wide of the mark the script was comes from Colonel Philip Toosey, the commanding officer played by Alec Guinness. ‘He didn’t even recognise himself as the character portrayed in the movie,’ Julie Summers, Toosey’s grand-daughter and author of The Colonel of Tamarkan, tells me. ‘The film made millions of people think they were seeing something realistic when they were not.’ Unsuccessful entreaties were made to the film’s flamboyant producer, Sam Spiegel, to add a super-title that branded the movie ‘fiction’.
So where did the movie go wrong?
Bombshell: there never was a River Kwai. Blame Pierre Boulle. In 1952 the French author published his novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai. A POW himself, he’d heard survivors talk of building two bridges on Khwae Mae Klong; and many railway camps were along the adjoining Khwae Noi. The ‘khwae’ part obviously stuck in his head. But khwae is simply a Thai word for river. ‘So he inadvertently named it “
In 1942, the Japanese desperately needed a railway link between
With the route fording rugged terrain adjacent the
One bridge had to span 378 metres across Khwae Mae Klong at the provincial town of
Kanchanaburi was also headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army 9th Railway Engineering Division. ‘They was no mugs, they knew what they was doing,’ Lee reckons. Some of the best minds behind the Thai-Burma Railway – including engineer Yoshihiko Futamatsu – went on to design Japan’s ‘Bullet Train’.
For eight months POWs toiled in blistering sun and driving downpours to complete The Bridge, with little mechanical assistance. Materials from an 11-arched steel bridge in Java were shipped up, and British-laid railway tracks in
While never sabotaged with explosives, quality control was deliberately lax, the admixture of the concrete pylons diluted when guards’ backs were turned. The wooden service bridge adjacent was also home to a fine colony of white ants, introduced by the very men who’d built it.
One humorous episode involved two Japanese guards who disappeared during a lunch break, presumably consumed by the setting concrete. They were subsequently found, AWOL with their local girlfriends!
Nine POWs lost their lives during construction, but a further 400 of 2600 Australians, English, Dutch, and Americans based at Tamarkan perished from disease, malnutrition, and wayward Allied bombs. (The attrition was low compared to 24% of all POWs who died in Japanese hands --12,800 Allies and up to 100,000 Asians died building the railway.) Credit to Toosey, a strict disciplinarian and stickler for maintaining hygiene and dignity. And, unlike in the movie, he did encourage – even covered for – one escape attempt.
With little or no fanfare, the bridge was completed at the end of April 1943. After a foot regiment, the first train crossed May 1. Many POWs probably willed The Bridge to come tumbling down. But it stood defiant.
Again, unlike in the movie, The Bridge did its job, enabling 1000 tons of goods and munitions each day to reach Japanese troops in
Post-war, the bridge was repaired. Two rectangular spans lend an awkward asymmetrical look. With the movie achieving ‘classic’ status, the Seventies saw a new army arriving in Kanchanaburi – backpackers. Lee says: ‘There was nothing there at the time except a couple of rooms and a shack.’ They all wanted to see the bridge on the River Kwai. But there was no such thing. So
Kanchanaburi -- three hours northwest of Bangkok and gateway to Erawan Falls, the Tiger Temple and Hellfire Pass -- is a buzzing low-rise town where everything screams ‘tourism’ … T-shirt stalls, friendly but persuasive post-card vendors, T-shirts, pirated CDs, T-shirts, hawkers cooking Unidentified Frying Objects, T-shirts, and bars where you can ‘get shit-faced on a shoestring’ (as one sign exhorts) while watching screenings of The Movie. Cue infectious Colonel Bogey March soundtrack. Pencil-sharp V8-engined long-tail craft cannon along the river, dodging floating karaoke bars.
There is a dramatic beauty. Depending on the season, the backdrop is either the purple peaks of the
The train line insinuates itself into the burgeoning tapioca-and-sugar cane centre of 175,000 it helped foster. We hop off the third-class rattler at Kwai Bridge Station, where vintage locomotives and Japanese diesel truck-trains litter the station. We approach it side-on from water level for a more theatrical impression. ‘But that can’t be it … it’s metal,’ says John from
We walk the planks. They creak underfoot, as a scrum of tourists pick their way across the metal spans. When the train and tour buses arrive from
TOOOOTTT!!! A short, sharp horn blast. Expletives deleted! A yellow-and-red loco chugs into view. Fortunately it stops at the platform. Relieved, nervous giggles. The train inches gingerly forward to the slaps and groans of displaced planks. Further horn blasts shoo stragglers. Beaming faces peer from open sash windows. Motor-drives click and whirr in syncopation with the train’s squeaking wheels. Two Muslim girls give a super-friendly wave.
The train clatters above umbrella-ed vendor carts, past tapioca fields, then swallowed by the jungle ...
‘I walked into the jungle where a bit of the old railway was still lying,’ Lee says. ‘It was so silent, you think, Did that all really happen? Like a bleedin’ dream.’
More like a recurrent nightmare. Which is why, to me, the most resonant line in the movie is when Alec Guinness says: ‘I hope in years to come, when the war is over, people remember who built it and how they built it.’ Amen. Ironically, certainly not by watching that movie.
Now, if I could just get that damn Colonel Bogey tune out of my head.
Question: Do you think this movie has done more good or more harm in telling the story of the POWs on the Death Railway? Leave your comments here.
But pity them. After a hard day’s work, it’s not like they can really look forward to a good massage. They’re over it already!
And after all that hard work, what did they tell us? Nothing new: Thailand is still the best by a smile. Er, mile. Voted the Spa Capital of the Year 2009.
No surprise really. The Thais have been at it for several thousands, if not millions, of years. They have it down to a fine art, and in Thailand, there’s a spa on every corner that there’s not already a 7-11 on.
Thailand also cleaned up in these categories:
Destination Spa of the Year: Six Senses Destination Spa, Phuket.
Medi-Spa of the Year: S Medical Spa, Bangkok.
Men’s Spa Treatment of the Year: i.sawan Residential Spa & Club, Grand Hyatt Erawan, Bangkok.
Spa Academy of the Year: Banyan Tree Spa Academy, Phuket.
Now here’s the rub. All those winners will be going flat out to hold onto their mantle next year. And all those who got pipped into second and third place will be going at it even softer and gentler and more soothingly this year. That’s right, they’re not taking defeat lying down.
So, pity those judges again. They’ll hardly have time to recover before they’re back on the mat again judging the 2010 awards. They must have hot rocks in their heads.
Question: My best spa experience was at the Banyan Tree in Phuket, which was absolutely otherworldly and sublime. How about yours?
Sunday, 22 November 2009
In my last post on The Bridge on the River Kwai, I had some fun busting some myths about The Bridge. Here are a few more facts about it, and a list of the Top Five things to see and do in Kanchanaburi to get a better understanding of the events on the Railway:
+ The Japanese simply called it 'Bridge # 277' and, in one case, the ‘
+ The 378-metre long bridge is not wooden -- it is the only one of 688 POW-made bridges made of cement and steel in
+ It was made from materials purloined from Java Railways,
+ The use of Azon bombs against the Death Railway bridges was one of the first instances of guided bombs in warfare. Within three months, 23 bridges along the line were taken out.
+ The Imperial Japanese Army transported some 220,000 tons of military supplies between December 1943 and August 1945 up the POW-built line into
WW2-related attractions in Kanchanaburi include:
The Chung Kai cemetery: 1384 British rest in peace in this original cemetery not far from the main one.
The Thai-Burma Railway Centre: Museum and research centre. A work of passion by Aussie founder Rod Beattie. The definitive account of the whole Death Railway experience, plus invaluable resources for relatives of POWs. www.tbrconline.com
The JEATH Memorial: An acronym for
The World War II Museum: Situated west of the bridge. Houses some Japanese trains, and life-like reconstructions of camp life.
Personally, I think the Thai Burma Railway Centre is the best-curated and presents the sad saga best. I recommend people to stay at least overnight in Kanchanaburi -- it's a fun town, with tons of restaurants, cafes, and range of hotels. You're not really doing it justice if you just do a day trip from Bangkok then return. While in the area, check out the Tiger Temple and Erawan Falls, but of course you should also about 80 kilometres north to experience the horrors of Hellfire Pass, which I'll blog about another time.
Question: Do you think the Japanese were justified in their usage of PoWs to build the Railway?
Friday, 20 November 2009
Hollywood would struggle to dream up a more evocative script: CIA intrigue, the exotic east, political skulduggery, A-list dinner guests, millions made, and then … a sudden disappearance. ‘Absolute mysteries only improve with age,’ says William Warren, author of Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery. ‘And there can have been few as absolute as Thompson’s has proved to be.’ With around 40,000 visitors a year, Thompson’s house is increasingly a part of Bangkok’s fabric.
Thompson arrived in Thailand as a military intelligence officer with the OSS (fore-runner of the CIA) at the close of the Second World War. Hand-weaving of silk in rich exotic colours fired his imagination, so after discharge he set about reviving Thailand’s fading cottage industry. His skill as a designer and colourist was soon noted by fashion editors at Vogue etc and, when the casts of Ben Hur and The King and I musical disported Thompson’s creations, his silk empire was off and spinning.
In 1959, the great host’s Thai teak house became an instant Bangkok landmark: a letter addressed, simply, to ‘Jim Thompson, Bangkok’ found its way to him. Barbara Hutton, Senator William Fulbright, Truman Capote were among his star-spangled guests. Somerset Maugham’s thank you note read: ‘You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste’.
But he didn’t have long to enjoy the dream he’d woven. On March 26 1967 he was visiting Singaporean friends, the Lings, at Moonlight Cottage in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Following a picnic on Mount Brinchang, they went back to enjoy a siesta, and … he simply vanished into, well, thin air.
Theories abounded, many centred on his CIA connections and friendship with former Thai PM Pridi, who was exiled in China. There was also the Fine Arts Department who accused him of systematically looting up-country temples. This cut deeply as he saw himself as a guardian of these art forms and antiquities. He wrote the Siam Society – which stood to inherit his house, land, company shares, and collections – out of his will.
Others believed he was mistakenly shot by an errant orang asli (indigenous tribe) blow-dart, and hastily buried. Then, within six months, his elderly sister was murdered in America.
Investigators publicly favoured the communist kidnapping plot, with terrorists active throughout the 450 square kilometres of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, until their surrender in 1989. There were supposed sightings of Thompson in Canton, Laos, even Tahiti, but in 1974 Thompson was officially declared dead in USA and Thailand.
I pick up Thompson’s trail in a half-acre oasis of golden bamboo, ficus trees and flowering bananas tucked away down an otherwise non-descript Bangkok soi (street). Here, an impossibly elegant guide, dressed in one of Thompson’s creations of crimson and gold silk, greets me with a reverent wai gesture.
You see, opposite Thompson’s weaving village in Ban Krua was land he’d always fancied; formerly part of a summer palace compound that bordered the klong (canal). He chose to build a house here, now a draw card in a kingdom with a royal flush of attractions. For this was no ordinary house by anyone’s standards. Six traditional Thai teak houses, some centuries old, were seamlessly coupled – it was their craftsmanship and permanence that captivated Thompson. The houses were dismantled, stacked on barges and brought by river from the ancient capital, Ayudhya, to the construction site. Early in the spring of 1959, on a day deemed auspicious by a Buddhist geomancer, Thompson officially moved into his new home.
Such was Thompson’s fastidious dedication to detail, the finest carpenters were summoned from Ayudhya (Ayyuthaya) to reassemble the structures. Thai architectural idiosyncrasies include openings that taper at the top, venting more of the stifling tropical torpor. The house is elevated a full storey above the ground on stilts, a practical precaution born of legendary monsoon storms. The illusion of height and grace is also served by the walls leaning slightly inward.
The high ceilings slope ‘cathedral’ style, maximising light and air. Shutters are thrown open to welcome cool breezes. Each doorway is crossed by a 15-inch plank step that typically serves two purposes: one, to stop babies crawling out into the canal; the other, to stop ghosts said to travel only along the floor.
Thompson stamped his eclectic imprimatur -- black and white Italian floor tiles are teamed with his second passion: Chinese porcelain. Especially the dazzling five-coloured bencharong style, created centuries ago exclusively for export to Thailand. Many he picked up cheaply during Sunday strolls in Nakorn Kasem, Bangkok’s ‘Chinatown’.
The dining room’s centrepiece is carved teak tables originally made for gaming. These bear the insignia of King Chulalongkorn. The chandeliers Thompson procured from 18th and 19th century Thai palaces. The plates are 17th century blue-and-white porcelain.
The largest single space is the drawing room, decorated richly with paintings -- on cloth, paper, wood. Sculptures cover an astonishing 14 centuries of Thai, Burmese and Cambodian history. Burmese figurines of nat (good spirits) from Amarapura accent niches. A limestone torso of Buddha from Lopburi dates back to the 7th century.
Now Jim Thompson’s house, left fairly much as it was, is open to the public, presents like the Marie Celeste. And you feel he could pop his head around the corner and surprise you any moment …
See Jim Thompson House: Located at 6/1 Soi Kasemsan 2, near National Stadium BTS Open for tours daily. Also a bar and restaurant on site.
So what do YOU think happened to Jim Thompson? Let me know your theories, no matter how way out.
While researching this blog I was struck by an alarming fact: there are a lot of facts about Amazing Thailand that people – yes, including me – simply don’t know. And that’s a fact.
Like what, you might ask? Well, when I stumbled across a Google search statistic that showed 170 people a month were searching for ‘Chiang Mai Surfers’ that hit pretty close to home – given that I live in Chiang Mai – and I thought, damn that’s one thing I haven’t done here in ages … gone to the local beach for a surf.
Well, sorry to break it to you like this, surfer dudes, the nearest beach to Chiang Mai is probably around 750 km away, and that’s probably in Burma. (Burma, yeah dude, that’s another country in Asia. No, dude, Asia’s a continent. Yeah, we’ve got beaches in Thailand because we’ve got 2705 kilometres of shoreline, just not in Chiang Mai, so chill.)
Little known fact #1: Chiang Mai province is actually home to five of Thailand’s eight highest peaks but I’ll deal with that in a later blog.
So I thought a few bare facts for anyone looking at Thailand travel (or Thailande, Tailand, Koh Thailand or even Thialand as many people mistype it) would be a great place to start this journey.
Local Thai customs:
Thailand is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world, with over 90% of its population practicing Theravada Buddhism. Monks and temples are respected and revered, so do use common sense in terms of modest dress and behaviour in their vicinity. The gesture of respect is the Wai, pronounced why. (There’s no truth in the rumour Tom Jones’ song Wai, wai, wai Delihah was written after he had to continually remind his girlfriend to show respect). The wai is performed by raising your clasped hands in a praying position in front of your face with your fingertips about level with your chin plus a downward tilt of the head.
The royal family is absolutely revered by the Thai people, and rightly so. At cinemas they’ll play the royal song, and often at 6pm on a Sunday evening in public markets and stations. It is correct to stand still and silent for the duration.
For years, Thailand has been known as the Land of Smiles. It is not a put on for tourists – I’ve seen plenty of evidence of this well off the beaten track. If you smile it shows your heart is in the right place (jai dee), and you will get an excellent return on investment with a gleaming smile back. A smile is like a master key, and you’ll find it opens the door to better service, better treatment, and possibly friendships. But at very least YOU will feel better and happier within yourself.
The one golden rule for Thais is sanuk (fun). If something’s not sanuk, forget about it.
Popular Thai destinations:
To help you start researching your own Thailand holiday and Thailand hotels, here are the key gateways and destinations you might want to include in your itinerary:
Bangkok (not spelt Bankok)
Chiang Mai (no, it’s not spelt Chiangmai or Chang Mai)
Phuket (including Patong)
I’ll deal with each of these in upcoming blogs, and of course there are thousands more places in between … it’ll take me a lifetime to cover them all, which I fully intend to do. (And if I embrace Buddhism, I’ll have the next life, and the next … to do it.)
Approximate distances between main centres in Thailand.
Bangkok to ...
Ayutthaya: 80 km. Driving time around 1.5 hours.
Chiang Mai: 700 km. Flying time 1 hour 15 mins
Chiang Rai: 825 km. Flying time 1 hour 20 mins.
Hua Hin: 300 km. Driving time 3 hours.
Kanchanaburi: 139 km. Driving time 2.5 hours.
Khao Lak (via Phuket). 880 km. Driving time 12 hours.
Khao Yai: 250 km. Driving time 3 hours.
Koh Chang (via Trat): 330 km. Flying time 1 hour then boat.
Koh Panghan (via Ko Samui): 340 km. Flying time 1 hour then boat.
Koh Samui: 575 km. Flying time around 1 hour 15 mins.
Krabi: 946 km. Flying time 1 hour 20 minutes.
Pattaya: 120 km. Flying time 1 hour 10 mins.
Phuket: 830 km. Flying time 1 hour 25 mins
Sukhothai: 425 km. Flying time 1 hour 25 minutes.
There are 12 airlines (including several budget carriers offering cheap flights) to get you around the country, plus an excellent rail system, buses, boats, tuk tuks, scooters and even elephants. The roads by and large are very good, and I’ll be giving you the low-down on driving Thailand and how best to motorcycle Thailand in later blogs.
Mostly hot and humid year round. Hey, it’s a tropical country, what’d you expect? But …
North of Bangkok: From June to October southwest monsoon and rains.
November to February, mostly dry.
March to May, dry and increasingly hot.
South of Bangkok: On west coast, from April to October southwest monsoon. On east coast monsoonal rains from September to December. The south is generally wetter than the north.
Thai baht. It’s easy to remember if you’re a fan of the Simpsons – ‘Doh Bart!’ Amazing Thailand has been rated the world’s 2nd best value travel destination, according to Lonely Planet’s ‘Best in Travel 2010’ guide, behind only Iceland which is suffering financial meltdown. Now’s a great time to get Thailand deals due to relative weakness of the Baht. See www.oanda.com for currency exchange rates.
For much more detail on all of the above see www.tourismthailand.org. They’ve even got a cool itinerary generator tool to get you started on planning your next Thialand, er, Tailand, um, Thailand holiday.
So no matter how far you live from the sea, you can always surf across to that site.
PS: Any other facts you think would be useful for me to include? Please leave your comments and suggestions here.