Saturday, 28 November 2009

Phuket -- Now Bigger and Better?

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.



'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

KANCHANABURI –- DAY TRIP –- BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI


‘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 London in 1958 with his father, Captain Hugh Pilkington. ‘He turned to the doorman and said “what a lot of tripe”.’


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 “River River”,’ laughs Summers.

In 1942, the Japanese desperately needed a railway link between Bangkok and Rangoon to fuel their push into India. Use was made of 60,000 Allied POWs in Singapore and Java, a windfall labour force. A further 200,000 native labourers were also chain-ganged.


With the route fording rugged terrain adjacent the Burma border, 688 bridges spanning nearly 13 kilometres were needed along the 415 kilometre sector that became notorious as ‘The Death Railway’.

One bridge had to span 378 metres across Khwae Mae Klong at the provincial town of Kanchanaburi (‘city of gold’). Tamarkan, on the south bank near the confluence, was historically where the Burmese crossed the river in their bid to sack the ancient kingdom. The POWs swelled the usual population of 5000 and local vendors enjoyed a boom, trading much-prized duck eggs which supplemented meager rice rations.


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 Malaya were recycled.

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 Burma, despite the RAF and USAAF trying to blow it back to Indonesia. Hitting a narrow-gauge rail line from several thousand feet proved tricky, so American military boffins devised the Azon: radio-controlled bombs with adjustable fins. BOOM! On June 24 1945, three curved spans were blasted into the river. A couple of months before war’s end, The Bridge was out of action.


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 Thailand responded by changing the name from Mae Khlong to River Kwai. Happy now?


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 Burma Ranges, or a hazy grey painterly rendition. But, no, Thailand was deemed not jungley enough -- the film was shot in Sri Lanka (Spiegel sending the footage home on five separate flights).


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 Australia, derailed by the movie.


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 Bangkok it is standing room only, as we sardine our way from one end of the bridge to the other. Yawning gaps open to a watery grave 20 metres below. ‘No Occupational Health & Safety issues here then,’ quips John.


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.

SPA, DAY SPAS, AND SPA RESORTS –- ASIASPA AWARDS 2009.

I thought I had a good job, but can you imagine being on the judging panel of the AsiaSpa Awards? You’d spend your whole day being pampered from hair follicles to toenails, being blissed out by heavenly lemongrass aromas, soothing chimes, and having their chi and chakras realigned. Now sometimes these poor people have to toil inhumanely long into the evening, just to bring you -- the reading public -- the results of just who is better than who.


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

Kanchanaburi Day Trip – Bridge on the River Kwai -- Must See Museums

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 ‘Mekuron Bridge’ (bastardisation of Mae Khlong).

+ The 378-metre long bridge is not wooden -- it is the only one of 688 POW-made bridges made of cement and steel in Thailand (there were also a few in Burma).

+ It was made from materials purloined from Java Railways, Indonesia, while the rails came from the British-built Federated Malay States 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 Burma. The line was also instrumental in their withdrawal from Burma.

WW2-related attractions in Kanchanaburi include:


The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery: 7000 Allies rest in peace here along Sanggchuto Road. The most visited of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s 25,000 sites worldwide.

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 Japan, England, Australia, Thailand and Holland, soldiers of which helped construct the infamous Death Railway. Built by the chief abbot of Wat Chaichumpol, this monk-run museum is a good repository of photos and artefacts.

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

Jim Thompson House Bangkok. Weaving a mystery.


Hollywood would struggle to dream up a more evocative script: CIA intrigue, the exotic east, political skullduggery, 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
Rama 1 Road, Bangkok. Tel: (662) 612 3601. 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!

Facts on Thailand: a Travel Guide for Beginners.


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:


Ayutthaya
Bangkok (not spelt Bankok)
Chiang Mai (no, it’s not spelt Chiangmai or Chang Mai)
Chiang Rai
Hua Hin
Kanchanaburi
Khao Lak
Khao Yai
Koh Chang
Koh Phanghan
Koh Samui
Krabi
Pattaya
Phuket (including Patong)
Sukhothai



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.



Weather:




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.



Currency:




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.