Thursday 31 December 2009

Bangkok -- Rattanakosin: ISLAND IN THE STREAM

Ok, the mystery has been solved: I now why Rattanakosin -- the former capital of Thailand established in 1782 -- is called an island ... but you'll need to keep reading till the end to find out why. Rattanakosin was deemed an easier place to defend in the old days, after Sukhothai and Ayuthaya, hence its choice as capital. (These days, it's just easier to keep all those shower-challenged backpackers contained inside here, away from the general population.)

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.)

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha, the oldest and largest temple in Thailand, really is something to behold: it is roughly the same size as an Airbus A-380, but being gold is probably way more expensive.

Also took the chance to research the massage service there. You see, Thai massage is said to have its origins at Wat Po. I'll do a blog specifically on the pummelling I received at the hands of what looked like a young and dainty Thai lady. But they tell me it's good for me and I should be fully recovered by mid-January.

Still no sign of the ocean or a bridge or why Rattanakosin is called an island.

Then onto the Giant Swing (see photo), a 30-metre relic from hundreds of years ago when the Brahmins used to swing on this thing, higher and higher and higher, while bags of gold coins were thrown in the air and they had to catch them in their teeth. If they caught a bag, they were allowed to use the money to pay for their dental repairs. The swing has had ups and downs over the years, literally, with cracks, and renovations, and ultimately so much bloodshed (well, it is messy when you get thrown from a swing at full tilt at the top of its trajectory and loop-the-loop onto the concrete below) that it was decided to close it down as recently as the 1930s.

Opposite is Wat Sathat, one of nine temples included in the Nine Temple Crawl (ok, it's not called that, but there's a tour you can do that takes in the magic lucky number of nine temples in a day on Rattnakosin to garner maximum merit).

I graciously declined, as I get templed out after ... well, actually, one temple is about enough for me which is strange given I live in Chiang Mai with around 311 temples on offer.

Instead, after a good strong coffee or two, we took in the National Museum and National Gallery, housed in lovely buildings in the tree lined streets of Rattanakosin. Yes, if you've just tuned in, this is Bangkok we're talking about here.

Returning to the hotel, it dawned on me I still hadn't found out why this is Koh Rattanakosin, an island. So  -- summoning all the resources available to me as a card-carrying fully-accredited professonional travel journalist of several years standing -- I asked the hotel receptionist. The charming Khun Whatsername pulled out a tourist map, and pointed: 'Because of the canals.' And there they were, clear as daylight. Two canals, an inner one and and outer, that stem from the river, and do actually separate Rattanakosin from the rest of mainland Bangkok.

Oh! You'll find me at the bar if you have any more questions.


Woke this morning to the thunderous roar of V8-powered long tail boats powering their way up the Chao Phraya River, and enjoyed the spectacle of Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) across the river from the balcony of the Aurum Hotel on what is known as Koh Rattanakosin.

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

Koh Samui -- a quick festive introduction

Season's greetings, everyone. I just arrived in Samui by train from Bangkok via Surat Thani then ferry across to the island. That little 14 hour journey will be a blog in itself in the the next few days once I've scrubbed the smell of Koh Panghan-bound backpackers out of me completely!

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

Thailand Hotels -- Sukhumvit boutique hotel -- Bangkok Boutique Hotel

The BBH claims to be the first of the modern crop of boutique hotels in Sukhumvit Road, and in a way it feels like it. A little tired, and lacking in some of the flair and flourish of its more contemporary kin.

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

Thailand Hotels -- Sukhumvit Road boutique hotel -- S15 Hotel Review.

S15 sounds like a secret agent code or something, but it's a simple mnemonic for this funky orange-and-glass facaded hotel right on Sukhumvit Road Soi 15. Which is good and bad news ...

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.

Thailand Hotels -- Sukhumvit Road -- Boutique Hotel. SLEEPING PARTNERS

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
Dream Hotel
Bangkok Boutique Hotel
Admiral Premier

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

How you can celebrate Christmas with just 20 baht

Christmas is in the air. In Bangkok, the Christmas tree decorations around the downtown Siam shopping centres are enchanting, magical. And in Chiang Mai, Christmas carols are ringing out from speakers at Central Mall, my local pub, the gym, and even the two lions which symbolically guard the front entrance of my condominium are now somewhat incongruously decked out in red Santa caps.

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

Winter in Thailand, part 2.

There's no length I won't go to to get to the bottom of a story for you, dear readers. Or the top in this case.

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

A White Christmas in Thailand?

I guess you're not exactly expecting a ski report from Thailand. After all, when you think Thailand you probably think blue skies, hot beaches, and endless dripping sweat.

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


Today I am in Kanchanaburi, having come up for the annual Light & Sound Show at the Bridge on the River Kwai (see my posting in November 09 for full story of this iconic bridge).

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:

The most fun way is by train from Bangkok's Thon Buri station (NOT Hualamphong). Buy tickets on the platform. 100 baht each way on the 3rd class rattler which departs daily at 07:45 and 13:55 daily (approximately!). It's a three-hour journey, seeing rice paddies, sugar cane fields, and factories. A good chance to meet some locals, and enjoy banter with the food and drink vendors on board. (see photo of a local beauty!)

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.

phuket -- phuket golf clubs -- PHUKET GOLF CLUBS, COUNTRY CLUBS, RESORTS

Phuket is an island of sun and fun, with hilly terrain that makes for exciting and challenging golf course terrain. Several name designers have had their skills tested in sculpting courses out of the mountains, or using existing lakes and tailings left behind from the island's tin mining past.

Looking for a golf holiday in Thailand? It's perfect because if your significant other is a 'golf widow' she can always go for an indulgent spa treatment or laze around the pool or go shopping while you bash your balls around. (Pardon the inherently sexist tone of that last statement: I know there are many lady golfers out there too who can send their husband off for a facial and pedicure instead!)

Here's a list of Phuket golf clubs to get started with ...

+ Blue Canyon Country Club (see my blog on this course)

+ Loch Palm Golf Club

+ Red Mountain Golf Course

+ Phuket Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa

+ Phuket Country Club

Happy hacking! See you at the 19th hole.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Phuket – Phuket hotels – The Anantara Phuket Resort & Spa: A WET DREAM

I’ve been trying to think of the word to describe the languid unmitigated indulgence in this hotel’s 73 pool villas. I’ve come up with Wallow.

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.

I could spend an entire vacation like this (and, dear readers, I am not ashamed to admit it, I occasionally have.)

Hence, wallow!

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.’

The Anantara Phuket follows the group’s Lost City-style design ethic, where the rooms and main buildings seemingly materialise from among dense tropical foliage.

A king-sized bed, surrounded by a decorative mosquito net, is the centerpiece here. Wallow. There’s also an adjacent day bed, just in case. In case of what you may ask? I don’t know … maybe in case you need a lie down on the way to the huge bathroom with separate rain shower and toilet. Then there’s another wooden shower rig adjacent the pool for a shower under the stars.

All this, and I haven’t even emerged from the villa yet. Let’s see. Pack the thoughtfully provided beach bag and saunter down for a swim in the Andaman Sea, with water the same temperature as the bath I enjoyed earlier, as the crimson orb of sun heads off for a good night’s rest below the horizon. It looks so much like a glow-in-the-dark bouncy ball, I fully expect it to hit the ocean and bounce off along horizon!

Time for sundowners. The Infinity bar is handily close. Hessian bean bags and happy hour form a holy alliance. Wallow. Kerosene torches make me expect Indiana Jones at any minute. Café Del Mar oozes from the speakers. Then I’m offered a free ‘mini-massage’ … a 10-minute sampler of the treatment I can expect in the Spa. Wallow.

Back in the villa, an ice bucket has been filled with a carafe of fruit juice, and drinking water and glasses have been placed thoughtfully bedside. Time for a midnight moonlight skinny dip? Or bed? Either way, I am wallowing in some kind of wet dream.

Comments: if you can think of a better word than Wallow, please let me know as I plan to make this an ongoing item of personal research. Call me dedicated!

Thailand Hotels – Colonial hotels – A NIGHT OF PASSION AT THE EUGENIA

Have you, like me, ever strolled through The Raffles Hotel, Singapore, or Eastern & Oriental in Penang, and wished you’d been there in the good old days before their cash-register-ringing commercial heyday? (With Singapore Slings costing a cool SGD$28 a glass these days I certainly do.)

Now you can relive those halcyonic times. At The Eugenia in Bangkok. To me it must be the closest thing to experiencing the humble but tasteful origins of those hotels before they went on to become fabled legacies of the colonial era.

Thailand of course was never colonized. And to complicate this story more, The Eugenia was created not by the British nor a Thai, but a Taiwanese with a passion for design. And expensive old cars.

Mr Eugene (surname unknown) has created instant history. My companion, a Thai, walked into the hotel and said ‘Oh, so old, it’s scary,’ as the wooden floorboards creaked beneath her feet. She, like me, was flabbergasted to find out that this hotel is only four years old. Yes, yes, but the building itself is older right? No. This was built from scratch four years ago.

Eugene has long had an interest in colonial style design, and collected items for his clients … 100-year old clunky light switches, bathroom tiles, stuffed animal heads, zebra skins, brass fans, four poster metal bed frames; all the old-school imperial touchstones you can think of. From Burma, India, Indochina. So the hotel is utterly, convincingly, authentically stuck in a time warp. (Apart from the airconditioners and LCD TVs in the 12 rooms, and high-speed internet in the library downstairs). Call it bespoke.

The only things that’ve been specifically made for the hotel are its copper and aluminium-alloy bath tubs, handbeaten in Indonesia.

Why even the fleet of cars out front are from a kinder gentler era: A Mercedes 190 SL, and a Daimler almost as big as the 3-storey hotel itself. Just a small taste of Eugene’s personal fleet.

And speaking of taste, breakfast and dinner in the DB Bradley restaurant are a must. Classic white-linen dining, with the likes of Connie Frances, Vera Lyn and Glen Miller setting the tone in the background. Home-made (Ok, hotel-made) breads. Heart-starting coffee served in cereal bowls (well, I put this down as designer chic … perhaps they’d just run out of coffee mugs on the day?). Lamb chops. Duck fillets. Candlelight. Waiters in white duck suits.

If I smoked, I would then wander out the back to the pool and drag on an overstuffed Cuban cigar as I watched the full moon filter through the palm trees, believing fully that it’s the 1930s again, Brittania rules the waves, old chap, and Singapore shall never fall.

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

phuket -- golf clubs -- DRIVING ME CRAZY

Let me get it out here first -- I can't stand golf. You see, it's always played in the most beautiful of natural surroundings, often on a clear blue sunny day, often with good friends, and a few drinks afterwards. So far so good. So what's your problem, Lloyd? Well, it's the bit in the middle that gets me: the hitting the ball part.

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).

Phuket FantaSea - Kingdom of Make Believe

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 ...