Monday 27 December 2010

New Year Fireworks

I blogged recently about how Thais celebrate any and every occasion with fireworks ...

Here's a date for your diary if you're in the north of Thailand this New Years Eve:

Head to 700 Year Stadium in Chiang Mai, where they hold an international contest between 5 countries to see who can produce the most spectacular explosions.

It promises to fill the skies of the north.

And whether you're there or elsewhere for firework celebrations, stand well back. I met a boatman last week who'd lost an arm and one eye from a firework that went off unexpectedly. (No, there's no punchline, just a public service announcement.)

Happy New Year to all my loyal readers ... and the unfaithful ones too.

Of course this is not the real New Year for Thais. December 31 they call Countdown. The real new year happens later in the year, jing jing.

Thailand's Tijuana

If you've ever been to the USA, especially LA or San Diego, chances are you would be familiar with Tijuana.

It's the gaudy, seedy, slightly desperate Mexican border town where Americans go for cheap pharmaceuticals, cheap trinkets, and cheap company. Plus you can claim 'I've been to Mexico!'

Well, Thailand has Burma's Tachileik.  Go north to Mae Sai (about for hours by road from Chiang Mai) and you'll arrive at the border, also Thailand's northern-most point. Tour buses and market stalls congest the approach to the bridge for about 1 kilometre.

A small bridge over a narrow muddy river (only about 10 metres wide) is the border. A huge archway welcomes you to the Union of Myanmar. Yes, this is Burma, keep walking. Pay 500 baht and you get an entry permit (14 days for 500 baht) and hand your passport over nervously for their safekeeping so you don't defect to Burma.

Then, you're in Burma. Suddenly you're swarmed on by a plague of vendors selling temple tours, Viagra, beer, Viagra, taxi service, Viagra, hotels, Viagra, massage, Viagra ... and, just in case you need it, more Viagra. Jing jing!

The market beside the bridge is a seething, labyrinthine mass stalls and humanity, like a canvas-and-plastic version of a Middle Eastern souk bazaar. Among other necessaries, you will be offered Saddam Hussein playing cards, Viagra, beer, Cialis, water, Viagra, sunglasses, Cialis, cigarettes. I don't know what this says about the vendors. Or the visitors.

Suffice to say, everything is on sale and for sale -- including their own grandmothers I suspect. I snapped up a pair of Adidas running shoes for 500 baht. (Yes, they work in baht and all speak Thai). I'm hoping they'll last at least one week in the gym so I get my money's worth.

It's a tour bus scrum getting in and out of the place. You'll be thankful once you return over the bridge to Thailand. Then realise, you went to Burma -- arguably one of the world's most fascinating countries -- and saw absolutely bloody nothing.

Actually, that's not true. Burma looks exactly like Mexico.

Friday 24 December 2010

A little Christmas Sparkle

Part of firework show at Sukhothai
Thailand is a Buddhist country. Ok, so not exactly a banner headline there.

But make no mistake the fun-loving Thais are not going to let a good celebration go by without celebrating it with full gusto. Even if it's a Christian festival such as Christmas.

Everywhere the Christmas trees are out, decorated with lights and tinsel. Shopping malls and stores blare out carols. And Christmas sales and specials are to be had.

Just like Christmas in a Western country ... er, with one exception -- FIREWORKS!!!

From here I can see my neighbour rigging up his 'little' show for tonight. Oh boy, I think this extravaganza might be visible from the International Space Station. And audible from Mars, jing jing.

Merry Christmas to all my regular readers, and hope you get a good 'bang' tonight wherever you are.

Thursday 23 December 2010

The Art and Craft of hospitality

What do you do when you're a retired oil trader and a former Citibank systems executive who want to get out of the rat race?

Why, you buy 4 rai of land, spend 6 years building The Heritage House and Garden, and introduce yourselves to 16-hour working days in service of your guests, of course.

That's what Charles and Aunchan Sands did. They were visiting Chiang Mai when a friend in the real estate game asked if they were interested in looking at some property on the Samoeng Road, behind Doi Suthep. "Yeah, maybe if see something we like ...," laughs Charlie. "Well, we bought the land the day we saw it." And who can blame them -- a nice acreage in a quiet and secluded valley, with a stream running though it, and a meditation centre across the way.

That was six years ago, and they've just opened for business now, jing jing. "We talked about a bed-and-breakfast concept, because we lived in the UK for six years," explains the upstate New Yorker, "and we wanted to include the Arts and Craft Movement. I never imagined we'd undertake anything like this" -- he surveys the stately Provencale-style Manor House behind him -- "but we got sucked into it."

In front across the sprawling lawn is Dragonfly Cottage, and to his left is the Tuscan cottage. Five habitable buildings on the property in all, including their own residence. "We ended up with a small village," he smiles in wonder.

The Arts and Craft Movement is a recurring theme. "Restraint is the mark of good design," says Charlie. Books by William Morris, Charles Rennie McIntosh (the forerunner of the art nouveau movement) and Frank Lloyd Wright are among the extensive library collection, which also features numerous architecture and gardening titles. The Library is a room that makes you want to slouch in a big comfy chair while the fireplace crackles in the corner.

"Chiang Mai's climate is similar and suitable for Provencale inspiration," says Charlie, "but we don't have the Mistral here thank God."

The couple had a local stone-worker toiling for 4 years, and all the stones were sourced from neighbouring village, Ban Pong. Stained glass, used heavily, was sourced from the USA.Tromp l'oeil paintings, usually of grapes and vines, adorn many walls. Antique furniture came from nearby Ban Tawai village and as far away as Rajahstan -- and some from the internet -- each piece lovingly selected and procured by the pedantic couple for a particular space.

Each of the 8 suites is done out in a distinctively different style. There's the soft pink Sunflower room decorated with cherubs, the English Country room all floral (Aunchan's choices), the Chinese suite in rich velvety plum, a Thai suite, a French Aristocratic suite in red and gold (with a Monet reproduction), a more rustic French room, and the top Wisteria suite which features windows on all sides, a terrace, and an 'eagles nest' lookout.

A grand 10-seater dining table lords over the dining area, with its soaring cathedral ceilings.

The attention to detail is splendid; and tiring just to listen to the amount of work that went into each fitting. "It wasn't like doing a Holiday Inn," laughs Charlie.

Outside, the constant trickle of water from the stream and fountains is pleasingly soothing, complementing the calming nature of the lush English/ French gardens. "I was influenced by the lovely English gardens we saw, the National Trust Gardens," says the charming Thai hostess, Aunchan.

It's so utterly convincing in its style, you forget where you are. But, just on sunset, I hear a sound: Waaaa-Eaw! Waaaa-Eaw! Ah, the unmistakable call of the jing jok lizard.

So, we are in Thailand after all.

Friday 17 December 2010

A real meat market ...

View from temple across town
It may not look so fascinating on the surface, but Thoed Thai is a northern town rich in history. It used to be one of the main ports-of-call on the trading route from ancient Chiang Mai to Laos, when, believe it or not, cows used to trundle across borders with baskets laden with goods for sale.

And its Burmese style temple -- Phratat Ga Kam stupa, all gaudy gold, red and green -- dates back to 1181. The ashes of that one were incorporated into the new one which sits proud, dominating the small town's skyline. Ornate filigree work sets it apart, as does a stunning interior mural of Buddha and the Bodhi tree. From here you can see a mosque and church, giving you an idea of how diverse its 50,000 population is.

So when I am woken around 6am with an Islamic-like call to prayer, I am not best impressed. The chant goes on in an endless loop, like some sort of CIA interrogation technique designed to break your spirit. As it happened I was going to get up early to visit the Thoed Thai markets anyway ...

A real meat market. Fresh dead stuff.
"It's possibly the most authentic produce market in Thailand, it's a good one," a friend of mine, who knows these parts well, had told me.

The sun was barely up with a bit of mist sitting heavy in the valley. So as we rugged up, with woolen cap and scarf, this chant or prayer or annoyance continued blaring through the town.

The market is held on the street at the base of the 180 stairs that lead to the temple, just around the corner from Khun Sa's previous headquarters. And this is when it dawned (literally) on me. The 'noise' was coming from the temple, not from the mosque. This guy was relentless. He was actually broadcasting live. I know that, because at around the 45 minute mark he paused briefly, coughed and spluttered into the microphone, then continued.

The main street and one lateral street formed the marketplace. And what delightful fresh produce: piles and piles of oranges, bananas, pork legs, chicken legs, fish, eels, and ... uggh ... what's that? Hairy tofu. Tofu with mould growing out of it. And people were paying for this and actually eating it. Jing jing.

A local lovely.
Hill-tribe ladies lugged heavy baskets strapped across their foreheads. Most of the vendors were noticeably middle-aged ladies, many of whom had either had razor blades for breakfast (they're rich in iron you know) or had been chewing betelnut.

We sat down to a breakfast of champions (if you are my family doctor or physical trainer, please turn away from the screen now): jam donuts, fried deep-fried fried stuff, taro and coconut in condensed milk, pork buns and heart-starting coffee with condensed milk. That pretty much supplied my Recommended Sugar Intake for the month in one sitting.

The townsfolk ambled through, making small talk, swapping gossip and buying stuff. Then, by 9am it was all done. Everything was packed away, and the streets were empty leaving me wondering: Did that all really just happen or was I imagining it?

The stains of jam down my shirt front confirmed it was for real. And my ears were still ringing from that chant which mercifully finally ceased after a full hour and a half.

Sweets For My Sweet, Sugar For My Honey ...

That's Mee the master cook in the white apron.
Anticipation was high, the expectation great. After all, a French friend of mine -- a chef in a Michelin-rated restaurant in Paris and Australia -- had been raving about Sweet Mae Salong cafe:

"Oh, you must try their creme brulee, it is the best one outside of Paris!"

Really? A place in the boondocks of northern Thailand dishing up gourmet desserts?

I found myself in the mountains of Doi Mae Salong recently, and so naturally had to check out this place. On the lower part of the town, Sweet Mae Salong is perfectly charming from the outside with its wood and bamboo cladding.

Then once inside, cool jazz tunes sweep over you, and your eyes are drawn to the valley outside. The cafe hangs over a stunning piece of countryside, with terraced tea plantations opposite. Cast your eyes around and you can hardly believe you're in some little mountain town; it feels as cool as anywhere in downtown Sukhumvit Road. Magazines in any number of languages, arty photographs of the area, and a certain designery chic.

Sooo out of place ...

Sweet Mae Salong is the 'baby' of Ton and Mee, a lovely young couple from Bangkok who decided to pursue their dream. "My family ran a traditional Thai restaurant, very primitive," she laughs. "But I love baking, not really cooking."

Oh, so she studied dessert making under some renowned chef or something? "No, I studied international business in Melbourne," she laughs. "And I studied photography," chimes in the affable Ton. "Spend lots of money to study in Melbourne, now serve coffee and bake cakes!" 

They serve up a splendid breakfast; a mountain of scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage with slices of the best home-made wholemeal bread thick as hard-cover novels. Ton's tertiary education was not wasted -- his coffee is spot on.

Other guests shuffle into the tiny cafe, rugged up against the morning chill which can get down to about 5 or 10 degrees on a wintry morning. Everyone wants to sit on the balcony and be thawed by the morning son that stream across those tables.

We chat between cups of coffee. Why Doi Mae Salong? "It's a balance between nature, culture and money," says the artistically slim Ton. "And Mae Salong is interesting. We have tradition and we have the internet." A Mac computer sits wired nearby. "But it's quiet versus Bangkok and Mee loves the weather."

Over a period of a few days of dropping in here, we feel a sense of homeliness, a compliment to the couple. Our group samples a number of items from Mee's 30-dessert repertoire (she bakes around 3 or 4 of those different items each day). The raspberry tart is wicked, and the creme brulee is, indeed, the best this side of Paris.Or maybe the best including Paris, jing jing.

For someone who doesn't have a sweet tooth, I amazingly find myself hankering to get back there. And, like my French friend, I too have been raving about this great little cafe in the mountains of Mae Salong ...

Thursday 16 December 2010

Doi Mae Salong - A little bit of China in Thailand

Chinese Martyr's Memorial Hall
Could Doi Mae Salong be one of the world's most remote Chinatowns?

The little town is accessed by a snaking mountain road about 3.5 hours north of Chiang Mai, itself being fairly remote as it's 600km north of Bangkok. Yet it's as Chinese as Beijing. Maybe even more so, now that the cadres have embraced progressive capitalism with such gusto.

The first sign of Mae Salong's Chineseness is a rather elaborate gate at the front of town indicating the Chinese Martyr's Memorial Hall. (And now that I look at it, that apostrophe is in the wrong position but that's what it's called ...) Chinese Martyr's? What? Who? Where? Why???

It turns out that in 1949 with the Chinese Revolution, defeated Chiang Kai Shek took most of his Kuo Min Tang army off to Taiwan. However the KMT 93rd Regiment had to flee south from Yunnan, through Burma, and they ended up regrouping in these far-flung hills, close to the Burma border.

From here, they agitated and fought against the communists, and did whatever other military work they could do in the area, ingratiating themselves to their Thai hosts. So they were granted citizenship and allowed to settle.

Now, 60 years later, they've left a strong legacy. Apart from the huge red-and-gilt Memorial Hall, tassled red lanterns hang from ornate eaves. Shop signs are mainly in Chinese, sometimes Chinese and Thai.  

One of a thousand tea shops
One enthusiastic vendor calls out to me to try her mulberry wine. (The Chinese invented silk too, made by silkworms which eat mulberry leaves.) It is deliciously sweet, but more like cordial than a wine, so Penfold's don't have to worry about the price of Grange plummeting any time soon, jing jing.

And the locals speak Chinese. "Yes, meeeester, about 80 percent speak Chinese," says Vit Toon, a moon-faced young chap at Little Home Guesthouse, who cooks up a lip-smacking Yunnanese feast including porks leg soup on their terrace overlooking the valley.

"It feels like Yunnan before," says my companion, who'd worked in that southern China province for a couple of years. Indeed the whole town is infused with the feeling of a Chinese frontier town. Especially with the added textural presence of Chinese-origin hilltribes such as the Akha, who's beaded and coined head-wear clank as they shuffle along the steep streets lugging baskets of tea leaves from down the slopes.

Now that opium has been eradicated from the area, the very Chinese crop of tea -- invented by a Chinese warrior let's not forget -- has taken its place.

Dozens of modern and inviting tea shops line the town's streets, stacked ceiling high with bags and boxes and cans of tea of all different varietals. And the endless plastic-sided street markets also peddle tea and tea sets.

So, save yourself the airfare to China. Instead, take a car, motorbike, bicycle or song taew to Doi Mae Salong instead. It's Chinese, to a tea. Er, tee.

Khum Nai Pon - A pretty fancy campsite

Armin, a Swiss friend of mine who runs custom tours through Northern Thailand, has suggested Khum Nai Pon as the best accommodation in the hill town of Doi Mae Salong. As we ride up the main road (well, the town is only one road wide as it's on a precipitous ridge) we see the hotel ahead ...

Charming wooden villas, each nestled amid tea plantations, golden trumpet flowers and flaming red hibiscus. So far so good.

We meet the gracious host, Khun Yuie, at the casual reception/ dining area as we admire the sweeping views down over the valley and the colourful tiled roofs of the Chinese town which hugs the ridge until it drops out of sight.

The original Khum Nai Pon buildings
Yuie is keen to share the fabulous history of this site. "Khum Nai Pon means Nai Pon's Camp," she says, "and he was a general in the Kuo Min Tang army who fought against the communists." I strap myself in for an instant history lesson of the area. "He also headed up security for Khun Sa, the drug dealer, and provided protection and passage for his opium into Burma."

Gee, thanks Armin, what kind of sleazy dive have we got ourselves into here?

Yuie extends her arm out to the valley: "This whole area was poppy fields."

She came here 10 years ago, once the area had been cleaned up. "There was nothing, just nature. So quiet you could hear the birds. But the promotion has been too successful ... now motorbikes." Indeed Mae Salong has grown in leaps and bounds since being opened up to the general public (it was a no-go zone for many years because of the military and drug activities).

She suggests the town could retain its quaintness by putting in a big car park at the top then everybody can use horse-and-cart from there. She adds a rather deranged clip-clop sound which reminds me of the introduction to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

There are none of the original buildings left, instead replaced by cute and comfortable villas, with little balconies affording wide open views.The general certainly chose a good spot.

But then I guess when you're the general and the strongman for the world's biggest drug czar, you can have any damn place you want, jing jing.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of ... Erhus

This is a photographer's dream ... the vivid textiles, the ornate costumes, the beautiful innocent faces. Snap! Snap! Snap Snap! "Over here, darling. Work it ... Work it!" I call out to the slightly reluctant uber-exotic models as my little Canon Ixus 200 Point-n-Shoot goes into overdrive.

"You should shoot the men; it's very rare to see them in full garb, especially with head-dress," counsels my friend, David, a veteran of this festival. Spoilsport!

What I'm gushing over is the Bua Tong (Mexican Sunflower) Festival, which has been staged in Hua Mae Kham each November for the past 21 years. The name becomes self-explanatory as you take the excellent new road all the way to the hill-tribe town nestled on the hills of the Thai-Burma border, a couple of hours northwest of Chiang Rai. 

This really is the end of the line, geographically, for northern Thailand. But what a splendid view ... a carpet of yellow flowers, like daisies juiced up on, um, whatever it is that the Chinese ladies swimming team allegedly uses. As far as the eye can see.

In low gear, through army checkpoints and golden rice fields awaiting harvest, you arrive up at Ban Hua Mei Kham. Children ride oversized bicycles, and dogs rest in the shade of nipa huts. Chickens cross the road, just like in the joke.

There is no parking lot of course. Civilisation thankfully has not reached this far. But marshals do their best to shepherd people into suitable spaces among the bushes and houses. The swelling crowd is a mixture of outrageously costumed hill-tribes and locals. (The whole day I will only see around 6 farangs, most of them being the friends I came here with.)

With the Burma election recently completed, the Thai border patrols are on high vigilance with a flood of refugees expected. Major Saphun, a 13 year veteran of the military police, is on red alert, chatting up some Lisu girls on the verandah of a house, posing for photos with them and generally trying his luck. Sgt Niphun the same. "I come here to do security every year," the major tells me. I feel reassured.

What few soldiers are here, with M-16s slung over their backs, are all photographing the pretty village girls amid much laughter, as are a posse of high-ranking police officers all aglitter with medals and paratrooper wings.

If you sense that the atmosphere is folksy, you're absolutely spot on. The village cascades down the vertiginous hillside; some houses here, a store there. All overlooking a natural amphitheatre, which is where the festival is held.

As I scramble down the steep path, a pick-up stops alongside me. "Come," says the smiling major who’s pulled himself away from the village girls for a while. We hop into the back for the extremely short ride downhill.

Yellow, yellow, yellow. Sunflowers galore. Shortly, we pull up at the field, where makeshift bamboo benches have been installed among the flora as vantage points.

Some unseen guy blasts away on the Tannoy in Thai, no doubt telling us fascinating details about what we're seeing and about to see. There are troupes of Lisa, Akka, Hmong and many of the other half dozen or so hill-tribes who live in the surrounding mountains. Most used to toil on opium poppies, helping legendary local Khun Sa become the world's largest drug lord. But now, thanks to the Royal Projects, they grow other crops like rice, and have beautiful roads installed.

It feels like the cross-roads of China with all these ethnic minorities who originated in southern China, some with Tibetan and Mongolian origins. Raspy bamboo flutes and Erhus slice the cool air. The groups in turn parade and perform a song-and-dance routines. Some with a mint of coins in their hats. Others with shells on their costumes. Some with embroidered beads. All with brilliant colour.

One troupe grabs my eyes more than others -- a tangerine-clad group from a little Chinese village near Doi Mae Salong. They break into a routine that seems like a hybrid of Kylie Minogue's 'Do the Locomotion' and a traditional Fan Dance, jing jing.

The youngest performer on the day was a girl of about ten named Pepsi. (No truth in the rumour her brother is called 7-Up!)

As an example of the fascinating ethnicity of this area, they speak Yunnanese, "and only little bit Thai." At a rustic noodle shop up the hill (where we gorge on Yunnanese fishball noodles for only 20 baht), my Thai companion speaks Mandarin and some Yunnanese dialect to the Thai vendors.
The major walks past, chatting with some village girls. He smiles, winks and waves. Thailand’s national security is in good hands.

The sun begins to set on the marvellous valley. A chill comes into the air. I've got a full belly. And a full memory card in the camera. I just hope we've got a full tank of petrol to get us back to Thoed Thai.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Driving Licence Thailand: the REAL Road Rules --- finally available!

Thailand Driving License: The REAL Road Rules finally available thanks to WikiLeaks! 
by Stu Lloyd

It is hoped that this definitive list will be soon be adopted as the official driving code of Thailand, in the absence of any other such known publication, so that all drivers on the road will act in strict accordance with it. 

# 1. The Mercedes Benz always has right of way.

#2. The more wheels you have, the more right of way you have. (Except when Rule #1 applies.)

#3. Anything with two wheels or less does not count as a vehicle and should be disregarded completely. Even if it’s a 1800 cc Harley Davidson the size of the average Thai house.

#4. If you need to turn off, then turn off. If that means a right-angled swerve across three lanes on two wheels so you don’t miss your turn, please go ahead. We’ll just fit in with your plan. No need to indicate your intention.

#5. If in the process of executing that turn, you cause three motorcyclists and a tuk tuk to end up in the ditch, add 5 points.

#6. Indicators should only be used in the following fashion. If someone is behind you and wanting to overtake, put on your right indicator. This means either a/ it is clear and safe to overtake now or b/ don’t overtake now a bus is coming over the blind rise at a speed approaching 130km/h. It will soon become apparent which meaning was intended.

#7. Do have as many Buddhist amulets on the dashboard as possible. If you’re involved in a fatal accident, never mind -- there’s always another life, and another …

#8. Traffic jams can be frustrating, so, as soon as you get any open space at all, get your vehicle to its highest possible top speed. As a guideline the rpm counter should be kept in the red zone in event of any open road.

#9. When joining a busy main road from a small side soi, proceed directly into the intersection without stopping – or even pausing – for other traffic. This selfishly indulgent act of stopping and checking will only cause confusion for those behind you, with the possible result of them rear-ending you.

#10. When on a motorcycle, do not wear a helmet, and ride as fast as the bike will possibly go while using cars, buses, elephants, and chickens as slalom course markers. Irrespective of traffic conditions, possible dangers lurking around the corner, and pedestrians foolishly crossing the road at a marked pedestrian crossing, maintain this speed (once again, the red zone on your rpm gauge is a reliable indicator). After all, in the event of some other idiot doing the wrong thing, you want to be killed outright, not maimed.

#11. On the subject of pedestrian crossings, these are known to farangs as ‘zebra crossings’. There are no zebras in Thailand. Ignore. Proceed as usual.

#12. Do not wear a seat-belt. This will delay you when you stop at 7-11 to buy more beer for the drive, resulting in late arrival for the party. This is not acceptable to your thirsty friends.

#13. In the event you become completely, utterly, motherlessly drunk when drinking with your friends do not -- repeat: DO NOT! -- leave your vehicle there and attempt to walk home. In your drunken state you might be tempted to actually use a pedestrian crossing on foot, without observing the golden rule of crossing any road in Thailand: look Right, look Left, look Up then look Down before you cross. The buggers will get you from anywhere!

#14. Red lights. This is merely an optical illusion – all traffic lights in Thailand consist of three different shades of green. What you think is red is actually just dark green. Proceed as usual.

As a public service for farang motorists and tourists, this code will be made freely available in Hardship Posting volume 5. See

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Some steamy man-on-man action

Mor Ta, master torturer
I blame my neighbour. He tipped me into this appointment with Mor Ta. Mor means Doctor, and Ta -- I'm about to find out -- must surely mean Pain.

Crudely hand-painted signs in Thai  lead us increasingly further from the outskirts of Chiang Mai to rustic villages where, just as the houses run out and the rice fields begin, we arrive at what can best be described as a shack.

Ta and his assistant amble out to greet us, more inquisitively than welcomingly. A couple of mutts try and bark us away. Ta is a plump, square headed-chap with thick-lensed glasses, a Thai Yai (ethnic minority) doctor who studied in Burma, and has practiced massage for 30 years. He treats many of the battered and bruised Muay Thai boxers in Chiang Mai. And proudly tells us about one Danish customer who came to him unable to walk. After four months of treatments, he was walking all over this neighbourhood.

Ta has lived in this place for five years amid banana trees, bamboo groves, and rice fields which are currently undergoing the end of season burnoff.

Pleasantries out of the way, we are told that as this is our first visit we must offer 39 baht as an gift to Buddha to ask us to make the pain go away. Oh, does this mean we don't need the actual message then?

Ta sizes me up, presses my bicep and says: 'Soft. Farangs eat bread when they are young, not like Thais who eat rice.'  He should talk, pudgy little guy that he is; raised on cupcakes by the look of it. He then over-estimates my age by 4 years. Well I never!

He pulls out some oversized canary yellow football shorts, sharading that I need to strip off everything and change into these. (There are no change rooms after all, just an open-sided shed where his steam rooms are.) I feel decidedly uncomfortable when he holds the towel around me so I can change.

We're then ordered into the steam room, a primitive affair with a green drape over the front trapping the camphor-smelling steam in. Cough, choke, splutter, wheeze. This is more like an interrogation chamber. We sit in pitch darkness on the low bench in the box which is no more than 2 metres x 2 metres.

'Come out when you're hot,' is the instruction from Mor to his assistant to my companion to me, a lengthy but necessary chain of command given he speaks some weird dialect which is then translated into Thai then into English.

We soon burst from the room sweating and gasping. We're seated and given a cup of reddish liquid from a thermos. 'Yaa dong?' I jokingly ask, referring to the illicit Thai alchohol popular in the north. No, it's just herbal tea which tastes of sandalwood. Or maybe just sandals, jing jing. It's rank.

We're ordered back into the steam room for a second round of interrogation. Cough, splutter, choke. Ok, Ok, I'll talk. I'll give you all the state secrets you want ... just let me out.
We're taken to the adjoining shed, another open-sided breeze-block-asbestos roofed affair. A few thin mattresses adorn the floor. Forget the usual chimes and piped new-age music ... a 14" TV blasts out some American war movie. Mor Ta kindly tilts the set so I can see it more clearly.

Then he goes to work ...

… with his nail-clippers.

Seriously! He hoists my toes up and starts clipping my toe-nails, which were admittedly overdue for a trim. That out of the way, he starts roughly jabbing his thumbs into my lower calf. Aaaaargh! Oh God stop! Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeitttt! He calmly pronounces my kidneys to be in very good order.

And so it went for ... actually I don't know how long. You see, he doesn't work to a set time frame. He works on you till all your ailments are fixed. (Or, I suspect, you have a full set of new ailments inflicted by him.) He jabs and pokes and prods and rubs, flopping me around like a rag doll. A little bit of oil on the knees then ,,, Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaargghohmygodstopthatyou'regonnakillme!!!

He declares my knees to be not very good.

No shit Sherlock, what was your first clue?

Then he declares my heart and liver to be healthy, but too much stress in the intestine. Less coffee and relax more I'm told. Am I stressed? Well I was doing perfectly fine until I arrived here, thank you.

Around two hours later, the carnage and humiliation suddenly ceases. 'Steam.'

I hobble into solitary confinement in the steam room again. Everywhere hurts. I emerge for some fresh air, checking that the coast is clear lest I get summoned for another session with the master torturer. Luckily he's nowhere to be seen and I savour this time the taste of sandals in the tea.

Omo, a pin-cushion-sized pug-like thing which may be a dog, has a little yap at me. Shhh! Shhh! He's going to ruin my escape plan. I see the assistant coming so duck for cover into the steam room again. Cough, choke, splutter, wheeze.

When I emerge I come face to face with Doctor Pain. But this time he's beaming. 'Yaa dong?' he says conspiratorially. He motions with a cupped hand for me to follow him down the back of the shed. There he reveals a glass jar full of congealed red liquid. He lifts the lid and the pungent musky odour nearly exfoliates my skin. He ladles out a little portion. More? he asks rhetorically before tipping the rest of the ladle out. He adds some honey.

"Good for calm nerve and .... PING!" he says excitedly, graphically pointing to his groin with a sudden erect finger. "Haha, yes, ..." He holds a finger to his mouth -- the secret of his mystery potion must not be leaked to the womenfolk lurking just out of earshot.

I sip it. Whisky, albeit it not fine 12 year old single malt Scotch, has obviously played a large part in its creation. But it's red and earthy. I feel my heart either skip a beat or beat twice, the details are not clear. A feeling of extreme well-being washes over me.

We pay, 500 baht ($18) each for the approximately 2-hour session, hop into the car and promptly get lost trying to retrace our steps. Damn, that yaa dong is strong stuff.

I can undoubtedly say it was the best massage I've ever had. It was the real thing, and one of the most authentic experiences I've ever had. But not the most enjoyable.  But if I have a serious ache or pain I know where to go. For more.

Monday 13 December 2010

Six of the best from Chiva Som

It seems like an eternity since Chiva Som -- 'the haven of life' -- ushered in a whole new level of wellbeing to the world from its quiet little corner of Hua Hin.

In fact it's been 16 years, and none of the youthful passion has worn off. Witness the fact that this year alone the pioneering spa has won no less than six, yes SIX, major accolades:

1. 'Top Ten Best Medical Programs' SpaFinder Readers' Choice Crystal Award 2010
2. 'Best Destination Spa' The Crystal Awards 2010
3. '4th Favourite Destination Spa' Conde Nast Traveller Readers' Spa Awards 2010
4. 'Best Amenities/Products' Conde Nast Traveller 2010 Readers' Travel Awards
5. 'Top 5 Destination Spa' Conde Nast Traveller 2010 Readers' Travel Awards
6. 'Best Overseas Spa Resort' Luxury Travel & Style Magazine 2010 Gold List

In the humble and gracious words of Krip Rojanastien, CEO & Chairman of Chiva-Som:

"Chiva-Som has acquired a reputation in helping people all over the world to achieve lasting wellness in mind, body and spirit. In doing so, we have leveraged a quality in the Thai people, that of Thai hospitality. Thai hospitality promotes the genuine care for the wellbeing of our guests and this has distinguished Chiva-Som in the world of wellness and sets us apart in terms of service delivery.
It is the staff of Chiva-Som who truly deserves the credit for this important recognition.

If that doesn't rub and tug at your heartstrings, I don't know what would, jing jing.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Still on the hippy trail in Samui

As we drive up through the backblocks of Lamai into the Varinda Resort I do a double-take. It seems like Alice in Wonderland has dropped an acid trip. Or Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali have just been here on a huge beach-side bender.

Mermaids and goats poke from the undergrowth. Bicycles hang from trees. Multi-hued rocking horses eye me from the pathway, jing jing.

Everything --and I do really mean everything -- is in bright, bold, primary colours. In your face.

In the lobby I do another double-take. Literally. Owner Yindee (Noi) and her daughter Varinda (Oil) could almost pass for twins although there is 20 years between them. Oh, and they're not mother-daughter; Noi is the aunt, being Oil's mum Chanida's sister. Goddit?

In their tie-dyed tees, sarongs, and wildly coloured bandannas, you immediately realise this is not the Hyatt Regency. "You don't come to a hotel in Samui, you are coming to see Noi your friend," she beams. "It is very humble but this is our house and your home too."

Noi sees herself as a hippie and dresses like this everyday ... even when on corporate roadshows. A far cry one suspects from when she worked with UNESCO for 14 years. "Samui talks about 4 star, 5 star, but we are here for the backpackers. Twenty years ago, this was the place for Aussie hippies to party."

And a nice spot it is too, on a promontory affording long views over Lamai Bay. "We are not on the beach but we have access through the family's property next door."

Family is a recurring theme with the artistic Noi. She's a painter, and so's Oil, hence the colourful splashes on every surface in, on and around the main buildings and the villas." The latter studied in the UK, and Chanida''s son is about to study hotel management in Switzerland. "But I told him you will not change anything here, we like it like this."

There is lots to love about the low-key laid-back environment.  All the balcony railings and all the furniture in the restaurant, are all hand made from wood from the property's orchard. It is rustic and enchanting compared to many of its newer modern generic neighbours. And when you're in the poolside sala overlooking the bay, nirvana seems somewhere just over the horizon.

"Samui is great because there's no low season," she says with those eyes sparkling again, laughing. "Great isn't it? Amazing!" Just then the rain slices in over the bay, sending diners ducking for cover.

"You can go to Bali and the beaches are great, too, but in Thailand ... it's the people," she says, touching her heart. "Next time come, and we'll go crazy, have a BBQ ..."

They don't teach you that at hotel management school in Switzerland. But they should.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Amari Residences Bangkok -- well, well, well ...

When I first heard the address of this new Amari Residences Bangkok property, I was struggling to place it. It seemed to be well away from the usual well-worn hotel strips, and I wondered why. Was the owner feeling OK when he commissioned this property?

The answer is 'very well' thanks ...

This came clear to me as our taxi rounded the corner at Bangkok Hospital on New Petchaburi Road. Health and wellness and medical tourism is one of the real boom categories for travel to Thailand these days. And just 500 metres from one of the city's biggest and best hospitals is the new Amari Residences.

(In the same area are massive companies such as Electrolux, Yokohama, Siemens, and Italian-Thai, so it's a good location for business travellers, too.)

So into the brand new lobby we go, all clean lines and Martha Stewart furniture. "That one coffee table alone cost us 200,000 baht," says Front Office Manager, Suwat. Off to one side of the lobby is a library, where some folks sit and read the morning papers. To the other side is a new cafe concept called Buttercup, from where tantalising smells of freshly-baked pastries from its European-style kitchen waft into the lobby.

But it's the courtyard that really radiates a sense of well-being. The big open area is dominated by a thong kwao tree, famous for its sap which is a pain reliever. Nice concept! Especially as the breakfast area and restaurant overlook this.

The rooftop is also an inspiring area, where more will doubtless be done once the hotel gets through the soft-launch period. But for now there's a large lap pool (built for functional swimming of laps, with lanes marked and everything, and alarmingly not a cocktail pool bar in sight!) A fitness centre on the roof, and ex-nurses working as therapists in the spa also speaks to the wellbeing orientation of the residences.

And so upstairs to rest and recuperate ...

Our one-bedroom suite was a full 60 sq metres  -- that's the equivalent of a junior suite in many other hotels I've stayed at. Room rates kick off around 2000 baht per night, and long term guests can expect to pay around 55,000 baht per month.

The warm colours certainly work hard instil a sense of upbeat into this place. Egg yolk orange seems to be the central colour theme, jing jing.

This is complemented by quirky panels of contemporary colours giving it a spacious and airy feeling overall. All this ties nicely into the Amari's 'Colours & Rhythmns' rebranding vibe.

Not that I was there for medical reasons (honestly, my facial skin has always been this tight!) but I certainly came away with a good feeling. OK, maybe I had my boobs lifted, a little, but that's all I'm owning up to ...

Saturday 4 December 2010

Lounging round in Samui ...

If the greeting at the Business Class/ VIP lounge at Samui's cute little airport is not as warm as you might rightly expect, there's a good reason.

You see, the poor attendant there spends roughly three quarters of her time throwing freeloaders out of the lounge. No, not travel writers, I mean real free-loaders: punters hoping to scam a free meal or free internet or nice comfy sofa away from the madding crowds.

It's not that it's not clearly signposted as the VIP lounge. Yet backpackers who clearly have not showered or shaved in months nor spent more than 25 baht a night on accommodation walk up to the sliding doors with a look of entitlement in their eyes and a feeling of nourishment already in their bellies.

An array of bain-maries holds curry puffs and sticky rice among other delicacies.

'Mmmm, this looks great,' says an American next to me, piling his plate till it nearly interfered with the chandelier. Just then, the harried attendant returns to the lounge and asks him for his boarding pass. Economy class! See ya ...

Another unwashed couple walk up to the doors. with a quizzical look on their faces. Clearly they know they don't warrant entry Asia's Boutique Airline's lounge, but they try anyway. "Boarding pass please." See ya ...

And so it went. Time after time. The lounge attendant rolls her eyes. See ya ...

A ratio of 4 wannabes for every genuine Business Class passenger, jing jing!

With every eviction my sense of smugness reached cruising altitude. I tucked  into yet another bowl of special-order shrimp wonton soup. And another. This is great soup. Order a bowl. Order two bowls. It's worth the price of flying Business Class on Bangkok Airways alone.

But one thing that is available to all passengers at Samui airport, including the great unwashed, is the toilet block with its built-into-the-wall fish tank. Skittering tropical fish and the odd big janitor fish. A bit disconcerting to have that big sucker -- pun fully intended -- staring down at you at close quarters as you're trying to empty your bladder. 

Footnote: Stu Lloyd travelled to Samui with the assistance of Bangkok Airways.
(Photo above is of lounge at Bangkok airport, not Samui.)

Wednesday 1 December 2010

What's coming up in December ...

Wow, December already ... and I can already feel the streets are busier around Bangkok and Chiang Mai at the moment, and my flight the other day was standing-room only! It can only mean one thing: the high season.

So what stories are in store for Jing Jing readers this month?

* We're moving on from Samui to the north ... Doi Mae Salong, a very charming Chinese town on the Thai-Burmese border. We'll be off-road motorbiking, as well as eating beautiful French pastries in one of the coolest cafes I know, and checking out fascinating stories of Chinese war generals and renowned drug lord, Khun Sa.

* Therd Thai and Doi Hua Mae Kum annual Bua Tong festival, where dozens of different hilltribes gather for song and dance amid the blooming sunflowers.

* The Loy Krathong Light and Sound Show spectacle at Sukhothai ... wait till you see my pics from that.

* And the Yee Peng Khum Loy festival in San Sai, Chiang Mai, in which thousands of glowing lanterns are released. One of the most amazing things I've seen -- and felt -- in my life, jing jing!

So, enjoy December and look out for those stories.

Cheers, Stu.

PS: Please forward this to anyone who might enjoy the Thailand Jing Jing blog, and get them to sign up to follow it at or else on my new Facebook page Stu Lloyd / Worldsmith 360 where you'll find a lot more stuff about Thailand and my travel adventures.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Sexy Time in Southern Samui ...

The very first time I went to Samui (circa 1997) I stayed at a place called the Butterfly Garden, a modest establishment which was in Laem Sett ... way, way, way away from anything, accessed through screeds of coconut plantations where collared monkeys darted up trees to pick the choicest coconuts one by one. And that's what drove Samui's economy. Then.

Fast forward a decade, and here I am tootling toward Laem Sett on a scooter past the glittering IT malls and shopping arcades of Lamai, and further to the Laem Sett turnoff. Signs everywhere pointing to a hundred different offerings herald that this steep and sleepy hollow has been discovered. Indeed, although there is still plenty of greenery around, no sign of those monkeys anymore. Soon I see the Butterfly Garden, almost unnoticeable compared to its new neighbour, the massively sprawling flash new Centara.

Then it's down to first gear as my scooter smokes it way up another hill, round the bend, down, up and around, affording beautiful glimpses through the trees at the lovely blue waters beyond. Finally, a series of smart flag/signs signal Shasa Resort and Residences. Over another crest and ...

WowweeEEE! The 32-suite ShaSa looms out of the foliage. A surprisingly ambitious development for a one-off hotel with no sister properties. The resort cascades down the hill towards the bay.

The welcome is slick yet warm and down to earth. The resident manager is the charming Sam, who used to work at one of my favourite Bangkok hotels, the Dream. A good start. And then it just gets better ...

Our suite is cavernous. A full kitchen here, a dining area, a comfortable living area with a kinky recliner. Massive balcony which affords an overview of the property: pool, pool, pool, lagoon, all visually blended. But while everything feels big, it smacks of a romantic getaway for couples.

Take the door sign, for example. I don't mean literally take it. I mean, the door sign instead of saying Do Not Disturb reads Romantic Time. Practical. Realistic. Reminds me of that cheesy movie Borat and his expression: ''Sexy time."

The bedroom and bathroom are certainly geared for that. Make sure you stay for at least three nights here. Not that you need that long to unwind, but that's how long it takes to fill the world's largest bathtubs here.

A good bathtub is my measure of a great hotel room, and on that scale it scores ... well, off the scale completely. The US Navy's 7th Pacific fleet could hold war-game exercises in this tub and almost go unnoticed. It's that big, jing jing.

And if you want your privacy and seclusion to continue, just call the spa and get them to come and do you both on the balcony. (Er, that doesn't sound right.) Massage you both on your balcony, I mean, where a massive daybed is laid out. What a treat, as your body soaks up the morning sun, to be rubbed and stroked with perfect pressure. And you never have to leave your room.

But eventually you'll need to surface for sustenance. And Z Restaurant does the trick with a contemporary air and flair, fusing Thai with Mediterranean and seafood.

It's from Z that I spot the hydrotherapy pool with its jets and bubbles and sprinklers and other weapons of delight. An invigorating session in there, and a lounge on the bean bags around. Aah! Bloody magic.

While I might have initially lamented Laem Sett's loss of innocence I am now feeling To Hell With The Monkeys. It's called evolution.

Footnote: Stu Lloyd travelled to Koh Samui with assistance from Bangkok Airways

Monday 29 November 2010

No bucket, no boom-boom!

It used to be that Samui was on the hippie trail and the backpacker circuit, but then the great unwashed gradually got more dissatisfied with the development, progress and cost of ‘their’ island paradise and moved on to Panghan.

Panghan was where the Full Moon Parties started, firstly with boats landing a few hundred people from Samui on a remote beach called Haad Rin. Magic mushrooms were consumed in quantities that would leave Cordon Bleu chefs scratching their heads (and perhaps other body parts) in wonder.

They danced and writhed and raved all night. I mean all night, man. And it was good.

A new paradise was declared. A nascent nirvana.

Word got around. Numbers increased. More shacks sprung up to accommodate the curious and the curfew-less. Hundreds grew into thousands. And numbers peaked at 40,000 with the Millenium party which reportedly raged on for endless nights and days.

Others tried to capitalize. Even Singapore tried to get Full Moon parties off the ground but failed (not enough mushrooms perhaps?). And even Samui offers Full Moon, Half Moon, Black Moon parties. And, not to be left out, the United Nations have a Ban Ki Moon ...

But there’s only one authentic Full Moon party. And even in the low season it draws around 6000 party-heads of, well, just about all ages. (At 48 I reckon I was the third oldest person there.)

The recipe is simple. Hop a song taew van from your resort or the jetty to Haad Rin. Hop off when you see the streets lined with stalls selling sand buckets. That’s right, that’ll be your fine crystal glassware for the night … a plastic bucket, sold along with your choice of spirits and mixers, ie, a small bottle of vodka with two cans of soda and a can of red bull for around 250 baht. Then get your wrist band to go in; that’s 100 baht.

Face and body painting. Tatoos. Day-glo fluorescent wear. Everything you need for a complete night out is there.

Then it’s down onto the magnificent beach – a sea of love and lights – where the music is pumping from any number of pubs, bars, restaurants. Just stroll along until you hear the flavour that’s right for you. Cactus and Drop In seemed about the most popular. Any vantage points, such as chairs and tables are taken early, and party-goers will be standing atop these, shirtless (only the guys, sadly, from what I saw), hip-shaking and fist-pumping all night.

Generous gulps from the sand bucket becomes too much for some. As the night draws on, it’s like a scene from the Somme. Comrades are fallen everywhere, and lie where they fell. An official ‘sleep area’ with plastic sheeting and cordoned off is available for those who need a little power nap. But, hell, I’ll sleep when I’m dead and live while I’m alive, as Bon Jovi used to sing …

If an economist or marketing guru wanted to study the free market system and competition they could do no better than watch the bucket stalls along the beach. Handpainted signs appeal to national patriotism (especially signs for Brits, Scandinavians, etc), popular names, the downright cheeky (‘Love you long time’) and the out-and-out sex appeal of ‘No Bucket No Boom-Boom’, jing jing.

 Fire-dancers and fire-swallowers wow the crowd with throat-burning antics. Burnt-out try-hards litter the beach, having peaked too early.

But the hard-core are now fired up and can be seen sliding down a makeshift slide, three stories high onto (but sometimes over or beside!) a rubber dinghy. A chiropractors’ delight! It’s like a bad  car crash – you have to stop and watch it.

Around 3am, the party was in full swing. But we’ve had enough fun and call it quits. I am pleased (and somewhat amazed) to have witnessed nothing untoward all evening -- just a crowd of fun-loving people partying with much bon-homie.

‘You mean you didn’t see people making out on the beach?’ asks my friend Shana. ‘Oh …’ she seems disappointed. ‘You didn’t see people making out in the water?’ Negative again. ‘Oh …’ she seems more disappointed. ‘You mean you didn’t see people throwing up everywhere?’ No, sorry. Her brow furrows like the absence of any of this is a cause for concern.

But clearly all was not well. Her husband Pong, who runs the Blue Lotus Resort where we stayed, tells me of an Irish girl who had hurriedly checked out at 4:30am without the girlfriend whom she’d checked in with. ‘Oh, getting the first boat out,’ nods Shana knowingly, as though she’s heard it all and seen it all before. In a way she has – after all the American has lived on Panghan for 20 years.

That’s clearly the Dark Side of the Moon. But I prefer to look on the bright side. As a party venue, Panghan is hard to eclipse.