Friday 26 February 2010

Bangkok -- Phachara Suites: Service with a Smell

It's a first for me: I am the first ever guest to sleep on a floor of a hotel. No, no, no, not on the floor, I mean the fifth floor of the barely-even-opened yet Phachara Suites 'serviced residence' in Sukhomvit Soi 6.

When all completed, there will be 194 suites. A fitness centre. A business centre. A spa. A pool. 'An indoor pool with an outdoor deck, I guess you could call it,' says Majinder Kaur, the hotel's GM.

Meanwhile, the smell of newness is everywhere from the bright white lobby (where large-screened Mac computers impart a cutting-edge atmosphere) to the rooms, where the varnish or polish on the parquet floors has probably only just dried.

Nice room! Compact, but well laid out. A little sitting room with sofa and a reading chair and light. Good one! The centrepiece is the bed, facing the window, and half screened from the kitchen area where quality Electrolux appliances hold sway. Bathtub and shower in the bathroom (which is just where, frankly, I would expect to find them.) There are studio, one and two-bedroom options, even some rooms which open onto a garden with BBQ facilities.

Muted tones, floor-to-ceiling drapes. View of bushes and trees, and out onto some larger office and hotel buildings from there. It's quiet ...

The surprise there is that we're just off Suk Soi 4 (aka Soi Nana), which is a heaving street: full of all day-all night nightlife (if that makes sense?), restaurants, cafes, pubs. But you here hear nothing hear here. Then there's the embassy district, and Queen Sirikit Convention Centre. Majinder tells me it's only a minute's walk to the BTS Skytrain at Nana. Yeah, yeah, yeah, heard that one before ... I've spent my life writing ads full of exaggeration and hyperbole and you can't fool me ... oh, I'm already there. It is about a minute's walk. Jing jing!

The overall feeling is comfy apartment or condominium rather than hotel. But right now I'm feeling something else -- wet paint.


From the airy but understated lobby to the rooms, this hotel exudes class. Quality. Taste. That elusive something that's often compromised in the bean-counter's heavy-handed search for corner-cutting on the budget.

It's the furniture and fittings. What is it? A feeling that you're walking through a furniture showroom or something in this brand spanking new hotel, where some of the floors are not yet fully operational, and some of the facilities (like gym) are being installed as we speak.

It all makes sense later when I find out that the owner is part of a big furniture importing business family who also, I am told, have or used to have the Mercedes Benz dealership in Bangkok. So that's how they can afford to build a 90-suite hotel building right on prime Sukhumvit Road, a short walk from Phrom Phong BTS station.

Starting with S15 a couple of years ago (see my earlier blog on that), S31 is a bold statement. A statement that says LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME! From the street what you see are long red, blue and green metal pipes extending skywards. From the lobby, you see the rest of what is actually a several-stories tall modern art installation: a bird apparently. In the wide corridors, massive sepia-toned Thai photo art.

Follow me to the rooms: 44 of the 90 are duplex suites, with kitchen and living rooms downstairs, bedroom and bathroom upstairs. Very condo-like. All rooms -- in fact the whole hotel -- are characterised by floor to ceiling glass everywhere for maximum airy lightness, or light airiness if you prefer.

These rooms are all about the bed. Bigger than king sized. Eight foot wide. Approximately the size of an aircraft carrier. Jing jing! You could fit several good friends on here at one time. And a peek under the sheet reveals why they're so astoundingly comfortable -- there's a one-inch thick duvet covering the mattress.

The bedrooms are not that big really -- the bed takes up most of it -- but the illusion of space is there. And from the bathtub, you can open the shutter doors to look through the bedroom to the city view beyond. (By extrapolation, anyone in the city beyond can therefore have a nice reciprocal view of you.)

Speaking of nice reciprocal views, the saltwater pool has got to be seen to be believed. It is above ground, outside reception, with clear perspex sides. So everyone can see you underwater. Cool. Creepy!

If you're wondering what the S in the name stands for, I think it means 'Sharp-Suited Service'. The staff are immaculately turned out in dark coloured threads, chosen possibly as much for their looks as their service ability. But the reality is more prosaic than that (look up prosaic like I had to!): S is short for Soi (street). Soi 31 is a really interesting neighbourhood: art galleries, boutique hotels, a wine loft, funky modern noodle places, etc. And adjacent to all the fanciful nightlife in the world you could possibly want in Soi 33. With Emporium shopping centre, etc, at Phrom Phong near Soi 33/35.

But why would you need to go there, when you've got your own showroom right here?


I know what you're thinking ... it looks like some sort of lighting technique to make it hard for junkies to find a vein, right? That's exactly the concept the designers at Dream had in mind of course. Oh, and also to make it seem like your bed was floating on a cloud (which it would if you could just find that elusive vein).

The Dream is a concept hotel that has dared to really push it out there; an attitude more than just an idea. For instance, a funky glass spirit house on the street outside. Do Not Disturb signs that light up the word 'Shhhhhhh!' outside your room. Tango and salsa classes. Swirling prints of stars and moons and waves and -- what the hell is that supposed to be?

If you like the colour blue, this is your sort of place. Blue is represented in every shade, colour, hue imaginable, and even then a few that possibly aren't.

But this place is not about the hardware,  it's the software. The people and systems are brilliant. You only have to stay here twice to be a recognized regular. I've stayed here any number of times (some of my best work has been done around the Flava Lite rooftop pool/bar/cafe area) and have always encountered nothing but pleasant, personal and professional staff (starting with the cheery bell boys), happy to go that extra bit for you when you make another damned unreasonable request. For example:

'Could I have a late check out, please.'
'Certainly, Mr Lloyd, would 2pm be OK?'
'Well, I was thinking next Tuesday would be more suitable.'
'Certainly, sir.'

As for the rooms: quality appointments, and a feeling of solidity throughout. Free wireless (or use their computers in 'Biz' for free), DVD and flatscreen. Some rooms have bath tubs. Some have sofas. Some have both. And interiors remain fresh-feeling even though the hotel is now quite a few years old.

They have a restaurant (in stripey orange, brown and red as a respite from blue, with lifesized replicas of tigers and cheetahs in blue and neon pink!), a spa, and a gym (one of each machine, good enough).

Oh, I should mention that the hotel is divided into Dream 1 and Dream 2, facing each other over the road. I've always ended up in Dream 2, the newer wing, so the other one remains an enigma to me.

Soi 15 is very handy to Asoke BTS station and is quite an interesting street with tailor shops (always Indian owned: 'Suit for you, sir?' 'Shirt for you, sir?'), other hotels, hairdressers, karaoke bars, and street vendors grilling pork. At the other end is a khlong  (canal) where you can catch a boat down into town.

So next time you're looking for a high in Bangkok, visit Dream World. With standard rooms available from around 3500 baht per night (including a good full breakfast selection) you'll think you're still dreaming.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Bangkok situation update and, er, the best rooftop bars.

Please see for more recent up-to-the-minute updates on the Bangkok situation and the situation in Thailand as the Thai election draws nearer. Thanks.

'Oim roolly glared we caaaim,' said a middle-aged female Aussie tourist, as the group chinked glasses at Vertigo, on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. It's funny how the Aussie accent at home is just the endearing Aussie accent we all know. But somehow on this romantic night it cut through the air like a chinesaw. I mean chainsaw. The group was saying how they nearly cancelled their flights after hearing 'the news' about Bangkok, but here they are enjoying a truly stunning 360-degree city night vista and quenching their thirsts with cocktails.

In fact this blog was supposed to be about 'all the bad stuff' going on in Bangkok at the moment (no, no, I'm not talking about Patpong). So we caught the Skytrain to Sala Deang station right in the middle of the Silom District. You might remember that as being one of the places I indicated might be best to avoid around this time.

Anyway, we enjoyed a really authentic Thai meal at a restaurant called Banana Leaf in Silom Complex, adjoining the BTS, before getting a tuk-tuk to the Sukhothai Hotel. Apart from a car accident, there was no sign of anything untoward, and certainly not an out of place policeman, soldier nor Red Shirt to be seen anywhere. So ...

From there we strolled to the Banyan Tree. And, boy, is Vertigo well named. I swear the skinny building was swaying in the evening breeze as we emerged on the top deck. And busy! We finally found a cushioned bench at the far end adjacent the railing. Bangkok seemed right in our faces, as we picked out the major buildings and got our bearings. Cocktails are a bit punchy at around 300-350 baht, but, hey this is a five star hotel rated by Conde Naste as one of the world's very finest. The special Jamaican coffees only added to the swaying sensation.

In a similar vein, check out Skybar and Sirroco on top of the Lebua Hotel. On the 63rd the latter holds the distinction of being the world's highest al fresco restaurant. Woah -- this is high! What an amazing difference those two floors make ... it seems like we are set well back from the action, looking at Bangkok from afar -- more like we're in a low-flying airplane -- although it is easy to pick out the Chao Phraya River coursing below. The Skybar itself is a circular bar that glows radioactively amid the plush surroundings, seeming to levitate transcendentally.

Continuing the sky theme, try Red Sky at Centara Grand Hotel, which is a chic urban bistro and lounge style set up (see photo). The lighting on the roof is one of the most amazing lights on the Bangkok skyline, as it looks like some sort of extreme Rollercoast of Death arcing over the roof of the building, glowing red and all the colours of the rainbow. Here, you are only 55 stories up, but being right downtown in the Siam area, gives you a different perspective of Bangkok again.

Anyway, we finished our night with a deliberately long and slow walk from Banyan Tree hotel down Silom Road to the MRT station Silom. Under a perfect half moon sky, with stars and the odd cloud for character, it was a lovely, peaceful night.

Now I am reading this morning's Bangkok Post (Thursday 25 March 2010) and I read where the nationwide rally in support of Thaksin, widely tipped to beheld on Verdict Day (tomorrow) -- and the subject of so much media bleating and over-reaction -- has now been deferred. Furthermore Red Shirt leader Veera Musikhapong is quoted as saying whatever their moves may be, they will be adhering to a strict code of 'non-violence, peaceful, unarmed.'

Certainly not the story I thought I was going to be writing, but, that folks, is what Bangkok is like right now. Jing jing! So another beautiful day writing around the pool then ... Oim roolly glared I caaaim, too.

PS: Footnote (May 2011): Sirroco Bar features prominently in the Hollywood movie Hangover 2 ... complete with gangsters, CI agents and helicopters. That doesn't happen there every day, trust me!

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Bangkok Today

I don't know what you're seeing on your TV news or reading in your newspapers about Bangkok, but as I'm here in the City of Angels right now, let me tell you about my day yesterday ...

Woke up to beautiful blue skies. Can't quite say there were birds singing in the trees as there are not many trees along Sukhumvit Road (I am staying at the wonderfully edgy Dream Hotel, Sukhumvit Soi 15, right in the middle of the tourist strip of Bangkok close to markets, bars, Skyway, shopping centres, etc.)

Nothing unusual to report as I sauntered down to the Asoke Skytrain station to send my girlfriend off to work. Thousands of others were similarly in that post-first coffee pre-work somnolence.

I went up to Thong Lor area for a meeting about an exciting property in Hua Hin (which I'll blog about shortly), then adjourned to lunch at the Rang Mahal restaurant, at the Rembrandt Hotel in Soi 18. Many consider this to be the best Indian food in Bangkok, which is a HUGE claim given the amount of Indians living in Bangkok and the amount of authentic Indian cuisine therefore available.

The first striking thing is the view ... wow, floor to ceiling windows affording panaromic views over Sukhumvit across to the Chao Phraya River in the distance and the lake in the foreground. The decor is both classy and classic, rich reds and greens in the carpet, heavy wooden furniture, and a lush Indian feel with portraits on the wall.

While popular with expats in the area, the big signal to me is how many Indians actually eat here, and the answer is TONS. It is a very popular venue for their gatherings and even wedding dinners. And why not, especially when they bust out the sitar and tablas.

I like airline food. Jing jing! And the thing I like most about it is the simple choice: chicken or beef, sir? Which is why I was thrilled to put aside the extensive main menu here and accept the waiter's suggesting of the daily special Thali Lunch menu: a choice of Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian set for just 395 baht, plus plus.

Well, have a look at the photo above. What splendid presentation of the five dishes -- lentils, creamed spinach and peas, chicken kebab, mutton curry, yoghurt, plus a creamed cheese dumpling which single-handedly offset all the benefits of the weight lost in detox last week! Plus rice, naan and poppadoms. Oh, and we accepted the suggestion of washing all this down with a lovely glass of sparkling Indian wine. A fruity little number which took the edge off the afternoon.

Then it was write, write, write all afternoon before a sunset swim on the roof of the Dream. It is packed at the moment with holiday makers relishing Bangkok's lovely warm and dry February weather (and flights to and from Samui are booked out for weeks). Such a peaceful and relaxing scene with laughs and music and, as I read my book, I paused to reflect.

So this is Bangkok, the city that's making headline news around the world at the moment?

This morning has started out exactly as yesterday did. Another beautiful day in the City of Angels, with some pub-hopping in Sathorn slated for tonight ...


Born and raised in California, with parents who were both yoga instructors, it seems that Marc was really fated to become what he is today. That's right, a merchant banker on Wall Street. I'm joking of course -- he's a senior yoga instructor at Absolute Sanctuary. 'I am in a constant state of California,' jokes the wiry silvering gent in his soft-spoken tones.

Growing up in that state, and living in San Francisco's Bay area, he witnessed the genesis and explosion of the adoption of this ancient eastern practice being absorbed into the western mainstream. He's been in Samui a year so far spreading his skill.

When he sees me and several other physically challenged specimens waddle into the spacious, mirror-lined studio, he probably wishes he had become a merchant banker. But the class is also attended by some far more shapely specimens who naturally head for the mats of the front of the room. It is my first ever yoga class, which, along with wonderful lymphatic drainage and pressure point massages, is part of my three-day Ultimate Detox program ...

Soon the air is filled with soothing sanskrit chants and ethereal music. Think Enya.

'Ok, we're just going to start in the Lotus pose,' says Marc who eases himself into a wonderfully erect, fluid, seated position with his legs crossed in front of him and somehow crossed over each other. I go to cross my legs. Ouch! Those rugby knees. My legs are way out in front of me somewhere. I grab one knee, trying to force it back into the same postcode as my torso. There. I'm now listing dangerously at a 45-degree angle. I reach forward to grab my other knee ... reaching ... reaching ... there, got it. I wrench it back toward my body with the creaking and groaning drowning out Marc's instructions: 'Inhale ... feel the energy flowing in.'

Feel the energy? All I can feel is tendons in the knee at near snapping point. And my spine. And now my shoulder. Feel the energy? What the hell are you talking about, Crazy California Guy??? 'And exhale ... let's lose all those nasty toxins from our systems ...'

I sneak a glance around the room, and note that I'm not the only one struggling to imitate the graceful symmetry being displayed at the front of the class. There's one guy, Michelin Man -- who hasn't seen his knees in years -- in front of me.

Then Marc calls for the Downward Dog. Soon there are inverted V-shapes on command. My view of the entire left side of the studio is blacked out by the voluminous backside of Michelin Man. 'A little smile is OK,' says Marc. Smile??? Who the hell can do this and smile? I bet it's one of those sycophants up front. And soon we're inhaling and raising legs behind us. We're exhaling and pulling legs in under us. We're in the Warrior pose, we're in the Cobra, we're in the Pretzel. Ok, I made that last one up, but my limbs are in an absolute tangle to the point that I can no longer tell which is up or down, which is my left leg from my right, my ass from my elbow; and nor do I have any idea of how to undo myself.

'Remember to breathe,' cooes Marc. Oh yeah, that's an important one, no wonder I'm blue in the face. Michelin Man is blue all over, collapsed in a sweaty heap on his mat. I expect Greenpeace will be along to rescue him any time now. 'It's OK to rest anytime,' reassures Marc.

Yoga is surprisingly demanding. I am pouring perspiration despite what seems like very little movement. Who needs Hot Yoga (a variation in which yoga is performed in a room heated to 37 degrees celsius)? Hot Yoga is actually one of the variants that Absolute Yoga offers in their seven Thailand and three Singapore studios, along with Flow, Hot Flow, Yin (Tao) Yoga, Anusara, Hatha, and Pilates classes.

Even as I 'om', the builders are creating a 50-mat studio near the pool to cater for Absolute's increase in Train-the-Torturer, er, Trainer, sessions.

The lithe bodies up front -- clearly more experienced practitioners -- are barely glistening. Then there's the Sun Salutation, the One Legged pose ... and I'm sure at some point I'm balancing upside down on my nose while my legs in the air emulate the branches of a tree swaying in the wind. 'Don't forget to breathe,' says Marc.

There's one pose which almost makes me exhale from the wrong end. I find out later it's called pavana mukta asana - the wind-releasing pose. Talk about bad breath! 'A lot of the best detox positions are lying on the back and bringing the knees up,' Marc explains.

And after an hour, I finally discover a pose which feels so natural to me, like I was called to this position. My chakras are fully alligned. I feel connected to the universe. I am communing with nature. It makes me feel truly alive. A Zen state, man. I find out later it's called the shava asana -- the corpse pose.

Sunday 21 February 2010


'Another Tequila Sunrise, please!'

'Hahahaha,' Khun Son, the barman, beams the sunniest most radiant smile you've ever seen in your life. He returns moments later with a pineapple shake laced with psyllium husk and some other mysterious murky ingredient. 'Your detox shake.'

This has got to be the worst pool bar in the world: I mean not a single bottle of Malibu Rum or Curacao to be seen. Not even a beer. Not even a light beer. Instead the bar fridge is piled with carrots, pineapples, watermelons, coconuts, ginger, limes ...

Let me explain. I'm at Absolute Sanctuary on Koh Samui ("Thailand's premier detox and yoga resort" being their claim). Just beyond the Morrocan-styled cupola of reception is the South China Sea. Directly in front of me is a wonderful infinity pool, around which laze an assortment of bodies in various states of repair and disrepair. In animal kingdom terms there are gazelles and there are hippopotammi. People who clearly take care of their bodies everyday in the real world, and those who are suffering from years, nay decades, of neglect.

There are Finns, Japanese, Brits, Europeans, a gay expat couple from Hong Kong, a couple of Thais and a lot of Aussies. There's a whippet-like model from the Gold Coast. There's a madam from a Kings Cross establishment. And a 114-kg poker king whose checked in for five weeks. 'I just really let myself go, I had to do this,' says Richard, proud of the 12 kg he's already shed in a couple of weeks of farting, er, fasting, fruit shakes, and fitness including yoga, swimming and jogging.

For the fasting programs guests are put onto a program of four fruit shakes a day and four packets of 'supplemental' tablets, which is breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner effectively. That's it, jing jing! The tablets are Vitamin C, chlorophyll and some really disgusting brown ones.

'Most disease takes  root in an acid environment,' explains British adviser and Emotional Freedom Technique practitioner, Alister, 'so we need to get into  more alkaline state. All the secret is alkaline.'

The Love Kitchen dishes up suitably alkaline raw and vegetarian food such as spinach gaspaccio and Broccoli Delight. Yes, dear readers, people fly across the world and pay good money to do this. Funny thing is, after day two, I'd KILL for Broccoli Delight! (Absolute's new expanded kitchen due to open in mid-2010 will dish up more fish, seafood and chicken options.)

Guests can also enjoy a daily program of meditation (including sunset sessions on Karma Beach), massage, and yoga for total wellness. This is the passion of executive director Claire Bostock-Huang -- former banker, psychologist and yoga instructor -- who is the living embodiment of the Absolute ideal. I mean, this 30-something Singapore Eurasian radiates ridiculous amounts of good energy, with calf muscles that could choke a water buffalo and glutial muscles that could probably crack walnuts (this is all the product of my increasingly feverish imagination, I hasten to add).

Which is in direct contrast to myself and other inmates around the pool, where the Bob Dylan lyrics leeching from the speakers -- such as 'Knock knock knocking on heaven's door ...' and 'There must be some way out of here ...' -- possibly sum up the current mindset of most who are still mid-fast.

'It's bloody hard but I've glad I've done it,' Richard beams. 'It's ridiculous but I've got so much more energy without eating. Why do I eat pizza? Now I know I don't need it.'

'I needed a kick in the face, and I got it,' opines a large American lady enthusiastically.

After my three day 'Ultimate Detox' I have lost a couple of kilograms, feel very clear-headed and do sense I have more energy. Now I understand fully why people do this to themselves.

'Hey, Khun Son, I was only joking about that Tequila Sunrise. I meant Pina Colada.'

'Hahahaha ...'

Koh Samui -- Absolute Sanctuary: WARNING: TOILET HUMOUR

I just gave birth to triplets. Or rather, it felt like it. You see, I am at Absolute Sanctuary wellness resort for a three-day 'Ultimate Detox' program. And part of the daily itinerary is a thing called 'colon hydrotherapy' ...

So there I am reclined on a fibreglass platform with knees in the air, as though I'm going to give birth. I'm at the mercy of Petch, a qualified hydrotherapist who's been doing this for about three years. Working her way up from the bottom, you could say.

She snaps on the rubber gloves. My sphincter tightens. She smiles at me as she unwraps what looks like a thick drinking straw (pictured), and asks me to turn to my left. With liberal lashings of some KY jelly -- oh, hello sailor! Actually that wasn't too bad. She now attaches me to the machine, a simple device holding 4 x 6-litre water tanks, a water temperature gauge (37 degrees -- body temperature), and several chrome taps.

She explains that the first tank is pure reverse-osmosis water, the middle two organic coffee and apple cider vinegar, and the last is water with pro-biotics. The idea is to remove toxins from my body, especially stuff that's been accumulating there and putrifying for the past few decades. Several kilograms worth, apparently of impacted and stagnated 'stuff'.

Petch tucks me in gently with a hot water bottle on the stomach, and a blanket over the rest of me. And releases the tap ...

I imagined it was going to be like getting the local fire brigade to back up thier truck and let rip. But it's not pressured; it's gravity fed, so the water slowly but surely fills my gut. A weird feeling. It's sort of like when you've eaten too much, but it's not coming from your stomach, it's from your intestine.

'Just let go when you are not comfortable,' says Petch with her reassuring manner. She hands me a wireless bell-buzzer. 'I'll be back in a couple of minutes, call me if you need me.'

The next 45 minutes is not pretty. All those expensive private school manners are lost to the, er, wind. As my tracts swell, I expel. 'Breath from your stomach, i-i-i-i-n, o-u-u-u-t,' she coaches. 'Relax,' she says. Relax??? Madam, I am lying here with a tube up my arse, stripped of everything including my dignity, while a cocktail of warm beverages is snaking its way through my vital organs, and you want me to relax?' Gee, with friends like this, who needs enemas?

I am semi-soporific, taking in the walls which -- in keeping with the resort's tasteful and wistful Moroccan theme -- are a washed-out green and pink. And then I notice the music that's been tinkling away in the background all this time. It's one tune on repeat: a Richard Clayderman (or some such pianist) version of Starry starry night ... that song about Vincent Van Gogh. The line that comes to my head is 'how you suffered for your sanity'. Make that sanitary. The song on repetition becomes like Chinese water torture: drip ... drip ... drip ...

I hope you, dear readers, are appreciating me putting my body on the line here for you. (There again, toilet humour seems to be the natural level of my writing.)

I feel just a little nauseous. Petch smiles. 'The first time is not so comfortable.' No shit, Sherlock! 'Next time, it's OK.' She then commences a stomach massage to work the water into far-flung crevices of my system, especially the ascending colon where apparently all the bad bacteria lurks. 'That's the most toxic part of the most toxic part of the body,' I'd been told at the pre-briefing. 'Seventy percent of the lymphatic system resides there.'

Then she tells me we're about to administer the coffee. 'Make mine with milk and one sugar,' I feebly joke. The floodgates open. I thought I was empty already, but no. Plenty more where that came from. Shit happens, as the expression goes. God knows where all that stuff was stored: possibly the transendental colon. 'Relax,' says Midwife Petch again, smiling what I perceive to be a cold assasin's smile. Aaarghhh ... 'Breath from the stomach, relax,' she says soothingly. Relax??? I am in fear of turning inside out and being strangled by my own sphincter here, Petch!

If I was worrying about dying when it started, I was now more concerned that now I wasn't going to die. Jing jing!

Then, like a boat drifting onto the beach, suddenly the pressure eases, the water is cooler, and Petch declares the session over. On balance, I'd rather be scuba diving, zorb balling, or having root canal dental work without anaesthetics. I do honestly feel cleaner and lighter (well, I'd just lost several kilograms in the space of a few minutes) and pleased to know that I am less toxic.

But whatever I feel about it, I wonder about poor Petch. Does she ever say to her boss: 'I don't need this shit!'?

Footnote: true to Petch's word, the second and third sessions were much more comfortable. Why I even managed to read a magazine and enjoy the hour's experience for the quiet time it was. And unbelievably switched perceptions of Petch from cold-hearted assassin, downgraded to dungeon dominatrix, and finally I came to see her for the kind, caring, compassionate health care professional that she is.

(See my blogs over the next few days for the rest of the Absolute Sanctuary experience.)

Saturday 20 February 2010

Bangkok Today

If we listened to travel advisories, we'd never leave the front door of our homes ...

I can't stand politics, and usually steer well clear of the subject, but I've just watched online an ABC Lateline news report in which once again the the media fans the flames of impending doom and gloom for Thailand, especially Bangkok. And, in the background, file footage of what looks like the last Red Shirt rally, creating an unbalanced picture of the real scenario in Bangkok today.

Fact: yes, 26 February is looming as 'the day' when the court hands down a verdict on the status of the $2 billion assets of the fugitive ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra (whose supporters are known as the Red Shirts).

Fact: the Red Shirt/ Yellow Shirt issue is here to stay for quite some time.

Fact: it's a domestic political issue that has nothing to do with expat 'farangs' like myself and tourists.

Fact: Thailand has had more coups than most people have had hot dinners.

Fact: The Thai people are resilient to all of this, and so should we -- as guests of their country -- be.

Fact: life goes on.

If you examine the wording of Khun Pornthip Hirunkape, secretary of the Tourism Council of Thailand, who was wheeled out as the prime spokesperson parading the view that Australians should give Bangkok a miss, her wording was actually very soft: 'we just suggest that if they are coming on the 26th, they delay their trip to Bangkok.' She goes on to advise Australians 'to go to other beaches instead of the city' and the report finished by saying 'those who can't avoid Bangkok next week should at least stay clear of the city centre.'

This is far from the sensationalist 'Australians should avoid going to Bangkok in the coming weeks' spin that the Lateline presenter put on it.

I was in Bangkok last week when the two attempted bombings happened. But I didn't hear one word about it from anyone in or around my hotel or the city for that matter, and only read about it in the papers the next day. Bangkok is a BIG place (population 10,000,000) and there were no casualties from either of those attempts.

I have many local and expat friends living in Bangkok. Not one of them has said they will leave town just in case. Not one of them has even mooted the idea of missing work and staying at home on the 26th.

So here's a commonsense approach I suggest instead: if you're in Bangkok just give a wide berth to government installations where pre-emptive road blocks have been set up, parliament house, Silom Road, and supreme court judges' houses. You'll probably find it's business as usual around the rest of the city.

Alternatively, if you're not familiar with Thai politics and all this still concerns you, fly into one of Thailand's many other international airports, including Phuket, Samui and Chiang Mai (wow, what a wonderful choice of exotic destinations right there).

As for me? I will be flying to Bangkok this Monday before flying home to Chiang Mai (headquarters of the Red Shirts) on Thursday.

Life in Amazing Thailand, just as it has for millennia, goes on ... despite the political circus.

Friday 19 February 2010

Khao Yai -- Muthi Maya in Top 10 Romantic Hotel Bedrooms of the World

According to Reuters, renowned boutique hotel experts "Mr & Mrs Smith" (go on, admit it, we've all checked in under that pseudonym at some point) have rounded up a list of the top 10 sexiest hotel bedrooms.

At number 7 is the Muthi Maya Forest Pool Villa in Khao Yai, the only Asian, er, entry (pardon the pun).

Their citation reads as follows:

'7. MUTHI MAYA Khao Yai, Thailand. If calm and tranquility are your favorite romantic escape partners, you won't find better bedfellows anywhere other than at Muthi Maya. Overlooking the UNESCO-protected Khao Yai wildlife park with a breathtaking backdrop of mist-wreathed mountains, this supremely serene resort provides stress-melting views and an atmosphere so relaxed you'll stay supine for days. Guests stay in one of several spectacular private villas, each with its own infinity pool, day-bed-strewn decking, kitchenette and 24-hour butler service.'

Muthi Maya Forest Pool Villa is part of the same family that includes Kirimaya Golf Resort Spa in Khao Yai and the Tenface Hotel I reviewed some weeks back.

About time that other renowned boutique hotel expert "Mr and Mrs Lloyd" checked it out, eh?

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Zorb Balling: The grass is always greener, and, er, bluer.

Zorb ball? Sounds like some sort of medical ailment of the crotch region if you ask me. But apparently it's some kind of relatively new way to kill yourself by being strapped into a giant plastic ball which then rolls ever-faster down a hill.

People pay good money for this sort of thing and it is considered fun.
Next thing I know I'm being strapped -- ankles, wrists, and shoulder harness -- into this giant clear orb. Hell, the last time I was bound up this good was at Madame Lash's House of Pain after a particularly good Christmas party.

You ready? 'No.'

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh my God. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh. Blue sky. Green grass. blue sky. Green grass. blue sky green grass blue sky green grassblueskygreengrassblueskygreengrassaaa
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarggghhhh. NO! Stop this thing I want to get out. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!! bluegreenbluegreenbluegreenblugreblgrblgrblgrblgrbgbgbgbgbgbgbg. I'm too young to die!!!
F%$@*&!!! Muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmm!!!

'Um, Mr Lloyd ... Mr Lloyd, you can come out now, the ride has finished.'

'Oh ... haha, yes.' I'm not sure how exactly I came to be in the foetal position with all that strapping, but there you go. 'Brilliant, fantastic, best thing I've ever done in my life. Let's do it again ...' As I exit the ball, my legs turn to jelly and I execute a perfect face-plant.

So there you have it: zorb balling. Just one of the many fantastically fun activities you can enjoy at Life Park (adjacent The Greenery Resort) in Khao Yai. There's also laser target shooting, ATV's go karts, bungy jumping and a whole bunch of other things probably dreamed up by New Zealanders with nothing to live for.

You'll find me in the kiddies' pool, near the long curly slide, waiting for the big red bucket to tip on my head ...

Tuesday 16 February 2010


It's not often you get a completely 360-degree views from anywhere. But here, perched on top of a steep hill overlooking the lush undulating cattle country of Khao Yai (Thai for 'valley full of really tasty cows'), that's exactly what you get.

The new Sala -- just weeks old -- sits like an eagle's nest with the main stilted building on top, and the villas dug into the hillside around it, out of sight, thereby preserving the wrap-around panoramic views, and creating maximum privacy for guests. The downside? Climbing the 10,000 stairs to access it, so leave your wheelchair at home.

We arrive about an hour before sunset and, although the term breath-taking is cliched, it can and  must be used here in the real sense. The simple natural beauty of this setting will make you gasp (or maybe it was just me recovering from the walk up the steps).

Some guests emerge from their sunken villas to sit on their personal rooftop sofas -- see photo -- and take in the evening breeze. It's almost spiritual. The infinity pool glows pink. The lake below glows gold. And my face glows red from the cocktail Khun Kwanchai has offered me. 'Six o'clock every night,' says Khun Kwanchai, glancing at his watch, as the crimson sun sinks behind the big mountain which gives this area its name.

Smiling staff pad about the outdoor restaurant deck. The total staff count is 16. Now if that doesn't sound a lot, consider that there are only 7 rooms/villas in this boutique property, each with a maximum occupancy of three persons (well you need someone to operate video on a romantic getaway weekend, don't you?). Which means 16 staff for 21 people maximum. But most would be couples. So that makes it roughly a 1:1 staff ratio. Like a 360-degree view, you don't find that in many places.

Candles are lit as crickets chirp. The outdoor table on the pool-deck is set. The moon is nearly full. And a million stars come out to play. A star gazer's paradise far from any city lights, indeed the small town of Khao Yai itself is a good 20 km away and is still largely battery-operated anyway. Jing jing!

Then dinner is served. A wonderful sirloin and veggies for just 950 baht. Well, you've gotta have red meat when you're in cattle country. 'Mmmmm ... thhchstkzzrllygreht,' I say to Kwanchai. I really shouldn't talk with my mouth full. This steak is really great, is what I meant to say. 'Fresh from Australia,' he tells me. 'From Australia?' 'Well, Thai beef is ...,' he raises his eyebrows, rolls his eyes ...

The affable Kwanchai knows his stuff. Fresh from a stint opening the InterCon in Hua Hin, the Bangkokian is relishing the sanity-restoring country life here. Indeed Khao Yai is a popular getaway for Bangkokians, being only two to three hours' drive to this veritable shangri-la, where vineyards flourish (yes, a very northerly tropic to be growing grapes but wineries such as PB flourish here making quite drinkable reds and whites, although I find it best to serve them later at night). There are also a number of golf courses. And of course the verdant Khao Yai National Park itself. All a million miles mentally from Bangkok.

Then there is more wine. I'm sure we have some dessert. Some more wine ... and ... fade to black. A magnificently memorable evening, if only I could remember it.

This is where a 1:1 staff ratio is frankly just not good enough. I'm going to need at least two people two carry me down the stairs ...

Anantara hat-trick in Travel + Leisure Awards USA

Every year Travel & Leisure USA asks billions (well, OK, lots) of its readers to select their top hotel picks from around the world to ascertain the 500 World’s Best Hotels. This year their readers’ poll ranked three Thailand-based Anantara Resorts & Spas worthy of inclusion.

(Anantara is a home-grown hotel and resort group. You might remember me gushing about their pool villas on Phuket some time back?)

1. Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa (photo above):  in the country’s legendary northern jungle sits on a hill ridge overlooking the misty forested slopes of Myanmar and Laos, as well as the Mekong and Ruak rivers. Highlights of the 160 acre resort include the on-site Elephant Camp and a pool which overlooks three countries.

2. Anantara Hua Hin: Proving that quintessential seaside charm in Thailand’s Royal Paradise delivers equal allure. Nestled on the golden sands and temperate waters of the Gulf of Siam, this picturesque resort is designed to resemble an authentic southern Thai-style village.

3. Anantara Bophut, Koh Samui Resort & Spa: This romantic haven blends island magic with Thai charm and Anantara style. (Actually it's directly opposite the Samui go-kart track, the real reason why it won. Jing jing!)

William E. Heinecke, Chief Executive Officer of Minor Group under which the Anantara brand operates, commented on the win: “These multiple award wins place Anantara on an unquestionable pedestal, highlighting the brand as a globally revered luxury hotel company and a leader in the hospitality business. We are delighted to once again be celebrating Anantara’s interactive concept of indigenous luxury in the most exotic destinations around the world.”

Overall, Thailand scored 19 hotels in the Top 500. That's 4% of the world's best hotels. Right here. Amazing Thailand!

For full listing see

Monday 15 February 2010

Happy New Year of the Tiger

A quick Happy New Year to our Chinese readers, and best wishes for the Year of the Tiger.

What's this got to do with Thailand you may ask? Plenty. You see, the Thai people largely originated from the southern parts of China, especially Yunnan province and -- in a slow and deliberate mass migration --worked their way down over the mountains before settling in places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. And why wouldn't you ... beautiful mountains, fertile plains, excellent rivers and harbours for trade route potential, and 7-11 stores everywhere.

Many Thais still have a strong connection with Yunnan, travelling there or even studying there. But mostly the first and second generations have integrated strongly with the Thai community, taken on Thai names, and don't follow any of the Chinese ceremonies too religiously.

So Chinese New Year is acknowledged in decorations at shopping centres -- the rows of red lanterns up at Siam Paragon and the decorations at The Emporium in Bangkok come to mind as good examples -- but there is no public holiday for it. Which is a big plus point for tourists. I've been in Singapore over Chinese new year and the whole place shuts down. Tumble weed in the streets. Jing jing! But here, it's business (and pleasure) as usual.

So happy year of the Tiger from a Tiger; that's me. Just reading this card here. It says 'the tiger is said to be lucky, vivid, lively and engaging.' But if you've read any of my blogs you'd realise that's complete nonsense. Well, except for the lucky bit. Lucky my ancestors decided to migrate to Thailand all those years ago ...

Thursday 11 February 2010

Khao Yai -- Big Mountain Music Festival

As I've repeatedly stated here in this blog, when you're a cutting-edge travel writer like me, nothing, nothing, escapes my incredible powers of observation. Nothing goes on in Amazing Thailand without me knowing about it ...

Something of a surprise, then, to be tootling along the road to looking for our hotel (The Greenery Resort Khao Yai ) and seeing some temporary directional signs to something called the Big Mountain Music Festival. Oh, that's interesting, I wonder when that's on?

'TONIGHT!' the receptionist informs us. 'Until 6am. And tomorrow night too.' Wow! So who's playing, just some local garage bands I suspect? 'No, sir, have Groove Riders, Bodyslam, Moderndog, The Richman Toy ...'

'Let's go, let's go!' my girlfriend excitedly urged. I'd heard a couple of those names, but was soon made to realise these are the biggest of the big names in Thai music, all under one roof. Well, under the stars actually.

The event, staged for the first time this year, was held at Bonanza, a massive tract of forested farm land where they didn't have to worry about the neighbours becuase there aren't any for miles around.

Little known fact # 446: Big Mountain Music Festival is named for Khao Yai (Thai for 'big mountain' or 'mountain big' if you want to be pedantic, which is the dominant geographical feature in the area.)

Khao Yai Bonanza offers a wonderful natural amphitheatre of grass, sloping down to where the main stage is set up. There are six stages in total, others offering different types of music such as ska and reggae (enormously popular here, and brilliantly infectious Thai music).

While those in the massive mosh pit go crazy, others sit on the periphery on hay bales, eating noodles, drinking beer (or any of the several whisky brands that have hospitality tents set up). In fact it is most civilised -- there is even a Jacob's Creek tent! And massive video screens mean you can see the on-stage action from anywhere.

Behind the main stage is a ferris wheel, indeed a full carnival set up with things like the motorcycle wall of death. This is cool ... I watch a young boy, no older than 12, stroll in, fire up his beat-up yellow bike, and whizz around up the wooden walls at break-neck speed (literally!) using no hands. And no helmet. In Australia the Occupational Health & Safety Nazis would be having the defibrillators applied to themselves. The insurance companies would be chomping on their cigars and ordering it to be shut down immediately. Wonderful fun! And of course there was food, food, food.

But back to the music. I fall in love with the suave brass-soaked and bass-heavy stylings of Groove Riders and have since sought out their CDs. Bodyslam are as professional a stadium rock outfit as I've ever seen in my life. The show churns on: hip-hop acts, raw rock, aging lotharios. And one called Big Ass. Jing jing!

One thing they seem to have in common is the ability to get the 30,000 -- yes, 30,000! --  crowd to sing along. I've never been to a concert where so many anthems are sung so passionately and heartfelt word-for-word by the crowd. And they are good-natured too. There is no sense of heavy security (certainly no gorrillas with earphones that characterise concerts in Australia for instance). There is no drunk and disorderly behaviour that I see, despite there being dozens of beer and spirit companies flogging their drinks.  It is just good fun. With bands and Dj's till six in the morning.

The promoters set out to achieve a Glastonbury-type atmosphere with Big Mountain Music Festival. They certainly achieve that, and there'll be many more eagerly anticipating next year's show.

So check back here for details next January becuase, as I said, nothing escapes my attention. If it's happening in Amazing Thailand I know about it. Well, apart from the odd little concert of 30,000 featuring the biggest names in the business that's on in the small town I just happen to be staying in during the same weekend ...

Chok Chai Farm -- A Bunch of Cowboys (or Dead Cows Walking)

Sorry about the photo. It was supposed to be a tantalising visual of a fresh juicy T-bone steak from Chok Chai Farm. But when it arrived, with a sideplate of jacket potato and steamed greens, I just couldn't help myself and wolfed it down. I'm sorry, OK?

In my defence I was just a little bit hungry. You see, we'd driven the 159 kilometres from Bangkok (not even a couple of hours, blamming along the wonderful Highway 1 which runs all the way north to the border with Burma). One of the highlights of the trip was a petrol stop which featured about 30 bowsers plus hundreds of toilet cubicles for coach passengers, spotlessly clean -- like the lobby of a Hyatt Hotel or something. It even had an award for the best toilets in Thailand. Jing jing!

Anyway, I was hungry. And it's been a L-O-N-G time since I've had a decent honest-to-goodness slab of meat. I mean, I love Thai food, I really do. But sometimes you just need a massive carnivorous protein fix. And Chok Chai is the place to do it, producing much of Thailand's best beef here in the highlands north-east of Bangkok on the way to Isaan.

The farm itself is a proper working farm, but is open for camping and farm tours where you learn to milk cows, ride horses, and experience rural life in wonderfully natural green alpine surroundings. Yeah, yeah, whatever ... where's the meat?

Chok Chai have a burger joint, a grill place and a steakhouse all fronting Highway 2 (the main road across to Nakhon Ratchasima). All staff are decked out in cowboy hats, boots, string ties, and checked shirts. Think of it as Country and Eastern if you like. The unmistakable whiff of grilling meat in the air really gets the gastric juices flowing. What would the poor cows in the fields outside think and feel as the breathe in the country air and smell poor old Aunt Daisy or Uncle Fred being done to a tender medium rare?

I ordered the T-Bone Senior, a whopping 500-gram steak. Sorry, sir, we've run out. Run out? Can't you just run outside and lassoo another heifer??? Anyway, the 400-gram T-Bone Junior was a damn good steak (as the clean surgical dissection illustrated here will attest), and well worth driving 159 kilometres for. And at 1400 baht for two steaks, including soft drinks, great value.

Next time I'll use a faster shutter speed so you'll see what a great steak it really was ...

A heads up: Khao Yai, Pattaya and Koh Samui

Just to let you know what's coming down the track in the next week or so ...

Khao Yai, the Switzerland of Thailand. Yes, believe it or not. Lovely mountains, wineries, cattle country (don't get me started on that 300-gram Chok Chai Farm steak) and the Big Mountain Music Festival. The photo above is taken at the amazing new Sala Resort, Khao Yai.

Pattaya, the former sleaze capital of Thailand. I say former, I mean it probably still is, but a gentrification has taken place with lots of top-end resorts, such as the Centara, now changing the tone of Pattaya to something way more family and couple-friendly.

And Koh Samui. Yes, folks, its back to Samui for a detox. No I'm not doing some sort of Hollywood 'Lloyd's fallen off the wagon and gone into rehab' stunt. I've been invited by Absolute Sanctuary at Bo Phut to undergo a three-day detox program which involves liver flush drinks, eating only raw food, yoga classes, and something that sounds horribly like a garden hose being shoved up my arse (although it's worded a bit more delicately on their website). Jing jing!

So keep checking back for those stories and more in the next little while ...

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Avatar -- Pretty Good but it's no Police Academy 19!

I'm no Bill Collins, nor Siskel & Ebert. In fact name a major movie from the last 20 years and the chances are I've not seen it. You see, I was raised on a staple diet of Hollywood B-grade slapstick comedies. Actually I don't know why they're even called B-grade ... I mean Police Academy series (Volumes 1 thru 27) was robbed at the Oscars if you ask me.

However, however ... I simply must tell you about Avatar which I suspect will once again edge out Adam Sandler's latest movie once the academy meets to judge this year's awards.

I saw it last night purely on the strength of the fact that it is the biggest drawing movie of all time; so let's see what the fuss is about. Now I could've bought the DVD at any number of dodgy street vendors along Sukhumvit Road for 100 baht (or 150 baht if you want a good copy, you know, with sound and that sort of thing included.) But I decided an epic movie like this has to be seen on the big screen to be best appreciated.

Then I thought if you're going to see it on the big screen, you may as well see it in 3-D. So next thing I knew I was in Siam Paragon IMAX in splendid air-conditioned comfort watching the 2.5 hour epic. (Sorry, no photos of me wearing ridiculous over-sized plastic glasses that would have been the envy of Elton John in his prime.) I'll leave those more qualified than me to gush over the production values of the movie and the gripping human interest story line. But, Oscar judges please note, not one car chase scene.

The mum of a friend of mine told me how Bangkok had something like this in the 50's, a semi-circular wrap-around screen of sorts that was the precursor of IMAX. Apparently there were only three screens in the world like it at the time: one in Hollywood, one elsewhere (possibly Europe) and one in Bangkok. Jing jing! The epic of the day then was Around the World in Eighty Days.

Point is, how damn civilised and advanced Bangkok is. It was a great experience: the latest movie. Amazing surround sound. And not a single mobile phone ringing. And all for just 350 baht a ticket, pre-booked over the phone.

And in Paragon Department store on the way out they had a DVD sale. Genuine titles for under 100 baht. Plus buy 5 get one free. Even though they didn't have Police Academy 19 -- a true classic with several car chases and one-liners aplenty -- I love this place.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

kanchanaburi -- Erawan Falls: Tigers, Caves and Epic Battles.

So you're in Kanchanaburi ('the city of gold') and you've done the bridge and Hellfire Pass and the markets and the museums. And you still want more? Fear not, there's plenty more ...

Rent a car (well not if you have your own car or motorcycle, you understand, I mean that would be plain ridiculous) and head on out to the 3199. What a fantastic route. It's not as major as the 323, but oh so rural and oh so scenic.

Around the 30km mark out of town you'll come to a town called Wang Dong (no snickering down the back, please). Then shortly you'll start seeing large rocks on the side of the road. And these rocks will look like humans. Or trees. Woah, what's that giraffe doing there? And King Kong??? Oh my god, get me out of here!!!

No, it's not some magic mushroom hallucinogenic flashback. It's the product of the local stone quarries. Many of these figures stand three to four metres tall, a little too large to stick into your carry-on as a present for little Johnny back home. But ideal if you're a local council and need something to liven up that park in town. You can also buy things like table and chair sets, all carved from the local mountains that fringe this area.

Another few kilometres along, you'll see the turnoff to The Nine Army Battle Historical Park. This commemorates the epic battle in 1795 when 70,000 Thais under Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I) defended the Kingdom against an invasion by 144,000 soldiers and cavalrymen under King Bodawpaya of Burma. This victory is regarded as one of the greatest in Thailand's long history of continuous sovereignty. Here you can see dioramas of the action that took place, and even a sandbox of toy soldiers in the supposed formations of the day. Tip: if you go late in the day, all the other day trippers will clear off, allowing you to wander up the watch tower and enjoy a most peaceful view of sunset in the valley.

Just a few short kilometres on again, you'll see the turnoff to Erawan Falls. Among Thais it's one of the country's attractions that elicits the most nods and gasps. Erawan National Park covers around 550 square kilometres -- if you don't believe me, get your tape measure out -- and offers endless stunning scenery. On a good day, with the right timing, the right light, a good tailwind, and a few lucky shakes of the joss sticks, you might just catch a glimpse of an elephant, wild monkeys, Asiatic pythons, king cobras, an eagle, or even a tiger. Jing jing! The national parks rangers have listed tigers as an endemic species here.

No, there's no money back guarantee if you don't see one, or get bitten in half by one. If you want a cast-iron guarantee that you'll see a tiger, visit the Tiger Temple down the road instead. But some don't agree that Buddhist monks should be making money from these animals, ie charging entry to get in, more to pat the things, more for a photo with it, more to stick your head in its mouth, more to re-attach your head to your body, etc. It's deemed too commercial by some that the monks should enjoy such materialistic trappings. (Does that make them Trappist Monks I wonder?) But if you want to see tigers up close, that's the place to go.

The Falls themselves are spectacular. Not in the league of Victoria Falls, but then, what is? What makes Erawan attractive is that they are in seven separate cascading levels, dropping down from around 1000 metres. Most are easily accesible on well-worn paths. Only the top level requires a bit of mountaineering skill. But well worth it, as you would have left all the lard-arses well down below.

Little known fact # 327: speleology is the name given to exploring caves. And there are several en route to the top cascade to poke your head into, the best being Wang Bahdan, Pratat, Rua, and Mee/Mi (which has five chambers to explore).

Bring your swimmers. The water is beautifully clear and bracing. Aah, bloody magic! And, you'll get a free fish spa in the process ... the little suckers will latch onto any available bit of skin you put under water. A few parts creepy, a few parts weird, and -- yes, I'll openly admit -- one part erotic. No wonder fish spas have become so popular!

Between all of these activities, it's easily enough for a most enjoyable full day's trip. So don't cut your time in Kanchanaburi short -- there's hundreds if not thousands of years of history waiting here for you.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

kanchanaburi -- Lake Heaven: ALMOST HEAVEN

I love it when my partner and I do things simultaneously. No, no, no, not what you're thinking ... in this case it was a simple exclamation of 'WOW!'

You see, we'd just driven in on the hilly and somewhat serpentine road past Erawan Falls, when suddenly this panoramic vista opened up in front of us: Forested limestone mountains and a huge lake with colourful alpine chalets dotting its shore.

'It feels like I'm in another country,' she said. I doublechecked the map. We were still in Thailand by my reckoning (although one is very close to the Burmese border in this northwestern corner of Thailand and we had taken the odd wrong turn when she was navigating and ... oh, I really don't want to go into all of that again ...). But the other country this felt like was what ... maybe Queenstown New Zealand, with the Remarkables behind it? Perhaps Canada. Or even Chingis Khan Mountain in Terelj, Mongolia. With its autumnal colours it certainly didn't look nor feel like Thailand.

Then we got out of the car. Oh yes, it did feel like Thailand after all I thought as the mid-afternoon heat nailed us. Oh, and a glittering gold temple radiating from among the trees made it unmistakably Thai.

This is Lake Heaven, one of several resorts dotted around the Srinakarin Dam, about an hour north of Kanchanaburi city. Jaunty wooden chalets in a variety of chirpy colours look more like Swiss ski lodges than tropical lodgings. The whole thing is built out on a series of pontoons. There are about 25 accommodation units built on the water, plus communal areas such as restaurants, and jetties where a dizzying area of water-borne contraptions and vehicles await us. There are jet-skis, waveriders, kayaks, zorb balls, banana boats, donuts, trampolines, and an inflatable see-saw (where a teenaged boy and girl are having a rocking, giggling good time). On land, you can trash the forest tracks on ATVs.

We opted for a jet ski to check out this impressive lake -- ringed by mountains -- which disappeared tantalisingly off past islands and headlands to the left and right of us.

I fired the thing up, having stumped the operator by asking where the brakes were (er, trick question, it was an automatic). We were soon skimming along the mirror-like surface at near on 80km. I do double that on my motorbike sometimes, but on the water you can feel every single ripple at this speed. Overloaded boats ferry excited passengers to Huai Khamin waterfalls, where they can spot elephants, deer and even tigers. Jing jing!

This 1500 sq kilometre national park came into being 20 years ago to honour the Princess Mother's 90th birthday (although it's unclear whether she went out jet-skiing that day or not). The dam itself was put into the Kwai Yai River to provide hydro-electric power. Many locals can be seen dangling a fishing rod in at various points to catch barb fish. Elsewhere, house boats occupy secluded coves.

'Wow!' I said it again. It is achingly beautiful. We jet-skiid for half an hour and still got nowhere near the end of this massive dam.

Heading back to Lake Heaven, we splashed about in the waters. Had fun with some of the inflatables (no, no, no, not what you're thinking). It was just good clean fun. One of those days it felt really great to be alive ... and not in, er, Heaven. Ya wouldn't be dead for quids.

kanchanaburi -- Royal River Kwai Resort: POOLING AROUND

Just look at this beautiful pool setting, would you? The perfect place to loll around on a lazy afternoon, read a book, and -- oh, my goodness, look at the time -- it's beer o'clock.

In many ways, the pool is the centrepiece of the Royal River Kwai Resort. Much of the low-rise resort is built either side of it, with 66 guest rooms in three wings falling away down to the serene flowing Kwai Yai River. And the landscaping. Lush, Lush, LUSH, with traveller palms, coconut palms, and all manner of flourishing tropicalia. Then, almost like an open-air Madam Tussaud's waxworks, are sculptures and figurines playing peek-a-boo from behind a bush, or proudly occupying a spot on the lawn. At the main entrance a row of concrete monks collecting alms. They've certainly gone long on providing ambience.

Which is why the standard rooms are a little disappointing. Oh, they're big enough, they've got most of the features you're after for a good night's rest (a bed being right up there on the list!), and some nice solid wood chairs and wardrobes, but somehow they fall a little flat. Maybe it's the bare concrete floors, a design effect which either comes off or it doesn't. Subjective. Or maybe it's the bathroom which look like they need a good update, even though the resort is only a few years old.

They also offer seven huge bungalows, too. A beautiful way to experience tropical living if you've got the extended family in tow (although I'd sooner put them in a separate wing and just enjoy the seclusion of the bungalow for a private romp).

But it's probably because the landscaping is so lovely it leads you to expect more from the rooms. Call me fussy. Go one, say it my face! It seems a popular spot for locals to hold their weddings. That gives you an idea. And I've rarely seen a place where so many guests are keen to have their photo taken in among the shrubbery.

From shrubbery to rubbery: The Runtee Spa though will have you back in the Zen moment in no time. Aromatic salt body scrubs, herbal steam treatments, rose petals in the tub. And wide open to the soothing swishing sounds of the water and the river breezes.

That Creedence Clearwater Revival song 'Rollin', rollin', rollin' down the river ...' pops into my head.(C'mon don't pretend that was before your time, sing a long with me!)

This place is certainly peaceful. That's its big drawcard. Just 3.5 km out of the burgeoning provincial capital of Kanchanaburi (itself only 2.5 hours from Bangkok) the Royal River Kwai delivers you from the often noisy late night town. And, better still, you're already on the main road -- the 323, one of my favourite roads in all of Thailand -- which takes you out to Erawan Falls, Tiger Temple, Heaven Lake and Hellfire Pass.

Or, you can just laze around the pool. Nothing wrong with that. Oh, my goodness look at the time -- beer o'clock already ...

Monday 1 February 2010

Luxury spa villas: best villa in the world -- Pimalai Resort and Spa Krabi Thailand

The bubbly has all been drunk, the tuxedos and glittering ball gowns (not mine you understand, jing jing) sent to the dry-cleaners. The dust has settled and it's all coming back to me now ...

A host of hoteliers* from the top luxury hotels around the world gathered in Bangkok last Thursday night for the 2009 World Luxury Hotel Awards. You've never seen such a parade of shiny shoes, carefully coiffed heads, and laser-treated teeth in your life. There was backslapping and bon homie, but I could tell they were all thinking the same thing: 'If your hotel beats mine ... I'm gonna, I'm gonna ... grrrrrr. Anyway lovely to see you.'

These days luxury in Asia Pacific is defined by the 'P' word: pool villa. In fact it's become the Fifth P of marketing! And who should walk away -- that should be swim away -- with top honours in the luxury villa category worldwide? Thailand's very own Pimalai Resort and Spa on Koh Lanta, Krabi province (that's near Phuket for those not in the know). It was the first of the super-luxury resorts to go into that area, boasting 900 metres of pure unadulterated beach front, eight restaurants and bars, and a level of seclusion that only 25 hectares of tropical rainforest can give one.

As for the luxury spa villas themselves? What makes them so special, you ask? What makes them the best villa in the world? Are their pools full of Moet et Chandon champagne? No idea, sorry. I've never been there. Yet.

But according to their website they are Huuuuuuuuuge: up to 422 square metres under cover. (That's almost as large of some hotel manager's egos.) Bathtubs overlooking the Andaman Sea. And your own little infinity pool that's a mere 13 x 4 metres. There are Olympic swimmers from third world nations that train in pools smaller than that! But it says nothing about what it's filled with ...

Anyway, I'm waiting for my invitation to try these out first-hand sometime soon. Did I mention how much I've always liked the general manager Franck de Lastapis and the managing director Khun Paninart Thiyaporn? Fine, fine people ... always lovely to see them: especially when I'm flopping about in their pool villa for free.

* Can you think of a better collective noun for hoteliers? Would love to hear it.