Thursday 18 March 2010

Green Shirts Take Over Bangkok!

If you've been following the news lately, it'll come as no surprise to find out that Bangkok finally surrended to the groundswell of popular pressure last night. That's right: it was St Patrick's Day and people just wanted to go out and party.

And party they did! By the time I had arrived in The Dubliner (Soi 22, 440 Sukhumvit Rd) around 10pm they'd run out of Guinness. Run out? On St Patrick's Day! Just as I was thinking we should round up all the Green Shirts in town and blockade the airport in protest, I was swiftly offered a pint of Kilkenny instead. That did the job. So did the next one and the next one. Especially at 125 baht a pint, who's complaining?

The Dubliner was jumping. Literally. The live band were Thais who seemed to specialise in punk rock versions of Irish ditties. The Chieftains meet the Sex Pistols, Van Morrison meets The Ramones, or something like that. They fiddled up an absolute storm. There were spontaneous outbreaks of the River Dance throughout the crowd. Many were Irish. Others just had red hair. Some were Thairish. Some sported flourescent green wigs. Many were face-painted with shamrocks. And others were just along for the hell of it.

And these scenes were no doubt replayed at many of Bangkok's million other Irish pubs too. (I often wonder, since there are so many Irish pubs in Bangkok whether there was some sort of trade agreement whereby you'll find the same amount of Thai-style go-go bars if you  visit Dublin? And instead of craic they, well, nevermind ...)

Here's a list of Oirish pubs you can check out in Bangkok next time you need a fix of Guinness:

O'Reilly's -- 64/1-4 Silom Road.
Molly Malone's -- Convent Rd Silom.
Jameson's -- 981 Silom Road.
Hanrahans -- Sukhumvit Soi 4.

(If you want to check out opening times, and exactly what they offer each night, etc, I suggest picking up a copy of Bangkok 101 magazine. It is the best magazine for visitors to Bangkok by a country mile.)

I never thought I'd come to Bangkok and visit a green light district, but it certainly made for a fun and refreshing change to be sure, to be sure. Er, I mean Jing jing!

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Chiang Mai -- Colonial History in a Colony That Never Was

Thailand is proudly the only country in Southeast Asia never colonized. Quite a surprise to some, then, to drive down the old Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road, lined with soaring rubber trees, and chance across the Chiengmai Gymkhana Club. Gymkhana Clubs were the most colonial of British institutions, originating in 19th century India under the Raj, where polo and gins-and-tonic were the mainstay to keep garrison officers and ranking civil servants entertained.

The low-key clubhouse – its third incarnation since being established in 1898 -- is full of anachronism. For a start there’s the apparently mis-spelt name. ‘When it was built that’s how the town’s name was spelt,’ affirms Roy Hudson, nonagenarian former treasurer of the club. (It is now spelt with an ‘a’ and broken into two words.)

Roy, a former major who fought in Burma with the Royal Engineers, arrived here in 1959 and never left. ‘It was the last paradise on earth.’ He’s very much a part of the rattan furniture on the Leonowens Veranda of the club, where the Thai staff wai ‘Khun Loy’ reverentially.

That name Leonowens? If it sounds familiar, it’s because Louis was the son of Anna Leonowens, the governess to the King in that famous movie. Louis was in the King’s Household Cavalry but resigned to join the Borneo Company’s timber division which was heavily involved in teak logging in northern Thailand and Burma, along with Anglo-Thai Timber and the Bombay Burmah Corporation.

Leonowens was one of the founders of the club who signed a Deed of Gift that states that if a majority of members want to sell the club grounds (originally purchased for Rs. 2500, now a priceless spread of 35 acres), the proceeds would be given to local hospitals.

The club logo, a stylized flying horse, is the emblem of the Prince of Chiang Mai, which he had in turn adopted from a sculpture given to him by a British business associate. ‘It was not a traditional image at all,’ explains Roy.

In the mid-50s timber leases expired and were not renewed, hence the demise of British presence and influence in this area. Full Thai memberships were accepted from 1955.

‘Before, I knew every farang in the town and we used to meet mainly at the Gymkhana Club or at receptions at the British consulate. Every farang automatically joined the Gymkhana,’ Roy tells me as another pre-lunch whisky is poured. ‘There were three motorcycles and 240 cars when I came here in the whole of Chiang Mai province! If you went from the town to the station and passed more than two cars you’d complain.’

He gives me a guided tour of the members bar, which is all dark wood, studded-leather comfy chairs, and sepia-toned photos, and slips into some reminiscence: ‘For 500 baht a month you could have a very nice house – food very cheap, there was a social group here of about 50 farangs. I know there were only 50 farangs because we put out a directory. If you saw a farang anywhere you’d speak to him.’

Today, the clubhouse houses the MacFie billiards room and the Wood library, among the club’s slightly modernized facilities. Outside, the ping of golf balls as groups of mainly Thais – who now comprise 70 percent of the membership – tee off. The club is also home to cricket, tennis and squash teams.

Something of a throwback atmosphere permeates the lush grounds of Thailand’s oldest club, where birds chirp and cicadas shriek in the midday sun. Roy’s driver is summoned, backing up his early-70s model Ford Cortina. A waitress hands him his walking stick and extends her arm. ‘I shall now be escorted from the premises to the tune of the Wedding March,’ he laughs.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

I See Red

How was your weekend?

Mine was great, thanks. Spent it in Chiang Mai, where I watched a charity screening of the Oscar nominated documentary BURMA VJ. The highlight was a Q'n A session with a highly articulate Burmese monk who worked on the Thai/Burma border disseminating smuggled video footage of the so-called Sapphron Revolution to the worldwide media and draawing the world's attention to Burma's plight.

Saturday went to a friend's pool party which was great fun, and then Sunday enjoyed a nice lunch at the very pleasant Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club (Thailand's oldest sporting club, since 1898). They have what must be one of the largest trees in the world sprawling out front of the club house, and to sit in its shade and watch games of golf and cricket being played around you is very, very serene indeed.

Then a funny thing happened Sunday night. After going to the gym, I put on my favourite bright yellow 'sloppy joe' top and rode into town for dinnner. It only then occurred to me: oops, wearing a yellow shirt on the day of the big Red Shirt Rally in the headquarters home of the Red Shirts was not such a smart idea.

True enough, it wasn't long before ... absolutely nothing happened. That's right. In plain English no one gave a shit whether I was wearing a yellow shirt, or even purple pantaloons for that matter. People went about their daily laid-back life as usual. So the situation is not like an Israeli straying into Palestine territory or anything remotely like that.

My brother called from Australia because he had seen 'the news' about Bangkok. I'd heard nothing about events in Bangkok all weekend. No one here really seemed to care. Even friends in Bangkok expressed only a mild passing interest when I raised the subject of the rally.

Come Monday I flew here to Koh Samui. Beautiful, beautiful blue skies, and not the slightest disturbance anywhere. It was only the taxi driver from the airport (who thought I'd just flown in from Bangkok) who asked me how things were in Bangkok. No one seems to give a rats.

So what am I going on about?

The Red Shirt Rally fell way way short of the Million Man March the international media seems so keen to see. Damn the media. Stop fanning the flames, stop spoiling for blood so your story makes the front page, or your report heads the bulletin. You poorly paid hacks -- yes, I know, I'm one of them -- go and get another job if you're so hell bent on getting that promotion to get a pay rise at the expense of devastating Thailand's entire economy.

Because ultimately the dumbed-down public only remember one thing: Thailand = Trouble, so we'll go somewhere else on holiday. What nonsense. I've just told you how I spent my weekend, and how the other 99% of Thais not involved in the Rally spent theirs.

At the end of the day it's the media that makes me see red. Jing jing!

Sunday 14 March 2010

InterCon Hua Hin -- Seaside luxury and all that jazz

Little things always impress me (yes, thank you, the hecklers down the back ...)

Like the Bose iPod docks in the rooms of the new InterContinental Hua Hin Resort. They speak of thought that has gone into making the guest experience as harmonious as possible. I could've spent all day just reclining in the standalone bath tub, up to my ears in foaming bath gel, with my iPod on shuffle mode.

But then I would've missed the opportunity to swim a few laps of the multi-layered pool. Multi-layered pool, Lloyd -- are you out of your mind? Well, yes, I am, but the pool actually descends in cascading tiers down to the beach front. Jing jing! But best of all, in the centre of it are three jacuzzi areas, one of which is cold, one which is warm, and one which is ball-boilingly hot. Like an outdoor Japanese or Korean bath house. Brilliant!

The InterCon is endearing in that way. From the jazz oozing from the speakers in the lobby, to the jazz trio who belts out their tunes adjacent the restaurants at night, thanks to the Thai owner's personal penchant for jazz, it's a hotel which has very quickly fitted into the groove of Hua Hin. Perhaps because it is the first international chain in Thailand to appoint a Thai lady -- Pattama Yoshimura -- as general manager? (If the name sounds Japanese, that's because she's married to a Japanese.)

Seen from the air, the resort is shaped like a fish. The Wooden Palace's architecture is redolent in the contemporary design here: teak louvre shutters and filigree patterns in the wood and iron work elsewhere. And the sprawling lawn leads the eye down past the pool to the beach beyond. Gardeners are still wheeling massive fully grown palms into place, and the odd drill and bandsaw is still being used in anger to put finishing touches to this stylish getaway, which is still in the 'soft opening' phase.

So their pool villas are not operating yet. Their presidential suite (actually a self-standing two storey house on the beach) is not open yet. Their Thai restaurant is not open yet. But Felicita, their Italian restaurant is, and Chef Giussepe is in his element here. 'Hua Hin is a fishing village, so the seafood markets here are very good,' he says. Still he imports a lot of fresh seafood, like mussels from New Zealand.

He dishes up a gourmand's delight of tuna carpaccio, black mussels in riggatoni, black angel hair pasta and crab meet, plus cinnamon-topped gnocchi. Even 24-year-old balsamic sauce (he should've checked the use by date, really!). All washed down with a sparkling Italian wine. And rounded off -- round being the key word here, as I loosen my belt -- with three flavours of gelato.

So if that's any indication, the F&B story here is going to be very very strong indeed.

Which will be music to the ears of anyone looking for a really stylish, but not stuffy, high-end getaway in Hua Hin. And just like any good jazz musician, they rarely hit a wrong note at this InterCon.

Friday 12 March 2010

Hua Hin -- As Lak Would Have It

Hua Hin has been known as a royal retreat since the 1920s when the Palace was put in by King Rama V1, the railway station, the golf course, and so on. Lesser known though is that the first member of the royal family to build his summer home here was HRH Prince Krisda Bhiniharn Krom Phra Naresra Varariddhi (the escape artist formerly known as Prince).

He established a lovely home right on the beach adjacent the site of what would become the Sofitel Grand Centara (in those days the Railway Hotel) with unfettered views out across the emerald waters of the Gulf of Thailand. And that home stands to this day, in all its double-storey noble grandeur.

It is surrounded now by the guest villas of Baan Laksasubha, amid lush tropical gardens bursting with blooming bougainvilleas. I am welcomed by ML Laksasubha Kridakon (otherwise known as Lak, pronounced luck). The ML denotes royal lineage, she being the great grand-daughter of the aforementioned prince. Looking casual in her sarong ('You can't be hi-so all the time'), she is charm personified, and when she introduces me to her mother, it is easy to see where it comes from: her parents travelled the world as diplomats.

And this is where Lak got the inspiration for the design and decor of the villas she considers to be an extension of her house. 'It was the look and feel of what I grew up with,' she explains of the white-on-white feel which is very Hua Hin. Louvred shutters. Painted rattan furniture. A lightness, airiness. Bright and breezy. 'It's a mixture of the Cote D'Azure and Canberra,' she laughs. Her parents were based in Paris and the Aussie capital (she grew up there), among other postings. Blue striped accents hint at the former, giving everything a casual summery feel.

The villas themselves are comfortable and homely. Exactly the sort of place you want to throw your bags down in for a couple of days (well, a couple of weeks actually) and forget about the rest of the world. Lak spends Thursdays to Sundays down here, the rest of her time in Bangkok running a kindergarten operation. Her love of kids -- she has two of her own, just graduating from university in Melbourne -- comes through in the family friendly atmosphere she has created here. Kids paddle around in the pool, and enjoy pony rides on the beach. And when they've had enough outdoors, they can run inside and watch a DVD on the in-room player.

Stressed parents can enjoy a massage at the Zaanti Spa, savour a sunset drink on the sofas overlooking the sea, then eat at the hotel's reasonably priced restaurant or take the short walk into town to Hua Hin's famed wharfside seafood restaurants where an oyster, king prawn, steamed fish, etc, etc fiesta runs you around 1200 baht per couple.

Now I know why Hua Hin is known as the royal retreat. I always come away feeling like a king ... and I'm sure my pampered princess would agree.

Driven to distraction in Hua Hin

To treat the drive to Hua Hin as a pedal-to-the-metal exercise is to miss the point entirely.

Depending on the traffic, it's about a two hour drive straight from Bangkok. But to me the beauty of it is a few of the key distractions along the way ...

Outlet Shops: Of great interest to the distaff gender are the factory outlet stores located near the Cha-Am area. Don't worry about missing them -- you'll see the signs for kilometres before hand: Premium Outlet, Factory Outlet, etc. They are shopping malls in their own right, with many brands of shoes, fashion, sports goods, etc, all set up with either the latest or run-out models (I'm not talking models of the human mannequin kind here). Plus coffee shops, etc. So it's very civilised.

We stopped at Premium Outlet at my companion's request, nay, insistence. I somewhat begrudingly followed her. But then soon perked up at the sight of a Pierre Cardin shoe shop selling smart leather shoes for about 3000-plus baht. And shirts: I had a field day, walking out of X-ACT with four new shirts, each of which cost 350 baht (a shade over 10 Aussie dollars!) Jing jing!

Adidas. Hush Puppies. Nike. Camel Activewear. Plus dozens of women's labels and kids stuff too.

The Wooden Palace: The next distraction or attraction is the Maruekatayawan Palace (try saying that after a dozen Singha beers!). More collquuially  coloqueal commonly known as the Wooden Palace it is the world's longest golden teak construction. It was designed as a royal retreat by Rama V1 himself in 1924, with three double-storeyed wings giving commanding views over the Gulf of Thailand. Open daily from 8am to 4pm, you can hire bicycles to pedal through the lush gardens too. Follow the signed turnoff to Rama V1 camp.

PlearnWan Village: And a new attraction that's a real eye-opener to traditional Thai life is just on the northern outskirts of Hua Hin. PlearnWan is like a living museum (they bill it as an 'eco-vintage' village), a recreation of Thai village life with two storey wooden buildings surrounding a lawn. There's a market place and souvenir shops. The facade of wood and corrugated iron is a masterpiece of modern design. Entry is free, so stop and have a good look around this charming place while you stretch your legs.

So, once you've taken in all of these, you'll find it's taken you at least half a day to get to or from Hua Hin. But that's fine, because -- in the spirit of the languid royal retreat that it is -- hey, take it easy, what's the hurry?

Wednesday 10 March 2010

High as a kite in Hua Hin ...

My plans this week are all up in the air. Not that I'm disorganised, it's just that Hua Hin -- the royal retreat two hours south of Bangkok -- is hosting the annual Hua Hin International Kite Festival and the World Kite Surfing Championships this weekend (13/14 March).

Kite surfing, for those who don't know, is where you strap your feet onto a snow board whilst your body is harnessed to a giant parachute while you desperately hang on and pray that you don't get blown all the way to Mexico. Jing jing!

I have never seen so many kite surfers on the water at once in the emerald waters off Hua Hin. Hundreds! What a festival of colour: flourescent organge, green, blue, yellow, white. Darting here and there, ducking, diving, weaving. The main fascination in watching is to see what happens when the ropes of two kite surfers get tangled? That would be spectacular in a shadenfreude kind of way (ie, bloody funny because it's happening to somebody else not me!)

I'd like to give it a go sometime. I spoke to Natsinee, a slender Thai lass, who's just completed three lessons without ending up on the tradewinds to Mexico. 'It's easy and so much fun!' she says breathlessly. Easy? Really??? 'Yes, you just turn by controlling letting the air out of one side or the other.' Does it require much physical strength? 'Yes, in the stomach,' she nods vigorously,  pointing to her abs, 'and a little bit in the arms and shoulders.' Your first few lessons you can go tandem with an instructor (sounds fun, as long as you can choose your instructor: I don't want any beefy guy in budgie smugglers strapped to my buttocks, thanks.)

A few kite surfing schools operate in Hua Hin, but one which is accredited with the IKO and carries full insurance is KBA (Kite Boarding Asia) operating from Baan Laksasubha, adjacent the Sofitel. Do not mix these guys up with Kick Boxing Asia -- you will be brought down to earth with a heavy thud and your holiday will end in tears.

Far safer then to go fly a kite, or at least watch them being flown in the annual March festival. Here you can watch dogfights (well, aerial fights with kites, not dogs filled with helium on long strings, let me make it clear to any animal lovers out there.) There are two main types in Thailand, the more classic diamond-shaped pakpao and the larger star-shaped chula.

You can also paint a kite, watch them being made, and see international kite designs too.

So drop by and join in these two events. No strings attached. Well, actually, a lot of strings attached ...

Friday 5 March 2010

March in Amazing Thailand ...

March looks like being another exciting month in Amazing Thailand, and you can count on me to bring you the latest (and, er, laziest) news, including ...

Hua Hin: review of the new Intercontinental Hotel, and Baan Laksasubha, a laid-back beachside villa development.

Tourism Authority of Thailand's 50th Anniversary: key notes from speeches from the very top on their new directions and initiatives as they happen on 23/24 March.

Khao Lak National Park, southern Thailand.

Diving: Thailand is a diver's paradise, but many say the very best spot to dive is in the Similan Islands (off the west coast). So cover me, I'm going down ...

Elephant Polo: the annual elephant polo tournament will be held at Anantara Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai on weekend of 27/28 March. I'll bring you all the highlights of that action.

Look forward to sharing these stories -- and a whole lot more stuff which I stumble across along the way -- at soonest. So now it's off to Bangkok then drive to Hua Hin for the weekend ...

Monday 1 March 2010


I've always hankered after going to the Lost City in South Africa. But now I feel the need is not so urgent because I've just discovered the Centara Grand Mirage Beach Resort in Pattaya, this country's 'first themed beach resort' where Thailand meets Timbuktu.

Think massive stone elephants, soaring safari lodge-like roof structures seemingly held up by large tusks, skybridges linking hotel rooms, flaming torches, and a Lazy River meandering through a tropical jungle of palm trees. All right on Wong Amat Beach, Pattaya, just a couple of hours from Bangkok. Gee, you could've fooled me: this feels like a whole other world.

This cross-continental contemporary theme is carried through into the breezy rooms as well. Alas, no vines for a little 'Me Tarzan-You Jane' scenario.

A special moment was in watching the sunset from the Vistas deck (nice long cranberry/vodka cocktail in hand, of course) and, as the fiery orb sank into the sea, a dozen torches erupted into flame accompanied by a strident classical tune. Magic! Bravo! They really made sunset the event it should be.

Russians seem to make up about 75% of the clientele judging by a/ the accents b/ the sheer amount of long-legged blondes called Anushka parading around the place with barely-there bikinis and aforementioned accents and c/ Adrian Brown, the hotel's Aussie manager, told me so. Also a healthy amount of Thai families weekending from Bangkok, and the odd Thai superstar (the weekend I stayed, tennis player Paradorn Srichaphan and his wife, a former Miss Universe. Yes, I politely signed autographs for them.)

Daytime decisions revolve around the Lazy River, a bunch of slides (some of them fun for 47-year-olds as much as 7-year-olds!), a choice of sea sports at the 230-metre wide beachfront, or wallowing in the infinity pool. Tempting too was the absolute state-of-the-art fitness centre -- rarely have I seen so much of the latest and best gear in any gym in the world as here. However, in a fiercely contested debate which raged for nano-seconds inside my head, that didn't get a run in favour of another lazy lap of the river.

Having built up such a king-sized hunger on the Lazy River, I replenished my lost calories -- and then some! -- at two of their restaurants. The first was Oasis, where Friday and Saturday nights offer a seafood buffet. Talking about a feeding frenzy! I single-handedly depleted the North Sea's entire 2010 seasonal harvest of salmon and tuna. My Omega 3 levels are currently outperforming the Dow Jones index. Then the oyster cart came round again. Aw shucks, yes I'll have another dozen of those. My cholesterol level is now outperforming the Southeast Asian (exluding Japan) market index.

Speaking of which, the following night we dined at Ginger & Lime, which offers the cuisines from Thailand, China, Japan, and Vietnam. Executive chef Andrew Brown (who overseas a team of 135 chefs and stewards at the hotel) pointed out all the good stuff. Ooooh, teppanyaki'd salmon. Barbecued king prawns. It was all good. Mmmmmm. The resulting protein coma was apparently only tenuously connected to the New Zealand sauvignon blanc promotion.

And, of course, there's only one medically acknowledged way to recover from a protein coma the next day. That's right -- more languid laps of the Lazy River, repeated as necessary. Africa can wait. Jing jing!


Ok, let's just put it on the table straight: Pattaya is Soddom and Gomorrah by the Sea.

Thailand's sin city has carried this reputation ever since that fateful day in April 1961 when the first 100 war-weary Americans arrived for some well-deserved R&R at this stunning and sprawling bay. That invoked a rapid-fire change from sleepy fishing village to fishy sleeping village. To this day, the US Navy uses Pattaya as a R&R port, the arrival of aircraft carriers marked by fleets of girls swimming out to the horizon to meet the boats. Jing jing!

Little known fact #628: the name Phatthaya actually means the wind which blows from southwest to northwest at the beginning of rainy season. That in turn comes from Phraya Tak (not to be confused with Friar Tuck) who captured Pattaya in 1767.

Walking Street -- at the north end of the bay -- is a looooooong stretch of nothing but clubs, bars, pubs, restaurants. Notably, a lot of rowdy Russian-run establishments. It is called Walking Street because to call it $#&ing Street would be just too sleazy ... even for Pattaya. It has made local neon sign makers some of the wealthiest people in Thailand. Walking Street is a daily carnival of decadence and debauchery (I mean that in a good way) where lady boys and bar girls hustle the passers by, and shameless spruikers for strip clubs hold up 'menus' that would make medical students blush, and even make a seasoned gynecologist raise an, er, eyebrow.

But there is something in the human spirit that makes this compulsive viewing. Like a reality TV show. It is real - duh! Which is now why busloads of otherwise innocent tourists are drawn to the place to have a walk and a wander (or perhaps that should be 'wonder'). And with that it just becomes a commodity. Like Patpong. Like the Reeperbahn. A tourist attraction.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the gentrification of Pattaya. If that's the case I'd hate to have seen it before (no, actually I would've LOVED to have seen it before, who am I kidding?)

However ...

Pattaya is a schizophrenic city. The southern end, and generally the area of Jomtien, is where the big new investment is going into, capitalising on the the 5 million-odd tourists (some of them very odd!) who venture the 145 km 2-hour drive (or flight) from Bangkok to Pattaya each year. Pleasant promenades, beautiful beaches, tasteful family-friendly resorts. Gee, there are places I'd be more than happy to bring my mother to. A flash new Central Mall has just opened, replete with Japanese restaurants, electronics stores, usual middle-class mall fare. Then there are the new wave of hotels: the Hard Rock Hotel, the Dusit Thani D2, the amazing Centara Grand Mirage is now open (see next blog about this), and the Hilton Pattaya is slated to open any day now. Not to mention Ocean One Tower, which, at 367 metres is slated to be the tallest residental tower in Thailand, if not the world. Setting a new tone, a high water mark.

Amazingly in my 23 years of travelling to Thailand I'd never set foot in Pattaya. So I arrived with a trolley-load of mental preconceptions and baggage about Pattaya; mostly beaten-up Samsonite suitcases and backpacks admittedly. I left with new baggage, mostly fake Louis Vuitton -- oh, and some vivid mental snapshots from that show in the upstairs bar. How does she do that???