Wednesday 30 June 2010

Chiang Saen -- two wheels, three countries, and tons of elephants

We left the markets of Mae Sai -- and Thailand's northern most point -- behind as we took the 1290 east to Chiang Saen, morning sun in our eyes. The road was under repair for most of its length, meaning it will be great in a few months when all the work's finally done.

Guests were still breakfasting leisurely when we arrived at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa, nestled amid lush jungle with a perfect viewpoint over the junction of Thailand, Laos and Burma. The latter two countries are easily distinguished by their eye-sore casinos which poke incongrously from the misty wilderness.

Here the Mekong is a muddy brooding confluence.

The Anantara has its own jungle-adventure feeling about it, not for the least reason that it's home to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. Here, nearly 30 elephants have been rescued and rehoused from major cities where they once plied the street begging for bananas, which their mahouts (owners) sold to tourists and locals alike.

Here, they get to live in the primeval jungle and forage on lush greenery -- up to 250kg of leaves and bananas per day. Each. Jing jing! And their mahouts and families get to live in the camp, while their elephants are effectively leased to the Foundation for a generous monthly rental.

The Foundation in turn enables tourists to experience elephant rides in the bush, and take 'crash courses' -- not literally I hope -- in being a mahout. I decide to sign up for a 3-day course (check back soon to see how I progress).

Now I've got a question for you: when you were growing up, most of us wanted to be firemen, pilots, that sort of thing, didn't we? Englishman John Williams has a business card which reads 'Director of Elephants'.

John overseas operations here and is an evangelist for conservation. (He previously worked in Nepal, in tiger conservation.) John has helped the local villagers develop a silk weaving operation, giving the womenfolk something productive to do. Within 18 months they are already shipping orders for handmade silk BlackBerry covers to Europe and the USA. Talk about traditional meets modern!

On the way back to our luxury lodgings, we take the time to sit on the grass and feed bananas to a baby elephant. The cute little Dumbo look-alike just needs a quick 20 or 30 kg snack to keep it going ...

And after the gourmet breakfast, lunch and amazing Italian dinner at the Anantara, I was doing a pretty good impression of Dumbo myself.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Two Wheels to the Triangle

We had now completed the Mae Hong Son Loop, back to Chiang Mai, and pointed our nose north now to head up to the Golden Triangle, then to follow the course of the mighty Mekong River along the Laos border and then down through the heartland of central Thailand, including Sukhothai, then back to Chiang Mai again. Motorcyclists' heaven!

Heading up the main road to Chiang Rai, the wide and winding but wonderful 118, we took the turnoff to Phrao. For 70 km we blasted along an amazingly wide and smooth road, where the lush primary canopy sometimes joined overhead completely. With no traffic about, there were plenty of opportunities to test that the accelerator was working Ok. You can never be too sure. Pleased to report that it responded up to 150km/h with admirable ease.

One of the great things of motorcycle touring in Thailand (and I'm not endorsing this, just making a factual observation) is that you don't ever see a speed radar outside of Bangkok. The police have to provide their own bikes, too, which means many have a small 125 or 250cc. But in any case, even if they are on the  road or roadside, by the time they've seen your blur fly past, it's too late for them to do anything about it. As I said, I'm not endorsing this sort of behaviour. Jing jing!

Following the ridge road, we glided into a scenic lookout point from the ridge, at just less than 900m altitude, with a stunning view to the lake which is the signature of Phrao. Phrao itself is quite popular for its old temples, parks, and monuments, but the money shot is its lakeside promenade, from where you can wander about watching fishermen catching weeds and the occasional fish.

There are lots of lively places up this way, including Chiang Rai town itself, and Fang, but we'll come back for those another time. It was open throttle to Mae Sai, on the Burmese Border. The Golden Triangle.

The very name of The Golden Triangle reeks of mystery, adventure and exoticism, doesn't it?

Mae Sai, like any border town in the world, is just markets, markets, markets. DVDs, pharmacies, bags, shoes, t-shirts, jade-like trinkets, silver. Desperately cheap! We rode through the middle of one street market, emerging out the other end right on the river that defines the border. It's only about 5-10 metres across in parts, and children swam in its brown waters. If one wanted to do a 'border run' it would be most easy.

Getting motorbikes into Burma is a more complicated process, but the walk across the bridge (with visa on-arrival) into Tachilek is well worth it. More of the same really: markets, markets, markets. A chance to send a postcard from Burma and get a stamp in your passport. Thais seemed to top up on grog; I was content with a new pair of adidas running shoes for about $20.

Back on the Mae Sai side, we bedded down in a quaint little wooden cottage right on the river, where the flowing water soon sent us into the land of nod. It was clean, tidy, cozy, friendly, but, mainly -- for 500 baht per couple -- it was a steal.

Monday 28 June 2010

Doi Inthanon -- the highest point of Thailand

This section of the trip was the highlight in many ways; visiting the highest point in Thailand was just one of them ...

From Khun Yuam, now riding eastward after a great night's rest at Baan Farang, we were on the 'return' leg of the Mae Hong Son loop toward Chiang Mai. Up the hills we rode, marvelling at valleys that stretched seemingly forever. Sunlight catching a cute pastel church (yes, a church, not a temple) momentarily distracted me as I rode over a beautiful weir at Kum Sak.

Then there was Ban Gae where we stoped for tea amid the rich-brown-soiled fields. Despite the early hour, the farm workers were on an intense 'rehydration' program at the local coffee shop, giggling like teenaged schoolgirls. Hill tribe kids -- looking more Tibetan or Mongolian -- made their way to school. We enjoyed BBQ chicken skewers, fresh off the flames, for 10 baht a pop. Yummy but bony and crunch. I think they'd left the beak in there.

While enjoying our tea, the farmhands grew increasingly friendly and inquisitive. Who were we? Where were we from? Come, drink with us. No thanks - we've got some miles to cover yet. Besides, beer doesn't taste so good with corn flakes! Before we left, one of the guys had fallen off his stool twice. We left amid spirited calls of Chok Dee (good luck). It was going to be a long but profitable day for the inn-keeper at Ban Gae.

The prettiness of the traditional wooden villages of Mae Na Jon and Ban Hai Boing, nestled on the river, will remain in my memory for a long time. But moreso for Phil, another Aussie, who had to stop at the latter to change his tyre. The road along this section was more potholed than swiss cheese. Jing jing! Vans took lettuce and vegetables to market.

Have I mentioned the min-blowing combination of windy roads, the rice paddies and steep valleys yet? No. Well I'll mention them one more time then. You've gotta enjoy the windy roads, the rice paddies and steep valleys here, full of corn fields, bananas and gaudy temples.
Mae Chan was a surprise package with its ATMs, hospital, massive petrol station forecourt, and -- well it wouldn't be Thailand without it -- a 7-11.  We enjoyed a filling lunch of pork noodles.

Then it was up, up, up ... er, up, up, up ... and up, up, up some more in clouds, rain and dwindling visibility to Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand at 2565 metres. (In the next day or so we would be getting to the northernmost point in Thailand, so make sure you check back for that blog.)

But first we had to survive this ordeal. We inched along in driving rain, visor fogging, icy water trickling down the inside of my wet weather gear. Gee, I love motorcycling somedays -- NOT!

So that was Doi Inthanon. We saw nothing. Just rivulets of rain on my visor. We were thankful to get off the mountain, and down too the highway 1009, which left us a straightforward 60 kilometre blam up the highway back through Chiang Mai.

Next stop, the mysterious and enigmatic The Golden Triangle ...

Thursday 24 June 2010

Thailand on Sale!!!

In the aftermath of the Bangkok nonsense right at the start of the low season, it had to happen ... visitor arrivals have dropped drastically. And in response, hotel, airlines and tourism operators are also dropping their trousers drastically.

Don't just take advantage -- take advantage TODAY!

Let's see: Bangkok Airways is offering 5% off your next flight (from their already very affordable fares). Just show your boarding pass to qualify. ( )

One of my Bangkok boutique hotels, Tenface, has got a Buy One, Get One Free night special on now. (See

And Agoda, one of the hotel booking sites I regularly use, has got pages of specials for Bangkok, Phuket, Samui, etc. (See ) I can see lots of 50% offs there at some amazing properties, cheaper than a lousy motel up the coast in Australia.

Thailand is consistently rated the world's best value destination. Now, it's unbelievable value. Even all those idiot news crews that mis-reported the Bangkok situation can probably afford to take a break now (in fact, fellas, do us all a favour and take a loooooooooooooong break).

PS: come on in, the water's fine. For tourists, Thailand is as peaceful as it ever was. Jing jing!

Let me know if YOU have a special you'd like to push to our readers: happy to help.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Khun Yuam -- A Memorial to the Spirit of the Japanese

So why is there a Japanese memorial here? Good question ...

Most of you would be familiar with Hellfire Pass and the Thai-Burma Death Railway, but may not know that the Japanese were active in many other parts of Thailand in World War Two (for instance there's a Japanese military cemetary just south of Chiang Mai too).

But Khun Yuam was a major transit route for the Japanese soldiers to reach Burma. They 'hired' locals to build railways and roads in this area to assist their effort. The conditions were apparently appalling, as evidenced by video footage which is played sympathetically in this small but perfectly formed memorial.

Why the sympathetic treatment? Well, after the Japanese went storming up into Burma and got their bottoms kicked, they used the roads and railways to retreat (or 'advance to the rear' in their parlance). Which brought them back through Khun Yuam. And 8000 Japanese died in this area from wounds, disease, etc. Eight thousand, jing jing! That's a lot for a non-combat zone (Thailand was ostensibly neutral in the war, although they had a sweetheart arrangement with the Thai goverment.)

So a memorial was erected to their spirit and/or spirits.

The museum itself is well curated given its size and location. But if you love checking out uniforms, helmets, guns, old motorbikes, and other wartime memorabilia, it is a half day well spent.

The Japanese who died here might have disagreed.

Khun Yuam -- A Long March from Tokyo!

Pushing further on this bikescapade from Mae Hong Son, the next day is a bite-sized chunk of a few hundred kilometres of winding mountain roads (wooooohoooooooooooooo!!!) to Khun Yuam, the site of a Japanese military memorial which has always intrigued me.

Just seven kilometres south of MHS we stop at a breathtaking lookout, where a friendly chappy is stoking a fire on which a blackened kettle rests. We sit, rugged up against the cold (combination of altitude and inclement weather) and enjoy a big mug of coffee, a cup of tea, and a banana all for 30 baht -- that's ONE Aussie dollar!

I could've spent hours here, enjoying the solitude of this glorious spot, but it's back in the saddle, through the brilliant wide sweeps of this mountain pass. The quality of roads is continually surprising me. We bank left and right, left and right for hours until we ramble into Khun Yuam, and check into the Farang Hotel (talk about market segmentation!)

For 600 baht single (700 baht double) you get a room with nice warm shower, set on a hillside in the bush, with frogs and birds providing a natural chorus.  Oh, brekky's included in the price, too.
A friend of mine, Reid, who runs motorcycle tours made this observation about motorcycle touring in Thailand: 'It's the best place in the world to ride, because apart from the great scenery and attractions, you can have a really cheap bum massage at the end of every day and it costs you nothing.'

Well, not exactly nothing, but for 200 baht, nearly nothing. Jing jing!

After a great massage and siesta, we venture out into the big smoke. Nightlife consisted pretty much of one dingy karaoke place and an internet cafe. But next door to it was a perfectly fine noodle place where we enjoyed fried omelette, mixed veggies and stir-fried chicken and basil all for 50 baht (including a bottle of water!) They must have seen us coming.

Dinner was enlivened by a young guy from Malmo, Sweden whom I'll call Sven. He'd been fired from his job and was travelling through Asia for four months (as you do). He was planning to go to Pai then someone suggested he do the Mae Hong Son loop ... on a scooter! Not only had he blown his daily budget on renting a scooter (no more than 200 baht per day, maximum) but it'd taken him several days to make it this far. He was dead dog tired, and drunk on half a beer, and went home to collapse at 8pm.

Don't laugh, I was asleep by nine! The concentration of riding mountain roads really takes it out of you. I will go and look at that Japanese Memorial tomorrow ...

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Mae Hong Son -- The long and winding road ...

The road from Pai to Mae Hong Son is a red squiggle on the GT Rider Map (the best maps of northern Thailand by the way, created by avid Aussie motorcyclist, David Unkovich). But, depending on your stomach for adventure, it is either a wet dream or an unending nightmare. For me, I love the winding curves, hairpins, switchbacks and can do these all day, every day. Gaining hundreds of metres in altitude in a flash. For my companion, she often has to stop to recalibrate her sense of balance (or otherwise fill the helmet with the contents of her stomach).

For me, this road a wet dream. Winding, climbing. Beautiful lush green primary jungle. Hill tribe villages. Caves. Hot springs.

Soon, we reach Sopong, where the Sopong River Inn (named creatively thus because it’s an inn on the side of the river at Sopong) is a welcome retreat with its almost Balinese design aesthetic, and the soothing sound of gushing water below.

Sopong is a sleepy place with not much doing. The main industry seems to be an Immigration Checkpoint (it’s only a few kilometers from the Burma border here, and there are tens of thousands in refugee camps in this area, plus ethnic minority hilltribes too).

A walk down the hill finds only one place recognizable as a restaurant/bar. It’s called The Border, and its owner is an amiable Pommie named Andy. ‘I’ve proved you can get around the Mae Hong Son loop just as fast on a small bike as a big bike,’ the keen motorcyclist says. ‘Sixteen hours, non-stop.’ Cripes! I do the math, that’s averaging around 75 kilometres an hour for the loop which we’re following. Jing Jing! That means he’d be sharpening his foot-pegs on all the hairpin bends for sure!

We enjoy tom yam soup, omelette and a small Singha beer for 150 baht. His customers are a mix of Thais enjoying a good solid drink. ‘Technically we’re open till 1 am, but as most of my customers are policemen, it’s till whenever I get rid of them,’ he says, adding a few colourful closing time stories of officers not being in a really fit state to drive or ride.

I dig into a few more Singhas.
It’s at this point I wish I’d brought the motorbike down into town with me. After all, the Singha had magically cured the numbness of my bum from the day's ride, and all the police were still inside the Border getting drunk anyway.

It was a long slow walk uphill to bed that night ...

Monday 21 June 2010

Pai -- some cool places to eat, drink and be merry

For many people, Pai is a chilled weekend break. For others, it becomes a place to hang while they work out the meaning of life in their minds. Dreadlocks seem to be virtually compulsory (I was given special dispensation) and, dress-code wise, anything more than a loincloth seems acceptable in most places.

As a result, the cafe culture is strong, with lots of places to enjoy your brew of choice (be it coffee beans or beer hops), as is the restaurant scene. The photo above is the money shot taken from Coffee in Love on the road eastward out of town.

Banjaroen Restaurant is the real deal, serving what Thais call 'palace food', an old-style authentic Thai food that used to be the staple of the royals in days of yore. It was one of the most different and interesting Thai meals I've experienced in 22 years of traveling and living here. Jing jing! Gourd with a sort of tempura batter. Also several excellent prawn dishes, minced chicken with lime. All had a subtle earthy taste, not too sweet/sour like most Thai cooking. Downside: mein host seemed a bit gruff, short on smiles and welcome even though we were the only diners there at first. Corkage: 120 baht.

We got there early for dinner, around 6pm, so enjoyed the views over the rice padis. The place was empty till about 7pm when other tables drifted in.

How to find it? Take the Rangsiyanon Rd, the main one out of town, up the hill in direction of Chiang Mai. You will see it on your left before Bebop Bar. If you get to Coffee in Love you have gone too far.

Here are some of my other favourites -- in no particular order -- discovered recently:

Ting Tong bar -- I love it just for its name along (ting tong means crazy). You can chill under the stars here, just near the police station and school.

Bebop Cafe -- head here if you're into blues and jazz, as they have live bands regularly (probably nightly) which the cool folks come to check out, usually starting later. On Rangsiyanon Rd, on the road out towards Chiang Mai.

The Quarter -- one of the many fashionable boutique hotels that's sprouted up in Pai. For exquisite Thai fusion cuisine overlooking the padi fields and mountains, try their restaurant.

Cafe Del Doi -- it's the lovely outlook here that makes this so good. On Thapai Rd after the Japanese Bridge on the road out of town.

Lun Laa Bar -- A small bar in a little arcade of shops opposite Wat Pa Kam, Lun Laa is a popular place to hang out, enjoy some drinks, and watch Nong and his band bang out some blues, funk, reggae tunes. Live music nightly from 7pm till 11pm, with jamming some nights. If you get there early enough you can score the comfy sofa, otherwise chairs and tables inside and outside in a little courtyard are cool. A good place to warm up, before heading off to the night market or Bebop Bar.

Ok, OK, OK, I've got time for one more tip ... but please leave now if you can't stand the thought of doing something without an alcoholic beverage in your hand for, say, half an hour. (Damn, I just lost half my readership!)

Head up to Wat Pra That Mae Yen to catch the best Pai sunset, with a glorious panorama as the sun disappears behind the vast ranges behind. Great view of the town down in the valley in front. It is quite a popular spot, so you won't be alone with your thoughts. It would be perfect to pack some beers or a bottle of wine, but as this is a temple, no alcohol is allowed. Follow Raddamrong Road out of town. The 'Temple on the Hill' is well sign-posted once you get over the bridge on Raddamrong Road.

Next, we pack the bike and head west towards Mae Hong Son, near the Burma border. Make sure you join me for that ride ...

Friday 18 June 2010

Pai -- The Chilling Fields

It's one of my all time fabvourite motorbike rides, from Chiang Mai into the mountains to a place called Pai. Sure, you can drive there, and most tourists wend their way there on day trips in mini-buses (you can even fly), but ... excuse me, I'm getting all teary-eyed here ... nothing, NOTHING can compare with the two hour ride that takes you round 482 curves. A motorcyclist's wet dream, jing jing!

En route there are gorgeous coffee shops to relax in, and alpine vistas. Yes, this is Thailand we're talking about. Northwest of Chiang Mai. Some of my favourite countryside. With fir pine trees. The fresh scent of bracing mountain air.

My adrenaline is usually pumping so hard by the time I reach Pai, I feel oddly out of kilter with the town. Why? Because Pai takes laid back to new heights. If Chiang Mai is charming with its quaint northern ways, Pai is where Chiang Maians would go to get out of the big smoke.

Make sure you stop at Coffee in Love (on the road just south of town) for one of the most beautifully photogenic valleys you'll ever see. Rice padis and mountains in various shades of verdancy.

The town itself is studded with resorts and guesthouses, shops (my favourite is Apple Pai, an internet cafe which burns music directly into your iPod for about $1 per album), and cafes, and markets (there's a nightly walking market). But the energy level is way, way, way down. I'll blog more on the attractions of the town next, but for now, let's check in to the Pai River Corner Resort.

Pai River Corner is a delight. Right at the bottom of Chaisongkram, one of the main 'walking street' market streets, it is right on the banks of the Pai River, on a corner too, you'll be amazed to hear. A delightfully rustic setting, looking at Thai style villas on the other side of the river, and mountains beyond.

Pai is laid back but the service here is on the ball, under the management of Aussie proprietor Darren. I requested some wine glasses and was asked whether it was for red wine or white wine. Plenty of smiles, and lots of local tips available from the staff.

The resort's Red Chang Bar is a small but comfortable little hang out on the river, a good place to meet fellow travellers and have a few cold ones. I think this is like Darren's home office!

A small but nice pool area overlooking the river adds to the inviting tropical garden garden setting. If you want to treat yourself, request Room 7, the spa villa. Wonderfully, wickedly indulgent! The plunge pool/spa comes (see photo) off the four-poster master bedroom, and is walled in for privacy. (Only one complaint, the bathroom seemed to adjoin a staff shower, with net result we could peek into their shower, so I presume they could peek into ours.)

Location wise, this place is brilliant. Everything is just outside the gate, a short walk away, yet it's quiet and secluded. But for now, I'm not moving. I'll go and check out the rest of Pai some other time. I'm just going to lie in the spa and re-run each and every one of those 482 curves in my mind ...

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Chiang Mai -- The Samoeng Loop on motorbike

One of my biggest passions is motorcycle touring. In fact that's one of the biggest reasons I chose to base myself in Chiang Mai ... dozens of brilliant mountain rides and thousands of kilometres of excellent riding roads. So hang on to your seat for the next few blogs as I take you on the ride of your life.

But for now, we're going to warm up with a little outing around Chiang Mai ...

It's called The Samoeng Loop, and it's a 100km path takes you from Chiang Mai, up to Mae Rim, across the Mae Sa Valley to Samoeng, then back down around the back of Doi Suthep to Chiang Mai.

In a word: FANTASTIC!!! The road conditions vary from good to excellent in parts, lots of beautiful windy corners for those who like to throw their bike around a bit, too. (Er, that'd be me.)

Kicking off at Chiang Mai, take the Road 107 north from the city at Chang Puak Gate. This is a busy multi-laned road to Mae Rim. Don't forget to fill up with petrol before you set off or somewhere along this road otherwise you might find this turns into a l-o-o-o-o-n-g ride, or walk actually. Soon you are in the wonderful rustic countryside with horses and beautiful fields. Shortly after Mae Rim town, take the 1096 road left to Samoeng.

You are immediately into the best of Thai countryside, with banana trees, open fields, villages of traditional teak wood houses and any number of boutique resorts. I strongly suggest you take the turn off right to Tard Mork waterfall ... about a 10km detour, but a very serene place to enjoy a drink or picnic next to the falls and stream. Entry is 50 baht per person, plus 20 for your motorbike, but the ticket is then valid for ALL entrances and falls in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park on that day. (Mae Sa Falls is a series of 9 cascades, and worth the lovely bush walk to see them if you want to stretch your legs).

Back on the road to Samoeng, you'll be dazzled at the amount of adventure activities and other attractions and distractions on offer. X Centre (an extreme sports centre), Thailand's biggest Orchid garden, world famous Mae Sa elephant camp, handicraft galleries, and a number of great restaurants and coffee shops (and of course millions of typical road side stalls). Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens is stunning when in flower, and there's a 4 km/ 2hr amble around there if that's your kind of thing.

By now, you're in low gear and climbing and snaking your way through the Mae Sa valley. Do keep your eyes on the road -- there's dogs, chickens, cyclists, even elephants that'll surprise you. Jing jing!

But sneak a glance to your right to see the valley stretch out in shades of blue and green beside you. There's a lookout stop at Samoeng Forest -- stunning photo op, as you can see from the photo above.

From there, you climb down toward Samoeng itself, feeling the cooler air. At the T-junction, take a right toward Samoeng, with its charming tree avenues which completely cover over the road in parts. There's also stands of teak trees and bamboo groves.

Samoeng has loads of shops, a big petrol station, a hospital, and -- if you're there on a weekend -- you'll see locals enjoying a game of football on the village green. There are lots of back streets, side streets and whatever to explore for a taste of real Thai small town life.

Then it's back to Chiang Mai. Take the same road back up as you came down on, but instead of turning left at the T-junction where you came down, just keep going straight (well, no, I mean follow the road which is curving left and right, but you know what I mean!) and head for Chiang Mai/ Hang Dong on the 1269. This section is exhilarating, with curve after curve and some nice straight bits to test that your throttle is still working in the 'fully on' position. (There'll be more of this sort of throttle testing in later blogs, believe me.)

Stop at the local fruit stalls for bananas, longans (like lychees), cool drinks. Locals love to ask you where you are from and where you are going.

And then, all too soon, you suddenly hit the 121 Canal Road. Hopefully not literally. You can turn left here if you're heading for north/west of Chiang Mai or keep on straight till the 108 and turn left if you're heading back to south/east Chiangers.

This is actually only a short ride, so best enjoyed by stopping every now and again and enjoying the scenery or the food and drinks or chatting with the locals to make a full and enjoyable day of it.

[Suggestion: pick up a copy of a map called Mae Sa Valley - the Samoeng Loop, published by GT Rider in bookstores in town. That'll give you all the detail you need to know about this route.]

Friday 11 June 2010

Khao Sok -- Karst of Thousands

'We are going back to 1900,' announces our guide Khun Viraj, with a gleam in his eye. This is a half-warning half-benefit I suspect. The bus is taking us about an hour and a quarter west of Surat Thani, which -- for the geographically challenged -- is inland from Koh Samui on the right hand side of the Thai ithsmus. Clear?

Don't worry, not many people have heard of Khao Sok National Park, but damn they should. 'This is the Guilin of Thailand,' explains Viraj of the limestone karst upthrusts that dominate the area. Others feel it's an inland Phangna. Or perhaps another El Nido, Philippines. Something like that.

From the bus, a 40-minute boat ride in a low-lying boat, takes us past a parade of these abrupt mountains, which cut a stark outline like a donosaur's spine, or dromedary humps, against the horizon. These limestone formations were once, unbelievably, part of the seabed. But that was before I was born. Since then, a series of eight rivers were dammed, forming the Rajjapha Dam. So if these spines are 300-500m out of the water, you can add another 100 metres or so under the waterline which you can't see. There are also 4 villages and 2 temples under here somewhere, like a latter-day Atlantis.

This area used to form an overland route -- think a waterless Panama Canal -- from Surat and Ranong to Phuket (which lies a hundred and fifty kilometres to the west of here) to save them travelling all the way around Singapore. Instead of boats, they used elephants.

The national park presents pristinely until we finally round a bend, and there is a series of a dozen tiny rafthouses, floating in a bay. This is the '1900' bit that Viraj was talking about: a generator produces electricity only at certain times of day/ night. There is only very intermittent phone signal (thankfully!). And the cabins are cute but barely big enough for a mattress and a suitcase. Aah, simplicity.

But, wow, we've really got a grandstand seat to nature's performance ...

And I'm not talking about the toilet block here (which amusingly was divided not by male/female but by guests/ boat drivers). I accidentally used the boat drivers' facilities and enjoyed a nice western style throne while other guests complained about the 'starting block' squat facilities for the guests. Someone, somewhere was enjoying a chuckle.

As night fell, I dragged my mattress out onto the slatted bamboo balcony of my room, and slept under a blanket of stars. Not a mozzie around. Magic! And only 700 baht a night.

Morning dawned like an oil painting (the photo above was taken from my mattress). The wild whooping of gibbons was amplified by the very stillness of the place. Kingfishers dived in for a snack. Other birds called their cheery greetings.

A boat tour took us on a bird spotting venture in the placid waters up-river. We also took in Pra Kay Petch cave, which was full of cave spiders and bats, and a million stalagmites and tites, many protruding delicately -- if phallically -- from the slippery clay floor. 'It's like ice-skating in a Wedgewood factory,' said fellow traveller John.

A tough hour and a half walk along one of the park's many trails saw us eye-to-eye with around 4 gibbons. Lung, our Akubra-hatted guide, regaled us of stories of there being plenty of deer, wild boar, and tigers here. Tigers??? Jing jing!

Um, can you hurry along up the front there please? I need to get back to the 21st century.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Going down in the Similan Islands

I felt very, very square compared to our English dive master Giles, and made a mental note to get both nipples pierced, my naval too, and get a couple of Masai-warrior like earrings inserted into my ears as well. That would give me some sort of, er, street credibility in these diving circles. But it would have to wait, as we were now a good hour or so out to sea, west of Phuket in the fabled Similan Islands.

It was my first dive in Amazing Thailand (below water at least) and I'd always heard 'Similan, Similan, Similan' whenever I'd enquired of divers about their preferred spot. The talk had been of leopard sharks, napolean wrasse, even manta rays. So I must say there was more than an ounce of expectation.

The Sea Bees boat -- a massive bright yellow mini-ship -- cut an impressive sight at the wharf. It had 'serious dive boat' written all over it. And once on board, that was confirmed. With Teutonic efficiency, each of us was presented with a blue crate with our names on it, replete with all the dive equipment we'd requested, in the sizes we'd indicated. Then there was a mountain of scrambled egg, etc, by way of breakfast.

The first dive was on Anita's Reef (named after the favourite dive spot of one of the royal family, said Swedish dive guide Patrick.) 'It's a good example of a Similan dive,' says Giles, 'with its sloping coral.' He warned us about a resident moray eel which took someone's thumb off a couple of years ago when he was feeding it sausages. As you do. Jing jing! You can YouTube it. I made another mental note to not feed sausages to any moray eels I encountered.

The water was as though the butler had drawn me a lovely hot bath. 'The visibility's as good as Tahiti,' said Rod, only underwater it sounded like 'Bllbblbluubbbbllublblulbbubbub.'  The season here runs from the middle of October to the end of April, during which there's an average visibility of around 20 metres.

Huge fans were a delight, lots of clown fish ('Hey, send my regards to Nemo') and even an eel forest. Eel forest? Yes, literally that, a thousand or so eels protruding vertically from their sea-bed holes. Just kind of hanging around, swaying in the currents. Ram-rod straight. Imagine meerkats with aqua-lungs.

Lunch was another mountain of food ... Thai style this time, all kinds of meat and veggies, but with notably sausages on the menu.  After that huge lunch I wouldn't be needing the lead weight-belts. I was quite happy to settle into a nice siesta when Patrick called us up for our second dive.

'Boulder dives are less obviously beautiful,' said Giles in his briefing about East of Eden on Island #7, 'but they are the other type of dive we have here in Similan.'

Sure enough, the ocean bed here was less obviously beautiful. There was so much sand they could've shot Lawrence of Arabia here. The boulders added some topographical relief as we drifted around. (Just an aside: after lunch, Rod seemed to be blowing bubbles from both ends of his wetsuit!) Then came the wall. A really impressive wall, chock-a-block with the who's who of underwater stuff. And a couple of really fun bommies (that's dive talk for 'bomboras', towering columns of coral) which are home to all manner of colourful fish and fans.

A wrasse swam gracefully by, blotting out the horizon with its piscean vastness.

I spent a good couple of minutes watching a black-and-white banded sea snake out for a little afternoon swim. Then, before I knew it, my oxygen was reading in the red zone. Time to surface. Aah, that second dive was even better than the first.

'Yeah, for fish and visibility, Similan for sure,' said Patrick, who's spent nearly nine years in Thailand. 'For wrecks maybe Pattaya.' I made a mental note to go down next time I was in Pattaya ...

Monday 7 June 2010

SukoThai, SukhoChinese, SukhoMoroccan, etc

I really didn't expect to find something so lavish in design touch in Sukhothai, the original ancient capital of Thailand. Dig out the history books, there have been a few over the years.

From the outside, this hotel presents traditionally Thai, with its steeply pitched shingled roof. (That in itself is something of a relief, because their sign at the turnoff  is sponsored by Pepsi and I wondered what I was getting myself in for!)

But then Tharaburi Resort just gets increasingly delightful from there. The airy lobby with its floor-to-ceiling doors, bowls of floating petals, and intricate mosaic murals, make you feel like you're visiting a rich Thai friend's grand home. Which, in a way, you are.

You see Khun Wiwat started this off as a very modest guest house, based on one original wooden building. He was a refugee from the corporate world, having cut his teeth in the Big Six accounting firms (is it still the Big Six or have they mergered and acquisitioned themselves into lesser firms now?). He chose a great spot, only a three-minute cycle ride from the Sukhothai Historical Park site I blogged about the other day. The bicycles by the way are free, and even if they weren't they get a lot of miles to the gallon anyhow.

Soon Wiwat was overflowing with business. And this is where the Tharaburi really hit its stride. He called in some designers who went to town which is handily only five minutes the other direction. No, seriously, they created what I call 'instant history' ... something that looks like it's been there forever, but is actually  new.

The corridors have ancient-looking black-and-white Chinese patterned tiles. Some of the rooms are in the style of old Thai teak houses. But then, they've added some rooms in a classic Chinese theme, with rounded archways shrouded in drapes, lending an air of mystery to the room. Another is done out in Morroccan style, with lush cushions and vibrant colours and dark woods. Still others are done in classic Thai ... think golds and purples clashing beautifully, with giant parasols sunk into the ceiling. Jing jing!

All these are surrounded by what can only be described as an infestation of frangipani, and placid lily-covered ponds.

'It's like waking up in another country,' mused my companion, looking through the intricate window panelling at the lotuses (or should that be lotii?) outside. Indeed it is exotic. But the atmosphere overall is unmistakably Thai. Especially the down-home friendly service, mainly handled by one really helpful and smiling guy who pops up magically in reception, in the restaurant, wherever and whenever you need him. Because, yes, it really is that intimate.

In fact if this place were any bigger or busier it would be ruined. Then maybe they could include it as part of the main Historical Park?

Thursday 3 June 2010

Sofitel Centara Grand Resort & Villas Hua Hin

Sofitel Centara Grand Resort & Villas Hua Hin -- you can pause and take a deep breath now after that rambling name -- has been named as one of the top-ranked hotel properties worldwide by on-line travel reservation website Expedia (which owns

In among over a million consumer feedbacks, the resort was identified as consistently delivering superior services, an exceptional guest experience and notable value.

There again, I hinted at all that when I blogged on this marvellously historical hotel months ago. Jing jing!

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Sukhothai -- Nam Kang Restaurant is a legend in its own right

I don't often write about restaurants (because they don't often write about me).

But this one in Sukhothai near the Historical Park really is famous throughout central Thailand. The Nam Kang Restaurant, which is Thai meaning Nam Kang (a literal translation).

What makes it famous? Well, atmosphere really. A chance to experience the traditional central Thailand culture. Twinkling lights. A canal. And damn good food. The central Thai cuisine centres around river fish and grilled chicken (if you see 'river chicken' on the menu, decline it). Aloi aloi!

It's quite a big set-up, and yes, the odd tour bus pulls up here, but don't let that put you off. The thatched roofs of the village style rooms, and lights reflecting off the meandering canal, make it dreamy and other-worldy. Local groups sing and dance to their traditional riffs, sometimes discordant, but an authentic colourful backdrop nonetheless.

After a gorgeous Thai meal, you'll walk out of here paying somewhere between 150-200 baht per person. (That's right, about $5-7 Aussie dollars in your language.) So a tourist trap it aint. Jing jing!