Tuesday 31 August 2010

Cha-am -- Veranda's tropical chic

The whole design ethic of Veranda screams minimalist tropical chic. Except ‘screams’ is not the right word to use here. Veranda is cool, laid back and tasteful. It states things quietly; it doesn’t – and wouldn’t – scream.

Tucked away down a quiet seaside lane, it is the perfect easy getaway from Bangkok. Where the stresses of the working week can be checked-in at the gate. Its shingled angular roof. Its groves of banana and wild ginger plants. Its ponds and pool that provide a soothing soundtrack of water on the move. Gently chiming music.

At just 118 rooms it is boutique-sized. (They’ve also added another block behind, which has large all-in-one family sized rooms, especially popular with Asian families). But what really gives it that delightful tropical chic edge is the pockets of charm dotted here and there – a bar with bright red high-backed chairs – another bar with blue-and-green striped lounges and hanging basket-like chairs. On the deck above the ‘modern Thai’ i-Sea restaurant are white plastic chairs that more resemble metamorphosing amoeba under a microsscope, jing jing!

These all give it an edginess. But it’s all about casual comfort …

Our seaview suite was a marvel of creature comforts creatively configured into a suitable space. The bed (with bench and plasma TV at the foot) gazed out to the palm trees and ponies on the beach. The massive bathroom, dominated by a self-standing tub, was a centerpiece not an afterthought.

A spa and fitness centre complete the offering here, along with chic retailer Ginger. (The resort’s owner has interests in construction, fitness, etc.) But you’ll find just about everyone horizontal in the sun beds around the freeform pool, where a mini slide keeps kids busy, while three large wooden frames rain water down on those who want to have their heads and shoulders massaged by cascading water.

Veranda's slogan is Hip and Cool (it’s sister property in Chiang Mai operates under High and Cool). That it is. And hip and cool people don’t scream. They just exude.

Cha-Am -- a charming seaside town

Where the hell is Cha-Am? is a reasonable question. You see I’d been travelling to Thailand for about 20 years before I ever even heard the name much less visited the place.

To break the suspense, it’s about 130 km south west of Bangkok; about 30 km north of Hua Hin. Got it now?

In fact no one is quite sure where Cha-Am finishes and Hua Hin starts. They sort of blur into one, sharing the same local attractions between them. But Hua Hin is the bigger of the two, having started way back with the Royal summer resort connection and the fabled railway since 1911.

‘Hua Hin seemed to get the high end, and Cha-Am the cheap end of the market,’ says Khun Panit, manager of the Veranda resort in Cha-Am, ‘but that’s all changing now.’ He talks of how the Dusit, the Sofitel were already in Hua Hin 10 years ago when he first arrived, then came the Hyatt, the Hilton, now the InterCon ‘and the new brand names are still coming.’

He points out that the trend in Cha-Am is now towards the more upscale market ‘with a lot of boutique resorts like Alila moving in’.

Ironically the Veranda calls itself Veranda Hua Hin Cha-Am. ‘We push it to the border,’ laughs the amiable hotelier. ‘Customers overseas know where Hua Hin is. But in fact Cha-Am has better beaches.' The Courtyard by Marriott similarly bills itself as ‘Hua Hin at Cha-Am Beach’.

The beach in fact is a long beautiful stretch that goes on endlessly, with deckchairs and umbrellas, and blue wooden fishing boats sitting high and dry at the high water mark.  Strolling along the beach front road, fishing nets and paraphernalia are strung out, and there’s a rather pungent smell of fish in the air. A sure sign of the freshest seafood, ironically ...

A popular strip of restaurants is a magnet, especially for Bangkokians at the weekend. While the Horny Gecko restaurant does a roaring trade (more to farangs with its more polished appearance – it has walls and a roof for instance), those in the know head to Sung Wean, an authentic seafood restaurant right in the sand. Hundreds of tables are plonked on the beach, shaded by seemingly thousands of red, blue and green beach umbrellas. This is fine when it’s sunny, and just a little humorous when the monsoon rains come sweeping in … and torrents of leaking water force diners to stand on their seats, shielding their main courses from the drips.

But the food … steamed fish, grilled prawns, steamed green-lipped mussels (a whole dish for only 80 baht). Oh, to die for! And mains cost between 100-250 baht only. ‘The portions are massive and incredible value for money,’ enthuses Panit. ‘There’s a waiting list every weekend.’

Same for Platoo restaurant, in the vicinity of Marriott. A barn of a place facing the beach, but with real walls and a thatched roof and everything. Great seafood at the same prices. But bigger. Think tour buses, and staff calling through orders on wireless radios. Not as charming but the food is mouthwatering.

And at the northern end, hundreds of umbrella-covered deckchairs. Beyond the beach and the boats, the breakwater keeps the ocean at bay, providing a charming safe haven where kids fly kites and ponies wait for pint-sized passengers.

If you haven’t heard of Cha-Am before – or even if you have – you’re going to be hearing a lot more of it from now, jing jing.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Koh Samui - World's 10th sexiest pool

Trip Advisor has just released their list of 10
 most gorgeous pools in the world. And of course
 no list like that would possibly be complete
 without an entrant from Thailand.
And 10th place goes to ...
...drum roll please ...
The Library in Samui. Jing jing! 

This chic little boutique hotel is right in the
middle of the Chaweng strip, with the pool overlooking
the magical beach. What makes the Library's stand out?
It's, well, red. In fact, if I didn't know any better 
I would've thought someone just got eaten alive by a shark. 
Or a whale just got harpooned. But that's design for you!

So add The Library to your next Samui itinerary. 
For a swim. Or just a Bloody Mary.

Bangkok -- Heritage Baan Silom

There is a decidedly villagey feel to this part of Silom, close to Bangkok's central business district. Many of the streets and sois have a tree-lined boulevarde feel.

The Heritage Baan Silom is set in its own little 'lifestyle arcade' of restaurants, salons, spas and a Starbucks Cafe.

Alongside are trattorias, a Vietnamese restaurant, and so on.

The hotel itself is a 3-storey affair with a shophouse feeling.It bills itself as 'an eclectic hotel'. Aye, that it is indeed. Design-wise it sort of wants to be a funky designer sort of place, with a fusion feel. It's half designery, and half colonial throwback. So the result is perhaps more con-fusion than anything else.

Still, it has a small charm and is nice and comfortable with nice big flat-screen TVs in every room. 

The website says 'close to 3 BTS stations' which naturally infers its actually not close to one at all. Still cabs, tuk tuks and motorcycle taxis are easy to grab out front on main Silom Road.

The price point (with studio rooms going from 1250 baht per night, no breakfast) makes it very popular with families and young travelling couples. Although it's close to the business district, the free-but-slow in-room wi-fi makes it not the best choice for someone who's trying to get things done fast.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

NewsFlash!!! New airport train up and running

It's been a loooooooooong time coming ... you've heard of slow boat to China, well this is a case of slow train to Bangkok.

It's not that the train is slow, it's just that the construction and testing seem to have gone on and on and on.

Anyway, good news is you can now step out of Suvannaporn Suvvanibom,  er, the airport in Bangkok, swish down into the train terminal, and be whizzing your way across paddy fields, through Starship Enterprise-like above ground stations, and into downtown Makassar station in just 15 minutes. Jing jing!

You can avoid those long delays on the expressway, the crawl into Sukhumvit Road traffic, etc, that used to be the usual part of arrivig in Bangkok.

And, like everything else in Thailand, the Airport Link is damn good value: just 100 baht. What's that ... about AUD$3.50!!!

From Makassar, you can then get BTS and MRT connections on to every other point of Bangkok.

It's now 'ALL ABOARD' compared to the long taxi ride which was 'all are bored'. 

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Chiang Mai - live music in the dead of night.

On the road in northern Thailand, and need a fix of  fun nightlife? There's a number of suggestions in Chiang Mai.

1/ Guitarman. '100% Rock n Roll Served Fresh Everyday' is multi-tattooed owner Nicky's claim, and it's roughly true.Guitarman has a strong following among the Chiangmai expat crowd, who get down there for a dose of folk, blues, country sort of stuff. One of the staple performers is Aussie Dave, a performer of indeterminate age but incalculable musical and entertainment ability. His band includes saxophone, drums and sometimes a wash tub bass, and others that will jump on and do backing vocals or blow some harmonica from time to time.

A popular headliner is Richie Castro ... a very entertaining and lively Latin American performer, who throws in a lot of witty repartee and spontaneous competitions, ie name the singer of this song's mother's maiden name for a free beer!

But every now and then, Guitarman will stage something really special, like a visiting indi band from overseas, or the best of young Chiang Mai or Bangkok bands. Edgy stuff. Sweaty. Loud. Something to clear the cobwebs. Like Sonnet & Alcohol or recent Canadian band Handsome Furs.
Address: Loi Kroh (behind Burger King and keep going past Red Lion for about 200 metres. It's on your left.)

2/ Riva Bar. A new-comer to the live music scene, Riva is a funky place right on the moat near Thapae Gate. Picture frames on the ceiling gives you an idea of its design ethic. It's a quite a small place, which opens up onto a little terrace which is a terrific place to have a meal and a beer and watch the people pass by.

There are jam nights here, so drop by if you want to sit in on some folk and pop singalong sometime, but the main draw is the blues of Boy Blues, a local player who knows all the three chords!

3/ Intra Bar. Blues, blues and more blues plus the classic rock book. You'll hear the wailing voices and screaming guitar as you exit Thapae Gate across the moat. Slightly smoky and sawdusty atmosphere, with many there to play pool. Sunglasses seem mandatory for the musicians trying their best to live out some kind of Jimi Hendrix dream. Jing jing!

4/ But ... if you really want to kick things up a notch, head on over to Warm Up on Nimminheiman Road (about half way along the main road, you can't miss it's Rising Sun logo and swarms of scooters out the front). This is a firm favourite for some of the 12,000,000 local university students. A cool place with outside lounge bar area, and a band set up in the corner. Ok, so what's the big deal?

Push open the double glass doors and the sound hits you -- another live band inside, belting away to a standing-room only crowd. Tables and tables and tables of people sardined in, dancing, singing, sweating, laughing, drinking. Buckets of ice adorned with bottles of Johnny Walker or some other aviation fuel. The atmosphere is delightfully infectious.I don't know why they call it Warm Up. This place is HOT, every night.

And when you pour out of here whateveroclock in the morning, and you still need more, there's only one option:

5/ Spicy Bar. It's really the last resort for everyone to wring just a little drop more out of the day (especially young ladies from nearby establishments on Loi Kroh). It's a dingy, divy basement club. Some unkind folk would call it The Dance of the Desperates. Yeah, OK, but it's fun -- dance music pounding till at least 6 or even 7 in the mornings sometimes. Any self-respecting tuk tuk driver knows 'Sa-picy Bar'.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Chiang Mai - Beyond the Brochure

The following is an edited extract of an interview with me (I know I'm schizophrenic sometimes but no I wasn't interviewing me, someone else was!) that appeared in Traveltalk, Australia's leading travel agent publication. I hope it sheds some light on my passion for northern Thailand ...


Traveltalk Thailand correspondent, Stu Lloyd, has been travelling to Thailand since 1987 and had a house on Koh Samui for five years before settling in Chiang Mai. ‘If you hang around the pond long enough, you’re sure to fall in.’ He loves the cultural depth of Chiang Mai compared to the more one-dimensional beach destinations.

What has been your stand-out ‘tourism find’ in northern Thailand? 
Stu: That enchanting Chiang Mai is the gateway to so much else: the wonderful jungles of Chiang Rai and the irresistible evocative lure of the Golden Triangle just a few hours north, then the Greater Mekong Subregion (especially Laos, Cambodia and Yunnan) so easily accessible by plane, boat, elephant, motorbike … you can drive all the way to China now.

Everyone loves Thai food, but nothing comes close to eating this delectable cuisine in its country of origin. What tips can you offer someone keen to try the local delicacies?
Street food is good and cheap … pad Thai for 25 baht (less than $1). But for first timers, start somewhere ‘cleaner’ where they can adjust the spiciness to your liking. Huen Phen Restaurant (112 Ratchamanka Road) is regarded as the best northern Lanna food in town. Try soi khao (curry noodles), som tam (papaya salad), khao niao (sticky rice), naem and sai-ua spicy sausages, and khaao niao ma muang (mango rice dessert). You’ll be full for around $10, including a beer!

Thailand is also well-known for exceptional shopping. How does northern Thailand compare in this department, and where are the best shopping experiences to be had?
Northern Thailand is amazing value. For designer fashion in western sizes, you’re better off in Bangkok. But for sunglasses, shirts, jeans, artworks and hill-tribe handicrafts hit Night Bazaar (Chang Klang Road, nightly) or Sunday Walking Street (Rathchadamnoen Road and surrounds, weekly).

Where do you like to stay and why? 
Stu: At home in the Nimminheiman Road area. Stunning views of Doi Suthep sunsets, and hundreds of cafes, art galleries, restaurants, and nightclubs on my doorstep. Hotels: hard to beat the Mandarin Oriental Dara Dhevi for sheer epic romantic scale, and the Shangri-la’s lush inner city setting. Then there’s funky D2; and quaint Chedi. But the hidden gems are boutique resorts such as Ruen Raya Resort Residence in Mae Rim and the Field Village outside town.

 Is there a better time to visit?
Northerners celebrate with more gusto than elsewhere. So Songkhran  (Thai new year) water festival in April is craziness not to be missed. Bring plenty of spare clothes – or a raincoat – because tourists score extra points as targets for buckets of water and high-powered super-soakers.

What are one or two things that every visitor to northern Thailand should experience?
Peace and tranquility.

Nature-based tourism in this part of the world is simply awesome. Do you have a favourite nature experience?
'Flight of the Gibbon' is a high adrenaline jungle canopy zip-wire experience that tourists rightly rave about and has been voted Thailand's Number 1 tourist attraction. But it now has a competitor called 'Jungle Flight' which I think is even better, jing jing! I know this because I was far more shit scared at Jungle Flight -- which you can tell by the way I was hugging the centuries-old teak trees so tightly in all the photos.

What is the best way to get around?
: On a bright yellow BMW F650 GS motorbike, for sure! For tourists, song taew (red trucks) run set routes to just about anywhere for around 20 baht, or quintessential tuk tuk anywhere for less than 100 baht. Within the old city wall, walk it. It’s flat and you’ll appreciate the slow pace, the interesting sois (small side streets), and see more of the enchanting town.

Is there any health or security risks for travellers in northern Thailand?
Idiots that ride scooters and motorbikes without helmets! Otherwise, not really, unless you’re really far off the beaten track on the northwestern Thai-Burma border which is often disputed territory. In very remote areas, be vigilant about some of the Thai minorities and Burmese illegal immigrants who can be a little desperate, but I’ve never experienced anything other than the world famous warm Thai welcome.

Monday 16 August 2010

Chiang Mai - North Gate and all that jazz

There are plenty of bars around the world that would love to have punters spilling out into the street, even in crowds over the road. And on a Tuesday night???

Welcome to the North Gate Jazz Co-op, where the draw is the nightly jazz sessions which kick off around 9:30pm, sort of, roughly-ish (hey, it's Chiang Mai ... the clocks don't work so good here).

It's pot luck in terms of who's playing ... but usually the line up consists of Paul, the good looking Thai owner who blows a mean mean sax, and a cosmopolitan mixture of someone on keyboards, a vocalist, a trumpeter, someone on bongos, bass, drums. With a few people who jump in and out as guest performers. It's amazing who literally blows through Chiang Mai, jing jing!

Tuesday nights is Open Mic nights, and an agreeable and amiable mix of locals, tourists and expats comes to check it out. And participate ...

Some nights it's brilliant. Other nights even better. It could be anyone from a control-freak New York septuagenarian keyboardist, to a hippie-trail European who plays amazing euphonium. Rasta guys on bongos. Weird hermit guy on percussion. A rich and envigorating musical cocktail.

Best of all, it's not some fancy up market glass-and-marble bar where you pay cover charge and $10 a drink. No! Free to get in (well, it's completely open to the street anyway) and a drink costs you about $4. If you're early enough you can grab the comfy sofa and chill. The casual crowd turns up in shorts and singlets. And , being Chiang Mai, there's always an artist or two in the crowd, one who normally sits front and centre and does ink drawings of the music.

Who would have thought Chiang Mai would have something like this to trumpet about?

Address: Sriphoom Rd, Chiang Mai
Directions: Just east of Chang Puek (northern) Gate, on the inner moat road.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Chiang Mai -- the Writers Club is writing its own legend.

The Writers Club is run by ex- Fleet Street journalist Bob Tilley and his lovely Thai partner Tong, ably assisted by a friendly team including some of her children. Chiang Mai being home to many writers (such as myself), journalists, screenwriters, novelists, photographers and filmmakers, this is a firm favourite with local and visiting scribes. Friday night in particular is when they're particularly out in force, debating whether there should be an apostrophe in the club's name, and telling tales of derring-do and whopping lies around the bar.

Think of it as Chiang Mai's answer to the FCC in Phnom Penh. On a good night you can meet James Conrad, Somerset Maugham, and Ernest Hemingway. Jing jing!

Wine is expensive in Thailand, but the Writer's Club have a number of 1 litre carafes of red and white wine from France, Italy, South Africa, etc, which start at 120 baht. Not bad value.

The food is a good mixture of local favourites and hearty western pub grub. You can sit around the bar or take a cafe style table under cover out the front.

All are welcome for a drink or a meal here ... you don't have to be a writer or a member, just roll on in. Open midday to midnight-ish. Note: closed Saturdays.

My Favorite Dish: Thai beef salad. Cooked to tender perfection, with just enough spiciness to give it a good kick along.

Address: 141/3 Rachadamnoen Road, Chiang Mai. Rachadamnoen Road is one of the main lateral roads of the old city, and runs from Tapae Gate in the east across towards Doi Suthep in the west. The Writer's Club and Bar is about half way between Wat Phrasing and Tapae Gate.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Shangri-la's Kad cafe: cheapest 5-star buffet in the world?

Shangri-la's Kad Kafé in Chiang Mai features Thai, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, European and Mediterranean specialities. It has three different buffets: the weekday quick lunch, dinner, and Sunday BBQ.

Now here's the thing. Don't be frightened by the 5-star tag. As a relatively new hotel it's got to make itself known and accessible to the local community, so its pricing at Kad is VERY aggressive (read; CHEAP). The lunch spread, featuring 5 different stations of pizzas, pastas, soups, Thai specialties, etc, will run you about $6-7 Aussie dollars. Jing jing! You can eat your heart out for that measly sum -- plate after plate after plate after yummy plate till they kick you out (well, the Shang wouldn't do that, but you get what I mean).

The choice at dinner is bigger, ie including seafood, and a few dollars more, and the Sunday BBQ a little more again, but you do get access to swim in their gorgeous pool the rest of the day and get to feel how the other half live!

So, treat yourself without trashing your travel budget.

Favorite Dish: The pizzas and pastas are great, but try the northern Thai local delicacies such as Khao Soi curry noodles.

Monday 9 August 2010

Chiang Mai's Huen Phen: A touch of northern spice.

Northern Thailand has it's own distinctive brand of Thai cuisine, quite distinct from the southern and central parts. And Huen Phen is well regarded among local Thais as perhaps the best local restaurant for northern Lanna Thai food ...

Walk in via a beautifully lit stone walkway into a restaurant which is quite big, but all the diners are separated by Lanna wooden screens, creating cozy corners and privacy. Lush decoration of handicrafts and artifacts from this region set the tone for an upmarket local experience.

Huen Phen feels more like you've accidentally walked into an antique store.

Enjoy their extensive menu of local items, all of which they can do in low, medium or oh-my-good-someone-call-the-fire-brigade-and-maybe-the-proctologist-too spicy. Jing jing!

Suggestion: ask the waiter to bring a selection of plates, ie something with pork, chicken, fish, veggies to put in the middle. The hors d'oeuvres are stunningly presented too. It's all great! And when you get the bill, a pleasant surprise. Three of us ate our fill (with a large beer each) for 300 baht a head! That's about 10 bucks in your language.

My Favorite Dish: You've gotta try the Khao Soi noodle, a Chiang Mai speciality. Locals argue it's the best in town. Also have local spicy sausage and sticky rice with whatever you order for something different.

Phone: 053-814548
Address: 112 Rathchamanka Rd, Chiang Mai.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Chiang Mai: Top 3 places for Sunset, Beers, and Music

Whatever you get up to during the day in Chiangers, it's always nice to wind down and replenish the fluids as the sun sinks slowly over Doi Suthep mountain, which was thoughtfully placed directly to the west of Chiang Mai with exactly this sort of thing in mind.

1/ La Brasserie:

The Brasserie sits on the eastern side of the Mae Nam Ping river, and is a wonderfully romantic spot, especially if you request a table adjacent the water (get them to light a mosquito coil under the table; a few mosquitoes around especially in the wet season which is now).

Lit by colourful lanterns in the trees, it's Chiang Mai at its very best, and much more intimate than the more famous Riverside and Good View which are just 100m up the road (see below).

They have live music nightly, with an acoustic artist playing during dinner, then a couple of acts ramping things up from around 10:30 to about 1 or so (hey, this is Chiang Mai, so approximate timings only, OK!). Took, rated as one of Thailand's best blues guitarists, blazes away nightly with a set of classic stuff from Hendrix, Marley, Dylan. Other times you might have the jazzy stylings of amazing English gal, Ana Gracey.

Open from 4pm onwards ... so it's also great to catch a sunset beer here, too.

Favorite Dish: Crispy duck, fried
Fried fish with spicy salad
sirloin steak - tender and sliced

2/ The Good View Bar and Restaurant

The Good View does, as the name may suggest, give a good view of the Ping River, and is an especially good place to watch the sunset over Doi Suthep.

It is massive ... a real 'tour bus' atmosphere, so not the place you want to go for an intimate one-on-one dinner. Especially when the live band cranks up. It's bright lights and beer jugs and loud party atmosphere every night with the dance floor getting quite packed. Chances of getting a table anywhere remotely near the river are slim ... in fact most people probably never even see the river from where the sit. But it's fun, and the Thai food is good and reasonably priced for a tourist joint.

Open for lunch a dinner. Full bar and healthy smoothies available too.

Favorite Dish: Can't remember what I've eaten here. Good Thai food, and good times.

3/ The Riverside

The management were up all night thinking of a name for this place, and after the 15th Singha beer, it struck them. Duh! This is the 3rd of the great bars and restaurants all conveniently lined up in a row for you.

The Riverside is schizophrenic. Let me explain. If you want to go for a lovely romantic soft-lit meal with fine food, while you get some soft strumming in your ear, it's perfect. Gradually though, as you sip your wine, the musicians are replaced -- a game of musical chairs if you like -- and by the time you've asked for your bill (which is never as much as you think it should be in a popular tourist place like this) the music is full-on cranking.

You might even find it tricky to push through the thronging crowds of mainly young Thais who've suddenly materialised from nowhere and are moshing to the shredding band (after a few wines, the little lead guitarist even begins to LOOK like Jimmy Hendrix, jing jing!)

So you can have two different nights out in one, without ever leaving the Riverside.

As an option, you can also book a dinner cruise on The Riverside's boat, tied up adjacent their restaurant. Languid, lovely.

My Favourite Dish: eaten here several times, but can't remember. It's always been good.

So there you have it. Three different ways to enjoy sunset and dinner, all within a 100-metre stagger of each other.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

The best noodles in Chiang Mai by a looooong way ...

And the winner is ... Mr Chai's Noodles.

I was taken here by a Thai friend, and what a find (yes, the friend as well as this noodle place!)

It is basically street food served in the most unassuming surroundings, so it's all about the food. And even though it's right in the heart of the touristic Night Bazaar area you never -- or very rarely -- see any other farangs there. Jing jing!

Basically it's noodle soup, a choice of spicy or non-spicy tom yam with pork or mixed meats. Just point at whatever looks good. Believe me, it's all good.The level of spiciness is just right even for my companion who has a more Chinese palette (ie mai bped maak!).

For just a couple of bucks, it's a filling meal all on its own ... but on a hungry night I've been known to have a couple of bowls to myself.

Address: Chang Klang Road, Night Bazaar, beside Burger King. Go as if you're going to walk into Burger King. Stand at the front door, now look a little to your right. You'll see a CD vendor. Squeeze between his stall and the Burger King store windows and you'll end up in Mr Chai's noodles. There's no English signs nor English spoken for that matter.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Bangkok - Sukhomvit Soi 11 is go, go, go ...

You might've been to Bangkok a few times already, or even if you're new to it, and looking for some different options -- two words:

Soi 11.

It's a fascinating street, rich in cosmopolitan life at any time of day or night. A destination in itself.

First, walk the gauntlet of Indian tailors working the shops on the corner from the Asoke BTS. Unsurprisingly, there are some good Indian cafe/ restaurants nearby - good value and worth a try.

One of the established favourites for the expat crowd is on the left: Cheap Charlie's. It's a whole in the wall, selling beer and wine and spirits, with tables and stools spilling out into the street. 'I really don't know what the attraction is,' says Jim, a long time Bangkok expat, 'but I keep coming here.' The drinks are affordably priced and it's casual and raffish. And the Thai bar keep (I'll call him Charlie) ensures ongoing quality control by sampling liberally of his products as the evening goes on.

Then on your left you'll soon see Zanzibar. A great place to sit on the outdoor/indoor terrace setting of this renovated Thai house and sink a few pints while the piano man croons his way through the evergreen songbook. He's a human jukebox. Other nights the bands are more lively. There's also a well-regarded Thai/ Italian menu to enjoy.

The sprawling Ambassador Hotel is adjacent, a quite old though perfectly comfortable place to stay, with its own F&B options.

Then comes, um, a steam train. Jing jing!  I'm not sure what a steam train has to do with an upmarket Thai restaurant, but there you go. The logo of the Rosa Viang is a steam train, and on the outdoor terrace a jazz band smokes it up while diners enjoy fine Thai cuisine. Indoors, in air-conditioned comfort, a model train set mesmerises as it whizzes around.

Then there's the Old German Beer House, which is a sprawling barn of a bierkeller -- huge, with an amiable mix of locals, tourists and -- as the name implies -- Old Germans enjoying large steins of German brews.

Um, then things get a bit foggy. There are Japanese restaurants, Koreans restaurants, apartments and ... no, it can't be ... yes, it's a space ship that's landed on the right. A large silver-white capsule. On closer inspection it's Bed Supper Club.

This has become an institution in Bangkok over nearly 10 years now, offering the ultimate place to chill on comfy mattress-sized sofas. Occasional cultural and fashionista floor shows in one space; and the other: dancing. Shaking your booty till whenever it closes. The cover charge keeps the riff-raff out, so it's high end Bangkokians looking for a party.

And just when you can't take it anymore, you move on to Q Bar. Some regard it as one of the coolest clubs in the world. Subjective. It's cool. It's expensive. It's full. Of beautiful people. DJ's play a mixture of, well, whatever they like, frankly. Could be jazz. Could be retro. Or swamp-grunge-metal-trip-hop-acid-funk-blues-adelia. You with me y'all? Who knows. You could be in a New York lounge.

And if you haven't already had enough fun by now ... of course you've had enough by now. Time for bed. Because you've got to get up tomorrow and do it all over again. Good night!

Monday 2 August 2010

Ramada Hotel & Suites & Gardens & Great Feeling

The taxi driver is a little unsure, and so am I. I'm positive the new Ramada Hotel & Suites hotel we're looking for was, IS, in Sukhumvit Soi 12, but we're already quite deep into the road all cabbies know as 'Soi Darling', and now it seems a very un-commercial sort of neighbourhood with many apartment blocks and old houses behind high walls.

We're about to turn around when we spy the medium-rise block and shiny new driveway of black painted stones.Aha!

And therein lies the charm of this hotel. Lying around the pool on swinging suspended double-bed sized mattresses, or on the bubbling jacuzzi sunken daybeds, it is hard to believe the hubbub of Sukhumvit Road is just a few hundred metres away. Or that the Skytrain is around the corner. The open landscaped garden beyond the pool -- an extravagance in Bangkok -- is more in keeping with a remote resort on one of Thailand's many fabled islands.

This charming outdoor area, lush with frangipani and wild ginger, is really the centrepiece and point of difference for this 97 room boutique-style hotel.

The attraction is equal for business as it is for leisure. The hotel has its own 'Board Room' meeting facility, and offers high-speed wireless internet in the rooms and throughout the hotel FOR FREE. When are other hoteliers going to learn that internet access is now a staple requirement, not a luxury? Jing jing! And people don't want to muck about with logging on and passwords. They just want to get on with their work.

The rooms range from studios to executive suites, the latter wonderfully appointed with lounge area with TV, kitchen with fridge, dining table/work desk. The furniture is stylish and solid, even the doors have a reassuring thickness to them to give an overall vibe of substance. A big flat-screen also lords over the really comfortable bed. And a nice spacious bath-tub within a spacious bathroom -- always high on my list of priorities.

The gym, too, is well appointed and inspiringly located overlooking the pool.

I am sure Ramada will attract a lot of long-term guests here with this agreeable presentation. Especially with the option of indoor-outdoor dining at the appropriately-named Choices cafe (small critique: the breakfast buffet selection was minimal and lacking in healthier cereal options, but the eggs/bacon/sausage meals were not only huge and well presented but deliciously prepared too.)

Overall this is a friendly, fashionable and functional addition to Bangkok's inventory. But you'd have to go a long way in this price range -- from 2800 up to 4950 baht -- to find one that's as good for your peace of mind.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Amazing things coming up in August ...

Here's just a few of the items and attractions I'll be covering for you this month:

1/ Bangkok: the new Ramada Suites hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 12.

2/ Bangkok: Sukhumvit Soi 11 - various restaurants, bars and nightspots in a fascinating multi-cultural soi

3/ Ban Tawai: the first handicraft village in Thailand that served as a model for the government's OTOP creative craft village program focus

4/ Restaurants, spas and boutique hotels in Chiang Mai

Looking forward to sharing these stories with you.

Cheers, Stu