Wednesday 29 September 2010

Chiang Mai -- The Home of Spa.

'Thailand is the home of spa,' enthuses Greg Morling, an Australian spa consultant. 'And Chiang Mai is where it's at because it delivers that ephemeral experience, the ambiance, it's naturally in the Lanna people.'

Any of these techniques may be physically replicated anywhere in the world. But it's not going to be the same if it's not in northern Thailand.The misty mountains where lemongrass, prai and turmeric grow. Soaring spiritual temples (there are over 300 in Chiang Mai alone). Cooler climate. And the softer, gentler Lanna culture that has pervaded this region since the 13th century.  

 The Lanna Kingdom left a rich heritage in ancient health secrets, and secrets for healing and rejuvenation. The Lanna Exotic Massage style combines centuries-old Thai massage techniques (known as Tok Sen) with oils extracted from local herbs, and Lanna music therapy.

As former president of the Australian Association of Massage Therapy, Morling knows what he's talking about. And he's in Chiang Mai to find the very best spa experiences to bring specialist tour groups to.

 By his definition, spa means 'water' so it's all about reverence for water. He tells me of one amazing spa  'out in the jungle, under a waterfall.' But he conveniently forgets its name. He's not telling. You'll have to join his tour to find out.

Greg used to be a fan of the Oasis Spa group, but now feels its become the 'MacDonalds of spas'. 'The more outlets they have, the less interested I become,' he says.

Their signature is a four-hands massage (two masseuses simultaneously) and one treatment with real gold leaf in its oil. Jing jing! He makes a dismissive one-handed gesture of that.

His big thing is signature treatments. 'Each of us has a signature, one signature; so a spa needs to have one too. Something truly unique and original to it.'

He's off to check out The Spa at Four Seasons Resort (pictured above). 'I've heard it's the best in the world, but I've not tried it yet.'

It's a filthy, rotten, dirty, low-down job, but someone's got to do it.

Footnote: Interested in a Northern Thailand spa tour? Email Greg Morling at

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Chiang Mai -- the best spas in and out of town

There are conservatively 10,000 spas in the greater Chiang Mai area. Oh, at least that. Every thing that is not a 7-11 or a temple in this city is a spa.

And everything outside the city, where there are no 7-11s, is a spa. 

So if you're heading to Chiang Mai and looking to indulge and pamper yourself silly, where would you possibly start to select the best experiences?

My suggestion: The Lanna Spa Association website (click on headline above). They also produce a little booklet called Chiang Mai Wellness and Spa which you might be able to find at your local TAT office or travel agent.

It covers hot springs (there are about 4 in Chiang Mai province), city hotel spas, city spas, and boutique ones further out in popular rural areas like Mae Rim (less than half an hour from the airport).

Wow, what a tantalising collection. It makes you want to rip your clothes off right now and lie on the bed, awaiting your treatment. How can one place be so massively endowed with such gorgeously evocative spa options?

And apart from the Lanna Spa Association members, there are many many more independent boutique operators. And hundreds more small time massage places for a more basic Rub and Relax which costs about 150 baht per hour.. That's right -- around AUD$5 per hour.

Even the local ladies prison offers a massage service by convicted inmates. Jing jing! 

Plus several massage training colleges and academies where you can take a course in Thai massage.

Here's a very short list of just some of the top spa options to get you thinking (or unwinding):

1/ The Spa at Four Seasons
2/ Rarinjinda Spa
3/ The Village Spa at Tamarind Village
4/ Peak Spa and Beauty Salon
4/ Chiida Spa
5/ Oasis Spas (pictured)

Decisions, decisions. Oh no, now I'm getting stressed ... time for another rub down. See you next time!

Monday 27 September 2010

Chiang Mai -- Of Cold-Pressed Virgins and Hot Tempers

I thought I was just going for a massage here, but apparently I am about to get my doshas adjusted.

You see, in the ancient Indian practice of Ayurvedics, there are three major body types or doshas: Vata (air), Pitta (fire) and Kapha (water).

After filling out a rather probing questionnaire, and a discussion with the resident doctor (yes, she's a fully qualified medical doctor), I'm declared to be Pitta Vatta. "There is fire in your mind. Short temper, irritable when it's high. A fire person cannot wait in a queue." I suspect she's been talking to my ex-wife!

"I like to catch these three doshas and adjust them," she explains in the chilled manner that comes from working in one of the most serene environments imaginable for the past 6 years: the Dheva Spa and Wellness Centre at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi. "The pace of life here in Chiang Mai is like nowhere on earth," says the Mumbai native.

"Ayurvedics is all science, but maybe they cannot explain to you how it is scientific she says," perhaps sensing my slight skepticism. It has been around in the order of 6000 years, used by seers to treat important people before becoming everyman's traditional practice.

In rural India, it's still a daily practice whereby oils, scrubs, and herbal concoctions are used to treat people instead of going to a hospital.

"I am soul, then I have body and mind to explore this world. How to balance actions and thoughts. Finally it comes to body. But here we start with body -- it's easier."

She continues with her verdict on my diagnosis. "Your body seems quite balanced," the doctor declares. I'm thinking she should have seen me on the dance floor at the Latin party the night before. A bit of Rumba and too much Margarita clearly had me off-balance. "And your mind is a little stressed."

Well, of course, I'm stressed, doctor -- I'm about to have my doshas readjusted by you and we've only just met. Jing jing!

"Stay warm and eat food that's healthy, nothing ice cold [damn, there go the margaritas!], oils for skin would be wonderful. Warm sesame oil, virgin cold pressed or sunflower oil -- of course not cooking oil, " she says for my degenerating knees.

She consults the list of solutions thoughtfully. "I'm recommending one hour Abhyang ayurvedic treatment and 30 minutes Shirobhyanga."

My assigned therapist, a delightful young Thai, leads me across the courtyard of the 3000m  spa, modelled on the ancient golden teak wood Royal Palace of Mandalay.

The room is cavernous, smelling of lemongrass; chiming music immediately centres me. The Abyhang is a light massage using herbs, oils, touch and friction. It helps purge toxins, and apparently promotes youthfulness and increases energy. I don't know about that -- I was doing an especially fine impression of a sun-basking seal! Then she started on the Shirobhaya ancient Indian head massage. Aaaaaaaaah.

Here the finest oils are used, as a remedy for insomnia, impaired vision (we're back to those icy-cold margaritas again!), circulation and concentration. The energy centres ('marmas') in the head, eyes, and neck are treated.

The experience is blissful, ethereal almost. A couple of hours in a parallel universe. I promise myself to control the fire within, starting NOW!  Oh, there I go again with my fiery Pitta impatience. Starting sometime soon, I mean.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Chiang Mai -- The MO Dhara Dhevi: A Balanced Piece of Travel Writing

I've travelled to 55 1/2 countries (the half was Guatamala, where I illegally left the plane and entered the airport only to be turned back by machine-gun toting guards). I've stayed in thousands of hotels, some of them voted the finest in the world. But nothing prepared me for something that is just 15 minutes from my house in Chiang Mai. Right under my rather considerable nose.

I'm talking, no raving, about the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi. Again.

You see, I've never had a hotel room with its own steam room before. Or its own piano. I couldn't believe it. A piano! I sat down and reeled off a few slightly rusty bars of Beethoven's Minuet in G while the bellhops battled with my baggage in the background. I was later told the owner, Khun Suchet, has a thing about pianos.

So this is no ordinary villa. A two-storey rich wooden affair with decking out the front which leads to a little sala and spa pool. Plug in the iPod speaker, enjoy a glass of wine, while the wind rustles through the terraced rice padi just beyond. Wow!

I lost count of how many bathrooms there were in villa 1025. And telephones. And next to each telephone a lovely little notepad.  Never mind hotels that boast a kettle in every room. This had a kitchen with its own coffee machine, and damn good coffee it was too. And a dozen flavours of herbal tea from the Siam highlands.

One of the bathrooms upstairs -- I think there was more than one, I'm not sure -- featured a circular jacuzzi bath that was clearly designed for end-of-football-season trips ... you could fit the whole cheer squad in there. If you wanted. Somehow it's perfect with just two.

But I do have a complaint. The white towels were so large and fluffy I could barely close my suitcase. (Er, if anyone from the hotel is reading this, that's just a joke. Jing jing! )

Little touches seal the deal. Like the blackout curtains in the bedroom. I am the world's lightest sleeper, and the littlest peek of daylight at the crack of dawn will awaken me. So I was amazed to look at the bedside clock and see 8:30 on the clock. It was pitch black. Maybe it was 8:30pm then??? No. The curtains kept all the daylight safely outside.

I am told the hotel has around 400 staff looking after its 123 units. That's a massive ratio by anyone's standards. And when we ordered a club sandwich from room service, half the kitchen arrived in a golf buggy. Or maybe it was a fleet of golf buggies. And Jamie Oliver. What I do remember with certainty was there were twice as many people setting up this sandwich than had helped us with our luggage.

Yet for all of that, it felt so homely.  Sunk so deep in the sofa watching a DVD. Pit-pat of large rain drops outside. I did the honourable thing and requested a late check-out. After consulting the reservations book, a slight extension was kindly granted.

I told the hotel's Sales and Marketing Director that I was afraid I might embarrass myself and  compromise my journalistic integrity (oh, hush down the back there) by gushing so openly about this experience.

So to balance up this story, and regain my journalistic credibility,  I'm going to end with a gripe. Not just a petty nitpick, but a genuine gripe. Someone told me some of the villas and penthouses have grand pianos in them. Yes, grand pianos, dear readers. And there I was stuck with an ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill upright piano ...

You see the hardships I have to endure to bring you these stories? That's just shabby treatment.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Chiang Mai -- Origins of the Star Goddess

This story really should start with 'Once upon a time ...', because I am entranced by the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi's magical fairy tale feel. More than that, I am amazed that this timeless and transcendental architectural extravaganza has been operating for less than four years.

I spend some time with Khun Niramol (or Bee as she's known casually) who has worked here since the opening in late 2006. She grew up in this area, and shares the history of the property with me.

Near the imposing front gate is an old wooden Lanna-style house. 'That used to be the house of Ajarn Julatata,' she says, 'a famous architect who started a restaurant.' That house was all that stood on this land, about 15 minutes outside the city walls of the ancient town of Chiang Mai, on the winding road leading to the renowned craft villages of Borsang and Sam Kampaeng where umbrellas, silver and Celadon pottery are produced.

'The monsoon trees, they are original, but otherwise it was just old rice fields here. I heard that there was going to be a project here and I said No way! I really doubt it. Then came big trucks, workers ...,' she reminsces as we walk down big wooded lanes lined with cotton trees.

'It was really amazing ... they transplanted these trees before there were any buildings. Big trees, big cranes, mud everywhere.' The lushly landscaped gardens look like they've been here since the beginning of time.

A pony harnessed to a carriage waits patiently by the side of the lane, lending a classic air to the scene. 'The horse knows it's working hours,' laughs Bee. 'He's supposed to finish at four but sometimes the kids want to ride him to their room later and he complains!' Jing jing!

To the left are ancient-looking Khmer stone ruins, like the remnants of something related to Angkor Wat. All built or brought in.  Detail, detail, detail. Like the massive decorative naga serpents that top some of the low walls. And the ornate frontispieces that decorate the main building's soaring wood-and-gold rooftops.

I ask who the designer was. 'It's interesting. The owner Khun Suchet is a finance person,' Bee says of the man behind this project whose family is a big name in the automotive business. 'But he loves culture and he's a big antique collector. So it's really what he wants. He found a team of young local architects and brought them to Burma, Laos, provinces in Thailand to experience it.'

The result really is a Magic Kingdom of sorts. Or a Lost Kingdom to be more precise, based on the Lanna idyll which flourished in this part of what is now Northern Thailand from the 13th century till the 16th century.

The inspiring Dhara Spa building was based on a palace in Mandalay. The Craft Centre is three village houses brought in from nearby Lamphun. The Fitness Centre is accessed via a tunnel, modelled on Wat Umong, one of Chiang Mai's more picturesque and intriguing temples.

'It's all based on Burma, Lanna, local here, and a bit of Chinese, Laos ...,' says Bee with pride at this instant -- but not kitsch, no way -- masterpiece. Asia's colonial period in the 19th century is also represented by the creamy and dreamy grandeur of the Colonial Suites, redolent of the Raffles, the E&O in Penang, or the former Railway Hotel (now Sofitel Centara) in Hua Hin.

It's magical alright. I ask Bee the meaning of Dhara Dhevi. 'It's old Thai language,' she says, thinking for a while. 'It means Star Goddess.' Perfect!

As the sun glints off a gilt spire above us, it creates a feeling of spiritual connectedness. Like this has always been here. Like it was meant to be here. 

Wednesday 22 September 2010

chiang mai -- Getting the Most Bang for your Buck.

My neighbour in Chiang Mai had some Australian visitors over last night for a BBQ, and invited me along. A brilliant evening unfolded. I really should be still in bed sleeping it off, but no, dear readers, I'm up early to tell you this cautionary tale ...

These two travelling couples in their late 50s/ early 60s have just spent a week or so in Tuscany. They started the evening off name-dropping Tuscany as often as possible and saying how f-ab-u-l-o-u-s everything was, darling.

And so it should have been. They paid AUD$10,000 to stay in a villa for the week. Ten thousand dollars, jing jing! 'Even then it wasn't that flash, it needed a coat of paint,' said Husband # 1, as he nursed a Singha beer, watching the light fade over Doi Suthep. 'And the bloody bread was nowhere near fresh,' grumbled Husband # 2 in retrospect, as we stood under the huge mango tree finishing off the BBQ cooking of huge pork steaks, beef sausages and chicken fillets fresh from Northern Farm store nearby.

By contrast, they are staying at the Rachamankha Hotel in old town Chiang Mai, a Relais & Chateux 5-star boutique property. It is costing them just around AUD$140 per night, breakfast included.

It is a magical property, evocatively decked out (click their website above for proof), with hot and cold running staff padding about to satisfy your whims.

Soon the stories started of what they'd been up to in just the day and a half since they'd arrived from Europe and lobbed into Chiang Mai. A visit to the Mae Taeng Elephant Park enjoying elephants in their natural mountain habitat. Dinner at Huen Phen for 6 people (including 8 bottles of beer) which had cost them about 800 baht (not even $30 all up, total for all 6). Then they'd spent the morning at the Hill Tribe Museum just outside town, before taking a table at the nearby lake where bamboo raft-house style restaurants serve the largest and yummiest prawns and river fish (my favourite is served with lemon and chilli). Oh, and Husband # 2 had 'fallen in love' with the waitress who turned out to be a katoey, much to his wife's amusement!

 Then here they were, enjoying a barbecue under a spectacular full moon. Our neighbour rigged up some khum loy lanterns for them to release, replete with strings of fireworks attached. So as these paper lanterns were filled and drifted off serenely into the Chiang Mai sky, they'd leave a shower of colourful sparks in their wake, like a meteor. It was truly magical ...

The slogan Amazing Thailand Always Amazes You came to life right there.

 By the end of the evening, all their time in Tuscany was long forgotten. All those dollars spent on renting that villa irretrievably blown. Never mind the value they were enjoying in Thailand, the sheer fun they were having here, eclipsed their European trip many times over.

When their taxi driver Mr Por arrived to pick them up, he joined us for a beer while waiting. And then off they went merrily into the night, not looking forward to having to leave Thailand today.

Oh, they'd used Mr Por all day (and it was now midnight) to drive them to all of these places. And that cost them only 1000 baht between the four of them. Surely nowhere, nowhere, can compete with Thailand for value.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Bangkok -- Singing the praises of Siam City Hotel

 The Siam City Hotel has been around nearly 30 years, but its peaceful blend of colonial and Thai architecture is now almost enveloped in the downtown brawl of high-rise buildings, road flyovers, and BTS stanchions of the Phaya Thaya area.

It doesn't have the pizzazz of some of Bangkok's  sexier new boutique hotels, nor does it have the opulent splendour of some of the newer 5-star offerings.

But it does have something that no-one else has ...

It's proprietor: Kamala Sukosol.

Wow, what a character! This matriarch  is a huge name in Thai musical circles, having been something of a superstar in her earlier days. And to date she has raised A$1,000,000 for charity through her singing, concerts and CD sales, earning her Forbes Asia's 'Hero of Philanthropy' title for 2009.

Her energy levels, even now, are awe inspiring. 'We must be passionate about what we do and do it with love, integrity and sincerity,' she says, always with a lively glint in her eye.

She has certainly poured passion in the Siam City Hotel, combining traditional Thai aesthetics with early 20th century European Art Nouveau and Art Deco influences. The communal areas of the hotel brim with exquisite antiques, artifacts and curios from around Asia and across the globe. Over 500 pieces of Ming Dynasty Chinese pottery to Burmese wood sculptures and traditional Thai mural paintings are on show.Every one lovingly collected, curated and meticulously displayed by her.

Her daughter Marisa, executive vice president of the group (they have other properties, notably the Siam Bayshore in Pattaya) is made from a similar mould to her mum. In fact she's also a renowned singer and recording artist in her own right.

Which is why it was such a treat recently to have them both come to the hotel's restaurant to say Hello to some guests, have a chat with other diners, and then suddenly have them break spontaneously into song. Jing jing!

They soft-shoed their way through a few jazz standards with professional aplomb, getting the audience to join in with choruses and hand-claps. Most were gob-smacked by this exuberant eruption in the middle of dinner, all ring-led by Khun Kamala.

One of the tracks she's recorded, Young at Heart, seems to sum up her approach to life. 

So if you're looking for a hotel with style, loads of character, and room for serendipity, check out -- or rather check into -- the Siam City Hotel, Bangkok. No amount of Swiss Hotel Management training can possibly create something as uniquely and hospitably Thai as this.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Bangkok -- Michael Jackson spotted outside Burger King!

Ok, Ok, Ok, that was a sensationalist tabloid headline designed to catch your interest ... and it clearly worked, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this.

But it's sort of true.

You see, in Bangkok the other day I came face-to-face with Wacko Jacko. Jing jing!

The King of Pop was there. I saw him with my own eyes. Posing, as he usually does. But not moving very much. There again, I thought, of course he's not moving -- he's dead.

On closer inspection the eerily life-like figure was a wax model of Jackson, made especially for the all-new Madame Tussauds Wax Works set to open in Bangkok in December at Siam Discovery.

So beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it to be the first to see this legendary Wacko, I mean, Wax Museum when it opens.  It's sure to be a thriller, thriller. Don't matter if you're black or white. And I've run out of Jackson song titles to pun on ...

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Who ya gonna call?

So you've got a routine enquiry about travelling in Thailand. Or maybe you're concerned about a current emergency situation. Who do you call?

In the 'old' days you would have had to call the TAT call centre in Bangkok. At your expense. Jing jing!

But now you can call a local number in Australia ...

The TAT HOTLINE number is 02-801-47129.

The service provides 24-hour service in English, helping foreign tourists access Thai tourism information conveniently, quickly, and at less cost.

Monday 13 September 2010

Sukhumvit Bangkok nightlife - Sukhumvit Rd Soi 33's renaissance

Don't you hate it when old timers reminisce and say things like, when I was a lad, all this here was just open fields?

Well, I'm going to do exactly that!

On my first visit to Bangkok in 1987, a friend of mine suggested we get out of the busy downtown Sukhumvit area, and go for a quiet drink in far-flung rural Sukhumvit Soi 33.

After what seemed like days in a taxi we pulled into this soi, and trawled through low-rise darkened shophouses until we came across a couple that had lights on. Monet and Manet, I think their signs declared them to be. Oh, my friend's brought me to an impressionist art gallery I naively thought.

Wrong! They were Bangkok bars, but cut from a distinctly better cloth than the Bkk average, where barmaids in long flowing dresses plied us with beer and banter. A very pleasant memory ...

Fast forward to 2010 and so much has changed, but there again not really.

Monet and Manet are still here. But joined by other impressionists and surrealists. Such as Degas, Renoir and Dali.

But the latest entrant is 'The Horse Says Moooooooooo.' Jing jing! Can you imagine going to your bank manager and asking for a loan to start a new business called The Horse Says Mooooooooooo?

Near Phrom Pong BTS station, the street is initially dominated by the Lotus Hotel (formerly Novotel), and the cavernous Londoner Brew Pub, and then there's travel agents, restaurants, massage places, live music bars (Music Station has good vibes), and other bars -- but not of the go-go variety. If you want Coyote dancing, check out Mojo's.

The Office Bar & Grill is a great place to watch sports and get a great meal, as is Tenderloins Bar and Steakhouse (burgers only about 200 baht). The Office Bar is equipped with full-service secretarial support whereas Tenderloins is more of a restaurant but has a pool table too.

Livingstone's is another surreal site: giant elephant tusks herald this African hunting lodge-style hotel (moderately priced around 2000 baht per night) daubed in gaudy ndebele design. A drink around their pool is most pleasant and other-worldly. A little slice of Africa right here in Bangkok.

Basilico Pizzeria have some of the best Italian food in Bangkok, and about 10,000 choices of pizza, straight from their giant open ovens.

Further up and on the right is Bistro 33, pleasantly tucked away in a gracious old house. They often advertise attractive meal-and-wine buffet specials.

Soi 33 is now a busy, lively, and colourful hive, and very popular with the farang expats living in Bangkok, more so than with tourists. As such, it's a little more pricey than other areas of Bangkok, but it's nicely decked out, friendly, fun.

Some would say a real masterpiece of entertainment. That's my impression anyway.

Thinking China and IndoChina? Think via Amazing Thailand.

Many folks already use Thailand as the gateway to the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), which includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Yunnan, China.

It's the perfect geographical hub, and you get to enjoy the best of Thailand on the way.

I read last week that they are planning to put in a high-speed train from Yunnan to Bangkok. Jing jing! That'll be extremely cool. And there's already a road spanning nearly 1000 km from Thailand through Laos and Vietnam to Yunnan in south-west China. I'm super-keen to try that out on my motorbike some time ...

But did you know that there are already 258 flights per week linking Thailand to major cities within the GMS? In some cases, Bangkok is the only city with direct flights to those cities.

So, thinking of Angkor Wat? No worries, link it via Bangkok with 35 direct flights per week.
Thinking of Hanoi? 31 direct flights per week. HCMC? 49 direct flights per week.
Want to see the temples of Yangon/ Rangoon? 44 direct flights per week.

Thailand links you with the best of IndoChina. So always think: 'Can I get there via Thailand?' for the best of both worlds.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Amazing Thailand amazes with 13% tourism increase

The Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor, Khun Suraphon Svetasreni, amazed a roomful of international media at TTM+ in Bangkok the other day when he unveiled the January-July arrival figures tabulated by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

'Ladies and gentlemen,' he said, fixing the media with a proud smile, 'despite the recent political unrest, arrivals into Thailand have increased by 13.79%'. Jing Jing! Personally, I would've rounded it up to 14%. But still, a great result. Visitors from Australia were up 11.65% to 387, 704 in the period.

Mr Svetasreni also took the opportunity to unveil an evolution of the Amazing Thailand slogan. The new form is Amazing Thailand Always Amazes You.

Whether you're living here, have visited many times, or are a first timer in the Kingdom, that is certainly true.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Bangkok - Sukhumvit Soi 31: a cultural enclave

In the continuing series of some of my favourite Bangkok sois (streets), today we visit Sukhumvit soi 31.

For a start, you can't miss it: just look for the huge red,  blue and green  poles that soar skyward -- some people see these as robots, others as installation art, and others see them just as huge red, blue and green poles, but the reality is that they are birds' legs. Jing jing!

You see they are part of a massive sculpture which envelopes the stylish new S31 Hotel, ending up with its body higher up the building and its head right at the top. Yes, a little abstract I agree, but that's the signature of the architect (just look at The Nation building).

Walking in about 50 metres or so, the fun starts ...

Cafe des Arts on the left is a perennial favourite. Its bright yellow sign attracts patrons like moths to a flame for its moderate priced meals. A little further on is Bella Napoli, a popular Italian eatery.

On your right, tucked behind a wall is the Himali Cha Cha restaurant, one of the oldest Indian restaurants in Bangkok, which was started by a gent who was the cook for some ambassador or another. 'They started out at a place which is now the car park for the Emporium,' laughs Khuned, a Thai of Indian Heritage who grew up in this area.

Himali Cha Cha is housed in a beautiful old wooden home, giving it a very cosy feel. Many consider it the finest Indian food in Bangkok (they also have two other branches now). 'This whole area used to be just little houses like this,' reminisces Khuned. 'This was like my playground. And I remember walking to and from school through here,' he points down the soi. 'So funny, I remember some of the American school kids would hope into a tuk tuk and tell the driver, Hey let me drive. They'd be popping wheelies and everything!'

Further along, the tone is decidedly upmarket with the Attic art gallery beside the Loft wine bar/ wine shop. It's run by Scottish lass Elsie Evans who's lived in Asia 20 years. A delightful combination, as you can attend art classes or an exhibition there, and slip down for some inspiration at the wine bar! Along with two other galleries, La Lanta and Koi, soi 31 has become something of a happening cultural enclave.

And a little bit further down, is the house of the current Thai PM, Abhisit.

So, all in all, an interesting street with lots of upmarket fun and diversity. Yes, tuk tuks still ply the soi and it's tempting to stop one and ask if we can pop a wheelie for old times sake.But times have changed, the street has grown up, and Khuned -- who's also grown up -- now drives a four wheel drive. But in any case, all of this is a fairly short walk from Phrom Pong BTS station.

Monday 6 September 2010

What's coming up in Amazing September ...

As usual, many amazing things are going on in Thailand ...

I was amazed to hear, for instance, that the Thailand stock market (SET) has grown by over 20% this year already. This doesn't sound like the same beleaguered country they feature on the international news.

I was also amazed to hear that the Amazing Thailand Grand Sale 2010, a two-month event which has just concluded, topped last year's sale in terms of amount spent ($624 million) as well as average spend per transaction, according to Visa Car. Americans, Brits and Aussies were the largest spenders in total.

Anecdotally, of late I've experienced hotels in Bangkok, Cha-Am and Chiang Mai running full houses: 100% occupancy on certain nights. And this is the low season! 

 So what's going on? Who said, or even thought, that Thailand was down and out after the Red Shirt nonsense in May? 

Lingering perceptions are a dangerous thing, jing jing!

Coming up in September, I'm going to be doing more of Bangkok for you, to prove that things really are back in full swing in the city recently voted as one of the best in the world by Travel + Leisure:

* Siam City Hotel - an 'old' favourite
* Siam Kempinksi - the new kid on the block
* Soi 31 Sukhumvit - restaurants, galleries, wine bars
* Soi 33 Sukhumvit - restaurants, music and spicy stuff
* Soi 53 Sukhumvit - cool area with lovely upmarket restaurants
* and then it's back for more of the best of Northern Thailand including Doi Tung, the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, and a lot more.

Cheers for now. 

Friday 3 September 2010

cha-am -- teak palace, tranquility, and tandem tribulations ...

This 1920s palace is the biggest drawcard in this part of the coast. And why not – it is after all the 'longest teak palace in the world', lovingly restored and maintained in a garden of several hectares featuring lush rain trees, sprawling multi-rooted Banyan trees, spiky Bismarck palms and jacarandas . Despite the tour buses disgorging their passengers every 10 minutes it makes for an enjoyable half day outing. You see, all the groups go straight into the main entrance, take the tour through the palace, and back on the bus again on to the souvenir market.

But to do that is to miss so much ...

Hire a bike at the entrance. It costs you 30 baht all day. We paid 50 for a tandem. In a scene reminiscent from The Goodies we had a few false starts which landed us in hedges and had us weaving all over the road, running tour groups and unsuspecting grandmothers off the pathway. Jing jing!

But once we’d mastered it, it became an enjoyable meander. Off to the left (north) of the palace past a statue of Rama V1 gazing out to sea, is a wonderful teak house which used to be used by his aide-de-camp. A lamp signalling system told him when Rama V1 was getting dressed for dinner, when His Majesty was already at the table, etc.

Surrounded by frangipanis and a sprawling lawn and overlooking the ocean, this double storey tropical mansion would have real estate agents salivating and struggling to come up with suitable descriptions if they had to write an ad for it.

Garrulous groups of more interested tourists pose endlessly in front of it. This way and that. In fact, it strikes me that posing for photographs is a, or perhaps the, national sport in Thailand. Ok, one, two, three, peace sign, click. Ok, one, two, three, peace sign, click. Ok … thousands and thousands of variations of the same photo. Thank Buddha for digital cameras.

We eventually find absolute tranquility in a wooden walkway constructed through the mangroves. We dismount, and walk hand-in-hand, observing large herons and creepy salamander-like amphibious fish which slither and slide across the mudflats. It is positively pre-historic. The pathway eventually brings us back full circle to our bike.
We cycle it back to the rental shop, hoping they don’t notice the dings, scratches, and tell-tale bits of shrubbery collected in the spokes along the way.

Cha-am -- Courtyard by Marriott: a playground paradise

Thinking of a great beachside holiday spot for the family in Thailand? This is it. A futsal set and snooker table in the Havana lobby lounge set the tone for family fun. Then there’s the massive pool right by the beach with its serpentine slides and Kid’s Club. It’s all here: arts and craft studio, science lab, a ‘dress up’ area, mini-ball pit, video games, and a movie theatre. This is the most comprehensive and impressive set up for kids I’ve ever seen. Anywhere.

In most hotels, this sort of thing is a token gesture bolt-on. But not at the Courtyard: it's purpose built. Hey, hold on, I wish I was a kid again!

It’s imposing all right. You can see the Courtyard miles away poking way above everything else (which is admittedly not much, apart from low-rise blue-roofed houses and seafood restaurants) in the area.

The hotel is large and airy, and even when fully booked, it seems fun, active, but never crowded because it sits on a large long block, with the pool and Kids Club and Momo Café separated from the main block by an elaborately landscaped and ponded, well, courtyard.

From rooms in the main wing, you get stunning views out the front and the back: so take your pick according to your mood … gaze out over the silver mirror of the ocean, the breakwaters and the fishing boats, or let your eyes take in the verdant panorama of the 180-degree mountain range behind towards Burma (Thailand is very skinny at this point). Lovely! Plus you get sunrise and sunset all in one place. Jing jing!

A couple of interesting things about this hotel: I was surprised that our junior suite – a very large room indeed, with separate lounge, tv, bar counter, etc didn’t have a bathtub – only a shower. And while there’s a fridge in the room, there’s nothing in the mini bar. But this I saw as a positive. They openly state that ‘rather than fill your fridge with items you don’t want …’, head down to Momo 2 Go in the lobby and buy your own supplies ‘at prices much less than the usual mini bar price’. Bravo! Bravo!!!

If you want to get out and about the Adventure Club can arrange excursions for you to take in nearby ATV tracks, karting, waterfalls, Thai boxing,etc.

So there’s lots to rave about with the Courtyard Hua Hin at Cha-Am Beach. C’mon kids, once more down the big slide. Last one in is a rotten egg! Woohoooooooooooooooooo!!!

Wednesday 1 September 2010

cha-am -- Alila, where less is more

Alila is minimalistic with a lower case ‘m’ because to use a capital letter would be just a little bit too much for it.

It strives for --and reaches -- a state of Zen. The bare concrete bunker-like walls are rough screed with nary a picture nor photograph for relief. Wood is used heavily. The tones are earthy, muted. And water, in pools and ponds, is everywhere. But in strict rectangular formats. Even the pot plant – yes, singular – in the room is a dried brown arrangement.

But maybe it’s this very visual vacuum that allows the imagination to roam, and the senses to fill themselves in other ways.

This way you notice the jazztronica lounge music seeping from the waterproof Bose speakers outside Motion restaurant. Or you indulge yourself fully in the 3000-inch TV in your room, with your choice of dozens of movies and hundreds of pre-loaded songs on Apple TV. I never appreciated lounge music before – found it aimlessly meandering,frankly – but at Alila it makes perfect sense. It’s a tailor-made musical score.

In the room with its soaring ceiling height, and all the furniture and fittings being floor-to-ceiling heighten that spatial effect, the rain shower is a joy. Liberation at the turn of a tap. It becomes a makeshift dancefloor where you can groove to the music which – a rarity in a hotel – actually goes to ‘11’ so you can revel in it. Jing jing!

What about your neighbours? At Alila, everything is solid, so you don’t seem to need to worry about noise. The walls seem metres thick. The feature furniture is huge chunks of timeless timber.

At Red Bar finally I find some colour: you guessed it, red. And then the LEDs change to yellows and blues. I sink into the sofa and soak in the pool scene: all young couples. All paired off. An over representation of young Thai men. All paired off.

A spa treatment continues the languid sensory indulgence. The signature here is a combination of Thai and Balinese strokes. I sleep through much of it such is my soothed state. Zen bliss.

And Zen, sorry, then move up to the Clouds loft for dinner, where the view back over the rooftop pond to the open air lobby at the other end is almost transcendental. The chef produces a gourmet feast of Mediterranean-style dishes here. Beef fillet topped with lobster. Seared tuna. Ravioli with prawn. Heavenly.

I can see why people come back to Alila so often. I fully get it. Who wouldn’t want more of this? With a lower case ‘m’ of course. Because less is more here. And Zen is now.