Sunday 31 October 2010

What's coming up in November ...

Amazing Thailand has a one of its most spectacular festivals coming up in November, namely the Loy Krathong festival where all the rivers and waterways fill with well-wishing rafts of flowers, and all the skies fill with glowing lanterns that spirit away the bad luck and bring the good luck in. That happens November 21 this year.

This month, check in with Thailand Jing Jing for the following as well:

+ Samui round-up: some exciting new developments such as the new Banyan Tree Resort and Hansar Hotel, plus some established favourites such as ShaSa Resort and Verinda

+ Samui's charming Fisherman's Village

+ Koh Panghan's legendary full moon festival

+ Bangkok Airways' tasteful business class lounges in Bangkok and Samui (where the free shrimp wanton noodle soup alone is worth the airfare, jing jing!)

+ An off-road motorcycle adventure on the Thai-Burma border

+ And some hillside hide-outs in the entrancing north-west of Thailand ...

Well, you get the idea. Just another exciting month in Amazing Thailand. 

The coldest winter in Thailand ...

I've just read the news from the Department of Meteorology here in Thailand, and they say we're in for the coldest winter in 30 years, jing jing.

Last week the mercury struggled to get to double digits, reaching only 10 degrees at Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai province.

Woohoo! I love the winters here ... a chance to enjoy beautiful warm days but cool and even crisp evenings, pull a sweater or leather jacket out of mothballs, and throw on a scarf. Yes, that's right, this is another side to the tropical Thailand that you know. For maximum effect, head to places like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, Mae Hong Song, Doi Mae Salong, and Doi Tung. Or even Khao Yai just 2 hours north of Bangkok.

November through to January is the popular winter season up north, so make your plans today before everywhere is booked out.

Monday 25 October 2010

World Travel Awards: Thailand wins big


The World Travel Awards, held in New Delhi last week, resulted in a few big wins for Thailand. Most notable was the result for the sublime Six Senses group.

* Asia's Leading Honeymoon Resort - Six Senses Samui, Thailand
* Thailand's Leading Resort - Evason Hua Hin, Thailand

Just two more good reasons to add Amazing Thailand to your itinerary. See you here soon.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Chiang Mai -- A Golfing Paradise in the Highlands

"We call them the five paradises," says Alpine Golf Resort's Khun Pan of Chiang Mai's top five courses.

In no particular order they are:

Royal Chiang Mai
Highlands (Many consider this Chiang Mai's finest.)
Green Valley
Alpine Golf Resort

With green fees at the latter just 2500 baht at the weekend and 2000 baht during weekdays, it's an affordable golfing destination to be sure. And your caddie will run you just an extra 220 baht.

That's just AUD$6 for a caddie when you think about it, or 30cents a hole, jing jing!

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Chiang Mai -- What a load of balls!

For most golf courses a signature hole is enough. But not for the Alpine Golf Resort. Oh no, sirrreee ... they have an entire signature zone. That's right a signature zone comprising three holes -- the 14th, 15th and 16th -- of their mountain-ringed course.

We arrived at this 4-star resort in the afternoon,with enough daylight to go and hit some balls on the 230m driving range. Without even warming up, I was consistently driving 200 to 250 ... er, centimetres. My air-swings sounded like a whip-testing factory. Or the rotors of small helicopter passing by. Then when I finally got my eye in, I was slicing the rotten balls over the side netting which must be all of 10 storeys high. I really hate golf.

There have not been this many lost balls since Lance Armstrong underwent surgery, jing jing!

After a chilly night during which the mercury descended to an, ahem, ball-raising 9 degrees Celsius, I awoke to a lovely panoramic vista from our room. The golden-teak studded mountains of the San Kampaeng National Forest were all misty and mysterious in the background, and the dewy green-green greens glistened in the foreground.

By 6:30am, it was action stations. Buggies swung into action in seemingly syncopated choreography as the golfers tried to beat the heat. Because, while the lowest daytime temperatures might be around 12 degrees here in the foothills, a norm of 30 is more likely.

And so to the signature zone: Hole 14 is a 553 yard par 5. Excuse me, but 553 yards is a drive in a car not a walk with a one-wood in your hand. It is characterised by lots of deceptive undulation (don't you just love how smug golf course designers can be?).

Hole 15 is a cheeky little 169 yards. Piece of proverbial piss, you think. Uh-oh, you didn't spot that the green is actually on an island. And the flag is strategically placed on the leading edge.

After a dozen or so more lost balls (which a team of scuba divers will no doubt retrieve and sell back to you at the club house later) you move on to the 16th hole. The third of the signature zone. A 462-yard dog's leg to the right, with a lake in front with bunkers on the leading lip. You can almost hear the cackles of the wicked course designers as they connive to spoil your day in sooooooo many ways. Bastards!

Oh, that's right, old chap, it's only a game ...

The 19th hole can't come too soon, and the clubhouse keeps the  chilled beer flowing nicely, followed by a replenishing meal of Thai, Japanese, and Chinese food.

My shots improved with each retelling, my handicap came down with each successive beer, my strike rate on and off the course outdid Tiger Woods. Another beer, khob khun khrub. I love golf! Did I mention that?

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Ban Tawai -- Up in Smoke (but no Cheech and Chong)

The Oh-So-English pepperleaf vine-clad walls of Kao Mai Lanna are just the first of many wonderful surprises that unravel in this historic resort. You'll also stumble on old cane factory grinders along the corridors and, if you look carefully at the light fittings, you'll notice they're old wooden pounders. Ever been to an old gold mining town? Well, this place is like a small town industrial museum.

This is the rustic, bucolic and olde worlde feeling that emanates from the 70-year-old buildings. Not that it's always been a hotel. In fact the rooms -- odd vertical stacks in neat soldierly rows -- used to be tobacco curing barns when tobacco farming was a really big in this area. Or 'tabasco' as the manager repeatedly calls it.

With an amazing visionary leap, the Thai owner saw potential to turn these dilapidated brick barns into cute modern boutique high-ceilinged accommodations, decked out with wonderful teak wooden antiques. The owner loves anything to do with wood, indeed hordes it like gold. Out the back are hundreds of ox cart wheels, and dozens of old wooden ox carts from all over the world. Plus carved canoes. Piles and piles of wooden stuff. Much of it comes from the nearby woodcraft village of Ban Tawai -- one of the reasons one would stay here, about 45 minutes south of Chiang Mai on the way to Doi Inthanon -- and some of it from more distant Burma.

The 20-acre gardens, lush with buffalo grass, burgeon naturally in the fertile climate, and the centrepiece is a massive sprawling rain tree underneath which is a romantic love swing.

Beyond is the pool, yoga sala, and spa area. The yoga-mistress puts us through our paces in an open-sided pavilion, where I was willing the air to move enough to flutter the silken drapes. Her brand of yoga is particularly physical and I drip litres of sweat on the beautiful wooden floor. She smiles sweet sympathy but doesn't let up.

Thankfully, a massage is close at hand in a comfortable and airy building off to one side. The windows open to natural vistas of grass and trees; the room drenched in natural light. It is perfectly quiet, bar the faint hum of the air-conditioner.

The not-so-sprightly dear that tends to me has strength in her hands that Bruce Lee would envy, and over the next, well, it felt like hours,  rubbed and stroked oil over me to build up my complacency, then suddenly switched to Thai-style massage and had me in all manner of ungainly pretzel holds. 

At one point I had my right foot jammed in my left ear, my left arm wrapped around my neck, and my right arm reaching back under -- or over in this case as I was in a headstand at the time -- my groin and linking up with my other hand. Jing jing!

'That was a real Thai massage,' enthused my companion afterwards. Yeah, I'll say.

There is something utterly charming and authentic about Kao Mai Lanna. A down-to-earth northern-style hospitality that's not drilled to anodyne perfection, but it comes from within. (Or, in the case of some of our dishes at the restaurant, sometimes it doesn't come at all.)

But as you walk arm-in-arm back to your room, and see that love swing, and the beautifully spotlit barns beyond the pool, it's something of a cure-all.

Friday 15 October 2010

Chiang Mai -- Vieng Joom On: putting the 'tea' in Thailand

Gay folks might debate for hours exactly what shade of pink this striking 3-storey building is. I'm going with puce. No, not puke, puce.

In any case, the colour, combined with its intricate floral flourishes, makes the Vieng Joom On Teahouse something of a landmark along Charoenrat Road (also spelled Charoenrajd by some) which houses art galleries, boutiques and many popular Ping River-side watering holes.

It's something of a time warp to enter Vieng Joom On. The floor-to-ceiling stacks of ornate tea jars and wonderfully designed tea-related paraphernalia make one think of Olde England rather than Newe Thailand.

Yet is at once utterly Asian too. The whole history of tea harks back to the ancient Chinese, when an errant leaf fluttered into the boiling water of a resting warrior and he found it to be good. Jing Jing!

Vieng Joom On is a revelation. The cozy store opens up at the back into a large outdoor indoor/outdoor garden area where love seats, day beds and tables nestle under sprawling trees along the river. It exudes quintessential Chiang Mai charm.

Groups of mainly youngish beautiful people (and me) titter and chat amiably as they sip on tea and mainline a sugar-hit of scones, chocolate cakes and banana and ice cream desserts.

The tea menu includes the usual blends, caffeine-free variants,  herbal concoctions that wouldn't be out of place on a gardening show, fruity blends, and other specialties such as 'Sweet Dreams' and 'Love'.

The ever-smiling waitresses pad about in shocking pink tunics over rather frumpy 'maiden aunt' brown dresses, as the water feature gurgles, couples snap away at romantic pics, and a cruise boat chugs up the river. This coffee-free zone really is a cool place to watch the world go by.

It's a little bit England, a little bit China, but completely, wholly Chiang Mai. And, no, you don't have to be gay to appreciate that.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Chiang Mai -- Art and Soul.

It's a charming little enclave of shop-houses and Lanna-style houses which I've driven through countless times, and always thought 'I should stop here and take a look one day'. That one day was yesterday.

Charoenrat Road on the eastern bank of the Ping River that runs through Chiang Mai is probably better known as the place where you'll find restaurant/bars like the Riverside and Good View. But it's also home to a dizzying array of art galleries. So it's perfect for a potter around.

Many of the shops are in historically restored Lanna-style wooden buildings, with high ceilings and teak floors, adding an evocative mien to the artsy experience. At one end of the street is a colonial mansion going back around 70 years. And in the middle is a really jazzy temple, small but worth a look for its amazing coloured facade, as though the art of the area has been infused into the building itself.

The more upmarket craft galleries include Sop Moei Arts, which presents wonderful silken fashion and fabric offerings from the remote village of Sop Moei on the Thai/Burma border.

It is run by Kent Gregory, the quietly spoken son of missionaries, who has devoted around 30 years of his life to bettering the health and life of this village, which is a 3-day elephant ride from the nearest supplies. Jing jing!

La Luna Gallery is a revelation. It opens into a deep, deep two storied space, in which -- once you get past the funky multi-coloured elephants up front -- technicolours jump from every wall of this converted pump house. 'We have three directors -- a Dane, a Thai, and me, and a policy that we don't sell anything that at least one of us wouldn't want in our homes,' says Kiwi director, Joanna. The result is an eclectic mix of Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Korean. 'So there's something for everyone,' says the Kiwi whose personal favourite includes a Burmese artist who does vivid landscapes with a scraper rather than a brush (see photo). A big piece of his work hangs up in her home.

Speaking of Burmese, the owner of Suvannabhumi Art Gallery is a delightful Burmese lady, Mar Mar (pictured). She beams goodness from within, and eyes sparkle with the vitality of an artist although she claims to be 'not very good' at painting herself.

She has every reason to smile: a 30-piece exhibition of Bagan images by Pe Nyunt Way has sold out -- snapped up by a Burmese collector and the exhibition hasn't even opened yet. At US$500 per piece, that's a good day's work for both artist and gallery.

Mar Mar also tells me she has another exhibition on at the Chiang Mai University Art Museum at the moment. And she also runs the Ida Art Gallery on Ratchadamnoen Road. She is one busy lady.

This trawl of galleries highlights Chiang Mai's central position in the Greater Mekong Subregion, with such diverse cultures within a few short kilometres: Burma is only 100 or so kilometres to the west, Laos perhaps 250 km to the north west, China (with its ethnic minority-rich southern Yunnan province) is less than 500 kilometres away.

But with all this art, you can save yourself the trouble and expense of travelling there. Just soak in the people and the places through their pictures.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Loy Krathong Festival - November 2010

A date for your diary: November 21 is the big day this year, where the skies of northern Thailand come alive with khom loy lanterns ... you know the magical glowing paper rings that float to the heavens, taking all your bad luck with them and replacing it with good vibes and wishes.

Arguably the best place to watch it is in Sukhothai, where an epic light and sound show is followed by the release of thousands of lanterns happens in the 19-21st. Can you imagine the combination of the historical ruins of the ancient capital and the transcendental lanterns? (Note: accommodation is near to full already, book TODAY if you want to take part.)

Chiang Mai is also a great vantage point from which to see lanterns carress the night time sky for about that whole week, starting around 14 November when a large send-off from San Sai near Maejo University in the city's north is a spectacular tradition.

It's like watching tracer fire in slow motion, jing jing! Except the intentions are far more peaceful and beautiful. Er, unless you live next to Big Pete, who adds firecrackers to his lanterns and they explode with fury right above your house!

Mae Cheam -- Navasoung Resort: Rooms with a View

It's been a while since I've seen a 14" TV screen. And despite the little note stuck on it saying there were a variety of Thai channels and some cable channels, only a couple of the local stations could break through the snowy transmission.

But that's not the view people come here for. Navasoung is nestled along the road from Doi Inthanon to Mae Cheam, 650 metres above sea level, in the misty valleys of this hillside farming town.

What the hill tribes can do in this steep and rugged terrain is quite amazing, jing jing! It makes you wonder: who looks at a vertical slope and thinks 'Wow, that'd be a great place for a farm!'

Popular with motorcyclists and other tourists heading to Mae Cheam to see the Mae Cha waterfall, Doi Inthanon National Park or the Teen Jok weaving factory, Navasoung was started by a Finn/Thai couple who picked out this beautiful location where butterflies flitter from bloom to bloom.

It's a casual sort of place, where you wait for the owner's son to finish the video game car race in progress before he laconically gets up to show you to your room.

The 15 cottages are alpine in style, and simple in design. But clean and comfortable with a large fridge for your supplies. With really hot showers, which you'll appreciate on a chilly mountain morning. A little porch allows you to enjoy the views in privacy.

Breakfast is a large hearty meal enjoyed in their open reception area with lush gardens and stunning views. There's also a pool and pool bar. Room rates currently in the 800 baht + range.

It's easily reached from Chiang Mai, about 2.5 hours north of here, and is on the renowned Mae Hong Son loop.

Phuket -- Not for meat lovers.

Phuket is currently staging its annual Vegetarian festival, now till 16th October.

If you can't stand the sight of bloody meat, you are advised to stay well away.

You see, the Ma Song devotees parade through the town with a war-chest full of knives, swords, blades, etc stuck in, on, and though their body parts. Maybe it's the only way they can get enough iron in their diets. 

It's a southern Thailand thing. Actually a Chinese thing. The idea is that for 10 days they observe a vegetarian or vegan diet, and demonstrate their strength of sacred beliefs by not feeling any pain, and these major gashes amazingly don't seem to end up in a bloodbath.

If their intention is to convert more people to a vegetarian way of life, it's working.

It's enough to put me off ordering the, um, blade steak tonight. Jing jing!

Monday 11 October 2010

Mae Cheam -- A (wake up) Call to Alms

They came from miles around, piled into trucks, buses, and spilling out the back of pick-up trucks. They were a veritable army of saffron. 1000 monks in all, converging on the small farming and weaving town of Mae Cheam in the foothills of Thailand's highest peak, Doi Inthanon.

They were here for an annual alms collection ceremony in which rice and dry food of all types is given to them by local townsfolk in a massive merit-making ceremony.

With a wake-up call at the decidedly un-Godly hour of 5am, my mood was improved by the fact that it was a chance for a ton of redemption and merit-making, plus the early blue tinge of dawn breaking through over the breathtaking misty valleys of the area was enough to lift anyone's spirits. Well, that and a good cup of coffee ... if we could find one.

Mae Cheam is basically one main street, a big market, wooden houses, lots of small (and good) restaurants -- we'd gone to one the night before which had an Aussie flag as a backdrop to their band stage but insisted on playing the best of John Denver! -- and a few little guesthouses where you can get a big room for about 300 baht a night.

Monks and novices teemed out of adjacent school and government buildings with military precision, ambling along the rutted road with hope in their eyes and silver bowls under their arms. One thousand plastic seats awaited them as they were marshalled behind the plynth where the senior monks and a statue of Buddha sat prone. Facing the stage and running the length of the town's street were schoolkids and other officials with their boxes of goodies and Buddhist icons.

If the monks presented a vibrant sea of orange, these participants were a placid pool of white and mauve.

Locals thronged the sidelines, many in their traditional multi-coloured hill-tribe tunics, scrambling for whatever best vantage points they could. Then the chanting started up. Then pit pat ... pit pat ... pit pat ... uh oh -- rain! Just a passing tropical shower? No, this was here for keeps. The rainy season was not going away without a last-gasp struggle. Suddenly space under the covered forecourt of the petrol station became prime real estate.

With beautiful Buddhist sentiment, the announcer said: 'The sky is aware of our event today. It is responding.' This was all in Thai of course ... I counted a grand total of just two other farangs in the thronging crowd.

The monks looked up with wry smiles. But sat there unflinching. The rain pelted down. The speeches and chanting continued. They were soaked. Saturated. It only served to highlight their steely resolve, their sacrifices, their abstinence. (I privately thought that if you've given a vow of celibacy, sitting in the rain is probably no big deal in comparison.)

Then the skies really responded ...

Soon, with the PA system sparking and gurgling in the downpour, someone pushed the fast-forward button on proceedings. At a signal, the monks rose as one, and filed forward. We were the first to donate our alms to them. They humbly lifted the lid of their large silver steel bowls, and we placed nuts, rice crackers, and kanom (cakes) into nine of their vessels. In return we received a few words of thanks and blessing.

The contrast of the saffron robes and the hill-tribes' vivid purples, reds, and greens was doubly impactful against the gloomy grey sky.

The monks then filed up the main street, doing a u-turn at the top and then returning to receive goodies from all the townsfolk. This was done at about double-time to avoid the rain. Soon, all the bowls were filled, with any surplus hurriedly packed into large plastic bags. Then the pick-up trucks backed into the street, plastic chairs were stacked and gathered by a platoon of what looked like school cadets, and the monks headed back off to the temple compounds, schools and whatever billets they had.

Some of them were sneezing and snuffling already. Which made me feel that this week the hospitals of northern Thailand will be full of pneumonic monks. Jing jing!

With the ceremony prematurely completed, the upside was that we could now break our own fast ourselves. Breakfast and a large mug of steaming coffee had occupied my mind the past few hours. But the one recommended place in town for breakfast, Sawasdee Mae Cheam, was shut due to the ceremony. A scribbled sign said it would only open at 6pm that day.

I thought of the monks' life of sacrifice and denial. I could, and would, overcome this obstacle with mental tenacity.

Then I spotted a 7-11. I knew we could get a coffee and pork bun there ...

Thursday 7 October 2010

Chiang Mai -- A Lovely Day for a 52,000km Ride

Every now and again, I meet someone who makes me feel like I'm standing still. In this case it's two people, Eric and Christine.

They are a Swiss couple (technically Swiss French for those who are playing at home) and have been riding around the world on bicycles since 2004. I'll say that again slowly: they have been riding around the world on bicycles since 2004.

To date they have done 52,000 kilometres.  From Europe down through the Middle East, across Russia, Siberia, Japan, China, Cambodia, Laos and now Thailand. Oh, they missed a bit of southwestern China so they're going to pop back up there, just a quick 3000 km loop or so.

I got the obvious questions out of the way first, ie Gee, doesn't your arse get sore??? Their leather saddles are custom-fitted, and it seems sore arses are the least of your problems after Day 3.

For a start they are carrying 140kg of luggage between them, on hand-made bikes worth thousands of dollars. They don't look very special ... just like most rattlers in a place like China. But even little things like the light dynamo cost them US$500 a piece. But more painful than that were incidents such as when they were hotfooting it away from a tense situation involving a drug lord's camp in Cambodia, dodging land mines, and Kristina broke not just one arm, but two arms, in the space of three days.

They eventually buried their bikes in the jungle, crossed the border illegally to Laos, and made their way to Thailand to receive treatment in Bumrungrad Hospital. Jing jing!

And so the stories go. I met them through a friend who was upcountry watching a hill-tribe ceremony and passed them huffing and puffing their way up the hills of Doi Mae Salong in northern Thailand. Within a few days, they found themselves running a restaurant there for the French/Thai owners who had to rush off to Bangkok for a week.

'I have never really cooked before, but, why not?' says the cheeky pony-tailed Frenchman, who used to be a trainer for PriceWaterhouse Coopers (if they could only see him now, looking so tanned and relaxed and carefree).  'Ze first thing I do is wipe off all the Thai food on the menu, and write in: Fried eggs and French fries,' he laughs.

Eric and Christine have cycled the Himalayas and Nepal but found this terrain tougher. Chiang Mai don't forget has 5 of Thailand's 8 highest peaks. 'The roads are better in Thailand,' she says in a gentle French accent which belies her strong character. 'But ... they go straight up and over the hill every time, never sideways or across. So it's the steepest. We never had to get off and push in the Himalayas,' she laughs.

She conceded that the roads here also have enough space usually for a cyclist on the side 'but those in cars want you to know they are the king of the road.'

Being a mad motorcyclist, mad in the keen sense that is, I know what she means, although she rated Thailand's drivers 'just OK.'

Interestingly, Eric and Christine estimate they'll be on the road around the world for the next 8 years. 'We are now nomads,' says Eric, quietly, over a bottle of non-alcoholic Song Sato rice wine beer, brewed in the north from glutinous rice. 'First two years we were racing to get everywhere, but now we feel happy and free wherever we are.'

Which brings us to the supposed origin of the word Thailand: land of the free.

Footnote: want to bicycle Thailand? Try or

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Traveleasy's BIG specials on Phuket and Bangkok

Check out Traveleasy's specials on Thailand ... including 'free night' deals in Phuket.

Also, check out their Phuket Easy package with 3 nights in a 4 star hotel, transfers, and a half day elephant trek from just $250.

Just click on the headline link above, and you're on your way.

It's almost cheaper than staying at home. Jing jing!

Amazing Thailand deals on Agoda ...

Have a look at these amazing Thailand deals on Agoda ... top Bangkok hotels like the Labua at 40% off, some lovely Chiang Mai boutiques offering 3-nights-for-2 deals, Phuket, Pattaya, etc.

No wonder Thailand is rated the best value destination in the world.

Just click on the headline above and it'll take you straight there.

See you in Amazing Thailand really soon then, eh?

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Chiang Mai -- Veranda: just Plug and Play.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither was Veranda Chiang Mai. For a start it took Khun Surasak eight months to find this very special location nestled on the south-western slope of the northern capital's landmark, Doi Suthep.

He was just coming off the success of Veranda Cha Am (which I blogged about last month) when his boss -- a former classmate at Chulalongkorn University -- charged him with finding a suitable highland location. 'I found this land, I bought it, I liaised with the architects and designers, and now I'm running it,' the former-accountant-turned-amiable hotelier says, pointing proudly to the soaring crafted woodwork of the open lobby.

When I say open, I really mean open. The reception area is fully exposed to the elements on two sides with the net jaw-dropping effect that -- when you first enter the hotel -- you are standing amid a splendid piece of authentic northern Thai wilderness. Which, is exactly what you are doing.

Cicadas chirping. Dragonflies buzzing. Rice fields. Teak trees. A beautiful valley. And that mountain.  

The overall concept of the hotel is to re-create the old city of Chiang Mai -- which comes across in the red brick ramparts, faithfully reproduced -- juxtaposed with the new in the modern slightly austere lines of the main villa buildings partly obscured in the fields beyond.

If you know the Four Seasons or Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, this captures that same Lanna essence but in a less overt Thainess-in-your-face way.

'We are on the same level as them,' ventured one really charming waiter. Charm and pride was a hallmark of all the affable staff we chatted with. They felt part of something really special here. More casual, less majestic than those other two properties for sure. But rather hip. Such as iPod docks and JBL speakers in the rooms and public areas. And like an iPod, the resort has a Zen simplicity to it without sacrificing any of the enjoyment or the functions.

Our plunge pool pavilion, for instance, was a cavernous 88 sq metres of flowing living spaces, with floor-to-high-ceiling glass allowing the mountain views in. Huuuuuuuuge bathtub. Indoor/outdoor bathroom. Luxurious day bed area opening on to the pool itself. Lots of chrome. Judicious use of mirrors. And a bed that was as wide -- if not wider -- than it was long. 

'The best one this year,' cooed my companion of our plunge pool pavilion. A big call, but a good one.

The Presidential pool villa is an absolute beauty: two floors of modern living, with a stunning indoor/outdoor bathroom, about five different pools and ponds and bodies of water, 3 bedrooms and a live-in butler on tap 24 hours a day. Jing jing! Yours for a lazy 35,000 baht per night.

We could've swum in the main infinite pool if we wanted to. We could've gone and learned how to plant rice if we wanted. We could've joined a yoga class. We did do a cooking course (pad thai, and banana in coconut milk). We took part in an early-morning merit-making ceremony, giving a local monk some foodstuffs. We borrowed two bicycles and explored the local villages. Fruit stalls. Temples. Inquisitive dogs. Just daily life going on, far from the gaze of mass tourists.

And that is the ultimate feeling. That you've left the crazy world behind, and found a place far more in touch with itself. The simple world of Veranda, where, like an iPod, you just plug and play.

Monday 4 October 2010

Chiang Mai -- Lying on a beach in Chiang Mai

Dr Sushil is the spa director at Rarinjinda. At first he looks like you'd imagine a youngish Indian doctor to look: slender, healthy, pleasant but unassuming. So, normal in other words.

Then he ushers us upstairs from the serene lobby to his office. His desk looks like something akin to a mad scientist's laboratory. And before I know it my hand is being placed on a gizmo called InnerAction. It is a black box about the size of my hand, covered in silver buttons on the top and side.

The computer monitor flickers to life and abstract shapes appear, rather ghostly. Then tinges of yellow, green, pink. 'I am studying your aura,' the fully qualified medical doctor says. 'The aura colour represents the personality of you.' Oh, ok. It finally settles on yellow/green.

I am told I have problems with my shoulders (I do - I carry the world on them!), and told to avoid ice cold drinks (I don't). He also tells me I use my brain to think too much. He then assigns me to a massage session which involves lying on a bed of hot sand for an Elements of Life treatment.

It was a weird sensation (not the tight blue nylon undies they gave me, I mean lying on a bed of sand.) It felt for all the world as though I was on the beach on a nice hot summer's day. Jing jing! Minus the skin cancer, of course.The massage was firm and soothing, not involving any of the usual human pretzel positions traditional Thai massage uses.

The lounge where you chill with a beautiful hot cup of tea afterward feels like a First Class boutique lounge, with a tempting array of healthy snacks and drinks. It is library quiet.

Talking with a bunch of grizzled and -- dare I say it -- cynical travel writers afterwards, I sensed they weren't taking this as seriously as I was. Many were writing it off as baloney, frankly. I had a foot in both camps.

But spa consultant Greg Morling set my thinking straight. 'It's just a different paradigm,' he says. 'It's several thousand years of them coming from that school of thought.' So, in other words, you believe it if you believe it, and you don't if you don't. Fair enough.

But you can't fault the experience which Morling rates as one of the top in Chiang Mai if not the world. And lying on a beach in Chiang Mai ... that doesn't happen every day. Think about it. But not too much ...