Wednesday 14 September 2011

Koh Yao Yai Village Resort - a taste of Africa in Thailand.

I was born in Africa. Spent a lot of time living in Africa. And have travelled there a bit. It has its own vibe, its own look and feel, and rhythm and sounds and smells.

So all the more reason I find myself questioning my judgment when I arrive at Koh Yao Yai Village and somehow felt I'd been tele-ported to some remote part of southern Africa. Lush bush dominates this 32-acre resort site, and around 50 villas are dotted around somewhere in there. The villas are topped by straw-thatched roofs, like Vietnamese cone hats. In Africa, they call structures like these rondawels (literally, round houses). The open sided, airy buildings have knotty branches for eaves, big wooden latches for locks, and an outdoor shower and bathroom.

Calico curtains, and a mossie-netted day bed add to the African portrait. And the biggest mini bar fridge I've ever seen in my life sits on the covered veranda. Should it be called a maxi bar instead???

Rustic comfort is the word. Well, that's two words but you get my drift. Maybe that's the thing that triggered the Africa analogy. But it's more than that ...

There's a total serenity here (surprising given that this is in Phang Nga Bay, southern Thailand, and party-hard Phuket is not that far away as the seagull flies).

'I came here because I heard there's no one here,' explains Christian, a solo traveller from Switzerland. He's right about that. And I hope he enjoys his own company, because just about everybody else is a deux (er, that means two in French).

An infinity pool looking out to the famous bay,  with rolling waves sweeping across the foreground, and the giant hump-back upthrusts yonder.

The hotel is just 2 years old, a sister property to the fantastic Phi Phi Village Resort I blogged about a little while back. The staff possess a totally endearing naivete ... with seemingly no idea about happy hour or what food they were serving or attractions on the island.

I finally ascertain that the island's fledgling positioning is all about authentic natural and local experiences. You can go and see local traditional village life, rice fields and rubber plantations. Some mountain biking. And that's about it, jing jing. But what more do you really want or need? Oh, maybe a wonderful airy library stocked to the rafters with great beach reads

Happy hour aside, we manage to get a wonderfully poured cocktail just in time for sunset and enjoy a most calming, soothing evening -- almost meditative -- with the white noise of waves washing below, and the evening sky gradually creeping in from the east across the water. Until dinner is served. And mighty fine it is too, served around the pool by candlelight.

Only I'm surprised to not see African staples like boerewors on the menu, and I hear no howling hyenas. So I am in Amazing Thailand after all.

Monday 29 August 2011

Red Ginger, Ao Nang Thailand. Where red means go and green means stop.

Red ginger is a popular exotic flower in the south of Thailand. Even the very name is wildly exotic, isn't it?

And a particularly large red ginger can be found at Ao Nang, in Krabi, Thailand. How large? As large as a 60-room boutique hotel in fact.

And Red Ginger Chic Resort is as exotic as the name suggests ... a haven of designery touches and surprising flourishes that titillate the eye. The warm red colour concept is milked to the maximum -- starting with the welcome drinks -- and their signature cocktails are all, hic, ginger based.

Something about the feel screams Straits Chinese or Peranakan ... something more akin Singapore's Chinatown, or Malacca or Penang, than Amazing Thailand, but it works. And works well.

Splashes of orange and perfectly placed greenery make it modern. Asian. Tropical. Think wicker hanging lanterns, open wooden slat screens, billowing muslin screens and bamboo ceilings. Inner city chic by the sea. Frangipani overhang the pool.

If that doesn't whet your appetite to come here, perhaps the next paragraph will ...

At Spice Restaurant, seafood and international produce is sourced from local fishing boats, and they help locals by buying vegetables only from nearby markets, Khun Orn Panida -- the hotel's articulate reservations manager from nearby Had Yai  -- tells me over a sumptuous dinner.

First spicy prawn starters come out. They do like it kick-in-the-pants hot down here. Then, an interesting chicken-and-bean crispy affair to keep us going until the chicken coconut soup arrives. I'm almost full already but battle on bravely (OK, dived in if the truth must be told!) to the main seafood dish, bass with pesto pasta and mussels, dripping in a rich Hollandaise sauce.

She tells me the chef (who's not imported either) has a bit of a reputation and they run cooking classes here.

And Red Ginger takes its eco-responsibility very seriously. Whereas most hotels post a lame note to encourage you to re-use your towels, here they incentivize you. Each time you recycle you get a token (actually a seed). Collect 3 in your stay and get a free drink, jing jing. Probably red, probably with ginger in it, definitely delicious!

While they are still working to achieve Green Leaf Certification, they already use Green Leaf-certified shampoos, and left over fruit and vegetables from the kitchen are turned into soap.

If you are here on a Wednesday, you'll see the staff all wearing grey T-shirts with a green message on it: they go and clean the beach with school kids, or plant trees at the local school. Guests with a twinge of a responsible conscience can buy a package and join in. Their sister hotel up the road, the Pakasai which I'll blog about soon, does the same.

So let me sum it up for you here: basically if it's Red say Yes to More. If it's going Green: say No and ReUse, Reduce and Recycle it.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Conrad Bangkok - a serious business hotel with a playful attitude

So picture this. I am languishing in a huge bathtub, bubbles foaming up to near the ceiling, when I spot a little blue plastic elephant. I find that when I submerge him in the water, he fills up and you can use his trunk like a water pistol. Squiiiiiiiiiiiiiirt! Great fun.

Suddenly I am 4 years old again, sharing a tub with my giggling siblings. But wait a minute ...

I am a professional, fully grown (some would say over-grown) man, with a mortgage, the weight of the world on my shoulders, a monkey on my back, and my nose to the grindstone. Yes, you see, our modern business lives are nothing but a cunningly disguised game of Twister!

But this little frivolity -- a blue plastic elephant, made in China probably -- allows me to forget that for a little while.

And that brings us to the magical difference of The Conrad Bangkok. It has been voted Bangkok's best business hotel already in its rather short history. But it never forgets that, at heart, we are all human. Additionally there is a red silk elephant placed on my bed, a little leaflet explaining it's made from traditional southern style fabric design, and explaining a little about its southern temperament.

And then there's the PlayStation 3 in all their suites.

When it comes to business, though, you'll find the Conrad pushing the envelope. Try Thailand's fastest hotel internet speed, 50 mega-kilo-bitty-widgety-somethings of raw surfing power. Free in all rooms, and most areas of the hotel. How fast? So fast your emails are sent before you even write them, jing jing.

And the executive lounge, bristling with Macs with screens that would make ground control at NASA envious ... and I'm sure some of those space cadets would surely envy the array of yummy hors d'ouevres freely for the taking in the executive lounge too. (Er, Houston, we have a problem ... it seems like some travel writer guy has eaten all the smoked salmon.)

As for location, it is nicely located near the BTS line in downtown Ploenchit (lower Sukhumvit Road embassy and business area), with shuttles running frequently to the station.

Not that you'll be in a hurry to leave your room, mind you. Each is artfully and tastefully done out with Herman Miller desk chairs, and Thai finishing flourishes; dark woods, silk fabrics, and ... well, elephants. Squiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirt!

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Phuket Thailand breaking tourist arrivals records ...

I just read a report where Phuket is expecting a record 4,000,000 international visitors this year. Check the zeroes ... that's four million, folks.

That's like the whole population of Singapore visiting the island. Or the whole population of Sydney.
Or all the readers of Thailand Jing Jing.

And if you thought the queue at Burger King at the airport was a little busier, you'd be right. Those arrivals figures are a whopping 20% above last year's numbers and -- here's a funny thing -- if you add in Thai citizen arrivals too, the airport's actually running 22% over capacity.

Standing room only (even in the ladies' loo, jing jing).

Ok I've gone a little far this time ...

Point is, if you're looking for a great party island that's jumping and pumping with an international cocktail of Aussies, Thais, Swedes, Russians, Chinese, Koreans etc, head for Phuket. Patong is party central, of course, but the fun can break out in many other parts of the island too.

But make sure you book early. Otherwise you'll only get an airplane seat on the wing. Or you'll have to sleep in one of the dozens of hotels that are still under construction.

In any case, you'll have a great travel story from Amazing Thailand to tell.

(Source: C9 Hotelworks)

Saturday 13 August 2011

Eco travel and green tourism activities in Ao Thalane, Krabi Thailand

Kayaking in the Ao Thalane area of Krabi Thailand is one of the most peaceful things you can do in the Phuket area, enjoying the pristine nature amid the emerald bays of the Andaman Sea.

These companies can give you more information, or arrange a half day or full day green tourism adventure for you ...

+ Oriental Escape

+ Andaman Adventures

+ Rev Travel 

+ Lets Tour Bangkok

+ OK Krabi

+ Railay Tours

Just me and Mother Nature (and two ladyboys) in Ao Thalane Thailand

Ok, I admit, I've got no idea where I am. We had been traversing the huge bay of Krabi for days, bouncing around between Ao Nang, Rai Ley, Koh Phi Phi, until I no longer knew if we were in the Andaman Sea, in a bay, on the mainland, or on an island.

So when the little song taew truck picked us up in Ao Nang for a half day eco-adventure at Ao Thalane, I was amazed how big the 'island' was because we drove for at least 45 minutes to get there.

'Actually this is the road to Phuket,' explained my companion. Well, that did my head in, too. 

'Phuket's an island and I thought this was an island, so wouldn't a boat be a better choice???' She just rolled her eyes.

Long story short, we arrived at Ao Thalane, a sleepy fishing village where a number of jetties poked into the bay, riven with sand bars at low tide. Locals hunched over scooped up clams and prawns from the shallows. A few other vans full of backpackers from Canada, Germany, and Israel soon arrived.

We clambered aboard our 2-person kayaks. Our two guides plied a lively line of humour, mainly centred on calling the other guy 'lady boy'. Haha, this was quite funny until about the 300th time which was only 2 minutes into the experience. They explained that this beautifully pristine area was the first of the limestone karts to emerge from the sea, about 300,000,000 years ago

Great white upthrusts of jungle-clad rock wall soared up across the bay. In front were thriving mangroves, home to colonies of exceptionally cheeky macaque monkeys. The water can be a sparkling turquoise blue, but in the off-season it's just kinda green.

In convoy we headed out across the bay at a leisurely pace, rounding craggy headlands, passing wonderful sandy coves and what looked like concealed entrances. To me it had the makings of a Hardy Boys adventure setting, for those old enough to remember those story books of childhood derring-do.

With the shoulders feeling the pinch of persistent paddling, we pulled into a little sheltered nook -- a sandy strip dwarfed by the sheer rock walls closing in on each side. Jungle vines, ferns, palms and other trees reached for the sunlight hundreds of metres above. The ladyboy jibes continued. Something about this reminded me of the remote Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, where parts of Jurassic Park were filmed. 

Hugging the rocky shore, an arching tunnel loomed ahead. It was just above water level, leaving not much clearance at this tidal level. We were heading straight for it. Surely we're not, no we can't be ... yes we are! One of the two ladyboys guiding us leaned back flat in his kayak and flipped his head back at the last minute -- clear!

We all followed suit, like a conga line feeding into a limbo contest. I expected heads to be gashed, arms to be shredded, limbs to be lost, but we re-emerged with the same headcount on the other side.

Then a narrow rock opening appeared, and the current surged inward. 'Go left, go left!' shouted one of the ladyboys. We found ourselves in a cavernous area which opened up into a secret garden ... sheltered from the world. It was dead quiet other than the shrill of cicadas, the shriek of fish-eagles hovering ... and -- you guessed it -- more taunting lady boy accusations.

The current swept us along this section, in dappled daylight, amid such virginal verdancy. Then we swung left, into the mangroves. the section was narrow, so tight the leaves formed a complete canopy above us. The bottom got shallower, shallower, shal ... er, scrape.

'We turn around here,' instructed the leader of the lady-boys.

I took the opportunity to turn on my turbo-charger. Firstly for the exercise, and secondly to leave the group in my wake so I could enjoy this as nature had intended: sans voce (that's Latin or French or something for 'no voice')

I paddled furiously to put a 100m space between myself and the others. You could've almost waterskiied behind my kayak, jing jing.

It was wonderful. Such unspoilt ageless beauty. Just the gentle sounds of paddles dipping into the water. Birds serenading. And warm sunshine on my back. Perfect!

All too soon, we were back in the open water of whatever bay this was. But now the breeze had got up and it was choppy. We bee-lined for the headland to the right, every muscle straining against the tide and the headwind. Round the headland, the welcome sight of the jetty with its promise of lunch and a drink.

That was all the incentive I needed to power on home. Well, that plus the nervousness of having two 'ladyboys' closing in behind me ...

(Footnote: This activity was kindly arranged and sponsored by the good 'green' folks at Pakasai Resort and Red Ginger Chic Resort, Krabi. Thanks!)

Thailand Elephant Polo 2012 - Hua Hin

Warning: September 12-16 2012 pacy pachyderms will be running riot in Hua Hin, the royal seaside town just south of Bangkok.

Unstoppable: D2 makes a run down the sideline ...
Fortunately, their top speed is only around 30km/h, and they will be under the control of experienced mahouts, and goaded on by largely middle-aged, corpulent players in bright shirts, all under the guise of 'sport'.

In this case, elephant polo, jing jing.

Read my previous blog on this rather eccentric sport which brings together some heavy hitters from around the world, all building up a good sweat, quenching voracious thirsts, and building up a good amount of money to conserve Asian elephants.

The Anantara Group is behind this as usual (they set up the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in northern Thailand), and this September the tournament returns to its spiritual home, Hua Hin, where it was first staged.

Guests at the gala dinner ...
'Anantara has partnered with some of the world’s biggest personalities of the screen, stage, fashion and business world and asked them to share their larger than life artistic talents to help raise money through an ele-auction to be held during a gala dinner,' trumpets their press release.

Over half a million dollars has been raised for charity in the 11 years this tournament has been staged.

Your humble scribe will be participating again this year (yes, as a player, not as an elephant as some have unkindly suggested!) 

For more details on Anantara King's Cup elephant polo 2012, click here.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Hua Hin Jazz Festival: their promotion really blows ...

There is an annual jazz festival at Hua Hin which enjoys a massive reputation as a great event to see some big local and international players blowing their horns. Apparently ...

Sadly, that's about all I know about it, as it seems that too many 'jazz cigarettes' have led the organizers to neglect something as simple as creating a website with a program of acts, pricing, and timing, man. Some sites have the dates as June 2011, Jing Jing.

You can try but your best bet is our friends at Tourism Authority of Thailand. There at least you get some confirmed dates and a contact number.

So what you need to do is make sure you're in Hua Hin (less than 2 hours drive south of Bangkok) on Friday 26th August and Saturday 27th.

The concert itself is staged on the lovely beach right out front of the Sofitel Centara Grand Hua Hin Hotel, one of my favourite historic hotels in all of Asia.

Hua Hin has a long and proud association with jazz in this country because HM The King is a keen saxophonist and has penned many a jazz tune at his seaside residence here. This festival -- running for the last 10 years -- is testament to this contribution.

So, jazz lovers, we'll see you then. And perhaps we can pass the hat around so they can afford to create a proper website for next year.

Otherwise it should be renamed the Mua Nim ('All mixed up') Jazz Festival.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Dancers of a different type in Bangkok Thailand

I know how your naughty minds work ... when I mention 'Bangkok' and 'dancers' you automatically think of the go-go dancer type right?

(Pardon me if I'm wrong, but I'm just working on percentages here.)

Well, in September and October there's a whole new type of dancer coming to the City of Angels. And they're not Thai girls but Brazilian men, jing jing.

Ok, so I just lost half my audience, but the other half perked up suddenly. Let me explain ...

The Bangkok International Festival of Dance and Music is coming to town, September 9 to October 15 2011.

One of the headline acts is the Bale de Rua (which means 'street ballet' in I presume Brazilian Portuguese) who will bring their foot-stomping hip-shaking bottom-wriggling pelvic-thrusting blend of Samba and Hip Hop to the party.

There's also opera, music, ballet and dance from all over the world (places as diverse as Russia, Germany, Taiwan, Holland, Austria and Portugal and Spain) to check out.

So jump on the phone, or jump on a plane, and make sure you go go to this festival. And if Brazilian men are not your style, well, look on the bright side ... the show will be finished by 11pm so you can always pop down to Patpong after if you like.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Bangkok Airways -- the surprisingly affordable choice in Thailand

Bangkok Airways Airbus A319

Bangkok Airways, Asia's Boutique airline which services all the exotic destinations in Southeast Asia that come to mind, is travelling about 30% better than last year.

“Our most popular destinations are Samui, Phuket, and Chiang Mai," said a pleased Bangkok Airways’ president, Mr. Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth. "We have improved our performance over the year, especially on the Bangkok-Phuket route where we now fly six flights daily. For Bangkok-Chiang Mai, we fly five flights per day. Direct flights from Chiang Mai to Samui are especially popular with an 80 per cent cabin factor.”

Although not a Low Cost Carrier (LCC) -- in fact, they are the opposite, with fancy lounges and nice meals -- they are often priced similarly to Air Asia and the like, and therefore are my first choice for short-haul travel in and around Amazing Thailand, jing jing.

Get around Bangkok faster in Porsche Taxi ...

Need to get from A to B in Bangkok in quick time? No worries, just hail this Porsche Taxi, jing jing.

Amazing Thailand enjoys massive rebound in travellers

Figures from PATA show that Amazing Thailand is enjoying a massive rebound, with tourist arrivals growing 66% year-on-year compared to last May when there was political unrest.

Better still, there's been no unrest at all since the election over a month ago, and it's business -- and pleasure! -- in Bangkok and the rest of the country as usual.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Kidding about at the Dugong Kids Club - Anantara Si Kao, Krabi Thailand

Sometimes I wonder whether kids have more fun than grown ups.

I mean it just seems you drift from one fun activity to another, pick your nose unselfconsciously, eat when you're hungry, drink sugary soda pops when you're thirsty, laugh at naughty toilet jokes, nap when you're tired, then get up and play all over again. No mortgages. No boss. No woman, no cry. Easy life!

Some of that childhood spirit was rekindled in me at the Dugong Kids Club at Anantara Si Kao Resort and Spa recently.

You see, my companion had been excited by the little blackboard which had promised batik painting and other free activities that day. Ok, but first we had to grab some nourishment for my growing brain at the hotel's Leelawadee Cafe. As much as I love Thai food, just now and again, pizza is the only way to go, so we ordered their seafood pizza. Oh man, that was sooooooooooo good ... one of the best pizzas I've had anywhere, anytime. Light crispy crust, cheese that was was all stretchy and stringy ...

So then I drifted along with her, and found myself in a wonderful airy space full of colour and promise. I was given the option of candle making. Ok, cool.

This involved tipping fine powdery neon-coloured granules in a pattern into a little glass vase-like container to make the base for my candle. The attendant Miss Pu (haha, her name sounds like Poo ... haha) gave me a demonstration. I can do that ... I'm a big boy now.

So, with tongue sticking ever so slightly out of the corner of my mouth, I started tipping the powder gently into the vase. Sunshine yellow, hot pink, swimming pool blue, radioactive green, they all went in, carefully constructing a wavy pattern echoing the Andaman Sea, sand and waves, visible just outside the windows.

My companion meanwhile was absorbed in painting her floral batik patterns, sneaking glances at my progress occasionally with encouraging expressions.

I carried on carefully compiling my pattern. I was determined that this was going to be the best candle ever. It's not that I'm competitive though ... no, really.

Finally I was happy with my candle base. The assistant gave me what I was sure was a look of utter amazement at my creative talents. She'd never witnessed such skill and craftsmanship in her Dugong Kids Club. I mean, I looked at some of the other stuff drying around the room. I mean some of the other kids had gone over the lines and everything. Some parents had been so disappointed in their kids' stuff they didn't even bother to take them home, so there.

'Is this the best candle you ever saw?' I asked. I took Miss Pu's giggling and silence to mean Absolutely Yes. You see, sometimes you have to understand these cross-cultural nuances. It's often the unsaid things that are more weighty.

Next we poured in some gooey silicon stuff to seal in the contents. Then we stuck in a candle wick, making sure it was perfectly straight and upright. After all, this was not just any candle, this was The Candle of the Year. She giggled and turned away again. My companion rolled her eyes. In encouragement, I'm sure of it.

Soon, her batik was finished ... an awesome T-shirt which she'd get to keep as a souvenir, and my candle -- a post-modern pop art masterpiece -- was drying.

Just then, the hotel's general manager strolled in. He shot a withering look at my creation. 'Hah, even my two year old can do better than that!' he exclaimed. He was just jealous I can tell.

It's not easy being a kid, jing jing.

Written by: Stuart Lloyd, aged 48 1/2

Monday 18 July 2011

Anantara Si Kao Resort and Spa -- somewhere near Krabi Thailand

Si Kao is about an hour south of Krabi, which in turn is a couple of hours from Phuket. Down there floating around the south-west Andaman Sea somewhere.

Dugongs - thriving on land at Si Kao
The name intrigued me. Si Kao is the Thai word for 'white'. So was it named for the white sands? Or -- a bit more laterally -- is it a play on the word 'sea cow' which is I believe one of the names for the endangered dugongs, those weird blubbery down-in-the-mouth looking things that call this area home? No one seems to know. 'Just a name' seems to be the consensus.

Si Kao is all about the magnificent picture postcard outlook across the waters of the Andaman to the signature knobbly limestone karst upthrusts in the middle distance that characterise this bay. The waterfront is lined with dugong statues and seafood restaurants, many looking more like a tent city than fine dining on the Riviera. But excellent local seafood and beaming acquiescent smiles even though you may not be fully understood.

Just beyond this, over a mangrove-lined river, an imposing entrance opens up to the Anantara Si Kao Resort and Spa. The drab olive buildings lend it a sympathetic edge with its surroundings. It almost blends in too well with the abundantly growing palms, casuarinas and frangipanis on the property.

Choices, choices, choices. Go for a swim in the bath-water-warm ocean to the west. Lie on a hammock near the bar and Beach House facing the islands. Swim in the pool (surrounded by dugong figurines). Play at the Dugong kids club. Excursions to the Emerald Cave at Koh Morakut or other parts of the Chao Mai National Park. Ride a bike into town. Enjoy a Spa at the Anantara Spa.

After an easy cycle along the foreshore, and a refreshing swim (collecting amazing conical shells all the while) we chose the latter. Aaaaaaah ... Khun Zu gives me one of the best treatments I've experienced over the years, with a blend of Harmony oils (bergamot, lavender, ylang ylang and mandarin) that is at once both soothing and uplifting. It started with her taking what felt like a full 15 minutes just to position me on the bed correctly ... making sure the limbs are all perfectly aligned in order to get the muscles and tendons sorted out. I don't remember getting that sort of attention at any other spa.

She also asked me regularly 'Is the pressure OK, Mr Lloyd?' Gee, I wish some of my former bosses had asked me that question from time to time, jing jing.

They also offer an extensive range of wellness and holistic programs with specialist consultants, some of these 'journeys' lasting up to 5 days.

Then -- magic! -- sunset over the islands. It's time for a mojito and a gentle sway in the hammock, coming down from the massage with a radiant inner and outer glow. There are any number of swinging chairs and lounges to chill in, too. There are books on the shelf here that could keep you busy for 100 summers.

The white-on-white wood airy Beach House seems like a touch of Hua Hin here ... especially with its elevated outdoor deck. The Acqua Italian eatery is fine in style yet casual in atmosphere, and we enjoy a table on the decking outside in a perfectly balmy evening, with the slightest rustle of breeze in the coconut trees adjacent. Fine white wines accompany the freshest seafood. This sort of setting would suit a honeymoon perfectly; or could easily lead to one!

Speaking of which, over dinner, the hotel's genial general manager, Morten, tells us that the location scouts for Hangover 2 had come to the Anantara checking it out for suitability for the wedding reception scenes. As it had been the off-season, of course he asked them to use their imagination and visualize the usual cerulean waters and mirror-like ocean. He accompanied them to some of the islands, such as Koh Morakut, and the sea that day was so bumpy and they were so shaken about by the choppy water.

Coming off the boat, the producer shook his hand and said: 'We probably won't use you for the movie, but I will never forget this day.'

Fortunately, even though it was 'wet' season, the forecast -- provided thoughtfully by room maid Pin -- was sunny, and continued to be for the next several days. As I slipped into the comfortable bed a little later, I felt the same way as that producer: I would never forget this wonderful day.

I fell immediately into a deep sleep and dreamed of -- aaaaaarrgh! -- dugongs.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Trang - the most beautiful part of Thailand I've never heard of.

Here's a funny thing ... I've lived in Amazing Thailand many a year, and -- being a travel writer -- like to think that nothing, NOTHING, escapes my attention when it comes to travel and tourism.

So when my cousin (Hello, John) who lives in Africa mentioned he was coming to here and wanted some tips on good places to stay in Trang, there was something of a pause. 'Hello?' he said, not wanting to spend more time on this international call which he was paying for than necessary.

'Trang, you say?' I said, fumbling for my map of Thailand. I quickly scanned the country, up and down. No bloody Trang anywhere.

'You know, near Phuket, but better, nicer.'

'Oh, that Trang,' I said, finally seeing the little dot down south west, on the edge of Phang Nga Bay. 'Sorry, it's been a while since I've been, so whatever tips I have would probably be out of date. Better off checking Trip Advisor, mate.'

At that point I made a note to visit Trang, one of few little corners of Thailand I'd not been to. Ever. Why not?

So it was with great excitement that we boarded the overnight train from Bangkok's quite grandiose-looking Hualampong Station. The 1st class sleeper trains are excellent in Thailand, and a great way to have amiable chats with locals, maybe a medicinal sip or two of local whiskey if they offer it, and wait for the attendant to come round and make your bed. Comfy enough bunks, with curtains for privacy. (Oh, better take a spare bottle of Sam Song Whiskey if you want a really good night's sleep.)

The morning light showed us to be in interesting tropical countryside with palm trees, sugar cane, the odd karst upthrust. After around 12 or more hours, around breakfast time, we pulled into Trang. There was a nice poetry to this, because the town is named Trang after the Malay word 'terang' which means light, which is when the trading vessels always used to arrive here.

You see, in its former life, 900-years-old Trang was part of the Kedahan-Malay kingdom, then became an important international trading port for Thailand, located on the Andaman Sea, just north of Malaysia.

The Muslims settled along the coast for trading purposes. The Chinese stuck to the town itself, where the commerce was. And the Thais were somewhere in between.

A dugong ... an underwater wombat?
The town today doesn't immediately scream Major International Trading Port. In fact it doesn't even whisper it. The railway station is a small affair with green gables, and nearby the shabby Ta Klang market plies its trade from 1am each morning till just after breakfast time. Stalls groan with mangos, durian and dragonfruit. An unimpressive clock tower forms one roundabout in town, but that is easily upstaged by the roundabout featuring 20 ... um, what the hell are those things?

Closer inspection reveals them to be dugongs, which are strongly associated with the area, but numbers are falling fast because they are exceptionally dumb and slow, frankly, and no match for a hungry local's harpoon.

Another statue is of former governor Phraya Ratsadanupradit Mahison Phakdi, also known curiously as Khaw Sim Bee na Ranong, who had the original vision to make this into a seaport. He was also responsible for introducing the rubber tree to Thailand from Malaya in 1899. 

Think of him as Thailand's equivalent of Singapore's Sir Henry Ridley. Thailand went on to becoming one of the largest suppliers of rubber (and rubbers!) in the world, jing jing.

A Robinson's department store talks of a little prosperity in the town . But most travellers don't hang around in town. They want to get out to some of the province's 46 islands (which include the beautiful Ko Kradan and Ko Ngai, the traditional fishing villages of Ko Muk, and the sea caves of Ko Morakut). As for us, we were met at the station by the Anantara Si Kao's car and whisked off to the fancy resort which I'll blog about soon.

Ko Kradan ... don't you just want to be here now???
Trekking is also popular, with over 20 waterfalls in the area. And diving should be a lot more popular ... the  Chao Mai National Park is home to some of the most awesome dive spots in the world. Ko Kradan is one of these.

But Trang only receives a fraction of the tourists that make it to Phuket or even Krabi. So if you want a quieter time, this is the place to be.

But you'd better go quick. You see, now that I've blogged about it, the crowds are going to be pouring in. You may even see my cousin John ... I recommended he should go to this really beautiful place down south that I know. It's called Trang.

The difference between Phang Nga and Pha Ngan Thailand

When booking your travel to Thailand, double check your facts -- and your ticket -- if you're heading to Phang Nga or Pha Ngan.

They are NOT the same place. In fact, decidedly different ...

Phang Nga is a massive bay in the Andaman Sea on the south-west coast of Thailand, famous for its emerald waters and jutting upthrusting limestone karst islands. It was first brought to worldwide prominence by the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun and hence one of the islands here (actually Koh Ping-Gan) is only known as James Bond Island. Another famous spot here is Koh Panyee (Sea Gypsy Island) named for its nomadic seafaring locals.

Boat tours or kayaking tours are the best way to see the bay and its 42 entrancing islands (mostly uninhabited) and it is most easily accessed from Phuket by ferry.

Or, if you were here 10,000 years ago when the sea levels were lower, you could've walked here, jing jing.

Phangan (or Koh Pha Ngan to be exact) on the other hand is in the Gulf of Thailand, on the south-east of Amazing Thailand. About 15 km from Koh Samui. Phangan was put on the map by a little farewell party which proved quite popular. So it was staged again and grew into a regular thing each month. You may have heard of the Full Moon Party?

This is held at Haad Rin Bay. The island has developed greatly because of this, but is rather quiet comparatively during the month, and there are plans to make it more family friendly.

Phangan was featured prominently in Alex Garland's book The Beach, on which the movie was based. Having said that, the movie was filmed in the Phang Nga area. Go figure! Fans of the German band Ace of Base might want to get out their iPods and check out the song Vision in Blue. It's about Phangan ...

A vision in blue 
Forever young 
A token so true 
My Koh Phangan [4x]
I see you dancing in front of my face 
Your body is moving to the trace of the chase 
I'm flashing for you 
A bright light in the night for you

Aah, they don't write lyrics like that anymore. (But there again, they are German.)

So now you know the difference between Phang Nga and Pha Ngan. Are you in the right place after all? Or would you rather be at the OTHER place instead???

Friday Funny: An apology from the heart of my bottom.

Oops! I just learned the hard way that I've been pronouncing a couple of Thai words slightly wrongly which impart a whole new meaning ...

When saying 'Excuse me' (as in when pushing through a crowd, or trying to get past somebody) you might say: 'Khaw Thod'. This should sound roughly like Car Tord.

But -- like so many other unforgiving Thai words -- I've been getting this slightly wrong and saying: 'Kor Thood' which sounds more like 'Cor Tood'.

And this means ...

Oh, this is the embarrassing part ...

Are you ready for it?

Kor Thood means 'I want your bum!' Jing jing!

So I apologise from the heart of my bottom, er, the bottom of my heart, to anyone I might have inadvertently offended as I brushed past you in the crowd.

About Thailand festivals and public holidays 2012 ...

Before you firm up your dates to travel to Thailand, have a quick glance at a list of its amazing festivals and public holidays.

A site like Thailand Festivals or Thailand Festivals and Events 2012 will do the trick.

Well, you can't have a quick look at the list -- and that's my point -- there are soooo many events, celebrations, and commemorations each year, there's barely any time to fall into the usual 9-5 workaday routine in any one week of the year.

No, this is not the Katoey Eyelash Fluttering festival ...
Everyone's heard of Songkran and Loy Krathong. But what about the Monkey Buffet Festival in November. Or the Phuket Vegetarian festival in Phuket (which, ironically, features more bloody meat than you'll see anywhere else ...). Then there's Thai Elephant Day in March. Buffalo Racing. Ploughing Ceremony. Then there's rocket festivals, horse-and-cart festivals, and the annual Katoey Eyelash Fluttering festival.

Ok, I made that last one up. But you get the idea ...

On the upside: check the events calendar and try to fit in with an event or occasion in the area you're travelling to to get a feel for the free-wheeling, fun-loving Thai lifestyle, jing jing.

Royal Barge Procession, December 5
On the downside: check that it's not a Buddhist holiday (like the Candle Festival being celebrated this weekend) as it means that all bars are shut and no alcohol is served in deference to the occasion.

So you might find yourself with your one and only big night out in Bangkok planned, and a glass of lemonade in your hand.

All of which reminds me: Why am I working on a public holiday?

Thursday 14 July 2011

Famous blockbusters filmed in Northern Thailand ... a surprising list!

It’s easy to see why tourists come to northern Thailand's Lanna region: evocative temples, lively markets, cloud-scraping mountains, vibrant summer, nippy winter, and the soothing mix of small-town charm and budding, hip neighbourhoods. 

In sum, it’s romantic. But for Hollywood filmmakers, from Ridley Scott and Barry Levinson to Sylvester Stallone (or Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone as his mother calls him when she's angry), the pull of the area is not its romanticism but its practicality – the combination of accessible jungle, tame elephants, and the ease in which it can be transformed by movie magic into somewhere resembling, mostly, Vietnam.

Levinson arrived here in 1987 with Robin Williams and Forest Whitaker to shoot the comedy Good Morning Vietnam, about a military DJ who injects sparkle into jaded GIs, with Chiang Mai standing in for Saigon circa 1965. The movie also stars the famous and not completely uncute Thai actress, Jintara Sukapat (a regular face on local Thai TV). Three years later, Mel Gibson (or Mel Colm-Cille Gerard Gibson as his mother calls him when she's angry) landed with Robert Downey Jr, for the filming of Air America, a Vietnam-era military drama about a pilot recruited for a special CIA mission.

These two films generated much interest in film circles for using northern Thailand as a location, even though nobody in the movie-watching public really knew it was Amazing Thailand. More recently, two big American productions have done a little more justice to the city by at least setting their plots in northern Thailand, as opposed to a stand-in Saigon

In 2007, Ridley Scott came with Denzel Washington to shoot American Gangster, in which the Oscar-winning actor plays a heroine dealer seeking a deal with a drug lord of unidentified nationality in the Golden Triangle. Rambo 4 (2008), meanwhile, has actor and director Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo) living a hermetic existence in the jungle, catching snakes and brooding and swearing, before missionaries hire him to lead a danger-filled expedition into Burma (it was, of course, not shot in Burma).

On a much smaller scale, a number of made-for video flicks have been shot in the region, including Sniper 3, starring Tom Berenger as a lone soldier working for the secret service, and Vampires: The Turning, whose title is explanation enough.

Like the northern Thailand scenery itself, that list is breathtakingly impressive, jing jing. 

Footnote: thanks to Kong Rithdee (Lanna 101 magazine) for his expert input into this piece.

More movies being made on location in Amazing Thailand ...

Just read in the Bangkok Post that a staggering 359 movies were shot in Bangkok last year. That's about one per day (with one week off for good behaviour).

I've blogged a lot about the movie Hangover 2 lately, but there's a whole bunch -- like around 358 -- I've obviously missed.

And outside Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai and Kanchanaburi are also popular locations. In fact Kanchanaburi (home of the River Kwai but ironically not where the famous movie Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed) is an up and coming starlet, with 28 movies filmed there last year.

Best known of those was The Scorpion King. Anyone who follows Korean culture and movies would also be familiar with Sunny, which was shot there.

Anyone know which other movies were filmed in Bangkok or Amazing Thailand?

Monday 11 July 2011

Bangkok Thailand named best city in the world ... again!

At this time every year, people rush to their mailboxes to check if the new issue of Travel + Leisure magazine has arrived. Because they want to check the magazine's annual 'World’s Best Awards'.

Well, at the risk of being a spoilsport, I'm going spoil the surprise for you by announcing the results now. Here. Today.

For the second time, Bangkok has clinched the No. 1 spot as World's Best City, jing jing.

Now, just in case you're not familiar with these awards, no, they're not run and sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand or the Bangkok Metropolitan whatever ... these are genuinely independent worldwide awards which take in ratings from readers of Travel + Leisure’s international editions including the USA, Southeast Asia, Turkey, China, South Asia and Mexico.

So as a result, they are highly coveted.

Hotels in Thailand scored highly on the list of Top 100 Hotels Overall (best hotel in the world), with the magic-kingdom-in-a-rice-paddy Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi in Chiang Mai coming in at no. 7. The Peninsula Bangkok on the fabled Chao Phraya river also made the list. The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi was also voted Asia's second favourite resort, while in the city hotels category for Asia, The Peninsula Bangkok came home at no. 4. 

The best city hotel in Asia was judged to be the legendary Mandarin Oriental Bangkok nestling on the banks of the river as it has done for over 135 years. We should assume then that it is also the best city hotel in Thailand?

Not to be outdone in the Best International Airline category, Thailand also scored highly with Thai Airways International flying smooth as silk at No. 9.

For full results, check your mailbox on August 1 for your subscription copy of T+L again. Better still, as I'm first with the news here anyway, just cancel your subscription and send me the money instead.

Saturday 9 July 2011

A picture paints a thousand years: historical photos of Thailand and beyond

Pictures From History is an innovative photo library specializing in Asian history and Asian culture.
Some books you can’t put down; Pictures From History is a virtual page-turner ... a site that entices the history surfer deeper into Asian epochs such as Chinese dynasties, wondrous Buddhist and Hindu temples, and the warriors and tyrants of Asian history, from Genghis Khan to Pol Pot (no relation to Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men).
Or, if you think like me, you simply type in 'Miss Thailand' and back comes images like the one at left of Miss Songkran, Phuket, 1951. Jing jing.
The commercial arm of the site is aimed very clearly at the photo editors of the international press, travel guides and historical magazines. However, any red-blooded history buff or Jing Jing reader will get lost inside the archives of pictures, paintings and ancient scripts.
The best way to navigate this site is to type into the Search Box a country, an era or an interest, such as “Thai Buddhist temples”, or “Indochina Wars”. However, the site also offers a hearty selection of “Themes” to whet your appetite—collections of revolving images, which you can click on at any time to go directly to a series of related images. Individual images are accompanied by a paragraph or two of historical and at times anecdotal information about the picture, the people and the period in time.
Anyway, if you'll excuse me, I'm just going to search for Miss Songkran 1952 now ...

See the picture library here:

Friday 8 July 2011

Friday Funny: Some Humour from the Hills of Northern Thailand

Taken at a rather touristy Hmong hilltribe village, Doi Mae Salong.
-- makes you wonder about the precedent  that caused this sign, doesn't it?

Sign inside the room at Little Home Guest House, Doi Mae Salong.
Another good reason to keep your shoes handy is so you can chuck them at the bloody roosters
 which will wake you at around 4:30 am, jing jing.

Phaleease enjoy your weekend.