Sunday 30 January 2011

Doggie style now allowed in Thai hotels ...

Another way to sneak your dog into a hotel ...
People love their dogs, so why don't more people take their dogs on holiday with them?

The answer of course is that hotel operators usually ban dogs from their premises. But in a villa-style resort and with responsible owners taking care of their pets, then maybe a doggie holiday is possible.

That is the thinking of Centara Hotels & Resorts, Thailand's largest hotel operator, who are piloting a scheme to gauge market response to those guests wanting to travel on a vacation with their pet dogs. Jing jing!

"This of course is not realistic with many of our properties," says Operations Manager Paul Snow.

"But we do feel that in certain of our beach-side resorts, where guests are staying in ground floor accommodation that has immediate access to the gardens or the beach, it would be possible for dog owners to bring along their pets without causing any inconvenience to other guests.

The two resort hotels that have been selected are X2 Hua Hin Kui Buri Villas, which stands in four acres of mature beachfront gardens near to Hua Hin and features just 23 villas, and Centara Chaan Talay Resort & Villas Trat, occupying a pristine beachfront location with views across to Koh Chang.

But there are a couple of conditions:

1/ Owners need to advise the resort during the booking process that they will be bringing their dogs, and the dog has to be shampooed before arrival.

2/ The dog has to be a small to medium sized breed, weighing no more than 20 kilos, and should be well-trained. 

3/ Your dog is not allowed in the breakfast buffet area.
Ok, I made that last one up. But you get the idea. So, are doggie holidays in hotels a good idea??? What do you think?

Friday 28 January 2011

Slighty potty ...

Remember the movie Ghost? Control yourself.
Doi Din Daeng. I love the onamatopeic alliteration of the name and love saying it. Doi Din Daeng, Doi Din Daeng, Doi Din Daeng.

It actually means Red Clay Hill, and is a rather suitable name for this very artful pottery, located in the bucolic rice fields north of Chiang Rai city.(Except, there's no hill and, I'm led to believe, that they 'import' their clay from Chiang Mai.)

It's owned by a charming Thai-Japanese couple, with the super-artistic Somluk Pantiboon -- who was behind the first Bamboo Pagoda I blogged recently -- being the head ceramist.

They sell their product right there on the premises -- we picked up some great coffee mugs -- or you can order wholesale; many major hotels and restaurants number among their clientele for vases, dinner sets, bowls, wash basins, etc. (The Legend in Chiang Rai, for instance, got all its ceramics fittings from here, and I noticed an order for a well-known spa in Hua Hin being made, too.)

Somluk vents his frustration by chucking stuff at the walls.
They should put a bigger sign on the highway for people to find this place. A tiny little pottery piece is basically it, and  -- as suitably arty-farty as it is -- as you whiz by Highway 1 at 150km/h, dodging chickens and water buffalo, you're hardly going to notice it.

Even if pottery's not your thing, they also boast one of the coolest cafes in all of northern Thailand. A lovely setting among the old teakwood buildings, with scrumptious cakes and coffees. Worth coming here just for that.

But sadly, and surprisingly, no, um, glazed donuts. (Sorry, that was the only pottery pun I could think of ...)

Where is it? 49 Moo 6, Tambon Nanglae, Chiang Rai, 053-705-291. Going north on Highway 1 from Chiang Rai, it's about 15km south of Mae Chan on your right (there's a U-turn bay there after the big coffee shop on your right).

Thursday 27 January 2011

LIfe's a beach living in the mountains ...

Ok, my theory is this ...

People who live up in the mountains are just that little bit closer to the sun and therefore are more strongly affected by its harmful rays.

Exhibit A: Chiang Rai Beach.

On a recent trip to that city, a friend invited me to his house, "just 300 metres from Chiang Rai beach." Sorry come again ... the line's breaking up ... I thought you said beach.

"Yes, Chiang Rai Beach," he confirmed. Woah, ease up on that medication, my friend!

A quick check of the map revealed that land-locked Chiang Rai is 1000 or so metres above sea level and approximately 800km from the nearest beach in Thailand. In fact it's probably closer to go to a beach in Burma from there, jing jing.

But no. There, on a sweeping bend of the Kok River is Chiang Rai Beach. Umbrellas, deck chairs, massage service, ice cream carts. It could be Bondi, but with less sharks and less budgie smugglers.

Some of the locals have taken the beach thing one step further and call it Pattaya Noi. Little Pattaya.

There's a cool "isn't this great?" eccentric quirkiness to the place. Making do with what they've got this far from the ocean. But in fact, if you follow the Kok River for about 130km, you'll join up with the Mekong River, then if you follow that for about 1880km more, you'll empty out from the Mekong Delta into the South China Sea.

So technically, there is a grain of truth in calling this a beach.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

The real legend of Chiang Rai ...

The Legend is a wonderful touch of Lanna magic right on the often-misty banks of the Kok River, adding a touch of adventure and mystery to your northern adventures. 

Any closer to the water, and it would be a floating hotel.

Starting the day with their hearty breakfast buffet against this backdrop harks back to an earlier era of pioneers' machetes hacking through the jungles of IndoChina. But ...

Thankfully The Legend is firmly planted in the 21st century. Its style is comfortably local, affording you excellent service but without the stuffiness that some bigger international hotels insist on. 

The top villas offer spa pools set in the privacy of their own lush garden, and bathrooms large enough to wash a herd of water buffalo in, jing jing.

Fountains and plenty of local wood make you feel comfortably at home in Lanna, but if you need to take things down a further notch, try their spa by the river with its soothing sounds of water and nature. That in itself is also a bit of a Lost World experience ...

Ok, Ok, maybe there's something in the drinking water here -- I told you it was close to the river!

124/15 Kohloy Rd, Robviang, Chiang Rai, 053-910-400;

Le Meridien in Le Chiang Rai

The sparkling diamond among Chiang Rai’s new glory box of hotels, Le Meridien is best positioned as a base of creature comforts from which to explore the wilderness of Chiang Rai. 

Actually the architects have done a fine job of creating its own wilderness, with the buildings set around a sculpted lake near the Kok River, and glorious old trees expressing themselves from between the various wings.

The rooms feel more like luxury apartments in Sydney, London, or New York, with a nouveau and chic design appeal. Muted greys and browns are slick yet homely, contrasting strongly against the greenery which imposes itself through the windows.

All of this contemporary design is integrated with local touches. Witness the lobby with a fleet of what look like alien spacecraft zooming across its wall, but actually are the lids of cooking pots or somesuch. Or the landscaping from the lobby which apparently allows one to imagine Budhha's eyebrows. Jing jing! (Perhaps after a few red wines at Chill Bar.)

The latest in technology is employed, such as the Global Adapter which allows you to charge MP3 players, your mobile phone, PDA, travel speakers, etc. Practical stuff, well done, Le Meridien!

While you can cocoon yourself in its luxury water-bound seclusion, including its top-rated Parvati spa and fine F&B offerings (great Italian at Favola, anyone?), it’s also in the same street as the lively Leelavadee Bar and a number of local eateries if you want to reach out and immerse yourself into the local life.

Le Meridien Chiang Rai is, as they say in the classics, ze duck's nuts.

221 / 2 Moo 20 Kwaewai Road, Robwieng, Chiang Rai, 053-603-333;

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Thailand's winter wonderland

As I read about a snowbound Europe, a flooded Australia, and a freezing eastern USA, I am currently enjoying a Thailand winter.

That's right, Thailand does have a winter. It's not always 32 and sweaty bollocks. Especially in the north.

People get around at night here with scarves and beanies on, because the mercury has plummeted to, oh, about 29 degrees. Actually, it's less than that. Chiang Mai mornings can be in the 12-15 degree range (daytime mid-20s and blue sky), and I was just in Doi Ankhang further north last week where we got 7 degrees and mist one morning, jing jing.

Cool. Actually $@%&* cold (that's 'freezing' for those trying to fill in the blanks at home) if your body is used to tropical temperatures.

But the best part of winter in Thailand is the flowers.  Especially in Thailand's numerous Royal Project flower gardens. Here's a selection of some of the floral beauty from Doi Tung

Northern Thailand - Nirvana on two wheels

Your humble scribe with friends at the Golden Triangle.
When it comes to motorcycling, the northern Thailand's Lanna region really is heaven – or nirvana – on two wheels. Surprisingly excellent roads (the drivers, well, that’s a separate issue), stunning mountain and valley vistas, cheap petrol with smiling pump-attendants, plentiful accommodation in the 300-1000 baht a night range, tasty food on every corner, and we haven’t even got to the best bit yet …
In what other country can you have a hard day in the saddle and then stop in just about any small town and get a great massage for your weary bum that’ll cost you around 150-200 baht per hour? That's $5 or $6 to you.

It doesn’t matter what two wheels you get around on frankly. 100cc Honda Ladyboys or 1800cc Harleys are all the same to me (although I choose to ride a BMW F650GS) … just a way of getting out there and seeing what too few other visitors to the region are seeing. Away from the well-worn tour bus circuit. Most rental shops (see box) cater well in the 200-650cc range, bikes that are big enough to deal with the vertiginous challenges of some of the mountainous terrain and give you a comfortable enough ride along the way.

On the road to Doi Ankhang.
Before you head off, two words: GT Rider ( This website is an amazing resource where keen riders (many of them passionate motorcycling residents of the north) write up ride reports, recommend hotels and eateries to stay or avoid, and generally clue you in to what’s hot and what’s not in Lanna. 

GT Rider was set up by Aussie David Unkovich who lives in Chiang Mai and has covered possibly one million kilometers on these roads over the last 30 years. Jing jing!

He also publishes the best maps outlining classic trips such as the Mae Sa Valley / Samoeng loop, the Mae Hong Son loop, the Golden Triangle, and so on. (GT Rider maps are available from many bookstores in Lanna and on GPS too.)

You can string these together to make your own customized itinerary. And, of course, there’s all the bits in between that make it really interesting … it may be a quaint hill-tribe village a few kilometers off the track, it might be a great coffee spot lookout (like 7km south of Mae Hong Son, where the guy has the kettle boiling on the log fire!). Well, you get the idea.

Rice padi in the Kok River valley.
As for my personal favourites, there’s the 1148 which links Chiang Kham to Nan, an endless windy road, perfectly cambered with gorgeous valleys (keep your eye on the road, though). Chiang Mai to Pai’s 482 curves. Highway 12 from Phitsanulok west to Lom Sak with picture-postcard valley views, flower gardens and coffee shops aplenty. All the arrow-straight highways between Uttaradit and Sukhothai where you can really put your machine through its paces … 

Which brings us to speed limits. I did see a police car. Once. Somewhere near Lamphun. Entering a town, signs read: ‘City Limit – Reduce Speed.’ It doesn’t say down to what.Mostly it’s up to the rider to ride according to the conditions within his or her own ability. Sometimes a brilliant road will suddenly become a 10m stretch of gravel, with no warning sign (at least not in English).  And then,  there’s other things you will routinely encounter on roads along the way: Stray dogs. Chickens. Water buffalo. Elephants. 

But the biggest hazard is other motorists and, on a serious note, the fatality rates in Thailand are extremely high; unlicensed drivers and riders, drunk driving, buses overtaking cars which are overtaking trucks who are passing a scooter on a blind rise round a sharp mountain corner on a single-laned road.

Which is probably why many opt for off-road riding as a better alternative.

 One of the most endearing things – and this says a lot about amazing northern Thailand and its people – is the amount of times I’ve had my bike fixed for free. Several times I’ve pulled into a bike shop en route up-country to have, say, my chain tightened. They put it up on the blocks, a couple of guys spend 10 or 15 minutes tightening it, then wave you on your way; no charge. ‘No, no, I just help you,’ they say. I insist on tipping them 20 or 40 baht. Another time I had a new brake light put into my BMW. Parts and labour 30 baht. (This is NOT at the official dealership by the way!).

So what are you waiting for? Mount up and enjoy Lanna.


Touring and rental companies Chiang Mai
Asian Motorcycle Adventures

Mr Mechanic (off-road tours)
4 Soi 5 Moon Muang Road, 053-214-708

Thai Bike Voyage (BMW’s)
97 Moo 5, San Kamphaeng, 053-115-802;

Tony’s Big Bikes
17 Ratchamanka Rd, 085-107-2893;

Touring and rental companies, Chiang Rai:

TS Motor
527/5-6 Banphaprakan Rd, 053713652;

Enduro Thailand (off-road tours)
535 Moo 16, Soi Den Haa 9 / 1, T. Robwiang;

Rental Shop Pai:

JJ Offroad Rentals
100/1 Chaisongkram Rd, Pai, 089-560-0613

Thursday 20 January 2011

The Man in Black ...

Your scribe feeling too freaked out to be horny.
Sorry to all my loyal readers who think this story is about Johnny Cash ...

Rather, this is about Thawan Duchanee. And the 30 Gothic black houses he has built in Chiang Rai called Baan Dam (meaning Black House, and absolutely nothing to do with Jean-Claude Baan Dam). OK, I'm going to need you to work with me here as I explain.

Around 36 years ago, Chiang Rai artist Thawan -- whose looks could easily be mistaken for Ho Chi Minh -- had a dream. Apparently it was about clouds and snakes and wild horned beasts with large tusks. So he set about building all these elements into a soaring Thai-style house in the bushland on the road from Chiang Rai to Mae Chan. It's main theme was black. With a little more black on top of that. And surrounded by a bit more black for good measure.

Imagine a tattooist's favourite recurring Gothic nightmare. Imagine Piccasso's famously turbulent anti-war painting La Guernica. Now slam the two together and you have Ban Dam. Jing jing!

 He built the first house which caused quite a stir. So he built another. And another. And another. With the aim now of completing 42 of these edifices whose jagged black roof-lines appear starkly above the tree-line.

The elaborate roof of just one of the out-buildings
I mean, these are BIG houses. The main hall of just one of them is probably 50m long and, gosh, about 40m tall. Solid teak.

The reddest of red-necks from Texas would envy his collection of bulls' horns which adorn doorways, chairs, and apparently make great coat-stands too. I don't know how else to describe it. Then there's the dinner setting made from all things bovine -- black-and-white cowskin table cloth, cow skull chairs  ... just hope that the main course is not beef.

Detail from a nicely understated lounge suite
Then down the bottom of the huge complex there's what looks like a big black pig lying down. It's eyes are large portholes, through which you get a glimpse of sir's master bedroom. Well, bugger me, if that's not an S&M dungeon my name's Snow White.

It has to be seen to believed is the usual cliche. But I've seen it. And I still don't believe it ...

Footnote: Baan Dam is located on the Chiang Rai - Mae Chan Road, 18km south of Mae Chan on the left hand side as you head north, just past the Singha warehouse.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Chiang Rai eateries ... from plastic to rubber to world class

In Chiang Rai now you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Dining options in Chiang Rai at one time were limited to the plastic table shophouse set ups and American fast food outlets near the bus station. Not anymore ...

The Night Bazaar is a sound option for al fresco beer and grub, and there are a good number of casual, rustic Thai restaurants and European style eateries dotted along the main drag, Paholyothin Rd. Among these, The Old Dutch (053-714-282) is a favourite for breakfast (and lunch and dinner, etc) blow-outs, while Da Vinci’s (053-752-535) is a good bet for pizzas and pastas.

Otherwise, the wacky and wonderful Cabbages and Condoms (053-719-167) restaurant stands right next to the Hill Tribe Museum with its clever condom-fringed furnishings and decorations (I'm talking about the restaurant now, not the museum!). Like its sister venue in Bangkok, C&C is devoted to promoting condom use to help prevent juvenile pregnancy and STDs. 

But some critics have said the food tastes a little rubbery ... jing jing!

For something a bit more touristy, the Tohngtueng Kitchen (053-756403 is quite central and puts on enchanting dance shows to accompany its northern style food in a very evocative setting. But for atmosphere (and food), few places will beat Moom Mai (053-716-416), a two-storey Lanna house with rather eclectic garden collections (Balinese fountains and crazy singing pigs anyone?), and live Thai/Western folk music nightly.

Oh, but if you ARE interested in American fast food outlets, try World Class Hamburgers (053-712-712) at the Air Force Golf Club. They are as the name says.

What's the second best beach in the world?

I was just reading where Ao Nang has been voted by Expedia as the second best beach in the world.

Ao who? Ao what? Ao where???

I don't think I've ever heard of this place, jing jing. 

So I rushed to the map and had a look. Sure enough, there it is, nestled right in along near Krabi down south near Phuket.

So I know where I'm going for my next beach holiday.

See you there?


Monday 17 January 2011

You'll go nuts for this ...

Khun Noi dishes up another dollop of ice cream.
In Chiang Rai recently, everybody was raving -- voluntarily, unpaid, with no sign of a gun at their head -- about the coconut ice-cream shop.

So I headed out on the road from town to the popular hot springs along the Kok River. It's hard to spot ... just a small shop on the corner with shiny steel milk barrels out the front. All the signs are in Thai and Chinese (Khun Noi's husband, slaving away there over freezing ice-cream, is Chinese).

Khun Noi serves from a small makeshift wooden-faced cart in the store, and they make only one flavour – coconut. One flavour, that's it, take it or leave it, jing jing.

You then add your choice of nuts, jelly, lollies, raisins, etc to customize it. Served in a cup or cone for just 15 baht. And obviously plenty of people choose to take it because they get through 200kg of ice-cream every day.

It tastes sooooooooo good. I finished one cup, and promptly ordered and ate a second. If you develop an addiction, you can order by the barrel as they also wholesale to hotels throughout Lanna area.   

If you can't find the shop, give them a call on 053-600-753. But be prepared to speak Thai or Chinese.

Don's pain-steaking work ...

The menu at Don's ... great, um, side dishes!
I love stumbling across a great story of human spirit, and here's one that'll melt your heart ...

Don was a rocket scientist. No, really, with NASA and everything, working on all their main space programs including the Gemini missions, Apollo program, etc.

Then he moved to central Thailand and set up a factory doing something unique with steel and some of the innovative technology he'd pioneered over the years in NASA. But come the big Asian meltdown in 1997 (the 'Tom Yum Goong Crisis' as it's called locally), his business crashed and burned on re-entry.

So Don moved to Phuket. And amazingly took many of his factory workers with him. And retrained them. To cook farang food. And serve. And he soon built up a successful steak house. Jing jing!

Don's Cafe, near Nai Harn Beach, also dishes up ribs, pizza, burgers and spaghetti. Then he set up a factory processing and wholesaling meat, sausages and pastries. Then he set up restaurants in Bangkok, Kunming (China), and Chiang Rai, situated on a fish pond just out of town.

Don's Cafe, on Golden Pond, Chiang Rai.
I tried the 200g ribeye recently. Wow! Tender.190 baht. That's less than 7 bucks. Wow! Cheap.

They say you don't have to be a rocket scientist to succeed in the food business. But clearly it helps ...

Chinese Laundry ...

It's a 2-in-1 service ... laundry and dry cleaning!  Doi Mae Salong, Chiang Rai.

Monday 10 January 2011

Where the streets are paved with gold ...

Chiang Rai to me is a fairly unremarkable city. In all ways but three ...

1/ The Clock Tower
2/ The Bridge over the River Kok
3/ The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)

And what links all of the above is one man, successful local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. (Imagine playing Scrabble and landing that name on a triple word score!). He must surely be Chiang Rai's favourite son. He has essentially donated these elaborate -- Oh, Buddha, elaborate doesn't come close to describing his over-ornate works -- to his home city.

They make Versace's gaudy designs look like the work of a Zen minimalist, jing jing.

The Clock Tower is like a golden flame in the middle of the main street, Thanalai. The bridge's golden staffs look like the lampposts caught fire. And the temple's quirky whiteness throughout looks like they just had three foot of powder snow dump on Chiang Rai last night.

To the point one might possibly suspect white powder of sorts was involved in the conception of these amazing designs.

They must be seen to be believed. Especially the Clock Tower when it stages its nightly light-and-sound show at 7, 8 and 9pm.

Pink elephants on the Kok River

"The skipper of the boat only has one arm. And one eye," says Roger, an American I'd met in Chiang Rai through a mutual friend. "Oh, and he's running late because he's been up at the Lahu village smoking opium all night."

Is it too late to back out??? Unfortunately I've already committed to a day trip on Roger's long-tail boat buzzing up the 130km Kok River from Chiang Rai city past Thaton on the Burma border. There's no going back now ...

The Kok River (no sniggering please) is flowing pretty strongly as we load essential supplies (life jackets, Doritos and a bottle of Penfold's Bin 2 shiraz) onto 'The Royal Princess'. The pointy-as-a-pencil vessel is so named because the Royal daughter did in fact cruise on this very boat many years ago. Roger shows me photos. Since then it was allowed to fall into disrepair and was rotting away in a garage until Roger espied it, bought it, and restored it.

It is now resplendent in the colours of the Thai flag, and back to original condition. All with the exception of the original seat and cushion which now serves as an altar in the skipper Sadek's house and is resolutely not for sale.

Throw cushions serve to pad the basic wooden benches as the 2.5 litre Toyota 16-valve donk drives us throatily upstream.

The countryside, primary jungle and teak forest for the most part, is the kind of wild countryside preferred by Hollywood directors looking for a Vietnam War movie location. After an hour we are heading for what look like half-submerged grey rocks. Lookout Sadek! On closer inspection they're half-submerged elephants.(I wonder if Sadek is seeing them as grey or pink ones?)

Many tourists to Chiang Rai come to this elephant camp at the Karen tribal village of Ruammit. Here they used to work the elephants in logging the forests. Now the elephants contentedly splash around in the water, lugging tourists -- whose weight they hardly feel -- along on their backs.

The second part of most tourists' day-trip is usually to the waterfalls and hot springs, which appear soon on our left, where you can enjoy some natural hydrotherapy, a massage, and a meal.

A meal of a different sort is being prepared just around the corner. A group of villagers have a dog spit-roasting over a fire. Jing jing! None for me thanks, I'll just, er, nibble on these Doritos.

We do however pull up at a bridge for lunch, and Sadek adeptly hops out, pulls the boat in, and secures it with a rope and several knots, all with his one good arm. The beef noodles run us 25 baht a bowl and should be Michelin-rated.

We pass the village where Sadek passed the previous night so blissfully. There are other small Akkha and Lahu villages. The water gets choppier. Some serious rapids froth with fury. Sadek picks his line (which is better than picking his nose, I guess).

Burmese-style temple on the river bank
Wow! A massive 3-pointed Burmese style temple looms out of the jungle. Bamboo, kingfishers and water buffalo aplenty mark our passage westward to the rather quaint town of Thaton.

Here, the Thaton Chalet hotel adjacent the big bridge looks more like a slice of Cambridge. And a rather eccentric Kiwi schoolteacher sells ice-creams at a cafe. Oranges and mangoes from nearby farms are presented for sale in stall after stall.

An incredible number of behemoth Buddhist figures and intricate temples and stupas dot the looming mountains. About a kilometre further there is a simple rope strung across the river. "Antalai! Antalai!" calls out border guard Det Nong from the shore. Danger! Danger!

We have reached the 3km No Man's Land which marks the border between Thailand and Burma. We're tempted to go further but are not permitted to pass. "Boom, boom, boom!" Det Nong graphically illustrates machine gun fire if we push on further. I spy a Burmese army post on the hilltop nearby.

Sagely, we go ashore, and savour the Bin 2 while marvelling that here we are at the very end of Thailand, where the Kok River has its source in the turbulent Shan States beyond.

A great day trip, with great wildlife and a few hairy moments. But all in all, pretty armless. Sorry, harmless.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Amazing Thailand amazes everybody differently

A different style of tuk tuk in Chiang Keam
Over this festive season I've had friends, children and even my mother visiting me in Thailand.

I'm not sure if they call Thailand the Land of Smiles because the Thai people smile so much or because the happy travellers here smile so much..

But one thing I've noticed is this: I was able to devise a completely different itinerary for all 3 types of visitors, take them to different attractions, show them different places ... but all with the same satisfied result.

Thailand amazes people in different ways, but rest assured, you WILL be amazed. Jing jing!

Agoda's New Year New Deals for Thailand

OK, so you've just returned from Amazing Thailand and had the time of your life. So much so, you can't wait to hop on the plane and head straight back there ...

Luckily Agoda's got some deals of a lifetime on hotels and resorts all over Thailand.

Some of these deals are so good they pay you to stay there, jing jing.

So now you have no excuse. Check out their specials (click on title above) and hop on the plane back here ...