Monday 28 February 2011

A boutique hotel you might prefer ...

If you like peace and quiet ...
The Preferred Hotel Group holds annual awards for its rapidly growing global portfolio of properties annually, nominating outstanding properties based on general excellence, customer service, and guest satisfaction. 

We now cross live to the presentation ceremony ...

"Ladies and gentlemen, and assembled members of the third gender, it gives me great pleasure to announce that the winner of the Preferred Boutique Resort of the Year is the Andara Resort and Villas, Phuket."

Bigger than my living room at home
[Pause for thunderous applause ...]

"The citation reads: Named the 'Best Villa and Condo Development' by the Thailand Property Awards since opening in February 2010, the resort is impressive from its design, location, spatial accommodations, facilities to its service. The feeling of Asian fusion with luxury global ambience is present in an understated manner. Developed by visionary Alan Zeman, one of Hong Kong's best known entrepreneurs, Andara Phuket is truly a landmark in Phuket setting a new level of luxury in Phuket and Asia."

Never mind the length, you can swim widths!
Gosh, that gushes almost like a press release, jing jing! 

Oh, it was a press release! Nevermind,  now you have another top notch boutique property to consider for your next trip to Phuket ...

More, more, encore:

A date to remember ... Elephant Polo Festival 2011

Elephant polo can be a head-to-head battle, literally.
They say an elephant never forgets. I don't know why or how that expression came about, but here's something that you will never forget ... watching your first elephant polo tournament.

(This reminds me of the joke about the Irish polo team -- sadly their horses drowned!)

The highly popular King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this year and will return to where it started in 2001: the royal seaside town of Hua Hin.  Over the recent years it has been staged at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort.

Picture if you will -- or if you can -- two teams of tuskers going head to head, egged on by their mahouts, with the players wielding super-long polo mallets and trying to strike the ball downfield into the opposition's goal. The things people will do in the name of charity (and Gins and Tonics!)

Having played a chukka or two of this over the years, it's adrenaline inducing to be in charge of several tons of mammoth mammal as it pounds its way down the field. 

You end up with inner thighs chafed raw, blistered hands, plus a raging headache -- and that's just from the sponsor's party, jing jing.

12 teams from four continents, encompassing 40 players from at least 15 countries take part in this week-long ele-festival. Talk about a jumbo-sized spectacle. And all the proceeds go to benefitting Asian elephants, so it's a good laugh for a good cause.

For more info, see

PS: Oops - forget to tell you the dates: September 5 to September 11 2011

Thursday 24 February 2011

A rash of new hotels in Bangkok

Can someone please tell me what's going on?

Just when you thought there were enough 4 and 5-star hotels in Bangkok, there has been a sudden rash (probably a poor choice of words in Bangkok, sorry!) of quality new ones opening all at the same.

There are at least six new ones, jing jing. So now you are really spoiled for choice. Some of the major ones to open their doors around this time include:

Novotel Silom Fenix 
Siam Kempinski 
Four Points by Sheraton 
Hotel Muse
Hansar Bangkok
St Regis Bangkok

I hope to bring you reviews of these within the next couple of weeks, after I do my sneaky mystery guest inspection of their pool bars, spas and mini-bars, so do check back for details on which is really worth staying at.

Footnote: Don't forget you can always search Thailand Jing Jing by destination or category to find exactly what you want to make the most of your travel to Thailand. Just go to and search

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Tea for Thailand.

When part of Chiang Kai Shek’s defeated Chinese army needed a place of refuge back in the late 1940s, they were allowed to settle in the northern hills of Chiang Rai province. 

Today they grow the best tea in the country (if not the region); a wide variety of Chinese greens, oolongs, and herbal varieties. 

It’s worth a visit up Doi Mae Salong to see their colourful, Chinese-influenced way of life, and of course to stock up on rare aged pu-erh and fragrant jasmine teas. The sweeping views of the fields in bloom are pure magic.

And you can spend a whole day tea-shop hopping, as the tea buffs pour out their knowledge as well as their product.

One connoisseur tells me no you mustn't let the leaves soak for 3 minutes. Another says you never drink the 'first pour' you must rinse the dirty leaves first and then drink. Others insist I plant my large Western beak firmly into the leaves to savour the aroma.of about 50 different types before I choose. 

They all smell the same to me, jing jing. Sort of like, well, dried leaves really!

But if you can't make it there, many teahouses across Thailand can fix you a soothing cuppa. Three of my favourites for atmosphere include:

Raming Tea House Siam Celadon, Chiang Mai ( Located in a fine old teak building (nearly 100 years old now), this tea house basks in Siamese nostalgia and earthenware.Despite being in the busy Tha Pae Road area, it allows you to wallow in its quiet garden atmosphere, in something of a time warp as you sip your cuppa or enjoy a healthy light meal.

Namcha Samui Tea House, Koh Samui ( Utterly charming, this new tea house in Fisherman's Village captures the tea-drinking experiences of China, Japan, England and Africa (the latter being the home of rooibos) in four separate corners. So chic you'd think you were in London, Paris or New York but with Samui casualness. Healthy wraps and rolls are a big hit too. 

Agalico Tea House, Sukhumvit Soi 51, Bangkok ( Designed by one of Thailand's foremost landscapers, ML Poomchai's idea here seems to be to transport people back to the Great Age of Travel ... think Somersert Maugham and Joseph Conrad ... with its white-on-white rattan sofas, hanging bird cages, and tropical gardens. Oh, and they serve a damn fine cup of European style tea too.

Mountains of coffee ...

A cool new cafe in Nan which hasn't even opened yet.
How could there be any better place in the world to enjoy cafe culture than northern Thailand, where a lot of the freshest grinds are actually growing on the hillsides nearby to many of these uber-chic cafes? 

Household coffee brands in Thailand like Doi Chang, Doi Tung and Wawee are all named for mountains in the north here.

With its small lanes, huge student population, easygoing attitudes and plethora of small, family-run spots to grab a bite and a fine cup of java, Chiang Mai is the perfect place to sit and watch people go by while chatting with old friends or making new ones.

One lane off of Nimmanhaemin Road (Soi 9) is known as ‘Soi Kafe’ by locals, jing jing. 

I imagine it to be redolent of parts of old Asia when opium was at its peak, with ubiquitous dimly lit dens. Instead it’s side-by-side coffeehouses ... a caffeine addict's dream.

Now you can have your cake, and eat it too.
Chiang Rai is following similarly, now developing a bona fide cafe culture as it comes of age with a bit more boho chic. 

As for Pai, well, it’s The Chilling Fields already, and Nan is rapidly gaining in the cool cafe stakes, as I've blogged recently.

So no need to pack the large bottle of Nescafe 43 beans when you travel to Thailand. We've got mountains of coffee here.

Friday 18 February 2011

Is Novotel Suvarnabhumi Bangkok Airport hotel the largest hotel lobby in the world?

Here are some numbers that'll put your head in the clouds ...

The rather new Novotel Suvannabum Soufarnapoom Suvarnabhumi hotel boasts the largest lobby of any hotel in the world. Not just of any Bangkok hotel, we're talking worldwide.

Its two buildings covering 10.5 hectares are joined by a HUMONGOUS glass atrium soaring to five stories in height.

The lobby itself covers 2,800 square metres, jing jing. That's roughly half a football field!

The bad news is guests have to bring a tent and camp there. Not a bad idea, but no ... I jest. The hotel's charming PR lady tells me that actually the hotel has rooms ... 612 of them, in fact.

Perfect if you need to be close to the airport ... or at least within 10.5 hectares of it. And don't forget with the new Airport Link (that's the new Bangkok airport train), you can be downtown in air-conditioned comfort within 17 minutes for less than 100 baht.


Monday 14 February 2011

Pai in the Sky with Diamonds ...

Too much weed can do this to you (that's the last straw ...)
Few places have such a strong sense of place as Pai does.

Sometimes it calls itself Pailand. Every shop is Pai Something, or Something Pai. And it does an amazing line in kitsch and cutesy souvenirs. But they're invariably one-offs or limited hand-made editions, not mass-produced low-grade Chinese nonsense.

Kombis are worshipped deities here.
VW Kombis are afforded hero status here, venerated as footballers might be in other parts of the world. Vespas run a close second.

So you can't help love the place for that retro hippie chic. Think of it as Thailand's answer to Nimbin (the dreadlock-and-dope capital of Australia), where there's an overdose of love hearts and rainbows and marmalade skies.

Pailand is about 150km from Chiang Mai, although the distance is deceptive because it can only be accessed by the most serpentine of roads through alpine coniferous forests. Some people never find their way out of the place. They arrive as young bucks and leave as old men.

It was a firm favourite on the hippie trail for many a year, cruising along in a cloud of blue smoke of its own making, with endless Eden-like vistas of rice fields and misty mountains. Then came a couple of movies -- Pai in Love and Ruk Jung -- that thrust it into national prominence.

Suddenly the odd clapped-out Kombi was supplemented by hordes of mini-buses, with hotels, resorts, cafes and restaurants sprouting like magic mushrooms. And a nightly walking street market, where all the kitschery mentioned above is for sale.

I'm not gonna take it lying down ...
Now there are Moroccan-styled chill lounges like Pai Post. And of course no place like this would be complete without good places for munchies, and the Lonely Planet rates Almido's Pizzas the best in Thailand, jing jing.

Er, the post orifice is on this side of the box.
Midnight Oil once had a hit with a song called 'Place Without a Postcard'. Clearly that place was not Pai. I don't think the largest philatelic museum in the world has as many postcards as are sold on a daily basis in Pai. Because part of the rite here is to send a postcard, thanks to Pai in Love in which love letters are regularly exchanged.

So in addition to the Kombi van, the red English-style postbox is another icon now accorded hero status. With the post code 58310 emblazoned everywhere.

Perhaps they should make a sit-com next, and call it Pai Hills 58310. Or American Pai.

Pai High ... 3 of the best hotels in Pai

Fancy getting away to Pai but don't see yourself bunking in the commune with the Khao San Road set? Fear not.

Pai has gentrified significantly of late, so you can separate yourself from the great unwashed, and sleep in style at a number of places, jing jing ...

The Quarter ( Here you are more likely to find yourself breakfasting with a group of Thai-Chinese captains of industry from Bangkok, and their wives. A lovely oasis feeling within just a 200 metre walk of the night market. Rustic Thai villa feeling to the rooms with lots of nice heavy wood used and Thai fabrics, but with all the mod cons included. Lovely pool area to chill (although you might wait a while for a beer at sunset ... service runs on Pai time mostly).

The also have the Rain Spa on premises if you need the usual indulgence. Location is the strong suit of this hotel. You're right in the thick of it here.

Phu Pai Art Resort ( Just look at the photo ... who wouldn't want to be lying there right now, gazing over the rice fields to the mountains? A superb valley location, down through the very Thai outskirts of Pai town. Charming service here. Why it's called Art Resort, no one seems quite sure, but there are a couple of paintings in the lobby. The waitress pointed to the banana leaf roofing as proof of 'art'. Anyway, young couples parade around the pool and enjoy individual villas around the padi fields. This is part of a lovely stable of evocative Thai resorts in major destinations.

The Montis ( The newest of the breed, the Montis has quickly become a favourite for fashion shoots because of its exotic Moroccan styling and faux-African safari feel. It's located a few kilometres from town, on the main road back to Chiang Mai. Views not as good as Phu Pai, but a very chic setting. Designed by a Bangkok-based architect, this is a one-off so far, although the owner might be thinking of adding a Chiang Mai property to his stable, according to one hotel staffer.

The Grand Whoop Whoop Spa and Resort ...

The Wild Times keep rolling for John Spies
When the owner of the hotel serves your morning coffee in a mug that reads 'The World's Greatest Pervert' you know you're not staying at the Grand Hyatt.

But such is the down-to-earth tone at Cave Lodge (, owned and run by John Spies and his wife Nung. Apart from being the hotel's GM, he's the maitre d', the gardener,  bar-tender, and driver, too.

Perched up on a hill overlooking the Pai River in Pang Ma Pa, Spies set up this popular backpacker haunt in the mid 80s.  "We trekked all over northern Thailand, saw this spot and said 'This is it'," the avid trekker tells me over a beer Singha in between serving happy hour cold ones to guests with a myriad of international accents.

"The people, the culture, the river ... the caves -- we knew the caves were going to be huge." Cave Lodge is, not surprisingly, perched just a few hundred metres from massive limestone caves dating back millions of years. There's Lod Cave, Tukata Cave and Coffin Cave. And many, many others off limits to tourists.

John's knowledge of these cavernous attractions is second to none. He's even shown members of the Thai Royal family through here (although I doubt the he gave the Princess the same mug).

The valley where gibbons and backpackers make whoopee
The cabins themselves are comfortable and clean with proper sit down toilets and everything, and balconies that look down to the gurgling river, where the whoop-whoop-whoop of garrulous gibbons can be heard most mornings (and the whoop-whoop-whoop of amorous French backpackers can be heard heard most nights through the thin bamboo walls.)

Breakfast, lunch and dinner, the kitchens are kept busy building up and replacing energy lost by the strenuous activities of the day: Trekking the mountains. Visiting remote hill-tribe villages (in this border region, many are Shan, but there are also Lahu tribes folks cultivating these mountains), and of course caving. A special Cavers Breakfast, including eggs and fresh crusty homemade-bread, is available.

Shortly after, this lobby furniture was used for firewood ...
And the Cavers Dinner seems to be beer, beer, and more beer. Amiable laughter around the campfire, which roars inside the main bamboo-and-wooden building (just next to the No Smoking sign).

John tells me the resort has only burned down once before, jing jing.

Keeping the lodge supplied is a full-time job in itself, with John and Nung driving to Chiang Mai once every 10-14 days to resupply. "I must have done that trip about 6 or 700 times ... I could do it with my eyes closed." (With precipitous gorges and few safety railings, probably not advisable for those readers considering trying this themselves.) Still, the drives better these days. Before about 1990 when the tar road went in, it was a 10-hour drive in his "decrepit" Land Rover. Now it's about 3 or 3.5. That's good going on the notoriously windy road.

Rooms cost about 500-700 baht in the high season, with dormitory accommodation available, too.

There's also complimentary use of the rustic herbal steam sauna out the back, replete with special Shan herbs.

You can't get that at the Grand Hyatt.

The Ultimate Caffeine Trip ...

Pai Now cafe made the town of Pai famous ...
I just did Route 1095 from Chiang Mai to Pai and Mae Hong Son, and may I suggest that the 280km road hereinafter ever be known as 'The Caffeine Corridor'.

You see the curving, meandering, side-winding road has around 1100 curves in it, and -- by my unofficial count -- conservatively about one coffee shop per corner.

But what's great is there is not a Starbucks in sight. All these are home-grown coffee shops. Real cafes. Usually with charm. And art. And a smile. And, most importantly, coffee to keep you alert along the often precipitous route.

My favourite is probably Pankled, which is only about 50km or so out of Chiang Mai near the Mork Fah waterfall turn-off. A love swing seat. Acres of landscaped lawns. Paper umbrellas. Original silk-screen prints hanging in the toilets.

Then you get to the hill just before Pai and there are at least 20 coffee places perched on the hill, the most famous being Coffee in Love. Little known fact: You are not allowed in to the town of Pai unless you can show them digital photographic proof that you have stopped and taken a cheesy or cutesy photo there. Really: there are military roadblocks to enforce this, jing jing.

In Pai itself, Pai Now is the most famous coffee shop. In fact, you could say that that coffee shop spawned the town because of it's appearance in the Thai movie Pai in Love. Of course there are hundreds of imitators all over the place.

By now, your hands are already shaking violently, eyeballs popping and threatening to spring from their sockets.

Then every Ma and Pa shop on the way to Mae Hong Song dishes up coffee, coffee, and more coffee, all grown in the nearby northern Thailand tablelands of course.

It's Gonzo travel with a difference. Great trip, man!

Problem is, I won't be coming down for at least a week ...

Is this the shortest address in the world?

I had the pleasure of meeting one of the nicest people ever to be on a murder charge yesterday: John Spiers.

John arrived in Thailand on his way from Australia to Europe in 1977, and never left.

He trekked deep into the jungled hills of northern Thailand, came across Pang Ma Pha near the Burma border (or Myanmar depending on your political leaning), and that was it. He set up Cave Lodge where he shares his love of this region, its mountains, caves, and rivers, with guests from all over the world.

A friend of his sent him this letter recently. The post office in Australia of course told him there was insufficient information; it would never arrive.

But the letter did arrive, jing jing! 

"Well, I am the only farang in this post code," blonde-haired John laughs. "So they all know me."

Which reminds me of the legendary status of Jim Thompson, who built up Thailand's silk industry in the early 60s. He was such a well known figure in Bangkok at that time, that a letter marked 'Jim Thompson, Bangkok,' reached him.

I tried this recently, enclosing a letter to the Jim Thompson company, but got no response. So I guess Bangkok -- with about 10 million people -- is just a little too big now?

Which is what makes Pang Ma Pha special. Just you, some hilltribe villages, the Soppong River, and a whole lot of nature ...

Oh, about the murder charge: that was decades ago, and John was away in Chiang Mai (200km away -- or a 10 hour drive in his Land Rover) at the time, but the poor policeman had to blame someone, anyone. So it may as well have been the only farang in the postal district. Charges were duly dropped.

But you could say John has left his stamp on the place.

Is this a world record? How could anyone possibly have a shorter address than this?

Thursday 10 February 2011

A new crossing from Laos to #Thailand ...

Endless valleys like this, but keep your eyes on the road.
Route 1080 runs smoothly all the way from Nan for 138km to Huay Kon, beautifully lined by gnarled rubber trees and teak, casting dappled shadows across the road. 20km outside town is the Nan Riverside Gallery, an artful enclave of studio chalets.

The town of Pua is a fertile oasis, and Thung Chang is tidy and prosperous. Tractors chug along hauling bales of hay. Then around Ban Pon the road begins to wriggle and twist up the mountains, presenting beautiful vistas both sides of the ridge.

I've come here to check out Huay Kon, site of a new Thai-Laos border crossing, just opened.

Huay Kon itself is something of a disappointment (I may have used a stronger word at the time!). It’s a non-descript Thai village with a few houses clinging to the hillside, sleeping dogs, and chickens crossing the road in time-honoured fashion.

Khun Sawat: still waiting for his Michelin Hat.
But a bowl of Khun Sawat’s kanom jeen noodles proves to be a hearty 25 baht refueling, with smiles and witty banter thrown in for free. Sawat speaks Thai and Laos, and confirms that more Laotians seem to be coming here now.

The new land crossing is 6km north, off the 1080. I often sing the praises of the roads in northern Thailand, but not today. Oh no! This motley stop-start affair of tar, gravel, ruts and ridges is enough to put off all but the most determined, jing jing.

Finally we reach the border, an ornate gateway with flags aflutter. Trucks and cars are parked here and there. Minibuses decant their human payloads. Half a dozen adventure motorcyclists. Noodles, coffee and tyre shops. And red dust.

Trucks bringing in teak - and what else??? - from Laos
As a border town, Tijuana it ain’t!

One Thai lady I speak to is on her way to work as an accountant in Luang Prabang. Many of the men are truck drivers, hauling pre-cut teak timber from Laos to Thailand. The European motorcyclists are kicking up a fuss because their paperwork is not in order. Two of them are sent back, before the rest are hastily summoned by the Thai immigration officer in brown (with gold medals glinting) to get going because the Laos side is going to close.

I idly wonder whether, if I came back here in 10 years, Huay Kon is going to be souvenir row, with stalls and stalls selling I Love Thailand trinkets, T-shirts, copy watches and Viagra? Maybe then Khun Sawat will have a whole chain of kanom jeen noodle shops doing flourishing business. And maybe then this place will be far too busy for dogs to sleep on the road anymore.

Only time will tell.

Useful travel information:
Nan Immigration checkpoint: open 0800-1700 daily (note: no entry to Laos after 1600).
Nan to Huay Kon: approx 2-2.5 hours via minibus, approx 3000 baht per trip (up to 8 people). Tel: Khun Mon 087-175-7377
From Huay Kon to Nan/ Phrae: 2 minibuses leave the border checkpoint each morning. One minibus at 4pm. For Chiang Mai service, change at Nan.
Nan to Chiang Mai: approx 6 hours via song taew van, approx 4000 baht. Tel: Khun Nai 081-764-8987

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Nan, the new Middle City - again.

Cars haven't been invented in Nan yet ...
There has been a lot of chatter of Thailand’s Nan becoming ‘the new Pai’, referring to the latter engaging – albeit somewhat over-touristed – hillside getaway in Mae Hong Son. But could the views be as beautiful? Could the people be as warm? Could the city possibly be as charming?

To my delight, yes, Yes, and YES.

Everywhere in the northern provincial capital finishing touches are being put on a new boutique hotel, or a cool café, restaurant, or market. Nan is clearly enjoying a renaissance.

You see, Nan has had an on again-off again history. By the 1500s it was one of the major Thai-Lao principalities forming the fabled Lanna Kingdom. And in the 1600s Nan became known as Chiang Klang, meaning ‘Middle City’, because it was roughly half way between the other powerhouses of the day, Chiang Mai and Chiang Thong (better known these days as Luang Prabang).

Wat Suan Tan: it's seen some changes since 1449
This heritage is clearly evident with a half kilometre of the battlemented old city wall still intact, and several distinctive Lanna-style wats, like Wat Suan Tan, dominating downtown. “It’s the best maintained town of Lanna culture left, because it was so inaccessible in the past, and less corrupted by outside influence,” a friend had ventured. Judging by the number of teak-wood houses with criss-cross galae motifs on their roofs, he is right.

Many developments in town leverage that quaint heritage, such as the 75-year-old Pukha Nanfa Hotel which stands in newly refurbished golden teakwood splendour, or the Jan Taeng Guesthouse, and little cafes like Nan Seeing Tour café with old bicycles out the front, and pockets of hanging flower baskets. Suddenly everything old is new again. And cool restaurants are blooming everywhere, like the minimalist Just Jazz, run by a couple who left Chiang Mai. 

Jan Taeng's airport limousine service waits you ...
“The rents here are about one quarter of Chiang Mai,” they explain. Jing Jing!

But all of that might change with the recent opening of the new Thai-Laos border crossing at Huay Kon, 138km north. Suddenly, Nan is the middle city gateway, again.

Nan is in pole position to capitalize on this new flow between Thailand, Laos and China. Stylish new hotels like the Nan Boutique Hotel are already running full, contemporary Kad Nan draws a crowd, and beer gardens like Na Na and nightclubs like Channel X and Fifth are already partying late into the night in anticipation of much better times ahead.

“Nan is pure,” says Khun Nine at the Nan Boutique Hotel, originally from Uttaradit then Chiang Mai. “Nan is real, not fake. If somebody smiles here, they are really smiling.”

I see this not so much as the new Pai, but as the renascent Nan.