Wednesday 12 December 2012

Rubs that tug ... at the heart and soul (AsiaSpa Awards 2012)

Take a second to just think of the collective aromatic whiff of a whole [insert collective noun here]* of 350 spa operators and health and wellness resorts gathering in one hotel ballroom for AsiaSpa magazine's 8th annual AsiaSpa Awards for 2012. What would dominate? Lemongrass. Ylang Ylang. Lavendar. No, you're right ... fine French bubbly.

With a record number of entries this year, the competition for the coveted trophies was fierce, but being the shiny-skin-scrubbed, colon-irrigated, positive-kharmic, chakra-aligned crowd that they are, of course it's all smiles and pleasantry and bon homie. Not like the Oscars with their supercilious 'congratulations, you bitch' plasticity.

But one table that smiled the most. And increasingly as the night went on. That was the Thailand table. Why not - after all, it is THE land of smiles, isn't it?

As the awards were dished out, one to the Maldives, one to Thailand, one to some other place, another one to Thailand, some other place, Thailand ...

In all, Thai spa and wellness operators ended up the most awarded overall, with four specific product wins:
I've got a question: is there a certain closing time required to qualify as a Day Spa? Are the owners afraid to go out at night, or just too stingy to pay the electricity bill? Or is it an eco-friendly thing whereby everything runs on solar power so is no good after sunset? (Ok, that's 3 questions ...)

The Grand Prix award of the night, Asian Spa Capital of the Year, then also went to Amazing Thailand. The only real surprise to me is that Pattaya came up empty-handed ... 

Some gratuitous Titiporn ...
Titiporn (gotta love that name!) Manenate, Director of TAT's Hong Kong office, positively gushed: “When the Chiva-Som Health Resort opened in Hua Hin in 1995, it broke new ground in the annals of Asia-Pacific health and wellness tourism. Ever since then, Thailand has continued to raise the bar in the quality and diversity of its spa offerings.”

All I'm going to say is I am glad there is a double 'N' in 'annals' and I'm not even going to touch 'raise the bar' ...

Titiporn added: "Thai spas blend traditional well-being therapies with relaxing massage, holistic treatments and numerous other ways to relieve and detox an overworked physical and mental system. Thai spas are becoming as popular as Thai cuisine.” I'll eat to that ...

At the end of the evening, groaning under the weight of their trophies, the triumphant Thailand contingent went off into the Hong Kong night ... in search of a good massage for their aching face muscles, the result of waaaaaay too much smelling, er, I mean, smiling.

* What would be a good collective noun for Spa, Health and Wellness operators?

I'm going to kick off with some suggestions: a SIGH of spa operators, a RUB of massage therapists, a MERIT of meditation councilors ...  What can YOU suggest here? Leave your comments below.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Damn right Thailand's got the (live) Blues!

Talking, laughing, crying, singing.

These are all emotions we normally attribute to humans. But after watching amazing blues guitarist, Boy, these are also things he can make his guitar do. Sometimes simultaneously!

Close your eyes and you could easily imagine you are at Monterey or Woodstock watching Jimi Hendrix, or even Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan

But open your eyes and you remember that you are in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In Boy Blues Bar, an open rooftop blues joint at the bustling Galare Night Market (usually known to most as 'The Night Bazaar')

Boy is a tremendously engaging performer. His shaggy hair resembles Hendrix if you've had enough Singha beers, which I had. But his cheeky grin and sheer joy of playing is infectious. What's best, if you are there on a Monday night they have an open mic jam, and you can hop up and embarrass yourself for a couple of tunes.

So when you think of Amazing Thailand for music, don't just think of Full Moon rave parties, discos, and chill lounges ... seek out some great live music, especially blues. 

Damn right Thailand got the Blues, jing jing.

Some of the best Live music bars and live blues venues in Thailand:
Boy Blues Bar, Chiang Mai.
The Blues Factory, Pattaya. 
Adhere the 13th, Bangkok

Rockin' Angels Bar, Phuket

Samui Blues, Koh Samui 

This is just a very small starting list. Please feel free to add any 

bars, pubs and live music places you think locals and tourists should check out and support. 

Tuesday 17 July 2012

TITANIC Exhibition Bangkok, Amazing Thailand

The Unsinkable Titanic ... so far, so good.
Brrrrr! I am frickin' freezing standing on the promenade deck of the Titanic, staring out at a clear starry night. A couple shuffle past me, headed to their plush first class cabin just inside the large heavy doorway. I should get out of this Arctic freezer cabinet myself ...

The experience at this exhibition is scarily realistic - too realistic! - given they have turned the air-conditioning to a ridiculously cold degree. I am sure most of will be on our deathbeds with pneumonia this time next week.

Still, our fate would be far better than the poor sods who set sail that April day exactly 100 years ago, which is why this show, officially called TITANIC; THE ARTIFACT EXHIBITION is now being staged.

Before you come aboard, you should know it is an expensive voyage at 500 baht per person. But really worth it if you want to soak yourself in the evocative and emotive side of the incident. Firstly, you are given a White Star Line boarding pass with a passenger's name on it and a few facts. So I am now Mr Benjamin Hart as I step aboard the grandest ship ever constructed (far too grand for me to afford 1st class which would cost today the equivalent of between $50-$100,000 for the trip.)

That grand staircase ...
The size and scale of the exhibition is truly impressive ... not just a few rusty things on show, rather to-scale reproductions of entire 1st and 3rd class cabin sections, the massive wooden staircase, the boiler rooms, and of course the bow section where you can do that whole Jack and Mary (Leonardo diCaprio/ Kate Winslet) 'My Heart Will Go On' thing. That Titanic theme song video by the way has already had more than 82,000,000 hits on YouTube. Celine Dion has a looooot to answer for and some have even cruelly suggested it was a pity she didn't go down on the original ship.

It starts off with a detailed overview of the painstaking hot-rivet construction process, introduces you to the key crew (including the captain who was supposed to have retired but brought back for one last hurrah before sailing off into the sunset), and then into details of the journey itself.

Did you know that the Titanic burned 850 tons of coal per day, jing jing.

Menus are reprinted. Stacks of crockery, wallets, coins, jewellery all robotically retrieved from miles under the surface are on show. Ice warnings from other ships in the area rebroadcast and strangely ignored, as the Titanic sailed on at virtually full speed as other ships told of how they were stopped and surrounded by ice floes. (Or perhaps it's not that strange when the skipper is being feted with the finest champagnes on account of another successful crossing even though they were two days' sailing out of New York still).

This, folks, is the actual iceberg that did the damage.
You can even touch an iceberg. Yes it's real, and frozen, but they explain that the seawater that night was even colder because salt water freezes at a lower point. Bet you didn't know that! So most people drowned not from, er, drowning, but from hypothermia.

The cruel fate of several passengers is spelled out. I, Mr Hart, for example was a talented builder travelling with my wife, Esther, and seven year old daughter, Eve. I had packed up my family and was heading for Canada to get a job in the booming town of Manitoba to get out of the financially-strapped problems I had found myself in back in Essex, England.

Poor Esther had misgivings about this ship and stayed up each night concerned for us, then slept through the day.

Feel for Frederick Goodwin though, who was on board with his family including six kids. They were booked on another liner, but their booking was changed over to put them on the Titanic instead. None of them survived.

Apart from sadness and melancholy, I emerge into the 34-degree celsius Bangkok afternoon feeling a little angry. Angry at the ineptitude of things. How, for instance, when the ship had taken 3 years to build, had the two lookouts been too busy to remember to pack simple equipment such as binoculars. Pretty simply thing, really.

Row, row, row your boat ...
And although the original plan had allowed for 32 lifeboats, this had been whittled down to just 20 for better aesthetics on the deck. Even this number was above the legal requirement but still woefully short as there was really only provision for about half of all the passengers anyway. This was not helped by the fact that the first 7 boats launched virtually empty carrying only 160 passengers out of a possible capacity of 430. And the menfolk stood around the decks desperately puffing away on their cigars while the orchestra played 'Nearer My God to Thee' (the final request of the conductor himself who'd always wanted that song to be played at his funeral).

As for me, Benjamin Hart? I never lived to tell this tale.

The Titanic 100th Anniversary Exhibition 1912-2012 is on at CentralWorld Live, CentralWorld, 8th Floor, Bangkok (get off at Siam or Chitlom BTS stations) from 10am-10pm daily until September 02, 2012. Tickets at the door or from Thai Ticket Major.

Thursday 12 July 2012

All stand (still) for The Royal Anthem Thailand

The Royal Family is venerated in Amazing Thailand, and rightly so, the King and Queen are not only the longest reigning monarchs in the world, jing jing, but they have done untold great things for this country and its people. Just last month he celebrated 66 years on the throne, a world record.

In just about every office you will see pictures of the King and Queen in the lobby, even giant posters several stories tall outside office buildings in Bangkok.

Travellers should also be aware that the Royal Anthem is played often at 8am and 6pm daily. You will notice that Thais will stop dead in their tracks and listen quietly and attentively while it plays for a couple of minutes. You are expected to do the same (just yesterday, it was quite funny to watch those tourists who were not in the loop wandering about and wondering why suddenly everyone has frozen stiff in the spot where they were).

If you go to a movie in Thailand - and the cinemas in Bangkok, Samui, Phuket, Pattaya, etc are excellent and cheap and play new release* movies that are on the same time schedule as the rest of the world - they will also play the anthem before the movie starts.

You should stand and listen quietly. I have seen farangs not do this, and it is openly disrespectful to local customs and to the locals who have genuine adoration for the Royals.

So if you're sitting, get off your fat ass and stand up. If you're walking, just stop where you are. And enjoy the fact that at least one country has a stately figure head who is actually worth respecting.

* Spiderman, Abraham Lincoln and The Dictator are currently showing in Bangkok cinemas and around the country.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Live Music Concerts in Bangkok Thailand

Really enjoyed myself last night watching my first real stadium concert in Bangkok, at Impact Arena.

A great gig. Oops, I should probably rephrase that ... You see, gig in Thai language refers to, well, a side project, someone in musical circles might call it. A dalliance with someone not your regular wife, husband or partner.

Anyway, this blog will not even attempt to deal with or understand the teeming hornets nest that is Thai sexual politics. No deviations on bar girls nor ladyboys this time. So back to the story...

As I blogged last time, Lady Gaga was playing here just a little while ago, and took time out to see ( and rave about) the Calypso Cabaret show. Last night's show was a little milder: Jason Mraz.

Question: how do you pronounce his name name? Is it IM-razz, Ma-razz or um-RAZZ???

Let's start with the venue. Impact is a bloody long way out of town, nowhere near any public transport. However, even in the driving rain we did manage to get a taxi to get us there in just 45 minutes for less than 400 baht (how far would a $13 cab fare get you in your country?).

Thais love a good party, and the convivial atmosphere was tangible an hour enforce the show. And everywhere, the beautiful people on parade. Spray-on tight jeans here, jaunty hat there. Crazy teetering heels everywhere. And that was just the boys, jing jing!

Pizza and fried chicken stalls did bustling business, and the Singha beer queue was literally a walk- up start ... No queue. Soon we were quaffing a very very large plastic cup of icy cold beer. I reckon it was at least a pint, which would ensure I would be carrying my partner home, she being somewhat a lightweight in the drinking stakes.

Impact is a barn of a place, which looks like most other stadiums you've ever seen which seat between 10-12,000 punters. The seats around the edge rise dramatically into the nose-bleed sections.

Personally, I like concerts which have a support band, some local guys prepared to trade off a few well-aimed tomatoes for wider exposure. It gives them a break, and warms up your ears for the main act. But it doesn't seem to be the norm here.

So as a result, my ears went from 0 to 100 in a heartbeat when the house lights dimmed and the full house screamed like it was The Beatles invading America in 1964. Having missed that tour, I have never heard anything like it.

"WE LOVE YOU JASON!!!" All night. In 5-part harmony. And then all the other Thais would get excited that someone was so excited, and reacted to that with their own laughs and screams.

Finally the MrazMan said: "I love you too," and you would've thought the girls had just won a million dollar lottery, a Mercedes Benz SL500 sports car, and experienced multiple orgasms all in one go. Over the top. Blew the lid clean off the stadium.

But all good fun. Anyone who thought Thais were a reserved lot would promptly change their mind heard the singalong to his big songs, such as I'm Yours, which served as a rousing finale.

Only his clearly-annunciated thank yous and goodbyes in Thai -- along with humble and corteous wai gestures to each corner of the room -- drew a bigger response. Gee, I'd love it if every Thai lady I ever waid gave me such a screamingly rapturous reception.

Then off into the night shuffled the crowd. We were lucky enough to bump into friends, otherwise I suspect we may still be standing there waiting for a taxi ride home. But other than the transport logistics, I really recommend you take in a Bangkok concert to capture the true emotions of Thais at play.

Now if I can just get the ringing reverberations of "We love you Jason" out of my ears ...

Where to see live music concerts Bangkok: try these websites

Impact Arena
Hua Mark Stadium (also known as Rajmangla Stadium)
Thai Ticket Major (tickets for most major music shows)

Question: what's your favorite Jason Mraz song? Alternatively, which of his songs do you hope you never ever hear again in your life?

Thursday 31 May 2012

Grand Palace Bangkok - top attraction In Amazing Thailand??

Part of the 218,000 sq metre palace complex.
Wow, I can't believe I have not blogged about the Grand Palace Bangkok before. After all it's is the biggest attraction in Bangkok; well, the most visited structure lets put it that way.

How could I have not wanted to rave about it before now ... The world's longest painting in the form of the diorama depicting the Ramayana which runs for seemingly kilometers along the inner wall of the temple complex. The intriguing story of the origins of the Jade Buddha Temple (or Emerald Buddha, depending on who is telling the story). The glinting 24 carat gold leaf on just about every surface except the floor. The millions of shards of crushed glass and crockery painstakingly placed to embellish decorative walls. And so on. And so on.

Hence my surprise that I haven't covered it before.

Whoever coined the phrase the Grand Palace was sorely underselling it. (What is the opposite of hyperbole anyway?)

I mean if a Hyatt hotel can be Grand, then surely this is Awesome, Stupendous, fantasmagorical, or The Friggin Amazing Palace, to be more colloquial. Bigger than Ben Hur. More pulling power than Lady Gaga. You get the idea ...

Speaking of which, Lady Gaga found herself embroiled in a little controversy last week -- when she landed she tweeted 'I'm in Bankok honey and gonna go the the lady market and buy a fake Rolex'. Well that's just ridiculous, Lady! What kind of town do you think this is??? Lady market? Like you can just go anywhere and buy one of their bar girls from their stock. Huh. As if. Fake Rolex? Like you can just buy pirated goods here. Huh again. As if. What kind of outdated stereotypical perceptions of Amazing Thailand you have, Your Royal Gaganess.

Buddha is in the details.
Anyway, back to the Grand Palace. The complex comprises Sri Lankan, Cambodian, Burmese and Indian temple styles, an eclectic mixture, plus the Euro-classic stylings of the king's former residence and halls, now only used for ceremonial banquets and state functions. There's even an original scale model of Angkor Wat dating back at least 200 years,showing the reverence for that temple in the Buddhist world even back then.

Any downside to being the biggest tourist attraction in Bangkok if not the biggest attraction in Thailand?

Yes, it attracts scam merchants, snake oil salesmen, touts.

Ignore the gap- toothed clown at the taxi stand telling you that foreigners must buy tickets up at the top gate. No! They are available only officially at the main central gate entrance. 400 baht per head for the temple and palace. Also ignore him when he tells you it closes at 1.30. Bullshit -- you are good till 4 pm.

My guide, Khun Tavee. Or maybe this is something from the Ramayana.
And make sure you hire a guide. Once again make sure he or she is qualified, with the appropriate badge of accreditation. A 45 minute tour should cost no more than 500 baht (for a couple).

Kuhn Tavee was a cheerful chap with plenty of dignity even if he didn't veer one word from his script. There again maybe he did ... when describing the 5 pillars of Buddhism. When he came to the last one, 'thou shalt not drink alcohol', he paused.

"Many Thais are bad Buddhists," he said, "because many of us drink. But 4 out of 5 is good enough ... "

He gave me a big grin and a conspiratorial wink. Indeed an ice cold Chang beer is exactly what I needed on that boiling summer's day. Oh, and maybe something from the lady market and a fake watch, too.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Google Street View now in Amazing Thailand

So, Thailand has become the 35th country in the world -- and second in South East Asia after Singapore -- to be StreetViewed (Ok, maybe that product name is not a verb yet).

Well, parts of it anyway ... Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai for starters. And Google claims that 90% of all streets are covered.

That in itself is a BIG number, and, dear readers, I am not about to go out and double check it. But Bangkok is riddled with streets, sois, minor sois, sub sois, sois off sois, and little access ways that just don't plain exist on any map.

After all, where do you think U2 got the inspiration for their song Where The Streets Have No Name?

Does Google Street View really cover 90%? That's not the point. The point is that as a tourist in Thailand or before your travel to Bangkok etc, you can have a look at some of the places you might want to stay ... such as Khao San Road. Maybe some of the dreadlocks and tattoos you spot on incidental passersby or brochure-toting touts will put you off. Or maybe make you say, Get Me There Now, Darnnit!

Street View makes you virtual judge and jury. But it's never as good as being there and seeing it for yourself.

Friday 6 April 2012

Amazing Thailand Songkran 2012 festival

It's that time of the year again ... summer, when the mercury hits about 400 and there's 'mango madness' in the air.

Songkhran (or songkran) is on us, where the fun and the waterfights break out. Many locals are already stocking up on groceries and other supplies and battening down the hatches so they don't need to venture outdoors during this period (Ok, it's fun for a day or so, but after a week or so, and year after year it is possible to be over it). But for those with an adventurous spirit well it's all fun and games till someone loses an eye.

So here' then is a round-up to help you get the most of Songkran festival 2012 in all parts of Amazing Thailand, including Bangkok (remember last year's Kao San Road scandal?), Pattaya, Phuket, Samui and especially Chiang Mai.

The origins of Songkhran ... how and why this Thai water festival was first celebrated:

How they celebrate it in Chiang Mai and northern Thailand - week-long wildness and wetness:

And now some fun photos from around the popular tourist areas of Thailande (yes, that's how some Europeans spell it, but that's better than Tailand which is the most common misspelling):

So that's it ... pack your swimwear and super-soaker water gun for the world's largest wet T-shirt contest!

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Pattaya - Sleazy does it.

Just returned from a weekend in Pattaya in Amazing Thailand, and pleased to say that NOTHING has changed form my last visit! ;)

See my previous blog about the bars, great new Pattaya hotels, bars, the red hot Walking Street, bars, the beachside attractions, bars, and more.

Monday 6 February 2012

Pakasai - at home with nature in Ao Nang near Phuket

Pakasai Resort is burning up a lot of energy in their going green eco travel program ...

'We tried hard for 4 Green Leaf stars but only get 3,' explains their convivial GM, Khun Umaporn. 'Now we change a lot of materials and get involved in more CSR.'

This sister of Red Ginger, a little down the hill from here in the Ao Nang/ Krabi district, is the only hotel in town with 3 Leaves, but its clearly not good enough for her. Umaporn drives the eco-tourism initiatives 'from the heart -- if there's a chance for us to do something green we will do it.'

The Pakasai offers a Green Traveller package in which guests get to plant a tree at neighbouring school with the excitable kids. 'Something like give something back for your holiday.'

'Lovely people, lovely city, Krabi. They care for their environment here,' says the lady who spent 15 years in Phuket before, clearly enjoying the relaxed and quiet atmosphere of her adopted home town here.

And what's not to appreciate?

Pebbled walkways are sided by soaring palms and ferns and ginger. The resort's newly renovated cream buildings are accented by big wooden railings. It whispers tropical playground from every shaded grove.

The Adora suite fetches 9000 baht (about US$300) in the high season, well worth it with its aquarium-sized oval bath, and you'll-definitely-get-lucky-tonight romantic in-room dining setting adjacent.

After an Everest base camp-assault on a meandering staircase, we reach the Chalet - a huge open plan room overlording resort from behind, with a sprawling rustic balcony, and a birdcage overlooking the trees. 'Our guests need to exercise first,' she says with a rather wicked grin.

She's damn right about that. I feel a king-size hunger coming on after that and a few laps of the pool at sunset. Dalah restaurant overlooks the gardens and pond, with a soothing fountain gushing in the background. Seafood tom kah, squid and chicken with pepper, fish with coconut curry, extinguished by mango stick rice with passion fruit and coconut milk. Aah! No wonder it's good -- the Chef used to work at Sofitel Krabi before, and gets all his stuff fresh from the boats at the nearby jetty.

Then a funny thing happened: I was trying to read their eco-tourism brochure but was straining my eyes.

'Sorry, we only use low energy lightbulbs!' laughs Umaporn.