Sunday 2 December 2018

Northern Thai culture in Chiang Mai

Words: Brad Crawford

Early in the year, I had the chance to visit the beautiful, northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. After arriving in Chiang Mai late evening, the Tamarind Village Hotel in the old part of the city beckoned. This hotel is a beautiful traditional Thai style hotel in the heart of the old city walls. The renovated, original walls of the old city can still be seen and make for fantastic photo opportunities.

For those travellers wanting a nice standard property that has the added advantage of being quiet and centrally located, it is hard to go past the Tamarind Village Hotel.

During our visit to Chiang Mai, we visited the 'Sawasdee Elephant Sanctuary' where we watched these amazing mammals paint canvases with their trunks with different coloured paints. An elephant painting souvenir is a prized item as each has its own unique character. There are plenty of other clever tricks on offer during the performance so this is a visit that should not be missed.

Visitors also have the opportunity of riding the elephants before seeing them undertake their daily bathing ritual. Clearly, the elephants love this part of their routine!

Elephants are very highly regarded in Thailand and well cared for due to the important part they have played in the history of the country over the centuries. From the Elephant Sanctuary, the next part of our adventure was a visit to the Mae Ping River to experience some bamboo river rafting. This was an enjoyable and very peaceful experience.

The Mae Ping River is one of the longest rivers in Thailand and a rafting cruise gives you the chance to take in the surrounding scenery of the Northern Thailand jungle.

A unique cultural experience was had at the next stop with a visit to a local hill tribe just north of Chiang Mai which was very rewarding. We were entertained by the local school children singing traditional songs, colourfully adorned in traditional Thai clothing.

World Travel Service can arrange sightseeing tours around Thailand. You'll find travel desks in major hotels in Chiang Mai or you can arrange all your sightseeing arrangements with your travel agent before you travel.

THAI flights, hotels and sightseeing tours in Thailand can all be booked with travel agents in Australia or by calling 1300 640 373.

Exploring Bangkok Markets

Words: Thea Easterby

It is hard to come to Bangkok and not be amazed by its abundant number of markets. Markets are scattered throughout the city and sell everything from clothes to fresh food to bike parts.

If you think the markets are for the tourists, think again. The Thai people shop extensively from the markets, particularly when it comes to food. The one exception to this is the markets in the busy Khao San Road area where many stalls are specifically targeted towards travellers and backpackers.

Since many Thais work long hours, it makes sense that they would need to be able to do their own shopping at the markets after they finish work. Some of the street markets are open quite late. It was normal for me to go for dinner and drinks and for the markets to be still open long after I was tucked into bed.

A Chinatown tour with Urban Adventures has us wondering through the Pak Khlong Flower market (not often frequented by tourists but well worth a look for all of the stunning displays of colourful flowers). This is the place to see marigolds, the striking yellow flower you see on all of the shrines and spirit houses around Bangkok, literally by the truckload. My tour guide laughs when I tell him that orchids are expensive at home. At the flower market, there are mounds and mounds of them ready to be bought and used in the many hotels across town. Another pricey item at home, roses are cheap and plentiful here.

My tour guide Nop describes the Klong Thom market as the ‘boys market’ and I can certainly see why. This mainly undercover market is where you come to buy engine parts, handyman tools and electrical products. If you are looking for textiles and fabrics, head to the Indian Market on the fringe of Chinatown.

There is even an amulet market adjacent to Wat Mahathat, though I have to admit it takes me a while to get my head around this one. Thai men with eyeglasses scan the amulets, though I have to admit to an untrained non-Buddhist eye, many look the same. The amulet market is also the place to purchase traditional Thai medicine.

I didn’t experience it myself but I heard the Chatuchak weekend market is one of the largest markets in Bangkok.

The one problem with markets can be when you are focused on getting from A to B and everyone else is focused on shopping. On several occasions when I was on my way to dinner or lunch, I got stuck in one of the many footpath markets selling clothes, handbags and the like. Pedestrian traffic can come to a standstill or move at a snail’s pace. If this happens to you - stay calm, be patient and smile.

Jim Thompson House Museum: much more than silk

Words: Michelle White

It’s amazing what you can discover when tagging along with fellow explorers. For a seasoned traveller, the thought of visiting another museum can bring on the odd yawn or two. However, I was more than pleasantly surprised by my recent visit to Jim Thompson’s House.

Jim Thompson was a US military intelligence officer who fell in love with Thailand during a posting and upon leaving the service returned to live there permanently. Highly gifted as a designer and textile colourist, he devoted himself to reviving the long-neglected hand-weaving silk industry which substantially contributed to the worldwide recognition afforded Thai silk today. He gained further renown through his well-known love and collection of local antiquities. In 1967 he mysteriously disappeared during a visit to Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.

Today The Jim Thompson House Museum is an interesting and relaxing journey through six traditional Thai teak buildings, housing an impressive collection of antique Asian sculptures, textiles, paintings, carvings, porcelain and other collectables. Entry fee which includes a 20 minute guided tour (in numerous languages) costs approx $4 Adult/$2 Student and is highly entertaining with plenty of anecdotal stories and superstitious folklore thrown in.

The meandering gardens separating the teak buildings are lush and cool, ending at a sizable, crystal clear fish pond and adjoining café. The café has open air seating and an enclosed air-conditioned section for those less used to the humidity. I can highly recommend the Pad Thai with prawns and lychee/mint/lime frappe which was simply divine.

Prior to leaving, a browse through the silk showroom with its impressive array of superior quality Thai silk clothing and products is a must.

A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a few hours away from the daily buzz of Bangkok.

Cycling the back roads and back alleys of Bangkok

Words: Jill Varley

It’s challenging enough to keep your equilibrium in check in a taxi or motorised Tuk-Tuk through the streets of Bangkok, let alone get behind the wheel of a car. So navigating this metropolis on a bike is not for the fainthearted. Especially when you consider that this is a city where two million vehicles cram onto the roads and the daytime population rises to more than nine million.

The trick to cycling here I was told is to do it on the back roads and at the right time of day. Not knowing what constitutes the right time of day and indeed which roads to take I sought the advice of the concierge at the Shangri-la Hotel where I was staying. He recommended Dutchman Co Van Kessel’s company Bangkok Bicycle Tours “they know the city like the back of their hand,” he assured.

When Co started his business he had a hunch the city wasn’t all about gridlocked traffic, concrete towers, and choking pollution so he made it his goal to re-discover Bangkok. What he found lurking between the main urban thoroughfares was a vast network of local streets, alleyways, footpaths and canals – hidden worlds of peace and tranquillity, largely unknown to outsiders.

The beauty of cycling in Bangkok, confronting traffic notwithstanding, is the city is as flat a pancake and so it makes any real effort a breeze.

We started from the Grand China Princess Hotel in Samphantawong escorted by experienced and knowledgeable guides who wear distinctive yellow baseball caps. Their bright colour makes them easy to identify and are waved in an assertive manner to stop traffic so the group can scurry single file across a busy road. I start the adventure a mite wobbly as we headed into the narrow laneways of Chinatown, my right foot ready as a foot brake to stop me falling into the steaming woks of breakfasting locals.

After the colour, movement and the potential pitfalls of Chinatown we cycled to the Chao Phraya River and board a waiting ferry which took us to the other side of the river. Back on our trusty ‘steeds’, we rode along narrow elevated boards, criss-cross canal villages, drove through the courtyard of a temple and watched as a Buddhist monk in saffron robes brought food to a gathering of stray dogs and cats. Two hours later we were back where we started with all body parts intact and feeling particularly lightheaded at having survived the experience.

To book a Bangkok Cycling Tour, talk to your travel agent or call 1300 640 373.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

You like bawdy storytelling? The mother of all Asia expat books is out now ...

Colonel Ken rides again! The latest Hardship Posting book - Vol 5 (which some are nicknaming Sexpat in the City) is now on the shelves.

Stu Lloyd, the creator of the “Hardship Posting – True Tales of Expat Misadventure in Asia” series has finally delivered on his promise for the next volume in the series, Volume 5.

The Hardship Posting series collects contributed stories from expat readers in all parts of Asia, with each book containing about 400 amusing and amazing stories, covering all topics from airline experiences, to dodgy immigration officials, work stories, to language and miscommunication faux pas, to hotel and holidays gone wrong, maids and drivers, and of course stories about girly bars and ladyboys.

“For years readers have been hounding me for the next volume, and for 10, 11, 12 years I kept saying ‘Next year, next year …’. Suddenly we find ourselves 15 years down the track and here it is,” the author admits. “In the meantime, there’s a whole new generation of expats who’ve never even heard of these books – whereas once it was impossible to miss them at every Asian airport. Now we’re working hard to re-find that audience.”

Hardship Posting kick-started the whole Asia expat books genre in 1999, and even outsold Harry Potter in Thailand. “Briefly!” adds Lloyd.

“I’m pleased that the expert on all such matters, the one and only Colonel Ken was again up for the challenge again, and colourfully links each chapter with his unique perspective as a barstool philosopher,” says Lloyd.

“Volume 5 is the biggest and the best one yet is what you’d expect me to say, but technically it is – 500 stories coming in at a whopping 488 pages, submitted by everyone from the CEO of a global Wall St listed company, to a Bangkok ladyboy bitching and moaning about her foreign customers. This volume really offers the full 360-degree perspective of expat life for the first time.”

There are also a dozen specially commissioned cartoons by Pattaya-based English cartoonist Mike Baird, whose humourous insights grace newspapers in the region. “We adapted a few of the existing thousands he’s done over the years, and the rest I gave him the stories and he fit the cartoon to that.” Previous contributors have included Hong Kong-based cartoonist, Larry Feign.

One of the things that makes this one of the funniest ex-pat books you'll ever read
are the 12 cartoons by "Cartoonman" Mike Baird.

Legendary photographer Patrick ‘Shrimp’ Gauvain was once again the go-to photographer for the captivating front cover image. “People say don’t judge a book by its cover. I say, it’s ALL about the cover,” jokes Lloyd, who’s lived in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and China since 1987.

Reviews have included Liz Davies, from the Alabang Ladies Auxiliary, Manila saying: “There should be a warning on the cover not to read it in airports – I laughed like a drain.” And Nury Vittachi from the HK Standard: “Sleazy, disgusting, politically incorrect and shockingly insensitive – I loved it!” So it’s for those with an open-minded sense of humour.

Stu Lloyd has notched up 30 years as an expat in Asia now since arriving in Hong Kong in 1987, and since having lived in Singapore, Thailand and China. “I was thinking of calling it Crazy Poor White Folks after the great success of Crazy Rich Asians,” he jokes. His other books cover colonial history, the Hash House Harriers, military history and travel, and have sold over 100,000 copies to date.

Hardship Posting Vol 5 is now available from bookstores in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Thailand, or from the author’s own site at and

For the first time, the entire Asian expat books series is also available in eBook formats.

Saturday 8 September 2018

Bangkok's oldest bar: Check Inn 99's colourful history

It began as a remote bolthole for ex-pats and spies and became a Bangkok institution attracting Hollywood elite.

It was a simple enough invitation. Serial renegade ex-pat, motorcycle riding buddy, best-selling author, would-be pop star and all-around likable rogue, Stu Lloyd, says “Join me for a quiet ale at Check Inn 99. It’s open mic afternoon.”

Of course, I had no idea just what the scheming Rhodesian had in mind, but to say it turned into a rich and rewarding afternoon would be a gross understatement.

As I wandered into the little hole-in-the-wall establishment, the Sunday afternoon crowd was just warming up. A local Thai chap was ripping some serious blues chords on a big semi-acoustic Fender while sax and jazz keyboard players were taking their supporting roles very seriously. Stu wasn't kidding, some substantial talent already in the swing of things.

Band gets into the swing
With red wine and tuna sandwiches laid on, Stu introduces me to Chris Catto-Smith, a former RAAF fighter jock who has run Check Inn 99 with his Thai wife, Jiraporn, known to her many friends as "Mook". Mook is the orphan of a slain senior Thai police officer and holds a high position within the force herself.

She’s not to be trifled with either. The Bangkok underworld plays a complicated game with a convoluted hierarchy that would take hours to explain. Suffice to say that when a posse of goons tried to shake down her newly reopened establishment, they left down-in-the-mouth, empty-handed and thoroughly chastened. Never to return.

I say ‘newly reopened’ because for nearly 60 years, Check Inn 99 occupied the same location on the now famous Sukhumvit strip between Sois 5 and 7, originally under the name ‘Copacabana’. Chris and Mook tidied up the place in 2011, turning the former go-go bar for US servicemen on R&R from Vietnam into a serious nightclub with good food, a well-stocked bar and quality live (musical) entertainment.

Sunday revellers settle in for 'just the one' L-R Stu Lloyd, guest, Chris Cato-Smith, Rod Eime. Stu is holding the Kevin Cummings book, Bangkok Beat, while I'm flashing Stu's soon-to-be-released 5th edition of Hardship Posting

“The Copa was something of an institution back in the day,” Chris tells me over another red wine, “celebrities would hang out here and relax away from prying eyes. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Rachel Welch and David Bowie to name just a few. Not bad considering it started out with what were basically farm girls in ball gowns.”

20-something Noi with Bob Hope in 1968

When a long-running struggle to save the original premises was lost, Chris and Mook took the name and the ghosts with them to a new spot in Soi 33 and did their best to revive the spirit. And the effort seems to have been largely successful.

A fresh-faced Noi in the 1960s

One ghost that will never leave the Check Inn 99 is that of celebrity ‘mamasan’, known simply as Noi, or later Mama Noi. Noi passed away suddenly in 2016 after a career in the Bangkok nightlife scene that began as a feisty 17-year-old in 1960 at the ‘Copa’. Noi hailed from Ubon Ratchathani in the rural province of Isan to the northeast of Bangkok, a region that supplies much of the varied workforce in Bangkok.

Imbued with a classic Thai/Khmer beauty and oodles of spunk, the young Noi made rapid strides in the business and was largely responsible for the success of first The Copacabana and then Check Inn 99. The glitterati came to see her as much as hang out with their Hollywood cliques. She was frequently seen in close quarters with Bob Hope and his entourage and even ‘vacationed’ with them in the USA. She even briefly became something of a muse for the pop legend, David Bowie.

During the intermission, keyboard player, Keith, rocks up to our table and embraces Stu - as one does - like a long-lost pal. The three of us trade yarns from our time in the Australian music scene and discover much-overlapped history. It’s a small word.

Keith and William, the sax player, are whisked away for another jam session, joined by a mysterious and glamorous woman of colour. She belts out R&B, blues and gospel that fairly makes my spine tingle. The room is transfixed as her voice dominates. We’re in awe for a full 30 minutes.

As she leaves the stage to enthusiastic applause, she wanders nonchalantly to our table and chats effortlessly with the drinkers. I compliment her on a stellar performance and she smiles appreciatively before resuming the small talk. Stu elbows me in the ribs and whispers, “you know that’s Deni Hines!”

Miss Deni Hines with admirers

Deni tells us she’s been in Bangkok for almost a year (who knew?) while still pursuing an active career in music as well as charity work.

Boy, she still has the goods and Check Inn 99’s reputation for impromptu A-Listers remains.

By now I should know what to expect when Stu asks me out for “just the one”.

- Roderick Eime

Check Inn 99 website:

Sources and further reading:
Bangkok Beat by Kevin Cummings ISBN: 0692396454