Tuesday, 27 December 2011

High Tea? Yes, Please!

High tea. If these two little words fail to pique your interest, then clearly you’re not female, gay or one of those rare creatures, the sensitive male. But if, in fact, you are in the majority that delights in delicate, beautifully-presented goodies and fragrant teas served in fine china, then listen up! I’ve found one of the most alluring places to enjoy this charming girlie tradition, in the last destination you’d expect – Thailand.

Located on the far side of the Ping River on Charoenraj Rd in Chiang Mai, just up the road from Riverside Restaurant, Vieng Joom On Teahouse makes quite the statement even before you enter the doors. The hot-pink double-storey building with gold detailing stands out like a beacon, heralding the ornate interior and its overwhelming colour scheme – pink. Which is not surprising, considering the name actually means Pink City. Barbie, eat your heart out.

Beyond the gorgeous tea shop selling blended teas and accessories lies an intimate lounge area spilling out onto a glorious garden terrace, protected from the elements by a pink silk-draped canopy. Groups of girls – both foreigners and Thai - sit chatting and laughing on comfy sofas and wicker chairs surrounded by burbling water features, while couples enjoy the romance of the river view on wrought iron tables shaded by umbrellas. If there’s a prettier place to laze away an afternoon in Chiang Mai, I’m yet to discover it.

The passion of a Chinese-born, tea-loving owner, Vieng Joom On offers over 50 blends of tea, from Indian masala and chai to locally-concocted brews such as the fragrant Chiang Mai fruit tea, blending rose hip, apple bits, hibiscus, rooibos, almond bits and vanilla. Teas are served hot or iced, the latter served in tall elegant glasses and bearing enticing names such as Lady in Red and Lavender Lemonade.

While an extensive menu offers vegetarian meals and desserts, most customers indulge in the teahouse specialty, high tea. Presented on a triple-level platter, it features petit fours, a selection of mini cakes, assorted sandwiches and fruit salad with strawberry dipping sauce, served with your choice of tea. At 495 baht for two, it’s not the cheapest meal in Chiang Mai, but the presentation, the ambience and the undeniable beauty of the experience makes it a worthwhile treat.

53 Charoenraj Rd
Chiang Mai

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Elephants and Tourism #2

In my last post, I wrote about my discomfort in watching elephants perform in a staged environment, and shouted the praises of tourism ventures that showcase elephants' natural abilities to entertain, just by being themselves.

I do want to clarify, however, that I was not questioning the standard of care given to the animals at FantaSea or any other elephant show or camp. It was very apparent from watching the elephants in the FantaSea show that they were happy, well-adjusted and pampered animals, who did not appear stressed by their starring role.

Below is a statement provided by the management of FantaSea explaining the level of care given to their animals, which I think is worth sharing with my readers.

"Phuket FantaSea is committed to providing quality products and services to our guests, a fact that I hope is evident to you during your visit. The same also applies to the way we operate our business and manage our human and animal resources. Animals are regarded as our 'superstars' and treated with respect as one of our colleagues. Our elephants enjoy one of the best facilities offered in the country, if not in Asia. Each of our elephants is cared for by over 3 dedicated mahouts 24 hours a day, a costly yet necessary practice for us to keep our standard of animal care. During day time, the elephants are taken daily to the FantaSea-owned jungle next to our premises where they can roam freely (guarded by the mahouts) and at night, they stay in a spacious holding area (each having its own quarter) that boasts a huge common exercise ground, CCTV security system, shower area, a pool, clinic with full time vets, and other facilities. The food we serve our elephants is always of good human-consumable quality and mostly grown and harvested in our own farm or bought from respectable suppliers. It is also not known to most guests that we own many times more elephants than needed in the show, which means our elephants enjoy rest, day-offs and sick leaves and are not the least 'overworked' in any way.

The same standard of practice also extends to all animals, big or small. The tigers are well cared for and fed with high quality meat and supplements. We intentionally keep our tigers naturally thin and healthy, and not 'cuddly' and obese as most human guests think tigers should be. The display area where guests see the tigers is just a temporary 'play and snacks area' for the tigers. They are moved here each day to swim and play and have snacks (which are introduced into the display area via several trap doors). After 3 hours, they will be moved to their actual holding area which is a much bigger place, with a common area and a pool. As for your concern on the camera flashlights, please be assured that they do not cause harm to the tigers in any way. (With the lighting inside the tiger area and through the thick acrylic separating the tiger and human area, the flash lights actually lose its intensity and do not cause any harm). "
I personally find this information very reassuring, particularly in regards to the tigers.
The bottom line for animal lovers visiting Thailand is to consider your choices carefully in regards to wildlife-based tourism. Keep an open mind, taking into account the complex situation regarding the place of animals in an urbanised environment. Seek out operators who provide their animals with love, respect and quality care. And spread the word about those who are doing a great job as caretakers of the precious creatures inhabiting this planet.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Elephants and Tourism

A few weeks ago, I finally went and saw FantaSea, Thailand’s largest and most spectacular cultural theme park and the most popular attraction on the island of Phuket. I’ve managed to avoid going for years – big stage shows aren’t really my thing, and as an animal lover and anti-circus advocate, I was uncomfortable with the notion of watching performing elephants.

It is indeed an amazing, over-the-top and mind-blowing show, very much aimed at the mass market (the auditorium holds 3,000 people, packed to capacity every night). It’s colourful, dizzying and loud, with firework explosions that had me leaping out of my seat with profanities. (Why is it, for such a gentle race of people, do the Thai’s love loud noises so much?! Really!!) The park where the performance is located is spectacular in itself, a Thai Disneyland with neon lights, shops and shows. And yes, there is a large cast of elephants, showcasing their dexterity, intelligence and ability to please crowds.

The elephants are indeed the stars of the show – and in keeping with that, these animals are well cared for, well fed and pampered. However, true to my initial reservations, I admit to squirming in my seat when the elephants performed in a ‘chorus line’, standing on their hind legs and ‘dancing’ to rapturous applause.

This, of course, is a natural talent, one they are capable of doing in the wild. But to see it in a regimented, staged arena was, for me, a little confronting. Similarly, I’m also not particularly comfortable with watching elephants play soccer, paint or play polo (despite my well-known love of this sport) – all skills they perform graciously and happily for their human audiences.

In an ideal world, I’d prefer to watch elephants – and indeed all animals – just be themselves, doing what comes naturally for their own benefit, not that of humans. But this is not an ideal world – these elephants are domesticated animals, not wild, and therefore need to find their place in human society. And nowhere is that situation more complex than in Thailand.

The elephant has played an important role in Thailand for centuries, a crucial partner in war, industry and daily life. Many of Thailand’s 4,000-odd domestic elephants have a one-on-one relationship with their mahout owners as lifelong companions and treasured members of the family. But elephants are cumbersome creatures, requiring space to roam and mountains of food, each one hoovering over 200 kilos of food a day. Elephant ownership is expensive – and the reality is, an elephant has no choice but to contribute to its own upkeep.

Traditionally, the elephant was a beast of burden, largely employed in the logging industry; but since that practice ended in 1989, finding a suitable and ethical role for these beloved creatures has been both difficult and controversial. When logging ceased, many unemployed mahouts resorted to begging in the streets, taking their animals into the smog and traffic of big cities to eke a living. This, of course, is a less than ideal environment for any animal, let alone an enormous, sensitive elephant who is physically designed to forage in a jungle, not camp alongside freeways.

With begging now officially outlawed, the challenge is for a mahout to find a role for his elephant that is as lucrative as begging, but more beneficial to himself and his animal. Which is where tourism comes in.

Tourism – whether it be trekking or performing in shows like FantaSea – now provides the bulk of the work for Thailand’s domestic elephants, and is arguably the best, kindest and most beneficial form of work for these animals. As long as the animal is treated with respect, a job in tourism is low-impact on the animal, generally with reasonable working hours and minimal energy required. The elephants in FantaSea work for approximately an hour a day – surely better than tramping the streets for 18 hours day and night. And usually a working elephant is rewarded with a solid feed at the end of the day, rather than a begged banana and food scraps.

However, as more and more tourists (particularly Westerners) demand more ethical treatment of elephants, so the emphasis is shifting from standard jungle treks and animal shows to less invasive, more natural and lower-impact forms of tourism, ones that are kinder and less exploitative to the animal. Interactive “mahout”-style experiences, where guests can learn first-hand about a mahout’s lifestyle and relationship with the elephant, are becoming particularly popular; riding bareback behind an elephant’s head, rather than perched in a rickety wooden saddle, is not only more comfortable and fun, but also a great way of communicating directly with the animal.

There are several excellent elephant camps leading the charge of happy, holistic elephant tourism ventures. The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, located in the grounds of the Golden Triangle Anantara near Chiang Saen, has provided a new life and livelihood not only for 30-odd rescued street elephants, but also for their mahouts and families who have relocated to this tranquil oasis. Lampang’s Elephant Conservation Centre has an excellent mahout-training school; you can also learn the skills of the mahout during three-day homestays at the Royal Elephant Krall and Village in Ayutthaya. I also recently heard about another intimate program at Patara Farm, just out of Chiang Mai, where you can be an elephant owner for a day – an experience which comes highly recommended and which I can’t wait to check out.

One of my favourite places to watch elephants simply being elephants is at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, home to elephants rescued from a life of abuse and mistreatment. The day and week-long volunteer programs here include feeding and bathing the elephants, but no riding – these poor animals, whose individual stories will reduce any animal lover to tears, can now just be, no longer burdened by work and cruelty.

And what could be more entertaining than just sitting watching elephants play in water and mud, trunk wrestling and just hanging out, free and unfettered? For me, this is the most rewarding and enjoyable experience of all, just watching them be elephants – the most adorable, amusing and intelligent animals on the planet.

That’s a ticket worth its weight in gold, surely the greatest show on earth.

...or ...

You be the judge which is more entertaining!

Further info:

Fantasea - www.phuket-fantasea.com

Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation – www.helpingelephants.org

Elephantstay – www.elephantstay.com

Patara Farm – www.pataraelephantfarm.com

Elephant Nature Park – www.elephantnaturefoundation.org

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Motorcycle Diaries

Yesterday I gained my motorcycle Ps, an epic journey that began with a baptism of fire in northern Thailand a year ago. Yes, I was one of those farang idiots that succumbed to the madness that is holiday scooter hire, a decision that was ill-informed and dangerous. And while I survived the experience, this is a cautionary tale.

Why did I do it? Because I had to. There was simply no other way to get around. I was staying in a small village in northern Thailand where public transport is non-existent, and I needed to get to and from my hotel to various sights. So after a day of hoofing it in the blaring heat, I asked reception to arrange scooter hire.

Two hours later, it was delivered to my door, along with two ill-fitting helmets. No one asked to see my licence (the hotel provided them with a copy of my passport for security); there was no deposit necessary, and I could pay the princely sum of 170 baht a day (around $6) at the end of the hire period. Easy peasy.

Of course, the cute little scooter came with no instructions – it was up to me to figure out how to get it started, fill it with fuel (the tank was below empty on delivery) and most important of all, not crash. Which, when you are a total novice and petrified, was easier said than done.

Fortunately, the streets of the Golden Triangle where I was staying are very quiet, allowing me the liberty of weaving and wobbling on my first nervous takeoff. Unlike in Sydney, there are no buses or rabid taxi drivers to contend with – just other scooters, vendors pushing carts, unruly children and dogs dashing from the kerb. I only had to travel about five kilometres on my first outing – just one road, with only a few bends and mostly in reasonable condition. Although I held my breath the whole way, it was mission accomplished  – and before long, I was pottering all over town, even taking my little baby off-road onto dirt tracks.

Chuffed with my achievements, I soon ventured further afield, putting me in the path of actual traffic. I even had to stop at lights a couple of times. Once I had to slam the brakes to avoid a van pulling out without indicating. 

They may drive on the left in Thailand, but that’s where any similarity to Australian road rules ends. Firstly, there are no discernable rules: small vehicles give way to larger ones; no one indicates; and a red light must mean go, as no one seemed to stop at them except me. Everyone drives like a lunatic – at least I was in good company.

One hazard I didn’t chance upon, however, was other travellers who had hired motorbikes with no licence or experience. In popular backpacker destinations, such as Chiang Mai, Koh Phangan and Koh Chang,  it’s another story. Tourist on bikes are everywhere; many are young, stupid and often drunk. Most are Europeans or Americans used to driving on the other side of the road. Few wear helmets. Most wear shorts and thongs, and are carrying equally scantily clad passengers. And many end up as road kill.

The statistics for motor cycle accidents in Thailand are sobering. On average, 38 people die per day from motor cycle accidents in Thailand; in 2008, there were nearly 60,000 motor cycle accidents. In Phangan, the ultimate party island, burn and gravel rash scars are known as “the Phangan tattoo”. Every local has a tragic story about a visitor who ended up with brain damage or horrendous injuries.

A week after my breakthrough in the Golden Triangle, I arrived in gorgeous Koh Chang, determined to continue my motorcycle adventure. I took one look at the road, however, and immediately changed my mind – although there is only one route around the island, it is a rollercoaster of treacherous curves, stupefying hills and blind corners where mini vans, songthaew taxis and bikes hassle for speed rights. Scooters carrying two or three unhelmeted passengers are often forced off the road by impatient vans; and even with an open road, they barely make the inclines before hurtling down the other side, wobbling over potholes and wonky verges.

It’s death on wheels, and there’s no way in the world I would recommend any novice hitting this particular road... unless they want to leave part of their brain embedded in its surface.

                                  (the craziness that is Koh Chang's roads)

Having witnessed the chaos on Koh Chang’s ringroad, I cautiously refused the offer of scooter hire on its idyllic little sister island, Koh Kood, instead setting out on foot to walk the  “five-to-ten kilometres” to a waterfall (the latter being the more accurate estimate.) By the time I reached the main road, one kilometre from base, I realised I’d made a mistake – the roads on this particularly island are brand new, in perfect condition, and absolutely deserted. Although the roads are steep, there is no other traffic to contend with – I would have been absolutely fine.

When it comes to scooter hire in Thailand, the bottom line is: use your head. If you’re not licensed, this is not the place to learn. Furthermore, an unlicensed driver is an uninsured driver, as I discovered only on checking my policy after I returned home. In retrospect, I was stupid. I implore you not to be too. Life’s too bloody short.

On returning to Australia, I immediately booked into an RTA pre-learner motorcycle rider’s course and received my learner’s permit. Six months and plenty of roadtime later on my daughter’s scooter, I took another compulsory day-course to receive my Ps. I will now be on my provisional licence for a year before gaining my full license. Very little drama to ensure I am experienced and covered for my next scooter experience in Thailand.


DO get your motor cycle licence before you leave Australia. It’s stupid to jump on cold and unprepared. Also, your travel insurance will not cover you if you are not properly licensed. My policy reads: “We will not pay under any circumstances if your claim arises from being in control of a motorcycle (or scooter or moped) without a current Australian motorcycle licence or you are a passenger travelling on a motorcycle that is the control of a person who does not hold a current motorcycle licence valid for the country you are travelling in.” Whoops.

DO take out travel insurance before you leave home. Unlike car hire, there is no option for extra coverage on hiring.

DO wear a helmet – it is against the law not to.

DO ask a long-term ex-pat if it’s advisable to hire a scooter – you may get an honest answer. Thai locals, bless them, will always say it’s safe. After all, they use their scooter as the family wagon, carting their spouse, four or five children, the shopping, an umbrella and various items of furniture on any given trip. It’s a way of life.

DO cover up as much as possible in case of an accident. Jacket, long pants and closed toe shoes are the sensible option.

DO check for damage to the bike before hiring, otherwise you may be scammed for repairs.

DON’T hand over your passport for security – insist on a photocopy being taken.

DON’T carry passengers unless you are experienced and licensed to do so.

DON’T drink or take drugs if you are driving. You may be on holidays, but the rules from home should still apply.

DO check the fuel gauge. Don’t assume the hirers will hand it over with a full tank. It’s more than likely to be empty.

DO be careful going around corners – oil slicks are common on Thai roads. Also be careful on dirt roads in the wet – if the tyres clog with mud, you can slide out on braking

Monday, 5 December 2011

New spa opens in Chiang Mai

One of the things I love most about Chiang Mai is the abundance of spas and massage services. Relaxation and pampering is an integral part of any visit to this northern city, nurturing my body, soul and spirit as only Thailand can. From top-end luxury hotel spas to street-front massage joints, there’s no excuse not to indulge. Got an hour to kill before dinner? Have a foot massage. Need a rest during a shopping excursion? Have a Thai massage. With massages so readily available, not to mention affordable, a massage a day really does keep the doctor away.

There are, of course, many styles and standards of massage available. Street massages are quick, accessible and undeniably pleasant; but if you want to treat yourself to a special indulgence, there are also more structured pampering sessions available at specialist luxury spas such as Oasis Spa and Rarinjinda Wellness Resort.

The latter not only offers delicious, indulgent and purifying treatments such as Ayurvedic oil massages, vichy showers and hot stone massages, but its aim (as its name suggests) is to address wellness as well as relaxation, its holistic practices designed to cleanse, heal and detox the body. Every treatment is preceded by a consultation with Spa Director Dr Sushil Rahul, who checks your aura, pulses and general health before advising which treatment is most suitable for your condition. Treatments are conducted in beautiful environs guaranteed to leaving you refreshed and recharged.

While street massages are fun and relaxing, you often get what you paid for – basic treatment in a basic environment. One step up from a street massage in terms of cost, but a world away in terms of ambience is the brand new Health Lanna Spa, located within the old city walls in Singharaj Road (not far from Wat Prasing). This claims to be the largest spa facility in Chiang Mai, with 75 massage beds in rarified, tranquil surrounds.

Everything you desire for relaxation is on hand; dim lights, clean bedding and clothing, soft music, perfumed air and attractive Lanna-style decor. Traditional Thai Lanna massage is performed by therapists trained at the Chiang Mai Thai Spa Academy, and exceptional they are indeed, with strong, firm and precise hands. I recently enjoyed a two-hour treatment and will happily claim it’s one of the best massages I’ve ever had.

The facility also features a Jacuzzi and steam room, a cafe serving local, organically grown coffee and a spa boutique selling aromatic oils, incense and herbal teas.

But the real joy for me is the price. A two-hour Thai massage costs only 450 baht (about A$14), which is just a smidge more than you’ll pay on the street. A great bargain for a truly superior massage, and definitely worth seeking out.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Delightful D2

One of my favourite places to stay in Chiang Mai is dusitD2, a hip, urbane hotel right in the heart of the Night Bazaar just off Chang Klang Rd. Everything about this place just makes me smile, from its spacious, funky lobby with oversized vases filled with fruit to its welcome drinks in silly, wobble-bottomed glasses.

Clean lines and simple, functional design maximises space in its small guest rooms; and amusing touches like silk bed balls and a nightly gift box with goodies such as fortune cookies are a sweet touch.

Downstairs, Moxie dishes up a killer breakfast buffet; while the Mix Bar is a great place for a quiet cocktail, with chill out vibes and the best lemongrass martinis in town.

But the key to any hotel experience is the staff, and D2’s groovy young thangs never disappoint. Dressed in orange boardies, suspenders and Converse, they are always helpful, smiley and prepared to go the extra mile for guests. One year, my visit happened to coincide with my birthday; when I was presented with a birthday cake in the morning, I assumed one of my travel companions had ordered it. They hadn’t – the staff had simply noticed my date of birth on my passport and surprised me.

And if you happen to be in the lobby at 2pm, you’re in for another hilarious surprise – every day at shift change, the staff break out into a flash-mob style choreographed dance, strutting their stuff to Cole Porter’s ‘Delovely’.

“It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delovelyyyyyyy!” Don’t miss.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Do the Funky Gibbon

I stand ready to leap into the void, surrounded by soaring trees but with a 50 metre drop to the valley floor. In the distance I hear the hollering of excited tourists, whooping with joy as they fly through the air.

“Happy gibbons!” my guide Pon Pon jokes. Then we hear another noise, closer this time, but from higher in the canopy. This time there’s no mistaking it – the distinctive “woop woop woop” of real primates.

“Happy tourists?” I joke back. “Or a tape recording?”

“You’re lucky,” Pon Pon replies. “Looks like you’re going to see the gibbons.”

Five minutes later, there they are; first, just a rustle in the leaves, then a flash as three long-armed gibbons brachiate through the branches for a closer look at their human visitors. A creamy coloured female comes first, closely followed by an adorable baby, black with creamy facial highlights. Finally, a larger black male follows tentatively behind.

This family group of gibbons are the first of their species to dwell in this forest in 40 years. And it’s all due to the tour I’m participating in, the famed Flight of the Gibbon zipline course. Started in 2007 in the village of Mae Kompong, one hour south of Chiang Mai, this eco-tour dedicates a percentage of its proceeds to forest and primate rehabilitation, culminating three years ago in the release of two captive gibbons into the surrounding 1500-year-old rainforest. Several months later, the company was rewarded with the ultimate triumph – a baby gibbon, born in the wild to its doting parents.

We stand enthralled as the three white-handed gibbons come closer to check us out – mum Tong Lord, dad Tong Dee, and baby Mojo. It’s a moment that makes my heart soar – it’s awesome to see an eco-tourism project put their money where their mouth is, fulfilling promises and making a positive impact on the ecology.

                                  (look closely - that's mum and bubs in the branches!)

My first experience of Flight of the Gibbon was prior to the gibbons’ release in 2008, when it was still a fledgling operation. Even then, it was rapidly gaining a reputation as not only a fantastic, fun day out but also a superior eco-tourism product, beneficial to both the local community and the pristine jungle they tend so lovingly.

The experience was everything it had been hyped to be – adrenaline pumping, lots of laughs, thrilling and informative. In the wake of its success came a wave of competitors, with more zipline courses opening around Chiang Mai as well as in other popular tourist destinations. Flight of the Gibbon even opened a sister operation in Chonburi to cater to Bangkok and Pattaya tourists as well as other adventure activities including rock climbing and white water rafting.

Now established as one of Chiang Mai’s leading attractions, I was curious to see how the product had fared under the strain of competition and a tough few years economically. I was delighted to find that Flight of the Gibbon – now billed as the longest in the world (5km) -  is now even better than before, with more tree stations and longer zips, and plenty of fresh new thrills to keep return clients on their toes.

It hasn’t been a painless success story, however.  During the last wet season, the company’s office was totally wiped out in a landslide – fortunately at night, when no one was in it. The tour currently commences at Mae Kompong’s village school, complete with apologies for substandard toilet facilities and the possibility of wet gear.

After getting decked out in harness and helmets (all dry and clean), my tour group is driven back down the road to the kickoff point, where there are several short, easy zips to acclimatise you to the sensation of ziplining. Launching off a 50-metre high platform into a void, then careering along a metal line towards a looming tree can be disconcerting at first – but once you gain confidence that the equipment and lines are perfectly secure, it’s easy to relax and enjoy the thrill, squeals of terror and all.

                                           (not the most elegant of poses...)

The key to the operation’s success is its guides – young, focused and hilariously entertaining (and refreshingly, Thai, with locals leading the charge), as well as reassuring to nervous guests. They are also brilliant bi- or even multi-lingual, speaking fluently to guests in several languages.

There are now 39 treetop platforms in total in the Flight of the Gibbon Chiang Mai course, including  several ‘double’ zips where two people zip at one time, seven sky bridges, a bungy jump and two abseils (the longest drop being 45 metres, a spectacular way to end the program). The longest zipline is a staggering 850 metres, from the top of one mountain to another, across a stunningly beautiful valley lush with palms and ferns.

For me, the most terrifying experience was the ‘bungy’ jump, where you are hooked up to a flexible line, step off into the void, bounce back and then fly toward a net, which you then desperately cling onto, Spiderman style. Heart-pounding stuff indeed.

A tour with Flight of the Gibbon includes transfers from Chiang Mai, a three-hour zipline tour, a delicious lunch courtesy of the local Mae Kompong community, and a visit to the spectacular Kompong waterfall. It’s an awesome day out, and great fun for anyone aged five to 75 who is not too afraid of heights.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Inspirational Muse

Hotel Muse on Ploenchit Road, Lumpini

After an overnight flight in economy class, any old bed looks good to a weary traveller. But to fall into an oversized cloud with crisp white sheets and plump pillows is very sweet indeed, the perfect antidote to the drudgery of getting from A to B.

Seriously, I don’t want to leave this bed. Ever. Though that claw-footed bathtub in the black marble bathroom is also beckoning...

The bed!

The heaven I’ve ascended to is on the 11th floor of Muse Hotel in Bangkok, the latest offering on the city’s luxury 5-star scene. And what a scene-stealer it is. Opened in September during a less-than-auspicious moment in Bangkok’s history – on the eve of the worst flooding in 50 years, and at the cusp of a miserable economic time globally – Muse, on upmarket residential Lang Suan Road (a short walk from Chitlom BTS), has rapidly become the place to be seen, the hippest, most fashionable address in the city.

In terms of aesthetics, Muse makes quite the statement. A clean, Deco-inspired street frontage belies the lavishness of its lobby, an opulent fusion of Rama V Siam and fin de siecle Europe, with lashings of teak, black marble, flocked velvet and wrought iron tempered by mood lighting and a sombre colour palette. Chandeliers draped in gold silk net, oil paintings in heavy frames, cow-hide scatter rugs and oversized Chesterfields create a gothic ‘granny’s parlour’ ambience, kooky and over-the-top, but also warm and welcoming.

Muse lobby

Guest rooms are equally beguiling; a blend of high tech modern (41 inch flat screen TV, iPod docking station) and classic European (etched Venetian mirrors, hand-painted wash basins, roll-top claw-footed bath and a chest of draws resembling luggage from the golden age of travel). Then, of course, there’s that king-sized bed, voluminous and inviting with crisp embroidered linen and a mountain of pillows...

On the 19th floor, there’s a small infinity pool with fabulous skyline views, a fitness room and the hotel’s Thai restaurant Su Tha Ros (helmed by Bangkok’s only female executive chef, Purida Teerapong). There’s no spa – why bother in a city drowning in massage joints?; while the basement is occupied by Medici, the hotel’s signature Italian restaurant. Reasonably priced and with authentic, rustic Tuscan cuisine, this is currently Bangkok’s hottest night spot, totally booked out on any given night.

Outdoor pool in evening glow

According to GM Bodo Klingenberg, the hype surrounding Muse (and Medici) was a fortunate consequence of extreme adversity, with drastically reduced rates, special promotions and an aggressive advertising campaign during the flood crisis luring celebrities and style icons through its doors. This highly irregular approach – hitting the local market first, creating a buzz, then capitalising on its hipper-than-thou reputation – certainly seems to have worked; in an already overcrowded hotel market (and with 18,000 new beds slated for 2012), Muse is impossible to ignore.

And there’s more to come. Still to open is its rooftop venue, The Speakeasy, with intriguing nooks and crannies replicating a prohibition-era drinking hole. Designed over two levels, it will feature a cigar lounge, library, a terrace bar and a rooftop lawn with expansive views over Bangkok’s city skyline. Guaranteed, this will be the place for sunset cocktails and late night parties. Can’t wait for this piece of inspiration.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Up, Up and Away...

Sin, misfortune, bad luck – such negative emotions can weigh heavily on even the most optimistic of minds. But even if you’re not one to dwell on such things, there’s something incredibly uplifting about releasing all your burdens, watching them soar into the stratosphere and float away on the wind.

Such is the magic of khom loy, those wonderful paper lanterns that Thai people light and release into the night sky on special occasions. The most beautiful and poignant of all Thai traditions, it never fails to move me as I stand holding the huge paper balloon, watching it take on a life of its own as the flame fills it with energy, tugging and demanding release before gracefully rising out of reach, floating away and disappearing on the breeze like a shooting star.

While the tradition is now enjoyed all over Thailand on any given night, its origins lie in the Lanna region of the north, where it is officially celebrated in a festival called Yi Peng. Coinciding with Loy Krathong, it takes place over four nights, culminating on the night of the full moon in the 12th lunar month – which this year falls on November 10.

If there’s a more beautiful sight than thousands of lanterns in the inky sky above the ancient capital of Chiang Mai, I’m yet to experience it. This Festival of Lights, as it’s come to be known, is the most colourful and romantic of all celebrations, also featuring a parade through the city streets, beauty queens, markets galore, the floating of krathongs on the Ping River, and of course, the obligatory (and rather terrifying) fireworks that the Thais are so fond of releasing at the most inopportune moment! (ie, when I’m walking past, literally scaring the pants off me!)

The hub of activity is Ta Pae Gate, illuminated by hundreds of lanterns strung between trees. In the square, you can purchase a krathong - a lotus-shaped offering made of banana leaves, decorated with flowers and incense sticks - for about 50 baht, before following the parade of elaborately decorated floats, past countless temples where monks assist  in the lighting of khom loy, down to the Ping River. The act of releasing a krathong into the water is a symbolic offering to the river goddess, acknowledging her power (which no one is doubting this year!) before making a wish and releasing all your misdemeanours into the tide.

With the double whammy of the khom loys, it’s a guaranteed way to start the new lunar year with a clean spiritual slate! If you get the chance, don't miss Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai - definitely the place to be this week!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Follow the Sun

Latest word from Bangkok is that the flood crisis has peaked, with a good part of the city remaining high and dry. The levees have held, sandbags have stemmed the tide and the weather is sunny and hot. And with thousands of people fleeing the city last weekend, locals who stayed to face the music have joked that getting around the city has never been so easy or traffic-free!

While the scale of this flood is unprecedented (an unhappy combination of heavier than usual rainfall, deforestation, urbanisation, mismanagement of local reservoirs and damming as far north as China), the effects of the monsoon are nothing new to Thailand. Visitors should be aware that Thailand is a tropical country, it does rain ... and yes, your feet might get wet!

With careful planning, however, the worst of the monsoon can be avoided. It’s simply a matter of choosing your destination according to your travel dates, and following the sun.

(wish you were here? Me too. In Koh Kood, one of my favourite islands. @ Julie Miller)

Broadly speaking, the north of Thailand has two seasons – the wet and the dry. The driest months are from November to May, with April the hottest, driest and smokiest month (owing to slash and burn farming techniques in Laos and the border regions of Thailand). Anytime from May through to October, rain is to be expected – and yes, the rivers may flood. This is simply a fact of life in the north, part of nature’s wondrous cycle.

South of Bangkok, weather patterns are a little more complicated. There tend to be three seasons: dry, wet, and hot and confused. But the good news is, there’s always a beach destination that’s sunny and warm, with peak seasons running at different times on the east and west of the peninsular.

The best time to visit Phuket or Krabi, for instance, is from December to March – happily coinciding with Australia’s summer school holidays. April is the hottest month, with tropical showers continuing through to October. Prepared to be soggy if you visit in September, with heavy rain and flooded streets par for the course.

While it storms in Phuket, however, chances are that other favourite island paradises are basking  in blissful sunshine. The monsoon tends to hit the east coast islands of Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao later than Phuket, with the wettest months being between October and December.

The beauty of tropical rain, however, is that it cool things down, and is often gone as quickly and dramatically as it came. If there is minimal flooding, low season can be a beautiful time to visit your favourite destination, with the added bonus of fewer crowds and cheap-as-chips hotel rates.

And remember, water  brings life, new growth and ultimately prosperity. It’s something (in moderation!) to be celebrated, to give thanks for. Which is exactly what the upcoming festival of Loy Krathong is about – to pay respect to the spirit of the waters.

I imagine that, following the floods, that this year’s celebration on November 10, will hold particular poignancy for many people...

                                       (Monk on the beach at Hua Hin. @ Julie Miller)

Monday, 24 October 2011

Flood update

All eyes are now on Bangkok as the flood waters continue to surge towards the city centre. While it’s currently the industrial outer eastern and northern parts of the city that are affected (as well as riverside Chao Phraya), it’s unclear how far the waters will advance, and if the dykes and run-off channels will do their job.

The latest news reports state that much of the city is likely to be inundated, with the government preparing shelters for up to 800,000 people. City residents have been warned to prepare for four to six weeks of flooding of up to one metre in depth.

Having experienced firsthand how pathetic the city’s drainage is during a mere rain storm, I suggest anyone planning a visit to Bangkok in the coming weeks pack their rubber thongs and be prepared for very wet feet.

In the worst floods for over half a century, there’s been A$5.88 billion in damage, with 2.5 million families displaced and 356 people killed since August. And as industry shuts down, workers are being sent home, many of them forced to return to their families in poverty-stricken regional areas.

(pic: www.themirrorfoundation.org)

I was told this morning that in Isan – the poorest region of Thailand – community centres and orphanages are strapped as breadwinners return from Bangkok, minus their jobs and seeking help. This usually dry region of Thailand currently looks “like Kakadu during wet season”, with rice paddies  and fields submerged. Short term, there are bound to be food shortages; long-term, lives and livelihoods will need to be rebuilt.

One NGO doing a great job in the rescue and relief mission is The Mirror Foundation, a charity based in Chiang Rai run by Thai and hilltribe staff. This is just one group that has answered the call for assistance, coordinating around 70 volunteers a day to deliver relief aid, loading up boats with supplies for flooded communities and rescuing those who have been stranded.

Ironically, the charity’s own accommodation near Don Muang airport has just succumbed to the floodwaters – looks like they’ll be sleeping at the airport tonight, joining over 3,000 other refugees on the floor of the relief headquarters.

(pic: www.mirrorfoundation.org)

According to Aye Naraporn from Mirror Foundation, volunteers will be required after the crisis passes to help with restoration efforts. Although nowhere near as drastic in terms of loss of life, she compares the situation – in regards to numbers of displaced families and livelihoods lost – to that of the 2004 tsunami, one which will require years of restoration effort.

The Mirror Foundation is accepting donations for flood victims on their website. Having worked briefly with this group in Chiang Rai, I can vouch for the amazing, hands-on approach to charity and their strong moral ethics. I can guarantee your money will be going into the right hands.

To donate, visit www.themirrorfoundation.org

In the meantime ... don’t cancel your plans to visit Thailand! In most parts of Thailand, it's business as usual, and that means hot, sunny weather and plenty of smiles. It's even a beautiful day in Bangkok today, despite the rising waters. The gorgeous islands in the south are unaffected by the flooding problems, less than three percent of major tourist attractions are closed, and all airports - including  Suvarnahumi Airport in Bangkok - are operating as usual. Some roads in the central regions are under water, however, so best stick to air travel between destinations.

Now more than ever, Thailand needs our support – with tourism the best way to boost the economy. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

Bangkok through experts' eyes

Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t claim to be a ‘photographer’. Yes, I take photos that are publishable, many of them halfway decent. But while I love to seek out good subject matters and take pride in my framing, much of my visual success is due to luck and the egalitarian nature of digital cameras.

What I do know about my camera, however, I attribute to one person. As I stood behind the goal posts at the annual elephant polo tournament in northern Thailand several years ago, the event’s official photographer, Kris LeBoutillier, gave me a few simple tips and made some minor adjustments to my camera settings – and voila, my pics improved tenfold. In a 15 minute masterclass with an expert, I learnt more about the tools of my trade than I had from months of fumbling around on my own.

A professional photographer widely published around the world, Kris has now started his own photographic business, F8 Workshops, running week-long custom-designed seminars in some of Asia’s most exciting destinations. But not content with sharing his own considerable expertise, Kris has snared several legends in the photographic world to lead the workshops, jaw-dropping talents at the top of the mass media game.

Bringing their expertise to Bangkok from December 12-18 are Steve McCurry and Michael Yamashita, both veterans of National Geographic whose photographs have graced the pages of the magazine for decades. McCurry is responsible for arguably the most iconic NG cover of all time – the Afghan girl with piercing green eyes; while Yamashita is a specialist of Asia, best known for his coverage of the odyssey of Marco Polo.

With the visual splendour of Bangkok as a backdrop, McCurry and Yamashita’s workshops are a rare opportunity to learn from the best in the business, designed to challenge and improve your shooting technique and inspire you to take your passion to new levels. Suitable for all photographers from novice to semi-professional, these classes are restricted to just 20 participants to ensure you get personal attention from these incredible instructors.

The City of Angels, of course, is a photographer’s dream, rich in inspiration, colour and contrast. From its boxing arenas to Buddhist temples, Bangkok is the ideal backdrop to create a narrative photographic essay.

So if you want to sharpen your camera skills and see Thailand’s capital through the eyes of experts, check out further details at f8workshops.com

Monday, 10 October 2011

Floods affect Ayutthaya's eles

Just sparing a thought for my friends in Thailand, many of whom have already been affected by the worst floods in decades, and others who are preparing for the oncoming deluge.

Fifty-nine provinces across the country have been damaged in some way by floodwaters, with  23 million people affected, tens of thousands displaced, the region’s food bowl ravaged and 252 killed in the last month.

As Bangkok braces for the latest onslaught of floodwaters, the ancient capital of Ayutthaya continues to be swamped, with the whole province declared a disaster area. It’s bad enough that many of the historic cities historic monuments are waist-deep in water ... but even more concerning is the plight of the elephants at one of the city’s biggest attractions, the Royal Elephant Kraal.

While most of the elephants were moved to higher ground a month ago (when the first floods hit), there are still seven mothers and babies trapped at the Kraal, surrounded by a wall of water. According to Communications Director for the Elephant Stay program at the Kraal, Ewa Narkiewicz, the entrances to the compound have been blocked up with dirt, and everyone is praying this holds. There are a handful of people living up on the pavilion, doing what they can to care for the elephants trapped there, but the situation is dire as the waters continue to rise.

(Pic: The Royal Elephant Kraal during last year's flood, from http://www.elephantstay.com/)

Built on an island at the confluence of the Lopburi, Pha Sak and Chao Phraya Rivers, Ayutthaya is of course no stranger to floods. Just this time last year, all the elephants from the Kraal had to be moved to higher ground, and the farmland where the elephants’ food is grown suffered severe flooding.

A similar situation also seems to be developing at the elephant village of Ta Klang in Surin, home to 200 elephants rescued from a life of begging on the streets. According to my friend John Roberts from the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, the Surin elephants and their mahouts face major foot shortages, with most of the rice paddies and elephant grazing grounds in Surin under water. For updates on the situation, check in at http://www.surinproject.org/ or  http://www.helpingelephants.org/.

With loss of income and so much damage to the Kraal, Elephantstay will also need all the help it can get. Donations can be made through www.elephantstay.com/elephantstay-donate

PIC: One of the baby elephants born at the Royal Elephant Kraal during last year's floods. This little girl had to be evacuated just hours after birth, walking five kilometres to higher ground.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Willing Hands Required

In the wake of 2009’s devastating bushfires in Victoria, a bunch of Thai kids devised a plan to raise money for a school burnt to the ground in the disaster. Baking and selling donuts, they scraped together $3,500, which they donated to students at Flowerdale Public School.

This act of generosity is remarkable, considering it came from children from far flung shores. But what is even more amazing is that these kids are themselves victims of unimaginable suffering, suffering very few people can appreciate or understand. These amazingly generous young souls, orphaned during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, live at Baan Tharn Namchai orphanage in Khao Lak, supported by the wonderful Hands Across the Waters charity.

The very fact that they went out of their way to help other children who’d suffered loss brings tears to my eyes. Yet this, as founder of Hands Across the Water Peter Baines reminds me, is just the Thai way.

“That’s what’s so beautiful about the Thais and how they live their life,” he says. “Giving that money was just a gift for them. They’ve got so little themselves – they sleep in a bedroom with 40 other kids, yet they chose to go out and raise money for someone else.”

Hands Across the Water was set up as a direct result of ex-forensic policeman Baines personally witnessing the devastation and loss caused by the tsunami. Since then, the Australian charity has raised over A$5 million (with all funds going directly to the kids, not spent on administration), building two orphanages and providing ongoing care for 72 children.

(pic: Will Horner)

In March 2010, the charity decided to expand their reach and support a new orphanage in the Yasothon region of north-east Thailand. The Suthasineee Noiin Foundation is a home for 115 children who have been affected by HIV. The kids who live there are either HIV positive or their parents had HIV and passed away.

Transforming this orphanage to meet the admirable standards of Hands’ Khao Lak establishment, however, takes time and effort. To help get things underway, Hands Across the Water is arranging for a team of volunteers to travel to the Yasathon orphanage in November for a week-long taskforce, putting in the physical hard-yards with hammers, nails, shovels and wheelbarrows.

While people with a trade are particularly required, anyone willing to get dirty and contribute are welcome to lend a hand. The Taskforce will run from November 12-19, with volunteers responsible for their own travelling costs to and from Ubon Ratchatani. The charity will help secure the best deals at nearby accommodation, however.

So if you want to add a feel-good element to your next holiday in Thailand, sign up! You can send an email to team@handsacrossthewater.com.au.

See you there, hammer in hand!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Thai Therapy

It’s been way too long since I was in Thailand, and I am suffering withdrawal symptoms. I miss the warmth of the sun, and the warmth of the people. I miss being able to step straight into the ocean; I miss cocktails on the beach. And I am in desperate need of an elephant jup, a snotty, banana-y, slobbery trunk kiss on the cheek!

But it’s not just my soul that requires some Thai hospitality – my body is also screaming out for attention. Bound to my desk in Sydney, both time and financially challenged, I’ve neglected this wretched carcass I dwell in. My back aches, my toenails are a mess, my hair is straggly and unkempt, and my teeth could do with a polish. In other words, I need to get back to Thailand quickly, before I fall apart!

 In Thailand, indulgence is not a dirty word – it’s something to embrace. Need a massage, or perhaps a facial? Wander a few steps down the beach, or step out of your hotel onto the street – there’s a salon on every corner. Need some dental work done? Thailand is one of the cheapest and best places to correct your smile.

Let’s break it down, purely from a financial perspective:

Massage: From luxurious day spas to roadside stalls, a massage – whether a vigorous, gymnastic Thai massage session, a relaxing oil rub or a reflexology foot massage – is synonymous with Thailand. The popularity of the spa industry provides fantastic career opportunities for many Thai women, with even convicted felons from Chiang Mai Prison receiving training while they are behind bars to ensure a productive trade when they are released. A one hour Thai massage costs as little as 150 baht (A$5), with 400 baht (A$13) an average price.

Equivalent cost in Sydney: Around $65.
Saving: $50-60.

Nails: A pedicure in Thailand is a lovely, relaxing experience, with a fabulous foot massage usually part of the deal. A pedicure using good quality OPI polish costs around 250 baht (A$8); you can even add nail art such as pretty flowers for an extra 50 baht.

Equivalent cost in Sydney: approx $40.
Saving: $32.

Haircut: To have my hair cut, coloured and styled in Sydney requires taking out a second mortgage, so I tend to save my  hair treatments until I get to Thailand. Not only can you get a decent cut, style and blowdry for as little as 250 baht, but that includes a blissful head massage as part of the deal. Even top end salons such as Hair World in Bangkok’s Siam Centre charge as little as 400 baht  for a new style, with colouring starting from 1200 baht.

Equivalent cost in Sydney: at least $75 for a shampoo, cut and blowdry, and around $150 for highlights.
Saving: $62.

Dental: Thailand’s cosmetic dental industry is booming, with many Westerners travelling there specifically to have corrective work done on their smile. Australian and US-trained Thai dentists operate from spotless, high-tech clinics, with everything from extractions to implants at staggering cheap prices. While I am yet to brave a treatment beyond tooth cleaning, I am sufficiently convinced that if I do require major dental work, I will definitely have it done in Thailand rather than break the bank here in Sydney. A simple scale and clean at Chiang Mai’s Dental 4 U clinic costs 600 baht (A$20); to have a wisdom tooth extracted costs 2000 baht (A$66). Major work such as implants cost around 45,000 baht ($1,500).

Equivalent cost in Sydney: Clean and scale – around $120.
Saving: $100

So as you can see, a visit to Thailand saves me around $240 just for the basics of a simple beauty regime. I simply cannot afford to be there, as soon as possible. My body needs it!