Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Places in the Heart #3 - The Golden Triangle

Unlike most Australians who visit Thailand, my first experience of the Land of Smiles was in the far north, in the so-called Golden Triangle. Here, Burma, Laos and Thailand meet at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers, the physical border marked by several Big Things - the tackiest of casinos in Laos and Burma, and a huge golden Buddha on a glittering, dragon-prowed ship surrounded by white elephants on the Thai side.

image from Thailandwanderer.com

During daylight hours, the little town of Sop Ruak is abuzz with tourists shopping for market souvenirs, taking photos at a hillside lookout, and praying for blessings under the benevolent smile of the Buddha. For most visitors, this is a whistlestop en route to the border town of Mae Sai or the gorgeous Queen’s gardens at Doi Tung ... but there are many rewards for lingering a little, exploring this fascinating and historic part of the country over several days.

My first visit here in 2006 coincided with the annual Elephant Polo tournament, which for five years was held in the grounds of the Anantara Golden Triangle. With its own holistically-run elephant camp, this was a celebration of Thailand’s pachyderms in their natural environment, a welcome respite of quality care and attention for elephants brought off the streets of Bangkok, Pattaya and Surin. Economics and the tyranny of distance, however, eventually forced the event back south to its original base of Hua Hin, closer to Bangkok and less of a haul for socialites and tourists. 

At the ele polo

It was here that I started my love affair with these gentle, intelligent and hilarious giants of the animal kingdom; and while I have since visited many other elephant camps around Thailand, I'm yet to find one that impresses me quite as much as the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, managed by the thoughtful and conservation-minded John Roberts. 

While private visits to this camp can be arranged, it is not generally open to the public. Instead, guests at the all-inclusive Anantara resort have full access to the elephants, with mahout lessons and care for the animals all part of a daily itinerary - a fantastic experience for anyone who can afford it. 

Baby elephant at GTAEF

But if you need an even greater incentive to visit Thailand’s north than elephants, there are plenty of other attractions in the Golden Triangle region to keep you occupied for several days. Across the road from the Anantara is the fascinating Hall of Opium, which tells the story of the region’s infamous drug trade without holding back; while the nearby town of Chiang Saen is a veritable historic goldmine, with Lanna temples such as Wat Phra That Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Chao Lan Thong dating back to the 13th century.

It’s beautifully cool and misty up here in the north during the winter season (November-January) - and there’s something truly magical about an early morning pilgrimage to the evocative Wat Pa Sak, built in 1295 and surrounded by 300 teak trees. Chances are you’ll have this architectural and spiritual gem all to yourself - enjoy the serenity.

Sunrise over the Mekong at Sop Ruak. Pics: Julie Miller

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Koh Kood - Gangsta's Paradise

A friend just told me about Gizoogle, an app which ‘pimps’ out your profile, translating it into gangsta slang. Here’s what it says about Kao Jai Thailand: Travel thug Julie Miller n' her musings on Thailand, where she'd rather be n' aint a thugged-out damn thang dat yo' ass can do."

Today I was planning to write about Koh Kood, another of my “places in the heart” - my favourite destinations in Thailand. I don’t think I could do it more justice, however, than to simply rehash a previous story I wrote about the island, gizoogle-style... 

“WHEN I stumble across tha mythical "road less travelled", itz up in tha last place I expect. Yet here it lies before me - brand freshly smoked up n' smooth, without a cold-ass lil hoopty or motorcycle up in sight fo' realz. All hopez of hailin a ride immediately dissolve; seems I have no chizzle but ta hoof it ta mah destination five kilometres away. 

This surely must be a gangbangin' first fo' Thailand - a road wit no traffic. But Koh Kood is no ordinary Thai destination; itz a island defined by its resistizzle ta tha trappings of 21st-century tourism. Imagine - no airport, straight-up few hoopties, no ATMs, no 7-Elevens n' no McDonald's. Thanks ta tha effortz of enlightened locals wit a eye on sustainability, Thailandz fourth-largest island remains paradise found. 

In tha far eastsideern reachez of tha Gulf of Thailand near tha Cambodian border, Koh Koodz remotenizz has been its saviour. Shiiit, dis aint no joke. Just gettin here requires time n' effort; itz at least a one-hour speedboat ride from tha closest mainland port of Trat, while tha hood ferry takes bout three hours. 

Like most visitors ta tha island, however, I arrive via Koh Koodz larger n' mo' ghettofab sista island, Koh Chang, a two-hour journey by speedboat. Though I aint booked any accommodation, I've had ta nominizzle where I be bout ta be dropped off; on a gangbangin' fellow travellerz recommendation, I chizzle Koh Kood Resort.” 

You get the idea, no need for me to take the joke any further! 

Basically, if you’re after a pristine patch of paradise, where the water is warm and clear, the beaches soft and white and the accommodation still affordable, you need look no further than Koh Kood. 

There’s not much to do, mind, except for laze around, read a good book, or maybe hang out in a beach bar watching the sunset. There’s a waterfall to visit, and a fishing village. And countless secluded bays to swim in. If you’re after nightlife or shopping, forget it - this is the Thailand of old, simple, traditional and totally sublime. 

Suffice to say, Koh Kood is truly da shit.

Pics: Julie Miller

Monday, 13 May 2013

L.O.S or Loss? Secure Travel in Thailand

Regular contributor John Borthwick looks on the darker side of travelling life. 

There’s a joke about how foreigners arrive in Thailand and seem to leave their brains at the airport. Well, why not? You’re on holidays in the Land of Smiles, the happy valley of mai pen rai. And, especially if you’re young, you’re bulletproof. Right? 

Statistics, those grey party-poopers, reckon otherwise. Some 100 Australians died in Thailand last year, largely due to illness and accident. 

OK, unless you’re very dumb, drunk or unlucky, you probably won’t come home in a box. Maybe just traction. But plenty of other bummers do happen. 

Let’s get smart about the common ones. 

Theft. It’s real. Always use your hotel room safe or a deposit box. Don’t carry around your vital documents and cash “safely” in your bum-bag or shoulder bag — it’s the easiest target in the world for snatch-and-grab. Carry photocopies of your docs, cards and info separately from the originals. Also, photograph the lot and save the images to your laptop or phone, and a webmail account. If you do lose valuables (through theft or otherwise) report it ASAP to the police, and get a signed, dated report. Without that, your insurer won’t help. 

Insurance. Rafting, biking, climbing, diving, partying ... what’s to worry about? If you can’t afford good travel insurance, stay home and save until you can, because you can’t afford to be in Thailand without it. 

Bank stuff. Be watchful for “skimmers” on ATMs, aimed to capture your PIN. Cover the pad when you key-in. Even so, the ATM fees themselves can feel like legal theft: any cash withdrawal against a foreign bank entails a 150 baht ($5) fee-grab for the Thai bank, plus your home bank’s charge, plus currency conversion fees — ultimately making frequent, small withdrawals very expensive money. If you’re concerned about credit card theft or scams, get a “damage limitation” card with a low limit (say, $1000) and use it exclusively. New credit cards and passports have smart chips designed for RFID readers, but these can also be read by a thief located near you with a reader, making your information vulnerable. Korjo has developed inexpensive “Defender” pouches with an RFID shield to block such theft. 

“Friends” and other strangers. Don’t presume that all thieves are local punks. Fellow travellers, especially in shared budget accommodation, can be very light-fingered and soon very gone. Don’t tempt them. Similarly, if you meet an agreeable local person in a bar and decide to extend the friendship back in your room, make sure that all your valuables are locked away before your mind is on other things. 

On the Road. Whatever you secure your valuables in, don’t then stick it in the overhead storage on a plane or train. Keep it on you. Thailand’s intercity passenger vans are fast, furious and cheap. Unfortunately they’re often too fast and jam-packed, being piloted by guys on speed trying to maximize their daily runs and profit. Serious prangs happen. Think about the bus, the legroom, the restroom, the aircon ... 

Motorcycles. The most common cause of significant grief. It’s easy to hire one, even if you’ve never been on a bike in your life. However, if you don’t have a current Australian motorcycle licence (not just a car one) your travel insurance won’t cover a thing when you wipe out — wearing thongs and no helmet? Yes, it wasn’t you fault, sure — but it is still your hospital bill. Medicare doesn’t apply outside Australia and Thai hospitals can charge like wounded red bulls. 

Jet-skis. Don’t go near them. In Phuket and Pattaya, in particular, tourists are extorted every day by the jet-ski mafia who inevitably discover your “damage” to their craft on its return. Threats, violence and official indifference mean that you pay up, big time. If, however, you do hire one and then cause death or actual damage, you’re in even deeper trouble. 

Random tips. Pack a couple of small padlocks, and a supply of light cable-ties — for temporarily securing external zippers, etc. Hotel keycards can sometime contain your un-encoded data on the magnetic strip; break them before discarding. Be mindful of drink spiking; it happens rarely but, depending on the circumstances, don’t leave your drink unattended. Never get into a fight with a Thai — it won’t be one-on-one. At internet shops and public computers, log-out fully, clearing your password and history.

Pics: John Borthwick

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

White Elephant in the Forest

Tradition or conversation? That’s the question that’s been raised since the image of a white elephant was recorded a few days ago by cameras in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in Thailand. 

White elephants are considered sacred in Thailand; they are said to bestow prosperity and good fortune. A white elephant featured on the national flag until 1917; and a white elephant is still the ensign of the Royal Thai Navy. All of Thailand’s 10 known white elephants - six males and four females - belong to the King, and are kept in captivity at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. All of these animals were wild-born, as it is forbidden to breed white elephants. 

The Royal Thai Navy flag

A Royal White tusker, Phra Sawet Adulyadej Phahnon (now deceased) 

Famous image of the King meeting the above ele

According to reports, there is a 6 million baht reward for anyone who captures the so-called white elephant (which is more like a light grey, with fair lashes and toenails) ... but elephant experts are arguing that this money would be better spent on preserving habitat and protecting the wild elephant herd. Surely this would be more auspicious and forward-thinking than bringing yet another wild-born animal into custodial care. 

But in the meantime, further evidence is required to prove that the elephant in question is indeed a white elephant. Salt licks have been created to lure the herd closer to cameras, while the heavy media presence in the park has been restricted to give the elephants space. 

My hope is that the powers-that-be use this opportunity to make a real impact on the welfare of Thailand’s precious wild elephant herds by spending the promised capture money on conservation instead.

One of Thailand's auspicious white elephants - or maybe just a normal elephant with makeup on...