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)