Monday, 31 December 2012

Free-wheeling Through Bangkok's Brigadoon

Guest blogger John Borthwick goes in search of a very rare Thai destination, a car-free zone, and finds it on a time-warp Bangkok island. 

Bangkok and bicycling. The two words go together nicely — much as “Russian” and “roulette” do. But the combination can be done, even survived, although not recommended down Sukhumvit Road. 

With a little peloton of five other riders I’m heading to Koh Kret, an island in the Chao Phraya River some 20 km north of Bangkok’s neutron accelerator CBD. Moh, our guide on this easy, one-day ride, first drives us to a pier beside the restless river, where we wheel our bikes onto a little ferry.

Minutes later we step ashore on river-moated, time-warp Koh Kret. The island is that very rare Thai thing, a car-free zone. In 1722 Koh Kret became a refuge to Mon tribes who have lived here ever since, retaining their distinct identity and producing renowned terracotta and earthenware pottery.

 Some 1500 Mon now live on the island in seven scattered villages. Their potteries produce works in kwan raman, an unglazed red-black clay. Moh leads us to a family pottery-gallery where we watch a sculptor carve a highly complex Ramayana mythological scene onto a large earthenware pot. He tells us it will take at least two weeks to finish the work, after which the pot might easily crack when fired in the kiln. He sighs, “If that happens I stare at the sky for two hours, then start again.”

We are here mid-week and the island’s narrow paths are less crowded than on the very busy weekends. We cruise along concrete causeways built above the tidal flats, with jungle to the left, hamlets to the right and mangroves all around.

Our next stop is a typical pottery factory where everything is done by hand — I am astonished by the uniformity of the pots and the pace at which the workers, paid per vessel, are producing them.

My fellow cyclists are shoppers and soon their backpacks are heavy with bowls, ornamental platters and Buddhas. Weaving past Mon houses, paddies, orchards and galleries, we reach the northernmost tip of the little island. The temperature today is wok-hot, so we take a breather here beside a small pagoda on the point that thrusts into the Chao Phraya’s current, splitting it like a ship’s prow.

The ancient pagoda, marzipanned with decades of whitewash, sags precariously towards the river like a chocolate melting in the sun. I know how it feels. We rehydrate and revive, then saddle up again to plunge back into this timeless, two-wheeled island. Lacking cars, bars, taxis, malls and tuk-tuks, Koh Kret feels like Bangkok’s version of Brigadoon.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Hey, Big Spenders! Bangkok Bargain Shopping

In a recent cover story for the Sun Herald's travel section, experts told Belinda Jackson where to find shopping bargains in Asia. Bangkok came in at Number 7 as a shopping destination... 

7. Bangkok 57/100

The insider: Photographer Matt Burns splits his time between Australia and Bangkok (

What's hot: Fun street markets, great hotels and spectacular food. 69/100 for affordability.

What's not: Dodgy counterfeits. 50/100 for culture and climate.

Hey big spenders....

The address book:
  • Monte Carlo tailors isn't a cheap option, but the staff do provide fantastic quality and service. Expect to pay $300-$1000 for a suit, depending on the cloth ( 
  • I can't recommend Fotofile in the MBK Centre highly enough for its professional camera equipment and unsurpassed knowledge and service. Try and talk to Khun Kong for the best service ( 
  • Pantip Plaza has every piece of computer equipment you'll ever need, but know your prices first (604 New Petchaburi Road). 
  • For clothes, homewares and pretty much everything in the world, visit the Chatuchak weekend market. Get in early before the heat and crowds ( and shop for Thai silk at Narai Phand in the Royal Thai Government Handicrafts Centre (

Getting there: Fly Sydney to Bangkok direct with Thai Airways (, Emirates ( or Qantas (

Staying there: The new, wallet-friendly Aloft Bangkok is a quick tuk-tuk trip to Bangkok's shopping strips (

More info

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Designs on Bangkok: The new wave of designer hotels

What constitutes a 'designer' hotel? Guest blogger Roderick Eime visits the latest crop of hotels in Bangkok vying for this label.

Pullman Bangkok Hotel G - cheeky urban fun

One doesn’t simply build a hotel these days, it seems, they must be ‘created’.

On my most recent visits to the capital of charming chaos, Bangkok, I’ve had the opportunity to stay in a series of staggering hotels, each seemingly outdoing the other for style, design and ‘lifestyle’ elements.

Despite a reasonable degree of experience covering the hospitality industry, I’ve had to go back to school, so to speak, to acquaint myself with the latest vernacular in hotel-speak. Specifically the terms ‘designer’ and ‘lifestyle’ which, on their own, are fairly self-explanatory, but when applied to the new wave of sexy, chic hotels springing up in the world’s grooviest locales, it helps to understand the motivating philosophy.

Cynics could be forgiven for shaking their heads and dismissing this trend as simply an exercise in marketing semantics. Just add a coat of lurid paint, a set of paisley drapes, an upside-down looking wall hanging and a Daliesque vase and - voilà – you have a designer hotel and a 50 per cent premium on your room rate. Not so apparently.

According to The Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association (who are known by the ironically amorphous acronym, BLLA), a property that "combines living elements and activities into functional design giving guests the opportunity to explore the experience they desire" can be deemed ‘lifestyle’. Then ‘designer’ hotels, it would appear, go beyond that and are "distinctive hotels with unique architecture, where the room design is as important as the mattress. Style along with environmental concern are important factors. Design hotels vary by the unique abilities of the people who create them. Artistic expression, functionality, and imagination combine to make the most successful design hotels, and keep guest not only comfortable during their stay, but in a constant state of awe with the hotel designer's creative vision".

Clearly setting a lofty benchmark that goes beyond mere flophouse, these hotels certainly add a new level of flair and excitement to what can be a drab and featureless experience in some bland buildings. As an added bonus, many rooms can be currently had for under $200, unheard of other Asian metropolises.

VIE Hotel, boutique 5-star from Accor's M Gallery Collection

VIE Hotel (Accor’s M Gallery Collection): Designed, naturally enough, through French architectural house, J+H Boiffils’, VIE actually exercises a little restraint, but still exudes cool in its core DNA. Accor’s M Gallery collection of memorable hotels is fronted by brand ambassador, Kristin Scott Thomas, the gorgeous Anglo-French actress who has more charm in her finger nail than most of us put together. She says the M Gallery hotels are “a collection of strong personalities and sharp, strong styling but still elegant, like invitations to discover the new and the unexpected.”

Scarlett, at Pullman Bangkok Hotel G

Pullman Bangkok Hotel G: Not that this is necessarily a universally ringing endorsement, but this hotel really appealed to me through a bit of rough-edged retro cool mixed with a sense of playfulness and urban charm. Pullman is another Accor brand with their eye on upscale business clients in major cities and is growing like crazy. Rebranded and restyled from its former persona as Sofitel Bangkok Silom, the newest Pullman in Bangkok is cheeky and fun with a super cool terrace restaurant. Scarlett, on the 37th floor, is just drop-dead, while 25 Degrees do ground-level burgers with extra pizazz.


Hansar: The 94-suite Hansar opened in early 2011 and almost instantly shot to the top of TripAdvisor’s hotly contested ranking. Singapore-based architects WOHA integrated eco-friendly features into Hansar’s design including open-air corridors, natural lighting, and frangipani trees that absorb car emissions outside.

Sofitel So Bangkok Club Signature

Sofitel So Bangkok: An utterly outrageous hotel that pushes every boundary with super edgy design and décor. The executive lounge, Club Signature, is “a masterpiece of high fashion dedicated to the high life inspired by legendary couturier Mr Christian Lacroix”.

Wish list: Hotel Muse, another M Gallery property. See Julie's review of this property from November 2011.

Images for this post are supplied by the respective hotels.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Koh Surin's Nomadic Sea Masters

Guest blogger John Borthwick explores the resilient world of Thailand's sea gypsies, survivors of the tsunami and the onslaught of the modern world.

Ramparts of shimmering rainforest tower above the island as we approach. Perched high on stilts along the shore of this Eden-like bay are some 20 palm-thatched huts, home to the Moken "sea gypsies” of Koh Surin.

The world became aware briefly of the Moken after the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand’s Andaman coast. The five tiny islands of the Mu Koh Surin archipelago are part of a marine national park just south of the Thai-Myanmar sea border and some 60 kilometres off Thailand’s west coast.

"The elders had told us that if the water recedes fast it will reappear in the same quantity as it disappeared," recalls Moken man, Sarmao Kathalay. As the ocean drew back dramatically on December 26, 2004 the Moken knew what would follow — a massive surge known as laboon, the "wave that eats people", that is supposedly brought on by the angry spirits of their ancestors. Thanks to their legend, by the time the huge surges hit Koh Surin the Moken had retreated to the hills.

The Moken are known in Thai as chao naam (people of the water) or chao lay (people of the sea), and in English by the romantic term “sea gypsies”. Their two villages, on isolated, pristine shorelines on North and South Surin islands, are well apart from North Surin’s busy tourist campground at Chong Khat Bay.

Many Moken men work seasonally in the national park, so those I find when I visit the village are either very young or old. Bare-breasted mothers sit in the sand playing cards. A man carves a model of the traditional Moken kabang houseboat to sell to tourists. The toy is a reminder of the Moken’s skills as celestial navigators and sea nomads — ways that are fast disappearing.

There’s a houseboat moored where we land. On board lives a family of five — three generations. Farther down the beach, an older man works on a brightly painted spirit totem pole that he is preparing for April’s law bong festival.

                                                     (pics John Borthwick, 2012)

Koh Surin is not an Eden in retreat. Since 1981 the islands have been a Thai marine national park where “development” has not been allowed to stamp its boot. The islands are dense with beauty both above and below the waterline. The reefs are a brainstorm of metaphor-defying colour, movement and sealife. Overlooking the sea is dense rainforest where macaques skitter through the canopy.

While their shamans and animist portents are still vital to the Moken, they can no longer hunt endangered hawksbill turtles, their children attend primary school, and their boats are driven by diesel not wind. For these once-nomadic fishers who presciently survived the tsunami, the shoals of contemporary life are a different and difficult battle.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A Short and Dubious History of Pattaya

What’s in a name? Guest blogger John Borthwick takes a light-hearted look at Pattaya’s possible origins.

On 29th June 1959, or 29 April 1961, four — or five — US Army trucks rolled into a snoozy fishing village on the Gulf of Thailand, east of Bangkok. The village was Pad Tha Ya, aka Pattaya.

The trucks disgorged a cargo of GI's on leave from fighting in Vietnam. Or perhaps 100 marines from an upcountry base at Nakhon Ratchasima. Or American sailors from nearby Sattahip naval port. Or possibly US fliers from the also nearby U-Tapao airfield. Choose the internet-published creation myth that suits you. Like most assertions made about, or in, Pattaya, the truth is mutable.

On arrival in Pattaya for R&R – rest and recreation – the grunts, Green Berets, swabbies or top guns, rented houses along the palmy southern end of Pattaya Beach. Having stayed for a week or so they returned to kill or be killed in ‘Nam. Soon they were replaced by more of their kind arriving in Pattaya. R&R became synonymous with I&I – intercourse and intoxication — and Pattaya’s locals never again had to worry much about the price of fish.

Alternatively, Pattaya’s name might derive from the arrival there of Phraya Tak (later King Taksin) in 1767. The place became known as Thap Phraya, meaning the Army of the Phraya. This morphed to Phatthaya, or Pad Tha Ya. Which can also mean (or so we are told) “the wind blowing from the southwest to the northeast at the beginning of the rainy season.”

Any way the wind blows (which doesn’t really matter, as Freddy Mercury noted), Pattaya today hosts over six million visitors a year. Regardless of its origins, Pattaya — aka Sodom-by-Sea or the Gomorrah-of-Tomorrah — now spells “Nightlife”. In fact the town doesn’t really get going until early evening when hundreds of beer bars thronged by chirpy hostesses start to pump up the volume. For a walk on the mildly wild side, stroll down the famous, neon-blazing Walking Street, the heart and groin of Pattaya after dark. Many visitors just pull up a pew and a beer at one of the street-front bars, there to contemplate the nocturnal human zoo in all its beauty and bawdiness.

As Thailand’s largest resort town, Pattaya reportedly produces annual tourist revenues of around US$1.5 billion and has 35,000 (and growing) hotel rooms. Time magazine described it as “arguably the birthplace of mass tourism in modern Asia and still its undisputed capital.” Not a bad growth spurt for a little-known village that welcomed its first foreign visitors just over 51 years ago. Or was that 53?

(pics John Borthwick, 2012)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Sleepy Koh Phayam

Guest blogger John Borthwick shares another of Thailand's hidden island treasures...

The little Thai island of Koh Phayam floats just south of Burma, seemingly in the waters of amnesia.

A dot in the Andaman Sea 30 km from Ranong, Koh Phayam (pronounced “pie-am”) has no cars or roads, few bars, no condo towers or squealing paragliders. “We have nothing like that yet,” a Thai man tells me. “And I hope we don’t get.”

Phayam’s accommodation consists mostly of bungalow resorts. I’ve booked at Bamboo Bungalows on Aow Yai Beach, that’s run by a mellow Israeli, Yuli and his Thai wife, Nut. Yuli paints a picture of when he arrived here 15 years ago: “Foreigners were as rare as hornbills. There were only five resorts then – now there are 35.”

I grab a kayak and paddle out into the lazy blue swell. A small wave breaks there all day long — hardly classic surf, but still it’s a wave. On Phayam you take naps, long walks, longer reads and perhaps a trip to “town” for cinnamon buns or a few beers.

The island’s two main west coast beaches — Aow Yai and Aow Khao Kwai — are backed by low, forested hills, while the east coast is mostly mangrove shore. I hire a motorbike and explore Phayam’s two “roads” — just 2.5 km of narrow concrete pathways — aiming for the isolated beach of Aow Kwang Peeb. A precipitous track drops me down to its perfect emerald bay with a fingernail of sandy shoreline. I dive right in.

Among the more upmarket accommodation is Payam Cottage Resort. At the other end of the scale are low-rent cabanas where the pathway borders are formed, tellingly, by empty beer bottles.

Phayam’s appeal is still defined by what it lacks: discos, ATMs, beer bars and taxi mafia. However ... back at Bamboo Bungalows I do lap up the cold beer and Nut’s delicious tiger prawns. Yuli jokes, “Guests complained when there was no internet, so I got it. Soon they complained it was too slow, so I installed free wireless. What’s next?”

“The younger backpackers go to the ‘bar islands’,” he says, referring to already demised “paradises” like Phi Phi and Koh Tao, places now awash with tattoo shops and pizza parlours. Phayam is frequently described as “Like Koh Samui or Phuket 30 years ago” — a cliché that’s loaded with troubling prophecy.

Come late afternoon, Koh Phayam’s cicadas crank up the volume and the dusk lightshow begins. Above the ghost islands off Burma thunder clouds are stacked thousands of metres high, grey phantoms of vapour twitching with lightning. The sky slowly burns down from purple haze to darkness while along the beach a party bonfire flares up and a conga drummer kicks in.

(pics: John Borthwick)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

What Goes Up...

It’s that time of the year again, when the skies above Thailand twinkle with floating lanterns, drifting on the thermals along with a million hopes and dreams...

Lighting hot air lanterns is a traditional part of the Loy Krathong celebrations all over Thailand (which this year falls on November 28). In the northern Lanna city of Chiang Mai, this beautiful ritual is taken one step further with its own festival, Yi Peng (held on the full moon of the second month of the Lanna calendar, which this year is celebrated November 25 to 29). During this festival, hanging lanterns adorn every house and public spaces in Chiang Mai, while thousands of khom loys (as the lanterns are called) are released into the air en masse, creating a Milky Way of floating lights.

It’s truly a breathtaking sight, and a thought-provoking, spiritual experience. Releasing of the lanterns is said to represent worries and fears floating away on the breeze, and the ritual of lighting the inner fuel cells, waiting for the balloon to fill, feeling that tug as it morphs into life, then gently releasing and watching it drift away is a wonderful, euphoric moment.

But what goes up must come down - and there is increasing concern that the khom loys create an environmental hazard as the lanterns disintegrate and the metal rim falls back to earth (or even worse, into the sea.) And of course, there is also the ever-present danger of fire, with many a lantern misfiring and plummeting to the ground via a tree or wooden house.

The key to a guilt-free Yi Peng festival is to maybe seek out environmentally-friendly versions of the lanterns, made with a bamboo rim; alternatively, perhaps share your khom loy with a friend, thereby minimising the waste.

The same applies for anyone releasing a krathong, the floating offerings released into rivers and waterways. Avoid styrofoam floats at all cost; all-natural materials are not only biodegradable, but far more beautiful anyway.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Bangkok Literary Festival Opens

Damn! I’m a little late for this event - the very first Bangkok Literary Festival. But definitely something I’ll put in the diary for next year - both as a writer and a fan of good literature.

The inaugural event has just begun in the City of Angels, bringing together more than 100 writers, translators and publishers from around Asia and the Pacific in conjunction with one of Asia’s longest-running and most prestigious literary events, the South East Asian Writers’ Award.

The four-day think-tank for writing professionals - with the theme ‘Reaching the World’ - kicked off today with a two day summit exploring the value of literary prizes and the need for quality translators to take Asian manuscripts to the world. The event will also feature author showcase readings by Thai writers, creative writing workshops by international authors, and the gala ceremony for the SEA Writers Award.

Special guests include Australian writer Matthew Condon, author of A Night at the Pink Poodle and The Trout Opera, and Hong Kong author and satirist Nuri Vittachi, who is a great champion of literary prizes, having been the driving force behind the (recently axed) Man Asian Literary Prize. Mr Vittachi will host an ‘open mic’ event called The Storytellers’ Soiree at Q Bar, 34 Sukumvit Soi 11, from 6pm on Wednesday, where writers can read their work and share it with the public.

The literary festival takes places as Bangkok gears up for a year in the literary spotlight, having been designated World Book Capital in 2013 by UNESCO - a title given to a city in recognition of its contribution to the book industry. The committee said it chose Bangkok "for its willingness to bring together all the various stakeholders in the book supply chain and beyond, actors involved in the publication chain for a range of projects proposed, for its community-focused and the high level of its commitment through the proposed activities."

Another notch in Bangkok’s cultural crown, and another step towards it becoming a major player in the world literary scene.

For more information and a list of events at the literary festival, visit

Friday, 2 November 2012

A Crappy Cup of Coffee

One of the great things about living in Sydney is its coffee - it really is the best in the world (praise be to Buzzzbar, Newtown, for my morning fix). Or is it? It’s certainly not the most expensive - that honour goes to ... drum roll ... Thailand, where my friends from the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation have produced a brew worth its weight in gold.

Trouble is, it’s shit. Quite literally. Or at least, derived from shit. Pardon my French.

Called Black Ivory coffee, this exclusive drop - offered to guests at Anantara resorts in Thailand and the Maldives - is made from Thai Arabica coffee beans digested by elephants, dispersed in their dung, then recollected and sun-dried before being roasted and brewed using an antique ‘balancing syphon’ method developed in Austria in 1840.

Two cups of elephant poo coffee cost US$50; a kilo of digested beans sells for $1100. Only 50 kilograms of the beans are currently available for sale, while the eles work on creating more.

According to elephant guru John Roberts, enzymes in an elephant’s stomach break down coffee protein, subsequently reducing bitterness. He describes it in his blog ( as “very light coffee whose aroma puts you in mind of returning to a proper jungle after a long absence... the sense of steam and vegetation that a well inhabited jungle just has.” Think that means it’s hot, pungent and steamy ... as all good coffee should be.

Of course, elephants aren’t the first animals put to work in the creation of coffee. In Indonesia, beans digested by civet cats were once the most expensive in the world, at $340 for a pound. Mind you, I’d rather drink beans that came through a vegetarian mammal’s tract rather than a stinky carnivore that’s been eating rat guts...

And of course, the elephants get something back - a percentage of all coffee sales goes back to GTAEF, which cares for 30 rescued street elephants, along with their mahouts and families. Which doesn’t leave a bitter taste at all.

contemplating a good cup of coffee on an Anantara elephant

Monday, 22 October 2012

Whitewater Rafting in Pai

Out on the water, deep in the jungle ... but just don't expect peace and quiet when you're rafting in Pai, writes guest blogger John Borthwick!

First we hear them, then we see them. As our raft bounces down the stairs of a river rapid in northern Thailand, the following raft starts shrieking with terrified delight. And they’re still on flat water. Noi, Cherry and their Bangkok office pals are at large, hooting all the way from Pai to Mae Hong Son.

Our put-in point on the Nam Khong River is well past Pai, west of Chiang Mai. Ahead of is a day and a half, 45-kilometre journey. With six passengers per raft and a Thai boatman, we drift down a water alley colonnaded by giant bamboo, mango and teak. Silence is a concept admired in the abstract by Buddhist Thais, but in practice it is much less sanuk – fun – than making noise, lots of it. So we stroke and holler through both rapids and calms.

The water is clear and warm. Which is good because water fights with other rafts are always part of rafting. We drip dry, only to be drenched again in the rapids. The thrill is amplified for some of the Thais by knowing that they can’t swim. There are 15 rapids on our run but as this is January and the rapids are moderate. In September they were raging.

Come late afternoon we stop at a jungle camp to pass the night. We’re deep in the Lum Nam Pai National Park but on the bank there’s a sheltered sleeping platform with bedding and mosquito nets. Stoves are lit, pots simmer and soon there’s a feast. After dinner, with a million stars snagged in the trees and frogs burping in the blackness, we share that true wilderness pleasure — sitting around a campfire, yarning with friends.

Next morning we’re back into the boats, stroking through the river mists as the jungle’s stained-glass ceiling closes over us. “There’s a hot spring — pull the rafts in,” says our guide, Pu. We hop ashore and dig troughs in the sand, trapping the hot water. Soon we are wallowing in warm, muddy baths, happy as pigs-in, with me slowly turning into tom yam farang soup.

We paddle on, reaching the confluence of the Nam Khong and Nam Pai. From here, the rapids double to around one-and-a half metres. So to does the squealing from the Bangkok Ladies Boat. We dig deep now with our paddles, slamming and slewing and broadsiding. And then, mid-afternoon, we round a bend to see a building. No! Hong Son already! There are sobs of mock despair, and not just from Noi, Cherry and their crew.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Chonburi Buffalo Festival

Guest blogger John Borthwick visits one of Thailand's craziest and most colourful festivals, the Chonburi Buffalo Festival.

They’re getting set to race again at the Chonburi Buffalo Festival. That humble farm beast of burden, the water buffalo, or kwai, is about to have its brief, annual day in the Thai spotlight. The buffalo is the star of a unique event that’s held in mid-late October each year. Here you’ll see buffalo being preened and polished, watered, fed, decorated and admired like at no other time or place. That done, the buffaloes are then raced furiously against each other, being ridden like the bejeezus by skinny jockeys who somehow manages to stay perched on the thundering beasts as they tear down a 150-metre course. 

Just getting the four beasts competing in a race to point in the right direction at the starting line is a wrangling event, if not slapstick comedy, in itself. Then they’re off! Clouds of dust rise as the buffaloes stampede down the course at breakneck speed. The jockeys, riding bareback, are bounced mercilessly during the sprint, and sometimes bounced right off. The crowd goes crazy. The winning buff gets a bucket of water, but so do the losers. 

This year will be the Chonburi festival’s 141st year. It is a quintessentially Thai celebration rather than an event that’s tailored to the international tourist market. Foreigners of course are warmly welcome at this fair that also features Thai music, food stalls, handicrafts and other, non-bovine contests like hoop takraw, greased pole climbing and kite-making.

This being Thailand, naturally there are beauty contests — for both buffalo and farm girls — not to mention lots of betting. Prizes are awarded for the healthiest buffalo, the most splendidly decorated buffalo and also the most humorously decorated one. 

As well as racing, there is a parade of 13 carts that portrays the Vessantara Jataka, the story of one of Buddha's past lives. According to Buddhist tradition, the celebration is held at the time of the full moon in the 11th lunar month. This year it runs from October 16 to November 1, with the highlight being October 29 — the day when more than 140 buffalo will race madly down that track, jockeys bouncing, dust churning and thousands of Thais cheering them on. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

In the footsteps of Buddha

I’m writing this, not from Thailand, but from India - so close, yet so far! Both countries, however, have something in common (apart from crazy traffic): they are both places of pilgrimage for those of the Buddhist faith.

The International Buddhist Tourism Conclave, held from September 29 to October 1 in Varanasi and Bodh Gaya in northern India, was attended by 133 delegates from 33 countries around the world, including a large delegation from Thailand (and a much smaller contingent from Australia - just two of us!) The conference highlighted the fact that not only is religious tourism at the very origins of travel, but it’s also a growth market as more and more people have the means to travel across borders. It also looked at ways to marry tourism with religious worship without compromising the latter, and how to improve infrastructure to make sacred sites more comfortable for tourists.

       (monks setting off on a 'peace march' from outside the Thai temple in Bodh Gaya, India)

There are 400 million Buddhists on this planet; and it’s never been easier for them to travel to venerated sites such as Lumbini in Nepal (the birthplace of Buddha), Bodh Gaya, where he found enlightenment, and Sarnath (near Varanasi) where he gave his first sermon. Every day, these sites are jam-packed with tourists - but unlike other monuments, these are not just ancient monuments made from bricks and mortar, but living, breathing places of worship, alive with the energy of those seeking guidance, peace and salvation. 

Sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bohd Gaya where Buddha found enlightenment, meditating to the sound of chanting monks, for instance, is a truly magical, compelling and soul-stirring experience, even for this non-Buddhist. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for devotees of the faith, to finally be walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. 

                                         (under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya)

While the focus of the conference was definitely India-centric, the challenges set during the five day event are just as pertinent to Thailand, with its many shrines and temples which attract tourists of every faith. Thailand has some of the most beautiful and venerated Buddhist sites in the world, including Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok,and Wat Phra Sri Sanphet in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya ... but like India’s sacred sites, it’s important for Thailand and the Buddhist world that these places are not loved to death, and that pilgrims don’t destroy what they’ve set out to venerate. 

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Elephants Stop Traffic in Hua Hin

by Roderick Eime in Hua Hin

The normally frenetic traffic of Hua Hin's main street had a new element to contend with this morning when a dozen elephants from the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament paraded alongside peak hour motorists in a rowdy welcome ceremony.

With colourful costumed maidens and brass bands, the polo-playing pachyderms sauntered along the bitumen as hard-pressed traffic police tried to keep curious onlookers, photo opportunists and scrambling media at bay.

The leisurely procession made their way to Hua Hin's Suriyothai Army Base where the 11th staging of this now famous charity and fun event will take place.

The tournament was introduced to Thailand in 2001 by Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas and has grown to become one of the biggest charitable events in Thailand that has raised almost US$500,000 for projects that better the lives of Thailand’s elephant population

The 2012 tournament will see the New Zealand All Black’s Robin Brooke, Olo Brown and Adrian Cashmore go head to head with European royals Prince Carl-Eugen Oettingen-Wallerstein and his wife Princess Anna and daughter Princess Joanna. Miss Tiffany Thailand will also be playing in the tournament for the first time adding a hint of fun and a lot of colour.

International and local celebrities, including US actress Isabelle Fuhrman, Former Thai PM Aphisit Vejjajiva, super models Cindy Bishop, Lukkade Methinee and Australian Marie Claire’s Editor in Chief Jackie Frank have donated their artistic talents by painting a piece of “The Big Picture” elephant-themed painting which will be on display throughout the event and which will be auctioned off for charity at the final gala dinner.

For more information on King’s Cup Elephant Polo, please visit

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Walk Across Thailand in a Day

Guest blogger John Borthwick sets out to achieve the seemingly impossible - to walk across Thailand in one day. Yes, it is possible...

“You’re going to walk where in a day?” ask my friends. “Half a day, actually — across Thailand.”

A few mornings later I am standing on sweeping beach on the Gulf of Thailand, 300 km southwest of Bangkok. Wang Duan, just south of Prachuap Khiri Khan, is a whistle-stop where the trains neither whistle nor stop. It does have however a sign that boasts, "The Narrowest of Thailand - 10.96km".

This is the narrowest point of Thailand’s Kra Isthmus, where the distance from the Gulf to the Myanmar border is less than 11 km, although the dogleg walking route is 13.4 km. I set out with my guide Khun Nithima, a local farmer, but four of her friends soon join us and my original “solo” walk has now expanded to six.

Our road to Mandalay crosses a coastal plane of bamboo, lagoons and marshlands. Ahead are the low blue hills of the Tenasserim Range that form the border between Thailand and Myanmar, or “Pamah” as the Thais say. Passing farmers stop and ask what’s with the farang guy? One comments, “Ting tong” 
— “nuts!”

The land climbs towards densely forested ridges. A woman and child on a motorcycle join our caravan. As the sealed road becomes a walking track, another woman points us up a 400-metre bush trail then she, too, joins us. It feels like a Forrest Gump-style rolling maul.

The track ends at a clearing where the Thais kneel to pray before a Buddha altar — giving thanks that we’ve survived? I look back across the coastal plain to the sea that we left three hours ago. “This is the border?” I ask. “Well, just up there a bit more,” I am told. “Up there” is rugged, bush-bashing terrain where my companions are disinclined to go, a ridge too far. I’ve almost walked across Thailand in a day. In fact, in half a day. And our group is now Nithima, her friends, two other women, one child, a dog and myself. “It just grew like a 
pumpkin,” laughs Nithima.

Soon after, a friend emails me the photo of another sign that boasts “Narrowest Point of Thailand”. It’s on the opposite side of the Gulf, in Trat, where the distance from the sea to the Cambodian border is just 450 metres. He adds with glee: “You can now only claim to have traversed the second narrowest part of Thailand.”

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Khao Sok National Park

Ah, the joys of over-water living. Is there a better way to greet the day than from the balmy depths of your own private swimming pool? Tying my bikini in the dim light, I push open the bamboo door of my sleeping quarters, take one step down from the front porch and dive straight into the warm, liquid embrace of the lake below.

This, however, is no ritzy coastal resort with palatial, credit-blowing bungalows dangling seductively over mirrored turquoise. My humble abode is the no-frills variety, a basic bamboo hut perched precariously on a wooden raft and anchored to a wobbly, rotting walkway on the edge of a man-made reservoir.

It’s simple in the extreme – four walls, a roof, a mattress covering bamboo flooring, and a little balcony under thatch. Communal bathrooms, consisting of Thai-style toilets (self-flush and predominantly squat, though lucky punters may chance on the one western-style throne) and cold showers, are a good two-minute walk up a hill; and there’s a restaurant and bar that serves fresh Thai meals, the obligatory Singha beer and rotgut Thai whisky.

Putawan Raft House
Hardly a five-star resort – but then again, what do you expect for 600 baht, or around $18 a day? Including three meals, that is. And free watersports, if you count the kayaks that are available to paddle around in. And with million-dollar, mind-blowingly beautiful views, could there be better value for money?

The Putawan Raft House is one of nine so-called ‘resorts’ hidden is isolated coves of Ratchaprapha Dam (also known as Cheow Lan Lake) in Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand. Covering 738 square kilometres in Surat Thani province – halfway between the tourist meccas of Koh Samui and Khao Lak - Khao Sok and two adjoining wildlife sanctuaries combine to form the largest area of pristine rainforest in the Thai peninsula, a remnant of an ancient, 160 million-year-old ecosystem.

Hidden in these dense jungles are the rarest of Asian species – wild elephants, sun bears, leopards and even tigers – as well as 180 species of birds including the magnificent white-crowned hornbill. Here you’ll also find the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia, a putrid, parasitic monster that only blooms in January and February; while a walk through the forest is rewarded by close encounters with curious gibbons who shimmy down from the canopy for a closer look at their human visitors.

The heart of the park is the man-made hydro-electric reservoir, created in 1982 and covering 165 square kilometres. As the valley was flooded, so over 100 islands were formed, dramatic forest-clad limestone peaks rising majestically above the emerald waters. The locals call this their Guilin – and it does indeed recall China’s World Heritage-listed treasure or even Vietnam’s Halong Bay, minus the crowds.

I take a few languid strokes in my massive freshwater pool, a lame pretence at exercise, before flipping onto my back to absorb this stunning panorama. The sun is now striking karst clusters on the opposite shore, parting the mist to create a pastel watercolour with a sensurround track of silence.

Such a rarity in South-east Asia, the absence of man-made racket is overwhelming. But it’s soon clear that this jungle resonates with its own symphony – the buzz of cicadas, the splash of fish jumping, the caw of a seabird and the distant whoop-whoop-whoop of a gibbon - the love song of freedom. I’m with him - this is one special place!

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Tiffany's Show

It's high-stepping, toe-tapping and drop dead gorgeous - guest blogger John Borthwick meets the stars of Pattaya's renowned cabaret, Tiffany's Show.

“When my parents came to see the show, they couldn’t recognise me on stage,” says curvaceous Lada, a star dancer at the celebrated Tiffany’s Show in Pattaya. It’s not surprising that they didn’t recognise her. When she left home a few years before, Lada had been a male. 

Now transformed in every sense, she is sporting a billowing gown and towering, blond pompadour and cuts a formidable figure ahead of a chorus line of similarly flamboyant dancers. 

Tiffany’s Show, the world’s largest transvestite cabaret originated as a one-man performance on New Year’s Eve 1974. Today, Tiffany’s 1,000-seat theatre rings out five times a day to a musical soundtrack that ranges from Thailand to Broadway, Bollywood to Seoul, via Tina Turner. A cast of 90 katheoy (transvestite/transgender) and 20 male dancers perform an extravaganza of high-stepping, drop-dead gorgeous, lip-synched routines. 

I catch up with Lada and her sister dancer, Fang, a willowy 28-year old who seems stitched into a black gown that displays an impossibly slender waist. At 169 cm tall, plus her 14 cm heels, this is a woman to literally look up to. Wasp waists, silicone curves and dazzling routines are all part of the showgirls’ lives. Above all, they live to dance, to blaze before a rapt audience. “I love to dance, and to make people happy,” says Fang. “It’s the very best part of my job.” 

In the dressing room before curtain there are no hissy-fits. Just a low murmur of chat above the swish of make-up brushes. Each performer at this point is a plain chrysalis in a dressing gown — still a long way from the butterfly who, radiant in silk, spangles and adrenaline, will strut her brief hour upon the Tiffany stage.

It’s showtime. On with the follies. The next hour is an extravaganza of all that glitters, mimes, twirls, kicks, swoons and sparkles, with even a Tina Turner lookalike. There’s no nudity — the fun is more vamp than camp — and the high-tech sets are as sumptuous as the leggy performers and their flash dancing. 

With a grand razzle-dazzle finale, Fang, Lada and the other principal showgirls descend majestically from the stage. With waists like fleeting hourglasses, plus spinnaker décolletages, they sweep through the foyer, heading to the Tiffany forecourt for the show after the show. Here, tourists jostle to be photographed with the girls — who tower above them. All for a good tip, of course.