Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Beating Bangkok's Traffic - the Airport Link

If ever there was a misnomer, it’s “rush hour” in Bangkok: no one is ‘rushing’ anywhere, with traffic gridlocked and a 15 minute trip becoming a 45-minute epic. Even out of peak times, major thoroughfares such as Sukhumvit slow to a crawl, making any taxi journey a frustrating stop-start meter-ticking exercise.

Fortunately, cabs are relatively cheap in this city; and with luggage involved, it’s always been the easiest option for transportation from the airport into the city. But now there’s an alternative, and slowly but surely, visitors to Bangkok are realising that the simplest and least stressful way to travel to and from Suvarnabhumi Airport is on the new Airport Link train.

In just 22 minutes, the express non-stop train will whisk you from the air terminal to Phaya Thai BTS station, where you interchange with the BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit) Skytrain. Alternatively, you can take the Makkasan line, which links to the MRT line. Heading back to the airport, travellers on Thai Airways can check their luggage in at Makkasan (a la Hong Kong's awesome metro system).

Single tickets to both Phaya Thai and Makkasan cost 90 baht; a return is 150 baht, with a 14 day validity. Express trains leave on the half hour and the hour, with the 28.6 kilometre journey smooth, fast and hassle free. Alternatively, you can take the ‘city line’ train, which stops at all six stations into the city and costs just 45 baht one way.

A taxi, on the other hand, will cost you around 400 baht, plus 70 baht for tolls en route. Doing the maths, the train trip adds up to pretty good value, especially for solo travellers.

The most frustrating oversight in the Airport Link system is that Makkasan station – where you can check in your luggage – doesn’t link up with the BTS, which accesses most of the tourist hotspots. Someone wasn’t thinking straight in the planning stages, and as a consequence, Makkasan is somewhat of a white elephant.
However, the Airport Link is ideal if you are travelling light, or staying at a hotel within walking distance from a BTS station. If you have a lot of luggage, are travelling with a family, or don’t know where your hotel is located, it still may be more convenient to jump in a cab – just make sure you factor in the horrendous traffic and be prepared to sit ... and wait ... and wait...

Monday, 20 February 2012

Paper Giants

I may be a fairly forgettable person, but no one forgets my business cards. They are, quite simply, beautiful – made from handmade mulberry paper, a rich burgundy colour with a rustic, tactile texture and embossed in gold. Every time I pass one to a business colleague, it elicits the same response – “Oh, what a lovely card!” And I proudly say, yes, I had them made in Thailand.

My cards come from a remote little village in the north of Thailand, deep in the heart of the Golden Triangle near Mae Sai. I was visiting this area last year when I happened to admire the business cards of the General Manager of the Serene Hotel in the Golden Triangle; the lovely Khun Ginny then offered to take me to the factory where the paper was made, so I could order some for myself.

Jinnaluck (also known as Asian Design Concepts) is a burgeoning family-run cottage industry that produces and exports sublime paper products for the local and international market. Starting as a backyard venture over 20 years ago, it now employs 160 local people in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly and culturally rich small business, incorporating all aspects of paper production from growing raw materials, to making the paper, design and sales.

From humble beginnings, the company is now one of the largest mulberry, or saa paper producers in Thailand. More than 3000 handmade paper products are available at the Jinnaluck sales room, from beautiful handmade wrapping paper to cards, photo albums, carry bags, lamps and diaries. It also has a range of divine wallpaper which is sought after by Asian interior designers and boutique hotels.

                              (pics: Jinnaluck's colourful sales outlet, by Julie Miller)

Paper making workshops are available for school groups or even tourists interested in finding out more about the process, while the company has recently expanded into bamboo flooring and furnishings.

Ordering my business cards was a simple, yet nerve-racking experience: since I was leaving the northern region, I arranged to have the cards delivered to my hotel in Bangkok two weeks later. But first, I had to pay up front and provide a draft design for the card, with the artwork sent to me via email for confirmation (a necessary step, since the first version I received was a curious mishmash of Thai-lish!) But as promised, the cards arrived on time and with everything spelled correctly!

If you’re in the region, make sure you check out the lovely range of products available; or order online if you can’t make it up there.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Buddhas and Mermaids at Koh Chang

My feet are dangling a metre above the water, twinkling with darting fish and a mermaid. She’s a little weathered from years submerged, but the Khmer Apsana dancer staring up at me is still an intriguing companion.

This is the last place I expected to be having such a cool dining experience – the Thai island of Koh Chang, in the north-east corner of the Gulf of Thailand near the Cambodian border. But the Buddha View Restaurant has raised the bar for fabulousness in the region, combining European chic with relaxed Thai charm, great food and a seductive ambience.

                                      (the entrance to Buddha View. Pic: Julie Miller)

Owned by three Belgian friends, Buddha View perches on stilts above the waters of Bang Bao Bay, in the south of Thailand’s second largest island. Bang Bao is a working pier, trawlers docked alongside and women pounding shrimp heads into paste. Seafaring cats wander along the planks squeaking for handouts, and there’s always a fishy whiff in the air.

In the past few years, however, Bang Bao has also become a tourist mecca, with the narrow half-kilometre pier jammed with souvenir sellers, dive shops and restaurants. Guesthouses and private homes have also sprung up, with real estate prices exploding as society folk from Bangkok establish weekender accommodation.

Originally a sprawling Thai restaurant, the Belgians took over Buddha View five years ago, determined to upgrade, modernise and attract a different clientele – namely Europeans. First on the agenda was to convert half of the space to guest accommodation – there are now eight rooms available, simple yet stylish, all with king beds and four with spacious en suite bathrooms.

During the day, guests are welcome to soak up the sun on day beds strategically positioned on the pier; in the evening, these are the perfect place to sip on cocktails (the strawberry margaritas are to die for!), soaking up sunset views and watching the twinkling lights on the bay.

The coolest place to dine, however, is on colourful cushions alongside two large glass-top tables, hovering over holes cut into the original decking. The addition of the mermaid sculptures below, visible only at low tide, make for a mesmerising dining experience.

Matching the chill-out lounge ambience at the Buddha View is the quality of the food – exceptional flavours and presentation, with seafood barbecues and delicious jungle curries a specialty. And of course, you couldn’t get much fresher seafood, straight off the boat and direct to your plate.

                                      (glass-top table at Buddha View. Pic: Julie Miller)

Buddha View: 28 Moo 1 Bang Bao Pier, Koh Chang.
Rooms with ensuite bathroom cost from 1400 baht per night in peak season (Dec-Jan), less at other times of the year.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Adopt an Elephant!

This year for Christmas I gave my brother and his family a rather special gift – an elephant. That’s a large and extravagant present, I hear you say. After all, where do you keep an elephant, and doesn’t it cost a fortune to feed? Not exactly a kitten, is it?!

Which is actually the point – elephants are expensive animals to maintain. They eat a lot, around 200 kilos of food a day; they need space to roam if they are to remain happy and well adjusted; and vet bills alone can cost up to $1000 a month.

Most elephant owners, however, are not millionaires – they are normal Thai families, struggling to make a living and keep their families and animals off the streets. Many of Thailand’s mahouts are ethnic Kui people from Surin province, who have traditionally held the role of elephant carers since the Ayutthaya kingdom. Their battle to maintain this heritage and their unique livelihood inevitably comes down to employment and money – an issue which has become even more pertinent since the cessation of the logging industry in the 1980s.

These days, tourism is the major employer of elephants and their mahouts, with many mahouts giving up the relatively lucrative option of begging on city streets to relocate their elephants to more natural and healthy havens such as the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) camp in Chiang Saen, northern Thailand. But even with the backing of a high-profile hospitality player and charity events such as the annual elephant polo tournament to help raise funds, GTAEF struggle with the daily expenses of maintaining the 35 elephants they support, not to mention their human mahout families that come as part of a package deal.

Recognising this ongoing struggle for survival, world renowned elephant photographer Carol Stevenson has recently launched Adopt an Elephant, giving pachyderm lovers around the world the opportunity to do their bit for Thailand’s domestic elephant population. The first lucky elephant to be sponsored from the GTAEF is Pumpui, a gentle rescued street elephant with a pink spotted trunk who most recently was working with autistic children at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. Since the campaign was launched in November 2010, 70 percent of Pumpui’s monthly food and vet bill of $1000 has been met by over 200 sponsors, with the aim to have her fully stocked up with bananas and sugar cane before shifting the focus to two other elephants, Charlie and Ploy.

                                                     (Pic: Carol Stevenson)

Sponsors are invited to donate as much as they like, or as little as $5 a month, with one off sponsorships of $35 also available (and making great Christmas or birthday gifts!) In return, you’ll receive a printable portrait of Pumpui taken by Carol Stevenson, receive regular updates, and have your name added to the website. Best of all, however, is the satisfaction that your money is securing Pumpui’s future at the GTAEF, helping her to lead a more idyllic life befitting to such a gorgeous creature.