Monday, 30 April 2012

Stylish Bangkok, with Views

I’m a huge fan of hotels offering serviced apartments, particularly when I’m staying more than a few days in a city and want to spread out and make myself comfortable. My favourite in Bangkok is the Anantara Sathorn Hotel, a glitzy urban sanctuary which raises the bar somewhat in terms of scale, style and convenience.

Located in the business district of Silom, yet close enough to public transport, shops and restaurants for leisure visitors, Anantara Satorn looms 37 stories above bustling Narathiwat-Ratchanakarin Rd, its twin towers a distinctive landmark in a sea of skyscrapers. While there are studio-style premier rooms available, guests who book before December 31, 2012 automatically receive a complimentary upgrade to a suite, along with other incentives like a Skytrain pass, daily breakfast and free wi-fi.

And it’s a great deal - the one- and two-bedroom suites are lovely, beautifully appointed with sleek contemporary furniture and of course having all the modern technology you’d expect in a five-star property.

We’ve lucked out with a two-bedroom Kasara suite - and as we enter the front door, our jaws drop. The apartment is enormous, certainly bigger than our own pokey abode in Sydney, with a huge kitchen and central dining area, a handy office space, massive lounge and a balcony offering expansive city views. Turn right and we discover two big bedrooms, the master suite with its own en suite complete with rainshower and bathtub. We plonk ourselves down in the cozy lounge, put our feet up and let out a big ahhhh of satisfaction.

Scale and comfort aside, Anantara Sathorn has plenty of other features to lure discerning punters. On the ground level is a fabulous infinity-edge lap pool which, at 32 metres long, appears to go forever. There’s a fitness centre, tennis court with coaching available on request, a spa and plenty of dining options in three restaurants.

But we’re in for a treat - we’re headed up to the 37th floor to the Kasara Lounge where complimentary sunset cocktails and canapes await for the Kasara clientele. An open-air deck makes the most of the glittering Bangkok skyline ... seriously, no city does open-air like Bangkok, there’s just something about soaking in those views in the balmy weather that makes it an exemplary experience. The lounge is also open in the morning for breakfast if you just can’t get enough.

This is city living at its best, a hotel which is good enough to live in. Which you can if you like, as the apartments are also available for long-term stays!

(pics: Julie Miller 2012)

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Thailand's Latest Craze: Mud Boarding!

The good people of the tiny village of Pak Talae in Petchaburi province, Thailand, have invented a new sport, and think it might just be Thailand’s next craze – mud boarding. Yep, just like snowboarding or wake boarding, but instead of zipping over snow or water, you slide over mud. On a board. On your stomach.

Yes, it’s as dirty as it sounds. And it takes some time to get the hang of it. But if you’re dressed for the occasion and don’t mind making a fool of yourself, it’s actually quite fun. Whether it will actually take over the world of action sport or not is another question … but if it does, you heard it here first!

Pak Talae is located on a wide tidal flat on the Gulf of Thailand, just north of Hua Hin, about three hours drive south of Bangkok. Here, the locals make a living from collecting ark, or “blood cockle” shells, wading out along a kilometre-deep mud flat to pick up the little shells, selling them to a middle-man for 15 baht a kilo.

As I recently discovered, it’s hot, hard and messy work in the midday sun (with the industry driven by tides, collection takes place at low tide, regardless of the time of day). First, you have to be appropriately dressed – and that means putting on long woolly socks, secured by rubber bands, to protect your feet. Walking in this get-up through the sinking quicksand-like mud is pretty amusing, and harder than it sounds.

To make the collection of the ark shells easier and less of a strain on the back, the workers have devised a flat wooden board with a crate or bucket strategically placed in the middle. Workers lie down over the bucket, pushing through the mud with one leg like a scooter. This allows them to propel forward through the mud without having to stoop, while the board doubles as a convenient way to carry the heavy shells.

It’s simple, yet ingenious – but as the locals say, it’s far too much fun just to be a practical tool of the trade! While I admit to being too wussy to give it a shot (my argument being I had no clean clothes to get changed into), some of my fellow journalists had a go on a recent trip, and thought it was an absolute hoot.

The locals certainly thought it was pretty funny, watching their pathetic attempts to slide across the mud! And you’ve got to hand it to them, using tourism as a way of boosting not only their income but also to raise awareness of their lifestyle and livelihood.

                                                  (Pics: Julie Miller 2012)

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Bangkok's Best Kept Secret

Nestled in tropical gardens on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, just a step from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, is Bangkok’s most surprising hotel – Chakrabongse Villas. Comprising seven individual suites set around a central swimming pool, the villas form part of a grand estate, built in 1908 by Prince Chakrabongse.

Chakrabongse House. Pic: Julie Miller
Dominating the grounds is Chakrabongse House, a magnificent Italianate mansion originally used by the prince when he attended formal ceremonies at the Grand Palace, as well as for picnics and river excursions. It later became the home for writer and historian, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, before being handed down to its current owner, his daughter Narisa.

Well, that’s the boring story. The back-story is far more intriguing, a forbidden romance fit for a Mills & Boon novel. Apparently Prince Chakrabongse was a thoroughly modern man, travelling to Russia in his teens to study under Tsar Nicholas. There he fell in love; but with cross-cultural liaisons forbidden, the prince and Ekaterina Desnitsky scandalously eloped to Constantinople, a marriage kept secret from both the Tsar and the Thai king at the time.

After the honeymoon, Prince Chakrabongse returned to Bangkok sans wife, carrying on as if nothing had happened. But eventually the King discovered his secret, and Katya was allowed into Bangkok, albeit at a respectful distance from the royal family. Apparently she never did get to meet the king, despite bearing a child to her prince.

The couple’s son, the handsome and dapper Prince Chula, was brought up in Paruskawan Palace, and only came to live at Chakrabongse House when he returned to Thailand in the 1930s after finishing his degree at Cambridge. In 1938 he too married a foreigner, the English Lisba Hunter; but World War II prevented the couple from ever really making the house a home.

The drawing room with portraits of the owner's
father and grandmother. Pic: Julie Miller
When Narisa - who looks and sounds so very English, but is a quarter Thai - finally inherited the mansion, her dream was to bring it back to it to its former glory, as well as making it a real home. It’s subsequently been beautifully restored, a sympathetic fusion of Thai and European style bedecked with magnificent family heirlooms.

“It’s a home, not a museum,” Narisa says. And now she has opened her home to the public, building seven villas in the grounds and opening the main building for special events and corporate functions.

The villas themselves are tranquil retreats, peaceful riverside and garden views belying their killer location in the tourist heart of the city. Each suite has its own individual ambience, from a Lanna-style wooden house on stilts to the glitzy Chinese Suite, comprising two double bedrooms, living room and two private terraces. While the larger suites are priced up to 25,000 baht a night, there are smaller rooms available from 5,000 baht a night.

With such full access to the incredible grounds and facilities – including a longtail boat exclusively for use of guests – visitors to Chakrabongse Villas are guaranteed a unique Bangkok experience, one where Thailand’s history is literally at their fingertips.

View of the Chao Phraya River. Pic: Julie Miller

Monday, 9 April 2012

Setting an Elephant Free

It’s been a critical start to the year for Thailand’s beloved elephants. After the mutilated corpses of four wild elephants were found in Kaeng Krachan, Thailand’s largest national park, a series of raids by wildlife officers on elephant camps and wildlife sanctuaries around the country resulted in the confiscation of 26 elephants, a messy and complex business tarnished by violence, misinformation and nasty politicking.

While I don’t pretend to be expert on the matter (for a balanced and well-researched view, read, it’s clear that Thailand’s tourism industry and its relationship with the elephant is under the spotlight, particularly the notion of ethical and sustainable methods of caring for Thailand’s pachyderm population.

In the wake of this all this controversy, it’s heartening to see one elephant camp make a ground-breaking move for one of its charges, one which flies in the face of animals as financial commodities. In what must have been a heartbreaking and difficult decision, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, located in northern Thailand under the stewardship of the wise and wonderful John Roberts, has decided to release their young bull elephant, Tawan, back into the wild under the watch of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation.

An innovation of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, this organisation has quietly and successfully reintroduced over 20 domestic elephants into specially designated wilderness areas since 1997, a major boost to dwindling wild elephant populations. Like horses, domesticated elephants are more than capable of surviving in the wild once they are weaned from their dependence on hand-feeding – it’s simply a matter of giving them the freedom, room to move and a sustainable, safe place to dwell.

And so to Plai Tawan, a six-year-old tusker (minus one magnificent tusk after a play mishap) who has lived at GTAEF since he was a baby, rescued after being hit by a car. A rambunctious, nervous youngster, this handsome fellow has never been the easiest of charges (for his full story, read John Robert’s blog,; and as a male, he was often isolated from the herd, living a lonely life tethered on a jungle hillside away from trouble.

(This beautiful portrait of Tawan and his tusk was taken by elephant photographer extraordinaire, Carol Stevenson.

After a visit to one of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation sites near Lampang in 2008, Roberts began to question whether Tawan too might benefit from living in the wild. “What if we could sign him up for this?,” he writes in his blog. “Would he be happier? Would freedom to choose where to roam, who to interact with and how (with the inherent dangers in this for a young bull) be preferable to a dull routine and severely limited freedom?  Would this freedom make up for lack of sugarcane and bananas he’s eaten daily since he was weaned?”

Finally, after watching poor Tawan become more and more agitated, the decision was made; an introductory phone call was met with a definitive “yes please” (a healthy bull elephant being a rare prize for a wild herd), and the wheels were very quickly set in motion. As of two days ago, Tawan is now on his way to freedom in 160,000 acres of protected forest, commencing a gradual introduction to life as one of the Queen’s own roaming elephants.

           (Tawan being loaded into the truck to commence the journey to his new home. 

We wish you well, Tawan – and congratulations GTAEF and Mr Roberts on a brave and bold decision.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The Good Salt

Driving south from Bangkok towards the royal resort town of Hua Hin on Highway 35, you travel through one of Thailand’s most unusual landscapes – the salt pans of Samut Sakhon. This flat, desolate coastal region – stripped of its natural mangrove vegetation for many years now - is where most of Thailand’s salt is produced, ‘farmed’ in large squares of brine.

I’ve never put much thought into where salt comes from (the sea, obviously, but how does it get to the plate?) or how it is produced, so stopping off to watch conical-hatted, sock-wearing workers hard at work on these salt fields is quite fascinating. Production takes a month over three stages; first, briny water is pumped from the nearby Gulf of Thailand into the flat paddy-like squares and left to evaporate in the tropical sun. As it dries, the crystallised salt is raked and rolled smoothed, fields glistening in the sun like ice rinks. Finally, the salt is piled into little pyramids, then collected by workers carrying bamboo poles balanced with wicker baskets, transporting the salt to be cleaned and bagged.

                                        (workers on the salt fields. Pic: Julie Miller)

Considering Thailand produces around 1.2 million tonnes of salt each year, this is labour-intensive work! But as well as the salt used in factories, on roads and in cooking, there is another potentially lucrative by-product of the industry, one that every woman (and some men) absolutely must have – salt spa products!

After watching the salt workers plying their trade in the afternoon sun, we had the pleasure of dropping by the Kanghuntong Sea Salt Spa, located right in the heart of the salt fields, to enjoy the fruits of their labour – sublime salt products used in the beauty industry.

The salt used in cosmetics and spa products is the finest quality, a grade called fleur de sel (meaning ‘flower of salt’ in French). This ‘young’ salt has been scraped from the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of the salt pan; due to its relative scarcity, it is more expensive than regular salt.

A family-run business, Kanghuntong produces its own spa products in a basement workshop, mixing the raw salt with herbs, spices and flowers to make beautifully scented scrubs and soaks. Salt is not only a natural relaxant, but it also removes dead skin cells and stimulates new growth, leaving the skin smooth and glowing. Products sold by the company include herbal skin care lotions, salt soaps, mineral salt scrubs and bath salts. They also sell floral-infused cooking salt, which really packs a punch to the cooking pot.

                            (raw materials used in spa products. Pic: Julie Miller)

To sample these lovely products, we settle back on the upper balcony of the Kanghuntong spa for an hour or so of indulgence, starting with a relaxing foot soak and massage. We then trial the mineral scrub with an invigorating arm and hand massage, followed by a divine exfoliating facial.

Kanghuntong Salt Spa may be a little hard for farang tourists to find – signage is only in Thai, and the staff do not speak English. If you have a Thai guide, however, it’s well worth the diversion, and a great way to support a local cottage industry.

                                        (iSpa products: Pic: Julie Miller)