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