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.