Monday, 18 November 2013

New Blog!

Dear loyal readers, Kao Jai Thailand is no more ... but please check out my new blog, Thai Travel Tales, which is basically the same thing but rebranded under a more searchable name and with a gorgeous new design!

Thanks for reading my ramblings over the past few years, please keep following my new Amazing Thailand blog. 


Thursday, 31 October 2013

Sawasdee Ka!

Over the past two years, I've been very proud to have presented Kao Jai Thailand in conjunction with Tourism of Authority of Thailand (Australia). It's given me the opportunity to explore wonderful and intriguing corners of Thailand and to probe into details which I might otherwise have been missed.

And it seems that my blog has struck a chord with readers all over the world too! I often get comments from wide and far about my posts, which I totally appreciate - feedback is fantastic, especially such positive words.

During these two years I have been privileged to post articles by other brilliant travel writers with a connection to Thailand, especially John Borthwick, Oliver Benjamin, Cynthia Barnes, Roderick Eime and Kerry van der Jagt. Your contributions have been invaluable, especially last year when I was unable to travel to Thailand as often as I'd like.

But now I'm saying sawasdee ka to Kao Jao Thailand; and welcoming my brand new blog, Thai Travel Tales. The whole idea is to rebrand with a more generic, searchable name, one that is more easily found on Google ... with the aim of building my readership!

However, it will be same same but different - different look, but the same great content about destinations, activities, travel tips and cultural curiosities in Thailand. My brilliant team of writers will continue to inform and entertain you, just under a new blog name.

So please look out for it - kickoff will be early next week. Thanks again for reading this blog, and please like, befriend, join and share my new blog!!


Monday, 28 October 2013

Bangkok Transport, A-Z

Regular contributor John Borthwick samples, in alphabetical order, Bangkok’s various public transports of delight and sometimes despair. 

Airport Rail Link From Suvarnabhumi (pronounced Suwannapoom — or “Swampy”) to midtown takes 30 minutes (and 45 baht) on the eight-stop City Line, and about 20 minutes (and 90 baht) on the one-stop Express Train. Both terminate at Phaya Thai BTS SkyTrain station. Excellent system. 

Airport Taxi Exit on the ground floor; locate the yellow, meter-taxi hire desk. This service costs 50 baht added to your final fare. Desk tells the driver your destination hotel/address. For example, you’re going to Sukhumvit Road: the meter starts at 35 baht, you pay road tolls as you go (45 and 25 baht) and the final meter fare (about 250 baht), plus 50 baht service fee. Tip if you want. 

Bicycle Sheer PC masochism. The Big Mango’s traffic is anarchic and merciless: might is right and two wheels are “wrong”, unless attached to a motorbike. However, if you’re a true zealot, consider the share bike system called PunPun. ( 

Bus Cheap, often crowded, non-airconditioned. Signage in Thai. Drivers rarely speak English. Unless you know exactly where you want to go (and have it written in Thai), this is not the easiest choice for visitors. 

Canal Boat Fast, furious and spray, too. Skinny canal boats rocket along the 1837-built Saen Saeb klong, making fleeting pit-stops at 18 wharves. You leap on and off — literally — wherever you want. The conductor collects fares on-board. A cheap as chips tour of Bangkok’s backdoors. 

Motorcycle Taxi Non-PC masochism. “Moto-si” dudes linger on corners wearing numbered, low-visibility vests. Explain your destination. Settle on the fare first — prices start at about 40 baht for a short trip. Be sure to use the helmet. Settle back for a slipstreaming, tailgating, maximum monoxide view of the Bangkok stampede. 

MRT Metropolitan Rapid Transit system aka the subway. A limited network (18 stations, one line), but clean, fast and economical. Purchase a token before boarding. 

River Ferry There are two principal ferry systems. The Chao Phraya River Express is a local service that’s quick, crowded and cheap. It services numerous whistle-stop wharves — a commuter bus on water. The recommended Chao Phraya Tourist Boat is more comfortable and stops at 30 piers near main visitor attractions — a one-day pass costs 150 baht. Starting point is Central Pier (at Saphan Taksin Bridge). 

River ferry in BKK

SkyTrain (BTS) The Bangkok Train system, aka SkyTrain, is more extensive than the MRT and runs (as the name suggests) well above ground. Some 33 stations on two lines. Before boarding, purchase your ticket card (15 to 52 baht, depending on distance) or a 130-baht One-Day Pass. Clean and air-conditioned, though often SRO crowded. Always beats road traffic. 

BTS Skytrain

Taxi BKK meter taxis are plentiful, clean and inexpensive. Many drivers speak little English (and some don’t know this extensive city very well) so it helps to have your destination address written in Thai. Make sure the meter is on (flag-fall, 35 baht); if the driver won’t use the meter, just hop out and hire the next cab — which is about one minute away. 

Tuk-tuk These days tuk-tuk (proper name samlor, “three-wheel”) is a novelty transport mostly used by tourists. Tuk-tuks are unmetered and drivers will charge farang whatever they think our (often demonstrated) ignorance will bear. Always more expensive than a meter taxi. Never start your journey without agreeing on the price and if there’s more than one passenger, do not pay “per head.” PS: Don’t get taken to gift shops, etc, “just for quick look”. 

Crazy BKK streets: Pics: John Borthwick

Walking BKK footpaths can be wondrous, infuriating, alienated zones of stalls, utility boxes, merchandise, excavations, pitfalls, fortune-tellers, food carts and random roadblocks, more resembling a steeplechase than a sidewalk. You won’t get anywhere fast, but you’ll see plenty and often out-walk a Sukhumvit-Silom traffic jam.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Singing Sukosols and their Amazing Hotel

Last weekend, the Sun Herald ran my review of the Siam Hotel in Bangkok. You can read that piece here:

Needless to say, I loved this hotel, from its exquisite design and decor to its tranquil location on the riverfront. 

The Siam is the love-child of one of Thailand's most famous celebrities, Kriss Sukosol Clapp. A handsome rock star and actor, Kriss is a member of the famous Sukusol family - an all-singing, all-entertaining hotelier family who could be called Thailand's version of the Von Trapps! 

The Sukusol family (pic from their website)

I had the pleasure to dine with the matriarch of the family, Kamala, and her charming daughter, Marisa, during a recent visit to Sydney. Kamala - donning classic '60s beehive and painted eyebrows - jokingly calls herself a "one hit wonder" due to the success of her most famous song, 'Live and Learn' in 2003. 
During the lunch, she entertained us with stories of performing all over the world, as well as leaving me green with envy discussing her antique collection, including priceless Chinese ceramics. She was also gracious enough to present me with a recent CD called "New York New York" featuring hit songs about ... you guessed it - New York. 

Kamala Sukosol

Daughter Marisa introduced herself to me as "the voice of Snow White" in the Thai version of the Disney cartoon, trilling a bird-like "la la la la" to prove her point. I almost saw animated butterflies and bluebirds circling around her head, honestly! 

Kamala's antique collection sits alongside son Kriss' own personal Aladdin's Cave of art deco delights in the corridors and guest rooms of The Siam. 

The hotel is built on prime riverside land owned by the family since 1973 - it had previously been used as a private pier for boat excursions along the Chao Phraya River. At one point, it was also leased out to a seafood restaurant.

When Kriss inherited the land in 2005, he decided to fulfil his dream of opening a boutique hotel where he could house his extensive antique collection. His vision was brought to fruition thanks to the genius of wonder-designer, Bill Bensley, who shares the family's love of history and quirky antiques.

This is a gem of a hotel - well worth a visit, even just for a poke around!

The interior of The Siam

Just some of Kamala's antiques sitting alongside Kriss' art deco collection

Thursday, 10 October 2013

20 Reasons to Visit Bangkok

Bangkok - the gateway to the Land of Smiles. It's big, bold, brash and vibrant. It's a city of chaos, insane traffic and crowded streets. It's also brimming with history, allure and mystery. The food is totally awesome. 

So many reasons to visit. In this article I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age, I give 20 reasons to visit Bangkok. There are so many more. Just get yourself there... 

1. SHOPPING Bangkok is one of the world’s great shopping cities, with bargain prices, endless variety, easy access, long opening hours and an ever-growing collection of air-conditioned shopping malls creating the perfect storm for a shopping frenzy. Most tourists make a beeline for MBK, where 2000 market-like shops sell everything from suitcases to DVD rip-offs, fashion, shoes and accessories, with bargaining part of the fun. 

2. ROOFTOP BARS In the City of Angels, what better way to drink in views on a balmy evening than from a skyscraper rooftop? Featured in The Hangover Part II, the iconic Sky Bar atop Lebua State Tower is the world’s highest outdoor bar with stunning vistas across Chao Phraya River, while the aptly named Vertigo restaurant and Moon Bar on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel is a stunningly beautiful and incredibly hip venue. 

Moon Bar at Banyan Tree Bangkok

3. STREET FOOD When Bangkok locals aren’t shopping, they are eating, and doing it with voracity. Every evening, the footpaths become pop-up dining rooms as locals pull up a plastic chair, grab a Singha beer and tuck into tasty meals whipped up by street vendors. It’s cheap, social and delicious, with the general rules of thumb for any street food applying: if it’s cooked fresh, it should be fine. 

4. NAHM Acclaimed Australian chef David Thompson has taken the concept of traditional Thai street food and turned it into art, with his restaurant Nahm considered one of the best Asian restaurants in the world. And delectable the food is, with explosions of taste, a subtle balance of flavours and a sophisticated elegance, all served share-style in traditional Thai manner. It costs a little more than traditional street food – 1800 baht ($60) for a set menu, or mains around 400-600 baht. See bangkok/dining/nahm. 

5. CHAO PHRAYA RIVER The broad, muddy Chao Phraya is the heart and soul of Bangkok, a working river that’s shaped the city’s history and economics. Escaping from the choking streets on to this languid artery is sweet relief, with ferry trips to sights such as the Grand Palace and Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) providing the best and quickest form of transportation. Watch heavily laden barges float by from riverside restaurants or on a dinner cruise, or linger longer at a peaceful riverside hotel. 

6. GRAND PALACE This glistening homage to the kings of Siam comprises several eclectic buildings, pavilions and gardens in four main courts. The complex includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (housing Thailand’s most sacred Buddha image), royal offices, museums, ceremonials halls and the former residence of the cosmopolitan King RamaV. Since this is a religious site, visitors must be appropriately dressed, with no singlet tops, bare shoulders, exposed thighs, sweat pants or pyjamas allowed. Seriously. See 

7. WAT PHO Located just behind the Grand Palace, this working temple is famous for its reclining Buddha, measuring 46 metres long and 15 metres high, just one of more than 1000 buddhas on display. The massive, serene-faced gilt image is seemingly squeezed into its resting place, head grazing the ceiling, while its feet alone are five metres long. The temple is also considered the first public university in Thailand and the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, with an operating school offering massages for 420 baht an hour. See 

8. JIM THOMPSON HOUSE In 1967, American entrepreneur Jim Thompson disappeared into the jungles of Malaysia and was never seen again. As the man who had single-handedly reinvented the Thai silk industry in post-war Bangkok, his legacy was enormous, witnessed by the ubiquitous silk shops bearing his name today. A man of exquisite taste, Thompson’s teak house – called ‘‘the talk of the town” and “the city’s most celebrated social centre” during the late 1950s/early ’60s – is a rare example of traditional Thai architecture as well as a museum of antique Asian treasures collected during his lifetime. 

9. CHATUCHAK MARKET Located in Bangkok’s north but easily accessed by Skytrain, this weekend market is one of the world’s largest, covering 6.8 hectares. While it can be hot and overwhelming, take time to explore the 27 separate sections, discovering everything from clothes to handicrafts, homewares and antiques, even pets (and the odd endangered species, with the market often accused of being a hub for illegal trading).When it all gets too tiring, relax over a beer and street food, or stop off for a massage. See 

10. PAMPERING When I’m in Thailand, I have a massage every day: why not, when they’re so cheap? Bangkok is full of legitimate massage establishments (and the other kind as well)where you can indulge in a foot or traditional Thai massage for as little as 300 baht an hour. If you are more into pampering and ambience, splash out at one of the more upmarket spa complexes, such as Rarinjinda Wellness Spa. 

11. DENTISTRY Bangkok actively promotes medical tourism, with the promise of cheap dentistry luring visitors from all over the world. While many people baulk at the idea of overseas dental work, Bangkok’s clinics are top-notch, with internationally trained practitioners and state-of-the-art facilities. Major processes such as crowns, bridges and tooth removal are a fraction of the Australian price. If you don’t want to risk surgery, indulge in a clean or tooth whitening. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has several recommended clinics on their website, 

12. SUKHUMVIT An exclusive district of Bangkok, full of bars, restaurants, hotels, shopping centres and condos for Western expats; but it’s in the laneways, or so is, running off this major artery where you find most of the action. Some of the numbered sois are infamous and have earned names, such as red-light Soi Cowboy (between Soi 21 and 23), packed with girly bars; while Soi 11 is a popular nightclub and restaurant zone. The area is easily accessed via the Skytrain, with Nana Station a good jumping off point. 

13. CHINATOWN Amaze of alleyways flanking Charoenkrung and Yaowarat Roads, Chinatown is one of the most vibrant parts of Bangkok, oozing history and a rich cultural identity. Prepare to get lost as you wander through claustrophobic alleyways, breathing in the aroma of herbs, incense, unidentifiable seafood and curries. Glance up and discover living history behind original teak facades. A photographer’s and foodie’s delight. 

14. THE KLONGS A long tail boat excursion along canals and waterways criss-crossing the Thonburi side of Chao Phraya River provides an intimate snapshot of the ‘‘real’’ Bangkok as you pass temples, waterside villages and peer into people’s backyards. A charming stop is Baan Silipan, where a 100-yearold teak house has been converted into a gallery, cafe and performance space for a traditional puppet troupe. Free performances are held every day at 2pm, bringing characters from the Ramayana to life. 

15. MUAY THAI Thailand’s brutal combat sport is known as ‘‘the art of eight limbs’’, using force from fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet. To see champions of the sport in action, head to Lumpini or Ratchadamnoen Stadium for an evening of blood, gore and the bray of avid fans. Or, for amore personal appreciation of the intricacies of the sport, take a lesson: it’s actually great fun and a fantastic workout. The Siam hotel boasts Bangkok’s newest state-of-the- art boxing gym, with private lessons available for guests or by arrangement. See 

16. COOKING SCHOOLS Australians are suckers for Thai food and the opportunity to learn to cook our favourite international cuisine is an essential part of any Thailand holiday. While most hotels offer classes, there are several independent Bangkok schools where you can souvenir gourmet tricks and the odd classic recipe. Amrita Thai Cooking holds a fun, hands-on half-day course, located in a lovely riverside home with its own herb garden, and run by the charming and amusing instructor, Tam. See 

17. LUMPINI PARK In a city of skyscrapers, shopping malls and choked streets, this rare green patch is as much a haven as Central Park for New Yorkers. Locals love to sweat it out on morning jogs or cycling excursions, while there’s something wonderfully kitsch about the Thai love of swan paddleboats, available for hire. On Sunday afternoons from December to February, grab a snack from the weekend food market, sprawl out on a hired mat (30 baht), and listen to free jazz or classical music concerts as the sun sets. 

18. WEIRD MUSEUMS If your taste runs to the slightly bent, head to one of Bangkok’s museums dedicated to the bizarre. The Bangkok Corrections Museum, set in the remains of an old prison, highlights methods of torture and execution; while the Forensic Museum has a collection of body parts, organs infested with parasites and foetuses that will truly turn your stomach. Not for the fainthearted. 

19. AYUTTHAYA In the valley of the Chao Phraya River, the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya is arguably the best day trip from Bangkok. The World Heritage-protected ruins, once proclaimed the most magnificent city in the world, date back to 1350, with highlights including the iconic Buddha head entwined within the roots of a banyan tree at Wat Maharat, and the original elephant kraal (corral). Cycling tours are a great way of getting around, as the whole site is flat. 

20. FIVE STAR LUXURY AT A BARGAIN PRICE Five-star hotels abound in Bangkok, and with competition fierce, you can get great deals on luxury digs for a fraction of the price you’ll pay elsewhere. Discounted hotel sites are advertising apartment-style accommodation for just over $100,while a room at a top-notch hotel such as Banyan Tree is selling for just over $230. Splash out, relax and enjoy. 

The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Banyan Tree Bangkok. 

Read more:

Thursday, 3 October 2013

March for Elephants

On October 4, elephant lovers and conservationists will come together with a message to world governments - "Say No To Ivory". 

Organised by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the iWorry International March for Elephants will take place in 15 locations around the globe, including Melbourne in Australia and Bangkok in Thailand. 

The march aims to highlight the issue of the illegal wildlife trade, and to spread the message that elephants are being poached to extinction for their ivory. 

Last year, up to 36,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. That's one life lost every 15 minutes. At the current rate of poaching, African Elephants could face extinction in the wild by 2025. 

The situation is also dire for Asian Elephants, who face an uncertain future in ever-decreasing wilderness preserves where poaching is a very real problem.

The Melbourne March begins at Federation Square at 12.30pm. 

Friday, 27 September 2013

Not Much Lacking in Khao Lak

Regular contributor John Borthwick visits an on-song Andaman alternative to Phuket. Long, unsullied beaches. 

No jets-skis, sun-loungers or tuk-tuk mafia. Take me there! 

Laid-back Khao Lak, in Phang Nga Province on Thailand’s Andaman shore, is the place. Its 25-km string of beaches still looks much as it did a decade ago — a slumbering coastline of palms, sea-pines and low-rise resorts. This languid shore has always been a favourite with long-stay northern Europeans, with its discrete, upmarket resorts (none built higher than a coconut tree) catering for those who want to get away from all the others who are getting away from it all. 

The tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 hammered Khao Lak hard, with some 4000 people perishing. The subsequent rebuild was well planned and the result might be described as business as unusual. That is, the locals have kept their sands free of the grids of rent-a-chairs that often bedevil Thai resort beaches. Even better, they’ve also ensured there are no off-song banana boats, howling jet-skis or tow-kite speedboats.

Bang La On (often known as Khao Lak Town) on the highway at the south end of the Khao Lak coast is an ever-stretching ribbon development of mini-marts, tailors (“Johnny Armani” and co.), dive centres and restaurants, plus souvenir shops that sell “same-same-not-different” tat, albeit at wildly varying prices. 

Bang Niang, further up the highway, is where most of the limited nightlife happens, with bars, restaurants and a few clubs. My favourite eating place here is Blue Mist restaurant, a rambling wooden structure on the beach (near the JW Marriott), where we feast grandly on Thai seafood, chicken and vegetable dishes, plus cocktails. Over-stuffed and chuckling for 350 baht ($12) a head. This family-friendly, snoozy, honeymooning sort of coast is known as the Gateway to the Andaman. Be sure to step through that gate at least once. 

Blue Mist restaurant. Pics: John Borthwick

Take a daytrip (or longer) to either Koh Similan or Koh Surin mini-archipelago, both marine national parks, that sit just 60 km offshore. There is superb snorkelling and diving at each, with dramatic swim-throughs, prolific marine life and stunning visibility. The islands are open November to May, but closed during monsoon season. 

Meanwhile, inland, are five national parks, including the great rainforests of Khao Lak and Khao Sok parks. The latter is like a freshwater version of Phang Nga Bay to the south, near Phuket. Its giant Ratchaprapha reservoir is the liquid jewel of Khao Sok and one of Thailand’s under-sung wonders. 

Next day we’re on the Klong Sok River aboard lazy kayaks. Enormously high trees ripple above us — can you get reverse vertigo from looking upwards? The river is silent, the paddles too, and at times we round a bend to spot an electric-blue kingfisher. Or a viper snoozing peacefully on an overhanging limb, which is exactly where we leave it.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Power of Phuket Town

As I'm walking through the quaint, narrow streets of Phuket Town, I'm struck with an uneasy feeling. 

Something is wrong. Different. Very strange. 

It's not the noticeable lack of tourists in shorts and thongs. 

It's not the fact that this part of Phuket has been beautifully restored, with the historic Sino-Portuguese terraces a showpiece of the island. 

It's not even that there are really cool bars and coffee shops along these quiet streets. 

Then it strikes me. Where are all the power lines? You know the ones - the tangled mess of seething, sparking death that usually hover just above head-height. The incomprehensible and crazy black jumble of wires that are such an integral part of South East Asia's streetscapes...

How does this man know which wire to touch?

In 2009, at the bequest of Phuket's mayor, the power of Thalang Rd and Soi
Romanee in Phuket Town was moved underground at a cost of 20 million baht. More streets in Old Phuket Town followed the year after. 

The result is a view free from the eyesore of wires, a bonus for tourists armed with cameras and locals who take pride in the aesthetics of their town. 

What is wrong with these pictures? No wires!!

Old Phuket Town is a unique attraction on the island, the historic heart of the island dating from when it was a tin mining centre. The beautiful Sino-Portuguese mansions lining the streets, with their lovely wooden shutters and intricate detailing - were once the homes of tin barons who brought great wealth to the island (whilst pillaging the island of its natural resources and beauty - but that's a different story!) 

Interestingly though, wire-free Soi Romanee was once the red light district of the area, with one source claiming that the word 'romanee' means "naughty with the ladies"! It's now a highlight of Phuket, with galleries, cafes and gift shops making it a lovely place for tourists to stroll.

Reflexology shop on Soi Romanee. Pics: Julie Miller

Monday, 9 September 2013

Koh Samui's Cool Mummy

Last week I wrote about Koh Samui's most dubious attraction, the Grandmother and Grandfather erotic rocks. This week I write in praise of the island's coolest and most bizarre icon, the Mummified Monk.

I first discovered this shrivelled corpse by accident several years ago as I was circumnavigating the island by rental car with my daughter Jo. We were not only intrigued by the dried banana-skinned body displayed in a glass case, but also delighted to discover that he's not only wearing orange robes, but also sporting a pair of very stylish Raybans - probably fakes, but this is Thailand after all. 

Why? Why not! I'm assuming his eyes are covered because the shrunken eye sockets might offend, but it also gives the mummified monk the air of a very cool dead dude. No disrespect intended. 

So who is this Rayban wearing monk, and why has be been preserved for all eternity behind glass? 

Born in 1894, Loung Por Daeng entered the temple as a novice during his 20s, but disrobed and married a local woman who bore six him children. When he was 50, he decided to rejoin the monkhood, adopting the name Phra Khru Samathakittikhun. 

After studying in Bangkok, he returned to his home on Koh Samui where he meditated in a cave, Tham Yai in Lamai. He later established Wat Kunaram and its temple school. 

Two months before his death (at the age of 79), he requested that, should his body not decompose (clearly he had some sort of vision - no pun intended), he would like to remain at the temple and be placed in an upright coffin on display as a symbol to inspire future generations to follow Buddha's teachings and be saved from suffering. 

In his final seven days of life, he concentrated solely on his meditation and the path to enlightenment, dying in the same position that he sits today. 

It is said that a pure life and clean diet contributed to the slow rate of decay of the monk's body. 

And while his withered corpse is a curious and perhaps shocking sight for western eyes, it's a reminded that for Buddhists, death is just a step towards nirvana and a better existence.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Getting Your Rocks Off on Samui

When it comes to great ‘sights’, the island of Koh Samui is a little lacking. Day-tripper ‘must sees’ include the Big Buddha on the northern tip of the island, a mummified monk wearing Ray-Bans, a view from a mountain in the middle of the island, and Chaweng Beach. Not exactly sights to blow your mind, right?

But I copped more than I bargained for on a recent whistle-stop circumnavigation of the island. An eyeful in fact.

Yes, Koh Samui’s most dubious attraction is a pair or erotic rocks. A fat old willy and a corresponding vajayjay, within metres of each other. Truly. People actually come to gawk at these, and to take photos (you can guess the artfully framed pics: sitting on the giant cock, touching it, putting it in one's mouth - talk about being desperate for titillation!)

Sorry, Mr Kee Hua Chee - I couldn't resist using your photo!

The rocks are formally known as The Grandmother Rock (Hin Yai) and Grandfather Rock (Hin Ta) - rather creepy, as I don’t like to think of old people’s bits being on display. Poor old grandma has a constant barrage of waves breaking into her privates, while grandpop ... well, let's just say it's not the most flattering depiction. Rock hard though, gotta hand it to him...


Nature ... she's a cruel bitch. But hey - whatever gets your rocks off...

(in case you’re wondering, these uncredited pics are nabbed off the internet - I couldn’t bring myself to take my own shots!)

Monday, 26 August 2013

Luxury Muay Thai

Khun Bee is a nugget of man, a good head shorter than me but a solid ball of muscle. But when he asks he to kick him in the kidneys, I hesitate. 

“I don’t want to, I’m afraid I’ll hurt you!” I laugh. 

“You no hurt Khun Bee. Bee Lumpini champion. No hurt.” 

Oh yes, of course. My matchstick shins are no match for a world champion Muy Thai boxer, who is very graciously taking a wimpy woman through the basics of this violent, sweat-inducing and highly addictive sport at The Siam Hotel’s state-of-the-art boxing gym. 

“Leb, li, leb, li” Khun Bee instructs, holding up his pad-protected hands in case my jab sends him flying. It takes me a minute to realise he’s actually saying ‘left, right’ ... and ‘gar’ means guard, the most essential part of any form of martial arts. If you don’t protect your face, you’ll lose it. And in the case of Muy Thai, that’s usually in the most spectacular fashion. 

me giving Bee hell

This most deadly of martial arts dates back at least 700 years to the Sukothai period, when it was refined in the royal courts of Ayutthaya. It is often referred to as the ‘art of eight limbs’, a marriage of grace and savagery that involves punches, kicks, knee and elbow strikes and head clinches. It’s incredibly physical - trust me, it’s an amazing aerobic exercise - but also requires speed, lightness of foot and nerves of steel. 

Thailand’s first boxing ring was built in 1921; it has since become the national sport, with Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium the headquarters of the World Championships. Anywhere you go in Thailand, however, you’ll find an arena holding weekly fights - and there’s nothing quite like being amongst a crowd of locals and farangs literally baying for blood. 

Watching Muy Thai is one thrill - but actually learning the sport is another. I’m having a lesson at The Siam Hotel, Bangkok’s most exclusive boutique hotel, which boasts Bangkok’s first professionally-equipped luxury boxing gym. And what a gym it is - fully air-conditioned, with a full-size boxing ring, mirrored walls and all the training gear you’d ever dream of. Even the lobby of the gym is incredible, with a fantastic collection of Muay Thai memorabilia - old posters, gloves, all very cool. 

memorabilia from Muay Thai golden era

The gym was installed at the personal request of General Manager Jason Friedman, who is a self-confessed Muy Thai addict; Jason can often be seen training in the gym, taking advantage of its incredible facilities. 

After an hour’s introductory session, I was sweating like a pig, dying of thirst and exhausted. I also felt amazing, re-energised by the surges of adrenaline through my veins. 

Take that!

And what better way to relax afterwards than with a 90-minute massage at the glorious Opium Spa specially designed to iron away the aches and pains of Muy Thai. The Muy Thai Massage uses slow, deep strokes and firm pressure to ease built up stress, perfect for recovery after a boxing session. Such a brilliant combination of sport and relaxation!

The Opium Spa

Friday, 16 August 2013

Hammock on the River Kwai

Just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok, there’s a wilderness steeped in mystery, a jungle that’s deep, dark and penetrating with a fascinating history. This is the Kanchanburi region bordering exotic Burma, and the location of the legendary River Kwai. 

Immortalised by Hollywood in the 1957 movie starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the area is infamous for the horrors inflicted on Allied POWs during World War II by the Japanese, who forced their prisoners to build the ‘Death Railway’ in the depths of the jungle. For anyone with an interest in history, Kanchanaburi is a must-visit, with an excellent museum at Hellfire Pass, war cemeteries and the actual bridge a poignant reminder of the insanity of war. 

But I’ve come to the region not so much for education, but for relaxation. Several of my friends have recommended the River Kwai Jungle Rafts as a cool place to stay on the river, where you can chill out in a beautiful wild location and lap up the nuances of the jungle. 

Established in 1976, this was the original raft house hotel on the river - there are several now - and a bold experiment in eco-tourism long before the phrase was coined - a low-impact tourist venture built from sustainable materials, with a strong environmental focus, and incorporating and employing residents from the neighbouring Mon village. 

As well as the ‘floatel’ providing men and women from the village with jobs, visitors are able to walk to the village, where they can visit the temple, help out at the little school, feed elephants bananas and support the community by buying handicrafts. 

Local women also offer massages at the hotel - though be warned, it may not be the best rub down you’ve ever had ... my ‘therapist’ was clearly untrained, not particularly skilled and spent half the time swatting away mosquitoes with one hand whilst giving me bruises on my calves with the other ... 

Tours of the local area are available through the hotel, but these can be a little sporadic and chances are one won’t be running during your visit. The other popular activity is jumping in the river at the head of the rafts and floating down to the end - an activity that seems to be a particular favourite amongst Russian tour groups staying at the hotel. Nothing like the sight of 40 squawking tourists wearing life jackets to provide half an hour’s entertainment... 

Early in the morning, several elephants kept in the village come down to the river to bathe; guests are welcome to then feed them a fruity breakfast before sitting down to their own. This daily routine adds a nice little touch of culture and a welcome pachyderm fix for people like me who just can't get enough of elephants!

As for the rest of the day, I’m content to just lie in my hammock and watch the river float by. In fact, for three days, there is really very little else I can do ... with no power, and a generator that only runs for a couple of hours at night for recharging batteries, I can’t even do any work on my computer. 

Thank goodness for a good book and a healthy work ethic! ie ... not doing any ...

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Beach bliss in Thailand

Trying to decide which beach in Thailand would be best for your family? 

Here's a story I wrote for Out and About With Kids magazine, where I share some of my favourite island destinations.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Hellfire Pass

You hear a lot of Aussie accents at Hellfire Pass in Kanchanaburi. In fact, the majority of the 80,000 tourists who visit the memorial annually are Australian, and the museum is, in fact, a gift of the Australian government. 

Thailand was occupied by Japanese forces during World War II from 1941 to 1945. In order to gain access to ports in Burma, the Japanese enslaved approximately 250,000 Asians and over 60,000 Australian, British, Dutch and American prisoners of war to work on a railway, cut through the jungles near the Thailand/Burma border. Twenty percent of those Allied POWs would die on the project, while up to 90,000 civilian labourers are also believed to have died. 

Although Australians were a relatively small part of this workforce - 13,000 in total, with 2,700 dying in the camp - this represents 10 percent of all Australian deaths during World War II. It’s little wonder, then, that Hellfire Pass, more than any other Asian location, has come to represent the horrors of war and the suffering that Australian soldiers experienced during this tragic time in history. 

It’s hard to imagine the conditions on the railway, and the horrors these men and women had to endure. I visit on a hot and steamy day - nothing unusual for this part of the world - and even just walking down to the railway site, then back again up hundreds of steps - is exhausting and sweat-inducing. You hear many an Aussie voice complaining about the humidity and the mosquitoes; and more often than not this is accompanied by “it puts it all in perspective” or “those poor buggers, imagine what they went through”. 

The actual site known as ‘Hellfire Pass’ was a cutting 75 metres long and 17.5 metres deep, cut largely by hand and primitive tools by the labour enforcements. Prisoners were forced to work up to 18 hours a day, surviving on starvation rations of a cup of rice and dried vegetables. Then there were the diseases - malaria, dysentery, cholera; while physical punishment - severe beatings and torture were common.

But it’s the stories of survival, of courage and resilience that resonate loudest for Australian visitors. Of men like Weary Dunlop, a doctor known for his untiring care of the sick; or of Tom Morris, who served for three years as a POW and was interned in 10 different camps. Forty years after working on the railway, Tom returned to Thailand and ‘rediscovered’ Hellfire Pass, almost consumed by the jungle. It was largely through his efforts that the site has been preserved, with the memorial formally dedicated in 1987. 

It’s certainly a moving, poignant and worthwhile place to visit, one that highlights human endeavour, resilience and strength under extreme and cruel conditions. 

Hellfire Pass Memorial: Pics Julie Miller
The Hellfire Pass Memorial is located on Highway 323 outside of Kanchanaburi. It is open daily from 9am to 4pm, and entry is free with a donation.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Hua Hin's Elephant Polo Tournament

It's nearly that time of the year again, when pachyderms become the focus of Thailand's social scene. Regular contributor John Borthwick reports: 

"Does the elephant hold the mallet in its trunk?" asks a friend as I set off to the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament. The best place in the world to witness elephant polo is Hua Hin during the annual tournament organised by the local Anantara Resort. 

"No elephant may lie down in front of the goal mouth. To do so constitutes a foul." With rules like these, it's hard to take elephant polo seriously at first. But watch 12 tonnes of thundering pachyderm and six windmilling mallets charge from one of the field to the other in a melee of dust, trunks and mad exertion, and it’s soon very clear that this is a serious "game”. 

With players, male and female, from Europe, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, UK, Pakistan, Australia and Argentina — representing institutions with sepia names like the Ceylon Elephant Polo Association and the Siam Polo Club — there's a whiff of old Raj about the four-day festival. 

Yet once the riders get lashed to the back of their two-tonne steeds and hear referee John Roberts signal "Bully off!" — Start! — the post-colonial posturing drops right away. For seven minutes — the duration of each polo "chukka" — the 100-metre pitch is a swirl of cracking mallets, under-trunk shots and trumpeting beasts. After a 10-minute breather between the two chukkas, the teams swap ends and mounts, and it's on again. 

"Elephant Polo is like horse polo, but without the horses," Diana Moxon, former PR for the event, once told me. Plus, of course, a Thai mahout riding forward of the mallet-wielding rider. Diana added, "You wouldn’t believe how many people ask, 'How does the German team get their elephants to Thailand?' I used to think they were joking — but, no. So, I’d just say, ‘By jumbo jet, of course’." 

The teams battle their way through quarterfinals and semis to reach a grand final that’s played in front of the King’s representative and ranks of ramrod-backed, white-starched Thai Army officers. 

This year will see defending champions, Thailand’s King Power squad go head to head with rivals that include a New Zealand Rugby All Blacks trio and team of Tiffany Show transvestites, who will play to win as well as performing at the final Gala Dinner.

Now in its 12th year, the Kings Cup Tournament has become one of Thailand’s largest charitable events and has raised almost US$600,000. The festival will have a spectacular opening parade, celebrity matches, Chang Noi Day (Children’s Day) and Ladies Day. 

If you’re wondering about the finer points of elephant polo, the final rule states, "Sugar cane or rice balls shall be given to the elephant at the end of each match, and a cold beer or soft drink to the driver — and not vice versa." 

Pics: John Borthwick

King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, Suriyothai Army Base, Hua Hin. August 28—September 1. Free admission.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Phuket - Paradise Lost?

When Paradise gets discovered by the masses, it inevitably becomes Hell - or does it? 

A damning report exposing the dark side of tourism in the Thai island of Phuket appeared yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald, claiming that rip-offs, rorts, drink spiking, scams, robbery, assault and police corruption are now common place in the popular holiday destination. 

From an Australian perspective, the problem stems largely from the fact that many tourists - may I call them bogans? - travel specifically to Phuket for the very things that are criticised in the article - sleazy nightlife, the sex trade and to get pissed. Getting ripped off is all part of the parcel, and most will suck it up as part of their holiday experience. Besides, they'll be so drunk they won't remember what happened anyway. 

Pic: John Borthwick

I was chatting to some very charming Aussie blokes on a plane recently who excitedly listed the destinations they were planning to visit in Thailand - Bangkok, Pattaya and Patong. It was their first visit to Thailand, and they couldn't wait to see it in all its glory. The 'boys trip' had Hangover Part 4 written all over it, and I have little doubt where their first port of call in Bangkok would be that night. 

While tourists perpetuate and support the dark side of tourism, it will continue to exist. Of course, the Thai government is also culpable, turning a blind eye to the increasing sleaziness in Phuket due to associated financial gain. And with tourist numbers continuing to soar in Phuket, the situation is not likely to change in any hurry. 

But here's the thing - if you don't want to be exposed to Phuket's nasty side, DON'T GO THERE! Simple. Choose another destination in Thailand. Want a quiet beach? Then Patong is not the spot. Research, people - it's not that hard, particularly with all the resources of the internet at hand. 

Phuket is a massive island. There are still many idyllic pockets along its coastline where you can walk on a deserted beach, with nary a Russian package tourist or jet ski in sight. I recently stayed in the gated community of Laguna, where forward-planning and a community spirit has preserved the purity of paradise. Further afield, the southern tip of the island, Cape Panwa, is a remote and isolated jewel, while the northern beach of Mai Khao is part of a national and marine park and subsequently still blessedly undeveloped. 

The beautiful beach at Laguna.

Of course, some destination-specific annoyances are unavoidable wherever you go in Phuket - specifically, taxi rip-offs. A night out will end up costing a bomb if you hire a cab; best to take advantage of hotel shuttle services, or consider renting a car if you want to explore the island in depth. 

Or ... can I put this any more clearly - go somewhere else! Head to an island which hasn't been discovered by the masses. They do exist.

Pics: Julie Miller