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.