Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas in Thailand

The holiday spirit is alive and well in Thailand this festive season. Here are three good reason to celebrate Christmas in the Land of Smiles.

Thais don't need much encouragement to celebrate an occasion or throw a party, with the trapping of Christmas - the lights, the decorations and the shopping - all embraced wholeheartedly by this Buddhist nation. Bangkok in particular is adorned as brightly and as festively as any Western city, with trees, snowmen and Santa sleighs galore. Western hotels and shopping malls are the main perpetrators, though small shops, marketplaces and even tuk-tuks are clad in tinsel and lights to spread the Christmas joy. Hotels such as The Peninsula and Four Seasons have beautiful displays, but for a one-stop gawk, head to the mega-malls around Siam Square which are smothered in decorations, including Bangkok's biggest Christmas tree outside CentralWorld.

Pic: Bangkok Post

While you're unlikely to get a 'white Christmas' in Thailand, the temperature in the north of Thailand does drop considerably in December - so much so that locals complain constantly about the cold and rug up in sweaters and balaclavas. For those of us from less tropical climes, the temperature is just perfect - warm during the day, but a chilly but comfortable 11-15 degrees Celsius at night (jackets required, if not winter woollies!) For visitors who want to celebrate Christmas, most Chiang Mai hotels offer traditional Christmas dinners, and you'll always find an ex-pat willing to toast the festive season with a Chang or two!

Christmas elephant outside of Le Meridien, Chiang Mai

Personally, I look for any excuse to get away from the madness of the season ... so why not do it on a remote Thai island? Forget turkey dinners and eggnog - give me a pad thai and coconut cocktail any day, served at a beach restaurant overlooking a tranquil emerald sea. December and January is peak season in the Andaman region - the weather couldn't be more perfect, with cool breezes, low humidity and moderate temperatures, while the mood around Phuket is buoyant and relaxed. Make sure you stick around for New Year's Eve, celebrated in true Thai style with the obligatory fireworks as well as the traditional releasing of lanterns into the starlit sky.

New Years, Thai-style

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Cooking Class for Reluctant Cooks

Regular contributor Kristie Kellahan loves to eat. Cooking, not so much. But seems she might be a convert...

Cooking classes are one of the most popular activities participated in by visitors to Thailand. I get that, I really do. The thing is, while I certainly enjoy eating Thai food, I don’t really enjoy cooking it (or any other cuisine).

So when a friend signed me up for the acclaimed Spice Spoons cooking school at Anantara Chiang Mai Resort & Spa, the first thing I asked Chef Somchai was for his tips for people who don’t like to cook.

“Go hungry for a while and have nothing in the fridge and soon you will see the beauty of cooking,” he said and roared with laughter.

Spice Spoons offers a fresh market tour followed by a three-hour cooking class for 4500baht per person (minimum 2 people). Participants choose the dishes they would like to learn, from a range of appetiser, main, soup and dessert choices. The team at Spice Spoons does all the hard work, chopping and prepping the ingredients and setting them all out in little bowls by the gas stove stations.

Chef Somchai was my teacher. Born in Chiang Mai, he lived in Bangkok for 22 years and has now happily returned to his home city. His favourite dish is Gang Kae, a spicy curry of vegetables and pork or chicken.

Chef Somchai. Pic: Kristie Kellahan

Chef is showing me how to prepare Tom Yum Goong (spicy prawn soup), Green Curry Chicken, Pad Thai and Mango with Sticky Rice.

He promises the Tom Yum Goong won’t be too spicy, to suit my Western palate. “Just one chilli,” he grins as he slices the hot red chilli into the milky soup.

Busy people who are pressed for time might be able to cheat and buy a pre-prepared curry sauce for the Green Curry Chicken, though Chef says it won’t taste as good as making your own. The secret to good curry is taking your time and making sure all the right ingredients are included in the paste. “Curry cannot hurry,” he says.

“Thai people love green curry chicken with steamed rice,” he says. “It’s smooth and smells good and if you use chicken breast the meat is always tender.”

Green Chicken Curry. Pic: Kristie Kellahan

For the Pad Thai, the all-star favourite of visitors to Thailand, Chef Somchai enlists the help of Chef Thian. “The secret to the best Pad Thai is the quality of the noodles,” he says. Chef Thian fires up a wok and starts cooking up noodles, tamarind sauce, fish sauce, dried shrimp and a rainbow of herbs and vegetables before adding four gigantic river prawns.

Even a cook who is all thumbs (um, me) could make the final dish, Mango with Sticky Rice. Simply slice a ripe mango and serve with coconut cream and sticky rice that has been prepared with coconut milk and white sugar. “Never put the rice in the fridge or it will turn hard,” says Chef Somchai.

All dishes prepared, we were left with the best task of all: tasting the delicious Thai fare.

For details and to book, see

Monday, November 24, 2014

High Time for Tea: Chiang Mai

Tea anyone? International woman of leisure and style Kristie Kellahan knows all the best places to have tea in Chiang Mai.

Taking a few hours out to enjoy a delicious high tea in swanky surrounds is one of my favourite afternoon activities, especially when I’m on holiday in South East Asia.

Thailand, although proudly never colonised, has taken to this colonial tradition with flair. It does involve eating tasty treats after all, and that is a tradition most Thais can happily support.

In the lovely northern city Chiang Mai, some of the best high teas are found at 5-star hotels. These are my top picks:

Anantara Chiang Mai Resort & Spa:
Old world charm meets modern luxury at Anantara, formerly known as the Chedi Chiang Mai. Once upon a time this sprawling riverside estate was the home of the British consul and it’s not difficult to imagine yourself back in a more elegant era as you sit on the terrace and sip artisanal tea. Afternoon tea is available every day by appointment and the options suit most tastes and budgets. A three-tiered stand of savoury bites (pie, quiche, roll, sandwich), warm scones with jam and cream, and sweet treats (macarons, tarts, cake, crème brulee) is served with tea or coffee of choice for 750 baht per person. For an additional charge, add a glass of wine or sparkling. Order just one tier of treats with tea or coffee for 450 baht per person.
To book, call +66 53 253 333

Anantara Chiang Mai high tea

Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai:
This magical resort on the outskirts of town resembles a Thai fairytale castle. Really, it has to be seen to be believed. Turrets, towers and sweeping staircases fit for princesses. The resort’s cake shop has gained fame throughout Thailand for its whimsical sweet creations and perfect macarons of every flavour description (think mango and sticky rice, durian, chilli and more). Each afternoon, a Victorian-style tea salon is open from 2-6pm, serving tiered stands of perfect morsels. For those who enjoy the temptations of a buffet spread, Kasalong Sweet Spree can’t be missed. Set up in the Kasalong Cake Shop each Saturday and Sunday afternoon, the buffet heaves under the weight of scrumptious satay, savoury quiches, fluffy scones, dainty sandwiches, macarons of every hue and a king’s ransom of bite-sized cakes, tarts and biscuits. At 425baht plus tax (approximately 500 baht total), this afternoon tea spread comes with tea and coffee.
To book, call +66 53 888 888

Dhara Dhevi high tea

137 Pillars House:
A beautiful boutique hotel in the Wat Ket area, 137 Pillars House has found its way onto stylish must-visit lists around the world since opening two years ago. Classic Afternoon Tea is served here from 2.30pm-5pm in the graceful gardens or the heritage homestead overlooking the pool. A three-tiered stand offers elegant tastes of local and international goodies. The menu changes regularly and might include rich chocolate cake, mango mousse, raisin scones and shrimp roll. The price per person is 600 baht plus VAT and service charge, or 1100 baht per couple. Indulge further by adding a glass of Prosecco (900baht++ per person), or a bottle of Champagne (4,999baht++ for 2 people).
To book, call +66 5324 7788

Gorgeous setting for tea at 137 Pillars House

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Islands Less Trampled

Regular contributor John Borthwick goes island hopping through a treasure trove of lesser-known Thai islands.

Forget the mega-mosh islands like Phuket and their party-land cousins such as Khos Phi Phi, Phangan and Tao. Thailand still has shores aplenty where tattoos, bucket booze and jet skis don’t define your time. Consider a few of these koh:

Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai

The fantastic limestone isles of Phang Nga Bay jut from the sea like sleeping dragons. Amid these zoomorphic snoozers you’ll find the twins of Koh Yao Noi ("Little Long Island") and Koh Yao Yai ("Big Long Island"). They sit east of Phuket and west of Krabi (and a world apart from both), still run mostly on slow-boat time and boast few beer bars and day spas. Neither island is a Robinson Crusoe wilderness — in fact there are good resorts on both, such Koh Yao Yai Village — but the beaches aren't jammed with hawkers and hire chairs. Your resort’s lawn mower might be a buffalo and the nightlife a cricket's chirp.

Getting there: One hour by ferry from Bang Rong pier, northeast Phuket.

Old Thai Canoe

Mu Koh Ang Thong

Travellers used to escape to Koh Samui. Then they escaped from it to Koh Phangan. With the proliferation of beach parties, roads and resorts, some are escaping from there, too. To its northwest are the 42 islands of Koh Ang Thong National Park. With excellent scuba diving, snorkelling and kayaking, they are good for a very long day-trip by speedboat or a more leisurely live-aboard boat excursion. Expect both crowds and seclusion, depending on which island and what time of day.

Snorkelling at Koh Ang Thong

Koh Tarutao and Koh Lipe

The Tarutao/Adang-Rawi archipelagos are as far south as you go on the west coast of Thailand before hitting Malaysia. Here, the towering rock formations and crystal waters of Koh Tarutao National Marine Park, a 51-island group around 30 km from the mainland, are still off the radar for large tour groups and day-trippers.

Following a bizarre history of prison camps and piracy during the 1930s and ‘40s, the Koh Tarutao archipelago became in 1974 a National Park. The only accommodation is at the park facilities — you’ll need to reserve a room or campsite in advance ( Meanwhile, nearby Koh Lipe — not part of the park — has many resorts ranging from dive lodges to luxury bungalows.

The reward for getting to Koh Tarutao is the pure simplicity and isolation of it all; then throw in jungle, sea eagles, monkeys and empty beaches. If you need aircon, WiFi, ATM and 7-11, then Koh Lipe is the place.

Getting there: By speedboat or ferry from Pak Bara to Tarutao. Then speedboat to Lipe. National Park entrance fee for foreigners, 400 baht; accommodation reservations are strongly recommended. National Park islands are closed April—November.

Koh Laoliang. While you’re down this way, consider Koh Laoliang, a small island in Koh Petra Marine Park, 20 km off the Trang coast. Remote, peaceful, good for climbing and camping.

Koh Adang in the Adang-Rawi archipelago

Mu Koh Similan and Mu Koh Surin

Divers rave about these two Andaman Sea clusters, both national marine parks, well northwest of Phuket. The waters around the nine Similan Islands offer dramatic swim-through reefs, superb corals, a huge variety of tropical fish and stunning visibility. Morays, mantas, lionfish, giant grouper and leopard sharks are on the visual menu. Further north, the densely forested Surin Islands are home to several sea gypsy communities, but their real drawcard is underwater, even for snorkelers. At nearby Richelieu Rock divers frequently see whale sharks, rays and hammerheads.

Accommodation is limited mostly to tents, on the Similan island of Koh Miang and at the Surin park headquarters. Avoid Thai holidays. Advance booking recommended, through

Getting there: Speedboats depart from Khao Lak for the Similan Islands and from Khuraburi for Koh Surin. The crossing takes about one hour. The islands are open from November to May.

Koh Phra Thong. If you’re in the area consider Koh Phra Thong about 10 km southwest the mainland port of Khuraburi. In the middle in a group of three islands, Phra Thong is flat, has long empty beaches fringed by palms and no crowds.

Mu Koh Similan

Koh Surin

Koh Kood

Koh Chang in the Gulf of Thailand has been rapidly and unsympathetically developed down its west coast. Its beaches are still fine for a seafood-eating, happy hour/happy ending sort of holiday but if you want somewhere more pristine head to Koh Kood in the same eastern archipelago, not far from Cambodia. Spacious Koh Kood has good resorts like Cham’s House at Haad Takien beach and Six Senses Soneva Kiri (about as upmarket as you can go without needing oxygen), but also plenty of space and jungle. There’s great diving and lots to do for visitors who don’t want to do too much. The sands haven’t been hived off to beach umbrella bosses and transport to taxi extortionists — problems that turn some beach “paradises” to purgatories.

Getting there: one hour by fast ferry from Trat.

Haad Takien beach, Koh Kood

Koh Phayam

Little Koh Phayam (pronounced “pie-am”) floats just south of Burma’s last outrider islands. No cars or real roads, few bars, no spas and no karaoke yowls — well, not yet. There are many small resorts, like the very friendly Bamboo Bungalows, and a handful of more upmarket ones. You get around on motorbikes on narrow paths. Come late afternoon, Phayam gets truly gorgeous. The cicadas crank up and the lightshow begins. Above the ghost islands of Burma the thunderclouds stack, twitching with lightning. Paradise “unimproved.”

Getting there: one hour by speedboat from Rayong.

Koh Phayam

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Eles on Parade

Kristie Kellahan examines the phenomenon of Elephant Parade, the most colourful way of bringing attention to the plight of the Asian Elephant.

Dutch national Mike Spits is on a mission to save the Asian elephant, and he’s doing it one brightly painted pachyderm at a time.

Spits and his father, Marc, launched Elephant Parade eight years ago to bring attention to and raise much-needed funds for elephant conservation. The project works like this: life-size fibreglass baby elephants are painted and decorated, exhibited around the world, then sold to the highest bidder. The funds go to The Asian Elephant Foundation, which distributes the money to various organisations dedicated to saving Asian elephants from extinction.

A little girl meets Rainbow Fish by Noppawan Nuansiri. Pic: Elephant Parade

Artists and celebrities are clamouring to be involved, with elephant statues already painted by famous faces including Katy Perry, Liz Hurley, Diane von Furstenberg and Formula One driver Felipe Massa. Thai and international artists have also taken part, adding their own personal stamp to the cleanskin sculptures. Swedish artist Jens Klelund went a step beyond the extraordinary: he sculpted a solid marble elephant from a block of Carrara marble. It weighed in at 2,300 kilograms!

Artist Chris Chun with Kiku. Pic: Elephant Parade
Navratna by Michael-Birch Pic: Elephant Parade

Once painted, the eles go on tour around the world, displayed so far in nine countries including the US, Hong Kong, Singapore and Belgium. Open-air art installations of the brightly painted elephants attract thousands of onlookers. The colourful statues can fetch a hefty price: the most expensive auctioned was by Jack Vettriano, selling for 155,000GBP at the Elephant Parade London auction.

Spits says he and his father first became concerned about the plight of Asian elephants during a holiday in Chiang Mai. They met baby Mosha, who had lost her leg after stepping on a landmine. With help from the foundation, Mosha received a prosthetic leg and continued support over the years.

Mosha, the inspiration behind Elephant Parade. Pic: Julie Miller

Chiang Mai is still central to the Elephant Parade story. The first flagship Elephant Parade House is there, with life-size statues on display and merchandise for sale. Visitors have the opportunity to paint their own mini replica elephant and learn more about the cause.

A basketful of mini-Kikus. Pic: Chris Chun

A day trip to the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital is also recommended, where it is possible to meet Mosha as well as other elephants who have been rescued from often appalling conditions, rehabilitated and loved back to wellbeing by dedicated Thai caretakers. For animal lovers from around the world, it is guaranteed to be an experience that will stick long after returning home.

Elephant Parade House is located at:
Colour Factory One
145-156 Charoenrajd Rd
Chiang Mai

For more information, visit

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Beach Bliss in Thailand

Last weekend, I had my first Aussie beach break in ages, hanging out with friends at a Central Coast beachhouse. The company was great, the weather perfect and the location was beautiful, but I couldn't help but miss Thailand's sublime beaches and wish I was on one of them instead.

Here's why I prefer Thailand's beaches:

Can't do this at an Aussie beach!

Warm water: Oh, for water as warm as a bathtub, that you can walk straight into instead of inching your way in, screaming and cursing as the icy tendrils send electric currents through your system! In Thailand, the water is refreshing without the shock factor. My sort of swimming.

Hideous, isn't it??

Shady shores: Much as I love the direct sun, I can't stay out in it for that long. Last weekend I had to head back to the house to escape the fury of the sun. In Thailand you can find a shady palm tree on the fringe of the beach and set up camp under there. No need to leave when the going gets hot.

Park yourself in the sun or the shade!

Beach bars: Still feeling the heat? Then escape to the shade of a beach bar, which will inevitably just be a few steps away, if not on the sand itself. Crack open a Chang or sip on a fresh pineapple juice to the soothing accompaniment of Bob Marley, 24/7 - heaven on earth! And you don't have to lose the view by being indoors.

Drinks with a view

Beach restaurants: Ditto. Hungry? Just a few steps away from the water's edge - or even in the water itself (see pic below!) will be a great Thai restaurant, serving up all your favourite dishes as well as great seafood. What more could you ask for?

In Thailand, the food comes to you!

Great shopping: In Thailand, canny shop vendors set up shop just behind the beach, so if you feel like a stroll, there's always something to look at or buy.

Massage: Bored? Sore? In need of even more relaxation? Then have a beach massage under a thatched sala, ironing out all those chinks under the strong fingers and elbows of a Thai masseuse.

Day beds: This is a contentious issue ... most Aussies prefer beaches sans daybeds, particularly row upon row of resort-issue beds and umbrellas. But sometimes it's nice to lie back without sand blowing all over you, and have a friendly waiter bring you a freshly squeezed fruit juice.

Crowds, or lack thereof: It's all about choosing your beach wisely. Yes, some Thai beaches are horrendously overcrowded. So are some Aussie beaches. Do your homework and seek out a beach where the package tourist don't go. They do exist. And you won't be disappointed, I promise!

What crowds??

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Living the Dream #6: Carl Prince

Who: Carl Prince, 47

Where: Bangkok

Why: "I moved to Thailand after the death of my mother three years ago," Carl says.  "I learned life could be cut short, and that 'working' should be secondary to 'living'.  I felt I needed to do something bold to refresh my soul.  I gave notice, told my friends and family, sold everything I owned, cashed out, and was gone in five months.  I moved to Thailand with everything I owned in three suitcases."

Life before Thailand: Carl was living a fabulous life in New York City: in his words, "a dream job, awesome friends, expensive shoes, holidays in the Greek Islands -- and a lot of stress". "I needed pills to put me to sleep at night and coffee to keep me awake during the day," he says.  

The life he has created in Thailand: Carl traveled and studied the Thai language for the first three years. He has recently begun working as a creative director for Bigz Entertainment – a production company that, among other things, makes television sitcoms (think Saved by the Bell meets Sesame Street) that assist with English language teaching and learning in Bangkok’s public schools.

Biggest culture shock:Every day is a culture shock, according to Carl, which is why he chose Thailand in the first place. "Westerners try to understand Thais by comparing cultures and customs and this leads to frustration and disappointment," he says. "One must 'suspend' preconceptions and expectations and then relax and go with the flow. The easiest example: no one is in a hurry here and people are often late without warning.  If you understand that it’s not a lack of consideration but an acceptable norm, you’ll be ok."  

Biggest challenge: "Learning to speak Thai."

Biggest reward: "When someone understands what I am trying to say."

Top Bangkok restaurants: "I keep it simple and I prefer 'real' Thai restaurants – out doors -- with lively customers, beer towers and buckets of ice, a live band, and muted (or not) football games on the big screen TVs," Carl says. "If they don’t speak English there, you’ve found one."

Best Bangkok spas for massage and pampering: "I’ve only had one Thai massage I didn’t like and that was at a place for tourists (I paid four times what I would pay at a store front massage shop on Silom Road)," Carl says. "I do splurge (that is, pay Western prices) for manis and pedis.  I go to Nail & Spa at Q-House Lumphini.  They have the facilities and equipment that promote proper hygiene."  

How he spends his downtime: "I love exploring the Thai neighbourhoods and side sois scattered throughout Bangkok," Carl says.  One of my favorites is Ban Kai, sandwiched between Sukhumvit and Rama 4 on what is, ironically, some of the most expensive real estate in Bangkok.  It’s the real deal – it feels more like you’re walking through an upcountry village than a cosmopolitan capital."

His favourite Thai expression: Carl nominates a Thai word, rather than an expression: พี่ (in English, pronounced something like “pee”). "Thais are very formal with people they don’t know – especially foreigners – and tend to use titles when addressing you," Carl explains. "Typically, it is Khun Carl, which is like Mr Carl.  But when a Thai person begins to call me Pee Carl (literally, older brother Carl) I know I have passed “the test” and secured a special place in their heart."

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Hidden Treasures in Chiang Mai

Some of the most rewarding experiences when you're on the road are the ones you literally stumble across.

I was recently wandering through Chiang Mai, exploring the back sois within the walls of the ancient city. Amongst the beautiful Lanna temples, street markets and 7-11s, I came across Ban Phor Liang Meun's Terracotta Art - a secret garden that sells replica terracotta sculptures and bas reliefs.

This enormous gallery straddles two sides of the street, just off Phrapokklao Rd near the Chiang Mai Gate. One side has a slick showroom in an old teak house, as well as a showcase garden; but on the other side of the road is a rambling yard, filled with banyan tress, mossy, cracked pathways and crumbling terracotta statues, piled up in heaps and themselves gathering moss.

It was like discovering an ancient Khmer ruin such as Ta Phrom, where nature is silently reclaiming civilisation; and while this is all replica material, it's been presented as if it were genuine artefacts from an ancient time.

There are statues, panels and bricks featuring images of Buddha, graceful apsara dancers, Hindu deities, dragons and mythical creatures from folklore; some are broken beyond fixing, but the more damaged, cracked and headless, the more intriguing.

I later learned that the gallery is the brainchild of Mr. Suttiphong Maiwan, who first set up his earthernware production facility in Lumphun Province. He later added this location in Chiang Mai, expanding to over 60 acres of land in total.

As well as purchasing pieces from the gallery, visitors can also learn about the earthernware process and see production in action.

Unfortunately, the minimum purchase for shipping overseas was one cubic metre, which was way beyond my budget and capabilities at the time. Instead, I had to settle for a beautiful, simple brick featuring a mythical horse - around one kilo of extra cabin baggage, but a gorgeous and precious purchase!

My final purchase!

WHERE: Ban Phor Liang Meun's Terracotta Art
36 Prasing Soi 2
Phrapokklao Rd, near Chiang Mai Gate

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

To Ride or Not To Ride: Elephant Tourism in Thailand

My article on elephants and tourism that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Saturday 6 September has been my most-shared story on social media ever. Clearly the issue of wild animals used in entertainment is a pertinent one, and something that all tourists should be aware of.

Here is the link to the story as it ran in the SMH:

I confess that I have ridden elephants in Thailand; but to tell you the truth, I find plodding around on one of those uncomfortable wooden saddles that trekking elephants wear really boring! Welfare issues aside, it's just not that much fun from a tourism perspective.

This elephant does not appear stressed or unhappy 

Far more rewarding is watching elephants be elephants ... hoovering up food, being washed in a river, and interacting with each other in a herd situation. 

Feed time on the River Kwai

There is nothing more amusing than a baby elephant at play - the rambunctious toddlers are a laugh a minute.

Baby ele at ENP
Seriously the cutest creatures in the world!

As my elephant guru John Roberts from Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation states in my article, a blanket ban on elephant tourism is not the solution. We have a duty to ensure Thailand's captive elephants are well cared for, well fed, able to roam as free as possible and have interaction with other elephants. Elephants and their mahout owners still need to eat, and tourism still provides the best, least invasive solution for these animals.

A rewarding tourism experience at ENP
Best fun ever - washing the elephants at Anantara Golden Triangle

So what do we look for if we want to interact with elephants on our Thailand holiday?

Here are some guidelines from WAP, who did the original study on elephants and ethical treatment for Intrepid Travel:

Freedom to move without restraint. Are the animals free to move without restraint when not used for tourists? Can they interact with other animals on their own terms?

No signs of abuse or distress in the animals. Are the animals healthy and without wounds and not showing any behavioural problems? Do the animals seem calm but not apathetic?

Clean and natural husbandry conditions. Are the animals housed in a natural environment? Is the area kept clean?

Fresh and varied food available. Is fresh, unprocessed food available at all times? Can the animals forage natural food? Most animals also require free access to water at all times.

Don’t ride elephants or patronise shows where the elephants are clearly made to perform unnatural or human-like activities. You can politely voice your concerns to the appropriate tourism authorities.

If wanting to help elephants or experience them at close range, support a commendable venue or at least a venue that clearly priorities the elephant’s welfare.

For more information about how to be an ‘animal-friendly tourist’, visit

Happy eles!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Train's Coming! Thailand's Market on the Railway Tracks

The 9.30am train is running late, which, for the vendors at the Mae Klong markets, means another 10 minutes or so of trading. They show no sign of preparation, or of making good use of the extra time - for them, it's business as usual.

Shopping for fresh vegies at the Mae Klong Market
Stalls are located right on the tracks

Suddenly, however, there's a warning cry - the train is coming! Hurry!!!

There's a brief moment of panic - what the??? NOW? ... but soon the well-oiled machine swings into action as boxes of seafood, fruit, kitchen utensils and plastic raincoats are pushed in, awnings are folded and goods moved back just a metre or so.

It's coming - no time to waste!

It's all perfect timing, of course. The two-car train, en route to the nearby station, chuffs past to the cheer of the crowd, passing within a whisker of the market stalls. Then, the second it passes, the action starts again as vendors re-set their stalls in the original position - right on top of the railway tracks.

Here it is!

Now that's a close shave!

It's all a carefully choreographed drama - and entertainment of the simplest kind. But this four-times daily ritual - removing market stalls off the tracks as the train approaches, re-setting up business, then removing everything again as the train returns - is what makes this market both unique, and incredibly popular with tourists. What should be just another dull produce market has instead become an attraction in its own right, and brought much needed business to this area 80 kilometres southwest of Bangkok.

The climax of the show
Replacing the awnings after the train has passed

And as with any show, the more drama the better. The last minute chaos is good for business in every aspect, giving visitors a real show and allowing trading to continue until the very last second.

Mae Klong's railway market was born of necessity, to make the most of limited space. Stalls located right on the tracks pay the least rent to market administrators - and despite the inconvenience of having to move as the train approaches, it's these stalls that make the market unique.

The Mae Klong Railway is the shortest line in Thailand, split into two sections - a 33km line from Bangkok to Samut Sakhon, then a further 31 kilometres to Mae Klong, with the two sections separated by the Tha Chin River. Passengers are ferried across the river by boat before joining the second train.

In Thai, the now famous Railway Market is called Talad Rom Hoop, meaning the 'Umbrella Pulldown Market'. In a country where produce markets are a dime a dozen, this is one of a kind, and a fun, very Thai spectacle.

Intrepid Travel visit Mae Klong market as part of their Real Food Adventure tours (

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Muay Thai Live - The Legend is Alive and Loud at Asiatique

Regular contributor John Borthwick gets sensory overload at the newest, loudest and most violent spectacular in Bangkok.

Fists of Fury meets Romeo and Juliet? Ong Bak VI meets Rambo IX? The King and I goes cage-fighting? Chose your analogy, the stunt action show Muay Thai Live – The Legend Lives, showing nightly at Bangkok’s Asiatique the Riverfront, is the biggest, loudest, bone-crunching-est spectacle in town.

Muay Thai Live sketches the development of Thai martial arts from the mists of Siamese time, through endless battles in the Ayutthaya period (against tactfully unnamed enemies, aka Burma), to street-fightin’ man stuff and finally to muay thai, the code.

It is loud, hugely energetic, skilfully choreographed and relentlessly violent. A cast of 18 stuntmen/fighters and one endangered damsel fly around the boxing-ring stage, shredding each others’ limbs and six-packed torsos, and smashing skulls like pumpkins. Mere instants after being pulverised, goodies and baddies alike bounce back to enjoy miracle reincarnations and rejoin the ding-dong/ting-tong fray or at least the next scene.

What is fascinating is that all this apparently spontaneous fury and sound is synched with split-second accuracy. When Villain A has his leg broken in three places and cork-screwed off by Good Guy B, the wince-making, crepitus grind that we almost viscerally experience is not (of course) the actual sound. It is stunt actors impeccably timing their smashes and kicks to the booming pre-recorded sound track. Not lip-sync but fist-sync, knee-sync. Seventy minutes of it — and not a beat is missed, not one maiming shot is mis-cued.

Machismo, Thaichismo, captions in four languages, homicidal pratfalls, a muay thai ladyboy, hoodie mafia, tear-jerking sentimentality and blokes with epic kung-fu names like Tiger King in Disguise and Warrior of Broken Swords ... it’s all there, in a spectacular that much resembles a computer game come to life. Or 1980s World Championship Wrestling gone tom yam gung, gone digital, gone crazy.

State-of-the-art light and sound technology are lavishly deployed here to truly pack a punch. Teenage boys will love it all (though, dudes, don’t attempt these stunts at home). Girlfriends and parents will indulge them. Muay Thai Live – The Legend Lives is a tale vividly told by director Ekachai Uekrongtham, full of sound and fury, and signifying ... well, as the Thais say: up to you.

Exit via the gift-shop, of course. No photography is allowed inside the theatre but later you can pose with the cast for a pic, your own Muay Thai and Me — The Selfie Lives moment.

Details: Reach Asiatique the Riverfront by free, 15-minute shuttle boat from Sathorn pier (adjacent to Saphan Taksin Skytrain station), or taxi along Charoenkrung Road.

Muay Thai Live is performed at 8 p.m each night at The Stage, Asiatique the Riverfront. Standard seats, 1,200 baht; premium seats, 1,500 baht. 
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