Monday, March 31, 2014

Living the Dream in Thailand #2

Kristie Kellahan talks to ex-pats living the dream in Thailand. Today, it's a Queensland boy who now hangs out with elephants as part of his work.

Who: Mark Thomson, 41

Where: Bangkok

What’s he doing: Mark is the Director of Public Relations and Communications for Minor Hotel Group, which includes Anantara, Oaks, AVANI, Per Aquum and Elewana. “Not only do I get to promote, and stay in, some of the most stunning resorts in the world, but I also get to do what I love the most and that is travel to some of the most exotic places in the world.”

When: “Doing what all antipodeans do I went and worked in London for a few years,” he says. “When my working visa ran out I headed back to Australia where I should have been responsible and settled down. Instead I booked a one-way ticket to Bangkok, intending to use Thailand as a starting point for a few more months’ travel. I’m still here 10 years later.”

Life Before Thailand: Mark graduated from the University of Southern Queensland in Australia with a Journalism degree. “I joined Optus Vision Cable TV when they first launched in Queensland,” he says. “That experience made me want to get out and explore the world.”

Biggest culture shock: Mark says he gets bigger culture shock going back to Australia now than he gets in Thailand.

One of Mark's jobs is to do PR for the annual King's Cup Elephant Polo tournament

Biggest challenge: Mark says the challenges in living in Bangkok – things like the traffic, the heat and the language barrier – can get some people frustrated, but it gets you nowhere to give in to that frustration. “After living here a while you learn to just enjoy the buzz of the city,” he says. “It’s organised chaos at its best; you see something different every single day.”

Favourite Bangkok hangouts: Mark gives the thumbs up to three bars in the city: WTF Bar, Viva & Aviv, and Iron Fairies. For dinner he enjoys Soul Food Mahanakorn, Eat Me, or low-key street eats in Sukhumvit 38.

Favourite downtime activities: “It’s fun to take longtail boat rides in the canals or have your palm read at Wat Pho,” Mark says. “For those who like weirder things, check out the forensic science museum at Siriraj Hospital. Or just hang out and people-watch at the makeshift Kombi bars set up along Sukhumvit 11.”

Favourite Thai expression: Mark says “Jai Yen Yen” means to keep a cool heart, take it easy and chill. How very Thai!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Places to be Slothful in Thailand

On Saturday March 22, I contributed to an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age on the Seven Deadly Sins of Travel. For the full transcript of that article, click here. My wise words were about the sin of sloth, or laziness, which I argued can hardly be considered a sin in the context of travel. After all, isn't chilling out what travel is all about?

And what better place to be lazy than in Thailand? Here are my favourite places to blob out in the Land of Smiles:

Koh Kood Resort, Koh Kood: I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it until I fall asleep ... Koh Kood is the most idyllic, unspoilt island I've visited in Thailand. With just one paved road, very little development and no 7-11s, ATMs or traffic lights, this is the Thailand of yesteryear, with pristine white sand beaches, gin-clear water and hammocks swaying from palm trees. And while flash resorts have sprung up here (Six Sense Soneva Kiri, one of the most expensive resorts in Thailand, is located here), you can still get reasonably priced accommodation for less than the price of a round of drinks in Sydney. By chance (or luck), I made landfall at the Koh Kood Resort and was thrilled with its stylish garden bungalows, good restaurant and waterfront location on beautiful Bang Tao Bay. For three days, I just lay on a sun bed, went swimming, strolled along the beach and indulged in beach massages. True bliss.

Sunset at Koh Kood

Malibu Beach Bungalows, Koh Phangan: Located on the northern tip of the party island of Koh Phangan, this is about as far from the Full Moon Party as you could possibly want, in every respect. There's nothing much to do here expect for sleep, eat and swim in the bay. There's a chilled beach restaurant and bar that plays Bob Marley 24/7, a massage sala run by the delightful Mien, and a swimming pool in case you want to cool off after cooling off in the bay. The fishing village of Chalokhlum is a whisper away, with good seafood restaurants, a couple of bars and a tranquil temple. If you want to join the parties in the south of the island, you'll have to travel to them ... but at least you'll know you will have a quiet night's (or day's) sleep when you get back.

Malibu Beach Bungalows, Koh Phangan

River Kwai Jungle Rafts, Kanchanaburi: I recently spent three days here doing f*&*-all ... I hardly got out of the hammock, literally. Mind you, it was raining, so there seemed little point. But it is also the perfect place to indulge your sloth, a tranquil haven on a mesmerising river deep in the jungle near the Burmese border. If you can be bothered shifting yourself, a walk to the Mon village that backs onto the raft houses is recommended ... or let them come to you, with the elephant herd coming down to the water to bathe every morning around breakfast time. Some visitors here like to jump in the fast-flowing river and float to the end of the resort. Frankly, I couldn't be bothered...

River Kwai Jungle Rafts, Kanchanaburi

The Siam, Bangkok: Who says that being lazy is just for budget travellers? This lush hotel in the northern realms of Bangkok is so divine, I didn't want to leave. True, there is everything here, even for active tourists - a pool, a shuttle boat that will transport you to the shopping hubs, and even Muay Thai lessons which are the antithesis of being lazy. And while I admit to shifting my lard-ass out of bed to indulge in said activities, I would have been happy to stay buried under the doona, doing what I do best - sleeping. Cloud-like bedding equals a lovely, lovely dream.

Bed time at The Siam. Pics: Julie Miller

Friday, March 21, 2014

Living the Dream in Thailand

In this new series for TTT, Kristie Kellahan speaks to ex-pats 'living the dream' in Thailand. First up, Chiang Mai's 'Burger King'!

Who: James Choi, 31

Where: Chiang Mai

Why: To realise his dream of owning a restaurant, James moved to Chiang Mai. He opened The White Plate Cafe in the JJ Market area, currently ranked number 1 on Tripadvisor’s list of Chiang Mai restaurants.

When: James first came to Thailand on holiday at the end of 2011. He said he felt an instant pull to the lovely northern city of Chiang Mai, no doubt influenced by a blossoming romance with his now-partner, Pye. In March 2013 he made the permanent move, and two months later The White Plate Cafe opened its doors. It was an instant success, serving the best burgers in town, according to many. Popular burgers include the Sweet Mango & Beef, the Thai Chicken Satay, and the Beef burger, made with NZ ribeye beef and NZ cheddar.

Life Before Thailand: James, a Korean-Kiwi, lived in Auckland where he was a highly-driven consultant for companies including Deloitte and Ernst & Young. He had worked part-time in Auckland restaurants while at university and knew his way around a kitchen. “I’d always dreamed of having my own restaurant one day and Thailand is the perfect place to test it out,” he says. “It’s fun, we’re learning and if we make a bit of money as well, that’s even better.”

Biggest culture shock: “The work ethics here are a bit different so I had to adjust because I am someone who can’t sit still, whereas Thais take a more relaxed approach,” he says.

Biggest challenge: James says it was no easy task navigating the bureaucracy to arrange visas, work permits and business licences. “I’d say just be patient and persevere until you get the right answers,” he says. “I had to do about five or six trips to Immigration before we sorted it out but we got there in the end. Just find solutions and make it work.”

Favourite Chiang Mai hangouts: James and Pye live in the trendy Nimmanhaemin area, chock-full of bars, cafes and restaurants. He rates The Larder, a new cafe opened by a Thai couple who had worked in Sydney restaurants for years. For cocktails and live music, James gives the thumbs-up to Warm Up Cafe.

Best thing about living in Thailand: “I like everything here and it’s been a lot of fun getting to know Chiang Mai,” James says. “There is a great expat community of creative types who have chosen to live here and who enjoy good food.” 
Chiang Mai’s central position in Asia and its international airport has also made it a handy base from which to explore the region: already James has visited Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, and will soon travel to Japan.

Plans for the future: With burger lovers begging James to open an outpost of The White Plate in the Nimman area, expect to see big things from this enterprising foodie.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bangkok's Best Rooftop Bars

Now that the protests in Bangkok have died down somewhat, we can concentrate on what’s really important - boozing! Here are some of my favourite places to drink in the City of Angels ... with a view!

Vertigo and Moon Bar, Banyan Tree Hotel:
Perched 61 floors above the streets of Sathorn and bathed in a sexy blue light, this restaurant and rooftop bar is still one of the hottest tickets in town. No roof and glass walls give the impression that there’s nothing between you and plummeting to certain death; it’s a little like hovering in a spaceship, with amazing 360 degree views. Cocktail prices are as sky-high as the venue, but with views like this, who cares?
Banyan Tree Bangkok, 21/100 South Sathorn Road, Sathorn.

Tel: +66 (0)2 679 1200

Sky Bar, Lebua State Tower:
Star of the (otherwise atrocious) Hangover Part II, Sky Bar offers an undeniably breathtaking view of the city and the lazy Chao Phraya River. Hugely popular and always crowded with standing-room only, this isn’t the most relaxed place to have a quiet drink, but it’s worth the trip up 63 floors just to gaze in wonder at the far-reaching views. And yes, there is a drink named after the movie which made it famous: the Hangovertini. 

The Dome at Lebua, Silom Road, Bangrak.

Tel: +66 (0)2 624 9555

Octave Rooftop Bar:
Occupying three levels, from Floor 45 up in the Marriott Hotel in Sukhumvit, and with plenty of seating, this is a far more relaxed option for watching the sun setting through a jungle of skyscrapers. Each level has a different mood, with the top-level offering a 360 degree rooftop with a party atmosphere. This is one of Bangkok’s newest bars, and it’s certainly making a splash.
Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit, 2 Sukhumvit Soi 57, Bangkok 

Tel: +66 (0)2 7970000

Cloud 47:
Bangkok’s newest rooftop bar is located on top of an office block, not far from the popular Patpong girly-bar zone. It’s a little hard to find, but cheap drinks, yummy snacks and great, airy views make it worth the effort. Enormous in scale, you are also pretty much guaranteed a seat, which is always a bonus. Covering three levels, the bar is divided into two areas: an all-white circular bar where bands perform, and and area with a two-storey wine cellar with a wine list of over 500 labels.
47th Floor, United Center Building, 323, Silom Rd, Silom.

Red Sky, Centara Grand at CentralWorld:
With a central, convenient location right in the heart of the shopping district and eye-popping vistas from the 55th floor, Red Sky remains a perennial favourite with locals and tourists alike. An ever-changing light show provides unusual photo-opportunities, and the indoor area provides shelter in case of rain. The perfect place to soak in all Bangkok has to offer after a day’s hard shopping.
55th floor of the Centara Grand, Central World 

Tel: +66 (0) 2100 1234

Monday, March 3, 2014

Smoke on the Water: Nakhon Phanom's Fire Boat Festival

Regular contributor John Borthwick heads north to the Mekong River to witness a fiery nighttime flotilla.

Somewhere out there across the black tide of the Mekong River is Laos. There’s a full moon rising, but not much else to see. "Be patient," says my friend as we wait, along with thousands of others, on this riverbank at Nakhon Phanom in northeastern Thailand.

Upriver I spot something glowing — blazing. Something huge. With hypnotic slowness, the apparition drifts into view. It is a low boat, perhaps 50 metres long, supporting a 20-metre high flaming image composed of (I am told) 19,999 small lanterns depicting Thailand’s king and queen and a phoenix-like Garuda bird.

The huge vessel drifts past like a fiery ghost. Another boat of equal intricacy follows, then another. In Thai these are known as rua fai, but English approximations like "illuminated boats" or "fire boats" do no justice to these spectacular artistic conflagrations.

A fire boat on the Mekong

The original rua fai were small candle-lit rafts that carried flowers, incense and a little money to other villages downstream. The flame symbolised burning away the previous year's suffering while petitioning the deities for good weather and prosperity.

Thailand's tourist authorities saw the potential of the fire boats, if super-sized, as the focus of a major festival or Nakhon Phanom, 735 km northeast of Bangkok. The Lai Rua Fai (or Illuminated Boat Procession) Festival, held on the full moon of the 11th lunar month (late October—early November), heralds the end of both Buddhist Lent and the rainy season, and the beginning of the harvest. As Nakhon Phanom's major event of the year it sees Thais flooding in from Bangkok and across Isaan for parades, ceremonies and musical performances. The town population of around 40,000 people almost doubles during the festival.

Having been blessed by monks, we watch a large street parade of wax model Buddhist temples (that don't melt in the midday heat even though we spectators almost do) as well as dragon boat races by day and fireworks by night. And then comes the main event, the parade of fiery boats.

Street parade, Nakhon Phanom
Little drummer boys, Nakhon Phanom

The boats, painstakingly constructed for months by local communities, burn in brief glory. Having passed by us, they come ashore downstream to expire like dying swans. Next morning they will be just a burnt-out fleet of bare hulls, each supporting a billboard-sized framework and up to 30,000 smoldering little kerosene lanterns.

The fireboats, 13 in all, drift past us like images by an Oriental J.W.M. Turner, lighting the Mekong night with their fiery tableaux — of Garuda, Ganesh and Naga serpents, not to mention motor cars and more royals. Some years ago one boat caught fire and the evening's entertainment was enhanced by the sight of the crew leaping for their lives into the river.