Monday, April 28, 2014

Dining with the Stars

In October 2013, I was privileged to have lunch with legendary Thai entertainer Kamala Sukosol and her equally talented daughter Marisa, who were in Sydney talking to media about their new Bangkok hotel, The Siam. You can read about this delightful encounter in my previous blog, Kao Jai Thailand, linked here.

Fortune brings me back to the Sukosol dining table again, but this time in their hometown of Bangkok at the gracious downtown hotel bearing the family name, The Sukosol. Located in the heart of the business district, between Victory Monument and the shopping hub of Siam Square, this 470-room hotel is a timeless classic popular with politicians and businessmen for its location, 5-star luxury and elegant colonial decor.

The Sukosol Hotel, Bangkok

We've hit the ground running in Bangkok; and before we even get a chance to explore, we're whisked off for drinks with hotel management in the lobby Sapphire Bar. And by 'management', I mean the Sukosol family - matriarch Kamala, daughter Marisa, sons Sukie and Krissada, and Kriss' lovely wife, Melanie. All but one family member - finance guru Daranee - have taken time out on a Sunday night to hang out with a bunch of Aussie travel writers, to welcome us to their home town and to share their passion for their hotel ventures.

The Sukosol Family (pic from their website)

"It's not often we get the whole family together like this," Sukie jokes as we nibble on canapes and sip classic martinis in the speakeasy-style bar. We are then led upstairs to a massive oval table for dinner, joining in the family's casual banter, sharing their in-jokes and listening to them sing. It's like being at a big family Christmas (yes, there are even presents on hand!) with a close-knit clan who have none of the airs and graces you'd expect from high society.

I'm seated next to Kriss, extremely handsome actor, rock star and antique collector. He chats about the fickleness of the film industry (at the tender age of 40, Kriss laments being "past it" for the youth-obsessed Thai culture), about fighting a fellow rock star on stage in New York; and about how he and Melanie met. Meanwhile, Kamala, resplendent in kaftan and beehive hair, holds court on the other side of the table before standing with Marisa to belt out a couple of show tunes, including a stirring rendition of 'New York New York'.

K. Kamala singing for our group

The Sukosol chain of hotels is very much a family business - not only does every family member have a role to play in administration, but each hotel is also a snapshot of their own personal aesthetic. The Siam is reflection of Kriss' wonderful eclectic style, decorated with his incredible collection of Art Deco treasures from Thailand's Golden Age; while the Sukosol Hotel showcases Kamala's collection of priceless Asian antiques, including ancient Chinese treasures worthy of a museum.

Guest rooms in the Sukusol are spacious, tasteful and elegant; our Club Deluxe Suites on the 21st floor are simply enormous, with a massive lounge and dining area, cavernous bathroom with a two-person tub, a cloud-like king-size bed and even a guest toilet - the perfect space for entertaining. Hey, party anyone? 

Deluxe Club Suite

The Club Siam guests also have their own private check-in lounge, daily happy hour with complimentary cocktails and canapes, private breakfast facilities and access to a 24-hour butler. 

Very swish, very luxurious; and this being Bangkok (ie, a very competitive market), it's all available at a ridiculously reasonable price, with rooms starting from 3,500 baht (A$116) and the top notch Club Room Suites at 8,500 baht (A$283)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Chiang Mai Malls

Thais love their malls, and a new batch of shopping wonderlands has recently sprung up in Chiang Mai, as Kristie Kellahan discovers.

What a difference a year makes. Since my last visit to Chiang Mai, no less than three new mega-malls have opened in the city, more than doubling the choices of retail centres to spend time and money at. Add to these the existing malls at Kad Suan Kaew, Airport Plaza, Curve and The Harbor and you have an abundance of retail therapy. (When I first lived in Chiang Mai, back in 2001, there was only one shopping centre worth going to).

Of the newbies, MAYA Lifestyle Shopping Center has arguably the best location. Taking up a prime position on the corner of Nimmanhaemin Road and Huay Kaew, it is close to the trendy Nimman district and Chiang Mai University.

Resembling a glittering spaceship from the outside, it offers floors of fashion and lifestyle stores including outlets for Oakley, Birkenstock and Guess. Gigantic shoes positioned around the floors provide ample photo opps for snap-happy Thai shoppers. SFX Cinema on the 5th floor screens latest release films in English and Thai, while MAYA Fantasia is an interactive playground for kids of all ages (I had a go at Guitar Hero).

Nimman residents have welcomed the much-loved Rimping supermarket at MAYA. Stocking Western and Asian hard-to-find products, it has cult status among expats in the city.

Likewise, the cake shop at Dhara Dhevi Resort is known to have THE best macarons and sweet treats in Chiang Mai. The only trouble, it was always a trek to get to if you didn’t have your own wheels. Hallelujah, the clever folks have opened Dhara Dhevi Patisserie at MAYA; a macaron fix is now within easy reach.

Promenada Resort Mall is a little further out of the central hub, but most taxi and tuktuk drivers know how to get there, and there is a shuttle service operating from the centre of town. Rimping fanatics make the trip for the supermarket’s flagship store (not to mention must-haves like Vegemite and Dr Pepper), while parents are giving the thumbs up to the enormous ToysRUs store and Kids@Play playground. SF Cinema City has opened a state-of-the-art cinema, and there are plans for a 20-lane bowling alley, karaoke rooms and a Skate Park. Promenada positions itself as an open-air resort-style mall (don’t worry, the shopping floors are air-conditioned).

CentralFestival Chiang Mai rounds out the new mall openings with recreation activities aplenty. I could lose (and have lost) an entire day in here without even shopping. There’s the Major Cineplex cinemas, including a towering IMAX screen, a brand-new ice rink, with English-speaking coaches available and a sprawling fitness centre. Melding Lanna architecture and decor with shiny new design, CentralFestival has become instantly popular for its food courts, restaurants, many chain stores and specialty retailers.

Pics: MAYA shopping mall by Kristie Kellahan

With the malls coming fast and furious, Chiang Mai may soon resemble a smaller version of Bangkok. Good or bad? As the Thais like to say, that’s up to you.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tips on Tipping

To tip or not to tip? Regular Thailand visitor Kristie Kellahan weighs in on this perplexing issue.

I was enjoying a foot massage in Thailand recently when I overheard two of the masseuses discussing a customer who had just left. My grasp of conversational Thai is passable, and I understood that they were calling this man ‘cheap’ because he had left a tip of 20 baht. It got me thinking... to tip or not to tip in Thailand?

As most people are aware, wages in Thailand tend to be low, especially for the millions of people who make up the working class. A masseuse, bellboy, tuktuk driver or restaurant server working fulltime is doing well if they bring home A$200-300 every month.

One of the things tourists say they enjoy the most about holidays in Thailand is how affordable they are. Pad thai lunch for a dollar, $3 cocktails, $5 massages... it is possible to enjoy an indugent week or month in the Land of Smiles for the equivalent of pocket change and that is largely due to low labour costs.

Don't be cheap when it comes to tipping!

So if we can afford to tip a few bucks here and there for good service, should we? Even if it’s not culturally expected, as it is in the United States? Everybody’s view on this will be different. Certainly many of my Thai friends tip nothing at all. Here’s my personal policy, developed over 15 years and more than 30 trips to Thailand.

For massages: In cheap and cheerful massage joints, where the price is normally 120-250 baht per hour, I hand the masseuse an extra 50 baht. If I’m splurging at a posh spa, I might tip 100 baht or more, depending on the treatment cost.

In restaurants: I don’t have a strict rule on how much to tip in bars and restaurants. For cheap meals under 100 baht, I might leave a 20 baht note. In expensive bars and cafes, I might leave an extra 10-20% of the bill if the service was good. Bear in mind that many restaurants already add a 10% service charge to the bill, which should by rights be going straight to the servers.

In taxis and tuktuks: Rounding up the fare in a metered taxi is always appreciated by the driver. Leaving 100 baht for an 82 baht fare, for example. Since tuktuk fares are always negotiated with the driver, I rarely tip extra on top. I figure they wouldn’t accept the job if they weren’t happy with the price. Free market principles in action.

For room maids: Some people leave a small amount of money each day in their hotel room with a ‘thank you’ note for the room maid. If I’m staying in a serviced condo for several weeks, I generally wait until the end of my stay to give a tip of a few hundred baht.

For bellboys: Let the moths out of your pockets and tip 20 baht for the bellboy who has carried all your shopping bags to your room, or for the doorman who just ran out into the pouring rain to hail you a cab. It won’t kill you, I promise.

Avoid the 1 baht insult: Leaving a paltry tip of 1 baht is a deliberate insult and should be avoided. Better to leave nothing at all than a single baht.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Songkran - Love it or Leave Town

Regular contributor John Borthwick knows to duck when the world’s biggest water fight erupts.

Songkran — to love it or leave town? Most of Thailand splashes its way with reasonable sanity through the traditional new year water festival known as Songkran. This year the celebrations run from April 13 to 15, except in Pattaya where they rage for a week of increasing inebriation and un-Thai mayhem.

Should you find yourself near Bangkok tourist enclaves like Khao San Road or Patpong, here’s what to expect. Zap! The first jet of water from a pistol hits your neck. Given that April is hot, the chill is not entirely unpleasant. As a farang, you are a "mark", so don’t hit the streets wearing or carrying anything that you don’t mind having thoroughly soaked. Your wallet, phone, etc should all be in a zip-lock waterproof pouch. Regardless of your intentions, within 15 minutes you’re going to look like you took your morning shower fully clothed and then stepped out for a walk. In short, you’re drenched from head to foot.

It wasn’t always like this. Songkran — the word derives from a Sanskrit term for the new solar year — probably arrived from India some 2,500 years ago. Thais traditionally give their homes a thorough spring-cleaning before the festival and then, visiting their local temple they will offer food to the monks and sprinkle scented water on Buddha images. In a ceremony known as Rod Nam Dam Huaw, rural villagers line up to pour water on the hands of their community's oldest members, blessing them for the coming year. No water cannon, ice bins or pissed tourists imagining that they have “gone Thai”.

The main Songkran event, the "big splash" is known as Saad Nam. Across the kingdom firing squads of teenagers let loose with arsenals of hoses, buckets and water cannon. Everyone is expected to take their punishment with good humour. Should you see Thai kids aiming pistols or buckets at you, never plea for exemption. To do so is to paint a double bulls-eye on yourself. Prepare to get even drenched-er than had you said nothing.

In Bangkok your chances of staying relatively dry increase in direct ratio to your distance from tourist hot spots, and to your time spent indoors during the day. Ideally, there is a cease-fire of water-borne hostilities at dusk — but don’t you believe it.

The festivities are similarly exuberant up north in Chiang Mai where revellers wade into the Ping River. A Queen of the Water Festival is chosen — no, it’s not a wet T-shirt contest — and the city turns on a three-day, water-cooled carnival of music and dance. Hotels in Chiang Mai (and elsewhere) are heavily booked for this period, so get in early if you plan to travel.

Across the country millions of Thais are on the move for the Songkran holidays, visiting their families. Unfortunately, Thailand has truly horrendous annual road trauma statistics and Songkran delivers one of the worst spikes of the year, with over 100 people a day dying in wrecks, not to mention the maimed survivors. The roads are awash with water, alcohol and blithe inattention. Kids perched in pick-ups target other vehicles, especially motorcycles, while those on the motorbikes return fire. It’s all good, clean fun until a passenger van clips a bike or truck, and Songkran racks up yet more ruined lives.

Head for the hills, literally — is probably the best advice. In quiet rural towns and backwater beaches you’ll have the pleasure and honour of a bit of a splash, some clay tenderly daubed on your cheek by polite Thai kids and a big smile.

Songkran will be celebrated in 2014 from April 13-15.