Monday, June 30, 2014

Living the Dream #4: Daniel Moran

Kristie Kellahan continues her series looking at the enviable lives of ex-pats in Thailand.

Who: Daniel Moran, 38

Where: Cape Yamu, Thailand

Why: Executive Chef Daniel moved to Thailand in 2003 for the opening of a luxury hotel called the Metropolitan by COMO, Bangkok. Since then he has worked for COMO around the world at hotels in Bali, Bhutan, the Caribbean and Miami, before moving to Phuket in September 2013 to join Point Yamu by COMO. There he oversees the restaurant and hotel operations, including COMO Shambhala Spa Cuisine, Nahm Yaa, southern-inspired Thai cuisine, and La Sirena, a modern Italian eatery.

His environment: At work, Daniel says he is fortunate to work at a “seriously hip hotel”, originally designed by Philippe Starck and decorated by “amazing” Italian designer Paola Navone. 
When he heads home, it’s to a little Muslim fishing village overlooking the Andaman Sea. “There I spend most of my free time cooking with my younger brother who is also a chef with me at the hotel,” he says. “We have a really amazing house where we have set up an outdoor kitchen cooking with traditional Thai charcoal grill, our own Gastro Temple.”

Life before Thailand:
 Daniel is from Narrabeen, one of Sydney’s gorgeous northern beaches. 
“I pretty much spent my life surfing and doing all the other water sports that go with it,” he says. “My cooking career started in the kitchen at age 16, working for Neil Perry at Rockpool restaurant - one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me, working in such an amazing restaurant, with amazing produce and such an inspirational chef was mind-blowing and a real motivation in my life.” 
At age 22, Daniel left Australia to work in Europe and London and he has lived abroad ever since.

Any big culture shock moments in Thailand?
 “The sights, smells and sounds of Bangkok were a shock at first,” he says, “but after that not really for me as I am quite an open-minded person and accept culture for what it is. Thais are very proud people and I respect that this is Thailand and this is how it is done.”

Daniel’s tips for success in Thailand: 
Do – smile, give a polite wave, respect the monks, respect the royal family, and understand Thai family morals, take life easy as the Thais would do it. 
Don’t – touch children or anyone really on the head; point your feet at things. 
“The deeper I go into the culture and the closer I become the more I get lost, so don’t think too much and just accept the Thais for who they are,” Daniel says. “I think to myself sometimes, Maybe I should be like the Thais a lot more.”

Biggest challenges of your life in Thailand?
 Learning a little of the language.

...and biggest rewards of your Thai life
 “It would have to be the road from hedonism to Buddhism,” Daniel says. “Being an expat in Thailand for the first time, your think this life is a dream, this is a party paradise and it’s true but it eventually catches up with you. These days there is a different life that I’m choosing to lead, and it’s interesting to see how Thailand looks through these sober eyes and a clear mind focusing on spirituality.”

Favourite places to hang out in Phuket: 
When Daniel tears himself away from the gorgeous Como location at Point Yamu, he heads to Phuket Town. He says Sanaeha at Yaowarat Road is a cool place to hang out and listen to live music, and Anna’s Cafe has a great vibe. Comics Cafe & Bar rates a mention for the cool cartoon art on the walls, and Ka Jok See is his go-to spot for dinner and a party in one place.

Where to eat in Phuket:
 Three of the chef’s favourites are: Raya House, serving Peranakan Thai-style cuisine; Mor Mu Dong, a “must-see” traditional location; and Ang Seafood (opposite Bang Neiw Shrine) for seafood on the beach in huts. He also recommends the Phuket Weekend Market near Naka Temple.

Pics: Point Yamu by COMO

Where to go for pampering:
 Hands down, it’s the COMO Shambhala Spa, says Daniel.

Favourite downtime activities:
 “If we are not cooking for our friends we are walking through local markets, buying exotic fruits, vegetables and seafood that you would never find in western markets,” he says. “I have done a lot of travel in my life, but Thailand still has the best cuisine of all.”

Favourite Thai expressions:
Mai pen rai – no problems

Aloy aloy – very tasty food

Sanuk – having fun

Narak - very cute

Monday, June 23, 2014

Coup? What Coup?

Regular contributor, John Borthwick checks out post-coup life in Thailand and finds that it’s safe to go back in the water.

Peace be with you...

“If you didn’t read the papers or watch TV, you’d never know that there had been a coup,” Andy, a longterm Thailand resident and professional Muay Thai coach, tells me on Koh Samui. I arrived in Bangkok about a week after the coup of 22 May 2014, by which time life had settled back to near-normalcy. Martial law? Where? I saw a few soldiers at the airport and, later, several HumVees parked beside the highway. No roadblocks, no ID checks and not an even halfway serious application of the curfew hours.

The curfew was quickly lifted in major tourist centres and then, by June 13, across the entire country. (An early priority — very Thai — was to lift it in time for the next full moon party on Koh Phangan.) Were I not a keen consumer of news, I too might have said, ”Coup? What coup?”

During the early days of martial law, global news services including BBC World and CNN managed to find small flash mobs in Bangkok and, using enough stock “khaki” footage and “crisis” commentary, give the impression that the city, indeed the whole country, was on the verge of eruption. Foreign governments issued travel warnings, and visitors by the thousands cancelled their flights.

Clearly there had been a long political crisis in Thailand. The Army eventually responded to the deadlock with a bloodless coup d’etat. As in the past, the declared intention is for the generals — the National Council for Peace and Order — to hand over the reins to an elected government. Fifteen months is the perhaps optimistic projection.

Few Thais want military rule. But even fewer wanted to see their country paralyzed and polarized as it had increasingly become. In my time there I did not meet one Thai who vehemently opposed the coup. (Certainly there are those, many even, who feel otherwise, but I did not encounter those opinions.) Mostly, people just wanted to get on with their livelihoods and, regardless of their political inclinations, in general had welcomed a circuit-breaker in the Red vs Yellow political stalemate. Their more immediate worry was the damage being done to Thailand’s reputation for both investment and tourism by simplistic, dramatised network news reportage.

Equally baffling for them was to see foreign governments issuing alarmist statements, such as Australia’s: “Martial law continues to be imposed nationwide ... exercise a high degree of caution ... due to the possibility of civil unrest and the threat of terrorist attack, including Bangkok and Phuket.” Sixty-two countries posted travel advisories, including — incredibly — 19 “red alerts” against all travel to Thailand.

Meanwhile, any Thai or tourist on the ground knew that it was perfectly safe to go back in the water (so to speak) in Phuket, Samui, Tarutao or the Ping River, because it had never been unsafe.

On June 12, the influential businessman, American-born Thai citizen William Heinecke, published in the Bangkok Post an open letter to the foreign diplomatic corps and international media. Among his points were:

— I am distressed by the interpretation by a number of Western governments and the international media of both the Coup ... and the situation that led to the Coup. Put succinctly, many of you have gotten it wrong.

— The military showed great restraint as it stood by watching the situation deteriorate, allowing ample time and opportunity for the politicians to resolve the crisis. The price for that period was paid for by the Thai people ... and only when it was clear that that there was no other reasonable solution did the Thai military step in.

— There are no concerns whatsoever for personal safety within Bangkok’s large expatriate community or the millions of tourists still enjoying their holidays in Thailand, yet this is not mentioned in the international media reports or travel warnings.

— Thailand remains a peaceful and welcoming country.

See soon you in Koh Chang, Samet, Surin, Mae Hong Son, Khao San Road or any part of Thailand you like.

Enjoying the good life in Thailand. Pics: John Borthwick

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tuk Tuk Ride to the (Real) Centre of the Universe

Louise Southerden has a surprising adventure in Thailand’s northern city.

If you’re like me, you probably thought Manhattan was the centre of the universe. But maybe we’re both wrong. On the outskirts of Chiang Mai, there’s a hotel unambiguously, intriguingly called The Real Centre of the Universe. Which you’d think would be signposted. Particularly in this tourist-friendly hub of northern Thailand. But half the fun is getting there, right?

It’s my last afternoon in this lovely, low-key city and, souvenir shopping done, I’m keen for an afternoon of swimming. On discovering my hotel pool is a bit on the small side, I do a quick internet search and find what I’ve been missing while travelling in Thailand for two months: a 25-metre saltwater swimming pool with dedicated lanes for lap-swimmers, only six kilometres (15 minutes’ drive) north of the city centre. I’m there. Well, not quite.

The Holy Grail - the lap pool at the Real Centre of the Universe (supplied)

The first clue that this place might be a bit tricky to find, to put it mildly, is the resort’s website, which, in addition to giving directions and maps, provides GPS coordinates, a slideshow of landmarks en route and two (two!) phone numbers for taxi drivers to call if they lose their way. I take the added precaution of asking my hotel concierge to write the directions in Thai on a slip of paper. What could go wrong?

My first challenge: find a tuk tuk. It’s 4pm, still well before peak hour, but there is not an empty tuk tuk to be seen on my street, one of the four main ones that form a square around the old city. I cross the street, walk up and down, wave at every passing tuk tuk. Finally, one pulls over.

Or rather rattles to a stop beside me. It looks as ancient as its driver, Som, who’s wearing a threadbare safari suit and knitted golfing gloves. I can hardly turn him down. He might be a Thai version of a London cabbie, able to find any destination in Chiang Mai, blindfolded, at night. It will be an adventure, I think.

I hand Som the piece of paper. He takes it in both hands, squints at it, pulls his mobile phone out of a cloth pouch hanging around his neck. After calling the resort, he seems satisfied. We set off. At first, it’s delightful, this audio-free scenic tour of Chiang Mai – past temples and wats, sharing the road with people (and their dogs) on scooters and motorbikes – for the price of a one-way trip to The Real Centre of the Universe, 200 baht (about $A6).

Som checking directions - no worries!

Then we merge onto a freeway and boldly occupy the middle lane between fast, expensive cars and trucks that threaten to suck us into their slipstream. When Som glances at me in his rear view mirror, I shrug as if to say, “Sorry man, I’ve never been to this place either.”

As we putter along, I daydream about arriving at the resort: I’ll pretend to ignore the large billboard out the front saying THE REAL CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE above an illustration of planets orbiting little Chiang Mai; then I’ll say to the security guard, “Excuse me, is this the real centre of the universe?” How many times in your life do you get to say that? He’ll chuckle good-naturedly, I’m sure of it.

Back in the real world, nowhere near the centre of any universe, we pull over. Som gets out and walks over to a man getting onto his parked motorbike, who takes the precious piece of paper (please, let it not blow under a speeding car!) and reads the directions aloud, as if they’re written in code. Then he points up the road. We go on.

Som asking directions - yes, still on track!

But Som seems increasingly unsure. So we stop again. I’m watching an improv routine: driver asks question, hands over piece of paper, bystander acts helpful. This one pulls out his phone and calls the phone number on the paper. Nods as he speaks to someone, then points – back the way we’ve come.

The next person we ask is a security guard manning the imposing entrance of a gated community. I think about asking my question but he clearly doesn’t speak English. Further down the road, we stop at a stall selling strawberries and while Som asks again, I buy a punnet, partly out of embarrassment.

We rattle up and down the freeway some more before, probably for no good reason, we turn onto a potholed dirt road. A dead end. It’s starting to get dark. Should I be nervous? Som seems trustworthy but travelling solo can make a girl cautious, even in Thailand. I glance at my watch. This 15-minute trip has taken more than an hour and we’re not even there yet.

It’s time to abort the mission. I ask Som to take me back to my hotel, the one with the smallest pool in the universe (a slight exaggeration, borne of my disappointment). He looks relieved, then lights up a cigarette, coughs and hacks a golly onto the road.

Canine tuk-tuk

On the way back to town, we’re like horses returning to their stables. Suddenly everything is easy. The traffic flows, the tuk tuk sings. There are no polluting trucks spewing diesel fumes in our faces. And before I know it, I’m standing outside my hotel again, handing Som 200 baht for a one-way trip to nowhere, plus a little extra for his trouble.

As I walk back to my room, I feel oddly relieved. It seems fitting that an hour and a half of noisy driving in crazy traffic didn’t get me to the real centre of the universe, and reminds me of something I love about Thailand: its sense of possibility, and people’s willingness to give anything a go. Besides, finding the real centre of the universe probably would have been an anti-climax. This way, it’s still out there, bright as a candle-lantern rising into the sky, waiting for me to find it the next time I’m in Chiang Mai.

Pics: Louise Southerden

Fact box: Bangkok Air flies from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (1hr 15mins) several times a day. The Real Centre of the Universe is open to non-guests from 7am to 7pm daily. Pool entry starts at 80 baht ($A2.50). Check the website before setting off!

Follow Louise’s travels at No Impact Girl or Twitter @noimpactgirl 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Quiet Side of Samui

If chilling out is your holiday dream, head to the south of Samui where the jungle meets the sea.

If your idea of the perfect vacation is letting loose, Koh Samui is not a bad choice to get your party on. The vibrant, ever-buzzing strip at Chaweng Beach offers something for every social butterfly, from chilled beach bars to girly joints, chic cocktail lounges to beach clubs. The five kilometre crescent of powder-white sand is a never-ending parade of joggers, poseurs and touts, accompanied by the deafening racket of techno music, jet skis and power boats blaring advertisements for upcoming Muay Thai battles. It's a crazy, chaotic cocaphony ... and I gotta admit, I love it!

Cocktails on the beach at Chaweng

But not everyone wants a high-octane holiday ... and sometimes you just want to escape the chaos, and chill somewhere quiet and warm and beautiful. Palm trees, hammocks, blue balmy water and footprints in the sand, that's what I'm talking about!

No need to hide your head in the sand to find tranquility in Samui!

Ah, Samui, you never let me down! This lovely, round, mountainous island in the Gulf of Thailand really does have it all; it's a 'choose your own adventure' island, with plenty of quiet pockets to escape the crowds if that's what you prefer. After a night soaking up the irrepressible atmosphere of Chaweng at Centara Grand Beach Resort Samui, we headed south to its sister property, Centara Villas Samui, located at Laemset Bay on the southern tip of the island.

Although only half an hour's drive from Chaweng, this is another world - quiet and relaxed. There are no clubs or bars (apart from the resort's own beach bar) within coo-ee, so nightlife is restricted to dinner under a starlit sky, three different happy hours and chilling with loved ones in your own private villa.

Perfect spot for a morning walk along the  beach 

For those who really need to shop or get a taste of the famous Samui nightlife, a shuttle runs to and from Chaweng (drop off at Centara Grand) five times a day at the very reasonable cost of 80 baht. The last return of the night, however, is at 10.45pm - after that, you'll need to pay for a taxi home (guaranteed not to be cheap, this being Samui after all!)

No two of the 102 villas at Centara Villas Samui are alike. Terraced down a steep hillside and surrounded by landscaped tropical gardens, they fall into eight different categories, according to view, location and whether or not they have a private pool. Even the oldest and most basic of the villas are extremely comfortable, spacious and stylishly fitted out. For a four-star property, the resort really has quite an upmarket feel, largely due to the privacy of each room.

The focal point of the resort is its beachfront butterfly-shaped pool (butterflies being the predominant motif of the resort - there's even a butterfly sanctuary across the road!), which looks out over the tranquil bay and quiet white-sand Natien Beach. The popular sala-style Coral Bar sits beside the pool, flanking the Reef Cafe. It's certainly a killer location, and one of the prettiest places ever to enjoy a buffet breakfast.

The butterfly pool looking out over Nantien Beach

Not surprisingly, Centara Villas is extremely popular with Australian tourists - it really epitomises what most of us are looking for in a holiday to Thailand - tropical tranquility and a chance to unwind, but with access to nightlife for the occasional big night out.

Samui sunset

Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Centara and Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Classic Spa Experience on Koh Samui

It's an oldie but a goodie! Diana Plater discovers that Thailand's oldest health resort still delivers the bliss.

I’ve heard a lot over the years about The Spa Resort at Lamai in Koh Samui.

It’s said to be the oldest health resort in Thailand with a dedicated clientele who go regularly to detox, fast, have colonic irrigation and do yoga.

Started by an American and his Thai wife, my cousin swears by it, saying it has helped her lose a large amount of weight.

I wasn’t that keen on the idea of fasting and colonics, but healthy food and yoga sounded just what the doctor ordered. And of course massages and beauty treatments, right on the beach.

We arrive late at night so it isn’t until the next morning that I see how good the view is. It feels like staying in a fishing village with the locals working away on their boats, seemingly undisturbed by crazy foreigners trying to lose weight.

Lamai Beach at Koh Samui.  Pic: Diana Plater

We stay at the hotel next door, the Poolsawat Villa, which has large rooms in a main building and villas overlooking a large swimming pool – one that you can actually do laps in. For around 1500 baht (around A$50) a night it’s a bargain.

View from Poolsawat Villas. Pic: Diana Plater

From here it’s easy to walk along the beach and find cheap and cheerful places for breakfast or dinner, stopping off at massage decks for fantastic treatments. We also love the fruit seller across the road who makes yummy fruitshakes and fried banana and eggplant.

The Spa has a restaurant right on the beach, Radiance, serving vegetarian, vegan and raw food, but you can also have a glass of wine there and muse on how people can still sport dreadlocks and wear tie-dyed clothes in 2014.

There’s a trendy new bar across the busy road if you want something a bit more upmarket.

What’s a Spa without a spa? This one has a herbal steam room, and treatments which include aloe vera body wraps and Ampuku, a Japanese therapy that helps the fasting process.

Yoga is my favourite activity taught by Englishman Mike, who really makes it fun. Doing laps in the pool, then yoga, then breakfast, followed by lazing on the beach or by the pool: pretty perfect holiday if you ask me. Or you can take the shuttle to the sister resort, The Spa Samui Village, up in the hills.

Yoga at The Spa (supplied)

The lovely lady who owns the fruit stall organises for her brother and his girlfriend to give us a tour of the island one day and leave us for lunch at Belmond Napasai Koh Samui at Baan Tai up on the north coast.

We are shown around this stunning five star resort by Food and Beverage director Sascha Spiegel. As we visualise guests enjoying unspoilt views of the ocean over to Koh Phangan from their villa beds, Spiegel tells us that they want the guests to feel like they’re in Thailand, not some other part of the world.

Belmond Napasai Koh Samui (supplied)

Some of the villas are privately owned and in turn used by people prepared to pay big baht for privacy, with their own full-size kitchens and exclusive beaches. We hear many of these guests arrive by helicopter.

As well as a great spa, new gym, private beach, infinity swimming pool and mix of restaurants, the resort now has its own farm with animals including buffaloes and chickens. Great for kids and functions, and they even show outdoor movies here.

Belmond Napasai Koh Samui (supplied)

As we leave we notice a boatload of guests coming back from a snorkelling and diving expedition to the National Marine Park.

We take a slightly less comfortable trip – the twilight ferry to Koh Phangan itself. We think maybe we’ll try the Full Moon Party but after viewing inebriated backpackers drinking straight from red wine bottles we decide… hmmm, maybe not this time.

The island is packed and accommodation is scarce but we make our way by minibus and in pitch darkness to the very humble Happy Beach Bungalows, where my cousin’s friends are staying. They love the quiet simplicity of this area. We find it perhaps just a bit too rustic.

Early morning swimming in a sea that feels like honey takes away any woes from the previous day’s trip. But we’re more than happy to get back to our digs at the Poolsawat Villa and vow not to leave until I reluctantly have to head for the airport.