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 (