Tuesday, 27 December 2011

High Tea? Yes, Please!

High tea. If these two little words fail to pique your interest, then clearly you’re not female, gay or one of those rare creatures, the sensitive male. But if, in fact, you are in the majority that delights in delicate, beautifully-presented goodies and fragrant teas served in fine china, then listen up! I’ve found one of the most alluring places to enjoy this charming girlie tradition, in the last destination you’d expect – Thailand.

Located on the far side of the Ping River on Charoenraj Rd in Chiang Mai, just up the road from Riverside Restaurant, Vieng Joom On Teahouse makes quite the statement even before you enter the doors. The hot-pink double-storey building with gold detailing stands out like a beacon, heralding the ornate interior and its overwhelming colour scheme – pink. Which is not surprising, considering the name actually means Pink City. Barbie, eat your heart out.

Beyond the gorgeous tea shop selling blended teas and accessories lies an intimate lounge area spilling out onto a glorious garden terrace, protected from the elements by a pink silk-draped canopy. Groups of girls – both foreigners and Thai - sit chatting and laughing on comfy sofas and wicker chairs surrounded by burbling water features, while couples enjoy the romance of the river view on wrought iron tables shaded by umbrellas. If there’s a prettier place to laze away an afternoon in Chiang Mai, I’m yet to discover it.

The passion of a Chinese-born, tea-loving owner, Vieng Joom On offers over 50 blends of tea, from Indian masala and chai to locally-concocted brews such as the fragrant Chiang Mai fruit tea, blending rose hip, apple bits, hibiscus, rooibos, almond bits and vanilla. Teas are served hot or iced, the latter served in tall elegant glasses and bearing enticing names such as Lady in Red and Lavender Lemonade.

While an extensive menu offers vegetarian meals and desserts, most customers indulge in the teahouse specialty, high tea. Presented on a triple-level platter, it features petit fours, a selection of mini cakes, assorted sandwiches and fruit salad with strawberry dipping sauce, served with your choice of tea. At 495 baht for two, it’s not the cheapest meal in Chiang Mai, but the presentation, the ambience and the undeniable beauty of the experience makes it a worthwhile treat.

53 Charoenraj Rd
Chiang Mai

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Elephants and Tourism #2

In my last post, I wrote about my discomfort in watching elephants perform in a staged environment, and shouted the praises of tourism ventures that showcase elephants' natural abilities to entertain, just by being themselves.

I do want to clarify, however, that I was not questioning the standard of care given to the animals at FantaSea or any other elephant show or camp. It was very apparent from watching the elephants in the FantaSea show that they were happy, well-adjusted and pampered animals, who did not appear stressed by their starring role.

Below is a statement provided by the management of FantaSea explaining the level of care given to their animals, which I think is worth sharing with my readers.

"Phuket FantaSea is committed to providing quality products and services to our guests, a fact that I hope is evident to you during your visit. The same also applies to the way we operate our business and manage our human and animal resources. Animals are regarded as our 'superstars' and treated with respect as one of our colleagues. Our elephants enjoy one of the best facilities offered in the country, if not in Asia. Each of our elephants is cared for by over 3 dedicated mahouts 24 hours a day, a costly yet necessary practice for us to keep our standard of animal care. During day time, the elephants are taken daily to the FantaSea-owned jungle next to our premises where they can roam freely (guarded by the mahouts) and at night, they stay in a spacious holding area (each having its own quarter) that boasts a huge common exercise ground, CCTV security system, shower area, a pool, clinic with full time vets, and other facilities. The food we serve our elephants is always of good human-consumable quality and mostly grown and harvested in our own farm or bought from respectable suppliers. It is also not known to most guests that we own many times more elephants than needed in the show, which means our elephants enjoy rest, day-offs and sick leaves and are not the least 'overworked' in any way.

The same standard of practice also extends to all animals, big or small. The tigers are well cared for and fed with high quality meat and supplements. We intentionally keep our tigers naturally thin and healthy, and not 'cuddly' and obese as most human guests think tigers should be. The display area where guests see the tigers is just a temporary 'play and snacks area' for the tigers. They are moved here each day to swim and play and have snacks (which are introduced into the display area via several trap doors). After 3 hours, they will be moved to their actual holding area which is a much bigger place, with a common area and a pool. As for your concern on the camera flashlights, please be assured that they do not cause harm to the tigers in any way. (With the lighting inside the tiger area and through the thick acrylic separating the tiger and human area, the flash lights actually lose its intensity and do not cause any harm). "
I personally find this information very reassuring, particularly in regards to the tigers.
The bottom line for animal lovers visiting Thailand is to consider your choices carefully in regards to wildlife-based tourism. Keep an open mind, taking into account the complex situation regarding the place of animals in an urbanised environment. Seek out operators who provide their animals with love, respect and quality care. And spread the word about those who are doing a great job as caretakers of the precious creatures inhabiting this planet.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Elephants and Tourism

A few weeks ago, I finally went and saw FantaSea, Thailand’s largest and most spectacular cultural theme park and the most popular attraction on the island of Phuket. I’ve managed to avoid going for years – big stage shows aren’t really my thing, and as an animal lover and anti-circus advocate, I was uncomfortable with the notion of watching performing elephants.

It is indeed an amazing, over-the-top and mind-blowing show, very much aimed at the mass market (the auditorium holds 3,000 people, packed to capacity every night). It’s colourful, dizzying and loud, with firework explosions that had me leaping out of my seat with profanities. (Why is it, for such a gentle race of people, do the Thai’s love loud noises so much?! Really!!) The park where the performance is located is spectacular in itself, a Thai Disneyland with neon lights, shops and shows. And yes, there is a large cast of elephants, showcasing their dexterity, intelligence and ability to please crowds.

The elephants are indeed the stars of the show – and in keeping with that, these animals are well cared for, well fed and pampered. However, true to my initial reservations, I admit to squirming in my seat when the elephants performed in a ‘chorus line’, standing on their hind legs and ‘dancing’ to rapturous applause.

This, of course, is a natural talent, one they are capable of doing in the wild. But to see it in a regimented, staged arena was, for me, a little confronting. Similarly, I’m also not particularly comfortable with watching elephants play soccer, paint or play polo (despite my well-known love of this sport) – all skills they perform graciously and happily for their human audiences.

In an ideal world, I’d prefer to watch elephants – and indeed all animals – just be themselves, doing what comes naturally for their own benefit, not that of humans. But this is not an ideal world – these elephants are domesticated animals, not wild, and therefore need to find their place in human society. And nowhere is that situation more complex than in Thailand.

The elephant has played an important role in Thailand for centuries, a crucial partner in war, industry and daily life. Many of Thailand’s 4,000-odd domestic elephants have a one-on-one relationship with their mahout owners as lifelong companions and treasured members of the family. But elephants are cumbersome creatures, requiring space to roam and mountains of food, each one hoovering over 200 kilos of food a day. Elephant ownership is expensive – and the reality is, an elephant has no choice but to contribute to its own upkeep.

Traditionally, the elephant was a beast of burden, largely employed in the logging industry; but since that practice ended in 1989, finding a suitable and ethical role for these beloved creatures has been both difficult and controversial. When logging ceased, many unemployed mahouts resorted to begging in the streets, taking their animals into the smog and traffic of big cities to eke a living. This, of course, is a less than ideal environment for any animal, let alone an enormous, sensitive elephant who is physically designed to forage in a jungle, not camp alongside freeways.

With begging now officially outlawed, the challenge is for a mahout to find a role for his elephant that is as lucrative as begging, but more beneficial to himself and his animal. Which is where tourism comes in.

Tourism – whether it be trekking or performing in shows like FantaSea – now provides the bulk of the work for Thailand’s domestic elephants, and is arguably the best, kindest and most beneficial form of work for these animals. As long as the animal is treated with respect, a job in tourism is low-impact on the animal, generally with reasonable working hours and minimal energy required. The elephants in FantaSea work for approximately an hour a day – surely better than tramping the streets for 18 hours day and night. And usually a working elephant is rewarded with a solid feed at the end of the day, rather than a begged banana and food scraps.

However, as more and more tourists (particularly Westerners) demand more ethical treatment of elephants, so the emphasis is shifting from standard jungle treks and animal shows to less invasive, more natural and lower-impact forms of tourism, ones that are kinder and less exploitative to the animal. Interactive “mahout”-style experiences, where guests can learn first-hand about a mahout’s lifestyle and relationship with the elephant, are becoming particularly popular; riding bareback behind an elephant’s head, rather than perched in a rickety wooden saddle, is not only more comfortable and fun, but also a great way of communicating directly with the animal.

There are several excellent elephant camps leading the charge of happy, holistic elephant tourism ventures. The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, located in the grounds of the Golden Triangle Anantara near Chiang Saen, has provided a new life and livelihood not only for 30-odd rescued street elephants, but also for their mahouts and families who have relocated to this tranquil oasis. Lampang’s Elephant Conservation Centre has an excellent mahout-training school; you can also learn the skills of the mahout during three-day homestays at the Royal Elephant Krall and Village in Ayutthaya. I also recently heard about another intimate program at Patara Farm, just out of Chiang Mai, where you can be an elephant owner for a day – an experience which comes highly recommended and which I can’t wait to check out.

One of my favourite places to watch elephants simply being elephants is at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, home to elephants rescued from a life of abuse and mistreatment. The day and week-long volunteer programs here include feeding and bathing the elephants, but no riding – these poor animals, whose individual stories will reduce any animal lover to tears, can now just be, no longer burdened by work and cruelty.

And what could be more entertaining than just sitting watching elephants play in water and mud, trunk wrestling and just hanging out, free and unfettered? For me, this is the most rewarding and enjoyable experience of all, just watching them be elephants – the most adorable, amusing and intelligent animals on the planet.

That’s a ticket worth its weight in gold, surely the greatest show on earth.

...or ...

You be the judge which is more entertaining!

Further info:

Fantasea - www.phuket-fantasea.com

Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation – www.helpingelephants.org

Elephantstay – www.elephantstay.com

Patara Farm – www.pataraelephantfarm.com

Elephant Nature Park – www.elephantnaturefoundation.org

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Motorcycle Diaries

Yesterday I gained my motorcycle Ps, an epic journey that began with a baptism of fire in northern Thailand a year ago. Yes, I was one of those farang idiots that succumbed to the madness that is holiday scooter hire, a decision that was ill-informed and dangerous. And while I survived the experience, this is a cautionary tale.

Why did I do it? Because I had to. There was simply no other way to get around. I was staying in a small village in northern Thailand where public transport is non-existent, and I needed to get to and from my hotel to various sights. So after a day of hoofing it in the blaring heat, I asked reception to arrange scooter hire.

Two hours later, it was delivered to my door, along with two ill-fitting helmets. No one asked to see my licence (the hotel provided them with a copy of my passport for security); there was no deposit necessary, and I could pay the princely sum of 170 baht a day (around $6) at the end of the hire period. Easy peasy.

Of course, the cute little scooter came with no instructions – it was up to me to figure out how to get it started, fill it with fuel (the tank was below empty on delivery) and most important of all, not crash. Which, when you are a total novice and petrified, was easier said than done.

Fortunately, the streets of the Golden Triangle where I was staying are very quiet, allowing me the liberty of weaving and wobbling on my first nervous takeoff. Unlike in Sydney, there are no buses or rabid taxi drivers to contend with – just other scooters, vendors pushing carts, unruly children and dogs dashing from the kerb. I only had to travel about five kilometres on my first outing – just one road, with only a few bends and mostly in reasonable condition. Although I held my breath the whole way, it was mission accomplished  – and before long, I was pottering all over town, even taking my little baby off-road onto dirt tracks.

Chuffed with my achievements, I soon ventured further afield, putting me in the path of actual traffic. I even had to stop at lights a couple of times. Once I had to slam the brakes to avoid a van pulling out without indicating. 

They may drive on the left in Thailand, but that’s where any similarity to Australian road rules ends. Firstly, there are no discernable rules: small vehicles give way to larger ones; no one indicates; and a red light must mean go, as no one seemed to stop at them except me. Everyone drives like a lunatic – at least I was in good company.

One hazard I didn’t chance upon, however, was other travellers who had hired motorbikes with no licence or experience. In popular backpacker destinations, such as Chiang Mai, Koh Phangan and Koh Chang,  it’s another story. Tourist on bikes are everywhere; many are young, stupid and often drunk. Most are Europeans or Americans used to driving on the other side of the road. Few wear helmets. Most wear shorts and thongs, and are carrying equally scantily clad passengers. And many end up as road kill.

The statistics for motor cycle accidents in Thailand are sobering. On average, 38 people die per day from motor cycle accidents in Thailand; in 2008, there were nearly 60,000 motor cycle accidents. In Phangan, the ultimate party island, burn and gravel rash scars are known as “the Phangan tattoo”. Every local has a tragic story about a visitor who ended up with brain damage or horrendous injuries.

A week after my breakthrough in the Golden Triangle, I arrived in gorgeous Koh Chang, determined to continue my motorcycle adventure. I took one look at the road, however, and immediately changed my mind – although there is only one route around the island, it is a rollercoaster of treacherous curves, stupefying hills and blind corners where mini vans, songthaew taxis and bikes hassle for speed rights. Scooters carrying two or three unhelmeted passengers are often forced off the road by impatient vans; and even with an open road, they barely make the inclines before hurtling down the other side, wobbling over potholes and wonky verges.

It’s death on wheels, and there’s no way in the world I would recommend any novice hitting this particular road... unless they want to leave part of their brain embedded in its surface.

                                  (the craziness that is Koh Chang's roads)

Having witnessed the chaos on Koh Chang’s ringroad, I cautiously refused the offer of scooter hire on its idyllic little sister island, Koh Kood, instead setting out on foot to walk the  “five-to-ten kilometres” to a waterfall (the latter being the more accurate estimate.) By the time I reached the main road, one kilometre from base, I realised I’d made a mistake – the roads on this particularly island are brand new, in perfect condition, and absolutely deserted. Although the roads are steep, there is no other traffic to contend with – I would have been absolutely fine.

When it comes to scooter hire in Thailand, the bottom line is: use your head. If you’re not licensed, this is not the place to learn. Furthermore, an unlicensed driver is an uninsured driver, as I discovered only on checking my policy after I returned home. In retrospect, I was stupid. I implore you not to be too. Life’s too bloody short.

On returning to Australia, I immediately booked into an RTA pre-learner motorcycle rider’s course and received my learner’s permit. Six months and plenty of roadtime later on my daughter’s scooter, I took another compulsory day-course to receive my Ps. I will now be on my provisional licence for a year before gaining my full license. Very little drama to ensure I am experienced and covered for my next scooter experience in Thailand.


DO get your motor cycle licence before you leave Australia. It’s stupid to jump on cold and unprepared. Also, your travel insurance will not cover you if you are not properly licensed. My policy reads: “We will not pay under any circumstances if your claim arises from being in control of a motorcycle (or scooter or moped) without a current Australian motorcycle licence or you are a passenger travelling on a motorcycle that is the control of a person who does not hold a current motorcycle licence valid for the country you are travelling in.” Whoops.

DO take out travel insurance before you leave home. Unlike car hire, there is no option for extra coverage on hiring.

DO wear a helmet – it is against the law not to.

DO ask a long-term ex-pat if it’s advisable to hire a scooter – you may get an honest answer. Thai locals, bless them, will always say it’s safe. After all, they use their scooter as the family wagon, carting their spouse, four or five children, the shopping, an umbrella and various items of furniture on any given trip. It’s a way of life.

DO cover up as much as possible in case of an accident. Jacket, long pants and closed toe shoes are the sensible option.

DO check for damage to the bike before hiring, otherwise you may be scammed for repairs.

DON’T hand over your passport for security – insist on a photocopy being taken.

DON’T carry passengers unless you are experienced and licensed to do so.

DON’T drink or take drugs if you are driving. You may be on holidays, but the rules from home should still apply.

DO check the fuel gauge. Don’t assume the hirers will hand it over with a full tank. It’s more than likely to be empty.

DO be careful going around corners – oil slicks are common on Thai roads. Also be careful on dirt roads in the wet – if the tyres clog with mud, you can slide out on braking

Monday, 5 December 2011

New spa opens in Chiang Mai

One of the things I love most about Chiang Mai is the abundance of spas and massage services. Relaxation and pampering is an integral part of any visit to this northern city, nurturing my body, soul and spirit as only Thailand can. From top-end luxury hotel spas to street-front massage joints, there’s no excuse not to indulge. Got an hour to kill before dinner? Have a foot massage. Need a rest during a shopping excursion? Have a Thai massage. With massages so readily available, not to mention affordable, a massage a day really does keep the doctor away.

There are, of course, many styles and standards of massage available. Street massages are quick, accessible and undeniably pleasant; but if you want to treat yourself to a special indulgence, there are also more structured pampering sessions available at specialist luxury spas such as Oasis Spa and Rarinjinda Wellness Resort.

The latter not only offers delicious, indulgent and purifying treatments such as Ayurvedic oil massages, vichy showers and hot stone massages, but its aim (as its name suggests) is to address wellness as well as relaxation, its holistic practices designed to cleanse, heal and detox the body. Every treatment is preceded by a consultation with Spa Director Dr Sushil Rahul, who checks your aura, pulses and general health before advising which treatment is most suitable for your condition. Treatments are conducted in beautiful environs guaranteed to leaving you refreshed and recharged.

While street massages are fun and relaxing, you often get what you paid for – basic treatment in a basic environment. One step up from a street massage in terms of cost, but a world away in terms of ambience is the brand new Health Lanna Spa, located within the old city walls in Singharaj Road (not far from Wat Prasing). This claims to be the largest spa facility in Chiang Mai, with 75 massage beds in rarified, tranquil surrounds.

Everything you desire for relaxation is on hand; dim lights, clean bedding and clothing, soft music, perfumed air and attractive Lanna-style decor. Traditional Thai Lanna massage is performed by therapists trained at the Chiang Mai Thai Spa Academy, and exceptional they are indeed, with strong, firm and precise hands. I recently enjoyed a two-hour treatment and will happily claim it’s one of the best massages I’ve ever had.

The facility also features a Jacuzzi and steam room, a cafe serving local, organically grown coffee and a spa boutique selling aromatic oils, incense and herbal teas.

But the real joy for me is the price. A two-hour Thai massage costs only 450 baht (about A$14), which is just a smidge more than you’ll pay on the street. A great bargain for a truly superior massage, and definitely worth seeking out.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Delightful D2

One of my favourite places to stay in Chiang Mai is dusitD2, a hip, urbane hotel right in the heart of the Night Bazaar just off Chang Klang Rd. Everything about this place just makes me smile, from its spacious, funky lobby with oversized vases filled with fruit to its welcome drinks in silly, wobble-bottomed glasses.

Clean lines and simple, functional design maximises space in its small guest rooms; and amusing touches like silk bed balls and a nightly gift box with goodies such as fortune cookies are a sweet touch.

Downstairs, Moxie dishes up a killer breakfast buffet; while the Mix Bar is a great place for a quiet cocktail, with chill out vibes and the best lemongrass martinis in town.

But the key to any hotel experience is the staff, and D2’s groovy young thangs never disappoint. Dressed in orange boardies, suspenders and Converse, they are always helpful, smiley and prepared to go the extra mile for guests. One year, my visit happened to coincide with my birthday; when I was presented with a birthday cake in the morning, I assumed one of my travel companions had ordered it. They hadn’t – the staff had simply noticed my date of birth on my passport and surprised me.

And if you happen to be in the lobby at 2pm, you’re in for another hilarious surprise – every day at shift change, the staff break out into a flash-mob style choreographed dance, strutting their stuff to Cole Porter’s ‘Delovely’.

“It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s delovelyyyyyyy!” Don’t miss.