Getaways from Bangkok: Hoi An

Historic Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s most charming cities, has been a viable short-term holiday destination for Bangkokians since October 1999, when THAI began flying to central Vietnam’s Danang. Previously accessible only to backpackers with more time on their hands, Hoi An is attracting increasing numbers of international travellers – and with its history, shopping and accessibility, it’s easy to see why.

Located 30km south of Danang, Hoi An was a major trading centre in Southeast Asia from the late 16th century onwards. Today it features beautiful ancient architecture heavily influenced by the Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch and Malay traders. The remarkably high concentration of old merchant houses and shops, family chapels, temples, communal houses, pagodas and bridges serve to evoke an atmosphere redolent of Vietnam’s past unsurpassed elsewhere. Indeed, the old quarter was world heritage-listed by UNESCO in 1999, and visitors are now asked to pay a modest entry fee of VD50,000, which also gives them access to five historical sites.

History aside, the Hoi An of today is a great place to shop. Tailored clothes are the town’s most famed product – prices are far better than Bangkok, and the average quality is comparable. The Cloth Market features scores of tailors, and the streets are lined with scores more, so to avoid making a lucky guess seek a recommendation from your hotel or other travellers. Prices are negotiable, but expect to pay from US$7 for a pair of casual pants or a bias-cut skirt, US$12 for a dress, US$15 for a casual pantsuit, and upwards of US$25 for a suit, usually ready for a fitting within four to five hours. The better the quality of the material, the more you pay.

Shoe makers jostle for position along with the tailors, and will sew you up a pair of stylish leather or Vietnamese silk thongs within the hour. Prices start at around US$3 for a basic, perfectly-fitting pair.

Credit cards are widely accepted, but commissions can be high, with some shops asking for up to five per cent. Carrying cash on short trips can be more economical.

The food in Hoi An is exceptional, and many restaurants offer special set menus for as little as US$3 or 4. The riverfront Caf? de Amis, open for nearly ten years, pioneered this approach but remains unique: there’s no menu. Simply ask for vegetarian or seafood, and you’ll be served a selection of four delicious courses for VD40,000. Wine and beer are often a little cheaper than Thailand.

THAI flies to Danang (with a brief stop in Ubon Ratchatani) on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8.35am, arriving at 10.10am. Return flights operate on the same day, leaving at 11.10am and arriving at Don Muang at 12.45pm. Return tickets are priced at Bt9,625 from THAI offices. Fixed-price taxis (US$10) make the 40-minute trip to Hoi An.

Low-budget hotels charge around US$12 for a double room with airconditioning during low season (March to August), but this can easily rise to US$24 during high season. The three-star Hoi An Hotel has doubles ranging from US$42 to US$60 per night, with a 15 per cent discount for May and June only. Up a notch again is the Hoi An Riverside Resort, which offers both Japanese and Vietnamese-style accommodation priced between US$109 and US$129 during high season (September to February). A forty per cent discount is offered during low season.

Travellers using Thai passports are granted a free 30-day visa on arrival, but those using other passports should check with the Vietnamese embassy to find out their visa requirements. A tax of US$10 payable on departure from Danang International Airport.

Discount packages bring Australia closer

According to the Australian Tourist Commission, increasing numbers of Thais are heading to Australia for holidays – in 2000, 74,000 made a trip there, a nearly 20 per cent increase on the year before. The reasons? Thongchai Wibulsaksakul, country manager of the ATC in Thailand, says Australia is proving popular because it’s the closest Western destination to Thailand. "It also offers a good combination of cities and nature, and has unique flora and animals."

A weakening Australian dollar against the US dollar can’t hurt either – and there are plenty of packages around from which to choose. "Sydney remains the most popular place to go," says Thongchai, "followed by Melbourne and the Gold Coast."

If you’d like a taste of Australia from the moment you leave Don Muang, you might like to fly with the country’s national carrier, Qantas (however note they do have code share flights with British Airways). Holiday Tours and Travel has a special package – "Australian Surprise" – on offer from May 16. Bt25,900 gets you return flights to Sydney, coach transfers to and from the airport, three nights’ twin-share accommodation at the Sydney Boulevard Hotel, and a one-day Sydney Aquarium Pass. Extra nights in Sydney cost Bt3,000 per night.

The bonus with this deal is that it also includes your choice of a free extension flight to Cairns or flights to one of the following combinations: Adelaide/Melbourne, Canberra/Melbourne, Hobart/Melbourne, Brisbane/Melbourne, Gold Coast Melbourne, or Launceston/Melbourne – a great low-budget way to see some bonus Australian sights.

If you’d rather stay patriotic by sticking with THAI, try a Royal Orchid Tour. Give them a call directly or try an agent such as Best Buy Tickets – the prices are the same. The Sydney package is priced at Bt24,440 for three days and two nights. Price includes return ticket with THAI, transfers, accommodation in a three-star hotel (twin share basis), breakfasts and a half-day tour of Sydney and the southern beaches.

Their deal for Melbourne gives you more bang for your baht, starting at Bt25,160 for a four-days and three-night deal. It includes the same as for Sydney, with a full day tour of Melbourne sights instead.

Their Brisbane two-day three-night trip starts at Bt23,850 – and includes two full day tours to Movieworld and Seaworld. If you’d like to check out Brisbane in more detail, it will cost from Bt1265 extra per night.

If you’re a more independent kind of traveller, you can plan your trip yourself – much of it online. First you’ll want to book a well-priced flight from Bangkok to the destination of your choice. Natbusara Tour currently offer flights to Perth with Royal Brunei Air for Bt15,900 return, Perth or Darwin with Malaysian Air for Bt14,000 and Sydney or Brisbane for Bt17,000.

UTC offer more than 30 accommodation/tour packages that kick off when you arrive in Australia. Their five-day four-night Sydney/Melbourne deal starts at AUD591 per person, standard twin share. It includes transfers, breakfasts and two and half day’s worth of tours. Their five-day four-night Gold Coast and farmstay package starts at AUD415 per person, standard twin share, and includes the same except for tours – instead you’ll head to a farm for an overnight stay, and Movieworld for a day-tour.

If you’d rather do it all yourself, head to http://www.australia.com to browse through the suggested itineraries. Next checkout http://www.travelmate.com.au or http://www.australiahotels.net to organise your accommodation at Internet rates.

Australiahotels.net features mid to upper range accommodation, such as a double harbour view room at the Sydney Inter-continental Hotel until September 31 for AUD290 per night; a superior double at Melbourne’s Mercure Hotel until April 2002 for AUD170; or a deluxe waterfront room at the Gold Coast’s Couran Cove Resort until Christmas for AUD204. You need to register at travelmate.com in order to find out current specials.

Want to hire a car and get around yourself? UTC can arrange that before you go; a Holden Barina for one to six days is AUD66 per day, while an eight-seat Mitsubishi Starwagon is AUD123. Or checkout http://www.campervansaust.com.au if a campervan trip’s more your style. They start at AUD68 per day for a two-and-a-half berth van (for a couple and baby).

Holiday Tours and Travel: 236 2800, 234 0031-4
Natbusara Tour: 287 4263
Best Buy Tickets: 652 1734-5, 255 4279
Australian Tourist Commission: 670 0644
Royal Orchid Holidays: 628 2456-7
UTC Siam: 873 9450-3

Honeymoons in Thailand

With a weakening baht, newlyweds watching their cash would do well to recover from their wedding – and celebrate their new life together – by choosing a honeymoon destination in Thailand. There are plenty of great choices, so whether you’re a sunny beach lover or are fond of forested mountains, you don’t need to spend a fortune travelling to have a wonderful honeymoon.

Those wanting a special seaside getaway could try Ko Samui’s Laem Set Inn, which bills itself as being an "eco-friendly" resort, comprised of recycled timber houses in tune with Zen philosophies. The honeymoon or "Lipa-Noi" suite is the most remotely located bungalow on the premises, and was renovated in 2000. The interior is open-plan, and the bungalow features a balcony with a tub to cool down in while watching the sunset.

The suite is priced at US$250 per night, and must be booked well in advance. While breakfast isn’t included, activities such as mountain biking, snorkelling, sea kayaking and sailing are. Some of the profits from the resort are put towards an orphanage for 200 children being built near the resort. Bangkok Airways flies every day to Ko Samui, with one return ticket priced at Bt6300.

For a more remote beach getaway, try Golden Buddha Resort, on Ko Phra Thorng (Golden Buddha Island), two hours north of Phuket in the Andaman sea. The resort is the only one on the island, which is reached by longtail boat from Kuraburi Pier. It’s set on a narrow peninsula, on one side of which is a seven-kilometre beach, and the other a quiet cove. This is a place for nature-lovers, with birdwatching, snorkelling, canoeing and hiking the most popular activities.

They have a package, suitable for honeymooners, at US$310 per person for five days and four nights. It includes transfers, accommodation and all meals. Best time to visit is November to April for water-based activities, but the resort is open year round. Thai Airways flies to Phuket daily, from where transfers can be arranged. Return tickets are priced at Bt4540.

Couples who prefer romance in the mountains might be tempted by a package on offer by The Regent Chiang Mai Resort and Spa, located in Mae Rim Valley, a 20 minute drive from downtown Chiang Mai. The three night/four day honeymoon package, available until September 30, costs US$1,090 (plus 18.5% service charge and applicable government tax) per couple. The deal includes airport transfers, accommodation in a mountain view pavilion suite, daily American breakfasts, a bottle of wine, a three-course candlelit dinner for two, one herbal aromatic steam treatment for two and use of the health club. The resort’s style and design is reminiscent of a traditional northern village from the Kingdom’s Lanna Period, and is set among 20 acres of lush green landscape. Thai Airways flies to Chiang Mai daily, with one return ticket priced at Bt3,740.

A more budget-conscious choice for mountain-lovers is the 37-rai Phu Chaisai (Mountain of Clear Hearts) Resort, designed by ML Sudavdee Kriangkrai and situated on a gardened hill among the mountains of Chiang Rai. Visitors to the newly-opened resort can take walks, go horseriding, take a treatment at the spa, or laze in the common room. Doi Tung, golf courses, the Golden Triangle, Mae Sai, and Chiang Rai airport are all a 20-minute drive away.

The honeymoon suite is priced at Bt7,500 per night, but packages can be negotiated – call in advance to have something tailored to your needs. Thai Airways flies daily, with one return ticket priced at Bt4,400.

For those who simply can’t spare much time, a retreat to Bangkok’s luxurious Oriental Hotel might instead be an appropriate, once-in-a-lifetime indulgence. Honeymoon couples staying at the hotel receive a complimentary bottle of wine, a pair of souvenir silver napkin rings featuring the Oriental logo, and heart-shaped chocolates and fruit carvings.

A special 125th anniversary package that honeymooners can take advantage of until September includes one night’s accommodation in a deluxe room superior room, limousine transfer (one-way only), one 90-minute spa treatment, American breakfast, high tea with management in the Author’s Lounge, a guided tour of the hotel, and a special 125th anniversary gift. The package per couple is US$490++ per night.

Laem Set Inn: 077 233300 or 077 233 299
www.laemset.com
Golden Buddha Resort: 02 863 3180 or 01 464 4338
www.losthorizonsasia.com/gbtxt.html
The Regent Chiang Mai: 053 298 181
www.regenthotels.com
Phu Chaisai: 01 602 8635
www.phu-chaisai.com
The Oriental: 659 9000
www.mandarin-oriental.com/bangkok/

The bettering of Bangkok

Think of Bangkok and you’ll probably think of sex tourism: the neon of Nana Plaza, the pingpong shows of Patpong, and the sleaziness of Soi Cowboy. But these are merely three modest strips in a massive city maturing as the most cosmopolitan centre of Southeast Asia, a megalopolis that’s gradually donning more of an intellectual mantle. Bangkok is evolving into a destination worthy of the adoration of more than just the tourist seeking tacky souvenirs and a cheap package holiday. I live here, and I’m watching the transformation with glee.

Let’s start with Bangkok’s second claim to fame: its traffic. The stories prior to the economic collapse were legendary, and although those sort of epic days might be over with many cars now repossessed, the city still suffers more than its fair share of jams. Things changed for the better, however, with the December 1999 opening of the Skytrain – a monstrous elevated train line that makes normal monorails look like children’s toys. Now travellers have a quick, airconditioned and cheap way of getting around many parts of town.

The Skytrain doesn’t quite make it to Rattanakosin, the old city of Bangkok where many of the city’s best cultural attractions lie – but this area is accessible by boat along the Chao Phraya, the coffee-coloured river that divides the city in two. Hordes head to the glittering Grand Palace – the spires will catch your eye from the river – but head to the more peaceful Vimanmek Mansion, the world’s largest teak building, constructed without a nail.

More attention is being paid to old Thai architecture these days. Check out the teak house of former prime minister MR Kukrit Pramol, incongruously situated in the heart of the financial district’s sleek glass and steel towers; stroll through the teak houses of Suan Pakkard Palace and admire the fine antiquities on display; or visit the treasure-filled home of Jim Thompson, the former American CIA agent who saved Thailand’s silk industry – before disappearing in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands in the 60s.

Of course, shopping for Thai silk must be on your list of things to do. Any Thai will unhesitatingly tell you to head straight to one of the several Jim Thompson outlets – except for the tuk-tuk drivers who insist on taking you for a ride to their brother’s shop for free. Jim Thompson is certainly a better, albeit more expensive bet.

You can mix a love of architecture, shopping and food if you head to Caf? Siam, the beautifully-renovated house built by the first governor of the Thai Railways in the 1920s – and another fish out of water in the financial district. French and Thai food are served downstairs, desserts and coffee in the lounge area upstairs – and everything down to your teaspoon is for sale.

It’s possible to eat out satisfactorily for years in Bangkok without ever having to go to the same place twice – but chances are you’d want to return to some of the best. For Thai food, there’s elegant Baan Khanita – a stone’s throw from Soi Cowboy, but a mile away in class – or understated Lemongrass, located across the road from the city’s newest gleaming department store, Emporium. Italian food is hugely popular at the moment, with the Regent’s breezy Biscotti a favourite among the Thai hi-so (high society) set. Home-style Middle Eastern food is booming around the Nana area, while upmarket "trans-ethnic" cuisine is the go at the newish Merchant Court Hotel’s Doc Chengs, in the outer-lying Huay Khwang district.

The arts are finally coming into their own in Bangkok, with the town’s first ever opera staged in March; film festivals come and go, leaving film-lovers too short of any holiday leave to go elsewhere in the country. Regular open-mike poetry readings began last year at the hip About Caf? and Gallery, near Hualamphong railway station. Check out the installation art upstairs while you’re there, and sip a traditional cool Thai drink while you finesse your sonnet.

The bar and club scene gets more sophisticated by the month. The Silom 4 area is popular among teens and the gay scene, but New York-style Q Bar, the younger sibling of the famed Saigon branch, shows that the Sukhumvit area can be classy too. One club worth checking out for its sheer opulence is Narcissus, where the classical Greek-style interior, disco balls and red velvet lounges scream "Bangkok boom years" but still attracts the masses.

World music is on the ascendancy, with several clubs changing their focus now the Latin craze has dulled. Hit the downmarket but seriously music-centred La Havana on Sukhumvit 22 late on a Friday or Saturday and you’ll find anything from a blend of electronic and live instrumentation, to acoustic Cuban trova. The owner claims to have the best Latin CD collection in Asia, so head there any other night and put in a request. On the same lane you’ll find world-renowned jazz pianist Randy Cannon tinkling the ivories at the Imperial Queens Park Hotel, while back down on the river the Oriental Hotel’s Bamboo Bar frequently features top jazz musicians passing through town.

Of course, the Oriental is still the place to stay – with prices reflecting this. Built on the Chao Phraya by the same Armenian brothers responsible for Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, it retains an old-world charm that no other hotel comes close to matching. But there are plenty of other five-star hotels in the area. The Peninsula, on the "wrong" side of the river, would be my second choice for its fantastic views and tasteful decor.

The spa scene, too, has come of age. Even if you’re not staying at the Oriental, head to their spa across the river for some of their exceptional Thai or foreign treatments (splash out and book in for the day), or further downriver try the Mandara Spa at the Marriott Royal Garden Riverside for tropical treats at their best.

But if you can’t make it here soon, don’t fret; things are getting better by the day.

Krabi getaways for any budget

Since its airport opened in mid-1999, Krabi has been accessible to hardworking Bangkokians wanting to get away for a weekend. While the beauty of Krabi is quite indisputable, judge for yourself whether the cost of a trip away is worthwhile with this breakdown of what you’ll need to spend for a getaway in Railay, one of Krabi’s most spectacular locations.

About Railay

Krabi province features more than 30 small islands of its coast, however most of the island accommodation is basic, and getting there takes time. Of the beaches on mainland Krabi, Ao Nang is the most accessible, but this beach has become somewhat crowded. Railay, still on the mainland but only accessible by boat, offers a more peaceful alternative along with some impressive limestone karst scenery. It’s composed of two beaches, East and West, with East being geared more towards the backpacker crowd, and West being more upmarket. From Railay, it’s a ten-minute walk to arguably the most stunning beach in Krabi, Ao Phra Nang.

Getting there

THAI has daily flights to Krabi from Don Muang, leaving at 8.10am, and return flights on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 4.10pm. Return tickets are Bt4,240. From Krabi airport, hire a limousine to Ao Nang for Bt400 per car, and then catch a longtail for the ten-minute ride to Railay for Bt50 per person with a six-person load. If you don’t want to wait – you’ve only got a weekend, after all – negotiate to pay the extra to leave straight away.

Where to stay

Budget-conscious travellers should head to East Railay, where bungalows are cheaper. Diamond Cave Bungalows have bungalows starting at Bt400 with fan, or Bt1200 with airconditioning, while Viewpoint Bungalows has fan rooms only for Bt500 to 1000. Ya Ya Bungalows – three-storey wooden houses amidst trees – are popular with climbers and go for Bt450 to 750.

West Railay’s budget spot is Railay Bay Bungalows, with fan rooms starting at Bt450 and deluxe aircon rooms for Bt1800, including breakfast. Up a few notches are Sandsea Resort,with bungalows ranging from Bt900 to Bt2,750 (including breakfast) and Railay Village, which offers Bt800 and Bt2,000 rooms. A less densely built up place to stay is the green Railei Beach Club, with various houses and rooms available starting at Bt2,000 and Bt1,200 respectively. If you’d like to really splash out, there’s the Dusit Rayavadee, with its two-storey pavilions starting at Bt20,000 per night. The Dusit is the sole resort on Ao Phra Nang, and also fronts West Railay.

Eating

Seafood is your best bet, and the restaurants along Railay West can’t be beaten for a sundown meal. Several of the restaurants are Muslim and do not serve alcohol, although you can bring your own. The beach is not big on parties: kitchens close by 10pm, and the main bar at Railay Bay turns off its stereo around midnight. Expect to pay Bt70 for a Heineken at most places, and around Bt400 at the most for a good seafood meal for two.

Activities

Railay is one of the top rockclimbing spots in the world – few areas have climbing, the beach, and accommodation all within walking distance. A one-day trip with King Climbers Rock Climbing School will cost you Bt1,500, or if you’re staying longer, a 3-day trip will cost Bt5,000. Other schools include Cliffsman, who offer a private guide for the day at US$120.

Diving is another popular activity here. Phra Nang Divers offers a PADI-certified Openwater I dive course that will set you back US$275 for three to four days, while those already qualified can go on two-dive trips starting at US$50. Kayaking or canoeing is a further water-based alternative. Hire your own kayak on Railay West beach for Bt 500 for a full day, or Bt150 by the hour. Guided trips are available from Ao Nang for around Bt1,200 to 1,500 per day. If you’re not that energetic, negotiate to hire your own longtail and head to some outlying islands. Around Bt800 for half a day is the norm.

Low season means lower prices

From April/May, many prices for both accommodation and activities drop due to the start of the wet season. Boat trips to the province’s islands may not run, but Railay is still accessible.

Gardens for the soul

It’s quite surreal, driving up this sweeping road in the near black of night. Every ten metres or so torches bearing large naked flames sway in the slight breeze. It seems as if a massive gothic castle should be awaiting us at the summit, with drawbridge down and armoured men standing to attention, waiting to welcome us.

Instead there’s a humble bamboo hut with baskets of red flowers hanging from the eaves, set in a garden that is obviously colourful and lush, even by torchlight. Our bags are collected, and we’re shown to our own bamboo bungalow just metres away.

We’ve arrived for a weekend at the Phu Chaisai ("Mountain of Clear Hearts") Resort and Spa, set on the top of a hill, rather than a true mountain, in Chiang Rai province. Designed by ML Sudavdee Kriangkrai, who is popularly called on by royalty and diplomats to decorate their residences and is renowned for her use of local Thai products, the resort had its soft opening just three months ago.

Our bungalow – one of 25 nestled into the hillside, in mostly staggered three-storey lots – is functional and clearly designed to be at the mercy of the views of the surrounding garden and mountains. We can’t see any distant mountains just yet, but at the foot of the bed is a huge plate glass window, and we eagerly anticipate waking up with a sweeping panorama at our feet. There are also windows on either side of the bungalow, able to be discreetly covered with some beautiful pull-down blinds. A note advises us that we might here our neighbours below talking and walking around – the properties of bamboo don’t extend to sound-proofing.

As former backpackers who know their way around a bungalow when they see one, this one scores highly. Plenty of shelf space, a walk-in wardrobe (with a skylight), a separate toilet and hot-water shower (with a skylight), both of which feature charming curtain doors rather than lockable ones… we’re impressed. The toilet features a window that looks onto the garden – and there’s a switch within easy reach from the loo to flood the garden with light at night. There are some touches that lower the tone a little – unmatching bathroom tiles, a lamp that’s seen better days – but still, this is hardly roughing it. Most of the furniture in the rooms is made on the property, and a lovely luggage bench demonstrates that this was a good idea.

The resort’s market is certainly not aimed at backpackers, though. "I don’t like to use these words exactly, but I suppose we are aiming at the upper class of Thai society," says ML Paddy Chakrabandhu, Sudavdee’s half-brother and our host for the weekend. "We’re not aiming to have a resort that operates at full capacity. Just having four or five families staying here all the time would be enough. We’re seeking to attract a niche market – there have been some Japanese, some Westerners come and stay, but we haven’t pushed that market yet."

When we awake, it is indeed to mountains at our feet, although it quickly becomes obvious that the end of the dry season is not the best time of the year to come. There are some mountains in the distance, but there are also some mere hints of mountains further in the distance, thanks to smoke from farmers burning off their fields. Better to set our sights closer to ourselves – the surrounding gardens, which are truly the highlight of the place. They’re unmanicured and have been carefully given a non-landscaped look – in other words, it seems like a wild garden with an extensive array of fabulous trees and flowers.

After an American breakfast in the outdoor restaurant located by the natural-looking pool, we’re offered an hour-long horseride around the property. Sudavdee’s mother bought the original 300 rai of land, of which 37 is now devoted to the resort, more than 30 years ago, and set up a retreat for a monk. Eventually the land fell into disuse, until Sudavdee happened to visit the site nearly three years ago. "It was very tough for a woman to come here at that time, when it was still mostly jungle, and there was no electricity," says Paddy. "She really put a lot of work into this."

We hop on some horses and are led around individually. My horse, Chai-su, isn’t happy about me at all, and decides to sit down and roll to one side in order to get rid of me. It was a polite way to do it, really – he could have just reared and thrown me, but this way I didn’t break any bones, and was able to promptly get back on, with a good story to tell later on. The surrounding bamboo forest is very dry, and one of the horsemen exclaims at the low level of the dam we pass.

Next we’re shown the family residence, built lower down the hill, and another showcase of Sudavdee’s talents. There are three separate "bedrooms", which are actually freestanding bachelor pads each with different Thai and Chinese themes, made of a mixture of woods, cement and mud, plus a common room and kitchen in a huge sala-style building. So this is how the other half live – these places are let only to a select few. Nearby there are also some intriguing mud houses, composed of separate bedrooms, a dining room, and bathroom.

For those who tire of mountain gazing, garden snoozing or dreaming about a bachelor pad of their own , the resort isn’t too far away from other activities if you have transport, or hire a car with driver from the resort. "We’re a half-hour from anywhere – golf courses, the Golden Triangle, Mae Sai, the airport. Doi Tung is 20 minutes away, and it’s 40 minutes to Chiang Rai," says Paddy. More activities, such as bicycling and motorcycling are planned, a recreation room is under construction, and a bigger swimming pool and exercise room are on the drawing board.

In the meantime, there’s still the spa. The complete menu, comparable to that of any five-star hotel, is not yet offered in full, but an excellent Thai Herbal body polish (Bt1,200) is enough for a start.

There are a few things that give away the fact that the resort is not quite operating at optimal level. Our transfer from the airport forgot to pick us up, but a phone call saw a car speedily dispatched; at lunch several items on the menu were unavailable, but all were specifically offered to us at dinner. Half-price rooms, being offered during the soft opening period, do make up for these and are excellent value, so get here quick – and try to arrive at night.

A moment to relax, Thai-style

The small wooden boat bobs around precariously as the three of us clamour aboard. The engine is revved, we each sit back on our little flat bench and we’re off, exploring the narrow khlongs of Samut Songkhram in search of the resident fireflies.

It’s a full moon, so the night sky is naturally bright, and casts the waving palms lining the canals in beautiful, luminous relief. There’s a gentle breeze, it’s cooler than Bangkok, and the air is so fresh – crisp even – we’re all gulping it down. The driver expertly navigates the crisscrossing canals mostly by moonlight; this is all rather exhilarating, particularly after a marathon effort to get this province, which should just be a mere hop, skip and a jump from Bangkok.

It was the two-and-a-half-hour taxi ride from Sukhumvit to Sai Tai bus terminal that did it. But we made the bus to Damnoen Saduak in the nick of time and stayed on it as far as Maeklong, where we jumped off and just managed to catch the last bus to Pak Tor. We stayed on this second bus as far as Wat Kookket, from where it was just a short motorcycle taxi ride away to Baan Song Thai, in the village of Moobaan Kookket, our destination at last. Normally the trip should take around three hours.

Baan Song Thai was set up by village headman Kamnan Thawat Boonpat with the intention of encouraging people to appreciate older Thai architecture and ways of life. People are encouraged to visit for the day, or to stay overnight to experience a way of life that is gradually disappearing. Around a thousand people live in the small waterside village of Moobaan Kookket in 200 houses. Some are relatively new, others, like the Kamnan Thawat’s stunning 110-year-old teak house, and his aunt’s nearby 210 years plus house, are not.

But we’re yet to see the village by daylight. Instead we’re busy gaping at the tiny living lights winking in the trees overhanging our boat. The engine is cut, and it’s just us, the lapping of the khlong water against the boat, and those little lights. Mostly there’s just glorious silence.

Yet in the distance, there’s a cement bridge spanning the canal – I can just make out the red and white traffic lights passing over it. It seems you really don’t have to go far off those monstrous highways leading out of Bangkok to get somewhere peaceful and, well, full of bugs.

Heading back to the house – we’re staying in Kamnan Thawat’s home for the night – the occasional bat seems to head straight for my at great speed, only to swoop away at the last nanosecond. We’re welcomed with a homecooked dinner of local and Thai specialties: tom yam pla thu, pla thu thoot, khai thiaw, nam phrik phak jim and phat pak, eaten on the house’s sprawling verandah while the rest of the family busy themselves for bed.

We take some mattresses under a big mosquito net in the loungeroom. As for that good old rustic silence: as soon as the lights are turned out, it seems that the thousands of insects in the surrounding trees and shrubs come to life. But it’s a lulling, rhythmic sound that sends us off quickly to sleep.

In the morning, we awake with the birds and sit in the sala by the khlong, watching the world start the day. Food and flowers are set out on a mat for the monks from Wat Kookkret, who soon come paddling by in their boats. The village is known for its pomelos and coconuts; a few boats laden with coconuts come sweeping past, scaring the fat ducks who rush to get out of their way.

After a hot breakfast including khao tom, pla khem thoot and hua chaipo phat kha, we too decide to take to the water using only oar-power, and discover, after nearly demolishing a few unstable poles in the water, and crashing clumsily into the banks several times, that this water navigational stuff is a pretty challenging skill to develop.

There aren’t many other activities at Moobaan Kookket. Visit the nearby 210 year-old teak house and say hello to Kamnan Thawat’s aunt, Paa Thorngdam. Wander around the tended gardens featuring vividly coloured flowers and lush trees; take a moment out of life in the big smoke to experience the knowledge that life doesn’t always have to be lived in a hurry, or be isolated from nature.

If you’re not the relaxing type, tie in a trip to Moobaan Kookket with a visit to nearby Doon Hoi Lot, where from March to May you can eat fresh hoi lot (finger shaped shellfish), the floating market Tha Kha (rent a boat from the village to get there), or Rama II Park. You can also take a trip to see people making sugar from coconuts via a boat from the village, or head to Baan Benjarong to see some orchid gardens. Just try to time your trip to Sai Tai with good traffic.

* Homestays at Baan Song Thai cost Bt350 per evening at Baan Song Thai, and include dinner and breakfast. No English is spoken. Call 01 403 7907 to arrange a visit.

A graceful sport: The Phuket King’s Cup Regatta

There really is something eternally graceful about the wind filling the sails of a yacht and carrying it along the ocean’s surface. Forget your mobile phone and the only noise you’ll hear might be the flap of a sail, the call of one crew member to another, the sound of the yacht’s hull slicing through the waves… It’s an essentially peaceful and calming activity.

Throw in some spectacular scenery, add a dash of competition, and the world of yacht racing is understandably something that many people find irresistible.

"I like to be outdoors, to have the wind in my face, to work up a sweat," says Radap Kanjanavanit, who has been on the organising committee of the past two Phuket King’s Cup Regattas. "Phuket – well, it’s one of the best sailing grounds in the world. There are beautiful beaches, there’s wind, warm water. It’s quite spectacular. And I’m not saying that because I’m Thai – I’ve sailed in places all around the world."

In Asia, it’s hardly surprising that the premier yachting event has become the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta, held throughout the week of His Majesty the King’s birthday in early December. All of the essential ingredients are there: plenty of world-class boats – there were more 96 registered in December’s event from as far away as China and the Philippines – the unrivalled scenery of Phang Nga Bay and the Andaman sea, and a friendly sort of competition where the only prize is glory. The King’s Cup itself stays safely behind lock and key, while the winners in each class are awarded a replica. This year’s racing class winner – the overall winner whose name is engraved on the Cup – was Beau Geste, a Malaysian boat owned by Karl Kwok.

I was there for the most recent Andaman Sea Race, the focal race of the regatta, with a group of around 15 other journalists. We took to the sparkling sea in a spectator cruiser with our host Charlie. As Charlie steered us novices out to the first marker – unfortunately we missed the start – he generously explained the rules of racing to us. He interrupted himself only to marvel at some of the yachts as they made particularly skillful turns and released their vividly-coloured spinnakers, almost iridescent again the pale blue sky and sea.

But as far as those rules went, we were lost: he was talking another language. There are various classes and divisions, and a complicated handicapping system – at least to the novice – that’s based on the technical and design features of the boat. To the uninitiated, therefore, it’s darned near impossible to tell who’s winning. "Sailing is not really a spectator sport in the way that say, tennis or golf is," admits Radap. "The start is very exciting, but if you don’t know how sailing works, it’s difficult to tell who’s leading."

It was back in 1987 that Radab’s father, yachting legend Dr Rachot Kanjanavanit, and friends ML Tridhosyuth Davakul and Christopher King – all sailing enthusiasts – started chatting about the possibility of organising a sailing regatta to honour His Majesty The King on his 60th birthday.

There’s no way they could have envisaged that their dream would turn into Asia’s premier yacht racing event, boasting the largest annual gathering of keel boats, multi-hulls and traditional craft in Southeast Asia. And in the entire Asia-Pacific, it’s second only to Australia’s challenging Sydney to Hobart yacht race. "It’s a different race," says Nigel Hardy, president of the 1999 and 2000 organising committees, and treasurer on the two committees prior to that.

"The Sydney to Hobart is a blue water classic race – it’s go go go and highly technical. It’s serious stuff. The King’s Cup is more a lifestyle regatta. It’s serious – the guys who turn up are very serious about winning – but there’s only racing during the day, and then some superb parties in the evening." Nigel compares it to Antigua Week in the Caribbean, or Australia’s Hamilton Island week. "You enjoy sailing at these places – you don’t get cold!"

The 14th King’s Cup Regatta in December was another success, marred only by a lack of wind that led to some races being called off. "Three out of five races had some classes that didn’t finish," says Radap. "But this was out of human hands."

"The light weather did make it difficult from a sailing aspect," says Nigel. "But the number of parties that we had was superb, absolutely superb. Overall, everybody was still very pleased with the Regatta. It was enormously successful. Hopefully next year it will be even bigger and we might even get a bit of wind."

During the previous 13 races, there’s more frequently been too much wind, leading to equipment breakdowns. The 1999 race saw the worst accident of the regatta’s history, when yacht Monsoon Blue collided with Stormvogel at their race’s first mark, and sank as it was being towed back to shore. This year the salvaged and renovated boat took to the water again, rechristened as South China Sea Express.

A distinctive feature of this year’s Andaman Sea Race was that it centred around Phuket. In the past the race had focused on Koh Phi Phi and Krabi, but this year it headed to Racha Island instead for logistical reasons. "The media liked Phi Phi because the spinnaker start against the cliffs of Krabi is so spectacular. So we’ve faced some criticism for not including it this year," says Radap.

It hasn’t always been easy-going for the Regatta, which requires some serious sponsorship to go ahead. In 1998 it was looking like it might not go ahead at all. "By September we still didn’t have sponsorship," says Radap. But then the Kata Group stepped in to host the event, and Iridium stepped in as the major sponsor. "Every year has been blessed – it could be because HM the King’s name is involved."

For 2000, Volvo was the main sponsor, along with the Kata Group, who hosted participants at the Kata Beach Resort, House of Kangaroo, the QBE Insurance, the Boathouse, Sunsail, Laguna Phuket and Thai Airways International.

As Charlie eases our boat towards Racha Island, he gazes out with a look of admiration at the yachts ahead. "Those sponsors are smart," he says. "They reach a lot of very influential people when they sponsor a race like this."

What is it that these sailing enthusiasts enjoy about racing? Radap sailed this year in Cedar Swan, a boat built by his father, and picked up second place in his division. "I like the pressure of racing – I don’t know if I’m insane or not, but I like pressure," says Radap.

As president, Nigel didn’t race this year or last – he felt that he had too many commitments to fulfill on land. But he loves to race. "I love the challenge of making a yacht go faster than someone else’s, the technical aspects of getting a boat to perform. I enjoy sailing, but I enjoy racing more so. I couldn’t be a happy sailor if I wasn’t racing."

Our boat pulled into an emerald bay on Racha Island to wait for our lunch to arrive while the race continued. We swam, lazed in the sun, fed the fish and watched an eagle soar in the skies above us. "It’s from Malaysia," someone said. "It’s a tourist eagle." By the time our lunch appeared and we headed back out, the race was over.

So we’d missed the start and the end of the race. But we’d seen some gorgeous scenery – Phuket is certainly majestic – some glorious boats and enjoyed our time on the water.

Now, where were those sailing schools I’ve heard of? I have a free weekend coming up…

Thai me up, Thai me down

When I first arrived in Bangkok, I hated it. It was as if a black-and-white film of the post-industrial age was screening in front of my eyes and I wasn’t allowed to leave. I was overwhelmed by the traffic, the people, the noise. Slowly, I learned to see the colour. Unexpected beauty was everywhere if I paused to look, to listen, to smell. And now it’s home.

Songkran: Thai New Year

It’s the hottest, most oppressive month of the year. For the first two weeks of April even the traffic in Bangkok seems languid and sleepy, the horns subdued. The heat is stifling, searing and almost inescapable (there are always the air- conditioned malls!).

But on April 13 , as the sun moves into Aries, the mood changes, even if the temperature doesn’t. Thais right across the country converge on the steamy streets for the start of Songkran, Thailand’s three-day wet and wild New Year festival.

The focus of the celebration is water. In the wats (temples), Buddha images are solemnly purified with holy water. Young people honor their parents and elderly relatives by respectfully pouring water perfumed with flower-petals over their hands.

But out on the streets the mood is exuberant and boisterous. This is Thai sanuk (fun) at its very best.

In Bangkok, water pistols the size of small children are bandied about, spraying all and sundry, while pick-up trucks loaded with people roam the streets throwing buckets of icy water over pedestrians and unfortunate motorcyclists.

At bus-stops, water bandits also lie in wait: armed with the ubiquitous blue PVC water pump, not even commuters who have to work on this holiday – such as me – are safe. The bus doors open (the windows are sensibly closed) and an incomprehensible volume of water shoots in. There are huge guffaws and smiles all around.

I can’t even suppress a smile when this happens to me on my way to work for the third day running.

Thai Massage

Lazy yoga, some call it, and at first Thai massage seemed to be nothing more than a gentle, rather ineffectual rub down. It was an acquired taste, after years of expecting a massage to involve oils and aromatic essences. Now I’m hooked on this ancient science of opening up the body’s natural energy paths.

Three years after my arrival in Thailand, I have been massaged under swaying palm trees on white-sand beaches. I’ve had the herbal massage under the creaking fans at Wat Po, the country’s famed Thai massage teaching center. The soggy hot poultice packed with herbs – kaffir lime smelt the most distinctive – left bright yellow traces of turmeric all over my body. I’ve been to flash places where the air-conditioned rooms are private and the staff speak excellent English.

But my favorite place to have a massage is in a modest shop- front on a dusty main road of Bangkok. Many of the masseurs are blind. The two treatment rooms are tatty and run down, with threadbare curtains separating the plastic benches that ‘patients’ lie on. The masseurs speak just a word or two of English. If I can’t tell them where I’m particularly sore in Thai – for here they will treat you for particular ailments – I hold the masseur’s hand and press it to the stiff, unyielding muscle I’d like them to relax.

The hands here seem to impart a healing energy that the masseur conjures up with their silent, almost holy concentration. It’s far more than massage; it’s a spiritual experience.

And when I face the world outside again, I’m rejuvenated and invigorated.

Public Buses in Bangkok

They belch black smoke as they brake and accelerate, brake and accelerate, swinging the standing passengers inside around like rag dolls.

The drivers of these non-airconditioned public buses will often be married to the conductors, so the buses in effect become a second home. Sometimes a young child will be asleep on the bench at the front; babysitters don’t come cheap.

There’ll be a garland of red, yellow and white flowers hanging around a rear view mirror – sometimes the scent of them cuts through the fumes to reach the noses of sweaty passengers. If there’s not, the driver will be accosted by a vendor selling them at every second set of traffic lights.

Some drivers have thriving potplants sitting on the sill at the base of their vast windscreens. There’ll be photos of their family stuck around them; perhaps also a picture of a revered monk, some Thai album covers from the sixties, or banners from an English premier league soccer team.

There’s always a cooler full of water stored at the front, but when the traffic’s bad the conductor might jump off and run into a shop to buy something sweeter to sip, along with a snack of banana fritters or some sliced pineapple from a roadside vendor.

The grime is unavoidable; after an hour-long ride to work, I’d love another shower. But I wouldn’t miss this piece of life for the world.

The Thai Character

It’s always dangerous to stereotype national characters. But a friend warned me once before I went travelling that one of the very pleasures of travelling is discovering how these stereotypes originate.

In Thailand, the people are known for their laid-back, smiling approach to life – as well as their enthusiasm for having a good time.

‘Mai pen rai’, the standard response to any problem, means ‘Never mind’, and it’s always said with a generous smile. This is a great attitude when you’re a backpacker spending your days on the beach. The plumbing in your bungalow is stuffed? Mai pen rai. You learn to say it yourself.

However, when you’re living and working in Thailand and you have a deadline to meet, this relaxed, easy-going attitude can be quite frustrating. If someone doesn’t turn up to work: mai pen rai! If your computer has crashed and you need someone to fix it: main pen rai! You’ve just got to learn to acknowledge the frustration and let it go!

Thais are also known for their honesty when it comes to assessing your looks. If you’re not sure whether that skirt makes you look fat, don’t worry – someone will tell you if it does. A woman in my apartment building whom I had never spoken to once told me how much weight I had recently gained.

I smiled. ‘Mai pen rai!’

I’d learned well.

The traffic

The average percentage of land allocated to roads in cities when they are planned today is 20 to 25 percent: in Bangkok by the late 80s, just 2.5 percent of land area was devoted to roads.

In the 90s, Bangkok had the most vehicle registrations per kilometer of all Asian cities: 502. You can get stuck in a jam at any time of day. There won’t be any accident up ahead, so don’t bother to crane your neck and look. Chat to your cab driver and ask where they’re from; grab a book if you’re on a bus and be prepared to finish it.

Or look out the window at the life going on around you: the stalls on the side of the road selling barbecued squid, red pork soup, banana fritters, sliced papaya and guava, iced coffee, roses, tiny pancakes stuffed with sweet cream and carrot. Spot the shoe-mender, the woman with the ancient sewing machine, the key-cutter, the watch repairer, the barber in his open air salon.

There were three major transport projects underway in Bangkok prior to the crash of ’97: the Skytrain, which opened in December 1999 and has not improved traffic but does get you around town very quickly; the underground metro, which is not due to be finished for a few years and right now is doing an admirable job of making the traffic worse; and the Hopewell project, an ambitious rail scheme currently shelved. At one stage in planning, these three projects crossed at more than twenty points with not a single interchange.

Which, come to think of it, would have made business improve for the vendors.

The Erawan shrine

Under spirals of scented smoke, devotees leave delicate yellow garlands, along with wooden images of the three-headed elephant god Erawan, whom the Hindu god Brahma traditionally rode.

The Erawan Shrine, possibly the most famous non-Buddhist shrine in Bangkok, lies incongruously at Bangkok’s consumerist heart.

Lying adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel, and almost in the shadow of the various shopping malls surrounding it, the sparkling golden statue of Brahma attracts hundreds of visitors a day.

If you arrive at the right time, you might catch a performance of classical Thai dance, paid for by supplicants who have had their prayers answered after visiting the shrine.

The story behind its construction is unusual: when the Erawan hotel was being built in the 50s, accident after accident occurred, including the deaths of workers and cost overruns. When a ship transporting Italian marble for the construction of the lobby sank, the workers decided something had to be done to placate whatever upset spirit was at work.

Spirit doctors were consulted, and a shrine to Brahma was deemed necessary. In 1955 after the shrine was built, the mishaps ceased and the fame of the shrine spread.

Somehow the blend of devotion and shopping is not an unhappy one; rather, it’s a magical symbol of how Bangkokians have successfully held on to their spiritual beliefs while also embracing the global culture of consumerism.

Only the murder was missing

It was swish, smart and sumptuous. The Eastern and Oriental Express’ inaugural dinner journey from Bangkok’s Hualampong Station and back – the destination was hardly the point – was an extravagant, ostentatious affair.

There was one disappointment to be had in the five hours of snaking our way through the Thai night in style: there was no blood-curdling cry from any of the plush compartments. A good old-fashioned murder would have topped off the evening’s whodunnit atmosphere nicely.

But alas, this was an occasion for Bangkok’s refined set, a mixture of expatriates and Thais whose crimes – if any – were more likely to be in the white-collar department.

And was the gleaming green and beige train deliberately placed at the platform furthest from the waiting room? I suspect so, for how else were the 100-plus guests supposed to show off their gear to anyone besides themselves that night?

It was a colourful parade to the waiting train, and although there was a touch of confusion over where exactly to board, the impeccably-mannered staff steered people safely in. Some headed straight to the Bar Car, where cocktails were soon shaking and champagne bottles being popped; the pianist tinkled the ivories as the volume of laughing voices rose and the soft-light from the French lamps made everyone look gorgeous.

And we hadn’t even left.

A group of American backpackers stared open-mouthed at the – let’s face it – incongruous train and its glamorous visitors. The cameras and the flashes went off, but hardly anyone on board noticed. This is a train where what’s going on indoors matters far more than what’s flashing by – or standing still and gaping – outside.

And when the engine car started its pull, the romance really began. It didn’t matter where we were going (to Ban Pachi, actually), so long as the carriages were gently, lovingly rocking slightly from side to side and making that ‘ka-ra-ka-da- khom’ – Thai for July – comforting background noise.

We waved goodbye to that fantastic frangipani tree on the right as you leave the station, and settled back to sip some more wine – charged for in US dollars, as were all on-board purchases, but very reasonably priced.

We were off. And we were in an Agatha Christie movie. Or the boardgame Cluedo had sprung to life. We were, at the very least, back in that era when every other country in Southeast Asia was being colonised – except Thailand, as many an inconvenienced historian and travel writer has noted.

It was time to prowl through the rest of the train, exploring the three choices of sleeping compartments, either made up or pulled down ready for bed. Although an announcement at the beginning of the trip made clear that these rooms were not for personal use – to the squeals of naughty disappointment from many – the occasional group retired to these carriages for some extra space and quietness (leaving the doors open, as proper British etiquette required).

This display will no doubt eventually tempt some of the diners back for a longer journey. The Eastern and Oriental regularly runs the 2,030 km trip from Singapore through Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok and back, carrying up to 132 passengers on each trip, and is now also running trips from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Journeys to Angkor Wat will get underway in January 2001.

Since it started its Bangkok-Singapore run in 1993, the half- a-kilometre train has carried over 40,000 passengers. The carriages were Japanese-built in 1972, and the train first operated as the Silver Star in New Zealand. The carriages were later shipped to Singapore, where they were refurbished and made compatible with the Thai and Malaysian railway systems.

Wooden marquetry with an Asian theme sets the moods throughout the train: various cars feature Chinese and Thai lacquer, Malaysian motifs, and Thai wall carvings. Behind the marquetry lies a fire-proof lining, to help keep the interior cool and muffle the engine noise. It also seems to create a nice acoustic effect when silverware hits plates and crystal glasses clink.

Back in the Bar Car, a passenger had been berated for using a mobile phone. A voice making an announcement banning their use had struggled to be heard over the excitement as we departed the station. Perhaps this ban should be printed on the discreet piece of paper handed to passengers with their boarding passes warning them about other things (such smoking not being permitted except on the open-deck Observation Car).

As the two restaurant cars can serve 70 people in one setting, two were scheduled for this evening. We slunk down the softly-lit passageways towards the Singapura restaurant at 9.15pm for the second setting, already warm and cheerful from our pre-dinner drinks.

We passed the in-train astrologer, providing guests with further entertainment in the Reading Room. (I’m sure she envisioned more rail travel for everyone…)

When the surroundings are so gorgeous, one can begin to suspect that the food might be relegated to second place. But this was not to be so: the unfaultable food could be the very reason many of the original guests return to board again.

A tiny, delicate cup of amuse bouche – all the rage in New York at the moment – whetted guests’ appetites as some considered looking out the train window for the first time that evening, and others marvelled at the fine porcelain, sparkling crystalware and French silverware.

Then a dish of tandoori of snowfish, served with a fricassee of fennel in fragrant red wine sauce was served with a silent flourish from the attentive waiters. The fish was moist and the flavours were strong enough to satisfy Thai palates without killing the scent of the fish.

Could it get any better? You bet. Nage lobster was served in a fine green curry sauce. The wine kept coming – De Bortoli’s Willowglen Shiraz Cabernet and Willowglen Semillon Chardonnay was served as part of the meal. The train kept rocking. The crystal kept glittering. And time was ticking away. We were returning to Bangkok!

Dessert was baked banana in a light, mouth-watering pastry case and a duet of sauces, then petit fours and Columbian coffee started to sober us up. Chef Kevin Cape had devised a creative menu fit for any five-star hotel. And to be able to serve such exquisite food from a train kitchen only makes his skill the more the impressive.

Also worth noting is that vegetarian meals were served, as were several other meals with special menu requirements taken into account.

The Observation Car, at the front of the train for the return journey, beckoned next with its fresh, warm breeze – even the Bangkok air seemed breathable as we pulled into Hualamphong and clamboured back onto the platform and into the real world again.

The next dinner journey will take place on October 28, and this time there’s a theme: masquerade.

But if you can’t wait until then, you can always charter the train from Bangkok to Singapore for you and 99 of your closest friends for US$119,100…

For information about the next trip, priced at US$185 per person (excluding pre-dinner drinks) phone Khun Dum on 216 8661. There are various longer trips available. For example, Singapore to Bangkok or vice versa for 3 days/2 nights costs from US$1,390 to $2,800 per person, including all meals and various extras. For further information contact [email protected] express.com, or phone (Singapore): 392 3500, fax (Singapore): 392 3600.