Bangkok dining and drinking guide

Thais take their food very seriously. Combine this fact with Bangkok’s vibrant cosmopolitanism and you have a city that will consistently keep your taste buds singing. You might dine in a traditional Thai house serving the finest of Thai cuisine, or find yourself tucked away in a French restaurant able to compete with the best of Parisian kitchens. You can try the latest in Pacific Rim fusion food, or grab a serving of pasta that an Italian would be proud of. Or if it’s simply noodles at 3am you’re keen on, Bangkok’s streets will keep you sated.

Thailand’s cuisine has reportedly spread across the globe these past three decades at a speed unprecedented by any other nation’s. The reason is not difficult to fathom: it’s absolutely delicious. There are two types of Thai food: Royal Thai cuisine, and the “common” fare. The former is food traditionally served to royalty, and is prepared so that the food doesn’t need to be cut by the diner. It’s also garnished with exquisitely carved fruits and vegetables. Benjarong is one of several fine restaurants serving Royal Thai cuisine.

“Common” Thai food is just that: what Thais eat every day. Each of the four regions in Thailand has a distinct cuisine, and unless you’re dining in a regional restaurant, you’re likely to find a blend of them on most menus. It’s usual to mix your regions during the one meal: harmony is the goal of any Thai repast, meaning you should try striking a balance by ordering a dip served with vegetables, a soup, a curry and a spicy salad. Wanalee Earth Kitchen is one restaurant where the menu is divided by regions, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

In the fertile central region, the food is known for being hot, salty, sweet and sour. Dishes such as nam phrik (dips) and soups served with boiled rice are standard fare. In the dry northeastern region, sticky rice is the staple food, and hot, salty and sour dishes are common. Som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang (barbecued chicken) and laap (salads of meat and fresh herbs) are some of the more popular dishes. Much of the street food in Bangkok is from the northeast, due to the large number of vendors coming from this region. Food from the north tends to be mild or spicy, salty and sour, but not sweet. Sticky rice is also the staple here, and fermented sour pork sausages are a favorite – you’ll also see them being barbecued on the street. In the maritime south, fish rather than meat is eaten, and sour curries (without coconut milk) are the norm.

Good places to start your Thai culinary adventure include Baan Khanita , Lemon Grass, Harmonique and Cabbages and Condoms. Large hotels usually have excellent Thai restaurants—the stigma prevalent in the west of eating in hotel restaurants is certainly not existent here. Celadon, Thai on 4, basil, and Ruen Thai should get you started on the hotels.

If you’re shopping and you want a quick meal, you’ll be surprised by the quality and range of food served for very low prices in the food halls of malls. There’s usually a coupon system in place, where you purchase your coupons, buy your meals and return your leftover coupons afterwards. The Emporium food hall is particularly good, as are the Tops supermarket halls. And of course, there’s the street food. Point, smile and you’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised by what you get.

But if it’s international cuisine you’re hankering for, Bangkok will sate you all the same. From Indian to Greek, to Middle Eastern and Latin, name your cuisine and somewhere there’ll be a waiter ready with a menu for you to peruse. There are loads of well-regarded Chinese (Mei Jiang, Bai Yun) and Japanese (Benihana, Edogin) restaurants , while European restaurants are relatively new on the scene. Italian cuisine has positively boomed here recently, although oldies such as Angelini’s and Rossini’s continue to attract huge crowds. Several new French restaurants have opened to rave reviews, such as Le Café Siam and Auberge Dab. However Bangkok is still in the grip of a Latino craze which swept into town during 1999, making nouvelle Latino cuisine the latest and hippest development. Senor Pico Bar and Restaurant, The Salsa Club, El Nino Latin Heat Caféand Baila Bailaare just a few enjoying the craze.

British and Irish pubs serving up traditional sturdy fare are also making their impact felt. The Bull’s Head and Delaney’s Irish Pubare two old favorites, while The Dubliner Irish Puband The Londoner Brew Pubare two relative new kids on the block.

And then there are the truly “international” restaurants serving up often Asian and Italian-inspired dishes, but which refuse to be easily pigeon-holed: Eat Me, Greyhound Cafe, Café Bongo, Indigo, Homework and Zanzibar are just a few.

As for drinking, Bangkok’s pubs and bars are up there with the best, although it is worth noting that steep government taxes on wine push even basic table vino into the “expensive” bracket. At its very core, Bangkok is a beer and whiskey kind of town, meaning you can order a bottle of whiskey at many establishments which they’ll keep for you to finish off on your next visit. The mushrooming of world-class drinking establishments over the past decade or two, however, means that a full bar is now more likely to be the norm.

There are a number of micro-breweries (including The Londoner Brew Pub, Haus Hamburg , The Londoner Brew Pub and Brauhaus Bangkok)to keep ale lovers happy, and plenty of bars for spirit-sippers to relax in (ranging from the laid back Bangkok Bar and Cheap Charlies to the more upmarket The Barbican and Compass Rose.) Then there are the Thai pubs–with the almost ubiquitous Thai cover band playing popular Thai songs and, at some stage in the evening, Hotel California—such as Ad Makers and Saewana. Note that Thai pubs and bars serve delectable drinking food, making an evening of drinking and grazing through a trendy part of town a fine way to pass the time. Try the bars around Phra Arthit Road or Narathiwat Soi 15 for such an evening. Lounge bars could be the next big thing, with About Café/Studio and Q Bar opening the race.

Coffee is enjoying a boom in Bangkok, and although Starbucks may now be everywhere, there are other chains springing up, such as Au Bon Pain and Coffee World, as well as one-off coffee and tea shops offering refuge and rejuvenation. Kuppa, The China Journal and Nim’s Tea House are just a few of the latter.

While this guide should point you in the right direction, it can’t possibly do justice to the literally hundreds of restaurants that dot the city. Don’t be afraid to be adventurous: it is difficult to find a bad meal in the City of Angels. With a little exploration and just a touch of bravery, it’s highly likely that food will become one of your favorite memories of your trip here.

Bangkok district guide

To put it simply, Bangkok can seem like a nightmare to the uninitiated. Sprawling expressways and overpasses, the huge new Sky Train and crowded streets full of vendors give the city a distinct Blade Runneresque feel. To confuse matters further, there’s no true ‘centre’ to the city, with various districts famed for different reasons being dotted right across town. On the positive side, the Sky Train has made it much easier to get around, and taxis, tuk-tuks, buses and motorcycle taxis are plentiful. Get your bearings by reading the following and it won’t take long for you to be seduced by the glorious chaos and charm of the City of Angels.

The most heavily touristed area – at least during the day – is Ko Rattanakosin (Rattanakosin Island), Bangkok’s old city lying on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya river. Here you’ll find fantastic historical architecture such as the glittering Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, as well as Wat Po, Wat Mahathat, the Golden Mount and Wat Suthat. The city’s founding pillar, Lak Muang, is found in this district, while cultural highlights include the National Museum, National Theatre and National Gallery. If you’re keen on seeing something completely out of the ordinary, pop across the river to the Museum of the Department of Forensic Medicine. Sanam Luang is about the only green spot on the ‘island’ – which has never truly been an island but would have seemed like one during the old city’s heyday, when many of the canals linking the area to the river had yet to be filled in.

Bangkok was once referred to as “The Venice of The East”, and today its klongs, or canals, are concentrated in Thonburi, an area lying to the west of the Chao Phraya river. You can take a klong tour, and most will stop at Wat Arun and the museum of theRoyal Barges. Buses heading south from Bangkok leave from Sai Tai bus terminal, located here.

Backpackers head to the Banglamphu and Thewet districts. Tucked away behind the Democracy Monument, there’s some good trinket shopping to be done on Khao San Road, a strip lined with guesthouses and cheap restaurants, none of which stand out for their ambience or cuisine. Some great restaurants and bars come to life at night along Phra Arthit Road, however, a mere stone’s throw away. Following the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya, this area is popular with students from nearby Thammasat and Silpakorn universities, and has a laid- back, cosmopolitan feel.

The Dusit district also offers plenty of tourist attractions. Vimanmek Palace, Wat Benchamabophit, Suan Pakkard Palace and Dusit Zoo are all found here. There’s not much in the way of hotels or restaurants, but a small arty area popular with local students has sprung up on Rachawithee Soi 34.

Northern Bangkok’s highlight for tourists is Chatuchak Weekend Market, best reached by catching the Skytrain. Mor Chit bus terminal is located at the same stop – handy to know if you want to catch an interprovincial bus heading north or northeast. Don Muang, Bangkok’s international airport, is about 15 km further north still.

Heading back south, the area around the Victory Monument features a variety of bars, including Saxophone Pub and Restaurant. This is also a major transport hub, with plenty of buses – and the Skytrain – passing through.

Young Thais and keen shoppers head to the area around Siam Square, a shoppers’ paradise – unless you’re a tall Western woman looking for off-the-rack clothes or shoes. Otherwise, there’s plenty to be found in malls such as Siam Discovery, Siam Center, Centerpoint (the most popular teenage hangout), Mah Bun Krong and the World Trade Center. A walk away from the latter you’ll find Panthip Plaza, also known as heaven for computer geeks. The non-shopper can retreat to the sanctuary of Jim Thompson’s House and Museum. There’s a cluster of hotels in this area, including Siam Intercontinental, Le Royal Meridien and the Novotel Siam Square. Popular restaurants including Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Café can also be found here.

Heading east along Ploenchit and Sukhumvit Roads, there’s plenty of further shopping to be had, both at street stalls, which spring up around the beginning of Sukhumvit and stretch to Soi Asoke, and department stores such as Central Chidlom and The Emporium, plus a huge array of dining options. Restaurants along this stretch include Auberge Dab, Baan Khanita, Lemon Grass, Cabbages and Condoms and Rossini’s. The Ekamai, the Eastern bus terminal, is located on Soi Ekamai (63), very close to the Science Center for Education. Sukhumvit Road also features a large selection of hotels, including the Bangkok JW Marriot, Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit and Delta Grand Pacific.

The Sathorn/Silom area is probably the closest Bangkok comes to having a financial district (although the Stock Exchange of Thailand is located some distance away on Ratchadaphisek Road). The area features a number of embassies and hotels, such as the Westin Banyan Tree, the Sukhothai, and the Dusit Thani. Silom Rd offers further shopping opportunities, including the Patpong nightmarket. Sri Maha Uma Devi temple is also located in this district. There’s plenty to choose from in this area when it comes to restaurants, particularly around Convent Rd. Head to nearby Lumphini Park for a break in a rare patch of green.

If you head west along Sathorn or Silom you’ll come to Charoen Krung (or ‘New’) Rd and the Chao Phraya again. A tram ran along this road earlier in the century, but these days hardly anything does – the traffic’s just so thick! This is another popular hotel area, with plush hotels overlooking the river including The Oriental, The Peninsula, the Shangri La, the Royal Orchid Sheraton and the Marriott Royal Garden Riverside. Dine at one of their restaurants or any of the many that dot their way along the majestic river such as Yok Yor Marina and Restaurant, or take a sunset cruise. River City Shopping Complex sells a huge array of antiques and is worth browsing through.

Further north along the river lie hectic Chinatown and Pahurat, an Indian district. Here you’ll find Wat Traimit, but the area is better known overall for its shopping. Yaowarat Rd has loads of gold shops, while Sampeng Lane has everything from hair accessories to shoes, all at bargain basement prices. Further north still there’s Pak Klong Talaart, with its colourful fresh flowers.

There are also a number of attractions to be found in the outlying areas of Bangkok and adjacent provinces, including King Rama IX Royal Park, Nonthaburi, the Ancient City, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market and Ayutthaya, the latter of which usually incorporates a visit to Bang-Pa In Summer Palace.

Mighty Mekong

We’re sitting on the second floor verandah of the guesthouse, a perfect point from which to watch the traffic on the Mekong pick up in a rush to beat the falling darkness. Speedboats, a vivid mix of banana yellow and blood red, skip along the river, reaching speeds of up to eighty kilometres an hour. Their mosquito-like drone almost drowns the soft grumble of the wooden slowboats ploughing along more determinedly.

Children play volleyball in the schoolyard below while a woman picks herbs from her back garden in the house next door, her son dutifully following with a black kitten clutching his forearm. Turkeys strut like Spanish dancers around their feet. We can hear the raspy grunting of pigs, the scrabbling of chickens, and the wails of babies. Soldiers carrying up speakers and a generator from the water’s edge arouse our curiosity.

This is Pak Tha, a thriving village located at the confluence of the Nam Tha and Mekong rivers. It’s a two hour slowboat ride downriver from Huay Xai in Bokeo province, Laos. Few tourists stay here, preferring instead to get the boat from Huay Xai all the way to Luang Prabang, or vice versa. As word gets out about Pak Tha, however, picturesque in its own right and a base for a scenic daytrip to Pha Udom, things are likely to change.

Upon our arrival at midday, the guesthouse owners – there is only one guesthouse – found us from their noodle shop vantage point. We were led to ‘Phong Sa Vat – No. 5’, as the place is called in black magic marker on brown cardboard out the front, and given a key to the building, probably either an old school house or colonial government office. Painted pale green with bright blue shutters, guests stay on the second floor where there are three double mattresses and plenty of blankets. Conditions are basic, with a toilet and bucket shower located outside.

Following a lunch of omelette, sticky rice and a tasty red tea, we set out exploring, and found, surprisingly for a town of Pak Tha’s size, three very attractive wats. Reminiscent of Vietnamese Cao Dai temples, they are colourful to the point of being garish. Keep an eye out for the guardian dogs of one of them: their nose hairs are spectacularly menacing.

The Frenchman Francis Garnier described Pak Tha, in his Mekong Exploration Commission Report of over a century ago, as being a ‘considerable village’. He noted that he visited a number of pagodas here, one containing ‘a very well-made clock of such refined workmanship as could only be found in Europe (!). This was evidently not a local product and the Chinese script which encircled its base made us place its origin in either Tong King or Yunnan.’ We were unable to find the clock, but for the curious traveller with more than a smattering of the Lao language, this could be an intriguing project.

At the mouth of the Nam Tha we watched in amazement as young children plunged into the wild rapids, letting the water carry them down, around and over jagged rocks. Nearby, a boat builder was putting the finishing touches of paint to a new sampan, while in the shallows of the Mekong, two fishermen tossed wobbling arcs of nets into the water.

For dinner, we could have eaten something substantial at one of the thatched huts dotting the Mekong’s dry river bed, but instead supped on thick roast bananas bought from a street vendor for a mere 50 kip each. There wasn’t any further choice, as the noodle shop had closed, and there weren’t any other shops along the main street.

After watching the moonrise from the veranda, we turn in early, but as our heads hit the pillows, the first ominous notes of an electric guitar sound. Then singing begins, and is broadcast throughout the whole village on an exceptional sound system. It goes on and on – and on, successfully penetrating earplugs literally until sunrise. We eventually learn that it was a Singha Beer singing competition. At least we know now what the soldiers were doing.

We decide to attempt finding Pha Udom, a town marked on our map as having a population of 15,000, but about which we’ve heard nothing. After an excellent breakfast of Lao noodle soup with lashings of fresh herbs and chilli, we ask a boat pilot about getting there. Eventually we negotiate for a sampan to take us to Pak Hat, from where we can charter a jeep the rest of the way.

Crossing the Mekong into the Nam Tha is no easy manoeuvre, the rocks the children were playing among yesterday now appearing more fearsome. The boat pilot at the front plunges a bamboo pole into the rapids to keep us away from the rocks, but the current is strong, and she cries out urgently to the other driver, who cuts the engine. The boat sounds as if it would like to split neatly in two as it lurches forward and upwards. The pair leap out onto the nearest rock, muscles visibly straining as they push the boat safely away.

The mist thickens as we progress, and drapes the steep mountainsides like a motherly ghost. It’s quieter and clearer than the Mekong, too shallow for speed boats to traverse. Undoubtedly stunning scenery unfolds: undulating hills, sharp mountains covered in lush forest, cultivated patches of land, the surprising vermillion of a poinsettia tree. An hour later we arrive at Pak Hat, our faces pink and numb with harsh cold.

We find a jeep driver who’ll take us on a return trip to Pha Udom for 30,000 kip. His jeep, with Cyrillic script curling across the dashboard, has seen better days – possibly even a war or two. Nevertheless, it gets us there along a good road that snakes between huge limestone karsts which penetrate the mist and disappear, but eventually emerge triumphant. We swerve to avoid various animals: piglets chasing mothers with teats like bell pulls, black mountain goats whose eyes are the colour of setting suns, a gaggle of pure white geese.

Pha Udom turns out to be a sizeable town, and from the few signs in English around, we deduce that it has grown partly as a result of a ‘reintegration and resettlement program’. Possibly hilltribe people have been relocated here in an attempt to stop them growing opium, or simply to bring them under better government control. Although scenically located on a hill overlooking the Nam Hat, it’s not a town for tourists. We feel out of place drawing so many stares, so we walk through a few streets, note the unusual plain wooden wat, and jump back into the jeep.

By mid-morning, the mist has been burnt away by the sun and the temperature has escalated. Back in Pak Tha, we spot some tourists who have wandered up from the day’s passing slowboat, still moored below. Hurriedly, we grab our packs, return the guesthouse key and make our way down to the boat. We’re back on the tourist trail again.

Information
Currency: US$1= 2500 kip
Getting to Pak Tha from Houay Xai: The daily slowboat leaves any time between 8:30 and 10:00am. While tickets for the popularly traversed route from Huay Xai to Pak Beng cost a set 14 000 kip, the price to Pak Tha seems to be set arbitrarily – we paid 5000 kip each. The trip takes one and a half to two hours.
Getting to Pha Udom from Pak Tha: Boats can be chartered for 15 000 kip one way to Pak Hat, more or less depending on your ability to speak Lao and your bargaining skills. A jeep can then be chartered to Pha Udom, 30 000 kip return.

Golden weekend escape

If you think about it, the perfect tropical island can’t really be reviewed in any lengthy way. There’ll be white sand, coconut palms, turquoise water – anything beyond that is really just ‘development’, right? And that can’t possibly good for our perfect island…

Unless you’re talking about Golden Buddha Island in southern Phang Nga province. The sand is slightly more golden than the brilliant white-sand islands you may have visited elsewhere in Thailand, and the ubiquitous coconut palms are mingled with casuarinas and other natural foliage, which encourages an abundance of wildlife to flourish. The surrounding waters of the Andaman sea are not quite turquoise here, but they’re warm, clear and very inviting.

And there’s only one resort on the entire island with its 15 kilometres of beaches which remain pristine in the truest sense – that is, the dunes have not eroded, the vegetation over the sand remains intact and giant marine turtles still come to nest here under the cover of darkness – uninterrupted by the glaring lights of restaurants, bars or hotels that mar other spots in the province (think Patong Beach, for instance).

We splashed ashore from our long tail boat – caught from Khuraburi Pier, a one-hour boat ride away – to discover a spacious, tastefully-gardened resort located on a peninsula extending between an exposed beach from which the Surin Islands can be seen, and a calm cove apparently made specifically for swimming in during sunrise.

Open since 1994, Golden Buddha Beach resort explicitly aims to be in harmony with its environment. The resort is low-density, and even at its peak times takes only up to around 80 guests. Lots of land along the main beach have been leased out long-term to those seduced by the beauty of the place, but any buildings erected must ‘fit in’ both environmentally and stylistically. No risk of concrete condos here.

Besides the houses that have been built on the leased land – some of which are rented out to holiday-makers – the resort features a mixture of accommodation.

There are three utterly charming and solid thatched-roof bungalows with bathrooms known appropriately as ‘cottages’. And these are no mere backpackers’ bungalows.

There are two features I still rave to people about: the first is how you can be inside the cottage but feel like you’re still outside, thanks to the three yawning windows which catch the sea breeze and give great views of the beach, cove or gardens, depending on where you are.

The second is the open-to-the-elements bathroom. Here the thatched-roof stops and is almost met by a wall, but between the gap fall the vivid green vines of Chinese honeysuckle – called Rangoon creeper by some. So you can shower, conventionally or by bucket, in dappled sunlight if the time of day is right.

Touches such as a very comfortable bed with linen, a sturdy mosquito net – both practical and romantic – a wardrobe, and even a coconut shell cup in a clay pot of water at the entrance to wash your feet, are enough to make a backpacker save up and splash out, and sufficient to seduce any five-star hotel goer into the laid-back lifestyle of Golden Buddha Beach Resort.

You do have to be prepared to share your space with nature, however. Black sand flies or noseum, which breed in mangrove areas, are a problem here when there’s not much wind to keep them on the run. Thus if you’re the type who gets affected by bugs, you should wear repellent during the day, and try to avoid having your bedroom light on in the evenings. Your mossie net is an important weapon, too.

So once you have unpacked your bags and slapped on some repellent, you might like to head to the ‘Clubhouse’ for a cool drink and to survey some of the surrounds. It was here that my partner sat as a pair of hornbills flew by, their distinctive fanning wings contributing to the meditative natural sounds of the island. Here it is obvious that people remain humbled by nature, rather than the other way around.

All meals are served in the Clubhouse. There is a choice for breakfast, but lunches and dinners are served buffet-style. Grab a plate, serve yourself up a dish of whatever freshly-cooked specialty or two has been made – vegetarians are catered for – and take a seat at one of the tables or a cushion on the floor. We found the food to be not quite as phet as we are used to here; a plus for short-term visitors to Thailand, but a minus perhaps for those who like spice.

In between meals – for it is only sunrise, sunset and mealtimes which will give your day structure here – there are various activities to expend energy on if you feel so inclined. On holidays, I usually claim the most comfortable spot for reading a book and don’t care about much else. But here I was shamed by the surroundings into at least a little exploration.

We paddled a kayak up the quiet mangroved canal running from the the cove. To city ears there is an almost stealthy silence about the mangroves; but listen closely and the area is actually alive with birdsong and monkey chatter. We swept quietly underneath the vines and entangled branches of larger trees as monkeys danced above us and threatened to jump on board for a ride. We were unsettled by the various sinister splashes that indicated mysterious animals sliding into the water… Ah, we’d been far too long in the concrete jungle.

Other options to keep you from your holiday books include snorkelling off the island, or heading out to sea on a fishing trip. You can take a fast boat to the Surin Islands, or head to neighbouring Ra Island, where guided jungle walks are led by the island’s sole inhabitant, an Austrian jungle-lover named Horst.

Or stay on land. Take a walk up to the peninsula point, where the panorama stretching back along the beaches makes all the sweat worthwhile, or hike to the island’s traditional stilt fishing village, Bak Joke.

There’s also a turtle conservation project run at the resort, led by Dr Monica Aureggi from Chelon, and Italian-based organisation. From December to May, Aureggi and her gang of volunteers patrol the beaches, collecting turtle eggs before poachers get to them. They raise the hatchlings until they are healthy and old enough to be released into the ocean. The humble display hut holds plenty of information, specimens and exhibits.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you could try treasure-hunting – the Golden Buddha from which the island takes its name is reputedly buried somewhere on the island, hidden away as part of a pirate’s loot many years ago.

And at the end of the day? Frankly I’m happy to give up noisy clubs and night life – but it is nice to have a civilised glass of wine at the conclusion of a hard day in the sun. Thankfully the Clubhouse offers this, which you can enjoy with either your partner if you’re so inclined, or with whoever might be staying at the resort while you’re there.

We shared our visit with a yoga group from the UK and the BBC, who were filming a television programme elsewhere on the island, as well as various independent travellers.

If you need an excuse to get away to Ko Phra Thong, yoga could be a good one. Trips are run by UK-based William Robertson three times a year, with two two-hour classes per day; one at 7am and the second at 4pm. Comments from students such as "Gosh is it 4 o’clock already? I haven’t done a thing today!" became the norm.

Or just go to getaway from the steam of Bangkok and experience some serious nature in comfort that doesn’t jeopardise the very future of that nature – not an easy combination of things to find in Thailand.

For further information, contact Dick Sandler in Bangkok on 863 3180, email [email protected] or check out losthorizonasia.com

Scaling new heights

When we were kids, we believed there was a guest book hidden at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to sign your name in if you managed to make the illegal climb up.

Also known as the Coathanger, the world’s largest single span bridge was there in the background as we kids threw up on the rollercoaster at Luna Park, the famous fun park nestled beneath its northern pylon. We passed beneath it on the compulsory high school harbour cruise – a rite of passage for any self-respecting teenager – and it cast an appropriate shadow for romantic rendezvous later on in life.

But now some of the mystery has dissipated. Over the past 18 months, the top of the bridge has been accessible to anyone with a sense of adventure – and without a serious fear of heights. Some 250,000 people have clamoured up and back to date.

On a recent trip back to Australia we noticed groups of moving specks along the arches on the way home from the airport. They were the groups of twelve or so people who leave to make the climb every ten minutes – traipsing over our precious bridge as if it were a mere tourist attraction!

After the initial indignation wore off, we decided we had to do it too.

A week later we are going through the comprehensive preparations that BridgeClimb, the company which runs the climbs, have designed. We’re breathtested, briefed, clothed, and taken through a practise run with our harnesses on a replica of a portion of the bridge before being let loose with our guide, Michael, who asks us if today is our first climb.

“That’s good,” he jokes as we chorus a yes. “It’s mine too.”

The clothing is an exercise in entanglement. Nothing can be dropped from the bridge onto the traffic below for fear of scaring – or killing – a driver. Glasses are roped in, two-way radios are buckled on, hankies on elastic are stuffed up sleeves and even jackets are folded safely into little custom-made bags attached to belts. My partner asks the guide if he needs a tether for his false teeth.

It’s time to do it. Walking single file along the narrow walkway heading to the pylon, I suddenly feel like we’re going way too fast as I look the twenty or so metres through the holey metal grille below me. Norma, a Scottish woman in her fifties trailing me, starts chatting about her husband and a hospice they volunteer for back in Scotland. They’re trying to raise money by doing this.

“Just tell me if I’m talking too much,” she sings out cheerfully. “I always talk when I’m nervous!”

“Shut up! Shup up!” I scream inside my head. I discover I prefer silence when I’m nervous.

Paul Cave, who opened BridgeClimb Sydney in October 1998, says about 30 per cent of climbers suffer from acrophobia, an abnormal dread of being in high places, but remarkably few are unable to “conquer the bridge and overcome their fear”.

“We put a lot of effort into safety,” he says. “I thought we’d be confronted with people freezing when they get up there, but we only get probably one or two people per month who pay but can’t commence the climb.”

I’m probably not quite one of those 30 per cent but am rather proud of myself when my knees stop shaking, the sweat on my brow evaporates and I can push on.

A series of ladders are climbed to reach the base of the bridge span itself, and at the top of this, the walkway becomes wider – and opaque, thankfully – and it’s plainsailing along the gentle slope to the summit.

Michael regales us with stories and statistics via the radio as we stroll in the late afternoon sun. Over 52,800 tonnes of steel covered in 272,000 litres of paint were used to build the arch and approach spans; 1,400 people were employed on the project during the eight years of its construction; the length of bridge, including approaches, is 1,149 metres; the water when we get to the top will be 134 metres below us; and approximately 6 million rivets hold everything together.

One of the folk tales my partner has heard is that the construction workers would hold the red-hot rivets in their pliers on boats on the water, and toss them up to workers on the bridge – who would catch them in their pliers before driving them in.

As the slope flattens out, the breeze is surprisingly soft and warm, and the colours of the harbour become cinematically intense as the sun slides towards the blurry Blue Mountains on the horizon.

The Olympic Stadium at Homebush Bay can just be seen to the west, while to the east, the harbour ebbs around dozens of bays and coves and flows into the deep blue of the Pacific.

Closer at hand of course are the white sails of the Opera House – now there’s an idea for an abseiling entrepreneur – and the harbour ferries, ploughing their way from Circular Quay to Manly, Balmain and other spots.

No cameras are allowed up but Michael takes digital snaps of individuals and the group at the summit.

It’s exhilirating and romantic as well. Cave says more than 100 marriage proposals have so far been made at the summit.

“I think people just get so emotional … they’re moved by the view and the euphoria. You get people frequently moved to tears, or quoting poetry, because they’re romantically moved.”

Then the helicopters start arriving, and we feel like we’re in an Australian Tourist Commission advertisement or at least promoting some sort of Australian breakfast cereal or margarine.

“When there’s a good sunset, photographers come out in force to get their shots,” Michael explains.

Then the Blackhawk arrives.

“They’re practising their anti-terrorist exercises prior to the Olympics,” Michael almost screams into his radio. I doubt any bridge climber is going to be a terrorist, but I almost start to feel terrorised as it seems like all these choppers are coming straight for us.

As we cross to the western frame, the traffic below is as thick as Sukhumvit on a Monday morning but moving somewhat faster. In 1995, the average daily traffic crossing the bridge was over 150,000 vehicles.

Cave spent seven years and millions of dollars refining the BridgeClimb concept, meeting stringent safety guidelines and gaining government approvals. An Act of Parliament was required to change a law dictating how close the public could get to a moving Sydney train.

Cave says he’s stopped trying to find comparisons between climbing the Harbour Bridge and reaching the top of the world’s other architectural wonders.

“Climbing the Bridge is unique – there is no reference point,” he says. “More than six million people have climbed the Eiffel Tower, but you basically go up most of the way in a lift. Fundamentally, you can’t climb structures like this anywhere else in the world. This is totally unprecedented.”

As we return to the ground down the western frame, we feel a little how we felt when we discovered Santa Claus wasn’t real: there was no guest book at the top in which to leave our mark after all.

And er, no marriage proposal.

Website: www.bridgeclimb.com
Prices: From AUD108 to 130, or AUD89 for children aged 12-16

Lush and lovely spot in Penang

Quiet, lush and teeming with plant varieties from around the globe – and monkeys – Penang’s 29-hectare Botanical Gardens are worth going out of your way to visit; no other such well-stocked public gardens exist in Malaysia.

The gardens lie in a valley about eight kms outside Georgetown, Penang’s capital. They were established in 1884 on the site of a former granite quarry by Charles Curtis, who moved massive boulders and paved roads to give the gardens the spacious layout that persists until today.

At the head of the valley lies a waterfall whose stream flows through the gardens. When the island was first settled as a colony, passing ships stopped regularly at Georgetown’s harbour to collect fresh water from this stream; bullock carts were used, but it nevertheless would have been quite a hike to collect it. Today the waterfall lies in an area controlled by the Penang Water Authority, so permission needs to be sought if you’d like to view it.

In fact, the existence of the waterfall nearly spelled the demise of the gardens in 1910 when they were handed over to the Georgetown authorities for the express purpose of building a water reservoir within their grounds. The plans were eventually scaled back, and a smaller reservoir lying just outside the gardens was constructed. Nevertheless the gates to the gardens remained firmly locked until 1921, and many species were reportedly lost.

The gardens were also used by the Japanese for military purposes during their occupation of Penang from 1941 to 1945. The trees’ canopies provided camuflage which allowed the storing of ammunition and the assembling of torpedo bombs underneath them to safely take place – a network of underground tunnels was also built beneath the gardens. Again, plants were neglected and many were lost over these years.

Although the scientific attraction of the gardens might be strong for a certain portion of the population today, Penangites generally head there as it’s a lovely spot to exercise or just take a stroll.

The monkeys are thickest along Waterfall Rd, on which the main entrance is situated, with the signs warning visitors that it’s forbidden to feed the cheeky animals largely ignored by those keen to see them up close.

Despite the stifling heat when I visit in the middle of the day, there are plenty of people wandering around, although most seem to be seeking refuge in the shade of trees.

A stop off at "Botanika", the shop and information centre, to pick up a guidebook and a map is a good way to get your bearings before seeking out whatever horticultural delights take your fancy.

There are two main routes recommended to the visitor: one for ambitious heat-resistant souls known as the Upper Circular Route, and the other for lazy-bones like myself called the "Lower Circular Route". I try the Upper and find a short cut to take me back to the Lower when I have had enough.

Near the entrance is a tree whose name catches my attention: Cannon Ball tree (Courupita guianensis). The tree is a native of South America, and the fruit it bears resembles a cannon ball (clearly it got in before the coconut.) The trees on this side of the globe tend to flower without bearing fruit, but the cup-like flower is brilliant red and impressive enough on its own.

As I head up the hill past the palms collection, I pause to take a photograph of a Yellow Saraca tree (Saraca Thaipingensis), which my guidebook tells me is rarely in full bloom. There are plenty of flowers on this one, so I must be here at the right time.

I hear a stifled yelp and turn to see a man standing a few metres away, beckoning me to come look. An almost-black scorpion the length of an adult’s hand is crawling patiently along the gutter lining the asphalt road, oblivious to our interest. The man is quite excited as he tells me it could very well kill me. He grabs a stick to prod its deathly tail into action, and sure enough it curls viciously around in an attempt to sting the stick that’s just bugged it’s afternoon stroll.

I make a note of my open sandals and decide to conscientously keep an eye on where I’m walking.

Besides the main paths, there’s the occasional track you can wander along in denser brush. There are also various cages housing particular types of plants, such as the Bougainvillea House, the Orchidarium and the Fern House. These are open limited hours during the day.

As I’m heading to take a peak in the Sun Rockery section, a gardener named Ahmad Rahman strikes up a conversation with me. It turns out he has worked in the gardens for more than 32 years. His grandfather, he tells me, also worked in the gardens and assisted Charles Curtin in collecting plant specimens.

His specialties are orchids, ferns and ginger, and he looks disparagingly at my guidebook.

"I see you have the new guidebook," he says. The one I have is published in 1989, and I tell him so. "Yes, that’s the new one. You should have tried to get the old one. It’s much better. You can’t find it very easily anymore, but I have a copy. If I’d known you were coming…"

He has to head off to lunch, but agrees to pose for a photo in front of some ferns he planted many years ago. "I planted these, but I don’t look after them now – the boys took over, but they have to come and ask me what the names of them are," he says, shaking his head.

I wander on, and find that he’s right about the guidebook – I’m soon quite confused about directions. Many plants are labelled, however, so it’s not essential to carry a guide, but a good one would definitely be an asset.

It’s a shame that Ahmad doesn’t write one himself.

Vang Vieng awakes

In 1994 the Song river flowed sedately through Vang Vieng, a small village-town just off Route 13 in Vientiane province, Lao PDR. Local women washed their hair in the river’s shallow waters, men pushed their bicycles across the smooth pebbles lining its bed and children pointed and cried when they saw some of the first western backpackers arrive to visit.

By 1998 the Nam Song Hotel had been open for some time on the river’s banks. Trucks occasionally ferried materials from quarries on the outskirts of town across the river to the Chinese-owned concrete company on the other. Backpackers getting off the daily buses from Vientiane or Luang Prabang elbowed each other to snare a cheap bed at a guesthouse.

By 2000, it seems that every second building in Vang Vieng is a guesthouse. Restaurants present English-language menus offering fruitshakes, pancakes and baguettes. A rickety bamboo bridge spans the Song – or most of it, anyway – and pedestrians are charged a 500 kip toll for its use. The concrete trucks are still ploughing their way across, but in ever-increasing numbers: a second factory is due to open soon.

While the town itself might be changing quickly, the essential geographical wonder of Vang Vieng remains. Nestled under immutable limestone karsts lining one side of the Song, Vang Vieng is the Lao equivalent of Vietnam’s Halong Bay and Thailand’s Pha Nga Bay – but blessed with a river instead.

My sunset arrival in the middle of an out-of-season downpour is not auspicious. While I hang around the bus station waiting for the rain to ease, I am approached by a Lao man asking me if I am looking for somewhere to stay. I mumble something in reply, thinking he is a tout.

“I am looking for somewhere to stay myself,” he says, in near-perfect English. “I have never been here before.” It turns out that my fellow traveller is a Lao student making a getaway from the capital, Vientiane, for a few days to write a paper. The approximately four-hour trip from the capital makes Vang Vieng a reasonably convenient getaway – by Lao standards, at least – for Vientiane’s inhabitants.

Eventually a real tout approaches us both. He tells us his guesthouse is just on the other side of the market, itself adjacent to the bus station. We follow him through the rain to the two-storey Saysong Guesthouse, which, our host tells us, has only been open since November last year. Rooms are clean and cheap at 15,000 kip per night. It’s difficult to not stay somewhere central in Vang Vieng as there are only a few streets making up the town, so we take rooms there.

Food is one of Vang Vieng’s great pleasures, and it’s truly difficult to go wrong with any choice. From the upmarket Le Pavrot, offering French wine, steaks and souffles to the generous guesthouse curries and local noodle soups, the choice is outstanding. I opt for one of the local curry soups with a generous serving of pumpkin and potato for my first meal (2,000 kip).

Early the next day, my new friend and I take a walk to the Vang Vieng Resort, a large tract of land featuring a network of caves, a panorama of Vang Vieng’s surrounds and peaceful walks along a stretch of the Song. A small entry fee is charged both to enter the Resort grounds, and then to access the steps leading to the caves.

My companion noticeably gathers some courage to ask me a few questions about foreigners.

“Why do so many foreigners – put things here and here?” he asks, indicating his nose and his eyebrow. Body piercings. I manage a reply about individualism and fashion. He seems unconvinced.

“And why do they make their hair look like muu daet diow (sun-dried pork)?” he queries. Dreadlocks. Same response. He commends me for not looking like a typical foreigner, and casually points out a snake slithering past our feet.

The resort rents bungalows for US$20 a night, and the receptionist who shows me one tells me that most of their guests are Laos from Vientiane. I don’t ask whether they are snake-proof.

I spend the rest of my time in Vang Vieng exploring on my own. Activities available include hiring an inner tube to float down the river for a couple of peaceful hours, or hiring a bike (of reasonable quality for around 7,000 kip a day) and exploring the surrounding caves. I’m told there are still many to be discovered . You can try an invigorating Lao massage (20,000 kip per hour) or take a Lao language lesson (15,000 kip per hour), both at a local English teacher’s home located on the main road leading to Vang Vieng Resort.

I take yet another option, and negotiate in Thai with a local boat pilot to hire his vessel and skill at navigating the river for an hour at 30,000 kip. The pilot has no watch, and tells me I will need to tell him when I want to turn back.

We commence our outing at the river crossing, flanked on either side by tourist accommodation.

The first, the Nam Song Hotel, is ideally located for sunset and is well established as the most expensive place to stay (US$32 to 36). Next door, however, the aptly name Sunset Bungalows has been offering very small longhouse rooms for US$10-15 dollars, and exactly the same view, since November 1999.

Or, if you eschew water views and just want to catch the sun dipping behind the karsts, wander down to Sunset’s restaurant for a Bia Lao as dusk begins.

But we leave the hotels and the tourists behind as the fragile wooden boat gains speed and manoeuvres deftly around sharp rocks – whose peaks are barely below the surface. I feel my life is in the pilot’s hands and it probably is. I’m soon past caring however, and gaze in awe at the magnificent sheer limestone cliffs towering above us. Except for the soft putter of our engine, there is complete silence, and the air, crisp at this time of year, is clean and refreshing.

The pilot points out a half-built collection of bungalows, which he says have stood incomplete since the owners ran out money three years ago. They certainly had foresight, though: had these bungalows been complete, there is little doubt they would now be a roaring success.

Getting There
Buses leave Vientiane bus station at 1:30pm daily. The return trip leaves Vang Vieng at 1:00pm.
Vang Vieng Resort, telephone + 856 23 511 050
Hotel Nam Song, Vang Vieng, telephone: +856 23 511 016
US$1=7,600 kip
It seems best to carry dollars (for larger hotel bills), baht (often accepted at cheaper guesthouses) and kip (sometimes the only currency accepted for small purchases).

Slurp up the cultural soup

Whether you’re a farang needing to kill a couple of days waiting for a visa or just a tourist wanting to immerse yourself in another culture for a few days, Georgetown is a gem of a destination.

History lives in the colonial streets of this town, the capital of Malaysia’s Penang Island. What immediately strikes the first-timer is the seemingly endless number of Anglo-Indian and Chinese shopfronts rolling across town, some freshly painted, some solidly time-worn and others simply succumbing to time.

Take a deep breath and depending on which part of town you’re in and what the time of day is, you’ll scent a thick waft of incense, perhaps followed by a wave of eye-stinging fried chilli, and then the sweet aroma of an Indian hand-rolled cigarette.

There’s the drift of the call to prayer heard at various times in the day, and you’ll hear the slow creak of trishaws ridden by wizened men with sinewy muscles and hopeful faces as they brake to slow down while cruising past a pedestrian. These men look like they could be from one of any number of countries across the globe; but ask them where they’re from and they’ll all answer “Penang”.

Georgetown is indeed almost a microcosm of world cultures: migrants have settled here from as far afield as Europe, China, India, Indonesia, Burma, the Middle East and even Thailand.

The isle was ‘founded’ in 1786 when Francis Light established a British trading post there for the East India Company. Light negotiated a treaty with the Sultan of Kedah, even though there were already people from Kedah living on the island. The British offered the Sultan military protection from those marauding Thais and Burmese in return for the island, but confusion over the precise terms of the treaty lingered and caused occasional tension. The island gained independence in 1957, and joined Malaysia in 1963.

Today Georgetown has the largest number of old houses standing in Southeast Asia: something like 12,000 pre-war houses remain in use. The British passed legislation banning the eviction of original tenants and controlling rents, and this is cited as the main reason behind the streets today being a virtual living museum. The legislation has recently been repealed, and I heard conflicting opinions as to whether this was a good or a bad thing.

Some said it was about time, as the owners of the shophouses had been unable to make a cent out of their properties for more than half a century, while the original tenants had often sublet at market rates. Others said many tenants, particularly in Little India, had put a lot of money into maintaining their buildings, and were now being turned out without any compensation. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what happens to the buildings with this statute change taking effect.

Two days is a good amount of time to browse the historical sites and sample some of Penang’s fabulous cuisine. If you’re on a visa run from Thailand, you’ll want to be heading to the Royal Thai Consulate first thing in the morning. When you’re done with the form-filling, head to the nearby Botanical Gardens for a peek. Opened in 1884, the 29-hectare gardens have suffered fluctuating standards of care, but today they are a popular spot for fitness freaks and picnickers alike.

Bus number 7 takes you back to town. Hop off at Komtar (Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak), the piece de resistance of Georgetown’s 20th century architecture. The 58-floor tower has a shopping centre at its base. Unfortunately the beige tiled walls lend the atmosphere of a railway-station toilet to the entire centre, and when wandering around the labrynth of corridors you might be forgiven for thinking you haven’t actually arrived at the main centre yet. Welcome to Komtar.

The saving grace of the building is its height. For 5 ringgit take a lift to the viewing gallery where a 360 degree vista of Georgetown and some of Penang is yours to savour. You can see the 13.5 kilometre Penang Bridge, one of the longest in the world, linking the island to the mainland – along with the nearby distinctly-coloured sewage outfall. Observe the layout of the streets below: you’re about to pound the pavement.

But first start your culinary tour. There could never be enough time to sample all the delectable delights in town and in fact you’d be lucky to even cover the main groups of Penang’s diverse cuisine in just two days. But you can try.

I started with one of the island’s favourite Nyonya dishes, laksa. “Nyonya” is the word used to describe both the Chinese women who have adopted the Malaysian way of life while maintaining their Chinese heritage, and the unique cuisine that these women developed. While the style of cooking exists among the Chinese in Penang, Malacca and Singapore, in Penang Nyonya cuisine has been influenced to an extent by Thai cooking, with chillies, fresh herbs and shrimp paste being popular ingredients.

Laksa is hawker fare. Mine set me back a whole 2 ringgit at a shopfront restaurant on Jalan Penang, and was divine. It’s base is rice noodles and these swim in a sour-based fish soup topped with onions, chilli, cucumber, pineapple and a pungent fish paste. It’s a refreshing variation of Thai noodle soup.

I didn’t get my bottom pinched (see accompanying story) at all during my stay, but while slurping my laksa I did witness a mobile phone theft. A motorcycle-helmeted man lurked for a while between tables in the restaurant before making a leap for the phone and dashing out into the street. The victim rushed out after him ; his friends looked at each other and shook their heads. Then they kept slurping their laksa. It’s that good.

Thus fortified, you’re ready to hit the streets. There are plenty of options, but I took a wander down Lebuh Chulia, named after the chulias, or South Indian Muslims, who settled here in the early days. The street is probably as close as one gets to Khao San Rd in Georgetown, with cheap hotels, travel agents and foreigner-friendly restaurants lining the street, but there the comparison ends: the street has retained most of its original architecture and is far from a tourist ghetto.

From here you could head to Fort Cornwallis on the water, the island’s original feeble attempt at defence (if I was the Sultan and had seen this attempt at the British side of the bargain, I would have been upset too), via the Victoria Memorial Clocktower. The tower was given to the island by a local Chinese millionaire to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Britain’s Queen Victoria; by the time it was completed she had died, and today it has a slight lilt caused by bombing during World War II.

Or you could stroll around the quay area with its more majestic examples of architecture, or perhaps just browse in the shops. You should definitely make an effort to get to the Penang Museum, housed in the former Penang Free School – the first English-language school in all of Southeast Asia. It’s well set up and gives an excellent potted history of the island for the beginner.

What you must do the following morning – early, while the light still paints the buildings with gold, the traffic is thin and the heat is yet to escalate – is hire a trishaw for a tour of the sites you missed the previous day (30 ringgit per hour, negotiable). The trishaw first appeared on the island in 1941, and by 1947, 2,000 of them were plying the streets for fares.

Today they are outsped by pretty much anything else, but there’s no better way of taking in the charms of the town. Tell your driver how long you have and he’ll know where he can manage to peddle you – two hours will allow you to visit plenty of sites, as well as Wat Chayamangkalaram, a Thai temple whose grounds were given to Penang’s Thai community by Queen Victoria in 1845. A 32-metre reclining Buddha lies inside.

Regretfully, your visa will be ready in the afternoon, or if it’s a weekend getaway you’ve managed to slip away for, it will be time to head back. You can always try squeezing in an excursion to Penang Hill, a favourite expat retreat in colonial days, or a visit to Kek Lok Si temple, which took Thai, Burmese and Chinese artisans around twenty years to build. But if I were you, I might just settle for another laksa.

Travel Details
Getting there: Thai International Airways has daily flights.
Accommodation: There is something to suit all budgets, with low to mid-range hotels concentrated around Chulia and Penang Sts. The Federal Hotel on Jalan Penang offers a basic room with fan and bathroom for 40 ringgit, while the Oriental a few doors up offers aircon as well for 69 ringgit. For something more upmarket, the newish Cititel across the road has rooms for 125 ringgit a night. There’s also a Sheraton in town.

Recommended reading:
Old Penang by Sarnia Hayes Hoyt, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Food Guide, by the Penang Development Corporation, available from the Penang Tourist Centre on Lebuh Pantai.
The latest copy of the Penang Tourist Newspaper, also available from the Penang Tourist Centre, will provide information on the latest accommodation specials and restaurant recommendations.

Further information: Check out the Penang Museum’s website at http://penang.insights.com.my/museum

Phetburi

Need to hire a motorcycle assassin? If you pay attention to the press, Phetburi is the place to go for some of the best. We didn’t notice any hanging around advertising their wares, but that’s not what we went to Phetburi for…

Just three hours by bus or train from Bangkok, Phetburi was founded in the eleventh century, but flourished during Ayutthaya’s glorious years, when it served as a trading post between there and Burma. It became something of a cultural centre, as is evidenced by the Phetburi of today being a great place for wat freaks.

You can easily spend half a day on foot exploring the town’s thirty or so wats, which are in various states of disrepair, ranging from Wat Kamphaeng Laeng, with its tumbledown prangs, to Wat Mahathat, which has been restored to something close to magnificence. Stop off somewhere – anywhere – it’s everywhere – for some egg-yolk sweets, another of Phetburi’s famed exports (besides the assassins, that is).

Rama IV saw the beauty of the area, and Phetburi became his country retreat. In the 1850s he had a hilltop palace built here, now a museum and known as Khao Wang. You can walk up the hill where there is also an eclectic collection of religious monuments, but for lucky lazybones there is a cable car operating.

Another must-see is the cave wat of Khao Luang, five kilometres out of town. A number of golden buddhas are kept inside, and in the late afternoon (precisely when depends on the time of year) direct sunlight streams through a natural hole in the roof, providing a great opportunity for photos.

For accommodation, the best backpacking option (around Bt200) is Rabieng Guesthouse, set in an old teak building overlooking the Phetburi river. It’s a little noisy, but retains its charm and the restaurant is a good spot to relax at sundown. The owners run trips to Kaeng Krachan national park. An upper end option (Bt800) is the Royal Diamond, on Phetkasem Rd on the other side of Khao Wang (032 428272-3).

Interestingly, my partner and I didn’t argue about anything while we were there. Perhaps we were too wary of the ease with which we could have sought revenge by waving down a passing motorcycle…

Chanthaburi

At only three hours drive out of Bangkok, Chantaburi makes a good weekend getaway if you’re keen on doing a bit of exploring. But let me be honest: none of the individual sites in Chantaburi are worth the trip alone.

Combine all the sites together in a two-day trip, however, and you have yourself a destination worthy of sending postcards back to Bangkok about. Or you would, if someone there would make some to sell you.

Famed for its gem-trading, noodles and fruits, Chantaburi province borders Cambodia and has been influenced variously by the French, Vietnamese and Chinese. If someone was to make a postcard to depict the symbol of Chantaburi, it may well be the Catholic cathedral, the largest church in Thailand, which towers over the eastern bank of the Chantaburi River.

Chantaburi might also win the prize for the biggest mangosteen in Thailand. Located at Oasis Seaworld 25 km south of town, the mangosteen has a big rambutan to keep it company (and paddleboats on the unnatural lake – you get the picture). We actually went to see the dolphins, for whom the huge park was originally established to encourage breeding. There’s also a neat butterfly enclosure, an aviary and a few other caged surprises.

While you’re out that way check out Kook Khee Kai, ‘Chicken Shit Building’, a relic from French colonial times (Chantaburi was occupied by the French from 1893 to 1904). The building, with a wire roof on which chickens were kept, was used to house what the French considered to be unsavoury Thai nationals.

Nam Tok Phliu, the fourth most popular waterfall in Thailand, is worth a peek for the loads of carp as well as the cool shade. Khao Phloi Waen, a hill a few kms north of town with a Sri Lankan-style chedi on top, gives a great view of surrounding orchards, and if you’re still into big, try the cannons at Khai Nern Wong, a preserved fort King Taksin retreated to after the fall of Ayutthaya.

A sundown stroll past the crumbling old shophouses by the river, maybe a beer at the unnamed bar next to the Chantra Hotel followed by dinner back at the Chanthron Pochana restaurant underneath Kasemsan 1 Hotel (where we stayed in immaculate rooms at 200 baht a night) is a relaxing end to a day.

Make that two beers. You won’t have any postcards to write.