Caring for Bangkok’s needy

“I’m not doing this because I want to save the world – but hopefully I can help at the humanitarian level,” says Yvonne Ziegler, who spends two mornings a week visiting the Pak Kred Babies Home in Bangkok with another five to 15 expatriate women.

“I’m basically a people person,” she says. “I have three adult children now, so I want to ‘put something back’. I want to do something voluntary with meaning.”

The home looks after babies who will be adopted out to both Thai and western families, and the main objective of the visits is to give the children some time with a one-on-one carer.

Yvonne cares for an 18-month old baby called Pip under circumstances which have conspired to keep him at the home, rather than adopted. “The parents of my baby brought him to the home directly from the hospital, but they didn’t sign him over for adoption,” Yvonne says with some frustration.

In Thai culture, she explains, it’s acceptable to put your baby into an orphanage while you get a job and get yourself ready to look after a new life. “But they haven’t come back for him. The home has been looking for them since he was 12 months old, and they say he can’t be adopted out until he is five in case they are found.”

This energetic woman also assists in collecting clothes for the Human Development Centre in Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum area, and she occasionally visits Rejoice, an AIDS hospice in the northern city of Chiang Mai, to provide assistance there. “I am in a privileged position because I can go anywhere here. I can go to the Hyatt and I can visit the slums. I’m terribly interested in what makes the world tick. There’s so much going on – I don’t want to get stuck into a routine with a 40-hour a week job.”

Nevertheless, Yvonne does work for ten days per month as the Australian Embassy’s Prison Visits Officer. The job involves visiting the 11 Australian prisoners who are currently in four of Bangkok’s gaols. “I make sure that they are receiving international standards of care. It’s consular care – I’m not giving them cake and cookies.”

Yvonne came to Thailand 18 months ago when her husband, who works for the Australian Defence Forces, was posted to Bangkok. She had never been to Asia before, but after spending 25 years moving around Australia, and 18 months in England while her husband attended a military college, she says “I’m used to the idea of moving.”

For Yvonne, the hardest part about being in Thailand is not her volunteer work – it’s being away from her three adult children, who remain in Australia. “I miss them very much,” she says.

Bangkok’s media man

Journalist Andrew Biggs was supposed to stopover in Bangkok for two days on his way from Australia to London for a working holiday. That was ten years ago.

Today Andrew is the most recognisable and famous falang (Western) face in Thailand. He hosts three regular television programmes and a radio talkback programme, is a newsreader for Thailand’s first 24-hour news channel and edits an English- language student magazine. And he’s published four books – in Thai.

“I was quite annoyed about the stopover,” he says. He knew nothing about Thailand, but was aware of its cliched image as a seedy place for cheap sex and drugs. “I was in a mindset where I just wanted to get to England. But from the moment we touched down at the airport, I found Bangkok to be a crazy, crazy city. It was a city of ten million people, and every one of them owned a motorbike.”

So Andrew stayed on. “I figured that if I wanted an experience truly different from Australia, then this was going to be the place to have it.” He spent a year learning Thai and then landed a job with Nationmultimedia where he remains today.

He is hardpressed to find anything difficult about living away from Australia. “I mean, sure, it’s difficult not to be able to have avocado and mayonnaise sandwiches, or Turkish Delight, but there are things here to compensate – like som tam (green papaya salad). How did I ever survive before without som tam?”

While he concedes it can be difficult to be away from family and friends, he points out that the Internet has changed this dramatically. “I’ve recently got back in touch with people I haven’t seen for years,” he says.

Andrew feels like he has found his niche career-wise in a country where his skills are needed. “I’m lucky in that I’m a journalist here in a developing country where learning English is important for many people. I can do my job and make a contribution to society – something I don’t think I’d be able to do in Australia.”

Constantly being in the spotlight means Andrew is apt to find himself in the occasional embarrassing moment. “Using the wrong word can be embarassing – Thai is a language where the words change according to who you are speaking to, much more so than English – and doing it on national television doesn’t help.”

Andrew’s advice to anybody embarking on an expatriate life abroad is simple. “Leave your Western mentality behind and become more open-minded than you have ever been. There are bitter and twisted expats all over the world – if that’s what you turn into, you may as well go home. Have fun! Meet the locals and don’t only mix within the expat community.”

Strummin’ around

“I thought Thailand would be this quiet, relaxing, unassuming place away from the tourist trail. Clearly I didn’t do my research very well!” says Australian John Garzoli of his first trip to Thailand in 1995.

There are a number of falangs in Bangkok who have created employment niches for themselves, allowing them to pay their rent and further their careers. Garzoli, a classically and jazz- trained guitarist who has played for hotel restaurants on Ko Samui and in Bangkok for over the past three years, is one of these energetic characters.

Garzoli returned to Thailand at the end of 1996, hoping to find work playing guitar if he could get it. He had faxed his curriculum vitae to 70 resorts across Asia before he left Australia.

Within a few weeks of arriving in Thailand, he was offered a job on Ko Samui at Le Royal Meridien, playing with a friend, orchestral violinist Mark Zorz. “That lasted the next few years, during which time I became a scuba diving instructor, and got my introduction to life living and working in Thailand.”

Garzoli and Zorz made the move to Bangkok when they landed a six-month contract in early 1999 to work at the California restaurant of the JW Marriot. “That went really well. We genuinely believed that we were the best at doing what we were doing, individually and as an ensemble,” he says. “It was without a doubt the best musical ensemble that I had ever associated with.”

The two played together for two and a half years, six nights a week. “We developed an acute sense of musical sympathy and understanding with each other. We had a good repertoire, and I learned a lot from him about how to be a better accompanist.”

At the end of the contract, Zorz headed home and Garzoli negotiated a contract to play at Rossini’s, at the Grande Sheraton Sukhumvit, where he now plays twice a week. “They were criticised by a magazine for being let down by the ‘canned music’,” he says. “I’m part of the rehabilitation of that.”

But staying around as a classical guitarist in Bangkok hasn’t been easy. “Between hotels, the competition can be great,” he says. “I’ve been extremely lucky. Food and beverage managers often don’t have a budget for musicians, and they are not always sympathetic to what a musician’s doing. Hotels don’t take a lot of risks. If they see that the hotel down the road has a certain type of band, then they’ll go out and get a similar band.”

He points out that you can walk past a dozen hotels on Sukhumvit that all have the same type of band playing. “If that’s what people really want, that’s fine. But sometimes I wonder if that is exactly what five-star hotels should be offering their guests. There should be something to distinguish a five-star hotel from a three-star.”

And as a musician, does he see more opportunities here than in his homeland?

“There is a different culture here,” he says. “In Australia, hotels needn’t take musicians on for six-night-a-week contracts. All of the work I and my musician friends did in Australia was freelance so we were all out there competing with each other for one-off jobs.”

On the other hand, the discipline of playing nearly every night in the same location, as can happen in Thailand, isn’t for everybody. “It takes a lot of getting used to. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to recommend this life to any of my friends in Australia because I don’t think musicians can ordinarily cope with the discipline of having to show up six nights a week and do the same thing. There’s a big learning curve if you want to do this comfortably and well.”

The advantages are there, however, to be eventually reaped. “You really get to work on your musical skills nightly, and you see a genuine improvement in your own musical development. And ultimately, that’s really what playing music is about.”

He explores this idea further. “You get to a certain level when you’ve put in thousands and thousands of hours of practice in a little room by yourself. You don’t do this for the plaudits of punters or the applause of diners – there has to be a bigger reason. And the reason you do it is for yourself. You’re able to make real progress as a performer.”

The music scene in Bangkok isn’t something he has had a lot of time or money to check out, but he does believe the jazz scene is more developed here than the classical. “It’s easier for me to be part of a jazz environment after work. There are some very fine jazz musicians working here.”

His recommendations include the jazz at the Bamboo Bar at the Oriental, and a band called the Funk Machine, who play at Saxophone late Monday and Tuesday nights. “They have impressed me more than any other band in Thailand. We’ve actually become good friends and they’re probably one of the reasons I’m still here,” he says. “They’re funk, they play a bit of jazz, but they’re essentially a dance outfit. The piano player and the saxophone player are simply outstanding instrumentalists. And I’m not saying this just because I’m friends with them!”

John is also teaching individual students guitar and music theory privately, as well as giving advice on where they would be happiest studying in Australia, should they wish to head abroad.

But is there a future for Thais who study western classical music? “I think that with so many western people coming here, and more Thais going to study abroad, we’ll continue to see the development of the classical music scene in Thailand.”

This is despite the fact that it’s not supported by the government in the way it is in some other countries. “This sometimes makes it difficult for good students to get ahead. There are lots of private schools out there, but I don’t know what sort of level of tuition they’re offering – it could be fantastic, I’m not sure. I would say that I teach at the top end of music education – I would say that in whatever country I’m in – because I have had the benefit of good training, not because I’m special!”

But the Garzoli story is not just of coming to Thailand for a working holiday and succeeding; it’s also a story of working hard to develop a passion for music when most people would probably have thrown up their hands and given up.

Garzoli grew up in a small country town in Australia’s New South Wales, and the path which led him to play classical guitar professionally was a long one. He left school aged 16 and became a mechanic – hardly indicative of the true career path that would lie ahead.

He played guitar for a few bands while in his teens. “I was a typical young rock guitar hack,” he says. “I had some tuition from fairly ordinary guitar players, but I was largely able to teach myself. The guitar is not difficult to learn at a very basic level.”

After he completed his apprenticeship, he worked in America driving prototype agricultural machinery, then driving trucks from Texas to North Dakota. “When I got back home, I was very dissatisfied,” he says. “I headed to Melbourne and studied audio engineering for a year.”

At the age of 23 he auditioned to study music at Box Hill TAFE, the Australian-equivalent of M5 and 6. “I played very badly because I was a bad player. I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I missed a first round offer but somebody dropped out and I had been badgering them out of desperation. So they offered me a place, and I tried to vindicate their decision and prove something to myself by working extremely hard for that one year.”

Garzoli was 24 by the time he started the course, and had his first proper guitar lesson. “For most people, you would forget about a career in music by that age,” he says.

He practised for eight hours a day that year, and after he graduated, he auditioned at several university-level musical institutions. “Although I had worked hard, I still wasn’t at the standard you really should be to get in,” he admits – not surprising considering most classical musicians are practising for hours a day by the time they are eight or nine years old.

Eventually Garzoli was accepted by the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts were he studied and received his bachelor of arts, majoring in jazz and guitar. He then started an MA in analytical theory, but discontinued after six months when his health deteriorated. “A nightmare period in my life started which lasted for five years,” he says. “I was totally overworked, privately teaching up to 50 students a week. I taught at the most expensive girls’ school in Melbourne, the singular most well-resourced music school in Melbourne, and another private school. I was gigging twice a week. And going to a clinic twice a week to be put on a drip for 40 minutes. ”

Garzoli suffered the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. “I hauled myself from doctors to Alexander Technique practitioners to acupuncturists to physiotherapists. In the end I was referred to see shrinks. In hindsight I was suffering from stress, and some strange illness that has since lifted and something which the medical community was unable to diagnose: a broken neck.”

Garzoli was diagnosed with this after being in Thailand for more than a year when he went to Switzerland for a holiday. He consulted a Swiss doctor who took an x-ray and discovered a vertebrae which had chipped off. “Previously I had had all types of musculo-skeletal problems but these had just been explained as being old football or motorbike injuries.”

Garzoli says he will seek further information when he eventually gets back to Australia, in the mean time, he is practising yoga and concentrating on his guitar practice. “Now that I’m here, I’m in no rush to leave. I’m so attached and fascinated by the Thai way of life that this is where I want to stay for a while now.”

John Garzoli can be contacted by emailing [email protected] or phoning 01 334 7344.

Not pure, just determined

Losing My Virginity: The Autobiography
By Richard Branson

Are you ready to be humbled into admitting that you have, after all, been a pretty lazy git for most of your life? Are you ready to be energised into vowing that you will achieve what you want to, however many years ago it was that you originally planned to do so?

A summary of this book might be the title of the prologue: “Screw it. Let’s do it.” It’s not technically a self- help book – would you trust a guru who plastered his goatie- adorned face on the cover? – but it may as well be. Richard Branson’s ghost-written autobiography is a ripper of a read – it’s both exhausting and embarassing to review your own meagre achievements by the time you turn the final page.

As a piece of autobiographical literature, it’s standard, almost dumbed-down fare. The story of the first 43 years of Branson’s life – he makes clear that this is just Volume One, and he recently turned 50 – is not deep or philosophical. It begins with an account of a close shave on one his famous balloon world record attempts, when he and his copilot make an emergency landing in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria.

Then, predictably enough, we flashback to his happy, family- centred childhood. Like many successful entrepreneurs, Branson does poorly at school, and still couldn’t read by the age of eight due to suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia. Nevertheless, he excels at sport, and being England, this is enough for him to get by, although an injury eventually means he has to knuckle down and study seriously.

When he was just fifteen, he and a mate fatefully decided to put together a school magazine, called Student: The Magazine for Britain’s Youth. It was eventually published in January 1968. And that’s where Branson’s life begins to be woven with the social and commercial history of England in the second half of the twentieth century.

Branson interviewed such icons as Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Gerald Scarfe and Dudley Moore. He shifted, however, away from journalistic aspirations towards the practical side of running the business, desperately trying to sell advertising and using every hilarious trick in the book to do so.

Then Branson and his mates decide to branch out into the record retailing business, and the name Virgin is born. Then the record label is born, and Mike and Sally Oldfield are signed, and business really takes off, albeit for a bouncy few decades.

The inside story behind Branson’s trips to Baghdad during the Gulf Crisis, and the long-winded Virgin and BA dispute are given just as much attention as Branson’s love life. While the latter might be an interesting read, it’s the BA dispute in particular that’s rivetting and is likely to make you refuse to ever fly with them again.

In Branson’s words, the episode is “one of the fiercest, most focused and vicious attacks ever launched by an airline against a small competitor.” It’s about the British class system as much as anything else, with an upstart entrepreneur giving the established airline a run for its money. And Branson doesn’t hold back from naming names.

In one exchange, Branson tells Sir Colin Marshall, the chief executive of BA that their engineering was so bad it could have brought an aircraft down. The response, according to Branson? “That’s one of the perils of being in the aviation business. If you’d stuck to popular music you wouldn’t have had this problem.” Ouch.

Throw in a a near capsize during a fishing trip, a few almost catastrophic balloon rides, and it’s clear that Branson is a man who’s time should have come many years ago. His accounts of escaping with his life by a whisper are hair- raising, and told with typical British understatement, although a Canadian does manage a good line.

Branson and his companion land in Canada, 3,000 kilometres away from where they should have: “ ‘We’ve landed on a lake surrounded by trees.’ ‘It’s a frozen lake,’ came the laconic Canadian voice. ‘It’s quite safe. The only trouble is that there are about 800,000 lakes in your vicinity and they’ve all got plenty of trees.’ “

Branson is also humble enough to recall stories where he has played the fool. For example, there’s the honeymoon couple who ask him for a photograph after Virgin’s win against BA has been splashed all over the papers in the UK. He says sure, and strikes a pose. “ ‘Sorry’, the husband said. ‘We were hoping that you could take our photograph. I’m Edward, and this is my wife Araminta. What’s your name?’ “

The beauty of Branson and his achievements – both in the business world and in competitive sport, although the line between the two can be blurred – is that he actually doesn’t seem like an awfully sharp or conventionally business-minded chap. He makes business deals seem like a mere matter of thinking things over a little, and then going for them. It’s about taking risks and having fun, and not getting bogged down in details:

“Some people say that my vision for Virgin breaks all the rules and is too wildly kaleidoscopic; others say that Virgin is set to become one of the leading brand names of the next century; others analyse it down to the last degree and then write academic papers on it. As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

Branson continues to lead an amazing life, having recently been granted a knighthood. Catch up on the life behind the man whose businesses are making headlines at the Virgin empire continues to grow. You’ll be inspired by the breezy read and be shown that all it really takes to be successful is enthusiasm, passion and persistence, no matter where your ambitions lie.

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.

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

Anil’s Ghost

By Michael Ondaatje
Sri Lankan-born Anil, whose name she bought from her brother when she was a young, famous swimmer, and who has studied in the UK and the US, returns to her war-torn homeland as a forensic anthropologist investigating human rights crimes. Sri Lanka is a mess, and the lives of its people are messier, eked out in the shadow of murder, mayhem and distrust. Anil’s investigative partner is the anthropologist Sarath, whose connections in the government arouse uneasy suspicion in Anil. The pasts of Anil, Sarath and those they have loved and love are unravelled in lyrical snapshots at a masterful pace, and are entwined with the geography and spiritualism of a country slowly falling apart. Ondaatje has written a novel about his country of birth that is less gripping than The English Patient – the unfortunate comparisons are inevitable – but more political and realistic. Paradoxically, the realism is revealed more sharply under that veil of breathlessly romantic and poetic prose that only Ondaatje can get away with.

Water works

If there’s one ‘national’ cuisine that you may not have thought of trying in Bangkok, it’s perhaps that of Taiwan.

But there is a restaurant here serving up authentic Taiwanese food that’s definitely worth checking out. Samphan Assawakittiwanich, manager of Water 1999, says he believes the restaurant is the only one of its kind in Bangkok. “There are some fast food places to get Taiwanese food, but this is the only proper restaurant,” he says.

What’s distinctive about food from this area of the world? If you’re in Taiwan itself, the range of cuisines available from the various regions of China is supposed to be phenomenal, but real ‘Taiwanese’ food is said to resemble that of Fujian province, where most of the island’s inhabitants come from. There’s also a distinctive influence from Japan – which occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 – on the islanders’ eating habits.

But although Taiwanese food may be heavily influenced by the mainland, don’t think Chinese when it comes to this Taiwanese restaurant’s stylish décor. This is a 50-seat restaurant with contemporary panache that looks like it should be serving up trendy fusion food – not authentic Taiwanese cuisine.

The Japanese architect-owner designed the place herself, with sweeping white walls, and huge windows overlooking a moat of gurgling water surrounding the main area of the restaurant and a large area of trees, grass and fairy lights at night. This area is used for outdoor dining in the dry season, and for Taiwanese barbecues from October to December.

The furniture is sleekly-lined and modern Asian, and the soft lighting is enhanced by the candles spread around the room. The place was buzzing with the soft hum of conversation, surprising for a Wednesday night when many similar restaurants might be struggling to fill more than a few tables.

The ‘Water’ part of the name is the English translation of ‘that which gives life’ in Mandarin. And 1999 – well, in August of that year the restaurant first opened its doors to a surprised but very pleased Taiwanese expatriate community.

We left ourselves in the Taiwanese chef’s hands when it came to choosing our dinner. After a delicate, appetite wetting shark fin soup, we were served two of the most popular dishes in the house.

The Three-Cup Chicken, pieces of chicken cooked with whole cloves of garlic and sweet basil in a sauce blended from Chinese wine, sesame oil and a special Japanese sauce, is Water 1999’s signature dish. It was full-flavoured and just slightly sweet. The whole cloves of garlic were absolutely delectable. The Beef Sauteed With Pepper Sauce was piquant and satisfying. The pepper wasn’t shy, and the sauce went well with the finely grated bed of cabbage it was served on.

Of course, the dishes were served with rice along with a bowl of salted, slightly spicy vegetables, and a selection of condiments. There’s a good wine list and a selection of beers and spirits, but we drank tea, as is traditional with proper Taiwanese food.

We finished off with deep-fried dumplings rolled in sesame seeds with a red bean paste inside. They’re not on the menu, but are served to those who are in the know and ask for them. Otherwise there’s a selection of ice creams, including Green Tea flavour.

Although the menu features prices, these can vary according to the number of people you wish to order the dishes for. For two, expect to pay up to around Bt180 per dish, and for four, up to around Bt350. Other menu items that grabbed our attention included the Baked Chicken With Taro, Five-Spice Boiled Fresh Squid, Steamed Salmon With Bean Curd and Baked Eggplant With Chilli Sauce.

At the moment, Water 1999 attracts many Taiwanese expatriates and tourists, as well as Japanese, Chinese and Thais (for whom the chef can increase spiciness if required!), but only the occasional westerner. Given the quality of the food and the contemporary feel of the place, the reason must simply be the lack of publicity about it in the English-language press.

And as we left, my companion noted that the table behind us were speaking the ‘real’ Taiwanese dialect. So rest assured: Bangkok is indeed fortunate that its sole Taiwanese restaurant is not only a place to be seen, it’s authentic as well.

Water 1999 is at 22 Sukhumvit Soi 39, Wattana. Ph. 258 8308. Open 11.30am-2.30pm and 5.30pm-10.30pm daily. Am, V, MC accepted.