Cambodia’s golden-age architect looks back in wonder

Much of Asia’s architectural heritage is under threat as countries pursue rapid economic growth and often eschew preservation in favour of rapid modernisation. In Cambodia the threat is particularly acute, extending from the World Heritage-listed ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat to the buildings of the 1950s and ’60s, when the newly independent kingdom began forging its own identity through a fantastic programme of public works.

As the kingdom’s first qualified post-independence architect, Vann Molyvann was a key creative force behind many landmarks, ranging from the National Sports Complex to the Independence Monument and experimental low-cost apartments. For our weekly Asian Lives series, Phnom Penh Correspondent Samantha Brown talks to 78-year-old Vann about his tumultuous career and his vision for Cambodia in the 21st century.

PHNOM PENH – Vann Molyvann, 78, sits with his pen hovering above crisp white paper and pounces on an opportunity to sketch one of his characteristically ambitious architectural projects for Cambodia.

As warring Cambodian factions edged towards peace in the 1990s after years of bloody battles that persisted after the 1975-79 genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, Vann designed a parliamentary complex with the new democratic constitution as its physical centrepiece.

He presented the orginal to then-King Norodom Sihanouk but, unlike his prolific and striking designs of the 1950s and ’60s which pepper the capital and still lend it much of its flavour today, this was one vision not realised.

Vann’s sketch reveals a complex with a grand hall as its entrance, the National Assembly to one side, the Senate on the other and Supreme Court opposite, all linked to a central congress hall and designed to sit on the banks of the Mekong River.

"Maybe it was too ambitious," Vann says, gesturing in the geometrically-inspired home he built around 1967 on one of Phnom Penh’s main boulevards. Airy, spacious and austerely decorated, it’s classic Vann Molyvann.

A slim man who easily breaks into a smile surrounded by a sparse grey-whiskered beard, he intermittently rises to fetch a book or look for plans he wants to discuss, taking his large reading glasses on and off as he does so.

"Out of about 100 designs, if an architect can realise 10 he would be pleased," he says.

Judging by the number of landmark buildings of his design standing in the capital Phnom Penh and other urban centres in Cambodia today, Vann looks to have at least had that strike rate during the heyday of his career.

From the imposing Independence Monument commissioned by Sihanouk to the National Sports Complex inspired by the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, Vann’s visionary buildings were symbols of a new Khmer national confidence in the wake of Cambodia’s 1953 independence from colonial master France.

"The buildings he designed in the 1950s and ’60s profoundly marked Cambodia, helping to drive the imagination, aspirations and the dynamism of a country that was at once very young and very old," academic Ashley Thompson writes in the foreword to Vann’s 2003 book "Modern Khmer Cities".

But Vann’s architectural and urban planning career very nearly didn’t take off.

Vann was one of just two Cambodians to graduate from the kingdom’s only high school — administered by the French — in 1944. It was during his first visit to Angkor Wat while he was in high school that he came across a book on the temples by French historian George Coedes.

"It was the history of Angkor presented in a very, very scientific and professional way instead of … (by the) oral traditions that any Cambodian knows from his parents, from his ancestors," he says.

"This was an illumination to me."

He won a scholarship to France’s Sorbonne to study law but found the course too difficult, so he sought a place at the l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the renowned arts school, and was accepted.

"It was the beginning of Jean-Paul Sartre, it was the starting of the construction of Paris, jazz was coming from the States into Europe … I was completely an enthusiast," he says of Parisian intellectual life at the time.

He threw himself into his studies. His most influential teacher was famed Swiss architect and city planner Le Corbusier, who was both admired and maligned for his bold architectural visions for the world’s new industrial age.

"I was obliged to completely clear out of my head any Asian reminiscences … I had to forget what I felt and what I knew from my own country," Vann says.

"When I came back to Cambodia, when I saw Angkor for the second time, it was a completely new vision. I was extremely thankful for this very, very strong training I received from the French."

Vann returned home as Cambodia’s first qualified post-independence architect. But the idea of architecture as a profession was so foreign it took him months to find work, with the Ministry of Public Works finally hiring him.

Sihanouk promptly asked him to oversee construction of pavilions and temples, which were used by 10,000 monks for traditional religious ceremonies to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s birth.

"Of course, I was extremely afraid to have in hand such a programme," he recalls.

It was the beginning of his collaboration with the highly revered and charismatic Sihanouk, four years his senior, who commissioned scores of works from him, including state residences across the kingdom, universities, hospitals, government ministries and even a brewery.

Vann nowadays finds it difficult to speak about the period, which many older Cambodians hail as the war-torn country’s golden age.

"Sihanouk tried to give the necessary energy for the birth of this country," he says. "I don’t like talking about the past. It’s too emotional."

The French left behind a Phnom Penh of broad boulevards built on dikes in concentric arcs radiating from the Mekong and Bassac rivers. In the 15 years after they left, the area of the city doubled as its population soared.

Vann became the best known of a burgeoning troupe of young architects who revelled in the freedom of their brief from Sihanouk and created a unique style dubbed "New Khmer Architecture".

Helen Grant Ross, a Phnom Penh-based architect and city planner, describes the results in one article: "Roofs fly, weights lift off the ground, and concrete, crazy paving, louvred walls, light and shade play in the tropical climate."

Perhaps the most striking emblem of the audacious style was Vann’s 80,000-seat National Sports Complex.

Its composition was derived from the temples of Angkor while "a series of water surfaces recalled the characteristic moats of Khmer settlement and assured the required drainage," Vann says in his book.

The jubilant 1964 opening of the distinctive golden spire-topped stadium was a triumph, not just for the tiny developing country of Cambodia, but for a region intent on showcasing its talents to the new post-colonial world.

Like Le Corbusier, Vann was also drawn to city planning, and undertook building the "Front du Bassac", experimental apartment buildings which were a new concept for Phnom Penh.

Two years after Sihanouk was deposed in a 1970 coup by Lon Nol, Vann headed to Israel and then Switzerland, where he worked privately as an architect. In 1979 he joined the UN Human Settlements Programme, or Habitat, in Kenya, also taking postings in Burundi and lastly Laos.

He returned in 1993, having missed the brutal 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge, who wrought devastation which left up to two million Cambodians dead.

"I thought, and I think, that all the Khmer people had been completely broken by the Khmer Rouge," he says. "And it will take at least two or more generations to recuperate from this. I’m still pessimistic."

The Khmer Rouge destroyed several of Vann’s buildings, but for the most part the structures survived, as the ultra-Maoists herded Cambodians out of cities and into the countryside in their tragic quest to create an agrarian utopia.

Vann, who was named minister of fine arts in the 1993 Royal Government of Cambodia — and later headed the authority overseeing Angkor, is instead heartbroken about more recent changes to his designs.

For example the stadium, which architect Ross compares to Sydney’s Opera House in terms of its historical legacy, had its surrounding parks sold off in 2000 to a Taiwanese company which was supposed to refurbish the buildings in return.

Besides ravaging an integral part of the stadium’s design by constructing retail outlets on key drainage areas, the refurbishment never took place.

"It’s a complete scandal that they did not fulfil their obligations to repair the stadium," Vann says.

The local press reports with increasing frequency the sell-off of historical buildings in shady deals.

The stadium scandal was an insult on top of the Front du Bassac’s "renovation" in the early 90s, which closed off the open spaces in the building Vann had deliberately designed to both capture the breeze and leave the riverfront visible to those passing behind it.

"Here is the most criminal thing," he says, stabbing a finger into a photograph of the building today, complete with a shantytown out front. "That is the worst thing which I consider has been done against the town."

Vann was also horrified at encroachment around Angkor, which he was obliged to protect as head of the Apsara authority, created as part of the Cambodian government’s obligations for having the ruins listed as a World Heritage site.

He staunchly defended a rule aimed at limiting construction in sensitive zones. For his efforts, he was dismissed in 2001 as a new, more investor-friendly decree was passed.

His retort was his book, a comprehensive blueprint for urban planning in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the port town of Sihanoukville. Published in Khmer as well as English, he says it is his legacy for Cambodian students.

Vann, who remains an advisor to the government and the new king, Sihanouk’s son Norodom Sihamoni, today spends his time writing and lecturing. He says young Khmer architects need to be trained — but no more than students in every professional field in the wake of the devastating war years.

"It’s a disaster everywhere," he says, referring to a society wracked by poverty, violence and endemic corruption. "So I think that Khmer architects are very far behind on the list of people who are able to do something."

A packed weekend in Phnom Penh

It’s rich with history, loaded with atmosphere and jammed with great restaurants and shops, but Phnom Penh is often overlooked by travellers in favour of Siem Reap, the launching point for Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat. A weekend trip to the capital however, is easily done from Bangkok and yields rich rewards.

Phnom Penh offers accommodation ranging from US$1 a night backpacker dorms on the lake to the salubrious restored Le Royal where the best rooms go for hundreds. Our out-of-the-way pick is the quaint wooden-floored Del Gusto’s on Street 95, where rooms are US$9-15. Its cousin the Boddhi Tree also offers stylish but budget mid-range rooms, US$7-18. Both have attached restaurants with great food.

Friday night sees many package tourists kick off with sunset drinks at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club overlooking the Mekong or the excellent happy hour at Le Royal’s Elephant Bar, both worth checking out. Ruby’s tucked away on Street 240 however offers a slick alternative for an affordable glass of wine and a mingle with local expats. Elsewhere on nearby Street 51, where a swimming pool also beckons, is another fine choice.

You can order food at both bars, or hop along to Sugar Palm, a few doors from Ruby’s, which offers great Khmer food _ try their lush marinated fish salad _ with plenty of furniture and knick-knacks to snap up as souvenirs.

If Phnom Penh’s French colonial feel awakens a desire for French food and film, begin the night with a free movie at the French Cultural Centre, which screens them in their cute cinema from Fridays to Mondays at 6:30pm. Then head directly to the no-fuss Sary Rega’s on Street 75. Popular with French diplomats and backpackers alike, you can indulge in a three-course meal _ think prawn cocktail, sting ray in butter, chocolate mousse _ for around US$6.

Saturday morning, head to Tuol Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge interrogation centre known as S-21. It’s a sobering and moving experience: at this site some 17,000 people were tortured before being killed. It’s now a genocide museum and grim reminder of the horror that led to some two million people dying under the 1975-79 regime.

For lunch, head to Friends, a cheerful restaurant where street children receive vocational training as they restart their lives. Don’t miss their blueberry cake, and walk it off by ambling down to the Silver Pagoda, next to the royal palace, where admission and a guide will cost US$8. Khmer boxing fans might instead like to watch a live bout of the sport Cambodians claim Thailand stole. The matches take place at several TV studios from around 2pm Saturdays and the entry fee is usually around US$1.

For sunset, hire a boat that will cruise along the river (US$15 for two hours) so you can catch a glimpse of Cambodian rural life.

Back on land, the riverfront is packed with restaurants to sample for dinner. Check out local specialties at Frizz or head a little further north to Tok Thom, a little French restaurant with one communal table. After dinner try drinks at Teukei, a funky little hole in the wall, on Street 111.

Sunday morning head early to the Russian Market where you can fortify yourself for the day ahead with a noodle soup and thick Cambodian coffee.

The market is a great place to pick up rainbow-coloured Cambodian organza _ the market seamstresses will sew them into curtains or anything else for you (allow several days). It’s also a good spot for silks, silver jewellery and some antiques.

Haven’t shopped enough? Try Ambre on Street 178, where a Khmer-French designer sells gorgeous women’s clothes. Then Street 143, where Beautiful Shoes can whip up superb handmade leather shoes.

Grab some Chinese noodles for lunch at Peking Canteen on Street 93, just near the Central Market, where you can marvel at the art deco architecture.

And don’t forget to squeeze in some relaxation time. Bliss Spa, fronted by another lovely clothes shop filled with unique designs, is set in a stunningly restored old building on Street 240. Book in advance on 023-215-754.

Our favourite way to see Phnom Penh is by cyclo or pedicab. Hire one through the Cyclo Centre (speak to Sarany on 012-826-810) for about US$8 per day. A portion goes to the centre which offers much-needed services to drivers.

Cambodia maps out plan to lure tourists to Khmer Rouge sites

The veranda has collapsed, a lone green typewriter sits unused on a dusty table and only two of the 27 staff are here. But Anlong Veng’s tourism office has a grand plan to lure visitors to the final stronghold of Cambodia’s infamous Khmer Rouge.

It was to this far-flung district in Oddar Meanchey province, about 450 kilometres (280 miles) north of Phnom Penh, that tyrant Pol Pot withdrew in 1992 and where both he and the ultra-Maoist movement responsible for up to two million deaths drew final breath.

Nestled in the Dangrek mountains, Pol Pot’s final hideout just metres (yards) from neighbouring Thailand is reached by an unpaved, pot-holed road, still littered on either side by landmines.

"We are doing research to find out about potential tourist sites," says district tourism chief Sieng Sokheng, flattening out a photocopy of his masterplan that lists the 43 spots so far identified.

"The government regards these places as places suitable for tourists."

One of these is the fenced-off area where Pol Pot spent his last months under house arrest after being captured and put on trial by military commander Ta Mok.

His broken toilet and smashed medicine bottles still lie in the undergrowth.

Nearby are his remains, unceremoniously burned on a pile of tyres after his 1998 death, in a patch now protected with a corrugated iron roof headed by an altar where people have left offerings of fruit, cigarettes and incense.

At the end of the narrow path leading here, where chickens scrabble and bougainvilleas flourish, soldier Yang Phan says two to five tourists, both Western and Asian, tramp here daily. Minibuses occasionally disgorge up to 15.

"We don’t get any profit from them," he says, referring to the vendors at the shanty market of thatch and blue plastic tarpaulins which sprung up to take advantage of the border’s opening in late 2003.

"Of course, we want to see as many people come here as possible, but the road is difficult so I have no idea how they can come here."

An eight-kilometre (five-mile) drive away along the escarpment lies the remains of one of the former homes of "The Butcher", Ta Mok, along with the Khmer Rouge headquarters building, now a concrete shell covered with graffiti.

Today, Ta Mok is one of two former leaders languishing in jail awaiting trial at a UN-backed tribunal for which funding has nearly been raised.

Taking advantage of the stunning views over Anlong Veng and expecting tourism to flourish, soldier Rang Saruon opened a guesthouse next door in 2001.

With hammocks to swing in, chirping birds and flowers in the garden, it’s difficult to imagine the violence this place witnessed: in 1997, Pol Pot’s former defence minister Son Sen was brutally murdered outside the house with his wife and children on his boss’s orders.

"I knew that eventually more foreign tourists would come here and have no place to stay and eat," says 56-year-old Rang Saruon, from neighbouring Siem Reap province.

"It’s a beautiful site, you can see a panorama of Cambodia… and foreign visitors want to see the historical sites, the houses, where the former Khmer Rouge lived."

When he first opened, about 40 tourists per month stayed with him but that has dwindled to just 10 as the road to Siem Reap, the gateway to the famed Angkor temple complex, has dramatically worsened.

Further along the desolate road shaded by scrubby forest, with no signposts and few people to ask directions, are the remains of Pol Pot’s house and musty-smelling bunker, also perched on the escarpment.

A blue sign marks the entrance to the once-sprawling compound complete with a bricked-in reservoir, but the tourist hordes are a long way from arriving yet.

Tourism director Sokheng is undaunted.

"These are bitter places. Perhaps there are no other places like these in the world and so that’s why visitors want to see these places, see how they lived," he says.

About 200 Cambodian tourists each month come to visit the grave site.

"My guides have told me that some Khmer visitors have expressed their anger but they do not want to do anything to the grave," he says.

"They just say that he deserved to die there and have a grave like that because during his leadership he killed so many people."

Not everybody is thrilled with the idea of developing such sites into attractions, including Youk Chhang, director of the centre in Phnom Penh which collects evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

"Memory cannot be commercialised. I’m uneasy about it — it’s immoral," he says, adding that the government should be working on preserving the mass graves across the kingdom.

A kilometre (half-a-mile) down the road from the grave, a different kind of attraction is being built: Cambodian defence minister Tea Banh’s brother and tycoon Ly Yong Phat are throwing up a casino and hotel to attract Thais.

Border market vendors such as Tuot Sokny, who moved here a year ago but has endured thin trade, are pinning their fortunes on this, rather than the macabre Khmer Rouge legacy.

"I’m hoping that business gets better when the road is improved and the casino opens. In (another nearby border town) Osmach, they have a casino and road, and more people come," she sighs.

Idling on islands

Life glides by slowly perched in a hammock overlooking the swirling Mekong River in Laos’ Four Thousand Islands. Sipping a Beer Lao and watching the ever-changing colours of the river is meditation not just popular with locals but with an increasing number of independent travellers.

Si Phan Don, as the locals call it, is a collection of some 4,000 islands wedged into the broadest section of the Mekong _ it’s over 10 kilometres wide in some places _ in the far south of Laos.

While some are no bigger than a patch of alluvial dirt and a coconut palm, others are expansive and support small villages, where rice-paddies are dotted with gilded temples and crumbling French colonial buildings.

Think tropical holiday with a difference: the heat is sizzling but instead of white-sand beaches, try dangling your legs in the swirling river from your private balcony at the eco-friendly raft-hotel, Salaphae, on Don Khon island.

Airy and tasteful rooms go for around US$20 a night, easily the most luxurious water-fronted accommodation on any of the three main islands in the river archipelago. The old French hospital Sala Don Khone, set just back off the river, is another fine option oozing charm.

Rent a wobbly bicycle and go exploring along the narrow and sun-dappled dirt trails.

Don Khon and Don Dhet across the way are well and truly on the backpacker trail these days but the islands retain a laid-back bucolic charm, where farmers till the rich soil much as they did a century ago and fishermen still silently toss their nets in the early hours of the morning.

There’s not too much to see or do _ that’s really the allure _ but there are a few items to cross off the tourist list if you must.

The railway bridge linking the two islands that the enterprising French built as part of their ill-fated railway project is difficult to miss and a historical reminder of their misplaced optimism.

Indefatigable explorers thought they would be able to navigate the Mekong through the Khone Falls just to the south of Don Khon by bridging the two with a few kilometres of track to bypass the falls.

Their might, alas, was nothing in the face of the massive falls and their dream of shipping out China’s fabled riches _ the river begins in Tibet _ via the 4,000-kilometre Mekong to Vietnam was dashed.

Today, just the ballast remains of the railway, which can still be followed by bicycle through alternating lush jungle and emerald paddies to the rusting French pier. Chances are you’ll dodge strolling saffron-clad monks, school children and an array of farm animals on the way there.

From here you can hire a boat to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, which swim in pools along the Cambodian border and are best seen in the late part of the dry season around April and May.

As the sun falls in particular the islands really come into their own with fantastic light showing off scenes that seem artfully painted. At night, all is dark and blissfully quiet. The islands are off the main electricity grid, though generators are gradually popping up. With a brilliantly big star-speckled sky though, you hardly need power.

Food on the islands is basic but delicious, and centred around spicy curries and salads served with sticky rice. Lao coffee, with condensed milk two fingers thick nestled at the bottom, is also ubiquitous.

Legend has it that the first backpacker showed up on Don Dhet and was so impressed with the place he asked a local fisherman to build him a hut and provide him with meals in return for US$20 a month.

Depending on who’s talking, he stayed six weeks to six months, but when he returned to native Canada, word spread and the travellers trickled by.

Due to an abysmal lack of public transport in the landlocked country, particularly in the far south, these backpackers have not been chased away by package tourists, with bamboo huts going for a dollar a night being the standard set-up.

A few hours north by boat is Don Khong, the largest of the islands. On this island, you can’t beat staying at the seductive colonial Auberge Sala Done Khong. This large teak house has some stunning rooms _ starting at US$25 _ with a pretty garden to pass by the heat of the day.

Once you drag yourself out of the Auberge, try to cycle the 30-kilometre trail that circumnavigates Don Khong. Don’t worry though if you flag half way _ many succumb to the enervating heat and at best do a half-loop, taking in wooded villages, riverside wats and an endless stream of waving children.

You can always do the other half next time.

Cambodia’s beach resort gambles on international tourism boom

With pristine beaches rivalling Asia’s best holiday destinations, a five-star hotel, a reopened airport and a planned golf course, Cambodia’s Sihanoukville is poised to jump into the global tourism arena.

Thousands of tourists are already lured to Cambodia by the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex but few other sights attract their attention or their desperately sought-after dollars.

Sniffing opportunity, the government and private investors are lining up to position the southwestern port town of Sihanoukville as a tropical getaway, competing with the likes of Thailand’s Phuket and Indonesia’s Bali.

"If we compare, the potential is better than Phuket because of the quality of sand — it’s white — and the water is clean. The offshore islands have coral reefs, there’s fishing," enthuses city tourism director Teng Huy.

A port town established in the 1950s — it remains Cambodia’s youngest city — Sihanoukville became a popular resort among the elite until the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which embarked on a genocide that decimated the country.

It was re-discovered by backpackers in the 1990s and today retains a sleepy, faded charm, with the occasional cow wandering through the streets and ramshackle restaurants on many of its beaches.

The locally-owned Sokha Hotel has extended Sihanoukville’s appeal beyond backpackers to well-heeled travellers by opening its 15-hectare, 180-room hotel in April, the first five-star operation here.

"The beach product is excellent, it’s top class. Great sand, great sea, that’s a great start, we’re out of the gate and running well," says general manager Anthony O’Neill, a 12-year veteran of the Asian tourism industry.

More government help however is needed to rebuild the infrastructure shattered from conflict that only ended in 1998, as well as better attractions, to secure Sihanoukville’s place on the international circuit, O’Neill says.

A nine-hole golf course being developed by Malaysia’s Ariston Holdings along nearby Occheuteal beach is one such crucial drawcard, he says.

"The golf course concept has to be raced along… because if you can’t get core features you simply can’t contain people in a holiday resort and even think you’re going to challenge your competitors in Asia," he says.

"I’m competing with Bali, Phuket, even Pattaya. It’s these markets we keep an eye on — can we do it here?"

Sokha is just one of several hotels positioned to enter the market.

The quirky art deco Independence Hotel, which drew fashionable crowds in the 1960s prior to the 1975 rise of the Khmer Rouge, is due to open by September, while a 120-room hotel is packaged with the golf course project.

Scheduled flights — also seen as vital to Sihanoukville’s rejuvenation — are on the horizon with the reopening of its airport in April to chartered flights. A runway extension is slated to be completed before year end, making it a potential destination for regional airlines.

Martin Standbury, the project manager for the golf course due to open within the coming year, says Sihanoukville may be sleepy for now, but its potential is enormous.

"For now tourists get a bit bored. There’s the beach, cheap beer, seafood — they probably need a few more attractions," he says.

"I reckon there is huge potential here over the next three to five years, not just for foreigners but the locals," he says, noting that Cambodia’s emerging middle class has begun holidaying here again.

Business owners — many of them foreigners who were travelling through but decided to stay, captivated by the landscape and laidback lifestyle — say they have noticed a steady increase in numbers.

"Despite the anti-Thai riots (in Phnom Penh in January 2003), SARS, (the terror attacks in) America and the elections, my trade has increased in the last year as has everybody elses," says hotel and bar owner Richard Blackley.

Teng Huy’s office puts the number of tourists who visited last year at just over 114,000, six percent less than 2002 due to the regional SARS outbreak, but for the first three months this year the figure jumped by 29 percent on 2003.

Blackley, who moved here four years ago, says the town was once awash with small arms — like the rest of the country — but has normalised and authorities are making an effort to renovate the town.

"Infrastructure is being repaired, government buildings are being repaired, you can see improvements with parks and gardens… And the race for land on the beaches is phenomenal," he says.

"I’m extremely optimistic. Every day something new is being done."

Li Li, a Chinese technical worker on a hydropower plant in a nearby province, comes here every few months with a half dozen colleagues who are drawn by the seafood and scenery.

"Sihanoukville is very, very beautiful — the water, the sky," he told AFP after a beachside seafood feast.

"I think more and more people will come to Cambodia and here."

Thailand’s new opium hall casts light on dark history

CHIANG SAEN, Thailand – Nestled in the heart of Southeast Asia’s infamous Golden Triangle region, a gleaming new museum portraying the chequered global history of opium is about to open its doors to the public.

The 400-million baht (9.5-million dollar) Hall of Opium, built amid mountains that a decade or two ago were covered with the intense red blush of opium poppies, will take visitors through the 5,000 year-old story of opium when it launches in October.

"Drugs are a global issue; it’s not about the Golden Triangle," says Disnadda Diskul, secretary-general of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation which established the museum.

A 130-metre underground tunnel leading to the hall, softly lit and emblazoned with sculpted scenes of souls tortured through the abuse of opium and its derivative heroin, gives visitors a taste of the journey to follow.

Using a variety of state-of-the-art multimedia, visitors are taken back to opium’s first appearance in ancient Sumerian texts, to the British-Chinese Opium Wars, the coining of the term Golden Triangle in 1971, and the spread of heroin as the West’s illicit drug of choice.

Walk through a replica of a British clipper ship used to carry opium from India to China, where it was exchanged mostly for tea — to feed another addiction growing in the well-heeled salons of London.

And observe how opium was prepared to be served at the thriving opium dens of the nineteenth century, catering to both rich and poor, and take a whiff of the rich scent of the drug.

"It’s edu-tainment," says Disnadda. "Why edu-taiment? Because education alone is boring, but if you put in the entertainment and you can absorb it with education, that is best for the kids."

Snippets of information are divulged along the way: heroin was believed by its creators to not be addictive; opium was legal in Thailand only for the ethnic Chinese; the global trade in illegal drugs was worth an estimated 400 billion dollars in 2000.

Matter-of-fact presentations allow visitors to judge for themselves how the rituals and romanticism associated with opium-smoking could have led to addiction.

The beautiful opium-smoking accoutrements on display, including pipes, pipe bowls, weights and pillows, show opium-smoking was seen a refined and tasteful practice — at least at the outset.

Other exhibits show the desperation associated with drugs, such as the ingenious methods traffickers have employed to move their cargo: soaking T-shirts in a heroin solution and drying before transporting, or mixing heroin with clay to form innocent-looking Buddhist amulets.

The positive side of the poppy crop is also highlighted — in medicines and poppy-seed-sprinkled bagels, while tales of stars who have fallen victim to drug abuse are retold, such as that of River Phoenix who famously collapsed after a lethal night on heroin, cocaine, valium and alcohol.

The long-gone world of illicit opium dens and antique paraphernalia are a world away from the region’s latest drug problem: methamphetamines pumped out by the million in jungle laboratories along the rugged Thai-Myanmar border.

That drug is not covered in detail, but the museum screens a moving video of Asian children affected by these and other substances such as solvents.

Disnadda sees the museum as the fulfillment of a wish by Thailand’s revered late Princess Mother — the mother of reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej — to whom he was private secretary for nearly 20 years.

During a visit to the region he commented once that it was a pity the tourists traipsing to the Golden Triangle for a glimpse of its mythic past did not learn anything.

"We are branded, condemned, for being the producers of narcotics… And I said to her isn’t it a pity that people learn nothing here? So she asked me could it be done, that people could learn something about the Golden Triangle?"

The royal-sponsored Mae Fah Luang Foundation took on the task, employing two researchers who have been digging into opium’s past now for nine years.

"What we are aiming at is educating the 99 percent of people who are not involved in this business," Disnadda says.

"Don’t judge, but learn from the past, this is what we’re trying to put across. Don’t let it happen anywhere else in the world again."

Venice of the East fights its own watery future

The criss-crossing canals that once earned Bangkok the moniker "Venice of the East" have long gone, but the city still draws one comparison with its famed Italian cousin: it too is sinking.

"Bangkok is sinking at varying rates throughout the city… The settlement rate can be more than 12 centimetres per year in the worst areas of Bangkok," says structural engineer Geoffrey Warnes.

Venice has sunk around 23 centimetres (9 inches) over the last century, studies estimate.

Built on the swampish banks of the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok’s top layer of soft clay soil is an engineer’s budgetary nightmare.

"Bangkok has some of the worst clay in the world," says Vithaya Punmongkol, a civil engineer working with the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand, which is currently constructing a subway system for Bangkok and her 10 million people.

The first 15 metres "is of the most concern to us because it cannot bear much of a load from above", he says.

The subway and its stations, therefore, are being built 20 metres underground, he explains, compared to subways built on more stable ground only going down ten to 15 metres.

"It costs more, of course," he says. "The deeper you go, the more expensive it is."

The challenges can be just as great above ground.

The problem set in around 20 years ago: As Bangkok’s population exploded, buildings shot up and pumps went to work searching for groundwater in lieu of a piped water supply.

"The geotechnical conditions upon which Bangkok is founded are the main reason for settlement. However, artesian water withdrawal exacerbates the situation," structural engineer Warnes adds.

Somkid Buapeng, chief of the groundwater technical and planning section of the Department of Mineral Resources says authorities soon recognised the problem of subsidence could be traced mostly to groundwater pumping.

"After we knew it was due to overpumping we started the mitigation of land subsidence by controlling the amount of groundwater pumping," Somkid says.

Today, Somkid says, the department does not allow pumping where piped water supply is distributed. In the areas where the problem has been brought under control, subsidence occurs at just under one centimetre per year.

However the pumping persists. According to the Ministry of Industry, some 2.2 million cubic metres of water is pumped from the depths of Bangkok each day, allowing the soil above to gradually depress into the earth below.

Flooding that brings Bangkok’s concreted canals back to life and the chaotic city to a standstill is the result.

Teeradej Tangpraprutgul, deputy director of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s drainage and sewerage department, explains that Bangkok’s average land level is about one metre above sea level.

"But given high tides and the rainy season, the water levels of the Chao Phraya can be about 1.7 to two metres (above sea level). During a very high tide, the level can be 2.1 metres," Teeradej says.

The city is fighting back.

"We have many flood protection facilities according to a masterplan. So if rain is in normal range, 60 millimetres per hour, we can protect the city. But sometimes it happens to be 100 millimetres or more than that, which isn’t normal … but we are pretty sure we can drain the water within two hours," Teeradej says, adding that in 1983 some areas remained flooded for two months.

Long-term Bangkok resident Aaron Frankel says the city’s fight has bred some success.

"I remember when I was in high school, having to ride a bicycle down the street to get there as there were no other vehicles that could," he says.

"Flooding has gotten way better … In a strong storm now it will go up for four, five, maybe six inches, which is a pain — it splashes you and you have to take off your shoes off to walk through it — but it’s not as bad as it was," he says.

The protection comes at a cost. The Technical Service Centre of Chulalongkorn University estimates that in 1998 flood control cost the BMA a stunning 20 billion baht (476 million dollars), although Teeradej says this seems on the high side and may have included capital works.

The centre estimates that the annual cost for maintenance and repair of structural damage to buildings due to subsidence was more than two billion baht (47 million dollars) for 1998, while the cost of filling land before construction was about 13 billion baht (305 million dollars) per year.

Further evidence of subsidence can be seen in the extra steps — or the lack of them — leading up to skyscrapers and pedestrian bridges where the ground has literally slipped away as foundations have safely held firm.

Jim Bhandhumkomol, deputy director general of the BMA’s Public Works Department, describes the situation as "quite serious".

"It is quite a serious problem because it (the unstable soil) can create very large differential settlement in structures, as you can notice from approaches to bridges," he says.

Re-laying the approaches to some 500 bridges in the Bangkok road system every two to three years is one of the maintenance jobs subsidence creates, Jim says.

And he doesn’t expect the maintenance to ease up anytime soon.

"It will take years before the subsidence can be significantly reduced. It’s quite a big problem to solve."

Japanese tourists taste real Thai bullets

Japanese tourists have discovered that Thai holidays can be about more than just cheap shopping and snoozing on tropical beaches: shooting guns at Thai military ranges has become a popular new diversion.

"There are so many Japanese tourists coming to Bangkok — if they want to do some shooting and some sightseeing, then that’s the Thai military’s business," says Akiro Shimura, a former colonel in Japan’s Self-Defence Forces who runs a company offering trips to the ranges.

Firing guns with real bullets can be near-impossible for those outside the police and military in Japan, says Akiro.

"They (the Japanese) don’t know much about the military," he says — Japan has only been permitted to maintain a self-defence force since World War II — but shooting is "very interesting" to them.

Tosaka Kazuhumi, 30, sought out a shooting trip precisely because it’s easier to do in Thailand than back home.

"It’s a good opportunity to do an activity that is difficult to do in Japan," he says, adding that he has already seen various temples and a crocodile farm during his eight-day holiday in Bangkok.

"And as a leisure activity in a foreign country, it’s not too expensive," he says.

Since last July, up to 150 tourists per month have been descending on Akiro’s tiny cluttered office in the basement of one of Bangkok’s largest shopping malls.

It’s an unlikely public relations outlet for Thailand’s military, nestled between a mobile phone shop and a fortune-teller. Replicas of guns mounted on the wall provide the only hint of Shiro Corporation’s services.

Some 70 percent of the tourists who come to wield weapons are Japanese, says Nobuhiro Munakata, one of four workers at the office.

Another 20 percent are other Asians, and the remainder are Europeans. Most are beginners, and nearly all are men.

"But now young Japanese girls like to come too," Nobuhiro says.

Chinese women are also curious about packing heat, he adds. "They will come with their husbands — but they don’t want to shoot."

A sum of 3,000 baht (70 dollars) buys marksmen 50 bullets to shoot on three handguns: a .38 special, Luger 9mm and .45 calibre.

It also includes the return trip to a firing range, a Japanese or English-speaking guide, and one-on-one instruction from a member of the Thai military.

A session kicks off at the office with a mini-lecture.

"All guns are real and the bullets are real," Nobuhiro reminds the class. "Only point the gun at the target … These are professional Thai military men (instructing). Do what they say."

If you do, Nobuhiro reassures, shooting will be "safer than golf or tennis".

Fifteen-minutes drive away at one of the ranges, the plain-clothed Sergeant Major 1st class Wattana Ketkomol gives a demonstration, cleanly shooting a watermelon, Coke can and rapidly-melting block of ice in a cloud of acrid gunsmoke.

"People ask for moving targets like in Hollywood, but we don’t have those," Nobuhiro apologizes.

Instead tourists shoot at standard human silhouette targets.

"We hope that customers can study guns — it’s not just for fun. They can compare the differences between how they fire. They can’t study this from the movies or TV," Nobuhiro says.

Shiro is tapping into a move made by the military units two years ago, says Major General Adisak Kaenkaew, director of the Army Tourist Office which opened in 2001.

"Over the last two years it has been the policy of the government to let tourists … see some parts of some units," says Adisak.

This means plenty of activities — parachuting, abseiling and canoeing — are now available to the public at units across the country, for a fee.

The trend has caught on, Adisak says, but it’s more about public relations than profits.

"We don’t think much about the money — we opened the units because it’s the policy of the government," he says.

Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Nakhon Nayok, 107 kilometres northeast of Bangkok — where Shiro hopes to start running new tours soon — was the forerunner of the program, opening in 1998.

It is an outdoorsman’s paradise, their tourist office reckons, with everything from kayaking and golf to bird-watching and camping available.

Most visitors are Thai nationals, but that could change.

Adisak says 40 Japanese high school students are planning a long-term stay with the military, split between the Academy and a camp west of Bangkok.

"It would be the first time we let foreigners inside this unit," says Adisak.

Meanwhile Shiro is also developing a tour to the King’s Guard, which is part of the national cavalry. Horseriding, stable visits and a spell in a stationary tank are on the agenda.

"We’re asking the military police to let the tank move at the moment. But there won’t be any shooting," a downcast Nobuhiro says. "It’s very expensive."

Peace, at Pimalai

Take one long beach on a quiet tropical island, add a collection of low-key villas, each decorated with a modern take on Thai design, and mix well among lush, colourful gardens.

What you have is the recipe for an utterly luxurious yet simple holiday; a place to unwind, relax, and recharge. Welcome to Pimalai Spa and Resort, on Krabi’s Ko Lanta Yai.

“Wow. Wow. Wow.” That’s the most common comment given by guests to Pimalai, reckons general manager Franck de Lestapis.

I think he’s telling the truth. If I had to think back to the first three words that sprang to mind on my arrival – between disembarking on the resort’s private boat and being whisked to reception in an electric cart — they wouldn’t be far from those.

Pimalai is designed to harmonise with the surrounding environment – sandy beach and turquoise waters below, thick green national park above. The resort itself is tastefully spread out over 100 acres, with 79 single or two-storey wood- trimmed villas, each a sumptuous tropical haven, nestled in a blend of the original landscape, and semi-manicured gardens. The gardens are young at the moment – the resort opened its doors in November 2001 – but within a year they are likely to be quite fantastic.

The concern for the environment extends to water supply and treatment, often a problem in tourist regions. The resort has built its own reservoir, and installed treatment plants, so wastewater is effectively recycled and used on their own gardens. “I think the resort is a pioneer when it comes to environmental issues. The owners really want to show other people in the industry that preserving the environment is possible,” says Franck.

In the rooms and suites, the emphasis is on simplicity and elegance, rather than ostentatious extravagence. Think teak floors, sleek wooden furniture, bamboo-style curtains and blinds, crisp white bed linen — complete with fluffy quilt, not blankets — and Chiang Mai cottons.

It’s the subtle details at Pimalai that remind you it’s a boutique resort. There’s the handmade “make up room” or “do not disturb” signs, represented respectively by a tiny broom and a person sleeping. Then there’s the little wooden turtles hiding under the shelving in the open-air lobby area, and the showers by the pool and beach, which have square stone shower “heads”. Even the various natural-fibre light fittings – in the public bathrooms, the spa – are monuments to Thai style.

Besides the visual beauty, there’s an abundance of old- fashioned peace and quiet at Pimalai. Take a nap by the pool to a soundtrack of trees swishing in the breeze, melodic bird calls and water gushing in various fountains and human-made falls. A far cry from many Thai beaches, I could have counted on one hand the number of longtail boats I heard pulling into and out of the beach, and even fewer speeedboats passing in the distance.

Although you never actually have to drag yourself away from the beach (there’s a beach restaurant) or your room (there’s room service) to eat, the view over the ocean and the “infinity edge” swimming pool from the elevated main restaurant might tempt you to do so. Franck says the menu seeks to provide simple, fresh food. With the bulk of guests being either busy executives getting away from it all, or honeymooners seeking something romantic but understated, the kitchen wanted to steer away from concepts of fine dining. “We want to offer something fresh, simple and relaxed – just a little bit trendy,” he says.

Being from France – in fact, Bordeaux – Franck is keen to establish a cellar of depth. “We have around 100 different labels at the moment, and we would like to grow,” he says. He’s not francocentric either, which will please New World wine lovers – some 20 Australian labels make the grade.

There’s already a nursery underway, and within a few years Franck hopes they’ll be producing their own fruits, vegetables and herbs. The menu isn’t extensive, but seeks to please everyone. Dishes we particularly enjoyed were the tom kha gai, seafood pizza, and crème brulee.

Herbs are already a feature at the in-house spa, a must for every guest to sample. Start with a Thai herbal scrub, featuring a blend of Thai clay, rice, plai, galanga, tumeric and bergamot, followed perhaps by a traditional Thai massage with a pack of luk pra kob, a blend of aromatic Thai herbs. Complete with a Thai tamarind facial – and you’ll feel better than reborn.

Depending on the package you choose, you’ll head to one of the six or so completely self-contained sala-style bungalows with outdoor shower, or a private area with a public shower, steamroom, and jacuzzi. Either way, the setting is superb, with wooden walkways crossing a huge waterfall running through the centre.

Those with energy to burn might instead head for an elephant trek, a snorkelling or scuba diving trip, or just some windsurfing on the main beach, using equipment provided by the resort. There’s a small fitness room, and mountain bikes for keen explorers.

Or take it easy on your private spacious balcony, and watch the enraptured faces of new arrivals. They might not be saying it out loud, but their faces will quite likely be saying: “Wow.”

Pimalai Resort and Spa 99 Moo 5, Ba Kan Tiang Beach, Ko Lanta Yai Tel: 075 629 054-7 [email protected]

Summer sales in Hong Kong

Being a tax-free zone for all goods except alcohol and tobacco has long made Hong Kong an attractive shopping destination. To make it even more seductive to people seeking serious retail therapy, shops have traditionally banded together to offer two mega-sales periods per year: from New Year to Chinese New Year, and throughout summer.

And with summer on Hong Kong’s doorstep, now is the time to consider whether the short flight there might be worthwhile in terms of the big savings you can make. If you’re a fashion nut, Hong Kong can offer some serious savings on the same designer garb available in New York, London, Milan or Paris.

Other discounted items range from arts and crafts to jewellery, perfumes and leather goods. "It’s a popular destination for interior decorators and those interested in home wares and the latest electronics. Kids have great fun exploring the toy and model shops," Hong Kong Tourist Board representative Donna Morgan noted.

Many of the world’s top designer labels – think Armani, Christian Dior, DKNY, Fendi, Maxmara, Miu Miu – have kicked off the sales season this month with 10 to 30 per cent discounts. But if you can save yourself until August, prices are expected to drop by up to 50 per cent throughout that month.

Tie in your shopping trip with one of the great short stay packages available from various agents in Bangkok. DTC Travel offers 3 day/2 night and four day/3 night packages including accommodation, a half day Hong Kong island tour, and round trip airport transfers. Two nights on a twin sharing basis will set you back HK$430 (Bt2,480) per person at the Panda Hotel, $510 (Bt2,942) at BP International House or $730 (Bt4,212) at the New World Renaissance (among others). Three nights at the same hotels are $620 (Bt3,577), $720 (Bt4,154) or $1110 (Bt6,404). Prices (in Hong Kong dollars) are valid until August.

Of course you’ll need your airline ticket too. Fly economy with China Airlines for Bt8,200 return, or THAI for a two to seven day stay for Bt10,300. The latter price is for flights leaving on Fridays and Saturdays only. If your wallet can stand staying longer than seven days, THAI flies return for up to a year for Bt11,300. Cathay Pacific flies under similar conditions for the same price (excluding departure tax of Bt500).

Alternatively, go for Royal Orchid Holidays’ all-in-one package "Take A Break". It includes two nights accommodation with breakfast, round trip airport transfers and economy return airfare. Choose from a variety of hotels, such as the Park Hotel for Bt11,215, Century Hong Kong for Bt12,020 or the Hyatt Regency for Bt14,755. Duration of the price validity depends on the hotel chosen, and tickets must be booked seven days in advance.

If you’ve checked your diary and you just can’t get to Hong Kong this summer, don’t panic. Another shopping promotion kicked off in April and runs until March 2003: "City of Life: Hong Kong is it!". Under this promotion, all visitors to Hong Kong are granted a VIP Card that gives generous discounts at more than 600 shopping outlets (The holder will receive all the benefits normally associated with the participating stores’ own VIP privilege cards.) Selected tours are also discounted up to 50 per cent for cardholders. Where items are already on sale, however, discounts don’t apply.

Another recent development has been the establishment of the Quality Tourism Services (QTS) Scheme, set up by the Hong Kong Tourist Board in April. Under this scheme, retailers and restaurants are allowed to display a QTS sign once they guarantee to provide a particular level of service to consumers. One more step, perhaps, along Hong Kong’s way to becoming the most popular place in the world to shop.