Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nong Nooch Tropical Garden

On my five-day trip down to Pattaya earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to visit Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, as suggested by my colleague Holger. As a real admirer of gardens (e.g. Singapore Botanical Garden – oh la la!), this idea was immediately favourable and interesting to me. And so, on a crisp Friday morning I took myself off exploring.

First a little history: A certain Mr Pisit and Mrs Nongnooch Tansacha purchased a 600-acre (1,500 rai or 2.4 km2) plot of beautiful land in Chonburi province back in 1954, with the intention of developing the land as a fruit plantation. However, at the last moment they decided to create a wildlife conservation project, by way of planting and researching tropical flowers and plants, instead. Originally intended purely for botanical conservation, the garden was later turned into a tourist attraction and opened to the public in 1980. Today the gardens cover 500 magical acres and represent a concerted effort to manage plant species in cultivation. The garden, along with participating institutions, aims to preserve long-term genetic diversity in cultivated populations as well as propagate highly endangered species. So there you have it, now on with the show...

The garden is really one of the most beautiful in the world and it’s surprising to me that its fame is not more well-known. That said, I too was unfamiliar with the site before I hit Pattaya so perhaps it’s just a local Thai thing and they need a better PR department! Still, it’s probably better this way, less notoriety means fewer Chinese and Japanese tour groups clogging up the place (it’s already awash with Russians). Even though there were still about 30 tour buses in the parking lot when I arrived I was amazed that I didn’t run into more people whilst out ‘n’ about in the grounds; due I’m sure to the sheer size of the grounds. Any who, the garden showcases all kinds of styles, everything from French provincial to English rose, topiary, jungle and even an orchid house brimming over with some 23 species of bloom [that they also sell].

One of the nicest things for me about Nong Nooch was the very relaxed atmosphere whereby I didn’t feel pushed in any one direction. I was free to wander the gardens at my leisure and in any direction I desired. All of the different garden areas are well connected via a set of ground-level paths and raised walkways. In truth, it’s kinda nice to walk around both down below and then up high so as to have a bird’s eye view – which is really the only way to truly comprehend just how vast and impressive the garden is. For those not keen or able to accomplish a lot of walking, there is a free shuttle service to take you to each major spot.

At this point I would be remiss not to point out that the garden is not just a garden, there is also a cultural show, elephant park, exotic car museum, fish ponds, butterfly/bird avery and petting zoo [all included in your entry ticket]! You really have to wonder what’s going on at times. As I entered without picking up a map or brochure I was not aware of all the garden’s attributes, so was constantly surprised every time I turned a corner and found something new. It is kind of like being in the company of an ADD child, with a little bit of this, a little bit of that; but all in a fabulous and eclectic way. I can only but imagine what’s in store for the future; I’m guessing a theme park with rides and/or some of those animal-shaped peddle boats to hoon around the lake.

I did also hear tell that some “exotic” animals like tiger cubs and orangutans were about but was unable to find them. I did however meet some friendly souls in the petting zoo and bird enclosure. Particularly nice were the goats, sheep, lamas and miniature horses. If you’re lucky like moi, you might even bump into an elephant or two whilst wandering around. Otherwise you can be quite blatant about it and pay hundreds of Thai baht to ride one for about 10 minutes up and down the parking lot! However, my vote for the most bazaar thing you’ll see in the garden goes to the owner’s display of some 20 high performance cars, featuring a rare collection of both modern and classic sports, performance and touring vehicles. It is quite possibly one of the best car collections on display in Thailand that petrol-heads will salivate over. The mint condition cars range from a Mini and Volkswagen, to Smart Car (with trailer), Lotus, Cadillac (with Louis Vuitton detailing!) and Hummer. I am not really a car freak, but had the guard turned his back for 5 minutes I probably would have been tempted to take the Night Rider–esque ‘80s Lotus sports car in mellow yellow for a spin.

I did not actually see the “cultural” show – being against animal cruelty and shunning all forms of choreographed Thai song and dance – but here is what the company’s website says about it: “Witness a demonstration of an elephants intellect playing football, basketball, bowling dancing and even playing with tourists!!! We promise you will be so amazed with the show – you will not want it to end. It's an experience you'll never forget.” So, there you go, make up your own mind na ka. The show is about 40 minutes-long and is performed about four times throughout the day, which lends itself well to keeping your own pace around the grounds. In addition, for those interested, when the show is over you can take pictures with some of the performers as well as the very large, adorable and well-trained elephants.

As the gardens are big you’ll probably need a full day to really appreciate your surrounds in a leisurely manner. For those in a rush, the feat can be accomplished in a half-day but you’ll probably want to make use of the free shuttle service. Having said that, if you’re an amateur photographer you’ll no doubt need considerably more time; you’ll probably also insight the wrath of friends and family when you commence a frenzy of unstoppable snapping (e.g. I’m not known for my excessive photo-taking and even I managed to take around 500 pics!). Besides all the beautiful attractions, you’ll also find two restaurants serving western and Thai food, countless souvenir stores, an information centre and even adorable lakeside cabins for overnight stays.

The gardens are in a constant state of flux with new attractions being built all the time. Plants and flowers change with the seasons so no matter when you go you’ll be guaranteed to see new sights and new colours and can thus go back again and gain. For my money, Nong Nooch Tropical Garden really is a must see while in Thailand and makes for a wonderful trip if you happen to be in or around Pattaya.

Getting there: The gardens are located about 20km outside of Pattaya. The easiest way to get there is to rent a car; it’s an easy 25 minute drive from the city, just 5 minutes past the floating market. Otherwise try taking a songtaow from down-town Pattaya for Bht 300. Nong Nooch also offers a twice daily pick-up service, including entry and shows (Bht 600) from your hotel; leaving 8:30am and 2:30pm daily. The entire park is open from 8:00am – 6:00pm, 7 days a week, with restaurants open until 10:00pm, 365 days a year (including public holidays). For more info, go to:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bento Box @ Kamon

Eating good Japanese food is one of life’s simple pleasures. Nowhere is this more achievable and enjoyable than at the Siam City Hotel’s Kamon Japanese Restaurant & Steakhouse. I was fortune enough to stop by the other day for a bento box lunch. For those of you not familiar, first a little background info...

O-bento is what the Japanese call a packed meal, usually lunch. Bento boxes have internal dividers, and sometimes several stacked layers, so different kinds of food sit in their own little compartments. (This is nice if, like me, you don't necessarily like to mix flavours.) The whole thing is usually wrapped together with chopsticks in a cloth or special bag, and the goal is to make the whole package as attractive as possible – from considering the colour combinations of the food and presenting and garnishing it as neatly and artfully as you can, to co-ordinating the box, chopsticks and wrapper, and any other items like paper napkins, knife and fork or spoon, drink flask or thermos. Bento boxes themselves range from handsome lacquered wood boxes, with which you may be served in a nice Japanese restaurant [like Kamon!], to children's plastic lunchboxes decorated with cartoon (anime) character art. There are styles to appeal to the businessman, the elegant young lady, the differing tastes of little boys and girls.

The crux of any bento lunch is cold, cooked white rice, or sometimes noodles – the filling, carbohydrate-rich staples of the Japanese diet. (I wonder if anyone in Japan is willing to try the Atkins diet, or are they all too sensible?) In addition, there's okazu – side dishes, which can include meat, fish, eggs, tofu, fruit and vegetables, all presented in bite-size form for handy chopstick action. They all have to be prepared in such a way that they will taste nice cold (although sometimes bento is reheated). Okazu add colour and flavour, vary with the seasons, and round out the nutritional value of the meal with protein, vitamins and minerals. For colour and dietary balance, they try to have one “protein” item and at least two from the fruit/veg category (remember, a healthy diet includes at least five handful-sized portions of fruit and vegetables a day!). Of course, there are also different ways of dressing up the rice or noodles to avoid monotony. As well as seasonal items, bento may showcase regional specialties – this is true of ekiben, takeaway bento sold at railway stations around Japan. You can take an ekiben eating tour of the nation if you like!

In the culinary arts, they say that presentation is as important as preparation. In Japan, it’s all about presentation when making lunch. This fanaticalism is called kyaraben, and goes beyond simply making the meal look appetising. So important is this that contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements. Kyaraben is typically decorated to look like people, animals or characters, along with items such as flowers and plants. And that’s what you’ll find at Kamon: artfully presented and prepared food of the highest order.

Now, back to my story. I choose a delicious grilled salmon, sashimi (sliced raw fish), miso soup, chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) and tempura (deep-fried battered fish and vegetables) bento box; which set me back a very reasonable Bht 390++. This was accompanied by a few side-dishes to share with my dining companions: roasted ginko nuts (Bht 270), fresh seaweed with sour miso dressing (Bht 300), chilled tofu with ginger soy sauce (Bht 90), grilled eggplant with sweet bean paste (Bht 150) and a drink of lychee juice (Bht 85). The bento box was by far the shining star of the meal. The rice was light and fluffy; the salmon grilled to perfection; the tempura crispy and light; the custard savour and silky; the sashimi fresh and aromatic and the miso seasoned with just the right amount of salt. Sadly, I was so stuffed from entrees and mains that I had to forgo dessert; which is a damn shame as the restaurant’s green tea ice cream (Bht 100) and red bean jelly served on shaved ice with syrup (Bht 90) are damn fine!

One of the other great things about Kamon is the setting and service – both impeccable. One can choose to dine the regular Western way in the bright and airy main dining room (which also has two great tepanyaki stations) or in one of seven private dining rooms (capable of seating from 4 to 30 people) with chairs or tradition Japanese-style seating (e.g. on the ground). I’ve also had occasion to eat in one of the private rooms and I must say it is mighty fine. From the kimono–clad waitresses to the tatami mats (shoe-free), sunken table to flower arrangements, crockery and furniture – everything is perfect in every detail. For the full experience I highly recommend this, nobody does sensory-overload dining quite like the Japanese!

Getting there: Kamon Japanese Restaurant & Steakhouse is located on the 2nd floor of the Ayuthaya Wing, at the Siam City Hotel. Besides a taxi, the easiest way to get here is by Skytrain. The hotel’s closest stop (only 500m away!) is Station Phayathai, located on the Sukhumvit Line [just two stops from Station Siam]. At Phayathai, take exit 2 and cross over the large intersection. The hotel is a mere 100m up on your left-hand side.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Concert in the Park

Taking advantage of the cooler weather during December, January and February, the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (BSO) is presenting a series of Sunday concerts in the heart of Bangkok – Sala Bhirom Bhakdi (auditorium), Lumpini Park. A “gift” to the people of Bangkok, the FREE concerts are absolutely spectacular and well worth attending. Starting at 5:30 pm in the cool of the early evening, the wide-ranging repertoire encompasses western classics, Thai classical music and popular hits from Broadway and film. Over almost 20 years, these concerts have introduced tens of thousands of Thais and expatriates to the BSO and the glories of orchestral music.

Eager for a little orchestral magic myself, I hopped along to the fist concert yesterday, Sunday, December 20, with a group of girlfriends. We happily set up camp under the shade of a palm tree on the plush grass and commenced to eat (yummy fresh bread, cheese, fruit and festive cookies), drink (wine of course!) and swoon ourselves into contentment. The BSO did a great job of keeping the mood light, festive and enjoyable. I particularly liked the Christmas songs and Thai pop tunes sang; very lively and enchanting.

The audience was an interesting and eclectic mix of younger folk (even younger than moi, I’m talking ‘teen’ here), trendy middle-aged musoes and elderly connoisseurs. I’m also proud to say that there was a very good sprinkling of farang to boot. Either way, the healthy crowd was a good indicator that classical music is not dead and that no everyone is dying to see Avatar! Most attendees were snugly reclined on rattan mats with bountiful picnics and makeshift pillows. The crowd were eager clappers, happiest when punchy Thai tunes filled the air, but also receptive to the odd Xmas interlude.

Although the show was a little brief, ending at 7:15 pm-ish, it definitely gave me a taste of things to come and I’ll eagerly be back again this coming Sunday for the next instalment. I presume it will have a particularly Yuletide feeling taking place just two days after Christmas. So yes, for those of you who missed this past Sunday’s show, never fear, there are seven more concerts for you to catch: Dec 27, Jan 10, 17, 24, 31 and Feb 7, 14. For more details, go to:

Getting there: The easiest way from the Siam City Hotel is to take the BTS from Phayathai station. First hop on (towards Ou Nut) and go two stops to Station Siam. From here you need to get off, cross the platform, and then take another train, on the Silom Line (toward Wongwian Yai), two stops to Station Sala Daeng. From here you want to take exit 5 with Lumpini Park directly across the road; you really can’t miss it!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Saraburi Road Trip

There are few things lovelier than a weekend in the country; especially when you live in a frantic, challenging and polluted city [not to mention you have a cold cos the temperature has dropped to 30°C ha ha ha]. Therefore, this past weekend I eagerly – thinking about all the fresh air – took up my Thai friend Jenny’s gracious offer to go visit the lovely province of Saraburi, located about 120 km north-east of Bangkok, and stay at her family’s country home.

After hitting the spectacular annual Jim Thompson outlet sale at BITEC and spending the GDP of a small African nation, we picked up boyfriend (Kevin from Texas) and headed for the highway. I relatively short and enjoyable 1.5hrs later we arrived. We dump bags, have a quick squiz at our surrounds for the next 24hrs and then headed back out again, this time to Pak Chong (Nakorn-Ratshima province) for a late lunch/early dinner. The drive up is nice enough, we pass highway corn stalls (very yummy), smoke stacks, giant Buddhas, plenty of paddy fields and dozens of 7/11 stores. The area of Pak Chong is snuggled on the west side of Khao Yai National Park, a favourite weekend haunt for “green” Bangkokians [also the scene of many pop/jazz/folk concerts].

We head to what turned out to be one of the funkiest restaurants I’ve ever been too. The place is called Bann Chai Nam (house on the river bank), and it is the site of a restaurant-cum-museum that’s stocked to the brim with an almost endless array of brick-a-brack and collectables. We were fortunate (or early) enough to snag a river-side table (there are about three split levels) that afforded a lovely view of a serene river ambling by. This turned out to be the perfect spot for beers, people watching and Thai food (which although good, was nothing mind-blowing so I won’t go in to detail).

Anyway, I digress, back to the museum side of things. The place is stuffed full of oddities like a menagerie of porcelain dolls, decrepit arcade machines [sth along the lines of shoot the Mohican!], old rocking horses and go-karts, coca-cola bottles from various eras, a multitude of advertising paraphernalia, turn-of-the-century crockery, kooky furniture, a plethora of tin toys and soldiers, a rusty old rickshaw, an inordinate number of ‘40s & ‘50s household items like sugar canisters and even an old wooden tram! Honestly the list just goes on and on and on... this is really one of these times where words (and space!) fail me. You really had better go check it out for yourself. The place also functions as a guest house, with about five rooms out back where you can spend the night in a austere “convening with nature” kind of way.

After that we head back home, via two more vital stops: one for a beef burger (the Texan), the other for ice cream (the girls). Our first port of call is Farm Chokchai. To go in to all the variants and vagaries of this place is way beyond this scope of this mere post, so I’ll just say that it’s a cowboy (or “dude”) ranch for Thai city-slickers. Men, their womenfolk and kids can come on out for camping trips, horse riding, sheep rustling, cow milking and all manner of down’n’dirty farm pastimes. I should also mention that it’s damn popular and on this particular Saturday night the car-park was packed and the farm’s road-side food stalls were doing a roaring trade. Kevin declared his burger to be “edible” but not the best ever. Only let’s be fair, the man comes (nearby Houston) from one of the world’s best beef-producing areas, so I reckon his standards are a little high. So I would say his “fair” assessment is probably on the stingy side ha ha ha. Although I was salivating over the yummy looking ice cream at Umm..! Milk, Jenny made me hold on (albeit sampling a very tasty chocolate milkshake) saying she had somewhere even better for our diary fix. And so we hitch our wagon and head off into the sunset...

Stop two is Dairy Farm, about another 15min down the highway. So chosen for is diverse and yummy organic ice cream flavours. I was expecting ho-hum chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, but, low and behold, we were confronted with banana and cheese [and no, sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t dare], white wine and lychee, pumpkin and orange sorbet... Servings come in adorable little cups, like a red mouse with pointy-up ears, that patrons get to choose and keep as a little memento [mine is now a receptacle on my desk for loose change]. I decided to be semi-daring, going with the aforementioned lychee/white wine combo and a more traditional cookies’n’cream flavour. Both were delicious, and I mean that in a highly-positive and real lip-smacking-I-want-another-serving-or-two kinda way. The shop also sells a variety of organic home-made breads, pastries, dairy products and condiments.

I will now fast-forward (I don’t think you want/need to hear about our nocturnal drinking) to the following day, mid-morning, after a well-deserved sleep in. We head out of our lovely country abode and down the road a very pleasant 20m to the local Wat Ton Tan Market that takes place every Sunday. Started just a few years ago by the town’s entrepreneurial mayor, the market has quickly grown in popularity and girth. It now boasts some 100 food, plant, clothing and nick-knack stalls; along with a traditional dance show and boat rides (about Bht 50 in a long-tail boat on the river for an hour). There is a nice floating/covered platform where you can have an impromptu picnic once you’ve gathered all your goodies, which in our case was quite considerable. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, back to the food. Basically the stalls are all own/run by locals farmers and what not who want to make a little extra cash. All the purveyors are exceptionally nice, dressed in traditional clothing, selling very unique and delectable food and are more than happy to offer advice and free tastings of their wares. We took the military approach to proceedings, first doing reconnaissance, e.g. one slow lap to take in everything and survey are dining options, followed by a second lap for purchasing (and later on a third for take-away).

And so, lap two produced two bowls of spicy beef noodles, one tamarind tea [not so good], one plate of kanom pak mor (delicious glutinous rice wraps with veggies inside), vegetable spring rolls, spicy pomelo salad, friend chicken, sweet sticky rice in bamboo leaf and last, but not least, for dessert an amazing soft sweet bread with bright green dipping custard (sang-ka-ya) that tasted like Betty Crocker cake icing. Honestly, I truly believed at the beginning of our feast that our eyes had indeed been bigger than our bellies, but the carnage that followed and lick-cleaned plates would attest otherwise. I also have to admit that later in the day when Jenny nipped out to take Kevin to the bus (he went back ahead of us to do work like a conscious farang) she managed to find for me a delicious treat that I mentioned having only once (a gift from my boss) and have been hankering after every since. Basically it’s a very thin pancake that you fill with fairy floss (aka cotton candy). I know, it sounds bazaar, but it’s really one of THE tastiest things ever. I managed to polish off the entire bag of floss along with 15 pancakes in the course of the afternoon whilst reading my book and lazing in the sun.

Getting there: As I mentioned above, I took the easy route and hitched a ride in my friend’s car. Alternatively you can take a mini-van from Victory Monument (VM), taking 1.5-2hrs and costing around Bht 80. From the Siam City Hotel VM is easy to reach. Simply head out the front, and immediately turn right as though you’re going to the BTS. But instead of crossing the road, heading south, go the opposite way and head up the freeway (north) for one block. Shortly thereafter a shopping centre called Century One will appear on your right-hand side. On the far side of this centre you will find the bus station snuggled into a small soi-like area. Here you will find buses to Saraburi and about another dozen destinations all over Thailand. The vans are very safe, reliable and cheap. Only drawback, you must await until the van is full to depart, there are no set times; sometimes this can take up to half an hour, so be prepared. But, once on the road, these babies fly (and without stops usually, so don’t fill-up on liquids prior to your trip!).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Although I cannot claim at being anywhere near a ‘petrol head’ and take little pleasure in all things auto, I did however jump at the chance to try go-karting on my recent weekend trip to Pattaya. Located right beside my abode, it could not have been easier to reach. Deciding to forgo the joys of the go-go bars along Walking Street for one night, my colleague Holger and I hit the EasyKart track on a barmy Sunday night around 9 pm (open daily 10 am-1 am).

Drivers can choose between the beginner, advanced and children’s track. Being wimps (well, me at any rate), the German and I opted for the first. For Bht 450 we got to zip around the 350m-long track as many times as we liked in 8 minutes, driving a 160 cc kart that could reach top speeds of 40 kmh (although not nearly that fast in my case). Safety is important, so a helmet (provided) and closed-toe shoes are mandatory [if you don’t have, they rent shoes for Bht 50]; they also have complimentary racing suits (optional) for a little added glam and protection. Besides that, it’s pretty straight forward: accelerator on your left, brake on your right, steering wheel in the middle and away you go...

And so we headed off. Being chivalrous I let Holger go first... Eating his dust I set off soon after and continued to trail him for the remainder of the time (in truth he lapped me several times!). It turns out that living abroad for so long and not driving a car (approx. 10 years) has had a hazardous affect on my motor skills. Getting my feet and brain to coordinate was frustratingly tricky and annoyingly slow. Fortunately there we no other punters using the track at the same time as us, for undoubtedly they would have found my erratic zig-zagging and careening (hug the corners!!!) around the track somewhat annoying and/or dangerous! Fortunately Holger is a good sport and masterfully side-stepped me and continued on his merry way.

I must say after about the 10th lap I was starting to get a little bored with the whole thing and wondering if I could make a quick pit-stop to use the loo (all the excitement you know!). I honestly don’t know how Formula One drivers do it, maybe it’s a “chick” thing, but I found the whole thing rather dull and extremely repetitive. But, as I’m not one to give up, I wearily kept going in circles until finally I saw the attendant madly waving the red flag signalling that we should haul our arses in. I must admit, I was not saddened by this, I was starting to feel nauseous, my palms were killing me from gripping the damn steering wheel too hard and my bum was a little dumb from the seat.

And so, with Holger grinning from ear-to-ear and mumbling something about giving it another go and progressing to the faster 70/kmh advanced track, I ponder the strange proclivities of man’s obsession with speed and my own yearning for a bath and a good book. Whilst I did have glimmers of fun, namely the first two minutes, I did not find it nearly as fun, challenging or varied as off-road quad bike riding. But still, there are not so many things you can do in just 8 minutes – knit a sock, watch a 1/3 of a sitcom, cook four rounds of 2-minute noodles – and I reckon this is one of the best.

At the end of your ride the management provide each rider with a print out of their lap times and other particulars like “best time of the today” and “best times of the month” (not surprisingly I did not make either list!). In 14 laps I managed a top speed of 0:33:979, averaging 0:36:009. Holger on the other hand managed a nifty 16 laps, with a top speed of 0:25:579 and an average speed of 0:28:483. According to the Leader Board the record belongs to DJ with an impressive Schumaker-esque 0:23:033.

Getting there: As I mentioned above, EasyKart is located beside the Siam Bayshore Resort & Spa on the southern end of Pattaya Bay behind Bali Hai Pier. From the hotel head out the back entrance (Beach Road) and turn left towards the pier. Walk straight for 200m past the 7/11 store and then take the small road heading off to the left. Follow it around and EasyKart is on your left-hand side, you really can’t miss it. For those not able to reach Pattaya, there is also an outlet in Bangkok, located at RCA Plaza nearby Sukhumvit. For more information go to