Monday, December 27, 2010

Top Ten Thai Beaches & Islands

Known the world over for sun and fun, Thailand’s beaches (‘ao’) come in two varieties: the high-end beach resort and the rustic ‘village’ island (‘ko’), a distinction that has blurred towards the upmarket. Regardless, each burns bright in traveller lore, enticing visitors to come on beach-hopping binges.

1) Ko Phi-Phi
Phi-Phi is heartbreakingly beautiful, with flowing ribbons of cerulean sea massaging the craggy forested cliffs of the twin islands. It’s a famous resort playground for the well-to-do but backpackers can sneak into a few budget crevices.
2) Phuket
A city by the sea, Phuket pioneered Thailand’s position in sun-worshipping circles. The island has all the mod-cons (an airport and bridge connections) for time-crunched travellers seeking 21st-centry rest and recreation.

3) Ko Samui
Eager to please, Samui is a civilised beach-resort island for the vacationing masses, who can fly in and out with hardly a care for cultural adaption. But beyond the Chaweng crowds are sleepy spots reminiscent of Samui’s old moniker, ‘Coconut Island’.
 4) Ko Pha-Ngan
Be a hammock hanger at this bohemian beach retreat that’s still far away enough from modern towers to be idyllic. In one corner are the sloppy Full Moon parties, while the rest of the island remains peaceful and drowsy from sun-soaked days.

5) Ko Adang
Deep in southern reaches of the Andaman, this small island is known by most as merely a snorkelling spot, but wilderness seekers can pitch a tent or rent a longhouse to commune with nature.
 6) Ko Tao
The dive-master’s island, Ko Tao is the cheapest spot around to strap on a tank and explore the deep. Little ‘Turley Island’ doesn’t have star-power sand but it does have scenic rocky coves filled with brightly coloured fish.

7) Krabi
Sand and seas re not Krabi’s claim to fame. The limestone mountains that protrude out of the ocean are all the bait this coastal peninsula needs for novice and veteran rock climbers looking for a vertical scramble with stunning views.
 8) Ko Lanta
The west coast of Lanta is a long expanse of sand once famous for its sleepy, hippie demeanour, now a rarity amongst the Andaman beaches. Times and tides have washed ashore a party scene but quite spots can still be found.

9) Khao Lak
One of the few mainland beaches, Khao Lak survived a beating from the 2004 tsunami and has since recovered its favoured reputation amongst accomplished divers. Popular live-aboards set off for the famous Suring and Similian dive sites.
 10) Suring & Similian Islands National Marine Parks
Explore above and below the water at these two Andaman reserves, famous for clear seas, whale sharks and coral gardens. Live-aboard trips set out from the mainland, giving their crews plenty of time to explore the far-flung islands.

*Special Mention: Ko Samet
A wonderful little bohemian beach located just a two-hour drive south-east of Bangkok, this quaint island is the closest to Bangkok and definitely worth a visit. Otherwise, head further east till Ko Chang and Ko Khud, they are also very nice but require five or more hours of driving each way. Ko Samet has great bungalows available for as little as Bht 500 and the whole island is permeated with a laid-back and casual vide. You can get there by direct speed boat or local ferry from the mainland (Ban Phe).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Pier Shopping in Bangkok

For a fun-filled day of adventurous shopping ‘off the beaten track’, do what Bangkok’s hordes of dek naew (trendy youths) do and head to one of the city’s vibrant piers for cool picks you’ll never find in the malls. Here is a list of some top spots to help you get started:
Where: Get off the express boat at Si Phraya Pier (N3) and take a cross-river ferry.
Who: Thonburi residents picking up bargain outfits on the way home.
When: Daily from 10am-9:30pm, but go from 2pm onwards.
What: Donman Shoe has pairs of shoes made from genuine leather and affordably priced at Bht 150-450. Can’t find your size? Place your order and come back a day later to pick up. Bung Bag Shop is a vintage bag Mecca where indie kids rummage through hundreds of adorable pieces. Ranging from faux-retro to authentic luxe brand names, their pieces are just as eclectic: Bht 400-4,500. Sakda Karnwaen is the home of nerdy eyewear. You don’t need to drop big bucks here, Bht 190-250 will suffice. Since it’s also a proper optical shop, you can get your lenses done here too.
Where: Get off at Wanglang Pier and take a ferry or get off at Ta Chang Pier and walk.
Who: Oldies and monks go for amulets while Thammasat and Silapakorn university kids grab bohemian threads and have their fortune told.
When: The amulet market is open from around 9am-7pm but for the other stuff, it’s better to head there after the uni kids finish class, from 3-6pm.
What: Leum Mai Long is cramped with vintage T-shirts sporting old skool Thai singers and typography. Price are between Bht 150-350. @Means is a one-stop shot for girls on a tight budget (Bht 200-450) and schedule. With cute shoes, bags and even cosmetics, the shop can have your new look sorted within minutes. Nong is where you come for the newest CD singles from Thai and international artists. Rodsanyom is located out in the open, right on the street, it has two parts: glasses and women’s clothing. The clothes (Bht 390-790) are self-designed and handmade – mostly brand copies with a pattern or detail added for good measure. The other stall sells fashionable glasses and sunglasses (Bht 199-290); just make sure you change the lenses.
Where: Get off at Wanglang Pier.
Who: Dek naew dig up vintage gems hidden in piles of old junk while neighbouring hospital employees fill their tummies.
When: Open 10am-6pm, but avoid noon-1pm when the market is packed with lunching office workers.
What: 59/1 selld ready-to-wear gear like what’s on sale in Siam Square, only 30% cheaper. Starting at around Bht 290 for a dress and Bht 300 for a pair of high heels the place is hard to fault. Ma Ha Eng nearby has handmade earrings, hair pins and necklaces studded with glittering crystals. Prices vary, depending on how bling it is, but nothing exceeds Bht 280. So Pah is a unisex fashion shop in Wanglang Plaza. Shirts (Bht 199-590) are relatively colourful and neatly cut but the trendy designs mean they become ‘last season’ quite fast. Almost Famous, in the same plaza, is a family-run business with another outlet at Chatuchuk Market. The blouses are self-designed and handmade, but the T-shirts are from elsewhere, so make sure to check the tag. Shirts start at Bht 290, and dresses go for Bht 700. If you’re not feeling too hot, you can also grab a pair of denim jeans for Bht 690.
Where: Get off at Thewet Pier.
Who: Garden lovers go for their horticultural and floral needs.
When: The market is open 6:30am-6:30pm but it’s recommend you go between 10am-3pm to avoid the jams caused by parents dropping their little darlings off at one of five nearby schools.
What: Pis Prom is packed to the rafters with cactus and bonsai in a wide range of types and sizes. Prices start from as low as Bht 20 but can rise to more than Bht 10,000 if the owner needs to import a plant from Japan to meet your specific needs. She even flies there herself to pick out the best ones! Chor Prayong has super friendly vendors and very fresh offerings. Check out the bright yellow marigolds (Bht 20 each) and the large pots of gypsy flowers (Bht 180). Napaporn, located at the mouth of the street, is where you get the hardcore gardening stuff, from trowels and trellises to fertilizers; all at reasonable prices.
Where: Get off at Phra Athit if you arrive via a slow boat or orange-flag boat. Get off at Phra Pinklao Pier if you’ve taken a yellow- or green-flag boat, then take a ferry.
Who: Indie kids meet backpackers, thanks to its location between tourist central Khaosan Rd and the universities of Thamassat and Silpakorn.
When:  No actual market but shops open from around 11-1am, but go after 4pm once the sun starts to set.
What: The Trapeze Swinger is a hidden gem in a small alley that connects Phra Athit and Ram Butri roads; this is undoubtedly the coolest shop in the soi. Here you can get exclusive collections of retro fashion items, rock-band T-shirts, old CDs and cassettes, and even vinyl discs. The Chonabod takes its design inspiration from popular Thai culture (think famous phrases and funny images) and applies it to everything from screen print tees to notebooks and mugs.
Just hop on one of the following  Chaophraya river ferries to get to your chosen pier. Boats leave roughly every 20min from Saphan Taksin Pier (BTS Saphan Taksin). Fares fun about Bht 5-15 depending on distance; a cashier will come around on board to collection your fare. When you are approaching your stop make sure you head to the back of the boat in plenty of time as these tugs are notorious for stopping VERY briefly before pulling away and heading onwards; thus, it's all to easy to miss your stop.

Tourist boat: Stops at Central Pier (BTS Saphan Taksin), N1, N3, N5, Wat Kanlayanamit Pier, N8, Maharat Pier, N10, N13. Daily 9:30am-7:30pm.
No flag: Stops every pier. Mon-Fri 6:20-8:05am, 3-5:30pm.
Orange flag: Stops at Central Pier, N1, N3-6, N8, N10, N15-16, N18, N21-22, N24, N29/1-30. Daily 6am-7pm.
Yellow or green flag: Stops at Central Pier, N3, N5, N9, N10, N12, N15-16, N24, N30, N32-33. Mon-Fri 6:15-8:10am, 3:30-6:05pm.
Yellow flag:  Stops at Central Pier, N3, N5, N10, N12, N15, N22, N24, N30. Mon-Fri 6:15-8:30am, 3:30-8pm.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bangkok Museums & Historical Buildings

Bangkok and its surroundings are home to scores of museums catering to various interests, including the history-filled National Museum, modest but sombre war memorials, and the charming, architecturally rich Jim Thompson House Museum located in a cluster of traditional Thai houses. Here is a list of some of the top ones you won’t want to miss when visiting the City of Angels.

Ayutthaya Historical Park
Ayutthaya Historical Park; 84km north of Bangkok; daily 8am-5pm; entrance charge; go by train, bus or boat.
The old capital of Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This beautiful city, founded in 1350, was built by 33 Ayutthayan kings over 400 years. Although it is in ruins, impressive remnants of it rich architectural and cultural achievements can still be seen today. As fast as it rose to greatness it collapsed, suffering destruction so complete that it was never rebuilt. Burmese armies had pounded on its doors for centuries before occupying it for a period in the 16th century. Siamese kings then expelled them and reasserted independence. In 1767, however, the Burmese triumphed again. They burned and looted destroying most of the city’s monuments and enslaving, killing and scattering the population. The royal court resettled south near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River in what is today’s Bangkok. Even after the Burmese were defeated, Ayutthaya was beyond repair, a fabled city left to crumble into dust. Today, the ruins, collectively known as the Ayutthaya Historical Park, stand on the western half of the island, with the modern city of Ayutthaya on the eastern side.
Death Railway Museum
Kanchanaburi; 130km west of Bangkok;; daily 9am-5pm; entrance charge; go by train or bus.
Opened in 2003 and founded by Australian Rod Beattie, the local supervisor of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Death Railway Museum at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre has eight galleries that trace the history and recounts the sufferings of the people involved without making biased judgement (of particular note is reference to Hell Fire Pass). It even has a full-scale replica of the original wooden bridge. The Japanese began work on a railway between Thailand and Burma in 1942. For most of its 400-km length, the railway followed the river valley because this allowed its construction to take place simultaneously in different areas. The Japanese forced some 250,000 Asian labourers and 61,000 Allies POWs to construct 260km of rail on the Thai side, leading to the Three Pagodas Pass on the Thai-Burma border. An estimated 100,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allies POWs lost their lives in 1942-5 from beatings, starvation and disease. Adjacent to the museum is the Allied War Cemetery (daily 7am-6pm; free). Lined up row upon row are the graves of some 7,000 Allies soldiers from Britain, America, Australia, Holland and other countries, representing less than half of the soldiers who perished.

Jim Thompson’s House
Thanon Rama 1;; daily 9am-5pm; entrance charge includes compulsory guided tour; BTS: National Stadium.
Standing on the bank of the Khlong Saen Saep canal is Jim Thomson’s well-preserved Thai house. An architect by training, Thompson arrived in Thailand at the end of World War II, serving as a military officer. After the war he returned to Bangkok, where he became interested in the almost extinct art of Thai-silk weaving and was credited for reviving the industry. The compound comprises six teak structures that were transported from Ayutthaya and elsewhere to the silk-weaving enclave of Ban Khrua, just across Khlong Saen Saep, before being reassembled at its current spot in 1959. The structures, making up the various rooms of the house, are painted the red-brown hue characteristic of Thai houses. They feature dramatic outward-sweeping roofs covered with rare tiles designed and fired in Ayutthaya. The entire structure, enveloped by lush tropical greenery, stands elevated a full storey above the ground as protection against flooding. Thompson also made design choices that departed from the conventional Thai style. Instead of laying out the rooms in a cluster, he opted to have them in rows, adjoined to one another or linked by raised corridors. The buildings are now a museum housing Thompson’s collection of Thai artefacts. His assemblage includes precious Buddha images, porcelain, paintings, and finely carved furniture and panels collected from old homes and temples throughout Thailand. Next to the old house is a wooden annex, housing a pond-side cafe with an elegant bar and restaurant, while opposite is the Art Centre, a contemporary gallery that holds regular exhibitions of local and international art and crafts. Before leaving, be sure to stop by and pick up some silk accessories from the branded Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company.

Kamthieng House
Sukhumvit Soi 21;; Tue-Sat 9am-5pm; entrance charge; BTS: Asok
On the grounds of the Siam Society is the Kamthieng House, a small pocket of northern Lanna culture transported to the heart of Bangkok. The 150-year-old wooden home, originally from the banks of Chiang Mai’s Mae Pink River, was reassembled here and is now an ethnological museum presenting audio-visual displays on northern folk culture and daily life. The home is reputedly still inhabited by the ghosts of three former residents.

MR Kukrit Pramoj’s Heritage Home
Soi Phra Phinji; Sat-Sun 10am-5pm; entrance charge; BTS: Chong Nonsi.
Born of royal decent (signified by the title Mom Ratchawong – MR), the late Kukrit Pramoj had a brief stint as prime minister during the disruptive 1970s, but is better remembered as a prolific author and cultural preservationist. His splendid traditional Thai home comprises five single-room stilt buildings that were brought over from separate locations in the central plains over a period of time, beginning from the 1906s. Three of the building are more than a century old and are linked by a raised verandah with an open living space beneath. The buildings are now a museum, enlivened by antique pottery, memorabilia and photos of the famous statesman. The ornate garden adds a sense of serenity.
Museum of Forensic Medicine
Siriraj Hospital, Bangkok, Mon-Sat 8:30am-4:30pm; entrance charge; pier Tha Wang Lang.
Within the Siriraj Hospital complex is the Museum of Forensic Medicine, frequented by medical students. Green arrows point the way from the hospital grounds to the museum, located on the second floor of the Forensic Department. The stomach-churning exhibits are definitely not for the queasy. Mummified corpses of Thailand’s most notorious criminals, deformed foetuses in formaldehyde and a gallery of disturbing post-mortem photographs are among the exhibits here.

Museum of Old Cannons
Thanon Sanam Chai; daily 24 hrs; free; pier Tha Chang.
Across the street from the Lak Muang is this remotely interesting battalion of antique armoury belong to the Museum of Old Cannons. In front of the 19-century European-style former barracks are displays of battle-worn and bulky cat-iron cannons.

National Museum
Thanon Na Phra That;; Wed-Sun 9am-4pm; guided tours Wed and Thu 9:30am; entrance charge; pier Tha Phra Ahtit.
To learn about Thai history and culture, the national Museum, located between Thammasat University and the National Theatre, is a good place to start. Besides housing a vast collection of antiquities from all over Southeast Asia, the museum has an interesting history of its own. Its grounds and some of the principal rooms were part of the former Wang Na (Front Palace) of the king’s second-in-line, the Prince Successor, a feature of the Thai monarchy until 1870. The oldest buildings in the compound date from 1782. These include the splendid Buddhaisawan Chapel, built by the Prince Successor as his private palace of worship within the palace. In contains some of Thailand’s most beautiful and best-preserved murals, depicting 28 scenes from the Buddha’s life. The Sivamokhaphiman Hall, originally an open-sided audience hall, is devoted to Thai history, covering everything from the Sukhothai period to the present Rattanakosin period. Then there is the Prehistoric Gallery, with 5,000-year-old exhibits excavated from the Ban Chiang archaeological site in northern Thailand. Also on site is the Red House (Tamnak Daeng), an old golden-teak dwelling that once belonged to King Rama 1’s elder sister. Built in Ayutthaya style, the house has an ornate wood finish and elegant early Bangkok-style furnishings. The central audience hall of the Front Palace is divided into rooms containing various ethnological exhibits of elephant howdahs, woodcarvings, ceramics, palanquins, khon masks, musical instruments and other treasures. Most exhibits are weak on contextual information, so buy a copy of the museum guidebook or join the excellent guided tour.

National Museum of Royal Barges
Thanon Arun Amarin; daily 9am-5pm; entrance charge; go by boat.
On the northern bank of the Khlong Bangkok Noi canal is the national Museum of Royal Barges. Its dry-dock warehouse displays eight vessels from a fleet of over 50 that are rarely put to sail except on auspicious occasions, such as the anniversary of King Bhumibol’s 60th year on the throne in 2006. During the royal barge procession, barges sweep down the Chao Phraya River in formation with stretched nearly 1,200m wide. The 52 gilded barges were manned by 2,200 oars-men while the king watched and entertained visiting royals from 25 nations from the old palace of King Taksin. The current fleet was built during the reign of King Rama 1 and originally numbered over 100. Half of these were destroyed in World War 11.

Prasert Museum
Thanon Krungthep Kreetha; Thur-Sun 10am-3pm only by appointment; entrance charge.
Although little visited, partly because of its rather remote location in the Bangkok suburban of Huamak, this museum makes for a worthwhile excursion. Set within a garden, it displays a Thai antique arts and crafts collection that belongs to the private collector Prasert Vongsakul. The artefacts are contained in several magnificent buildings, all of which are replicas inspired by the region’s architectural classics. These elegant structures include a European-style mansion, a Khmer shrine, and teak houses from Thailand’s northern and central regions.

Royal Elephant Museum
Dusit Park; daily 9:30am-4pm; entrance charge, or free with Grand Palace ticket.
This museum was formerly a stable with three very rare white elephants. It now displays a large model of one of the present king’s prized living pachyderms, tusks and other paraphernalia. The white elephant is regarded as Thailand’s national symbol, and every white elephant found in Thailand rightfully belongs to the king. White elephants look nearly the same as common grey ones. It is only by a complicated process of examining skin colour, hair, eyes and genitalia that an elephant’s albino traits can be determined.

Suan Pakkad Palace
Thanon Si Ayuthaya; daily pam-4pm; entrance charge includes guided tour; BTS: Phayathai.
The name Suan Pakkad, meaning ‘Cabbage Patch’, refers to the ground’s former use as farmland before the palace was constructed in 1952. The former residence of the late Prince and Princess Chumbhot, who were prolific gardeners and art collectors, Suan Pakkad comprises eight traditional teak houses sitting amid a lush garden with a lotus pond. Converted into a museum, the wooden houses display an electric collection of antiques and artefacts, including Buddha images, Khmer statues, paintings, porcelain, musical instruments and ancient pottery from Ban Chiang. At the rear of the garden stands the Lacquer Pavilion, which dates to the mid-17th century. Prince Chumbhot discovered it in a temple near Ayutthaya and restored it as a birthday present for this wife in 1959. Depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, the Ramakien and the vernacular life of the period, the pavilion’s black-and-gold leaf panels are considered masterpieces.

Vimanmek Mansion
Dusit Park;; daily 9:30am-4pm; entrance charge, or free with Grand Palace ticket, with compulsory tours every 30 minutes.
The Vimanmek (meaning ‘Palace in the Clouds’) Mansion is billed as the world’s largest golden-teak building, originally built, without the use of a single nail, in 1868 as a summer house for King Chulalongkorn on the east-coast island of Ko Si Chang. The king ordered the three-storey, 72-room mansion dismantled and reassembled on the Dusit grounds in 1901. The gingerbread fretwork and octagonal tower look more Victorian than period Thai. The king and his large family lived here for only five years, after which it was occupied on and off over the next two decades before being abandoned and later restored for the Bangkok Bicentennial in 1982. Vimanmek offers an interesting glimpse into how the royal family of the day lived. Only 30 of the rooms are open to the public. A highlight is the king’s bedroom, which has a Europeans-style four-poster bed and what was probably Thailand’s first bathtub and flushing toilet. Among the porcelain and hunting trophies are rare find such as the first typewriter with Thai characters.
Wat Phra Kawe Museum and Coins and Decoration Museum
Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew;; daily 8:30am-3:30pm; entrance charge for Grand Palace; pier Tha Chang.
The Wat Phra Kaew Museum, located in the Grand Palace complex, showcases seasonal costumes of the Emerald Buddha and a superb collection of small Buddha images made of silver, ivory, crystal and other materials. Next to the ticket office is the Coins and Decorations Museum, which has a collection of coins dating from the 11th century and also royal regalia, decorations and medals made of gold and precious stones.