Nakhon’s Shadow Play

•February 6, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Often when travelling, the real joys of getting to know a country come from getting off the beaten track. The South Thailand city of Nakhon Si Trammaret is one of those places.

It is a large city, with a population of approximately 130,000, and as a result is noisy and traffic-choked, which does not make for an attractive arrival. However, walking the quiet back sois and visiting a couple of the main attractions, one fairly unusual but defining for South Thailand, as well as an amazingly upmarket yet affordable guest house makes Nakhon worth an good one or two-night stopover as an alternative to the region’s islands.

South Thailand is known for its long tradition of shadow puppet plays but it is not always easy to watch one or find out more about this art. By chance you might see plays at cities such as Surat Thani if you’re lucky to be in town for a festival or even a political rally, or find a bar or night market where one is performed. Nakhon is one of the centre’s of shadow plays and has a museum dedicated one of its masters – Suchart Subsin – at 6 Srithammasok 3 Rd. Subsin was a longstanding puppet master who died in 2015 after helping to persevere and progress the art regionally and nationally. The museum is run by his friendly family in his home on a back soi near Wat Mahathat. You can see historic puppets going back over 200 years, including a Second World War bi-plane and examples from other countries, find out how they’re made and have a go yourself, and talk to his daughter-in-law about shadow plays. There are some cool handmade leather decorative arts to buy too.

If you want to see puppet plays, while recognising you won’t be able to understand a full one, then the shadow play restaurant near Soi 74 on Thanon Pattanakarn-Khukwang is the place to go. As well as shadow plays, they offer great food at good prices and a warm welcome from the enthusiastic manager. You can even peek behind the scenes at the work of the puppet master.

We stayed at Tree Home Plus during our visit, which offers superior lodgings in a tranquil home on a quiet back soi – Soi Pattanakarn-Khukwang 80 – with breakfast if your budget can stretch to 800 Baht. This is well below the website advertised rate an an absolute bargain for the quality.


Top Travel Info in Trang

•January 23, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Accesing good, up-to-date travel information you can trust while on the move often relies on talking to other backpackers to get ideas. A concern with travel angencies is that they’ll tell you what benefits them or their colleagues. Being met by tour operators as you get off a train or bus can be overwhelming – do you enter the group or stand back to catch up with yourself after the journey?

When we arrived at Trang station in the morning after a 15-hour journey from Bangkok we weren’t even off the train when we were met by three smiling women holding tour option placards. Give us a bit of space was our feeling but we spoke with the most assertive pne as we gathered our bags. She asked us where we wanted to go, we told her Koh Muk and she had the minivan-boat options for us at the price we were expecting, and was instantly friendly so we walked with her to her office – C.C Tours, opposite the Trang train station.

If you pass through Trang on the way to the local islands we recommend finding Rainny, if she doesn’t find you first. Not only did she efficiently sell us the ticket we wanted, without trying to push the most expensive, she is also a font of kowledge and up-to-date phone numbers for the resorts, and can tell you about what the different islands offer. Go find Rainny in Trang!

Koh Muk Gardens

•January 23, 2018 • 1 Comment

Choosing your Thai island to stay on, and the accommodation to stay in, with a family when on a long-trip budget can require a little bit of research and sometimes some luck.

When backpacking alone or in a small group you tend to take more risks, try things out and be prepared to move on after a night if the place you’ve chosen is a bit rubbish. You can also easily fit into the regular small bungalows with a double-bed, where as a family you need a bit more space for eveyone, maybe a kingsize bed for a family of three or two beds for four, which are less common.

When we get to the islands, we tend to ring ahead to be ensure we have a room these days travelling as a family. It can prevent meltdown after a long journey going straight away to a guest house or even being picked up rather than doing the rounds looking for a large-enough room at a good price, say 800 Baht or less, in a quiet location. can be a real help in choosing in South East Asia. Calling ahead can also be useful, but phone numbers regularly change and many guest houses, unsurprisingly, don’t have a good English speaker at the end of a phone all the time.

When we decided to visit Koh Muk we identified a few budget places on the east side near the village and on the west side’s Hat Farang. Hat Farang had the promise of a good swimming beach so was very attractive, while the east side places were surrounded by mangroves with narrower beaches, long tidal flats and more stuff washing up on the beaches.

We ended up on the east side. Why? We were attracted to the friendly and helpful review of Koh Muk Garden Beach Resort on Travelfish and C.C. Tours in Trang, the chance of an 800 Baht bungalow, and a very welcoming phone call with the owner Dada. The idea was to spend a couple of nights, recce out Hat Farang and move on to a guest house there. We ended up staying at Dada’s Beach Garden!

The reason? We’ve not been on such a friendly, hospitable and pleasant resort at this price on a Thai Island. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve been at some wonderful and friendly budget places in our time. This just takes things to another level and adds in breakfast included, friendliness to kids, and a plunge pool – perhaps its because it is island family run rather than mainland owned with seasonal staff, and maybe they’re making up for their less attractive location? They’re great at accommodating families and children’s food requests – all with a smile.

Bungalows begin with small fan rooms at 500 Baht and go up to larger AC rooms. We got a 800 Baht two-bed fan bungalow with a sea breeze and view – perfect for us. Breakfast is a generous offer ot tea, coffee, hot chocolate, fruit juices, toast, coconut jam pancakes, fruit fritters and little doughnuts. The village kids play with tourist kids in the sea and they’re are a couple of beach swings. The food is good and a little under typical island resort prices, ie omelette and rice is currently 50 Baht and a Thai curry 120 Baht. Importantly their portions are generous as well as tasty.

Low tide exposes large mud/rock flats which are initially not attractive, but a walk across them is great for wldlife spotting including fiddler crabs, red claw crabs eating smaller crabs, starfish in the shallows and many White-Bellied Sea Eagles.

Hat Farang is just a 40-minute walk or 50 Baht per person motorbike and scooter ride away through part-shaded jungle, rubber plantations and the village with shops selling water, ice creams, cut fruit and lunch – so easy to get to. The village is just a 10-minute walk away with a range of shops, restaurants and tour operators. One of the striking things is how friendly the islanders are, with the taxi drivers offerig directions instead of hassling you for a fare – and a set fare everywhere – currently 50 Baht -removes the whole negotiating over prices to go anywhere too.

The Garden Beach Resort also offers very affordable snorkelling trips to nearby Hat Ngai, a couple of islets in between, Emerald Cave and Muk’s local coral by long-tail boat for 300 Baht per person, children free. The coral is OK, its nothing on Koh Tao for example, with Ngai having some of the best local reef and fish numbers, but the water is calm, warm and has decent clarity. Emerald Cave is a big tour-group attraction that involves a short swim through a sea cave that brings you into a forested beach lagoon encircled by cliffs. The boatman is super-friendly and knows the area well.

Combine real village life with a friendly islander vibe, along with gorgeous scenery and nearby islands to hop around, then add in a good resort that cares about its visitors, and Koh Muk is a must-visit Thai island destination with Garden Beach Resort highly recommended for backpackers looking for a quiet spot and avoiding the often-found rip-off places.

Walks from My Dream

•December 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Khaew Waaw Dam

If you stay at My Dream guesthouse you can do 1 and 2 day treks with Nan. These combine off-road driving and walking in the nearby mountains visiting neighbouring Lahu, Akha and Karen villages.

Rice paddies

You don’t need to go on a trek if you wish to explore the beautiful forest area around the guesthouse. There are at least four directions you can walk independently along easy-to-follow dirt roads and mountain paths. The routes can take you through the stunning countryside of tropical rainforest, bamboo and rice paddies, either along the Mae Kok river or up into the mountains. You can easily make up your own half or full day treks if you take your own water and food. I’ve outlined four routes below. If you get up with the sun you may be rewarded with an atmospheric misty morning that characterises images of rural East Asia. In Khaew Waw Dam you can also discover hand-made traditional weaving. Or travel towards Chiang Rai and go for an elephant ride.

Rice ‘hay’

You can also spend time in Khaew Waw Dam village itself. There are two shops selling snacks and drinks; one also stocking fruit and veg, the other making som tams. Many households weave traditional Karen textiles during the dry season. A Thai woman from Isan called Atitaya and her French husband Tom live right next door to the guesthouse with their family. She also weaves, collecting plants from the surrounding to dye her cotton with natural colours before spinning and weaving the threads. She does this all by hand on a home-made bamboo spinning wheel and loom to produce amazing scarves and bedspreads. She speaks good English and is happy to talk about how she makes her textiles and show her work. Do call round to see if she is there if you stay at My Dream.

Ati weaving

A few kilometres down the road back to Chiang Rai is Ban Ruamit Elephant Camp. I don’t know about you but I’m always in two minds about elephant camps and rides. On one hand it seems like an abuse of these wonderful giants, yet on the other the money camps bring in from rides can help to look after the highly endangered Asian elephant. It really depends on the camp as to whether this is abuse or care. Ban Ruamit seems like a good camp. The elephants do have to spend all day in a small riverside area, but by the early evening they are free to wander the nearby jungle until the following morning. The income the camp generates probably does mean that these elephants are being conserved rather than sent down to Bangkok to follow a mahout around the streets. Rides cost 200B or 400B for a half or full hour which includes a trip around the village and down part of the river. You can also buy bananas, sweetcorn and sugar cane to feed the elephants at 20B a bag. There’s the usual tourist tat souvenir stalls and a couple of cafes.

Close encounters of the trunk kind

Walking Route 1 – Hot Spring Refresher
Turn right out of My Dream, join the dirt road back to Chiang Rai passing the shop. After about 250m and just before the road takes a short incline you’ll see a gap in the trees on your right. Take this to the hanging bridge and cross the river. Turn left on the other side and follow the dirt road beside the river. This road is used by pick-ups and motorbikes so you’ll encounter some traffic. The route gives you great views of the river as you walk through bamboo stands, bananas and forest. You’ll pass a Lahu village on your right soon after the bridge. Another 2km brings you to an Akha village, which still has a village swing. A further 2km brings you to the national park where there are natural hot springs you can look at, though these ones are too hot for a dip, toilets and a refreshment stall selling snacks and drinks, as well as instant noodles and eggs they’ll boil for you.

Natural hot springs in national park

About 1km further on brings you to the hot springs you can get into. About 30B buys you entry, 10B use of a towel and 50B a private changing room rather than the small communal one. These are a tourist destination so they have been built up. You have a concrete wall around the spring itself, a small hot pool you can boil eggs in (you buy the eggs from any of the cafes and shops at 20B for five in a basket and after 30 minutes you should have soft-boiled eggs), and a what is effectively an open-air swimming pool at about 37+ oC you can get into. The far end has the hottest water. If you don’t want to walk back you can either hitch a lift on a passing pick-up or pay about 200-300B to get someone to drive you back to the bridge. Just ask for the bridge, Khaew Waw Dam or My Dream.

Boiling eggs

Route 2 – Village Stroll
This time turn right once over the bridge and follow the same dirt road upriver. It passes similar landscape to the hot springs route. After a couple of kilometres you’ll come to another Lahu village. The forest looks impressive and is still part of the national park. You can walk for as long as you like along this road taking in the same sort of views.

Local buffalo

Route 3 – River Jungle
Turn left out of My Dream and walk up to the dirt road next to the other shop with som tams. Turn left here and walk upriver along the road. You’ll be away from the river for the first kilometre or so. You’ll pass an army general’s forest landscape garden and come to rice paddies with buffalos dotted with bamboo drying platforms and shelters. When you reach the fork in the road take the left one. You’ll quickly be surrounded with thick bamboo and forest. This soon drops back down to the river and gives a great forest experience. There are tribal villages further along the road (which also means some traffic).

Route 4 – Mountain Rice Climb

Misty mountain hop

This is my favourite of the four. Take the right hand path at the fork of route 3. You’ll notice that the path becomes partly grassed-over which is because hardly any vehicles use this route except for the occasional person on a motorbike getting to their rice paddies. This is the most tranquil route with the best views. You’ll soon begin to climb steadily. The land rises to your left through forest and bamboo. On your right you overlook the valley of a mountain stream. The valley is quite wide and flat to begin with then narrows. Nearly all of the flat land is terraced into rice paddies dotted with the bamboo shelters, drying stands and occasional houses of the people who work the paddies. You’ll see cleared areas amongst the stalks of harvested rice surrounded by mounds of rive hay. These are threshing floors used to separate the rice from the stalks. There are also buffalo, pigs and geese. After about 2 or 3km you come to a point where you really must turn around for a spectacular view down the valley. It’s even better on a misty morning.

Mountain view

The path winds upwards through more and more picturesque forest and bamboo-clad slopes, the air becoming fresher and fresher, the paddies gradually narrowing, the stream burbling away next to you. Beyond the viewpoint you feel like you’re on a high mountain route. You can basically keep on walking along this path until you need to turn around. You’ll eventually come to some tribal villages if you keep going and should be able to visit one or two and make it back to My Dream before dark depending on your walking speed.

High bridge

My Dream Guesthouse

•December 8, 2009 • 3 Comments

My Dream

Many years ago a Karen man from Chiang Mai province worked in a guesthouse in Chiang Rai. He lived with his wife in the small Karen village Khaew Waaw Dam a few kilometres out of town on the Mae Kok River. For the last ten years his dream has been a reality for tourists staying in his village. After a week at My Dream Guesthouse it is firmly in my top five guesthouses in Thailand.

Riverside bungalows

Nan and his wife Polly have worked hard to create a small place to stay that is more than just a collection of wooden bungalows by a river. For a start the bungalows are arranged around an immaculate forest garden, alive with birdsong and colourful dashes of passing butterflies. Each of his 13 teak and bamboo rooms is tastefully and simply decorated, each with a large bed encased within a mosquito net that hints at the opulence of a four-poster. He was determined to create the garden, despite others in the village questioning why he spent time on something that didn’t earn money, so that visitors would get the most pleasure from their stay in rural northern Thailand. His ethos that shines through in lovingly tended flowering bushes and lawn brightens everything that is provided at the guesthouse and reflects his effusive, sunny disposition. He welcomes new guests with a smile and laughing conversation when he is not on a mountain leading one of the treks he offers to guests. You can do one, two or three day treks around tribal villages in the surrounding mountains.

Delicious large portions of Thai food are served in the riverside restaurant. If, like us, you have a baby evening meals are brought on a tray to your balcony. A fire is lit on the small private beach each evening from where you can sit and gaze at the milky way or find your way around by the light of the full moon. The view from the beach is of the surging river flowing by and the forest-and-bamboo-clad hills beyond. The beach and garden are perfect for hanging out with a family or just taking it easy after a trek.

My Dream beach

During our week staying at My Dream we met Didi, a French cycling tour leader, who was returning to My Dream for his fourth year in a row with 14 cyclists on a two-week mountain biking tour. He values the personal service that Nan provides. A rep from a Swiss tour company offering tours for two to three people stayed the night to check out the guesthouse for their next brochure. Some of the guests come with pre-arranged tours to use My Dream as a base before heading higher into the mountains for trekking. Many companies employ Nan to lead the treks for them. We also met a young Austrian who was passing through on his way from Tha Thon to Chiang Mai, partly travelling along the river itself. If you don’t fancy a long trek but prefer to move beyond the garden there are plenty of easy activities to leave the guesthouse for, from visits to elephant camps and hot springs to hikes into the mountains, more of which in my Khaew Waaw Dam blog entry which I’ll post soon.

Nan with his daugher Dia

Everything at the guesthouse has been thought about to make your stay memorable, to remember My Dream and to remember Nan who dreamt of having a forest guesthouse by the river. Live his dream and make it part of one of your own.

Garden view to the river

Getting there and costs
You can reach My Dream by land or water. It is on the long-tailed boat taxi service connecting Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Tha Ton. A one-way trip between My Dream and Chiang Rai costs about 120 baht per person and takes 1 1/2 hours down river to the town. Expect a little longer upstream. Polly’s father runs the only taxi in Khaew Waaw Dam. He goes into Chiang Rai about 6.30am every day except Sunday. He will pick you up from your guesthouse in Chiang Rai on his return trip sometime between 11am and 1pm if you ring and arrange with Nan a day in advance. Depending on occupancy this will either cost the regular fare or be courtesy of My Dream. The journey takes about half an hour. You can also hitch pretty easily from the village down towards Chiang Rai so it is possible to make the return trip for free.
Garden-facing rooms and bungalows currently cost 300 baht per night, riverside bungalows 500 baht. Most meals cost between 40 and 50B. Meals on rice are 50B or 40B if you’re vegetarian. There are two small shops in the village selling snacks, drinks and some fruit and veg. One pounds up a wicked som tam (papaya salad) for 15B.

PinPao Guesthouse, Old Sukthothai

•November 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’ve just posted a comment on my review of the Orchid Hibiscus to update it and break the news about Paolo and Pinthong’s new place in Old Sukhothai – PinPao.

The comment is here too if you don’t want to read about the OH.

Paolo and Pinthong have just opened another guesthouse – the eponymous PinPao which is a large new house on the main road into Old Sukhothai. They were just putting the finishing touches to PinPao while we were there and Pinthong showed us around a couple of days before they opened its doors to guests for Loi Krathong. The place is fantastic inside. It is a guesthouse rather than bungalows or rooms around a garden so it is different in character to the Orchid Hibiscus. Each room is ensuite and slightly differently sumptiously decorated in Pinthong’s signature contemporary Thai style. Expect lots of plump cushions, cereamic flowers and handpainted woodwork. PinPao is on the riverside and breakfast will be set on a terrace overlooking the river. Paolo and Pinthong are looking into boat trips along the river to the Historical Park.

A wooden footbridge leads over to a swimming pool set in a concrete lido, with more ceramic flowers, and garden. The pool and garden were coming to the end of construction when we looked around.

PinPao is another five-star mid-range guesthouse for Sukhothai, building on the success of the Orchid Hibiscus. Prices are the same – currently 800baht for a double room with the same style breakfast included. PinPao also has a cafe specialising in authentic Italian coffee, as you’d expect from Paolo. The main advantage of the PinPao over the Orchid are its position on the main road which put it much closer to the Historical Park. This means it is an easy walking distance to the Park and other amenities of Old Sukhothai. You can expect the same high quality service and rooms as well as a swimming pool but not quite the same extent of gardens nor family romos. If 800baht is your budget, even just for a few nights of a longer trip, I doubt you’ll be disappointed by either of Paolo and Pinthong’s guesthouses while in Old Sukhothai.

The White Temple

•November 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

There is a new Buddhist temple being built outside Chiang Rai, if merely built is the right word. Imagined into existence is possibly a better description for this phantasmagoric brainchild of Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat and his overworking imagination.

It is close to the city of historical temples yet so far removed from them as to almost deserve a different classification. For one there is not the quiet reverent space of many temples, but a bustling tourist attraction complete with shopping and dining area, camera-snapping Thais and guardians keeping the masses in line. Welcome to Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, the

Attention to detail is incredible with the outside of the building and other structures decorated lavishly with ornate swirling designs. The exterior is white with silver mirrors and changes colour with cloud and sun. Under cloud it has a deathly pale yellow palor, which when set behind leafless trees, is reminiscent of a Tim Burton film set. When the sun shines the mirrors twinkle and the white takes on the hues of its surroundings – grass green, sky blue and clothings reds, yellows and oranges.

The art inside the hall does strike me as being the product of a talented fantasy-loving teenager or 70s heavy metal album cover artist. That, however is not a surprise or such criticism as it may sound. Where, after all, did the artists of psychedelic album covers or fantasy novel covers get some of their inspiration? Hindu and Buddhist religious art. The wat’s art brings these influences together.

It is a lot of fun with hints at attempts to make statements. Superman, Spiderman and the Matrix sit alongside Buddhist apsaras, garudas and demons. The World Trade Centre is shown during its destruction by Al Qaida with a demon-headed serpentine petrol pump pipe snaking around one of the towers. Yet how much do intended meanings resonate after a single visit? That probably depends on your attitudes to politics, fantasy and Buddhist religious art.

The dream is still being built and all power to him for making something so bold that it generates reactions from visitors. You will either love or hate it but you’re unlikely to feel indifferent towards it.

As you enter you come face-to-face with a gold structure bearing a white Buddha in its ornate folds and twists.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

After passing the first structure between ponds with white fish you are next greeted at the approach to the central hall by concrete hands reaching out to the air and your sense of fun. Some hold skulls up next to others proffering alms bowls.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

Apsaras or bodhisatvas float in the air either side of the approach to the central hall. Every inch of the white building is adorned with white mirrors.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

To either side of the hall are matching pairs of Buddhas facing each other.

Wat Rong Khun - White Temple

The purity of white certainly makes a statement that cannot fail to influence you in some way, even if only while there. It is perhaps part Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, part Taj Maha, part Southfork.

The temple is very easy to reach from Chiang Rai. A sangthaew from the produce market station near Wat Phra Singh costs 20 baht and they leave regularly through the day. You should not have to wait more than 20 minutes. Tell the drivers you want a minibus not taxi to catch one of the regular departures rather than charter a whole vehicle for yourself at maybe 500-700 baht. You can also catch a local bus to Phayao from the old bus station in the city centre or a Chiang Mai bus from the new station on the city’s edge. The journey takes less than 30 minutes. To return to Chiang Rai go up to the main road and flag down a passing sangthaew or bus. A sangthaew driver spotted us walking towards the road and waited for us to get to him.