Thursday, 27 May 2010

Singapore – it’s very clean!

Before I set off on my long weekend to Singapore I asked a few people what it was like. The general gist of the comments were:


“It’s very clean”
“It’s very orderly”



…and so forth. And while the above are definitely true, this also tends to imply that the city state is somewhat sterile and boring. Sure they are quite strict, to the point when chewing gum is illegal, but this is a great city to visit, with a lot to see, all packed into a small island.


To be honest, most people tend to spend 3-4 nights here and that is probably enough to see the main sights.

Well I booked myself a pick up and drop off through the hotel, the flight landed on time and I cruised through customs etc expecting to see my name on a board. Nothing. I waited around for 15 minutes, nothing. Welcome to Singapore I thought! Fortunately this wasn’t a sign of things to come and I know somebody who lives in Singapore, so a quick phone call and I was whisked away to The Park Hotel, in Little India. As it was fairly late I decided not to venture too far for my evening meal and ate a fantastic chicken biryani in an Indian family restaurant.



The next morning I decided, despite the searing heat, that I was going to walk around the main commercial district of Orchard Road. I am generally pretty good at coping with the heat, just remembering to keep hydrated is key. My hotel wasn’t too far away so of I went. Orchard Road is certainly a shopper’s paradise, lined as it is with shops and malls. There are also many embassies and office buildings along this road but nothing really that caught my eye. So I ventured off the main drag into Fort Canning Park.

This was an important base during the war and contains a museum which has been converted from an underground bunker (the park is essentially on a big hill). This was very interesting, and the shade offered by the trees in the park was welcome, so I sat down for half an hour, and also took some photos of the city skyline, this is a great spot to do that. You can also get some nice contrasting shots of the greenery in the foreground with skyscrapers in the background.



I carried on down towards the quayside area and of course into the Raffles Hotel. Very clich├ęd though it is, when in Singapore you have to try a Singapore Sling at the Raffles. Having planned this in advance, I was dressed accordingly, definitely no shorts and t-shirt allowed in here! It was, of course, very expensive but worth it for the experience.



Quite close by the hotel I noticed a game of cricket was underway at some kind of expats club. So I popped over and in the process doubled the attendance! This was a very enjoyable way (for an Englishman) to pass an hour or two but probably not something that everyone would do!

From here I carried on round to the waterfront area to take pictures of the famous Merlion fountain/statue. Again you can get some great photos here, out to sea, looking back on the Singapore skyline and with the iconic “hedgehog” theatre buildings.

Before I knew it, it was 4pm so I decided to catch one of the London style buses back up to the hotel, but got off a few stops before in the Muslim quarter. I had planned to visit a Mosque, however having failed to check visiting times, it was closed when I got there! So I just took a gentle stroll back to the hotel for a shower and an hours chill out (you need it in this heat!).

For dinner, my Singaporean friends took me to a great outdoor food court, where you can choose essentially any dish you desire from the dozens of stalls. I had a fantastic chicken ramen soup which will live long in the memory.



I was very sad to leave Singapore, small though it is I felt that I’d barely scratched the surface and would love to return one day. For many people, a few days in Singapore seems to be enough, and it is enough to tour the main tourist sights. But if you enjoy submerging yourself more in a place, discovering different quarters etc then you could happily spend a few days more in Singapore. I know I could!

South East Asia photos on my website, www.matthewt.co.uk
My blog - http://matthewted.blogspot.com

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Thursday, 20 May 2010

Has Thailand’s image been tarnished forever?

Thailand’s carefully crafted image as the “Land of Smiles” seems to be in tatters. For many years now, millions of people have flocked to Thailand to take in the sights and sounds (and smells) of Bangkok, the beautiful beaches and national parks. All of this backed up by the famous Thai smile and the, erm, unending kindness of the Thai people. While many hardened travellers have long since seen past that “smile” the image of the Land of Smiles lived on.

That is until the events of the last couple of months unfolded which exposed to the world the deep rifts in Thai society that have been simmering away for many years now. At its simplest level, the mass of rural poor (not to mention urban poor) rose up to protest against what they see as an illegitimate government, a puppet of the military and made up of elite, wealthy people. It’s a lot more complicated than this in reality and no easy fix exists. If the government called an election now (as was demanded by the Red Shirts) they’d lose. In the past the Thais have looked to their King, the great Bhumibol Adulayej to step forward and resolve a crisis such as this. However, his health is a cause of great concern and he has been hospitalised for many months (long live the King and may he make a swift and full recovery).

Add to this the ongoing (and now seemingly forgotten) troubles in the far south and you have a cauldron ready to explode. Will it result in full on civil war? Some would say it already has. When does a protest that got out of hand and the army shot on its own people to “restore peace and order” become a civil war? Red shirt splinter groups going around Bangkok setting fire to shopping malls, offices and TV studios with people inside. When does this stop being just “unrest” and become civil war?

Thailand’s image as a tourist hotspot and entry point into South East Asia has guaranteed it top-slot in the international news bulletins over the last couple of months. Various Foreign Offices have advised against travel to Bangkok and Thailand in varying degrees. Travel insurance is difficult to obtain and will cost you a fortune.

Even if things were to return to normal in the next few weeks, how long before people consider Thailand safe to go to again? I think, if things do calm down again, visitor numbers will soon start to pick up as Thailand still has all those great things to offer. However, people are going to be much more wary about visiting a destination previously thought of as safe and it won’t take much for people to change their travel plans, especially families travelling with kids (like me!).

Keep an eye on this situation as it unfolds, there are so many factors at play here….oh and did I mention Thaksin??!!

South East Asia photos on my website, www.matthewt.co.uk

My blog - http://matthewted.blogspot.com

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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The tanks have rolled in, but it’s not over yet

The government’s patience finally ran out and they sent the tanks in to storm the barricades in the red-shirt’s central Bangkok encampment.

The protest leaders formally surrendered and told their followers to leave. However it seems some factions of the red-shirts have splintered off and so we’re seeing some looting and the massive Central World Plaza shopping centre has been set alight, as has the Channel 3 TV studio.

Some red-shirts were holed-up in a Skytrain station and fending off army offensives.

Although the official protest seems to have been dispersed, expect more trouble in the days ahead.

South East Asia photos on my website, www.matthewt.co.uk

My blog - http://matthewted.blogspot.com

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Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Things to do in and around Koh Samui

Koh Samui is only behind Phuket in terms of popularity and visitor numbers for Thai resorts. And there is good reason for that, despite years of chronic over-development the island retains much of its natural beauty and picture postcard beaches. Travel to and from the island is easy with regular international and domestic flights direct to the island as well as regular ferry crossings from Surat
Thani.

Koh Samui airport

Ferry at Nathon pier

There is a huge choice of accommodation around the island to suit varying budgets, although the trend is to develop more and more upscale resorts. The main beach is Chaweng, which is a long stretch of beautiful white sand. Chaweng town is very built up with resorts stretching most of the length of the beach and shops, bars and restaurants line the streets behind.

The action at Chaweng

Quieter beaches can be found along the north of the island. Bophut has a more rustic, family atmosphere, although the beaches aren’t so good.

Bophut beach, looking out to Koh Pha Ngan

There is a lot to do to occupy yourself in Samui, whether you choose to hire a car, bike or use local transportation. (WARNING – If you chose to hire any equipment be it a car, motorbike, jet ski etc do your research beforehand and only use reputable hirers. There are known to be many scams operating in Thailand where the hirer will try to charge you an extortionate amount to repair minor scratches that you probably didn’t put there. Such situations have been known to turn nasty. Do a Google search to read more about this).

So here’s a rundown of the main activities:

Visiting temples – One of the highlights of most people’s visits to Thailand is visiting a few temples, and Samui is no exception. The most famous is Big Buddha at Big Buddha beach. A short climb to the top of the temple offers some good views out to sea. There are also some rather gimmicky fortune telling machines and you can buy a brick to contribute towards the construction of new temple buildings.

Big Buddha temple

Another well known temple is Wat Khunaram which contains the mummified body of a local monk. Located along the southern stretch of the ring road, this is worth a quick stop off.

Mummified Monk

Hin Ta – Hin Yai – This is a rather quirky stop off, a few miles south of Chaweng beach. The ring road runs along the edge of a rocky cliff and you come to a small turn-off which is signposted. This takes you down into a small village and car park, with a few tourist souvenir shops. Then you follow a short path out to some rocks and a tiny bit of beach. Standing out like a sore thumb are two rocks (Hin Ta and Hin Yai, literally Grandfather Rock and Grandmother Rock) which are shaped like male and female “private parts”!

Hin Ta Hin Yai

Animal attractions – In the far south-east corner of the island are located the Tiger Zoo and Aquarium, which are a good way to spend a few hours, especially if you have kids. Both are quite interesting and have some shows throughout the day. These are part of the Samui Orchid Resort.

Na Tian Butterfly garden offers good photo opportunities for lovers of butterflies and orchids, not everyone’s cup of tea however! There is also a Crocodile Farm near the airport.

There are regular monkey shows in the monkey theatre, across the ring road from Bophut beach. The monkeys give demonstrations of how they are used to gather coconuts and there is also an elephant show. Monkeys are also a regular sight on the constant stream of motorbikes travelling along Samui’s roads (fortunately only as passengers!).

Elephant

Elephant rides are available at various spots around the island, usually in the interior as this offers ideal trekking ground.

Natural attractions and tours – The most popular waterfalls on the island are Na Muang 1 and 2. These are very easily accessed, if not the most spectacular. Na Muang 1 is the lower of the two and is located next to a small car park, no walking required. Na Muang 2 is a bit higher up and requires a walk.

Waterfall

There are many natural viewpoints around the island which offer good photo opportunities out to sea, especially at sunset. One of the best known is a stop off just north of Hin Ta – Hin Yai, around the Lamai beach area.

The interior of Samui offers some good trekking routes if that is your thing.

Beaches are, of course, the main attraction of Samui. As I said earlier, Chaweng is the main beach, it is the longest and the sand and sea are superior to the rest of the island. It is also the most developed with plenty of shops, pharmacies, food and rowdy night spots. Lamai neighbours Chaweng and is somewhat quieter. A popular and more relaxed spot on the north of the island is Bophut beach. It is a more family orientated beach with a more rustic village with a few shops and restaurants.

Bophut beach

Off the island – There are the usual choice of watersport activities including jetskis, banana boats etc, mainly off Chaweng.

Ferries operate from Bophut pier to nearby Koh Pha Ngan. This is the island famous for the Full Moon Parties and you can arrange a night’s stay on Koh Pha Ngan through the agencies on Samui. You can also get to Koh Tao which is renowned as a diver’s paradise.

The beautiful Ang Thong National Marine park is accessed from here and is well worth a day trip. You can also camp overnight, but there is no accommodation in the park. I have some photos of this spectacular location on my website, http://www.matthewt.co.uk

Ang Thong Marine Park

Miscellaneous – There is a Muay Thai stadium in Chaweng town if that’s your thing. There are also a few sporty activities such as go-karting and shooting ranges. If you’re brave enough to hire a car, a drive around the island’s ring road is an interesting way to spend a day.

All in all, Samui has plenty to offer all tastes and budgets. Although remember this is now an international destination and prices are generally higher than the rest of Thailand and it is overly developed in parts. Despite this it retains much of its natural beauty that keeps people going back time after time.

South East Asia photos on my website, www.matthewt.co.uk

My blog - http://matthewted.blogspot.com

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Dos and don’ts in Thailand

Every country has its list of cultural do’s and don’ts and Thailand is no different. The following is a run down of the major things to be aware of. Thais, in general, are a very understanding people and don’t expect foreigners to be aware of all the nuances of Thai culture. But a basic understanding and show of respect always goes down well!

Don’ts

Don’t raise your voice – Thais in general try to remain calm (or bottle things up) and raising ones voice is seen as losing face. If you do this it doesn’t make you any more likely to win an argument or any friends.

Don’t touch, climb on or otherwise degrade a Buddha image or an image of the King (or in fact any member of the royal family). Buddhism is the major religion in Thailand and Buddha images are treated with great respect and care. Any disrespect shown to any member of the royal family is likely to land you in big trouble and probably with a jail term (although these are usually commuted by the King, but result in your immediate deportation and barring from visiting Thailand again).



Don’t touch a Thai person on the head. The head is thought of as the highest part of the body and it is seem as offensive to touch a Thai person’s head. Similarly the feet are the lowest point and seen as dirty. So don’t move things with your feet, put your feet on a table or point to things with your feet (especially not a Buddha image).

Take your shoes off! Following on from the above point, if you ever visit a Thai family home, it is customary to remove your shoes either just outside the house or just inside, depending on where that family store their shoes! Also most temple buildings will have a No Footwear sign outside.

Let the Thai person pay if they offer. This is a tricky one, because in most cultures, often the host will offer to pay for a meal and this results in great discussion over who should pay for what! This especially applies in Thailand where usually the most senior person present will pay. If you try to pay instead it may be interpreted as you challenging their seniority. Instead you can return the compliment by buying them a gift.



Do’s

Do try and speak Thai. Any attempt by a foreigner to speak Thai is greeted with happiness and encouragement. Generally you can make yourself understood in everyday situations such as ordering food and buying tickets etc.

Wai, but use it sparingly. The “wai” is a Thai greeting, done by pressing the palms of your hand together, prayer-like. By all means return a wai if one is offered to you, however you shouldn’t necessarily offer a wai to every Thai person you meet. Apart from this becoming tiresome after a while, it isn’t necessary. It is something interwoven into the Thai culture and subject to all sorts of rules and intricacies, to do with your age, seniority and position in society and in your family structure. For example, a Thai office worker would greet their boss or a senior member of their partner’s family with a wai, but they wouldn’t do the same to a lowly waiter. Again foreigners aren’t expected to understand all of this, but a basic awareness is always appreciated.

Do show great respect to monks and offer your seat on a boat or bus to a monk. As a general rule women should avoid all physical and eye contact with a monk. Everyone is expected to show respect to monks. It is always appreciated if you give up your seat for a monk and the river express boats in Bangkok even have special Monk only areas. As with many places, giving up your seat for an elderly person is also appreciated.

Do keep your wits about you. When on holiday, people are naturally more relaxed and have a habit of letting their guard down. As such, tourists make easy prey for the many tricksters of Bangkok, don’t let this be you! If you were at home and somebody told you that a well known major attraction was closed for a royal ceremony, would you believe them? If somebody said there was a one day only government gem sale, would you believe them? Exactly! Don’t fall for this trick in Thailand, see my separate article “The Bangkok Tuk-Tuk trick” about this.

Try the street food. Many people are afraid of trying the infamous Thai street food, Bangkok is particularly famed for its excellent street food. This probably stems from our sanitised, health and safety conscious way of life in the West. However Thai street food is up there with the best, the general rule being go to the busier looking stalls and stalls with a large Thai clientele.



Do try and dress respectfully. While no-one could care less if you’re wandering around in shorts and t-shirts, remember that modern Thailand is a relatively conservative place. Thai people (especially the older generation) tend to dress smartly for all occasions, at the very least and polo-shirt and jeans. Certainly don’t wander around town in your swimwear as you see in many European resorts.



You will have a great time in Thailand if you try and respect the above rules and Thai people will appreciate it if you show some awareness of their way of life. Thai people will probably be too polite to say if you are offending/upsetting them so you are unlikely to land yourself in any bother (apart from as mentioned above, anything offensive to the royal family and Buddhism). But for a smoother holiday and if you crave contact and interaction with the locals, this guide should help!

South East Asia photos on my website, www.matthewt.co.uk

My blog - http://matthewted.blogspot.com

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Tuesday, 11 May 2010

World Travel with the Lonely Planet Blogsherpas

Recently my blog was selected to become a part of the exciting new Blogsherpa venture from Lonely Planet. Many of you may have found my blog from one of my posts to a destination page (more than likely Thailand).

Together, our blogs cover many topics and destinations making our world travel knowledge second to none. Check the blogroll to the left of my main page and you’ll see links to many of the other member’s blogs, I’ve read through them all and can vouch for their quality and knowledge of the many destinations.

We are currently working together on an exciting new venture to create a photobook and a Blogger’s World Travel book, watch this space.

In the meantime follow
this link to our group Squidoo page and happy travelling!

World Travel

Friday, 7 May 2010

Bangkok canal trip

I had visited Bangkok many times before and never used one of the canal boats. I often read about them as being a great alternative way to get around Bangkok and it does give you good access to some other parts of the city. On my last visit in October 2009 I resolved to have a ride on Khlong Saen Saeb. This canal has two lines which interchange at Pratunam pier. One lines goes west terminating at Fhan Fha, near to Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) and the other going east all the way out to Bang Kapi.



I went along with my (Thai) wife not being brave enough to negotiate it on my own at my first attempt! We wandered down to the Pratunam pier, which is rather dingy and as with most of Bangkok, the paving and the bridge down to the canal was in a poor state of repair. The canal itself looks filthy, whatever you do don’t fall in! But this is Bangkok and you kind of expect this and for me it all a part of the city’s charm. We hopped on a boat towards Fhan Fha first of all which wizzes you through the congested Pathumwan district alongside Phetburi road initially. On your right you can see the huge Platinum Fashion mall and the famed Pantip Plaza for all things hi-tech.

Now after a couple of minutes I was wondering how you paid, the seating on the boat is arranged in rows with no walkways through the middle. You basically shuffle along to allow more people in. Then a lady appeared at the side of me, complete with crash helmet, walking along the edge of the boat! She collected our fares and leaned in to collect the fares from the people next to us before ducking out of the way to avoid an oncoming bridge.

Before we knew it we were right behind Jim Thompson’s House, photos at www.matthewt.co.uk. If you’re struggling to get your bearings this will help as JT’s House is a fairly centrally placed and famous landmark, near to Siam Square and MBK shopping centre.

Around this area you can catch some glimpses of a more old fashioned way of life in Bangkok as you start to see some housing that was built around the canal. Keep your camera handy as you’ll pass by in a flash!

The next to last stop takes you into Bo-Be market, a famous garment market. We stayed on till the end of the line, when you disembark, climb up the steps and left over a bridge onto Thanon Bonphat and you will see the Golden Mount. If you go the other way along Thanon Ratchdamnoen, on your left is Wat Ratchanatdaram. The main attraction here is Loha Prasat (metal palace) and other unusual buildings. A bit further down the road you can see the Democracy Monument.

We caught the boat back to Pratunam and transferred over the other line with the intention of stopping off a random stop to find somewhere to have lunch. We decided on stop 9 (Thong Lo) which is an up and coming trendy district, and happened upon the Market Place shopping centre. In there is the Mama Do suki restaurant, similar to MK but with different soups available (the soup that you boil your food in). If you’re ever passing through Thong Lo I would recommend it.

After lunch we decided to head back but walk part of the way back home. So we took the boat back as far as Witthayu. This stop drops you near Thanon Witthayu (Wireless Road) quite close to the British Embassy. We walked the 20-30 minutes or so to Lumpini Park were we grabbed a drink and sat in the shade for a while before heading off home.

I would recommend this as a great alternative way to get around Bangkok and discover new places. One way to discover places in a city is to get lost (just so long as you can remember your way back to the canal!).

South East Asia photos on my website, www.matthewt.co.uk


My blog - http://matthewted.blogspot.com

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