Siam Nirimit

Don’t miss Bangkok’s Siam Nirimit!

Demonstration of floral art at Siam Nirimit
Demonstration of floral art at Siam Nirimit

If you’re visiting Bangkok and you don’t have the days, the weeks, the months, the years or even the lifetime that it would take to explore Thailand’s rich culture, spend an evening at Bangkok’s Siam Nirimit.

Siam Nirimit shopping offers a wonderful range of souvenirs, from the ubiquitous elephants to rare, Thai silks.

The restaurant caters to all requirements, from Halal to vegetarian, while the Thai buffet covers all the popular dishes and introduces many to tempt the more discerning palates too.

In the model village, the visitor can walk through traditional rural Thai houses, see displays of traditional fishing gear, including boats and watch demonstrations of floral art and silk processing.

The highlight at Siam Nirimit, though, is the spectacular show which in three parts, showcases Thai history, culture and religion.

Part One,  A journey back in History, takes the audience back in time to life as it was in the beginning, in Thailand’s North, South Seas, North-East and Central Plains regions.

Part Two, A Journey Beyond Imagination, explores the three worlds, which according to common Thai belief, which await us all after death. In the Fiery Hall condemned souls are punished for their sins. In Mystical Himapaan  magical creatures and demi-gods reside. In Blissful heaven the god Indra reigns and angels dance

Part Three, A Journey Through Joyous Festivals, explores the festivals, like Songkran, Phitakhon and Loy Krathong, which combine religious observance with celebration.

Involving over 500 actors singers and dancers, thousands of stunning costumes and extraordinary props, sets and special effects including flowing water, growing rice and rain showers, this show is extraordinary and unforgettable.

To book, or to find more information on Siam Nirimit, visit

www.siamnirimit.com

 

Bangkok, the Venice of the East

Rooftops of the Grand Palace
Rooftops of the Grand Palace

Bangkok is often called the Venice of the East. Its river, the Chao Praya, is likened to the Grand Canal and the klongs that weave through the city are compared to the network of waterways in Venice.

In ancient times, life centred on the Chao Praya. The first settlers established villages on the banks of the river and its waters sustained them. When King Rama I moved the capital of Thailand to Bangkok in 1782, the Chao Praya and its klongs became vital means of transport, communication and commerce. His Grand Palace, of course, was built in pride of place, at the heart of the city on the banks of the Chao Praya.

While the Chao Praya is no longer the vital commercial hub it once was, it is still teems with life. Ferries criss-cross from bank to bank, tourist boats chug up and down, barges and houseboats sail slowly by. The banks of the Chao Praya, too, are always busy. Sightseers stroll, patient fishermen keep watch with nets or poles, and small boys dive and splash.

River tours are wonderful way to explore Bangkok. Not only does the river offer a different perspective on the city, but its quieter, cooler and generally much more relaxing down there. There are innumerable Chao Praya Tours on offer.

One day I took the ferry from Wat Pho, packed onto the deck alongside families with bare-bottomed babies, housewives with armfuls of baskets, uniformed schoolgirls and men with bicycles. We docked on the other side at the Temple of Dawn and I meandered along the river to the Oriental Hotel, where I sat with a drink and watched the river.

One evening I took a dinner cruise on an old rice barge which smelled of timber, oil and fragrant Thai cuisine. As we sailed along, the brightly lit turrets of the palace, open air aerobics classes, swimmers, fishermen and promenaders, slid by. On board as we worked our way through the countless courses of a traditional Thai dinner, a group of beautiful dancers entertained us.

Another afternoon, I took a smaller, humbler barge into a tributary of The Chao Praya. Here, Bangkok was definitely the Venice of the East. Narrow wooden houses on tall stilts sat close to the river’s edge, each with their little jetty and their rickety staircase leading up to the back door. Long boats, selling fruit and souvenirs drew up alongside. As we made our way back to the wharf, our host served an afternoon tea of local fruits and juices. Delicious!

When in Bangkok, don’t fail to get out on the river.

 

Bangkok Nights

Bangkok is a city that never sleeps. Its nights are long and legendary. Even in the time of erstwhile Prime Minister Takhsin’s curfews, it never really closed down. Traffic roars and blares constantly. Lights flash and glare. The streets swarm with movement and people throng to thousands, if not millions of clubs, discos and bars. Whatever your particular night-life fancy, you’ll find it in Bangkok.

A contrast, light on stone at the Grand Palace.
A contrast, light on stone at the Grand Palace.

There are fabulous, classy, world famous clubs; playgrounds for the rich, the celebrated and the royal, where watchful bodyguards follow their charges from the edge of dance-floors surging with jewels and designer gear.

You’ll find those bars, the stuff of travellers’ tales, where tourists watch with mouths agape and eyes agog while dancers perform unbelievable tricks with unmentionable parts of their bodies. And you’ll find others again where as you sip on your drink of choice, they’ll do unspeakable things to unmentionable parts of yours.

Many of Bangkok’s clubs and bars buzz with the not so secret business between beautiful Thai youth and past-their-prime, gone-to-seed, western wallets. At the tables and on the dance-floors, clumsy paunches and graceful young figures meet against a background of relentless disco hits. Outsiders look on with a mixture of pity and amusement, at this tragi-comic commerce between the desperately poor and the ridiculously needy,

And then there’s yet another Bangkok night, down, in the city’s dark and infamous underbelly. This is the Bangkok where children are enslaved in prostitution and the world’s worst human beings collect to prey on them.

The Grand Palace

Set at the heart of Bangkok, the Grand Palace is one of Thailand’s greatest and one of the world’s most memorable examples of architecture. Every surface, every corner, of every building in the sprawling complex is richly and lavishly decorated in exquisite and minute detail. Nothing, it would seem, has been spared in the process.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Construction of the Grand Palace began on May 6, 1782, when the then King, Rama I, moved Royal Court from Chonburi and established Bangkok as Thailand’s new capital city. Over the next two hundred years, successive Kings added new buildings, each shaped by the particular style of its time and each marked with the regent’s individual flourish.

The organic development of the Grand Palace has resulted in a large, rambling rectangular complex with an eclectic mix of halls, pavilions, temples and palaces grouped around courtyards, lawns and gardens. It is divided into several quarters; the Inner Court and the Siwalai Gardens, the Middle Court, which is the central part of the Grand Palace, where the most important residential and state buildings are located, the Outer Court which houses the public buildings and lastly, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, where the Emerald Buddha, one of Thailand’s most precious icons resides.

By 1925, the Grand Palace was no longer the permanent residence of the Royal Court or the seat of the government. Then, when the Absolute Monarchy was abolished in 1932, all government agencies moved out of the palace.

Although the current Monarch no longer lives at the Grand Palace, it remains a place of work and several Royal offices are still located there. It is still used for official events and both royal ceremonies and state functions are held there every year.

The Grand Palace is currently partially open to the public as a museum and it is one of Thailand’s premier attractions.

As dress codes and protocols are strictly enforced at the Grand Palace, it is advisable to take a guided tour to avoid risking offence. Besides, as the buildings are so numerous, so steeped in history, so rich in symbolism and so lavished with intricate ornamentation, it is helpful to have someone to tell their stories and explain their significance.

 

Bangkok shopping

Bangkok is the proverbial shopper’s paradise. It has a multitude of malls, plazas, complexes, centres, arcades and boutiques and even more squares, small shops, markets and street stalls. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Bangkok, probably at a lower-than-elsewhere and/or irresistibly flexible price, too.

More of the Grand Palace's gilded splendour
More of the Grand Palace’s gilded splendour

You can hunt that international shopping “must have” in a number of the city’s chic plazas. Emporium, on Sukhumvit, houses a department store, designer fashion boutiques, fabulous, state of the art Asian homestores and Jim Thompson silks. In Ratchaprasong shopping district, Gaysorn has all the European greats such as Gucci, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry and Christian Dior. It also features many of Thailand’s innovative fashion labels such as Fly Now and Kloset Red. The Peninsula Plaza, on Rajadamri Road, is often described as Bangkok’s Harrod’s. Its 70 boutiques include Cartier, Davidoff, Versace and Gucci as well as top local fashion designers and jewelers. Here, too, you’ll also find some of Bangkok’s best tailors.

For a taste of old Bangkok head to O.P. Place, next to the Oriental Hotel. This 1908, neoclassic building was originally constructed as the Falk and Beidek Store, furnishing elegant outfits and home comforts to expats. Now, it offers high quality Thai silk, jewellery, carpets, paintings, leather goods and handicrafts. It also houses one of the Chitralada shops which specialize in handicraft goods made at the Sai Jai Thai workshops for the disabled, founded by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Narayana Phand, also in Ratchaprasong, is Thailand’s largest handicraft centre. It features a tremendous selection of high quality handicrafts from all over Thailand – silks, ceramics, wood carvings, lacquer and bronze ware, ethnic clothing, musical instruments, and Khon masks – all at reasonable prices.

Mah Boon Krong most commonly known as MBK, on Sukhumvit, is a large seven-storey air-conditioned market, packed with stalls selling everything from clothes, fashion accessories and cosmetics to mobile phones, DVDs and electronic games.

In Siam Square on Rama Road you’ll find a labyrinth of lanes with hundreds of cafes, restaurants, pubs and shops selling the latest and most outrageous in local youth fashion. Scattered among them are some of Thailand’s most avant garde and promising young designers, such as Srestis.

Stroll along any of Bangkok’s busy main streets like Sukhumvit, Silom Road or Rama I Road any day, or night, of the week and you’ll pass through long, meandering bazaars of stalls piled with souvenirs, clothes, shoes, CDs, bags and accessories at low, negotiable prices.

The most famous and most fascinating of all Bangkok’s shopping experiences is the weekend market at Chatuchak. It stretches for miles out on a far flung arm of the BTS sky train. Here, you’ll find everything from Animals to Zippers and among them are amazing objets d’art, carvings, masks, costumes, paintings, sculptures, homewares,  furniture, silks of every shade and texture, racks of mass-produced clothes and shoes, as well as local designers’ one-off masterpieces. Chatuchak takes time and lots of it, but it’s worth it, not only for the treasures you’ll find there, but also for the sheer pleasure of looking.

 

Traditional Thai Massage

Among Thailand’s memorable, and definitely not to be missed, experiences is the traditional Thai massage.  Tourists flock to massages all over the country, swearing by it as an antidote to fatigue as well as the other excesses of Thai travel. Millions of Thais incorporate it into their regular health and fitness routine. Some monasteries, like Wat Pho, run training schools and centres where the massage is part of therapeutic cleansing and healing. Massage establishments range from five star to very basic.

A gilded Thai Temple
A gilded Thai Temple

I took my Thai massage on Sukhumvit Soi 4, in Klong Toey, a narrow, traffic-clogged lane crowded with bars, tailors and restaurants, where every second business is a massage shop. Outside, bevies of tiny, smiling masseuses lounge in plastic chairs or stand on the pavements cooing “Welcome! Welcome!” to all who pass.

Encouraged by the enthusiastic reports of other travelers, the row of  chairs occupied by clients enjoying foot and neck massages, as well as the hard sell  and  the incredibly “interesting” price offered by a bevy of cooing masseuses in mauve, I decided to try the “daily special” at the Lilac Lounge .

My masseuse was not one of the petite spruikers from the street, but a Godzilla of a woman, with muscular arms and the challenging demeanour of a street fighter. She fitted with the stories I’d heard that many masseuses receive their training as part of Prison Rehabilitation Programmes. She ushered me firmly, if not forcefully, upstairs to the massage room.

The massage room had none of the calming, new age ambience of the massage centres which have proliferated under the name of Day Spa or Wellness Centre across the western world. It was a large loft (disturbingly reminiscent of the dormitory at the boarding school where I spent my teenage years) with a bare, wooden floor.  It was lined with cubicles with drawn, inscrutable floral curtains. There was a faint smell of baby oil, old timber and Pad Thai.

The “Daily Special” did not  include any of the gentle ministrations of the “massage therapists” who work in Day Spas and Wellness Centres. It entailed, instead, an hour of merciless manipulations during which, by turns, I clenched my teeth in agony, gasped for breath, stifled screams of pain, swallowed terrified yelps and choked back hysterical giggles. My limbs were stretched, bent and contorted. Every surface of my skin was pummelled, pulled and pushed. Every muscle was pounded, twisted and punched. My neck was yanked. My head was thumped. My joints were snapped and my fingers popped. The air was squeezed out of my lungs. My back was cracked. My face was slapped and pinched and my feet were scraped and tickled. There were moments when I seriously doubted that I’d survive to tell the tale, but survive I did.

Afterwards, recuperating in a recliner, sipping Jasmin tea, I had to admit, I felt marvelous. Perhaps it was because, like liver and silver beet, the Thai massage really is famously good for one, or perhaps it was simply because the immense relief of final a release from that heavy man-handling and strong-arming brings on an incredible lightness of being, almost like an out-of-body experience.

Whether the Thai massage can be honestly described as one of Thailand’s pleasurable experiences, is debatable. Some survivors describe it as torture, others as agony and others again, as brutalisation. Whichever it is, there’s absolutely no question that it leaves you feeling wonderful and well..

 

The Jim Thompson story

Many people come to Thailand, fall in love with it and never leave. Jim Thompson was one of them..

Born in Delaware, USA in 1906, Thompson worked as an architect until World War II, when he volunteered for service and was sent to the European theatre. Towards the end of the war he was posted to Bangkok, where he worked in military intelligence for the O.S.S. After his repatriation and release from the military, Jim Thompson returned to Thailand forever.

Thai silk Travelstripe
Thai silk Travelstripe

The art of Thai silk weaving captured Jim Thompson’s imagination and he set about reviving this almost lost industry. With his talents as a designer and textile colorist, he had a great deal to contribute to the manufacture and production process. A skilled marketer and promoter, he soon won worldwide recognition for Thai silk and it became a highly desirable commodity. The production of exquisitely designed and produced silks still continues under the Jim Thompson label. The main showroom is 9 Surawongse Road in Bangkok but Thompson silks can be found all over Thailand in prestige boutiques and top-end department stores.

Just as famous as Thompson silk is the  Jim Thompson house, or rather complex of houses, on the Klong (canal) at 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1, Road Bangkok. Consisting of six  teak houses,  which Thompson dismantled  brought from sites all over Thailand, It represents the best in traditional Thai architecture,

Authentic Thai  traditions were followed in the construction of the Jim Thompson House. All the buildings were elevated a full story above  ground  to avoid floods in the rainy season. The roof tiles were fired in Ayudhya using an ancient design. The outside walls were preserved with rare, old red paint. Even the “modern” chandeliers came from 18th and 19th century Bangkok palaces.

In 1959 the house was finished. After all the correct traditional religious observances and on an astrologically auspicious day, Jim Thompson moved in. In time, the house and its collection of art and antiques, became such a point interest to Thais and tourists alike, that he opened it to the public.  All revenue from the Jim Thompson House is donated to the preservation of Thailand’s cultural heritage.

On March 27, 1967, while on holiday in Malaysia’s Cameroon Highlands, Jim Thompson vanished. The mystery of his disappearance has never been solved. Still his beautiful silks and his famous Thai house remain as lasting evidence of his creativity and his love of Thailand.

 

Kanchanaburi and The Burma Railway

Kanchanaburi, 130 kilometres to the west of Bangkok on the Myanmar border, is Thailand’s third largest province, covering 19,473 square kilometres. It is a region of breathtaking beauty, with dense mountainous jungles, calm, slow-flowing rivers, hidden caves, and waterfalls. Pristine national parks offer all kinds of jungle adventures from elephant treks to white-water rafting.

Beautiful Kanchanaburi, from the Burma Railway
Beautiful Kanchanaburi, from the Burma Railway

Today, it seems unbelievable that this beautiful peaceful province, with its friendly gentle people, should have been the scene of one of the worst chapters of World War Two.

In the War Cemetery at Kanachanaburi, row after row of simple white headstones tell of tragic, cruel and needless deaths of 6,982 British, Australian, Canadian, Dutch and New Zealand men, some as young as 16 years and some as old 56. Across the road, the War Museum tells how those lives were lost in the construction of the Burma Railway.

Also known as the Death Railway or the Thailand-Burma Railway, this 415 kilometre line runs between Bangkok in Thailand and Rangoon in Myanmar. Its route was first surveyed by the British at the beginning of the 20th century but plans were abandoned as the mountainous jungle terrain made construction almost impossible.

On June 22, 1942, however, the Empire of Japan, seeking a route to supply their forces in the Burma Campaign, began work on the railway, starting at both the Thai and the Burma ends simultaneously. Most construction materials were carted overland from the dismantled rail system of the Federated States of Malaysia. About 200,000 Asian “slaves” and 60,000 Allied prisoners laboured on the railway, living and working under appalling conditions. By the time construction was completed on October 17, 1943, 100, 000 Asian and 16,000 Allied POW workers had died from exhaustion, malnutrition, cholera, malaria and dysentery.

Today, only 130 kilometres of the railway are still in use. Tourists can ride, in rattling wooden carriages with open windows, along steep jungle cliffs which fall away to a slow yellow river below. Through the treetops on the far banks, the temples of Myanmar flash in and out of view. It’s beautiful, picturesque and tranquil but haunted with ghosts of those men who gave their lives to build it.

The most famous section of the Thai-Burma Railway is Bridge 277 over the Khwae Yai River, probably because it was immortalized by the David Niven movie classic The Bridge on the River Kwai  and its unforgettable theme tune the Colonel Bogey march. Ghosts linger at Bridge 277, too, but they’re the ghosts of Niven et al and the phantom voices in the river below are the whistling chorus of the Colonel Bogey march.

The construction of the Burma Railway was a major event in the “Asian Holocaust” in which millions of civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war lost their lives.

 

The Genting Highlands Theme Park

The Genting Highlands Resort and theme Park must be seen to be believed. It is really hard to imagine why anyone would take a masterpiece of nature like the majestic mountain Gunung Ulu Kali and install on its summit such a ghastly monument to man-made tackiness.

Genting Highlands Theme Park. Photo
Genting Highlands Theme Park. Photo thanks to  gentinghighland.info

However, just like the Frankenstein monster, this brainchild of entrepreneur Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong, was born of the best of intentions.

In 1961, while working on a hydro project in the surrounding Cameron Highlands, the picturesque (and cool) playground of British Colonials, Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong conceived the bold, philanthropic notion of building a resort in the hills which would be affordable and accessible to all Malaysians. The idea was considered inconceivable. The feat was believed to be impossible. But nobody had reckoned on the mountain-moving determination of Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong. In 1981 the first hotel was opened. Today multiple hotels and apartment blocks crowd together with giant, world-class, indoor and outdoor theme parks, on the mountaintop.

Whether you swing up to Genting Highlands Theme Park on the Skywalk (the world’s fastest and South-East Asia’s longest cable-car system) or wind up to it on your tour bus, you’ll enjoy stunning vistas over the magnificent rain-forested hills and valleys. It’s worth the trip, just for this. It’s a precious last glimpse of ordered, natural beauty, of soft colours, subdued sounds and gentle movements.

Up on the summit, nothing is real. Like the true face of an aged courtesan, the shabbiness and ugliness of Genting Highlands Theme Park is concealed in the distracting flash of neon lights, with the ugly undersides of buildings, the wires, the fans air conditioners hidden in shadow. The grind and rumble of machinery is covered by the shrieks of roller coaster riders and blaring musak.

Inside, escalators, slope in ten different directions. People hurry up and down. In restaurants, like huge eating stadiums, frenzied waiters rush to and fro, clattering plates and packing holes in buffets with more and more food. Games arcades boom and vibrate with the disquieting sound of electronic battles; the rattle of gunfire, the whistle of missiles, bombs, explosions, robot screams. The pokies clatter and ping. Carousels, hurdy gurdies and merry-go-rounds pump out nursery rhymes. Hearty Disney characters hand out sweets, shake hands and startle kids. On an avenue of world wonders, an imitation Eiffel Tower glows against a backdrop of electric stars while nearby, a pretend Big Ben chimes the hour and a gondolier with a false moustache lip-synchs a canzone as he rows a faux gondola along an artificial canal.

But still, discounting the zombies in the games arcades, the faces that slide past on the escalators, swoop by on the roller-coasters or gaze up at the Eiffel tower, are the faces of people who are having fun. Genting Highlands Resort and Theme park is fun and what’s more it is affordable fun.  Visitors flock to it in their thousands every day and in their millions every year; many of them tourists but most of them are the ordinary Malaysians – mums and dads, kids, young couples, teenagers and grandparents – of Sri Lim Goh Tang’s vision.

 

 

 

Four Great Kuala Lumpur Buildings

From the modest kampong set up in the 1820s by Malay settlers from Sumatra, Kuala Lumpur has developed into a thriving, twenty first century metropolis which can boast some of the world’s most impressive architecture. Although some buildings, like the Menara KL and the Petronas Towers, can be seen from the shopping centre or from the hotel window, it’s worth venturing into the streets and braving the rather scary and incredibly noisy traffic to get a different perspective. It’s also worthwhile taking a stroll to look at some older, less prominent, but by no means less impressive, buildings.

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

The Petronas Towers is KL’s most famous landmark. It was designed by the Argentine-American architect Cesare Pelli for the Malaysian oil company Perolium Nasional and was constructed between 1992 and 1998. Its twin shafts, glass curtain walls and scalloping are distinctive but its footprint; an 8 sided star with rounded nodules is a common feature of Islamic architecture. It is this blend of innovation and tradition that make the twin towers such a fitting symbol for the Malaysian nation. It has rapidly become one of the world’s most photographed buildings and its fame was increased even further by the Sean Connery/ Catherine Zeta-Jones film Entrapment. Although the Petronas towers have now been surpassed as the world’s tallest building they still remain as the world’s tallest twin towers and as an architectural icon.

The Menara KL which doubles as a communications tower and observation post is another example of the blending of modern functional architecture with traditional, Islamic decorative features.   By day it is the conventional telecommunications tower with a long shaft, followed by a pod and topped with antennae. But by night it is lit by a typically Islamic checkerboard pattern of lights which shine like jewels against the sky.

The Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, on Jalan Sultan Hishamudda is as breath-takingly beautiful and extraordinary in its own way, for its own time, as the Petronas towers is, in its distinctive fashion, in this time. It was designed by the British architect, Arthur Benson Hubback, who had served in India and brought a wide knowledge of Anglo-Asian architecture to the project. The station’s style, labeled Neo-Moorish, Indo-Saracenic or Neo-Saracenic, was common at the time and incorporates typical Islamic turrets, arches, checkerboard patterns and mosaics with touches of late Victorian grandeur. Although the station no longer echoes with the whistle and hiss of steam and the clank of iron, it is preserved for posterity as a museum.

Another of KL’s landmark buildings is the  Royal Selangor Club which was once the domain of the pink gin, the panama hat, the Somerset Maugham suit and the white glove. It’s a long, low, white, mock Tudor structure with a red-tiled roof, set in an expansive lawn. You can almost hear the echoes of ball on bat, cries of “Howzat!” and restrained applause. The British flag was lowered here for the last time in 1957, when independence was declared and Malaysia was born. The site, originally called Selangor Padang was re-named Merdeka Square. The old building serves as a backdrop to the new nation’s annual independence or Merdeka celebrations.

These are just four of KL’s great buildings. There are hundreds more, equally fascinating some of them large and modern, but many of them modest and ancient. They all have their own special stories and they are all part of the multi-cultural history of the city and its people.

Today, Kuala Lumpur echoes constantly with the sounds of construction as it continues to grow and its architecture continues to develop.