Saturday, 29 January 2011

Say Armin to that (or Schoch Therapy)

Armin with 'a little bit of car trouble' up north.
Armin Schoch is Swiss by birth but arrived in Thailand and 1983, and that was that. He never left.

He's now a Thai citizen. He even has a Thai name: Arin Chokphisit. He speaks Thai with the chattering rapidity of a machine gun, testament to all the time he's spent in the far-flung villages and outposts of this country, looking for authentic cultural experiences to offer his clients.

Pool table at Be Bop Bar, Pai
You see, he's a tour operator. He used to run Diethelm Travel in Bangkok for many years but now runs his own bespoke operation, Impulse (

He's turned one of his hobbies -- motorbike touring -- into a business. Armin is a notorious figure throughout northern Thailand on his blue-and-white BMW 650 Dakar. But when he's not terrorising the buffalo in the countryside on his bike, he's enjoying a game of tennis or a few frames of snooker with the lads.

He now calls rural Mae Rim (north of Chiang Mai) home. ‘Been there 7 years; best home town I’ve ever had.’

Northern Thailand is firmly his favourite part of the country. ‘Great topography that makes for great motorcycling, ethnic variety, genuinely friendly people, fantastic food, amazing cultural, historical, ethnic background.’

Armin’s impulsive Top 5 Thailand Travel Tips:

1/ Nan: ‘Is a city that is laid back, yet surprisingly developed, and yet largely unrecognized.’

2/ Doi Mae Salong, Chiang Rai: ‘A place with a hugely diverse and rich historical background.’

3/ Ban Dam, Chiang Rai: ‘For contemporary modern art, very avant-garde, yet also very Thai.’

4/ Hill-tribe villages: ‘Any hill-tribe village that is still unspoilt by tourism where I can sit down and have a chat with the locals.’

5/ Be Bop Bar, Pai: ‘I am not a fan of Pai per se, but do always enjoy the great music on a not-too-busy night at Be Bop.’

Ginny's serene life in the Golden Triangle ...

We are enjoying wickedly delicious desserts at the cool Chillout Cafe overlooking the Golden Triangle, and Jirachada 'Ginny' Assavanich is telling me about her hobbies ...

'Cooking, flower arrangement, yoga, reading, and swimming.' But then it strikes me that Ms Perpetual Motion would hardly get time for any of that. She hardly sits still for one minute, and, running the blossoming boutique Serene at Chiang Rai Hotel ( keeps her on the hop. 

Yummy desserts at Chill Out Cafe.
Many of these interests she's incorporated into her property, with arguably the best cafe food in Chieng Saen coming from her cafe's kitchen, floral arrangements used to great effect in the contemporary fusion-style hotel, and a new swimming pool on the banks of the Mekong having just been installed.

All of this is a long way from where the Bangkok girl grew up. 'Bangkok is full of life and every moment is quite rushed,' she says. But Ginny has fond memories of summer because she'd spend nearly all her time at Talad Klongsuan (100 Year Market) at Samutprakarn. The famous market is built in wood and has been around since the time of Rama 1V.

Klongsuan boats.
'I consider that one part of my hometown. The neighbours know each other, and there's never a lack of caring and sharing. The children always group together and play around neighbor hood home. Almost all of the population is Thai-Chinese. Some are Thai and Muslim but never argue for what they believe,' she reminisces wistfully.

As she gazes out over the Mekong River, with wooden boats chugging upstream, I am sure some of that reminds Ginny of all that childhood playtime near Klongsuan. Ginny says: 'We spent a slow life over there.If we would like to have some pastries it meant I had to help my mom baking. It was good quality time.' With that, she insists we have another round of mouth-watering desserts ...

Ginny's Top 5 Places to Chill in Chiang Rai:

The new pool with Mekong River and Laos in background.
1/ Swimming pool, Serene at Chiangrai Hotel: 'From this swimming pool, surrounded by its petite garden, I can see the Mekong river and lie down and feel at ease.'   

2/ Hall of Opium Museum, : 'I like it because it's a world-class quality museum, something difficult to find in Thailand. There are good presentations and it educates us a lot for knowledge of story of opium which IS the story of the Golden Triangle.'

3/ Golden Triangle, Chiang Rai: 'I love this place because from that place can be linked Thai, Myanmar and Laos by the Mekong River.'

4/ La Valley Gallery, Doi Chang Ngoo (or Doi Sa -ngo), Chiang Rai: 'I have visited this small art gallery and even experienced eating fusion food in the forest here. This is the place to find the famous artist professor Sriwan ... her portraits are so cool. Everything is set for good composition.'

5/ Jan Ka Pak, Chakaphan Pensiri Plant Development Center, Chiang Rai: 'They have a nice view of mountains and flowers. They provide organic quality vegetables. Here you can have quality Saldana bar with papaya salad and grilled chicken with sticky rice (the sticky rice is their specialty). Eating with this mountain view is soooo relaxing.'

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Shy and retiring? Not our Boong!

It is somehow ironic that someone who runs a business dealing with retirees ( is so incredibly energetic and youthful. In her late 30s, Boong Chaladlam is a tireless networker, a fixture on the northern Thailand social scene, and, if that were not enough, also runs a Boutique Travel Service (

Now living in Chiang Mai, she was actually born in a small village in Chiang Rai province called Thoeng, and grew up in Chiang Rai city itself.

"Thoeng is a village of around 2000 people. Everyone knows each other and they are all like family. It is very harmonious, in the middle of mountains, with paddy field and reservoir."

But these days, when she's not planning the next event or meeting, she's into reading, exercising (especially yoga) and chatting with people. Did I mention tireless networker???

So what draws her to Chiang Mai? "I love Chiang Mai and northern Thailand  because it is a great combination of modern cities and  natural facilities," she says. But her love is divided: "I also like the islands down south like Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. It is so easy for me to jump on the plane and fly down to those islands." Chiang Mai has many direct flights per week to the first two.

Boong's Top 5 Boutique Bucket List:

1/ Ban Papai Village, Doi Saket: It is a self-sufficient economy village. I invite foreigner friends to join with me for Sunday afternoon class visiting the village to support the local Chiang Mai people. The no.1 charm of Chiang Mai is the people. To be with the natives with lots of love, care and respect, you will always want to go back. I have been to this place almost every week for over 6 years. Villagers, foreign friends and I plant many trees for a greener Chiang Mai."

2/ Horizon Village and Resort ( "An excellent lunch and enjoy the big botanical garden. Either just sitting there for reading, riding the bicycle, or taking the golf cart to go around, it is lots of fun and very relaxing. They also have horseback riding and a swimming pool which I never use -- I can’t swim!!!"

Chill time at the Spa Mantra.
3/ Huan Khajao Restaurant, Chiang Mai: "This authentic northern Thai restaurant is in the hidden place of Chiang Mai. To welcome friends from abroad, this is my first place to take them. The food has a very nice taste, Thai and Northern Thai, beautiful cultural shows like you go to Khantoke Dinner, but this place is more casual and the price is like eating at home. They have got a museum which you can learn a lot about Chiang Mai history, in term of local people’s living, beliefs and social values. From this place you can continue your night at Riverside Restaurant for the drinks, nice music and chilling out."

4/ Spa Mantra, Chiang Mai ( "Surely I am living in the best place in the world for spa. Organic spa is not an expensive thing here. The reason I like this because they also support the local people who grow organic and environmentally friendly projects."

5/ Fashion King Tailor, Chiang Mai ( "For my nice dresses. As I attend many events and go out a lot, to look good is important. Frank and Vanita are very friendly and have the very nice works."

Barbara: Time to stop and smell the roses.

Barbara and daughter in Chiang Mai
Her name is Barbara Quinn and she speaks with a quaint Yorkshire accent. Newcastle like. But she's 100% Thai.

"Well actually my name is Rungaroon, which means 'Born in early fresh morning,'" she says, "but when I moved to the UK with my step-father no one could pronounce that. My Dad said, Well your nickname's Pla and that sounds like Barbara, so Barbara it is."

Born in Petchabun ("very hot, grilled chicken wings, and sugarcane") she's been on the move ever since, including a few years each in Phuket, Lopburi and Chiang Mai.

"Every year I visit back to Lopburi," the 26-year-old says, "visit some family and grandparents' graves. From October to February the sunflowers ... oh! You can sit on an elephant and go through sunflower fields. Or even take the train and from one city to another all you see is sunflowers, lakes, dams. We go back to country life, see how life was, really Thai. I miss all those things," says the wedding and event organiser ( with a background in marketing and hospitality.

Playing in Khmer ruins, Lopburi.
However she's happy to call Chiang Mai home where her family runs The Pub, Chiang Mai's oldest watering hole, now 41 years old ( "This is our family tree," she says, enjoying the shade of a sala in its leafy grounds. "A starting point for all the kids. I can stay here in the Thai way, but make a living in the farang way outside."

Just then her brother Thomas passes by, a drummer in a popular band downtown by night ... "You don't have to hire anyone else when you've got all the skills in the family."

Barbara's Top 5 Chilled Choices:

1/ Huay Tung Tao Lake, Chiang Mai: "A lot of tourists don't know it, and I prefer that, quiet as it is. I like to sit with my family and chill. There's a little library there. Even if you fall asleep there's no danger there."

2/ Coffee shops on Nimminheiman Road, Chiang Mai: "Every week I'll go to 1 or 2 different ones to see what the new generation is doing, what teenagers are thinking and doing. Some have garden atmospheres, different cakes. I can never get around to all because there's always a new one popping up. When you get a big welcome and a big smile, maybe you are their first customer ever!"

3/ Wat Umong and Wat Chiengmand, Chiang Mai: "I go to temple once a week. I like Umong's shady trees -- it's like The Pub but they don't serve Guinness! I go to Chiengmand on special occasions to feed the fish. The monks here still have their strong religion, doing what monks should do, not out shopping. I like Monk Chat when you can talk to the monks. There's a Thai saying: 'When it comes from your heart, you get the whole 100% of the blessing'."

4/ Phu Ping Royal Palace, Doi Suthep: "I go on the motorbike, sit around the garden and feel respectful to be so close to our 'Dad' -- our King -- and Queen and all they have done for us. It's not a big palace; it's natural, it's garden  ... new mixes of roses that our Queen and Princess created and planted."

5/ Lopburi: "They call it 'Monkey Town' because there's millions of monkeys in town. As soon as you step off the train, and they even have monkey gangsters who'll take things from you! It's historical but there's an extreme sport centre there too. I just went for a week and didn't want to come back."

Tee time in the north ...

There's always a warm welcome from Khun Tee ...
"When I was young, there was nothing here," says Kayoon 'Tee' Wishwoot, from her furniture showroom in the middle of Chiang Mai's bustling and trendy Nimminheiman Road. "No foreigners, no big airport, no infrastructure."

As a five year old, she moved from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with her parents, her father being one of the pioneer doctors who opened up the Chiang Mai Medical School. "That was 50 years ago, together with the Americans. That's why there were all these huge American cars around then. Western missionaries also had an impact -- the McCormick Hospital changed Chiang Mai to be more international."

The way she saw it, that also spawned the city's handicrafts industry. "First, westerners came as tourists, got souvenirs, then asked 'Can you make more for me?' So now we are the biggest for wood, handicrafts, etc.We started with one container, now thousands."

The shop where she is Sales Executive/ Showroom Manager is Gerard Collection ( specialising in bamboo furniture, and exporting worldwide.

"Because Chiang Mai is a small town with a big university, so the mentality is different. The people here are different -- it makes our vision a little wider. So when tourists come, we know how to deal with them. We don't operate like a business ... we don't hit and run."

Tee has travelled widely within the Kingdom. "I've been to every part of Thailand, but it's not like here. People are different, and the weather is number one!" she gives a big thumbs up to the north.

Tee's Top 5 Thailand Travel Tips:

1/ Bangkok: "If foreigners come to see us, they should go to Bangkok first and see the Emerald Temple, and the history and culture of Thailand there."

2/ Babylon Italian restaurant, Chiang Mai: "It's been there 30 years, in a quaint old house opposite Chiang Mai University on Huay Kheaw Road."

Khao soi, Lam Duan style. The best???
3/ Khao Soi Lam Duan, Chiang Mai: "This place on Fa Ham Road is famous as they used to serve in the Palace for the King and Queen when they came here. Have lovely pork satay too. It's famous because it's been there 30 years, the oldest."

4/ Goodview Restaurant, Chiang Mai ( "I go there to the river all the time with friends from out of town. Easy!"

5/ The Salad Concept, Nimmanhaemin Soi 13, Chiang Mai: "New style of eating with healthy things. Quick, easy, not too heavy like Thai food with rice and coconut milk."

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Greg on the ultimate rubdowns ... and genital detox therapy

Trust me, I'm a massage therapist!
"Thailand is the home of spa," enthuses Greg Morling, an Australian spa consultant. "And Chiang Mai is where it's at because it delivers that ephemeral experience, the ambience, it's naturally in the Lanna people."

The Lanna Kingdom left a rich heritage in ancient health secrets, and secrets for healing and rejuvenation. The Lanna Exotic Massage style combines centuries-old Thai massage techniques (known as Tok Sen) with oils extracted from local herbs, and Lanna music therapy.

"Any of these techniques may be physically replicated anywhere in the world. But it's not going to be the same if it's not in northern Thailand."

The misty mountains where lemongrass, prai and turmeric grow. Soaring spiritual temples (there are over 300 in Chiang Mai alone). Cooler climate. And the softer, gentler Lanna culture that has pervaded this region since the 13th century.  

 As former president of the Australian Association of Massage Therapy, Morling knows what he's talking about. And he was recently in Chiang Mai to find the very best spa experiences to bring specialist tour groups to, commencing June 2011.(See

Getting your rocks ON at Rarinjinda.
By his definition, spa means 'water' so it's all about reverence for water. His big thing is signature treatments. "Each of us has a signature, one signature; so a spa needs to have one too. Something truly unique and original to it." For example, Oasis Spa's signature is a four-hands massage (two masseuses simultaneously), and one treatment with real gold leaf in its oil.

He's off to check out The Spa at Four Seasons Resort . "I've heard it's the best in the world, but I've not tried it yet."

Greg's Top 5 Spa experiences in northern Thailand:

1/ Rarinjinda ( "Great spa with a sound Ayuveyda basis. This is a complete Wellness retreat and has the presence of a Western/Ayuveda doctor there full time to work out programs. Also has a reverence for water and uses hydrotherapy as a basis for many treatments."

2/ Tao Gardens ( "This is a true Health Resort and while it might be a little bit ‘out there’ with treatments on the menu that include Karsai Nei Tsang Genital Detox Therapy, it is nestled in beautiful surroundings and has many of the regular Spa treatments available performed by skilled therapists."

3/ Ban Sabai Village Resort & Spa ( "Tucked away north of the city, this is a complete resort with wonderful Lanna cuisine and a very high Spa treatment standard. Detox programs make this a complete Wellness retreat."

Aah, I feel better already. Chiida Spa cascades.
4/ Peak Spa ( "Some Spas are small but hold palpatory gems! This is one. The Thai hands here are second to none. I have been a massage therapist for nearly 30 years and I was impressed! They also make their own Thai treatment ingredients and they have one of the most gracious Spa managers I have met; worth the visit to meet Tai."

5/ Chiida Spa ( "Unforgettable setting next to a waterfall. It is a little way out of Chiang Mai but I was impressed that they are always upgrading and evaluating their service. Quite an holistic retreat offering yoga and meditation as well as the usual Spa offerings."

Ton and Mee's sweet life in the hills ...

Ton and Mee -- and Ouan makes three.
I found myself in the mountains of Doi Mae Salong recently, and had to check out this place everyone's been raving about. On the lower part of the town, Sweet Mae Salong [look it up on facebook] is perfectly charming from the outside with its wood and bamboo cladding.

Then once inside, cool jazz tunes sweep over you, and your eyes are drawn to the valley outside. The cafe hangs over a stunning piece of countryside, with terraced tea plantations opposite. Cast your eyes around and you can hardly believe you're in some little mountain town; it feels as cool as anywhere in downtown Sukhumvit Road. Magazines in any number of languages, arty photographs of the area, and a certain designery chic. It seems soooo out of place ...

Sweet Mae Salong is the 'baby' of Ton and Mee, a lovely young couple from Bangkok who decided to pursue their dream. "My family ran a traditional Thai restaurant, very primitive," Mee laughs. "But I love baking, not really cooking." Her raspberry tart is wicked, and her creme brulee the best this side of Paris.

Oh, so you studied dessert-making under some renowned chef or something? "No, I studied international business in Melbourne," she laughs. "And I studied photography," chimes in the affable Ton. "Spend lots of money to study in Melbourne, now serve coffee and bake cakes!"

Hungry diners thaw out over a huge breakfast ...
They serve up a splendid breakfast; a mountain of scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage with slices of the best home-made wholemeal bread thick as hard-cover novels. Ton's tertiary education was not wasted -- his coffee is spot on.

Other guests shuffle into the tiny cafe, rugged up against the morning chill which can get down to about 5 or 10 degrees on a wintry morning. Everyone wants to sit on the balcony and be thawed by the morning son that stream across those tables.

We chat between cups of coffee. Why Doi Mae Salong? "It's a balance between nature, culture and money," says the artistically slim Ton. "And Mae Salong is interesting. We have tradition and we have the internet." A Mac computer sits wired nearby. "But it's quiet versus Bangkok and Mee loves the weather."

Ton's favourite place in Thailand is Lanta Island in the south. "Coz Lanta Island is very big but you still can find peaceful and quiet beach," the 35-year-old enthuses. You can also catch the boat to many beautiful islands around, rent a bike to visit Amphur Gao ... San Ga Ou village. Kao Mai Gaew waterfall in Tambon Klong Rin is also very, very beautiful."

Ton and Mee's Top 5 Thailand Sweet Spots:

1/ Lao Liang Island, Trang Province: "There's no resort on that island so you can really feel the beauty of nature there. The sea is very clear, the sand is so soft and white just like woman's leg. You can also do cliff climbing and kayaking around the island."
Quiet fields in Nan, near Laos.
2/ Nan province: "Beautiful temple and lovely lifestyle. Life is slow there and the cost of living is reasonable."
3/ Pranakorn Bar and Gallery, Bangkok: "At Kok Wua intersection. Located in the middle of Ratanakosin island and not so far from the Grand Palace. From the roof top you can see the Golden Mountain temple and Rachadamnun Road view."  
View from The Deck
4/ The Deck at Tartean, Bangkok: "Close to Wat Pho in Bangkok, it provides you the great view of Chao Praya river and Wat Arun;  it's very romantic to have a glass of wine with your date there."
5/  Street Food at Chinatown, Bangkok: "It has so much to mention  -- variety of great food, mixture of nationalities from around the world, lifestyle and so much more. Walking in the middle of Chinatown it's so lively!"