Monday, 29 November 2010

Stu Lloyd interviews Stu Lloyd. Yes, really!

Faces & Places: Sawasdee krub, and welcome to Thailand:Faces & Places.

Stu Lloyd: Thank you.

F&P: So what can readers expect from this blog?

SL: It's about the people, Kon Thai, that make Thailand really special to me. So here, I will feature a few different, fascinating and interesting people from Thailand each week. Talk about their life, what they love about their country, and, more importantly, sneakily get them to share some of their own insider secrets about travelling in the Kingdom with us. So readers get a good feeling for the locals, and real local knowledge and travel tips.

F&P: You're not different, fascinating nor interesting -- you're not even Thai -- so why are you the first person to be featured here?

SL: Haha. I'm kicking off this blog with a little overview of me so you know who you're dealing with ... and there will be other farangs, typically long-termers, featured now and again.

I am actually fourth-generation Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) by birth, Australian by citizenship, and have since wandered through 55 countries, living in seven others, and spending 15 years in Southeast Asia, along the way to calling Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand home.

F&P: So what's your occupation, because you're too young and handsome to be retired?

SL: I am a travel writer by profession, and have written for the likes of National Geographic Traveler, Sydney Morning Herald, South China Morning Post and a million in-flight magazines, as well as having had six books published. The Telegraph in the UK called me 'The perfect storyteller' which just goes to show you can't believe everything you read in the newspapers!

F&P: So, in all the world, why did you choose Chiang Mai?

SL: I'd been travelling to Thailand for around 20 years, and even had a home on the beach in Koh Samui for a few years, before I ever set foot in Chiang Mai. I came here for three days and that was it -- I decided immediately I would live in Chiang Mai. It's a really cool place that's big enough but small enough, lots of cultural dimensions, has easy access to many other parts of Thailand and Indochina (the Greater Mekong Subregion), and of course the soft culture of the Lanna people.

F&P: So nothing to do with pretty girls and motorcycles?

SL: Well, now that you mention it ... haha. That's true, it's a motorcyclist's paradise with some of the most amazing roads through incredible mountain scenery. And if your bum gets sore after a long day in the saddle -- not that it does when you ride a BMW of course -- you can stop just about anywhere for a great massage which costs only about 150-200 baht per hour.

 F&P: So, Stu, please give us your top 5 Northern Thailand insider's tips.

SL: Wow, difficult to narrow it down to just five. Can I do five for Chiang Mai and five for the rest of Northern Thailand?

F&P: That's an even better idea, thank you.

SL: So, my top 5 things to see and do in Chiang Mai would be:

1/ Huen Phen Restaurant. 112 Ratchamanka Road, in the old city. Some consider it the best northern food here, and the setting at night is magical, more like a small Thai antique shop than a restaurant. And the bill is always a pleasant surprise.

2/ North Gate Jazz Co-op. Sripoom Road, inside the moat, northern side near Chang Pueak Gate. Chiang Mai has an amazing jazz scene, so much talent among the locals, as well as touring and visiting musicians who drop in. Tuesdays is a blast, literally, with a free-for-all jam. No cover charge, and enjoy the indoor/outdoor setting with the backdrop of the old city wall. Super cool!

3/Bookshops. There are at least half a dozen seriously good second-hand bookstores here, including Gecko Books and Backstreet Books clustered just outside Thapae Gate area (opposite the Art Cafe). Enjoy a browse and find your favourite titles at giveaway prices.

4/ The Yellow Bird Cafe. Run by bohemian lass Santia, the bar/cafe is in an old teak house, and feels like a chilled evening lolling around in her living room with Thai cushions and throw rugs. It can only fit a dozen people in it, but sometimes there are only 1 or 2 others there. A great place to swap tales of the road with whoever drops by. Often spontaneous jams break out. Every night's different -- It's sometimes not even open, depending on Santia's mood! Ratchmanka Soi 3 in the old town.

5/ Galleries of Charoenrajd Road. Spend half a day dropping in and out of dozens of art, artifact and furniture galleries along this strip on the far side of the Ping River. Engage the owners in a chat, and find out lots about local culture, and that of the hill-tribes and neighbouring countries, as the art and artists of the the region gravitate here. Finish off with tea at the Vieng Joom On teahouse, amid garden atmosphere on the Ping River. Civilised!

F&P: Sounds great. Now tell us your Northern Thailand top 5.

SL: My Northern Thailand top 5 attractions would be:

1/ Doi Mae Salong, Chiang Rai province.  A fascinating place with a strong Chinese flavour because it is where a regiment of China's Kuomintang Army defected to in the early 1950s (the others fled to Taiwan). Awesome tea terraces, tea-houses, Yunnanese food. Just 3.5 hours north of Chiang Mai.

2/ Sweet Mae Salong. A cool cafe run by a lovely Thai couple, Mee and Ton, who do a brilliant western-style breakfast and AMAZING European desserts like creme brulee, raspberry tarts etc. And all the while you can enjoy breathtaking views from their balcony of an amazing valley. Worth going to Mae Salong just to eat here.

3/ The Sunflower Hill-tribe festival, Doi Hua Mae Kum. Held each November when the Bua Tong Mexican sunflowers carpet the hillsides, this is a must-see festival when all the hill-tribes of the area -- who used to cultivate opium in Khun Sa's heyday -- gather and share their song and dances. There are at least half a dozen distinctly different ethnic minorities here, at the end of the road, 100km northwest of Chiang Rai town near the Burma border. A fun and friendly spectacle.

4/ Route 1148, eastern Chiang Rai province. If you get car-sick you'll hate this suggestion. But if you're an avid motorcyclist this comes close to perfection. A snaking winding road which goes on and on and on, up and down, up and down, perfectly sealed, perfectly cambered even. You don't want it to ever end. A pity you have to concentrate on the road so much, as the scenery is spectacular too.

5/ San Sai Yee Peng festival. Ok, this one's a bit mainstream, but despite the crowds, it must be done ONCE in a lifetime. Held at a temple near Maejo University, the sight of hundreds of chanting monks sitting in concentric circles, leading up to the simultaneous release of thousands of glowing paper lanterns, is truly awe-inspiring. One of the most breath-taking experiences of my life. Then to see the sky filled with thousands of sparkling lights as they drift into the stratosphere ...

F&P: Wow! Well, thank you, Stu for kicking off Thailand: Faces & Places in such an exciting manner.

SL: You're welcome. My pleasure ... look forward to seeing more people enjoying these delights. It'd be great to hear from others on what they consider their favourite attractions. It's all about sharing, so tell your friends about Thailand: Faces and Places and drop me a line, eh?