Business Times - 30 May 2009
No ifs, ands or bahts
Bangkok is a place for red-shirt spotting, Chiang Mai is an all-day art and craft bazaar and Chiang Rai offers rustic calm and quiet beauty. Whatever your activity level, Thailand has a range to suit you, at a better price than ever before. By Jaime Ee
FRENETIC may not be the right word to describe Bangkok these days - at least for its tourism industry. A more appropriate term may be 'weary resignation', as go-go dancers pocket fewer tips and hotel staff smile bravely at customers who barely fill two tables in a restaurant designed for at least 20.
Before the clash of pro-Thaksin 'red shirt' protesters which had the city in a state of emergency just a couple of months ago, and before the credit crunch sank in, Le Meridien Bangkok - in the Silom District just steps away from Patpong - was a hot place to be seen at. Its uber-hip East-West eatery Bamboo Chic was the spot du jour for local celebrities and rich kids, says its marketing communications manager Jirapa Chankitisakoon. No wonder, with its stylised Oriental decor, Japanese-influenced menu like a tasty beef tenderloin layered with foie gras on seasoned rice, a bar, and a DJ spinning at night.
But business is patchy these days, as countries caution against travel to Thailand, recession woes and a sneaky H1N1 virus add up to one major stumbling block. It sure makes this a less than opportune time to be launching a re-branding of the Le Meridien brand across Thailand - including new properties in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. But on other hand, there's no better time than now to experience this new luxury at a comfortable price.
When the Starwood group took over the hotel chain from its French operators, a new design aesthetic was forged to create a unique identity that travellers would recognise as the Le Meridien DNA. Hence the 'transitional portals' of huge pop art murals that dominate the lobbies of each property, a customised scent and even 'in-lift' entertainment where catchy videos or sounds are played in lifts to overcome awkward silent rides with strangers.
But if you're looking for more excitement beyond bargain hunting at Mahboonkrong or Chatuchak market, think again.
As any local or any traveller will tell you, there is no strife to be seen. The only red shirt you're likely to see would be on a Japanese tourist who forgot to heed his country's travel advice.
Indeed, the only action for peace and massage-loving mortals is to either beat the lunch crowds at Siam Paragon's foodcourt or hightail it out of town to a smaller one that has enough of a big city buzz but softened with a good dose of small town folksiness, namely, Chiang Mai.
Take Bangkok, lop off a small chunk, skim off a decade or so of sophistication, keep a good portion of dust and unleash a legion of night market stallholders - lo, you have Chiang Mai, one of the oldest cities in Thailand and former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom.
Well known as the heart of handicraft in Thailand and the go-to place for houseproud tourists looking to outfit their home, Chiang Mai is a veritable city-sized bazaar with bargains to match.
The city is a haven of sorts for those who want a semblance of city life without the nerve-rattling frustrations of Bangkok traffic. For the shopping hordes, getting close to night market action is key too, which means parking yourself at the newly opened Le Meridien Chiang Mai right smack in the middle of town.
Like its sister hotel in Bangkok, Le Meridien Chiang Mai is a cool oasis away from the dust and bustle of the sunbaked streets. From the ultra-comfortable fluffy pillows, to the perfectly stretched pizzas in Italian eatery Favola, and the efficiency of the well-stocked club lounge, the hotel knows what makes its guests tick, and goes all out to keep them happy. (Incidentally, if you want the best hot stone massage ever, make an appointment for the chakra ritual immediately.)
Like the rest of Thailand, the past riots have had a knock-on effect on Chiang Mai, which means quiet hotels and restaurants. But it doesn't stop the staff from going all out - taking their cue from dogged hotel manager Ursula Schoefl who can be seen doing everything from welcoming guests with her warmth and sincerity, to rolling up sodden carpets hit by a sudden rainstorm.
She's a walking tour itinerary and before you know it, you're packed off to lunch at the charming Kafe@Ginger (199 Moon Muang Road), a retro English-style eatery which serves good quality local Thai food and simple Western favourites amid plush sofas and eclectic furniture.
Then you're off to the Le Meridien-affiliated Borsang Umbrella Village along Sankhampaeng Road (10km from town), or any of the other craft centres specialising in everything from ceramics to wood. When you return to town, check out Nimmahaemin Street, a cool neighbourhood of quirky stores retailing pig-inspired ornaments, silver jewelry, Oriental kitsch or funky crockery.
At night, you only have to step out of the lobby to be smack in the middle of the famous night market. On weekends, you'll find more artisanal stuff at places like Waulai Walking Street on Saturday, or the Sunday Walking Street at Thaphae Gate where the old city walls are.
If your timing's right, you might return to the hotel in time to spot a motley group of half-baked pugilists performing a dragon dance with a well-worn dragon amid the street stalls just outside the lobby. They would be laughable if not for the woeful financial conditions that compel them to stand on each other's shoulders, forming a human tower - with no safety gear - hoisting a younger, and even younger boy on top until a mere toddler is high up in the air waving and blowing air kisses. As half of them make their way down, someone faints and like some bad movie scene, the boys topple to the ground in heart-stopping fashion. It's not part of the act and no one is hurt, but the risks seem so unnecessary, a sombre reminder of how hard it is to earn a decent living in that part of the world, and how easy it is to return to the comfortable confines of the hotel and forget what you saw.
There's little you can do as a visitor, but that may be why the easiest thing is to spend money there, not just making yourself happy, but keeping the locals' livelihoods going.
If you can, drive to Chiang Rai - it's a little over 2.5 hours but not an unbearable experience when you drive along winding roads slicked with rain from a just-ended downpour, with a driver keen to point out the attractions along the way.
'Accident!' He points gleefully. We look - there's a battered old sedan lying on its side in a ditch. A little while later, he points again: a pick-up truck upside down in yet another ditch. A little while more, it happens again. Goodness, was that one of those trailer things split in two?
No one seems to be hurt in any of the incidents, though occasionally you see some folk lurking around the vehicles, scratching their heads in a bit of a daze.
After that bit of excitement, the lush surroundings of the Le Meridien Chiang Rai resort is a sight for sore eyes. The latest upscale property in Chiang Rai is the answer for those seeking a small town, rustic environment without forsaking the comforts of modern Thai luxury, set against the unspoiled Mae Kok River. There's nothing on the other side of the river except a monastery, and delighted squeals of novice monks playing football are some of the natural charms of the place.
So self-contained is the resort that you barely need to venture out, except perhaps to view the famous White Temple - yes, an all white marble temple and work in progress created by a well-known Thai artist who has donated it to the community. Else you could check out check out the 'city centre' and its charming (for its small size and unaggressive vendors) night market.
If you're up to it, an hour's drive will get you to the Doi Tung Lifestyle project - a programme initiated by the mother of the Thai king to wean hill tribes off opium farming and into other cottage industries like flower export and coffee growing. Here's where you'll find the famous Doi Tung arabica coffee and macadamia nuts. It's touristy but if you have the time, it's a nice drive. Food-wise in Chiang Rai, you could try your luck with the local restaurants for the regional specialties of Northern style sour sausage 'nam' or the homemade spicy versions. By far the best sausages we had were found at the resort's Latest Recipe restaurant. Chef Suphot Samsang, assistant director of kitchens has lived and worked around the world and does an addictive sausage platter and divine lamb curry which tastes so much better surrounded by greenery and tranquility.
Even though it's the slow season, you get to pretend that the expanse of green, the villa-like accomodation and even the pond filled with hundreds of fat fish - that you can help feed - are all yours. Cap it all off with dinner at the Favola restaurant, with nothing but the stars and the silent river beside you, and you will know what magic is.
Return to Bangkok
The journey to Lanna Thai territory may have been uplifting, but city slickers can last only so long before the serious shopping in Bangkok starts to lure you back. When you realise long walks from the BTS station to the hotel while laden with bags are a no-no, only then will you appreciate a hotel that's literally connected to one. As in the old-school luxurious Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, which is long in the tooth but can't be beat for its proximity to Asok station. Buy, run in, drop off, run out again, is likely to be your mantra.
And when all is said and done, there's still a lot going for Thailand regardless of how many times you've been there. And even more so now, when deals are a dime a dozen. Now as ever before, it's a great place to visit - pity about the politics.