A new series of videos highlights local fine cuisine from around the Kingdom, hosted by some of Thailand’s best chefs. From Krabi to Nakhon Pathom and Nan, in each episode these award-winning chefs talk about local specialties, inspired by the local produce unique to each region.
In each episode, chefs from some of Thailand’s most famous restaurants will talk about their dining concept, the inspiration behind the featured dishes, the key ingredients and how they source ingredients.
Local farmers and producers will also be interviewed and the beautiful scenery of each region will also be highlighted.
Ep 1: Chef Ice: Sorn Restaurant – Shrimp Paste – Krabi.
Listed as one of the Top 50 restaurants in Asia, Bangkok restaurant Sorn specialises in Southern cuisine and has been awarded two Michelin Stars. The restaurant is often booked weeks in advance.
As two southern kids, Khun Ice and Chef Yod always dreamt of opening their own restaurant with a focus on long lost recipes and the art of local cuisine. In a reconstructed old house, Sorn is thematically inspired by the tropical forests of southern Thailand, while ingredients are sustainably sourced from a trusted network of farmers and fishermen. Cooking is refined and sophisticated and dishes mostly slow-cooked, with even the soup double-boiled for 6 hours.
Ep 2: Chef Monthep, TAAN Restaurant – Organic Chicken & Egg – Nakhon Pathom
TAAN’s creative Thai cuisine celebrates the country’s food artisans and their unique ingredients. Chef Monthep “Thep” Kamolsilp and his kitchen team pride themselves on working closely with independent local farmers, whose high-quality, seasonal ingredients provide the inspiration for an ever-changing menu.
Every dish here has a story to tell. The name TAAN itself comes from the Thai word meaning “to have a meal” and it is also a play on pra-taan, which means leader or head of a group. In this respect, TAAN serves farmer-led food. Familiar flavour profiles meet with unexpected combinations and timeless techniques for curries, grilled dishes and soups that are new but unmistakably Thai.
Ep 3: Chef Bee, Paste Restaurant (awarded 1 Michelin star) – Makwean – Nan
After 18 years of cooking exclusively Thai food professionally, husband and wife combination Bee Satongun Thai born and Australian born Chef Jason Bailey opened their first outlet of Paste Bangkok Thai restaurant in 2013. Their reinterpreted Thai menu quickly became one of the most talked about in Bangkok.
Bangkok’s traffic jams are legendary, but there are ways to avoid them. Here are some tips on how to get around the city, the easy way.
With around 10 million people and countless visitors taking to the roads of Bangkok in cars, buses and around 30,000 taxis, it can get very crowded. And when you throw in an accident or pelting rain, it can add a lot of time to your trip. The best way to get around the river city is by train or boat – here are some tips that will save you time on your next visit.
Riding on the rails is the way to go depending on where you want to go. BTS Skytrain zooms along on rails elevated above the busy streets. There are two lines – the Silom line which runs west to south, and the Sukhumvit line, which runs north to east.
The Silom line passes through popular areas such as Siam, Silom and Saphan Taksin – where riders can link up with the express boats at the Sathorn Pier. The Sukhumvit line takes you to places like Chatuchak Weekend Market, Victory Monument, Siam and Phrom Phong. You can connect to the MRT Underground at Mo Chit and Asok stations and to get to the airport, transfer to the Airport Rail Link at Phaya Thai station. The one-day BTS Skyline pass is exceptional value – costing 140 baht (approx. AUD$6.60) for unlimited rides.
The MRT Metro is the underground system, servicing 18 stations in a 20 km horseshoe loop that runs from Hua Lamphong to Bang Sue. Trains come very regularly so you don’t have to wait very long at all. The Metro operates from 5.30 A.M. to midnight on most routes. The system can be very busy in peak hour as locals use the Metro to commute.
The Metro also links up to the Airport Rail Link at Phetchaburi station, with the walk between the two about 300 metres. If you have a lot of luggage, perhaps link up through the Skyrail instead.
The Airport Rail Link runs from Suvarnabhumi International Airport to Phayathai Station, located downtown. It makes six stops during the 30-minute journey and operates from 6 a.m. to midnight daily.
There are several ways to explore Bangkok via the magnificent Chao Phraya river – known as the ‘River of Kings’. One is the Chao Phraya Tourist boat – the original hop-on hop-off boat tour. There are five vessels that pick up and drop off at nine piers along the river, departing every 30 minutes between 9 a.m. and 8.30 p.m. The boats are quite spacious, with toilets and WiFi on board, with clear information given on the boats’ sound systems. Jump on or off from Sathorn Pier, Wat Arun, Thonburi Railway Station pier, Iconsiam pier or Ratchawongse pier, to name just a few.
The Chao Phraya Express Boat is another option, with services on four routes. They have 65 boats stopping off at 38 piers around Bangkok, making it easy to get to the many attractions along the river.
One of my favourite ways to explore Bangkok is on a klong tour. Hire a long-tail boat at Sathorn Pier and head up the river, head whipping from bank to bank at the many sights along the way. Then turn off into a canal, heading past crooked houses on stilts, art galleries, local restaurants, shops and even wend you way to the impressive Jim Thompson’s House. It is a wonderful way to look back at how Bangkok used to be – when it was known as the Venice of the East.
On the road
To see the sights of Bangkok by road, the Siam Hop – hop-on, hop-off bus is an excellent option. The orange buses are easy to see and offer routes that allow visitors to get to know the city. There are four routes and one-, two- and three-day passes to make the most of your time in this big, beautiful, bustling metropolis.
Thailand has hundreds of islands. Guest blogger John Borthwick focuses on those in the beautiful Gulf of Thailand and goes island-hopping.
Koh Chang (Elephant Island) is the Kingdom’s second largest island and while increasingly popular, still has plenty of jungle and sandy coves. Its White Sand Beach (Hat Sai Khao) is the main place for a seafood-eating, novel-reading, hair-braiding sort of holiday, while other places like Bang Bao and Klong Prao offer a more local flavour.
Much of the west coast was rapidly and unsympathetically developed so, if you’re looking for peace and quiet, there are 47 islands in the Koh Chang National Park group, although most do not offer accommodation. Koh Chang has good restaurants, cheap shopping and massages galore.
Koh Kood in thefar easternKoh Chang Archipelago is Thailand’s fourth-largest island. Its range of resorts is limited but the quality is good, including at Cham’s House, Peter Pan and Soneva Kiri (about as far up-market as one can go without needing oxygen). Koh Kood’s sands haven’t been hived off to beach umbrellas or its taxis to extortionists. There’s great diving offshore and snorkeling, plus some river kayaking. In general, on untrammeled, jungle-clad Koh Kood there’s not that much to do for visitors who love to do not that much.
Koh Phangan, 15 km north of Koh Samui, was once known mostly for its full-moon raves at Hat Rin beach. Then came half-moon and no-moon parties. In their wake a number of resorts of growing sophistication have made the island more than a backpacker haunt. There are now several hundred accommodation options, ranging from bungalows to luxury pool suites. “Try getting away from Hat Rin. It’s no more Phangan than Bangkok is Thailand,” wisely advises one blogger. Following that suggestion, other Phangan beaches like Hat Mae, Hat Yao and Hat Sadet still deliver the kicked-back, siesta’d-out stay you’ve dreamed of.
Koh Samet, only a half-day drive southeast from Bangkok could be, you might fear, somewhat over-paved and raved-up but, on the contrary, this forested national park island off Rayong still has tranquil beaches and a reasonably low-key tourist scene. Much accommodation is in bungalow-style resorts, plus select upmarket retreats. The fun include beach combing, beach dining (with fire-dancers) and swimming. Weekdays feel like a siesta while weekends are busier with Bangkok escapees. Samet (aka Ko Samed) embodies a Thai-style contradiction in being both a ”protected” National Park and intensively developed with resorts, particularly along the eastern beaches like Hat Sai Kaew.
Koh Samui saw its first tourists 50 years ago. With no accommodation they hadto sleep in the temple. Today, this tourist magnet in the western sector of the Gulf (off Surat Thani) hosts millions of visitors a year.
There are two faces to its development: the teeming pub-and-club strips at Chaweng and Lamai beaches, and a growing number of exclusive resorts. Tex-Mex restaurants, Swiss pubs and dive shops confirm that you are in modern Thailand, but a rugged jungle interior and a chain of west coast beaches (best at high tide) are your getaway zones on this 25 km long island.
Koh Si Chang, 120 km from Bangkok, was a favoured escape for Siam’s royals in the 19th century. Today you can wander the beautiful terraced parklands gardens remaining around the former Chudhadhuj Rajthan palace. Despite the closeness to Bangkok, there is no forest of glitzy resorts here. Si Chang was “saved” from becoming a tourist purgatory by its lack of spectacular beaches. There are no cars, so hire a motorbike to orbit this craggy island. Head up to the white “Buddha Footprint” temple overlooking the island and sea. Dine or have coffee in town or a sunset beer at Chong Khao Khad viewpoint.
Koh Talu in the southwestern waters of Gulf has just one resort, clean sands, plenty of palms and no neons. The 1500-ha island sits on the “the sunrise side” of the Gulf, 370 km south of Bangkok. The comfortable, Thai-style bungalows of Koh Talu Island Resort overlook the long white sands of Big Bay and the smaller, absurdly pretty Ao Muk (Pearl Bay). The “might-do’s” of your day include snorkeling, kayaking, a bushwalk and then cocktails. To get there, travel 160 km by train or road south from Hua Hin to Bang Saphan and then take the resort ferry to the island.
Koh Tao (Turtle Island), 45 km north of Koh Samui, is said to be the largest dive-training centre in Southeast Asia. Its plentiful reefs, rich marine life and excellent visibility have ensured that this divers’ “paradise” features in both guidebooks and resort developers’ sights. Compared to larger, more sophisticated Koh Samui, most of tiny (21 sq km) Koh Tao’s accommodation is more basic and mid-market — which suits its enthusiastic backpacker clientele — but the true attraction here is below the waterline. Even launching directly from the often-crowded beach you can easily reach good coral reefs.
Guest blogger John Borthwick gets plenty of sand between his toes in researching the best of the Kingdom’s shoreline.
Ao Manao, Prachuap Khiri Khan. The postcard-perfect arc of Ao Manao, or “Lime Bay” — aptly named for its pale-green waters — sits just south of Prachuap Khiri Khantown. The sands are wide, the waters clear and small beachfront eateries dish up fresh soft-shell crabs and tom yam soup.
Rai Leh Beach, Krabi. Rai Leh (aka Railay) sits on isolated Phra Nang peninsula, a longtail boat ride from Ao Nang. Towering limestone heights and turquoise depths attract spider-persons who climb Rai Leh’s vertical cliffs. Meanwhile other visitors just want to wallow in the general, Andaman Sea beauty.
Ao Yai Beach, Koh Phayam, Ranong. Little Phayam Island floats off Thailand’s west coast, seemingly in the Sea of Amnesia. Its gem, Ao Yai Beach offers three km of wide, sands, an easy shorebreak and monsoon season surf. Late afternoon gets gorgeous when the cicadas and the sunset crank up their volumes.
Ba Kan Tiang Beach, Koh Lanta, Krabi. Sit below a fire-and-brimstone sunset, looking west from Ba Kan Tiang’s swoop of pure sand and water music, and you know why you came to Koh Lanta. “The island of long beaches” has many but this one also offers good accommodation plus views of the uninhabited Koh Haa islets.
ChawengBeach, Koh Samui, Surat Thani. Samui has plenty of beaches, with long, broad Chaweng and next door, the smaller Lamai being the most popular ones. The Gulf waters are clear and calm, the sands are well stocked with trinket peddlers and there are bars, restaurants and shops galore if that’s what you’ve come for.
Hat Sai Khao,Koh Chang, Trat. Also known as White Sand Beach (“Off-White Sand Beach” might be a more accurate), Hat Sai Khao is a sweeping shoreline on the country’s second largest island. With ample accommodation and commerce it is made for a seafood-eating, novel-reading, do-little sort of holiday.
Jomtien Beach, Chonburi. Jomtien is your retreat when the partying at nearby Pattaya becomes too much, or you just want more space on the sand. Five-km long Jomtien has cleaner water, whiter sands and fewer motorised aquatic dangers than its neighbour. And when the sun goes down there is much good dining at the beachfront row eateries.
Mai Khao Beach, Phuket. Stretching along the northwest coast of Phuket, and far from the clamorous Patong-Karon-Kata strip, you’ll find Mai Khao (“White Wood”) Beach. This 17-km skein of dreams is the sort of shore where beachcombing careers are made. More importantly, it is also a national park and sea turtle-nesting zone.
Na Dan Beach, Khanom, Nakhon Si Thammarat.Remember when a beach was a beach and not a shopping mall with sand? Na Dan is stilllike that — no hawkers, looning power craft or hectares of rental chairs. Remote and dreamy, it remains palm-fringed with nine km of shoreline and vast blue skies above.
Natai Beach, Phang Nga. Cross Saladan Bridge at the northern tip of Phuket and you enter another world, mainland Phang Nga province, a place of long, casuarina-shaded beaches and small rural towns. Here the empty, snoozy Andaman shore of Natai Beach is home to a turtle sanctuary, seafood stalls and tranquility.
Beach Survival Tips
— Rips. Andaman waters can appear deceptively calm but there are often currents and undertows. Fatalities happen. Almost no beaches have lifeguards.
— Jetskis. Unsuspecting tourists are frequently forced to pay for mythical “damages” by unscrupulous jet-ski hirers, notably in Pattaya and Phuket. Simply do not hire or use one.
— Speedboats. Popular beaches in Pattaya, Phuket and elsewhere are alive with transfer speedboats, parasailer tow craft, banana boats and jetskis. Injuries happen. Use a swimming enclosure with pontoons if there is one.
While visiting Thailand is still something we are dreaming about due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Centara Hotels and Resorts is helping to bring one aspect of Thailand to you: DIY video guides showing you how to create your home version of a Thai spa, with advice straight from the health gurus.
Whether it is body scrubs, skin care routines, or massage therapy techniques, try their easy-to-make and easy-to-follow methods. If you are looking for a more active workout to stay fit, Centara has also prepared a collection of simple yet effective home workout videos and guides for you.
Bonus: they’re children-friendly! Start your Wellness at Home routine with these 5 Tips.
1. Get the Mood Just Right
Spa experiences are all about atmosphere – transform your bathroom into your own private Treatment Room. Turn on some relaxing tunes, lower the lights, light some scented candles and burn your favourite essential oil blend.
2. Preparing your skin – Face
Facial steamers are all the rage as they soften the skin, allowing deeper penetration of products. Don’t have a facial steamer? Create your own with a large bowl of boiled water (cooled enough so the steam doesn’t burn your skin) mixed with a few drops of essential oils that are refreshing and detoxing – lemon or peppermint work great. If you don’t have essential oils, simply steep lemon or peppermint tea in the water. Cover your head with a face towel and lean over the bowl for a few minutes, taking deep breathes.
3. Preparing your skin – Body
Dry Body Brushing is a fantastic way to remove dry skin (especially on the legs), improve circulation and lymphatic flow and get your whole system moving. A dry loofah works wonders – using brisk upward movements, start on your lower legs and gradually work your way up the body. Above the chest use downward movements. The process should just take a few minutes and you’ll feel great afterwards.
4. DIY Facial Masks
Making your own face masks is easy with just a few pantry essentials. Mix the following ingredients, gently spread over clean, damp skin and leave on for 5 – 10 minutes. Wash with warm water.
For Dry Skin: Mix 2 TBS avocado with 2 TBS coconut oil
For Combination Skin: warm 3 TBS uncooked oatmeal with 4 TBS milk until oatmeal has softened. Mix and let cool. Add enough honey to form a sticky, easily spreadable paste
For Oily Skin: Mix 1 egg white with 2 TBS lemon juice
5. DIY Body Scrubs
For each of the following, mix the ingredients and then rigorously rub over the body in circular movements (you may like to stand in the shower for this!). Wash off with warm water.
Coffee Coconut Scrub: Mix ¼ cup fresh ground coffee with ¼ cup coconut oil
Chocolate Sugar Polish: Mix ¼ cup brown sugar with ¼ cup cocoa powder. Add 3 TBS warm honey to form a paste
Herbal Sea Salt Scrub: Mix ¼ cup sea salt with 2 dry herbal tea bags and 7 drops of peppermint essential oil. Add enough carrier oil of your choice (jojoba, avocado or coconut) to form a paste
When it comes to Phuket, Aussies think we have a pretty good grasp of what the island offers. It’s all beautiful beaches, amazing nightlife, incredible diving and more shopping options than our return luggage allowance will allow, right? That’s not even half of it. Travel writer Chris Ashton reveals the Phuket we didn’t know… we didn’t know.
There are spiritual and historical sides to Phuket too, echoes of a not-so-distant past that can still be heard by those who listen, not to mention some stellar hidden beaches and towns too.
Ready to get off the beaten path in Phuket? Here are some great places to start.
If you’ve got a bit of time on your hands, consider renting a car or driver to explore the wider island. There are plenty of gems away from the tourist trail, like Surin and Rawai Beach, which are home to upmarket resorts but still have a relaxed and carefree vibe.
Phuket Town is another essential port of call, and not just because it’s the island’s capital. It’s seriously beautiful, with restored Sino-Portuguese shophouses and an impressive street art scene breathing new life into the old town. If you’re in town on a Sunday evening, be sure to check out the amazing Phuket Walking Street market along Thalong Road.
Though better known for beach bars and adventure sports, the spiritual side of Phuket is equally rewarding. The quickest way to discover it is by visiting one of the island’s beautiful Buddhist temples, many of which are rarely visited by other tourists.
The oldest Thai temple on the island, Wat Phra Nang Sang is believed to have been built over 500 years ago… and has been added to many times over the centuries. Nicknamed the ‘messy temple’, it’s a vast site filled with gold statues and brightly coloured murals.
The more modest Wat Suwan Khiri Khet, notable for its fusion of Chinese and Buddhist architecture, is also well worth a visit. A small market fills the temple grounds on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons, tempting you in with the fragrant smells of Thai cuisine.
If beaches are more your thing, you’re in luck. Patong may get all the attention, yet there are more than 30 other gorgeous beaches to be enjoyed. Layan and Banana Beach on the west coast, Ao Sane on the south… it all depends how adventurous you want to get.
Down on the south coast near Karon, getting to this first beach is half the fun. At the end of a dirt road and accessed via a 15-minute walk, Nui Beach is a hidden utopia. The crescent-moon shore is dotted with boulders and shaded by emerald palms, with a convenient bar where you can relax and enjoy the outlook.
Another beach often overlooked by first time visitors is Nai Yang, next to Sirinath National Park and close to Phuket Airport. This golden expanse is lined with low-key bars and restaurants, with plenty of shade to escape the heat. The area itself is less developed than some other parts of the island, giving it a more authentic island feel.
Really though, no matter if it’s your first time or you’re a regular to Phuket, there’s always something new to discover. Just off the tourist trail, the real Phuket is waiting for you.
Travel writer Helen Hayes takes us on a walking tour of Bangkok’s neighbourhoods.
The way to get to know a city is to take to its heart. Bangkok is no different, its laneways full of surprising eateries, historic buildings and local shops. Not to mention, meeting local people in their neighbourhoods.
Bangkok might not seem like a great city for walking but I beg to differ. Amazing Thailand recently released 15 excellent walking tour itineraries for Bangkok, taking you to places you might never have been aware of.
To get to know the old Bangkok, take the walking tour that goes behind the old city wall. Highlights include the Baan Bat community, who have been crafting the alms bowls used by monks since the 1700s, and Trok Shanghai – founded by 40 Chinese families in the days of King Rama 1V. This community is known for its wooden furniture. Other highlights include Wat Saket with its Golden Mount containing the Buddha’s relics, the fort of Pam Mahakan and Loha Prasat – the Metal Castle.
Explore Bang Lamphu and beyond
On this walk around Bang Lamphu, explore the Bangkok Metropolitan Museum, Pipit Bang Lamphu, the Coin Museum, the Red Building, and the Tha Tian Market. Also check out the Giant Swing, which was built for the Swinging Ceremony – a Brahmin-Hindu ritual.
The area around Rattanakosin Island, is spoiled for choice. This is the historic centre of town, an artificial island rich in history. It is here you will find the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho. The city’s most famous landmark, the Grand Palace was built in 1782 and was home to the Thai King, the Royal Court and the government for a century and a half. Also with its grounds is Wat Phra Kaew – also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It holds the small Emerald Buddha dating back to the 4th Century. While on the island, also spend time at Wat Pho, home to the triumph that is the Reclining Buddha created in 1832.
It is not just history you will be rewarded with in this area, as it is here you’ll find some magnificent street food. The much vaunted Jay Fai is located here, a street food eatery that has a Michelin Star thanks to the incredible food delivered by Supinya Junsuta (Jay Fai is her nickname), the diminutive lady who cooks wearing ski goggles and bright red lipstick.
Another well-known place in this area is Tipsamai Phad, said to have one of best Pad Thais in the country.
Into the Dragon’s Lair
Another good walk into the soul of Bangkok is in the Yaowarat area. Known as the Dragon’s Lair, it has many shrines and temples, and tells the story of the Chinese history in Bangkok. Visit the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Centre, the Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon which houses the largest solid gold Buddha image in the world, the Gold Museum, and try the Khao Man Kai (Hainanese chicken rice) at Thai Hen – they have been making it for a century.
The Thon Buri area is another wonderful place to walk the streets, with the absolute highlight being the magnificent Wat Arun – the Temple of Dawn. Located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Arun is revered as one of the most beautiful temples in all of Thailand. It is quite different to other temples, with its spire (prang) an impressive 70 metres high and coated with Chinese porcelain and coloured glass. As beautiful as it is during the day, it is even more spectacular at night. Book a dinner cruise on the river and enjoy a different view of the sights you have seen on your strolls in this magical of cities.
While waiting for Covid19 to go get lost, the blog’s longtime correspondent John Borthwick re-visits Thailand via some of the best writing about the Kingdom.
Thailand has been celebrated in many genres of literature from fiction and fantasy to poetry, non-fiction and sci-fi, so let’s armchair travel a few of them.
Through Thai Eyes
Jasmine Nights is a magical and poignant novel by Thai author and musical composer S.P Somtow. His semi-autobiographical romp is hailed as “the classic coming-of-age tale in Thailand of the 1960s.” Set in his aristocratic family’s time-warp enclave (“our remote little island kingdom on Sukhumvit Road”) the tale is alive with eccentric aunts, suitors, princelings and a pet chameleon. And then add sex, politics and farce.
Pira Sudham writes acclaimed novels and short stories about ordinary Thai life — no bars, spas, wannabes or five swizzle-stick resorts here — usually among the poor rural regions of Isaan, north-eastern Thailand. His best-known work Monsoon Country follows a farmer’s son journey to Bangkok and then as an overseas scholarship student — paralleling Sudham’s own path. Look too for his short story anthology It is the People.
Thailand‘s much-loved royal poet Sunthorn Phu (1786—1855) led a life of romance, scandal and banishment that is mirrored in his own works. As “the People’s Poet of Thailand” he has been compared to Shakespeare in the range and national importance of his works. His poetic saga Phra Aphai Mani traces a Byronic hero’s romantic adventures in ancient Siam. Koh Samed is the setting for one tale of a lovesick mermaid and exiled prince, which is commemorated today in the statues of the lovers on the island’s Sai Kaew Beach. Not far from Samed you can also visit the Sunthorn Phu Memorial Park in Klaeng, Ranong Province.
A Fictional Land of Smiles
Ex-Hong Kong lawyer John Burdett has written six best-selling Thailand crime novels featuring his eccentric Thai-farang police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Set mostly in a Bangkok of dirty politics, bizarre murders and sometimes equally bizarre sex, these street-smart page-turners are full of gloriously bent characters, hungry ghosts and dark shots of comic relief. Start with Bangkok 8 and binge on.
Burdett’s cast of good- and evildoers is more nuanced than the penny dreadful dames and private dicks in the prolific Christopher G. Moore’s Bangkok novels. His who-dunnits like the popular Killing Smile trilogy are set in a city that seems to consist predominantly of bars and illumination by red lights. Alternatively, his short story collection Chairs isrecommended.
“Thailand is the Italy of Asia. Great food, beautiful women, joyously corrupt and totally dysfunctional,” says Jake Needham, author of half a dozen taut, intelligent thrillers set in Thailand. The Big Mango, A World of Trouble and Killing Plato are perfect stuck-in-the-airport novels. His well-informed plots are steeped in international politics, big money bastardry and the onion layers of pan-Asian corruption. (The Wall Street Journal Asianotes, “Mr. Needham seems to know rather more than one ought about these things.”) Plenty of sharp dialogue and always a rattling good pace. Needham’s work is notches above much farang-written Thailand fiction that typically comes with a G-Rating: gumshoes, girls, guns and goons.
Best-selling Nordic noir superstar Jo Nesbo penned a Bangkok crime tale way back in 1998 that was only much later translated to English. Cockroaches sees his Oslo police detective-defective Harry Hole in Bangkok investigating the murder of the Norwegian ambassador who has turned up dead in a seedy motel. As they do. Go-go bars, temples and opium dens are the by-now clichéd backdrops to Harry’s hunt.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is a cyberpunk science fiction tale of gene thieves, agro-corp wickedness and a beautiful, quasi-human woman, the “windup girl” of the title. All struggling in a future, post-apocalypse Bangkok where heavily armed government departments go to war against each other. Imagine William Gibson’s Neuromancer meets Blade Runner during a GM-induced famine…
Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach needs little introduction, having morphed into a 2000 Hollywood movie that then inspired cycles of devastation-by-visitation on Koh Phi Phi Leh’s formerly edenic Maya Bay. Set on a generic island (in the Gulf of Thailand, but could be anywhere), a tribe of backpackers sees their feral heaven crash to a tropical purgatory as events go troppo, psycho and then kaput! The novelhas been accurately dubbed “the Lord of the Flies for Gen X”.
Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage partly subverts the paradigm, as they say, of male derring-do (or being done-to) in Thailand by at least having a female protagonist and with the action set in Chiang Mai rather than Bangkok. Savage’s private investigator is a 30-ish Australian woman facing the sometimes-comical challenge of “working undercover in a place where she can do anything but blend in.” That place is, of course, a world of murder, bent cops and exploitation.
When A Woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds appeared in 1956 the Asian Wall Street Journal reviewed it rather generously as “Among the ten finest novels written about Asia.” That’s a big call for the yarn of naïve Western male meets unscrupulous foreign temptress. “Love in vain” is a familiar literary trope played out to this day (and night) in much Thai-focussed, farang-penned pulp fiction; not to mention in real life — which partly explains this compelling novel’s on-going popularity.
Private Dancer sees veteran Irish crime writer Stephen Leather (or at least his tragic young protagonist, Pete) tread the same Bangkok sois, shed the same tears and not learn the same lessons that Jack Reynold’s callow hero didn’t learn 50 years earlier. By the 21st century, however, everything in the Big Mango’s bar world is harder and far more sinister. Poor love-struck Pete sinks deeper into obsession with a lisssom but faithless femmefatale. “Slow Learner”could be his epitaph as well as Leather’s alternative book title.
Canadian poet-novelist-travel writer Karen Connelly knows the kingdom and its language far better than most non-Thai authors. She skips completely the template of “Thailand = erotica + exotica” by looking and living well beyond the neon demi-monde. Try her adroit, youthful account of her exchange student year in Touch the Dragon: A Thai journal. A much later book, Burmese Lessons: A true love story is a gritty, open-heart account of her journey and love relationshsip in the northern Thai jungles amid exiled Burmese resistance groups.
On a much lighter note, expat Australian humorist Neil Hutchison’s cautionary anecdotes about foreigners looking for love in all the wrong Thai places — and yet somehow, sometimes finding it — should be mandatory in-flight reading for all in-bound males between the ages of puberty and senility. Hutcho shares his own hard-won observations of the farang-out-of-his-depth in wry titles such as A Fool in Paradise and Money Number One: The single man’s survival guide to Pattaya.
Scottish-Canadian expat Jim Algie’s journalistic explorations in Bizarre Thailand are not as kinky as the book’s click-bait tagline (“Tales of crime, sex and black magic”) might suggest. It’s full of arcane local knowledge about fertility shrines, errant monks and still pervasive Thai beliefs in superstition and magic. Funny too. In a similar but more character-focused vein, also check out two well-made books by another long-time expat writer (and acclaimed biographer of Jim Morrison), American Jerry Hopkins: Bangkok Babylonand Thailand Confidential.
In his travel book Borderlines fine English writer Charles Nicholl heads north to the Golden Triangle and then Burma in search of rebels, jade, opium traders, insights and an elusive Thai friend, Katai: “Sometimes I think that it wasn’t just Katai who ‘got away’, but Thailand itself, the whole strange trip. I never really got to know where I was going, never reached my destination. Perhaps the code of the road is as simple as that. You never do get there. There is just the road, and what it reveals along the way.” Sounds familiar?
The Non-Fiction Kingdom
The Ideal Man: The tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American way of war by American Joshua Kurlantzick is a highly readable biography of the legendary Jim Thompson, the so-called “silk king”, whose crowded career(s) included soldier, spy, socialite and entrepreneur — and ultimately, disappearing man. The book’s sub-title indicates the wider context of Southeast Asian military-political affairs. The result is an informed portrait of one of the country’s most intriguing foreign players as seen against the backdrop of post–WWII Thailand’s turbulent governance.
Journalist Paul M. Handley’s unauthorised 2006 biography of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, The King Never Smiles is banned in Thailand but easily available in Cambodia. The author takes an unflinching look at the career of King Rama IX, the world’s longest-serving monarch (from 1946 to 2016). It’s an iconoclastic perspective on the underpinnings and achievements of the king’s reign and of Thailand’s shape-shifting democracy.
While you’re in the region, Thailand’s next-door neighbour Laos makes similarly fascinating reading. Recommended are journalist Christopher Kremmer’s investigative travels to successfully discover the fate of the last king of Laos, Sisavang Vatthana who disappeared in 1975: Stalking the Elephant Kings and The Bamboo Palace: Discovering the lost dynasty of Laos.
Some of the above titles are out of print but most can be found online or as e-books. For a scholarly perspective on it all, see Imagining Siam: A travellers’ literary guide to Thailand by Dr Caron Eastgate Dann.
Start musing about your favourite experiences in Bangkok and food will undoubtedly be high on the list. Award-winning travel writer Helen Hayes shares 10 places to try – all with Michelin stars.
R. Haan *2 Michelin Stars
Thai cuisine has a rich history, a real ‘wisdom’ that intertwines the secrets of Siam’s food traditions with modern techniques and the meshing of cultures. It is still undeniably Thai. One of the best places to experience this is R. Haan, which means “something consumed for sustenance’ in Thai. Headed up by Chumpol Jangprai, R. Haan is inspired by an old Thai poem which translates as ‘In the river, there are fish; in the rice field there is rice’. His menus are based on authentic recipes and he uses the same ingredients found in the originals.
Sorn * 2 Michelin Stars
It is all about the south at Sorn, with chef owners Supaksorn Jongsiri (Khun Ice) and Yodkwan U-Pumpruk focusing on long lost recipes and cuisine from their home region. The restaurant is in an old house with ingredients sustainably sourced from farmers and fishermen. Most dishes are slow cooked; even the soup is double boiled over six hours.
Jay Fai *1 Star
It is not common to find a street food vendor with a Michelin star, but Jay Fai is anything but common. The lipstick wearing Jay Fai still cooks on charcoal, just like her father did, and conjures up dishes like crab curries and crab omelette while wearing ski goggles. The omelette is legendary and long queues outside the door are customary.
Canvas *1 Star
A rarity in Bangkok, Canvas is the brainchild of Chef Riley Sanders. Riley hails from Texas and his travels as a chef brought him to Bangkok in 2013. He fell in love with Bangkok and after more visits, started planning Canvas. Diners love to sit at the counter to watch the chefs in action as they prepare the nine-course tasting menus.
Table 38 *1 Star
Table 38 is a chef’s table experience with one 10-seat communal table allowing diners to watch and interact with Chef Andy Yang and his team. The goal of Table 38 is to show the possibilities of Thai cuisine – “using today’s knowledge to tell yesterday’s story”. Choose from five dining experiences from an introduction, up to the ultimate 44 course Chef Andy Yang Experience.
Sühring *2 Stars
A villa restored by German twins Mathias and Thomas Sühring has been winning rave reviews ever since it opened. The twins learned the traditional German techniques from their grandparents, and they have been brought to life with love at this now two-starred establishment. Diners choose to sit in the dining room, winter garden or at the kitchen counter.
Mezzaluna *2 Stars
You’ll be starstruck by the view from the 65th floor of the Lebua Hotel and the incredible dining experience at Mezzaluna. Chef Ryuki Kawasaki lets the fresh Japanese ingredients shine, preparing them with classic French cooking techniques. The seven-course set menu changes with the seasons, except for the ‘Exceptional Murakami’ dish, a wagyu beef dish from his hometown in Niigata Prefecture.
Upstairs *1 Star
Upstairs was first awarded a star in 2018 and has kept it since thanks to Chef Dan Bark. Dan’s delightful 10-course tasting menu is a blend of Progressive American cuisine with each dish a mixture of techniques and ingredients not restricted by geography and with no boundaries of flavour combinations. The dishes are complemented by selections of craft beer, cider, mead and wines.
Paste *1 Star
Everything about Paste is striking, from the spiral sculpture made from silk cocoons, to the beautiful curved booths and of course the food. With chef and co-owner Bongkoch “Bee” Satongun at the helm – she was crowned Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2018 – diners adore the menu of shared dishes inspired by Royal Thai cuisine using traditional cooking techniques. With Satongun’s husband, Jason Bailey, hailing from the Southern Highlands of NSW, the dynamic duo recently opened an offshoot of Paste in Mittagong.
Saawaan’ *1 Star
Meaning ‘Heaven’ in Thai, Saawaan lives up to its name. Chef de Cuisine and owner Sujia ‘Aom’ Pongmorn, takes diners on a creative journey through 10 courses of authentic Thai cuisine. Ingredients are locally sourced, including squid from a small fishermen’s village in Krabi. The dining experience is enhanced by Chef Patisserie, Arisara ‘Paper’ Chongphanitkul, who was the first Thai chef to compete in the Ladies World Pastry Championships.