I love working as a travel writer, especially when it involves complimentary rooms in 5-star hotels. The trouble is, I’m not really a 5-star person, and I don’t feel comfortable with people bowing and scraping before me as if I’m in some way superior.
A recent experience in Myanmar reminded me of this discomfort. The awkwardness began when the porter brought my bags to my luxurious room, pointed out the controls for the air-con and TV, then hovered in the doorway. Having just arrived in the country and withdrawn cash from an ATM, I only had large notes in my pocket, which I was loath to part with for a tip. After an icy moment, the porter left empty-handed.
One of my difficulties with 5-star living is that the fees I am paid for my work do not allow for expensive treats such as a drink from the minibar or a meal ordered through room service. If I succumb to one or two such indulgences, it costs me as much as a night in a budget hotel, somehow negating the benefit of a free night’s sleep. Sometimes I have found myself in 5-star resorts far from any restaurants or shops and have had little choice but to eat in the hotel restaurant, my stomach churning at the thought of what it is costing me.
One of the many reasons that I love living in Chiang Mai is the nearby presence of Doi Suthep, the city’s ‘guardian mountain’, which rises about 1600 metres above sea level. The most popular place on the mountain is the temple called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which sits at an elevation of around 1300 metres and on a clear day offers sweeping views of the city and valley below.
While this temple is one of the must-see sights of Chiang Mai for visitors, there’s a place I much prefer to go to enjoy the mountain’s tranquil, natural surroundings. It’s a trail that leads up the mountain about 300 metres, taking about an hour, and ends at a dramatic waterfall that runs all year. I never fail to finish that walk in a better mood than I started.
It’s almost like a religious experience, because when you click the ‘confirm’ button, it’s a moment of profound import, which will largely determine whether the arrows beside your team’s name will be green or red after the next round of games, showing that you’ve gone up or down in the league. I’m talking about making fantasy football transfers, the most exciting aspect of playing this silly but fun game.
First, you have to keep an eye on all the games in an English Premier League gameweek. That’s 10 games, lasting around 2 hours each—20 hours. As you watch, you need to evaluate the performance of all players on the pitch—around 25 players per game, so that’s 250 players, and make a mental note of any players that impress you. Those of us who don’t have time to study things so carefully settle for an hour-long roundup of the gameweek’s highlights.
Then, you have to decide which of your players you want to kick out of your team—those that are performing badly and those who are injured or suspended for whatever reason, as they are not going to win you any points.
Next, you need to look at the upcoming fixtures and decide which of the players that you plan to transfer in have a good chance of scoring, keeping a clean sheet and so on.
After that, you have to look at the value of those players you fancy drafting in to your team, as all fantasy managers have a limited budget of £100 million, though this figure can be increased by careful buying and selling.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, you need to decide how many transfers you’ll make. Everyone is allowed one free transfer a week, and if you make more, you forfeit 4 points for each player brought in. If your hunch is correct and these newly transferred players perform well, it’s worth the risk, but if not, you end up cursing yourself for taking the chance.
It may be a silly game, but it has around 6 million players who all spend the weekend cheering and swearing as they watch their players performing well or badly. And besides, it provides a welcome distraction from the constant stream of bad news from the so-called real world.
I recently went on a trip to the Myeik (aka Mergui) Archipelago, in the Andaman Sea off the south coast of Myanmar (Burma). It's a place I had long wanted to visit, ever since reading Siamese White by Maurice Collis (check it out—a great read!). I spent five days in the company of a group of adventurous travellers, cruising around the archipelago, which consists of over 800 islands, mostly uninhabited.
It wasn't a perfect voyage, due largely to stormy weather, as it was the beginning of the monsoon season, but it was a wonderful break from work and my growing dependence on electronic gadgets—phone, laptop etc. I had a great time photographing deserted beaches, villages of Moken people (sea nomads) and, of course, stormy weather.
A story of mine about the archipelago will appear in the July/August issue of Fah Thai, Bangkok Airways inflight magazine, so if you happen to be on one of their flights in that time, look out for it. In the meantime, here's a small selection of images from my trip to give you a taste of this magical place.
Life is tough for us folks who live in Chiang Mai, former capital of the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields (Lan Na). The problem is that there are so many festivals and ceremonies to celebrate that we never get time to rest, and it seems we’re out dancing in the streets almost every day.
Take this week for instance. Traffic was brought to a standstill by the Poy Sang Long parade, which snaked its way around the perimeter of the old city moat. Poy Sang Long is a Shan ordination ceremony, which is accompanied by plenty of singing and dancing.
A few weeks ago I made a trip to Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard (the area between Bangkok and Cambodia) to update that chapter of the Rough Guide to Thailand. I relished the opportunity to spend some time on Thai beaches, and to visit some islands that I hadn’t been to before, such as Ko Mak and Ko Kood. As a result, I’ve put together a small gallery of images, which I’ll post here along with a few words about each island.
This tiny, hilly island is little more than an hour’s journey from Bangkok, but it’s rarely visited, perhaps because it doesn’t have any stand-out beaches. However, it’s got a great, laid-back vibe, some comfy lodgings, super-friendly locals and several low-key attractions which you can visit in a ‘skylab’ (a glorified tuk-tuk).
It’s supposed to be a national park, but you’d never believe it with the boatloads of visitors streaming on to and off of the island each day. It has several gorgeous beaches on the east coast, some extremely expensive resorts (think $1000 a night) and some yummy seafood. Quiet on weekdays but frantic at weekends.
Thailand’s second-biggest island, ‘Elephant Island’ didn’t really get going as a tourist base until the 1990s but is making up for lost time and is now developing rapidly. Fortunately, the further south you go on the west coast, the quieter it gets, and there are still a few budget bungalows on the beach.
This small, mostly flat, island is unusual in that its inhabitants have got together to ban the sordid side of tourism such as jetskis and hostess bars. This leaves a tranquil island ringed by beaches and an interior given over to coconut and rubber plantations, which are great fun to explore on a bicycle or motorbike.
Not far from the Cambodian border, this must be one of Thailand’s last remaining undiscovered gems, though presumably not for long, as access is very easy these days. Fabulous, empty beaches, gushing waterfalls, towering ancient trees and winding sealed roads await explorers. Get there before it goes the way of all tourist resorts.
Putting the world to rights in five minutes
Our planet is in a mess—environmentally, economically, socially and politically. Hardly a day goes by without some horrific news about villages buried under landslides, politicians arrested for corruption or suicide bombers blowing themselves and everybody nearby to bits. Despite amazing advances in technology during the last century, we don’t seem to have learned anything about how to live together despite our differences. Even the modern sciences of psychology and sociology have no blueprint for improving relationships.
‘Kuala Lumpur’ means ‘muddy confluence’, referring to the meeting of the Gombak and Klang Rivers. This name was probably appropriate when it was a small tin-mining settlement in the 1850s, but it doesn’t quite capture the vibrant mood of the gleaming city that stands there today. Now you’d be hard pushed to find the confluence of those rivers, hidden somewhere between overpasses, underpasses and soaring skyscrapers; in fact, ‘cement city’ would be a more accurate, if unflattering, title. I’m not sure whether it’s because Kuala Lumpurians want to disown their muddy heritage, or perhaps because acronyms are currently fashionable, but these days the city’s inhabitants prefer to be called KL-ites, and their city simply KL.
I’ve been to KL several times before, but never got nearer to the city than Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which is over 50km away, to the joy of taxi drivers. Now I find myself based in the city for a few days researching a story on Malaysian starfruit, and find time to check out a few sights.
Time to freshen up the website for the new year, so I’ve made a few additions and changes. Firstly, I’ve added a few scans of stories that appeared in printed magazines (an increasingly rare form of media!) during 2016. These are:
- Deep in the Delta, a photo essay on the Mekong Delta for Jetstar Asia magazine.
--Strange Town, a focus on Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar, for the South China Morning Post.
--Blissful Bloom, a story about the sacred lotus for Morning Calm (Korean Air inflight).
I’ve also changed the sample story from my collection ‘Searching for Shangri La’. ‘Sweeping Meditation’ is a chronicle of my changing attitudes to the fascinating activity of sweeping leaves. There’s also an audio version of the story, so rest your eyes for ten minutes and listen to the tale unfold.
Recently, I’ve been on the trail of vanilla, the magical spice that flavours our cakes, custards and ice creams. Along the way, the trail took me to Madagascar, where they produce the finest vanilla in the world. It’s called ‘Bourbon vanilla’, after the former name of nearby Reunion Island.
Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid (vanilla planifolia)? That its flower has to be pollinated by hand in order for the vanilla pod to grow? That the pod must be picked on a particular day of its growth, and then go through various stages of conditioning for almost a year before it is ready to use?
I didn’t know any of this; I didn’t even know what a vanilla pod looked like, but I found out pretty quickly before boarding a plane to Antananarivo (better known as Tana), Madagascar’s crazy capital.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.