Wednesday, January 12, 2011

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Bangkok for Beginners

If we were asked to represent three South-East Asian capitals by tropical fruits, we might think of clean, green Singapore as a fresh lime, and richer-flavoured Kuala Lumpur, perhaps as a ripe pineapple.  Employing this imagery, the association that immediately springs to mind for Bangkok is the king of tropical treats,  the delicious, delightful and delectable durian. Granted, this head-sized botanical wonder with its thick spiky skin and soft yellow flesh, is very much an acquired taste. It is like a smelly cheese is to a connoisseur, and the fruit's initial effect on a novice's nostrils can be just as overwhelming as the first impressions of the Thai capital on an unsuspecting new arrival, fresh from Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The oft-intoned "Wow, they stink before even being peeled" is indeed true, and it is this fact which effectively bans the offending fruit from enclosed public spaces. Even following a durian-laden truck in a closed air-conditioned coach can fill the vehicle with more than just a tolerable whiff. "Hey, how can people eat this thing?" is a common question, posed almost as frequently as "Hey, how can anybody actually live in Bangkok?"
But beware, like the durian, Bangkok can be habit-forming. The teeming 220-year old Thai city not only has a strong and unique flavour, it possesses a potentially highly addictive mix of subtle qualities, which once experienced, can lure visitors back, time and again. "Aye, this is our 14th trip" I overheard an elderly Scots couple say to some fresh-faced honeymooners on a neighbouring pool bed the other day, adding: "Ye can get a real taste fir it"
Aye, and they are not alone. Hotels all over the city will tell you of again-and-again-guests who have become close friends of staff and management through repeated, often annual, visits. Given the air and noise pollution, the motorised chaos, and the often searing temperatures, it is not easy for "outsiders" to understand the attraction. Even if you ask those geriatric aficionados why they keep coming back, they tend to reply in non-specifics. "Oh, we just love it here" is a common response. If you dig deeper, it may be followed by any or all of the following:- the people, the food, the temples, the river, the canals, the smiles, the charm, the smells, the friendliness and the friends made, the sounds, the shopping, the atmosphere......and the magic. Don't forget the magic.  Years ago, I had to entertain some VIP British tourists to dinner. On meeting the middle-aged couple in the hotel lobby bar, they greeted me grumpily by blurting that they'd just arrived, hated what they had observed on the way from the airport, and had absolutely no desire to venture out at night into "this bloody awful place." Instead, they wanted to eat a "nice steak and chips" in the hotel grill room. After two rounds of drinks and much cajoling, I finally did persuade them to at least try Thai food at my local restaurant - with the promise that I'd take them home instantly any time they wished.
On arrival, they sat at the wooden table expressing a mix of utter dejection and intense fear, much like that of poor wretches about to be executed. Signs of cautious enjoyment appeared however when the aromas of our food order reached their noses, and relaxed if reluctant nods followed as they began to sample the rich, wonderful tastes. Laughter joined in as an adjoining table of jolly Thai students sent us over glasses of local "Mekhong" whisky to accompany our Thai beer, and all duly stood up charmingly to give us regular toasts, ensuring our maximum indulgence in the copious supply of spirits, which generously just kept on arriving. The previously stuffy Brits were suddenly convivial, charming company. The dinner turned into a huge, hilarious success.
Out on the street, with the now smiling pair metamorphosed into merriment, it was easy to coax them into a coasting "Tuk Tuk", Bangkok's open-sided three wheeled taxi. Seconds later, we were roaring three-up through the traffic to enjoy a great evening in the city's night spots, with the couple waving to all and sundry, and all and sundry happily waving back - in a way that only happens in Thailand.
As a finale, I took them to the Erawan shrine, a small open place of worship dedicated to a Brahman God, situated at Rajaprasong, one of the city's busiest intersections in Pratunam.
In this incense-filled microcosm of Asia, the roar of the traffic was curiously muted by the music from the small Thai orchestra performing at one side. As we sat down to observe, dancers and worshippers obscured our view to the street outside. Offerings of sweet-smelling garlands, stacked up over the hours, rose higher than our heads. Although I had been there countless times, there was something undeniably special about this particular evening, something, perhaps, even verging on the mystical. The lady's very emotional voice suddenly interrupted my thoughts: "I have never experienced anything as wonderful as this" she was saying, over and over again. I looked over, and saw she was in tears. Her husband wasn't too far away from the same emotion. Two more Bangkok addicts were thus born. And it happens every day. It is perhaps this undeniably magical quality of "Krungthep" as it is called by the Thais, that becomes so compelling - the unexpected experience in a relatively unattractive city, when the world freezes in a moment of arresting, unforgettable beauty.
Certainly, if the rough translation if its official name (which happens to be the longest place name in the world, and thus occupies a section in the Guinness Book of Records) is anything to go by, this is no ordinary spot on the globe:
Great city of angels, the supreme repository of divine jewels, the great land unconquerable, the grand and prominent realm, the royal and delightful capital city full of nine noble gems, the highest royal dwelling and grand palace, the divine shelter and living place of reincarnated spirits.
In other words - what better place for a fascinating holiday? Or a place to do business? Amari Hotels and Resorts is lucky to have several hotels in this huge metropolis, each in its own special location. Whether you are a first-time traveller to the Thai capital, or an old hand coming back for yet more magic, Amari wishes you a warm welcome to this amazing city.

The Thai Elephant --Symbol of Nation

Elephants have been revered in Thailand for many centuries. Famous as the strongest beasts of burden, in Thailand they were important in battle, with kings mounted on Elephants fighting the Burmese to defend Thailand on many occasions. They have also been noted for their intelligence, memory and pleasant nature. A Thai legend has it that a marriage is like an elephant-- the husband is the front legs, that choose the direction, the wife the back legs, providing the power !
A white elephant is even included in the flag of the Royal Thai navy, and the "order of the white elephant" is one of the highest honours, bestowed by the king. White elephants, in fact, are very rarely completely white. The skin has to be very pale in certain areas to qualify as a "white elephant"
In the past, wild elephants were caught and trained. The city of Mae Hong Sorn was founded as a stockade for newly caught elephants, since that region had a high elephant population. This century, the number of elephants has declined so rapidly that the entire domesticated stock are one or more generations from their wild forebears. There are still a few thousand wild elephant in northern Thailand, in remote jungle south west of Chiangmai.
The Forestry Department uses trained elephants to extract illegal stores of teak logs, which poachers keep in remote areas where the use of vehicles would be impossible. Most elephants nowadays, however, are used to carry tourists around -- probably easier and more pleasant work than dragging heavy logs !
There are two main species of elephant in the world. The African Elephant -- Loxodonta, which is larger with bigger ears and a less docile nature. The ears help the animal to lose heat on the sunny open country it inhabits in Africa. The Indian elephant -- Elephas, is a native of thick forest, so is smaller, with much smaller ears. There have also been reports of pygmy elephants in South East Asia, only 1.5 metres tall, but these are probably extinct. The Indian elephant is 3 metres from the ground to the highest point of the shoulders (males 50 cm bigger). They weigh about four tons, and need 250 kgs of food a day, and 60 gallons of water.They are vegetarians, eating a wide variety of plants. In Thailand, their favourite food is tamarind, but as anyone who has been to an elephant camp knows, they seem to love bananas and sugar cane. Both sexes have tusks, although they are far larger in the male. Some males do not grow tusks, and are supposed to be better workers.
The trunk is a highly sensitive organ -- capable of very delicate manipulations. I saw an elephant with an itchy leg pull down the branch of a tree to scratch itself. This did not quite do the trick, so it put one end of the branch in its mouth and chewed it a little, then tried again, with better results. This was a clear example of tool making and using -- which used to be a definition of 'human'.

Elephant Society

In the wild, elephants stay together in herds of 5 to 20 individuals. There is always a leader, the strongest male. When threatened, the males, normally docile, will charge their foes. When families give birth, after a gestation period of 22-24 months, she goes to a grassy, comfortable spot with a 'friend', who acts as midwife. This friend clears up the afterbirth and placenta, and keeps mother and baby apart. There are cases of mothers, confused and exhausted, killing their new- born, if there is no friend to stop it. There is nothing sadder than a mother elephant who gives birth to a still born baby. She will stay with the dead body for several days, grieving. The life expectancy of elephants is in the 70's, and many over 100 years have been reported. The usual cause of death in the wild is the teeth, which were out, and the elephant dies of slow starvation.
Elephants only sleep for three or four hours a day, usually from 11pm to 3am. They simply lie down, yawning and later snoring just like humans. Only sick elephants sleep standing up.


Elephant calves begin their training when they are about four years old. They quickly learn and obey the words of command. They get to know their driver (mahout), and get used to being mounted and dismounted. For the first month they are kept restrained in a wooden 'crush' while they learn the basics.
Later, they learn more complex instructions needed to work with teak logs, including kneeling, picking things up, dragging, rolling, pushing, carrying etc. By the age of ten, they are ready for 'graduation', and the work of an adult. A working elephant can lift 700kg, and haul two tons of wood one kilometre without a break. Their natural walking speed is about 4km per hour. They reach their physical peak at 25 years old, and work until they are 60 years old, then they are retried and set free.

Where to See and Ride Elephants

There are several sites which have daily elephant shows. The closest is at Mae Sa, only 20 kms from Chiangmai. Further afield is Chiang Dao elephant camp, another 30 kms north. 80kms south of Chiangmai, on the road to Lampang, is the 'Thai Elephant conservation Centre'. Under Royal patronage, opened by Queen Sirikit, a large area of replanted teak forest is worked by donated elephants. The idea is to prove by doing it that elephants make more sense than vehicles -- they do not damage the surrounding forest so much, they do not require petrol, and damage the soil far less than vehicles. There is even a plan to manufacture teak furniture on site in a few years. There is an excellent show tree times a day. At all the camps, after the show those interested can enjoy a ride of various duration's through pretty scenery. There are also several smaller elephant camps, some with shows.
Most elephants in the north are owned by people of the Karen hill tribe -- in fact many of the mahouts wear the traditional red shirts of Karen men.
I once fell off an elephant. Fortunately a very rare event. The beast did not have his usual mahout, and it was very hot. The elephant simply kneeled down, and I and my companion simple slid off. no-one was hurt, but it was quite a shock -- its a long way down!

Learn Thai Foot Massage

How to Foot Massage

The feet are often neglected, what better way to give the feeling of rejuvination throughout the entire body then to give foot massage. The techniques on how giving a foot masage listed here do not claim to have any documented medical benefits. However, in most cases, it will more than likely have the recipient walking away feeling better than they did prior to starting. When learning how to give foot massage, it is ok to make it your own. Although there might be some moves that you must be careful with to avoid injury, especially with pregnancy foot massage , it is really up to you on how to give foot massage.
I have provided a couple of possible routines how to foot massage below. They are designed around different concepts for someone with or without socks on. You may adapt your own style or method as you progress. Remember that there is no guaranteed massage stroke or move that everyone will love. Be aware of the eyes and facial reactions of the person you are giving a foot massage to so that you know if they are enjoying that specific technique. Giving a foot massage :

1. Fill a large tub with warm water; fill with Epsom salts and eucalyptus oil.
2. After soaking, dry off feet.
3. Do basic stretches with the foot; pushing the top of the foot away ( dorsiflexion) from you and pulling the top toward you ( plantarflexion ). If you need any help with definitions, you may review the foot glossary

4. Warm up the foot by rubbing it all over and appling lotion or oil in a sweeping motion. Include the top, heel and arch. Gliding strokes work best. It is important to rub the entire foot first to warm it up. If you start to apply deep pressure to the foot before warming it up, there is a greater risk of causing injury.

5. Cup the foot with your hands and squeeze with the appropriate amount of pressure. You may move up and down as you are holding the foot.

6. Wrap your hand around the top of the foot, and then apply pressure with your fist to the underside of the foot. You can apply pressure by pushing in and out or in a circular motion.

7. Using your thumb and a moderate amount of pressure, start at the top of the foot on each side. Now glide toward the botom along the sides of the foot. There are tendons that run along each side of the foot, these can be good to stretch.

8. Wrapping your hands around the foot from the front, squeeze firmly and pull upward alternating hands as you pull upward.

9. Rotate each toe starting the largest working to the smallest.

10. Finish giving a foot massage with a few sweeping strokes before finishing and gently resting your hands on the feet.

Foot Massage Chart

According to the principles of reflexology, different parts of the foot correspond in actions with different parts of the body. A toe massage can assuage sinus pain, while applying pressure on the arch soothes a tummy ache. The chart below can help simplify the complex healing art of reflexology. However, be aware when looking at this chart, foot massage and foot reflexology are different topics. Foot massage leans more toward using rubbing and manipulation versus applying direct pressure on specific points of the feet.