Category: Other Writing

English Countryside Goes Rock-‘N’-Roll

TIME Magazine, 10 Mar 2011 [click for link].

Implausible as it may seem, holiday accommodation in rural England isn’t limited to twee little cottages, somber stately homes and drafty old castles with terrible plumbing. Travelers who would rather not bed down in architectural museums can now instead stay in some living architecture — or perhaps that should be Living Architecture, the brainchild of Swiss broadcaster and writer Alain de Botton. It’s a nonprofit initiative to plant contemporary holiday chalets throughout the country, each designed by a different cutting-edge studio.

Three were completed last year. The metallic Balancing Barn levitates over a Suffolk nature reserve. The Dune House struts asymmetrically on a popular stretch of Suffolk beach. The fashionably minimalist Shingle House stands alone and austere on a windswept Kent promontory. Each chalet sleeps eight or nine people, is fitted with designer amenities — Miele appliances, REN skin-care products and Peter Reed linen — and seeks to challenge the notion that rural architecture should consist of archaic forms, traditional materials and a hefty dollop of prettiness. 

“Because Britain industrialized so fast, there’s tremendous nostalgia for history,” says de Botton. At the same time, he argues that there is no reason why the innovative approach taken in other fields of contemporary British design can’t be employed in country living. “The architecture of our own times can have many of the qualities that people admire in buildings of old, like a sensory richness, a warmth, a connection with history,” he says. “But they don’t have to be museum pieces or kitsch.”

Among projects planned for 2011 and 2012 are the Long House in Norfolk, by British modernists Michael and Patty Hopkins (who have drawn inspiration from the rugged salt-marsh landscape and the use of flint in the area’s traditional buildings), and a “secular retreat” in Devon by Pritzker Prize — winning Swiss design maestro Peter Zumthor, who seeks to recreate the poise and mass of ecclesiastical architecture through the use of open forms and eco-friendly rammed concrete. See living-architecture.co.uk for more information — and rest assured there won’t be a thatched roof, lace curtain or grandfather clock in sight.
http://www.time.com/time/travel/article/0,31542,2058124,00.html

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Between the lines

South China Morning Post, 1 November , 2009 Bali has become home base for the pan-Asian literati With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown almost to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of […]

South China Morning Post, 1 November , 2009

Bali has become home base for the pan-Asian literati

With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown almost to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly.

With its old craft culture, mildly bohemian cafes and array of misty hilltop vistas, Ubud in Bali seems to have grown to fit its twin industries of art and tourism; travelers here have been feeling the pull of poetry, paint and drama for decades. But where this reputation had always been more of a well kept secret or a nice surprise, it is now official: bottled, capped and priced for the greater good each October, as the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Now for four days every autumn the town’s venues – its museums, restaurants, bars and yoga studios – become host to professional wordsmiths and their fans as they grapple with literary themes over thick Bali-grown coffee. Sound good? Well it is, mostly.

As the brainchild of an Australian local business owner and her Indonesian husband, the festival was born to regenerate tourism after the bombings, and six years on is doing so, while becoming a who’s who of Asian (and Pacific) literati: this year saw Pakistani journalists and novelists Mohammed Hanif and Fatima Bhutto, India’s Vikas Swarup, who wrote Q&A (better known by its screen title, Slumdog Millionaire), and Singapore’s Shamini Flint, author of the irreverent Inspector Singh Investigates series, among nearly 100 other poets, journalists and literary critics from across the continent and beyond. It also bagged itself a Nobel Laureate; Nigerian novelist and playwright Wole Soyinka.

To a backdrop of free events – a couple of play readings, a poetry slam night and book launches – day pass holders were offered a tight schedule of writer’s panels, many of them lightly academic and vaguely instructional. In a seminar called ‘Make ‘em Laugh’, un-comically early on a Sunday morning, British-Kashmiri novelist Hari Kunzru [pictured below second right] observed that good humour writing follows the pace of a good joke; it’s all about a well drawn out punch line. Black Canadian writer Dany Laferriere [pictured below, far right], author of How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (and whose twelfth novel gave rise to the 2005 movie, Heading South), explained the pitfalls of choosing a scandalous book title: very few talk about your content. Yet he is unrepentant and his latest book will be called I am a Japanese Writer, despite the best efforts of the Japanese consulate to make him change his mind (due to concerns, he says, that he’ll obliterate real Japanese writers on Google).

With writers like Bhutto and Soyinka in town, the content was also often political. Though most of the festival-goers were from Australia the panel perspectives were gratifyingly Asian, and African. US President Barack Obama received a drubbing in a panel called Writing in the New World; Obama and Dissent, with Bhutto (niece of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) reminding writers of their responsibility to stay critical. She was joined by Antony Loewenstein, an Australian writer whose book My Israel Question robustly tells fellows Jews that ‘it’s time to stop living like its 1948’. Loewenstein also appeared on a panel on blogging, alongside Singaporean gay activist and writer Ng Yi-Sheng (lastboy.blogspot.com) and Aceh-based writer Doel CP Allisah (doelcpallisah.blogspot.com).

Soyinka, who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement for his activism and first wrote his poems there on toilet paper, spoke at length on the concept of forgiveness. As strident and satirical as his works tend to be, he noted that writing is about understanding the choices people make to survive, and that how, although atrocities are and will always be ‘part and parcel of our very existence’, literature can play a part in reconciliation.

Many of the writers present have explored critical Asian themes in their novels; Mohammed Hanif (pictured above, third right), a BBC reporter and one-time Pakistani air force recruit, has written the mostly comic A Case of Exploding Mangos about the life and times of Zia–ul-Haq, a dictator who put Pakistan on a massive ‘Islamisation’ drive that it struggles with today. Former lawyer Shamini Flint has had her Inspector Singh investigating a case of marital injustice in Malaysia, caught between its Shariah law and the penal code, and says that Singh will next be sent to Cambodia to uncover a mystery with a Khmer Rouge undertow. Vikas Swarup, who reportedly wrote Q&A in two months while his family were away for the summer (to many a fellow panelist’s annoyance) has followed it up with murder-mystery Six Suspects, another look at Indian caste and corruption.

However possibly the greatest value held by the festival was its introduction to visiting readers of good under-exposed Indonesian writing, and its political backdrop. A number of the panels were bi-lingual and the festival organizers worked closely with Indonesian critics and journalists to join emerging local writers with old hands, like firebrand Seno Gumira Ajidarma, known for his work on East Timor, and Cok Sawitri, an outspoken lesbian poet, novelist and playwright.

Many of them lamented the reluctance of Indonesians still, to look into the brutality of General Suharto’s three-decade New Order regime, in which books were burned, activists were ‘disappeared’ and secret agents mingled in the hallways of universities. They also complained about the lack of accurate records of the time. “It makes it very hard to get the feelings and experiences of ordinary people back then” said critic Nurhady Sirimorok (below right, with Professor Melani Budianta). “We writers have to really use our imagination to tell history from the bottom up.”

Most Indonesians at the festival said that they feel a little undernourished, but free to write. But others, who still vividly recall the brutality of ’98 and before, spoke of self censorship and of covert intimidation by state agents. As one academic pointed out, Bali newspapers were full that week of the murder of local journalist A.A. Narendra Prabangsa, who was abducted and killed this year while reporting on corruption connected to a regent.

Yet the festival prompted some liberal outpourings. Well-heeled literary lunchers at the Alila Ubud saw the rousing performance in Bahasa by Cok Sawitri of her short story Womb, which is about women sterilizing themselves as an act of political protest. At another such event author Laksmi Pamuntjak read from her upcoming novel The Blue Widow, which translates characters from Hindu myth into the New Order years – her warrior becomes a dissident medical student – and puts them on Buru island, a notorious tropical gulag for political prisoners.

This gulag is where one of Indonesia’s most celebrated dissident writers, the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer (who many believe was Asia’s best contender for a Nobel), wrote his epic ‘Buru quartet’ about the oppressive cocktail of Javanese feudalism, Dutch colonialism, militarism and communism that makes up Indonesia’s history. At a lunch Sirimok described the covert operation it once took just to get a ‘Pram’ novel, and of the bittersweet feeling he gets now seeing the books, on the shelves but passed over by young Indonesians who prefer modern tales of horror and romance.

As such, despite some glitches and the feeling of it having sprawled a little large for its organisers, Ubud’s lit fest injected as much vital discussion into the town as it did tourist dollars. “Indonesia is not used to a society full of critics,” Sirimok commented, “and when you don’t read critics what can you learn from? We need a culture of polyphonic voices.” This much has been ensured.

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A Brit Above

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 25 June 2010
British designer Tom Dixon brings his glam rock style to Hong Kong

It isn’t often a designer has to rein in his vision for Hong Kong’s high-end club scene. Yet as Tom Dixon surveys his latest landscape, he has a few lingering regrets. Tazmania Ballroom in SoHo, the latest nightclub from the creators of Dragon-i, already boasts geometric wall buttresses, clustered globular chandeliers and brass pool tables, with imitation book shelves in white plaster that give it an ironic scholarly tone. Yet, “I was thinking water dripping down granite, and moss on the walls”, Dixon laments. “And there was going to be a small fish and chip shop. But there wasn’t enough room.” It’s a unique notion of high style – and one that may well have had Hong Kong hipsters faltering a little in their skinny jeans.

But that’s kind of the idea. Dixon has been cheerfully pushing the boundaries of British style since he was first discovered in the 1980s, as legend has it, as an untrained art-school dropout in London, welding bits of scrap metal into furniture. Despite a string of commercial successes, he has managed to keep his work fresh, blending a feel for solid craft with a curiosity about technology and the unexpected ways it can be used.

His knack for showmanship hasn’t hurt either, and whether giving away chairs for free in Trafalgar Square, or custom making them from molten plastic on stage, Dixon has always been able to command a good headline, at home and abroad. His aesthetic services to the empire haven’t gone unrecognised: along with various product design awards, Dixon received an OBE in 2000.

Yet Dixon has found it hard to relax completely into his successes. While most top names in product design hold contracts with a handful of different firms and collect the royalties, he has found the model uncomfortably limiting. Since leaving the helm of British homeware store Habitat, the designer has been striving to build a platform for his work on his terms. Now, under the umbrella of his Design Research Group, Dixon has his main furniture and lighting label, Tom Dixon, and part owns small interiors arm, the Design Research Studio and modernist Finnish furniture manufacturer Artek.

Although he lists about 400 regular clients in 52 countries, none has a direct say in what he designs or how his work is produced or distributed. “It’s more like a fashion brand in that way – and a unique model in the design industry,” he says. “Very few people are doing what I’m doing, weirdly.”

But the creative responsibility weighs heavier this way. The pace of change is faster and the competition is growing rapidly. Thanks to digital technology, products can be made more cheaply, in smaller quantities, and closer to home. So just as aspiring writers can self-publish their books online, young designers can now make a sketch on their computer, convert it into a digital file and find a local factory to send it for production. It’s a concept that Dixon explored in his latest furniture and lighting line, Industry.

“This is from a factory that makes filters and the mesh on speakers in cars,” the designer says, gesturing to a suspended geometric lampshade in sheet metal, punctured with delicate patterns; it can be flat packed to the size of a paperback book. “It’s from a digitally controlled printing process, so if I wanted to make a hundred of them in a floral pattern, or with a different geometry I could do it easily; you just send off the file and you know what you’re going to get back. Product design now is about finding places that do techniques that haven’t been used before in domestic goods. Made-to-measure products are becoming a lot more possible and it’s fascinating in terms of industry.”

This has led him to wonder why design innovation hasn’t yet exploded on the mainland, where turning a blueprint into product is cheap and relatively easy. Dixon travels often to the mainland to have things made and to visit vendors such as Design Republic in Shanghai, and he still marvels at the speed and ease of production.

Tazmania Ballroom, for instance, features fittings that he could never have had affordably made in Britain, he says, like the heavy brass pool tables that can be winched into the ceiling to create dance space. “You’d imagine that Chinese designers would have developed a clear aesthetic and their own consumer brands by now that are recognised over the world, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet. But I’m sure it will. All of the tools are at their disposal right here.”

As his own boss Dixon has allowed himself to take on a range of low-yield passion projects. He works with artisans in developing countries, helping find ways for them to preserve their skills and compete with cheap industry. One project with the British Council in Jaipur, India, inspired Beat, his popular series of hand-beaten brass lamp shades.

His Finnish connection has prompted a different kind of deliberation. Artek is apparently considered a national treasure by the Finns, who are protective of its reputation and its designs. Some of its furniture mainstays haven’t changed since the company was founded by architect Alvar Aalto in the 1930s and it has had Dixon thinking hard about notions of legacy and longevity. His latest preoccupation is creating items he can sell with a 1,000-year guarantee.

In the meantime his interior projects are allowing him a little more room to play, while pushing his British design agenda even further. The Design Research Studio fashionably reworked the language of stuffy members’ clubs for London’s Shoreditch House a few years ago, sending design ripples globally, and the Tazmania Ballroom is likely to inspire tributes to its mischievous mix of study, pool hall and James Bond-style bling. Trendy young Hongkongers may not find moss on their walls this summer, but they may still be served chips on the side of their whiskey sodas. It seems Dixon’s services to Britain’s global street cred remain secure.

Young at art

For a man who assembled “the Kitchen Chair” in his early years from random, welded metal objects, Tom Dixon’s body of work has grown in sophistication, although it can’t perhaps be called completely grown-up. Below are some of his landmark designs, most of which put a hefty dose of fun back into function.

1988: Dixon’s slender, avant-garde S-chair is put into production by Cappellini, bringing good posture to the masses.
1989: With its iron wire frame, in orange or white, the Pylon chair takes an architectural approach to sitting.
1991: The Bird chair presents an unusual combination of rocking chair and chaise longue.
1994: The multifunctional light/seat Jack Light proves that British manufacturing is still affordable.
1997: Jack comes stacked under Dixon ‘s former company, Eurolounge, before making a comeback, solo once more, earlier this year under the Tom Dixon label.
2001: First produced on demand and on stage at furniture shows, the Fresh Fat chair (below) brings a new glamour to extruded plastic.
2004: Launched during an “anti-design kick”, the best-selling Mirror Ball is a failed attempt to create something that has no identity of its own.
2007: Beat vessels become Dixon’s tribute to tradition, with each hand made by craftsmen in northern India.
2010: Easily flat-packed and made from discarded wood, Offcut is an exercise in eco-consciousness.
2010: Void lamp is designed in patriotic reference to Olympic medals.

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A Luang Prabang guide

For Smart Travel Asia, written in 2007, regularly updated.

First you have to get to Laos. Then you can enjoy the incredible temples, the charm, shopping, and laid-back lifestyle, not to mention some fine Luang Prabang boutique hotels.

THERE IS a reason why Luang Prabang remains the town that time forgot. It’s bloody hard to get to. Snuggled well in the treacherously undulating northwest of Laos it was, until recently, served by just two alarming modes of travel. The first was Lao Airlines – a carrier essentially blacklisted by the US Embassy, the UN, and other companies that prefer their employees whole. The second was a punishing ten-hour bus journey from the capital Vientiane, at the mercy of bandits, and a million sharp turns. Yet the lure of gilded spires, saffron robes and cobblestones was strong, and still the travel pilgrims prevailed.

So things are different now. In 1998 a fancy modern airport was constructed 2km from town, and a few years later Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines opened up the route with direct flights into Luang Prabang. Lao Airlines still flies regularly and many like myself – pursuing this elusive Luang Prabang Guide – still brave it without a hitch. The roads are still winding but they are mostly well kept, and banditry has lessened. This may be because of the armed, alarmingly plain-clothed blokes you might find on board, but hey, that’s all part of the adventure. Buses run from Vientiane through Vang Vieng and range from the eight-hour air-conditioned VIP bus for US$11 (which includes a stop-off lunch) to a cheaper local option, which is a good three hours longer. Both come loaded with exuberant karaoke entertainment.

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Luang Prabang Guide, Buddha statue
Beautiful Buddha at Wat Sensoikharm

Luang Prabang is actually also served by the river during the wetter seasons. A ferry from Vientiane’s Ban Done river port can be scenic but cramped, and may take up to a few days, while a speed boat can make it in about eight hours. Still, both end up being more expensive than the flight, and timetables change constantly. Try the Lao River Exploration Services (www.jetboat.laopdr.com) for more.

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A visitor’s first sight of the old town is always a doozy. Glorious French-Indochinese architecture joins traditional tribal houses in a gaggle of small districts, each centred around a wat (temple). This medieval urban plan spurred UNESCO to tag the town as a World Heritage site in 1995, and it keeps a sharp eye on developments in the area. Now of course many of the villas and shop houses have been carefully converted, meaning plenty of places to eat, stay, and shop.

Your arrival by bus will be greeted by a pleasant array of options. Large, shared tuk-tuks taxi scores of people around town, dropping each off after the other – lengthy but cheap at around US$1. These can be rented exclusively for more, and from the airport may cost US$3-$4. Alternatively, hop on the back of a moto (motorcycle). As a couple you’ll find your driver game to take you both – with your luggage – in a spirited bid to earn a bit more money and join that potential Asia-wide Fear Factor contest for Maximum Bodies on a Bike (at my last count: five.) There’s also the moto sidecar option which is good fun on smooth roads, but a bit rough on cobbles.

Luang Prabang street
Luang Prabang street

Once in town, bicycles are a great way to move around, especially around sunset when the temperature drops. A standard basket-fronted bike can set you back as little as US$1 a day (7pm-9pm), while a mountain bike may cost US$2-$3. Motorbike rental in Luang Prabang is prohibited for visitors, though there are some companies who will rent to you, ferry you out of the city centre, and let you explore further afield from around $10 per day.

Luang Prabang Temples, Shopping, Spas

The wonderful thing about Luang Prabang is its scale: there’s plenty to see, but a few morning strolls can take most of it in. The earlier the better in fact, since many folk roll out of bed at 6am to offer alms to the resident monks (in a ceremony known as takbat). Luang Prabang has no shortage of either monasteries of wats (over thirty at the last count) and for many visitors this is the source of its charm. Wat Xiang Thong (admission US$1) is widely considered the grandest. Located near the tip of the northern peninsular, it was built for the royal family in the 16th century and is a prime example of the area’s temple architecture. Look out for the large tree of life mosaic on the rear wall. The conical Phou Si wat at the top of the town’s central mound provides a great lookout for sunset, while the longboats stored at Wat Saen give you a sampler of the town’s boat festival in the autumn.

Luang Prabang luxury resorts, Amantaka
Amantaka/ photo: hotel

For a peek into Lao’s religious history check out the detailed stucco reliefs at Wat Mai or the creature-strewn façade at the Bamboo Forest Monastery, Wat Pa Phai. Many find that the Royal Palace Museum is a good source of knowledge; whether religious, royal, or revolutionary. Though the royal family were unceremoniously kicked out in 1975, the new government preserved both the buildings and their contents, leaving murals, statues and other regal paraphernalia – yours to see for US$1. Don’t miss the Pha Bang, the Lao’s most sacred religious object, and be sure to ask about its adventures through Asia.

All that sightseeing can definitely take its toll, and this is a good time to check out the price list at your nearest massage parlour or Luang Prabang spa. There are plenty of these around, but the most sophisticated is probably the Spa Garden (tel: 212-325 or spagardenlpb@hotmail.com) – set in a pretty garden oasis, and ready to pamper visitors with fluffy robes, slippers and herbal teas. Massages range from US$4 per hour up to the princely sum of $25 (for a full sports massage), while facials and scrubs are yours from $15, and uber-indulgent three-hour packages certainly don’t break the bank. A smaller sister spa can also be found on the main strip. Another established massage spot is the Kamu Spa (tel: 212-092) on Xiang Thong, fronted by a pretty Asian restaurant. The Kamus are a local ethnic minority, and a traditional Kamu massage combines oil sometimes quite painfully with strong palm strokes (1 hour US$3.50), though the spa does other gentler treatments.

Luang Prabang Wat Visounnarat
Stupa at Wat Visounnarat

As the sun goes down the night market starts to emerge, flooding parts of Xiang Thong Rd with silk swatches, cushion covers, lanterns and what not. Pick up a funky pair of slippers for US$2, or a bed throw for around $15, and feel free to haggle. However remember that Laotians get embarrassed by obvious anger or over excitement, so keep it light.

For a different kind of retail therapy, Okpoptok Textiles (www.ockpoptok.com) is a beautiful two level shop house filled with locally woven goodies, from clothing to wall hangings. The shop displays info about traditional techniques, motifs and costumes, and can arrange informal interactive demos for those interested. However its products are a far cry from night market prices (or quality), and be aware that a good wall hanging here could set you back more than US$100.

Finally, for something entirely different the Three Elephants Café/Tamnak Lao Restaurant opposite Villa Santi has started to offer daily cooking courses (tel: 0205 173-154 or tamnaklp@yahoo.com.au) for up to eight people. Led by two local chefs and an Aussie resident, guests get to haggle at a local food market, cook and eat two full meals’ worth and then walk off with a cute homemade cookbook. Just watch out for the shifty resident dog.

Luang Prabang Dining Guide

Luang Prabang guide, temple tour
Wat catches the morning sun

Restaurants have vastly increased in sophistication (or at least variety), and visitors can now find themselves enjoying curries, burgers and gourmet French cuisine alongside the delicious local fare (like steamed Mekong fish with young ginger, red pork curries, and bamboo salads). The most obvious place to start would be Xiang Thong, the main strip, where cafes spill tables out onto the sidewalk. Up nearer the quieter end of this street lies Café Des Arts (tel: 252-162), set apart by its watercolour wall art (by the owner’s brother and for sale, naturally), and tasty US$4 make-your-own salads.

A more upscale art and food experience can be found at the Samsara Restaurant and Gallery (tel: 254-678), a refined and comfy spot with an open-air roof terrace, a thoughtful menu and a stellar wine list. The Restaurant Luang Prabang Bakery Guesthouse is a popular choice near the market with passable fish ’n’ chips, pizzas and Lao mains on the menu (though give the wine a miss), and the trendy but bare Daofa Bistro will satisfy anyone craving a good crepe, or a happy hour cocktails (7pm-9pm).

Further down south on Xiang Thong lies the wonderful JoMa Bakery Café (tel: 252-292) – an old villa that blasts coffee-tinged air-conditioning and proffers a tempting array of decidedly un-Laotian snacks for a few dollars each. A haven for the heat-weary, and better yet, all organic. Try their delicious iced cocoa or a safe, filtered water-washed Greek salad. JoMa also shares its premises with Mulberries upstairs, a free trade silk gift shop (info@mulberries.org). This gracious combination is only really matched in the town by the lovely L’etranger on Ban Aphay (booksinlaos@yahoo.com), which sells 60-plus kinds of teas, shakes and smoothies, stocks a mini library with books that can be rented by tourists (to residents it’s free) and screens art house films most nights.

Luang Prabang guide, hills
Hills on the road to Luang Prabang

Go for a little cultural entertainment at the old wooden Hong Kong Restaurant (tel: 212-241) next to Wat Visoun, which along with your Chinese buffet offers a range of options, including a Lao traditional band, a traditional costume and folk song show, and – a little bemusingly – “The Original Giant-Giantess Best Show in Town” which no one seemed able to adequately sum up. Tamirind meanwhile (opposite Wat Nong) doubles up as a lovely, original gift shop – combining Lao snacks and tasting platters with recipes, tableware, herbs and seeds – all for sale. Best visit at lunch though, for it closes at 6pm.

Down at the southern part of the Mekong things get local, with small dark shophouses offering shaded meals along the river. Laotians sit here and chat at fruit juice stands, and whole fruits are sold on the pavement. Further along things start to spruce up, with quaint guesthouses, small gift shops and massage parlours. Enjoy views of the lazy brown Mekong at somewhere like Lao Vegetarian – good for tasty tofu or a fruit shake – or Bouasavanh Restaurant (tel: 212-869) with its good local fare. Or try ‘cocktails et jazz’ at the sleek, antique Couleur Café (tel: 254-694) tucked just down a side street. Alternatively L’Elephant Restaurant Francais (tel: 252-482) across from Wat Nong is one of the town’s more renowned fine dining establishments. The delectable menu du chasseur here can set you back as much as US$18 (a small fortune) but at least you can pop it on the credit card.

Luang Prabang resorts guide, Three Nagas
Three Nagas/ photo: hotel

Finally try a wander along the serene Nam Khan river for a bite at the lovely Apsara Restaurant, or stop by the little Sala Café (tel: 254-738) for herbal teas, martinis and ice creams in comfy wicker armchairs.

Luang Prabang Nightlife

This is not a place for night owls. Aside from a few establishments the town tends to wind down at 11pm, with bars and restaurants closing around the same time and streets emptying fast. This means that many simply stay on drinking where they ate, though there are a few pockets of activity to seek out. On Xiang Thong these seem to be Le Tam Tam Garden (tel: 253-300), reinforced by pot plants, fairy lights, two pool tables and a karaoke bar, and the bare but sports-loving Nao’s Place (tel: 253-497), packed on game nights due to the big screen TV. The spot where the Nam Khan river turns near Wat Aphay has given rise to the Hive Bar (hive_bar@yahoo.com) – a moody chillout space that advertises tapas and home made peanut butter. Adjacent is the Lao Lao Garden. Lao Lao is the country’s popular rice-based tipple and the garden offers deals on a variety of fresh juices with the brew, alongside burgers and barbeque. They also do veggie burgers here for the herbivorous.

If you are feeling a little more intrepid then talk to your tuk tuk driver about a visit out to Dao Fa Nightclub or Duang Champa on the outskirts of town. These two spots are where the Lao youth go to party; the former a smaller affair with its DJ shouting above hip hop and Lao pop tracks, and the latter larger, with an industrial Asian kitsch thing going on. But be warned, this is an After Hours night out in the sense that you get to stay up until midnight – at which point the lights bang on, and the dance floor promptly clears.

Maison Souvannaphoum Luang Prabang boutique hotel
Maison Souvannaphoum/ photo: Angsana

Luang Prabang Hotel Guide, Inns, Guesthouses

Cooler winter months are popular visit time, but braving the spring – the hottest season – will certainly beat the crowds and preserve the sleepy atmosphere. Still, reserving accommodation is rarely necessary – there’s so much of it about. On with our selection of Luang Prabang hotels, boutique hotels, budget places and guesthouses.

Starting at the top, one could reside like royalty at the undeniably grand Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel, once the home of a prince. Tastefully managed by the Singapore-based Angsana, the gleaming white estate can be found opposite the town fountain, and features only 24 rooms in total, most of which boast their own balconies. Rooms are suitably lavish, modern, and guests can get wrapped, buffed and massaged outside in one of three spa pavilions. The pool is a tad boring for such a glamorous affair – however a few happy hour cocktails in the Elephant Blanc Café should ease any such concerns pretty quickly.

The lovely 3 Nagas (now run by Alila) at the northern end of town has large studio rooms with a trendy Southeast Asian flavour, and introduces its guests to the Laos traditional shoes-off policy. The minibar is relatively pricey but if you head outside to the patio café you can savour a shredded cooked buffalo salad with roasted sesame seeds and betel leaf for next top nothing. Their separate Lao fine dining restaurant across the road also promises upmarket, thoughtful meals for a similar price.

Luang Prabang hotel Villa Santi
Charming Villa Santi

Nearby, the charming Villa Santi is the epitome of colonial Luang Prabang boutique hotel chic, and like the Maison, was once home to royalty. The rooms feature ample, tasteful doses of rosewood furniture and Lao silk furnishings. In-room enjoy a mini-bar, writing desk, a safe and, in the toilet, a genuine bathtub for a long hot soak. The 52-room Villa Santi Resort & Spa can also be found a few kilometres outside the town. This is a pleasant French colonial-style villa recreation, 6km from the hotel. It was built in 2001 with 48 rooms and a couple of suites. Several rooms have balconies with nice mountain views and all offer mini-bar, writing desk, satellite TV and a comfortable bathroom. Both places are among the best hotels in Luang Prabang.

Still in the north, Amantaka, from Amanresorts has added its luxurious, if understated, footprint, just ten minutes from Luang Prabang International Airport. The private complex of 24 suites is a leisurely stroll from Luang Prabang town and 38 magnificent temples. Ranging from 70sq m to 120sq m, the French colonial inspired suites enjoy high ceilings and classical décor. Expect old-world treats such as writing desk, dining area, drinks cabinet, dressing area, and spoiling bathroom with twin vanities and a deep, deep bathtub. Relax under mango trees in a private outdoor space. Pool suites include an eight metre pool, stylish in black. Lao-French influence extends to the restaurant while the boutique art gallery focuses in on the indigenous artwork and handicrafts of local communities. Expect WiFi, tennis and yoga to keep you busy if the temples and local culture don’t.

While UNESCO considers The Ancient Luang Prabang to be a rebellious blot on the landscape, this modern four-storey structure is nevertheless bang in the middle of everything, and quite fun for a stay. Previously (and ironically) the New Luang Prabang Hotel it has a scatty but upmarket feel, with sculptural dark wood furniture perked up by local textiles, and baths and showers open to each room. Check out the terrace upstairs for breakfast above the melee.

Luang Prabang resorts, Lao Spirit
Lao Spirit Resort

On the much sleepier Nam Khan River stands The Apsara, an old converted shop house formerly known as the Duang Champa. Most rooms have views of the river – or at least the trees that fringe it – and are upmarket but interestingly designed with funky exposed concrete floors, batik accents, modern Asian art, and four poster beds – along with high ceilings and original details. There are no computers here but BYO for Wireless Internet. The restaurant is stylish, though laid back, with baguettes and soups for a few dollars and creative fusion dishes in the evening.

For those that like to lose themselves in a really good hotel there’s The Grand Luang Prabang, a sprawling five-star property about 4km out of town. It has an Art Deco elegance to it, though a few corners need a little retouching. Rooms are large, airy and elegant with all the modern amenities, and the hotel thoughtfully lays on a regular shuttle bus to town (and even a shuttle boat during the high season). The Lao Spirit Resort is a good thirty minutes into the bush, and is a pleasant upscale eco resort with traditional, terraced bungalows and polished interiors. Run in coordination with the Tiger Trails adventure tour group, this Luang Prabang resort sports fun outdoor showers and an open restaurant – close enough to hear the mahout’s karaoke wafting over the river from the elephant camp. With minimum electrical appliances this is a great way to comfortably commune with nature, though one wonders why some of the local nature needs to be kept in cages.

Much further into the urban network yet still beyond the fringes of the old town of Luang Prabang lies La Residence Phou Vao, a very posh sanctuary type resort. The 34 bedrooms and suites are a riot of rosewood and cotton with lofty views, and along with cocktail bar and infinity swimming pool, it boasts conference rooms and a garden spa. It’s also good for its shuttles into town. Out around this area there are a number of more affordable options, including Le Parasol Blanc Hotel, which is modestly comfortable and books nightly traditional dance shows during the high season. Going down a tad there’s the Manoluck – friendly and comfortable, but perhaps more suited to a business stay than a holiday.

Luang Prabang resorts,  The Grand Luang Prabang
The Grand Luang Prabang/ photo: hotel

For affordable but prettier accommodation you should try the stretch around Wat Sop, where a smattering of lovely quiet, clean villa guesthouses can be found for reasonable nightly rates. Here the Villa Soxai has a small family feel to it, but with its gorgeous dark wood interiors, free breakfast on the verandah and views of Wat Sop across the road it’s a winner. Take a top floor room to escape sounds from the reception TV. Senesouk, though alas not sporting cable, still does nice air-conditioned doubles for around US$15.

Finally, should you really be saving your pennies it is still absolutely possible to find a clean, pleasant room here with a fan and an en suite bathroom for US$5. Try the streets linking lower Xiang Thong with the Mekong, or a few streets leading off it in the opposite direction, just past the Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel.

Luang Prabang Tour Options

You’ll not be short of options when it comes to tour providers. As well as the many lining Xiang Thong, even the tuk tuk drivers will have printed rates for trips. A few of these are diverting half days, with the lovely limestone Kuang Si and Tad Se waterfalls good for a splash and a picnic, and the caves at Pak Ou a good excuse for a boat trip. Chock full of old Buddha statues these caves make for an odd, slightly mournful sight, though don’t live up to the expectations of some.

La Residence Phou Vao Luang Prabang luxury resorts
La Residence Phou Vao/ photo: hotel

Other adventures can of course be taken farther afield. Explore hidden rivers in kayaks, ride elephants through the forest, or trek through the hills and lay your hat at village home stays along the way. Prices can vary from US$20-$30 for one day, and US$30-$50 for two depending on how many people you can drum up to join you. Try Tiger Trails a well regarded outfit that offers varied itineraries, often based around its elephant camp.

For something a bit more unique, ask about the two-day mahout course which will teach you to look after and guide your own elephant. Make sure you’re good with a shovel. Alternatively the Grace Travel Service offers a variety of adventure tours to the less travelled east area of the town, which may give you a better taste of the wilderness.

Tigers and bears are sadly (or thankfully) no longer found in the hills near Luang Prabang, having escaped to a more peaceful, less populated northern climes over a decade ago. Tiger sighting trips up north are still allegedly possible, but involve days of trekking.

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FAST FACTS
Luang Prabang budget hotel Ancient Luang Prabang
The Ancient Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang hotel rack rates quoted here may be subject to 10 percent government tax and 10 percent service charge. Some smaller hotels will require payment in advance. Luang Prabang guesthouses may not always have hot running water, aircon, TV or fridge. The exchange rate is around US$1 = Kp10,000 and Thai Bt100 = Kp26,000. Airport departure tax is US$10, as is the overland immigration tax, though this is sometimes waived. Be aware of where you are pointing your feet in Laos (never at anyone), and try never to step over anyone, or touch them on the head. Remember than many homes will be used to a shoes-off policy at the door. Be very wary of buying medicine from small local pharmacies: the packets may look official but there’s no guarantee you’ll be getting what you asked for.

Luang Prabang Tour and Travel Agencies

All Lao Service. Tel/fax: (856-71) 253522 (e-mail: alllaoservice@yahoo.com). Takes care of tours, tickets, visas and rentals, as well as Internet and overseas calls.
Lao Travel Service.Tel: [856-71] 212725, fax [856 71] 212252 (e-mail: sihayong@laotel.com).
Tiger Trails. Tel/fax: [856-71] 252 655 (e-mail: info@laos-adventures.com or www.laos-adventures.com).
Mala Travel Service. Tel: [856-71] 253-704, fax: 254-266, (e-mail: malatrevel@yahoo.com). Just across from the Kamu Spa.Offers tickets, visas and the more accessible of tours around the area, including Kuangsi Waterfall and a Sunset Trip along the Mekong.
Grace Travel Service. Tel/fax: [856-71] 252-360 (e-mail: vongpachang@hotmail.com). Offers a variety of adventure tours ranging from half days onwards. Also rents out minivans and boats.
Action Max Laos. Tel: [856-71] 252 417 (email: actionmaxasie@yahoo.fr). Self billed as a specialist in cultural tours and a supporter of genuinely responsible tourism.

Luang Prabang Hotel Guide

Amantaka. Tel: [856-71] 860-333, fax: 860-335, (e-mail: reservations@amanresorts.com or www.amanresorts.com). Suites from US$400 (low season) and US$600 (high season).
Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel
. Tel: [856-71] 212-200, fax: 212-577, (e-mail: maison@angsana.com or www.angsana.com). Garden Rooms US$170-$200, Verandah Rooms US$190-$220.
La Residence Phou Vao. Tel: [856-71] 212-530, fax: 212-534, (e-mail: reservations@residencephouvao.com or www.residencephouvao.com). Rates from US$270.
The Lao Spirit Resort. Tel. [856-30] 514 0111, (email: info@lao-spirit.com or www.lao-spirit.com). Three-day adventure package for two people, including pick-ups, breakfast, dinner and excursions, US$112 per person.
Villa Santi. Tel: [856-71] 252-157, fax: 252-158, (e-mail: info@villasantihotel.com or www.villasantihotel.com). Deluxe twins and doubles from US$170.
Villa Santi Resort & Spa. Tel: [856-71] 252-157, fax : 252158, (email: info@villasantihotel.com or www.villasantihotel.com). Deluxe Double US$170, extra bed $30.
The Grand. Tel: [856-71] 253-851-7 fax: 253-027-8 (e-mail: info@grandluangprabang.com or www.grandluangprabang.com). Deluxe twins and doubles from US$150, extra bed $25. Breakfast included, as well as transport to and from the airport.
3 Nagas by Alila. Tel: [856-71] 253-888 fax: 253-999, (e-mail: 3nagas@alilahotels.com or www.alilahotels.com/3nagas). Superior Rooms US$85 low season and $105 high season. Junior suite US$112 and $140. Includes Internet and breakfast.
The Apsara. Tel: [856-71] 254-670, fax: 254-252, (e-mail: info@theapsara.com or www.theapsara.com). Doubles US$55-$65.
The Ancient Luang Prabang. Tel: [856-71] 212-264, fax: 212-804, (e-mail: info@ancientluangprabang.com or www.ancientluangprabang.com). Doubles from US$60.

Luang Prabang Budget Hotels and Guesthouses

Le Parasol Blanc Hotel. Tel: [856-71] 252-124, fax: 252-496, (e-mail: pbluang@laotel.com or www.vico-voyages.laopdr.com). Rates from US$45-$55 with a free American Breakfast and pick-up from airport.
Manoluck. Tel: [856-71] 212-250, fax: [856-71] 212-508, (e-mail: manoluck@laotel.com). Doubles from US$45, Junior Suite $80 including breakfast. No charge for children of ten years and under. No Internet available, but airport pick-up is free.
Villa Soxai. Tel/fax: [856-71] 260-299. Doubles from US$20, including breakfast.
Senesouk. Tel/fax: [856-71] 212-074 Doubles from US$15.

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Northern Light – a visit to Laos’ Luang Prabang

Gafencu Magazine, September 2007.  If you’re a fool for the leafy, romantic streets of Hanoi, the faded colonial architecture of Phnom Penh or Hoi An and the religious drama of Chiang Mai’s old wats, you’ll be equally beguiled by this lesser known cultural cache, nestled into Laos’ northern mountains. Arriving in the late afternoon, Luang Prabang lies gleaming serenely in […]

Gafencu Magazine, September 2007. 

If you’re a fool for the leafy, romantic streets of Hanoi, the faded colonial architecture of Phnom Penh or Hoi An and the religious drama of Chiang Mai’s old wats, you’ll be equally beguiled by this lesser known cultural cache, nestled into Laos’ northern mountains.

Arriving in the late afternoon, Luang Prabang lies gleaming serenely in the dying sunlight, its ochre spires, old wooden shop houses and leafy, somnolent roads cast in a tangerine glow. Therapeutic chants rumble on the breeze from a monastery across the road. It’s the closest thing to a civic pick-me-up you’ll ever experience.

Luang Prabang’s change in status from remote outpost to burgeoning tourist mecca has been relatively swift since a modern airport was finished in 1998, and this culturally rich northwestern town is most easily reached from Bangkok or even Ho Chi Minh City. This convenient option has lately transformed Laos’ former royal and religious capital of around 22,000 into a beacon for discerning travellers and overworked vacationers.

[See Gafencu LP for the original PDF feature]

STA Luang Prabang pix

Laos’ communist government only opened the country to tourism in the early nineties, its hesitancy explained, perhaps, by the fact that during the 1960s, more bombs were dropped on the tiny country by the US than were used in World War II. Laos also spent time

under the French in the early 1900s. Although Vientiane has sprung up and sprawled out as capitals do, the rest of the country is remarkably undeveloped and the north remains particularly elusive. Hill tribes here are less in touch with the outside world, and tigers can still be spotted in its topmost reaches.

Some reports speak of a place of captivating charm and fantastically intact heritage, evidenced by buildings such as The Royal Palace (now a museum), which was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family. One of the reasons UNESCO intervened here in 1995 is because of the town planning structure, which dates back to medieval times, something seen in only a handful of places. Tiny neighbourhoods make up the whole, each arranged around a wat and a pond.

There are about 34 wats – one for every occasion. Wat Saen is keeper of the monastery’s racing boats and one of the most striking, the small, quaint Wat Pa Khe, houses an impression of Buddha’s footprint. The heavily gilded Wat Xieng Thong is the most popular complex, and showcases a beautiful mosaic of the tree of life, along with the royals’ old golden funeral carriage.  All are breathtakingly beautiful, but feel real and active. Younger monks carry out cleaning chores, others bend over Sanskrit texts in shady corners. Many will stop what they’re doing to shyly practise their English.

As old as the place may be, it has learned how to shape up for the twenty-first century traveller. After Luang Prabang Airport was installed, intrepid pilgrims were overtaken by the more sophisticated traveller. Its restaurants, hotels and spas have upgraded accordingly (under the beady eye of UNESCO) and today the city is the master of the double act. It may ooze antiquated charm on the surface, but contemporary Asian interiors and fine culinary adventures lie within.

Two of the five star options that greet the Luang Prabang visitor are literally palatial. In 1992 Villa Santi – a former royal mansion – became one of the first high end hotels in Northern Laos, and though small it’s still one of the grandest. Swathes of polished rosewood give the place an old world smell and the stately dining room makes dressing for dinner a distinct possibility. The Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel channels glamour from the more recent past. Laos’ last royal Prime Minister used to live here and it’s a light, breezy affair with a large lush garden and a classic 50s-style pool. Wide verandas and an Angsana spa lure guests out from their rooms, and the place achieves a secluded feel, though it’s just a stone’s throw from the action.

More modern still is La Residence Phou Vou, slightly out of the hub, on a hill. I’d heard about the hotel’s spectacular sunset perch, and, gin fizz in hand at the bar, was not disappointed. The only step up would have been the view from the infinity pool. This spa hotel – under the luxury Oriental Express brand – was not renovated from royalty, but it pretty much serves it, depending on your definition of the word. Both the King of Cambodia and Mick Jagger have stayed here.

Much of Luang Prabang’s charm lies in its scale though, and I have always preferred my history in bite-sized chunks. The short walk between the main street and the riverbanks turns up a variety of converted boutique hotels, all looking to put a little hip into heritage.  My favourite The Apsara does this with industrial concrete floors and the driest martinis in town, while The 3 Nagas – near the banks of the Nam Khan – goes for a more minimalist approach.  Just a quick search turns up a handful of similarly well-situated gems.

All of these boast excellent dining options. Lao cuisine may not have travelled far but it is appreciated for its distinct flavours: spicy, savory and often loaded with raw, fresh herbs and galangal. You’re also rarely far from crisp white table cloths and a decent wine cellar:  the French did not have a hand in this country for nothing. Over the past ten years the international and fusion scene here has matured, and a few independent restaurants in particular offer an exhilarating experience for a fraction of the price you’d pay in Paris, or Hong Kong. L’Elephant Restaurant Francais is at the top of its game. Under French management, the place is all wood panelling, modest chandeliers and lazy ceiling fans, and offers a menu du chasseur, often featuring game from the surrounding forests. Consider wildboar in a Luang Prabang chanterelle sauce or crème brûlée with coconut. Near the night market the Blue Lagoon Cafe & Restaurant comes highly recommended by staff at Phou Vao. “International and Laos cuisine and Swiss management – good cuisine and atmosphere,” notes resident manager Denis Simonne, also extolling the virtues of the traditional Laotian menu at the 3 Nagas.

During my own explorations I dined on steamed fish with coconut at the Coleur Cafe, a small elegant bistro that offers, ‘cocktails et jazz’, and perused a pretty good wine list from the roof terrace of the Samsara Restaurant and Gallery. These small places make it easy to avoid the casual pizza joints that, though atmospheric, offer pretty generic food on the main strip. Down by the Nam Khan riverside things get a bit more local. Fruit shakes vendors set up shop, and I tried alfresco Laotian options like bamboo salad for as little as U$1. Low bottomed fishing boats drift by on one side, ladies on bicycles coast by on the other, bundled up against the sun. Being there at its off peak hottest and least busy was like vacationing on a stunning, high budget movie set peopled by a small cast of convincing extras.

Though tuk tuks and taxis hover semi-discreetly, the old quarter is easily explored on foot. It’s a skinny peninsular, less than a kilometre square, and lies at the confluence of two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The main thoroughfare, Xiang Thong is a postcard worthy street lined with shophouse-restaurants and small hotels, and I wandered the length of it in about fifteen minutes. Early mornings see it come alive at six am for takbat; a gliding procession of brightly-clad novice monks receiving alms. Sleepy eyed travelers mingle with residents and are usually rewarded with hypnotic, technicoloured photographs – splashes of bright orange against the dusty pink hues of a morning sky. I chose a respectful, effortless distance for my takbat experience:  reclining on my balcony, a steaming cup of Lao coffee in hand.

The heat of the afternoon sends all but the tuk tuk drivers scurrying for shade on Xiang Thong. A favourite refuge of mine, JoMa, is a Canadian-owned organic bakery that blasts coffee tinged air-conditioning. Its pastries are flaky and delicious, the owners often around for a chat, and upstairs the Mulberries boutiqu showcases a range of free trade, floaty clothes and accessories worth a peruse.

Few can leave Luang Prabang with luggage that weighs the same. As night falls and the stupa on the small, forested Phou Si (“sacred hill”) provides the perfect perch for sunset groupies, part of Xiang Thong gets cordoned off to traffic below. Merchants pour in, a few in traditional garb, and it quickly becomes awash with night market produce; a swimming, shimmering landscape of gleaming silk swatches, bed spreads, lamps and handmade toys. I picked up a pair of patchwork style slippers for as little as a US$1.50, or 15,000 kip.

Although many of the villages in the north are known for their skill at weaving, finding a great piece of silk or cotton in the markets can be a challenge. One on afternoon ramble I came across a large three storey shophouse with an unpronounceable name, filled with beautiful textiles at surprisingly steep prices.  One of the co-founders is a British photographer, Joanna Smith, who had set up Ockpoptok with a Lao weaver friend to help provide a sustainable link between the more remote, impoverished villages, and tourist demand. The shop works with the Lao women’s union and development agencies to help training villagers in product design. “They may be expensive,” she remarked as I balked at the US$100 price tag of a small aquamarine wall hanging, “but they’re nothing like the quality or workmanship of the stuff in the night markets.” Regular exhibitions at Ockpoptok take visitors into the technicalities and cultural significance of Laotian weaving, making use of Smith’s photography skills.

Travellers with extra time tend to head for the hills, and Xiang Thong supports a number of adventure travel companies. I took a day trip with Tiger Trails, which specialises in small, eco-adventure excursions through hill tribe villages and beyond. It was one of the firm’s easier options – a relaxed ramble through dry bristling hillsides, visits to a few obliging Kamu villages with their stilted houses and piglet armies, and a kayak trip down the Mekong. The day was neither super taxing or incredibly thrilling, but it was pleasant, and the villagers seemed happy to have our small group around. The company is a co-operative effort with the hill tribes, Markus Peschke, its German owner had explained, and the warmth in the smiles we were met with led me to believe him.

Most Tiger Trail excursions involve a meal or a few nights stay at its luxury eco lodge, the Lao Spirit Resort, which sits across the river from the elephant camp, and I spent a memorable meal in the open air restaurant, being eyed by the establishment’s tame owl and listening to enthusiastic pop song renditions by the Mahouts, rising above the rush of the water.

Those that look can find more to Luang Prabang than its old wat-heavy hub, but most visitors choose to miss the typical urban sprawl of its suburbs, with their basic business hotels, utilitarian shop fronts and motorbike traffic. Many Laotians feel certain impatience at the pristine preservation of the downtown area, and the building codes that thwart their thirst for progress. They are just coming across the twenty first century and it must be infuriating to be told that the past is much more in fashion. Still, as someone from a city that has chosen commercialism over its cultural assets at every turn, I find myself glancing around Luang Prabang, and whispering a quick word of thanks to UNESCO.

 

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Full Steam

October 2008, Discovery Magazine, China

Jo Baker takes the waters in Taipei

 

The air was dark and tinged with cool, old trees struck dramatic poses against the night sky and below them, a near-naked elderly man waxed lyrical about the stars. “This is a good place,” he said, a blue towel twisted jauntily around his head. “Out in the open air with the stars, the moon. It’s a very good way to relax.” The scene was a hopping Friday night at a Taiwanese public hot springs; the place, a sleepy town called Xin Beitou, just north of Taipei.

When the Japanese gave up Taiwan after World War II they left a number of lingering legacies, among them great sushi and a penchant for orderly queues. But their best loved hand-me-down is the onsen (in Japanese) or wenquan (Putonghua). The Japanese have been dunking themselves in steaming, therapeutic mountain ponds for centuries, and developments in ex-colonial towns like Beitou are long-standing tributes to this love affair.The minerals dissolved in geothermal springs are widely thought to have significant health benefits, and many cultures, from Roman to Maori have celebrated the restorative powers of a good, volcanic soak. Maladies from warts to wrinkles are supposed to be soothed by a dip, and though science may raise its proverbial eyebrow few doctors will dispute the good a hot bath can do for circulation, or muscular pain. Sophisticated complexes will feature water of varying temperatures and ph levels to keep everyone happy, however each district will vary.
With twenty or so semi dormant volcanoes hemming in Taipei’s northern edges, its forested vistas seethe with wispy puffs of steam. Hikers will rarely set off without a towel and hot spring resorts dot the region.  But for a steamy, laid back mini break under an hour from the city – and a pilgrimage to the roots of Taiwanese hot spring culture –Xin or New Beitou is the place to go.

‘Steamy’ was once the operative word for the town, which for some years after the Japanese became known as the place to procure many drinks and a lady for the night, particularly for US servicemen. However this has been a mixed blessing. While other Taipei spa towns have a polished, developed feel to them Xin Beitou’s revival came later, and it has a charmingly hodge-podge mix of old and new, in which old invariably seems to win. The place is walkable and very green, its roads hopelessly twisty, and public space is still hallowed. “That park was designed by the Japanese” says Tony Wang, director of Sweetme Hot Spring Resorts, pointing at a green in which old men played checkers, and locals splashed around barefoot in an adjacent stream. “It’s hardly been changed at all.”

The park is just a short walk from Xin Beitou MRT station, and a push through the usual gaggle of chain stores and past a rocky stream will bring visitors to the town’s oldest bathhouse. Longnaitang sits crouched, thatched and whitewashed in a light cloud of sulfur-scented fog, and Mr Lee on reception will happily chat about the area, his family home for five generations. As he speaks the sound of vigorous slapping keeps steady pace behind a curtain. Some kind of massage service? “No, they do that to themselves!” he said. “It’s part of the bathing tradition.”

For those that worry about the perils of onsen etiquette, the local council has put out an A4 sheet of ‘prohibitions and matters for attention’ in English, which Mr Lee keeps to hand. Many of the rules – such as, do not take pets into the baths and stay away if you have an infectious disease – are common sense, but it is worth noting that there should be a fifteen minute immersion max, and that a full body wash is expected before entering. Other potential pitfalls, such as whether to be clothed or not, or how best to brandish your little wenquan towel will usually come from other local bathers, happy to show newbies the ropes. Still, if being nude with an egg-smelling roomful of strangers pushes your pleasure threshold to the max, alternatives beckon.

Not far along Beitou’s steep, narrow alleyways, flanked by little houses are two old bastions of its hot spring history, with baths of the communal and in-room variety. Both catered to the Japanese military and ruling elite in its early-century heyday, and many a kamikaze pilot took their last dip here. The I-Tsun has been in the So family since the Japanese left, and both building and hostesses are ageing but gracefully hospitable. I-Tsun’s interiors are a fascinating mix of eras; architectural Kyoto-style detailing in wood and stone from the turn of the century, curtain and sofa fabrics that have hung on since the late eighties. Further up the hills, Whispering Pines Inn is more polished with Koi Carp ponds and tatami rooms, though still rather dated. At night the sounds of traditional nakashi bands waft up from its popular function rooms below, bolstered by electronic keyboard. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the renditions of ‘Please Release Me’ for salary man’s karaoke, rather than, as we were told rather severely, professionals charging NT$2,000 an hour.

Xin Beitou does have its modern side. McDonalds , Mos Burger, swish real estate offices and brash new hotels suggest that once the economy picks up again, the town’s landscape could see further changes. But where a few Las Vegas-inspired options let the side down, there are also those that offer affordable weekends away in tasteful three and four star comfort. Hotels such as Pacific Wellness and Spa Club and SweetMe Hot Spring Resort combine decent breakfast buffets with sleek design and modern hot spa complexes covering entire floors.

One place in particular has dramatically hoisted Xin Beitou’s chic credentials. Villa 32 was built by Taiwanese millionaire Chiu Ming-hung on a secluded side of town’s primordial Geothermal Valley; a steaming pond and popular tourist site. It was designed as a luxurious guesthouse but Chiu later spent years and millions of Taiwanese dollars converting it into a boutique hotel. He kept many of the personal touches of a wealthy home. Sleek, modernist hot spring complexes lie under century-old camphor and maple trees, and the villa’s five suites – three split-level in a European style and two with tatami mats, fusuma doors, both with sweeping private spas – are served by around 70 staff. The place rivals Taipei’s top luxury hotels, but for those unable to book a room, the Italian restaurant offers a fine lunch.

Diversions tend to be limited in Xin Beitou, but there are hiking trails, a museum of hot spring history and another of indigenous crafts, as well as modest night-market dining adventures to pull visitors out of the bath. Flitting in and out of Taipei is also easy from here. However once the pace of life has got you in Xin Beitou, it can be reluctant to let go. You’d be far better advised to lay back, give in, and sample the joys of a holiday in hot water.

 

Getting there and where to stay:

The drive to Xin Beitou takes around eighty minutes from Tauyuan International Airport, thirty minutes from Taipei’s main train station, and less by MRT, the user-friendly Tapei metro system.

The I-tsun Hotel
1 40 Wen Chuan Road, (02) 2891 2121-3

Pacific Wellness Spa & Club
No 1, Quiyan Rd, (02) 2893-1668 www.pacifichotel.com.tw

SweetMe Hotspring Resort
No 224 Guangming Rd (02) 2898 4505 www.sweetme.com.tw

Whispering Pine Inn
No.21, You Ya Rd, (02) 2895 1531

Villa 32
32 Zongshan Road, (02) 6611-888 www.villa32.com

 

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Polo Returns to China

March 2008, Prestige Magazine, Hong Kong Jo Baker delves into the Middle Kingdom’s new highlife on horseback Download original: Prestige Polo A line of Australia’s finest polo ponies fidget unhappily in their stalls, one picking moodily at the stable planks with his well-bred teeth. China is in the throes of its worst winter in fifty […]


March 2008, Prestige Magazine, Hong Kong

Jo Baker delves into the Middle Kingdom’s new highlife on horseback

Download original: Prestige Polo


A line of Australia’s finest polo ponies fidget unhappily in their stalls, one picking moodily at the stable planks with his well-bred teeth. China is in the throes of its worst winter in fifty years, and it’s not only the people here that are suffering. “They don’t really like being inside,” says Romiro Pellegrini, a young vet and skillful Polo player from Argentina. “They’re athletes. They want to be out playing, and this snow just gets them down.”

The ponies of China’s new Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club may well be dreaming of last October; three days in which man and horse tussled on a field of verdant grass to a backdrop of fizzing champagne, hats of architectural daring and delicate wahs of enthusiasm. Shanghai’s elite were learning how to do ‘garden party’ and in the process, sporting history was being made.

Polo hasn’t always come with champagne. Its roots in Central Asia – Persia around 600BC it is guessed – suggest a sport played among horse-hardy villagers, with its past incarnations using the carcasses of goats and the heads of men. However during its move through Tibet and India, and into the British Empire (where it was largely used to train Calvary) it was successfully refined, and ‘the Sport of Kings’ emerged in all its present Mumm-quaffing glory.  Prince Charles and his brood play it, as did the Sultan of Brunei, and many a deal in the Middle East has been eased along by a chukker or two. With Polo’s role of honour ranging from Dukes to CFOs, it seems only fitting that it be poised to hit one of the world’s fastest growing elites.

“As prestige goes, it’s only really matched by having your own Formula One team” says Steve Wyatt, the man who made both China’s first international polo tournament, and its home – Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club – a reality. He founded the club six months ago on a development belonging to his partner, millionaire tycoon Qin Fu Li, where it complements a marina and a golf club, all encased in rosy, faux-Mediterranean architecture. The site between Hangzhou and Shanghai has it within easy reach of a rich, restless client base, and it nurtures a small but enthusiastic team of Chinese Polo players in-training.

Still, as impressive as the sport is, even Wyatt –  a keen player –will admit that polo is only 10% of time spent on a horse; most of the club’s 300 or so members have taken the less-active ‘social’ membership. When considering polo for his Nine Dragons property, Li, who’s among the top fifty in China’s Hurun Rich List, had foreseen a powerful new social niche for those in China’s top tier; one that would have been unthinkable just ten years earlier.  “In the future we can see polo attracting a lot of leaders from other countries like Britain or the Middle East,” he says from behind acres of desk in his forty-third floor Shanghai office. “Not long ago the Japanese Prime Minister played tennis with the Chinese premier during a visit, and it was a very good chance for them to nurture their relations. My suggestion is that if Prince Charles can come to Nine Dragons Hill and play polo, ties between our countries can develop and bilateral trade will develop further!”

Wyatt also stresses the global power of the polo network, or as he also terms it, the ‘family’. “It’s a small community anywhere in the world, usually of successful business leaders.  If you have an international handicap you’re automatically welcomed into the circle in exclusive club X in country Y,” he says. “Several times I’ve just turned up; somebody will be out exercising the horses, you’ll get chatting to them over a coffee and then you find out that they’re running the Hermes fashion house or something like that.” He picked a good example. Patrick Guerrand – Hermes, director of Hermes International, does indeed play Polo. He also owns The Polo Club du Domaine de Chantilly, France’s premier club.

This expansion into China is all part of an emerging global trend. As the rich grow richer and ever-fond of seclusion, high end villas, marinas, golf and equestrian clubs are being rolled into mega watt, gated leisure packages –like the impending Culu Culu in Argentina (a country that harbours the highest concentration of skilled players) or Apes Hill in Barbados. For wealthy Chinese, time in the saddle can map the way into an airtight world of wealth, heritage and high culture overseas.

However these are early days, and it hasn’t been easy to start a club from scratch in a country with little horsemanship in its modern history. Polo circles have the bar set high, and quality control is Wyatt’s major worry. He and Li brought in fourteen thoroughbred polo ponies from Australia, Pellegrini from a club in Thailand and the deftest of Mongolia’s young horse hands, as well as a clubhouse furnished with antlers and polished leather. But the key, he says, was in peaking the interest of the right men. “The point is, you only get one chance to create a first impression, so it’s important that you have people who are of the kind that you’d expect to be gentleman players or patrons,” he explains.

He found his gentlemen – three of them at least – on the race track. Ferrari racers have just the right combination of wealth and personality, Wyatt decided, plus an essential competitive streak. His idea was to train them up for participation in a pioneering international championship at the club that could rally the local elite.  The three, Larry Lin, Michael Wang and Tony Wang are a group of chairmen, managing directors at the very top of their professional game. The club’s fourth Ambassador Team player is Brian Xu, whose company Shanghai Marco Stationery is responsible for manufacturing a vast proportion of the world’s pencils. He had come across the sport during a stint in Santa Barbara and was keen to get back in the saddle.

From little or almost no equestrian experience, the four men found themselves in front of a 3,000 strong crowd ten weeks later, on two newly inaugurated polo fields recently pulled from the sea. Each man was placed in a team with some of the world’s top polo contenders, including international championship winners, a former national team captain and the reigning world champion elephant polo player, James Manclark. A landmark exhibition match also took place between new, mostly overseas-trained teams from Shanghai and Beijing.

As aficionados will probably note, a real appreciation of the sport can’t be honed in a year; and polo’s frilly spectator culture is as big as the sport itself. “We spent a while beforehand with PR getting the message out there about what polo is,” remembers Wyatt. “We did an etiquette day for ladies with sponsorship from a hat manufacturer. Champagne flowed. It was a way of talking about Garden Party – how to look and be the part. Those not dressed appropriately on the first day – by third day they’d all got it.”

Tournament sponsorship came from Royal Salute Whisky, with its brand ambassador, the 13th Duke of Argyll rambunctiously present along with other hues of European nobility. The Royal Salute Cup came from HRH Queen Elizabeth’s jeweler, Richard Fox. Divots were gleefully trodden in, luxury cars test driven, best hat competitions held and an extravagant gala dinner hosted among the Renoirs and Degas of a fine art fair at Shanghai’s Exhibition Centre (a horse and carriage were also craned in specially); all hooking a local upper crust which, until then had thought golf, or sailing, as good as it got.

Wyatt is determined that the next event raise the bar higher and he’s keen to expand his Ambassadors team among the business elite. Another generation of new players has signed up for the club’s intensive tournament skills course, one of few in the world (for where clubs in other countries are jealously protective, here there’s a well directed push – provided you have the right credentials). “I don’t know if polo will happen in the next Olympics, but the next World Cup…” Wyatt pauses, “well, it would be awesome to have a Chinese national team there.”

He’s not alone with his ambitions and there are a few other small polo operations in China now, though allegedly none with thoroughbred polo ponies. Li also has grand plans for the property as a whole, and speaks with a gleam in his eye of an intricate Disney-meets-Sea-World-meets-Monaco kind of sprawl that aims to rival Macau as a mini-break destination down south. But for now, the ponies must just get themselves through one very chilly winter, warmed perhaps by the knowledge that being a pioneer has never been easy.

 

The Rule of the Game

Polo teams generally consist of four players, each on a horse, with a game split into six or eight chukkers (or chukkas) of seven minutes each. There are breaks of three minutes between each chukker, plus a five-minute half time. The aim is to get the ball through the opponent’s goal using a long mallet. Goal posts are 24 feet apart, and an outdoor polo field is roughly the size of ten football pitches. Since the safety of the polo ponies (which are actually horses) is primary, penalties are given for reckless play and riders must take care not to bodily intercept the ball. Despite this, games are fast paced, tremendously strenuous and often aggressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Love is in the wear

 

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, April 24, 2009
Architecture with a lived-in touch is winning hearts

When architect Bill Bensley was asked to design a hotel in Phuket not long after the tsunami, he found himself wanting to give it a deeper layer of meaning. That layer was found by his team of Thai and Indonesian designers at salvage auctions in the area, where they bought driftwood and other bits of wreckage wrought by the giant wave, and incorporated them into the hotel, Indigo Pearl. “We picked up a whole lot of materials and in various innovative ways reused them, in the structure, in sculptures,” he recalls. The hotel, which also uses a lot of old tin in tribute to the area’s tin mining history, has received rave reviews for its vision and its sensitivity.

Using architectural salvage like this is a great way to bring emotional resonance to a space. Though Asian consumers tend to love the look and smell of the brand spanking new, the virtue of an old door, scuffed floor tiles or a vintage piece of iron work is beginning to be understood – especially in a city like Hong Kong, where floor plans are cookie cutter and product brands are limited. Unlike antique ornamentation, salvage brings personality deeper into the fabric of your home.

Hong Kong artist Stanley Wong has explored the layers of personal meaning in materials by making installations out of refuse, but in Hong Kong bar and restaurants The Pawn and The Press Room he brought this philosophy into play as a designer. In the vintage club-style Pawn he used timber from old ship decks in floors and walls, and flattened out rice bags for wallpaper. “Of course, people here are not really used to it (but) there’s a more sentimental, sensational feeling,” he says.  “To me, salvaged materials not only provide a different look, but more important (are) the emotion and stories behind… and the sense of environmental friendliness”.

The environmental factor is key to the popularity of salvage among designers; the luxury market might be resilient to reuse but the green revolution has made the idea more marketable.  Raefer Wallis of A00 Architecture was responsible for shaping the look of young ‘carbon neutral’ hotel, URBN, in Shanghai (pictured above), founded by entrepreneurs Jules Kwan and Scott Barrack. “URBN is not about salvaged mahogany and old suitcases… it is about making the best use of available local resources,” stresses the designer, who with Kwan, spent days cycling around old expo sites and tiny shops on the hunt for resources to use in the building. A hefty dose of local character comes from the wall of battered leather suitcases stacked high in the hotel reception, and rooms are enveloped in brick and old mahogany from demolished hutongs. Most of the suitcases were barely recognizeable when they were first unearthed, he notes; they needed hours of cleaning and polishing.

Bringing these old materials into a home takes creativity as well as elbow grease. Jennifer Newton of Hong Kong-based interior design studio Newton Concepts, spends many a weekend sifting through old wood at reclamation yards, like the one near Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, and these find their way into her clients’ homes in various forms. “I use a lot of wood reclaimed from old railway sleepers in Bali and Java, and a lot of old oolong wood and iron wood used in shipyards and I’ll make it into table tops – coffee tables and dining tables – because it has so much character to it,” she explains. “You can also use big slate tiles as coffee tables, or reuse old Chinese windows either as windows or you can make them into mirrors.”

In one recent apartment redesign, Newton lined structural ceiling beams with worn elm panels from China, giving the home a strong earthy kick. But she advises against using old wood for flooring because each piece needs to be cut evenly, sanded down and treated for small holes. Flooring shops in western cities have such materials ready-prepared at a price, but she knows of no such option here.
In fact in this part of the world the road to good architectural salvage can be long and tiresome, though this journey itself brings a narrative to your interior. Designers speak of glamour-less trawls through wreckage yards and hours spent tracking down hole-in-the-wall stores in Beijing for a small pile of vintage tiles. Wallis finds his resources in little shops around Chinese demolition sites, where the former DVD or underwear-selling tenants have been replaced by salvage vendors in spaces “with a makeshift door and lock on the front, and maybe a hanging light bulb or two.” Kwan, thanks to a tip-off, found his suitcases in a dusty unnumbered warehouse outside of Shanghai.

In Hong Kong success can sometimes be had in the wood vendors along Wan Chai’s Lockhart Road, or in Cat Street shops in Sheung Wan, which stock smaller items such as wall sconces, light fitting and door knobs.  Newton has started to sell old pieces at her store on Elgin Street because of the gap in the market, though she has also sourced some wood through Mix Creation Ltd in Central (tel: 2307 0273). A few furniture vendors, such as David Ng’s Matchit (www.matchit.com.hk) on Star Street or Chen Mi Ji (http://www.chenmiji.com) are good starting points for custom-made furniture pieces with age and character.

Character doesn’t come cheaply though. One Hong Kong designer impetuously shelled out HK$4,000 for a large plank of shipyard wood in a LockhartRroad shop; the piece is now mounted and spot-lit in his conference room, coveted by most of his clients, and according to him, worth it. Higher grade salvage, like teak from old houses in Indonesia or stained glass windows from churches in Europe, can command extremely high prices. However in Asia, at the source (mainly demolition sites) many pieces are in danger of being thrown away or chopped up, and bargains can be found.  “Typically they show up in the neighborhood where they are sourced,” notes Wallis. “Moving them any further isn’t worth it. Finding them requires a bike or scooter… or better yet walking. You miss these little places when trying to hunt them down with a car.”

For those that like to cheat, technology and cheap manual labour on the Mainland can add a century to a design scheme, courtesy of a good contractor.  “You say, I want this with a cracked lacquer screen and show them a picture,” says a designer at hospitality giant, Hirsch Bedner Associates. “They paint it, fracture it, repaint it and process, and when they’re done it looks 110 years older. You do get some strange looks when you first ask, though – the concept is not completely understood!” There are also DIY options: aged paint finisher can work wonders on mouldings.

However many designers can’t bring themselves to go faux. Alexi Robinson worked with top British designer Tom Dixon on Shoreditch House, one of London’s latest hipster members’ clubs, with a warehouse aesthetic that inspired the Pawn (and countless other interiors the world over). She has been hired by the Press Room Group to do a restaurant in Hong Kong. “Would I fake it? I don’t think I could; I believe in the honesty of a material,” she says.  “It might not be the most practical or economically sensible advice to homeowners because the technology for certain effects is now very convincing, but to build a narrative within the space, to create a feeling of true comfort I think you’ve got to believe in the authenticity of the materials you’re using.”

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One Night in Hong Kong

December 13, 2007, Time Magazine

Frank Sun, restaurateur and architect
Have a drink at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Captain’s Bar, tel: (852) 2825 4006. It has a lot of history. Then take a walk from there to Sheung Wan — a very different side of old Hong Kong and one that is rapidly disappearing. You can visit shops that still make traditional sausages and sell dried seafood.

After that, take the tram all the way to North Point. On the third floor of the market at 99 Java Road you’ll find the Tung Po seafood restaurant, tel: (852) 2880 9399. Ask for the owner Robby, or his partner Larry. Tell him you would like to order dishes Frank likes to eat. When you’ve finished dinner, take a cab back to the SoHo (“South of Hollywood Road”) district, and go to the funkiest bar in Hong Kong, Feather Boa, tel: (852) 2857 2586. The place is always crowded and you will most likely have to elbow your way inside, but it is without doubt one of the most interesting places to be in Hong Kong.

Bowie Yau Sze-lai, sales associate
Hong Kong city life is pretty diverse, so your night should be too. I’d start out in Kowloon with a glass of wine at Felix, tel: (852) 2315 3188. It’s a beautiful bar that overlooks the harbor from the 28th floor of Hong Kong’s oldest hotel, the Peninsula. After drinks, head to Hong Kong island and the colorful shopping district of Causeway Bay. This place is very busy most evenings, mostly with a younger crowd looking for the latest fashions and accessories. Try the Island Beverly Centre or Lee Theatre Plaza for a good and affordable range.

For refueling, try one of the little hole-in-the-wall joints in Causeway Bay, like Red Pepper, tel: (852) 2577 3811. It’s where I go to for family-style service and amazing Sichuan food. After dinner, you can mix it up a little at my favorite local pub, The Barn, tel: (852) 2504 3987. Go for some loud music and even louder dice games. It’s a little rough and ready, but it’s the real Hong Kong.

Eddis Tang, salsa instructor
At the start of the evening, I would take the Star Ferry from Tsimshatsui to Central. Along the way you can enjoy fantastic views from lots of different angles. You could then ride the Peak Tram to Victoria Peak for dinner. Try Pearl on the Peak, tel: (852) 2849 5123. It’s a famous restaurant with 360-degree views and modern Australian cuisine. The seafood is very good. After that, California, tel: (852) 2521 1345, in Lan Kwai Fong is a good spot for drinks and people-watching, especially if you sit outside. The Lan Kwai Fong area is famous for its bar life.

There is a good salsa scene in Hong Kong, but it starts late. Club CiXi, tel: (852) 2286 0333, has just opened after big renovations. Club 97, tel: (852) 2810 9333, has a great vibe, though it’s small and easy to crash into people. Some nights there are live drums accompanying the music, and everyone squeezes onto the dance floor.

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Safe as houses

June 29, 2007, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

Architect Cameron Sinclair is on a mission to save the world, one design at a time

Cameron Sinclair is a man who values his sleep. As he maneuvers between a new baby, a travel schedule so frenetic he has a ‘Where is Cameron’ web page and a battle against shoddy housing worldwide, he’s seen it go from an enjoyable day-capper to quite the luxury.

“In the next two generations we’re going to double the number of buildings on earth now,” the 33 year-old tells me from his Sausalito home, while struggling to sedate a grumpy infant. “One in three people at that time will be living in slum settlements – UN statistics. The places booming are China, Brazil, India, but this growth is in their bottom 40% so it’s really time to respond to those needs.”

Many have heard of Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s global NGO, which flutters similar statistics at its fingertips. Yet other than a healthy mutual respect the affiliation between them ends there. HFH arms average Joes with hammers and packs them off to build houses in poor communities the world over, home by home. Smaller and younger, Architecture for Humanity has taken a wider perspective and then zeroed straight in for a potential cure-all: design. Sinclair, as co-founder, takes its helm.

“I got interested in humanitarian design because of a total misunderstanding,” he begins, his slightly awkward British tones collapsing occasionally into a US brogue. “I assumed that to be an architect you’d need to build structures that improved the lives of a community as a whole. I don’t know who told me this! Then I went to architecture school and was stunned to find out that this wasn’t the case. Everyone wanted to do airports and use cool computer graphics.”

A move to New York and some notable design credentials later, and Sinclair was still bothered. While war raged in Kosovo and military ‘end games’ were being debated on TV ad nauseum, he would be watching the refugees and mentally designing them better tents. In 1999 he and journalist (and now wife) Kate Stohr took the plunge and founded the group.

In the public realm design and architecture often get labeled luxury commodities; the kind afforded by holiday homeowners, not families camped among rubble, living off soup. At a recent presentation on humanitarian design in San Francisco, Sinclair and Stohr offered a few examples of design thoughtlessness. Most, like many in this article were from a new book project they’ve co-authored called ‘Design like you give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises.’

In one shot, helmet-like Oxfam house-making kits sit amid the baking rubble of a 1976 earthquake in Turkey. It seems the kits had been cheap and easy to assemble, but they were also hot, dark, and hard to repair. Aid workers dubbed them Darth Vader houses. The newly homeless chose to sleep outside.

You could blame this particular bungle on the rip roaring seventies and its many mind-altering diversions, but even now things aren’t too different. During the tsunami Sinclair says, AFH went in on the ground and partnered with some pretty major organizations in the Sri Lankan rebuilt effort. “Most development groups still think, let’s just give them the basics,” he explained. “They’d have one engineer and a bunch of accountants, and needless to say the result would not be sustainable. It’s incredible what actually gets built. Someone who owns a concrete block factory offers them for cheap, so that’s the building!” Communities, he elaborated, need homes that at least slightly suit their lifestyle; that can flex with them as they slowly pick themselves back up. The average refugee camp tenure after a disaster is nine years. Darth Vader dwellings just don’t cut it.

As part of its efforts to change this, AFH has come across and implemented some incredible innovations, from inflatable hemp houses designed in Japan to neighbourhoods built out of food palettes. Yet helpful design need not be so wacky, or so intricate. One of Sinclair’s favourite examples was a partition flap just recently integrated into UNHCR aid tents. In refugee camps, where sexual abuse is extremely common, something this simple goes a very long way.

When I spoke to Sinclair earlier this year he was just back from Japan, and working on his keynote speech for Africa’s biggest design conference, Design Indaba in Cape Town. While Stohr coordinates much of their work in the States, particularly down on the Gulf Coast (“she’s definitely the domestic girl,” he grins, “sleeping in trailers and car parks and eating waffle house food for months!”), Sinclair selects and runs projects from Senegal to Pakistan. Both spend much of their time fundraising and organizing the placement of volunteer designers in communities worldwide, and it’s here, rather than in the emergency sector, that much of their hope for global change lies.

Onstage back in San Francisco, the pair put their mission into pictures. “One billion people live in abject poverty, but four billion live on the $2-6 dollar a day cusp,” Sinclair said, perched on a table near a large projector screen. “The latter work on improving their housing, but are at constant risk of sliding back. It is for them that innovation can really make a difference.” Cue one shot of a futuristic-looking series of concrete apartments in Iquique, a desert city in Chile. A hundred families once occupied the site illegally and needed to be re-housed on a limited budget with limited space. Elemental, a local design group created the award winning Elemental Collective House by designing a ‘housing skeleton’, which can be filled in and expanded on by delighted residents.

Over in Somkhele, South Africa this March another design was being greeted with glee – this time by young footie fans. Singapore-born architect Swee Hong Ng was the winner of an AFH competition to design a football pitch and health outreach centre in an area where youths have a high risk of infecting HIV. His design uses the shape of the landscape to create amphitheatre-like terraces that can double as performance spaces. In the past few years such projects have taken AFH designers from Tamil Nadu to Tanzania, designing everything from medical centres to tsunami-safe(r) houses.

Yet the biggest link between all these projects lies in their differences; a school designed for the Himalayas could hardly be implemented in Mozambique, and vice versa. This is the crux of the AFH challenge. “The reality is that we live in a global society that has environmental and cultural differences, even from village to village,” Sinclair explained. “So we just can’t come up with one solution. We need a system that can create 100 million solutions.”

About 18 months ago AFH came out on top with a rather generous grant from the prestigious TED Prize, and these one hundred million solutions suddenly became very possible. The resulting project, the Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org), is an impressive online forum that enables architects to post projects and collaborate on all things social and humanitarian. It also benefits from the Creative Commons Developing Nations License, another AFH-related project that allows architects to freely use each others’ patented designs for the good of the third world.

What had once been a two people op, and then a 2000-strong organisation, has in a year become a global force to contend with. All AFH really needs now are more hands, oh, and some money. After Africa, Sinclair will be traveling throughout North America to raise funds. Then it’s on to Italy in June. “Something like the Indaba Cape Town trip for me is the perfect vacation,” he says, convincingly. “I’m going to go out there for the conference, but in my free time I’ll meet with community groups to look at potential projects. They’ll take me around and show me what it’s all about.”

It seems that for now, sleep might have to wait.

Donate or volunteer online at www.architectureforhumanity.com

 

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