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Walls of Fame

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 10 May 2010
For four decades Maya Romanoff has been leading interior fashion into realms both bizarre and beautiful

Brace yourselves: tie dye is back and it is trying to take your home by sneak assault.
Wall-ware emperor Maya Romanoff may be best known for surfaces swathed in Swarovski crystals and tortoiseshell, but he has marked his brand’s new milestone with a nod to simpler times, when he was largely known as the man who could tie dye a wall. Celebrating four decades, the brand’s Anniversary Collection brings back the psychedelic patterns of its seventies debut, but contemporized and camouflaged with colours by New York-based designer Amy Lau.

It is a nostalgia being indulged. New York’s Museum of Art and Design previewed the collection in early March with a retrospective of Romanoff and his work, while high-fashion yardstick Bergdorf Goodman just rolled out the Anniversary series – the brand’s first ever retail collection – with fan fare in its Manhattan store. Their tributes are to a designer and artist who has significantly expanded the toolbox of the high-end designer.

And yet: “he was a certified hippy” acknowledges Joyce Romanoff, Maya’s wife and the company president, harking back to a time in the late sixties when, post-Woodstock, post- anthropology degree at the University of Berkley and fresh from four years of world travel (in which he was dubbed ‘Maya’ by a guru in India), Romanoff and his first wife started to create tie-dyed couture.  “He learned to be a master dyer because he felt that textiles have a life force and he wanted to make things more beautiful,” she said. “But he got tired of fashion – he’s a slow worker and it turns on a dime, so he started moving in a different direction, to interiors.”

But the artistic temperament didn’t easily translate into business acumen. “He was what we call our renegade”, says Joyce fondly. She joined Romanoff in business in the late 80s and has been coined ‘midwife’ to his vision. “He had very strong feelings about what was wrong or right and as an artist nothing was ever perfect; he was always trying to refine. I’m the one who can say ‘okay, time to let go and move on’.” And with Romanoff now struggling with the advanced-stages of Parkinson’s disease, he now also depends on what Joyce calls her ‘Duracell’ levels of energy.

But perhaps it was also these qualities to Romanoff – resiliently stubborn, unapologetically slow – that gave body to his design ambitions. After his success with tie dye in the seventies he moved to Japan for a few years to train with a paper maker while running his eight-person business remotely. He was one of the first Americans to be let into a Japanese paper factory, says his wife. “He’d found a beautiful piece of gift wrap at a Japanese craft fair and tracked down its source. Paper is an art, a civilizing tool in Japan and he got a real sense of texture and depth there,” she notes.

The young Japanese generation wasn’t interested in his work then – they thought it too old fashioned. But in the West his experience helped the company compete as wall fashions shifted from bold prints to understated backdrops, and to paint. Romanoff designs developed a warm depth and a subtle reflective quality. And not too long ago the Japanese came back. “The young ones love it now because it’s historical” Joyce laughs. The company has maintained its links with Japan; even today the Romanoff’s Jewel collection – rayon and wood pulp crushed and stamped – is made there and then coloured in the US.

Romanoff’s zeal has led him into many an experiment with glue. In 2003 he embarked on a mission with a US laboratory after a designer lamented the lack of high end glass beaded wall coverings in the market. The result, their handmade ‘Beadazzled’ range, uses three different sizes of beads that ‘never’ come unstuck and it took multiple awards. The brand’s other successes with mother of pearl, various kinds of bark and even gold leaf, have relied on similar adventures into adhesive alchemy.

The brand has also thrived on Romanoff’s readiness to blend art, design and marketing. He has draped the outsides of buildings in Chicago, New York, LA and Miami with textiles of his designs, has developed interior installations and has created high profile mosaic murals for clients like Neiman Marcus; he made a series in black and white glass beads for its 100th anniversary a few years ago. Indeed half of the brand’s designs may go into homes, but its remaining business is in hotels, restaurants, stores and corporate buildings, thanks largely to the modern notion of branding. In the last ten years corporate America has started to want quality in its surroundings; they want their hospitals, hotels and hotels to be more convivial,” said Joyce. “That really works for us.  People no longer want a cookie cutter hotel, so they’re always looking for something to fit into their fantasy.”

In response to market demands – and Romanoff’s anthropology interests – the firm sources material from across the world. One recent design range, Meditations, had senior staff travel to the Solukumbu region of Nepal to work with Sherpa craftsmen and women through a non-profit organisation called Aid for Artisans. The series uses the bark of the small woody Lokta plant, which Nepalis have used for at least a thousand years to make paper for Buddhist mantras.  Joyce’s photos make up the catalogue: of wet paper pulp drying on grassy hillsides and local artisans wielding chopsticks as they create the honeycombed pattern of a design called ‘Ohm’.

The group has maintained a fittingly environmental approach across the years. It has experimented with sustainable materials like grass cloth or hemp, and reports that it uses water-based dyes, adhesives and finishes. The only odour you will find in their factories, Joyce insists, is lunch. Though about forty percent of the brand’s products are made outside of the States, many of them, as their figurehead prefers, are worked by hand and rather slowly. “We’re moving into natural wovens done on slow looms, which is very unusual,” says Joyce. “It means that we’re not limited by machines; we don’t have to make things in a certain width, don’t have to keep them running all night to make enough money.”

But that said, the brand has felt the pinch of the economic downturn, which has slowed profits and put a lot of the vendors it uses out of business. Its president is committed to presenting new series twice a year at the Hospitality Design expos in Las Vegas and Miami, and to holding up the creative level of the designs. The greatest challenge she says, has been resisting the urge to outsource more and maintaining the current level of artisanship and control. Even work done in other countries is sometimes completed in the U.S as a way of combating copy cats.

However expanding overseas is also the Romanoff survival strategy. The luxe of its products gave it an easy route into Asia and the Middle East and the brand hopes to work on these regions while America picks itself up. It had already started to use design partnerships to stay ahead of trends – rolling out a series with eccentric architect David Rockwell for example – and Joyce, who takes on most of the international travel, is keen for those relationships to take them through the tight times and keep them fashion forward. “It’s all about collaboration right now. I’m speaking to designers all over world and asking them, what’s lacking, what turns you on, how do you use our products?” So, is it tie dye this season, block printed Batik the next? You tell them.

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The World’s Forgotten

‘The World’s Forgotten’, Asia Sentinel [link] Hong Kong, 19 April 2010, reprinted as an Op-ed in the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia

Millions of detainees across the globe remain in filthy, crowded and unsanitary prisons (See online version here)

As the UN’s top investigator into torture and punishment prepares to end his term later this year, he has focused on a group people whom he has long called the globe’s “most vulnerable” to discrimination and to neglect. Detainees, says Dr Manfred Nowak, have become the world’s forgotten.

The theme has become central to the Austrian professor’s six-year tenure, and in the most recent session of the Human Rights Council this March he strongly reiterated his call for a new convention to protect them.

Where other forms of discrimination are strongly represented in global social movements, the plight of those considered “criminal” tends to raise much less interest and certainly less sympathy. Media coverage is sporadic. While it took sexually explicit photographs to raise interest in US-led abuses in Abu Ghraib, and a steep increase in suicides a few years ago in France (which remains infamous for its shabby prisons), headlines are even harder to make in many Asian countries. Here, accountability remains low and the death count in prison is generally high and poorly documented.

In Indonesia the issue flared up last year when a corruption task force discovered wealthy VIPs in a Central Jakarta prison who had been living in air-conditioned comfort for years, complete with LCD televisions and queen-sized beds, despite overcrowding in many of the country’s facilities. The Minister for Justice and Human Rights acknowledged last year that there are up to 130,000 prisoners in prisons built for 80,000; audits are now being undertaken across the country. Indonesia has featured on watchdog lists for its treatment of the incarcerated for decades, as noted in Caveat, an Indonesian human rights e-journal in a January 2010 article calling for transparency.

“Many of Indonesia’s prisoners are stripped of their rights,” it notes. “[They] are consequently forced to live in filthy unsanitary conditions; become subject to disease; are placed under sever levels of stress due to overcrowding”.

Cries for attention from prisoners in Sri Lanka have been less successful. One last year – in which inmates held a five-day hunger strike on the roof of Bogambara Prison, Kandy to demand that they either be tried or allowed bail – was covered by just one news outlet. The strikers are reported to have since been charged with violating prison rules. Many of Sri Lanka’s pre-trial inmates are housed along with convicted prisoners and can wait for a trial for years, often under the draconian (and with the war over, arguably redundant) Prevention Against Terrorism Act. “In general there is a belief or a mentality, even among judges and lawyers here, that the detainees deserve bad conditions as a kind of punishment, particularly those accused of being connected to the LTTE whether they’ve been convicted yet or not,” disclosed one Sri Lankan who works on humanitarian programmes in prisons. In short there is a widespread tolerance of the closed, often-murky machinations of prison systems that, in many countries, has encouraged standards to creep towards and beyond the inhumane. “As soon as they are behind bars, detainees lose most of their human rights and often are simply forgotten by the outside world” Nowak reiterated this March in Geneva.

A similar point was made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in 2008. “Some rights (such as the right to liberty) are necessarily restricted by detention,” she wrote during a campaign to highlight the issue. “But regardless of the reasons why they have been deprived of their liberty, individuals in detention are more vulnerable to human rights violations. The protection of the rights of those in detention is often not deemed a priority by the public, which in turn can dampen government efforts to increase protection.”

Nowak’s recent reports to the UN have been drawn from his missions to 15 countries, including encounters with detainees in Nigeria who had been penned in cells with more than a hundred other inmates and tortured in front of one another, and in Nepal and Sri Lanka where cells were so crowded that inmates couldn’t lie down to sleep at the same time. In Uruguay Nowak found conditions inhuman for both prisoners and guards, particularly in the maximum security Libertad Prison. Small metal containers had been built there as a tool of punishment for one person, yet were penning in three with barely any light or air (on his recommendation they were dismantled).

Also significant was the evidence that staff in some places of detention such as police stations don’t provide inmates with the basics for survival. In Asia the role of feeding or clothing remand prisoners often falls to family members, with countless cases documented of the ‘trades’ that result, involving goods from families being ‘taxed’ by police or prison guards.

The family of Bangladeshi NGO director and journalist Abdur Razzak, in a case reported and meticulously tabulated by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in March last year, was obliged to provide Paikgachha police officers with nearly BDT30,000 and one goat, over 40 occasions during his 12-week detention, sometimes to allow in food and mosquito coils, others as protection against beatings and torture. Since his charges had been falsified he was later released, but not compensated. ( .

Reports from social workers in Cambodian facilities speak of prisoners who must pay to shower, and from India, of those who must either pay staff to be produced in court or be detained indefinitely (if they don’t have access to a lawyer). Without money or family support inmates can simply die, Nowak said, unless they abase themselves by performing ‘services’ for other prisoners or staff in exchange for provisions.

In Burma, where the military junta still bars the Red Cross from its prisons, this situation is systematically exploited. According to the AHRC and journalists at Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, political prisoners are nearly always placed in prisons that are hundreds of kilometers from their home towns and thus from any form of support.

In the Philippines the question of detainees’ right to health came up in 2008 and 2009 with the deaths from tuberculosis of two remanded labor rights activists. Melvic Lupe, 29, and Leo Paro, 25, had been fit two years ago when they were remanded in Cainta City Jail after striking against Karnation Industries and Export Inc, a home décor company. Their families accuse the prison authorities of criminal neglect, and say that they have been unable to find out whether the men had been medically treated, or to obtain a copy of the medical report. Like many in their situation the men had been essentially sealed away, though they had not yet even been convicted.

Indeed, thanks to immense delays in justice and widespread corruption, many of those imprisoned in developing countries have either not been subject to fair trial or been tried at all. According to the latest World Pre-trial Imprisonment List 2.5 million people were known to be held in pre-trial detention (and other forms of remand imprisonment) throughout the world in October 2007 (and about another quarter of a million are held in the countries on which such data can’t be gathered).

In Bangladesh the WPIL has documented that 68 percent of its prison population is such. In Thailand it put the pre-trial population at 33,000, and this number rises through Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines to India, where it rests at about 250,000 (though a decline is imminent now thanks to a initiative, announced in January 2010, to release 135,000 ‘under-trials in prisons across the country). Figures are hard to come by for China but the organization estimates that it may be holding as many as 100,000 untried prisoners.

Untried persons can be inside for years. Thailand’s Somphon Dechanuphap and Nen Mahavilai were in remand prison for seven years of a 15-year trial; they were convicted for a further 16 each in 2008 on allegedly trumped-up charges.

During his missions Nowak also discovered people being held for weeks without toilet access in police cells in Equatorial Guinea: they would defecate and urinate in the lunch bags and bottles sent in by their families. Cells in the backs of police stations may be equipped to keep suspects for a few hours but they are widely used to hold them arbitrarily for much longer.

“If more than 50 percent of all detainees, and in some countries up to 80 percent, are in pre-trial detention, something is wrong,” the March report noted. “It usually means that criminal proceedings last far too long, that the detention of criminal suspects is the rule rather than the exception, and that release on bail is misunderstood by judges, prosecutors and prison staff as an incentive for corruption”.

Many detainees, Nowak found, did not even know whether or not they had already been convicted by a court.

The rapporteur’s call for action this year therefore extends to the judicial systems – to the funding and political will needed to get them functioning credibly – as a way of ensuring that prison conditions are checked and challenged regularly. But his request for a convention is more specific. Unlike many of the existing international principles and guidelines for the treatment of prisoners, a convention would legally bind countries into a communication channel with experts on the issue; it would hold states regularly and comprehensively accountable if signed, and even if unsigned would encourage a measure of state self-reflection and review.

As Nowak’s five years or so of reports have shown, prisons tend to bring out the worst in people on both sides of the bars. Those who have lost their right liberty – validly or not – need their remaining rights protecting with even more vigilance.

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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 ( 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 – 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 ( 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 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 ( This gracious combination is only really matched in the town by the lovely L’etranger on Ban Aphay (, 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 ( – 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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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: 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:
Tiger Trails. Tel/fax: [856-71] 252 655 (e-mail: or
Mala Travel Service. Tel: [856-71] 253-704, fax: 254-266, (e-mail: 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: 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: 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: or Suites from US$400 (low season) and US$600 (high season).
Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel
. Tel: [856-71] 212-200, fax: 212-577, (e-mail: or Garden Rooms US$170-$200, Verandah Rooms US$190-$220.
La Residence Phou Vao. Tel: [856-71] 212-530, fax: 212-534, (e-mail: or Rates from US$270.
The Lao Spirit Resort. Tel. [856-30] 514 0111, (email: or 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: or Deluxe twins and doubles from US$170.
Villa Santi Resort & Spa. Tel: [856-71] 252-157, fax : 252158, (email: or Deluxe Double US$170, extra bed $30.
The Grand. Tel: [856-71] 253-851-7 fax: 253-027-8 (e-mail: or 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: or 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: or Doubles US$55-$65.
The Ancient Luang Prabang. Tel: [856-71] 212-264, fax: 212-804, (e-mail: or Doubles from US$60.

Luang Prabang Budget Hotels and Guesthouses

Le Parasol Blanc Hotel. Tel: [856-71] 252-124, fax: 252-496, (e-mail: or 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: 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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Philippines Massacre: ‘They Made a Monster’

January 8, 2010, Guardian Weekly, UK
Reprinted in the Sri Lanka Guardian

For an uncut version of the interview, click here. (Link coming soon)

Joseph Jubelag narrowly escaped the November massacre in Maguindanao, the Philippines, which claimed the lives of 57 people – 31 of them fellow journalists. They were allegedly murdered by a candidate for governor, part of a ruling family dynasty accused of war lordism. Jubelag expects the trial to bring a backlash against the private militias that are allowed to be kept by politicians for reasons of national security, as well as against President Arroyo for her past protection of the notorious clan.

In the Philippines, local governments are allowed to form their own paramilitary forces to fight against local insurgents. President Arroyo owed the Ampatuans during her 2004 election because in Maguindanao the administration got sweeping votes against the opposition. Not a single opposition candidate won in Maguindanao. Ever since, the administration has been tolerant of the the Ampatuans despite allegations of their ‘war-lordism’ and private armies.

We journalists were invited to cover the filing of the candidacy of a member of another Muslim clan, the Mangudadatus, standing for governor of Maguindanao. It was only this time that the Ampatuans had a political rival; nobody had challenged them in past elections. Mangudadatu asked his wife and sisters to file his candidacy and they believed that since they were women – even the lawyers were women – and because a large number of journalists would be accompanying them to the election officer’s office, no untoward incident would happen. That was our belief before we left.

We left General Santos city around 8pm on the Sunday night and stayed overnight some 15km from Buluan Town, where the Mangudadatus were. It was early morning, before we went to Buluan town for a briefing at the house of the Mangudadatus, that I learned we would not be provided with security escorts, I was thinking that if our group, especially journalists, were held at the capital by the Ampatuans, I would be the most endangered reporter.

I write for a national newspaper and community newspaper, but I wrote one particular story during the local election in 2004 focusing on the unexplained wealth of the Ampatuans as well as Ampatuan Snr’s involvement in summary executions and killings in Maguindanao. After that there were rumours that people had been hired to get me.

So in our last minute conversation with the group of journalists I told them that I would not take the convoy but my own vehicle; they should just proceed, and that I’d be just behind them. But they didn’t know that I’d have to stop to get my personal belongings at the hotel first. Two colleagues decided to go with me because they thought that if I was alone I might find myself in a dangerous situation.

When we got there we were told that there were two people who had been asking for our identities at the hotels. I thought that this was very unusual: why are people asking for our names? So that made me decide not to proceed. I called up one of my colleagues who was with the convoy and I told him: ‘I will just wait for you at Buluan town’, because there was a scheduled conference after they had filed their candidacy. He said they were already at the Ampatuan area.

All of my colleagues who were killed among the convoy had been concerned about my safety if I was with them because they knew about the grudge of the Ampatuans against me. They were even kidding: ‘Joseph please don’t come with us, we’ll be in danger because of your presence.’

When we went back to Buluan and arrived at the town we were informed by the Mangudadatus that the convoy was held. [Mangudadatu’s] wife was able to call him up to say that they were held by armed men led by Mayor Ampatuan Jnr, so we were worried. All of our colleagues’ mobile phones could no longer be contacted. Until 5pm I was still hoping that maybe they were just taken as hostages, that they were only abducted and later they would be released. I didn’t expect that they would be all killed.

We stayed at the house of the Mangudadatus who were monitoring what was going on. They were really helpless. They were trying to contact police authorities. They asked for help from the police chief of Maguindanao, asking him to send police personnel to rescue the victims. They were told by the officer; ‘We can’t do anything’.

At the time, the mayor of Buluan town, the brother of the candidate, took a chopper to survey the area and they were able to look at the victims, the dead bodies and the vehicles. Soldiers came to the area but it took some two hours before reinforcements were sent.

The way I see it, the national government has been exerting all efforts to solve the case and a lot of witnesses came out, but no local judges were willing to handle the case because they were afraid. The local prosecutors in Cotabato city filed a leave of absence.

We were able to contact the division commander of the army – the highest ranking military commander in the area. He told us that there was no problem about our security. I don’t really know if he knew something bad would happen, but one thing we were very disappointed by is that he failed to give orders to his subordinates to prevent any untoward incidents.

The Ampatuans are alleged to have been involved in various summary executions, but not a single incident has been investigated. Their private armies number more than 3,000. They made a monster.

Now, if I am in General Santos city I feel more safe because it’s more than 150km from Maguindanao, but I’m taking my own personal safety seriously. I’ve learned that some media organisations have offered [to arrange for my two other surviving colleagues] to relocate to other countries. I have to continue my journalistic profession. I’ve been in this job for 20 years – it’s my vocation.

During my college days my ambition was to become a police officer because I studied criminology, but maybe it’s my calling that I ended up being a journalist, All my knowledge from my college days, from my course, seems to be useful in my work now. I know the intricacies of police work and they cannot fool me about procedures of criminal investigation. That’s my advantage, working with the enemy.

• Joseph Jubelag was interviewed by journalist Jo Baker.


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The China Challenge

Prestige, Hong Kong, October 2009

US-trained designer Lyndon Neri had a hard time getting used to the mainland, but now he’s revelling in the challenges.

Though passion is imperative in any good designer, it can be taken too far. This is something Lyndon Neri learned on the day he accidentally collapsed his own lungs. “I wasn’t well and I hadn’t slept for three days straight. So I spent two days in hospital then went straight back into studying again,” chuckles the designer of his breakdown at Harvard. “It probably wasn’t the best approach.”

Back then the man who would later co-found the Neri and Hu Design and Research Office in Shanghai had been throwing himself full tilt into his thesis, about a pocket of a Californian Chinatown in which first-generation customs were still perfectly preserved. It was a critique mostly, but one that Neri felt he could give because he’d grown up somewhere not so different about 8,000 miles away.

As a boy Neri had found the Chinese Diaspora in Cebu, in the Philippines as conservative as it was watertight. “They hold on there to the China that they knew, much more than in Thailand or Singapore,” he says. “As kids we played with toys that people my age haven’t seen except in history books! But the problem is that it doesn’t evolve with the rest of the country.” Though friends commended his father for running such a Chinese household overseas, Neri knew even then that it wasn’t ideal.

The experience has led him to helm emotional explorations into ideas of ‘Chineseness’, much of it through design. He and his wife and work partner Rossana Hu may tap into tradition for their products or interiors, but they try to elevate or excavate below simple cliché. This is also thanks to an old Neri matriarch, still vocal at 99 years old. “My grandfather was a poet, but she was our family intellectual,” he says fondly, of his grandmother. “She would talk to me about the authenticity of a place, how you shouldn’t repeat history but interpret it. She says arts and crafts must be preserved, but if you continue to do new things that are copies, that is no different from somewhere like Disneyland.”

Neri mentions a big hotel the studio is working on in Xian right now: it comes with three hundred and fifty rooms, a tight deadline and the temptation to throw something easy and beautiful together; but instead the designers have been burying into history books and they’ve bought replica terracotta warriors and the armour they wore, “not to mimic them, but to try to understand the nature of the material and why they used it.”  The detail in the armour will be translated into a feature wall in the lobby. This kind of thinking pervades NHDRO design, no matter the size of the project.

But the pair’s affinity with China hasn’t always been so strong. He went to the States from the Philippines at 15, and she moved there from Taiwan. Traveling to the mainland, as a design associate with Michael Graves and later as a family, had its setbacks. Neri wasn’t crazy about the hygiene and the pollution, and he struggled with what he calls the ‘prolonged let’s-talk-about-it’ business approach. “In my first two or three years I was a straight-talking Chinese American and I was just not getting anything done; people were stalling me,” he remembers. “I was working on Three on the Bund as principal for Michael Graves and I realized that to make a significant difference it’s not how fluent your language is, and it’s not how much history or cultural knowledge you have. If you don’t understand the heart of the people there’s no way of communicating”.

The decision to move to China at all was a tough one. The pair left family members, good schools, clean air and prestigious jobs, but the problems they saw in China began to weigh heavy. “Every time I talked to my grandmother she would say, ‘look at yourself in the mirror: you look and you are Chinese,’ and she was right; inscribed on my back it says Made in China!” says Neri. “I love the food, I know the culture, I know the traditions and I raise my kids like Chinese. I could continue to criticise or I could do something about it, and all of a sudden I looked at things differently.” He began to see potential where he had once just seen shortcomings; the buildings that could be better and the café tables on the sidewalk that could one day be romantic, like in Paris, rather than simply unsanitary.

And so came Design Republic. In 2003, masquerading as a stylishly raw design emporium, the studio launched the place with education at its core. It sells their products and lines from Jasper Morrison, Frank Gehry, Isamu Noguchi and the like, but it also pulls in priceless modern design classics from around the world and presents them in exhibitions. Neri gives tours to students about once a month, and other designers make their own pilgrimages to see products that changed the history of their craft. “If we don’t bring these things to Chinese designers they will forever look at them from magazines” says Neri, “and they’ll look and say ‘that’s easy to do’ without understanding that what Jean Prive did with plywood in the 1920s was nothing less than a cultural breakthrough.”

And though the studio itself deals largely in luxury projects and high end products, Neri’s biggest lesson has perhaps been seeing this for the opportunity that it is, and understanding that in China, change happens from the top down and victory comes in many forms. Whether this is by sneaking a museum or a few sculptures in among the boutiques in an exclusive shopping complex, or fostering more time and tolerance among officials for slow, thoughtful design, he’s content, these days, with the manageable triumphs.

“I could be arrogant, but the reality is that this generation of designers is not going to be that great. We ourselves are not going to be that great,” he says cheerfully. “We’re just paving the way.” It looks like his lungs are safe for now.

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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

SweetMe Hotspring Resort
No 224 Guangming Rd (02) 2898 4505

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

Villa 32
32 Zongshan Road, (02) 6611-888



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A Thankless Task

August 22, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong
August 27, Sri Lanka Guardian, Sri Lanka, and and as ‘Thankless tasks: Rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan’ in Selected Articles on politics, human rights & the rule of law in South Asia, Article 2, Vol. 08 – No. 03, September 2009 (PDF)

As a truth commission secretary MCM Iqbal helped gathered evidence on thousands of forced disappearances in Sri Lanka, only to see it disappear itself

As President Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks of ushering Sri Lankans into a new era of peace, a slight, bespectacled man in his sixties watches him from across an ocean with the weariness of a man who has tried and failed to call his bluff.

MCM Iqbal was secretary to two of Sri Lanka’s ‘truth commissions’, presidential commissions of inquiry into the 30,000 or more forced disappearances that took place in the late eighties and early nineties in the south, during a dirty war that many believe has yet to run its course.  He knows more than most about the skeletons that are locked away in the governmental closet; enough, he believes, for him to no longer be safe in his home country.

“I still remember when Rajapaksa was on the way to a UN session with photos of torture victims and was caught going through customs,” he recalls, during a recent visit to the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. “You know as a minister he used to be at the front of the struggle against these incidents. Now I would consider his regime as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances.”

Back in 1994 Iqbal was working as a senior government administrator when he was asked aboard. It was the first commission of its kind – the result of an election pledge by new president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – and was split up to cover three zones. Iqbal’s job at the central zone inquiry force meant setting up a system that could allow a handful of officers to document thousands  of possible atrocities across four provinces. The team, made up of Iqbal, the chairman and some of their two dozen support staff, would travel around the country setting up shop for open questioning sessions. The idea was that they would compile a report for the president on the number and circumstances of the disappearances, who was responsible for them and how they should be charged, with a final analysis of how, legally, things had been allowed to get so bad. It was expected that the report would lead to legal action against the alleged killers; the public had been promised as much.

But the set up was grueling. For two years the small panel would spend two-week stretches in back-to-back interviews, and at night, away from their families they would dictate and record the cases they’d heard that day. “I had worked in public service for forty years, twenty of them in courts, so this procedure of listening to complaints was not new to me, but it was harder in the sense that some of them touched me,” Iqbal admits. “Sometimes  I felt like sobbing . But my task at the time was to lead the evidence: what happened, who came, was there enough light for you to identify them, did you try to stop them?”

Iqbal remembers many of the stories, but he gives one example; not one of the worst, he adds. According to a woman they heard from in Badulla in the nineties, local police had arrived at her house in the night and taken away two of her three sons; she remembers running, screaming after the jeep. At the police station the following morning the officers denied having arrested the boys, but the woman made such a commotion that her sons heard and started shouting. She waited all day on the verandah, hoping for access. Yet when the night shift officers arrived, they invited her back into the police station, and they gang raped her.

Iqbal says that the women said she could hear her sons shouting throughout the ordeal.  “I can still remember, she narrated what the five did to her, and after that she was almost dead from exhaustion,” he recalls. “But she went home and she complained to the elders who couldn’t help her, and then finally she came to us.”

This act cost her.  A few days after her testimony the same officers picked up her remaining son for a robbery.  Little could be done for her two older boys – by then almost certainly dead – but the commission chairman was able to contact the magistrate and help prove that the police were framing the 17-year-old for theft. “She came running to the commission with her son, crying, and laying on the floor shouting thank you,” he remembers. “All we could tell her was that she better take her son and get out of the area“.

This was one of the more rewarding outcomes. After two years in the central zone and more work with a follow-up commission, Iqbal helped write the report, and says that though some of the cases were clear cut, it was not made public (parts of it would be published in 2002, but without the names of those implicated). “We thought we had enough materials, we thought that this will at least send a signal to prevent this sort of thing happening in the future; that all victims would get compensation and at least  some perpetrators would be punished,” says Iqbal. “But the compensation paid was a pittance for most: 15,000 rupees for a young boy ranging to 150,000 for a public servant. Hardly any of the perpetrators were punished.”

Not yet disheartened, Iqbal took a job with the National Human Rights Commission and the US-based Asia Foundation, logging the same cases in a database and lecturing on human rights. Still, many of those implicated continued to hold high profile positions. The biggest blow then came when members of the National Human Rights Commission, considered relatively independent, were replaced.  The new staff were appointed by the Rajapaksa’s government, and according to Iqbal they had different priorities; the moved was also criticized in international press. “It had become a political commission,” he remembers. “I still remember the chairman, the late Justice Ramanathan, telling me to abandon [our work]. To use the exact words, he said: ‘why are you raking up all the muck?’”

At this point Iqbal resigned. But he would still receive calls from the families of the disappeared, telling him that they saw one perpetrator getting into a car, or that another was still officer in charge of the local police station. It appeared that the files had simply been put aside. “I believe the president did not implement our recommendations because she would have alienated the military and police on whom she depended – terrorism was at its height then and they protected her,” he says.

With no legal reforms made and very few held to account, disappearances continued in Sri Lanka. In 2006 17 locals working for a French NGO were notoriously massacred in a tightly controlled military zone. Scandinavian monitors pointed the finger at security forces but no one was charged. Iqbal refused the invitation to join another such inquiry.

However in 2007 when a group of international observers (the International Group of Eminent Persons) arrived to monitor the new commission’s work, the UN office in Sri Lanka suggested that they take on Iqbal as an adviser. He remembers dusting off his old files and indulging in a bit of straight talking. “I said, look at this list of perpetrators: So-and-so is now commander in chief there, So-and-so is minister of this district and the president knows and he keeps them there. Now he wants you to start making recommendations?” Three months later, when the observer’s released their support for these earlier, buried recommendations (not long before resigning), Iqbal remembers the shock and displeasure from the Attorney General and the higher ups. At that point the death threats started again.

“I’d had such calls in the past, but I didn’t take them very seriously, but these were too frequent and sounded a little more genuine, ” says Iqbal. “They came to me and my wife, and to me they would say you’ll be killed if you keep working there (with the monitors). Finally the observers’ security services monitored the calls and they said you need to leave immediately”. Late in 2007, without a word to anyone, the Iqbals locked up their house and left the country.

And now from a colder climate, with six months in a refugee camp behind him, a schedule of seminars and workshops ahead and his name carefully removed from the phone book, this reluctant keeper of grisly secrets watches the latest Sri Lankan leader with a weary, wary eye. He has no regrets about the path he took, though it essentially led to exile; but he doubts he can say the same for the president.
“When Rajapaksa came to power he had the option of doing something. He was a minister at the time of all this, he knew the contents of these reports and that nothing was being done,” he says. “He knew who was involved in all the killings, and yet he has put all those people around him, given them positions.”

Last month the president made a speech. In it, he declared that he only wants to look to the future now, that the past, essentially, is dead and buried. This, to MCM Iqbal, is eerily close to the truth.

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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 ( on Star Street or Chen Mi Ji ( 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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Stay Overnight in a Turkish Mansion

May 14, 2009, Time Magazine

“Make yourself at home” may be a refrain heard in guesthouses the world over, but it takes on new meaning when it comes from one of your host country’s wealthiest families — and when your temporary “home” is their mansion. The Buyukkusoglu family, who made their fortune in the automotive industry, converted their 48,400-sq-ft (4,500 sq m) modern manor house in Bodrum, Turkey, on the edge of the Aegean Sea into a 12-suite hotel, and in 2007 opened it to paying guests as the Casa Dell’Arte.

“We wanted the hotel to still feel like a house, and to be very social,” says owner Fatos Buyukkusoglu, who led the hotel’s design team and lives in a smaller house on the property. “We designed a lot of inner courtyards and spaces where guests can come together — at the dinner table, in the lounge or by the pool.” Meals are taken at a 14-seat dining table, on the terrace, or on various sculptural bits of lawn furniture, and each night guests gather by the fireplace in the reading room or on the sofa in the lounge.

The hotel is also a way for the family to share their vast contemporary Turkish art collection, which is regularly refreshed by their gallery in Istanbul. The walls are adorned with pieces by Turkish artists such as abstract masters Devrim Erbil and Adnan Coker, as well as works by international artists including Colombian sculptor and painter Fernando Botero. And next door is the Casa Dell’Arte Art Village, an equally chic 38-suite hotel with in-house artists who run free painting and sculpture workshops for guests — just in case looking at all that great art inspires you to create some of your own.

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