Chill Out Chiang Mai Guide

For Smart Travel Asia in 2007, regularly updated.

AFTER being curtly relieved of his newly acquired farm at gunpoint up in Sisaket province, my flight buddy Richard – a former management professor from the States – seemed surprisingly unperturbed. “That’s Thailand for you,” he shrugged, mildly. But he had higher hopes for Chiang Mai, his latest choice for building a home. “It’s not the same there,” he said. He was right. We landed, emerged from the airport, and there was not a gun-toting farm-grabber in sight (I’d hidden my own twelve-acre ranch in my hand luggage, just in case). Chiang Mai cuts a most welcoming picture – and not only due to its apparent lack of property pinchers.

Compared to the hot chaos of Bangkok, this is a temperate city, set on a northern plateau with a laid-back vibe. Even the hawkers seem more sedate. The sun may feel stronger at this modest elevation, but just a short trip takes the traveller to cool green waterfalls and verdant…

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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…

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Finding Europe in the East

November 2007, Smile Magazine, Philippines
The old world charm of China’s newest money pot

With ambitious developments swamping this once-Portuguese peninsula, Macau has rarely been such a hot topic. It hit international news stands in January when its gambling revenues overtook those of the Las Vegas strip, and its stars have continued to rise with every new casino, glitzy hotel and enthusiastic plane-load from Mainland China. But away from the high rolling and the cabaret there’s a quietly beautiful edge to Macau that balances out the economic frenzy.

Fifteen years ago when I hopped my first Hong Kong-Macau ferry, the old-town landscape of leafy side streets and cobbled courtyards had come as a welcome surprise. Compared to the shrinking heritage spots in my point of origin, here was a place bursting with all things old and charming. Yet my last visit, to a soundtrack of whirring cranes and earth being poured into the sea, indicated that Macau may be going the way of other Chinese…

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Happy Families

October 4, 2007, Time Magazine

Sequestered on a hill about a 40-minute drive from Chiang Mai, Proud Phu Fah doesn’t attract young urbanites so much as families and others looking for a quiet puff of Thai mountain air. Yet that’s not to say that the hotel lacks contemporary style. The first clue to its existence comes on a bare, green stretch of road in the Mae Rim Valley, where a small sign beckons: HIP HOTEL AND RESTAURANT. The next is a gate in an isolated grassy lay-by, where soft jazz pipes from the trees. “We wanted to try a new concept,” says co-owner Siriphen Siwanarak, who left a design job in Bangkok to build the place with her husband. “When guests arrive they see this gate first, then follow the stream, and suddenly they’re open to the panorama and the mountain view, like a surprise.”

Nine whimsical chalets are set into the lush vegetation, all individually decorated with four-poster beds and terraces looking onto a stream. The live-in owners encourage back-to-basics…

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New Architects of China

Architecture Week, USA, September 19, 2007,

But while firms from around the world are delightedly helping China push its design boundaries, the country’s own young architects may be the most interesting to watch. On the Edge: Ten Architects from China, edited by Ian Luna with Thomas Tsang, is the first English-language anthology to place them firmly in the spotlight.

The learning curve for these young, hip studios has been a steep one. Though the nation can boast a rich aesthetic heritage, Mao’s Cultural Revolution put pay to any form of modern exploration in the field. It also left most of the older architectural masterpieces in tatters. Design students in the 1980s and ’90s had no creative role models and little contemporary Chinese design to draw from, leaving them with something akin to a blank canvas.

A number of searing questions came with it. Should architects continue to draw from the West, from Russia, and from the past, or could a new language of their own be created?…

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Higher Education

July 16, 2007, Time Magazine

It’s a common problem. You book a trip, fail to pick up a phrase book and before you know it you’re shaking hands, toasting — or wildly gesticulating — in your destination, wishing you had mastered just a couple of phrases of the local language. Since 2005, travelers on selected flights of Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and half a dozen other carriers have been avoiding this problem with Berlitz World Traveler courses, available on personal video screens. Now other airlines are following suit — this year, Continental, KLM and Air France began offering the onboard language-tuition program, which teaches the basics of up to 23 languages in 21 languages. So should you be from Brazil and need to brush up on your Tamil, or from Vietnam and require a few phrases of Arabic, a course option will have it covered. The lessons are structured by theme — numbers, dates, words and dialogue — and there are tests and games to keep you entertained….

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Social Assistance

July 9, 2007, Time Magazine

Making new friends and swapping stories about life on the road can be a vacation high point—so why not do so before you set off? Thanks to the Internet, globetrotters can now find travel mates, get trip tips from fellow travelers and even enjoy free accommodation from friendly locals, with just a few clicks of the mouse. Organizing the perfect holiday has never been so easy, or so darn sociable.

HOSPITALITY CLUB: Set up by a German student in 2000, this not-for-profit site offers what it calls “volunteer-based hospitality exchange.” Sign up as a member, then search for compatible individuals living at your destination before checking their profiles to see how far their generosity stretches. Some offer a home-cooked dinner or their company on local excursions, others a couch to sleep on or a spare room—all for free. Naturally, you are expected to offer similar kinds of welcome when members show up at your door. As a safety measure, initial…

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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…

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An American in Bangkok

Hospitality Design, USA, August, 2006,

Bill Bensley looks and sounds American, his architecture credentials are from Harvard and when he met the King of Malaysia they high-fived. But talk design, and he’ll tell you that the US has done little for his personal aesthetic. Based out of Bangkok, his multidisciplinary atelier, Bensley Design Studios, has brought its fresh, hip reworking of Asian themes to over a hundred and fifty hotels and residential buildings from Mumbai to Mauritius. “I really think of myself as being more Asian than Western,” he explains. “Everyone I work with is Thai or Balinese, and most of us have been together for over fifteen years.”

Back in the 80s, fresh out of graduate school and newly arrived in Singapore, the picture couldn’t have been more different.  “My classmate in grad school had asked me to come and teach in the International University in Singapore, so I came out and interviewed,” he remembers. “They told me i…

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A Time to Reap

South China Morning Post, August 2006

For a long time Siem Reap has been little more than a launching pad into Angkor, a dusty frontier town of fumes and lurking potholes, of children with large eyes and speedy fingers. Very few tourists tend to leave with tales of overwhelming warmth, applauding the local hospitality. This may have something to do with its messy economics. As part of the country’s second poorest province the town offers a great escape for farmers tired of battling with the local scrub land. But the faster they flood in, the faster chain hotels and tour operators tend to funnel tourist dollars out, leaving what amounts to a money vacuum. In it, Siem Reap has become defined by its most successful bread winners – kids – those big eyes and speedy fingers commanding a notorious (and damn near inescapable) sympathy tax.

Yet supported by a new initiative by the IFC, local and foreign businesses have started to take all this on board, and the town is doing a slow pirouette…

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