Courage under Fire

Courage under Fire

July 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

A Catholic priest is helping to give hope to young human rights victims

With a rakish side parting and a smile behind his eyes, it’s hard to imagine Father Nandana Manatunga at work, not because his job involves kids – for that he seems well suited – but because of the situations his wards come to him in. Dancing eyes seem at odds with the grim task of torture rehabilitation.

The small island nation off the coast of India often hits the news for the long-waged and bloody war between its government and the Tamil Tiger separatists, but there are domestic issues that affect the populace even more deeply. Father Nandana runs the Kandy Human Rights Office, a young, independent organisation in Kandy, Sri Lanka that takes care of child victims of police brutality and sexual abuse, and helps them and their families take their cases through the courts. His story brings to light a collapsing legal system and a police force that, like many in Asia, inspires fear more than trust.

In 2001 the then-40-year-old priest was working as director of SETIK, a 15-person development and social justice agency of the Catholic Diocese in the central highland city of Kandy, when he met Rita, a 17 year old girl who had been raped by two men in her village. The men were prominent in the community and neither the victim nor her parents expected to receive help locally; in fact they were already being snubbed in the neighbourhood and at the girl’s school. Later, although Father Nandana was transferred from SETIK, more cases came to his attention: an 18-year-old boy arrested for stealing and beaten so severely in custody that he was unconscious for a week, another boy, 17 years old, who lost the use of one of his arms after being hung from the ceiling. These in themselves weren’t unusual, but each teenager had decided that if they could, they would take their abusers to court. This was much less common, and it’s where Father Nandana became involved. “Our torture act passed in 1994 but until about 2000 there was not a single case filed against anybody for torture,” he said, in an office at Hong Kong’s Asian Human Rights Commission,  a supporting organisation. “The idea was to activate the law.”

Since torture is routinely inflicted by the police or the armed forces in Sri Lanka, says the priest, and has been for decades, anyone planning to go up against either needs support and good security; the country has no witness protection program. In 2004 Gerald Perera , one prosecuting torture victim, was shot in public before he could testify in a criminal case, and Sri Lanka’s list of ‘disappeared’ persons runs into the hundreds. In the past the only safe way to deal with abuses was to stay quiet.  “Most of the victims die [naturally] with their story. They don’t want to fight the police and they don’t want to follow this tedious legal procedure,” says Father Nandana, his hands clasped, voice quiet. “What we want to do is empower these children, give them courage and moral support to break the silence.”

It has been a steep learning curve for the priest, who had worked with youths and for missing persons before, but had done little on the legal side. “When Rita’s case was brought to our attention, we didn’t really know what to do,” he said. “When the two perpetrators were arrested we held a public protest rally near the place, 250 people came and marched against the police’s lack of action. Then we had a postcard campaign. A month after Rita’s [case] a young girl was raped by eight people and murdered, and then support came from schools.”  Finally the then- President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a committee to investigate – a victory in and of itself.

As Father Nandana worked with the victims, he was reassigned a number of times by the Bishop, but the cases had a hold on him, and he was given permission to continue the work alongside his liturgical jobs. He set up a human rights media centre, then the independent Kandy Human Rights Office, which with six staff and a handful of volunteers, runs separately from his parish.  Unique for its mix of refuge and legal aid, the office and now helps 22 minors of all faiths from around the country and gives weekly counsel to other victims of the system.

Rather than set up a shelter, Father Nandana decided to place his wards discreetly in boarding schools or in the local convent, though some, if he feels they are in danger, lodge with him. His small team then rallies the medical, legal and psychological support needed to see their cases through the courts. The toll, however, can be high: the country has been under a state of emergency since 2005 and cases tend to last for years.

“Now we have four cases on trial for torture and about four or five rape cases, but no verdict yet,” Father Nandana explained.  “Rita’s case in the Magistrate’s Court was 21 days spread over two years, and only this year, six years later, has it come up in High Court. On the very first day – she was in grade ten – the lawyer for the accused said, she’s a prostitute; so immediately she lost all her energy.”

“It’s hard to see how they are questioned. They have to repeat their story so many times and after six years children forget, especially the details. Even Lalit [the boy beaten into unconsciousness] forgets certain things and I have to tell him, this and this happened to you.”

For the trauma counselor at the Office it’s a Sisyphean task, for whenever she manages to make progress with one of the teenagers, a court date will arrive and the memories need to be dredged back up. Occasionally one will give in. “Our biggest challenge is to sustain them” the Father said. “There was one, a girl who said that she can’t go through with it anymore and decided to go home. But at this point you can’t stop proceedings, and she may still be called back: sometimes they don’t understand that the legal procedure is not only you.”  Others react differently:  one young girl told Father Nandana that she wants to become a police officer – but not to help change the system. He gives a weary smile. “Right. She says that when you become a police officer you get a gun. Then you can shoot anybody you want.”

The role incorporates some personal danger. Those indicted on torture charges are suspended from their jobs, and many, the Father says, feel they have little to lose. The Office’s team has been followed and harassed in towns across Sri Lanka, sometimes openly by police. Father Nandana has managed to recruit a pool of around twenty five high profile friends such as lawyers and doctors, and they take turns to escort the victims on court days, sometimes on journeys that take a day or more.

This show of support is significant. As human rights education increases in the country an awareness is growing that things can be done differently, and that police brutality shouldn’t be run of the mill. In Kandy the families of Rita and Lalit, both led by their grandfathers and both very poor, had refused side settlements and insisted on following through with the case. By doing so they have displayed a new and unusual hope in the system. Last year Torture Victims day, June 26th, saw a rally held in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, and unprecedented public talks organised involving lawyers, activists and civil servants.  The day this year was marked on a larger scale, with forums, street campaigns and people’s tribunals in Sri Lanka’s larger cities.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, under external pressure has been making reluctant progress, though his efforts have been widely criticized abroad, by the Human Rights Commissions and notables such as Desmond Tutu. (Mistrust of Rajapaksa’s commission of inquiry led him to invite a group of international observers in 2007, and they resigned earlier this year.) Sri Lanka lost its place on the UN Human Rights Council in May, an organisation it has been a part of since its foundation.

But although none of Father Nandana’s cases have yet hit a verdict, he remains characteristically optimistic, and he has little time for despondency anyway: there’s a parish to run and 750 families to counsel, lodgers to care for, victims to advise, plus he has a program in local prisons and court dates set across the country. “I am very happy to see to our survivors living a normal life and fighting for justice,” he said. “Torture has taken place here for a long time, but only now is there a kind of awareness that something can be done. I believe it’s a calling to be a Human Rights activist… the spirituality of Human Rights I could call it.”

Playground Attraction

Playground Attraction

July 2008, Gafencu Men Magazine, China

Dubai is the fastest growing city on earth, and as the strategic financial centre the Middle East it is becoming a playground for the very, very rich

There is a frission of guilty pleasure to be had from heading to one of the earth’s hottest, driest places to ski, swim and indulge in climate-controlled shopping sprees, and it is one that this year prompted around seven million to pack light and head to Dubai. This small nation of 1.3 million people will soon have forty mega-malls, 7 new theme parks and over 530 hotels to its name, not to mention a pulsating new club scene and a penchant for luxury sporting events. And with that kind of party laid on – well, it would be downright rude not to show up.

Back in the early sixties, when Dubai had one hotel and a lot of sand, there were few who could have looked at the old trading port and camel herding turf and thought: “chi-CHING”. But oil – oil changes everything, and after its discovery the emirate turned itself into a thriving commercial hub. It got its World Trade Centre in 1979, a beautiful 39-storey testament to modern Islamic architecture, then a lucrative free trade zone was established, with more to follow in the 90s under the new crown prince: starry-eyed, business-savvy General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Now, tap ‘Dubai’ into Google news and you won’t just find pages on the new airport (the world’s largest when completed) or the latest height report from the Burj Dubai (629m); you’ll get camels going for US$2.7 million in beauty contests, the chance to buy an island the shape of Switzerland and CEOs boasting of a “Disneyland on steroids”.

As a record breaker Dubai ticks a lot of boxes (largest pair of chopsticks? Look no farther), but it’s also competing quite seriously as a business destination. It is the commercial capital of the seven United Arab Emirates, and though the old industries –pearls and oil – have dwindled they’ve been happily replaced by financial services, manufacturing and top tier sports championships from horse racing to power boating, placing it firmly on the international circuit, with a running supply of the world’s rich and famous. Freehold property developments like The Palm Jumeirah and Arabian Ranches have done the same, but they tempt more than just the nouveau riche trying to keep up with the Beckhams. Property rushes in the earlier part of the decade reduced would-be investors to fisticuffs as they fought to get their deposits down.

In Dubai business and pleasure are locked in an amorous clinch. Mega malls, theme parks and hotel projects push ever farther out into the desert, and stretches of bare sandy road are littered with billboards boasting of that area’s future as a theme park or residential oasis. It may make life tough for taxi drivers (the city layout changes more often than Paris Hilton’s arm candy) and for an abused migrant workforce that continually crops up, overworked and underpaid, in the news, but for those born to shop, the emirate’s arms open very wide.

Dubai residents are very proud of their malls, which are formidable in size and assortment with wares that are tax-free. While the Burj Dubai aims to outdo Minneapolis’ record-breaking Mall of America in girth when complete this year, the Mall of Dubai is the biggest the UAE has to offer right now, and is the only mall in which shoppers can hit indoor ski slopes between sprees [pictured above]. Each giant has its own character: Deira City Centre is best for local people watching and international high street chains; Wafi City serves up Diors and Pradas; Souk Madinat’s outlets are smaller and more boutique.

For those expecting the musty pandemonium of Morocco’s souks Dubai may be a welcome relief – the covered shopping alleyways are easy to negotiate and the same can be said for the prices. They can also give the best blend of both worlds, local and tourist, with goods that range from delicate pashminas, silver and henna kits, to rosewood furniture, saffron and kitchen implements.

For the retail weary there are other kinds of action to be had, and the water parks and pristine, waveless beaches make it a worthy family destination. Fresh water may be scarce but there are at least ten golf clubs, all with courses designed by the best in the business, from Greg Norman to Robert Trent Jones II. Thrill seekers hit the sand dunes and wadi (dry river beds), either by board or full pelt in 4X4s, and many tour companies venture briefly into neighbouring emirate Sharjah, where the colour of the sand deepens from pale ash blonde to a spicy orange, and belly dancers serenade diners over Arabian barbeque as the sun dips.Desert hotels such as Bab Al Shams capitalize on the ‘desert castaway’ vibe with infinity pools among sand dunes and cocktails on floor cushions. Adrenaline can run as high as the prices at the Nad al Sheba’s Dubai Racing Club, especially during the world’s richest horseracing event, the World Cup, in March. The annual calendar sees everything from the PGA Dubai Desert Golf Classic to the Dubai Open Tennis Championship.

This emirate is the most cosmopolitan of the seven and it is free from many of the restrictions of Muslim law in neighbouring Sharjah, Ajman or even the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. Laws governing alcohol intake have relaxed  (though officially just for non-Muslims) and there’s a high tolerance for western clothing and customs, which has helped fashion one of the hottest party scenes in the Middle East. “The scene has completely changed,” says Sadiq Saboowala, whose family has run a gold jewelery business in town for more than two decades. “Five years ago it was calmer, more about visiting sheesha bars and having long meals. With the new wave of foreigners the party venues have boomed, bars are getting much bigger – in every sense,”

Sheesha is still imbibed, but the venues carry an extra layer of glitz. There are at least 300 hotels in Dubai and each has a bar or two vying for the attention of the young and the wealthy. Expect plush interiors, ample VIP provisions, top name DJs and six liter bottles of Dom Perignon that can run to about 31,000 dirhams. A nightlife milestone was hit when Grosvenor House bagged the rights to Paris’ uber trendy Buddha Bar in 2005, and another was reached soon after, when Naomi Campbell chose to throw down a couple of million US dollars on her 38th birthday at the Burj Al Arab. Though there’s no particular district for clubs and bars, The Madinat Jumeirah and the Dubai Marina boast a good, upscale gauntlet, as does Le Meridien Mina Seyahi, with its popular beach-side lounge, Barasti, an Italian restaurant that gets its beat on after midnight.

However this is still a Muslim land, where calls to prayer waft across rooftops and public displays of affection can cause alarm. Women in the black abbaya are a familiar sight, whether melting mysteriously into doorways or shopping for shoes in H&M, and in souks and boardrooms across town the men, in airy white dishdasha, are their photo negatives. For resident Muslims, drinking alcohol in hotels or at home can be a challenge.

The contrast of sky with sand and gleaming architecture makes outdoor Dubai seem attractive, but the heat does not – temperatures can hit the high forties. Bus stops are air conditioned pods, car park spaces have their own umbrellas and beaches are free from all but the hardiest of sun worshippers during the day. Using this to their benefit, hotels have evolved into self-contained wonderlands with entertainment, food and boutique wares making it even harder for their guests to leave.

The Jumeirah Group is one of Dubai’s main hotel players. Three of its properties – the family friendly Jumierah Beach Hotel, the traditionally themed Madinat Jumeirah, and the showy, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab – are connected by golf buggy taxi routes and guests hop between the three. Striking a pose out in front of Jumeirah Beach, ‘the Sail’ plays home to many of the city’s wealthiest visitors, including many guests of the Maktoum monarchy, who reportedly put up house guests there. Its glitzy innards may be a little too fabulous for some – there’s a lot of gold – but people watching is at its best – you’ll never quite know who’ll be stepping into your elevator. Though public tours were discontinued, many waft through on their way to restaurant Al Muntaha on the 27th floor, with its 360 degree sweep, and cocktail mixology platters that move between tables.

Other exclusive temporary addresses around town include the recently-opened Raffles Dubai next to the Wafi City mall and the One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel, with its Givenchy Spa. It’s worth visiting at least one spa or salon in town for an Arabian-style pamper, and the Givenchy hammam has a menu of Moroccan massages, black soap scrubs and rose clay facials. H20 in the Emirates Towers Hotel is a men-only destination for grooming that ranges from spray tanning to a flotation tank.

Friday brunch is the highlight of many a week here – Friday being the day of rest – and bookings should be made for those who plan to eat out between ten and three pm. “[Brunch is] very much similar here to other countries,” says Atinirmal Pagarani, a resident who works in real estate. “It does get beautiful during winters when the sun’s not so strong and everyone’s sipping beer, smoking Shisha and tucking into great food beside the beach.” Dubai’s hotels have really brought its culinary scene up to speed, with offerings such as Verre in the Hilton Dubai, a Gordon Ramsey affair with a seven course taster menu that’s consistently rated one of the best eats in the city. Few are a muted as Verre, however, and perusing the showy décor in many restaurants is as much fun as surfing their menus.

Since the temperature drops at night, many spots make full use of roofs and terraces. Bastakiya Nights, in the old town district combines flavours of the region with low tables, torch light and a vat of open-air rooftop ambience – the stars shine brightly over Dubai. Middle Eastern cuisine is aromatic and deftly spiced, and delicacies such as Quozi – a whole roasted lamb with nuts on a bed of rice – are bolstered by tasty staples, from hummous and baba ghanoush to wara einab, stuffed vine leaves.

At pedestrian level modest Lebanese and Indian joints are popular for a cheap meal, especially in places like Dhiyafa Street, which closes to traffic at night – but Iranian grub can be sampled at the Radisson’s Shabestan, and the tagines are rated at the Shangri-La’s courtyard restaurant, Marrakesh. The seafood in Dubai shouldn’t be overlooked – the gulfs are a source of red snapper, lobster, rock cod and crab. But those wanting to be even closer to the water should try dinner on the dhows that cruise the still waters of the creek.

Dubai has been described as having all the culture of a casino, which should perhaps be expected – the place has sprung up from almost nothing into a bewildering ethnic mosaic. Flavours of Arabia can be sampled at hotels and through arranged tours though, and these often involve falconry, belly dancing and desert barbeques. Dubai’s monarchy also keeps it firmly tied to its history:  back in the 1800s when a branch of the Bani Yas tribe settled at the mouth of a shallow coastal creek it was led by the Maktoum family. The Maktoum empire now owns and develops much of the emirate (known in many circles as ‘Dubai Inc’) and it is responsible for a series of ornate, peacock-strewn palaces, as well as Dubai’s liberal, capitalist credentials.

Find the Dubai museum in the Al Fahidi Fort, which dates back to the early 1700s and offers dioramas, artifacts, and swallows that blanket the sky come dusk. Other cultural interludes take place in the Jumeirah Mosque – the only one that welcomes curious sightseers (in twice-weekly tours), or the Sheikh Mohamed Centre for Cultural Understanding, with its walking tours and Arabic lessons. Some high culture meanwhile can be tracked down at the traditionally-styled Bastakiya village, complete with wind towers, narrow lanes and contemporary galleries. The white-washed Majlis Gallery is just one of these and hosts a mix of contemporary art and local crafts.  Culture buffs should perhaps consider a cultural excursion to the strict but historically-loaded Sharjah, just a twenty minute drive away in good traffic.

It may not have the texture or the depth of the world’s older cities, but Dubai has unique appeal as a  twenty first century product in which money, both silly and serious, calls the shots and where almost anything is possible. For those that seek excess it has the goods, and for the rest it offers countless chances to gawp and marvel, before making the most of that age-old vacation tripartite: sun, shopping and sand. Because some things never change.


Mad World

Mad World

South China Morning Post Style Magazine, Hong Kong, June 2008
Young and radical, Ma Yansong is pioneering a new, ideological path for Chinese architects

Having your business name linked with madness might not seem a savvy move, but it has served Ma Yansong remarkably well.  During the past few years both his name, and that of his small architecture studio, MAD – which stands for Ma Design – has built an enviable reputation. Ma has buildings under way in countries from Canada to Costa Rica and is the first Chinese architect to win an international competition outside of China.  For a guy not too long out of his master’s degree, and with only one thing actually built, he certainly knows how to create a buzz.

This psychic angle makes more sense when you look at his buildings; they’re almost like people. Underneath each image of steel, concrete or glass sits an ideology, a thought process about technology, society or quite often, politics.  “I think we use architecture as a tool to communicate, not as a product,” says Ma, a casual, slightly hunched 33-year old with a goatee and radical shoes. He leans forward in conversation, as if to balance out a languid, sleepy-eyed demeanor. “We use certain formats or shapes to comment.  We make topics, not buildings. It’s like art work.”

This puts him in a similar boat to his one-time teacher and employer, Zaha Hadid. After a degree in Beijing, Ma applied for a Masters at Yale so that he could study under the radical Iranian architect, a visiting professor who is now to architecture what Bjork is to music. Back then, pre-Pritzker (a prize dubbed the ‘Nobel for architecture’), few of Hadid’s conceptual designs had made it to the building stage, but she fascinated Ma with her molten modernism. He had followed her career through magazines from his university library.

The time at Yale widened Ma’s horizons – he had only traveled within China before that – but more importantly it gave him the guts to run with his more outrageous ideas.  Debate was rare in China in the nineties, but at Yale it was a way of life. “All their professors are famous visiting architects and during school time if they have a different opinion, they fight,” says Ma. “Students get this idea that there’s no right or wrong. After all those arguments I found there is no answer, you have to believe in your own ideas”.

After his degree, Hadid offered to employ Ma in London. He’d caught her eye with a project proposal for the new World Trade Centre; “an organic mushroom cloud” of a building that had horrified the more sensitive of his peers. Where most balked, Hadid was intrigued.  She put him on a Beijing-based urban planning project, which took him back home for part of the time. But the project was eventually axed by an incoming mayor, and Ma decided to stay, though he’d only been with Hadid a year.  It was a bold move. He had built nothing at this point and was leaving a studio that was growing notorious as a hatchery of extreme ideas and edgy young architects. But being home had reminded him of the work waiting to be done in Chinese cities. “I think after I came back I discovered what our task is here, as young designers. There are many challenges from a political view, from an architectural or physical view,” he says. Where Hadid is concerned with radical ideas of form, Ma felt that architecture could become an interesting social tool.

While getting MAD up and running with fellow architects Qun Dang and Yosuke Hayano, Ma would enter it into countless competitions and art exhibitions, which kept their conceptual output high. The designs that won didn’t get built for one reason or another – sometimes the developers just weren’t brave enough, says Ma – but the prize money came in handy. Just one building made it into 3D, and that was all thanks to one rather maverick act of barefaced trickery. “It’s a funny story…” Ma begins, grinning.

Hongluo is the white, spacey clubhouse of a Beijing villa complex, and from a distance it seems to melt into the lake it rests on. For the last year it has drawn hosts of admirers out from the city, an hour away. But Ma’s original meeting with the developer hadn’t gone very well: he’d been told that European-style buildings sold much faster, and that “although he liked it, he didn’t have time to educate his customers to like it,” Ma remembers. The job went to a more established architect who was a friend of Ma’s, and he offered to put forward a MAD design himself. The design was eventually approved, and the developer, pressed for time, let MAD onboard. He ended up with a clubhouse that made it into the London Design Museum.

Still, Ma’s game plan for subtle social activism was underway. Each competition took his designers to a different part of the country, and in each project he saw a way to significantly raise the quality of life there:  whether spatially, socially or politically. Even a fish tank, produced on a whim, had a message. It was designed with the idea that people were like fish, with little choice about the ‘tanks’ that they got to live in, and it went for RMB 400,000 at a charity auction.

A few years ago one project, Beijing 2050, took MAD ideas to an international audience at the highly respected Venice Biennale. “We did the whole project because nobody talked about the future very much in Beijing” Ma says. “They’re too practical.” The three schemes that made up 2050 each tackled a big social issue in China’s capital city: congestion, its treatment of old buildings and the lack of public leisure spots. For the last theme Tiananmen Square got a makeover, from concrete pasture to forested park. It was a clear protest but was quite soft in its way; after all, Ma notes; who doesn’t like a park? Last year two members of congress saw the proposal and suggested that the studio take the idea to the national committee. Debate, it seems, is no longer so rare in China.

“Because I’m very interested in ideological topics, even Tiananmen Square is not about the trees, it’s about the whole of China,” Ma says. “In all the cities around China you can feel a power behind them… Now I think architects could have more of that power to change things. We are not politicians, we cannot make decisions about open spaces being public, but from our level we can do something.”

This link between politics and design can be less abstract. Throughout the country, even the lowliest of towns has a monumental town hall, and Ma has decided that these should be his next target. He has already found one: the mayor of Beihai in Guangxi province was willing to let him go to work on their centerpiece, and Ma plans to replace the hard edges and grand proportions with something more human and natural. However this has all happened in the past year or so, and as recently as 2006 Ma, Hayano and Qun Dang was still finding commissions hard to come by.

That year they entered an online design competition for a residential skyscraper in Mississauga, Canada’s sixth largest city. Their building was sensuous, almost sexy, and it was up against hundreds of entries. Dubbed ‘the Marilyn Monroe building’, it caught the imagination of both the jury and the media, and it won. The project, officially called The Absolute Tower, was MAD’s first building to be realized without skullduggery, and the first time a Chinese architecture firm has won a competition outside of China. When the developer called Ma late last year to report that they needed a second tower – all the flats had sold – Ma told him that there could never be two Marilyns. He conjured her a companion – and that sold out too.

The commissions have since gushed forth from around the globe, and though happy, Ma feels apprehensive about seeing his first large scale project in the ‘flesh’. “I feel quite nervous, because I really haven’t had anything built, not like other people who start their own studio after ten years with another office,” he admits.

One MAD-designed skyscraper in Tianjin will soon become the first super high rise designed by a Chinese architect (all the others in China have been built by large multinational firms). It’ll have over 80 floors and distinctive honeycomb shaped windows.  Ma is also looking forward to seeing another of his small projects in Denmark – one for which the owners got way more than they had bargained. “They wanted something Chinese” he says, smiling. “But what does that mean? We took a building by Mies Van der Rohe, used the same dimensions. Then we melted the whole thing.”

The Denmark Pavilion, which will be very curvy and organic inside, blurs the line between man-made and natural and will feature a courtyard. It will also be made in China. “They agreed in the end,” he says. “It’s hard to control from far away, and also, we wanted to examine the concept of Made in China… [and counteract] its meaning as low quality mass production. We’ll ship it to Denmark when it’s complete.” The developers, who had planned to sell it on have since decided to keep it as a show flat.

Despite a host of awards and accolades it hasn’t been easy taking on so much so young and Ma has endured plenty of criticism from his own peers. Many think his head far too wedged among the clouds, others look down on his youth and a sparse built portfolio. However he is already starting to sing a tune usually trilled by architects twice his age. “I’m too busy to have time to really think deeply,” he complains.”I really want to slow down actually. But China doesn’t allow you to slow down!” It seems he may soon need a new method to his Madness.

Bay City Rollin'

Bay City Rollin

April 2008, Gafencu Men Magazine, China
Times may be tighter, but the Bay City is still rolling in it

Of all San Francisco’s incarnations, the one most loved in Asia is its face from the 1990s – a thrilling time when the dot-com boom made a millionaire a minute and the city’s more bohemian, beatnik impulses were buried deep.  “There were parties every single night and they were always totally over the top” remembers Charlotte Milan, who runs a luxury travel and wine public relations firm there, C.Milan Communications.  “People were bringing in dance troupes from Israel, doing shot after shot of caviar and it was like: how much can we have? How much, how much?”

Ten years later and the brashness has gone. The Bay Area remains one of the most expensive places to be in The States with real estate prices scandalously high, a third of its households on six figure salaries and at least forty of America’s 400 richest people calling it home, according to Forbes. But: “9/11 hit San Francisco hard,” admits Milan, who grew up in the city and watches the current market dip with a nervous eye.
Now the wealthy lay low. Stretch limos have been replaced by town cars and parties are toned well down. Whether this is contrite humility or old-money smugness it’s hard to tell, but one thing is for sure: taking a fortune to San Francisco doesn’t mean you’ll know where to spend it well.

However, it’s hard to go completely wrong with word class attractions on your itinerary. You’ve got your Golden Gate Bridge – perhaps by helicopter – and a box at the Giants’ game. There are private dinners to be had at Alcatraz and a few satisfyingly expensive restaurants bordering Union Square or down at Fisherman’s Wharf, where the blues buskers growl and the sea lions honk. Hotels have also returned to the city after a ten year hiatus, and the Intercontinental broke out its 550 rooms last month (the largest in town). “San Francisco is having a great year with citywide conventions, as the city has over 900,000 rooms booked for the year. We are opening at a perfect time,” says Gail Gerber, its director of sales and marketing. The St Regis, brought new luxury highs to town a few years ago, and has expanded to include serviced apartments.

But though most local luxury lies behind the ornate front doors of the Presidio and Pacific Heights, there is one way you can still catch the elite in the act of excess.  “I think you see wealth in the way people spend here; the wines that they buy, the frequency that they dine out,” muses Milan. “Most people I know eat out five nights a week – and we’re not talking not curry or burritos.”

There is no denying that San Francisco has become a haven for foodies. The rigorous Michelin Red Guide hit Northern California in 06 (its only other US guide is for New York), and the latest edition features 34 starred restaurants. Much of the fresh, creative spontaneity of Californian cuisine comes from innovators in the Bay Area, which has amorously embraced the Slow Food movement; a return to regional traditions and home cooking from local, sustainably grown ingredients. And though some of the better established restaurants like The Dining Room and Michael Mina might be in your guide book, think ‘when in Rome’ and get the insiders’ edge at Chowhound or This is a city that knows many of its chefs by name and tracks their moves, alliances and departures through local food columns that read better than an episode of the West Wing.

One to watch right now is Spruce. Tucked into Presidio Heights and serving modern American cuisine, it does a good line in organic produce and naturally raised meats as well as running an in-house charcuterie program. Getting a table here involves serious forethought and a fat wallet. Entrepreneur Bruce Lange, former treasurer at Oracle, takes his clients to Acquerello, which serves top grade Italian cuisine in ornate surroundings. “There was a time period where restaurants were designing main rooms in order to be loud, probably because they thought a loud restaurant gave out a happening vibe,” he says. “Acquarello is as good as it gets in terms of quiet places to take clients, or a date, since requirements for both can overlap! It’s more intimate and the food there is excellent.”

Chez Panisse and Tosca Café are Lange’s two other choices for a memorable meal; the former, run by Alice Waters is about 30 minutes out of town in Berkley.  Waters was one of the few who spearheaded the Californian food revolution and her menus are legendary. Tosca is an unpretentious spot in town where you’re most likely to rub shoulders with an off-duty George Lucas or Nicholas Cage, if you make it into their back room. ‘It’s understated but very San Francisco,” Lange notes. “A great place to have an Irish coffee.”
Riding the crest of the foodie wave, opened literally weeks ago, Le Club comes courtesy of Todd Traina, a film-producing member of a key San Francisco socialite family. This is actually the closest you’ll get to a members’ club here; a town disdainful of waiting lists and pricey memberships. It looks like an elegant penthouse and feels like a ticket straight into a Traina home. It’s that cliquey, intimate angle that makes those that live in San Francisco love it, and those that visit, frustrated.

The Franciscan’s passion for dining out is matched only by its zeal for dining in and the Ferry Building Farmers Market is a waterside whirl of activity four days a week, when it brings Northern California’s best organic food growers to the city. Hit up the award winning Cowgirls Creamery for cheese, sample heirloom tomatoes, batches of fresh pressed Olive oil, crates of wine, and cured meats, and while you’re chomping, find out about how the food is grown and why it tastes so darn good.

Weekend nights out can be quiet here, and there’s a marked difference to the perma-neon of New York. The best bars and clubs the city has to offer – many in the Castro, the town’s gay district – close no later than two, with its revelers planning to be up with the sun and out biking, hiking or road tripping for as long as the weekend will stretch. Post-work week nights and Sunday brunches tend to be more local and lively.

The best of both San Francisco’s shopping and its arts scene is in its small, grass roots offerings. To many an Asian shopper’s horror, there are few malls. “All the streets have their own personalities,” says Susan Lange, COO of Hexagon Financial.  “Westfield Mall is okay if you’re looking for the Armanis and Hermes, but Filmore Street is more unique, with its San Francisco-based companies. Sacramento Street has a lot of unique designer shops and clothing shops.”  Likewise there are few large museums. Though the de Young and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art are top notch, a better feel for the city can be had in small venues like Varnish, an art gallery and cocktail bar downtown, or at the scruffy Make Out Room in the Mission district which hosts Writers with Drinks, a monthly, often raucous display of literary prowess.

But perhaps the best thing about this town is the ease with which you can leave it and arrive somewhere equally fabulous within hours, whether the spa at the Half Moon Bay Ritz Carlton, or the Redwood-fringed hiking paths in Muir Wood. Unlike much of Asia, where the farther out of town you travel, the more humble the dining options get, it takes skill to get far from San Francisco without bumping into two or three nationally renowned eateries, with quail on the menu and a cellar full of top vintages.

Hitting wine country increases your chances of this mightily. The French Laundry in Napa Valley is the only restaurant to win three Michelin stars in the region, but 23 others in its stratosphere have earned their right to sparkle.

For wine country bed-rest the Cliff Lede Vineyards’ Poetry Inn in Napa or Le Mars Hotel in Sonoma are ultra-decadent, though many wineries offer rooms along with courses in wine blending, cooking or mushroom foraging – plus all the wine you can spit. Head there in the fall, when the landscape turns rust red and guests get messily involved in the harvesting.  If pitching in isn’t your thing however, Owl Ridge Wineries has launched Sonoma Grapemasters, a custom-crush program that allows enthusiasts to crush, blend and bottle in private, under the guidance of the facility’s winemaker, for about $8,000 a barrel (24 cases). San Francisco’s first urban winery, Foggy Bridge, will open in the Presidio this summer.

And finally, if you’re really looking to lighten that wallet, there’s always golf.  “If you play golf and you’re looking to spend serious dosh, Casa Palmero at Pebble Beach is one of the premier locations in the world, with spectacular scenery,” says Bruce Lange, whose peers in the finance industry entertain many of the world’s wealthiest men there. “But you have to book a room to play”. And if anything is a metaphor for living it up in San Francisco, there you have it. In this town you’re either 100% in, or you’re out. Spare the effort and you’ll find your nose pressed up against the window, searching desperately for anyone without a digicam and a fanny pack.  Throw yourself in there and you’ll never want to leave.

Chill Out Chiang Mai Guide

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 hill villages with plenty of shade. There’s a strong sense of history here too that counterbalances the grittier urban development. Wats (Thai temples) gleam around every corner. Monks amble in pairs, ignoring their Nikon-laden stalkers. Handicraft workshops and antique stores keep the suitcase shops in business.

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The city has much to do with water. The Ping (or Mae Ping) river cuts through its eastern half and an old active moat pens in the oldest quarter. In its early days (from the twelfth century on) Chiang Mai was constantly under siege and the moat is fortified by a gorgeous 700-year-old wall, partly reinforced but mostly crumbling.

There’s something about being waterside that tends to slow the pulse and this has no doubt contributed to Chiang Mai’s café culture. Hill tribe coffee blends flourish here despite ominous overtures by Starbucks. Moat-gazing is even further improved by the sputtering fountains and flower landscaping. Coffee, canals, flowers… hell, we’d try calling it the Amsterdam of Asia if only they’d throw in a sex museum and stop shooting pot dealers on sight.

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But, sex and drugs aside, this city knows how to take it easy. So loosen that collar, grab a steaming cup of hill tribe coffee and kick back. You’re going to like it here. On then to our Chiang Mai guide and hotel and resort review.

Getting around, some Chiang Mai Shopping, and Golf

Chiang Mai International Airport is small and fairly modern. If you fly in through Bangkok it may save your beleaguered cuticles to check where your baggage will touch down. I arrived in the domestic terminal, and finally found my suitcase (and my hotel pickup) a short walk away in the International wing. It’s just a 15 to 20-minute ride into town by tuk-tuk, which will set you back just Bt60. The exchange rate is around US$1 = 34 Thai baht. Hotel pickups in comparison can cost up to Bt700, so it’s time to ask yourself how much you really love that airconditioning. Plenty of car rental options are nearby, with Avis ( right in the terminal. Spend 24 hours with a feisty Toyota Soluna Vios 1.5 for about Bt1,400.

Chiang Mai spa resorts, The Chedi
Contemporary chic at Chedi/ photo: hotel

The Central Airport Plaza nearby may not excite culture vultures in search of an offbeat Chiang Mai shopping trawl but it’s a godsend for Chiang Mai’s teenage set. Huge and modern, like nowhere else in town, it has a Body Shop and Britney ballads on tap, as well as a clothing store called Great American Body. This is a dark kind of humour in a land that teems with the svelte and wiry. The two-level Northern Village complex is worth a browse. It sells contemporary Lanna (northern Thai) handicrafts, and you’ll find both the quality and prices higher than in the outside markets. A handmade ethnic shirt for example, goes for around Bt2,000, a silk cushion cover for Bt300. A number of the boutiques are run by established Thai design labels.

It’s useful to know a bit about Lanna style, since interest in the old ways is on the upswing here. The Lanna kingdom centred on Chiang Mai and included a group of semi-autonomous city states, colonised first by Burma, and then integrated into Siam a little over 200 years ago. For the traveller, Lanna motifs are most evident in the wat architecture around town but they’ve also hit the food scene. Try them for yourself at the wooden Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre (tel: [66-53] 275-097, minutes from the mall, which does a nightly northern dine and dance show at 7pm, for Bt300. Guests sit on floor cushions and chow down on a Khantoke-style meal, which is a sort of Asian tapas selection plus crispy noodles on a round tray. For the timid of palate, the vegetarian option is non-taxing and delicious. The performance, though churned out nightly, is also pretty well done.


The Chiang Mai Lamphun Golf Club (tel: [66-53] 283-160) is just across the road from the mall, leafy, floodlit and set to a soundtrack of thwacks, boings and encouraging cricket chirps. You can get a club and around 160 balls here for Bt150 and there’s a nice low-key little café, with classics such as “fancy shrimp paste fried rice” on the menu. (Golfing in Chiang Mai is a huge attraction. Other Chiang Mai golf courses include the Royal Chiang Mai Golf Resort, the Lanna Golf Club, the Gassan Lake City Golf Club and Chiang Mai Highlands Golf & Resort.)

Other shopping highlights in the area include the Baan Muang Kung pottery village and a lacquerware factory, heading out of town on the Chiang Mai Hang Dong Road.

The Old City within the Moat

Confined neatly to a tight square inside the moat, the old city is the easiest area to navigate, especially by rented motorbike or bicycle. Circumnavigation on foot can take two hours or so, and with tuk-tuks you find yourself constantly ducking to see what’s going on around you. Try skimming around the outer Si Phum, Mun Muang, Bamrungburi and Bunruangrit Roads and dipping into the smaller, leafy sois (side-streets) at will. Here you’ll find it’s largely residential, punctuated with wats, cheap guesthouses and open fronted restaurants. Many of these little nooks are wonderfully serene.

There’s more than enough temple action here to keep the Buddhist enthusiast busy (51 to be precise). But, if you’d just like to pick just one, Wat Phra Sing on Samlan Road is one of the more important. The large, wooden Pantao Monastery offers insight into the more active, down-to-earth side of Buddhist life.

Chiang Mai temples, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

For orientation within the moat boundaries, note that Singarat and Phra Pokkhlao Roads run roughly north to south, while Ratchamankha and Ratchdamnoen Roads run west to east. On Sundays, Ratchdamnoen Road near Tha Phae Gate (also Tapae or Thapae), is closed to vehicles and becomes, simply, “Walking Street”, a hugely popular weekend market.

All the external roads have their own unique character rooted in the past. Tha Phae Gate in the east was originally popular with merchants and it remains an animated business strip with shops, massage parlours and plenty of farang (foreign) bar-restaurants. By night it’s one of the busiest quarters. Chang Phuak Gate to the north was the entrance for royalty. Here too are the usual bars, shops and small restaurants. The south, around Chiang Mai Gate, is more down-at-heel, with a fresh produce market and motorbike mechanics. Over on the west side by Suan Dok Gate things are quieter and more residential.

A wander along the moat is nice of an evening, though most of the dining options here are mid-to-low range – cheap Thai noodle joints and low-key restaurants with hybrid menus. Just off the canal, near Ratchamankha Soi 2, you’ll spot the comfy Laughing Leprechaun that does a renowned fried breakfast, and the atmospheric French creperie, Aux Amis Du Monde (tel: [08] 5709-1063). There’s also the dubiously neon Mandalay Palace disco nearby for gentlemen looking for a dance and a date. However the swishiest venue along here is The House (199 Mun Muang Rd, tel: 419-0113). Competitors sniff that this Eurasian fine dining experience is overpriced and over-hyped, but that doesn’t stop the hipsters flocking in for a bite, a martini, and a puff of sheesha in the moody lounge bar in the courtyard.

Chiang Mai spa hotels, Shangri-La Hotel Chiang Mai
Shangri-la Chiang Mai/ photo: hotel

Up north the best of the bunch is definitely The North Gate, a new addition that started as an outlet for creativity-starved jazz musicians. It is run by a talented Thai saxophonist and his American partner who hosts Chiang Mai’s English language radio jazz show on 106.5 FM. The place is low-key but high-energy, with constant drop-ins from the local music scene. Other popular bars around here are The Queen Victoria (tel: 418-266) for that pub-away-from-home kind of feel, Le Barfly (tel: [08] 943-2578) and the UN Irish Pub (tel: 214-554).

Chiang Mai Riverside, Dining, and Night Market

Leading out east is Tha Phae Road, a popular spot for the dreadlocked and toe-ringed set. It has a number of welcoming coffee shops – try JJ Café (tel: 234-007) for milkshakes and a good sandwich bar – second hand bookshops and a couple of good mid-range restaurants. Throwing caution to the winds and abandoning explicit instructions to just eat cooked food, I tucked into a number of rather good salads at the American-Thai, diner-style Art Café (tel: 206-365) and lived to tell the tale. It could be something to do with the hydroponic lettuce, and ice scrupulously made from filtered water, but the owner claims that most places are pretty safe these days. Art has Mexican food too. Pulcinella da Stefano (1/1-2 Chang Moi Kao Rd, tel: 874-189) will satisfy any spaghetti cravings. There’s a reliable Boots pharmacy here too (locally-sold pharmaceuticals can be dodgy) and the modern, comfortable Internet café at the Lanna House (tel: 270-348) struck me as a good temporary office space if needed. Pay Bt50 for a day’s Wireless, or Bt30 to use its PCs.

Chiang Mai boutique hotels, Proud Phu Fah
Proud Phu Fah/ photo hotel

East of the old city but still west of the river is the night bazaar. Head to the northern end of Chang Khlan Road anytime after five and you’ll find yourself squeezing through tunnels of multi-coloured knick-knacks, blocking out the sky. From rickety paper lamps your local firemen would baulk at to less than authentic DVDs and chirping wooden frogs, quality here can drop as low as the prices. Still, there are some great finds around. Chiang Mai shopping expeditions aimed at higher-end products around here can head farther into the permanent shopping complexes. Galare Market is newly renovated with twinkly tree lights and fresh fish at the food-court gleaming on beds of ice. Just near Galare on Charoen Prathet Road, Le Spice (, tel: 234-962) is a welcoming spot for Thai-Indian food with a garden courtyard. Farther down you’ll find The Duke (tel: 249-231), famously Sly Stallone’s choice when in town. Three guesses as to the cuisine. No, not Swiss.

For more Chiang Mai dining choices, use the golden McArches as a beacon and wander down Loi Kroh Road to where the stalls tail off. Here a couple of low-key Belgian, German and Italian restaurants wait, with schnitzels and the like. Anusarn Night Market down here has some great open-air Thai eating, while nearby you’ll also find a sophisticated little northern Thai restaurant, Just Khao Soy (108/2 Charoen-Prathet Rd, tel: 818-641, MSG-free). Guitarman (68/5 Loi Kroh Rd, tel: 818-110) is tucked away close by, for those that like a good jamming session over beers and burgers.

The best Chiang Mai hotels in this area should also be explored for high-end dining. The Chedi has a very lovely club-like bar and restaurant that still harks back to its days as the old British Consulate. It serves creative tapas alongside traditional and fusion Asian meals. The Sofitel’s Mira Terrace offers a nice casual spot for international dining, with another bar for cocktails and snacks in a garden pavilion.

Across the Ping from here you’ll encounter a peaceful patch, where grassy banks lure couples and lone procrastinators. The peace comes to a resounding halt at the rambunctious Riverside Bar and Restaurant ( You can enjoy dinner and drinks on its small river boat, if booked early. The Gallery ( is a little more sedate (enough so for a visit from Hilary Clinton), and comes with a selection of artworks for sale and its Chang Jazz Club next door. Farther up, two finer, more romantic restaurants emerge – the simple and pretty The White Room (tel: [08] 5711-4557) and La Gondola (tel: 247-776,, with wood-fired pizzas and live jazz.

Heading south from here, the dining and entertainment options dwindle, though you’ll find Muay Thai (kickboxing) at The Kawila Boxing Stadium on the east bank (choose between the “show” – often involving a ladyboy, and the real matches). On the west bank the modest Mae Ping River Cruise will put-put you around for a few hours, stopping off at a farmer’s garden for a snack.

Chiang Mai’s West, Drag Shows, and Museums

Two areas of note in Chiang Mai are the Ninmanhemin Road gauntlet of furniture shops and boutiques, and Nantharam and Wulai Roads, with silverwork stores to send your inner magpie into a gleeful frenzy. Shimmering pieces of local silver have been worked into the design of several temples like Wat Prathat Doi Suthep near Doi Suthep (a scenic mountain).

Ninmanhemin has a couple of snack spots, from Dai-Kichi’s (tel: 223-873) Japanese food to the quirky Ka-nom Fashion Bakery (tel: 212-033). Be sure to try out the Doi Chaang Coffee House ( This stylish, burgeoning chain comes courtesy of a group of villagers and coffee producers in the area. All the beans are hand-harvested and roasted in a traditional drum. You’ll find a branch in Canada too. Not too far away lies Wat Suan Dok – my favourite. It always looks stunning in whitewash and gold leaf, and houses the ancient remains of former Lanna rulers. It’s also part of the Buddhist university for monks and leaves a serene impression. Opposite, Sinakarin Health Park is good for an evening stroll.

North from here you’ll find the Chiang Mai National Museum, and high camp exuberance like you’ve never seen before at the Simon Cabaret Chiang Mai (tel: 410-3213, Bt500). This is a very popular, family-friendly transvestite show involving everything from Chinese opera and Broadway numbers, to Hollywood movie re-enactments. As our correspondent Chris Stowers once described it, Simon is “an extravaganza of lip-sync glitz”. Stop by as well to marvel at the seven spires of Wat Jet Yot. Chiang Mai is, after all, a city of temples.

Guide to Mae Rim Valley, Elephant Camps

This northern valley starts about 15km out, and is a popular choice for out of town mini-breaks. You’ll find the Four Seasons hiding here (more on this later) and, even more successfully camouflaged, the Sukantara Cascade Resort – probably chosen by Angelina Jolie a few years ago to lose the paparazzi (this journalist certainly complied, my driver weaving about in vain trying to find the place).

Chiang Mai luxury resorts, The Chedi
Stylish Chedi Club Suite/ photo: hotel

All the main attractions shoot off of the Mae Rim Samerang Road, and most are great for families. These include the Sainamphueng Orchid and Butterfly Farm, and the dubious and dusty Mae Sa Snake Farm (tel: 860-719) down the bottom end. Think rickety cages and heart-warming visions of pythons entwined with fluffy white bunnies.

Just across the road The Centre (263 Moo1, Mae Rim Samoeng Rd, tel: 297-700) is good for all things action packed, from bungee jumps and go-karts, to paintball and off road buggy rides. There’s also a small sports bar and café. Keep going and you’ll pass a couple of waterfall turn-offs, and the Chiang Mai Monkey School. Take your own monkey for training in manners, or just enjoy the macaques showing off. Farther up you’ll get to take a turn with an elephant or two at the riverside Mae Sa Elephant Camp, though if you continue onwards (60km from town) the Elephant Nature Park ( is a cause well worth supporting. The sanctuary was set up to care for elephants too old or abused to work, and spearheads a number of conservation projects.

Chiang Mai Excursions, Rafting, Hill Tribes

Chiang Mai is consistently dubbed the gateway to the northern hills and adventure tour guides pop up like mushrooms. Both gung-ho and timid trekkers flock here for hours of jungle-thwacking penitence, which is often rounded out with a bit of bamboo rafting, elephant safaris, opium smoking (we’ll deny it) or hill tribe visits. One attractive option is with the folks from Track of the Tiger (tel: 801-257, They are, beguilingly, “soft adventure” specialists that can also organise city-based events from cooking classes to photography trips.

A cushy alternative is offered by the Limousine Express Group (tel: [08] 5714-3083,, which will do private tours, including a night safari and golf package. For a couple of smaller travel operators try Northern Hill in the old city (tel: 815-115) or the affable Mr Doedee (World Story Chiang Mai tours, tel: 273-742), who will take up to four passengers out in a four-wheel-drive run. Larger groups are accommodated in an air-conditioned minibus. Most day trips start at around Bt700. Mountain Biking Chiang Mai ( organizes a series of downhill bike trips out in the jungle from Bt1,450, and you can rent your own bike from Bt250 per day. There are a lot of young backpacker types here, so it’s worth discussing the age group of your companions before you book.

Chiang Mai Resorts Review

This Chiang Mai resorts review looks at a range of options from budget to beautiful. Though small and scruffy Chiang Mai guesthouses abound, a few large, gorgeously designed glamour pads are gaining prominence. There are the Big Five: The Chedi, Sofitel, Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, and the Shangri-La, but a clutch of attractive smaller contenders make picking a room here as lively as window shopping outside Harrods at Christmas.

The all-new Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai is pretty much smack in the centre of town within hailing distance of the bustling Night Market. The 281-room property in a high-rise building that mimics a stately Thai palace, albeit with a modern façade and trimmings, features northern Thai design motifs throughout with contemporary rooms ranging in size from 43sq m to a more than ample 215sq m. Shangri-La’s executive Horizon Club floor hosts 60 rooms for those who prefer their service a cut above. Expect steam, incense and aromas at CHI – the Spa at Shangri-La, a yoga pavilion, tennis, pool, putting green and kids’ club. If you happen to be in a suite or on the Horizon Club floor check out the pillow menu to pick from foam, buckwheat or even “anti-snore”.

D2 hotel Chiang Mai boutique hotel
Trendy dusitD2 chiang mai/ photo: hotel

Editor's choiceIf Grace Kelly were alive, young and in Chiang Mai, she’d be at The Chedi, Chiang Mai, sunning herself on the poolside lounger, gazing fretfully from her balcony at the have-nots across the river and traipsing through the strictly-for-decoration reflective pools in the courtyard. The place oozes modernist glamour. Rooms are simple, dark and Asian in décor with standalone baths that can open out to the view. There’s a flat-screen TV (with entertainment system), automatic blinds, free WiFi throughout, as well as laptops in the executive lounge that may be borrowed by guests. The deluxe rooms and spacious Chedi Club Suites are best described as contemporary Asian chic, pleasingly understated, with elegant flashes of Thai-silk. (The Chedi Chiang Mai features in our exclusive Top Asian Hotels Collection, featuring the best Asian hotels, resorts and spas in a printable A4 page with stunning visuals.)

The Club Suites have large sitting areas and roomy open balconies. You get a complimentary mini bar with carafes of whisky, gin and vodka. On the menu are The Spa at The Chedi, a sanctuary for wellness treatments, a swimming pool, a library, a fitness club, yoga, and a boutique. Though the place is very spic and span (which will appeal to many), it also has a few quietly untamed corners by the river to get the wind in your hair. The tapas are great even if the lighting is at times a bit dim to fully appreciate them. Still, the staff will leap to up the wattage of your room light bulbs should you require it. That’s a thoughtful gesture as are the ice-cold scented face sprays that greet you at the pool. The Chedi is an attractive Chiang Mai luxury resort option if you don’t wish to compromise on style and location and its spa is a huge bonus.

Not too far from here towards the night bazaar, the Dusit has launched the first of its new hip “lifestyle concept” hotels, the 131-room dusitD2 chiang mai . If you were wondering where all the good-looking people in Chiang Mai have gone, look no further. The hotel clearly cleaned out the local Channel V studio, and an acting school or two. To further the vibe, the lobby and bar turn into a dance club once a month, so check ahead if you don’t fancy grooving through reception.

The rooms are full of quirky details, such as the “desires” button on the phone (try it, we dare you), and look out over the city, mountain views being the greenest. Rooms have WiFi and there’s a decent club lounge, pool, a set of events rooms, a gym and a spa. Ask about the changing of the shift “performance” that happens each day. When I first heard of this the mind boggled. Retiring staff juggling custard-pie? Naked pogo stick racing? The performance is actually a bopping dance routine, with music. Some staff have all the fun.

Among the newer kids in town is the RatiLanna Riverside Spa Resort (formerly Sofitel Riverside Chiang Mai) which has an expansive feel to it, despite the Lanna detailing. The open hallways make you feel much more connected to the city, as do the room balconies. The emphasis here seems to be on space, with 76 large, dark wood rooms and suites, open-air dining and a big, glam pool by the river. Rooms are fully wired and Wireless. There’s also a spa, and conference and banqueting facilities, inside and outside.

Le Meridien Chiang Mai arrived early November 2008 in the heart of the city, only a short walk from the popular night bazaar. Its 384 rooms are contemporary in design and feature LCD TVs, Broadband Internet access (for a fee), irons and ironing boards, safes, minibars, and dual-line speaker telephones. Most rooms look out at Doi Suthep Mountain. There is Wireless Internet access available in public areas (for a fee), while Club guests get complimentary WiFi in the Club Lounge. For meetings and conventions, the hotel offers 1,800sq m of function areas, and there is a wedding coordinator on hand for receptions and banquets. Lanna treatments are offered at The Spa, while the Lanna-style pool provides cool waters and panoramic views of Chiang Mai.

Located on the banks of the Mae Ping River is the 526-room Holiday Inn Chiangmai. Rooms are bright and contemporary with subtle Thai design flourishes. Amenities include LCD TV, high-speed Internet access, work desk, phone/fax and iron and board. Its 15 newly-refurbished function venues can hold everything from an intimate12-person workshop to a conference with up to 1,200 people.

Chiang Mai business hotels, Holiday Inn
Riverside Holiday Inn Chiangmai/ photo: hotel

There is also a business centre offering secretarial and translation services. After a long day of networking or sightseeing, cool off in the outdoor swimming pool or soak up some rays on the sun deck. Alternatively, work up a sweat in the sauna, steam room or fitness centre. For Thai food, head to the River Terrace or for dim sum try the China palace.

If you’d prefer quieter accommodation across the river, RarinJinda is a friendly, atmospheric resort and wellness spa with 35 rooms and nice views from some rooms. It’s quite well kitted out for a small hotel – with spa, gym, yoga studio, steam room etc – and is staggering distance from the strip of riverside bars and restaurants.

Over in the old city the residences get smaller and older, most nicely integrated into the smaller street system. Just outside, in an avenue off of Tha Phae Road, Manathai Village is an utterly charming small hotel set in a courtyard complex. Industrial concrete floors give rooms a hip twist, but they’re mostly traditional luxe in dark woods and white. En suite bathrooms have deep trough-like baths, and the sound of running water fills the courtyard. Is your weak bladder playing up? A new higher-end Chiang Mai boutique hotel in this area is the De Naga Chiang Mai near the Tha Pae Gate. This 55-room lowrise Lanna-style resort offers a contemporary setting with some views of Doi Suthep temple.

Not far is the 23-room Mandala House, a more basic Thai-style hotel with sizeable bathrooms, two small Internet stations and a pleasant little coffee bar at reception. This is around the same three-star level as the Montrara Happy House, down a small street on the other side of Tha Phae Road, which brings the luxury Thai look down to a more affordable price range.

CHiang Mai boutique resorts, Bann Tazala
Boutique Bann Tazala/ photo: hotel

Beyond the walls one reigning Chiang Mai resort favourite is the old-world Rachamankha, always good for a bit of character and intimacy. Despite being only a few years old, the Chinese-Lanna-style building manages to feel like it’s been putting down roots for at least a century. Rooms are authentically dark with old heavy furniture, teak double doors and a club-like accent that extends to the library and an elegant little restaurant (which does a nice afternoon tea). There’s a pool among the bougainvillea, and cultural shows and live music are staged in the courtyard.

An attractive, larger option is the 40-room Tamarind Village, which also has a spa, a shady pool area and a terraced restaurant. The alarmingly named Hair World Hotel near the west gate hovers below the grade of luxury hotel, but offers a nicely furnished spot to lay your head… or hair. It has 22 rooms, free WiFi and a small spa, but you may find staff a little befuddled, if you’re conversing in English.

If you’re short on time and just need somewhere simple and businesslike, try the Amari Rincome (a Chiang Mai hotel stalwart just outside the old city, with two swimming pools, tennis, WiFi, and satellite TV), the neighbouring Chiang Mai Orchid Hotel (a functional, if bland, veteran that was once a Hyatt Regency and now amazingly offers “baby-sisters” on its facility list, online), Amora Tapae Hotel, or Novotel Chiang Mai. Both the Amari Rincome and Chiang Mai Orchid are well positioned on Huay Kaew Road that leads up to Doi Suthep. The Home Place Hotel and Sri Pat Guesthouse are clean, comfortable low-rangers with air-conditioning.

A short drive out of town, unabashed luxury awaits at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi. This is another Lanna-style complex that appears ancient, but is really just a toddler. It is palatial, perhaps even gargantuan in scope. Old trees were brought in and transplanted, hundreds of traditional wood carvers employed, and more than one Burmese relic disassembled, transported and recreated on site.

Chiang Mai luxury resorts, Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi
Mandarin Oriental colonial suite/ photo: hotel

Stay in one of sprawling luxury villas, or suites, all packed with antique-style furniture. Some gaze out onto manicured rice paddies, others have their own pools. The colonial suites are big, traditional-looking rooms in a two-storey building, which overlooks a large swimming pool. There is WiFi. Facilities here all work to make the Mandarin a “kingdom” in its own right, from an amphitheatre to shopping village, a cooking school and health club, all connected by quiet, overgrown paths. There’s even a traditional rural village (another recreation) complete with a couple of old ladies on hand to teach local arts and crafts. Pick Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi if you like your privacy – you could probably wander quite happily all day and see just a handful of people. This is a Chiang Mai luxury resort with a difference.

The Mandarin has a friendly relationship with the eight-room Chiang Mai boutique hotel Bann Tazala just across the road, and sends its overflow there during the busy season. This is another charming, narrow courtyard property with Chinese-Thai décor, antique details and an upscale homey appeal, with flat-screen TVs and individual touches. There’s a small pool and, as in the Rachamankha and Mandarin, a library, which seems almost quaint in this age of Wireless, hands-free techno-gadgetry. There’s still WiFi in the rooms though.

Up north heading into the Mae Rim Valley, the Four Seasons Chiang Mai is another sprawling escape. Snuggled into a small, forested hill, pavilion rooms and villas are connected by sloping garden paths. Golf buggies are ever on hand. Many of the public areas open out to trees and rooms get paddy-field views or foliage close-ups, as do the private salas (outdoor pavilions). Even the bathtubs get windows. It’s a little far from town, but for families or couples wanting to explore the area from a comfy sanctuary, it works admirably, and there’s a shuttle five times daily. There’s plenty to do if you have transport, but the hotel also has a country-chic cooking school, a spa and a large pool.

Chiang Mai hotels, Four Seasons
Four Seasons pool/ photo: hotel

The Sukantara Cascade Resort is out here too, also with woody overtones and very much jungle-enveloped, but smaller. Sukantara offers just six rooms and one suite pool villa. The lobby terrace and restaurant hug the river, where a small series of waterfalls enhance the atmosphere. Mosquitoes might wage war, but hey, it’s the jungle. Sukantara does have more of a rustic feel to it, with comfy cottage rooms and bathroom showers open to the sky, but your reward is complete seclusion. Internet access in the lounge is free. Rooms have satellite TV and DVDs are available on request. There is also a small spa pavilion. The Sukantara is about a 35-minute drive from the airport but, if you get utterly lost, look for the petrol station on your right on the Mae Rim Samoeng Road for the turn-off.

Also in this general area is the Proud Phu Fah, a whimsical little hideaway. This Chiang Mai boutique resort is about 10 minutes on up the Mae Rim Samoeng Road past the pump. Guests are lured to a seemingly abandoned gate structure piping soft jazz, before being led through the trees by walkway to a hip lounge, restaurant and garden.

A handful of standalone houses are tucked into the undergrowth, each coloured with arty details and murals, some designed by the owner. Beds are simple four posters, and some cottages have small outside plunge pools or terraces and floor-to-ceiling windows. Dishes here are prepared with fresh local herbs from the highlands, and there’s a small pool. I’m less sure about its “outdoor meeting facilities”, but it seems thoroughly prepared for a secluded, romantic Chiang Mai getaway. “Proud Phu Fah” is also fun to say. Try it aloud.

As staff will happily tell you, Veranda Chiang Mai: The High Resort, is “way out in the hills beyond busy Chiang Mai”. So this resort is a choice for those who appreciate seclusion.

The 80 rooms, suites and pavilions are set on the valley slope all with views over mountain streams and rice and tea terraces. While décor is distinctly smart and modern there are subtle touches of Thai to soften the straight lines and block colour. Deluxe rooms start at 43sq m with 15sq m of balcony. The open plan bathroom has a separate tub, rain shower, twin vanity and hair dryer. There’s the ubiquitous iPod dock, 42″ LCD TV, DVD and WiFi. The Plunge Pool Pavilion offers a generous 88sq m with 45sq m of balcony and plunge pool space overlooking rice terraces. There’s a Kid’s Club, two yoga classes a day and a cultural pavilion to keep you busy, plus a full spa and all day dining with views over Veranda’s private valley.

There are numerous other small Chiang Mai boutique resorts and alternative options. Baan Deva Montra is a 25-villa boutique hotel with gardens, Jacuzzis, pool villas, and cooking classes. Maninarakorn strives to be contemporary Thai, with meetings facilities, spa and shopping, while the 35-room two-star Suan Doi House (on Huay Kaew Road) offers simple, low-key hospitality in floral surrounds. The 30-room Puripunn goes one step further, describing itself as a “baby grand boutique resort”. Puripunn offers Lanna Thai flourishes in its design, a pool, children’s pool and spa. The small Tri Yaan Na Ros Colonial House is a cosy, if dark, hangout, with eight rooms and friendly staff, while the Yaang Come Village on Sridonchai Road has 42 air-conditioned rooms with satellite TV, WiFi, a library, and even small meetings facilities for up to 40 persons.

Also in the centre of town – and also just a skip away from the Night Bazaar – is the 24-storey, four-star Centara Duangtawan Hotel Chiang Mai. The 507 air-conditioned rooms and suites feature satellite TVs, Internet access (wired and wireless), mini-bar, safe, and separate bath and showers. You’ll need to book a Business Plus room or higher to get bathrobe and slippers. Dynasty Club guests get access to a lounge that serves breakfast, all-day snacks and nightly cocktails. There are three restaurants, two lounges, and several meeting rooms for business types, including a ballroom catering for 800 people. The renovated SPA Cenvaree opened in September 2008, featuring an aerobics studio, pool, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, six therapy rooms and dozens of treatments on the menu.

Take your pick of these Chiang Mai boutique hotels, budget pads to crash in without fuss, and swish luxury spa resorts.

Chiang Mai Spas and Spa Resorts

Chiang Mai spas are never a problem. There’s always one within hailing distance. All of the big resorts here have exclusive, luxury spa complexes, as do the dusitD2 chiang mai, RarinJinda, Sukantara and Tamarind Village. The streets are lined with small mom ’n’ pop affairs that offer competitive foot massage (from just Bt150), and Thai or oil body massages. These won’t come with cold towels and lemongrass tea, though you might get a fan trained on your mattress.

The Legend Spa (64 Huay Kaew Rd, tel: 406-520) is a high-end day spa in serene surrounds with a range of luxury treatments from green tea body masks to hydrotherapy. For a few spas in the mid-range arena try one of the Chiang Mai Oasis Spas (, rustic luxe in a garden setting, or Let’s Relax (145/27 Chang Khlan Rd,, a light day spa near the night bazaar with packages from Bt600.

Multi-taskers can try the Artist Beauty & Day Spa, ( for spa and hairstyling, and Prasina (tel: [08] 6916-6585) for a massage with a manicure thrown in on Ninmanhemin Road. Alternatively try teeing off before your treatment, at the Chiang Mai Green Valley Country Club’s Angsana Spa ( Escape (6/1 Kotchasarn Rd, tel: 208-225) does well-priced massages in an atmospheric old teak house. Most of these will start to turn customers away by 10pm, but a basic 24 hour pummel can be yours at Chiang Mai Traditional Massage (tel: 818-944) opposite the Empress Hotel. Most spas offer free transport from your hotel.

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Visas can be issued on arrival for several nationalities from 15 days to three months. The exchange rate is around US$1 = Bt34 (Thai baht). Most of the rates below are rack (or published) rates but hotels may add a 10 percent service charge and 7 percent for VAT. Cheaper guesthouses may not always have hot water and air-conditioning. In terms of etiquette it’s considered rude to beep in traffic (people get visibly angry) so use the horn prudently. You may be required to take off your shoes in people’s homes, in temples, and massage parlous. It may seem natural to pat the heads of Thai children, especially in the hill villages, but this is also considered bad manners. Listed below are key hotels – cheap and cheerful to cosy and cosseted – included in this Chiang Mai resorts review, with contact information.

Chiang Mai Hotel Guide

Chiang Mai Resorts and Higher-End Hotels

Baan Deva Montra. Tel: [66-53] 432-972, ( Rates from Bt2,500 for a garden cottage.
Bann Tazala, Chiang Mai
. Tel: [66-53] 850-111, fax: 851-211, ( From Bt6,500.
Centara Duangtawan Hotel Chiang Mai. Tel: [66-53] 905-000, fax: 275-429, (e-mail: or Internet rates from Bt1,020.
De Naga Chiang Mai. Tel: [66-53] 209-030, fax: 208-598, (e-mail: or
dusitD2 chiang mai. Tel: [66-53] 999-999, fax: 999-900, (e-mail: or
Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai
. Tel: [66-53] 298-181, fax: 298-189, (e-mail: or Garden-view rooms from US$475.
Holiday Inn Chiangmai. Tel: [66-53] 275-300, fax: 275-299, e-mail: or From Bt1,680.
Le Meridien Chiang Mai. Tel: [66-53] 253-681, fax: 253-667, (e-mail: or Rooms from Bt4,800.
Manathai Village. Tel: [66-53] 281-6669, fax: 281-665, (e-mail: or Deluxe rooms from Bt7,000, family rooms from Bt9,000.
Maninarakorn. Tel: [66-53] 999-555, fax: 999-500, (e-mail: or Superior from Bt3,000 with American breakfast, Suites from Bt6,000.
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi. Tel: [66-53] 888-888, fax: 888-999, (e-mail: or Standard rooms from US$385, deluxe villas US$510++.
Proud Phu Fah. Tel/fax: [66-53] 879-389, (e-mail: or Villas from Bt4,800.
Puripunn. Tel: [66-53] 302-898, fax: 303-121, (e-mail: or Rates from Bt7,200 for a deluxe room.
Rachamankha. Tel: [66-53] 904-111, fax: 904-114, (e-mail: or Singles stay from Bt5,500, Bt 5,900 for doubles, Suites Bt15,000++ and can take up to five people.
RarinJinda. Tel: [66-53] 247-000, ( Standard rooms start at Bt6,500.
RatiLanna Riverside Spa Resort. Tel: [66-53] 999-333, fax: 999-332, ( Rooms from Bt8,000.
Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai. Tel: [66-53] 253-888, ( Value rate for Deluxe from US$270++.
Sukantara Cascade Resort. Tel: [66-1] 881-1444, fax: 881-7040, (e-mail: or Deluxe Lanna cottages from Bt4,970.
Tamarind Village. Tel: (66-53) 418-8969, fax: 418-900, ( Rates from Bt4,200.
The Chedi Chiang Mai. Tel: [66-53] 253-333, fax: 253-392, (e-mail: or Deluxe rooms from Bt12,324, club suites from Bt18,486.
Tri Yaan Na Ros Colonial House. Tel: [66-53] 273-174, fax: 273-137, (e-mail: or Rates from Bt3,675 with American breakfast.
Veranda Chiang Mai: The High Resort. Tel: [66-53] 365-007, fax: 365-362, (e-mail: or From Bt5,000.
Yaang Come Village. Tel: [66-53] 237-222, fax: 237-230, (e-mail: or Rates from Bt5,000 for a single superior room.

Chiang Mai Budget Hotels and Mid-Range Options

Amora Tapae Hotel Chiang Mai. Tel: [66-53] 251-531, fax: 251-721, (e-mail: or Rates from Bt1,648 for a superior double.
Chiang Mai Orchid Hotel. Tel: [66-53] 222-099, fax: 221-625, (e-mail: or Singles from Bt 1,350.
Hair World & First Spa Boutique Hotel. Tel: [66-53] 287-555, fax: 287-555, (e-mail: or Rooms from Bt800.
Home Place Hotel. [66-53] 276-468, fax: 206-209. From Bt250-Bt350 for a double room with fan/air-conditioning.
Mandala House. Tel: [66-53] 272-488, fax: 274-696, (e-mail: or Rooms from Bt850 including breakfast, Bt650 without.
Montrara Happy House. Tel: [66-53] 232-8002, fax: 252-619, (e-mail: or Rooms from Bt790.
Novotel Chiang Mai. Tel: [66-53] 225-500, fax: 225-505, (e-mail: or From Bt 1,008.
Sri Pat Guesthouse. Tel: [66-53] 218-716, fax: 218-718. Double, airconditioned rooms for Bt700.
Suan Doi House. Tel: [66-53] 221-869, 406-09, fax: 221-869. Rates from Bt950++ with American breakfast..
Tapae Place Hotel. Tel: [66-53] 270-159, fax: 271-982, (e-mail: Double, air-conditioned rooms from Bt590

One Night in Hong Kong

One Night in Hong Kong

December 13, 2007, Time Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Europe in the East

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 cities. Fast paced industrial developments and pretty old buildings here rarely make good bedfellows.

My exploration started with Senado Square, or San Ma Lo, a favourite of architecture buffs. As the hub of Macau’s old town, this is where you’ll find an exhibition of its new UNESCO heritage status, housed in a fittingly neo-classical canary-yellow building. Any first glimpse of the square is impressive, no matter the angle. Approaching it by cab from the Avenida Almeida Ribeiro you’ll find gaudy casinos replaced with typical Chinese residential blocks, which in turn give way to grand old city structures. A wide pasture of black and white cobbles appears, and opens out, framed by candy-coloured buildings and garnished with a fountain. The exhibition in the yellow ‘Turismo’ centre will tell you that Macau contains 22 listed buildings and eight historical plazas. It feels like most of them are squeezed in here.

I dodged my way among photo takers and Saturday afternoon shoppers with food in mind. Most small, traditional restaurants have been chased off by chains and brand  names, but treats are still to be found.  Freshly baked pastei de nata, Portuguese egg tarts, from tiny Café Ou Mun (tel: 2837-2207) make the perfect mid-morning snack. Despite the dominance of Sasa and other chain stores here the architecture has been well adapted; just raising your gaze slightly can take you back decades. McDonalds peers out from lemon-bright arches, Häagen-Dazs sports an ornate balcony.

Religion has a visible place in Macau. Sao Domingo rules the roost at the top of the square; sunny yellow and sedate among the shops. A tourist pamphlet puts the number of Macanese catholics at around 30,000 and on my last visit I managed to catch its once-weekly Portuguese evening service, lilting and mournful. A few hours spent wandering the side streets here will turn up Baroque gems and quiet corners, from the Chapel of St Joseph’s Seminary to the Dom Pedro V, the oldest European theatre in China, and still a popular spot for Chamber Music. You’ll find many of these old timers in paintings by 18th Century artist George Chinnery, whose tomb still draws people to the peninsula’s old Protestant cemetery.

For the peckish, a canteen-version of Portuguese tucker can be had in Restaurante Vela Latina (tel: 2835 6888) at the front of Senado Square. For dining of a more authentic nature try the proud and very pink Club Militar de Macau (975 Avenida Praia Grande, tel: 2871-4000). Though it is now a private members club, the refined ground-floor restaurant is open to the public, and does a mean Roasted Octopus, ‘Lagareiro’-style as well as Portuguese dim-sum. Its shady terraced gardens are perfect for a post-lunch stroll.

My own lunch that day was with Bernard Peres, an affable entrepreneur and father of three who whisked me over the flat brown bay to Taipa, and his restaurant of choice. Taipa is one of the two large islands that make up Macau. Over Caldo Verde – a thick cabbage and chorizo soup – and creamy wild mushrooms at a neat corner spot (Estalagem, 410 Albano de Oliveira, tel: 2883 1041) Peres told me a little about the expatriate lifestyle in Macau. Though French himself, he raised his family in Portugal before moving them to Asia eleven years ago.  “There’s definitely more of a European flavour here,  compared for example, to Hong Kong,” he said. “We chose here because it felt more like home.” Despite the 1999 handover and accommodating fewer than 1,000 Portuguese residents now, Macau still keeps three newspapers, a radio station and a television channel in its old colonial language. The legal system remains closer to that of Portugal than China.

Bernard left me to take in the sights of the old Taipa village, where I found more leafy squares and family-run tavernas, among Chinese souvenir stalls and small crouched houses. The island is set for huge amounts of development, but Bernard had been supportive. “Normally they do a good job,” he said. “It’s the only place in China I think that really does take care of its old landscapes.” He spoke of a huge project underway along an old section of the peninsula waterfront. Dubbed Ponte 16, it will see one of the area’s oldest colonial districts completely revitalised, extending the Senado Square-style experience for visitors. Judging by the tourists inundating Taipa village that afternoon, the plans will be popular.

With the day starting to cool I took a cab back across the bridge, admiring Penha Peninsular – my favourite stretch of Macau shoreline – from afar. To the right casino fortresses gleam. To the left  man-made lakes and woolly greenery bring Bavaria to mind, or perhaps some coastal holiday town in Russia:  clusters of once-grand homes and a solitary church steeple. Only the space-age Macau Tower projects rudely into the foreground. Explorations along here are worthwhile, whether for the faded glamour of Pousada de Sao Tiago, an old glamorous hotel, or the views from Penha Chapel.

I’d returned to the mainland to see St Paul’s Cathedral, Macau’s biggest architectural star. The cathedral had once been part of a Jesuit college which burned to the ground in the mid-1800s, and only the reinforced façade remains, part ghostly, part grand. Crowds mill around on its staircase and guides shout histories in a din of languages. Heading into the adjacent Mount Fortress – one of Macau’s green lungs – I skipped its battlement views for a poke around the Museum of Macau, just below. Cool and dim with a subterranean feel, the museum covers the city from many angles. A mock-ups of an old Macanese kitchen lays out bi-cultural cooking implements; four hundred year-old trade routes stretch across maps, from when everything from tea to porcelain passed through this small port.

My evening and the next morning had been reserved for Macau’s second and farthest island, Coloane;  possibly my favourite part of the region. As yet it is still the least developed, its old village sleepy to the point of comatose. There is an old war monument, a church and a temple, a waterfront boulevard – and that’s about it. The equally drowsy Pousada de Coloane (tel: 2888 2143) was to provide my bed for the night: a grand old family-run affair along a beach, with a faint whiff of neglect that only adds to its character.  While the rest of Macau speeds into the next century, this Pousada remains obstinately and reassuringly the same.

Dinner swung around, as did a warm, steamy thunderstorm, observed from a balcony with a jug of strong Sangria. The balcony belonged to the celebrated Restaurante Espaco Lisboa (tel: 2888 2226); a modest little spot run mostly by one Antonio Neves Coelho. An effusive man at the helm of an excellent kitchen, Coelho too thought that Macau was heading down the right track. “The Chinese in Macau are different,” he said. “They like to preserve the past and their ties with Portugal”. Even now it very easy to get a working visa if you are Portuguese. Coelho put this down to the old colonial relationship – one warmer than the Sino-British bond in Hong Kong – but later acknowledged too that the old trading post is still a useful gateway for Portuguese-speaking countries into China, and vice versa. Just that afternoon he’d had the finance minister of Mozambique in for lunch.

My farewell to Macau the next day was well fortified by another excellent meal at Fernando’s;  a Portuguese restaurant almost deified by Hong Kong expats. The staff teeter on rude and it can take an hour to win a table, but its popularity is safeguarded by the old sprawling farmhouse-feel and a home cooked menu that hasn’t changed for years. This restaurant too is unassuming, and fades quietly into the strip of sea-side stalls and eateries. And right there is perhaps the key to Macau’s make-up. With casinos that flash and blare and shoot flames into the sky, the old corners of the city do get sidelined. But they don’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact rather than dwindling, if anything, their charms are set to become even more accessible to visitors, under the ever- nurturing gaze of the motherland. If only every Chinese town were so lucky.

Where to dine:

Portuguese: Club Militar de Macau,
975 Avenida da Praia Grande, Macau,
tel +853 2871 4000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2871 4000      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Estalagem, 410 Albano de Oliveira,
Taipa, tel +853 2883 1041 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2883 1041      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
O Santos, Rua De Cunha No. 20, Taipa,
tel +853 2882 5594 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2882 5594      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Restaurante Espaco Lisboa, Rue das
Gaivotas No. 8, Coloane, tel +853
2888 2226.

Restaurante Fernando, Praia de Hac Sa
No 9, Coloane, tel +853 2888 2264 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2888 2264      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Café Ou Mun, Senado Square. Macau,
tel +853 2837 2207 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2837 2207      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Restaurante Vela Latina, Senando
Square, tel +853 2835 6888 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              +853 2835 6888      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

Happy Families

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 relaxation: cycling, cooking classes with local ingredients and impromptu arts-and-crafts sessions on the lawn. “A lot of families come here for the relaxed style and open space,” says Siwanarak. Handily enough, the valley below is known for its gamut of child-friendly activities, from a monkey school to an orchid farm, go-karting track and, a little further north, the famous Elephant Nature Park sanctuary. For more details see