Sunday, October 28, 2007

Criminally good.

Anybody who has stepped into an Asia Books branch or spent any time in
a Bangkok Airport bookstore will know that books about the seedy
underside of Bangkok are not in short supply.

Second-rate crime thrillers fill the shelves, released by publishing
houses of dubious provenance, invariably featuring as characters a
series of alcohol-soaked long-term Bangkok residents and their bar-
girl companions.

When I saw it on the shelves, it was tempting to dismiss John
Burdett's 'Bangkok 8' as just another in the genre. And even when it
was lent to me by an individual whose taste in books I would usually
have every faith in, I still felt no desire to open its pages.

One quiet Sunday afternoon, with nothing very much else to do until an
evening appointment, I picked it up and started to read. Eight hours
later, in exactly the same position on the sofa, my rendezvous
cancelled and my head spinning with previously unknown images of
Bangkok as well as mind-bending glimpses of incomprehensible Buddhist/
animist concepts, I put the completed book down.

This is much more than a detective novel. It is an insight into the
Thai mind which would not be available to a person even if he lived
here for decades.

The book will have you wondering how on earth John Burdett was able to
gain such an understanding and, indeed, if he is not actually a Thai
writing under an English nom de plume.

I read an excellent interview with him last week in the International
Herald Tribune and all was revealed: he is a former lawyer, a son of a
London policeman and a part-time resident of Thailand with a Thai
girlfriend. His partner must be very generous with her education of
Thai ways for him to have gained such understanding.

The article revealed that his books are destined to be made into films
very soon: I will be the first in the line at the box office on
opening day.

Full/delicious.

Just near my place is one of Bangkok's best-kept food secrets.

In the front yard of their house, three Thai women serve up superb
Thai food in a nice garden setting at prices which would be simply
impossible to comprehend anywhere else in the world. I often go over
there for lunch - a single plate meal is 35 baht; or, for dinner, you
can have green chicken curry, and garlic pork, and Thai omelette, and
tom yam goong, for a grand total of less than 200 baht. It's also a
pleasant place to sit with a few beers in the evening, with the rest
of the farangs from the area who have stumbled upon this little gem.

Im Aroi, Yen Akat Soi 1.

Flexible terms.


I don't think men should go to the gym.

This is not an argument for staying home in front of the TV sucking on beers. (As attractive a concept as that is.) It's just that when you look around at other men at the gym (not something I make a habit of doing, I assure you), the kinds of bodies on display are less than impressive.

Big arms and curved backs. V-shaped torsos which appear incapable of lateral movement. Huge tops and tiny legs. Big proportions, but not much in the way of definition. Everybody has a sort of stiff cartoonish quality.

At the yoga studio, it's a different story. More muscles are on display in the studio in one session than in a month of gym visits. Defined arms, flat stomachs and sixpacks, wiry legs: but all on bodies that can move, that look fluid, that seem to be at ease with themselves.

Men don't need any more help in being blocky and big. That is something that happens naturally. What they should be doing is fighting the natural male body's tendency to become more and more inflexible over time. (And building some real muscles in the process.) That's a job for yoga, not the gym.

Reality check.

I can’t help but notice a disturbing trend when it comes to new restaurants opening in Bangkok lately.

It doesn’t seem to be enough to offer good food in pleasant surroundings. Instead, almost every new place these days has to have some sort of theme. Recently opened offerings include a Wild West theme; an Imperial China theme; a Mexican theme; and of course an Irish theme.

These places are worthy, and I have nothing against people trying to differentiate their business offerings. And I’m the first to accept that every place needs to fit into some sort of category. However, most of them, it could be argued, push their themes a little too much. Mexican sombreros on the walls and cowboy hats on the waitresses. Jangly ‘arriba arriba’ guitar music on permanent rotation. Ming Dynasty uniforms and wintry tree branches dividing the tables. A green-clad would-be Paddy O’Murphy in the corner singing Republican folk songs. Meanwhile, the real connection to the theme is dubious at best; no Mexicans to be seen in the Mexican restaurant’s kitchen; no portly Irishmen pulling pints in the Irish place. Instead, shifty-looking ‘investors’ hang around, trying to look casual while counting heads. It all feels a bit plasticky, a bit Disneyland.

Lest we forget, there are some places in Bangkok that are the real thing. German restaurants where the ‘concept’ is actually about serving authentic German food. Vietnamese places where the waitresses don’t wear conical hats, but where you can get proper Vietnamese food, cooked by someone who actually does possess a Vietnamese passport.

Here, then, is a list of twelve places in Bangkok that are the real thing: places where they do things properly. (It should have been ten, but I didn’t want to leave anything out.)

The Great American Rib Company, Sukhmumvit Soi 36. The ovens are from America. The meat is from America. Even the owners are from America. The frozen margaritas are heavenly, the ribs are superb, and I would request the pulled pork sandwiches as my last meal if ever I was to be executed.

Vivi Coffee. Down a little lane, overlooking the river near Tha Tien, Bangkok’s best cappuccinos are being served. In big cups, froth piled high with slightly burnt edges, just like they serve it in Roma. The view of Wat Arun and the elegant Royal Thai Navy headquarters across the river is nice too.

Limoncello, Sukhumvit Soi 11. There are a few decent pizza places in Bangkok – but this one scores highest on the reality meter because of the constant presence of the Italian chef overseeing proceedings. Granted, he’s often drunk, but as far as I know, there’s nothing in the Pizza Rulebook that demands permanent sobriety.

Korean place, Ratchada Soi 14. In this most unexpected of places, about 150 metres down a narrow soi full of low-rent apartment blocks, is this Korean restaurant whose name I never quite got around to remembering. Run by a formidable-looking Korean woman who obviously maintains impeccable standards by striking the fear of God into her staff, you can be assured that this is the authentic experience. On the right, across from Family Mart.

Le Bouchon, Patpong. Judging by how long this place has been around, my theory is that the French owner stuck it out in post-colonial Vietnam for a few years, then escaped when he decided things were getting too hot as a result of Mr Ho Chi Minh’s shenanigans. A little slice of Lyon in the heart of I-Love-You-Long-Time territory.

Uomasa, Thonglor Soi 13. Japanese, as authentic as they come. The live lobster heads served with the sashimi – decapitated so recently that the pincers are still rattling – are, if anything, a little too authentic for my tastes: but others might not be so squeamish.

Jools, Soi Nana. Past Nana Plaza, this sleaze-free horseshoe bar has been pulling in regulars for decades. The sign promises the best British food in Bangkok, and after nearly eating myself to death with the jumbo-sized Toad In The Hole, I’m in no position to argue.

Bei Otto. The best German food in Bangkok, no questions asked, cooked by Otto himself: and the only place serving this range of authentic German beers. Sukhumvit Soi 20.

Nefertiti. In truth, almost every Middle Eastern restaurant in Soi Arab is authentic. This one scores a mention because of its great outdoor area, its range of shisha flavours, and the Egyptian MTV blaring out of the huge TV set. Sukhumvit Soi 3/1.

On the subject of Middle Eastern food, but rating a separate mention because it’s not in Soi Arab, Beirut is the real thing when it comes to Lebanese food; both of the Arabic and more Western varieties. Silom and Mahatun Plaza.

The history of the Vietnamese woman running Xuan Mai is too interesting to even begin to relate with the limited space I have. Go there and listen to her story yourself: and enjoy what is without doubt the best Vietnamese food in the Thai capital by a country mile. The difference between this place and others in Bangkok is so great that you’ll never be able to eat Vietnamese food anywhere else again. Sukhumvit Soi 13.

Tapas Bar in Sukhumvit Soi 11 is a great example of a place that does what it is supposed to do, without descending into ‘theme’ territory. No bullfighting posters on the walls, no waiters in matador outfits: just a modern space serving great tapas.

Finally, Enoteca: a quirky little outfit run by three Italian chaps, this place scores 100% in the reality stakes. Great wine selection, and the best antipasti in the city. Sukhumvit Soi 29.

Harbouring desires.

Something strange has happened to Hong Kong.

As someone who lived there when it was still a British territory, the change is unsettling, confusing, and even downright incomprehensible. Former residents should be forgiven if they struggle to come to terms with the change, however, because it is something that nobody would ever have imagined in a million years:

Hong Kong has become friendly.

Taxi drivers greet you with a cheery ‘good morning’ when you get into their cabs. 7-Eleven cashiers announce the total cost of your purchases in English. Café waiters rush to see that your table is clean and that your glass is full. MTR ticket staff wish you a pleasant day and patiently suggest options for your stored value public transport card needs. Hotel receptionists charm you with witty remarks.

And most shockingly of all, wonton min sellers flash you a wide smile, giving a cute wave and calling out a breezy ‘see you again soon’ as you walk satisfied out of their door.

I spent three days in Hong Kong this week. And must have done more than a dozen double takes during the visit, as I was assaulted by unexpected friendliness. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Hongkongers’ new-found cheeriness makes the Thais look slightly surly in comparison.

What was always good about Hong Kong was its open door policy. During the British era, immigration policy was always, ahem, hands-off to say the least. (Indifferent would probably be too derisive a word for something with so positive an outcome.) The result was an ethnically diverse place, where you really felt that you were in a true city of the world; a free port, where anyone could come and set up shop. New Zealanders would work behind bars; South Africans would serve you in beachside restaurants; fat Yorkshire lasses would take your order in fish and chip shops; Pakistanis would set up small eateries in apartment buildings serving shockingly good food.

I always suspected that when China took over, things would change – not because of any difference in immigration policy, but simply because what rules there were would probably be more strongly enforced. I imagined that all the not-quite-legal residents would have to pack up and return to the abodes from whence they came, and I thought that could only be a bad thing: it would make Hong Kong a more homogenous place, and would take away a large slice of what made the place so unique, which would benefit nobody.

I’m glad to report that my suspicions were unfounded. I was still asked whether I wanted Tsingtao or Carlsberg in an unmistakable Auckland accent; the young man who took my order on Lantau had the blond hair and definitive sun-kissed look of a Durban native; and the chicken tikka I enjoyed on my last night in Tsimshatsui was without a doubt cooked by a son of Lahore. Hong Kong, thankfully, is still a city whose doors are permanently open.

Strangely, for a place with a reputation as one of the most densely-populated, urbanised societies on earth, it’s still remarkably easy to get some fresh air in Hong Kong.

Living in Bangkok, where despite Thailand’s reputation as a tropical paradise it takes at least two or three hours’ drive to get to the nearest decent beach, I’m envious of my Hong Kong friends.

Even the ones living in ultra-urban Causeway Bay or Sheung Wan can hop on their mountain bikes, do a 20-minute ride over the hill through gorgeous green national parks, and be swimming in the sea for an hour before heading back for breakfast and work.

And on weekends, a quick escape to the outlying islands or the new territories sees them basking on gorgeous beaches, ringed by spectacular mountains with not a soul to disturb them.

(Of course, if they want the tropical paradise that is Thailand, a direct flight from Chek Lap Kok to Samui takes about the same length of time as a drive from Bangkok to Ban Phe.)

It may be my imagination, but as well as the new friendly attitude, another change seems to have come over the place.

It’s clean.

Sidewalks are neat, spacious and freshly scrubbed. Grass verges are green and lovingly manicured. Beachfront areas at Stanley and Repulse Bay have been extended and beautified, to provide more public space. Parking is orderly and traffic flows freely. Public transport is ridiculously efficient: and covers every nook and cranny of the territory, urban and otherwise.

I am no politician. And I am aware that there were teething problems during the transition from British to Chinese ownership.
But from what I can see, the change to Chinese rule has done the place the world of good.

Maybe, on these credentials, it would be worthwhile striking some sort of deal whereby the Chinese could run other British territories too. Perhaps they could start with Scotland and see how that works out.

Blowing hot and cold.

I have an illness.

Doctors have been unable to treat it – or even identify it – but I have come up with my own scientific name for it.
It’s called ‘Iwanttolivehereitis.’

The symptoms are thus: wherever I go on holiday or for work, almost without exception, I find myself making plans to relocate there, to set up home there, to make a living and have a life there. In the relatively recent past, Vientiane, Sydney, Shanghai, Zurich, Hanoi and Dubai have caused my condition to flare up to a dangerous degree.

Over the past few months, however, I thought I had my illness beat. Trips to the UK and Kuala Lumpur had passed without my making plans of any sort, and I had returned to Bangkok quite content to stay there.

I should have known better. On the six-day working trip to Finland from which I have just returned, I suffered a major relapse, and my condition returned with a vengeance.

The trip was organised by Finnair and the Finnish Tourist Board to highlight the delights of northern Finland, in the area near the arctic circle abutting the Russian border. Their intention, of course, was to show the region as an attractive destination for tourism. By the time I boarded the Finnair flight back home, however, I had found real estate agents, discovered detailed information on property prices, and located the exact lakeshore I wanted to buy land on.

The area – centred around the small town of Kuusamo - is a land of thousands of lakes. Every house, whether owned by the founder of a successful international design brand like Anu Pentik or simply by a bus driver or tourist guide, seems to face a body of water of some sort. The land I am looking at faces a lake of 45 square kilometres, which I would share with a mere seventeen other households.

Every house also possesses a sauna. On their days off, Finns can apparently spend all day alternating between sitting around in hundred-degree heat and jumping into the icy lake adjoining their property. I and my travelling companions were able to spend hours doing the same. I never thought four-degree-celsius water would be so attractive: but after twenty minutes of sweating in darkened, pine-scented surroundings, an enthusiastic head-first plunge into an icy lake seems like the only sensible option. A minute splashing around in almost-freezing water cools and refreshes the body amazingly, and leaves it ready for another twenty minutes of overwhelming heat. This practice is addictive: the cycle of hot sauna and icy lake is repeated ad infinitum, and we quite literally had to be dragged away to dinner after our sixth round. The feeling of mental and physical rejuvenation is something I have never experienced to such a degree in all my life. (The thirst-quenching qualities of pear cider, downed while in the sauna, probably contributed to the overwhelmingly positive feeling: but I am absolutely sure it could not all be attributed to the beverage alone.)

I was there in the autumn, when the days and nights are of an approximately equal length, so the place had a distinctly normal feel about it. But what had me working out financial details to see how many hectares my budget could stretch to were the stories of the summers and the winters. Summers are two to three months of almost constant sunshine: days of tanned skin, sun-bleached hair, canoeing down rivers and across lakes, and all-day barbecues washed down with generous amounts of apple and pear cider.

Winter sounds even better. Contrary to ideas about total darkness and miserably short hours of sunlight, the stories I heard were of magical dark blue star-filled skies, bright moons illuminating clear snowy white landscapes, roaring log fires both indoors and out, marathon snowmobile rides through the forest and ice-skating on frozen lakes by moon and starlight. Not to mention, of course, more scorching saunas, with the obligatory dip in the water made possible by cutting holes in the metre-thick ice covering every lake and river.

Nature is at is most beautiful in this part of the world. But naturally, this being Scandinavia, the human contribution is exceptional too. Everything from architecture to transport, to food, to supermarkets, to dark chocolate, to milk carton design, is of the highest standard; and left our travelling group astonished that a nation of only five million people (less than half the population of Bangkok) could produce and maintain so many beautiful things.

The fact that Helsinki is a mere nine hours from Bangkok – a fact that had me scrutinising the world map in open-mouthed disbelief - only adds to the appeal. I can think of no other nine hour journey that transports you between two more utterly different worlds. You could be sipping Tom Yam Goong while overlooking the Chao Phraya River in the evening and waking up to a snowy white landscape the very next morning.

Not for me an escape to warmer climes for winter. The Brits and the Germans can have their Spanish holiday resorts with their temperate and sunny winters. If the land purchase goes to plan and after I have worked out details with a suitable architect, from now on I’ll be heading north for winter.

Capital offences.

When it comes to driving in Thailand, there is Bangkok, and there is the rest.

Driving in Bangkok is defined by interminable waits at unchanging traffic lights, clownish police traffic controls seemingly designed to stop any kind of traffic flow at all, air quality that Lucifer himself would complain about, potholes that would not be out of place in central Africa, constant battles for road space with tuk-tuks, motorbikes and menacing green buses, and road manners so far from the polite Thai norm that you wonder if all the people driving are from this country at all.

Outside of Bangkok, driving in Thailand is all about winding country lanes, perfect-quality roads that would not shame an Australian or French highway department, gorgeous dual carriageways running alongside beautiful mountains, twisty forest roads with dappled sunlight, and spectacular mountain passes over windy ridges.

Pick any point on the compass from Bangkok, point your car in that direction, and you’re guaranteed an enjoyable driving experience once you escape the megalopolitan boundaries.

South, there’s the drive to Phuket: taking in Hua Hin, Prachuap and the pine-lined coastal road along the east side of the peninsula. The highway to Chumpon is excellent, but the small roads linking the coastal villages are more charming, with hardly another car to be seen for hours and hours of meandering.

The drive from one side of the peninsula to the other can be made via one of two routes; the northern road crosses from Chumpon to Rayong, skirts the Burmese border, and passes through lovely rolling hills and verdant fields. At the coast, the road turns south, twisting and turning with tantalising glimpses of the ocean all the way via Khao Lak to Phuket itself.

The more southern route, which is good for the journey back north, passes through Phang Nga province. The karst islands that make the bay of Phang Nga so famous can be seen here too; this time, however, not rising out of sea, but out of land. Cruising past these spectacular rock formations and seeing them up close from the car window makes for an excellent drive. East from there, the road passes for around 30 kilometres through a strange lost valley that could easily pass for the Garden of Eden.

North from Bangkok is made for driving holidays. Following the Chao Phraya via the small riverside roads; exploring the national parks west of Nakhon Sawan, with their high peaks and icy nighttime temperatures; turning west at Tak, following the mountainous Mae Hong Son loop along the Burmese border via sleepy Mae Sariang and bohemian Pai to end up in Chiang Mai the long way round; visiting the historical sites of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya; pushing north from Chiang Mai to the high altitude areas abutting Laos… the automotive options in this most gorgeous area of Thailand are endless.

Hotels are well-spaced, and you’ll always come across a tasteful lodge overlooking a river at the end of the day where you can sit in the cool night air while eating Thai food and drinking Heineken. It’s perfect motoring country and a driving trip here could take anything from a weekend to a couple of months, depending on how much you want to see and how slow you want to go.

West from the capital, the lush riverine country of Kanchanaburi offers massive reservoirs, wide slow-flowing rivers, untouched forests and some poignant historical reminders of what went on here from 1942 to 1945. Accommodation in the area varies from serene spiritual growth forest lodges to raft hotels floating on the river where you can sleep with nothing but the sound of the water flowing beneath you.

East from Bangkok lie roads to Pattaya, Koh Samet, Koh Chang and other islands near the Cambodian border; the beautiful country of the Khao Yai national park and wine-growing region; and the roads criss-crossing the fascinating hundred-mile-long canals of Pathum Thani, cut hundreds of years ago for transportation and irrigation.

And northeast is the legendary Isaan province, which could fill up a column of its own: perfectly designed for a driving holiday, with ancient Khmer temples on a par with Angkor Wat, tiny welcoming villages, interesting railway towns, quirky settlements populated with Swiss, Brits and Germans who have opted out of European life to marry into Isaan families, wild folk festivals and quirky customs, and the Mekong River always present, snaking along the border to create the Isaan Riviera, with luxurious hotels and restaurants at unheard-of low prices.

Personally, I’ve all but given up driving in Bangkok; and rarely even take taxis unless absolutely necessary. I’m much happier bypassing four-wheeled transport altogether: standing on the BTS, or perched on the back of a motorbike, or leaning out of the side of a riverboat. Anything where I don’t have to be involved in the control of the vehicle, where I can tune out, where the gridlock can’t affect me, where I can slither nonchalantly through, above, or around the permanent coronary-inducing standstill.

But most weekends, and any days off I can manufacture, I will be found behind the wheel: nosing down canalside dirt tracks, drifting along shadowy forest roads, seeking out obscure hot springs with a map and a GPS, cruising along reservoir shores on open highways towards obscure country resorts.

Thailand is made for driving. Just don’t tell the Bangkok Road Authority: the longer they remain uninvolved in the running of the rest of the country’s roads, the better.

Northern lights.

Despite recently visiting Luang Prabang in low season (in truth, a spur-of-the-moment decision to take advantage of some amazing hotel rate discounts), the charm of the town was absolutely clear within minutes of my arrival. Within hours of arrival the watch had disappeared from the wrist, the shirt had been further unbuttoned, and it seemed a sufficiently productive use of an afternoon to simply sit on the hotel terrace, watching the golden late tropical summer light illuminating the palm trees framed by the blue hills in the distance.

I could simply give you a list of good things about Luang Prabang, and that would be sufficient. But even without a list, you’d find them anyway. It’s a wonderfully small town, squeezed onto a small triangular peninsula between two wide rivers. Beyond the rivers, across the water from this mixture of French colonial streets and flamboyant Buddhist temples, is nothing but jungle, adding a mysterious ‘end of the road’ outpost feeling to the town which is irresistible.

You could spend days hiring bicycles for a dollar a day, cycling slowly up and down every street, every back lane, making discoveries of restaurants, cafés, paper making shops, gorgeous textile markets, resting for lunch, taking cover from the afternoon sun back at the hotel or in one of the spas that dot the town, and re-emerging at about five o’clock to enjoy the evening light.

And the longer you stay there, the better it gets. The more mesmerised you become, the slower you cycle, the longer you linger over your morning coffee. And you quickly begin to understand why Laos was by far the favourite posting of French colonial administrators.

Everywhere in Luang Prabang is a highlight. And no matter what time of year it is, it is bound to be a magical experience. But I learned from the hotel staff that the town’s charms multiply in winter. Even when I was there, there was a beautiful almost-crisp feeling in the cloudless mornings; and any time after four in the afternoon was just a couple of degrees cooler than the usual tropical temperature, which made the place feel as if it was a lot further from the rest of steamy Asia than it really is.

However, from this time of year onwards, the weather just gets better and better. Mornings get cooler, the sun gets more golden, the nights take on a deliciously fresh feel, the smells of the winter blossom get stronger in the air. Even writing these words makes me want to get on a plane and fly north immediately.

Three things to do in Luang Prabang:

1. Stay at Maison Souvannaphoum – a simply lovely art deco building built for a Laotian prince, converted into a superb hotel by Singapore’s Banyan Tree group. The restoration of the building is not just tasteful – almost everybody can do tasteful these days, especially when the building is so perfect in the first place. It’s also interesting, and stylish. Bright orange swimming pool walls and quirky red lightbulbs hanging in cages in the lush garden may not sound as if they go perfectly with late French colonial architecture, but be assured that they do. Coupled with the charming staff who have you falling in love with them every time they make a restaurant recommendation, this is without doubt one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in, anywhere.

2. Eat at Café Ban Wat Sene. Upon my many bike rides, I found myself returning over and over again to this little place. Incredibly stylish, yet refreshingly devoid of any signs of slickness or polish, Café Ban Wat Sene could franchise itself out a hundred times or more throughout cookie-cutter Asian cities and the owner would be a millionaire within months. Shady and cool during the day, moodily lit and bohemian at night, with food that will have you wondering how they get such deliciously fresh French ingredients all the way here, I could have eaten and drank here three times a day for weeks and been quite satisfied.

3. Have breakfast at Joma Café. I know for a fact that thousands upon thousands of people around Asia are constantly bemoaning a lack of authentically good places to sit on a Saturday morning with a newspaper, a great coffee, and feel a sort of Sydney-style breakfast vibe. Some places come close to it but involve a slight suspension of disbelief on the part of café-goers – sometimes you have to convince yourself that you’re enjoying the real thing when deep down, you patently know that you’re not. Residents of Luang Prabang have no such problems. This place is built for Saturday mornings. An interesting clientele, the right look, superb coffee, and what is without doubt the best start to an eating day I have ever had in my life: the Bagel Egger. For some bizarre reason, Café Joma is closed Sundays, but I have been bombarding the owners with cajoling, threatening and pleading emails in equal measure to try to persuade them to rectify the situation. Joma is another place that if expanded throughout Asia would wipe the floor with the ubiquitous Starbucks and its frankly disgraceful breakfast offerings.

Luang Prabang is a place I intend to return to as regularly as time allows.

Re: public space.

I am writing this on the 20:40 Air Asia flight from Singapore to Bangkok, having flown in the opposite direction fourteen hours earlier.

A day in Singapore to perform some essential tasks gave me an excellent opportunity to look at the island republic with fresh eyes, not having visited the city for almost eight months.

There’s something very pleasant about Singapore. My business finished at about 3pm, leaving me about four hours before having to start on the journey to the airport. I didn’t do anything particularly spectacular, but what I did do was very pleasant indeed.

Some observations, totally unrelated to each other and in no particular order; as well as some comparisons with Bangkok:

A mocha ice blended at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outside Borders in Orchard Road with a couple of old friends was something I don’t get the chance to do every day in Bangkok: first of all because Coffee Bean hasn’t yet opened in Thailand, but also because pleasant al fresco spaces for coffee are pretty hard to come by in the Thai capital.
There seems to be more public space in Singapore. Astonishingly vast amounts of underground space have become subterranean piazzas: Citylink Mall stretching from Raffles City to Suntec, and from there to the Esplanade, reminds me of the soldier in HG Wells’ War of the Worlds and his plan to build an entire city underground. Although much less sinister, obviously.

Green abounds. The journey from the airport to the city literally feels like a ride through a tropical forest; even though, having lived in the place for enough years, I know that behind the trees lie army bases and condominiums. Even Tanah Merah, the interchange station on the railway to Changi Airport from the city, offers an overwhelming view of green from the platform. To enjoy anything similar in Thailand, you’d have to go a very long way out of Bangkok indeed.

Everything is incredibly seamless. The taxi queue in the airport is in air-conditioned comfort, and a steward directs you to the correct cab. I estimate the average time per taxi departure to be about four to five seconds, as opposed to Bangkok’s criminally slow taxi queue where not more than one group of sweltering, carbon-monoxide poisoned travellers makes it into a cab every minute.

The MRT is quite incredible; entire underground districts snake out from each city centre station. The train journey to the airport must be the cheapest of any city in the world. And once you do get to the airport, yet another spotless train whisks you to the right terminal. Everything is just so… integrated, unlike Bangkok where even nearby underground and BTS stations don’t link up, Silom MRT and Sala Daeng BTS being one quite ridiculous example.

The people are friendly. Every shop you go into, you’ll get a smile and an acknowledgement.

And it’s a joy to be able to go into an ordinary Marks & Spencer, ask if they have any rosé wine, and get an intelligent response as well as some other recommendations for hot weather drinking.

The bookstores are good. Particularly Borders and Kinokuniya. The music stores are vastly superior to anything in Thailand. I finally managed to pick up the Code 46 soundtrack, which I copied onto my I-tunes in the airport and which I am listening to as I write this. And there are some quirky DVDs to be bought, which show evidence that someone somewhere is making a genuine effort to provide an interesting variety of viewing; and that there is a populace discerning enough to make their efforts worthwhile.

The English language isn’t just a façade for the benefit of tourists and businesspeople; you hear Singaporeans everywhere speaking English to each other. Disorienting.

The air is fresh. You could run for miles and never have to endure anything unpleasant. Most roads are lined with trees, sidewalks are wide and even, and traffic seems to be quieter, as if cars sold in Singapore are fitted with silencers more effective than those in other countries. Certainly a contrast to Bangkok’s tuk tuks, roaring trucks and taxis with exhausts hanging off.

People sit outside at lunch. Not hunched over noodles at makeshift stalls set up along the sides of roads, but in properly designed outdoor spaces, overlooking lawns and fountains, eating goat’s cheese salad.

And yes, the airport. I could spend hours in Changi, trying on watches, listening to live jazz, watching ESPN in comfy lounges, sipping coffee. It seems like another town: just one that happens to have aeroplanes leaving from it.

I’m aware that a lot of people have differing opinions on Singapore. But nobody can deny that the people there are a unique breed, and that they have certainly created something.

Singapore was probably the original prototype for the world city; where everything is in English and a population from around the globe lives and works in businesslike harmony. Shanghai and Dubai today certainly owe at least something to the original Singaporean vision of a modern day Venice, a fortified city state whose borders are open to all who come in peace.

For somebody who has convinced himself that he is happy in Bangkok, for all its chaos, noise and filth, it’s really all quite unsettling.

Due South.

On a recent week off, I felt the need to get on the road and add some serious mileage to the clock. So, eschewing a brief Bangkok Airways or AirAsia flight in favour of seeing a little more of the country of my residence, I decided to get behind the wheel of the trusty Fortuner for a 900 kilometre drive south.

Two days later, after a very comfortable journey broken in two parts by one-night sojourns in Ranong and Khao Lak, the Michelin tyres crossed the Thaksin bridge and made contact with the perfectly laid tarmac of Phuket province.

(An often overlooked part of Phuket’s appeal: semi-decent infrastructure. Think of a place somewhere between the cracked paving stones and dangling wires of Bangkok, and the decent roads, planted greenery and clean pathways of Singapore, and you’ve got an idea of the municipal geography of Phuket. It’s not perfectly laid out in the same way as Singapore is; but it’s considerably better than the rest of Thailand.)

Phuket’s irresistible charm lies in its geography. Long, sprawling white sand beaches. Tiny, secluded bays backed by towering peaks. Dramatic cliffs. Green mountaintops with views stretching forever. The winding roads of the west coast in particular are pathways to an astonishing variety of huge resorts, quirky little hotels, and charming guesthouses accessible only through coconut plantations. And the under-utilised east coast is home to dozens of tiny bays just made for whiling away shady afternoons as the sun passes behind the palm trees.



If I understood the receptionist of my hotel correctly, the Aspasia used to be a straightforward condominium apartment building, with each unit owned by private individuals.

I have no idea what kind of fool would ever sell an apartment in a place as gorgeous as this, but obviously there were a sufficient number of these imbeciles for the current owners to buy enough units to turn the place into a hotel.

Looking something like an Aztec temple clinging to the side of a hill overlooking Kata Beach, the Aspasia features a multi-storey swimming pool, huge rooms, superb bathrooms, balconies big enough to play tennis on, mesmerising views of the shimmering Andaman Sea framed by a modern-day equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and a sense of drama lacking from all but the most exceptional places of hospitality. There are a lot of very, very, very good hotels on Phuket. But I would find it very difficult not to stay at the Aspasia on any subsequent trips to the island.

Regarding food, there is no need for me to make any recommendations for dining, and including only a few would be unfair to the many great places that I wasn’t able to make it to. Suffice it to say that there are a number of excellent free publications available in most hotels detailing the wealth of eating and drinking options on the resort island.

Finally, it is my pleasure to announce that I have found the block of land on which my dream house will be built: away from the beach, at the end of a dirt track on the side of a mountain, with utterly spectacular views over perhaps ten or fifteen miles of winding coastline. (I would never have found it if I had not had the four-wheel-drive. And naturally, you’ll understand if I don’t divulge the exact location in the interests of keeping the area as long as possible in the same pristine state as it is today.)

If you go to Phuket, which you should, don’t automatically book your plane tickets. The drive is part of the fun, the roads are excellent and 900 kilometres isn’t as far as it sounds. I left Phuket early on the last day, enjoyed the gorgeous scenery of Phang-Nga Bay on the route across to Surat Thani, stopped for lunch about halfway, and felt sufficiently energised to make it back to Bangkok just before nightfall after a brief stop in Hua Hin for amaretto ice cream.

Tabla of contents.

As I write this, I am listening to some of the music I bought from Pakistan. The artist is Abida Parveen, and the genre is Sufi folk music. I am no expert on traditional Pakistani music or its meaning, but I am told that the lyrics are adapted from ancient Sufi spiritual verses.

Naturally, I do not understand the words, but there is no doubt that the sentiments expressed are positive, and it feels like my apartment is being filled with a strong dose of calming energy.

The music is beautifully simple, usually with only Abida’s gorgeous voice, an unhurried tabla as percussion, almost imperceptible backing strings, and occasional melodies from a wooden wind instrument whose name is unknown to me. Lovely, and perfect for a relaxed Sunday night at home.

Economy, class.

Another good thing about Bangkok I discovered as a result of buying the Fortuner: it’s a very good place to live on very little money.

Usually in Thailand, a car requires a 20% downpayment. However, for a foreigner who does not want the bother of being indebted to a Thai guarantor, that figure rises to 40%. This was not a particular problem – until the car was delivered a month ahead of schedule, one pay day too early.

Unable to bear the thought of the car standing unused in the showroom until the next infusion into my account, I cobbled the money together and drove it away as soon as it was delivered from the factory.

In the process, I left myself very little to live on until the next salary injection; and, by necessity, discovered a lifestyle just as enjoyable as the one where spending thousands of baht in one night out is a regular occurrence.

Eager to share the benefit of my experience, I present here my seven tips for living on less than you do now and enjoying things just as much.

Tip one: entertain at home. You can get a decent bottle of wine at the supermarket for less than 500 baht. A beer is only 25 baht. These prices are about a quarter of what you pay when you go out. Invite some friends over and sit around imbibing in the comfort of your own home. You can afford to be generous: playing the perfect host and paying for everything, you’ll still spend less than you would if you went out and split the bill. And your friends, being the honourable sorts that they no doubt are, will certainly reciprocate your hospitality at some time in the near future.

Tip two: cook for yourself. Thanks to Bangkok’s unfathomable economics, the ingredients for your meal will probably not cost less than you would pay for a single dish at a restaurant. But you will avoid the attendant expenses like chocolate cake, espressos, amaretto, parking fees and the couple of pirated CDs from the stall outside the restaurant that invariably accompany each meal.

You will probably end up eating more healthily, too. Over the couple of weeks of enforced economy, I perfected Bangkok’s best rocket salad, which has been directly responsible for at least a kilo of weight loss.

Tip three: lay off alcohol. During my enforced period of penury I went with two friends to a very pleasant al fresco Thai restaurant. Usually, this sort of excursion would automatically kick off with a couple of jugs of draught beer, followed by one or two more during the course of the meal. This time, we stuck to water, ate until we were fit to burst, and were shocked at the end of the night to discover that we had spent less than 300 baht per head. An attendant benefit: I was able to get up early on Saturday morning and enjoy a run through a city not yet solidified with traffic.

Tip four: eat at street stalls. Bangkok is full of stalls where people gather day and night for superb food freshly cooked in front of them. Quality is at least as high as more upmarket restaurants, and often higher, and the atmosphere is certainly much more vibrant; but individual dishes at these stalls come with price tags so low that I wonder how their proprietors make any sort of living at all.

Tip five: spend money on little things. If, like me, you’re not satisfied if you don’t spend something every time you step out of the front door, redirect your need for consumption towards smaller and longer lasting things. The weekend after taking delivery of the car, I bought some vanilla incense. Nothing very dramatic. But I scratched my itch to spend just as well as if I had spent ten times the amount; I was satisfied, and my apartment smelt delicious.

Tip six: make use of things you have already paid for. In my case, that meant the gym membership, the unlimited yoga package, and finally watching some of the dozens of DVDs I had bought over the past few months without taking them out of their plastic sleeves. I became slightly fitter, a bit more flexible, and suddenly knew what people were referring to when they quoted witty snips of dialogue from ‘Sideways’ and ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.’

Tip seven: sit at home and think. I started to spend more time with my layout pad, jotting down ideas for movies, Playstation games and regional franchiseable food stalls. Who knows? Spending one night a week at home thinking creatively might mean that as well as spending less, you’ll end up making much more.

The next payday came and went quickly, and I soon returned to my customary profligate ways.

But going out every night can be just as uninteresting as staying in all the time. So, ever since then, I have been making efforts to balance things out by regularly enjoying the more economical way of living, and enjoy both modes all the more for it.

To:

Obviously, as an owner of two Toyotas - one Fortuner and one MR2 - I'm biased. But there’s something very appealing about the Toyota brand.

It’s something to do with getting the basics right first, then worrying about being premium later. You get the impression that any luxuries attached to a Toyota car are solidly backed by a foundation of superb engineering and quite incredible reliability.

In this region: from Dubai to Sydney and pretty much everywhere in between: the Toyota brand is, in a strange way, more desirable than any German marque. I’m not going to try to explain it; I think it’s beyond me. Perhaps it’s about not trying too hard; perhaps it’s a focus on what matters; perhaps it’s the fact that the brand has grown organically out of the sheer quality of the automobiles, rather than any particular marketing programme; perhaps it’s the fact that wherever you go, from Africa to Arabia to Asia to South America, it’s always the Toyotas that are relied upon to do the work; perhaps it’s the fact that you get the feeling that ridiculous words like ‘upmarket’ and ‘exclusive’ are not bandied around the Toyota boardrooms, and that they aim to make quality cars available to as many people as possible.

Or perhaps it’s simply the fact that when you get behind the wheel of a Toyota, you’re not trying to make any kind of statement about yourself, your exquisite taste, your distinguished habits, or your income levels; you’re just driving somewhere.

I recently read an article about a French entrepreneur who has transformed a sleepy ski resort into France’s most glamorous destination. This is a man who practically owns an entire town – which is handy, because he needs somewhere to park his private helicopter. Yet he was pictured sitting on the bonnet of his 1960s Toyota Landcruiser. It was the coolest thing in the world. All essential, no frills; nothing that shouldn’t be there and everything that should.

Things are different now, of course, and my Toyota Fortuner is arguably more luxurious (in more of an 'essential luxury' way) than the BMWs several of my close friends drive. But you still get the feeling that it is a direct descendant of the 1960s Landcruiser, built along the same principles, with the company still running on the same philosophy. Everything works how it’s supposed to: the air conditioning is cold, and doesn’t struggle against Asian heat like European cars can. The engine feels as if it’s cruising, and doesn’t labour in traffic like European cars often do. The car feels light, not heavy and sluggish on takeoff; the interior is functional, with a complete absence of faux walnut; and the temperature gauge stays comfortably in the ‘cool’ end of the spectrum, certainly unlike many European cars.

Again, I can’t explain it. But all I really know is that between the BMWs and my Toyota, I know which I’d rather be driving in the UAE desert, Isaan plains, Cambodian jungle roads, or Bangkok traffic. Or, for that matter, French ski resorts.

Do. Buy.

When travelling, the occasional disappointment is something that has to be accepted. Things are rarely as good as the imagination makes them out to be; words in a travel brochure or tourist guide generally manage to do a better job of conjuring up a dream destination than its creators do in actually building it.

But sometimes the opposite happens: a place turns out to be much better than you imagined.

I was never one of those people labouring under the impression that Dubai was nothing more than desert and a bunch of camels. I had been through the fantastic airport, I had flown on the brilliant airline, I had read the stories about the world’s tallest hotel and seen the pictures of new islands being built in the shape of palm trees. So I was aware that there was something amazing going on there. But I was unprepared for just how exciting the place is.

Restaurants and bars of every description. Incredibly beautiful architecture. A disorienting level of hipness in the venues, the stores, the newspapers and magazines, and the people. Definitely the most glamorous collection of cars on the road that I have ever seen. And a feeling of incredible energy and ambition in the air which is nothing short of intoxicating.

I recall being disappointed by the Sydney Opera House when I first saw it. Nice as it is, it somehow looked a bit small and unspectacular compared to the photos.

When I drove towards the Burj al-Arab, the iconic sail-shaped hotel built on its own island off the coast and linked to the mainland by a curving white causeway, however, the opposite occurred. No photo I have seen, however expertly taken, does justice to this construction. Its elegant beauty, its simple lines on such a huge scale: I literally felt faint at the sight of this monumentally beautiful building. Riding up sixty storeys in the elevator with its view of the sea, the coast and the Palm island taking shape a kilometre south, I defy anyone not to feel a dizzying euphoria at the sheer immense beauty of the surroundings.

The Burj al-Arab is the most recognisable of Dubai’s spectacular mega-projects. But by no means the only one. Construction everywhere is on a massive scale. There seems to be no limit to the Emirate’s ambition or imagination.

Madinat Jumeirah, the beautiful hotel built as a traditional souk with canals transporting guests to their rooms, is, quite literally, the size of a town, stretching for miles and miles. Emirates Towers is taller than any building in Europe, and is about to be dwarfed by the Burj, the world’s tallest – and, for a change, perhaps the most elegant – building. Towards Jebel Ali, hundreds of 50-storey blocks are being built to the horizon, making for what has to be the world’s most spectacular construction site.

Cars on the roads go a long way to defining the atmosphere of a place. Most parts of Asia, with their ridiculous levels of import tax, only succeed in lowering the tone of their cities and making their citizens feel like proles by clogging the roads with bland Japanese and Korean models. But in Dubai, with its zero import tax on every kind of four-wheeled transport, the roads ooze glamour; as a result, the whole city feels more exciting, and I’m sure levels of happiness are much higher among the car-owning classes. It must be hard to be too unhappy when there are a couple of Porsches in the driveway.
Indeed, Porsche Cayennes seem to be the vehicle of choice, with the second family car being either a BMW X5 or Toyota Prado. Failing that, a Porsche 911 can be had for about the same price as a Toyota Camry in Singapore.

A typical day out for a Dubai resident would be: go rollerblading or jogging along the beach for an hour in the morning. Shower, then jump in the Landcruiser with the two dogs. Head down to Dubai Marina for a Mocha Ice Blended at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf by the water. Hop onto the boat for a quick go off the coast. Get in the groceries at any branch of Spinney’s, a truly superb supermarket. Do a bit of shopping at Boulevard, the mall attached to the breathtaking Emirates Towers hotel, then maybe sausages and mash at Scarlett’s with a couple of Kronenbourgs. Work it off with swimming at the Jumeirah Beach Club, then watch the sun go do down at the beach bar. Later, dinner at some appropriately gorgeous and beautifully-lit rooftop Arabic restaurant, then on to a club to hear some DJ freshly flown in from London man the decks until very late indeed.

Time Out Dubai, the listings magazine originating from London, is packed – to a quite incredible degree – with things to do and places to go, and had me shaking my head and wondering if this was not in fact the London edition. Pick up a copy from your hotel, peruse the day-by-day suggestions, hire a car for ease of transport – driving is easy, and parking is never a hassle – and you’re set for one of the best holidays of your life. And if you really enjoy it, stay. Work permits are given out freely; join the tens of thousands of expatriates, mainly British and South African, who have already made Dubai their home and are enjoying the sun, the cars, the glamour and the tax-free salaries.

With Dubai being only five or six hours from both Europe and Asia, making long weekends in either continent an easy matter, living there is I’m seriously thinking about.

Good fortune.

Last week a friend of mine announced that he was thinking of buying a new car, and declared that it was a tossup between a Honda CRV and a Toyota Fortuner.

I nearly choked on my Heineken when I heard his words: to me, anyone who even mentions the name CRV in the same sentence as a Fortuner is guilty of almost obscene blasphemy.

I was in Thailand for a couple of years without ever being tempted to buy a car. Nothing persuaded me to walk into a showroom and put down the necessary payment to drive anything away.

Even now, my life is such that I have no great need to own a car. In reality, taxis, trains and the occasional hire car on weekends would be more than adequate for my transport needs.

But a couple of years ago, I opened the Bangkok Post motoring section and saw a vision that changed my outlook completely. Now, instead of a car purchase being a vague 'maybe,' it had instantly become an absolute necessity. Less than 24 hours after reading the article, I was in the Toyota showroom across from Lumpini Park asking excited questions about the Fortuner.

The test drive model was in the familiar sickly champagne colour that Japanese manufacturers insist on producing, so my enthusiasm was reduced somewhat. Reasons against committing to a purchase began to appear. But later that day, as I jogged through the evening streets of my leafy residential neighbourhood in rhythm to the music on my I-Pod shuffle - then the height of technology - I came across a parked black four-wheel-drive, with mean-looking silver windows. From a distance, I had no idea what it was: it looked like an obscure Japanese import, some high-tech, high-design limited edition model produced only for sale on the islands of Nippon, imported into Thailand by some fanatical enthusiast at great personal expense. Whatever it was, it was a thing of beauty.

But as I drew closer to the vehicle, my heart skipped a beat. The logo on the back was the by-now familiar name: Fortuner.

After that sighting, I was hooked and any doubts mustered by the champagne model instantly evaporated. The second visit to the showroom was made, the bank transfer was effected, the black model was specified, my name went on the four-month waiting list, and I began making space in the as-yet-unused garage in anticipation of its arrival some time in June.

Two-and-a-half years later, the Fortuner is something I could literally get emotional about. It has been everywhere; from the beaches of Phuket to the muddy landslides of Mae Hong Son, from dusty Isaan to the ridiculously potholed roads of Bangkok. In fact, as long as I'm in Thailand, the only reason I would sell the Fortuner is to buy... another Fortuner.

Anybody who buys a CRV in place of one of these gems should, at least in my mind, be committed to a psychiatric institution without delay.

Islamagood.

Thailand, yes. Bali, yes. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, yes, yes, yes. Asia is full of places where you are guaranteed a superb holiday experience.

Now I can enthusiastically recommend another, less likely, destination to add to the list: Pakistan.

The food is superb. The people must be the friendliest on earth, and are so happy to have foreigners visiting their country that they will literally stop at nothing to ensure you enjoy every minute of your stay: I have never been the recipient of so many smiles and so much heartfelt hospitality. The geography is amazing, from most of the world’s highest mountain range to the coastal plains of the south. The culture and history are fascinating; ancient Islamic citadels combined with gorgeous intact British colonial architecture. And with English being the language of choice on everything from road signs to restaurant menus and supermarket receipts, and fluency everywhere from cafés to tiny fabric shops in back alleys, communication and moving around are shockingly simple.

I was in Karachi recently for work; after my business was finished, I flew on Air Blue – a superb airline with excellent food, great design and, dare I say it, utterly gorgeous cabin crew – to Islamabad.

The city could have been designed to feature in Wallpaper magazine circa 1998: conceived and built in the 1950s, the place is a modernist’s dream of wide leafy boulevards, straight lines and gorgeous geometric villas shaded by beautiful trees. Ringed by the spectacular Murghal mountains, and with a lovely nip in the winter air, Islamabad was disorientingly beautiful; I spent hours just walking the streets taking photographs of the architecture.

After that, I drove to Lahore: a 350 kilometre trip on a first class toll motorway, rivalling the French autoroute or the Malaysian North-South Highway in its smoothness and quality. As apricot orchards, ancient villages and the occasional snow-capped mountain rolled by at 120 kilometres per hour, the driving experience was so disconcertingly normal that I found it difficult to comprehend that I was actually somewhere as exotic as Northern Pakistan.

Lahore was another revelation. Parts of it could easily pass for the best of Melbourne: old red brick churches, museums, colleges and railway stations, beautifully laid-out botanic gardens, and green, well-tended suburbs filled with heartbreakingly lovely houses from the 1920s and 30s.

Add to this a mesmerising ancient walled city with a huge mosque that looks like an Islamic Tiananmen Square, built by the same fellow responsible for the Taj Mahal, and a vibrant, modern, distinctly upmarket culture of fashion shops and cafés, and you have a recipe for a very enjoyable visit.

I only scratched the surface of the three main cities. But from what I hear, there is a lot more to experience, from old hill stations, to Himalayan treks, to tribal villages in the North West. Pakistan is somewhere I have every intention of returning to with a view of seeing a lot more of the country.

Domestic bliss.

In Conde Nast Traveller’s most recent UK edition, Thailand is voted a very close second to Australia as the readers’ favourite worldwide destination.

I admit that I have been guilty for a while now of overlooking the appeal of the Kingdom’s travel opportunities in favour of those of the Indochinese region and further afield. I suppose it’s human nature to want to go somewhere… else. No matter how exotic the country you happen to be living in.

After seeing Thailand’s high score in the British magazine’s survey, however, I decided to refocus my attention on the country that I have been neglecting for so long. (The fact that my passport was full, and I couldn’t leave the country until I got a new one, made the decision to stay within Thai borders over the last long weekend that much easier.)

After a gruelling couple of weeks at work, and feeling the beginning of a nasty flu, there was only one option: the healthful sea air and blistering sunshine of a beach resort.

All reasonably upmarket accommodation options on Samet were full, on account of the upcoming extra day’s holiday. And anyway, as convenient as the three hour road trip from Bangkok to Ban Phe is, sometimes I’d rather just hop on a plane and get somewhere further, quicker. For the sake of a few thousand baht, an air traveller can be installed on the beaches of Phuket or Krabi with a cold Heineken in hand while the Samet-bound driver is still behind the wheel, stuck behind convoys of southbound Tesco delivery trucks.

Samui, then, was my destination, the early bird fares on the Bangkok Airways website being just too good to pass up. Early Friday morning saw me at the domestic terminal of Don Muang. Takeoff was at 6am. I stepped onto the tarmac of Samui Airport at 6:50am, avoided the wait at baggage claim with a well-packed carry-on bag, completed check-in at 7:10, and was gazing out at the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand by 7:15, the nascent flu completely forgotten.

The ten best things about Samui, in no particular order:

1. Five Islands restaurant. Not exactly conveniently located, unless you’re staying at Le Meridien. But the half hour journey out from Chaweng is pleasant, and runs along some lovely shady inland forest roads. Five Islands is a lovely place for Thai food: airy, opening directly onto a little beach, with a gorgeous view out to sea and the islands that give the restaurant its name.

2. Hiring a motorbike, getting up early and riding around the island on the coastal road as the sun comes up over the coconut plantations. Good for working up an appetite for breakfast. (It’s about a two hour ride at a relaxed pace; but with its twists and turns, the island ring road is just right for a more competitive motoring event. I think someone should organise a Samui equivalent of the Isle of Man TT.)

3. Related to number two: finding a deserted bay on the west side of the island, laying a towel on the sand and having the whole beach to yourself for the day.

4. Eat Sense, in Chaweng. Another beautiful place to eat: sort of modern Thai in a hip Bangkok vein, with the advantage of having the sea four metres away from your table.

5. Muang Kulaypan hotel. I simply don’t understand why anyone would ever stay anywhere else on Samui. The rooms are very nice indeed, but apart from sleeping and showering, nobody is ever in them. The pool is just too exquisite to drag yourself away from, and the beach at the front of the hotel has to be the best stretch of sand anywhere on Chaweng’s main strip. On the sand under the spreading trees, listening to the regular wash of the waves and the fluttering of the theatrical row of red flags, it’s difficult to feel anything other than pure bliss. I want to be buried here when I die, if the living hotel guests don’t mind arranging their loungers around my headstone.

6. Budsaba, the restaurant attached to Muang Kulaypan. The best Thai restaurant in the world, I think; just next to the sea, each table with its own little private bamboo pavilion, where you can lie back on the ubiquitous triangular cushions as you consume your pomelo salad.

7. Samui Airport. Forget Chek Lap Kok or Dubai: this is the world’s best airport. Everything is outdoors, and you can be sitting on the lawn having a last Heineken two minutes before walking up the steps to the plane.

8. Villa Bianca: Bo Phut on the north coast is a lovely little stretch of tasteful bars, cafes and tiny hotels converted from old Chinese shophouses overlooking the straits between Samui and Phang Nga. Villa Bianca is the best of these: a superb Italian restaurant with a mesmerising view out to the neighbouring island.

9. Real estate. Samui is moving steadily up the food chain and there are some truly lovely properties being erected, but land is still cheap compared with Phuket. If I were to buy a block here, which I am seriously thinking about doing, I would stay away from the beach and the twee Thai-style designs, and build a small modernist mountain retreat in the hills lining the south west coast. The views would be spectacular, your nearest neighbour would be miles away, yet you’d only be 20 minutes from the nearest Boots.

10. Afternoons at The Cliff, a spectacularly positioned and incredibly stylish South African-run restaurant between Chaweng and Lamai. With the sun behind you, a chilled glass of Semillon Blanc in front of you, and a view over the rocks out to sea, you’ll mentally shred your return ticket into a million pieces and find yourself plotting ways to stay on the island forever.

Franchised frappucinos.

I’m sure it’s possible to have a good coffee at any Starbucks outlet. In fact I know it is: I’ve had my fair share of decent cappuccinos and espresso macchiatos at various places bearing the Starbucks name.

My complaint with the place isn’t the quality of the product – as long as you stick to the basics and avoid the bizarre jelly-choccy-icecream-frothy confections that they introduce on an all-too-regular basis.

My problem is that the whole thing just feels a bit too McDonalds for my liking. In terms of brand positioning, the green circular logo might as well be replaced with the golden arches for all the difference it would make. I feel it’s only a matter of time before they start offering Big Macs with their Frappucinos.

Starbucks is just so… everywhere. Whenever I walk into one, I feel like such a pleb; as if I’ve given up trying and this is all I could think of doing. And that’s not a good thing.

I wish there was a stylish Asian coffee brand, or several brands, that would take on Starbucks at its own game and repopulate our public spaces with some sort of individualism. It would make perfect sense for a café chain to come out of Vietnam. With Asia’s best coffee, and the innate Vietnamese sense of Franco-Oriental style, they shouldn’t find it too difficult to send the Americans packing. They’ve done it once before in another arena; repeating the feat on the coffee battlefield shouldn’t be too difficult.

Weighty issues.

I used to be convinced that I had a weight problem. I spent many years despairing at the fact that despite a punishing exercise regimen, I was constantly several kilos heavier than I should be. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was always going to be carrying a bit too much weight, and would always be the chubby one in photos.

That all changed when I moved to Bangkok. For some reason, even though I probably eat more here than I have ever eaten before, I shed weight almost from the day I arrived and have managed to keep it off since then without any great effort.

I put it down to the liberal use of chilli, herbs and vinegar in Thai cooking: these things must contain some sort of weight-regulating minerals which effectively bring any individual’s weight into a desirable range.

Every now and then, though, as a result of overindulgence, the weight still creeps up. I like to keep myself at 78 kilos or less; but last Saturday morning, after eating too many ribs and drinking too many Heinekens at The Great American Rib Company in Sukhumvit Soi 36 the previous evening, not to mention a preceding full week of overconsumption, I was shocked to see that the scales settled at no less than 82 kilos.

I resolved to do something about it after the weekend and aimed to be back below 80 one week hence.

In the meantime, to try and shake off the effects of the night’s activities, I went to the gym. Still feeling a little fragile and not being in the mood for very much of anything in particular, I did about half an hour of weights followed by half an hour on the running machine before buying a newspaper and sitting in Convent Road for a late breakfast.

In the afternoon, to escape the heat, I disappeared into the darkness of the The King & I in Sukhumvit Soi 12 for a two-hour Thai massage. I am no novice when it comes to firm massages but this session was way beyond anything I have ever experienced in its vigour. The masseuse, who could not have been taller than four feet, possessed the strongest hands that have ever been laid upon my person; when she turned her attention to my legs it was all I could do not to cry out for mercy. Despite being the one receiving the massage rather than giving it, I worked up an intense sweat and felt like I had run a half-marathon when the allotted time came to a close.

With no particular place to go until later in the evening, and feeling a little bruised, I remained at The King & I for another two hours: this time for a soothing, yet still firm, oil massage. Showering afterwards, I noticed myself in the mirror: it must have been a slightly distorted reflection, I thought, as I looked ridiculously thin. I towelled myself dry, dressed, went out to dinner and thought no more about it.

The next morning was a toss-up between staying in bed to watch a Star Wars DVD or getting up and going to yoga. Yoga won out and I made my way to Yoga Elements in Chit Lom for a 90-minute intermediate session. For a relatively serene form of exercise, I always find yoga incredibly tough; to me, stretching and balancing is much harder than running miles or lifting heavy objects. This session was no exception and again I found myself perspiring liberally.

Getting home after yoga, I showered and, merely out of habit, stepped onto the scales again. The number that was to greet me on the display would shake me to my very foundations: from 82 kilos only twenty-four hours earlier, I was now 78.

Four kilos in one day. Without making any effort to stop eating, eat less, or adjust my diet in any way.

So: if you feel you could do with a few less pounds, here’s my weekend weight loss programme. Day One: in the morning, a session of weights followed immediately by a run of at least half an hour. In the afternoon, a vigorous Thai massage, followed by a not-too-soft oil massage.

Day Two: ninety minutes of yoga.

If you’re very keen, repeat this two-day sequence a few times. (I have a feeling that you may be able to skip one of the massages when you repeat, depending on how you feel, but not both.) I’m going to stick to it for about a week; I want to see what I look like at 75 kilos.

Home comforts.

On Saturday, leafing through the newspaper as I relaxed after my morning run, I came across an advertisement for a motorcycle rental centre.

This, combined with the glowing reports I had just read in the same publication about the accommodation options in a wine-growing area a couple of hours outside of Bangkok, put ideas in my head.

I pictured myself hiring a gleaming 900cc monster of Italian origin, kicking into gear, opening the throttle and gunning down the open road to the rural idyll of the Khao Yai area; staying overnight in some attractive vineyard lodge and, slightly sunburnt from the day’s travels, drinking cabernet sauvignon under the stars as the motorised steed cooled in the chilly evening air.

I showered, hopped in a cab and, driving licence in hand, made my way to the advertised establishment.

Images of cellars full of Chenin Blanc and Verdelho dissolved in the Bangkok morning heat as I cast my eye upon the sorriest collection of two-wheeled transport I have ever come across.
I spent no more than fifteen seconds perusing the dilapidated, oily, downright lethal-looking contraptions on display before turning on my heel and hopping back into the same cab before the driver had had a chance to put my original fare in his pocket.

From there, my bemused driver and I made our way to Thonglor, where a new branch of the famous Greyhound Café has just opened in the half-finished Soi 15 complex.

Horrendous traffic meant that the 3-kilometre journey took 45 minutes, most of that time spent stationary on a bridge, sun burning through the back window onto my neck, giving me the opportunity to watch the canal boats whizzing below me on their way to the same destination – a journey which would take them four minutes.

Upon arrival, the good news kept on coming. The coffee was insipid; the CD coming through the speakers cannot have been changed since 1988; and there was a very odd smell coming from the kitchen.

Undeterred, I endured another snail’s pace taxi ride – 1.4 kilometres in 26 minutes – to the Emporium shopping mall to buy a new set of speakers. The apologetic salesperson pleasantly advised me that the model I sought had just sold out the previous day. Attempts to purchase a new coffee machine met with a similar obstacle.

Down to Villa supermarket I went to buy some delicacies. Twenty minutes spent filling my trolley came to nought as the supermarket’s card reader was not in service, rendering my MasterCard Electronic and credit cards impotent, the cash in my pocket insufficient to cover the total amount.

After such a litany of joy, there was only one option: make the few essential purchases that the cash available to me would allow. Get back home as quickly as possible. And stay there.

Another taxi was out of the question. The traffic in Sukhumvit Road had not moved in thirty minutes, and the temperature on the road cannot have been less than fifty degrees Celsius. I stoically climbed the steps to the BTS, paused for oxygen at the summit, and steeled myself for the journey home via public transport.

Twenty minutes, one BTS stop, one MRT change and a short motorbike ride later, I was positioned under the powerful blast of a cold shower and firmly convinced that I would not open the front door again before the sun went down.

The rest of the day was a spectacular success. Air-conditioning on, west-facing blinds pulled down against the sun. A repeated viewing of Phillip Noyce’s excellent The Quiet American on DVD. The Financial Times weekend edition complete with magazine, a few ice-cold Finlandias and tonics with fresh lime. Leafing through the Conde Nast Traveller readers’ awards, in which Singapore scored spectacularly, Bangkok almost as well, and Bali reassumed its rightful position as The World’s Best Island. (Even if the editorial team of the magazine are unwilling to recognise Asia’s charms, their readership clearly are not.)

The afternoon continued: shadows grew longer, sunlight more golden. The occasional long gaze out of the east-facing windows into the mesmerisingly lush foliage of the garden. A tentative start to reading Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diary. Half an hour with a pencil and layout pad dreaming up business ideas, and a brief period creating a new ‘Saturday afternoon’ playlist on I-tunes.

Another DVD, this time Wong Kar-Wai’s gay Argentina odyssey Happy Together starring the tragically late Leslie Cheung, and suddenly it was time to start thinking about dinner.

In keeping with the domestic spirit of the day, a couple of friends were invited over, chosen for their homes’ proximity and the ease with which they could travel to my abode. Lights and music were set to low. And a very pleasant evening was spent with a few chilled bottles of decent French rosé bought from Vientiane a few weeks earlier, some cold cuts, a small selection of cheese and a fair number of cold hard-boiled eggs.

Later, I received reports from other friends who had ventured out on Saturday night. By all accounts, evening traffic was even worse than during daylight hours. Roads radiated heat stored from the day’s sunshine. And in scenes reminiscent of Phnom Penh in 1975, Bangkok’s population seemed suddenly to have tripled, judging by the number of people on the streets.
Bangkok’s charms are many. But some days, it’s just one of those days. Some days, it’s just better to stay home.

Population movement.

The best way to travel short distances in Bangkok is undoubtedly the motorbike taxi. I appreciate that many people will dismiss the idea as a result of safety concerns, and I would never ride pillion on any sort of major thoroughfare. But the two-wheeled form of transport is perfect for weaving through the congestion in small sois and getting to your destination in reasonable time.
Used intelligently, the combination of BTS, MRT, river or canal boat, and the squad of motorbike taxis congregating around every station exit and pier actually make door-to-door travel around Bangkok much more convenient than other apparently more advanced big cities around Asia.

Seeds of success.

Bangkok must be the easiest place in the world to achieve the recommended daily fruit intake.

You can barely walk ten metres on any pavement without having to sidestep a cart selling fresh dragonfruit, pomelo or guava. Or pre-cut slices of pineapple and mango, conveniently packaged for instant consumption.

Apart from the exotic fruits cultivated in Thailand, these stalls also offer delicacies of foreign origin in much greater variety than supermarkets. Cherries, strawberries and pomegranates seem to be available all year round.

On any given morning, I can be found at home lifting the lid from my blender and throwing in a large amount of fruit which has been purchased from a selection of street stalls.

Any combination of fruit is good. But as well as being healthy, sometimes my random attempts produce a truly delicious result. In my experience, it pays to keep things simple – perhaps two fruits, sometimes with a third complementary addition.
Memorable successes so far have been dragonfruit and kiwifruit with mint; orange and lime; mango with cherry; and strawberries with lemon.

Despite Bangkok’s reputation for being somewhat less than the world’s healthiest city, my vast and varied fruit intake must make some contribution to the fact that I have never felt healthier than I do now.

Making a crust.

Best place for pizza in Bangkok: a toss-up between Scoozi, in Surawong Road, and L’Opera wine bar in Sukhumvit 39.

Wherever she goes, a friend of mine always eats the house pizza, no matter what it is: she says it’s always the best. At Scoozi, I took her advice and ordered the Pizza Scoozi: Gorgonzola and Speck expertly cooked in the essential wood-fired oven.

Excellent, although the Diavola or Vesuvio provide tough competition for those who like their spice.

Scoozi has been around for ages, but I never went until they moved to this new location. The place is nicely done. The long shared benches, where you rub shoulders with strangers, make for a convivial atmosphere. Good espresso cake too.

At L’Opera, a similar strong cheese and dried ham combination exists, which is also superb. No particular recommendations here, though: throw a dart at the pizza menu and no matter where it lands, you can look forward to a first-class experience.

Middle Feast.

Most Western capital cities have areas where immigrant ethnic minorities congregate. Whether it be ex-colonial peoples settling in the mother country, descendants of refugees fleeing communist upheavals in the turbulent cold war years, guest workers deciding to stay after completing their contracts, or simply people attracted by liberal immigration policies, metropolises from Sydney to Stockholm all have their own areas populated primarily with non-natives, making for a colourful urban fabric and a cosmopolitan atmosphere - not to mention a vastly improved culinary outlook. This phenomenon is not quite so common in Asia. No Little Saigon in Singapore; no Polishtown in Phnom Penh.

One interesting exception to this rule is the area around Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 3.

Walk down the steps from Nana train station, run the gauntlet of cheap luggage sellers and bad Italian restaurants along the north side of Sukhumvit Road, and turn right into Soi 3/1. Walk a few metres into the soi, rub your eyes, blink a couple of times, then look around you.

Chances are there will be very few visual clues that you have not been magically whisked from the Thai capital and instantly transported to a destination thousands of miles from the Sukhumvit-Nana intersection.

Not a Thai to be seen; rather, the faces you see around you are all African or Middle Eastern. The smell of cooked lamb floats through the air while exotically wrapped women shimmer past you. Brightly lit signs advertise unheard-of products in Arabic and post-colonial North African French.

You have reached Bangkok’s Little Arabia; or Soi Arab, as the Thais call it.

I have spent many an evening on outdoor terraces eating excellent hummus and tabouleh at various eateries here while satellite TV broadcast live from Cairo or Dubai blares out across the sois. I have lingered over the aromatic smoke of a cinnamon or apple shisha, observing the comings and goings of the mysterious residents of this quarter.

Little laneways are crammed with tiny shops piled high with shoes and children’s clothes. Travel agents’ windows offer fares to Abidjan, Kinshasa and Beirut. The Syrian ambassador holds court in his glass-fronted embassy. Jittery American tourists, having clearly taken a wrong turn in their quest for the nearby Subway sandwich franchise, glance nervously about them before making quietly for the nearest exit as if slipping from a lion’s den.

What exactly goes on here is not something I can put my finger on. Why the place has developed at all is a question to which I have no answer. But it is certainly an interesting and very welcome addition to Bangkok’s already palatable cocktail.

Lao'd and clear.

For the vast majority of Asian city dwellers, the first thought that springs to mind when planning a quick weekend away is the beach.

The lure of tropical island life, white sand and the regular sound of the waves gently coming to a halt on the shore is something that few people will ever tire of, no matter how many times they repeat the experience.

And if sun and sea don't appeal, then an equally enjoyable choice is a short hop to a nearby big city for doing familiar things in an unfamiliar environment.

But we have a whole continent to play with here, and it pays to think of somewhere different to spend the all-important two days out of seven.

The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos is not a country that needs introduction to most inhabitants of this region. The World Heritage Organisation-listed city of Luang Prabang has featured in many travel sections in the past few years, and is by all accounts a lovely place to wind down for a couple of days.

But in succumbing to the understandable desire to gush about the temples and the mesmerising serenity of the ancient citadel, travel writers have sometimes been guilty of overlooking the modest charms of Laos’s other city: Vientiane, the capital.

Late last week, with the weekend looming, the prospect of two full days in Bangkok with no particular obligations to fulfil, and a severe case of itchy feet, I pulled out a map of Asia and weighed up my options.

As my eyes alighted on Vientiane, I noticed for the first time how close the capital was to the Lao-Thai border, and resolved to make it my destination. I decided to indulge my need for a little adventure and booked train tickets to the Thai frontier town of Nong Khai.

A day later, pulling away from the station on Friday evening at a civilised 8:45pm, installed in a first class private double sleeping berth and sipping cold Chang beer as the scenery rolled past, I congratulated myself on my excellent choice of transport.

At the appropriate time, the couch was transformed into a comfortable bed and I retired to a deep sleep, rocked gently by the slow progress of the train through the moonlit province of Isaan.

Waking to breakfast in the couchette, there was time to brush my teeth, freshen up and change out of my pyjamas just in time to arrive at the border. A short cab ride from Laotian border control to the hotel, a simple check-in and a quick shower saw me installed by the pool by 10 o’clock on Saturday morning.

The first sign that the stay was going to be successful was the sight of the hotel itself. The Villa Manoly is a beautiful 1950s affair built around a small pool and surrounded by lush tropical trees. A quirky international clientele adds to the ambience and gives the place an unmistakable Cold War spy novel appeal.

Not wishing to be subject to the whims of taxi drivers or tuk tuk operators, I hired a motorbike for the duration of the stay, an investment which paid off within a couple of hours when my first two-wheeled reconnaissance mission unearthed somewhere suitable for lunch.

The Full Moon proved to be a good choice, its credentials well established by the fact that it was packed to the gills with long-lunching development agency workers, a breed not known for their spartan lifestyles.

After lunch, when the last Landcruiser had pulled away, I weighed up my leisure options. A couple of hours at the luxurious Papaya Spa was a good way to get through the most severe heat of the day; after which I spent a few hours back in the saddle, travelling the suburbs of the town marvelling at the mouthwatering number of slowly decaying late French colonial villas and wondering what it would take to buy one and restore it to its former glory.

A highlight was the old Soviet Union embassy, a hilariously inappropriate Stalinist concrete block surrounded by lush rice paddies.

That evening, after watching the sunset with the obligatory Beer Lao at one of the stalls overlooking the Mekong River, dinner was at Le Vendome, an atmospheric French restaurant set in a beautiful old house. I sat on the terrace and ate what has to have been the best value French meal I have ever had. After dinner there was still time before the midnight curfew, so I made my way to Kob Jai Deu, a lively and stylish outdoor bar packed with the cream of Vientiane hipsters.

Early Sunday morning seemed an appropriate time to explore the more spiritual side of Laos; with the vast number of beautiful Buddhist wats being enough to satisfy the most ardent templegoer. Laotian temples are happy places, with bright primary colours and lush plant life everywhere you look. Breakfast afterwards was at the Scandinavian Bakery, clearly the centre of expatriate life on Sundays, followed by a superb drip coffee at Miss Saigon, which in turn functions as a hub of Vientiane’s Vietnamese activity.

A swim back at the hotel and a slow perusal of the newly air-freighted Bangkok Post left time for a superb paté and salad lunch baguette at PVO Vietnamese café, before the late afternoon flight back to Bangkok.

Vientiane is one of those places just made for weekends. Easy access from Bangkok and by extension Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, with just enough to choose from in the way of dining and drinking, and the added advantage of an interesting history. A superb use of two days and highly recommended.

Lovely buns.

Singing the praises of a humble burger might be a departure from the usual range of topics featured in this column. But on this occasion, it’s something I simply have to do. And at any rate, the creation in question is anything but humble.

Today I can confidently announce that I have discovered the world’s best burger.

Not one of the famous seventy-dollar burgers in New York; not the home-cooked greasy English version with delicious fried onions – as good as both of these examples are. No.

The world’s best burger, my own opinion being backed up by many others who care about such things, is a distinctly Asian creation and is available for a very modest amount of money at any MosBurger outlet.

It’s the Mosburger Teriyaki Beef Burger. Yet one more example of Japan taking Western creations and, with a little twist, making them better and more desirable.

With every burger at the Japanese chain freshly made to order, the MosBurger dining experience stretches the definition of fast food somewhat. Patrons have to display a little more patience than they are accustomed to showing at Burger King or McDonalds. But the wait is more than worth it.

When you’ve placed your order, taken your number and your peach iced tea to your seat and the seemingly interminable period of preparation is over, the Teriyaki Beef Burger is delivered to your table in a little plastic basket that gives no hint of the delights to come.

Unwrap the burger from its brightly-coloured paper. Arrange it so the open side of the bun faces you. And take a bite. The combination of soft white bun, perfectly cooked high-quality Japanese beef, fresh crunchy lettuce, teriyaki sauce and piquant, cool mayonnaise is nothing less than heavenly.

Even the size of the burger is perfect. It’s considerably smaller than a Whopper, which is no bad thing. The burger’s petite dimensions make it a guilt-free indulgence, and leave you slightly unsatisfied with a delicious yearning for more; a very poetic Japanese concept.

It’s an experience I aim to repeat on at least a weekly basis for the rest of my days.

Grape expectations.

The Wine Company, Dempsey Road, Singapore is a lovely place for a drink: tasteful, airy, tropical and lush, in a beautifully decorated colonial-era building surrounded by gorgeous, rampant greenery. (The prices of wine are incredibly good, too; particularly for someone coming from Bangkok where wine is taxed, taxed and taxed again.) I always said that Singapore needed a whole raft of places like this. There’s something about The Wine Company that makes me kick myself that I never put my money where my mouth is and opened something like this myself.

Marathon effort.

Despite being top of the list when it comes to the world’s most crowded places, many of Asia’s capital cities are surprisingly pleasant places for a morning run.

Hong Kong has its mountainous country parks. Singapore has its beachside running tracks, its forest paths and its thousands of clean, runner-friendly streets.

But in Bangkok, you can forget about looking for leafy parks, oxygen-rich forests, and rocky mountain paths, because there aren’t any.

There are of course a couple of token green spaces, which I’m sure must have been pleasant at some point in history. But plodding around Lumpini or Benjasiri, with their wobbly bike-riders, mad plastic souvenir sellers and out-of-tune early morning pensioners’ karaoke groups, is not my idea of fun.

I find the best running option in the Thai capital is simply to forget any thought of being at one with nature, bite the bullet and go urban.

Running through the crowded back sois keeps you on your toes and adds another element to your exercise as you dodge tuk tuks, leap out of the path of Red Bull-fuelled motorbike riders and outrun stray street dogs who feel you have encroached on their precious patch of filth.

What’s more, the interesting morning activities of the Thais, who seem to live their lives in public when in their own neighbourhoods, give you something to look at and make your exertions pass quickly.

After you have ran past women getting their hair done in the street before work, at stalls next to butchers chopping up ducks for lunch and dentists in shop windows operating on their patients in full view of passers by, there’s a remote possibility that you’ll always feel something is lacking when you hit the trails in your nearest tropical forest or deserted country park.

Shangairish.

Much has been made of Shanghai’s renaissance over recent years. From superb French restaurants to the world’s newest Grand Prix circuit, it’s no exaggeration to say that Shanghai town planners and entrepreneurs won’t rest until they’ve turned Shanghai into the world’s most exciting city.

But as well as beautiful Louis Vuitton stores and gorgeous art galleries in tastefully renovated historical buildings, Shanghai boasts one more benefit.

The Pearl Of The Orient holds what just might be, to my mind at least, Asia’s best Irish pub.

I’m no particular fan of sitting in franchised mock-Dublin surrounds. And normally, drinking imported Guinness under old bilingual County Cork road signs wouldn’t be at the top of my list of leisure options.

But O’Malley’s in Hengshan Road seems to have something about it. A satisfying maze-like layout with dark private snugs to drink in, a beautiful walled garden for imbibing al fresco in the cool Shanghai autumn, and a strange feeling that the place has been there for centuries make a few pints at this particular Gaelic Inn a very worthwhile experience.

Two cities.

Newspapers and magazines often feature ‘great drives’ articles. One of my own personal favourites is the journey between sister cities Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

The attractions of short breaks in each city are great. And with the recent introduction of seemingly dozens of low-cost airlines offering flights for pennies, air travel between the two neighbouring capitals has never been cheaper or more convenient.

Yet sliding into the driver’s seat, turning the key, engaging gear and setting co-ordinates for three hundred kilometres due North or South, depending on which of the two conurbations you happen to reside in, is one of the great pleasures of living in the Peninsula.

The Malaysian North-South Highway is of a standard on par with the most immaculate French autoroute. Fellow road users are civilized and courteous, never failing to keep left except when overtaking. The scenery is gorgeous, ranging from flat river plains to lush hilly rubber plantations. The pace is comfortable, allowing a satisfying feeling of eating up the miles without feeling harried.

The many rest stops offer regular opportunities for munching on delicious Malaysian specialties in a festive picnic atmosphere. And the petrol station shops offer a spectacular range of confectionery to snack on while the eyes are on the road.

Khmer Moderne.

For some inexplicable reason, in the heyday of modernist architecture, three countries in the whole world took to the style and made it their own; adapting it to their warm climates and creating a unique vernacular that became known as tropical modernism.

One of those countries was Brazil. Another was Senegal. And the third was Cambodia.

Long before the word Cambodia became synonymous with mass graves and weird fanatical ‘burn all the books and get back to the land’ movements, the Khmer Kingdom was an oasis of style, civility, chilled white wine and gorgeous buildings. Straight lines and elegantly simple design were things at which French and Cambodian architects excelled.

For years, this precious building heritage went to seed as the Khmers Rouges carried out their well-documented evils.

But now, with prosperity taking root in some parts of the country and a steady upmarket tourist trade, certain groups of people are finding it worthwhile to restore parts of this impressive collection of construction; and it appears that visitors will be able to enjoy its rich bank of architecture once more.

The most impressive example of this I have seen so far is the breathtaking Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Siem Reap.

The original FCC in Phnom Penh is a very pleasant place to while away an evening; drinking beer and eating delicious nouveau-Australian influenced food under rotating fans while watching the crowds on their nightly promenade along the banks of the Mekong River.

But it is with their second venture that the owners have excelled themselves, creating something in a different league entirely.

The Siem Reap Foreign Correspondents’ Club is housed in the former French governor’s summer residence. A classic airy colonial structure, the establishment offers all the charm of the Phnom Penh original and then some. But it is the hotel rooms that are the gems of this particular enterprise.

Housed in a long, low, flat-roofed cream building, shaded by a beautiful 100-year-old tree which must have seen some intriguing things in its history, and built around a rectangular black-tiled infinity pool, the rooms seem to capture a not-too-distant age of modernist elegance while connecting firmly with the present.

After a hot day spent wandering through the elaborate ruins of the Angkor complex, the head swims with ornate images and curved carvings. A long dip in the pool to bring the body temperature down, a shower in the golden-lit sandstone bathrooms and an icy evening cocktail among the refreshing clean lines of the FCC is the perfect antidote to the symptoms of temple fatigue.

Two Books.

Reading is one of life’s great pleasures. That enjoyment is only enhanced when you are familiar with the setting of the novel in your hands.

Highways To A War, by Christopher J, Koch, is not a particularly recent work. But I came across it while moving recently and, remembering how much I enjoyed it the first time, decided to read it again.

Set in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the novel evokes a lost post-French colonial world of decadence, elegance and outright weirdness against a backdrop of massive US bombing, ideological struggle and the disintegration of two societies under the stresses of massive military activity.

Koch, an Australian and a former journalist working in Asia during the 1960s and 1970s, is a master at capturing Asia of a certain period through the eyes of Westerners of a certain type. He wrote another indisputable classic, The Year of Living Dangerously, which painted a mesmerising picture of Jakarta in the same way as Highways To A War portrays Saigon and Phnom Penh. Both books are a must-read for anyone interested in the incredible modern events that shaped today’s Asia.