Anantara Riverside Resort

The middle of April marks the arrival of the year’s hottest days in Thailand. It also marks the start of the Thai new year, a festival known as Songkhran. A few million of Bangkok’s residents escape the city, leaving either for a holiday out of town or returning to their home province to spend time with family. Many of us Bangkok residents stay in town to enjoy our city at half its normal capacity. I took the opportunity for a one-night “staycation” on the Thonburi side of the river at the Anantara Riverside Resort.

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The Anantara, owned and operated by Minor International, a Thai based multinational, is not the newest riverfront property, but it is well-maintained and just far enough downstream from the heart of the city, to truly feel like an escape from the hustle and bustle. At the heart of the complex is a large pool, which was quite busy with sunbathers and water-splashers of all ages.

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The hotel’s lush gardens are very tranquil. One of the nice aspects of it being an older resort is that the landscaping has a volume that cannot be easily achieved by newer properties. Everywhere you look, both inside and outside the buildings, you see greenery.

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As the resort’s name implies, it is located directly on the river. There is a restaurant and a bar that lie adjacent to the water and the hotel’s private pier offers ferry service to the pier upriver that is near the BTS Skytrain station. The ferry also runs across the river to Asiatique, the two-year old outdoor night market and entertainment center.

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The rooms are nicely furnished in a contemporary but slightly tropical style. We upgraded to a riverfront room that was very comfortable. There isn’t that much to see on the river besides barges slowly making their way up- and downstream, but it is a nice setting.

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Public places in the hotel are tasteful and contemporary, with lots of natural light. There are several “mini lobbies” where you can find a nice place to sit with a book or just absorb the atmosphere.

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We ate a sumptuous Sunday brunch at Trader Vic’s, the “tiki tiki” themed restaurant that features just about every type of food imaginable, including a wide variety of fresh seafood.

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We also had a nice breakfast the following morning at the Marketplace restaurant, which spills outdoors onto a patio overlooking the river. All the food was good and the staff was very friendly.

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Most of our day was spent by the pool, although we hid beneath umbrellas and in the shade of a large tree. As evening came, a cultural program was presented poolside with young ladies in traditional Thai costumes dancing and lighting the torches around the pool.

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A man dressed as Hanuman, the mythical white monkey in the Ramakien, the Thai version of the classic Hindu epic called the Ramayana, performed around the pool to the beat of a drummer. He attracted many young followers who tried to catch his tail and also copied his poses.

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In the evening, there is another classical performance held by torch light for the diners as the Marketplace restaurant. While I suppose you could quibble over whether guests really learn much from this minimal amount of exposure to culture, it surely creates a memorable impression for them.

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The resort also offers cruises aboard converted teak rice barges. These cruises, one of which I did several years ago, can be just a daytime excursion, a dinner cruise, or a two-night trip to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya and back.

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All in all, the Anantara Riverside Resort proved to be an ideal place for us to get away from the city for a night. If we had children, it would be even more well-suited for us as there are many activities geared to families.

 

Afternoon Tea at Four Seasons Chiang Mai

While in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago with visiting guests, I made a stop at the Four Seasons resort for afternoon tea. The resort is located about a thirty-minute drive north of town, which only enhances its feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. The resort is gorgeous and the afternoon tea is a worthwhile splurge for an hour or two of pampering yourself.

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The resort is arranged around a pond designed to look like a Northern Thai village complete with rice paddies. The only buildings you see are those belonging to the resort and with the mountains in the distance, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you had been transported to some magical Thai Brigadoon. At 5:00, the “farmers” (resort employees dressed in traditional Northern Thai farmer’s clothes) paraded across the paddies to the rhythm of a gong, “returning” to the village, a touch that was a bit kitschy but also fun.

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Trish, Allen, and I pose for a picture at the Sala Mae Rim restaurant. We didn’t make reservations but fortunately were able to get a prime table, perhaps because it was the midst of rainy season and the slowest time for tourists. We ordered one tea set (designed for two) plus an extra pot of tea, which was more than enough food for the three of us. The total price was approximately US$50, more than I would usually spend but certainly a worthwhile treat while on holiday.

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The top plate in the tea set featured mango sticky rice with a palm sugar floss; crisp water chestnuts in sweet coconut milk; Parisian macaroons, and chocolate truffle cake.

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The middle plate in the set featured finger sandwiches (ham and cheese, cucumber, and smoked salmon); fried shrimps wrapped in egg noodles, miang kham (a Thai snack of betel leaves wrapped around savory fillings); and krathong tong (literally “golden baskets” – crispy shells filled with minced chicken and shrimp).

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The final plate in the set featured kaffir-lime and raisin scones, served with clotted cream and strawberry jam. All the food was fantastic and the portions were more than adequate for the three of us.

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After almost two hours of indulgence, we finally left paradise to return to the city. Without a doubt, the Four Seasons is on my list for future visits. While it may be too far away from the city to actually stay at (unless you specifically want to escape from the world), it is worth a visit for tea.

 

Tea at the Erawan Hotel

Over the Songkran holidays in the middle of April, we were treated to the visit of several friends, many of whom I first met through Xanga. One afternoon, some of us gathered for tea in the lobby of the Erawan Hotel. Afternoon tea is one of those treats I enjoy because it is relaxing and provides a sense of sophistication. In fact, in the afternoons during fifth and sixth grade, I would go to my friend David’s house after school. His mother always served milk tea and freshly baked croissant, which I think ignited my appreciation for afternoon tea.

The Erawan, a Grand Hyatt hotel, is conveniently located in the center of Bangkok and its tea service is surprisingly affordable. About 450 Bt (US$15) gets you a large pot of tea and a tall tray of snacks, more than enough for two people to share. A string trio plays in the corner of the lobby, the service is attentive in keeping with Thai custom, and there is no rush. You can spend an hour or two just feeling pampered and very refined.

In researching this entry, I learned that I have been incorrectly using the term “high tea”. This type of afternoon loose leaf tea with cakes and small sandwiches is actually “low tea”. “High tea” refers to a more complete meal that is served in the early evening. Thanks, Wikipedia

 

A Grand Wedding in Chiang Mai

This week we have been in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, to attend the wedding of two friends of ours. Both Thai, one of them is from Chiang Mai, so it seemed the perfect setting for them to start married life.

The wedding was held at the Rachamankha Hotel, a 24-room boutique hotel located in the old city walls. The entire hotel was taken over by the wedding party and we arrived a few days early to enjoy the setting.

The entrance to the hotel is flanked by a pair of buildings that are designed in an interesting blend of tropical, Chinese, and colonial styles.

The interior courtyards echo Lanna architecture, the kingdom that covered Northern Thailand from the 13th to 18th centuries. Most of the rooms line the two courtyards. Ours was to the left. The pavilion in the center offers comfortable seating and nice breezes.

One of the front buildings is covered with vines, giving an interesting European feel to the entrance area.

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The preparations for the wedding started two days before. The grooms’ friends provided many of the services: flower decorations, cupcakes, and in the case of Tawn, designs of the wedding party’s female members’ dresses. Above, Tawn and I pose with the beautiful floral decorations.

Tawn poses with the nieces (and nephew) of the groom. He designed the dresses for the girls.

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The day of the wedding began with a traditional Buddhist wedding ceremony. The wedding party and guests walked to the local temple at 6:45 am to feed the monks.

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Monks and novices after receiving their alms. They then chanted and blessed the wedding party.

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We returned to the hotel and later in the morning, performed a traditional ceremony in which the parents and elders pour water over the couple’s hands. The beautiful puang malai garlands were placed around the couple’s necks. And in a nod to northern Thai tradition, guests tied strings around the couple’s wrists to wish them good luck and happiness.

In the late afternoon, a traditional Christian ceremony was held by a friend of the grooms who is a minister. A few minutes before the guests were seated, I snapped this picture of the courtyard that was decorated for the ceremony. The flower arrangements were amazing. The small white flowers in the grasses at the front of the picture were added by the florist.

After the service, guests were invited to participate in a loi krathong ceremony, in which small rafts holding flowers, incense, and a candle are launched – usually in a river or lake but we made do with the swimming pool – as a way of sending away bad fortune.

The swimming pool filled with krathong.

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After dinner, guests participated in another version of loi krathong that is unique to the north: yii ping. These paper lanterns are launched in the same gesture as floating the rafts of flowers, incense, and candles. It is something I’ve always wanted to see in person as it strikes me as very beautiful.

Here are two short videos that show the guests launching the lanterns. They will give you a sense of how beautiful the tradition is.

This second video is in HD.

We had a wonderful time at the wedding, truly honored to be a part of this special moment in two friends’ lives. We wish them all the happiness and a long life together.

 

View of Waikiki

While in Honolulu, we stayed at the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel. Located close to Diamond Head on the south end of Waikiki, the New Otani is situated across from Kapiolani Park. It is a good value for many reasons. Its biggest selling point for me, was the view.

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Sunrise from our balcony.

This position is ideal because the hotel is quiet, set apart from the touristy, shopping mall busyness of Waikiki. Plus, you look back at the entire beach and skyline and take it all in. If you were staying in Waikiki proper, you wouldn’t have so broad a perspective. Here are some of the pictures I shot during our two nights at the hotel.

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Kapiolani Park with Diamond Head in the background.

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Graceful palm trees backlit by the setting sun.

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Other visitors stop to capture a picture of the sunset.

A trio of pictures from our balcony at different times of the day:

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Just after sunset, I spotted the moon above the palm trees.

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One final nighttime shot, in black-and-white.

 

Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi – Chiang Mai

This is the final entry on our trip to Chiang Mai.  Since I entered a cropped version of one of these pictures to a contest at the MyWinningPhoto site (I came in second, thank you for your votes), I had to hold off on posting this entry until after voting ended.

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After enjoying a Lamphun style lunch at Huen Jai Yong on the eastern outskirts of Chiang Mai, Tawn and I decided to drive to the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi resort.  With only 123 rooms on its 60-acre grounds, this Rachen Intawong-designed property is quite the vision of overblown opulence, although the company more modestly describes it as “a place where traditional Lanna culture and Asian colonial splendour have been carefully brought together in masterful harmony.”

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We arrived just as an afternoon thunderstorm was dissipating.  Our initial objective was to have tea but we discovered that the Oriental Tea Shoppe is located in a complex next to the public parking lot on the outer edge of the resort, which effectively insulates the guests within from the bus loads of tourists who visit.  The shopping area looks like some sort of movie set from a Chinese western, but with plenty of bamboo.

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Props to the Oriental Tea Shoppe which, just like its branches in Bangkok, serves beautiful cakes and other pastries to go with their Mariage Freres teas and coffees.

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Afterwards, we decided to enter the resort.  This is the imposing gate the separates the flagstone-paved public parking lot with the rest of the resort.  Follow the Mercedes limousine!

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From there, a long tree-shaded driveway leads to the main lobby.  The name “Dhara Dhevi” is a poor anglicization of the name of Queen Chama Thevi (alternately, Jamadevi), founder around 750 CE of the Hariphunchai kingdom, the capital of which was in nearby Lamphun.   

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Looking back towards the entrance gate, these buildings on the left contain function rooms for events, conferences, meetings, etc.  Way down near the gate is a horse-drawn carriage that ferries guests.  Bored, the driver offered to give Tawn a lift into the resort and subsequently gave us a 20-minute tour of the grounds.

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Near the main lobby, walls obscure shops and parts of the grounds, looking more like a Mon fortress than a resort.

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The sweeping main lobby building.  Driveways just to out of the frame of the picture lead to the reception area.  The lower floor is a shopping arcade.  The overall design of the complex is a mish-mash of Lao, Burmese, Lanna, Mon, and Thai architecture, with some Thais criticizing the resort as looking too much like a temple.

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From the back side of the reception area, you can see two of the larger buildings that contain guest units.  Many of the units, though, are stand-alone villas that are spread throughout the grounds.  The swimming pool has some gorgeous tile work.

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Another two buildings with guest rooms.  Granted, this was about twenty minutes after a heavy storm had passed, but the place looked deserted.  We saw two couples (presumably guests) in the lobby area and passed one family of four while touring the grounds.  Other than that, the place was empty.  The impression I got from talking with employees was that occupancy was in the low twenty percent range.  Rates, though, were still about $400 a night.

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Looking down the steps from the entrance to the spa, which was also deserted – no guests but no employees, either.  The statues on either side of the walkway are supposed to shoot arcs of water over the path, landing on the other side.  The resort has been open a bit more than five years and there were many areas where significant maintenance was being performed. 

Unfortunately, the video that I shot while on our horse-drawn tour is on the Mac, which is in for repairs at the authorized Apple retailer.  If I get a chance I will post it later as it shows the exteriors of some of the villas, which look like village houses in the midst of rice paddies.

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Our horse and buggy driver at the end of the tour.  My overall impression of the resort was that somewhere along the way it had crossed the line from “elegant” to “ostentatious,” reminding me more of a pan-Southeast Asian amusement park than anything else.  But maybe this is the type of fantasy in which wealthy tourists, Asian and non-Asian alike, wish to indulge in.

 

Food in Bangkok: Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin

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Before we headed to Los Angeles last month, Tawn and I were invited to a special foodie dinner held at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin restaurant.  Sra Bua is known for its molecular gastronomy take on Thai food.   Organized by CatAndNat.com, a Thai lifestyle website, and WorldFoods, I was invited to attend because of the writing I do for CatAndNat.

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Dinner was held at the beautiful Siam Kempinski Hotel, tucked away right behind the Siam Paragon mall.

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Opened less than a year ago, the Siam Kempinski is a beautiful 5-star hotel.  Their fresh flower arrangements in the lobby make it worth a visit just to “stop and smell the roses”.

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The building also features gorgeous architecture and decorations throughout.  I enjoy visiting nice hotels like this just for the ambiance.

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By coincidence, fellow blogger Angel and his partner were on holiday in Bangkok, staying at the same hotel.  We were able to meet them for a late afternoon tea before proceeding across the hall to our dinner.

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Our host didn’t have Tawn’s full name handy so used my surname for his place card.  Tawn was very excited as this is the first (and only) time after our wedding that he’s had my surname!

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Each dish was made with a WorldFoods sauce and was paired with a wine from Monsoon Valley Wines, a local Thai winery. 

WorldFoods is a Malaysian based maker of high quality Asian-inspired sauces, marinades, chutneys, and pastes that previously has given me samples of their products and invited me to try and, if I like, to write about them.  While I’ve been given no compensation, Tawn and I were invited to this very nice complimentary dinner.

The restaurant,Sra Bua, is the sister restaurant of Henrik Yde-Andersen’s Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, the second Thai restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin star (which I understand has since been lost). 

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Appetizer – Yum Som O, which is a traditional salad made with pomelo.  Pomelo is basically a large, less sour grapefruit.  Here, the chef added frisée and fish roe, which was meant to have a similar texture to the individuals pulp sacs of the pomelo.

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Close up of the pomelo salad.  This wasn’t much of a success, in my opinion, with too little pomelo and too much roe, which overpowered the flavor of the salad.  The pairing wine was a Monsoon Valley Colombard, a fruity white.

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Next dish was a Laksa Soup, which used the Singaporean Nyonya Laksa Paste.  This was a very pleasant, curry-type soup that was flavorful but not too spicy.  It was paired with a Monsoon Valley Cuvee de Siam, another white wine from grapes grown in the hills above Hua Hin, a beach town about three hours south of Bangkok.

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The fish course was a pan-seared white fish (bass, I believe) with fish mousse and red curry.  This used the Red Curry Sauce and is actually based on a classic Thai dish called haw mok, in which fish is pureed, mixed with a red curry paste, and steamed in banana leaves.  I really enjoyed this course.  It was paired with a Monsoon Valley Shiraz that was pleasant, although not very complex.

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The highlight of the meal was this beef with basil curry sauce.  The chunks of beef couldn’t have been more tender and it was served in a lightly fried pastry shell that is balance (although you can’t see it) on a small mound of jasmine rice.  This dish was so good that Tawn, who rarely eats beef, had the whole thing.  It was paired with a Monsoon Valley Cuvee de Siam Rouge, which was also the highlight wine of the evening.  It is a blend of 70% Shiraz and 30% Sangiovese grapes and has nice fruity flavors without too many tannins. 

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Dessert was a jasmine ice cream served wrapped in phyllo dough and a jasmine rice panna cotta served with mixed tropical fruits, wrapped in a banana leaf.  These were really nice as the flavors were very delicate and refreshing.  The wine was a Monsoon Valley Muscat Dessert, which was sweet and syrupy.

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After dessert a variety of hand-rolled truffles were set out.  If you like chocolate, you’d like these!

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What the room felt like after the dinner.  Ha ha…

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Me and Tawn with our friend Linda, who was able to join us at the last minute for dinner.  Conclusion: the menu, which was specially prepared for the event, worked very well in some areas and less well in others.  Attention to detail in the preparation was very high, though, as was the quality.  Service was also very attentive, which of course can be a challenge when you have some 30-40 diners.  Kudos to the chef and staff of Sra Bua for pulling this off.