Off to the islands again: Cheung Chau

20 07 2016


Fresh from my rejuvenating trip to Lamma, I took an afternoon off to visit another outlying island, Cheung Chau. I had finished the morning session at the Catholic school where I was teaching some casual classes and, with nothing else planned after lunch, decided on the spur of the moment to hop on to the ferry.

I was surprised both by the length of the journey – on the “slow ferry” it takes just under an hour, and by the island when I arrived. Cheung Chau is much busier than Lamma. Unlike Yung Shue Wan, Cheung Chau’s main settlement is not a village, but a bustling Southern Chinese provincial town. It has a McDonalds, seedy karaoke bars,  lots of plain little local eateries, shoe shops, flower shops, kids clothes, the inevitable oceanfront seafood restaurants…The clatter of mahjong tiles rang down dingy stairs from upstairs apartments, the smell of salted fish hung in the air and people pinged past on bicycles down the narrow lanes. Of the Lamma-expat-organic-chai-latte set, there was no sign.


After walking a few minutes through the main commercial district you come to a hill, lined with spacious old 1970s apartments, with green tiles and big balconies, and then to a shady, forested walk down to a calm sandy beach with beautiful views. There is a walk all the way around the island, stopping at various pirate caves and unspectacular rock formations, but it was a hot day and I decided to stick close to town.


Here I found a petite hipster strip of touristy stores selling vintage clothes and cute postcards ( in Thai, probably bought wholesale at Chatuchak) as well as the bizarre Homeland Tearoom, a dusty little sitting room packed to the rafters with what looked like office folders and First Aid kits, as well as various pieces of Chinese and Japanese memorabilia such as papier mache masks and geisha dolls. Run by a Japanese couple, the eccentric outpost serves tea, sushi rolls and red bean cakes, and each guest is photographed and asked to sign a guest book.


From here it was just a short walk back to the ferry again.




Further adventures in Mongkok

2 07 2016


Recently I made a couple of interesting discoveries on the upper floors of obscure buildings in Mongkok. The teeming district is famous for its bird, flower and goldfish markets, but who knew there was also an indie record store and a Thai amulet mall? Eager to continue exploring this week, I headed back to find more “Mongkok hidden treasures”.


Lo Yi Faateng, meaning “little sibling dancefloor,” is a new cafe accessed via a hard-to-open door and a dingy staircase, in an old building opposite the McPherson sportsground on Shantung Street. The former apartment has been converted into a wackily-decorated cafe with a bizarre “dictator” theme, a fridge full of books and stacks of my favourite Chinese magazine, Outlook. It would probably be my new favourite place if the food wasn’t (to be frank) so resolutely disappointing. Go for the refreshing longan and lemongrass tea though.

Just around the corner is Knockbox, a cafe more serious about its food offerings and especially its coffees, with single origin and siphon brews.


26 06 2016


One surprising, and frankly, quite tempting, Summer option was the remote Japanese island of Ishigaki, far from the Okinawan capital of Naha but connected to Hong Kong (I discovered) by surprisingly cheap flights – 1500 HKD return!

The island is small and sleepy, but with beautiful tropical beaches and a string of other nearby islands like the wild and jungly Iriomote, home to a strange species of wildcat and, in historical times, saltwater crocodiles, and Taketomi with its Ryuku village of houses behind coral walls and bright bouganvillea plants, and carriages pulled by water buffaloes.


Most intriguing of all though is Yonaguni island, or rather, what lies in the waters off Yonaguni. Although rich with marine life such as manta rays and hammerhead sharks, the oceans here yielded up an even more spectacular surprise in 1987 when SCUBA divers happened upon a vast and impressive underwater “fortress”, seemingly built by human hands. Experts have since sworn that this is not the case and the startlingly engineered forms can be explained by erosion and tectonic activity. Not everyone though is convinced..


Bangkok round-up

19 06 2016


As its rainy season gathers, Bangkok continues to sparkle with its golden lottery-predicting toads, awesome gyms for transgender (female-to-male) men, marauding lizards named after Disney stars and new hipster hangouts.

But my favourite story to come recently out of the effervescent Thai capital was the “Fat Run”, held in the city’s Lumphini Park. Designed to encourage people of all weights to enjoy exercise without shame or embarrassment, it adopted the slogan: “Run 5km – and then eat whatever you want!” Participants received a medal decorated with pictures of pizza and cupcakes.

I love this for two reasons. The first is that it reminds me of my own sweat-drenched communal runs around the park, weaving in and out of a heaving mass of runners of all shapes and sizes including the odd shirtless gym-bod with rock-hard torso. We all ran together, heaving and sweating, dodging bugs, bats and birds. Music blasted, people danced to techno in mass aerobic exercises and in the dry season, the Bangkok Symphony orchestra struck up on the central lawn, as a tropical twilight fell swiftly over the city. It was a great experience.

But other than that I love the sentiment, so different from the exercise cults coming out America and rabidly adopted in HK, with their barely disguised puritan ideology that suffering is what makes you a better person. In the Fat Run, exercise, like food, is something to be celebrated and enjoyed, not a gruelling punishment to prove your self-worth (think: no pain, no gain). It is this pro-exercise, pro-life, pro-joy philosophy that powered me to make the switch into semi-serious running. I couldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it and I think that is a great, powerful message to be sending: exercise can be fun, too!

The otherworldly island

4 05 2016

I recently read about Ascension Island, a remote British outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. Today it is home to a tiny population, much of it servicing the island’s secretive satellite spy base, and governed by an Orwellian figure in London referred to only as The Administrator.

The island’s history has been bizarre from the outset.

When first discovered in the sixteenth century it was uninhabited by humans, as well as any land animals larger than a crab.

It was also dry, a desolate rocky island in the South Atlantic which rose, parched and empty, to a craggy volcanic peak.

It was here that Dutch sailor Leendert Hascenbosch was left marooned by his passing ship in 1725 – condemned to a lifetime of thirst and solitude in punishment for his crime: homosexuality.

British sailors visiting some years later found his tent and diary – which made references to drinking the blood of sea turtles  but not, sadly, of the freshwater spring in the centre of the island. Of Leendert himself there was no sign and the investigators concluded he had died, if not from thirst then from suicide.

The British also kickstarted the next strange chapter in the island’s history. Under scientific advice they planted seedlings on the island’s mountain top, hoping to grow a cloud forest which would trap condensation and change the whole climate of the island. Then they could grow food, gather wood for repairs and use the island as a useful staging post.

The extravagant plan worked. Today the island is lushly forested and green with introduced plants – perhaps the nearest man has yet come to “terraforming” his environment and perhaps a precursor to our further adventures in the stars.

A different kind of dinosaur

5 04 2016


A few years ago, while researching my book on Bangkok, I stumbled into the self-contained little enclave of Washington Square, a dusty twilight world cut off from the rest of the city and populated by all kinds of strange middle-aged American men, former Viets and intelligence agents (or claiming to be) knocking around in the enclave’s gogo bars. It struck me then that they were a kind of dinosaur, and that the real estate they occupied , right on Sukhumvit, next to the Emporium, was too valuable to remain as their habitat forever.

And sure enough, by my last visit, the area’s old gogo bars had been razed in the midst of a huge redevelopment. They had become extinct.

But what was to replace them? In a twist surreal even by Bangkok’s comic book standards, the area has been redeveloped as a “Dinotopia” themepark of robotic reptiles on a fake volcano, clearly visible as you glide by on the Skytrain. Its mind boggling. The park opened this month, preceded by a cunning PR stunt which involved driving a roaring T-rex down Sukhumvit.

The dinosaur park is set to be a new attraction for the expanded “Emquartier” Emporium mega-complex, which will also add (yet) another luxe mall on the site.



5 04 2016


New Space Odyssey-like subway tunnel being built under the Chao Phraya. After years of delays and bottlenecks, the city’s transport infrastructure will receive a big boost this year with the opening of two new subway lines and the extension of the Skytrain North all the way to Don Muang airport.


Meanwhile, many of the city’s recent “ruins” remains: the Sathorn Unique tower, the Hopewell Stonehenge and this, the fish pond in the flooded New World department store, still there as of April 2016 despite government pledges last year to have the dangerous building demolished.


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