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.

The mystery of the turtle lake

3 04 2016


Hanoi is dotted with lakes, big and small. It’s traditional centre is the Hoan Kiem Lake, circled by trees and colonial buildings, it’s whole circumference joggable in thirty or forty minutes. In the mornings, the lake shores boom with techno music, colour-runs and Herbalife rallies. People take pictures with selfie sticks and practice ballroom dancing under the banyan trees. In the evenings, its banks are partly lit up and given over to strollers and gay cruising. A pleasant cafe sits on a terrace looking over the water. And traffic swirls around it day and night. But even with all of this, the lake maintains an aura of calm – its waters calm, grey and serene.

In a small island in the centre of the lake stands the Turtle tower, commemorating the lake’s greatest mystery, the strange giant creatures which perhaps still inhabit its grey depths.

These turtles became symbols of the city in Vietnamese myth after one of their forebears supposedly retrieved a magical sword lost in the lake. In fact the species, which can weigh up to 250 kg per specimen, was considered a myth itself until a turtle surfaced in the lake – in the very heart of a major city – in 1998.

That specimen has since died, and lies embalmed in pride of place at the Temple of the Jade Mountain, on a small island in the lake’s Northern reaches, connected to the city by  vermillion bridge thronged with local day trippers.

Another specimen was found floating dead earlier this year, leading to an outpouring of grief in the city and speculation as to the meaning of this omen.

Whether there are others in the lake still, or this was the very last of its kind, is not yet clear.


Just missed it

14 01 2016

We missed this “only in Tokyo” house-music-and-tuna-beheading-dance/sushi-party  while we were up in the mountains. An article about it is below:

Whether it’s a doner kebab in Berlin, chicken-and-chips in South London, or pizza in Brooklyn, the post-club snack is an essential ritual. But what if you could get your sustenance right there on the dancefloor?

Not content with having the most Michelin stars of any city across the world, Tokyo is now bringing restaurant-quality fare to its nightclubs, with the food itself as the headline booking.

Tokyo’s gastronomic clubbing craze kicked off in 2012 with Techno Udon, which today brings in over a thousand punters a time, each stepping barefoot on noodles to the steady march of a four-four beat. The event was conceived as a clever response to Japan’s infamous fueiho laws, which restrict dancing in clubs and bars. “If police come to crack down on us for dancing, we can say, ‘We’re just making udon!'” Shinri Tezuka, the event’s main organizer, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014.

The idea has since spread to Macho Mochi Night, upcoming in January, where people will celebrate the New Year with a most traditional combination of rice cakes, bodybuilders and EDM…

Rest of the article here.

After dark

12 01 2016



One of my ideas for this trip was to check into an old-fashioned love hotel, the kind with an extravagant interior, sadly going out of fashion in the current economic climate. In the end we didn’t have time to do it, but little did I know about Geihinkan, or I could have squeezed it in (so to speak…)

Geihinkan (named after the official guesthouse at the Akasaka Palace) is supposedly one of the last great 1960s love hotels, with a faded and slightly tatty fantasy interior: there is the Chinese room (below) as well as Roman and Medieval rooms. The hotel is located just a few blocks from Kawasaki’s Walled City which the boyfriend and I went to visit just before sprinting back to catch the last train of the evening. If only we had known, we could have taken our time…



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