Buddhas and Beaches

Hua Hin – a Village a short drive from Bangkok

Fifty years ago only a few intrepid travellers were aware of the wonders of Thailand.  Last year over twelve million visitors came to enjoy this amazing country.  With people who actually do smile all the time, and mean it, beaches that are sandy and often powdery white,  waters that range from turquoise to a limpid blue, a mean average temperature of 280 , and one of the finest cuisines in the world, it is easy to understand the attraction.  Nor should the safety factor be overlooked, either.  With a population that is 98% Buddhist,  religious conflict is virtually nil in this country of gentle, courteous people.

Thai Orchids

Bangkok is Noisy but the Chao Phraya River is Tranquil    

The Modern Face of Bangkok

No one would call present day Bangkok a paradise, but this modern metropolis was once known as the Venice of the East, a city built on canals which meandered through the capital and out into the countryside.  Most of these have now been filled in, but the magnificent Chao Praya River with its traffic of tugs, rice barges, and house-boats, still runs through its centre, lined by stunning hotels like the Oriental, Peninsula, Sheraton Towers, Shangri-La and a host of others.

Big Buddha in Pattaya – a famous landmark

Hire a boat and a boatman from your hotel’s landing stage for a visit to the temples and palaces which are on the river, and you need never step into Bangkok’s noisy streets.  It’s a relaxing way to see the City of Angels (a name by which Bangkok’s was once known) and sunrise over the Temple of Dawn, viewed from the boat, is an incredible sight.

Beaches and Islands – Where to find the best   

Horse riding on the beach, early morning

If its beaches you’re after, there’s the peace and tranquillity of the resorts on the Andaman Sea at Krabi,where you can cruise around the extraordinary 40-odd limestone karsts thrusting out of the sea in a totally surreal landscape (recognisable from The Man with the Golden Gun which was filmed here), picnic on a sandbank or deserted island, or head off into the Marine National Park for some of the finest diving in the world.   If you choose to stay in a hotel, the most exclusive, The Rayavadee, has not one, but three beaches surrounding it as well as an infinity pool.

Koh Samui

The best known of Thailand’s islands is Phuket, whose coastline hides bays with the sort of shimmering sands lapped by turquoise seas you see in publicity pictures – Karon, Kata, Nai Harn, Pansea, Bang Tao and the National Park beach of Mai Khao.  Pick any one of these and you’ll find exclusive, world class hotels to cosset and pamper you.  If you want brash and noisy, then head for Patong Bay, easy to reach for an evening’s entertainment.

Phuket is subject to monsoons but when it is raining there the weather is usually fine in Ko Samuii (and vice versa) an island fast moving from backpackers hideaway to an upmarket resort with a laid-back atmosphere.

On the mainland, the resorts of Hua-Hin, where the Thai royal family have their summer palace, and Cha’am, attract the more mature travellers for great shopping and good restaurants.  And don’t dismiss Pattaya, known mostly for its girlie-bars, nightclubs, and massage parlours: it  has one of the world’s great hotels right on the edge of town which many people check into and leave without once setting foot outside it, their entire vacation having been spent luxuriating in one of the Royal Suites.

Go North and visit the Hill Tribes        

The writer with a Padaung Hill Tribe Woman, one of the ‘Long Necks’

Even great beaches can bore after days of perfect weather, offering a good excuse to visit the hill tribes and enjoy the northern culture of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son.  Home to some of the most colourful tribal people in the world, the Akha, Meo, Leo, Hmong, Karen, Lisu and the long-necked Padaung, the velvety green mountains hiding rare orchids and other flora, is a startling contrast to the south of the country.  There are opportunities to join elephant rides into the jungle or to trek to remote villages to meet the hill tribe people.  For a more hands-on activity you can hire a 4WD (with or without driver) so that you can navigate the steep mountain roads and tracks, drift up the Pai River from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai on a bamboo raft, visit the border town of Mai Sai and cross into Myanmar for a few hours, then visit the strange town of Theod Thai to talk with the remnants of Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Army that settled here after escaping from China.

Phuket Sunset
The Elephant is the National Symbol o Thailand

Thailand is not just another country, it’s another way of life, guaranteed to de-stress even the most overworked executive.  After all, a country that has only one word for both work and pleasure, sanuk, has to be something special.

Reflections in a Pool – Hotel in Bangkok

The Shard – London’s New Viewing Attraction

Daytime View from The Shard, London

Nightime View from The Shard, London

The Shard.  Ah!  I look up from the ground and marvel at the design, at the shards of glass that catch the light and splay out at the top.  I had watched it slowly take over its London site, putting in the shade even the famous green glass building that the locals have named The Gherkin.

Then last week during the World Travel Market at Excel, I was privileged to be invited to take a trip to the top of The Shard to experience the incredible views over London from this spectacular building designed by Master Architect Renzo Piano.  And what a vista.

London Bridge from The Shard

With a 360 degree view over the city to a distance of 64 km (40 miles), and from 800 feet up in the sky in the tallest building in Western Europe, London had never looked better.  The Shard is twice as high as any other viewing point in London and the only place in the city from which you can see all of London.

The View from the Shard

For the first time I could see how the River Thames has helped create this great city, how it snakes in and out, meandering north and south in ways I had never realized.   Tiny boats sailed on its muddy waters, like toys pushed off from river banks by little boys.

The Majesric River Thames

From high in our eyrie on Level 69 we could see all of London’s famous landmarks – even on a grey drizzly day.  Easy to pick out the Emirates Stadium (home of the Arsenal football team), Wembley Stadium, Windsor Castle, St. Paul’s etc. and by following the railways with their toy-trains for all the world like the Hornby set I played with a child I could find the railway stations and using this as a guide, find lesser known sites in the area.

Trains on London’s Railways as viewed from The Shard

Technical Help on Viewing Platform

One of the Tell Scopes on Level 69

Of course there are telescopes too.  Not just telescopes, but Tell:scopes, a state of the art system that provides both day and night views of London and information in ten languages.  One thousand years of history and some of the most iconic buildings in the world lie before the viewer as digital Tell:scopes  help visitors explore the cityscape in every direction.

From these viewing galleries it is possible to ascend even higher to Level 72 where, at the highest accessible point of The Shard, guests can stand in the open air, surrounded by the giant shards of glass that seen ti disappear into the sky.  The Shard title derives from the sculpted design which consists of glass facets that incline inwards but which do not meet at the top but instead, open to the sky to allow the building to breathe naturally.

Rood Gardens on the City’s Important Buildings

Further Details and how to book:

The View from the Shard will offer a totally immersive experience of one of the greatest cities on earth when it opens to the public on February 1st 2012.

Restaurants, offices, executive apartments and the Shangri-La Hotel their first time in London ) occupy different floors of the building.  Two lifts whisk visitors to the top in 30 seconds.

Tickets can be reserved for dates next year at www.theviewfromtheshard.com at £24. 95 for adults and £18. 95 for children or via the box office hotline +44(0)844 499 7111.  Open 0900-2200 daily.  Nearest tube station is London Bridge, bus routes 43, 141, 148 and 521 stop there and bus 151 goes from London Bridge. Boat from Westminster Pier leaves hourly.

Not a Job if you Suffer from Vertigo!

Noto – Sicily’s Perfect Baroque Town

Sicily, with its dark history, rough mountains, ravishing scenery, and Etna, that brooding snow-capped volcano that is  never far from people’s thoughts, is one of the Mediterranean islands to which I am constantly drawn back.   I go there for the known attractions and for the food, heavily influenced by the cuisine of the many nations that conquered the island, and for the Baroque towns that sprang up after the earthquake of 1693 that devastated the south-east of the island.  All are beautiful, but the finest of them all is Noto, a town built of golden stone from a local quarry and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the earthquake, Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, employed the best architects of the day to rebuild the city just south of the original town: the result is a triumph of urban planning and harmony.  Noto is in the province of Siracusa, itself a gem of a city and one that should not be rushed through as it has some of the most beautiful buildings in the area, plus the world famous Duomo in the Piazza of the same name, a sea-front with a wall just made for sitting on while you feast on a gelato.  Noto lies about 35 kilometers southwest of Siracusa and is easily reached by local trains which run regularly.        

It was built almost entirely in the  prevailing style at the time, Baroque, and these near-perfect buildings are what makes Noto so special and which earned it the title of  UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is a very accessible town.  You can wander the length of the graceful Corso, stopping here and there for a coffee and one of Noto’s famous cakes, or a gelato or freshly squeezed orange or lemon juice.  Take a detour down the side streets and climb the steep steps to the top where the aristocrats lived, then come down to the next level which housed the clergy and other nobility, before arriving back at street level where the ordinary people lived.   One of the best streets in which to wander is the Via Nicolaci, famous for its buttressed balconies held up with playful horses, griffons, cherubs and old men, incongruous on an otherwise severely classical façade.

Just at the top of Via Nicolaci is the beautiful elliptical façade of the Chiesa di Montevirgine. I didn’t have time to count them, let alone visit them, but I was assured that Noto has thirty-two churches.  Think on that – thirty two churches.

So, what to visit when you are only there for a day visit.  If time is short my advice is just to wander.  Like Florence, the history of the town is in its buildings, their façades and the sense of life in the streets.  The Cathedral rises impressively above Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle and is approached by a wide and graceful flight of steps and its simple interior  

may well come as a surprise in contrast to its exterior.

I had initially mistaken the flamboyant Chiesa di san Dominica for the Cathedral, flanked as it is by huge palm trees and looking more Middle East than Mediterranean. The Municipio (town hall) has an exuberant trompe l’oeil ceiling and a “magic mirror” which is just a mirror of illusion.  My own favourite interior was the Vittorio Emmanuelle Theatre, still offering productions to its patrons, a fantasy theatre with red velvet and gilded boxes lining the walls echoed by heavy drapes curving round the proscenium arch.      

If you want to imagine what Italian towns looked like in the 17th century, then Noto should be on your list of towns to visit – it’s very special.