Category Archives: culture

Defining Boutique


The term ’boutique hotel’ started to gain popularity in the UK and the USA in the mid-1980s. From the very beginning the term was never exactly defined. Rather it was a matter of style and intention rather than simply ticking the right boxes. Since then the idea of boutique hotels has spread around the world. In 30 years the notion of what makes accommodation ‘boutique’ has become even more diverse.

It is not to do with size. Although many boutique hotels are small there are plenty that are tall, spacious and modern such as Oriental Residence in Bangkok that has 145 rooms.

It is not to do with being a one-off. The Metropolitan in Bangkok is the sister hotel to the famous Metropolitan in London. The Asian version even has its own Met bar with the same entry restrictions as its London counterpart. Because the Bangkok version is not merely copying its famous counterpart but adding style, interpretation and verve into the mix it is a safe bet to view this chain hotel as ‘boutique’.

You get cheap boutique hotels as well as expensive ones. You get boutique hotels with swimming pools, bars, restaurants, shops, spas and other facilities; and you get boutique hotels that offer few facilities but do offer stunning natural surroundings. Ice Hotels in Canada and Northern Europe have few amenities but offer amazing guest experiences.

There are themed boutique hotels and modernist hotels. Some are renovated historical buildings, some are custom made. You find boutique hotels in major cities as well as in remote locations.

A boutique hotel can be as luxurious as a major up-market chain hotel. A boutique hotel room in Bangkok can be cheaper than two dorm beds in Rio de Janeiro. However, the notion ‘backpacker’ is very different to boutique. Boutique hotels offer an experience and very often luxury. Backpacker places offer a cheap bed, a communal atmosphere and free wifi.

The diverse nature of hotels provides one of the most interesting insights into the evolution of ‘boutique’. Despite commercialization the term still has relevance. This is essentially because ‘boutique’ is about quality. According to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance quality is something that is never successfully defined but always recognized. And the same is true of boutique hotels – it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly why but it is easy to spot a real boutique hotel from a fake one. We at are acutely aware of this distinction.

Two Kings Meet

Elvis meets King Bhumibol
The present King of Thailand, HRM Bhumibol, as many people know is an accomplished musician and composer. The King is very fond of jazz music. King Rama IX has his own jazz band called Au Sau Wan Sok. They have played with such greats as Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and James Moody. However perhaps the greatest moment in the history of music and the King is when Rama IX visited a film set in Hollywood and met the other King, Elvis Presley.

It was the tenth year of his reign and the young King was only 32 years old at the time. He went on a tour of the states with his wife, Queen Sirikit. The year was 1960. Elvis had just returned from his overseas military posting in Germany. Although still in the army he was now free to continue his showbiz career. In the picture you see Elvis is wearing army fatigues. He is slim and good-looking. He is on the set of the movie G.I. Blues. The tie-in with Elvis’s military service was too good for Hollywood to miss.

The King and Queen looked charmed with the King. Elvis looks completely at home with the royal pair, who look slightly reserved in comparison.

I like this moment in history. Elvis was beloved by millions of people. He still is. And King Bhumibol has been dubbed ‘The Great’. He is the longest serving monarch in the world, and seen by Thai people as one of their best ever Kings. Like Elvis, King Rama IX is truly loved and cherished in a way that few other monarchs are.

Today, Elvis mania in Bangkok and the rest of the world is stronger than ever. In Bangkok there are many Thai and foreign Elvis impersonators. Some are doing it for the money, and some for the thrill of pretending to be Elvis.

The following clip is Jaruek Viriyakit at the Tivoli Coffee Shop, Asia Hotel. He’s not very good it has to be said. The point is that Elvis culture is surprisingly good at entering different cultures, just indeed as Elvis himself was good at making foreign guests feel at ease.

Wat Saket and the Golden Mount

Wat Saket is one of my favourite temples in Bangkok. Its on the top of a man made hill, known as the Golden Mount. The hill took a fair bit of effort, and several attempts, to build. The first attempt, in the early 19th Nineteenth Century collapsed. The land in this part of Bangkok is low lying and consequently water logged and soft. Another attempt was made at the end of the century and with the addition of some concrete support stayed in place.

The temple itself is not what people come here for. It’s small without much of note inside, although the Chedi (which is an Indian style spire) is pretty cool. It’s covered in thousands of old mosiac tiles. The Chedi is a recongisable landmark clearly visible from ground level. The panoramic view is what makes the temple great. For a long time it was the highest point in Bangkok, and is still the best vantage point in ‘Old Bangkok’.

Like all the best temples, its a bit of a trek to get there. This a good or bad thing depending on your perspective and your frame of mind. Before you even consider climbing the mount you need to get there. It’s not on the skytrain or metro system, although it is on the Canal Taxi network (Khlong Saen Saep) which we have written about previously. The temple is located inconveniently between the modern Siam Square area and the Khao San area. If you are relatively fit you can walk from the Khao San Road, otherwise it requires a  taxi journey to get there, or a local bus trip.

Once you get there the trek doesn’t stop. You have 318 steps to climb to ascend the 80 or so metres to the temple on the top. Probably best to avoid the midday heat if you aren’t properly acclimatized. Once you get there you need to pay 10 Thai Baht to go through the temple to get to the observation deck.

This is a working temple. 300 or so monks live in the temple grounds at the base of the temple. On your way up pause for a little while to take in the small details in the jungle style gardens at the entrance. There are lots of small shrines. Apparently lots of people have been buried here over the years. Some of the graves are meant to be plague victims. We can’t verify this, but we reckon there must be families of the dead still living in the area as people regularly bring offerings and flowers.

The temple is open 8am to 5pm. Except for early November when there is a festival to mark Loi Krathong, which is broadly speaking the Thai version of Christmas, involving a candlelight procession up the stairs at night. It is a great thing to see if you get the chance. There is a small fair and fantastic atmosphere for a week.

If you only have a short time in Bangkok and want to see Wat Saket as well as a number of other important cultural and historical places  we recommend doing the Isango ‘Buddhist Temples and Klongs Tour’. You are picked up at 8am from your hotel  and returned to your hotel at 5 pm. All fees are included as well as lunch and an English speaking guide. The tour takes you to the Grand Palace, the emerald Buddha, Wat Pho, Wat Arun and Wat Saket. It also includes a canal tour. It is a full day out and great value for $100 per person. For more details or to book now click on the button below.

Wat Maharat

Wat Maharat means Temple of the Holy Relic in the Thai language. Every city in Thailand has a Wat Maharat, however, the Wat Maharat in Bangkok is the most important of these in Thailand.

Wat Maharat Yowarajarangsarit Rajaworamahavihara, to give the temple its full name, is one of ten Royal palaces of the highest class. It is very much a working temple, at the head of Thailand’s largest monastic order – The Mahanikai School. The head of the order (‘The Supreme Patriarch’) resides at the temple.

Built during the Ayutthaya Period (1350 – 1767), Wat Maharat came to prominence in 1788 under the patronage of the first king of Siam, Rama 1. The temple buildings were then expanded by Rama IV, who had studied here as a young monk before ascending to the throne. The growth of the temple carried on with the establishment in 1889 of the first institute of higher education for the monkhood in Thailand. In 1997 this institute became a public university.

Foreign visitors are welcome to come and share this learning with Vipassana meditation classes held daily at 7am to 10am, 1pm to 4pm, and 6pm to 8pm. Classes are free, and it is possible to stay in temple while studying also for free, although a donation to the upkeep of the temple is normally required. If you would like to attend telephone +66 (0)2 222 6011. Please note that students are expected to dress in white clothes, and observe the eight precepts of Buddhism, during their period of study.

As a tourist you are welcome to visit the temple. Visitors will appreciate the opportunity to visit a functioning temple. The temple is open from 7am to 6pm every day. Admission is free. The temple is not close to either Skytrain or Metro stations. You can however reach the temple by catching a Chao Phraya Express Boat. The closest pier is Tha Chang Pier. If you are coming by boat, the entrance to the temple (on the Maharat Road) is a 10 minute walk from Tha Chang Pier. If you are coming from Sukhumvit, Silom or Siam Square you can connect with the Chao Phraya Express Boat by taking the BTS (skytrain) to Saphan Taksin station, which is adjacent to Sathorn Pier.

What’s it like in Bangkok

Bangkok is a city of contrasts and a city of extremes. Some visitors like it, some hate it. None find it boring. This is a city with  vitality, energy and constant movement. Fortunes are made here, and lives ruined in equal measure. Amongst all of this people go about their daily lives. For tourists from the developed world this can be an intense experience and one which immediately puts them off.

One of the things which some visitors have difficulties dealing with is the obvious poverty and the exploitation of women, and of children working on building sites. Like all major cities in the world, people come to Bangkok from rural areas and smaller towns in the rest of the country to make a living. In Thailand they tend to come from the poor north east of the country, an area called Issan.

There are several reasons why Issan is poor. A big reason is the climate. It is dry in Issan and unlike other parts of Thailand they can only grow one rice crop a year, and it is difficult to grow cash crops like rubber or palms for oil. Both crops need a lot of water. In Thailand free education finishes at 12. At this age children from poorer backgrounds need to get a job. Going to Bangkok, where there is lots of work, is often the only option for these children. Many will have relatives working there and they will join them. For boys this is predominately working on building sites. For girls this is in the majority of times restaurant or factory work. For a small percentage they will fall into prostitution.

This said, the story isn’t all negative. Many young Thai people make something of themselves in Bangkok through hard work and education which they fund for themselves. As many people whose lives are ruined by the City,  a equal number find opportunities to advance their lives in Bangkok that they would not have had in the countryside.

The contrasting fortunes of people coming to the City are matched in equal measure by the contrasting architecture and development. In Silom and Sukhumvit you find very posh restaurants, high class hotels and shining beautifully built skyscrapers. At the other end of the scale there are shanty towns built on the edge of the train tracks and wooden houses built on the edges of the river. Thailand has huge inequalities of wealth, much more marked than in developed countries. This inequality of wealth is matched by inequality in legal rights – same laws, but an inequality in the way they are applied.

What does this mean for the visitor to Bangkok?

On a practical level what it means is that visitors need to do some research before they go. There are lots of great things to do there. The city is beautiful and ugly in equal measure. Don’t let the ugly bits put you off, you will miss out on the beautiful bits.

Bangkok is a very accessible City. There is a good mass transit system: metro, overhead trains (Sky Train) and express river boats. The city is reasonably priced from food to hotels to attractions. Most people are friendly and honest. And crime levels are low here. It is safe to walk the streets at night. In 15 years I have never been attacked or mugged or had my pockets picked. I wouldn’t be able to say the same of London, Paris or New York.

Families can also enjoy Bangkok. They just need to give it a bit more thought and advance planning. There are plenty of activities specifically for children. Bangkok is also a great educational experience. Bangkok is packed full of culture from temples to museums to strange and exotic foods. Thai people love children and will interact with them in a positive way. The trick is not to overburden the children with the overcrowded streets and congested roads, especially in the heat of the midday sun.

Everyone who visits or lives in Bangkok has a love/hate relationship with the City. If you feel at times uncomfortable being there you aren’t alone. But my advice to you is to look beyond the negative, because they are far outweighed by the positives.

Sin Sod

The giving of a dowry remains an important part of marriage in Thailand. Nothing unusual about this in many parts of Asia. However, what is unusual is that in Thailand the dowry is given by the husband-to-be to the parents of the prospective bride. In Thailand this money is known as ‘Sin Sod‘.

The giving of Sin Sod is a complicated and delicate issue. It is tricky for Thai people and even trickier for Westerners marrying Thais. This practice, whilst traditional in Thailand, is also open to abuse both in terms of exploitation of the prospective husband and in terms of the bride-to-be.

Sin Sod could easily be viewed as either the selling of a daughter, or a girl selling herself for the benefit of her parents. This certainly does happen. However, it is a mistake to believe that this is the norm. The issue goes a lot deeper than this.

For many Thai families the giving of Sin Sod is a sign of commitment. To give this a positive spin, what it means is that ‘feckless’ young Thai men are made to show that they have the self control and work ethic to be good husbands. The ‘going rate’ for Sin Sod in the poor north eastern part of Thailand (so we are told) is 100,000 Thai Baht ($3,333). A young man in the same area, with a fairly good job during manual labour, will earn around 8,000 ($266) a month. This means getting married entailed saving a whole year’s wages. If a young man can do this by our reckoning he has more than amply demonstrated his ability to work and save and hence his suitability as a prospective husband for a loved daughter.

The amount you pay works on a sliding scale. Basically the more ‘desirable’ the girl, the more you pay. I know this is starting to sound more and more like the selling of a prize ‘cow’, rather than a sacred union. However, bear with me and let me explain this. Doubtlessly for some families this is seen as a money maker. However, even if this is true to some extent, there is also an element of pride involved for the family. Giving the money on the wedding day, and doing it publicly, is a big part of the Sin Sod tradition. For the parents of a girl who fetches a big Sin Sod, it is a source of pride, and a boast to family and friends, to show that they raised a daughter who fetched so much money. It also demonstrates that their daughter has been clever to snare a successful man. Big ‘face’ for the the family. How your family is perceived by the community is very important for Thai people, often more important than the money itself.

Foreigners getting married in Thailand generally have a big problem with Sin Sod, after all its not part of their culture and appears to be Thai people taking advantage. Often this is true. The majority of Thai/Western relationships involve 40+ Western men marrying bar girls. Of course they are being taken for a ride. A girl who sells sex for money is also going to sell marriage for money. The ironic thing here though is that quite often former bar girls make very loyal and loving wives. I know a fair few Westerners in Thailand who fall into this category. Go figure. Thailand is full of paradoxes.

Not all Thai/Western marriages fit this mold though. And there are a range of experiences in respect of Sin Sod for more ‘genuine’ relationships. One friend of ours gave no Sin Sod, the girl’s mum refused to accept. The mum works as an accounts administrator in Bangkok and had a very modern perspective on life. Another friend of ours married an older Thai lady and also paid no Sin Sod, but rather made a promise to renovate the family house (as yet an unfulfilled promise after 4 years since the nuptials). For other friends, with successful marriages, Sin Sod was paid. My point here isn’t about the amount you need to pay, but that even for Westerners the issue has to be dealt with one way or the other. If you think you can get married to a Thai girl in Thailand without dealing with the issue you are kidding yourself. If you are in this situation, and your approach is simply to refuse and not pay at all despite what the family say, you aren’t going to be getting married. Simple as that.

Royal Thai Barge Procession

If you are really lucky when you visit Bangkok you will get to see a Royal Thai Barge Procession. We say you are lucky because this is one of the world’s great spectacles, up there with the Kumbh Mela or a British Coronation, and it doesn’t happen very often – the last one was in November 2007.

The Royal Thai Barge Procession has a long history dating back some 700 years. The procession originally took place on the river in Ayutthaya, the old capital. When the capital moved to Bangkok so did the procession. This was only ever an occasional occurrence, never annual or scheduled at regular intervals. The dates when it happens are auspicious and often also mark significant events. The procession stopped altogether with the dissolution of absolute monarchy in 1932. The current King revived the tradition in 1957 to mark the start of the 25th Century in the Buddhist calendar. During the King’s 60 year reign the procession has only occurred a further 15 times.

The procession involves 52 traditional, and very old, wooden barges. These barges are impressively large and ornate. The largest barges are propelled by 50 oarsmen. The total crew for all the barges in the procession is 2,082, all Royal Thai Navy personnel dressed in traditional uniforms. Taking part in the procession is considered a great honour for sailors and the competition to take part is fierce.
Thai Barge
The 52 barges are made up 4 royal barges, one containing the King, and 48 escort barges. The four royal barges, each built during the reign of a different King, are displayed in the National Museum of Royal Barges, which is on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. Each of the four Royal Barges has different prow design: Swan, 7 headed Nakkharat (mythical creature), Naga and Garuda. All 52 wooden barges are stored on land to limit their deterioration, and are only ever in the water for a procession or a rehearsal.

There had been a procession scheduled for 11 October 2011 but it was cancelled due to river conditions. It was then rescheduled for December 2011 but got cancelled again because the great flood in Bangkok. The rumour is that the procession is now going to be rescheduled for 2012, but we are not sure of the month at the moment. Keep your eyes on the news about this, if you can get to Bangkok on the day then this will be your chance to witness something special.

Watch Your Manners in Thailand

Thai culture is a labyrinth – difficult to understand, but very easy to get wrong and commit a social faux pas. If you aren’t Thai you will never fully get it. For this reason, the Thais are generally quite forgiving of foreign visitors. However, there are somethings the Thais won’t excuse, and these are things which you need to be told as they aren’t part of Western standards of good etiquette. These are our top five:

Thai Wai

In Thailand the Wai is the polite way to greet people

1. Respect for Older People

Thai society is hierarchical. Every part of social relations with other people is governed by their place within that hierarchy. To give you an example of this, the way you address people depends on their age relative to yours. For instance, if someone is older than you then you address them using the title of pee so John becomes ‘pee John’ if he is older. However, if John were younger then he becomes ‘nong John’ with nong being the title used for someone younger. This use of titles gets really elaborate within families. For a cousin their title changes depending upon whether their mum or dad (their aunt or uncle) is older or younger than your mum or dad. If the cousin is the child of the eldest of the group of siblings to which their mum or dad belongs then they have a higher status than the other cousin irrespective of whether they are themselves older or younger.

The word khun means something close to Mr. and is often used in a formal situation.

Complicated isn’t it? Don’t worry about the titles, but remember that if someone is older than you are expected to treat them with a modicum of respect. Being rude to the elderly is a big social faux pas, don’t do it in Thailand.

2. Never Get Angry

If you get angry you are said to have a ‘hot heart’ (jai rawn in Thai). Being said to have a hot heart is a big insult in Thailand, being calm (having a ‘cool heart’ or jai yen in Thai) is a virtue. If you get angry in Thailand it will get you nowhere. People will just get angry back at you and think you are stupid. If you need to complain, stay calm, make your point and you have a much better chance of getting the desired result.

3. Face

The concept of ‘face’ is a difficult thing to describe. The better way to understand it is to define what ‘losing face’ means. This is when you are made to look stupid, or just wrong, especially in public. Keeping face is the most important thing in Thai culture and this is all about appearances. In practice what this means is never putting people on the spot by directly criticising people whether in private or in public. You can be critical but you must do it in a more subtle way.

To illustrate this point please let me give you a real life example. Foreigners working in Thailand generally don’t get the face thing straight away and it makes life managing people difficult for them. We know a certain head chef working in a top beach resort in Southern Thailand who would constantly berate his staff in front of their co-workers. The restaurant staff kept on resigning and the chef, who actually did a pretty good job of managing the restaurant, ending up getting the sack himself because of the staff retention problem. What he should have done is to have taken the staff to one-side and have told them that what they were doing was great, but that he would have preferred them to do it in a different way. Message made and face intact. Everyone is a winner.

4. Certain Parts of the Body are sacred or unclean

The head in Buddhist belief is the most sacred part of the body. Never touch a Thai person’s head, even in affection. The feet are the lowest, most unclean, part of the body. Avoid pointing your feet at people. Both these things can make them Thai people very upset.

5. Never Disrespect the King

Both a legal offence, and a big social faux pas – perhaps the biggest.

Foreigners generally have a problem understanding this one as in Western culture it is acceptable to criticise everyone and everything. However, when you start to look into Thai history this particular social norm actually makes a lot of sense.

Thailand has huge problems with both corruption and political instability. Governments come and go, and politicians and other public officials are generally perceived to use their position to steal from the people at large in one way or another. The Kings of Thailand have been seen by the Thai people as standing apart from this as symbols of stability, and honesty in public governance. The last King, for example, supported a great many worthy social programmes and publicly supported democracy throughout the turbulent periods of his reign. The King in Thailand is a source of hope for Thai people in a country where many other public officials fall short, and this is why the people love him.

Next read about Making Merit by Killing Goldfish