Monthly Archives: January 2009

Chiang Mai Aquarium

After the giant pandas on loan from China that have become famous for failing to reproduce, and the giant monorail that snakes over the treetops of the extensive area, here is Chiang Mai Zoo’s latest mega-project, the Aquarium. It was built on top of a pond, not very far from the panda enclosures, overlooking the city. It had been years in the making and has gobbled up a staggering 600 million baht, a joint venture between the Thai government and Australian firm Marine Scape.

Opened last year, it boasts the world’s longest underwater tunnel, 133 metres, half of which is dedicated to freshwater habitats. Over 250 different species are on display, most of them native to Thailand. Besides the spectacular coral reef habitats, the less colourful but just as interesting Mekhong river wildlife comes alive right above your head. Some of the highlights are stingrays, lionfish, clownfish, sea horses, and starfish, all long-time favourites with small children because of their unusual appearance. Small sections are dedicated to life in the Bhumibol dam, Doi Inthanon, mangrove habitats, and insects (though since when have snakes belonged to the insect kingdom, I have no idea).

So far, so good – sounds really impressive.
Last week, we went on a field trip with my students. With 30 kids in tow, it is difficult to take notes and contemplate displays for over 10 seconds at a time, but you get a very different take on what is going on around you. As an addicted snorkeller, I had been looking forward to visiting this Aquarium, even though I know it always pales in comparison with the real thing.

For a start, the pricing structure is really confusing, and I got even more puzzled when I checked out the zoo website for definitive answers. It seems that the prices have been lowered since the opening. What I saw on the spot is that you have the choice to buy tickets only valid for the aquarium for 400 / 300 baht (foreigner adult / child) and you will be transported straight to the aquarium by tram. If you buy the ticket at the aquarium, after having paid the regular zoo entry fee to be able to see other displays, the price is 350 / 260. Thai adults pay 220 at the gate, the children’s price was covered up with a notice and I couldn’t see it from a distance. Of course, Thai numerals are used to throw unsuspecting foreigners off track. The zoo usually gives the Thai price to expats with a work permit.

At the entrance to the aquarium, you need to drop off your water bottles, food and large backpacks, and pick up a brochure that is only in Thai. You may take your photo with the advertising poster featuring hammerhead sharks – that is as close as you are ever going to get to them on this day. On second thought, hopefully those beasts are still enjoying their freedom somewhere out in the wild.

After walking over the bridge, the dark insides of the building swallow you up and you are thrown into the underwater world, a stark contrast to the blinding sunshine outside. It is pleasant to escape, except that in the dark it is somewhat difficult to locate and read information about fish, which seems to be bilingual. The staff is very helpful, answers questions when all the poor visually challenged teacher can say to curious kids is “I don’t know” while scrambling to find some information.

You can come up close to stingrays and various small fish tanks with beautifully arranged displays of clown fish, starfish, seahorses, there is enough space to admire every detail even for a large group of small kids. However, I don’t remember seeing seats anywhere where you could just sit for a while and contemplate, or take a little rest.

In the tunnel, there is a smart moving platform that proceeds at a convenient speed, faster or slower visitors may move on the stable part of the pavement beside it. In the fresh water section, the catfish and turtles are not shy and move right up to the glass so that kids can admire them up close. The seawater section has small black tip, white tip and leopard sharks in abundance as well as more rays and lots of colourful coral reef fish familiar to any snorkeller, eliciting excited cries from the children.

But somehow, the tunnel, which is supposed to be the highlight, is a disappointment. The water is four metres deep, and you feel like you are under water – all the light comes from overhead and it is like looking into the sun. Fish are back lit and photos just don’t work. If you have been to Siam Ocean World in Bangkok, you may remember it feels like walking among sharks, on the bottom of the sea – and large sharks at that. In Chiang Mai, it is a more restricted view, especially if you are a kid – just look at the photo below. It is a problem in all of the zoo that enclosures are built so that small children only see the walls and need to be picked up by an adult to see anything at all. (Maybe hence the reduced price for visiting school groups who get a limited view in the absence of their parents?) In the tunnel, they can only look up, losing half the view completely if the poor teacher is not an octopus with eight arms. And the sharks are a lot smaller too.

I estimate it takes about two hours to take in everything (if you are not with that bunch of children, that is). Slightly smaller and less impressive than the above mentioned establishment in Bangkok. On the way out, you may admire a carefully selected array of ridiculously overpriced soft toys and souvenirs (good luck dragging the children away), or pay for some funny photo editing that places you at the feeding end of a shark.

Overall, a pleasant experience and a neatly done project with some gaping holes. For me personally, it does not come up to the hype, and I find the foreigner prices ridiculous. Their target seems to be 800,000 visitors a year – which is more than the entire population of the city. I understand it was a huge investment and they need a return in the foreseeable future. With zoo entry prices gradually crawling up even for Thais, and separate tickets to be bought for the zoo, the monorail, the pandas, the aquarium, the tram, the adventure park, parking facilities, not to mention the souvenirs…. it adds up to an expensive family day out. I suspect most people will come on school trips, paying a reduced price, or only come once or twice, not regularly. It is not the sort of price many would pay over and over for a casual, relaxing Sunday afternoon.

I don’t know enough about animal protection issues to comment on the doubts and controversies raised in connection with the Aquarium, so I really do not want to go into that dimension of the project. I can only sincerely hope that Thai children will be a little more educated about their treasures and how vulnerable they are. So far away from the sea, an Aquarium is likely to bring increased awareness; however, I have no idea how it could translate into everyday life. But even if people think aquatic environments are worthy of some protection because they are nice to look at, I suppose that is a step forward.

How to cook… Stir Fried Vegetable with Chicken

One of the dishes that I often cook is stir-fried vegetables. You can adapt this in so many different ways depending on what vegetables you have in stock. If I have bought a curry from the roadside, then I usually supplement the stir-fry with some extra meat. Either pork or chicken. In the ingredients below you can see cabbage, chicken, carrots and garlic in the center.

As usual, heat up some oil in the wok and then add the crushed garlic. Try to use Thai garlic as it is believed to be healthier for you. Once it is fragrant and golden brown, add the chicken slices. Give it a good stir and fry for a few minutes. If it starts to dry out, add a little stock or water. Next comes the vegetables. Season with oyster sauce, soy sauce and sugar. Don’t overcook, leaving it still a little crispy. Come back to next Friday for another Thai dish.

Bangkok Art and Culture Centre

I don’t always get much time to visit art galleries. But, last weekend I was excited to visit the new Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). This is located conveniently opposite MBK Shopping Mall with easy access from the National Stadium Sky Train station. It is unusual to find such a large building dedicated to art in the heart of the shopping strip in Bangkok. If you want a break from shopping or just want to escape the heat, then it is worth checking out the latest exhibitions at the BACC. From now until 15th February 2009 they have the excellent “Krungthep 226” exhibition. As you probably know already, “krungthep” is the Thai name for Bangkok and “226” refers to the age of the city.

The exhibition is a chance to see and learn about the history of the city as portrayed by over 200 pieces of art, both ancient and modern. On display are paintings, photographs and sculptures. The exhibition is divided into four zones: Bangkok’s Early Days, Modernized Bangkok vs. Nostalgic Past, New Bangkok Skyline and Dream Bangkok. I think this is a rare opportunity for us to see and compare how artists have portrayed the city over the last 226 years. In particular I find it interesting the visions of the future where one artist sees Bangkok over-run by the jungle. Another artist took pictures of Bangkok streetscenes and then used Photoshop to erase the ugly billboards and electricity wires.

Kraisorn Prasert

Tatiya Udomsawat

Vorasan Supap

Chatchai Puipia

Julio Brujis

Navin Rawanchaikul

If you have a chance, then I strongly urge you to visit the BACC. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Entrance to the art gallery is free. Check their website at for latest exhibitions.

Pattaya Floating Market

When I first heard about the Four Regions Floating Market in Pattaya, I just thought that we would be getting another tacky and artificial tourist attraction built just to bring in the tourist dollars. There are not really that many authentic floating markets around. The famous one at Damnoen Saduak was recreated in order to cater for foreign tourists. It is situated on the site of a much older floating market that was abandoned years ago when people started going to local supermarkets by car. However, we now have an alternative that was specifically built as a floating market. The recent soft opening of the Pattaya Floating Market has already made it one of the best and biggest floating markets in Thailand.

Over recent years, Damnoen Saduak has become ugly with rusty corrugated iron roofs and rubbish piled up in plain site. On the other hand, the 350 million baht Four Regions Floating Market is purpose built on a 27 acre piece of land. The wooden buildings have been built in the different styles of the four regions of Thailand. So, as you walk along the board walk, you can admire the architecture as you go from region to region. The shops at Damnoen Saduak all sell the exact same tacky souvenirs. However, the Pattaya floating market has over 100 shops selling food and quality souvenirs. If you like Amphawa Floating Market then you will like these shops. The food here was also excellent.

Entrance to the floating market is free of charge. There is a museum to visit or you can just wander around the shops buying souvenirs or eating snacks. You can either buy from the shops or the vendors on the boats who are paddling around the canals. If you would like a boat ride, then it is only 200 baht per boat. These are big enough for four people. But, you don’t need to do this. It is just as pleasant to walk around the large complex. There are bridges criss-crossing all of the canals. You cannot do this at Damnoen Saduak. There are also free cultural shows and dancing. During the week there is only one show in the late afternoon. But, at the weekend there are fours shows in the afternoon and evening.

The tourist attraction isn’t fully open yet, but it can get very crowded at the weekends. So far it is mainly popular with Thai tourists as it is not featured in any English language guidebook. When we were there we only saw a few other foreigners despite being so close to the beach in Pattaya. Later they plan to have sunflower fields, elephants and a working rice field. In one corner they had bird cages on poles which will be used for turtle dove singing competitions. A popular event in Southern Thailand. The floating market is just south of Pattaya on Sukhumwit Road. It is open daily from 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. If you are planning a trip to Pattaya then I strongly urge that you visit this floating market.

Many thanks to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) for taking us to Pattaya. Thanks also to the management of Pattaya Floating Market for giving us a tour and the Hard Rock Hotel for providing us with accommodation.

Come rain, come shine….

…. and an umbrella from Bosang village will definitely come handy!

This small community 10 kilometres east of downtown Chiang Mai, in
Sankamphaeng district, is widely known for its umbrellas and painted
silk fans. The art of umbrella-making is at least 200 years old in
this area.

Each tiny little detail is hand-crafted. The frames are made from
bamboo, the covers are cotton or mulberry paper. Intricate designs of
birds, flowers, dragons are painted for decoration. Umbrellas and
parasols come in a dozen or so sizes, from tiny little key-chains to
huge waterproof umbrellas that can protect an entire family from a
downpour or strong sunshine.

Every year, in January, Bosang craftspeople organise Bosang Umbrella
Festival, one of many small, colourful village handifcrafts fairs in
the region during the cool season. They showcase the very best of
their work, decorate shopfronts and streets, have special deals for
the visitors.

You can admire the dexterity and artwork of the elderly craftspeople
as they demonstrate each step of the process.

It is unheard of to have a local festival without a beauty pageant!
The girls were riding their bicycles along the village holding
umbrellas, of course.

As usual, the local children are invited to dance and play music on stage.

You can ride a horse cart along the main road of Bosang, a nice little
trip to take in the relaxed, colourful atmosphere.

Recently, the local media reported an alarming drop in the number of
umbrellas sold on the overseas markets. Global recession and
competition from other craftspeople in the region have hit Bosang

It is always sad and somewhat ironic that it is demand from ten
thousand miles away that helps preserve traditions in a small village
over here. If nobody buys the umbrellas, will those old wrinkled hands
show all the tricks to the young ones? Will the young ones care? After
all, you can buy a cheap factory-made umbrella at BigC. After all, it
is not a very glamorous career to craft bamboo umbrella frames for a
one-baht profit per piece for the next twenty years.

Come rain, come shine…. what does the future gold for Bosang and its

What role do you think traditional arts and crafts can play in a
rapidly modernising society such as Thailand?

The handicrafts fairs will keep them going. Lanna culture classes at
schools will definitely help. Overseas consumers are likely to come
back. But will it still be real and alive?