Monthly Archives: December 2009

Thai Orchid Festival 2009

Some of the best orchids in the world can be found in Thailand. They grow here easily and can also be bought at a good price. However, with over 1,000 species of orchids in Thailand the price can vary from cheap to extremely expensive. If you are interested in flowers or like taking pictures, then you would surely be interested to know that some of the best orchids in Thailand are on display this weekend at Ancient Siam in Samut Prakan Province.

As part of the celebration for the new year, Ancient Siam have organized the Thai Orchid Festival which will run between 31st December 2009 and 3rd January 2010. The event was officially opened by Mr. Surachai Kanasa, Governor of Samut Prakan.

The opening ceremony was this afternoon. However, there are still many activities going on over the weekend. All of the orchids in the competition will still be on display. Ancient Siam is a great place to go at the best of times. But, if there is a festival going on then it is definitely good value for money.

Ancient Siam is a large open air museum with buildings, monuments and important structures from all over the country. If you want to see traditional Thai style house from the four regions then this is a great place to come. You can rent a bicycle and easily spend the good part of the day exploring the park. Ancient Siam is one of my favourite places to take pictures and I always go whenever they have a festival. Visit our website for more detailed information.

Top 10 Thai Photos for 2009

It is that time of year again when we do a quick review of the past year. Today I am going to look back at some of the more popular news photos from Thailand on our sister blog One of the most popular pictures of the year is this ladyboy who won the title Miss Tiffany 2009.

January: The year started off on the wrong foot with the tragic night club fire in Bangkok that killed so many people. A year has passed and no-one has been brought to justice. Australian Harry Nicolaides was sentenced to three years in prison for insulting the monarchy in a little read book. He was later pardoned. Thailand is accused of leaving boat people to die in the Similan Islands.

February: The Americans take part in army exercises in Thailand called Cobra Gold. The Red shirts rally again in Bangkok.

March: Miss Chutima Durongdej was crowned Miss Thailand Universe. Abhisit goes to Britain and meets Gordon Brown. Rod Stewart puts on a concert in Bangkok. Two British tourists are attacked by “pirates” and one is brutally murdered. Red Shirts camp out at Government House.

April: Red Shirts force the premature closure of the ASEAN summit in Pattaya. Thai soldiers and red shirts clash in Bangkok making it a Bloody Songkran. Abhisit’s car is attacked by protesters. An attempt on the life of Sondhi Limthongkul is made and he ends up in hospital. Tension on the Thai-Cambodian border builds up. Thailand starts preparing for Swine Flu.

Deadly Club Fire in Bangkok

May: Sorawee Nattee wins Miss Tiffany 2009 contest. The panda in Chiang Mai Zoo gives birth after watching panda porn to get her in the mood. Little Keigo is put in the public eye with his search for his long lost Japanese father. An Australian woman almost causes a diplomatic incident when she steals a bar mat. Governor of Phuket personally apologizes to her and even pays her court fines. The Sky Train extension to Wong Wian Yai is finally opened after years of delay. Two tourists mysteriously die on Phi Phi island. Cause of death is still not known.

June: David Carradine died in his hotel room in Bangkok. Police photos of the crime scene are leaked to the Thai Rath newspaper and the whole world use google to try and see them. American actress Brittany Daniel gets a tattoo by famous Thai tattoo artist Ajarn Nu in Pathum. Gunmen kill 11 people at a mosque in Southern Thailand. Thais are told to wear masks. Train workers go on strike. The yellow shirts form their own party. The panda is now one month old and Thai people go panda crazy. Thai elephants feel left out and decide to dress up as pandas.

July: The red shirts return to Bangkok for more protests. A Thai elephant is born in Australia. Liverpool football club comes to Thailand followed the next day by Hillary Clinton. Bangkok schools close after flu outbreak. Noppawan wins at Wimbledon.

August: A plane crashes on Sumi killing the pilot. Miss Thailand Wins Miss Photogenic at the Miss Universe 2009 competition. Thaksin continues his tour of the world in order to gain publicity. This month he meets the King of Swaziland. Thailand refuses to extradite Viktor Bout to America but they haven’t yet released him. The panda is given a name of Lin Ping after a national competition.

Deadly Clashes in Bangkok during Songkran

September: H.M. The King is admitted to Siriraj Hospital. JJ the jet ski scammer is arrested after he was seen on British television extorting money from a tourist. It was later found out that the programme was edited in such a way to make him look bad. The film-makers fled Thailand. A 74 years old man in Sisaket Province was found to be living in a hole for the past 30 years. A Thai-Burmese boy catches the public attention in his plight to get a passport to take part in a paper plane competition in Japan. Foreigners are caught robbing a gold shop in Bangkok. Bryan Robson comes to Thailand for talks to be the next coach of the Thai football team.

October: Rakesh Rakesh returns to Thailand after the Supreme Court of Canada rejected his latest appeal against extradition. The winner of Miss Thailand 2009 was Miss Ornvipa Kanoknateesawad. A passenger is killed in a train crash. Miss Poland comes to Thailand. A billboard in Pattaya proclaims Hitler is not dead. Keigo finally meets his Japanese father. Red shirts continue their protests in Bangkok. Prince Andrew comes to Thailand.

November: Provinces around Thailand each take turns to sing the national anthem live on national television. H.M. the King celebrates Loy Kathong at the hospital. Jimmy Carter comes to Thailand to build houses. Thaksin goes to Cambodia and causes a diplomatic spat. Ex-Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej dies of cancer. Thais are arrested for translating and re-posting foreign news reports about the King’s health.

December: Some activities for H.M. The King’s birthday are cancelled but he makes a brief birthday speech. Thailand marks five years since the Tsunami. A speedboat in Pattaya kills two tourists. Thai spy in Cambodia is sentenced to 7 years but is later pardoned by the king. An arms cargo plane is detained in Bangkok carrying tons of war weaponry. Thai army forcibly deport 4,000 Hmong back to Lao.

David Carradine dies in a Bangkok hotel room

Top 10 Thai Photos 2009:

  1. David Carradine Dead in Bangkok
  2. Miss Thailand Universe 2009
  3. Brittany Daniel’s Thai Tattoo
  4. Thailand at Miss Universe 2009
  5. Bangkok International Motor Show 2009
  6. Club Fire Kills 60 in Bangkok
  7. David Beckham’s House in Thailand
  8. Thai Costume at Miss Universe 2009
  9. Thai soldiers, anti-government protesters clash
  10. Miss Tifffany 2009

Burma’s Secret Garden – Hunting the Jungle Casinos

I’m in the back of a luxury Limo on a dirt road, it’s pitch black outside only the occasional checkpoint light breaks the darkness as we speed past the armed guards unchallenged. I’m in one of the most totalitarian regimes on earth, no passport, no travel permits, alongside me half a dozen Chinese gamblers and one enemy of the state………

After what seems like an eon the jungle canopy breaks and the car pulls up in the middle of a vast levelled area concealed deep within the forest. Gaudy neon lights of illegal casinos illuminate the area, around a stream of limousines are pulling up in front of the casino doors dropping tonight’s punters off. Sprawled between the casinos a small array of support businesses intermingle; minimarts, liquor shops, bars, slots, street eats and street traders.

We have arrived at one of the most lawless and secret places on earth…….


Thailand left, Shan State right

Unlike most of the Shan who still either fight on or are under heavy military occupation and oppression, the Democratic Alliance Army of the Eastern Shan State have made peace with the Burmese junta and live in their own autonomous enclave in the east of the state. The region is ruled by warlord and former drug lord, the Chinese born Lin Mingxian, better known by his Shan name Sai Leun. For three decades his Chinese backed communist forces fought bloody war against the Myanmar government until the late 90’s they made peace along with his neighbours the Wa.

His fiefdom has the serendipity to border Thailand at Chaeng Saen and Dalou in China as well. Much of the 30 year war effort was funded by drug exports to Thailand, the Chaeng Saen to Bangkok highway even gained the nickname the ‘speed’ highway in the 90’s and it was the widespread rumour that Thai politicians paid for the Ya Ba pills, the army drove them down the speed highway to Bangkok, the police took delivery, stored them in a house a few doors along from Ramkanghaeng police station and passed them on to the Thai mafia for sale on the streets.

Part of the peace conditions imposed on Sai Leun was he had to give up his drug manufacturing activities. Sai Leun complied, however peace with the Burmese government is uneasy at best and one of constant wondering how long before they break the treaty and invade. The tiny state has cultivated a dependency on China allowing large numbers of Chinese migrants and illegal workers as well as businesses to move in, this along with its main trade, rubber and teak, all going to China maybe he has done enough to ensure Chinese military support if under threat.

The Eastern Shan have also allied themselves closely to the Wa to the north who have made a similar uneasy deal with the Burmese government. The Shan’s forces number only 2,500 and offer little problem for the Burmese army, however the powerful Wa with their 30,000 strong modern army are a different proposition. The Wa alliance comes at a cost to the Shan though, the Wa are arguably the largest drug manufacturers in the world, but lack a border with Thailand, so the Shan must allow them to freely traffic their produce across the Shan state to the Thai border.

The Eastern Shan themselves deforested the jungles, planted rubber and teak, created a tax free shopping haven for Chinese tourists and opened up a casino town complete with five star hotels, clubs, discos and multi story hostess bars to rival Las Vegas. All went well, Chinese gamblers flocked to it and soon 16 Billion Yen a year was finding its way into the statelet’s coffers, when China put its foot down threatening to close the border and cut off the electricity if the casinos were not closed down and even sent troops into the state to ensure this was done.

If the Chinese thought the casinos dead and buried they were very much mistaken, a few years ago rumours started to circulate the casinos had reopened in a secret location in the jungle. News reports stated virtual gambling was going on, cameras, mics and earphones were fitted to proxy players in the casinos and Chinese could gamble via them through the internet. Sai Leung also started to build a power station so the Chinese couldn’t cut him off.

When I read the news stories it left me wondering, if true, how virtual e-Gambling could ever be anything but a novelty and surely couldn’t generate the billions of Yen the casinos had……. Something fishy was going on, so I hooked up with the Burmese speaking founder of Burma Global Action Network who through an epic Burmese secret service blunder had to his amazement been admitted into the country, and we set off to investigate.


I get the idea the Burmese government are not too keen on Shan moving around the country. All the roads out of each town and village have a checkpoint a kilometre along them. This made driving through Myanmar a slow process, at one point we needed 25 checkpoint passes just to travel from one town to another. Checkpoints ranged from large concrete affairs with car parks to wooden huts beside the roads with barriers. Each one checked the papers of everyone on the bus. It was a slow process 8 hours just to go 180km.

British colonial buildings in Shan State

In the 1970’s Burma had changed from driving on the left side of the road to the right, this despite the fact all the neighbouring countries drive on the left. This would have been all right had Ne Win’s policy of ‘sufficiency’ isolating Burma from the world not been such a disaster and only a few new cars since the 70’s had made it into the country. This meant most vehicles were still right hand drive, making Burmese busses the only buses I know with two drivers. One sits in the driver’s seat on the right hand side and steers the bus, the other stands on the left giving him information on traffic coming in the other direction, cars don’t have this luxury so drive around the winding mountain roads half blind. The reason for the change from left to right was rid itself of British colonial influence. Ironically they are still one of the last three countries in the world not to have adopted the metric system, surely a more sane way of ridding yourself of colonial influence. Then again who said Burma was sane.

The Burmese countryside is ugly; I’ve seen deforestation all over Asia. In Thailand the forests are gone and houses, factories and towns sit on their former location. In Lao, in place of the some dense forests sit neat rows of rubber and teak plantations. In Indonesia forests are replaced with paddy fields and working farms. In Burma the trees are gone and just desolate wild scrub left revealing the legion of shell holes from their war with the Shan, and no attempt made to replenish the land.

In the central Shan area the heavy military occupation is apparent, military bases surround Shentung, convoys of military vehicles plough through it daily and there’s an air of oppression among the local Shan. The owner of our guest house brought home just how oppressive as she recalled the tale of how a few years ago the police had burst into her home at midnight and dragged her husband away, who mysteriously died in jail shortly after, his crime, speaking English and meeting tourists surely must have meant he was involved in subversive activity.

HQ of central Shan, now under Burmese military occupation and turned into a timberyard

Once you get into the interior of the Shan State travel become harder as foreigners are not allowed to use busses and the only option is taxi which can be expensive, even though this is about the only thing in the whole country you pay local rate for. Cars are expensive to buy, a fourth or fifth hand 70’s car will cost 200,000 baht and the driver must recuperate the cost somehow.

It was while stopping at a checkpoint in one of these taxis we make our first spot of a physic nut plant, these plants should be everywhere as the government was forcing all Burmese to buy 2-4 plants from the government and plant them in their garden, however unsuitable climate and soil caused most to die. In the Burmese language the nut plant’s name is ‘kyet suu’ which is similar to Ang Sung Suu Kyi’s name backwards. The superstitious government made the law believing the plants would ward off her evil spirit from every house.

After 4 days of travel we reached the Eastern Shan State around midday, arriving at the border checkpoint we paid our admission fee, (yes admission fee) to get in. As we crossed the border the world changed we truly were in a theme park. The farmhouses were no longer wooden huts but villas, the farms flourished with vegetation and were brimming with animals, neat crops and the latest modern farm equipment. Brand new Maseratis and Hummers sped passed us on the modern roads which carve their way through the tended rubber and teak plantations, yes we were in Burma one of the poorest and least developed countries on earth.

Eastern Shan State

We entered the Mongla valley, a scenic canal carved the town in two, spanned by ornamental Chinese bridges, a huge boulevard ran along either bank. In the picturesque hills around the town luxury apartments, villas and brand new temples nestled between luxury mansions. Along the boulevards lined up massive five star hotels, casinos, luxury car show rooms and parades of modern shops……… Every single one with Chinese signs.

Not one word of Burmese, Shan or English could be found in the town, ironically two shops had Thai signs, one a boutique the other a travel agent. Chinese meter taxis drove around the town, Chinese people worked in every business, made up the entire staff of every hotel from cleaner to manager, ran every shop, were 100% of the tourists, and not one spoke a single word of English, Thai or Burmese. With the exception of the Shan troops at the Chinese border who could speak Thai we were well and truly buggered.

First stop we reported to immigration, we had already surrendered our passports to the Burmese in exchange for travel permits, now the Shan relieved us of these, this could be a long stay. We wandered around the town for an hour looking for something that resembled a guest house, after visiting a few hotels and working out just how out of our price range they were, along a side street we luckily stumbled upon one and the owner ran out and gestured us to come in.

We spent the next few days exploring the town, we ate lunch at a huge modern centre piece market and quite by chance sat next to some Shan builders who were in town for the day carrying out some work and chatted to them. If you speak Thai you can’t understand a word of the Shan language, however just as in Lao, Thai TV makes it into the Shan state and all Shans speak good Thai. Shan after all is a Burmese bastardisation of the word Siam, the Shan call themselves the Tai Yai in their own language and speak a dialect of the Tai language group, so have little difficulty picking up Thai from TV.

We wandered around examining the casinos scattered throughout the town for signs of life, large ones that rivalled Las Vegas to smaller and more intimate ones. All were derelict having closed down over 3 years ago. Peeking through the glass we could see the dusty gaming tables and abandoned floors.

The derelict casinos

Just what an isolated place we were in became apparent when we worked out there were no banks in town and no internet either. With Yuan the only currency taken we counted our blessings we had spent half a day searching for a black market money changer before we entered the region, all the time worried being the only foreigners in the vicinity we may have been being observed by the secret police.

In the evening the town became a red light area, huge disco sized hostess bars lit up in neon, many small shops completely empty apart from 2/3 girls sitting on chairs in them opened up and a small side street of shops with curtains where front walls should be opened for business. In each 20/30 girls sat at tables both in and outside, cars drove up the road picking them up and taking them back to hotels. Chatting to one of the madams we found the girls were all from Yunnan and spent a few weeks/months illegally in town each year to supplement their incomes.

Another day we visited the Anti-Drugs Museum and met the towns only English speaking and non-Chinese resident, an Ankh who worked for a UK aids charity handing out condoms and some quite graphic leaflets to the drivers of cars as they crossed the Chinese border. That evening too we met someone we could communicate with, a Thai woman who could speak Chinese and was doing business in town. Pointing at food works great but when the restaurant has no rice on display asking for it is difficult, we went through our repartee of foreign languages, but it was when I asked for Khao Plao that the Thai cavalry arrived.

It was leaving this restaurant another night that we scored the goal we came for, we bumped into a 72 year old Chinese gambler who spoke some English. Born in India, he lived their for 30 years, spent the next 30 in Sweden and the last twelve in Vancouver living half a kilometre away from my travel companion and what’s more he able to tell us the covert information on how to get to the casinos.


The secret jungle casinos

Video of them, before I was stopped filming

We exited our Limo and made a brief survey of the area, there were nine casinos of varying size spread over an area of half a kilometre, as well as shops many local hill tribe had set up selling food such as Khao Lam. Some luxury cars were parked outside the casinos but most gamblers used the casino’s transport. The atmosphere was laid back just some casino security in tuxedos but no military or police presence.

We entered our first casino; it was one of the smaller ones. Twelve tables covered a large single in room which could be described as doing its best to impersonate a marine blue carpeted and cream walled snooker hall. Compared to the luxury casinos we see in movies at Vegas or Monte Carlo this was more Klong Toey than the Oriental. These casinos were clearly hastily built functional but no glitz replacements for the luxury ones closed down in town. The Chinese among Asians are usually particularly well noted for being underwhelmed and nonchalant at the appearance of westerners. However on this occasion I felt like the proverbial gunslinger walking into the western saloon and the whole place going slack jawed and goggle eyed as I entered.

The game being played was Chinese Baccarat, a game that makes the western version look like rocket science. It consisted of 2 or 4 cards being drawn in two piles, red and blue and punters betting on which pile of cards added up to the higher number. A Majongesque style count was kept showing which pile won each round. The game was initially confusing as the betting wasn’t colour coded and red on the betting mat didn’t necessarily correspond to the red pile of cards, instead I had had to quickly memorise a couple of Chinese characters.

Each table had a clear stated minimum and maximum bet, the cheap tables 10-200 Yuan or 20-200Y, more expensive tables 200-2000Y. In the third casino we visited about 30 people crammed around the cheapest table, I felt sure enough of the rules and I hesitantly put my first 10 Yuan bet on the red pile and won, the following game too. Within 20 minutes I was 40 Yuan up then back down to zero again. Then I hit a streak and won four in a row, as I did I noticed the man standing beside me following my every bet, I guess I was appearing the player with his luck in tonight.

We moved on to the next casino and then the one after that determined to visit all of them. The fourth an biggest casino had a huge floor of tables and a second room. Investigating this room which was quite small we saw just two tables and around them a cluster of players, only these players had headphones and microphones on. Around the tables was bright studio lighting and multiple cameras covering the table form all angles, we had found the world infamous e-gambling tables.

My first suspicion was correct, the e-tables were not a viable business just a novelty or smoke screen to the dozens of tables with live gamblers we saw. Within a few hours we had visited each of the casinos, all the time Chinese turning up by the score in black vans, limousines, Chinese taxis and luxury cars. It was my first time in a casino and at the end of the evening I went home 1500 baht richer.


Visiting the Eastern Shan State had been a revelation, sort of Disneyworld for the Chinese Nouveau riche. Sai Leun’s little realm was no more democratic than Burma but it wasn’t oppressive. The Eastern Shan were wealthy and content, I wondered if it would be the same if they weren’t so wealthy. I also wonder if it can survive. Each year the junta’s power grows along with their military strength and one by one the regions outside their control are picked off. The answer to the question I guess is how China will react to a town of Chinese people and investment being attacked by the Burmese army, has Sai Leun cannily outwitted the junta by turning his state into some more akin to part of China than part of Burma.

Christmas in Thailand 2009

Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakan put on Christmas activities for their students on the morning of 25th December 2009. As the students arrived at school, they were greeted by Santa Claus and a couple dozen fairies. The young fairies handed out candies to the students as they arrived.

During morning assembly, there was singing and dancing around a Christmas Tree. The students sang popular Christmas songs such as Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. All of the students in our school are Buddhists and there are no Christians. However, Thai people are always keen to adopt festivities of other countries as long as they are fun.

Visit the Paknam Web Forums to see some videos shot this morning.

Sam Chuk Old Market in Suphan Buri

One of the better preserved traditional markets in Thailand can be found in Suphanburi Province. It is called Sam Chuk 100 Year Market and it still has its original wooden shophouses that date back to the reign of King Rama V. In those days it was a bustling market alongside the Tha Chin River. This was a main thoroughfare between the north and Bangkok. However, with the building of roads both the importance of the market and the number of customers dwindled. It got to the point that the local authority were contemplating on pulling down the old houses to build condominiums.

Fortunately, the local people decided to work together to revive the market. They have done such an outstanding job that this year UNESCO gave them an Award of Merit in recognition of their achievement. It is certainly one of the better old market that I have visited. These days, markets in Thailand seemed to all sell the same thing with clothes and tacky objects for the home and kitchen. Markets open for tourists also tend to have the same cheap souvenirs. However, Sam Chuk Market is more of a living museum where they have carefully blended the past and present.

The highlight of any market for me is of course the food. Sam Chuk certainly doesn’t disappoint you in this department. In fact, some people drive up all the way from Bangkok just to eat at the market and to enjoy the authentic surroundings. As well as noodles and roast duck, there are also many famous Thai desserts. Some of the more popular restaurants are very crowded at the weekend and you might need to wait for a seat. After a meal, you could visit a coffee shop to try a drink made the traditional way.

One of the things that I liked about the market is that it is spread out. There are about 300 houses in the market on the four main lanes. This gives you a chance to get away from the crowds and do a bit of exploring. Some of the smaller shops out of the way are just as interesting. As well as the food shops and coffee houses, there are kitchenware shops, photo studios, clothing shops, beauty parlours, traditional medicine shops, antique shops, blacksmiths and a lot more. There are also some shops selling good quality souvenirs.

This old photo studio is a good example of a shop from days gone by still being used successfully today. In one of the three storey wooden shophouses they have put together an interesting community museum. There is a scale model of the market as well as pictures of days gone by. Sam Chuk is a good example of how the local people can work together to produce a successful tourist attraction and thriving market even in the middle of a recession. I have only been there once but I will certainly go again to explore more.

Sam Chuk community market is accessible through Highway 340, from Bangkok via Bang Bua Thong district in Nonthaburi to Suphan Buri. It is located on the riverside and adjacent to the Sam Chuk District Office. You can catch a bus heading north from Suphanburi. Many thanks to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) for taking us to this market and for looking after us so well. You can view more of our pictures as well as a video over at the Paknam Web Forums.