Posted by Ted on Apr 22, 2011 in Activities
It all started with a dog named Lucy.
On an evening in early December, Liz and I had been celebrating the Shan New Year with our “Team Chiang Mai” friends at the Thai Freedom House. Arriving separately, I biked back to our guesthouse, and Liz’s walk home took her past a man and his dog grabbing some dinner at a streetside noodle stall. Liz was friends with Lucy by the time she found out that her owner was an adventure sport and tour leading expert. After a quick flurry of late night emails, it was settled — I’d be picked up early in the morning to join Crank Adventures for a 2-day mountain biking tour.
Blearily waking up at 7:40a, I took a quick shower and grabbed breakfast to go from the nearest 7-11. I ate my pork bao, yogurt, and pandan cake as the van carried us north into hills, an hour past Mae Rim. I spent the time getting to know the owner. Damian is a jovial and knowledgeable Australian, fluent in Thai and familiar with just about every trail in Northern Thailand. Finally we were deposited on a hilltop where we unloaded the bikes, donned our gear, took the requisite ‘before’ photos, and charged down the mostly paved hill.
The valley scenery was stunning. We rode past rice paddies and hill tribe villages, and up and down a number of small hills, of which I walked up many of the climbs, out of breath but determined. On or off-road, bicycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Senses of sight and smell are heightened, and you attain an intimate connection with your environment. A rutted dirt track took us through a field, thick smoke rising from slash-and-burn farming. We crossed the Mae Taeng at the river village of Ban Sop Kai, where we stopped for lunch at a noodle shop and were accosted by Hmong women selling cheap bracelets, smiling with betel-blackened teeth.
Back on our bikes, we headed downstream, taking our leave from the road to explore the hills. This was my first time, so I was unaware that the holy grails of mountain biking are “single track” trails, and Damian’s passion is seeking them out. Whereas such trails at home might be created ad-hoc by bikers, these paths were clearly used for inter-village travel – for some villages, a small trail might be the only way in or out. Many of the villages are sustained by the King’s Royal Project to turn opium fields into rice, teak, lychee, longan, corn, banana, cabbage, and passionfruit. Lulled into the peaceful scenery, I was unprepared for the grueling mid-afternoon climb, wherein I pushed the bike and my backpack up a rock-strewn rutted mountain trail.
Bikes and bikers strewn across the forested hilltop, we enjoyed a short rest. Then, as if we were getting off a ski lift, it was time to launch ourselves nearly straight down the mountain. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of barreling downhill, on track that was maybe 9 inches wide, with a precipitous dropoff to the side. I quickly learned new skills of gauging paths, speed, and break control. Sliding on dirt and rubble is not only unavoidable, it’s part of the skillset.
We finally arrived at a village along the Mae Taeng, used by several tour groups as an overnight stop. A bouncy bamboo bridge spanned the river next to a much bigger, yet broken, concrete one. The first thing I did was strip down to my underwear and jump in the river, letting the fast-flowing cool water carry the day’s sweat away. After rinsing my clothes just as the locals do, I wandered up the hill to relax on the deck with a beer before dinner – green curry with chicken and pumpkin. A long day behind us, and another ahead of us, it was early to bed. We slept dorm-style, in a big multi-room building, and I was unlucky enough to be between snorers, earplugs useless against the reverberating of floorboards throughout the night.
In the morning, after a breakfast of leftovers, we loaded bikes onto the roof of a truck, and took an e-ticket ride up the mountain, bouncing around the back of the truck. After what felt like forever, we reached the top, where we once again unloaded the bikes, and took off down a twisty mountain road. We went through a gate into a nature park of completely overgrown forest, often with no visible trail. We crossed little streams on foot, or over “bridges” of lumber.
We rejoined civilization next to the rapids of the Mae Taeng, riding past white water rafting outfits and negotiating around elephants. I waved to a man making a thatched roof, and passed by a woman doing laundry. The dirt road led to the place we’d had lunch the day before, and the same Hmong women were peddling trinkets. Across the river again and down the other side, up a long hill, then we shot off towards Lisu Lodge, biking down same road I last went down on ox-cart seven months earlier.
Looking back, it was a blur of concentration – extremely technical riding, but thru scenic valley vistas and rice fields, forests, and past villages where kids waved and laughed as we passed by. A decade of serious road cycling was barely adequate training for the sorts of skills that one must quickly learn in mountain biking. Our adventure ended at Wat Tung Luang. We stopped in Mae Rim for lunch, and I savored my last khao soi. Finally back home, I enjoyed a 2 hour massage for 240 Baht ($8).
I still haven’t met Lucy, but I look forward to thanking her when we return to Chiang Mai.
3/2 Ratchapakinai Rd, Tambon Suthep
Amphur Muang Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand
Phone: +66 (0) 819527699
Posted by Ted on Nov 16, 2010 in Food & Drinks
When my wife and I began our three month exploration of Southeast Asia, our first stop was Bangkok. Arriving at 11p after a 19 hour flight from San Francisco, there was only one place that I wanted to go; the Tower Club at Lebua. In the heart of the Bangrak district, Lebua is both relaxing and lively, offering five-star amenities with exceptional service at a great value. Luxurious without being pretentious, one is made to feel at home and is treated with courtesy and warmth. Fourteen hours jetlagged, there was no softer place that we could land than in one of their king-size beds.
An all-suite hotel, the Lebua at State Tower has 358 rooms, of which the recently launched Tower Club comprises those on the top 51st to 59th floors. One, two, and three bedroom suites are spacious at 66 to 226 square meters, and offer feather-soft beds with 330 thread-count sheets, and complimentary mini bar, premium TV, and wireless internet. There are 3 restaurants, 3 bars, a lounge, swimming pool, and business and fitness centers. It is convenient to the BTS SkyTrain and MRT Subway, several Buddhist and Hindu temples, and the Patpong night market.
While I had the pleasure of returning to Lebua, it was my wife’s first time. Her reaction upon walking into our suite was “Wow, this is where we get to stay?” and that enthusiasm would carry through until the moment of our eventual departure three days later. A hand-written letter from the General Manager welcomed us and was accompanied by a bowl of fruit and some assorted chocolates which we slowly savored. Every suite has a living area, kitchenette, and bathroom which can be separated from the bedroom with a sliding door and independent climate controls.
One of my favorite features of the rooms at Lebua are their open-air balconies, which require signing a waiver upon check-in promising that you won’t do anything stupid or hold them liable if you do. Our 55th floor balcony faced south, offering a view of the twisty Chao Phraya river, long-tail boats plying its waters by day and night. Upon our arrival, we had front row seats as the heavens above Bangkok welcomed us with a brilliant lightning show on the horizon.
Somewhat lost on my being a typical male, my wife appreciated the Bulgari toiletries enough for both of us. Beyond the standard soap, shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner, Lebua’s set of bathroom amenities also include a toothbrush, qtips and cotton balls, moisturizer, and bath supplies. “When I woke up jetlagged at 4am, it was wonderful to be able to relax in a bath, use nice bath salts, and scrub away weeks of stress and hours of flight with a loofah. It was a great way to start the day when no one else was awake.”
Some other standard features that Lebua offers in their rooms are both daily housekeeping and a nightly turndown service, a local newspaper and weather report slipped under the door every morning, soft robes, and very good light-blocking curtains.
If the rooms at Lebua are luxurious, its bars and restaurants are sublime. From exceptional buffet breakfasts to well-crafted drinks with a breathtaking view over the city and creative internationally-inspired cuisine, there is something to meet any taste or mood.
- Tower Club Lounge (10am to 9pm) – Strictly open to those staying at Tower Club is the 52nd floor lounge that offers continental breakfast, afternoon snacks and drinks including free beer, and serves high tea from 3pm to 6pm.
- Café Mozu (6am to 1am) – This poolside cafe with lush Middle Eastern decor begins its day with an extensive brunch buffet from 6am to 11am, offering dishes from around the world that give every guest the chance to try something new or have the comfort of home. Chinese congee and dim sum, Indian croquettes, Japanese sushi, and Belgian waffles are offered, as well as carved meats and sausages, stir fry, yogurt, fruit, pastries, and a variety of fresh juices. A large selection of breads can be toasted for you in a wood-fired brick oven. In the afternoon and evening, the fare turns to Indian and Lebanese cuisine, as well as thin-crust pizzas.
- Sirocco (6pm to 1am) – Located on the 63rd floor, the world’s highest open-air restaurant offers a dramatic view over Bangkok and serves Mediterranean cuisine. Live jazz music adds to the ambiance, giving one a truly memorable dining experience.
- Mezzaluna (6pm to 1am) – The chef’s tasting menu we enjoyed on our last night in Bangkok was one of the top ten meals of our lives. Twin chefs Mathias and Thomas Sühring create innovative Italian dishes that are a feast for all of the senses. By expertly combining flavors, textures, and colors, their works of culinary art took us on a roller coaster ride of taste and sensation. The service is flawless, with multiple servers making sure that every course was presented in unison. So beautiful they nearly brought tears to our eyes, a string quartet helped to create a relaxed space to savor every moment of our meal.
- Breeze (6pm to 1am) – With both indoor and outdoor seating, Breeze offers modern Asian cuisine in an exquisitely designed restaurant.
- Distil (5pm to 1am) – On the 64th floor, this bar takes its name from the very process that purifies a spirit to its purest potential. Premium whiskeys, vodkas, and brandies are available, as well as an extensive wine and champagne selection. An oyster bar compliments the drinks, and Cuban cigars are available as well.
- Skybar (6pm to 1am) – Literally perched on the edge of the 63rd floor, a few steps up from the diners at Sirocco, you feel as if you are on top of the world (or at least Bangkok) as you sip elaborately concocted cocktails. A chest-high glass wall is all that separates you from the nighttime sky, where you can watch lightning storms on the horizon over a brightly lit cityscape.
If we could use only one word to describe the Tower Club at Lebua, it would be simply this; impeccable. The brand is consistent and unobtrusive, and everywhere there are nice touches that exude both class and comfort. One feels cared for from the moment they walk in the door to the moment they leave. Service is excellent, with staff always right there when you need them, yet not overbearingly so. The doormen always made sure our taxi knew where they were going, and the front desk staff are happy to answer any questions, even going out of their way to escort me out of the building to point out where we could get visa photos taken down the street.
Reasonably priced for the quality, Lebua can offer backpackers a chance to be pampered for a few days, and more upscale travelers an amazing home base to explore Bangkok. For conference organizers, Lebua is an exceptional property that has function space, meeting rooms, and enough amenities to allow for both focused and more relaxed business to be conducted.
Tower Club at Lebua
State Tower, 1055 Silom Road
Bangrak, Bangkok 10500 Thailand
Phone: +66 (0) 2624 9555