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Magic and mystery in Marrakesh

Posted by pakin On January - 20 - 2016 ADD COMMENTS

Overly persistent vendors and noisy motorcycles aside, Morocco makes for a fascinating and friendly holiday

Thousands of Thais visit Europe each year but the number who cross the Mediterranean into North Africa is considerably lower. That’s beginning to change, fuelled no doubt by the arrival of Moroccan-themed hotels in Hua Hin and Pran Buri and the efforts of the Moroccan Embassy in Bangkok to promote its country’s sites.

I start my trip from Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, climbing into a rented compact Skoda Octavia TDi for the motorway ride to Marrakesh, 240 kilometres away, the North African country’s fourth largest city.

The air’s clear and the temperature a pleasant if slightly chilly 15 degrees Celsius though much hotter in the impossibly bright sun. The road is good, on par with any European expressway and the drive is easy, at least until I turn off on to a minor road, where we are stopped several times at police checkpoints. Just as in major cities around Europe, security has been heightened in Muslim countries in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks but a few smiles and a flash of our passports do the trick and we are soon on our way.

The road narrows as we approach the world heritage city of Marrakesh and deteriorates further as we pass the city centre and Ville Nouvelle, the new town. Traffic is backed up in the labyrinth of lanes leading to the Medina – the old city behind the ancient walls and I start to juggle for a piece of road that pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, trucks and mule-power carts also feel is theirs.

We eventually make it to our accommodation – a room in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house built around an interior courtyard. From the outside, our guesthouse looks old and uninviting, the small holes in the exterior giving it an almost spooky ambience. Inside, we are stunned by the majestic arches and the flamboyance of the architecture and can almost feel the hospitality beaming through the tiles. The rooms on every storey open out to the central atrium space, which is naturally lit by a rooftop made of glass.

The room itself is thoroughly Moroccan and despite its finery, priced at a very reasonable Bt4,000 a night.

Later in the day, we walk to Place Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakesh’s world heritage square. Cries of “Monsieur, monsieur. Come have a look” ring in our ears as the vendors try to entice us to buy their fancy products. While irritating after a while, it is nothing compared to the noise and pollution emitted by an army of two-stroke engine motorcycles that are driven through the Medina at terrifying speed.

Place Jemaa el-Fnaa is not to be missed. This Unesco Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity has a dark history – it was once used for public decapitations by rulers who sought to maintain their power by frightening the public – but today is home to souvenir shops, food stalls, men handling monkeys and even the odd snake charmer or two. We are drawn by the sound of drums to one of several circles of men, who are performing in the centre of the square, telling the stories of nomads through dance and music and stand watching for a while.

As we move on, we quickly come to understand that nothing comes without a price. Here, you see, you pay. The Moroccans waste no chance to part tourists from their money and experience quickly teaches me to be generous rather than suffer their curses. Besides, I prefer to pay for this street entertainment than be bullied into buying overpriced merchandise that I don’t really like, never mind need. Many of the Moroccans are obviously poor but rather than beg, they perform to make money. And despite the crowds, the city feels remarkably safe even in the deserted Medina at night. The locals may ask for money but they do not steal.

For the Thai visitor, the Moroccans are probably not the nicest people with whom to pass the time. They push hard to sell souvenirs and mutter when you leave their shops after doing nothing more than take a few photos. The kids, who offer to guide you through the maze that is the Medina in exchange for a tip, will undoubtedly get you totally lost, sometimes deliberately, but these things don’t really matter. What’s important is the experience.

While the Red City, as Marrakesh is also known, has much to offer the visitor, Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city with a population of some four million, is something of a disappointment. Dirty, bustling and very run down in parts, it does however feel safe. And despite the extortionate fees for parking, it is relatively easy to get around thanks to a modern tramway.

Fes, on the other hand, is much calmer with fewer clamouring merchants and a ban on motorcycles in its architecturally alluring Medina. So too is the blue city of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains.

And then there’s the scenery. The landscape of this North African country is breathtaking with lakes, valleys and canyons showcased in all their splendour as you drive north towards the Sahara.

Yes, it can be frustrating at times and Thai visitors used to a more laid back lifestyle might find it more than a little overwhelming. An open-minded attitude and an enquiring mind however make a visit more than worthwhile.
IF YOU GO

Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Emirates, Etihad and Air France offer flights from Bangkok to Casablanca with stopovers in Doha, Dubai and Paris.

Making merry with a berry

Posted by pakin On January - 15 - 2016 ADD COMMENTS

Planning a trip to South Korea? Then don’t leave a visit to one of the country’s delicious strawberries farms off your itinerary

SWEET… sweet strawberries! One of the best ways to enjoy Korea’s romantic winter scenes is to experience strawberry picking at the farms and taste some of the delicious desserts featuring the seductive strawberry as the star.

During a trip to Seoul last month, I took time out to visit Gapyeong, a popular weekend getaway from Seoul and tourist destination. A gateway to Nami island, which is best known as the setting of the much-loved Korean drama “Winter Sonata” and home to Petite France, a theme park featuring small European-style buildings surrounded by mountains and a lake, the area is also attracting both local and foreign visitors eager to pick – and nibble on – strawberries

Gapyeong native Ji Won Bae, 39, left his engineering job with an automobile company in Seoul two years ago to set up the Gapyeong Strawberry Experience Farm. He has three greenhouses where he grows organic strawberries in long plots and elevated trays.

Bae greets visitors personally and after sharing some facts about strawberries, shows you how to find the best ones. You then take your basket – thoughtfully provided by the farm – and make your way round the greenhouse picking those that are deliciously ripe. Visitors tend to prefer the elevated trays, as they are easier to reach and have the advantage of enabling you to sample the goodies without cleaning them first.

Unlike many farmers, Bae does not supply his fruit to retail distributors such as markets, department stores and discount stores. He prefers to meet his consumers in person and spend time with them as they enjoy the fruits of his labour.

Gapyeong Strawberry Experience Farm is understandably a popular destination for students as well as tourists. Kindergartens often take their young charges along for the day, not least because the entrance fee is a very reasonable 10,000 won (Bt300). Adults and children over the age of seven pay 15,000 won while groups of 20 pay 12,000 won. Kids under three get in free.

Adjacent to the province of Gangwon-do, the city of Gapyeong in Gyeonggi-do is surrounded by mountains and a river. It’s easily accessible from Seoul via the Gyeongchunseon Subway Line 7 from Sangbong Station. Exiting at Cheongnyangni Station, visitors can board the ITX Cheongchun train, which arrives in Gapyeong 40 minutes later.

Another strawberry farm easily accessible from Seoul is Seng Seng in Yangpyeong county owned by Kim Gi Chun. Five years ago, Chun, 52, and her husband decided to transform their vegetable plots into a strawberry farm in the hope of generating more income. It seems to have worked, with the number of Korean and foreign visitors growing steadily each year.

Here you can do more than just pick the fruit. The friendly staff are happy to demonstrate how to make a tasty strawberry cake while offering a variety of dishes and drinks including a strawberry smoothie, Bingsu strawberry (shaved ice with strawberries), strawberry fondue, and even strawberry pizza.

Just one hour by car from Seoul, Yangpyeong is largely undeveloped. Well on its way to becoming an eco-city, it is also referred to as Greentopia and offers breathtaking scenery, cycling along the Bukhan River and a chance to explore the rich farming land that produces safe and eco-friendly foods.

The number of strawberry farms in South Korea has grown significantly in recent years, says Calvin Oh, president of the Korean Strawberry Association, and strawberry-picking tours are particularly popular with tourists as they offer the chance to sample organic fruit. This has a knock-on effect when they return to their home countries as they will make a point of buying South Korean strawberries.

Locally known as dal-ki, the country produces two species, namely Mae-Kyang and Seoul-Hyang. Today Korea is among the top five strawberry-producing countries in the world with total exports valued at US$33 million in 2015.

And visitors who time their trips for April can visit the Nonsan Strawberry Festival. The town, located in Chungcheongnam-do, is the largest strawberry producer in Korea and is accessible by train from Seoul.

In Thailand, Korean strawberries are available at Tops, The Mall’s Gourmet markets and Villa Market.

IF YOU GO

Strawberry picking is available from December through June. Farm admission fees vary from 12,000 to 25,000 won.

In tune with the times

Posted by pakin On January - 11 - 2016 ADD COMMENTS

Tokyo’s Shibuya district sheds its youth image as the professional crowd moves in

Long known as one of the fashion centres of Japan, particularly for young people, Tokyo’s Shibuya area is shedding its image as a “young person’s town,” as the growing number of mainly information technology companies and ongoing redevelopment bring in more and more working adults.

From the 1970s to the ’90s, Shibuya Koen-dori avenue was a centre of youth culture, characterised by the vogue “DC Brands” of Japanese designers and the Shibukaji (Shibuya casual) fashions worn by young people.

Now, however, department stores and commercial facilities have begun large-scale renovations with adult customers in mind.

Marui City Shibuya, a fashion building facing the avenue, reopened as Shibuya Modi on November 19.

Before its renovation, the building’s shops offered clothing mainly for young people, but it now targets adults of refined taste.

Its stores include HMV, which features books and miscellaneous goods classified by themes such as “travel and cuisine”, a luxury karaoke store and a kimono speciality shop.

“We’ll make the building a place that offers lifestyles that go beyond generations and is suitable for today’s Shibuya,” Marui Group president Hiroshi Aoi says,

Seibu department store’s Shibuya branch reopened its renovated fifth floor for women’s clothing in late August.

The floor features an enhanced line-up of clothing aimed at executive women in their 40s and 50s, including high-quality one-piece dresses and jackets that cost from 100,000 yen (Bt30,300) to less than 200,000 yen.

Sales during the three months after renovation increased by 50 per cent from a year earlier.

Shibuya Parco, from which Koen-dori is believed to derive its name (Koen is park in Japanese, parco means park in Italian), has led youth culture since the 1970s with its innovative advertising.

The building is also slated for renovation, to attract people of working age.

Shibuya encompasses many schools and used to attract crowds of young people, while the number of companies in the area was relatively small.

In the 1990s, an area called Shibuya Centre-gai attracted attention as a gathering place for many juvenile delinquents called “teamers” and young girls called “ganguro,” who sported tan makeup, bleached hair and platform shoes.

In response, Tokyu Corp, which operates railways that terminate at Shibuya Station, has promoted the construction of complex buildings to lure adults with high purchasing power to Shibuya.

In the 2000s, such complex buildings as Shibuya Mark City, Cerulean Tower and Shibuya Hikarie opened in quick succession, and many IT firms began to gather in Shibuya.

According to a survey by Video Research, people younger than 30 accounted for 44.2 per cent of those who visited the area around Shibuya Station during a specific period in 2006, while those aged 30 or older accounted for 55.7 per cent.

However, in 2014, those younger than 30 decreased to 39 per cent while those aged 30 or older increased to 60.9 per cent.

A total of eight complex buildings, including offices and hotels, are scheduled to be opened mainly by Tokyu Group between 2018 and 2027.

Many people are interested to see how Shibuya will become more adult-oriented in the future.

Busan Christmas Tree Festival

Posted by pakin On December - 25 - 2015 ADD COMMENTS

The Busan Christmas Tree Festival, Busan’s annual winter event, is being held in the Gwangbokro area of Jung-gu District.

BUSAN CHRISTMAS TREE FESTIVAL

Now until January 3, Busan, South Korea

The Busan Christmas Tree Festival, Busan’s annual winter event, is being held in the Gwangbok-ro area of Jung-gu District. Adding a more festive atmosphere are concerts, a tree of wishes, street performances, love coins, a photo and video contest, and much more.

ILLUSION: NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS

Now to January 10, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Families with children, youths and young adults visiting Malaysia will love the “Illusion” exhibition at Petrosains science exhibition centre in Kuala Lumpur. The exhibition, brought in from the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, explores science in an interesting way, combining it with art, technology and illusion to appeal to all ages. Curated by psychologist and author Richard Wiseman, and researched by magician and escapologist Paul Gleeson, the exhibition challenges the perceptions and gets visitors to use their senses to understand how the brain works. Expect magic with psychology, optical illusions with scientific reasoning, and confusion with clarity!

BOSEONG GREEN TEA PLANTATION LIGHT FESTIVAL

Now until January 24, Jeollanam-do, South Korea

The installation of a 120-metres-high and 130-metres-wide Christmas tree, which made it into the Guinness Book of Records in 2000, is among the highlights of this festival at the Boseong Green Tea Plantation, one of South Korea’s popular tourist attractions. Also featured are activities like the giant Christmas tree, a themed street, a galaxy tunnel, illuminations of Botjae and Dahyanggak, a photo zone, resolution stairs, and hanging wish cards. The landscape is also special, graced with a romantic and magical ambience of falling snow created by the arrangement of LED lights.

UDDERBELLY FESTIVAL HONG KONG

Now to February 14, Hong Kong

Udderbelly Festival made its international debut on Hong Kong’s iconic waterfront skyline this month as part of the second year of the hugely successful Great European Carnival with a bellyful of exciting, eclectic and affordable entertainment! It includes some of the very best shows and artists from London, Australia, the Edinburgh Fringe and also local talent from Hong Kong. Just like on London’s Southbank and in Edinburgh, you can come and enjoy circus, dance, music, beat -boxing and family shows, as well as comedy and cabaret over the weekends and holidays.

ATI-ATIHAN

January 17 to 26, Kalibo, Philippines

Ati-Atihan is a nine-day exhibition of costume and dance and feast in honour of Santo Nino (Infant Jesus), in the island and town of Kalibo, Aklan. Soot-black painted faces, feather headdresses, and animal bones create an arresting visual impression. Drumming and dancing break out at dawn and continue on until the festival ends three days later at a masquerade ball. A mass outdoor procession follows a sacred image of Santo Nimo from the Kalibo Cathedral to Pastrana Park. Don’t miss the masquerade ball. The creativity and colour of the traditional costumes are matched only by Brazil’s Carnival and Papua New Guinea’s Mt Hagen Cultural Festival.

WAKAKUSA YAMAYAKI

January 23, Nara, Japan

Visit Nara and watch Mount Wakakusayama burning. This annual festival is quite an enigma. People have celebrated it for centuries, but its origin is not clear. When the grass on the hillside of Mount Wakakusayama is turning brown in January, the local folks will set fire to the mountain. The flames can been seen from anywhere in Nara. Temples and local communities draw visitors for the festive activities and the fireworks.

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