The Rise of “Dark Tourism”

A part of my (somewhat muddled) heritage takes me to the Channel Island of Guernsey. It’s a tiny island off the coast of France, beloved by cruise companies for its picturesque little cobbled town and the fact it’s as French as you can get without having to speak the language, and loathed by all teenagers who live there for its complete isolation in anything but the most clement of weather conditions, when the planes stop flying and the boats stop sailing.

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Guernsey

What amazes me is how many people are completely unaware of the island’s dark past, and the fact that a part of Britain was actually occupied during the Second World War after the rest of the UK took a strategic decision to bugger off. Take a closer look and it’s not hidden – all the islands are scattered with German fortifications, still intact, concrete and grim amidst beautiful cliffs and greeny-blue seas that could almost be the Mediterranean. On this little piece of loveliness, 70 years ago, people were starving.

There’s a bitter debate currently going on in neighbouring Alderney about how its dark past should be relayed to tourists – or if it should be even mentioned at all. Alderney’s history is altogether more destructive and disturbing than Guernsey’s: after almost all the tiny island’s population was evacuated, it became home to four labour camps, housing Jews and political prisoners from across Europe. It’s not known how many died there, but some estimates are as high as 70,000.

The argument centres around whether the camps should be commemorated in the form of a memorial, or whether they should be – for want of a better phrase – a “tourist attraction”. On the one hand, there’s a recognition that there is a lot of historical interest in such sites, but on the other, “it is not, unless you are a ghoul, a heritage issue that needs promoting, except as part of the overall occupation story.”

And yet such sites, in my opinion, are of huge importance – a memorial alone cannot teach us anything but numbers, which are often too abstract for us to take in.

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Reconstruction of a Japanese PoW camp, Thailand

At 17 I visited Auschwitz as part of a school trip. I maintain that it is somewhere that every teenager should visit. We can all sit in a classroom and learn that 1.1 million died there, and be aware this is a number so huge that we cannot visualise that number. However, those people become real, tangible, when we see their shoes, their hair, their suitcases. Ghoulish it may be, but it is also true. It is history. Human beings did this to other human beings. Whatever a person’s motives for going to such sites – ghoulish or otherwise – sanitising our history, brushing it under the carpet, is not the path to preventing it from never happening again. After the war many sites were destroyed, either by perpetrators destroying the evidence or liberators horrified by what they found. In an age where the far right are on the rise again in pockets across Europe, in a time where one of my Jewish friends is considering moving to Israel because of a notable rise in antisemitism in her city, we need reminders more than ever. Of all places, the authorities that curated and opened the Auschwitz-Birkenau sites to the public had to be deeply sensitive and careful. They succeeded. When I went there I was supposed to write a piece for the school newspaper. I did, but it didn’t say what people expected. It simply said that there were no words, that there is a level at which your brain cannot process the enormity, the cruelty, the utter depravity. In a society so prone to hyperbole, when you stand at the end of that railway track and look around you all your brain can say is: This is Auschwitz.

Over the years I have visited a number of sites that centre around uncomfortable history, and where none can match the horrors at Auchswitz, each was presented in its own unique way and faced the same challenges around sensitivity, and sometimes the thorny issue of local complicity. On a recent trip to Vilnius we visited an old KGB prison. It was fascinating. Just as I suspect many people don’t know that Alderney was occupied in the Second World War , I know shockingly little about how the KGB operated within individual territories of the Soviet Union, beyond knowing that they existed, and that they interrogated people, bugged hotels, and all those other things you learn from James Bond. The museum was amazing – chilling, informative, interesting.

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KGB prison, Vilnius

Personally, we went there because we’re interested in history. My husband studied history of Eastern Europe to Masters level. Perhaps there is also an element to which humans are drawn to the macabre, fascinated by the grisly, and perhaps that is therefore “ghoulish”. But surely this is a lesser evil than being oblivious to the existence of such things, to consider them ancient history, done and dusted, when they are anything but, when genocides have happened since elsewhere in the world. Sites of historical importance, developed well, have their place. We can erase the sites, but we should not erase history.

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KGB prison cell from the 1960s, Vilnius

I don’t live on Alderney. A tiny island, physically adrift from its neighbours, it makes Guernsey look like New York. So, I don’t have any right to an opinion on the matter. I’m not sure I would even go. But many would, for, like other “attractions” (which is not really the right word) for a myriad of reasons. So I will follow the story with interest.

 

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Virginia Is For Lovers

The somewhat unlikely slogan for the state of Virginia apparently came about not as some reference to the sexual revolution or the array of particularly romantic locations that may or may not be available there, but as the lazy result of a misguided 1960s ad campaign that started out as “Virginia is for history lovers”, “Virginia is for nature lovers” etc., which the Virginia State Travel Company deemed to be too complicated. So, it was abbreviated to its somewhat far-fetched current form, and now adorns t-shirts, baseball caps and all the other sorts of things visitors buy there.

While, travelling as a couple, we saw a disappointing lack of evidence of Virginia being for lovers, we were nonetheless pleasantly surprised by the range of things to do there. Being so close to D.C., and being one of the original states, giving it, in US terms at least, a considerable amount of history, Virginia is dotted with the type of attractions where you need to fight past school parties to get in, such as Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and numerous Civil War and War of Independence Battle Fields. It’s also home to several national parks, museums, and, of course, the Arlington National Cemetery. So, let’s start there.

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The Great (not so Dismal) Swamp

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery seems to appear in almost every Top 10 Things to Do In DC list, even though it isn’t technically in D.C. We walked to it from the Watergate Hotel in Georgetown (arguably the best place we have ever stayed, but that’s for another day) – a 30-minute or so walk along and across the Potomac. Being a national memorial it’s free to visit, and well worth the effort. It’s one of the most impressive and sensitively designed such cemeteries I have visited. Having travelled extensively in the US and worked with many Americans, I expected, to my shame, that it would have maybe a  more triumphalist feel, perhaps be a little grander, even potentially jingoistic. But it isn’t. And it’s the very simplicity of the place that makes it awesome and sobering and yet somehow humbly peaceful all at the same time. It’s incredibly moving – a vast swathe of mainly plain memorials, culminating in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is guarded 24 hours a day by a member of the National Guard and accompanied by an interesting museum that will tell you, amongst other things, that the third tomb – where a casualty of the Vietnam War was originally buried – is now empty on account of his having later been identified. Elsewhere you can also see John F Kennedy’s eternal flame – a sad and beautiful memorial to a murdered president. If you are in Washington, Arlington is an absolute must.

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The Great Dismal Swamp

OK, I admit it – we went here solely for the name. As we were staying relatively close by, somewhere with such literal and vivid nomenclature could not be ignored. To our disappointment it was neither great (not in US terms anyway) nor dismal, though there were some corners of it that could conceivably have been the inspiration for Dagobah (if you are not a Star Wars fan please skip over this comment!) It culminates in a large lake in the centre, which looked particularly magnificent under a clear blue winter sky. There are walking trails throughout the park, and it was pleasingly devoid of other visitors when we went (though later in our journey we met a man who visited regularly to go, as he put it “a-huntin’ and a shootin'” and claimed there were many bears there – I’m pretty sure he wasn’t real, but rather was another brainchild of the Virginia State Travel Company.)

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Virginia…or Dagobah?

Norfolk

The purpose of our visit to Virginia in the first place was to visit family currently living in Norfolk, VA. Where it isn’t necessarily top of the list for foreign visitors, it is nonetheless a tourist destination of sorts for other Americans, with a number of historical attractions including the USS Wisconsin and the utterly fabulous Macarthur Memorial, a free and informative museum dedicated to the famous general about whom I knew shockingly little (though the key piece of information I took from it was that both his father and son were named Arthur Macarthur, which suggests that, what the family had in military prowess, it lacked in imagination.)

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USS Wisconsin

The city itself is well worth a wander, with its impressive waterside, array of bars and restaurants and other attractions including a Botanical Gardens (a little way out of town) and the beautiful Chrysler Museum of Art.

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Chrysler Museum of Art

Virginia Beach

I’m going to be controversial – I wasn’t all that taken with Virginia Beach. It felt to me like every seaside resort I have ever visited, be it in the US or UK: miles of forgettable, sometimes run-down hotels each following a recognisable format of square, light grey, chain-owned, lining a boardwalk that wasn’t even made of board, but was instead a concrete path along a plain beach. Perhaps visiting in November didn’t help, but I can imagine it would be further impaired, rather than improved, if besieged by sunbeds. All in all it just felt a little sad – a town from another era that couldn’t keep up with change, filled with thrift stores and kitsch souvenir shops and bargain-basement, plastic mini golf. Even the Christmas lights looked a little desperate. While the sea is probably inviting in the hot Virginia summers, aside from that there was little to draw me there.

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Virginia Beach, giving every customer what they really need

So, my conclusion? As with other places we’ve visited in the US primarily for the people rather than the surroundings, Virginia, loving aside, came as a pleasant surprise. A short hop from Washington (via plane, or trains if you are feeling masochistic), it is the perfect complement to a trip to the USA’s capital – you can even squeeze in a trip to Kitty Hawk and North Carolina’s Outer Banks, just a drive away, while you’re there.

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Off The Beaten Amrak

US passenger railways, while they don’t exactly have a stellar reputation, do nonetheless connect a myriad of cities, particularly on the east coast, allowing for cheap and incredibly comfortable travel between both major cities and more provincial towns. They are not for those in a hurry – on all three occasions we have taken the Amtrak the service has been both slow and late and almost pleasingly chaotic – but on none of those occasions has the experience been negative.

Our first Amtrak experience was back in 2007, when we travelled the – I’ll be honest – dull route from Chicago down to Dallas, during which we saw a lot of corn and not much else, punctuated by avid questions from out excitable train guard, Phyllis, as to whether, being British, we had met the Queen. (Answer: yes, I had, and I made the mistake of telling her this.) A few years ago we took the altogether more efficient service from New York to D.C. on the Acela Express, a surprisingly pretty route that took us through some beautiful Spring scenery from the heart of one iconic city to another.

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Coming into Joliet station on our first Amtrak trip, 2007

This time we made the mistake of travelling the day before Thanksgiving. The problem with travelling the day before Thanksgiving is that – of course – EVERYBODY travels the day before Thanksgiving, and, what’s more, many of those people were as inexperienced in the use of the US rail network as we were, as they were taking the train only to avoid the huge queues on the freeways. Cue hoards of bewildered families flooding the boarding areas of a station that has clearly been designed not for them, but for the mix of seasoned commuters and occasional oddballs like us who use the trains. Inevitable delays only added to the confusion and eventual fury, since Amtrak isn’t hot on things like giving their customers consistent or even vaguely accurate information. At one point, 20 minutes after our train was due to depart, the big screen in the terminus was saying it was on time, the web app was saying it was delayed indefinitely, and an angry man at the back of the crowd was shouting to apparently the world in general that it was cancelled completely.

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Being tourists in Washington, D.C.

Union Station, D.C. is beautiful but utterly impractical. It’s a vast, temple-like symbol of the American Dream – opulent and grand and glorious and full of high-end shops and cafes and other opportunities to be parted with your cash. However, it’s completely devoid of actual train information. To board your train you need to leave the station and go into what feels more like a 1970s UK bus terminal – a long, grey corridor over to one side with insufficient seating and a lingering smell of disinfectant from washrooms I would not recommend using. That there might be some benefit in linking the two in a more tangible way seems to have so far escaped anyone with the power to do so. This means if you are early for your train you can linger in the comfort main station and come away with an altogether positive memory of your experience, whereas as soon as your train is late the overwhelming memory you will be left with is standing in a sweaty tunnel hoping you don’t get mugged while people throw various bits of misinformation at you.

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The nice bit of Union Station, Washington, D.C.

Anyway, we did eventually board – an hour late – to go all the way to Norfolk, Virginia. The buffet car was closed (note: always take snacks) and the air conditioning was on so high I couldn’t feel my hands by the time I got off almost five hours later. It took almost as long to cross the state of Virginia as it took to cross the Atlantic, but the seats were huge, the luggage racks plentiful, and we made it to our destination on what was probably the busiest travel day of the year, having seen some cracking scenery on the way.

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En route to Norfolk, VA, on Amtrak

For more information on train travel in the US, see the fabulous Seat 61.

Winter Breaks: Riga

I visited Riga for an Erasmus conference last November, just a few months after the Brexit vote and therefore with a certain amount of not unfounded trepidation. As expected, my attendance at an event aimed at participating European countries was met with a mixture of sympathy from some and outright hostility from others. Fortunately, on the third day of the conference Donald Trump was elected, and thus my own misdemeanour of belonging to a country whose citizens had, by a narrow margin, voted to leave the EU were quickly forgotten in the grim light of a self-proclaimed womanising megalomaniac occupying the most powerful position in the free world.

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Anyway.

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Riga is very pretty. Like nearby Tallinn it positively sparkles in the icy grip of the Baltic winter, its turrets and tiled rooftops willingly lending themselves, as the snow falls and the icicles form, to a fairytale  exquisiteness that doesn’t seem quite real. Like Tallinn it is still – relatively speaking – cheap, with a plethora of cosy restaurants and a thriving café culture. Like Tallinn, the centre is relatively compact, and it’s possible – if you don’t mind braving the cold – to walk to most places. More soberingly, like Tallinn, it has a dark history, very well documented in several excellent museums. Finding myself with a free day after the conference ended, I went exploring with a colleague, an Austrian Jew. “There are no synagogues in Riga,” she said. “They are not hidden away, they just do not exist. The SS did a very thorough job here.”

 

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Sheltering from the cold in one of Riga’s Art Nouveau cafes

 

One thing that delighted me about Riga was its abundance of art nouveau buildings – by far my favourite architectural period. In contrast to the older, more typically eastern European Medieval churches and swaggering Gothic buildings in the centre, you don’t need to venture very far out to find the neighbourhood of Alberta Iela, crammed with its delicately ornate doorframes and elaborately decorated windows, oozing sophistication with their sensuous curves and confident colours.

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On that final day Riga genuinely jostled with Tallinn for the honour of becoming my favourite winter city, though Tallinn, with its original watchtowers still intact and its altogether more laid-back feel, its many pedestrianised areas and its truly sensational restaurants, still holds that spot. Riga, though beautiful, did have that capital city feel about it that chipped away at some of its charm. That said, a mere two hours from the UK on a number of cheap airlines makes it an ideal quick getaway, and one I would definitely recommend.

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Winter Breaks: Montréal

Just over a week into September, anyone who works in education like myself is already thinking “when’s my next break”? and is in desperate need for something to look forward to. So, to help your planning, here is the first in a series of short winter break ideas.

Canada? I hear you cry. For a short break? You’re having a laugh. Well, I blogged before about a weekend in Toronto, and though it’s a bit of a stretch the explosion in budget of airlines in the last couple of years means you can get a return to many Canadian cities on Westjet or AirTransat for under £400. A weekend is pushing it, but 4 days is eminently doable, and Montreal is an amazing city for a winter break, with lots of seasonal festivals and activities that are just a little different from the Christmas markets you might already have experienced if you’re in Europe.

I’ll admit that the cold of Montréal came as a bit of a shock to me the first time I visited. Go for the winter semester, they said. It’ll be great, they said. With snowdrifts higher than me and temperatures so far below freezing you could feel the ice forming around your nasal hairs, it took a bit of getting used to, and my London coat and non-grip shoes did not cut it. But I was living with a family out in Angrignon, a suburb with a bus/metro combo into the centre – stay in the old town and you will find yourself in a cosseted fairytale of Canadian loveliness.

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Snow. Lots and lots of snow.

Perhaps because it is so bone-chillingly cold, it’s possible to walk a considerable distance in Montréal entirely underground, where seasons and temperature are irrelevant – the Underground City was a revelation, with plenty to do and see and the ability to pop up right next to the various tourist attractions without having to brave the snow and ice at street level.

A few tips:

  1. Just under a 3-hour drive away, Québec City looks like a little piece of Brittany dropped into an ice age, the beautiful building draped in filmset winter weather, and is well worth a visit, with boutique shops and fabulous restaurants.

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    Québec City – like Brittany in the snow
  2. Niagara Falls is too far from Montréal (over 6 hours) but Montmorency Falls are very close to Québec City and considerably less touristy. The cable car is a must.
  3. Montreal is a Foodie’s dream. With US-size portions, cosmopolitan population and a considerable French influence and accompanying culinary pride, this city produced genuine “fusion” food to a level I haven’t seen beyond Singapore (arguably the birth of “fusion food” as we know it.) It was in Montréal that I discovered brunch long before it became trendy here – amazing pancakes piled high and drizzled liberally with maple syrup and creme fraiche and blueberries.
  4. That said, a lot of Quebecois delicacies are an acquired taste. The smoked meat had too great an emphasis on the “smoked” element from me, but the at first unpromising-sounding Poutine (chips, gravy and cheese curds) is amazing. (One tip – if you mispronounce its name you will find you accidentally be saying the most offensive word in the French language, which I once did when trying to show off my lingual prowess to one of my Canadian students. It’s called hubris, that.)
  5. Speaking of which, I’ve heard it said that Québec is more French than France. This almost felt true in the smaller towns, but Montreal itself is an entirely bilingual city, with signs, metro announcements etc. all in both English and French, so you don’t need to worry about getting by if you don’t speak French.
  6. There are endless things to do and see – if you like museums, there are many, with the Museum of Fine Arts being the grandest, and entirely free apart from special expeditions! If culture is your thing then there is a seemingly endless selection of free events going on all the time, from jazz to comedy.

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    Notre-Dame Basilica
  7. Winter sports: you have to do at least one wintery activity while you’re there, and make the most of the natural cloth of snow and ice. Skating is one of the cheapest and easiest options, with many parks becoming semi-natural skating spots during the coldest months.
  8. Habitat 67 Something different and unique to look at, I’ve always been a fan of quirky architecture. Some people loathe this unusual apartment block, but I love it.Montreal housing

 

One Night In Bangkok

My husband and I have almost mutually exclusive tastes when it comes to holidays. He acts as though he is going to drip towards an inevitable death if the temperature rises above about 20 Celsius, whereas I happily went for a run during my first humid night in Singapore; he likes to keep himself to himself, whereas I will go out of my way to talk to anyone I meet. When recently booking flights to the US the website asked if we wanted to pay extra to choose our seats in advance. He declined. “What if we don’t get to sit together?” I asked. “Then I can go to sleep and you can spend nine hours talking to whatever poor bugger sits next to you.”

Bangkok was my turn, and my victory. After years of exploring what I considered to be more interesting destinations alone, I dragged him with me with vain promises of historical sites and food that wouldn’t kill him. And this was a little mean of me.

Bangkok is everything I love about Asia, and everything that convinces him that next year we should just go to Lyme Regis – disorganised, loud, busy, full of cheerful people and so, so hot – the kind of hot that makes your glasses and your camera lens steam up. It’s a powder keg of chaotic joy with something for everyone – from the Gap Yah students stumbling down the Khao San Road to the aging hippies, with their reluctant teens in tow, reliving their youth, albeit in upmarket comfort off the back of their city salary.

Things got off to a bad start – our taxi driver took us to the wrong hotel, and was quite insistent that we should stay there anyway, even after the staff of said hotel almost physically pushed us back into the car and gestured wildly in the opposite direction. We finally arrived hot and bothered only to be told the swimming pool was closed for renovation and the café wouldn’t open until dinner time.

Tip 1 – In the same way that, in London, you are said to never be more than 10 feet from a rat, in Bangkok you are rarely more than 10 feet from a shopping centre, and they are invariably open 24 hours a day and, crucially, are air-conditioned. Our hotel turned out to be opposite the fabulous if bafflingly British-themed Terminal 21, and an hour later, refreshed and over-fed at very little expense, we happily made our way to the centre.

 

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Terminal 21, with its improbable (geographically inaccurate) London theme

 

Tip 2: Bangkok is very big (it appears as one of the 20 largest cities in the world on most lists) and has the traffic jams befitting of an oversized capital, but not necessarily the public transport to match. We were staying in Sukhumvit, which is amazingly well-connected if you’re there on business, but less so if you’re a tourist and want to do touristy things. I’m aware that public transport has probably improved a lot since we were last there, but plan your route wisely. Although my husband wasn’t keen, I’m a big fan of tuk-tuks – they’re small enough to weave through the choking traffic, and if you find you’re being taken in the wrong direction you can always just leap out (warning: not actually recommended.)

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Tip 3: Avoid temple fatigue. There are a LOT of temples in Bangkok, and an awful lot of people visiting them. We went to the Grand Palace (by convoluted route involving Sky Train, MRT, tuk-tuk and boat) and, though it is invariably one of those “must sees”, it’s also rammed with tour groups and every kind of hawker under the (intensely hot) sun. I would recommend a longer visit to Wat Pho, deservingly famous for its incredible reclining Buddha.

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The Reclining Buddha, reclining

Tip 4: Actually, do go for the tourist boats, or, if you’re staying in one of the plush hotels on the banks of the Chao Phraya, make use of their private crafts, of which we were quite jealous. I fear our marriage almost ended as I cajoled my husband onto a rickety riverbus full of schoolchildren and monks, worryingly low in the water with a disconcertingly spluttering engine. “It’s an experience,” I told him. “Yes.” He agreed curtly. “So is dysentery. It doesn’t mean I want it.”

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Error of judgement

Which brings me on to…

Tip 5: the Sky Bar at the State Tower (dress code applies) is a gorgeous place to wind down, though the owners know it and charge for drinks accordingly – a meal will set you back even further, so we went elsewhere, but it looked wonderful and probably worth it for an anniversary. Go there for sunset, as we did, and, tourist trap or not, you can’t help but be impressed.

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The decadence of the State Tower’s Sky Bar

But if the city does become too much…

Tip 6: there are many daytrips just an hour or two out of Bangkok where you can experience the more sedate side of Thailand, along with its beautiful scenery (more on this another time). The brave can go it alone as trains in particular are excellent, or there is a plentiful supply of tour companies willing to charge you for the full service so you don’t have to think about anything.

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Away from the City

And finally…

Tip 7: RELAX! Bangkok may be frenetic and loud and, with its bright lights and spicy foods, an attack on all the sense at once, but it’s also home to many luxury hotels, great restaurants and spas, as well as those vast shopping centres. Largely due to the presence of air conditioning we found ourselves in a bowling alley at the other-worldly Siam Paragon, which also turned out to be the home of the most extravagant ice cream parlour. And why not?

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