Friday 25 January 2019

Driving with Dinosaurs in Montana, USA

In 2009 I took my first-ever trip to the USA, courtesy of the Montana Office of Tourism and Virgin Australia. One of the articles which resulted from that journey featured the fascinating Montana Dinosaur Trail. As it never went online, here it is now for your education and enjoyment:

Michele Fromdahl works with a tyrannosaurus rex. She’s cool with that, but some of her visitors aren’t. The gigantic model of the fearsome prehistoric creature is the very first thing you see as you step through the door of the Fort Peck Interpretive Center, lunging toward you with its jaws open for the kill.

“There are a few kids who’ll come in the first set of doors and won’t come in that second set. You have to try to get them through a side door, or they have to be carried by Mom and Dad,” she says. “It’s happened.”

Overbearing reptilian colleagues aside, Fromdahl enjoys her work as the centre’s director. “When I got the job here I inherited an empty building, so I got to build all the exhibits. I’d seen Jurassic Park, but otherwise I knew nothing about dinosaurs. So being able to get immersed in that has been fun. I love it.”

Her beloved T-Rex with its accompanying displays (Lower Yellowstone Road, Fort Peck; +1-406-526-3493) is one of 15 attractions along the Montana Dinosaur Trail, which stretches from the Rocky Mountains across the plains of the USA’s fourth-largest state.

Back in the prehistoric past (before even Bert Newton was on TV), the flat dry wheat-growing area of eastern Montana was an inland sea, along whose banks dinosaurs roamed.

Upon death, the great reptiles obligingly scattered their remains around, for 19th and 20th century farmers to find beneath their barns and fields.

Later, they ended up on the Trail. Its odds-and-ends collection of professional institutes and tiny museums is also a good excuse to drive the open highways of this underpopulated state, enjoying both fossils and small town America as you go.

Here are some of the prehistoric highlights...

Great Plains Dinosaur Museum. Interesting institution whose dinosaur fossils have nicknames. Exhibits include Giffen, the northernmost stegosaurus ever found, and Leonardo, a rare mummified fossil showing remains of skin. You can also handle a fossilised dinosaur bone here, and even apply to join a dig.
405 North 1st St East, Malta; +1-406-654-5300;

Museum of the Rockies. This university-affiliated museum houses the world’s largest tyrannosaurus rex skull, and one of the first female dinosaurs to be identified as such. It also has a triceratops and a deinonychus, just as nasty a predator as the velociraptor. The museum also covers the fauna and culture of the Rockies from more recent millennia.
600 West Kagy Boulevard, Bozeman; +1-406-994-2251;

Two Medicine Dinosaur Centre. Each of the Trail sites seems to have a first in its exhibits, and this one is no exception - it exhibits the first baby dinosaur bones found in North America. It also houses the world’s largest dinosaur reconstruction, of a seismosaurus halli or “earth-shaker lizard”.
120 2nd Avenue South, Bynum; +1-406-469-2211;

Rudyard Depot Museum. For the quintessential small town dinosaur experience, visit this historical museum spread around an old train station. Its dinosaur selection features The Oldest Sorehead, a fully articulated gryposaurus discovered locally in 2004. A likeness of this curious duckbilled dinosaur is exhibited among an egg nest display. Just model eggs, of course - no risk of a Jurassic Park moment. I hope.
25 4th Avenue North West, Rudyard; +1-406-355-4322;

Find all the museums along the Montana Dinosaur Trail via its website.

Friday 18 January 2019

Bangkok: Focus on the Small Stuff

Some years ago I won a prize in a Thai Airways travel writing competition with this article about Bangkok (I subsequently used the prize - a trip anywhere on the airline's network - to visit India). 

As the story is no longer available online, I'd like to share it here. Enjoy!

I don’t know what it is, but it’s big. I’m standing on the footpath in the Siam Square district of Bangkok, looking up at a towering white figure that’s not quite human.

The seated statue is pure white, with an elongated head, feet and fingers, and is staring into the traffic.

Dollar is an outlandish piece of street art on a busy Bangkok street, just metres from the endless flow and roar of motorbikes, buses and cars. According to the artist, the statue represents the stresses and pressures of modern society.

As I read these words on its base, I find myself nodding. Bangkok is definitely a lively city, exciting and vibrant at all hours of the day; especially here in the commercial centre, where gigantic shopping malls line busy roads, overshadowed by the Skytrain elevated railway.

But is it possible to discover a more contemplative side to the Thai capital? Having set out on foot through the humid morning haze from my hotel, I’m determined to give it a try.

Turning right into Soi Kasem San 2, there’s a remarkable contrast between the mega-malls behind me and the quiet laneway leading to Jim Thompson’s House, my destination at the end of the street.

This collection of traditional Thai timber houses, some of them centuries old, was linked together in 1959 to create a single sprawling home.

An American soldier during World War II, Thompson had then become a silk manufacturer, employing the traditional silk weavers of the Muslim district across the nearby canal.

Thompson was a great admirer of Thai traditions, so he filled his houses with beautiful antiques, including ancient statues of the Buddha, while adding Western elements such as chandeliers.

Then, in 1967, on a holiday in Malaysia, he mysteriously disappeared and was never heard of again. As a result, the house has become his legacy.

“Visitors enjoy the fact that it is not a museum, it’s someone’s home,” says Eric Booth, trustee of the James HW Thompson Foundation.

“We take care of it as if Jim was still living there. The young guides aren’t there to lecture, so our visitors are not overwhelmed by history.”

However, the knowledgeable Thais who lead the regular tours are happy to answer questions about Thompson’s superb eye for art and its placement.

“There are many important pieces, including the exceptional Dvaravati torso in the garden,” says Booth, referring to the partial Buddha statue that’s over a thousand years old.

“But what I really like is the mix of important pieces and everyday objects. The way he displayed them makes the house a wonderful place. After all, it is a home, not a museum!”

After the tour, I wander through the splendid tropical garden and admire the house from the outside. I decide it’s a charming and, more importantly, balanced home, a harmonious blend of natural and man-made objects, and of new and old.

I feel I could happily move in here, lounging on its daybeds and letting natural ventilation, shade and shutters cool me rather than relying on the dry artificiality of air-conditioning.

Leaving the grounds and walking west, I discover Garimmin & Sobereen, a small restaurant stretched along the path that borders the canal.

It’s decorated with potted tropical plants, and serves up freshly cooked food from its open-air kitchen. This is the real thing - straightforward Thai food served direct from pan to table.

My pad thai, a Thai standard, arrives bearing noodles, egg, crumbled peanuts and a dash of seafood. I add a sprinkle of chilli flakes from a jar in the middle of the table.

The effect is gratifyingly spicy and the meal is delicious - and all for a mere 30 baht (S$1.25). As I sit and eat, ferry boats loaded with tourists periodically zoom past, but I’m not in their world right now; I’m taking it slowly.

Finally, I step onto the footbridge that will take me across the Saem Saeb canal to Baan Krua, the district where Thompson’s weavers lived. From this vantage point, the jumble of shops and homes that make up the district are appealingly human-scale.

It’s peaceful and cool walking along its narrow but neatly-maintained pedestrian laneways, and it’s fascinating to encounter the small shops embedded in the buildings, serving residents’ diverse shopping needs.

I score a smile or two from the shopkeepers, and somewhere unseen I can hear children chatting and laughing.

Suddenly, walking east, I pop out of the perimeter of Baan Krua, back into the busy larger world of Bangkok.

I can feel my energy levels rising by the second, and I’m keen to enjoy all this bustling city has to offer; but I linger for a moment, wanting to hang on a little longer to the relaxed vibe of its back streets.

Friday 11 January 2019

Vancouver by Neon

It’s no secret that I love a bit of neon. There’s something magical about this type of signage that’s mostly now vanished from the world’s streets, even though it was the epitome of post-WWII commercial razzmatazz.

I’ve written about a neon museum in Warsaw, Poland, and another in Las Vegas, USA. And in 2017 I visited an exhibition of neon at the Museum of Vancouver in Canada.

Vancouver is quite genteel nowadays, but back in the 1950s it had tens of thousands of neon signs clustered through the city centre, advertising every type of business.

Some people thought this was impressive, many thought it tawdry. By the 1970s the city council was severely limiting public neon signage and it started to go the way of the dodo.

In recent years nostalgia for neon has surged, which led to the Museum of Vancouver retrieving and restoring a number of signs, and showing them within a dedicated exhibition called Neon Vancouver.

It’s great, and I walked through it when I visited in 2017. Here are some of the highlights:





It’s a cool exhibition - when is neon ever not cool? - and I encourage you to see it next time you’re in Vancouver.

Neon Vancouver is an exhibition within the Museum of Vancouver, 1100 Chestnut Street, Vancouver, Canada. See its website for entry fee and opening hours.

Friday 4 January 2019

Review: Escher X Nendo, Melbourne, Australia

I was hosted to this exhibition by the National Gallery of Victoria.

The perspective-bending artwork of MC Escher is so well known, that the NGV had to find a fresh way of presenting the first major exhibition of his work in Australia.

The solution was a brilliant one - invite acclaimed Japanese design company Nendo to create a physical framework for the art, itself informed by Escher's themes.

The result is a series of intriguing rooms, each different in its physical aspect as it showcases an aspect of Escher's developing art.

It's fairly tame to start with. A room displays his early work, something I wasn't at all familiar with, including an intriguingly angular self-portrait:

Past this point, an exploration of Escher's fascination with reflections leads to a room where one side reflects the other - even the text on the wall is reversed.

And on each wall, light creates Nendo's chosen house motif by shining through panels with precisely cut-out lines (see image top right) to form shapes. Here's Narrelle Harris modelling to show scale, and add some colour!

A set of stairs leads up to a mezzanine where we learn about Escher's increasing fascination with tessellations and their interlocking images. We're now striking some of his more well-known work:

The view from the mezzanine is brilliant. Suddenly the exhibition opens out into a large room with a series of black houses that progressively become white houses. Dotted nearby and within are more Escher pieces:

The next room features art held by metal struts. These form the house shape when seen at the right angle, and show off Escher's work featuring complex buildings:

One of the most striking spaces has a huge central piece composed of tiny suspended black and white houses; from the right angle one sees the image of an even larger house:

Near the end is a serpentine path which features Escher's last work, an intriguing print of intertwined snakes. It's fascinating to think how much effort went into a work like this, which nowadays could be created on a computer.

It seems a fitting tribute to a great artist that this piece is the culmination of an absorbing exhibition; ably heightened by Nendo's structures without being overwhelmed by them.

Escher X Nendo continues to 7 April 2019, at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia. Tickets $28 for adults, $24.50 concession. Make bookings here.