Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Khao Yai

Bangkok weekenders and day-trippers, even tourist alike are finding places to retreat from the urban madness. City slickers pack their Gucci carry-on bags and head on a nature trip- no long tiring drives required, to breathe in and out and just lie down and chill. A good two hours away from Bangkok is Khao Yai, groomed to be the next address for out-of-towners.

The National Park first put Khao Yai on the map. Its 2,168 square kilometers boast of evergreen forests, grasslands, waterfalls and wildlife; with over 50km of hiking trails. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, it opens its corridors to visitors (Entrance fee: 400B for foreigners, 40B for Thais; Cars: B30up) seeking for a nature adventure: wildlife spotting; bird watching; and trekking through the rainforest. An 80-meter waterfall, Heo Narok, lies within the park. Adjacent are rolling golf courses, for those who want to be in the open-air but prefer to sweat it out in style.

Thanarat Road is the main passage way leading to the main attractions of the expanse. Restaurants and hotels are stringed along both sides of the two-lane street, spaced evenly. The trees and bushes conceal road signs, making it easy to overlook side streets and structures. Missing are the 7elevens on street corners; in its place, small convenience stores still housed in old wooden structures are evident of a place still unaffected by the commercialized world.

The Greenery Resort (188/1 Thanarat Road, Moo See, Pakchong; Tel: 044-297 224-5) is a good choice for families and nature-trippers looking for modest accommodations- no frills. Tucked in a narrow driveway, with the mountains as its backdrop, the complex of bungalows and apartments provide reasonably priced rooms (B1,300up). A sports area nearby includes: a bowling alley; rock climbing; zorbing (rolling downhill inside of a white, double-hulled sphere called a zorbus); horseback riding; nano racing; thunder hawking; and paintballing. Accommodations include 30% discount coupons to the “activity zone” and breakfast.

Juldis is another alternative for a weekend retreat. The structure drapes its land area with a main building and bungalows, making it more visible from the road (54 Moo 4 Thanarat Rd; tel: 044 297297; Rooms: B1,500up). The Country Steak & Pub, serving local beef, is the main restaurant lodged in a separate house in front of the hotel; with both al fresco and indoor dining and live music (opening time: Mon-Sat: 5pm-1am, Sun: 11am-2pm, 5pm-1am; 300-500B/person). Breakfast and all-day dining is served at the Chommanade Restaurant.

Across the street from Juldis is Fabb Café (219 Moo 4 Thanarat Rd; Tel: 044 297 533, opening time: 10am-10pm, everyday), a well-established restaurant in Bangkok; now a well-known spot in Khai Yai. K.Luv, Fabb owner, moved permanently to Khao Yai, as years of weekend trips drew her closer to the laid back life, “… to escape the stressful life of the city and have a peaceful life in the slow lane”. She dreams big for Khao Yai and plans to build a boutique hotel with a gourmet market, a pharmacy, a salon and a curio shop.

Fabb Café caters to gourmet visitors and residents of Khao Yai. The Café’s patio setting blends with the luscious green surroundings. Looking serene clad in a beige safari outfit, K.Luv says, “…most guests come up from Bangkok or neighboring provinces to have a good meal. I have guests come with their dogs after a stroll in forest to have some coffee and a slice of one our homemade cakes (baked in the restaurant’s big kitchen)”. Italian dishes are prepared by the trained Thai chef. The tasty risotto with mixed seafood (360B), cooked al dente, is loaded with shrimps, squid and clams. The filling portion of fettuccine with Italian sausage and mushroom with a hint of chili (260B) is a fine choice to pair with a Shiraz from the local winery.

For those seeking for the absolute tranquil getaway, the Kirimaya is the perfect destination. Downright luxury is the rightful description of this 60-room hotel, fit for the high-end crowd (1/3 Moo 6, Thanarat Rd., Moo-si Pakchong, Nakorn Ratchasima; Tel: +66 4442 6000, http://www.kirimaya.com/, Rooms- B8, 000up). Before reaching the gate to the National Park, a sharp left turn and another 7km drive leads to the serene haven. An 18-hole golf course lies at its doorstep. Amid the sprawling landscape are four tented villas in pure white canvass, with private spa pool- fit for a prince (B21,500up).

The Acala Restaurant rests on an islet on a small lake, serving Thai and international cuisine. Starters are a list of ingenious dishes: Pearls of Maya are aromatic shrimp balls (220B); Wa Ni Pok Salad is a house specialty of pork and shrimp (250B); and Mat Cha Long Dong is an exotic mix of green papaya and Norwegian Salmon (500B). A select list of main dishes include: Acala Tuna with teriyaki sauce (350B); Ostrich fillet with black peppercorn (590B); and Charred “Khao Yai” beef with red wine sauce (750B).

The Mist Bar sits on top of the Acala. At daytime, the weather’s fluctuating temperature varies and spews mist into the valley, creating an enchanting atmosphere; hence the name. A leisurely tea time is served to guests (inclusive to the accommodation) between 3-5pm; at night it is a great chill out place to have a couple of drinks. The T-Grill, overlooking the lake and the golf course, is a casual but romantic place to hang out for dinner.

A 12 km detour from the Khao Yai National Park is Asoke Valley, breaking through the barriers with its fine vineyards; coined as the “New Latitude of Wine”, it lies outside the 30° and 50° latitude north and south of the hemisphere. With years of research and fine-tuning, Thai Wineries are serving the local market with reasonably priced prime wine.

“Starting with a mere 5% of the Thai Wine market, I think we have a great future ahead, judging that we have been only 8 years in the business”, say K. Visooth Lohitnavy, CEO & Managing Director of GranMonte Co., Ltd and President of the Thai Wine Association. He intends to inspire ambition to wine grape growers. He is hopeful and believes “… there is a place for us in the growing wine world”.

GranMonte Vineyard (52 Moo 9 Phayayen, Pakchong, Nakornrachasima; Tel: 036 227 334-5; www.granmonte.com), a family estate, started as a vision of K.Visooth, a student in Germany in the 60’s. He developed a penchant for wines, while traveling through the Rhine Wine Valley. He smiles as he recalls, “I preferred to drink wine than beer, even if I stayed in Bavaria, an area well-known for beer”. Imported good quality wines are pricey and K. Visooth explored the possibility of producing the wines to make it affordable to the local consumers.

Entering the vineyard, a cellar shop “Montino”, provide free tasting of the wines on sale. Since its first harvest in 2001, the Chenin Blanc proves to be the best for the soil and climate condition; while the Syrah was the first of the GranMonte reds. Though wine drinking can stand on its own, gourmets appreciate it more when paired with the right food - a home cooking style restaurant is not far away.

Vincotto is a quaint café set in a cozy atmosphere (open daily 11am-9pm, except Wednesdays; Tel: 036 227 334). The French windows add charm to the setting; and a terrace gives it its casual elegance. The menu includes refined dishes such as: prawn and seedless grape salad (190B); foie gras with grape and verjus sauce (780B); and chicken in vine leaves (290B). Wines are priced at their retail price. A smaller café, by the entrance, is underway, for those who would like to have a sip of wine with some snacks; or even just a cup of coffee and a cheese cake topped with homegrown grape.

Nestled deeper into the valley is the PB Valley (102 Moo 5, Phaya Yen, Pak Chong Nakorn Ratchasima 30320; Tel: 036 226415), the pioneer wine producer in the Khao Yai region. Sixteen years ago, Dr. Piya Bhirombhakdi envisioned producing wine against the odds of working in a tropical climate. After years of consultations with wine experts and significant research, good quality wines were produced: Shiraz for the red and Chenin Blanc for white, both from French rootstock; and Tempranillo from Spain.

To complete the ambience of the misty valley is the Great Hornbill Restaurant. With 200 seats overlooking the winery, the extensive menu includes local and international food. Thai favorites include: spicy shrimp salad with lemon grass (150B); tom yung goong (225B); and krathong thong larb gai (110B). German influence in the menu is obvious with dishes of: mixed sausages (250B); and roast pork knuckles (385B); both served with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. Thin crust Italian pizzas baked in the newly installed wood-fired oven, are the new addition to the menu. Right beside the restaurant, wines are available at a store at the PB Valley driveway.

With Thai cuisine gaining great international acceptance, Thai wine can only be close behind. Foodies are finding the matching wines that suit the spicy and herby flavors of Thai foods. Khao Yai is in the forefront of Thai wine industry; raising eyebrows with connoisseurs, raising the bar on the “new world wine”.

The calmness of the rustic surroundings and stylishness of the fine wineries is contradicted as you exit back to Bangkok, through the main thoroughfare, Thanarat Road. It leads back to the Mitraphab Highway; just a few meters away from the curve is an ultra-modern outlet store. The Village Khao Yai, a17,000sqm of retail space, offers 250 premium name brands in 90 shops; somehow you feel you are just off Ventura Highway, northwest of Los Angeles. Just a douse of cold water to bring you back to the reality of city life you’re trying to escape from.

More roadside attractions are lined up along Mitraphab. Rows of picturesque shops are so inviting with its colorful array of fruits, sweets and delicacies. Small pies called curry puffs are aplenty- small snacks of deep fried pastry shells filled with fruits, meat or vegetables. Travelers stop by and look around, though many are lured to load up their shopping bags with variety of items at reasonable prices.

Another 2km further down the highway is the pinnacle of kitsch- cowboys and cowgirls clad in checkered shirts, red kerchiefs and boots, flaunting their wares. A live cow in a glass showroom is being milked; alongside shop after shop of dairy products (ice cream is tasty, packed in pairs of pints [260B], sealed will last 4 hours), souvenirs, curry puffs and sweets. Chokchai Farm (Tel. 04 432-8485, www.farmchokchai.com), aims to bring people back to nature with a man made forest and camping sites. For 2,990B/person, guests are treated to fun activities similar to a theme park, with overnight accommodations in a tent and meals in the wild. Now that’s entertainment!

There’s something for everyone: families seeking fun and adventure; city slickers searching for a time-out; tourist wanting to explore some breathtaking views; and nature lovers hunting for a slice of the shrinking wilderness. Then there are the Wineries, targeting visitors who want to acquaint themselves to the brand of wines in this part of the world; and although still at an infantile stage, it may be gearing itself up to reach the status of likes of Napa Valley.
A smooth two-hour drive, through the stretch of well-built highways, leads to this evergreen sanctuary– no busy airports required. An occasional escape from the wild city life is a welcome relief. The scratchy thrum of cicadas or the chirpy “gak” of hornbills may just be what a busy city dweller needs to replenish the soul. Pack the Nikes, leave the Manolo Blahniks and head on to nature, take a break!
For all it’s worth, Khao Yai truly is a place to visit.

TIP: Book rooms on-line to get the best rates: http://www.asiarooms.com/ or www.agoda.com
Best route to Khao Yai by car: Take Highway No. 1 (Phahon Yothin) from Bangkok, travel north to Saraburi and then take Highway No. 2 (Mitraparp Highway). Drive along the way (165km), then keep left and take flyover to Thanarat Road. Total distance is approx. 200km.

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