Immersive Thailand

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Thai kickboxing and cooking classes, boat rides in canals and bicycle trails, wine appreciation tours and scenic excursions around Bangkok; Thailand is luring tourists with local immersive experiences, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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No authentic travel experience in Thailand is complete without experiencing the food of the region. From the first sip of our lemongrass welcome drink, to inspiring décor with distinctly Thai themes – lotuses, wooden antiques and filigreed lamps shaped like fingernail adornments of traditional dancers, Thailand unlocks its surprises in a burst of new images and colours.

A good place to start is Bangkok’s Sky Restaurant at the Baiyoke Sky Hotel with a sumptuous buffet and spectacular night view from a revolving deck. Riverside dining hotspots like Baan Khanitha at the shopping mecca Asiatique and the Supatra River House along the Chao Phraya River provide an explosion of flavours – hearty seafood and pork dishes, unique combinations of steamed rice with neem flower gravy and green beef curry, stir-fried veggies, flat noodles with tofu, mildly sweet salad of raw papaya, carrot and prawn… besides platters of cut mango, sticky rice and coconut ice-cream with frozen tapioca flowers for dessert.

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Be it tom yum goong (shrimp soup) at street food stalls or kluay tod (banana fritters) from vendor carts, you could get more adventurous with odd bites like bamboo worms, crispy spiders and bugs on skewers around Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Thailand is often called Venice of the East because of its canals! A boat ride took us past beautiful pagoda temples painted in bright colours with gilded edges glinting in the sun and charming old wooden houses lined with potted plants and orchids hanging from the roofs. Boats doubled up as small floating markets with hawkers selling provisions and mementos as motorboats whizzed by with tourists. Along the banks, water monitor lizards sunned themselves on the edges.

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We stepped off the small jetty in front of a heritage cottage to be welcomed by the charming Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon who runs Amita Cooking Class set in an organic vegetable and herb garden, right by the canal. Having lived here all her life, she smiles, saying, “The canal was very clean and quiet earlier but with tourism, it has become busy with boats.” In a four-hour session, Tam helped us whip up a range of dishes at our individual cooking stations.

With her rooster Soya Sauce strutting around like a sous chef and pet hill myna Basil punctuating her demo with entertaining screeches of Sawadeeka, laughs, coughs, whistles, siren calls and random Thai phrases, Tam took us through some delicious traditional Thai items with most ingredients sourced from her organic garden – Phay Thai (soft rice noodles stir fried with prawns and tamarind sauce), Gai Phat Met Ma Muag Himmaphan (stir fry chicken with cashew nuts), Tom Kha Gai (chicken in coconut soup) and Tab Tim Krob (water chestnuts in syrup with coconut milk). The most interesting aspect was Tam’s mastery in creating natural colours by crushing flower petals and vegetables, to make the dessert bright and appealing! It felt wonderful to eat what we had cooked.

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All this food deserved a good workout and a round of Muay Thai Kickboxing classes at Sor Vorapin Boxing Camp sounded perfect. After a hectic warm-up that tested our stamina, we donned our boxing gloves, ready to pummel our fists like Brad Pitt in Snatch or Fight Club. Our coach explained the intricacies of Thailand’s unique martial combat.

“Muay Thai is a great way to keep fit, besides being one of the best forms of self defence. You make a move to knock down your opponent rather than use force. It’s all about focus and opportunity and striking with your fists, elbows, knees and legs. That’s why it’s called the Art of Eight Limbs.” Thanks to our encouraging coaches, we pulled out all our punches and it left us feeling powerful and energised.

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The gym was located in the famous ‘hippy market’ area so we decided to make the most of it. Funky dresses, tie-n-dye t-shirts, footwear and accessories for a steal, hair pieces in pop colours, parlours to get braids, massages and tattoos sandwiched between snack shops – this was a shopper’s dream. The harbour front at Asiatique is lined with old warehouses that have been converted into shopping stalls and restaurants.

From clothes stalls to designer boutiques and artists at work to relaxing restaurants and people walking their fancy pooches, the place buzzes with action. Siam Center is surrounded by malls such as MBK, Siam Paragon, Platinum and Pratunam, though a night market experience is a must!

MBK Mall

We headed out to lovely excursions around Bangkok – night safaris at Khao Yai National Park, rafting and soft adventure in Nakhon Nayok, golfing holidays at Royal Hills Golf Resort to wine tasting at Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand’s emerging wine county – there’s lots to do. Spread over 2000 acres below the Payayen mountains, PB Valley is Thailand’s largest vineyard. At GranMonte Asoke Valley Winery, Nikki Visootha Lohitnavy, Thailand’s only female oenologist and viticulturist taught us a thing or two about Thailand’s New Latitude wines.

For a ‘knowledge tour’ of Farm Chokchai, Thai girls in plaid shirts and cowboy hats act as guides on the largest agro tour in Asia. The sprawling 8000-acre dairy farm has 5,000 cows with rodeo shows, pony rides, petting zoos, Wild West town, animal shows and lasso tricks. We tried our hand at milking cows, with scoops of dairy fresh ice cream and juicy beefsteaks at the Steak House.

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Kanchanaburi, Thailand’s western province offers a heady blend of nature and history. A 3 hr drive took us to the site of the World War II military camp where the JEATH Museum is a window into a darker past. The museum documents Japanese atrocities on prisoners of war from America, England, Australia and Thailand.

POWs were forced into labour to build a bridge and meter gauge railway line in just a year (1942-43), cutting through hard rock and cliffs of the Tenasserim Hills. It is said that one life was lost for every sleeper laid across the 415km track linking Thailand to Burma, earning the epithet ‘Death Railway’.

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An Audio tour captures recorded sordid memories of the surviving POWs. We walked along the historic Bridge over the River Kwai (which inspired the David Lean movie of the same name). The original iron bridge suffered great destruction by Allied bombings in 1944 and was renovated. At Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, rows of stone tablets between flowering shrubs marked over 7000 persons who sacrificed their lives in the railway construction.

At Hintok River Camp, a former Japanese military base for POWs, we stayed in tented camps close to HellFire Pass and Memorial Museum. Driving around Kanchanaburi reveals the beauty of Thailand’s countryside with waterfalls and riverside nooks. We stopped by for a soak under Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi, or Khao Pung Falls, a gorgeous cascade and picnic spot where locals love spending a few relaxing hours.

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It was a royal retreat in the early 20th century and has a vintage steam locomotive on display. It was through the Three Pagodas Pass at the border that Buddhist teachings reached Thailand from India in the 3rd century.

Back at the camp, after a hearty meal of grilled meats and Thai fare, we chatted around a bonfire late into the night. The next morning, we hopped onto our mountain bikes for a ride to an ancient monastery just 2km away. We pedalled down the country road, past houses and temples and an old hanging bridge before halting at a splendid cluster of five colourful Buddha statues symbolising the different births of Buddha on earth.

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At the monastery, we offered food to Buddhist monks. In the peaceful silence of the temple, we knelt and bowed our heads in prayer. As we received traditional blessings from the head priest, we realised what a befitting end it was to our journey. We were truly blessed to experience a side of Thailand that went beyond the clichéd itinerary of beaches, massages and bazaars.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
There are several direct flights from India to Suvarnabhumi Airport, Thailand that take 3½ – 4½ hrs.

Where to Stay
Siam Kempinski Hotel
Ph +66 2 162 9000 www.kempinski.com

Intercontinental Bangkok Hotel
Ph +66 2 656 0444 www.ihgbangkok.com

Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort
Ph +66 2 476 0022 www.anantara.com

Hintok River Camp, HellFire Pass
Ph +66 8 1754 3898 www.hintokrivercamp.com

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Where to Eat
Bangkok Sky Restaurant
Ph +66 2656 3000 www.baiyoke.co.th

Baan Khanitha, Asiatique
Ph +66 2 258 4128 www.baan-khanitha.com

Supatra River House, Chao Phraya River
Ph +66 2 411 0305 www.supatrariverhouse.net

What to Do
Amita’s Thai Cooking Classes
Ph +66 2 466 8966 www.amitathaicooking.com

Muay Thai Kickboxing classes, Sor Vorapin Boxing Camp
Ph +66 2 282 3551 www.thaiboxings.com

GranMonte Vineyard & Winery
Ph +66 36 227 334 www.granmonte.com

PB Valley Khao Yai Winery
Ph +66 36 226 415 www.khaoyaiwinery.com

For more info, www.tourismthailand.org

Absolutely Fantastic Holidays Ph +66 29 549 401 www.absolutelyfantasticholidays.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2018 issue of JetWings, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways. 

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