Follow Thailand’s road less traveled to these secret spots.
When you tell people you’re going on holiday to Thailand, the immediate assumption is that you’re off to one of the islands to sip cocktails on golden sands, dance under full moons or enjoy massages by the sea.
Or perhaps you might be spending the weekend exploring the lights of Bangkok, taking tuk-tuk rides and rifling for treasures at one of the many, many street markets.Aficionados might even guess you’re taking a trip to Chiang Mai up in the far north, where you can take hikes up into the mountains and go for treks on elephants.
But no one would guess you are heading inland and northeast from Bangkok – and that’s what makes a trip there all the more special.Exploring this ancient region makes you feel like you are uncovering some of the last hidden gems of Thailand.
They include the Khmer ruins of Phimai – as old and breathtaking as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat – together with the lush dense jungle of the Khao Yai national park and the grand Lamtakong Dam.
Korat – or Nakhon Ratchasima, as it is locally known – is a little over three hours drive from Bangkok, but couldn’t be more different.
While it is still a bustling town, there is little to no English spoken and few white faces spotted, so you are left feeling like you are having a truly Thai experience.
A trip to the nightly flea markets will confirm this – we were coached in hand signals before we entered the markets, to make sure we would be able to haggle over the prices despite the language barrier.
But I was still wary walking in, adopting my usual market-shopping demeanour – head down, no eye contact unless you intend to buy, move along quickly – for fear of being harassed and hounded, as is the norm in every other Thai market I’ve ever visited.
Not so, in Korat. There was no pushiness, no heavy-handed hawkers – just friendly curiosity.
And some really good deals.
There are not many souvenir-type items on offer but everything is so cheap, I had to purchase a second bag before my return flight to hold all my purchases.Our visits to the ceramics village of Dan Kwian and the Pak Thong Chai silk weaving village didn’t help my excess baggage concerns either. But aside from satisfying my shopaholic urges, these visits opened my eyes to the ancient cottage industries still well established in rural Thailand.
Some of the methods employed in these villages have not changed in generations – and despite the language barrier, the locals are more than happy to show you how they operate the looms in their front rooms, or where they collect the clay for their pottery.
Exploring new areas of Thailand, off the well-beaten track, also opens you up to new culinary experiences.
Instead of the western-friendly menus seen in the tourist-friendly hot spots, we are introduced to the special roasted ducks of Korat, the grilled fish prepared metres from the vast Lamtakong Dam, the fried fish served in betel leaves and the coconut milk pancakes sold absolutely everywhere.
One of my favourite discoveries of the holiday are the Thai doughnuts served at breakfast at the Dusit Princess Korat. These look like two miniature conjoined churros – served with condensed milk and a dubiously green but delicious pandan syrup.
The Dusit Princess is certainly not an uber flash hotel by international standards, but it feels as though it once was.It is clean and spacious with an impressive breakfast (did I mention the doughnuts?) and a beautiful, cool pool – perfect to refresh yourself in after a day exploring the nearby Phimai ruins.
But if you are looking for glamorous accommodation, you don’t have to go far.
Nestled in the foothills of the Khao Yai National Park is Botanica Resort – a brand new five-star resort which offers all the luxury even the most discerning traveller could hope for, at a fraction of the cost of equivalent resorts in more popular tourist hot spots.
A quick two-and-a-half hours from downtown Bangkok, Botanica is a true retreat – in every sense of the word.
There is plenty to keep you entertained – an excellent restaurant, a pool bar, infinity pool, gym and library – but even though the hotel is one of five in a small area, guests feel like they have escaped to a tropical haven.
The resort abuts jungle and it was this bank of lush green that greeted me every morning and surrounded me when I enjoyed an outdoor bath on my balcony at twilight.
Botanica is a great base for more sightseeing in the vicinity – try a hike to the Haew Narok waterfall, a night-time safari, or be impressed (and perhaps surprised) by a tasting at the PB Valley Khao Yai Winery.If all that seems like too much hard work, how about a two-hour Thai massage (which comes to a a whopping $15 including a tip).
This area of Thailand is a gem, but it won’t stay hidden for long.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Bangkok is a non-stop nine to nine-and-a-half hour flight from the eastern states, and about seven hours from Perth. Many major airlines fly to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, including Qantas, Emirates, British Airways and Thai Airways.
STAYING THERE: The Dusit Princess Korat is about three and a quarter hours from Bangkok, with prices starting from 1,650 Baht ($A55).
The brand new Botanica Resort at Khao Yai is about two and a half hours from Bangkok with rooms starting at 4,999 Baht ($A168).