Tag - silk

Chaiyaphum, Thailand

 

Barely heard of and even less touristed Chaiyaphum makes the ideal base for nearby stunning national parks.
Barely heard of and even less touristed Chaiyaphum makes the ideal base for nearby stunning national parks.
Barely heard of and even less touristed Chaiyaphum makes the ideal base for nearby stunning national parks.

Though not as rich in attractions as its neighbouring provinces, barely heard of and even less touristed Chaiyaphum makes the ideal base for nearby stunning national parks, and has a few worthy spots of its own too. CHRIS WOTTON gets under the skin of this undiscovered slice of Isaan.
 
Never heard of Chaiyaphum? That’s little surprise, as few people have. Tucked up in Thailand’s north-eastern Isaan region and bordered by Khorat and Khon Kaen, this largely untouristed province barely registers a foreign face. Still very Thai in appearance and character, the main industries here are rice and sugar production, while the province is also renowned as a silk centre. The capital city of an otherwise largely rural province shows the signs of some limited urban development, but venture here and you will still discover somewhere pleasingly quiet and low-key, the perfect antidote to the Bangkok lifestyle.

The primary attractions here, the Jao Pho Praya Lae monument and Prang Ku, are largely unimpressive and at most worth a passing glance. In fact, you will probably pass the former several times before even realising what it is. Jao Pho Phraya Lae was the eighteenth century Lao ruler of Chaiyaphum, and this statue in his name is the centrepiece of a roundabout in the centre of town on Bannakan Road. He switched sides to fight with Bangkok when Vientiane declared war on Siam at the start of the 1800s.

Jao Pho Phraya Lae lost his life in the ensuing battles, but was kept in high esteem in Chaiyaphum and today has two annual festivals celebrated in his name in January and May.

The Khmer Prang Ku further along Bannakan Road past the entrance to Siam River Resort, meanwhile, is really equally disappointing as a sight. Poorly preserved and not much to look at at all, in its heyday it was a temple on the route that connected Angkor Wat with the (far more impressive and better restored) Prasat Muang Singh just outside of Kanchanaburi.
Today, if nothing else it serves as a reminder of just how small Chaiyaphum proper really is – particularly at night, by the time you’ve walked just a short way east to this site, you feel like you’re well out of the city and into Isaan village life.

Tat Ton National Park makes for far more of a reason to visit Chaiyaphum. Twenty-three kilometres away and easily reached by 30 baht public songthaew share taxi from a stand at the north end of the city on Non Muang Road, it boasts amongst other sights an impressive waterfall that stretches to 50m wide in the rainy season – take care as it is easy to sip by the water’s edge. Group tours aside, you are likely to be almost alone in the park, and pretty much certainly the only foreigner. The 100 baht entrance fee gets you access to the whole park, which also includes the smaller Tat Fah waterfall.

The park as a whole is the perfect spot for a dose of back-to-nature relaxation sure to enliven the senses, and if you want to drag it out a little longer there are bungalows to rent too. The return journey to Chaiyaphum is a bit more of a pain than getting there, since songthaews don’t take this route after the morning – but you can hitch a ride back to Chaiyaphum quite easily. If all else fails, walk some way along the road you came down, make yourself look tired and wait for a few women to start shouting, asking if you need a lift back to Chaiyaphum (for a price). They came to our rescue, so they’re bound to for you as well.

Back in Chaiyaphum proper, picnics are the order of the day at a secluded, peaceful spot at the side of a small lake in the streets behind the Tesco Lotus supermarket on Sanambin Road. Roll up on a bike or on foot, having stopped at food stalls on the lanes nearby for giant Isaan-sized grilled chicken skewers and fresh pineapple with dried chilli and sugar, and soak up the goodness of some fresh Chaiyaphum air from the shade of the many trees lining the lake. As is the beauty with so much in this city, aside from the odd local fisherman you will likely have the place to yourself.

GET THERE: Buses run by at least three different companies connect Chaiyaphum with Bangkok’s northern Morchit bus terminal in about six hours. On the return leg, the three companies unhelpfully all have their own departure terminals dotted around town, but there are also local bus connections to Khon Kaen and Khorat, both linked to Bangkok by trains and planes.

WHERE TO STAY: Most western tourists stay at the five-star Siam River Resort, towards the far end of Bannakan Road, where 990 Baht will bag you a plush room with balcony and breakfast, and access to the pool. There’s free wi-fi and bike hire and staff are excellent. The Deeprom Hotel is also worth a look, with its pleasing pastel exterior, though staff speak little English. Expect to pay 800 Baht for a double air-con room.

MOVING ON: Khon Kaen is two and a half hours away by local bus – great for foodies, it also boasts the Bueng Kaen Nakhon lake which makes for a great walking spot. Buses to Khorat take two hours.

CHRIS WOTTON is a twenty-something crazy about Thailand. After a first visit in 2008, he fell in love with the country and has since travelled its length and breadth, searching out local life – and local food! – while writing and researching for SE Asia travel guides and magazines. When not discovering and writing about Thailand, Chris studies French and German in his native UK, and runs an online shop selling authentic Japanese and Thai cooking ingredients.

North Eastern Thailand

North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand
North Eastern Thailand

North Eastern Thailand is better known as Isan – also written as Isaan, Isarn, Issan, or Esarn. There are 19 provinces in Isan, but only a few receive interest from tourists, which is a shame as this is a great part of Thailand to relax, wander in nature and get to know the friendly and welcoming people.

Isan covers an area of 160,000 km and much of the land is given over the farms and paddy fields as agriculture is the main economic activity. The region of Isan has a strong, rich and individual culture. Examples of this can be found in the folk music, called mor lam, festivals, dress, temple architecture and general way of life.

The main regional dialect is Isan, which is actually much more similar to Lao than central Thai. Unfortunately, because the rainfall is often insufficient for crops to grow properly, Isan is the poorest region of Thailand, and many people leave the province to seek their fortunes in the bustling metropolis of Bangkok.

The average temperature range is from 30.2 C to 19.6 C. The highest temperature recorded was a sweltering 43.9 C, whilst the lowest was a freezing -1.4 C. Unlike most of Thailand, rainfall is unpredictable, but it mainly occurs during the rainy season, which takes place from May to October.

Although completely unique, Isan food has adopted elements of both Thai and Lao cuisines. Sticky rice is served with every meal and the food is much spicier than that of most of Thailand.

Popular dishes include:

som tam – extremely spicy and sour papaya salad
larb – fiery meat salad liberally laced with chilies
gai yang – grilled chicken
moo ping – pork satay sticks

Isan people are famous for their ability to eat whatever happens to be around, and lizards, snakes, frogs and fried insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms and dung beetles often form a part of their diet.

Both men and women traditionally wear sarongs; women’s sarong often have an embroidered border at the hem, whilst those of the men are chequered. Much of Thailand’s silk is produced in Isan, and the night markets at many of the small towns and villages are good places to find a bargain.

There is no major airport in Isan, but the State Railway of Thailand has two lines and both connect the region to Bangkok. This is also a good place to enter Laos via the Thanon Mitraphap (“Friendship Highway”), which was built by the United States to supply its military bases in the 1960s and 1970s. The Friendship Bridge – Saphan Mitraphap – forms the border crossing over the Mekong River on the outskirts of Nong Khai to the Laos capital of Vientiane.

Khon Khen, Thailand

Khon Khen, Thailand
Khon Khen, Thailand

Nestled in the heart of Isan, Khon Kaen is the centre of Northeast. The capital of Khon Kaen Province is the city of Khon Kaen, which is a rich source of culture.

The Khon Kaen National Museum, Khon Kaen City Museum and the Art and Culture Museum are all great places to spend a couple of hours and learn about the area and its people.

To the centre of the city, the beautiful 100-hectare lake known as Beung Kaen Nakhon (Kaen Nakhon Lake) is a great spot for a picnic, whilst the nearby temples of Wat That and Wat Nong Wang Muang and definitely worth exploring.

Khon Kaen is the centre of the north-eastern silk industry, and the Sala Mai Thai silk village 55 kilometres to the west makes a great day trip. Here you will see top quality silk dyed in a wide range of colours and made into a multitude of different products, and in the traditional weaving households you can actually see the silk being skilfully woven.

Khon Kaen is a province with stunning natural beauty and it features a couple of great national parks. Phu Wiang National Park was recently made famous when dinosaur remains were unearthed there, whilst the Nam Nao National Park contains the region’s highest mountain

peak – Phu Pha Jit, which measures a colossal 1271 metres. It is possible to camp in the grounds of both national parks for just 30 baht, which makes a very cheap and picturesque option, although not so much so during the monsoon season!
Next door to the park the Phu Kiaw Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to leopards, tigers, elephants and many other beasties.

Also not to be missed is the unusual Ban Khok Sa-Nga Cobra Village, where the local snakes are highly revered. Here you can witness the love and trust shown by the villagers to the mighty snakes as well as daily cobra shows.

Another great day trip is Prasat Peuay Noi (also know as Ku Peauy Noi), where you will see the region’s largest Khmer temple.

Khon Kaen celebrates its local skills and traditions with the Silk Fair and Phuk Siaw Festival, which last for 12 days in late November. The Phuk Siaw Festival is specially intended to preserve the unique Phuuk Siaw (friend bonding) tradition and is marked with much merry making and folk dancing.

Phimai, Thailand

Phimai, Thailand
Phimai, Thailand
Phimai, Thailand
Phimai, Thailand

Part of Nakhon Ratchasima Province to the north of Thailand, Phimai is a great place to visit for those with a keen interest in history and culture, and the small town also has some beautiful nature spots in which to enjoy a picnic and relax for a while away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Most visitors are draw to Phimai by the Phimai Historical Park, which contains a large number of temples and ruins to explore including the beautiful Khmer temple of Prasat Phimai. Don’t forget to check out to informative Phimai National Museum in order to learn more about the temples and to discover some rare temple artefacts.

Nearby, the brick chedi of Meru Boromathat and the Pratu Chai – victory gate – are just waiting to be discovered, whilst on an island in the middle of a large reservoir the Sai Ngam (Beautiful Banyan) draws Buddhists from all over the world. You can take a rowing boat out onto the reservoir for a closer look at the sacred tree. Whilst there, don’t forget to pay a visit to the interesting Tha Nang Sa Phom – which is an ancient and intricately decorated landing platform.

Nakhon Ratchasima Province is famous for its unique and beautiful pottery, and a good place to see it is at the Dan Kwian pottery village, where you can still see craftsmen creating the Thai ceramics.

Another famous skill from the north of Thailand is silk weaving, and visitors can go to the Pak Thong Chai silk weaving village, which is very close to Phimai. Here, the weaving looms are still being put to good use today, creating beautifully shimmering Thai silk, which is then dyed in a dazzling array of colours and made into a wide range of products for people to buy as souvenirs.

In November, Phimai celebrates with the Phimai Festival. This is a good opportunity to experience the traditional folk songs, dancing and theatre of the region as well as sample the many delicious dishes and sweets.

The Disappearance of Jim Thompson

cameron_highlands
The Disappearance of Jim Thompson
The Disappearance of Jim Thompson
The Disappearance of Jim Thompson

jim_thompson_1He set off for an early evening pre-dinner stroll, but it was an act that was to spark off one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of all time. When Jim Thompson left his guesthouse in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands on March 26 1967 to walk Jungle Trek number 4, surely no one could have imagined he would never be seen again. But the American-born silk manufacturer, who moved to Thailand in the 1940s, vanished without a trace on that fateful day.

Local guides with extensive knowledge of the area searched for the 61-year-old but to no avail. His body has never been found. It wasn’t long before the conspiracy theories began to circulate – among the most popular that he was eaten by a tiger or, being a former OSS agent, was part of some elaborate kidnap plot.

The 30-year-old mystery surrounding Jim Thompson’s disappearance has not dampened people’s enthusiasm for the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s premier hill station. The area, about three hours north of Kuala Lumpur, is a cool retreat from the excessive heat at lower levels. Thanks to the presence of the British during Malaysia’s colonial days, it still retains an “olde-English” feel – cream teas are widespread and it rains constantly. During a recent visit to the region, I decided to follow in the footsteps of Jim Thompson – hopefully with not quite as disastrous results.

Trail number 4 starts close to Tanah Rata, the main town of the Cameron Highlands. It is paved and takes about 40 minutes to reach the watchtower lookout point. On the way, I passed Parit Falls – not the biggest waterfall you will ever see and certainly not the cleanest. The muddy brown stream is, sadly, littered with rubbish. The walk is fairly easy, although you should be prepared to walk a little uphill towards the end.

Monkeys can often be seen hanging in the trees – I didn’t see any on my visit but friends who did the walk the day after spotted the creatures swinging through the branches. A short climb to the top of the watchtower will allow you sweeping views over the town and into the hills beyond. On my descent, it started to rain so it’s definitely a good idea to takes waterproofs with you. Perhaps because of Jim Thompson’s experience, locals recommend never setting off on this or any walk in the late afternoon.

Guesthouses and tourist information offices in Tanah Rata can provide plenty of details and maps about this and all the other walks in the Highlands. It’s not just walks that are popular with visitors. The area is famed for its tea plantations and it is possible to visit them – and enjoy a sip of the local brew. Without your own transport it’s not that easy to get around so if you want to visit a plantation, your best bet is to do a half-day tour. For just 20 ringgit (187 baht), not only do you get to see the Sungai Palas Tea Plantation, you also get to see a Chinese temple, rose centre, strawberry farm, butterfly sanctuary, honey farm and local produce market. Yes, plenty of getting on and off the bus, but if you like eating, this could just be the trip for you. Maybe I was feeling homesick, but I couldn’t come to the Cameron Highlands without having a proper cream tea. There’s nowhere better to do this than the atmospheric Ye Olde Smokehouse Hotel, which is like something out of deepest Devon. The English-style pub even has its own red telephone box outside – something you can’t even find in England anymore. The pub is a popular tourist draw. As I sat in the peaceful gardens, I lost count of the number of Malay families taking photos. The cream tea itself is to die for. The scones are fresh and warm. But you must expect to pay for them – a cream tea will set you back 30 ringgit (281 baht). With prices like those, I really did feel like I was back in England!

For all the lowdown on the Cameron Highlands – including how to get there, accommodation, walks and other activities, go to www.cameronhighlands.com