Thailand’s Khao Kho district

The district of Khao Kho is not on any international tourist route though Thai visitors adore this region. This is a place for nature lovers. Soaring mountains, rolling hills, lush valleys, cascading waterfalls, gushing rivers, and two wildlife-rich national parks – all part of the attraction! Khao Kho is in the north-central Thai region of Phetchabun. This blog post is about our brief travels there. A region we consider as a great example of the ‘real’ Thailand. And a region well worth visiting.

We took the time to visit as part of a larger trip through northeastern and central Thailand – more examples of what we playfully term the ‘real’ Thailand. And now having visited, we can happily recommend it, so come see what it’s all about. Driving, a hire car or personal vehicle, is, in our view, the best way to make the most of a visit here. It provides so much more freedom and the opportunity to personalise your itinerary.

“Little Switzerland”

As well as being the name of the district, Khao Kho is also the regions tallest mountains at 1143 meter and forms part of the western range of the Phetchabun Mountains. Despite the reference to Alps and Switzerland often seen in Thai tourism info and online, there’s no chance of snow here – ever! Though for the two or so winter months it experiences each year, temperatures do drop to single digits overnight!

Scenic viewpoints are in abundance and saw us stopping regularly to snap yet another picture as we travelled the region. Quilt like farms stretching across the valleys; native pine forests covering the mountainsides; massive wind turbines clustered together atop another ridge seemingly sitting amongst the clouds.

August, apparently, is a busy time for the district as Thai tourist flock here to experience the fog-filled valleys. In time for sunrise, scenic viewpoints right across the region fill with people. All wanting to experience and capture the sight of the early morning fogs filling the valleys while they sit above and take in the magical views. Sadly, our late May visit was too early in the rainy season for us to experience such a phenomenon.

Farm Produce Heaven

Thanks to the elevation, slightly cooler climate and abundantly fertile soil, Khao Kho district is also a food lover’s dream, as we discovered stopping at the first roadside stall we came across. Fresh avocado, almonds, macadamia, plums, and prunes – for expats like Vivien and I who live on the coast in a genuinely tropical climate, such products are rare and expensive treats. But here they were, growing on the steep hills just behind the fruit stall – fresh as you can get and at bargain prices!

That first fruit stall was the beginning of our Khao Kho food discovery tour. Fresh melons, late season strawberries, more tropical delicacies like lychee and star fruit, root vegetables, sugar snap peas, many varieties of lettuce, the most massive cabbage patches we have ever seen, and corn by the paddock.

Certified organic farms were also a pleasant surprise. We stopped at the attractive ‘Italia Gusto’ complex for lunch and had some of the most refined Thai Food we had tasted and at around 180 THB a plate well worth it. Yes, there was a great Italian menu, and even a wood fired pizza oven but when in Thailand – we usually choose Thai.  We discovered the owner, a Thai national, also operates a herbal resort. A segment of the restaurant complex is dedicated to his herbal mixes, lotions and food products using their ingredients. All organically grown less than a kilometre away. Nothing backyard or amateurish about these products. Very professionally presented. But sadly for us, all the information on the products was in Thai. Having said that, some freshly made sesame biscuits and a few other treats did find their way into the bags!

Awe-Inspiring Wats

The Antoni Gaudi-esque, Wat Phra Thart Pha Kaew, has to be one of the most arresting and beguiling temples we have seen in Thailand. Built atop an 830-meter peak in the northern sections of Khao Kho district, the Wat (temple) is a spectacular sight. The dazzling Buddhist temple is decorated with 5 million colourful mosaic tiles, bright glass beads, and beautiful pottery. Elaborate dinner plates, pots, and lids are set into the walls as you climb the stunning stairs to get a closer view of the opulent temple. Smaller surrounding buildings are decorated similarly. In front of the Wat, and to me, even more impressive, is a massive sculpture of five serenely attractive Buddha images seated on emerging lotus buds. We are talking about Buddhas, luminous shimmering white and at least 6-8 stories high – if it was a building. Truly inspiring. On the morning we visited the weather was overcast and heavy, dark clouds clung to the mountains behind. A light mist sat in the valley. An atmosphere I would describe as ethereal. These building all form part of a Dharma meditation and mindfulness centre for monks and Buddhist followers.

Itthi Military Base & Museum

It seems that this region has a dark past. In the 1960s to the 1980s, Communist insurgents made the national parks of this district their hideouts and fought a bloody guerrilla war with the Thai military. Itthi Military Base sits atop Khao (mountain) Kor and was the Army base during the hostilities. Now a museum, it tells the story of those times. You can see vehicles, guns, and other weapons that were used during the fighting, as well as maps, reconstructions of bunkers, and other exhibits and displays. The nearby ‘Khao Kho Sacrificial Monument’, made from marble, honours fallen police officers, military personnel, and local people who tried to protect the area during this time of trouble. The monument and museum are definitely worth a visit – for the history, gorgeous gardens, and outstanding district views. The viewpoint here is said to a great place for spectacular sunsets.

Other Sites & Attractions

The region has many more natural and other attractions ensuring a visit full of diversity. Depending on the time of year, you can hike or bike through the Savana plains of the Thung Salaeng Luang National Park. Go kayaking or white-water rafting in season. Check-out Si Dit Waterfall or admire the gardens of a Royal Palace. November and December deliver native tulips and other wildflowers in the national parks as well as celebrations around the arrival of the Cherry blossoms in January. Autumn’s onset sees the seasonal colour changes of the deciduous trees. Something that many of us living in the more tropical parts of Thailand don’t get to see.

Crazy Farm Contraptions

And as an aside, the farm vehicles we encountered while travelling through the district were well worth stopping to stare and take a snap. The farmers on the vehicles thought we were the funny ones, stopping to take photos of them and their contraptions as they go about their daily tasks!

Our few days in the Khao Kho district provided a great introduction to this ‘off the beaten track’ region as far as international tourists are concerned. Yet furthered our understanding of travel in the ‘real’ Thailand. And all just 400 km north west of Bangkok.

The next stop on our travels as we headed south and back towards our home in Hua Hin on Thailand’s Gulf Coast was Khao Yai. More on that soon!

Note:

An abridged version of this story was originally published under the title ‘A Road Trip Through Thailand’s “Little Switzerland”’ in the March 2019 edition of International Living Australia magazine. Vivien and I are the authors of both versions of this story. International Living Australia magazine is a subscription-only publication which Vivien and I regularly write for.

Spirit Houses – Thailand

We were sitting in a café atop Rind Hill – a forested hill, park and viewpoint on the east coast of Thailand’s largest island, Phuket. Our outlook through the treetop canopy is of the coastal plains and ocean below. Seeing movement out of the corner of my eye I look up. A monkey (macaque) has jumped up onto the Spirit House positioned at the entrance path leading to the café. Ignoring the banana, fried rice and other food offerings, it instead picks up a small bottle of red soda pop deftly unscrews the top and drinks down the contents.

So began my fascination with Spirit Houses in Thailand. What is their relevance? Why the food offering? Who looks after them? Here are my learnings so far…Read more of this post

Chinese cemetery, Kanchanaburi

Travelling around Thailand, we have sometimes seen unusual graveyards and wondered about their origin. On a recent trip to the region of Kanchanaburi, we came across such a cemetery. Not having the classical Buddhist type styling, statues or figurines, we wondered if their derivation was Chinese.

Visualise this scene! A low hill backed a large gently sloping field. Well maintained grass covered this field though not like a well-clipped lawn cemetery. A much more natural look prevailed. Row upon row of tombs neatly crossing the area. Many hundreds of tombs which from a distance looking more or less identical. On both sides of the field groves of trees provided a barrier, perhaps even a windbreak. The whole field overlooked a quiet road and a wide reach of the River Kwai. A very tranquil scene.

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A day amongst the Elephants

Ever wanted to get up close to elephants? Yet seeing them in the distance at a National Park just did not do it for you? Or perhaps you have ethical issues with trekking on, riding, petting or feeding, captive elephants? Well, we recently visited a place where you can spend a day amongst the elephants (wash their back even) without the usual ethical concerns.  We’re talking about the Wildlife Rescue Centre and Elephant Refuge operated by The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT).

Located just 50 or so kilometres north-west of Hua Hin near the village of Tha Mai Ruak in the Phetchaburi region, it’s a simple one hour drive (or even closer from Cha-am) and is a fantastic day trip. Or at least that was our experience.

What is Wildlife Rescue Centre and Elephant Refuge?

Since it’s inception, the centre has rescued over 5,000 wild animals and provides full-time care for almost 1200 animals. The majority of these animals have been abused and exploited for profit and human gratification. This animal mistreatment often takes place in the tourist industry. For example, photos with ‘wild’ animals (e.g. infamous Tiger Temple), animals performing in degrading shows, as well as elephant rides, elephants camps and shows, and elephant trekking. Additionally, there is still a thriving illegal trade in wild animals for pets and medicine, with most of these animals taken unlawfully from their natural habitat.

WFFT was founded in 2001 by Edwin Wiek with the help of the local people from Phetchaburi province, including the Abbot of Wat Khao Look Chang who donated a large parcel of land so the centre could be established.  The centre has expanded its local land footprint over time with the acquisition of neighbouring properties thus allowing for an enlargement of facilities including a new state of the art elephant hospital. In recent time WFFT has extended into Laos where they now operate another world-class animal rescue centre. Learn more about WFFT here.  Read more of this post

Kuala Lumpur (KL) highlights

Just a little while back we took a trip from our home In Hua Hin, on Thailand’s Royal Coast, to peninsula Malaysia. It was exceptionally easy to do. We travelled by train stopping off at the following Malaysian point of interest (to us): Penang Island, Taiping, Ipoh and finally Kuala Lumpur (KL). Since our trip, Air Asia has started direct flights from KL to Hua Hin and return. Flights are four times a week bringing KL, and peninsula Malaysia more broadly, so much closer for us Hua Hin residents. So if you’re planning travel to KL, here are some Kuala Lumpur highlights we would like to share with you.

Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur boasts gleaming skyscrapers, colonial architecture and history, a myriad of natural attractions, and a multicultural community with Malay, Indian, and Chinese residents, and their delectable and varied cuisines.

KL’s Golden Triangle

KL’s main hub is called the Golden Triangle which comprises the districts of Bukit Bintang, KLCC and Chinatown. During our five days in KL, we did not venture out of the Golden Triangle as there is just so much to see and do within this action-packed area – day or night.

Bukit Bintang Street is famous for shopping and entertainment. Malls like Pavilion KL and Starhill Gallery have high-end brands while Low Yat Plaza, Sungei Wang Plaza, Fahrenheit 88, and Berjaya Times Square are perfect for budget fashion and the latest gadgets.  Suria KLCC shopping mall – 6 enormous levels of shopping heaven – can be found in the northeast of the Golden Triangle, which is also home to the Petronas Twin Towers (the world’s tallest twin skyscrapers). Fortunately, for us, our KL visit coincided with the lead up to Chinese New Year, with all the shops having sales of up to 50% off. So glad we had some extra space in our bags!

If you want great tasting, inexpensive food in the Bukit Bintang area check out these Street Market and Hawker Stall style options:

  • Lot 10 Hutong Food Court – Located on the lower ground floor of Lot 10 shopping mall, Hutong Food Court is designed to look like an old Beijing village with narrow ‘alleyways’ linking stalls. Instead of a central seating area, tables and chairs are around these stands. Prices are a little expensive by food hall standards (between RM10-Rm18 for a meal) but very worthwhile.
  • Jalan Alor – Image a whole road turned over to food and just 5 minutes walk from the Bukit Bintang MRT or monorail stations.  Little plastic stools and tables occupy the streets while an exhaustive choice of Cafes and Food stalls dish out your order. Think Malay, Chinese, Thai and other specialities at great prices and open from 10:00 am till 3:00 am except for Sundays where the street closes at midnight.

Kuala Lumpur’s City Centre (KLCC)

Kuala Lumpur’s City Centre (KLCC) is the cities, traditional heart. The former colonial administrative district sits just west of the confluence of the Klang and Gombak River, where Kuala Lumpur was founded. At the heart of the colonial district is Merdeka Square, where Malaysia’s independence was declared. Surrounding the square are many other colonial-era buildings. To the west of the square lies the pretty Lake Gardens while to the south you’ll find the National Mosque, the Moorish-style Kuala Lumpur railway station, and several museums including the Islamic Arts Museum and the National Museum. To the east of the Klang river lies the old commercial district of Kuala Lumpur. You will find the iconic Central Markets and the narrow streets of Chinatown, with traditional Chinese shops, markets, eateries.

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Pranburi Saturday Night Market

Pranburi Saturday Night Market has been on our local ‘must do’ list for some time, and just a few weekends back we finally made it there! It’s only a short (25km) drive south from Hua Hin to neighbouring Pranburi and the Market only happens Saturday evenings.  This is definitely a locals market with genuine Thai characteristics. A ‘walking street’ market worth spending a few hours wandering and partaking of its offerings!

Located on the eastern side of Pranburi Railway Station, the market takes over two adjoining streets and is free of traffic making it so easy to meander the stalls and shops that populate the walking street. Old Teak buildings, original I can only assume, stand proudly with doors and shutters wide open inviting you in to discover the treasures that await – antiques, bric-a-brac, woven bamboo baskets and bags, Thai kitchen utensils, and many more discoveries. Some of these old Teak buildings have been transformed into Cafes with outside seating or an upstairs balcony for a better vantage point.

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A Foodies delight @ The Boutique Farmers, Khao Kolak

Recently we took advantage of an offer that, as foodies, was particularly appealing and required an out of town overnight stay. We didn’t have to travel far. Pak Nam Pran and Khao Kalok are neighbouring beaches in the Pran Buri region just 30 minutes’ drive south of our home in Hua Hin. And just 500 meters back from Khao Kalok beach is ‘The Boutique Farmers’ and our destination for the weekend. From all we had heard and read this place, it promised to be a foodies delight!

The offer we took advantage of was simple. Book dinner Friday or Saturday night, or their now famous Sunday Brunch at the restaurant on The Farm and overnight accommodation in their homestay was free. As a special bonus, they even included breakfast the following morning.

Pak Nam Pran and Khao Kalok are developing areas, with a well-maintained beachside esplanade literally stretching for kilometres as do the beaches and includes cycleways and walking paths. The area is still semi-rural with pineapple plantations, small cattle grazing concerns and paddocks devoted to coconut palms. Yet brand-named and boutique resorts have also found a place among all this. There are quaint Thai eateries along with small European bakeries, and larger Cafes and restaurants scattered along the length of the esplanade.

On arrival, The Boutique Farmers Co-owner and Chef, James Noble welcomed us and gave an overview of the property and facilities. He and wife May have developed the farm side of the business for the last 7 years.

Boutique Farmers – the Concept

The concept sounds simple enough – produce food and related products through sustainable, organic agriculture, using only local staff. To their credit, the farm has provided specialist organic vegetables, fruit, herbs and preserved products to the Chefs of elite restaurants in Bangkok and Hua Hin for the last 5 year. James, May and their farm team continue adding to their offering as the Chefs become more engaged and understand what this enterprise can offer.

Guests to the homestay or restaurant are encouraged to wander around the property. We saw a multitude of products from figs and mulberries to hothouses full of cherry tomatoes; rows of corn; garden beds of eggplant, cabbage, lettuce of several varieties, cucumber and edible flowers. In the kitchen garden: microgreens; fennel; mustard leaf; and herbs including flat and curly parsley; purple basil (heritage); thyme; oregano; as well Thai herbs.

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Top 10 Things to Do in Thailand

One of the joys of our ‘new life’ as Retired Aussies in Asia is developing new skills and learning how to apply these. For me, one clear example is learning how to write – creative writing I suppose. It all started with this blog and am now contributing to magazines and other interested sites. International Living is one of those who regularly publish stories and articles from Vivien and me. Here’s a recent article I wrote for International LivingThe Top 10 Things to Do in Thailand.

Our reality is this Top 10 Things to Do in Thailand list could go on and on, as we so love exploring our new home country of Thailand, and more broadly SE Asia. Lots of these explorations can be found on the pages and posts of this Blog. Feel free to explore and the Search function on the right of the screen may make it easier to delve in.

Hope you enjoy the article, and please use the comments box on this page to tell us what you would add to this Top 10 list.

And here we are having some fun whilst out and about exploring!

 

Anzac Day at Hellfire Pass, 2018

Descending through the lush tropical bamboo forest we hear the gravel crunch underfoot. We walk quietly through a twenty-meter-high rock cutting that’s carved out by hand. Bamboo lanterns throw eerie shadows, as people quietly make their way along the dark path. This is how Anzac Day at Hellfire Pass in the Kanchanaburi region of Thailand started for us, this 25 April 2018.

Reaching the ceremonial clearing we joined many hundreds of Aussies, Kiwis and people from all parts to await the Dawn Service. Some speak in hushed tones, others reflecting in silence. A young man proudly wears his grandfather’s medals and we all wait patiently. The uniformed Catafalque party approach, their crisp footsteps distinct, and take up traditional guard positions around the central memorial. Padre Cornelis Bosch leads us in thanks and prayer, followed by a Statement of Remembrance by the Chief of the Australian Army.

As dawn breaks, leaves gently rustle, and melodic bird songs compliment the soft, sombre tone of the ceremony. Ears are peeled as 96-year-old Australian ex-POW Neil MacPherson OAM speaks:

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

 We will remember them.”

“Lest we forget”

The Royal Thai Army Buglers further captivate the gathering and pierce the soft morning playing the Last Post. We all stand silent, reflecting on our own thoughts. Proudly we watch the flags slowly raised; the bright, cheerful call of Reveille, helps lift our spirits to a new day. Beautiful wreaths are placed by Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand officials in memory of so many lost Prisoners of War.

History to be discovered

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Wine tasting fun – when opportunities present!

Large red wine glasses, two rows of five, lined up atop the wine bar. Monsoon Valleys winemaker and their wine consultant on one side of the counter, Vivien and me on the other. A serious wine tasting happening right in front of us. The task for them was to choose the next Shiraz to take the place of the current vintage. The stock of the current vintage was all but sold out. There were four newer batches of Shiraz under consideration – but which one was ready?

Tasting each in comparison to the current vintage. Identifying the characteristics of each, a little too much tannin on one, a nice chocolatey character on another, the fruit a little too vibrant on one more. And we got to play along whilst the experts went through their process. Just Vivien and me – what a privilege!

Having attended a wine tasting hosted by Monsoon Valley wines – a large vineyard just 45 minutes drive from our home here in Hua Hin. The evening was coming to an end and the invited crowd was now focused on securing their dinner.

Over the course of the last hour, the 30 or so invited guests, including us, had sampled Monsoon Valley’s Signature White – a Chenin blanc. Their Signature Red, mainly based on the locally cultivated but German origin Dornfelder grape variety. And Monsoon Valley’s Sparkling Brut Prestige. The wine tasting was accompanied by canapes from the wine bars kitchen – all perfectly tasty and suitable matched.

Two, soon to be launched wines, were also tasted – a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough region and a Shiraz from South Australia’s Langhorne Creek. Both to be released under the companies Mont Clair label.

Appreciative comments on the wines were overheard by our fellow wine tasters. Questions proffered to and answered by the winemaker on the wines and the new imports. The crowd suitable happy with what was on offer and the price points of the various wines. The sniff of potential wine sales a positive outcome for winery staff.

We had been having a conversation with Hans-Peter Hoehnen, the German wine consultant who has worked with the vineyards winemakers for the last 10 years helping them successfully develop international standard wines.

Hans-Peter and French-trained local winemaker Suppached Sasomsin now needed to make their choice for the next Monsoon Valley Shiraz. Instead of suggesting we leave, they invited us to be part of the process. Hans-Peter was aware that I had already written and had published magazine stories on the vineyard – simple ‘must do’ travel pieces for people coming to Hua Hin. This insight into the winemaking process could be an interesting story Hans-Peter suggested! Who were we to say no to such an opportunity?

For wine lovers like Vivien and me, we were now privy to a private insight into the challenges winemakers have, vintage after vintage! After some twenty minutes of wine swirling in their bulbous glasses, aromas evaluated, color and texture in the glass assessed, tasting and spitting done – wine by wine and all against the ‘benchmark’ current vintage. A decision was made. A successor names!

And for us, time to say goodnight and a heartfelt thank you to our hosts. We had a new found appreciation for winemakers and their requisite skills.  What an opportunity we had just had. And what a soul-enriching evening this had been!

You can read about a previous visit to Hua Hin Hills vineyard, now called Monsoon Valley vineyards, here.