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Thai massage for the soul
We hadn't travelled an hour out of Bangkok, and I was already beginning to sense a strange sort of disconnect between perceived notions in my mind and reality outside the microbus window. It was somewhat like entering the wrong theatre at a multiplex and jabbing a fistful of popcorn into your mouth, before choking on the realisation that the Vin Diesel kneecrusher you came to see had magically transformed into an Ashton Kutcher rom-com. Hey hang on just a second, I almost yelled out. This isn't Thailand! There are no beaches here - no floating markets, no go-go bars, no dinner cruises even. Driver, where you taking us?
At that very moment, as if to silence the doubting Thomases in my head, the bus swerved off the highway. Rambling down a lesser road, it finally ground to a halt at the base of a hulking temple complex, located on the edge of a medieval necropolis that sprawled thousands of square kilometres ahead of us. Splendid in decay, the colossal ruin - christened Wat Chai Wattanaram or the 'temple of long reign and glorious era' - blushed with auburn radiance, its ancient brickwork awash with the slanted rays of the setting sun. Overcome by awe, I stepped out of the bus to view the superstructure in all its jaw-dropping magnificence, and was immediately accosted by a weasel-eyed guide. "Welcome to Ayutthaya, ' he grinned, hoping to score an uninformed client. "You like to know more?"
Now that I am back home and within the Internet's omniscient scope, I can confidently tell you that Ayutthaya was one of the greatest Siamese kingdoms that flourished from 1350 to 1767, and that in terms of architectural brilliance it was Thailand's answer to Angkor, Chichen Itza or Orobudur. What's funny, however, is how no one ever waxed eloquent about its tourism quotient earlier. Buried in time and history - and at most an afterthought for a few intrepid types - Ayutthaya was until recently a non-checkbox item on most Indian itineraries. People clearly had better things to do in Thailand.
But that was before the floods. In late 2011, when a surge of rainwater inundated lower Thailand from horizon to horizon, one of the few positive changes it inadvertently brought about was to breathe a fresh lease of life into the country's played-out tourism industry. The slate had suddenly been wiped clean;decades of institutional baggage washed away in one fell swoop. And with arrivals hitting rock bottom overnight, the nation was handed a rare time-out during which it could quickly overhaul its assets and redefine itself to seize the fancy of a new crop of travellers.
Needless to say, this called for some enthusiastic pulling of rabbits from the hat. Over breakfast at the riverside cafê of a Bangkok hotel, I was clued in on the new strategy by Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, director with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. "The idea is to tell the world there's a lot more to Thailand than Chiang Mai's temples, Phuket's beaches or Bangkok's night markets, " he reflected. "We want to give people more reasons to visit this wonderful country. "
True to the official's words, barely weeks after the water receded, a new circuit had been overlaid on the existing tourist map. Packing in some of the nation's best kept secrets, the new trail was as refreshingly different as the Thai experience could ever get. The message on the wall was loud and clear - welcome to the Thailand you've never seen. So if Ayutthaya brought antique charm to the table, the mountainous landscape in the Nakhon Nayok province threw up a host of adventure options for the sporty traveller. All terrain vehicle rides, rappelling, white-water rafting, go-karting or even gravity-defying G-max rides - this place had it all. For want of a better descriptive, this was like adrenalin in a bottle.
The Khao Yai National Park in the north-eastern hill tracts of Thailand, on the other hand, promised a close encounter with wilderness. By the time I reached these tropical evergreens, night had thrown its sooty pall over a starless sky. In the parking lot outside the gates to the park, a fleet of 4x4s were warming their engines for a night safari in the inky blackness of the jungle. Latching onto the rollbars, I heaved myself into one vehicle and landed amid a group of camera-toting tourists who had already settled into the open-top pick-up. Like all itinerant strangers crossing paths like Brownian particles, we exchanged pleasantries and boosted the ISO count on our cameras, before plunging into nature's primordial depths with eerie expectation. Over the next two hours, as our jeeps hobbled slowly along forest tracks, the roving searchlights caught herds of ruminating elephants, deer drinking at watering holes, spiny hedgehogs scurrying across our path and a stirring in the distant undergrowth that someone excitedly interpreted as a leopard on the prowl. Disbelief, by then, had been willingly suspended, so we all happily bought into the conjecture. Camera shutters tripped, monosyllabic exclamations rent the air, and we emerged from the jungles with beatific smiles of contentment plastered on our faces.
Away from Khao Yai's forests, my journey through Thailand's parallel universe continued as I ventured deeper into the Nakhon Ratchasima province, where themed tourism was the order of the day. A far cry from Thailand's gilded traditional image, this was a flashy neon-washed world of upmarket - and decidedly occidental - luxuries spread across some of the most beautiful landscape in the region. As far as the eyes could see into the lush undulated terrain, there were a smattering of slick resorts stuffed with the best of creature comforts, steakhouses and pizzerias serving a wide range of delectable cuisine to a discerning clientele, golf resorts with acres of manicured greens where enthusiasts putted away with gusto, and even the odd piazza - designed on the lines of an Italian village market - peddling designer chic in exchange for currency.
No place in Thailand, however, embodied the world-on-a-platter experience better than Farm Chokchai, an 8, 000-acre family-owned estate - supposedly the country's largest supplier of meat and dairy products - that had come up with the novel idea of selling a rustic Texan experience on its bucolic premises, much to the delight of children. Farm employees dressed in denims, riding breeches and cowboy hats were courteously escorting visitors through the ranch, familiarising them with farming activities and processes. In an entertainment zone themed on the Wild West, tourists were taken on horserides through mock one-horse towns, while a bunch of skilled hands performed rodeo stunts and gun-slinging acts at half-hourly intervals, sending the crowds in raptures.
And if all this was mere make-believe, a more realistic approximation of the West (and clearly the jewel in 'New Thailand's ' crown) was to be found in the hills of the Asoke Valley, where a cluster of wineries - producing some of South Asia's most delicate nectars since the last decade - had decided to ride the tourism surf as well. At GranMonte Vineyards, one of the region's leading wineries, I happened to be privy to a tasting session showcasing the estate's best labels. Redolent with aromas that made the olfactories go wild with anticipation, these award-winning wines transported me from Napa Valley to Bordeaux with every whiff. Inebriation couldn't have been a more pleasurable experience, and I happily gave in.
By the time the wine wore off, however, I was back in my pigeonholed urban Indian reality. Too bad it ended so soon, I sighed, sitting up and rubbing the slumber off my eyes. Then, almost mechanically, I reached for my laptop and booked my tickets to Thailand. Again.
After all, my new love affair with the country had only just begun.
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