Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Heard it on the Grapevine

Guest blogger Kerry van der Jagt raises a glass to Thailand's fledgling wine industry, which is now producing quality drops in beautiful locations.

In a game of word association mention ‘Thai wines’ and most people will say ‘cat’s pee’, followed quickly by ‘pass me a Singha will you’. Over the years I’ve been as guilty as the rest, though an avid wine drinker at home, I morph into a beer guzzler as soon as I board a plane for Thailand. Drinking wine in the tropics just seems wrong. 

But all that changed once I visited Khao Yai Hills, the ‘Bordeaux of Thailand’, a two-hour drive north-east of Bangkok. Although Thailand’s wine industry is only two decades young it is already producing a range of award-winning blends taking on the big guns of Europe. Leading the charge is Thailand’s youngest and only female oenologist, 25-year-old Nikki Lohitnavy of GranMonte Estate. Trained at the University of Adelaide Nikki has pinched some Aussie know-how and blended it with local conditions.

GranMonte Estate meaning "big mountain", is a boutique winery planted with shiraz, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc and viognier. With its sweeping mountain views, landscaped gardens, cellar door and guest house, GranMonte would be at home in any of the great wine regions of the world. Over lunch Nikki tells me about some of the awards they have won: a silver medal at the 2010 Syrah du Monde, France; two awards from London Decanter (2010); and a silver medal for their Spring chenin blanc at the 2009 Austrian Wine Challenge in Vienna. The 2009 Sakuna Rose is a standout, but it’s the Spring Chenin Blanc I grow to love, its crispness balancing the fiery flavours of Thai food. And the best bit? No beer belly afterwards.

P B Valley Winery - Piya Bhirombhakdi, eldest son of the Singha empire, also grew to appreciate wine in the tropics. Bored with the beer he began coaxing shiraz and chenin blanc grapes to grow on the fertile slopes of the Khao Yai Hills back in 1989. Today, P B Valley is one of the largest wineries in the country offering wine appreciation tours, tastings, a la carte dining and what has to be one of the coolest hotel rooms I’ve seen, a tepee in a vineyard. “It’s a hornbill’s nest,” says my guide indignantly. These Sam Toucan-looking characters are a big deal around here, not only appearing on the P B Valley wine label and as a mascot in the Great Hornbill Grill, but in person (in bird?) in the Khao Yai National Park next door. Where else can you sip fine wines one minute, then pop into a UNESCO World Heritage-listed park complete with wild populations of elephant, tiger, Malayan sun bear, barking deer and great hornbill the next. Take your swimmers; the waterfalls in the national park are top shelf (Heo Suwat falls were featured in The Beach).

                                                     (Pics: Kerry van der Jagt, 2012)

Getting there: Join an organised tour, hire a car and driver from Bangkok (which is what I did) or catch a train or bus to Pak Chong and then a songthaew to Khao Yai.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Birdwatching in Kaeng Krachan NP

A shroud of mist hangs over the jungle as the first morning rays penetrate the dense foliage below. We stand gazing out, shivering over a cup of hot coffee - an expected but welcome sensation in tropical Thailand - soaking up the vastness before us, and allowing the silence to penetrate our souls.
This is Kaeng Krachan National Park in Petchaburi Province,Thailand - the country’s largest national park at 2,915 square metres, yet also one of its least visited, despite being just three hours’ drive from Bangkok and two hours from Hua Hin. Bordering Burma, the park is one of the largest remaining stretches of uninterrupted forest in South-East Asia and one of Thailand’s richest biospheres.

We’ve driven to Phaneon Thung - the park’s second highest peak at 1207 metres - to greet the dawn, having arrived at the park’s eastern entrance at 5.30am. With just a rutted single-lane road to the peak, traffic is restricted, with the road open to incoming traffic from 5.30-7.30am and 1-3pm, and outgoing traffic from 9-10am and 4-5pm. We then transferred into an open jeep for a bracing ride to the misty lookout.
En route we saw plenty of evidence of wild elephants; the park is home to around 200 pachyderms, as well as other endangered species including sun bears, leopards, gaur (a wild bison), Sumatran rhinoceros and even, reportedly, tigers. Unfortunately, the park made headlines recently when the mutilated carcasses of four wild elephants were found within park boundaries, indicating that poaching of animals from the wild is still rife.
We, however, are on a specific wildlife spotting mission - bird watching. Kaeng Krachan is one of Thailand’s birdwatching havens, home to many rare and endangered species as well as some of its most spectacular birds. It is the only place in Thailand where the Ratchet-Tailed Treepie can be found, while other ornithological prizes include Giant Pitta, Grey Peacock Pheasant and Grey Slaty Woodpeckers. 
As novice twitchers, any bird sighting for my group of journalists is a coup, with our guide Amorn Liukeeratiyutkul - Chairman of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand - excitedly showing us colourful species such as Flavescent Bulbul through his $3,000 Swarovski scope. 

After an hour or so of intensely scouring the treeline for birdlife - with ample rewards and lots of excitement - we retire to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. Just when we think the birdwatching is done for the morning, we are in for the biggest surprise of all...
Like a stealth bomber, a giant bird glides overhead. One of our local guides, dressed in khaki, runs in, pointing to the sky like Tattoo from Fantasy Island. “It’s here, it’s here!” he cries. We look up; and flying into view, its huge two-metre wingspan almost blocking the sun, is a Giant Hornbill. 
Although not the rarest bird in Kaeng Krachan, the hornbill is one of the most impressive, and certainly a prize for birdwatchers. White with black and yellow feathers, its most prominent feature is its bright yellow casque, an armour-like protrusion dominating a pterodactyl-like skull.

We watch spellbound as the enormous bird lands on a tree only 25 metres from where we are sitting. Mr Amorn is beside himself with excitement, quickly grabbing his scope for a closer view. Not that we need it - the bird is being more than co-operative, giving an Oscar-worthy performance as he struts along the branches for at least 10 minutes. He pokes his huge head down from the branch, searching for insects and tearing at loose bark, giving us the perfect view of his dramatic yellow helmet. It really is an amazing, breathtaking sight, and one I will remember forever.
For most visitors to Thailand, its National Parks and wilderness areas are not really on the radar. Beaches, yes; cities, yes - but the 102 National Parks throughout the country are largely ignored by tourists. Yet some of my most memorable experiences during my seven years visiting Thailand have been in wilderness areas. There’s nothing quite like waking to the love-song of a gibbon, the trumpet of an elephant or the sight of a magnificent bird like the Giant Hornbill. Do yourself a massive favour, and add a visit to a National Park on your next Thailand itinerary!
For birdwatching and wildlife-viewing tours, Bangkok-based Friends of Nature offer custom made programs as well as set itineraries. Visit
                                                          (Pics: Julie Miller 2012)

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Shopping in Bangkok's Terminal 21

You’d think the last thing Bangkok needs is new shopping malls, but it seems the Thai passion for consumerism in air-conditioned comfort is insatiable. The most recent offering is Terminal 21, located on Sukhumvit Road between Soi 19 and 21, right near Asok BTS station. This is a Disney version of a shopping mall, a themed nine-storey, 600-shop extravaganza with the theme ‘Travel the World’. The idea is for all the great shopping streets of the world to be represented under one roof, with a different theme for every floor.

From the outside, the glass and steel facade resembles an airport terminal; the lobby is the arrival hall, with electronic display boards resembling flight information, and the receptionists at the information desk wearing air hostess uniforms. It’s quirky and a little wacky - and bizarrely very Thai, even though the host country is not represented. Hang onto your hats, folks, you’re in for quite a journey...
The lower ground floor is your beach holiday in the sun - welcome to the Caribbean, complete with beach shacks, anchors and a gigantic lighthouse in the middle of the floor. Here you’ll find a gourmet food hall; and even the toilets have a beach theme, with fishing nets suspended from the roof. (NB - these toilets perhaps qualify for the best in Bangkok, with heated toilet seats and bidets a la Japan. At the very least, pop in for a whistlestop...) 

With Sistine Chapel murals and some classical statues, the ground floor has been transformed into Rome, which plays host to standard international fashion names such as Nike and Levi's. Travel up the criss-crossing escalators and you reach Paris, the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees standing guard over other fashion brands.
But it’s on the middle levels that things start to get interesting. Here, in Tokyo, London and Istanbul you’ll find small stalls featuring local designers, with the 1st floor dedicated to innovative women’s fashion, the 2nd floor to menswear and the 3rd floor to gifts and accessories. All presented, of course, amongst statues of sumo wrestlers, a London bus, and the glitz of a Turkish souk. And like a souk, it’s easy to get lost in the maze of stalls, each one enticing with unusual and quirky designer goods.

On the San Francisco floor - replete with a replica Golden Gate Bridge - there are restaurants and cafes, while there’s an excellent food hall on the 5th floors’ Pier 21 recreation. And of course, what mall would be complete without a cinema complex - presented in true Hollywood style under the gaze of a giant Oscar and the Hollywood sign.
It may sound a little cheesy, but the interior of Terminal 21is thoughtful and amusing, with great shopping and loads of bargains the icing on the cake. It’s just another reason why Bangkok is rightfully considered one of the great shopping destinations of the world.

                                                         (Pics: Julie Miller 2012)

Friday, 4 May 2012

Puppets and art at Baan Silipan

Children sit, crosslegged and spellbound, as three black-clad men bring large wooden puppets to life, spinning and dancing in a traditional rendition of an age-old story. These are the puppet masters of the Kamnai Troupe, based at The Artist's House at Baan Silapin in the backwaters of Bangkok’s peaceful klongs. 

This riverfront gallery, studio cafe and performance space, located in a lovely 100-year-old teak building on Klong Bang Luang on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, is somewhat of a local secret, beloved by locals but relatively unknown by tourists. 

Built around a 200-year-old Ayutthaya-style chedi, the old house once belonged to a family of goldsmiths, but was taken over by artist Chumpol Akpantanon who renovated the two-storey building and turned it into gallery space in 2009.
For celebrity Australian chef David Thompson - the man feted for bringing traditional Thai cuisine back to the Thais - this is one of his favourite places to visit, to sit and while away the afternoon, sip on sweet Thai-style coffee, catch up with reading and to absorb the tranquil ambience. 
The longtail boat which has ferried us from the other side of the river drops us at a temple landing, from where we pick our away along a wooden deck, past residential houses and quirky shops to the gallery, a fascinating sneak peek into the lives of river dwellers. At the Artist's House, we take a seat on the sculpture-adorned deck to watch life pass by, browse the displays of woodcuts, lithographs, jewellery and paper art, and wander through the upstairs gallery where workshops are held on the weekend. 

But it’s the puppets the schoolkids are here for - and we too watch transfixed as ex-puppeteers from the famed Joe Louis Puppet Theatre bring characters from the Ramayana to life. These colourful metre-high wooden puppets have been a part of Thai culture since the Ayutthaya empire, when performances were exclusively for members of the royal family. Later, the Hun Lakhon Lek (‘traditional small puppets’) was adapted for the general public, and has since become one of the most iconic forms of Thai theatre.
There’s cheeky Hanuman, the monkey god, cavorting around the stage with abandon; and Banjakaya, a niece of the demon king Ravana, face turned away shyly from her manic lover. While Western tourists may not be as familiar with the epic ancient Sanskrit story as Thai visitors, there’s no denying the mastery as the supple puppeteers - wearing all black and faces covered with masks - manipulate the puppets as if they were real people. It’s a charming slice of Thai culture, and a celebration of a unique artform.

                                                                (pics Julie Miller, 2012)

The Kamnai Troupe’s free performances take place every day at 2pm at Baan Silapin.