A Green Getaway in Khao Yai, Thailand
Organic produce, farm-to-table restaurants and an avant-garde art scene are driving Khao Yai's wholesome coming-of-age. Monsicha Hoonsuwan heads north to breathe the fresh air.
Published on Nov 9, 2015
BANGKOK'S BUCOLIC backyard and UNESCO World Heritage wildlife refuge Khao Yai has a new crop of hotels, eateries and craft markets set up by eco-conscious locals to reinforce the place's deeprooted ties to nature. With the building of new highways that could pave the way for a Phuket-like boom within a few years, these rolling hills are worth visiting now before mass tourism unearths this counterculture gem.
Gradients of green blanket Khao Yai's hills and valleys. Monsicha Hoonsuwan.
4:00 p.m. Hitting the Road
It is a 2½-hour drive northeast from Bangkok to Khao Yai, so we leave a little after lunch to beat weekend traffic. As the concrete jungle blurs by, cowboy-country steak houses and dairy farms start popping up on both sides of the road signaling Thailand's wine region.
6:30 p.m. Private Pool Villas at Civilai Hill
A bumpy ride up an unpaved road leads to a year-old boutique. Its five villas overlook the slopes of Khao Yai mountain range, and its Provence-inspired gardens add bursts of color to the green landscape. Walking to our room, two resident geese honk, stopping us on the cobblestone track. The white birds waddle toward their pond bath and fountain shower. They have the right idea, so I follow their lead to our villa's outdoor ofuro and let the warm waters of the Japanese tub melt any tension away. Come nightfall, the chef grills sea bass wrapped in banana leaves and tamarind-marinated spare ribs at the personal poolside fire pit in our backyard, and the gentle light of solar-powered lamps sets the feast aglow. civilaihillkhaoyai.com/ppv.
Panoramic view pool villa. Courtesy of Civalai Hill.
9:00 a.m. Ban Suan Khun Pan
The colorful FRESH SEEDLESS grapes sign and the cornflower-blue corrugated tin roof mark the entrance to this vineyard homestay. The owner, Pannapa Pasornklin, or Pan, makes a dramatic entrance through trellises hanging heavy with Black Opals, Cardinals and Black Queens, and insists we take a bite. So we taste the grapes right off the vines, and I'm struck by the natural sweetness, a balanced profile perfected over six years of trial and error, during which Pan switched to eco-friendly fertilizers and pesticides. Now her harvest is favored by local restaurants and residents, including our villa host at Civilai Hill, and the pick-your-owngrape experience initiated this year is drawing even more visitors to her 6,400-square-meter farmstead. Heading off our departure, Pan's husband pulls out a bottle of his homemade wine. As the designated driver, I decline the glass, and instead eat another fistful of fresh grapes. The seedless plum-colored pearls are so full of flavor, I almost forget about the wine. Almost. 8/3 Moo 6, Mu Si, Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima; +66 92 569 8638.
Sweet grapes right off the vines, at Ban Suan Khun Pan. Monsicha Hoonsuwan.
11:00 a.m. The Mew
Pannarai Phaholyotin and Maythinee Sahapiyapan put their pharmaceutical careers on hold to pursue their passion for traditional Thai medicine and set up this café. The menu is heavy on herbs and spices that help restore internal balance: turmeric and cumin in their deconstructed curry puff, eaten chips-and-salsa style; and herbal drinks like roselle with jujube and butterfly pea with lychee. I order three buttery scones and dunk them in ramekins of passion fruit, strawberry and mascarpone cream spreads. Spoiler alert: every pairing is a winner. In November 2015, the café's expansive chemical-free garden teeming with butterflies and dragonflies had hosted Niche Niche Market, where local artists, farmers and artisans come trade their crafts. 139 Moo 15, Thanaratch Rd., Mu Si, Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima; +66 98 382 5433.
Refreshing herbal drinks. Courtesy of The Mew.
2:00 p.m. Ban Tha Chang Natural Spring
I pull off the main Thanaratch Road to check out a local swim spot, a cascade of Bondi-blue ponds surrounded by forest. I lay out my mat under the trees and a remix of cicadas' symphony and samcha dance music medley set a surreal and peaceful soundtrack for an afternoon read.
6:00 p.m. Green Oak Bistro
We arrive just in time to catch the sun set behind hills shrouded in an after-rain mist. As the first diners, we have the staff's full attention. The waiter tells us there is a small garden of salad greens growing at this year-old Escape hotel, so to test its bounty we order the DIY spicy salmon wrap (scrumptuously fatty and raw) and grilled veggies with salted eggs. Every bite is refreshingly spicy, and a tart cocktail by mixologist Niks Anuman-Rajadhon adds some extra oomph. escape-hotel.com.
8:00 a.m. Santosha
We defy the strong gravitation pull of our bed for a sunrise yoga class with Rosarin Tiyachate, one of the organizers behind Niche Niche Market, who started the wellness resort in Pak Chong city two years ago. The 15-minute drive past a canvas of overlapping mountains in blending gradients of green shakes off the drowsiness, and by the time we arrive at the resort's open-air studio, I'm ready to bust some yoga moves. Rosarin starts with breathing basics, then slowly progresses into more demanding poses, her instruction joined by the clucking of hens, whose eggs are turned into a wholesome breakfast, a reward for completing the session. santoshathailand.com.
Santosha's colorful, open-air lobby. Courtesy of Santosha.
11:00 a.m. Klang Dong Market
Thirty years ago, Surindr Sonthirati and his wife decided to build their dream woodland home on a parched cornfield. Today the land grows more than 10,000 varieties of plants and their home is a showcase of art created by the couple and their kids. The weekend market, which they started in 2010, draws 2,000 people a week with art classes, clay-doll painting and the 1.6-hectare Secret Art Garden crowded with tongue-in-cheek installations—think a mosaic bull sculpture and flowerpot figurines. I pick up Nakhon Ratchasima's staple pad mee Korat kit—complete with the spicy sauce and chewy rice noodles distinct to the province—order a cup of coffee and take deep, lung-cleansing breaths of the crisp air. secretartgarden.com.
A painting class at Klang Dong weekend market. Courtesy of Secret Art Garden.
1:00 p.m. Dairyhome
This is one of very few dairy farms in Thailand that lets their bovine pets roam free and feed naturally on grass grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. The resulting milk is then flavored chocolate, strawberry and butterscotch, but my favorite is the plain, fresh from cows that have grazed for at least a year on organic grass, resulting in extra Omega 3 and 6. The goodness of the land comes through in every creamy sip. dairyhome.co.th.