Off the beaten path

October 21, 2018

A lotus pond inside the Khao Hin Sorn Royal Development Study Centre

An hour before landing in Bangkok, I had already planned my day: It revolved mostly around the Thai food that I would eat at the places that I frequented some years ago.

At the airport I saw a 7-Eleven - Thailand’s answer to a ‘wonderland’ within a convenience store. The custard buns lured me in and I came out a changed person, complete with a Cheshire cat’s grin stuck on my face.

Despite the rapid changes Thailand is undergoing, there are the essential bits that retain the soul of Bangkok; it remains unchanged. The fragrance of lemongrass floating through the night markets, the succulent flavours of grilled Tilapia, the mango sticky rice, tuk-tuk rides through the narrow sois, the mad traffic, quick sunsets that disappear behind the illuminant high-rise rooftops and - most of all - the cheap thrill of bargaining with vendors. These are some elements that every returning traveller will find preserved in time in Bangkok. But there is more to Thailand - off the beaten track – that one can see and do.

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Thailand is always evolving, economically and politically. The late king Bhumibol’s ‘Sufficiency Economy Philosophy’ forms the crux of progress and sustainable development in the kingdom. It set precedent for the new East Economic Corridor (EEC) that will spring up in the Rayong, Chonburi and Chachoengsao provinces and transform these regions into busy hubs. Its aim is to ‘entice more technology driven investment’ into the country. In the framework of sustainable urbanisation, Thailand also plans to develop and nurture a wide range of industries of the future in this EEC space, along with smart cities and wellness tourism.

If that’s one aspect of the country’s progress story, a visit to the Khao Hin Sorn Royal Development Study Centre in Chachoengsao Province highlights progress at the community level. The late king Bhumibol, Rama IX’s revolutionary ideas shaped the agricultural development programmes at the centre. The story goes back to the late king’s visit to the province and his decision to dedicate the land offered to him to build a palace to establish a place to study agriculture. The densely green area of Khao Hin Sorn - preserved as a ‘Living Natural Museum’ today - is a marvel considering that just 40 years ago, it was a drought stricken barren land.

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A guide gives us a tour of Khao Hin Sorn: There are farmlands cultivating vegetables, lime trees growing in abundance, bio-manure making centres, a frog farm, mushroom cultivating centre, fisheries, vetiver grass gardens (the Thai farmers call the vetiver a miracle grass which solved the problem of soil erosion), herb gardens and herb saunas among other wonders inside the centre. Somewhere along the road, the guide shows us the first tree that was planted in the area by the late king - a beautifully branched Indian Ficus tree by the lake. Everything within the Khao Hin Sorn stands as an ode to the late king who implemented and helped develop the very first model of sustainable farming and agriculture at a community level.

The next leg of our visit took us to Nakhon Ratchasima Province where the Khao Yai National Park is located. It’s here that one can truly appreciate the beauty of the Thai monsoon. The magic comes alive in the restaurant called Ma Du Dao (Come see the Stars) in the Pak Chong District bordering the Khao Yai forest. Situated in an area called Khao Yai Teing – or Mount of Grandma Teing - perched atop a cliff, the restaurant offers views straight out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. We dined amidst the mist and clouds before heading to Khao Yai the next day. Numerous hotels have sprung up inside the national park which is spread across 2,000sq km. One can opt to stay in one of the many thematic boutique hotels and wake up to the view of clouded mountain peaks before heading out to explore the forest.

Inside Khao Yai National Park, there are many trails to follow and a visitor can spend days on end in exploration. On the way to the Haew Suwat Waterfall, there’s a spot for bird watchers. Queued up with wildlife photographers and their super zoom lenses, this is a shrine to the great hornbill. It struts and flies in and out on its majestic wings spanning a metre-and-a-half across.

One of the photographers – either impressed by my ‘Dora the Explorer’ spirit or in a bid to get me out of the way – showed me the great hornbill through his zoom lens. The picture I saw through his camera’s eyepiece will be etched in my memory forever.

Heading back to Bangkok, after spending serene days in the mountain can be a culture shock. In an effort to wriggle out of a group activity that

involved shopping, I serendipitously found myself inside the Jim Thompson House. Situated by a klong - or a canal - the former house of American silk baron James Thompson is now preserved as a museum with a retail shop of his iconic luxury silk brand. Thompson, who at the pinnacle of his silk empire’s business disappeared in the Malaysian jungles in 1967 never to be found again, is attributed to having saved the dying art of silk weaving in Thailand and perhaps even establishing Thailand’s first luxury brand.

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An architect by profession, Thompson was deployed in the region during World War II. After the war ended, he stayed back and developed the brand, sourcing silk from traditional silk weavers from the Ban Krua community that resided across the canal. Thai silk became a sought after product in America after Thompson paraded it for the American Vogue. It became even more popular in mainstream fashion after the silk was used in the costumes of the movie The King and I (1956).

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Walking through the house spread across a beautiful foliage of native trees is like stepping inside the lyrics of Thompson’s love story for the land he called home. The wooden floorings, the antique furniture procured by Thompson from his travels across southeast Asia, the wooden frames that were once used to dye silk, his study and boudoir all lay excellently preserved for visitors to see and feel. 

I wandered through the silk baron’s house, browsing through his collections, sitting in his hallway overlooking the canal, playing a thousand scenarios in my head of what might have happened to Jim Thompson who never returned to his beloved home and his beloved community. I felt a familiar feeling sneak on me and it struck me, this is how we choose to live in the past and present, all at once, walking along the storylines of history that each place has to offer.