Pattaya Grows up

Guest blogger John Borthwick checks-out Thailand’s self-described “Extreme City”.

Pattaya, Thailand’s fastest-growing resort town has many faces — sunny, templed, bawdy, raucous, delicious — but never shy. Basking on the Gulf of Thailand 150 km southeast of Bangkok, it has long outgrown its military R-and-R origins of Vietnam War-era apocalyptic partying. If there’s anything like a uniform these days in Fun City it is shorts, beach shirt and sunburn.

Many visitors add golfing gear to that fetching ensemble, thanks to the multiple nearby courses. Growing sophistication in its restaurants and resorts sees Pattaya now attract almost ten million visitors a year, not to mention Thai families, expats and retirees.

Girl in blue Pattaya hotel pool. Copyright John Borthwick
Girl in blue Pattaya hotel pool. Copyright John Borthwick

Beaches and nightlife were what it was all about some 60 years ago when a group of US Air Force men on leave discovered the balmy shore and flamboyant sunsets of snoozy Pad Tha Ya fishing village. Fast-forward six decades and the Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index for 2019 logged Pattaya as the world’s 15th most visited city, with an extraordinary 9.44 million international visitors.

Local passenger transport, known as 'songthaew' (two-seat).
Local passenger transport, known as ‘songthaew’ (two-seat).

Pattaya’s main beach is dense with deck-chairs and watercraft, so head south over the hill to Jomtien for wider, whiter sands, or north to the coves of Wong Amat. The best way (and best fun way) to move around town is on the “baht bus”, the blue pickup trucks that loop constantly along Beach and Second roads. (Their Thai name is songthaew — “two seat”.) With twin bench seats in the back, passengers hop on or off anywhere, paying a flat fare of ten Thai baht.

Pattaya Bay by dusk, looking south from Dusit Thani hotel. Copyright John Borthwick
Pattaya Bay by dusk, looking south from Dusit Thani hotel. Copyright John Borthwick

For family fun, the surrounding Chonburi province has quality theme parks such as Nong Nooch Tropical Gardens and Ramayana Water Park. Near the latter is Buddha Mountain, a 100-metre high image etched in gold on a cliff-face. Meanwhile, the most celebrated attraction is the Sanctuary of Truth at Wong Amat just north of town. This extraordinary, all-wood structure surmounted by a 105-metre spire honors an amalgam of eastern religions and mythology, and was 30 years in the making.

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

The Gulf region around Pattaya could be known as the Golf of Siam, with some 20 courses and driving ranges within an hour’s travel. Less physically exerting are the Thai-style massages available everywhere across town. The quality varies, but at under $10 an hour you can afford to sample several shops. Recommended is a skilled one at the Thai Blind Massage Institute in the Jomtien Complex shopping centre.

Neon nights, Pattaya, Thailand Copyright John Borthwick
Neon nights, Pattaya, Thailand, Copyright John Borthwick

Nightlife is still Pattaya’s middle name and parts of town don’t really get going until dusk when scores of beer bars start filling up. You’ll find industrially spiced nightlife along South Pattaya’s Walking Street, a garish strip of go-go bars, buskers and wide-eyed, flag-following tour groups. Pull up a pew here at an open-air bar, order a brew and contemplate the passing circus in its extremes of beauty and bawdiness. Keep in mind as you watch that the city’s welcome archway at Jomtien Beach declares, “Pattaya the Extreme City”, as both a boast and caution.

Tiffany Show. Copyright John Borthwick
Tiffany Show. Copyright John Borthwick

Pattaya has entertainment for all, and for all three sexes. Its most glamorous transvestite cabaret, the famous Tiffany Show stars elaborately costumed kathoey (lady boys) whose high-kicking, lip-synching routines are lots of fun and family-rated, too.

Shopping comes high on the list for many visitors and Pattaya obliges with swags of bargain beachwear, shoes and luggage. For quality, brand-name goods at fixed prices, try the beachfront malls like Central Festival or Royal Garden.

Sanctuary of Truth, teak temple, Pattaya, Copyright John Borthwick
Sanctuary of Truth, teak temple, Pattaya, Copyright John Borthwick

You’re spoiled for bed choices here with major hotel brands including Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Dusit, Marriott, Hilton and Accor. There are also scores of quality, mid-budget hotels stretching from Naklua in the north, through the party zone of central Pattaya and south to Jomtien. 

© John Borthwick 2009
© John Borthwick 2009

SURVIVAL TIPS: Swim at Jomtien or Wong Amat rather than in the dubious waters of Pattaya Bay. Never rent a jetski (scams galore) nor use a camera in a go-go bar (bouncers galore). Don’t ride in a taxi without first agreeing the price. Avoid Pattaya during Thai New Year, Songkran, in mid-April, when you’ll be drenched day and night for a week in the world’s largest watertight. Fun at first, then not.

Words and photographs © John Borthwick 2020

Stay fit in self-isolation with online Muay Thai classes

Live Facebook Muay Thai Sessions

The Tourism Authority of Thailand has teamed up with PTJ Muay Thai Gym to provide Muay Thai classes live-streamed to your home on Facebook.

Tune into the Hug Thailand Facebook Page each Tuesday at 6pm to join the live-streamed Muay Thai Classes. There will be four classes in total, with prizes up for grabs each week for participants.

Muay Thai is the national martial art of Thailand, a discipline that helps strengthen body and mind. Suitable for men, women and kids of all ages – get the whole family to join in! It’s a great way to stay fit while learning self defence mechanisms.

Download the Awesome Muay Thai guide to Thailand’s Muay Thai centres here.

Week 1 – Lesson 1

Live Muaythai class #1 with PTJ – Photajaroen Muaythai Gym

Posted by Hug Thailand on Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Week 2 – Lesson 2

Live Muaythai with PTJ Muaythai Gym – Session 2

Posted by Hug Thailand on Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Week 3 – Lesson 3

Session 3 of Basic Muaythai Classes with PTJ Muaythai Gym

Posted by Hug Thailand on Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Week 4 – Lesson 4

Week 4 – Basic Muaythai with PTJ Muaythai Gym

Posted by Hug Thailand on Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Virtual Cooking Classes with Chat Thai

Stuck at home and missing your favourite Thai takeaway? Chat Thai to the rescue! The Tourism Authority of Thailand Sydney Office has partnered with Chat Thai to run Thai cooking classes, live streamed on Facebook every Friday afternoon, at 4pm Sydney time.

Each recipe will then be shared with viewers to try for yourselves, and there will be a prize to be won each week. Try the recipe out for yourself, take a photo of yourself with your creation and share to the Hug Thailand Facebook page for your chance to win a $50 Coles voucher.

There will be 8 cooking classes in total, and the recipes will all be shared here on this page – so keep checking in for more recipes!

LESSON 1: PAD KRAPAO GAI

Khao Gaprao Gai Sup
Pad Krapao Recipe

Aroi at home with Chat Thai x Hug ThailandWe teach, you learn, we are happy, you stay healthy!! 😀

Posted by Chat Thai on Thursday, 26 March 2020

LESSON 2: STIR FRY CHICKEN WITH CASHEW NUTS

Aroi at home with Chat Thai x Hug ThailandToday session – stir fried chicken with cashew nuts 🍽we teach, you learn. we happy, you stay healthy 😀

Posted by Chat Thai on Thursday, 2 April 2020

Lesson 3: Pineapple Fried Rice with Prawns

Aroi at home with Chat Thai x Hug ThailandToday we go FANCY with PINEAPPLE FRIED RICE 🍍🍍we teach, you learn.we are happy, you stay healthy 😀

Posted by Chat Thai on Thursday, 9 April 2020

Lesson 4: Fried Snapper with Green Mango Salad

Another step forward for the 4th episode of AROI AT HOME with Chat Thai x Hug ThailandToday we will teach you how to cook Bpla Yum Mamuang – Fried Snapper with green mango salad 💚💚We teach, you learn.We are happy, you stay healthy 😃

Posted by Chat Thai on Thursday, 16 April 2020

Lesson 5: Yum Nuea Yaang (Grilled Beef Salad with chilli jam)

We've come half way of AROI AT HOME WITH CHAT THAI x Hug ThailandIn this video, we are teaching you to make "Yum Nuea Yaang" : Grilled beef salad with chilli jam ❤️We teach, you learn.We are happy. You stay healthy 😇

Posted by Chat Thai on Thursday, 23 April 2020

Lesson 6: Som Dtum (Green Papaya Salad with Salted Egg)

Here we go again with Aroi at homewith Chat Thai x Hug ThailandToday we teach you How to make Som Dtum Kai Khem – Thai papaya salad with salted eggs.We teach, you learn.We are happy. You stay healthy 🙂

Posted by Chat Thai on Thursday, 30 April 2020

Lesson 7: Khao Niew Sangkaya (Sweet Sticky Rice with Egg Custard)

Today Aroi at home x Hug Thailandteach you how to cook one of themost common Thai desserts,“KHAO NIEAW SANGKAYA".Steamed sticky rice accompanied with coconut custard topped with sweet coconut cream.Enjoy! 😋💛

Posted by Chat Thai on Thursday, 7 May 2020

Lesson 8: Padt Thai

We've come to the last EP of "Aroi at Home with Chat Thai x Hug Thailand", This week, we teach you how to cook the original "Padt Thai" To Prove that anyone can cook at home, the dish will be cooked by our special guest. 😄Enjoy!

Posted by Chat Thai on Thursday, 14 May 2020

Zoning-in on Bangkok: a guide to Bangkok’s districts

Bangkok, “The Big Mango”, is a sprawling tom yam gung of a city, an ancient-modern capital that grew without one specific centre. Zone-in according to your main mission, be it shopping, nightlife, history or exploring. Guest blogger John Borthwick explores the best zones to eat-sleep-play in Bangkok.

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

Sathorn

A stretch of South Sathorn Road (aka Thanon Sathon Tai) has become a quality row of embassies (including the Australian) and superior hotels. It’s sanely removed from the main nightlife zones but still conveniently close to Silom Road’s stores and night markets (but skip Patpong, a crowded, cacophonous pit), as well as to two stations, Sala Daeng BTS Skytrain and Lumphini MRT subway.

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

The River

What better way to see Krung Thep, the City of Angels, aka Bangkok, and its parade of temples, towers, malls and palaces than from its River of Kings, the Maenam Chao Phraya? Hop aboard the Chao Phraya Express Boat, with English commentary, from Sathorn Pier near Saphan Taksin Skytrain station. Get on and off where you please at any of the 20 stops, including Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn) or Wat Pho (home to the Reclining Buddha). On the west bank visit Lhong 1919, a century-old throwback to the days of steamships and the Thailand-China sea trade. Tip: Also on the west bank visit the Royal Barges Museum and its spectacular fleet of gilded boats that are used in the annual Royal Barges Procession.

Soi Itsara Nuphap, Chinatown. Copyright John Borthwick
Soi Itsara Nuphap, Chinatown. Copyright John Borthwick

Chinatown

Teeming, steaming Yaowarat Road, with its Blade Runner alleys, shrines, apothecaries and goldsmiths, is the main fuse of Bangkok’s Chinatown, one of the oldest Chinatowns the world. The buy-sell-eat-drink-repeat energy here is both inexhaustible and exhausting. Come evening, hawker stalls along Yaowarat dish up a progressive feast of seafood and every other kind of Chinese treat, but skip those two uncool, traditional “delicacies”, shark-fin and birds-nest soups. “Cool drinks and hot jazz” happen nightly at Shanghai Mansion’s street-front bar. Sit and watch and listen to both the music and the night going by. Tip: Soi Itsara Nuphap runs between Yaowarat and Charoenkrung roads. Inch your way down it, between stalls, handcarts, grandmas and bargain hunters — a parallel universe.

Three Sixty Bar-Millennium Hilton

Sukhumvit Road

Malls, traffic squalls, Skytrain stations and a hyperactive nightlife. There’s no chance of going hungry along Thanon Sukhumvit. Make a reservation at the legendary Bo.Lan, Sukhumvit Soi 53 (in Thong Lo area) for exemplary Thai fare or at Rang Mahal atop the Rembrandt Hotel (Soi 18) for Indian fine dining. Meanwhile, the Emporium megamall near Phrom Phong Skytrain has almost 50 quality restaurants and food outlets. Sukhumvit’s Nana (pronounced Naa-naa) area comes out at night to party, full-tilt. Soi Nana is home to scores of bars, go-go’s and one-night-in-Bangkok attractions. It’s not all red-light but nor is it for the prudish.

Gold shop. Copyright John Borthwick
Gold shop. Copyright John Borthwick

Khao San Road

“The main function for the street was as a decompression chamber for those about to enter or leave Thailand, a halfway house between East and West.” So wrote Alex Garland in his 1996 novel The Beach, which begins on Khao San Road. “KSR”, now gone mainstream, remains Asia’s capital city HQ for gap-yearlings and travelling souls, lost, found or just hanging out. Guesthouses and lodges abound in the side streets, while more upmarket options include Sawasdee Inn and the Buddy Hotel in the heart of the action. By night, the traffic is blocked off and KSR becomes a free-fire, walking-eating-drinking zone. Tip: Explore the side sois for more intimate eateries.

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

Ratchaprasong

The Ratchprasong area is as close as today’s Bangkok comes to having a main, midtown focal point. The adjacent stretch of Ratchadamri Road, between Ploenchit and Petchaburi roads, is where dedicated shoppers come to trawl amid giant stores and fashion malls such as Zen, Isetan, Gaysorn, Platinum and Siam Paragon. Reach it via Siam or Chidlom Skytrain stations. Try the hawker food at night in front of Central World Mall. Far above on the 55th level of the Centara Grand Hotel is Red Sky Rooftop bar. The huge Panthip Plaza electronics emporium is a few blocks away on Petchaburi Road in Pratunam. Tip: Erawan Shrine, Bangkok’s reputedly most wish-fulfilling shrine, sits on the corner of busy Ratchadamri and Ploenchit roads. Thais pray here for health and wealth before its four-faced golden Brahma statue. Frequent traditional dancing and music accompany the offerings.

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

Thonburi

Thonburi (pronounced “Tonbury”) on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River was briefly the capital of Siam. Amid its pockets of history, narrow soi lanes and century-old teak houses you’ll find the domed Santa Cruz Church, built by the Portuguese-Thai community in 1770 and, nearby, the brilliant white stupa of Wat Prayurawongsawat. The old Kuan An Keng Chinese temple, like the Catholic church, also dates to the 1767—1782 reign of Siam’s warrior king, Taksin the Great who established his new capital here. “Venice of the East” was an early European name for Bangkok, referring to the khlong canals that linked the neighbourhoods. Board a rua hang yao — long-tail boat — for a canal trip to see the heart of old Thonburi. On Khlong Bang Luang hop out at Baan Silapan, aka the Artist’s House, a traditional, teak, canal-front home that’s now a gallery-theatre-café. Tip: There are fantastic river views from the 360 Bar atop Thonburi’s Millennium Hilton hotel.

Words and photographs © John Borthwick 2020

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

Elephant Hills Safari experience in Khao Sok National Park

Elephant Hills credit Pete McGee (12 of 13)Elephant Hills Safari Tours, recently highly commended in the recent Thailand Green Excellence Awards, provide a unique Thai experience for visitors to Thailand looking for looking to get up close and personal with Thai wildlife.According to Elephant Hills CEO Chris; “Our approach at Elephant Hills is not to ride elephants and to abstain from elephant shows in order to offer a more responsible, unique and rewarding experience for both elephants and humans.

“We also aim at maintaining the highest level of animal welfare; guests get to feed, wash and interact with Asia’s largest land animal. This is an excellent opportunity to get up really close and personal with these gentle giants in a responsible way and at the same time learn about their status and situation in Thailand.”

Elephant Hills

Your typical Elephant Hills Safari Tour takes two to three days, staying in either one or both of their tented sites in the Khao Sok National Park.

The Safari starts with an early pickup from your hotel in Phuket or Krabi and you’re provided with water and peanuts to sustain on the 2.5 hour journey to our first camp, at Elephant Hills.

On arrival you’re greeted with a slap up buffet lunch and shown to your glamping accommodation, before embarking on a kayak tour down the Sok river. After this you’re taken to the elephant camp a few minutes away.

Feeding Elephants, Elephant Hills Safari

Here you meet the elephants and are given a comprehensive lesson on everything from their behaviour in the wild, their use in the now defunct logging industry and what has eventually brought these beasts here, to a sanctuary in the far south of Thailand, a long way from home.

There is little natural environment left for Asian elephants to survive in, a legacy of the logging industry which has left disconnected pockets of rainforest throughout Thailand. So it’s hard for elephants to survive as they normally would, but also, some of these beasts have been domesticated for so long they’ve forgotten how.

Elephants bathing, Elephant Hills Safari

There are now many national parks in Thailand, the result of a grass roots-led environmental movement that started back in the 1980s. A movement that ended the logging industry, stopped the construction of a dam in central Thailand that would have had a devastating impact on the environment, and which has now created a generation of conservationists.

Limestone peaks, Khao Sok National park

Thais visit their own national parks more than any other nationality – the parks are not there purely for the benefit of international tourists like me. Looking after the natural Environment is a value that fits well with Buddhist philosophy, so after success of the grass roots environmental movement back in the 80s, it became something taught to the younger generation of Thais in schools by Buddhist monks.

And then there’s places like this, educational centres that introduce tourists to these magnificent creatures. These elephants have travelled from North and Central Thailand, and brought with them their Karen Mahouts who, dressed in colourful traditional garb, click, cluck and slap their cheeky charges into line as guests learn how to give them a scrub, before preparing a lunch of pineapple, bananas, sugarcane and elephant grass. In the evening, guests are treated to a dance recital by some local school kids and given a Thai cooking demonstration.

Limestone peaks, Khao Sok National park

The next day guests are taking to Camp Two: a floating camp on Cheaw Lan Lake. Here you can take part in a 3-hour trek through the jungle, climbing one of the tall limestone pinnacles to reach a large cave.

Kayaking Khao Sok National Park

Back lakeside, the rest of the day and the following morning can be spent swimming and kayaking in the lake, or simply relaxing while listening to the surrounding creatures, cicadas, hornbills and gibbons having fun in the jungle.

For more information, visit the Elephant Hills website.

Unexpected Feeling Ep. 3: Samut Songkran coconut carving

The Unexpected Feeling Episode 3: Coconut Treasure from TATnews Official on Vimeo.

Samut Songkhram is renowned not only for its scenic natural attractions, which are consistent with the locals’ simple way of life, but also for being one of the provinces with the largest population of coconuts in Thailand. Thanks to this blessing, local residents possess an ample repertoire of coconut-related folk wisdom. One example is their skill in transforming a plain looking coconut shell into a carved sound box—or resonator—for a fiddle, a Thai stringed instrument that features a harmony of exquisite craftsmanship and musical acoustics.

The process of coconut shell carving requires immense meticulousness. Selecting a shell suitable for carving is the first challenge. This is followed by the arduous task of creating a design to be engraved on the shell, which is the fiddle’s resonator. Also of great importance is the craftsman’s expert knowledge of the acoustic properties rendered by each carved, bored and fretted coconut shell. Such expertise is essential to creating a good-quality sound box for a fiddle that, if assembled in accord with Thai musical instrument standards, is both beautiful and durable, with a unique sound quality.

Location: Bang Khonthi, Samut Songkhram, Thailand.
So U (Alto Fiddle) musician for “Lao Somdej” : Mr. Sarayudh Homyen

Riding the Thai Rattler: a Kingdom of Rails

Platform and trains at Hualamphong, Bangkok central railway station. January 2018. Copyright John Borthwick
Platform and trains at Hualamphong, Bangkok central railway station. January 2018. Copyright John Borthwick

Bangkok’s grand Hualamphong terminus is at the heart of a national rail network stretching from Nong Khai to Hat Yai, and beyond. The station, with its Italianate facade and a vast, vaulted roof, was built in 1916 by the modernising ruler, King Rama V and is a throwback to the glory days of steam rail. Hualamphong lends your journey a thrill of ceremonial departure but go see it soon, before “redevelopment” occurs. Meanwhile, here are few Thailand rail samplers.

Guest blogger John Borthwick takes to the rails across the Kingdom.

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

Bangkok—Chiang Mai Express. The night express to Chiang Mai is Thailand’s classic rail journey. Step aboard for the 750-km ride and be ready to rock all night (quite literally) on the narrow, one-metre gauge track. A snappily dressed State Railways inspector checks your ticket, followed by a caterer who takes meal orders. The carriages (ex-Japan Rail) are tired but clean. Stretch out on a reserved bunk and with railroad songs humming through your head fall asleep to the heavy metal lullaby of steel wheels on rackety rails. Wake in time for breakfast in Chiang Mai. This service is so popular with foreign visitors it could be re-named the Farang Express.

Thailand 2007. John Borthwick
Thailand 2007. John Borthwick

Eastern & Oriental Express. On a train that’s a rolling work of art you can live out any “retro-Raj” fantasies (should have ‘em) during a three-night, four-day luxury rail cruise between Bangkok and Singapore, or vice-versa. To stand at the train’s rear-end, open-air viewing platform and watch Thailand and Malaysia slip away behind you, green and templed from dawn til dusk, is one of the finest perspectives anywhere in the kingdom of rails. Yes, it is both exquisite and expensive.

Talat Rom Hoop ('Closing Umbrella Market') on both sides of local train line.
Talat Rom Hoop (‘Closing Umbrella Market’) on both sides of local train line.

Mae Khlong Railway. Thailand’s shortest rail line, the 67-km Mae Khlong Railway, running between Bangkok’s Wong Wian Yai and Samut Songkhram, terminates amid the melee of a local market. Thais call the place Talat Rohm Hoop — Umbrella Pull Down Market — but foreigners know it better as the Risky Market. Why? The rail tracks run through the middle of the crowded marketplace. The morning train, a two-carriage electric service, arrives with a horn blast. Hawkers rush to pull back their awnings (“umbrellas”), with only seconds to spare. As the market parts before the train like the Red Sea before Moses, the train rumbles past, inches from your face. Risky marketing, indeed.

Antique steam train icon and caution sign, at Wang Duan, narrowest part of peninsula Thailand (10.96 km) . Copyright John Borthwick
Antique steam train icon and caution sign, at Wang Duan, narrowest part of peninsula Thailand (10.96 km) . Copyright John Borthwick

Kanchanaburi “Death Railway”. A sombre reminder of Japan’s infamous World War II Burma-Siam Railway can be visited 80-km west of Bangkok in Kanchanaburi. Tourists come to see its “Bridge on the River Kwai” (made famous in the 1956 movie of that name), although the bridge we see today is not the original structure. The “Death Railway” wasn’t named lightly. Spare a thought here for those who perished building the line — over 80,000 Thai and other Asian laborers, and 12,600 Allied POWs.

Ticket inspector checking on train, Hua Hin railway station. January 2018. Copyright John Borthwick
Ticket inspector checking on train, Hua Hin railway station. January 2018. Copyright John Borthwick

Bangkok-Vientiane Line. Aboard this train you’ll cross Thailand to the northeast and view Isaan in comfort but the service doesn’t go all the way Vientiane. At Nong Khai passengers cross the Thai-Lao border bridge on the Mekong River and then join a connecting shuttle train that terminates at Thanaleng, 20-km short of the Lao capital. This overnight trip is superior to its Bangkok—Chiang Mai cousin, having new carriages, better dining facilities and seats with their own power outlets.

'Luggage Room' sign Hua Hin railway station. January 2018. Copyright John Borthwick
‘Luggage Room’ sign Hua Hin railway station. January 2018. Copyright John Borthwick

Bangkok—Hua Hin-Surathani. Riding south you’ll pass through Hua Hin, 200 km from Bangkok. In the 1920s when a line was first pushed through to British Malaya, Hua Hin’s most important structure was its railway station. While you’re at the platform check out the historic Royal Waiting Room that looks like a cross between a Buddhist temple and a ticket office. Rolling on — blink and you’ll miss it — is tiny Wang Duan beside the Gulf of Thailand, south of Prachuap Khiri Khan. This whistle-stop (where the trains don’t whistle and rarely stop) has a claim to fame and a signboard to prove it. This pinch-point between the Gulf and the Myanmar border to the west is, as the sign proclaims, “The Narrowest of Thailand. 10.96 kilometres.” A few hours later your reach Surathani, jumping off spot for the ferry to Koh Samui.

Suratani Express train at Hua Hin railway station.9 January 2018. Copyright John Borthwick
Suratani Express train at Hua Hin railway station.9 January 2018. Copyright John Borthwick

Thai Train Travel Tips

  • Traveling in Thailand by rail is highly economical and also wise, given the country’s heavy road fatalities.
  • Reserve your seat in advance especially if travelling near public holidays or on the popular Chiang Mai service. For convenience (and a small extra fee), book through an agent.
  • With a sleeper berth, go for the slightly more expensive lower bunk; the upper one is narrower and, being near the A/C vent, colder.
  • More information see: www.thailandbytrain.com; www.seat61.com/thailand; www.12go.asia

Copyright John Borthwick
Copyright John Borthwick

Words and photographs © John Borthwick 2020

Much-loved, must-eat dishes in Thailand

Thai food is known for its aromatic, spicy flavours, astounding variety and aesthetic appeal. From North to South, here are some much-loved – must-eat dishes.

Northen-Thai-Dishes-resize

The North

Continuing a dining tradition of old Chiang Mai and the Lanna Kingdom, a khan toke dinner features a small round table upon which is served a variety of dishes in individual bowls. People sit on mats or cushions around the table and choose from the dishes as they like. The dishes typically include such delights as sticky rice, chicken or pork curry, fried chicken, vegetables, soup, fried pork skin and chilli dips. During the dinner, there are traditional dance, music and sword performances to entertain diners.

A delicious dish that’s iconic of Chiang Mai, khao soi is a creamy yellow curry soup with egg noodles and slow-cooked chicken (sometimes beef) that’s tender enough to slide right off the bone. It’s topped off with crunchy fried noodles for a lovely contrast to the egg noodles. The tasty soup is typically made with coconut milk, and sides like lime, shallots and pickled vegetables offer even more scintillating flavours.

Thai-spicy-pork-salad-or-Laab-Moo-resize

The Northeast (I-san)

Lap is a spicy salad dish from the Northeast and neighbouring Lao PDR., but it’s not a vegetable salad … it’s a meat salad. Often eaten with sticky rice, two of the most popular variations are lap kai (chicken) and lap mu (pork), in which the meat is minced and tossed with fish sauce, lime juice, chilli flakes, mint, basil and red onions, as well as toasted rice for a touch of crunchiness. Lap wun sen is another variation that uses glass noodles or vermicelli.

Spot a food vendor vigorously mushing away with a mortar and pestle, and there’s a good chance they’re making som tam. This spicy green papaya salad is a Northeastern dish widely consumed throughout Thailand, often together with sticky rice and grilled chicken. Som tam is made to a customer’s particular liking and the usual ingredients include sliced tomatoes, yard long beans, peanuts, dried shrimp, garlic, fish sauce, lime, palm sugar and sometimes freshwater rice paddy crabs.

Literally translating to ‘sausage from the Northeast’, sai krok Isan is a garlicky fermented sausage made of pork and rice. The rice helps the fermentation process that gives the sausage its signature tanginess. Sai krok Isan can be eaten on its own or with sticky rice, and also fresh cabbage leaves and ginger to counteract the garlic element.

Nam tok in Thai means waterfall, and nam tok nuea is a juicy, tangy beef salad typically eaten with sticky rice and so named for the juices dripping from the meat, as it is grilled. Shallots, onions, lime juice, mint leaves and ground roasted rice are added to the beef which is sliced into bite-size pieces.

Amazing-Thai-Taste-Festival-2018-Massaman-curry-resize

Central Thailand

Usually eaten with rice, massaman is a rich, relatively mild curry in which spices not frequently used in Thai curries; such as, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cloves, cumin, bay leaves and star anise are combined with local produce like dried chilli peppers, cilantro seeds, lemongrass, galangal, white pepper, shallots and garlic. Due to its Muslim roots, massaman is most commonly made with chicken, although there are beef, mutton and duck variations. Potatoes and onions are added in, as well as coconut milk and peanuts.

Kaeng khiao wan is a green curry dish also eaten with rice. Coconut milk and fresh green chillies give this curry its creamy green colour, and it tends to be more pungent than the milder red curries. Along with fish, fish balls or meat, other ingredients include fish sauce, Thai eggplant, pea aubergine and vegetables.

Kaeng som or Thai sour curry is a spicy fish curry or soup with vegetables, one that is made without coconut milk and which gets its characteristic sour taste from the tamarind used in its preparation. The favoured vegetable ingredients include cauliflower, white radish, cabbage, carrot, long beans, Chinese cabbage and asparagus. A popular alternative to fish for this dish that’s eaten with rice too, are shrimps.

With their unique spongey texture, Thai fish cakes or thot man pla hold sauces and other liquids well and so when they’re bitten into, all those flavours are released. The fish cakes’ own distinctive taste comes from the red curry paste, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste and chilli ingredients used to make them.

must-eat-featureimage

The South

Few dishes say ‘Southern Thai cuisine’ more than khao yam paktai, a tart and salty rice salad that contains an array of ingredients including carrots and long beans, sour mango, pomelo, ground dried shrimp or fish, roasted coconut, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chillies. A main component of this dish is a distinctive salad dressing called nam budu made from fish or prawns fermented with salt. The rice eaten with khao yam paktai is typically cooked with Morinda leaves or butterfly pea flower juice, for colour and aroma.

While to some it is an acquired taste, in the South of Thailand phat sato is a popular snack. Also known as stink beans due to their powerful aroma, these nutrition-packed beans are commonly stir-fried in a curry paste blended from other robust ingredients like garlic and chillies, and accompanied by pork or shrimps.

Pla thot kamin or turmeric fried fish is another popular Southern Thai dish. The fish most commonly used is pla daeng, a type of threadfin bream, and this is cooked to slightly crispy. The use of garlic and turmeric – known for its many medicinal and health properties – enhances the dish’s flavours.

The East

Thai massaman has been ranked among the world’s best food dishes by CNN, and a delicious variation from Eastern Thailand is Thai massaman durian curry with chicken. It’s a delightful fusion of the great flavours of the massaman curry and the so-called ‘king of fruits’, and it makes sense given that the Eastern province of Chanthaburi is famed for its fruit production, especially durian.

Chamuang leaves are a popular ingredient in Eastern Thai cooking and notable dishes that feature their tart, sour taste sensation include kaeng mu bai chamuang or pork belly curry with sour Chamuang leaves and tom bai Chamuang, which is similar to the world-famous tom yam soup.

Ban Bueng pork noodle soup is a well-loved clear soup dish associated with Chon Buri’s Ban Bueng district, which features dried squid and fried Chinese fish balls.

Three Amazing Thailand events not to miss in 2020!

Muay Thai blessing

Over the next few months there are several exciting events celebrating Amazing Thailand culture, from Sydney to Ayutthaya – make sure you add them to your calendar.

1. 16th World Wai Kru Muay Thai Ceremony

  • When: 16-17 March 2020
  • Where: Ayutthaya, Thailand

Similar to religious pilgrimages, Muay Thai practitioners participate in the annual World Wai Kru Muay Thai Ceremony at least once in their lifetime. The event gathers Muay Thai practitioners from around the world who express their gratitude to master teachers and trainers in the time-honoured ritual known as the Wai Kru ceremony, while celebrating the aged-old martial art of Muay Thai.

The Ceremony helps educate people about the traditions of Muay Thai and its place in the kingdom’s culture. It also helps people understand the importance of showing respect to Muay Thai masters. Visitors have also learned more about the history of Muay Thai and some of the personalities behind the sport.

There are also booths offering Yantra tattooing by famous tattoo masters, and stalls serving Thai food, as well as booths offering instruction in Yantra writing, Aranyik sword making, Thai martial art performances, and traditional Thai massage.

Muay Thai traditional tattoo

2. PTT Thailand Grand Prix 2020 MotoGP

  • When: 20 – 22 March 2020
  • Where: Buriram, Thailand

The Thailand Grand Prix 2020 will be the third MotoGP™ staging in Thailand suggesting riders will now be well equipped and acclimatised with the Chang International Circuit! In an already hot environment, the two-wheel speed machines will turn up the heat even further with exhilarating displays of motorcycle riding, particularly from MotoGP™ favourites Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso, Alex Rins and Australian Jack Miller.

Accommodation and Event Admission Packages start at AU $1,528 and can be purchased through Sportsnet.

Thailand MotoGP 2020

3. Sydney Royal Easter Show 2020

  • When: 3 -14 Apr 2020
  • Daily 9.30am – 8.30pm
  • Where: Sydney, Australia. Walk through from Woolworth Fresh Food Dome or enter from Riverina Avenue

Visit the Amazing Thailand Stand at Home & Life Style Pavilion at this year’s Sydney Royal Easter Show. There will be a range of fun activities to take part in, games to play, gifts and prizes to be won. Pre-purchase your Easter Show tickets here.

Sydney Royal Easter Show 2020