THAILAND - Beyond Bangkok lies idealised European villas on cool hills, organic lemon groves and fluffy sheepdogs.
There is also a hip ceramics factory, an improbable railway market and an alpaca farm, all full of Thai whimsy.
Known to Bangkok escapees who yearn for a respite close to the frenetic capital, these hidden corners in Suan Phueng and Amphawa districts are a deeper dive into ever-popular Thailand for Singaporean travellers. They are one to two-plus hours from Bangkok by car.
Secret corners and secondary cities where travellers will see the country in a new light are now highlighted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Here are nine ideas for a fresh experience of Thailand in 2020.
1. PICNIC IN A CREEK
Walk in a creek, then picnic in it. Ending an outdoorsy jaunt with English high tea cleverly ticks both the in-the-pink and indulgent boxes.
We step into a cold, clean creek, an offshoot of the Pachee River in Suan Phueng district close to the Myanmar border of misty mountains.
The creek is mostly calm, ankle-deep water that at times rises to waist level or morphs into mini-rapids. Our senses are alive to the birdsong, tender morning sunlight and shifting terrain of sand, gravel and seaweed-slicked stones beneath our aqua shoes.
Our Thai hosts point to small local green figs that are delicious dipped in fish sauce. Water inside bamboo stems can be sipped.
The walk of 3km-plus can be done in 30 minutes but it is so novel that we loiter for more than an hour.
Rounding a corner, we are surprised by a picnic table, topped with teapots and flowers, in the middle of the creek. The table is laden with finger sandwiches, scones, macarons and my favourite - a glossy dark-chocolate mousse cake baked by a talented local pastry chef. A high tea enough for two or three costs 888 baht (S$39).
Ninety-nine per cent of picnickers here are Thais, so this is an insider idyll. Completing the Insta-romance are swings hanging from massive branches over the river. Retired sheepdogs romp in the water.
It is sweetness and light here. But I learn later about its unquiet past, for Suan Phueng was once a refuge for ethnic Burmese battling the Yangon military regime. Peace has returned, so resort owners started heading here about 10 years ago to build a slice of fantasy.
The Nagaya Resort: 235 Moo 7, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi 70180 (creek walk)
The Scenery Vintage Farm: 234 Moo 7, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi 70180 (high tea)
2. SWOOSH OVER RAPIDS
For more dynamic escapades, shoot the rapids nearby. Suan Phueng has become Adrenaline Central with hiking, kayaking and rock-climbing, now that sports tourism is a new focus.
Kayaking is both exciting and soothing. I scuttle over rapids in my single kayak, in between floating on the somnolent bottle-green Pachee River.
Tasana Kayak Resort: 158/3 Ban Takhian Thong Village, Village No. 3, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi
3. IMAGINE YOU'RE IN EUROPE
I wake up in a Tuscan villa, get lost in time in a romantic candle-lit Greek hideaway, relish grilled German sausages and beer on a tropical hilltop and stroll among lemon trees - all on the same day.
This is an idealised Europe. It would be bizarre except that the Thais have lots of flair and artistry.
La Toscana Resort is replete with the cypresses and fountains of central Italy. The villas, painted in the Tuscan palette of warm rose, ochre and sky blue, have names like Citrus, Ophelia and Romeo.
Nearby, after an in-creek picnic, we step into The Scenery Vintage Farm, which has whitewashed Greek-inspired villas with candles arrayed around jacuzzis. Some have rooftops ideal for stargazing.
We catch a glimpse of trick-performing sheep - they can "count" - and agile dogs in a sweet meadow before we leave.
At German Sausages, the European fancy continues with bratwurst and pork knuckle. With sides of Thai papaya salad and a fern with the texture of seaweed, our feast is a happy fusion.
This is the ultimate spot for lingering - just us on a secret hilltop catching the last rays of the sun, with a beguiling playlist that includes Loreena McKennitt warbling from her world-music repertoire of Celtic and Middle Eastern themes.
Then there is Pasutara, which is European and not. A bio-farm with a six-villa resort and restaurant, its tagline is "Purifying Life". It stands out with 1,000 organic lemon trees that are Californian Eureka, Assam and Lisbon varietals.
These lemons are sold to five-star hotels in the capital and fashioned on-site into personal care products with other natural ingredients. I love the lemon-infused honey and preserved lemon slices from the gift shop.
The gentle young owner, Baz Bacilon, has a posh accent from the United Kingdom, where he studied veterinary science. The farm is his family getaway.
La Toscana Resort: 5/1 Moo 3, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi 70180
The Scenery Vintage Farm: 234 Moo 7, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi 70180
German Sausages: 315, Moo 3, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi 70180
Pasutara: 317 Tanaosri sub-district, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi 70180
4. RETHINK CERAMICS
The third generation has taken their family's old-school Tao Hong Tai Ceramics Factory into the age of Instagram eye candy and global online retail.
We are accosted by wildly imaginative ceramic sculptures as we meander. A giant dog pokes its head from the ground. A rainbow-coloured creature perches on the roof. A wavy wall of kaleidoscopic tiles invites selfies.
The catalogue here is laced with the conventional too - Thai-style pots in gorgeous glazes for water plants or collecting rain.
Watch craftsmen working the lumpen clay or rest in a cafe with iced coffee.
Tao Hong Tai Ceramics Factory: 234/1 Jedeehak Road, Ratchaburi 70000
5. PLAY WITH ALPACAS
It is cuteness overload at the Alpaca Hill farm. I am a child again as woolly, lamb-faced alpacas trail us, hoping for snacks, and Persian cats pucker their faces at the world.
Ostriches run around like they are in high heels, sheep are pushy, an albino peacock preens, an ear-bashing flock of geese honk outside Hobbit houses.
I cannot take my eyes off the hairless cavy - curiously fur-free guinea pigs that really look like mini hippos.
Alpaca Hill: 357 Moo 8, Phapok-Tako Land Rd, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi 70180
6. SHOP (WATCHFULLY) IN A RAILWAY MARKET
A market, with a train running through it, has to be a quirky Only-in-Thailand experience.
For the best view, our guide deposits us at a seemingly pop-up station that is one stop before the Maeklong Railway Market. It is a good tip to catch the "umbrella pull-down" action at the makeshift market as the hyper-local train, filled with Thais rather than tourists, trundles into it.
We have a great vantage point of the open-air stalls that sit alarmingly close to the tracks - or even atop them. The awnings close like umbrellas in a rhythmic wave, then open again the moment the train moves on.
We disembark, then watch the scene from the ground. We notice how the train even hovers over some wares while other items are expertly slid out of its path by vendors.
Excitement over, it is fun to peer at the hotchpotch on sale. Durians, coils of long beans, icy coconut, cranberries, trendy packages of butterfly-pea tea and even jewellery - goods galore to please housewives, snackers and gift-buyers.
Maeklong Railway Market: Soi beside Thaweekit Mall, Samut Songkhram District, Samut Songkhram 75000
7. WAFT THROUGH A FLOATING MARKET
From one market to another sensory-overloading one. The Amphawa Floating Market mixes ancient and new appealingly. Cool down with Thai coconut ice cream or sip latte, order grilled seafood from a boat or relax at a riverfront pub.
Beyond the rows and rows of shops, I like a couple of quieter courtyards for a respite. There are also little bridges where I watch the sunset gilding the river.
Amphawa Floating Market: Amphawa, Amphawa District, Samut Songkhram 75110
8. FEEL VIRTUOUSLY PAMPERED IN ECO-CHIC RESORT
There is a sensation of Old Thailand in the intimate Asita Eco Resort, where privileged Thais might live the elegant country life.
Here, the experience is elevated eco-chic with modern amenities, green architecture and clean eating.
Trees for the boutique property were purchased from the forest. Ingredients for our dinner are harvested from the backyard - where mussel shells mixed with saline soil apparently makes vegetables sweeter - or purchased from the nearby floating market.
The villas and traditional Thai houses in this intimate back-to-nature resort sit by the river, where big prawns are netted.
"My blood is green," declares owner Ms Asita Vimolchaichit, who is also a television host in Bangkok and looks far younger than 52.
Firefly viewing can be arranged by the resort and also, a boat conveniently leaves from its jetty to the Amphawa Floating Market.
Asita Eco Resort: 33/3 Taihard, Muang District, Samut Songkhram 75000
9. VOLCANO PRAWNS AND OTHER GOOD EATS
Any trip to Thailand has to involve luscious food, often at no-frills places.
One of them is Volcano Prawn Restaurant, the venue of our first lunch a couple of hours after we land. The signature dish: giant river prawns, covered under a dome, that were grilled then flamed with ethyl alcohol.
Dessert is a Thai chendol, its handmade green threads so soft and fragrant that it is apparently famous in the country.
At the Pasutara resort that is ensconced in a lemon grove, the healthy Thai dishes include a salad from its garden - spicy rocket, cress and Mexican tarragon with yellow flowers that taste like anise.
The rice, fried in olive oil, is a standout. It is piquantly complex with fresh herbs, green mango, lemon, shallots and flaked mackerel.
Ranjuan Amphawa is airy and has a modern-country look with dried bouquets strung from the ceiling. Its low-profile high-society owners wish to evoke a perfect time and place in this art-filled restaurant that works with home recipes.
Seafood is its speciality - mussels with crispy basil and steamed sea bass, for instance. I also like its sumptuous roasted-duck red curry.
Volcano Prawn Restaurant: 885 Phetkasem Frontage Road, Tambon Sanam Chan, Nakhon Pathom 73000
Pasutara: 317 Tanaosri sub-district, Suan Phueng District, Ratchaburi 70180
Ranjuan Amphawa: 62/1 Mae Klong River Road, Samut Songkhram
I take an early morning flight from Singapore to Bangkok on Thai Airways International (www.thaiairways.com), which operates 32 flights weekly on this sector.
From the Thai capital, our private van transfer takes 2½ hours to reach Suan Phueng district in Ratchaburi province. We spend two nights in dreamy La Toscana Resort.
Then we drive to Amphawa district, in Samut Songkhram province, where we stay overnight at the chic Asita Eco Resort.
Amphawa is an hour-plus away by van from Bangkok, where we spend our fourth and final night at Centara Watergate Pavilion Hotel within the Pratunam shopping district.
Dynasty Travel has a five-day itinerary for Suan Phueng, Amphawa and Bangkok. Another five-day itinerary includes Suan Phueng, Hua Hin and Bangkok.
The land package for these tours start from $918 per person.
For bookings and enquiries, call Dynasty Travel at 6532 5455 or e-mail.
- Slow down. Learn from the Bangkok residents who flee the over-stimulating capital to chill in Suan Phueng and Amphawa.
- One of my go-to phrases, from my days as a Thailand correspondent for the paper, is "ngu ngu pla pla". Quaintly redolent of Old Thailand, it means "snakes and fishes" and alludes to knowing a little. This is my response when someone asks if I speak Thai. It still delights locals, including at the Amphawa Floating Market. Its vendors also speak Mandarin, no doubt due to the arrival of Chinese tourists.
- Unlike Amphawa, Suan Phueng is much less touristy and one sign is that fewer Thais here speak English. But not a few resorts have been set up by cosmopolitan Bangkok residents who speak impeccable English.
- For the creek walk in Suan Phueng, aqua shoes are provided. Or bring your own if you like, along with quick-dry clothes and hat. Slip on a waterproof vest in case of currents.
Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua.
The writer's trip was hosted by Dynasty Travel, Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways International.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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