Bangkok: What would you look forward to doing in Thailand on a vacation? The most popular answers to this seemingly generic FAQ would be varied for the tourists who set off for the ‘Land of Smiles’ – from sunbathing in Phuket to island-hopping in Rayong; endless shopping sprees in Bangkok; a foot massage that induces a Zen state of mind, there’s plenty more that makes Thailand unique. There’s no denying that the above-said experiences are special to the country but ask me and I’ll unabashedly admit my gluttonous craving for a certain dish – the ripe mango with sticky rice soaked in coconut milk – that will evoke my fondest memory of Thailand. For the uninitiated, sticky rice with mango and coconut milk is the most popular dessert one would come across in the country.
Just like this unassuming dessert, for a first-timer visitor, Thailand will be a value-for-money surprise package dotted with refreshing destinations, off-the-grid sojourns, adventure activities and food that is simply out of this world. Back in the 80s, it used to be a low-income country. Four decades later, Thailand has not just been tagged as a tiger economy but gone on to becoming one of the most sought-after emerging travel markets in the world. Having been to Thailand in two different seasons the same year and experienced the rigours of tourism in the country, I am not surprised when the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) projects a growth of 10 per cent in revenue in 2018-19.
This time, here I was, on my second visit to Thailand, in September and sought to explore Rayong. However, before venturing out I wanted to see the famous gem mines of Chanthaburi that I had missed during my trip in April. Once there, I checked into Maneechan Resort which had hosted me. The resort’s affordable prices and ecofriendly features are what made me return. Chanthaburi, with huge reserves of underground gemstones is well-known for its coloured gemstone industry.
In fact, East Thai provinces – Chanthaburi and Trat are major sources of ruby, often monikered as the Siamese Ruby, to the world. I decided to go to Bang Kra Ja gem mining facility where mining has been on for the last several generations. It took me by surprise that visitors at the mine were allowed to climb down the 10-feet-deep pits to dig out gemstones themselves. Only, any such finds will have to be surrendered at the facility. Visitors can take the precious souvenirs home only after purchasing them from the in-house gem outlet – Indy Store. In my shorts, tee and Hush Puppies shoes, the arduous digging did not seem appealing, and so I decided to give it a pass.
Gem mining in Chanthaburi is never focussed on a particular area. Those places that were once mines are now mangosteen farms. Thailand’s gem and jewellery industry generates revenue worth $30 billion every year, making it crucial for the country’s economy. According to ASEAN’s Gem & Jewellery Review 2018, the Thai government aims to make the country the world capital of gem trading in the next five years.
I was soon on my way to Rayong. Instead of taking the usual Sukhumvit Road, the long highway in Thailand connecting the capital city and the Eastern Trat province, my driver took me to Rayong via Chalerm Burapha Chonlatit, a scenic East Coast road along the Gulf of Thailand. As a matter of fact, Chalerm Burapha Chonlatit translates into ‘the most beautiful street in the East’.
It reminded me of East Coast Road (ECR) from Chennai to Kanyakumari and the Konkan stretch through Mangalore, Udupi, Murudeswar, Karwar and Goa. Undoubtedly, it is the subtropical climate and common flora that make the three roads as picturesque. From above Noen Nang Phaya viewpoint in Chanthaburi, tourists can see the street along the beach and a small island off the coast.
Taking in the serpentine Chalerm Burapha Chonlatit from my vantage point, it seemed as if the road was bowing in reverence to the mountains. It is admirable that the Thai did not resort to boring a hole through the mountains and instead took the hard way out, toiling to build a road around them instead, passing along Leam Son Beach, Chanthaburi Estuary and Noen Nang Phaya viewpoint.
Now here’s something for the romantics at heart – the railings overlooking the Gulf of Thailand at Noen Nang Phaya and partly Chalerm Burapha Chonlatit which swirl down into the horizon are cluttered with padlocks. Thai youth are said to have adopted this practice from Korean rom-coms which popularised this custom. Couples believe that leaving locked padlocks on the railings guarantees the longevity of their love. It reminded me of the Love Lock Bridge in Paris, parts of which were removed by the French administration as the bridge itself faced the threat of collapsing under the weight of the padlocks.
Chalerm Burapha Chonlatit was developed by Thailand’s Department of Rural Roads under the Ministry of Transport to connect Chonburi Province up north, Laem Maephim in Rayong, Chantaburi and Trat. The objective was to reduce vehicular traffic on the main Sukhumvit road and encourage cycling. There are separate tracks for bicycles in the two-lane stretch of Chalerm Burapha Chonlatit.
I had lost myself to the allure of East coast Thailand by the time I reached Rayong. Rayong Marriott Resort & Spa was to be my stay, located on the Eastern shore of the Gulf, about 40 km away from Rayong city which is otherwise famous as the industrial hub of Thailand. Indian industrial giants like Tata and Birla have their own facilities in the small city. In case you think the hotel is isolated from the mainstream, consider this – the day I checked in, the hotel staff was busy restoring the place to normalcy after a seemingly crazy full hotel buyout by an Indian wedding party.
I had an appointment with Dome Travels at Ban Phe harbour the next morning. Though I had been to Koh Samed Island before, it was a rushed visit, depriving me of the opportunity to enjoy what archipelagos offer tourists. But this time, my carrier – Dome Travel made up for what I had missed then. I was ferried around Koh Samed and Koh Thalu (Koh means ‘island’ in Thai) and they had lined up a number of activities for me too. Those who wish to spend a couple of days here can put up at Koh Samed with the National Forest Reserve in its backyard. Hotel Samed Club, for example, at Koh Samed has price listings worth considering.
My island-hopping experience beats all expectations. The session of snorkelling at Koh Thalu was so surreal that I found it spiritually healing. But for the quality of water and sub-tropical temperature, I could have spent hours in the water, gaping at corals and watching sea life go by. On the eve of my flight back to India, I checked in to Lebua at State Tower located in the heart of Thailand. If the name rings a bell, it is because of Hollywood comedy Hangover 2. Certain parts of the movie were shot in a three-bedroom villa on the 56th floor of Lebua. A one night stay here costs 30,000 THB per night, that’s almost Rs. 65,000.
Having had a taste of night life in Bangkok on my last trip, I decided to stay back in the hotel, just to relish the luxury and view the city from my balcony on the 23rd floor. Trust me, the Bangkok skyline, a cup of hot Earl Grey and a book by Yuval Noah Harari – my night was made.
On my way back to Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok the next day, Marvel Experience Thailand was an irresistible pit stop so I gave into the fan in me. No judgement okay? I’m sure every Marvel fan would agree that there could be no better treat. Upon securing entry, visitors are taken by S.H.I.E.L.D. guards for initiation and identity card processing. Once enrolled, you will be a designated S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit who gets to assist the Avengers against dreaded villains like the Hydra. What follows is a series of interactive 5-D sessions in which the recruits find themselves battling evil forces. The theatrics of the S.H.I.E.L.D. guards who accompany the recruits at various stages add to the moments. If that’s not enough, recruits get to have their pictures clicked with their favourite Avenger characters at the end of the show and stop by the souvenir shop to buy authentic Marvel merchandise.
During the trip what I found most reassuring about the country’s tourism as a GDP contributor to the economy was the zest and sense of ownership with which people conducted themselves in the sector. They truly understand that it is what helps them to put bread on the table and the growth of the tourism sector reflects directly in the progress of the country. Perhaps that’s one more reason to call it ‘Land of Smiles’. As my flight took off for Chennai, I couldn’t help but smile thinking about the change that so much passion and candour would bring.