Two Thai towns: No banana pancakes


David Whitley veers off Thailand’s tourist trail to find two unheralded cities with very different charms 

It suddenly strikes me what the road is. It’s curiously elevated, unlike any other in Phrae. On one side, there are a few shack-like houses with temple rooftops rising above them in the background. On the other, it’s wild. Overgrown trees and giant leaves obscure the river, although the bells attached to the cows lumbering down towards the water’s edge indicate where it is.

The road was once the city wall. It still goes round the old town; it has just been put to a new use now the era of siege warfare is over.

You’d be hard-pushed to find a more agreeable Thai city to wander around than Phrae. The walls may remind of a mini-Chiang Mai, but its hints of an understudy Luang Prabang that start coming through when you start taking in the gorgeous old buildings on every corner.

Phrae isn’t going to pretend to be as spectacular as either, but it has got one massive factor in its favour: far fewer people to share it with.

I’d been after somewhere without the banana pancakes, expat bars and twenty-something Westerners enquiring whether there was free WiFi. And as a respite from Thailand’s mercilessly-pummelled tourist trail, Phrae turns out to be the perfect tonic.

Wandering through the many wat complexes squeezed into the old city, it strikes me that the usual temple fatigue isn’t kicking in. There’s no time frame, no photographs to try and avoid getting in the way of and no pressure to be wowed by anything in particular. It’s just me, the temples and the occasional passing monk to flash a smile at. The huge seated Buddha at Wat Phra Baht Ming Meuang should be the star of the show, but I find myself absorbed by the delicately-patterned golden decoration on the window shutters. At Wat Luang, the oldest temple in town and dating back to the 12th or 13th century, it’s the stone stupa that’s slowly sprouting vegetation. At Wat Phra Non, it’s the slightly absurd Buddha reclining along the wall.

But it’s the houses that really enchant. Phrae’s major industry was once teak-logging, and whilst the teak trees in the surrounding forests are now protected, the buildings made from their ancestors still remain.

The streets are full of these delightful dark wood homes, with most beautifully preserved through good old-fashioned care rather than tour bus-hunting restoration budgets. The showiest of them – Vongburi House – is also the most atypical. It has an antebellum Deep South plantation house feel – fussy doily-like carvings decorate the roof and unshuttered windows from all angles let the breeze gallop through.

Inside, it feels like a step back to a colonial era that Thailand never had. Inside are gramophones, guns, antique teapots and black and white photos of elephants rolling fallen tree trunks. The house is bathed in much the same sepia-tinged tranquillity that the city is.

Phrae is a wonderful spot for blissfully mooching away from the herd. But, a couple of hours to the north, Phayao is most definitely a tourist town.
The tourists whooping it up there, however, are almost without exception Thai. This makes the experience of visiting tremendously odd. When I arrive, everyone in the city seems to be wearing a pink shirt – “the colour of the queen�?, apparently. Some are flooding into a park for a concert, others are bungling their way through an ill-coordinated group dance marathon around a large plastic dragon. It makes no sense at all, particularly when one couple points at me and laughs. Perhaps I should have worn pink too.

There are a few half-decent temples to see, but Phayao’s siren call is the lake it’s sat by. Fishermen stand around the edge like incompetent sentries, whilst wooden boats clank by the jetty. Enterprising oarsmen are always willing to embark on impromptu excursions in exchange for a few notes, but the real action is surrounding the lake rather than on it.

The lakefront is ringed with bar/restaurant/ café hybrids. Some are plastic chair affairs, others make the effort to doll up, but there are scores to choose from. And at night, the holidaying Thais are joined by the thirsty student hordes from the local university. It’s never quite raucous, but there’s a hugely likeable buzz.

The best time to arrive is shortly before sunset. The giant, fiercely red sun drops down through the hazy sky, while the reflections on the lake and the horizon’s palette make waterside Phayao seem like the perfect find. English language menus may be nigh on impossible to find and conversation with the enthusiastic group on the next table who are wondering why you’re here might be stilted, but who cares? The beer is cheap and you can get a giant fish, caught fresh from the lake that morning for the equivalent of £3. Providing you make the right fish mimes, obviously.

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Thai vineyards





David Whitley finds a Thai company trying to make wine where it really has no right to – and discovers plenty of other gimmicks whilst there





The poor souls pruning the vines at the Hua Hin Hills Vineyard look totally overdressed for the sticky, sapping heat. They’re covered head-to-foot, sweating profusely into their long-sleeved shirts, and keeping the sun out with big hats that drape down over the neck.




It’s the big white gumboots that look strangest, however. As we bounce along in the back of the jeep, I ask the driver what they’re for.




“Erm, do you really want to know?” he replies.




“OK, it’s for the snakes. I’ve seen cobras – brown and black – here.”




I’d expected that making wine in Southern Thailand would be a task beset by numerous obstacles, but I hadn’t factored cobras in.




The Hua Hin Hills vineyard is a bold attempt to take winemaking into latitudes that grapes usually get tetchy about. 


A 45-minute drive inland from the coastal resort town of Hua Hin, it is where the Monsoon Valley wines found in Thai restaurants across the world are made. But the lush hillside setting, with vines stretching across the horizon between lumpy green peaks, has been turned into a hub of activity.




As we prepared to jump on the back of the jeep, a group of cyclists returned. They’d been huffing and puffing along the 560 acre property’s hillside tracks. With this heat and humidity, rather them than me…




The jeep jaunt takes us past vast rows of Colombard and Malaga Blanc vines, before pulling up outside the elephant stable. This – rightly – would seem like a ridiculous thing to have in a vineyard, but it’s a slice of heritage. Before the vines were planted, the site was a place where wild elephants were domesticated.



Only three elephants live here now, and the dutiful souls take visitors on utterly surreal rides through the vineyard. We end up on Honey, a 45-year-old female with a freckly nose and an unusually brown complexion.



For those who haven’t tried it, elephant riding isn’t exactly flying first class. The lumbering plods send the bamboo seat on top lolling back and forth. Those sat in it have to constantly adjust position to ensure their weight is equally balanced.




From on high, however, the views of the valley as it plunges towards the coast are magnificent. Even if the neatly-ordered blocks of vines offer a bizarre contrast to the tropical foliage encasing them. There are mango trees on the property, while the land just outside is prime pineapple farming territory.



Jack, the mahout, is originally from Isaan in the east of Thailand. He says has grown up around elephants, and shows an incredible nimbleness of touch with Honey.




To chivvy her along, he lightly brushes her ear with his foot. When he dismounts, he seems to slide down the side of her. As for getting back up, I’ve no idea how he manages it – he seems to slink up in one sinuous motion.




His main task, however, is to stop Honey ploughing into the vines to grab a quick snack or two. “She likes grapes,” he says. Tough luck, lady – you’ll have to settle for bananas and pineapples instead. We’re allowed to handfeed her after the ride, and she snaffles them gratefully with her trunk, nonchalantly lobbing them into her mouth.




Hungry humans can tuck into something a little more complex. The Sala restaurant has all the hallmarks of a destination dining restaurant in the Hunter or Barossa Valleys. The prime seats are on a large open-air balcony, soaking up the viney view. But there are a few Thai touches – noticeably the pagoda-style roof and a menu that nods to the local as well as the international. Mains include crab meat fried rice as well as grilled T-bones, but it’s the homemade grape cheesecake with Chantilly cream as dessert that it’s practically obligatory to save room for.




But for all the food and activity gimmickry, Hua Hin Hills is really about the wine. A series of displays along the wall at The Sala go into the techniques used to effectively trick grapes into growing at this latitude. Loamy soil and ocean breezes help, but irrigation and vine protection techniques designed specifically for the tropics - rather than copying traditional approaches - are key.




There’s also a map of where wines are grown around the world. The likes of Ethiopia, Ecuador and Nigeria may come as a surprise.




It’s only fitting that the final activity of the afternoon should be a taste test. A series of samples are lined up at the bar, complete with tasting notes and suggestions of dishes they make a good partner for.




An emphasis is put on wines that work well in hot climates and with Thai food. First down the hatch is a 2012 Colombard, billed as an alternative to sauvignon blanc that works well with a spicy papaya salad. It’s a bit clacky for my liking, but the white shiraz is surprisingly good, with a ballsy aftertaste that won’t let spicy dishes run all over it.




The real winner is the chenin blanc, a varietal that’s usually towards the bottom of my list. It has a sweetness that almost pushes it into dessert wine territory, but in the Thai climate it’s invigoratingly refreshing.




I shouldn’t be too shocked. If you’re going to plant a vineyard in Thailand and then let elephants wander round it, the normal rules don’t apply. And that applies to tropical tipples, too.









by David Whitley



Details: A shuttle bus to the Hua Hin Hills Vineyard (+66 81 904 0555, is available at 10.30am and 3pm every day from Hua Hin Hills Wine Cellar in the Market Village shopping  mall. Return journeys are at 2pm and 6pm. Return tickets cost 300 baht.


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