Thailand embodies a unique cultural identity that runs across its streets, that flavours its food, that populates its cities and exalts its temples.
This is my first visit to the country, to witness its much-discussed and breathtaking beauty. I get chatting with my local guide Kun Yinne, as we drive through the bustle of Pattaya city, just before heading towards eastern Thailand. She tells me that exploring this relatively undiscovered part of the country would be nothing short of soul stirring, and that eastern Thailand is now appearing on the tourist trail.
Discovering the flora and fauna of Rayong
My journey begins in Rayong, a city nestled like a jewel on the country’s pristine eastern coast. It spans over 100 km of pure coastal bliss, along the Gulf of Thailand. The idyllic province is lush with verdant fields and tropical palms. As you move inland, picturesque waterfalls dot its countryside, making it a visual treat. In this part of the world, one braves scorching heat and humidity, that is tempered by the thick foliage all around.
As I go along, I enjoy like the locals, a variety of tropical fruits like rambutan, pineapple, mangosteen, durian, papaya and sala. Rayong’s restaurants serve daily fresh catch and seafood from the region. As you walk around, you will see that it is a city of many facets, painted across its landscape.
My expedition here begins with Kun Yinne leading us to the interestingly named Rayong Smile Plant. Here, the owner Pratik, grows myriad varieties of nepenthes (tropical pitcher plants), each more exquisite than the other. Through this conservation effort, he — aims to bring the nepenthes plant out of its endangered species status.
I then make my way to the Pak Nam Prasae Community — which is definitely a must-visit — to discover the lush mangroves of Rayong. This area, as I discover, is abundantly rich in natural resources, found in the swampy lands near the Pa Sae River. Strong wooden bridges connect the different masses of land along the thick mangrove forests in the area. To truly experience this place, I take a boat ride through the brackish water, which provides the perfect environment for oyster, shrimp and shell-fish farming. The local community strives hard to preserve and conserve the mangroves whose roots are so tenacious and deep that it is impossible to walk on the ground unless they build walkways. Only a short distance away from the mangrove forest is a sleepy fishing village, almost untouched by time and modernisation. Its rustic homes which double up as shops during the day, speak of an era gone by.
Engaging with local communities in Trat
After an early check out the next morning, I make my way to Baan Huai Raeng, a community which is located about 15 km away from Trat city. Formed over 300 years ago, it derived its name from the Huai Raeng canal. The abundant canal is home to a rich and plentiful ecosystem. Always hospitable like the Thai people inherently are, we are greeted exuberantly, with flowers entwined in bamboo crowns and a homemade refreshing drink to beat the heat. During our interaction, the matriarch of the house shows us how to make lunch boxes from palm leaves like they did in the olden days. Travellers can truly find themselves unwinding and enjoying the trappings of rural life here.
Exploring Koh Chang
Nothing had prepared me for this spectacular beauty, as the ferry pulls into Koh Chang! While passengers disembark, I find myself taking a moment to soak in its tranquillity. Eastern Thailand’s relatively untouched island of Koh Chang (also called Elephant Island because of its elephant shaped headland) makes for the perfect, romantic getaway for a weekend, where it is easy to relax and be undisturbed by noisy tourists which throng other more commercial destinations.
I discover an eclectic combination of local homes and luxurious resorts which offer a slice of untapped yet affordable splendour. I check in at The Emerald Cove, a luxury beach-front property with exemplary service. On Koh Chang’s beaches you can enjoy privacy and solitude to your heart’s content. For the water buffs, there are plenty of water sports and snorkelling in pristine, azure waters to keep you busy for the entire duration of your visit. Since it is raining heavily this weekend, I cannot go snorkelling or try out any water activities.
I take time out instead to explore this charming place — long walks on the beaches, discovering uninhabited parts of the island and basking in its natural glory. My guide makes sure that our group doesn’t leave without trying our hand at cooking lessons by a local restaurateur and chef called Kati, who welcomes us in her spacious home. It is set up with cooking stations, woks and all the ingredients that were needed to make the experience nothing short of a delight. We are taught how to cook traditional Phad Thai, Golden Bags (deep fried shrimp wantons) and Aja sauce (sauce for Phad Thai). It is a rainy afternoon well spent as we gorge on local gastronomic delights prepared by our host and chef.
The week passes by in a blink of an eye and soon it is time to say La Kon (goodbye) to amazing Thailand and its warm hospitality with a promise to myself to be back.
Of Tastes & Aromas
From herbed stews to its heady blend of spices, Thailand is know for its fiery cuisine. Despite a slew of fancy restaurants, we chose to keep it authentic and eat at local eateries. Over the span of our visit, we feasted on — phad thai, mango sticky rice, tom yum talay, som tam (spicy green papaya salad), crab meat omelette, pla kapong tod nampla (deep fried sea bass), Surely, these dishes gives ultimate flavour of Thailand, and I was left with wanting more.
Koh Chang does not have an airport, so tourists can fly in from Bangkok to Trat and take a ferry or speedboat to the island. Alternatively, you can travel by road (approximately 6 hours each way) and make a trip of it, by enjoying the scenic landscape along the way. At the pier, you can travel to your hotel or home stay in a share taxi. While on the island, it is easy to hire motorbikes and cars (with or without drivers). The bookings for cars will need to be made through the hotel as there are no car rental offices.