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27 September 2016Last updated
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Thai’s the way

Thailand is a veritable treat for the senses, what with its chaotic streets, lush mountains, nocturnal safaris, charming festivals, floating markets and worm and cricket feasts, says Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
4 Mar 2016 | 12:00 am
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It began with a dare. ‘Do you want to taste them? asked our Thai guide, pointing to a pan of what appeared to be fried insects. I’m a non-vegetarian and prefer chicken and fish, but we were in the Tak province of Thailand and this was a local speciality.

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No trip to Thailand is complete unless you steel yourself and dunk into freshly fried insects. Think of them as a unique protein fix.

‘Sure!’ the meat eaters among us chorused. We moved towards the stalls, our steps dragging as we neared them. There were hundreds of kiosks selling mostly food, set up along the entire stretch of the road leading to the Ping River. But we were only interested in the ones that sold fried insects, and there were plenty of them. The array on display was mind-boggling – grasshoppers, crickets, wood worms, bamboo worms...

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Stepping out on the streets of Thailand at night, you’ll come across beetles, crickets, worms and grasshoppers just waiting to be devoured.

Two of us bought a large paper cone filled with fried grasshoppers, crickets and bamboo worms, and with a little encouragement from our guide, popped them into our mouth. Crunchy, mildly spiced, they tasted a bit like deep-fried potato crisps. I’d never tasted insect before so it was one major threshold crossed!

I soon realised though that this was just a taste of things to come.

Three days earlier, we had landed in Bangkok on a trip organised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to highlight the annual Loi Krathong – roughly translated as ‘to float a basket’ – in Tak, a province in northern Thailand. Locals believe that a wish made before floating decorated baskets in the river will come true during the festival.

Some snippets of our tour included visiting Bangkok, enjoying a spa treatment, visiting Sukhothai province (also in the north), driving to Tak and hitting up Chiang Mai in four days. But then, our Bangkok handlers – Absolutely Fantastic Holidays – had it all charted out.

Soon after arriving in Bangkok, we were whisked away to an outlet of The Oasis Spa, a successful wellness chain that’s spread all across Thailand.

The spa in Bangkok was housed in an old colonial-type building, with a tree-laden garden and a mini waterfall, which instantly calmed my senses and significant jetlag. The King of Oasis treatment, beginning with a herbal hot compress, then followed by a hot oil massage and aromatherapy, soon lulled me into a stupor. Two hours later, I was relaxed but ravenous.

At the Oriental Residence Bangkok, a luxurious serviced suite that overlooked a beautiful natural pool and lush greenery, awaited me, but I would sink into its comforts later. First, it was time to dig into food, and we were ferried to EAT, or Eat All Thai, a pretty popular restaurant, going by Tripadvisor reviews. It’s located at Groove, a hip food court of sorts that’s part of CentralWorld, the Thai capital’s largest mall.

I settled for pad thai (stir-fried noodles with shrimps, tofu, bean sprouts and eggs); tom yum soup, and a satay of grilled meats. For the adventurous, there were more fried crickets, maeng kee noon (a beetle), wood worms, bamboo worms and grasshoppers, seasoned with Thai sauce and pepper. You can’t have too much of a good thing, so I skipped them and opted for traditional sweet sticky rice with fresh Thai mango and a coconut ice cream to round off the meal.

An afternoon of rest had been well-earned. Later in the evening, we were off for a spot of shopping at the Asiatic night market – a sprawling riverside location that has everything from clothes to artefacts and street performers. You can pick up bargains, eat at any of the dozens of restaurants, watch a show or just wander around, soaking in the atmosphere. But we decided to take in a round of Thai kick-boxing instead.

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Thai kick-boxing is one of the country’s most popular sports, and you’ll find most arenas jam-packed with fans rooting for their faves.

A popular sport in the country, it uses stand-up striking techniques along with various other clinching techniques. Two boxers, dressed in blue and red shorts took their positions, and from the word go went at each other. The boxers use their entire bodies, rotating the hip with each kick, punch, elbow and block.

The Thais take their boxing very seriously and the arena was packed, with a cacophony of fans and enthusiasts cheering, clapping and whistling.

The next day, on the must-see list were the Emerald Buddha temple and Grand Palace. So, off we went after breakfast.

Bangkok had been relatively cool when we arrived in the night, but by mid-morning it was warm and sultry. The Emerald Buddha is only about 2.16 feet tall, but it’s beautiful and carved from a single block of jade. It is said to have been found hidden in a temple in the early 1400s, and is believed to bring luck. There was a huge crowd of locals and tourists waiting to catch a glimpse, so we had to wait for half an hour before we could enter.

The shrine, built in 1782, is a part of the Grand Palace complex. The Grand Palace itself is the home of the Thai royal family, the court as well as the administrative wing of the government. And while we were temple-hopping, a tuk-tuk took us to Wat Po, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It is the largest temple in Bangkok and the huge reclining statue, inlaid in gold, is 46 metres long. The novelty is that you can only see parts of the statue through windows placed at intervals.

Next up was a boat trip across the Chao Phraya River, beginning at the port near the Grand Palace, and sailing past the Temple of Dawn and King Rama VII Bridge, before turning around. Along the way, vendors sidle up in little boats – floating stores of fruits, flowers, snacks and souvenirs. I picked up a few key rings for friends. What is striking is the relative order of life even in these decidedly poor surroundings.

For dinner we were in for a treat. The Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit was hosting us for a Dine in the Dark evening, and so, blindfolded, we were led to our table.

Chatting with our waiter Danny turned up a surprising fact – he was visually challenged. He handled the dishes – all the more challenging because there were some vegetarians among us – with aplomb, never making a mistake, or a wrong move.

It was a masterclass in learning to cope without sight. Finding the food and moving it to the mouth turned out to be a Herculean task and took some time getting used to. The food itself was as exquisite as it was invisible, but when we came out and were shown what we had eaten, none of us had guessed anything correctly!

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In addition to floating baskets on rivers, the Loi Krathong festival also includes setting lanterns free in the sky, and allowing them to fly away.

The next day, we headed to Tak province for Loi Krathong. The lantern festival is celebrated on the full moon night of the 12th month in the Thai lunar calendar.

We flew to Sukhothai, about 370km from Bangkok, to a little airport set amid paddy fields and landscaped gardens. The terminal looked like a resort surrounded by a lake with lotuses. The airport is operated by Bangkok Airways, which grows organic rice in these fields and uses the produce in inflight meals.

It was dusk by the time we reached Tak, about 90km away – the perfect time to see the Loi Krathong procession winding its way to the old marketplace beside the river where the lights in baskets would be set afloat. The festival is observed across the country, but it’s celebrated on a much grander scale in Tak over several days. The spectacular procession was a treat for the eyes and once we all had had our fill and photographs, we made our way to the food stalls where I tasted insects.

The next morning we were on the road again, to Chiang Mai this time. Northern Thailand is pretty wild, with rugged mountains dotting the landscape.

Although a city, Chiang Mai looks like a resort town. It’s green and well laid-out, and you don’t get the bruising feeling of being in a bustling concrete jungle. There are paddy fields and orchards right in the middle of it all.

The Siripanna Villa Resort and Spa, where we were staying, had been built in a paddy field, and the greenery and sounds of insects and birds were delightful. It had the feeling of a sleepy cocooned village while boasting the luxuries of a five-star hotel. The attached spa appeared to present the ultimate experience in tranquillity, surrounded by lotus ponds with ducks, and the products they used were infused with the organic rice grown within the compound.

After the spa tour, there was just enough time to freshen up before heading for dinner at a popular restaurant, Khum Khantoke. Khan means bowl and toke means a low, round table. It serves traditional lanna or northern Thai cuisine, which includes dishes such as Chiang Mai-style seafood curry, crispy rice noodles, and sticky rice, all served on a sunken table.

The centre of the huge restaurant is open to the skies so you can dine under the stars. The decor is traditional and the staff is dressed in native costumes. Dance and music are performed during dinner and you get the feeling of being a prop in a period piece.

We decided to go Thai all the way and go shopping on Walking Street, the local marketplace, after dinner. The Sunday Market in Chiang Mai is a great weekly event, almost an institution. From 4pm until midnight, Walking Street, which is in the heart of the city, is closed to traffic, and becomes the focal point for locals to shop, meet, and socialise.

You’ll find the art and crafts of northern Thailand here. Everything from clothes, bags, footwear, and knick-knacks to paintings and small pieces of handmade furniture are available to haggle over.

The Sunday Market is also about amazing street entertainment, so you’ll see artists of all descriptions along with traditional musicians, dancers and rock bands wooing the crowds. It may be just a kilometre stretch of road, but it will take you more than an hour to navigate, and longer if you’re haggling, eating and enjoying performances.

After a restful night in the luxurious resort, we were up early to climb to the highest natural point in Thailand. The Doi Inthanon National Park, nestled in the Thanon Thong Chai Range, spread across a spectacular 1,000 sq km, has many hiking trails, waterfalls and thick jungles. It is also home to Doi Inthanon, the country’s highest mountain.

Locals throng here to escape the hot plains, and truly, escaping the sultry heat of the capital and experiencing such natural beauty was an amazing feeling. The cool environment was refreshing to the mind and body.

After spending the entire day there – which included going on a hike around the park – there was a more exciting take on natural beauty in store. We were off to the Chiang Mai Night Safari, the world’s third nocturnal zoo, to meet white lions and tigers.

We clambered onboard an open-topped van, which took us through the 320-acre theme park. The animals, some 300-odd species, roam around, but the lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, hyenas, bears, crocodiles and other predators’ enclosures remain cordoned off. More docile creatures such as deer, giraffes, zebras, and tapirs walked right up to the van, expecting to be fed. It was quite an experience to rub shoulders with animals in the dark.

The next morning was going to be unique as well – we were going to cook our own lunch! We’d been enrolled for a class at a local cookery school in Krabi, some 15km away, to be taught by chef and market guide, 20-year-old Chanya Boonsquiba.

‘Call me Nam!’ she chirped, as we walked in. But first we had to shop for ingredients and so she bundled us into a tuk-tuk, and zoomed off to the local market. There we picked up the ingredients we’d use, such as galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass and turmeric.

At the school we had one more cook pitch in – 25-year-old James Nattapon. We were to cook an appetiser (spring rolls), a soup, a curry, and pad thai.

We were soon mincing the tofu and garlic and slicing up chives and bean sprouts. By the time we’d whipped up the spicy prawn soup, pad thai and Thai green curry, we were ravenous and not at all averse to eating our whatever it was we managed to make. It was delicious though, and we were not the only ones to say so. Our teachers tasted and nodded approval.

‘How about some fried grasshoppers and crickets with honey for dessert?’ asked someone from our group, with a laugh.

‘Ahh no. For that you’ll have to return to the street,’ said Nam.

It was late evening when we headed back to our hotel. There was packing to be done.

On the flight back to Dubai, I asked one of my team members what the best part of the trip was for her. ‘Watching the procession and the lanterns at Loi Krathong,’ she said. ‘What was yours?’

‘Tasting grasshoppers!’

Travel facts

Getting there Thai Airways’ return fares from Dubai to Bangkok start at around Dh2,500, while the carrier’s flights to Chiang Mai start from around Dh3,000.

Staying there A one-bedroom suite in Oriental Residence Bangkok starts from around Dh650 per night. At the Siripanna Villa Resort and Spa, Chiang Mai, a deluxe room goes for around Dh425 per night. Visit www.oriental-residence.com and www.siripanna.com for reservations and details.

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Features Writer