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Khao Yai: Days of Wine and Khmer Kings

When it comes to wine — both the making and the drinking — Thailand doesn’t immediately spring to mind, right? So, take a drive to Khao Yai and uncork a vintage surprise, followed by an Isaan chaser.
My friend Jose came home to find his Thai wife and three friends drinking Coca-Cola and something red. The “something red” was a Barossa Valley shiraz that Jose had jealously guarded for a special occasion. And here it was, being drowned in Coke and downed in shots like ten-baht lao khao.
His options were simple: divorce, or some wine education for his beloved? After counting to ten he chose wisely. And where better in Thailand to mix wine and wisdom than in Khao Yai, around three hours drive northeast of Bangkok, where several boutique vineyards are producing surprisingly good “new latitude” wines? (The downside surprise is that, thanks to high Thai taxes, these wines are cheaper in Europe — which is probably how Thailand’s big brewers and distillers like it.) 
Khao Yai, with its huge national park, and the nearby city of Khorat have become in the recent years a decompression zone for many Bangkokians. Their increasing numbers here have seen the spread of golf courses, condos and resorts, as well as winery tours with cellar door sales. 
“I’m in charge of hostilities,” booms rotund German wine marketer Heribert Gaksch as we gather for a tasting at the pioneering PB Valley Winery. It could be a “Don’t-mention-the-war” moment except that the jocular Herr Gaksch knows his hospitalities from his hostilities as well as he knows his cab savs from PB Valley’s excellent tempranillo. He declaims a few facts and mysteries about plonk, and then uncorks several prime examples — exactly what we’re here for. 
Our next stop is the family-run GranMonte vineyard in Asoke Valley near the foothills of Khao Yai. Wisu Lohitnavy founded it in 1999 despite knowing almost zip about viticulture. “My only background in wine was drinking it,” he admits. After a quick tram tour of GranMonte’s high-tech vines with their microclimate monitors and computerized watering, we meet the head winemaker. She is none other than Wisu’s talented daughter Nikki, the first (and so-far, only) Thai to graduate in Oenology and Viticulture, with honours, from Adelaide University. 
In the tasting room Nikki leads us through a sampling of four of her best wines, of which the chenin blanc viognier and the syrah rose are my favourites. How popular, I ask her, is wine tourism in Thailand, traditionally the domain of Chang-Singha-Mekhong quaffing? GranMonte alone has 60,000 annual cellar door visitors, says Nikki, with some 10,000 of those joining a winery tour.
After a spectacular Thai lunch in the winery restaurant it’s time for us to sober up and press on to explore Khao Yai National Park, Thailand’s first such park. Winding high into the mountains on a truck we head to Haew Narok waterfall. It’s a blasting, double-step cataract, especially after rain, that vomits off a 50-metre cliff. The name translates aptly as “Chasm of Hell”, except that Hell was never so wet. Just standing by its flank means we’re soon misted with spray.
The main city up this way is Khorat, aka Nakhon Ratchasima, the gateway to Isaan, and it’s here that you feel the distinct difference from tourist hubs like Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. This is down-home Thailand just being itself, minus the sky bars and hi-so’s, medi spas and go-go’s, not to mention that demeaning stain on “Thainess”, unofficial double-pricing for foreigners.
My friends with the dominant must-shop gene are soon drawn to Khorat’s night market. And why not? The prices are “same-same for farang”, there’s no pressure, and the snacks are delicious — waffles, sticky rice and mango, and khanom krok coconut rice hotcakes. Next day our obsessive consumers head to Palio mall, a slice of Tuscany in Thailand whose clock tower and fountain sit pretty but anomalously amid the Isaan hills. When Sienna meets Siam naturally the mall’s colour scheme is all-sienna. 
The rolling shopping raid continues, this time with authentically Thai ware like ceramics from Dan Kwian village and silks from Pak Thong Chai. Added to the wines, our excess baggage is now exceedingly excessive. 
Thailand is famous for its temples with glittering stupas and gilded Buddhas, but this region has something dramatically different: a royal highway of 10th century Khmer Hindu temples that runs from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat down to Isaan. Fifty kilometres outside Nakhon Ratchasima we come to the most famous of them, Phimai Historical Park, whose temple complex looks like a mini-Angkor. Its thousand year-old stones, grained like petrified wood, form courtyards around a central tower, with all of it surrounded by moats and tranquil lawns.
A lunch fit for a Khmer king, of roast duck and fried fish on betel leaf, plus coconut pancakes, inspires us to push on towards Buriram. En route is our last Khmer temple, Phanom Rung, a lesser-known Angkor-era gem that sits on the rim of an extinct volcano. There are no crowds, no touts and a Shiva clutching fresh marigold garlands stands tall as the resident deity. Like Toto, we know we’re not in Kansas, or Pattaya, anymore. 
Information Box 
Staying: Dusit Princess Khorat,; Botanica Khao Yai,
Wine Tours: GranMonte tour, including wine tasting, 270 baht a head;
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