KHAO YAI, THAILAND: WATERFALLS, GOLF, WINERIES AND A BILL BENSLEY-DESIGNED RESORT

  • At the railway-themed InterContinental Khao Yai Resort, handy for Khao Yai National Park, carriages serve as bars, restaurants and bedrooms

Thailand, like a number of global holiday destinations, is grappling with the challenges of overtourism.

In 2023, and according to different surveys, Bangkok was the world's most visited city and Phuket the most overcrowded destination. Maya Bay has become so popular that authorities close it for two months every year to allow damaged coral reefs and marine life to recover.

If all this discourages you from visiting Thailand, fear not. There are still places where you can enjoy peace, quiet and fresh air: the country's oldest and third-largest national park, for instance, which is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bangkok.

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Khao Yai National Park, in Nakhon Ratchasima province, is a biodiverse Unesco World Heritage site of forest-cloaked mountains, cascading waterfalls and fauna that includes an estimated 300 wild elephants.

Beyond the natural attractions, the wilderness area offers activities such as zip-lining, river rafting, cycling, trekking and hiking.

At Haew Suwat Waterfall - the one Leonardo DiCaprio jumps from in The Beach - I get chatting to an Austrian couple. They are not beach people, they say, so they took a chance on Khao Yai, which they both agree is "wonderful".

The pair have not seen any elephants, but are happy knowing the animals are in their natural habitat rather than corralled into a viewing area to entertain tourists and provide rides.

I could happily spend days enjoying the national park - there are no fewer than 19 waterfall trails - but I have an appointment somewhere equally scenic.

About an 18-minute drive from the national park entrance, in the Asoke Valley, the award-winning GranMonte Vineyard is 350 metres (1,148ft) above sea level and a million miles from the bustle of Bangkok.

Visitors learn how the family-run winery benefits from a microclimate that creates ideal growing conditions and find out how important climate, soil and grape varieties are in the winemaking process. But it is the tasting session that everyone looks forward to and there are four award-winning wines ready for appraisal.

From November to January, visitors to Khao Yai - the name is used for the general area as well as the national park - are treated to the dazzling sight of sunflowers in bloom in fields that extend from here all the way up to Lopburi, about 110km (68 miles) to the northeast.

The contrast between the yellow flowers and deep blue sky creates a colourful canvas for selfies - choose one of the larger farms to minimise the chance of other tourists appearing in the background of your photos.

Khao Yai is also home to more than a dozen golf courses, rolling hills providing the cool breezes that make for comfortable playing conditions.

With so much to see and do, you might expect Khao Yai to be on the itinerary of tourists from around the world, but the vast majority of visitors are Thai.

However, the area's international appeal may be bolstered by the presence of the 19-hectare (47-acre) InterContinental Khao Yai Resort, which opened in late 2022.

The property pays homage to the golden age of train travel. Guests find themselves transported back to the turn of the 20th century, when King Rama V oversaw the construction of a new route to northeast Thailand.

The retro railway concept was conceived by American architect Bill Bensley. Taking his cue from the old-world Pak Chong station nearby, still in use, he embarked on a quest for railway-related relics, sourcing abandoned train carriages, track and other paraphernalia that sat decaying in stations and stockyards. Now the repurposed rails guide guests around the resort.

The lobby resembles a ticket counter in a station master's office. Wooden benches, battered suitcases and an old-fashioned departure board help evoke the spirit of a bygone era. After ringing a vintage bell to symbolise the start of a new journey, guests are shown to their rooms.

Upcycling disciple Bensley has transformed the derelict carriages into heritage suites, pool villas and lake-view retreats. Once corroded, they feature refurbished interiors adorned with ornate fixtures, fittings and custom upholstery.

Restored carriages also house three bars and restaurants, including Poirot, an elegant French restaurant; and the wood-panelled Tea Carriage, which overlooks one of the resort's five lakes.

The former is named after Hercule Poirot, the fictional Belgian detective who solved the mystery of the Murder on the Orient Express. Capitalising on the old-style ambience - and the Agatha Christie whodunnit - the restaurant hosts murder mystery dinners that include a three-course French meal.

A stroll around the secluded retreat leads through a tropical landscape shaded with more than 30,000 trees. Complimentary bicycles are available at Swan Lake, where a 1.2km trail provides the opportunity to spot wildlife including ducks, hornbills, koi fish and ever-watchful swans.

The writer's stay in Khao Yai was provided courtesy of the InterContinental Khao Yai Resort

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2024. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

2024-06-25T08:38:35Z dg43tfdfdgfd