The weather seemed erratic and wasn't as it should be due to global warming. According to the Meteorological Department, Thailand entered the winter season at the end of October, however, rain clouds continued to spread across the country before the department verified that winter would arrive later than expected.
Even so, the small town of Pak Chong has become a popular weekend getaway for families and holidaymakers seeking to immerse themselves in a romantic European and Japanese environment without taking a long-haul flight. Pak Chong is home to Khao Yai National Park, which has been recognised as the world's seventh-best ozone resource and offers chilly gusts year-round.
In the late morning, I turned onto Thanarat Road after travelling 183km from Bangkok and observed Hokkaido Flower Park Khao Yai, which is surrounded by lush mountains and is reminiscent of picturesque landscapes in Furano, Hokkaido. With the current selfie craze, hundreds of people were jammed in this massive, colourful botanical garden as the temperature increased and the sky remained clear.
Hokkaido Flower Park Khao Yai is the brainchild of Saowanee Thamachatudom and her family, who seven years ago relocated from Chiang Mai to Khao Yai. She formerly cultivated strawberries in the northern mountains, but low prices forced her to search for a new home.
Thanks to a pleasant year-round climate and highland topography, Khao Yai is suitable for winter fruits and she turned a 7 rai plot of land into a strawberry farm, where tourists can harvest both a special strain of strawberry given by King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Japanese strawberries.
"With a chilly climate, excellent soil and ideal geography, our strawberries stay fresh and sweet while being picked and consumed by visitors. In the past, our strawberries were less sweet since we had to pick them early to get them to markets. Here, customers can choose fresh strawberries. From December to March, the pricing varies from 40 to 60 baht per 100g," Saowanee said.
Siangpure Pumptrack Khaoyai is becoming popular as a playground for families and sports enthusiasts. Photo courtesy of Siangpure Pumptrack Khaoyai
"We expanded our business last year to include a floral park, providing vacationers with a new destination close to Bangkok. Families can travel from Bangkok to Khao Yai in a few hours. It's an additional option for those who don't have time to go up North."
Only 3km away from Phaen Din Thong strawberry farm, this extensive floral field is spread over 25 rai and is covered with a sea of vibrant firework-like blossoms like celosia, verbena, cockscomb and marguerite daisies until next month. Every corner is designed to be a photogenic spot with features such as wooden bridges, wooden swings beneath a sakura arch, and observatory platforms from which visitors can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the floral park and hills.
"Khao Yai's average temperature is 28C, so our blooming period is shorter than in the North. They may last for only two months. The flowers are able to adapt to their environment on their own," she said.
"Before planting flower seeds, the soil should be prepared so that sunlight kills microbes. Flowers take three months to mature and bloom, depending on the climate. All year long, the flowers are alternated. Our garden, for example, is bursting with salvia, blue and white giants from February to April to celebrate Valentine's Day."
A cafe at the entrance overlooks a stunning view of a flower field where visitors can refresh themselves with homemade strawberry mochi, coffee and specifically tailored beverages such as sweet potato latte and strawberry smoothie during the day.
My glamping excursion took me from a flower garden through the winding Road 2213 to Sol Glamping Khao Yai, where I spent the night in a verdant valley. Opened last year, this simple yet elegant resort is flanked by extensive sugarcane and cassava plantations 450m above sea level.
Photo courtesy of Sol Glamping Khao Yai
Built on slopes, it offers 10 tents in the Lunar and Star categories, each with a private terrace from which visitors can take in breathtaking views of the sunrise and sunset over Khao Yai or relax on a cosy beanbag to watch the stars as the sky grows dark.
"Our owners like adventure and skiing. They want to develop a vacation spot, where Thais can enjoy a European setting. Winds blow in this area and temperatures average between 24C and 25C year round, making it a great location for living," said Kanet Nawin, manager of Sol Glamping Khao Yai.
"The concept is to bring guests closer to nature. In glamping mode, they can enjoy a stay under the starlit sky and be embraced by the lush forest and mountains. We aim to provide luxury and comfort, as well as privacy."
In the late afternoon, I relaxed at Tellus Cafe with a wonderful afternoon tea set served in its organic European-style garden of edible flowers and herbal plants, surrounded by verdant hills and a meadow giving the feeling of an Italian or French vineyard.
The cafe's earth-tone interior is decked with wood to provide a pleasant Nordic-style ambiance while Christmas trees and other accessories evoke a joyful atmosphere during winter. There is also a large assortment of coffee, green teas, healthy smoothies and pastries.
When the Sun goes down, a courtyard in the middle of the property is transformed into a camping site, where guests can engage in leisure activities including roasting marshmallows over a campfire, watching an outdoor movie and listening to live music.
The layout at Sol Glamping Khao Yai is evocative of trips to Europe.
On the other side, the all-day dining Lucine restaurant serves Korean-style barbecue on its rooftop to warm the temperature, as well as a fusion of Western and Thai delicacies such as green curry with Wagyu beef and roti, premium pork burger, lamb rack with red wine sauce and grilled scallop spaghetti with dried chilli for those looking for something simple.
I stayed in the sizeable Lunar tent that was simple but furnished with modern conveniences like air conditioning, a heater, a Bluetooth speaker and a small refrigerator to give guests a sense of being at home. It has a large ensuite bathroom with a jacuzzi and separate shower that overlooks a private lawn.
"This month, we will introduce a new Glamping Home zone in time for the holiday season. This zone will have 10 luxurious camper vans as well as a recreation space where families can take part in painting and craft workshops. We developed a variety of leisure activities so that people of all ages can enjoy. Our resort also welcomes guests who are travelling with pets," Kanet said.
The following morning, I began my sightseeing tour by heading up to Wat Pa Phu Hai Long, which is only 2.6km from the resort. Local villagers constructed this temple in 1939 and named it Wat Phu Khao Koy before it got a new name in 1999. Its current name refers to the land where people can renounce sensuality.
A pair of five-headed nagas guard a long stairway, and pilgrims can stop at several pavilions to pray for good health, success and fortune in front of statues of Katyayana, Upagupta, the Goddess of the Earth squeezing water from her bun, Sivali Thera and the Lord Buddha's footprint as they ascend a hill.
The Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung Church Khaoyai sports Gothic-style architecture.
Perched on the peak, its ubosot houses a statue of Phra Phutthamongkol Machalin and offers breathtaking panoramic vistas of lush landscapes, villages and extensive plantations, making it an excellent vantage point for tourists.
We continued to the Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung Church Khaoyai, which is part of the Kensington English Garden Resort Khaoyai. Back in 2012, veteran entrepreneurs Boonkiet and Tipaporn Chokwatana donated their property and collaborated with Catholic pilgrims to raise 65 million baht to build this beautiful Gothic-style chapel as a tribute to Blessed Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung who devoted his life in service to the faith.
He was born in 1895 to a Christian family in Nakhon Pathom and was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Bangkok to help the underprivileged. In 1940, he was detained and sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convinced of espionage for the French during the Indo-China war. He catechised and baptised his fellow inmates at Bang Khwang Prison before passing away from illness in 1944.
The main hall is embellished with coloured stained glass windows illustrating Christ on the cross and the Virgin Mary, while the walls boast a collection of paintings like Last Supper and Fail Of Man. A statue of the Virgin Mary, photos of the foundation stone laying ceremony and other artworks depicting Christ's life are on display in the adjacent Rufina Museum House.
Prammika Art Gallery is a new hub for art lovers.
Just a few metres from the church, art lovers can visit Prammika Art Gallery and view more than 100 impressionist works by veteran artist Prammika Pruttinarakorn. Works by photographer ML Thirachet Sonakul and artist Wattana Poolcharoen depicting wildlife in Khao Yai National Park are on display at the Big Home of Wild Animals exhibition, which runs until Feb 23.
To cap off my day, I spent the evening with experts at Siangpure Pumptrack Khaoyai to master the fundamentals of surf skating. Families can now enjoy riding on serpentine courses and sharing space with skateboarders and rollerbladers in the former 12 rai maize and cassava plantations that have been converted into an outdoor park.
"Our owner is a sports enthusiast, so she built this outdoor park in a community to encourage residents to exercise. At the same time, this park is promoted to be a playground for families to enjoy a variety of fun activities together. We also have a function room available for seminars or team building," said Watchara Jaisuk of Siangpure Pumptrack Khaoyai.
It features a 280m long pump track, skate park bowl and a 320m long skate track to challenge all ages and ability levels. All players are required to wear sneakers and helmets to ensure their safety. I gained the skills to stand, surf and keep balance on a board as a beginner.
People can also rest in a cafe-cum-bar and refuel with a variety of simple food, coffee, refreshing beverages and beer. This month, the park provides a campsite where visitors can set up a tent and spend the night in the shade while breathing in the fresh air.
Wat Pa Phu Hai Long is one of the best vantage points in Khao Yai.
- Hokkaido Flower Park Khao Yai is at 88/8 Moo 4 Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima. It's open daily from 7.30am to 6pm. Tickets are 50 baht for children and 100 baht for adults. To get more details, call 097-926-8662, 098-096-2938 or visit facebook.com/hokkaido.flower.
- Sol Glamping Khao Yai is at 98 Moo 11, Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima. To get more details, call 090-965-5156 or visit facebook.com/solglamping.
- The Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung Church Khaoyai and Prammika Art Gallery are located in Kensington English Garden Resort Khaoyai. It's open daily from 8am to 6pm. Admission is free. Call 098- 835-0581.
- Siangpure Pumptrack Khaoyai is in Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima. It's open daily from 11am to 8pm (except Tuesday). A two-hour session is priced at 150 baht. To find out more details, call 090-980-1368 or visit facebook.com/SiangpurePumptrack.