Breaking Traditional Thais

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LIKE all of the best travel tales, this story begins over a glass of really great wine. In this case, five months ago, back in a Bangkok restaurant, in the middle of a coup. Yes, picture me going all white linen trousers and Somerset Maugham on you while anarchy rages outside and you’ve kind of got the gist. It was at the Rang Mahal Indian Restaurant at the Rembrandt Hotel, when I was introduced to a fine drop made by Thailand’s only female wine maker, who happened to have studied the art in Australia. Not only was the wine excellent in a country more renowned for its Singha than its shiraz, but I had the burning desire to know more about this woman.
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Fast forward to last weekend, and I had the incredible fortune of standing on a vineyard in Thailand’s Khao Yai, interviewing Nikki Lohitnavy about her impossible dream producing great Thai wine. Nikki, who is just 27, started becoming interested in viticulture when her parents started the vineyard in 1999.
“Back then I was in high school in Bangkok and every school holiday I would spend my time here helping in the vineyard and I liked it,” she says.
“I asked if I could go to Australia and finish my high school in Melbourne and then I studied oenology at the University of Adelaide. I wanted to be a botanist, I’ve loved trees since I was a kid.
“In my third year I asked if I could go to Brown Brothers and do the harvest there and in 2008 I got a scholarship from Wolf Blass for excellence in wine making and went there for three years. After that I came back to Thailand to start Granmonte.”
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Granmonte, which means “big mountain” in Italian, is named after the mountains of Khao Yai National Park which frame the pretty property. And there’s another element to this tale. Shortly after arriving, I’m told that rogue wild elephants have been known to wander through the vineyard, thus ensuring I spend the next two days imagining how I should react should I encounter a tusked beast. Should I sprint to the cellar door and launch myself into a vat of shiraz? Snatch a discarded bicycle from a vineyard worker and try to outcycle the beast? Stand still and pretend I’m a petit verdot? It’s not every day one has to consider the possibility of an elephant attack on a vineyard and I want to be prepared. For this is a story where even your wildest dreams can come true.
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You see, in her first year Nikki produced a modest amount of 20,000 bottles. Now, the vineyard has expanded to 16ha and makes between 80,000 and 90,000 bottles a year. The family has also just purchased another vineyard about 40 km east.
“We started sending our wines to competitions. We couldn’t just say our wines are getting better and are really good,” Nikki says.
“When we were confident our wines were of high quality we were more confident to sell to hotels and restaurants.”
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Not only is Nikki’s wine served in top-quality Bangkok restaurants such as the Rang Mahal and Australian-owned Nahm – recognised as one of the world’s top restaurants – but 20 percent of production is exported to Japan, The Maldives, Hong Kong, the US and even a Thai restaurant in Germany. And Nikki has this message to those skeptics who believe Thailand couldn’t possible produce good wine.
“I just say ‘try it’. We have a lot of that attitude towards Thai wine. That’s the main reason we have our cellar door her, that’s how we connect,” she says.
“I’d like to encourage people to give Thai wine another go because now we are producing much better quality wine. Please try again.”
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In fact, Khao Yai could be considered one of the more ideal places to grow wine, as there’s no frost and the vines don’t go into dormancy. The vines are pruned twice a year here so they can be harvested. There’s now 12 wines on the list, which boasts everything from a light chenin blanc to a gutsy shiraz, with a couple of experimental blocks of Italian varietals due to come to fruition in the next two years.
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The least expensive drop, the Sakuna Rose named after Nikki’s Chinese-born mother, sells for around AUD20, which is remarkable given it is so expensive to produce. There’s a 360 percent tax on wine in Thailand and all of the machinery is imported from places like Australia.
“It’s challenging here but if I was in Australia I’d be doing the same thing as everyone else. There are only a few of us making wine from grapes here,” Nikki says.
And things are bustling along in the Thai wine industry in general, with the Thai Wine Association celebrating its tenth birthday this year with eight members, of which Granmonte is recognised as the country’s best. But more importantly, those global gongs are starting to trickle in, including an award at last year’s Sydney Wine Show.
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On my final evening at Granmonte, I bump into Nikki walking through the vineyard in the late afternoon light.
“In a few minutes, go and stand at the front gate and look back over the vineyard. The light illuminates the vines and it’s really beautiful then,” she says.
I do as she says. Stand by the frangipani tree, bask in the humidity, look back over the vineyard framed by the mountains and drink in this intoxicating story of success. And there’s not an elephant in sight.
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The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. http://www.tourismthailand.org

Five things I love about Thailand

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The characters…

This little girl was taking her bath, mid-morning, in the middle of Bangkok

This little girl was taking her bath, mid-morning, in the middle of Bangkok


While this little boy was practising his Muay Thai boxing late afternoon

While this little boy was practising his Muay Thai boxing late afternoon


The culture…
Early morning and this beautiful Mon woman was washing down by the River Kwai

This beautiful Mon woman was washing down by the River Kwai


Late afternoon, I found this monk was sweeping in the Mon village along the River Kwai

This monk was sweeping in the Mon village along the River Kwai


The cuisine…
Enjoy exotic food from top-notch restaurants...

Enjoy exotic food from top-notch restaurants…


Or dine in local, lively markets

Or dine in local, lively markets


The colour…
Thailand is an artist's palette of colour

Thailand is an artist’s palette of colour


You'll find the most amazing hues in the most unlikely places

You’ll find the most amazing hues in the most unlikely places


The coconuts…
Thai coconuts are tasty, cheap and full of goodness - the perfect way to beat the heat

Thai coconuts are tasty, cheap and full of goodness – the perfect way to beat the heat


The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand – http://www.tourismthailand.org
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One night in Bangkok

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IT’S all so covert it’s like I’m a character in a spy novel. I am instructed to have my bags packed ready to go for Monday morning. There’s no itinerary and my plane tickets arrive in the cab on the way to the airport. I am whisked through customs and immigration and before I know it I am on an empty Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. I have no idea what I’m doing or who I’m meeting apart from this sliver of information: “You are on a fact-finding mission for the Thai government”. My imagination gallops like a wild bush brumby. Am I being summoned to Bangkok to learn something from the Thai government or do they wish to learn something from me? I scan my mind for what I could teach them. I have become somewhat of on expert in Brisbane’s disastrous dating scene and am convinced they wish me to confirm the unbelievable tales about which I have been writing for some time. Yes, Your Honour, he really did say his three favourite things were his gun, sex and bible. No, he can’t spell. Not even his own name.
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Nine hours later the plot thickens. There’s a sign at the airport with my name, and a woman checks my passport just in case I am someone else masquerading as me. A private car with a female driver, whose name I later learn is Fa, ferries me through a series of dark back alleys like we are being tailed, before we arrive promptly at the Rembrandt Hotel and I am hurriedly shuffled to the Executive Lounge and checked in.
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The next morning a familiar face sidles up to me at breakfast. I realise it’s the Rembrandt’s General Manager Erik Hallin with whom I had dinner at the hotel’s signature Indian restaurant on my last trip to Bangkok just six months ago. We talk politics, the reason I suspect I am really in Thailand. Since last November, protestors disgruntled at what they say is a corrupt government run by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been taking to the streets of the Thai capital in what have been largely traffic-disrupting, but peaceful protests. Erik informs me that occupancy of his hotel is running at 70 per cent, which isn’t bad but “people are scared off by the protests”.
“You learn to walk everywhere in this city,” he says wryly.
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From what I can piece together, the Thai government has called me, and three other colleagues – one from Sydney, one from Melbourne, and the other from Auckland, to write a piece proclaiming it’s “business as usual in Bangkok”. Except there’s a few hiccups with this scenario. Problems which becoming increasingly more apparent as the week wears on. The day I arrive, disgruntled rice farmers from rural Thailand have also joined the democratic protestors, claiming they have not been paid under a rice subsidy scheme instigated by the Thai government. And, less-widely reported, so have rubber plantation farmers. And they are trying to block Yingluck’s physical return to Government House with barricades established in key parts of the capital.
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At first it does seem like another day in Bangkok. If anything, it’s a bit more quiet than usual, like the capital is nursing a New Year’s Day hangover. I wander down to the protest site and take some photos. But after lunch things change swiftly. A restaurant owner asks me what I’m planning to do next. “I’m just going back to my room to do some work,” I reply. “Good he says. The traffic is very bad, the fighting has broken out again. But don’t worry, you will be safe.” Given the protests have been peaceful, I take his words “fighting” to mean little more than a war of words and return to my hotel room to work. At 6pm I turn on the BBC and am shocked. At this stage, three people have been killed and dozens others have been injured when a grenade was tossed and riot police moved in on the protestors. I meet my Sydney colleague Rod Eime http://www.traveloscopy.com
and we head down to one of the protest sites and there are crowds of people, but no violence in this particular area.
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By the end of this one night in Bangkok, four people are confirmed dead, 64 are injured and there’s speculation by witnesses that the police, not the protestors, tossed the grenade. Our planned visit to the “peaceful protest” site is rapidy cancelled by the Thai government, along with a press conference that evening, with “bad traffic” cited as the reason. Wading into another country’s politics, as a foreign journalist visiting for just a few days, is a risky business. You snatch a glimpse, often polished by the PR machine, and are then diverted. And the truth remains the casualty.
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A local journalist, who didn’t want to be named for fear of deportment, tells me over breakfast that it is essentially “business as usual” in Bangkok, but warns me to stay away from the protest sites as things can escalate rapidly.
“I’m not concerned at all. The Thais will sort it out in their way. The best thing for this country is for the Generals to take over. Forget what other countries say. It is Thai culture, it has been happening for hundreds of years. Let them sort out what they’ve got to do,” he says.
“Today is going to be a an interesting day here. (Exiled former Prime Minister) Taksin’s ex wife saw a fortune teller in Burma who said if Yingluck didn’t get back into government today she never will.
“The Thais are very superstitious. I don’t know whether there will be more violence. But no one is particularly perturbed.”
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It is a surprisingly peaceful day but despite the obvious casualties, there is another victim in this scenario: tourism. Thailand relies heavily on the tourist dollar, particularly from Australians who have long held a love affair with the Land of Smiles. Mark Armsden, a mate and former colleague from our Gold Coast Bulletin news reporting days some 20 years ago, now lives in Bangkok and handles the PR for Tune Hotels. He’s passionate about how the situation is impacting on Thailand’s key income earner: “If you think the protests are having little effect on tourism, speak to hoteliers, tailors, restaurants and bars and other local businesses between Sukhumvit 33 and MBK. Then speak to the thousands of young working Thais who rely on the service charge they earn to supplement their income – this nonsense has been devastating on the “spine” of Bangkok tourism….and that’s before you get down to the river and all the businesses that rely on tourism there as well. You should also check on how devastating it has been on the flag carrier (Thai Airways) as well.”
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Mark’s opinion is one echoed all over Thailand. Perhaps it’s our isolation as a nation, but Australians adopt an interesting approach when it comes to violence overseas. We hear there has been conflict in a city and we avoid a country altogether. We’re strangely conservative like that. But the reality is somewhat different. Even in Bangkok, while the protests were exploding in some parts of the city, it is business as usual in others. We dine at the exquisite Naj restaurant on high-end Thai food while the protestors are outside. Attend a Muay Thai boxing class. And there’s plenty of parts of Thailand that remain unaffected. Along the ravishingly beautiful River Kwai, a tour guide tells me the situation is having a massive impact on tourism, far away from Bangkok.
“It’s high season here and we should be full but we’re not. This is how we make our money, from tourism,” he says.
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On Saturday afternoon and back in Bangkok in a beauty salon, I ask the girls whether there has been any more strife since I’ve been down in the remote River Kwai. They laugh and talk to each other rapidly in Thai, the only word I can understand is “farang” which means foreigner and I ask them what they are saying. “Farang knows more about Thai politics than Thai people,” they giggle. I fly out midnight Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon the situation has changed again, when a woman and child are killed, and 22 more people injured, in a grenade attack near a popular shopping area. In recent months, a total of 19 people have died and hundreds more have been injured. As far as I know, none of these have been foreign tourists.
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But as we know, perception is everything. After the 2012 Bali bombings in which 88 Australians were killed, we all boycotted Bali. But we were also the first nationality to return. We may be a conservative nation but we are also resilient. So spare a thought for Thailand and those who are dying in the name of democracy, whose livelihoods rely on the tourist dollar and do what Aussies do best. Bounce back. Your neighbours need you. I’ll certainly be back, apart from the fact I love this city, I’ve got a Brisbane dating report to deliver to the Thai government.
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The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Airways, Rembrandt Hotel, Bangkok and the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. For more information go to http://www.tourismthailand.org
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Living the Thai life

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IT’S a torrential Thailand Tuesday and I’m stuck in the middle of a tropical downpour when I decide my only course of action is to steal Lucille’s golf buggy. A decision made more interesting by the fact her personal butler is behind the wheel. “But where’s Miss Loo Silly? What happened to Miss Loo Silly?” GiGi, the butler asks me frantically. “I can’t see her, she must be shopping,” I blatantly lie as I encourage GiGi to drive like the wind which is howling around us. GiGi, as it turns out, doesn’t need any encouragement, her relationship with Loo Silly strained at best, venomous at worst.
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I’m staying at the Banyan Tree Phuket and the concept of butlers is foreign to me, but not to Loo Silly. Loo Silly grew up in Hong Kong with a Filipino Amah and is accustomed to having hired help. I, on the other hand, grew up in country Queensland, and made my own bed. Loo Silly was six before she bought her first Barbie Doll accessory – a jeep. I’m 42, and my Barbie is still hitchhiking. Loo Silly’s family celebrates special events by drinking Moet from an authentic 1911 Melbourne Cup they own. Mine drinks Spumante from plastic cups, to save on washing up. And thus begins what is an unlikely and fabulous friendship between the two of us. Over in her villa, our other friend, the earthy and lovely Rhianna, has captured the heart of her butler, Pop Tart. I also have a butler, with the more sedate name of Sarah, but I don’t see her again after I check in and offer her the use of the spare bedroom in my cavernous villa.
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We’re in Thailand for a week but not the Thailand I know. My Thailand is one of $50 a night beach shacks and all-you-can drink Chang beer down at Nai Trang beach on the island of Phuket. But this time I’m several beaches away at Bang Tao, at the luxurious Banyan Tree. I learn later that Loo Silly has trekked back to her room in knee deep water in the rain, a cloud of angry smoke billowing from her head. Around the same time, GiGi decides to go missing in action, only appearing again when it’s time to pack up Loo Silly’s room. She’s standing at the front reception as we wave goodbye, having taken a photo of Loo Silly and given it to her, and smiling maniacally. Pop Tart has not only taken a photo of Rhianna, but framed it and told the next resort to expect her arrival. There’s still no Sarah and certainly no photo. “I think I know why GiGi hates me,” declares Loo Silly as we drive away, “I found out her name is not GiGi but Geek.” One stark fact remains: Geek and Loo Silly will never be BFFs.
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We fly on to the Banyan Tree Koh Samui where again, we’re each in a luxury pool villa which triggers a series of late-night skinny dips, the sounds of my friends splashing happily away into the night through the rainforest which divides us. I’m thrilled, as apart from the requisite Banyan Tree bath robe and slippers, there’s some orange chunky thongs which the Thai’s call flit flots. And flit flot around in them I do. Around my room, around the pool, around the resort. What I don’t realise at the time is that no one else has these in their room, they are not part of the resort wear, and I am wearing someone else’s shoes. In Thailand I discover I am a closet kleptomaniac. First the golf buggy, now other people’s footwear. What next for me, a cute small child or two?
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We end our journey where we began, at the Banyan Tree Bangkok where I first discovered I was entitled to have two items of laundry cleaned for free. I’d only just arrived and couldn’t decide whether I should simply sling my underpants on a long stick and poke them out the front door like a flag of surrender. Loo Silly would have known what to do – she once made her Amah go clothes shopping for her, tried on all the clothes and then sent her Amah back to the shops with the items she had discarded – but she’d already gone to bed, having somehow managed to locate and arrange a personalised shopper for her return journey to Bangkok.
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It’s late when Loo Silly and I leave Bangkok, the airport a heaving mass of humanity and that distinctly disappointing smell of holidays come to an end. Loo Silly is back to Melbourne and I am bound for Brisbane, Rhianna long since departed for Bali where no doubt Pop Tart has informed the island of her arrival. There’s still no sign of Sarah, GiGi was last heard partying on Phuket and I’m now the proud owner of an orange pair of flit flots.
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The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of The Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Banyan Tree. To book your own luxury Thai holiday, go to http://www.tourismthailand.org and
http://www.banyantree.com
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Thai on Life

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AS is so often the case when The Global Goddess travels, the adventure begins before the plane has even arrived at its destination. In this instance, I’m on a Thai Airways 777-300 bound for Bangkok. I’m in seat 53H and in seat 53K sits a 40-something woman who admits she’s never flown before and is a tad nervous about her journey and subsequent arrival in Bangers. Now, on the one hand I want to assure her by telling her she’s seated next to The Global Goddess – her sister advised her to sit next to a woman (yes, because no woman in history has ever killed anyone. Much). On the other hand, I don’t quite have the heart to tell her The Global Goddess is also a terrible flyer and in terms of occupational hazards, this is a bit of biggie. I do, however, get through it by fuelling up on red wine and prescription pills which make me slightly hysterical and prone to simultaneously laughing and screaming out “we’re all going to die” at the slightest sign of turbulence. Or provocation such as running out of wine. I tell the cabin crew member to save us both time and just leave the bottle of red on my fold-down table.
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At this point, I should also confess that the woman in the seat in front, by way of apology for taking too long to load her oversized carry-on bag into the overhead locker and standing with her crotch in my face, decides to pat my arm, but instead tweaks my left nipple, thus ensuring it throbs all the way across the Gulf of Carpentaria on my north-bound journey. I don’t quite know how to ask in Thai for ice, or paw paw cream for my affronted boob, and given I’ve already secured the wine, I sit in silence for the next 9 hours, clutching the bottle and cursing my lack of Thai language skills. For years, I’ve been travelling to Thailand and I only recently learned that instead of commenting to locals that the weather was “hot” (yes, I’m such a witty conversationalist), I’ve been telling the Thais that I’m “spicy”. Not the sort of phrase one should be tossing around Thailand with gay abandon.
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The nervous woman next to me also has the name “Rachel” tattooed on her inner right forearm which causes me to wonder whether it’s the moniker of a loved one, or whether has sister also advised her to have her name on her arm in case she gets lost. I’m not poking fun, we all have to start our travelling somewhere. More power to her. In any case, the plane lands and I never see The Girl with the Rachel tattoo again. For I have the grand fortune of staying at the luxury Banyan Tree Bangkok, and I’m pretty sure “Rachel” is off to some seedy back street – such is her game face.
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A prestigious black private car with my own driver is waiting for me at the airport. Like most Australians, when it comes to posh, I feel like a complete and utter fraud and half expect the Thai police to stop the car just as I’ve opened the free water. I take great care not to tell the driver that I’m “spicy” and instead tell him that I speak “a little” Thai. Who am I kidding? Apart from “hello”, “thank you” and the surprisingly handy “no worries” – all three phrases I repeatedly confuse with each other – I speak bugger all.
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At my hotel, the staff checks me in and curiously take my photo on their iPad. I suspect they’ve never quite seen such a dishevelled Australian woman replete with airline chicken fried rice stuck to her dress, a couple of red wine stains and coming off the effects of the cache of prescription pills in her handbag. A little cup of crazy? I look like I’ve drunk the whole bottle.
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And hence begins my Banyan Tree journey to Bangkok, Phuket and Samui, which is characterised by a big lap of luxury, a whole lot of laughs, and a misadventure or two. Stay tuned for next week, to find out how The Global Goddess copes with Living the Thai Life.

The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of The Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Banyan Tree. To book your own luxury Thai holiday, go to http://www.tourismthailand.org and
http://www.banyantree.com
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