Architecture in Isan – French Heritage on the Mekong River

Thailand’s Northeast region, or Isan, showcases a rich French architectural heritage well worth the time of any traveller to the region.

The redevelopment at the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century of towns along the Mekong River by French engineers did not go unnoticed on the Thai side.

Most of the official structures built during the time of King Rama V the Great and King Rama VI were designed in the European style, often imitating the French design and construction. European architecture was en vogue in the Kingdom but along the Mekong River, it was also a sign of development and modernity for Siamese provincial towns.

Some of these structures survived today and are well worth a look for any visitor to the region. In Nong Khai, the former Provincial Hall was built in 1897. It served as a residence for the Governor from 1929, when a new structure was built. The mansion is set in a park and has been turned into the Nong Khai Provincial museum since 2006. It is a grand style mansion with typical French embellishments including shutters and high windows. Around the former Provincial Hall, there are also a few old wooden houses with picturesque European influences.

On the way to Sakon Nakhon, travellers should have a look around Udon Thani International Airport. Along Pho Si Road, stands one of Thailand’s most beautiful European-style buildings. The majestic structure with its arcades and large pediment has an Italian feel. The building used to be a school before being turned into a museum. It displays exhibits from Udon Thani’s history, archaeology, natural science, geology, folk history plus arts and culture.

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Sakon Nakhon lies 160 kilometres from Udon Thani on the Mekong River tourism trail. Tha Rae village is one of the best preserved European-style provincial centres in Thailand. It is close to the border of Nakhon Phanom province and 20 kilometres away from Sakon Nakhon town. The village was created around 1884 by a group of some 150 Roman Catholic Vietnamese immigrants fleeing persecution in the then French Indochina.

They help build a huge church, St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral to serve a community that numbers over 10,000 parishioners. It is surrounded by houses built in typical French Indochinese style with arcades, balconies and windows typical of Southern France.

Every year during December, Ban Tha Rae turns into the Mekong region’s most pictorial Christmas village, with residents decorating their homes with stars and Christmas trees.

Nearby Nakhon Phanom province has the largest number of European-style buildings. The city located on the Mekong River has been a centre of trade for many years.

Nakhon Phanom’s strategic location has turned the city into an attractive settlement for many ethnicities including waves of Vietnamese immigrants.

Their most visible legacy can be found in the Nakhon Phanom city centre. Streets are aligned with a range of old houses in the Indochinese style, offering Old World charm with their arcades, balconies and stucco. They stand around the Vietnam Memorial Clock Tower built in 1960. These days, the old town is revitalised with a lively night market and many bars and trendy restaurants housed in the many repurposed older houses.

Like in Nong Khai, the surrounding neighbourhood has many official structures bearing a distinctive European or French style.

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The Governor’s residence, today a museum, is also worth visiting as it tells about the development of Nakhon Phanom. The former city hall, today the Queen Sirikit Library, was built in the style of an Italian mansion. Other European-style structures were built during the reign of King Rama V the Great and include the Sunthorn Wichit School with its classical arcades, villas for public servants along Sunthorn Wichit Road as well as St Anna’s Church (1926) that were also inspired by art deco style en vogue across French Indochina until the late 1950s.

Last but not least, do not miss Ban Na Chok Village, home for a dozen years of Vietnamese revolutionary hero and the first President of then North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh. His small wooden house and garden can be visited, as it is now a memorial and museum to the father of modern Vietnam. It is five kilometres away from Nakhon Phanom city centre.

About the Author
This is the final article of the five-part story on European architectural heritage in Thailand written by Luc Citrinot, a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years’ experience. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Therefore, TAT is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of information written by this writer.

Phuket and Khao Lak surf spots offer visitors uncrowded, friendly waves and warm azure waters

Phuket is home to the occasional point break with reefs, but it’s mainly made up of beach breaks that offer fairly uncrowded, mellow waves, and the warm azure tropical waters of the Andaman Sea. Most of Phuket’s West coast beaches are surfed during the monsoon season. The best spots that can handle a storm swell and produce clean surf include Kata Beach, Kalim Beach, Kamala Beach, Surin Beach and Nai Han Beach.

Anyone can have a blast surfing here!

Surfing in Phuket might not seem as impressive as in Bali, Tahiti’s Teahupoo, or the Mentawais, but there are many good waves to be had. There is also the reality of flat lake-like conditions outside the short swell season during which the mushy, onshore conditions are inconsistent, windblown and rainy. At least, there are fewer tourists for surfers to share the beaches with.

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The safest bet for the aspiring wave rider is southwest facing Kata Beach. It is considered by many as Phuket’s most popular spot because the waves are punchy, fast and often bigger, especially at the south and near the Kata Beach Resort. Which means when the surf is good, Kata is comparatively crowded by Phuket standards. Having said that, there is no shortage of take-off points along the 1.5-kilometre-long beach depending on sandbar positions, so there are usually enough good waves to go around.  There is also an annual Quicksilver contest. But best to avoid after heavy rains, as it gets polluted.

It is one of the relatively few places to rent boards or to receive surfing lessons in Phuket. Board rentals are abundant, but rates are seasonal. There is also the Phuket Surf House across from Kata Beach. Flowboarding can be a good tune up for veteran surfers, and a challenging training ground for ‘groms’.

Nearby Nai Han Beach handles a six-foot swell that can deliver up to eight-foot sets. It features a sharp peak breaking over shifting sandbars after storms, especially when the river mouth is clear to the Nai Han Lake. This delivers steep drops and short, fast lefts with barrels galore for goofy footers. Right sends surfers towards the rocks on the south end of Nai Han, and it is not advisable for beginners. At the north end are beach peaks and a right reef break in the corner, in front of a huge cliff hugging resort.

Also, a word to the wise: big waves at Nai Han means strong rip tides. So, tourists are advised to stay near local Thai and foreign resident surfers at Nai Han to correctly position themselves properly in the line-up.

In Northern Phuket, Kamala Beach’s sandbanks are stabilised by the reefs and attract less crowds than Kata. Waves break quite far outside and slow with bigger swells while inside there is a small surfable, but inconsistent point/reef break. Nearby Kalim offers a respite if the surf is too big elsewhere. Kalim is considered by many as one of the better breaks on Phuket, where a right-hand reef break unfolds over shallow coral offering a 50 to 100-metre-long ride that gets very shallow at the end, especially at low tide. Even when it sometimes gets crowded, it usually remains very friendly in the line-up.

In Phang Nga,  Khao Lak’s Pakarang Cape is one of the few mainland destinations in Thailand to have good surf after New Year, often well into January and February.

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This year Thailand’s fast growing local surfing communities will gather for six events in one series with the exciting launch of the Phuket Surf Series 2018+ Khao Lak. Five events are already being held in Phuket with the six in series scheduled later this year in Khao Lak, Phang Nga province from now until the end of October 2018. This will further reinforce the tourism image of Phuket province as a sports destination and generate surf-related tourism revenue for the country.

Surfing in Phuket and Khao Lak are not only about the waves; it is a lifestyle and culture all to itself. Surfers worldwide identify and meet to celebrate the sport and the friendship it brings at a grassroots level. This is very true of a growing surge in surf culture in Phuket, with more Thais in the water than ever before, with locals learning to love and appreciate the ocean lifestyle and all that Thailand’s beautiful sun kissed shores have to offer.

European architectural influence and French flair on the Gulf of Thailand

Thailand’s three provinces Samut Prakan, Chanthaburi and Trat share a common history with France. After the 1893 Paknam crisis, French troops occupied Chanthaburi and Trat provinces. The ensuing 14-year occupation proved very influential in the old ‘Chanthaboon’ district where buildings feature European-style windows, arcades, and wooden balconies similar to those built across French Indochina.

Paknam, Samut Prakan

The Phra Chulachomklao Fort stands tall in Phra Samut Chedi district, Samut Prakan. Built between 1884 and 1893 by King Chulalongkorn the Great in the European style, the Fort has since been modernised and is now a museum. Located just under a monument dedicated to the King dressed in a navy commander’s uniform, the museum contains an exhibition about the Paknam incident and Franco-Siamese War of 1893.  The King Rama V Fortress Historical Park opposite the museum displays the information of the war and the development of the Royal Thai Navy.

Chanthaburi

Chanthaburi’s old ‘Chanthaboon’ district still shows French architectural influences. At least a dozen of these historic houses survived modernisation. Many are now hip coffee shops, art galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels. The nearby Baan Phokabarn houses an information centre and small museum with old images depicting this bygone era.

The impressive Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, started during the brief French occupation, is over the river from the Chanthaboon riverside community. It was finished two years after France withdrew from the province and is one of the largest Catholic churches in Thailand. While the outside façade is rather austere with its dark greyish-brown colour, it contrasts with the exuberant gothic interior style. Its vaulted ceiling, wall paintings in trompe-l’oeil and stained glass were all manufactured in France. The church is an important hub for Chanthaboon’s Vietnamese Catholic community who emigrated there during the French colonial period.

Suan Ban Kaeo Palace in Ta Chang district is another important example of the European style from the early 20th century. The royal residence of Queen Rambhai Barni, a palace comprised of a cluster of wooden pavilions (chalets), was constructed in a typical European style.

An ancient French prison is open to visitors at the opposite of the elegant palace. Khuk Khi Kai prison, just before Laem Sing Beach, was built to hold Thais who rebelled against the French occupation in Chanthaburi. A seven-metre high, square-shaped prison was built with bricks each measuring 4.40 metres per side. The walls were perforated for ventilation, but the porous roof housed a chicken coop, where the poultry dropped excrement on prisoners as a sort of torture.

Trat

Thailand’s easternmost province also offers French-related heritage further along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, starting in the city centre. The historical town (Bang Phra district) also exhibits a collection of 100-year-old wooden houses; some built during the French occupation. The former house of the French Governor in Trat (Resident Kampot), located on Luk Mueang Road, is renovated. It is a rather simple two-storey white building that is painted and contrasts with the more elaborate former Trat City Hall, today the Trat Museum.

The beautifully restored Trat Museum’s shape and architecture, with its large wooden pediment and pillars, takes its inspiration from European houses in Southern Thailand. Here, visitors can enjoy an excellent overview to Trat history. It evocates a memorable naval battle between Thailand and France in 1941. Inside the museum are pictures and documents remembering the battle between Thai and French naval forces, conducted by French warships in support of a land offensive against Thai troops on the Cambodian border.

French influence is mostly visible today in the number of tourists who spend their days along the Gulf of Thailand, or in transit on their way to nearby Cambodia. It is happily a much more peaceful cohabitation than 100 years ago!

About the Author
This is the fourth of the five-part story on European architectural heritage in Thailand written by Luc Citrinot, a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years’ experience. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Therefore, TAT is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of information written by this writer.

Disclaimer
Historical information contained in this article is based on Thai history books and French colonial history books. This article intends to offer perspectives on European architectural influence and French flairs on the Golf of Thailand for the benefit of travellers in search for historical attractions, and so it should not be considered as an historical fact of any kind.

Phuket Food Culture Poised for Global Stardom

Phuket Night Scene
Phuket town at night is usually filled with locals and tourists enjoying local and international delicacies

One of the best things about Phuket is its food culture. For visitors who think they know Southern Thai cuisine by sampling Thai classics and street food snacks at the beach, it is time to be schooled local style: fresh seafood, strong fiery spices, pungent fermented flavours, farm-to-table crunchy vegetables, and slow-cooked stewed meats.

Perhaps the least well-known and understood of Thailand’s regional cuisine, Southern Thai food is characterised by its spice and sharpness. Its curries and flavour profiles are the most powerful, which combines the lit heat of various chillies with piquant sour notes of tamarind.

Just like the North, Southern Thai cuisine has been heavily influenced by the culinary preferences of its neighbours, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. Cultural influences are reflected in preparation, taste and presentation. Phuket’s cuisine and local food (so-called ‘Baba Peranakan’ food) is the combination of many cultural food habits, whether they be Chinese, Malay or Thai. Some Phuket local food tastes sweet; such as, Chinese Hakka cuisine, but it can also be highly spiced like in either Thai or Malay cuisine.

A large Muslim populace and tasty halal food, along with a plethora of fishing fleets, influence Southern Thai cuisine. It is based heavily around seafood, meats and the use of lots of lemongrass, tamarind and kaffir lime leaf for flavouring. Staples include Kaeng Tai Pla (fermented fish curry), Kaeng Som Pla (hot and sour fish soup), and Kua Kling (dry fried meat curry).  Massaman, a stewed curry of meat and potatoes, is another important signature dish.

Phuket’s food culture is woven into the tapestry of traditional local daily life, which is based around hearty meals shared with the family. One day-in-the-life of a Phuket foodie might go something like this:

Breakfast

The most important meal of the day, breakfast is a time when Phuket residents wake up and smell the coffee, literally. Strong, bitter beans produce a fragrant brew strong enough to wake the dead. Phuket’s people are known to drink dark roast old-school coffee, water-filtered black coffee traditionally brewed through a steep metal pot with a ‘sock’ filter, served with sweetened condensed milk or with pure fresh milk. This time-honoured morning ritual is usually accompanied by one of three dishes that showcase Phuket’s culinary diversity:

* Dim Sum (influenced by Chinese immigrants) includes steamed dumplings, fish, bean curd, Bak Kut Teh (pork spare rib soup), and Misua noodles.

Dim Sum breakfast at Kookhawn restaurant

Dim Sum breakfast at Kookhawn restaurant

* Roti topped with fried egg and served with avariety of curry flavours (chicken, beef and fish) (Malay influenced).

* Khanom Chin (fermented rice noodles) served with various traditional curry sauces (Thai and Phuket) including Kaeng Tai Pla (fermented fish curry), crab, chicken and fish.

Lunch

A Phuket lunch is a time to get one’s noodle fix for a midday energy boost. Chinese and Malay flavours again entice the palate with local favourites Mi Hokkien (Chinese Malay noodle fare) and Phuket-style Mi Hoon rice vermicelli noodles. A traditional Phuket lunch is never complete without tucking into the island’s local dessert favourite O-Aew (shaved ice with sweet toppings and jelly).

High Tea

This very local twist on the British tradition shares only the time of day. Before a hearty dinner, residents warm up on Mi Hun Ba Chang (rice vermicelli noodles) with pork spare rib soup, one of Phuket’s most iconic dishes. This is served with pork satay and spring rolls, or just the noodles.

Dinner

This the biggest and most important meal of the day where family members eat together and share their stories about Phuket and the world. Not unlike any other cities in Southern Thailand, Phuket’s locals tend to prefer strong flavoured dishes for the evening meal, either very spicy, very sour or very sweet. Many of the dishes oozes the deep yellow colour and strong scent of turmeric. Its unique flavour is used to tame strong fish flavours and other seafood that the province is famed for.

Favourite dishes include Pla Sai Thot Kamin (deep fried fish with fresh turmeric), Mu Hong (stewed pork belly with herbs), Nap Chup Yam (chilli paste), Nam Phrik Kung Siap (shrimp chilli paste), Mi Hun Kaeng Pu (rice noodles with curried crab), Loba (deep fried stewed-pig’s head) and Yam Pak Kut (spicy fern salad).

ried stink bean with shrimp paste and minced pork

Fried stink bean with shrimp paste and minced pork or shrimp is another local delicacies of Southern Thailand, including Phuket

It goes without saying that foodies searching for good Thai food in Phuket don’t have to look far. And recognition about Phuket’s food culture is about to go international with possible accolades expected in the upcoming Michelin Guide Bangkok, Phuket and Phang Nga 2019 edition that is expected to  be released at the end of this year, in the same bilingual Thai and English format as the first Michelin Guide Bangkok 2018, in both print and digital versions.

Amazing ‘Colours of the East’ come alive for Thailand Travel Mart 2018

The Thailand Travel Mart Plus (TTM+) Amazing Gateway to the Greater Mekong Subregion, scheduled for the first time at the Ocean Marina Yacht Club in Pattaya from 13 to 15 June 2018, invites participants to discover the region’s Amazing ‘Colours of the East’ in the coastal city and beyond.

While Pattaya remains the gateway to Thailand’s Eastern Region, its continued popularity strengthens its reputation as the region’s pre-eminent travel hub, there is also much to explore in neighbouring provinces that opens visitors to exciting new Thai local experiences.

There are many superb attractions in Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat provinces that are best viewed through the prism of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)’s latest marketing concept of Amazing Thailand’s ‘Open to the New Shades’ highlighting a kaleidoscope of colour through five distinct travel segments.

These five main travel sectors include: Gastronomy, Arts and Crafts, Thai Culture, Nature and Thai Way of Life.

RAYONG

In Rayong, visitors can spend time at one of the many orchards that dot the countryside, stopping to pick and taste various kinds of fresh tropical fruits including delicious treats; such as, durian, mango, mangosteen and rambutan. The hairy red fruit of rambutan looks more like something out of a fairytale than anything grown in real life. But while this fruit may seem exotic to some, they’re a common snack throughout Thailand and especially around the country’s Eastern Region. Durians, on the other hand, which hang improbably from the trees like fruity cannonballs, are sought after by connoisseurs all over Southeast Asia and China.

In addition to fruit orchards, Rayong also offers numerous quaint seaside fishing villages, Mae Rumphueng Beach, Sunthon Phu Monument, Khao Laem Ya-Mu and Ko Samet National Park, Ko Kloi Floating Market and Thung Prong Thong to name just a few of the province’s many attractions.

CHANTHABURI

Culturally eclectic Chanthaburi remains home to large Chinese, Khmer and Vietnamese communities and was also influenced by the French, who ruled the area from 1893 to 1905. This mixed heritage is evident in both the food and architecture that line the city’s narrow streets, and an exploration of the labyrinth of lanes is perhaps the most fascinating way to get a sense for the diversity of Chanthaburi.

A stroll through the Chanthaboon Riverside Community is a must for culture-oriented travellers. It’s also the literal home to some of Thailand’s most precious gems, as the city is the centre of Thailand’s lucrative precious stone trade. With its glittering jewels, French-influenced architecture, artsy riverside atmosphere, dazzling temples and churches, plus a delicious mix of local food, the area is truly a living time capsule offering a glimpse of a bygone era.

Another non-Thai influence is found across from the Chanthaboon Riverside Community in the form of Thailand’s largest church: The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. First built by European missionaries way back in the early 1700s, the Cathedral was rebuilt in its current gothic style mainly by Vietnamese migrants in the early 20th century.

On the coast, Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Centre is the region’s leading research facility dedicated to preserving Thailand’s marine biodiversity. Open daily from 08.00-18.00 Hrs., it allows visitors to view its important preservation work with sea turtles, sharks, giant grouper in addition to educating local fishing communities on crab breeding and oyster propagation.

A few other gems of Chanthaburi include Chao Lao Beach, Phlio Waterfall, Oasis Sea World, Noen-Nang Phaya Viewpoint and the landless village of Rai Pandin.

TRAT

Trat encompasses numerous islands with white sandy beaches and coral reefs, many of which lie within the Mu Ko Chang National Park. The largest is Ko Chang, known for its dense jungle, waterfalls and offshore coral reefs, while neighbouring Ko Kut is possibly Thailand’s most pristine eco-friendly island.

The province also offers authentic Thai local experiences not easily found elsewhere.

Ban Tha Ranae Community offers homestays and a glimpse of life in thriving mangrove wetlands. The Community is dedicated to preserving its natural resources and coastal heritage through sightseeing boat tours through the mangrove forests and mud clam breeding.

Ban Huai Raeng Community offers homestay experiences rich in Thai food and local handmade products. Visitors are invited to learn how to make mangosteen soap, gel soap and skin masks. There are also cooking demonstrations on local desserts including khanom chak (Nipa palm leaf wrapped glutinous rice cake) and betel leaf wrapped rice packets that use all organic materials.

A visit to the Trat Museum is a must. It highlights the province’s rich history including its confrontations with the French in the early and mid-20th century. The Museum occupies an attractive wooden replica of the old provincial hall, originally built in 1922. After the original building burned down in the mid-2000s, a new structure was rebuilt with gingerbread woodcarvings, ceramic shingles and slender pillars that makes visitors think it is an actual heritage building that was restored.

Any visit to Trat also offers a chance to experience the narrowest part of Thailand at Khlong Yai sub-district, the mainland’s Sai Khao Beach (white sand beach), Bang Bao fishing village and Wat Buppharam, Trat’s oldest temple first built in 1652.

All told Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat are three of Thailand’s most underrated provinces. They all boast pleasant natural attractions, national parks and low-key beach towns, with the unsung provincial capitals hosting charming old towns and rich cultural heritage.

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