Suspended mid-air about 50 metres up, looking straight down at the ground, legs flailing and torso strapped in by a seatbelt, I wondered if I was taking this game of trust with the universe a bit far. Then my stomach and heart lurched as the huge metal swing I was suspended in sped down and up to the other side, the screams of my four fellow travellers pounding in my ears. But, too soon, the exhilaration was over and the swing gently rocked back and forth and became a peaceful place to look out at the beautiful tree-studded hills of Thailand.
We were at the adventure playland of Life Park in Khao Yai, one of our many stops on the trip from Bangkok to Pattaya and back. The ride was the GX-Swing, and was rated as a ‘high thrill ride’ in the brochure, which lost nothing in the English translation when it asked pointedly “How dare are you?” I would say “very dare”, as I found it more scary than skydiving. It was also just one of 20 new experiences I was to have on this trip. From horse riding, to zip gliding, tree climbing, archery and making a clay pot, every day held a new adventure.
Up close and personal
Our first stop en route to Pattaya was the eight-square-kilometre Khao Kheow Open Zoo, which features more than 300 animal species. The zoo is open in the sense that the animals are in enclosures rather than cages and you can feed and even stroke species like giraffe and rhino. As a child I hated zoos as I always felt sorry for the animal ‘prisoners’. This was a totally different experience; far more like a safari. A lot of care has been taken to ensure the animals live in a habitat similar to the wild. Particularly impressive was the big cat section of the zoo, which included the rare white tiger.
After spending a full afternoon interacting with the animals, we headed to Journey to the Jungle, not expecting to be wowed by a conservation presentation intended to educate visitors on how animals interact. But as it turned out, it was nothing short of astonishing; a kind of pantomime put on by the animals themselves, without a human in sight. We sat facing a big natural stage as each set of animals came in and performed their part, from a lion climbing a tree to bush pigs rummaging in the foliage. The finale included five tigers doing everything from climbing to swimming, and I felt a little relieved they had closed the gates in front of the stage for this particular act.
Next it was off to our hotel in Pattaya and a night out in the beach resort city’s newest attraction; Art In Paradise. This museum was established by a group of South Korean artists and businessmen who transformed an old night club into a unique interactive exhibition of 150 3D paintings. A combination of imaginative takes on famous paintings and unusual scenes comes to life, spilling off the walls. This is not the place for art buffs, but a really fun interactive experience for people of all ages. Even children lost interest in their hand-held gadgets to run around and have pictures taken as they pretended to be swinging from a leopard’s tail or about to be eaten by a shark. It’s highly addictive.
Tarzan and the banana boat
The next morning we made our way to Horseshoe Point. It describes itself as a ‘recre-education centre’ and is a nature-lover’s dream. The family-friendly resort offers many activities like swimming, squash and horse riding, but I would skip all that and head straight to the Tree-Top Adventure area; basically an obstacle course through the trees.
You use a mountaineer’s climbing harness and make your way through a series of challenges like Tarzan swings, flying skateboards and rope bridges. At the end your hard work is rewarded with several trips across a lake on a zip line. Our nimble guide was one of those people you know just loves his job so much it’s a hobby rather than work, and he rushed around the course fearlessly, punctuating the air with “woohoo” noises. We were intimidated at first, but we needn’t have worried; it was challenging and potentially risky, but as long as you don’t do something silly like take off both your safety clips at the same time, it’s fine, and we finished feeling both exhilarated and exhausted.
What amazes me about Thailand is that there is so much to do. Normally the tree challenge would have been it for the day, but off we went on a short speed boat ride to Coral Island. Snorkelling to see the abundance of coral is very popular, but I was persuaded to get on a banana boat instead. It sounded quite appealing; I imagined cruising along gently in a boat, singing Harry Belafonte’s Day-O and sipping fruit cocktails. Instead I was presented with a life jacket and a tube to be pulled across choppy waters at high speeds by a jet ski. With five of us clasping on tightly we set off with the wind in our hair. It was exciting... for all of 20 seconds. Spluttering up salty water we eyed each other suspiciously; just who had capsized the tube?
Back on dry land, I decided I’d had enough adventure for the day and would rather lie back on a beach chair and take in the beautiful blue sea and white sand. If you enjoy watersports, there are other activities such as parasailing and sea walking.
Cowboys, thrills and culture
After a very sound sleep it was off to Farm Chokchai, where tourists can escape the city and enjoy the simple pleasures of farm life. You can learn how to milk a cow and even take a course to turn it into ice cream afterwards. Perhaps not so surprising, considering I live in Dubai, I have ridden a camel but never a horse, so we headed to Cowboy Town. This is an American-themed park, complete with country music piped through its steakhouse’s speakers. There are cowboy and cowgirl shows, although they are in Thai. There is also a petting zoo, which looks like a scene out of Bambi, with little deer, rabbits and lambs frolicking in the green grass. I will never forget holding a lamb that was so friendly and sweet, just like a kitten looking up at me and making gurgling noises.
Having reignited our relationship with nature we headed to the eco-friendly Greenery Resort to stay overnight. Set in the splendour of rolling hills, the views were magnificent. Within the resort is Life Park, the huge entertainment playground I mentioned earlier, where no matter your age or prowess, you can find something incredibly fun to do. After our GX-Swing adventure, we feigned the courage to try the reverse bungee jump ride where, in a metal seat, you are flung about 60 metres into the air and given a 360-degree view of the scenery as the seat rotates. There are 29 activities and I was glad we had a guide with us as not all of the instructors spoke English. We did rock climbing, go-karting, bowling and archery before departing on the next leg of our journey back to Bangkok, about three hours away.
The next day, having spent the previous evening exploring the hectic night markets of Bangkok, we were missing the quiet life and couldn’t have headed anywhere better than Sampran Riverside. This 70-acre resort is dedicated to preserving Thailand’s natural and cultural heritage and has been a popular destination since the 1960s. There are daily art and craft workshops at Thai Village, where you can try your hand at fruit carving, pottery, martial arts, umbrella painting, garland making and dancing. I was delighted with the clay pot I made in about two minutes and with no electricity, giving me the confidence to try my hand at fruit carving, which immediately destroyed that confidence. After watching an impressive cultural show, we headed by boat to the organic farm wearing our gumboots as the ground is pretty slushy. The measures they use to avoid pesticides were ingenious and afterwards we sampled some of the farm’s products. It was a lovely day out but, sadly, was our last outing as the next day we would be heading home.
After a trip I normally feel either utterly relaxed or in need of a holiday. This time I felt totally refreshed and alive, ready to take on any challenge.
I am sure I will be back soon as Thailand really does get under your skin. To quote the Tourism Authority’s slogan, Thailand amazed me.