Friday, 29 January 2010

Rose Garden Riverside -- A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

A bloody rose garden -- why would I be interested in seeing that? My companion, however, was keen and had made arrangements for us to stay here en route to Kanchanaburi. Grumble, grumble, yeah, whatever ...

Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. What an enchanting place with a fascinating family history behind it. You see, this 70-acre landscaped park-cum-hotel complex sits on the banks of the languid Ta Chine River about an hour or so -- depends who's driving and who's navigating -- west of Bangkok. And it's home to Thailand's longest-running cultural show (39 years and counting), antique Thai houses, a spa, an organic farm and a real canalside floating market.

We are shown around by Khun O, whose grandparents were cruising along the river one day in the 60s and spotted a beautiful Pikul tree. It happened that that land was for sale, and they bought it, building a wooden weekender where they could de-stress from the pressures of office (his grandfather was Dr Chamnan Yuvapurna, then lord mayor of Bangkok and Thon Buri). His wife, Khunying Valee, was an avid gardener with a soft spot for roses. Soft spot? She soon had eight acres under cultivation, and was supplying to Bangkok florists.

Passers-by started dropping in to admire the beautiful flowers. So she added a restaurant. Some guest houses. More people came so she built a small hotel, then added a Thai village and a cultural show, showcasing the traditional Thai way of life.

Bespectactled O speaks in rather British tones, gained whilst studying chemical engineering at Imperial College, University of London. 'It's got a lot of uses in understanding fertilizers, ammonia, urea, etc,' he laughs about his specialization. 'The essence of local wisdom is passed on verbally from generation to generation, and you can see it best in Thai herbal medicine. It's the heart of our local wisdom.'

He introduces us to Khun Panya and Khun Peera who specialise in herbal medicine, and sit pounding turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, camphor, lime, salt, and few other secret herbs and spices into herbal compresses. The turmeric-dominated waft is at once uplifting. (See my next blog about their massage treatment.) We try our hand at creating and wrapping compresses

'If you eat all the correct food, all the answers are there for preventative medicine,' says O, himself very slim. 'Exercise, daily massage, eating the right herbs.' He's big into organic food, and over the river, a 10-acre organic farm has been established growing basil, lemongrass, starfruit, guava, betelnut, etc. 'For Thais you don't have to go to the market, this is self-sufficient,' explains his offsider Khun Kris who gets us to try some delicious crispy fresh tempura lotus, butterfly peas and watercress. Delicious! We wash it down with a variety of hot herbal tees.

We wonder around the village to the clatter of bamboo dances. We paint silk umbrellas, watch potters potter (and immediately think of the movie Ghost), sample oh-so-fattening-but-who-cares coconut and banana snacks, watch rice planting and sifting, and enjoy seeing Japanese tourists splashed by elephants in the short elephant show. Clarification: the elephants themselves weren't short, the duration of the show was short.

Little known fact #47: to measure an elephant's height, measure the circumference of its foot then double it. Or measure its erect penis ... it appears about the same as its height, jing jing.

Save room for a good meal at the Rose Garden. Khun O suggested we try the Pad Thai at the riverside restaurant and it was brilliant by anyone's standards. Coconut ice-cream helped to cool off the chilli burn. Or you can pile into the buffet at their other restaurant. (It's OK, you can work off the calories with a lovely bike ride around the property afterwards.)

Then it's showtime: the Thai Village cultural show is a delight, even if you've seen bigger, better variations of this elsewhere. You see there are 150 performers all drawn from the staff of the hotel, including 60 gardeners. They kick off with the usual vivid costume dances from various provinces, then build to a rousing finale with a handful of elephants doing their thing. The Muay Thai show is fiery and fun, and the ken-do like knife and sword fights (using real blades) is edge-of-the-seat stuff.

'Touch wood, we only once had to send someone to First Aid,' says O afterwards. That's all very well,  but how many did he have to send to the cemetary?

We've had a great time here. Interesting, engaging, fun, eduational, informative (gee, anyone would think I'm being paid by the adjective). As we're driving out along the tree-lined avenue, my companion says: 'I still didn't see any roses.' Oh yeah ...

There's so much else going on here, the roses have become a side show. Maybe they should change their name, because the Rose Garden is really far more exciting than it sounds.

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