You Had Me At Merlot: Continuing Thailand Wine Weekend at PB Valley Vineyards

After a fabulous Thai wine weekend kick off at GranMonte Vineyards, we were on to our second stop of the day, PB Valley. Appropriately, PB Valley — formerly known as Khao Yai Winery — was the second vineyard in the country to attempt growing wine grapes. Yet as the first winery to open in the now bustling Khao Yai wine region — yup, in Southeast Asia just four wineries makes a wine trail! — PB Valley has earned its self-appointed moniker as the “birthplace of the Khao Yai wine region.”

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

When I’d written to PB Valley enquiring about the capacity for groups and the availability of tours in English, I received an invitation for a private tour from Heribert Gaksch, the German-born Head of Marketing and Business Development himself.

Heribert greeted us at the entrance with another open-air tram, and promised us a very special behind-the-scenes experience ahead.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

PB Valley Winery Thailand

PB Valley Winery Thailand

As we wound through the seemingly endless fields, it became clear that GranMonte paled in size to PB Valley. With nearly 800 acres, almost 200 of which are planted with grapes, PB Valley easily has the largest vineyard in Khao Yai. Aside from grapes they also grow other produce, much of which finds its way into the fresh meals served in the onsite restaurant.

In its exploratory years, PB Khao Yai Winery planted over fifty different species of grapes until they found their vintage. Today, they plant Syryah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Dornfelder, Chenin Blanc and Colombard — though I must admit, they all looked purple and green to me!

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

In a remote corner of on of the lush vineyards, we came to a stop. The original plan, Heribert explained, had been for us to meet some of the harvest team who had been working the field tirelessly throughout the season. However, sadly, due to the traffic we’d hit leaving Bangkok we were running behind, and they had just left the fields moments before. As punishment for our lateness, Heribert joked, now we were being put to work.

And he handed out baskets and shears and let us loose.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

PB Valley Winery Thailand

What a blast we had! Later, as we all recounted our highs and lows of the weekend, this moment was listed as a near-universal favorite.

While I doubt we’ll be called back for an interview anytime soon — our rate of grapes per minute was tragically low due to the number of times we needed to stop for selfies — it was an unbelievable experience to get out there, get our hands around some grapes and really see and feel the vines up close and personal.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

In between giggles, we learned how PB Valley had come to be. The history of PB Valley wine starts with a different beverage entirely — beer. In 1989, Dr. Piya Bhirombhakdi, former president of Singha Beer (a brand that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled Thailand!) and a passionate entrepreneur, became intrigued by winemaking and established Khao Yai Winery. They made their first planting in 1992, just barely beat to the punch by Chateau de Loei Vineyards in the north, who made their first planting in 1991. After several years experimenting with grapes, the winery opened in 1997, just in time for the first harvest a year later.

Later, as other wineries began to establish themselves in the Khao Yai Region, the company decided to change their name to PB Valley, after founder’s initials, in order to avoid confusion. The logo, a hornbill perched atop a cluster of grapes, is a nod to the vineyards’ location on the cusp of Khao Yai National Park.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Having these precious friends together in one place, tipsy on wine and life and vacation — this is why I’d planned this very trip.

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Once Heribert managed to wrestle the shears back from us and wrangle us back onto the bus, we were off to the winery and education center.

Helmed by two Thai winemakers trained in Germany and New Zealand and with a capacity of a million bottles per year, PB Valley competes for the largest winery in Thailand — it was certainly the largest-scale and most impressive production area we personally saw.

No surprises from this former crafter — my favorite aspect was the labeling machine.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Finally, on to the tasting. As we tasted PB Khao Yai Reserve Chenin Blanc, PB Khao Yai Rose, and PB Khao Yai Reserve Shiraz, we learned of the many impressive tables PB Valley wines have made it to, from Thai State dinners to the first class menus of Thai Airways flights.

PB Valley Winery Thailand

Thailand Khao Yai Wine Trip

Like GranMonte, PB Valley also has a gift shop with local sundries and onsite dining at the highly-rated The Great Hornbill Grill. Onsite accommodation is currently under renovation and should re-open soon.

Seventy-five minute tours are run five times per day and cost 300 baht per adult and 250 baht for children ages 4-12. Cooking classes and live music are occasionally featured — check the website for more details on tour times and special events.

When we reluctantly peeled ourselves away from PB Valley, it was only because we were excited to reach our accommodation for the night to rest up and drink up for round two the next day! I’d scoured the internet for lodging options before finally settling on a gargantuan Airbnb in the countryside (get $35 off Airbnb!) where we all could sleep under one roof. I’ll have more accommodation details in my upcoming Khao Yai region guide, but I was so thrilled with our choice — we had an amazing home cooked family dinner, tucked into the wine we’d acquired throughout the day, and played a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity. What more could a girl ask for?

Khao Yai Airbnb

Khao Yai Airbnb

Khao Yai Airbnb

Khao Yai Airbnb

Needless to say, day one of our Khao Yai weekend was a wild, wine-soaked success. We could hardly wait to wake up the next morning and do it all over again the next morning.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Missed the first post in this series? Check it out here! Meanwhile, stay tuned for my third and final post from my big beloved Thailand wine trip.

What’s the weirdest wine region you’ve ever been to?

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Travel Blog Success - Black Friday Weekend Sale 2016I rarely stop yacking about how Travel Blog Success helped me make Alex in Wanderland what it is today — a financially successful and creatively fulfilling travel blog that just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It’s the first thing I recommend to those who write to me for blogging advice! Our secret member’s Facebook group gives me daily inspiration, feedback, and hearty laughs. Yes, the warmest community in travel blogging is on sale now! And now’s definitely the time to buy, as this is the biggest discount of the year by far.

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Wine Not? Kicking off A Thailand Wine Weekend at GranMonte Vineyard

Think Thailand and drinking, and it’s likely you’ll conjure toasting to the sunset with one of the country’s internationally famous beer brands, Chang or Singha. Or perhaps dancing on the beach with a brightly colored pail of cheap whiskey and soda with a handful of straws chucked in. Or maybe sipping an overpriced cocktail at a rooftop bar a la The Hangover II. But wine?

Wine not?

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Yes, Thailand grows grapes. I can’t quite recall when I became obsessed with the idea of taking a grand trip around Thailand’s burgeoning wine country, covered as a quirky oddity in the occasional wine or travel publications. But like most trip ideas, once it took hold, I couldn’t quite let it go until I was packing my bag.

It was a tricky trip to plan mostly due to the fact that I had no idea where to start. Even compiling a list of Thailand’s working wineries that accept visitors was tough; figuring out how to get to them, where to stay and when to go was a one way ticket to spreadsheet city. Like other trips I’ve taken that aren’t detailed in guidebooks or elsewhere on the world wide interwebs, I’ll have a comprehensive guide coming up for those who might want to follow in our tipsy footsteps. For now, I’ll just try to convince you you should.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

While there are actually a handful of wineries scattered throughout various corners of Thailand (again, stay tuned for more info in my upcoming guide), I decided to focus our trip on the Khao Yai region, where four different vineyards add up to the greatest concentration of wineries in the Kingdom.

Khao Yai is about ninety miles and two hours northeast of Bangkok, and is also home to the stunning Khao Yai National Park that I visited a few months prior — in part as a recon trip for this journey. The rural countryside and cooler temperatures are a literal breath of fresh air for anyone traveling from the capital.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

It was also quite the contrast coming from our little island home of Koh Tao. For the last few years I have made it a priority to get my friends off the island and on a little annual getaway somewhere, a tradition that has earned me a fictional travel agency called Wanderland Travels. As in, “I can’t wait to see where Wanderland Travels brings us next!,” while I daydream from the next bar stool.

In the past we’ve hunkered down in villas on Koh Samui and on Koh Phangan, and coming up this year I’m planning to round everyone up for a big festival in Pattaya. But this trip? This will be hard to top.

When I plan a Wanderland Travels excursion, there are a few ground rules. The have to be in Thailand, since we all have different visas with different restrictions and it’s too hard to coordinate a mass exodus. They have to be short and sweet, since much of my crew have businesses to run back on the island. And they have to involve booze (okay, that last one is an unspoken rule, but I think we can all agree it’s pretty foundational.)

This trip hit all the marks. After months of coordinating and dreaming and sending each other wine-drinking memes, I thought I was going to faint of excitement when departure day finally arrived.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

We had quite the wine appreciation team assembled. Nine of us had traveled together from Koh Tao, with vino-lover Heather flying in from Bali to meet us, and over-pourer Ian’s parents joining us all the way from Canada.

My first instinct was to put us all on a night boat, hop an early flight on the mainland and get picked up by a driver at the airport and be at the wineries before lunch. However, once someone suggested tacking on a wild night on Khao San Road, it would have been rude not to. And so we we left Koh Tao on a cheap ferry and bus combo, took up every bed in a ten person hostel dorm at the chic and highly recommended Nitan Hostel (we booked through Airbnb so we could use my $35 discount code) and spent Friday night in true Khao San fashion — drinking whiskey, singing along to Thai pop songs in an underground nightclub, and engaging in some street side-retail therapy.

The next morning, the driver I’d arranged arrived to whisk us off to wine country.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Our first stop was GranMonte, a pioneer in the Thai wine industry. The Granmonte vineyard, once a cornfield and cashew plantation, was bought by the Lohitnavy family in 1999 with the hopes of producing wine.

It is a true family operation. Visooth Lohitnavy, founder of the Thai Wine Association and CEO of GranMonte, has passed the torch to his daughter Nikki Lohitnavy, the in-house oenologist — and the first and only female Thai winemaker. I was incredibly excited to visit a winery helmed by a woman, and was touched when she took time out of her busy harvest season to greet us during our visit.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

We kicked things off with a group tour in an open-air tram of the vineyard’s 40 or so acres, primarily filled by Chenin Blanc and Syryah grapes but also Viognier, Cabinet Sauvingon, Muscat, Semilion, Durif and Granache.

Our sweet young guide was lovely, and valiantly did her best to give a bilingual tour for both our group and some Thai families that were onboard. However, as one point, she became exasperated trying to explain why their sparkling wine product could not be called champagne, and after stammering a bit finally trailed off with a shrug and sighed, “…because France.”

Everyone, including the guide, erupted in giddy laughter and “because France” has become one of our signature sayings ever since.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Next up? A spin though the Asoke Valley Winery facilities, which opened in 2009 and produce over 120,000 bottles of wine per year. Here we learned about Nikki’s studies in Australia, admired the fancyequipment imported from Europe, and got to take a peek at the production of wine produced against all odds in the tropics.

And we got a little silly.

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Finally, we made our way to the tasting room to get our hands on the award-winning wines we’d been hearing so much about. Our favorite award, one of many proudly on display around the room? “Best Pairing with Kung Pao Chicken.” I think we all can agree it would be an honor.

After a short video, we got down to sipping. My favorites were the Sakuna Syrah Rosé, the Spring Chenin Blanc and the Busaba dessert wine.

Granmonte Winery Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

After the tasting, it was time to break at Vincotto Restaurant for lunch in the lush Thai countryside. Vincotto once again keeps things in the family, run by Nikki’s mom and Visooth’s wife, Sakuna.

I’d agonized over the menus and ambiance of this restaurant and the one at the next vineyard we’d be visiting, but after our meal, I couldn’t have been more thrilled with our choice. Because we were a group, Vincotto had several menus we were able to choose from. We settled on a three course set menu, mixing and matching with our favorite wines from the tasting.

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

I chose pumpkin and mustard seed soup for my starter, braised lamb in red wine for my entreé, and grape  pie for dessert — and not to brag, but I think I won the meal.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Granmonte Winery Thailand

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Once we were good and tipsy on lunch wine, it was tie to unleash ourselves in the onsite gift shop. Here we purchased not just wine (I got two bottles) but also high-end grape juice and handmade  fruit jams, salad dressings, and pasta sauces. It was an expat’s dream come true!

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Vincotto Restuarant Khao Yai

Want to visit GranMonte yourself? Good choice! Granmonte’s vineyard and winery tour has received the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s award for Agrotourism three years in a row — we could see why. While we didn’t absorb tons of technical information due to the language barrier, the tour was efficiently organized, the vineyards and winery were immaculate, and the tasting was well-run. It was the perfect introductory stop of our weekend.

The tour is approximately one and a half hours and costs 300 baht per adult, 220 baht per person under twenty (with grape juice instead of a wine tasting), and free for children under five. During high season, tours are offered every day, but throughout the rest of the year they are offered only on weekends — check the website for details.

GranMonte holds various festivals and events throughout the year, so it might be worth scheduling a visit around one and hunkering down at the onsite guesthouse. For more information on visiting the wineries of Khao Yai, including where to stay, how to hire a driver and more, stay tuned for my upcoming guide to the region.

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

Thailand Wine Trip Khao Yai

GranMonte Winery Thailand

As for us? We had places to go, people to see, and wine to guzzle. Stay tuned for our next stop on the wine squad tour!

After all… wine not? Did you know Thailand had a wine industry?

Celebrating Yi Peng and Loy Kratong on Koh Tao

This week, Koh Tao celebrated Loy Kratong. And while I may currently be on the other side of the world, I touch back down in Thailand in just two weeks — which makes this the perfect time to share this memory from last year!

It’s likely that, whether or not you knew what it was or where it was from, you’ve seen a photo of Thailand’s infamous annual lantern releases. (You’d only have to casually browse the travel section of a book store, where images from Yi Peng have graced the cover of not one but two editions of Lonely Planet Thailand!)

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Perhaps you’ve even heard the terms Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. Technically, Loy Kratong and Yi Peng are two separate holidays, though they typically are celebrated over similar dates and are thus are often used interchangeably by Western visitors. While the dates change annually based on the lunar calendar, they often fall in November. Yi Peng is primarily celebrated in the former Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, while Loy Kratong is celebrated throughout the country.

I’ve been lucky to spend two Loy Kratongs on Koh Tao, and one Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, and they are among my favorite days of the year in Thailand. Yet to be honest I was always a little confused about the differences between the two holidays — here’s hoping this post can clear that up for one of my fellow clueless farang!

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Both festivals trace their roots back to Brahmanic festivals in India, but were later adopted by Buddhists to honor both Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and in the case of Loy Kratong, Phra Mae Khongkha, the Hindu water goddess. Yi Peng is closely related to the Indian festival of Diwali, originally celebrated as a ceremony of gratitude to the River Ganges.

Chiang Mai (home of the famous Mae Joe release, which to my understanding is no longer happening), Sukhothai (where the festival allegedly originated) and Bangkok (always a party!) are all popular places for celebrating Loy Kratong. Koh Tao? Not so much. Consider this a guide if you happen to find yourself there.

On Koh Tao, the day kicks off with a parade that starts at the government buildings in Mae Haad and works North towards Sairee. I must admit I have only caught this casual parade in passing, but will make it a point to get a closer look next time I’m celebrating on the island.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

That evening, things really kick off. At the Seatran pier area in Mae Haad, a large stage holds traditional dances, a beauty contest, and other festivities, and last year I went down to enjoy them with a big group of friends. One highlight of our night was when Ian spotted his elderly landlord killing it in a dance routine onstage. Another was when I spotted the oversize float I’d spotted being proudly constructed at my favorite roadside food stand earlier in the week. Koh Tao is a beautiful little community when it comes together.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong is certainly a more casual and community-based affair on Koh Tao than the religiously rooted Yi peng I witnessed in Chiang Mai. While we dressed extremely conservatively for the Chiang Mai version, in Koh Tao there was a wide-range of acceptability — I did choose to wear long pants though. And while alcohol was forbidden at the event I attended in Chiang Mai, the vibe in Koh Tao was much more merry-making and drinking was welcomed and encouraged by locals.

And come hungry! There’s an abundance of yummy Thai street food on offer, far beyond what you’d find on a typical night on the island.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

At the beach steps away from the pier to the north, Koh Tao’s own little lantern release takes place.

The symbolism behind the release of either type of lantern is beautiful. In addition to paying respect to Buddha, these acts allow time to reflect and symbolically release personal demons, hardships, and negativity.

The term loi means “to float” while “kratong” means a lotus shaped vessel. Alongside the flowers, candles, coins and incense sticks, many Thais will cut their fingernails and hair to put in their kratongs as a symbol of letting go, and will also consider it extremely bad luck for the lantern to float back to them. Sky lanterns, or khom loi, are considered especially lucky if they disappear from view before the fire goes out.

Both are acts of spiritual cleansing and new beginnings. They are also, on a superficial level, stunningly beautiful.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

The dates of Yi Peng and Loy Kratong can be tricky to nail down (in Koh Tao, they are always celebrated concurrently on the official date of Loy Kratong, where in larger cities they may be held separately but within a week or so of each other, and large official lantern releases may be held on the weekend closest to the official date.)

I’ve always found the specific date by keeping an eye on local expat groups in Koh Tao and Chiang Mai, but often these groups are closed to tourists. Ask at your local guesthouse or dive shop, or check the website Thaizer, which is a great resource on Thai holidays and events.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

I’m anticipate I will receive some questions on the sustainability event. What goes up must come down and that means that the sky lanterns eventually return to earth and the kratongs eventually sink into to the ocean. My advice is to look for khom loi made of biodegradable rice paper and bamboo and kratongs that are made of natural materials like bread and plants as opposed to plastic or styrofoam. Better yet, make a kratong yourself so you can be confident that every component is eco-friendly! Also consider sharing one kratong and one khom loi among multiple people.

There are some people that won’t be satisfied with even those efforts, and they are entitled to that opinion. But I draw on the response I give to cries of waste at Burning Man: sustainability has to be sustainable, and I don’t believe its feasible to ask a country to give up their natural human instinct to gather, to honor tradition and to their celebrate culture. If you are bothered by the waste produced at Yi Peng or Loy Kratong, I invite you to join one of the island’s regular underwater clean up dives or beach walks for trash, or to volunteer at one of the island’s eco-focused charities.

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

Loy Kratong Yi Peng Koh Tao

No, Koh Tao will never be on a list of the most popular destination to celebrate Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. But if you want to get away from the crowds and see a small and joyful celebration alongside locals, expatriates and tourists from around Thailand and the world, Koh Tao would be happy to have you.

While I’ve done extensive research and spend significant time in Thailand, I will always be but a guest in the country, and thus an imperfect messenger of its traditions and religion. Any mistakes in interpretation are my own and I’d welcome corrections of any inaccuracies!