After four years in Bangkok, we had pretty much exhausted all the nearby weekend getaways. We had toured the aquarium in Suphanburi, fed farm animals in Nakhon Nayok, taken the train to Samut Songkhram, did a jungle hike in Khao Yai, hit the beaches in Hua Hin and Pattaya, cruised the rivers of Kanchanaburi and chilled out on Koh Samet.
Friends and colleagues had mentioned Suan Phueng to me before. It sounded like a mini-Khao Yai: sheep farms, ATV rides and oddball hotels tucked up in the mountains near Myanmar. But Nori and I weren’t big fans of Khao Yai itself (except for the incredible national park), so we had never it to “Bee Garden”. I didn’t even know that it was located in Ratchaburi Province, just a few hours’ drive from Bangkok.
One of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s twelve “Hidden Gem” provinces, Ratchaburi is west of Bangkok and south of Kanchanaburi. Its most famous attraction, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, is on the Mae Klong River just upstream from Amphawa. West of the Mae Klong, the province gets more mountainous, right up to its 60 km border with Myanmar. On the drive south to Hua Hin, I’d often looked to the east at the range of blue peaks on the horizon and wondered what was up there. Now, I know: Suan Phueng.
As you’d expect from the name, Suan Phueng is a clean, fertile place with ample runoff from the surrounding mountains. There were so many creeks that they numbered rather than named them. In the valley were fruit plantations, while thick stands of bamboo gave the rounded mountaintops a shaggy, cottony look. When I went for a run one morning, the air was so perfumed with flowers that I could taste it. In the evening, it was dead quiet and cool.
Everyone in the world wants to come to Thailand. But Thais always seem to want to turn their homeland into someplace else. Any place with a bit of altitude and slightly cooler weather becomes “The Switzerland of Thailand”. On the highway to Hua Hin you pass the Santorini Hotel and Water Park. There are two Moroccan-themed hotels in the same area. And we will never forget our first glimpse of Toscana Valley near Khao Yai National Park, an impressively large Disneyland version of a Tuscan hill town.
Like Khao Yai, Suan Phueng has a bizarre mix of kitschy themed accommodation and attractions. We stayed at Stamp’s Hill Resort, a collection of delightful pseudo-European villas. The adults stayed in the “Rome” villa; the kids in Amsterdam. The Swiss Valley Hip Resort was just down the road. There were, of course, Tuscan-themed resorts and even vaguely African ‘huts’. There were pick-your-own strawberry farms and waterslide parks. But it was significantly cleaner and quieter than Khao Yai. We liked it.
Early one morning we visited Alpaca Hill. I knew going in that there was a 50% chance it would be awful, despite the five-star reviews by a mostly Thai clientele. In general, Thais love anything ‘nah rak’ (cute), especially if there are multiple selfie opportunities. Sitting in the briefing area, I chuckled as an employee explained, in Thai, where not to pet an alpaca. (Don’t touch their butts.) And after the tenth time she said “Al Pairk Kahhhhhhhh”, I was stifling laughter.
We were then supplied with a “Fur of the Gods” brochure in which the boys could collect stamps at each of 24 animal stations. It turned out to be great fun. We petted and were chased by greedy, snaggle-toothed alpacas. The boys giggled as parakeets and budgerigars perched on their fingers and heads. We cradled tiny hedgehogs in our hands, fed rabbits and capybaras, stroked chinchillas and scratched piggy bellies. And as usual, we lost Logan. (He had been daydreaming in the flamingo area.) As petting zoos go, Alpaca Hill was excellent. The animals looked well looked-after and the boys absolutely loved it.
Later that same day, we drove down the valley to Baan Hom Thien (the House of Scented Candles). I expected a small candle workshop and a gift shop. Instead, it was an attractive Suan Phueng souvenir mini-mall that meandered uphill to a viewpoint. We were the last group of the day to do the candle-making class. First the boys chose an animal candle base (alpaca or sheep-shaped) and a color for the wax ‘wool’. Once the wax had been melted, it was dunked in water to cool. That’s when the boys got to work, sticking clumps of Starburst-colored wax onto their naked beasts.
Few foreigners make it to Ratchaburi Province and Suan Phueng. Like Chiang Khan or Lampang, it’s something of a local tourism secret. (As such, it helps to speak some Thai.) If we had not come in the dry season, there were numerous trails to waterfalls that we might have explored. The Burmese border can also be visited on full-day 4WD expeditions. And the climate was pleasant, especially at night. Overall, we thought Suan Phueng was an excellent family-friendly excursion from Bangkok.