Weird adventures with mushrooms and a winery visit are unexpected surprises for Pamela Wade in Thailand.
It was a nice touch, I suppose, that my leech socks had a picture of an elephant printed on them. It showed they'd tried. Even so, knee-high calico held up by a draw-string around the top? No one could call that stylish, and there was general pooh-poohing in the group when they were produced. After all, it was only a 10-minute walk along a paved path to a waterfall: we were hardly bush-bashing through the jungle.
Suree, though, our wonderful guide on this tour of north-eastern Thailand, was adamant, so we all dutifully pulled them on. Khao Yai National Park, not far from Bangkok, turned out to be genuine jungle - lush, green and echoing with the screeches of birds and the shrill power-saw whine of cicadas. After several flights of challengingly steep steps was the waterfall we'd come for: roaring brown water thundering beneath a cloud of spray. It was impressive - but it was eclipsed by the discovery, back at the bus, that four of us had picked up slimy brown hitchhikers. Cue much shrieking, and the resolution never to argue with Suree again.
Not that we would have: friendly, funny, patient and knowledgeable, she was a treasure. Going anywhere with her would be a delight; but there were plenty of others, too. Wine, for one. Thailand makes wine! Who knew? And not just wine, but good wine, as we discovered on a tour of the PB Valley vineyard nearby.
It resembled the real thing, neat rows of vines trailing over the slopes, and the frontman was German, so that helped; plus, the assistant wine maker got his degree at Lincoln University. But it was still a surprise to work our way through the tasting and find ourselves as impressed as we were glad that there was no bucket to spit into. I really wanted one at the mushroom farm, though. As sales presentations go, I felt it was a mistake to present us on arrival with bottles of a strange, brownish fungus-based drink that had the consistency of snot. Giving their mushroom varieties names like Monkey brain and Ear didn't help either, but things did improve with the arrival of delicate tempura-battered mushrooms.
In Thailand, the food will always save the day. Everywhere we went, from market stall to roadside eatery to fancy restaurant, it was hot, tasty, fresh and delicious. At first, it seemed incredible that so much food, being constantly cooked everywhere we looked, could ever be all eaten - but to sample the sticky rice pudding with coconut cream and yellow mango, or the whole blackened fish, still sizzling, or the infinitely variable pad Thai is to know instantly that there will be no wasting of this food, hungry or not.
Even the durian, that sinister, spiky fruit so pungently scented that it's banned from trains and hotels in some countries, is creamy and delectable here; it went particularly well with smoked coconut milk. I drank this from the shell, but should really have decanted it into a mug, given the fact I bought it in a village that's wholly focused on pottery.
Trailing round the village's lanes, we passed kilns and workshops, galleries and rubbish piles of rejects, many of them manically smiling figurines who perhaps would have been less cheerful had they foreseen their fate. Much of the work was brightly painted pots and statuettes, including owls as tall as a man, but in a dim open-sided shed we found a potter pulling up from an unprepossessing lump of clay a traditionally simple pot, shining wet as it spun, elegant and shapely.
Another village was devoted solely to silk. Each house we walked past clattered or whirred inside as small miracles took place, intensely coloured super-fine strands being spun into thread. Others then turned it into cloth on looms that were at once immensely complicated, and almost primitively simple. Cocoon silk, wood, wire and nails are all it takes to produce lengths of intricately patterned fabric - plus, of course, skill and sheer hard work. The man who spins filaments from 120 spools into a single thread walks 10km a day in bare feet, back and forth over 8m of shiny concrete floor, concentrating all the way.
The finished product is gorgeous: rich colours in unique patterns, every village proud of its own signature designs.
The night market at Korat is, by contrast, full of factory-produced goods; but it's a fun place to visit. Young people predominate, prowling in groups or crouched behind stalls of second-hand goods. There's music, lights and food, and the prices are irresistibly cheap. I succumbed. My flashy gold watch with Thai numerals cost me $3. And it's still going.
Getting there: Jetstar flies direct to Phuket, with one-way prices starting at about $357.
Getting around: AB Holidays.
Further information: See tourismthailand.org.
The writer was hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.