Giada De Laurentiis can turn anything—even a quiet moment on the beach in Thailand—into a food reference. "I was in Phuket, and the sand was so fine," she says. "It felt like rice flour!"
Of course, food is what brought the Italian-centric chef to Southeast Asia in the first place: She loves Thai food so much that she and her sister Eloisa went there to shoot the latest installment of Giada in Paradise, premiering April 2013 on Cooking Channel. Giada filled six days with adventures and filmed all over the country—from Phuket in the coastal south to Chiang Mai in the mountainous north. She rode an elephant ("One of the scariest experiences of my life," she says), mastered the ancient art of fruit carving and cooked for monks at a holy Buddhist temple. She even took her sister, a masseuse, to get a Thai massage. But making a TV show about a vacation is a lot more grueling than actually going on vacation: "It's really hot, and when you're out filming at two in the afternoon when you should be inside, it's heavy on your lungs," she says.
Despite the heat—and a minor boat crash (everyone was OK!)—Giada did what she came to Thailand to do: eat. And she discovered that authentic Thai food is nothing like American Thai food. The dinners are spicier, the sweets are sweeter and the lobsters "are ginormous!" she says. She was so inspired by the bold flavors of the country's signature ingredients—like kaffir lime, ginger and Thai chiles—that she couldn't wait to bring ideas home to her husband, Todd. "He loves Thai food and was so bummed he couldn't come with us," she says. Giada shared these photos of her favorite vacation moments, plus three amazing Thai-inspired recipes.