“Sawasdee Krup and welcome to the land of smiles” my guide says to me as I step out of the air conditioned airport into the Bangkok sunshine. He was right, the Thai people are beautiful inside and out and always have a smile for everyone. The facial gesture seems to be the default mechanism for whatever the situation; sometimes frustrating when you are trying to get your western point across. Don’t bother, just relax and go with the flow and you will get so much more out of your time here.
As we race along the Expressway cutting through the city I drink in the blur of sky-rise buildings and colour that belongs to this ever-growing city, spotting traditional Thai architecture hidden amongst the concrete giants that tower above them. The economy is booming and the number of residents in Bangkok alone has tripled in the last three years – now reaching in the region of 15 million. As a result the traffic is the greatest obstacle and so a knowledgeable guide is vital to speed you around the back streets and miss the endless jams. About an hour later we arrive at Chao Phraya, the river that runs around the city, whose banks are home to 5-star hotels, buzzing restaurants, temples, hospitals, universities – all juxtaposed with a more traditional and local way of life. If you only have a short time here, then a long tail boat ride along the Chao Phraya and through the klongs (canals) will give you a good insight into the city as well as some wonderful photos to take home.
There is a hotel to suit every personality in Bangkok. For traditional, colonial charm, choose the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s oldest hotel situated on the Chao Phraya. Recent years have seen the opening of a new generation of hip, new hotels downtown, such as the Bill Bensley-designed The Siam and the brand new urban Sofitel So. For a boutique gem nestled at the feet of temples, choose Villa Chakrabongse, once Prince Chakrabongse’s home but now run as a boutique 6-bedroom hotel by his granddaughter.
The awe-inspiring temples appear like lost gems amongst the modern buildings. Prepare for your jaw to drop and remain permanently on the floor as you gaze at the never ending colour and sparkle of the bejewelled monuments; paradoxical to the simple and non-materialistic beliefs of the Buddhist way. Buddhism is omnipresent and it seems that people are happy as a result, even in the poorest of circumstances because they know that by following the teaching of Buddha, paradise will eventually be theirs. The more you give in this life, the better your next will be.
Massage too is a way of life and not just for relaxation and vanity. Be sure to try a Thai massage while you are here whether it be in the grand spas in the 5-star hotels, or much more cheaply in a traditional massage sala found on every street and at Wat Pho temple where it is said to have been invented.
I move on to Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle. It’s hard to imagine that this area of lush, natural beauty has been the centre of a dark history of opium, drug wars and corruption. Today, however, various initiatives, including a project by the late King’s mother, has seen the restoration of peace and a revitalisation of education and employment.
The highlight of my journey came here at the Four Seasons Tented Camp, hidden in the trees beside the river on the border with Myanmar. In conjunction with Anantara Golden Triangle, 26 elephants have been rescued from tragic lives of city begging and logging to roam amongst the 60+ acres of green grass and jungle. In the afternoon I began my training as a Mahout (the Indian name for the person who looks after an elephant). My elephant was a 55 year old gracious lady called Thong Kam and as I looked into her smiling eyes I am sure we made a connection. The relationship between a Mahout and his elephant is beyond words and really very moving – two very gentle souls who seem to work as one. Thong Cam allowed me to wash her, feed her and learn how to climb up and down her – sadly not in the agile and elf-like way that the Mahout did! We rode together through the jungle, me comfortably sitting on her neck and she reacting beautifully to my newly learned basic commands (“Pal”, “Baen”, “How” and “Soak” – meaning go forward, turn, stop and reverse). Our journey finished in the river – her bath – and she joyfully sprayed me with water from her trunk over and over again. I felt elated and reborn and the worries of modern day life were a very distant memory. Accommodation at Four Seasons Tented Camp is in African safari style luxury tents – really only called tents due to the canvas walls and zipped doors – with a huge bed that was by far the most comfortable I had slept in throughout Thailand, and a Victorian bath standing majestically in the middle of the spacious room. My private deck with double day bed and sun loungers overlooked the river and I was in heaven.
Chiang Mai was my next stop – 3-4 hours by car through beautiful countryside (helicopters are also available for those with less time and a larger budget) with a stop en route to encounter elephants at the Chiang Dao elephant camp and to enjoy a gentle trip along the Ping River by bamboo raft.
Chiang Mai is a beautiful town with grand old hotels on the outskirts and lovely boutique hotels in the centre, an oasis of calm amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life. The aroma of Kao Soi (a local coconut milk based curry and noodles) drifts along the streets from characterful little restaurants as the Wararos – night market – comes to life, bustling with souvenir hunters.
I am not a lover of early starts but witnessing the alms-giving ceremony with the monks as dawn breaks is very special. Your guide will take you to the market to buy food for the monks and explain the tradition and meaning of the blessing you will receive. I chose rice, kebabs and some fruit and water as my offering and three lotus flower stems (three is a lucky number and has significant meaning for the Buddhists). The procession of monks coming down from Wat Doi Suthep was magical, their vibrant orange robes standing out against the morning mist. I was honoured to have seven monks surround me and bless me – it was a very spiritual experience.
The nearby small mountain of Doi Suthep is well worth a visit with magnificent views of Chiang Mai and home to the Emerald Buddha. The more active can walk up the 300+ steps, but I would recommend taking the funicular up and walking down so that you can witness the children and other locals selling their wares on the steps.
Then on to the south of Thailand and its beautiful beaches and limestone karsts. Resorts and hotels are plentiful both on the mainland and on the islands, with Krabi, Koh Lanta and Koh Samui amongst some of the most beautiful settings. Phuket has perhaps the largest choice of resorts, though with everything from large family resorts to intimate retreats, it is wise to seek advice on the best choice for you.
The smiles are harder to find in southern Thailand and you will find that service is slower and in contrast to the rest of the country. Never fear though, once you arrive at your resort or set foot on your island, wherever you choose to be, you will feel that you too have reached a state of Nirvana.