Discovering the Thai connection – our journey beyond Bangkok and the beach
We marvelled in Thailand’s mesmerising landscapes, revelled in its decorative temples and delighted in the quiet charm of the Thai people.
By Terry Lee, LiveShareTravel
It was 13 years ago that my wife Sarah and I took our first trip together there. I had been once before to Thailand and wanted to share with her the majesty of the Land of Smiles. We have visited six times and even got married in Phuket – such is our love for this warm corner of Asia.
As tourists we’re more than familiar with Thailand’s allure. As travel writers we have also witnessed its transformation. Thailand has become ever more focused on delivering luxury. While standards were always high, there has been a surge in the number of luxury hotels and an emphasis on quality experiences. And Thailand delivers luxury very, very well. So when A&K asked us to sample its Discover Thailand package, it was a perfect match. We expected professional service, excellent five-star hotels with unique features, dedicated guides and private transport - all the features of a luxury holiday.
Our first moments in Thailand set the tone for our stay. Disembarking our Thai Airways flight at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, we were met by a man in uniform who graciously took our carry-on luggage. As A&K passengers, he fast-tracked us through immigration to meet our local guides, Joey and Sarah, and our private transfer. We were accompanied by A&K guides throughout our stay and each impressed us. They were friendly, helpful and thoroughly knowledgeable. Luxury and easy relaxation were very much the order of each and every day there.
We stayed at three hotels and all provided first-class accommodation. In Bangkok, we checked into the Mandarin Oriental, the oldest hotel in Thailand, but one that exudes old world elegance. We stayed in a stateroom with a balcony from which we could oversee the frenetic Chao Praya river, and had the services of a butler.
Moving on to Chiang Mai, we stayed at the perfectly relaxing 137 Pillars House hotel. Boutique in style – it has just 30 rooms, historic in character – it has connections to Anna Leonowens, governess to Thai king Rama IV’s children and depicted in the musical The King and I. It also has a fantastic restaurant and we were once again in the very competent hands of a personal butler.
Finally we flew to the coast and a private pool villa at the Banyan Tree Phuket. It is the largest resort on the island, with a full-service spa and golf course between the beach and lagoon, yet it still retains a rare peacefulness.
As regular visitors to Thailand, A&K set us a series of challenges to discover yet more about the country. The package, combined with these challenges, allowed us to unearth the real Thailand, and we took a deeper look at a country we believed we knew well, but clearly still had much to absorb.
In Bangkok, we had eating challenges. Mine was easy – trying delicious vegetarian Thai food, however Sarah’s was slightly intimidating. She had to eat insects and bugs at the recently opened ‘Insects in the Backyard’ – Thailand’s first anthropod fine dining restaurant.
Combining French techniques with Thai flavours, the restaurant’s concept is based on the principle that bugs are high in protein and low in fat. With the world’s increasing population, insects are the future, according to executive chef Mai Thitiwat.
The following day we took guided tours of Thonburi – the area across the Chao Praya River from Bangkok. I went by bike, with SpiceRoads cycling tours and our guide Joey, while Sarah was on foot, by tuk-tuk and riverboat with A&K guide Sarah. Having visited Bangkok six times before we thought we knew the city, but these eye-opening tours took us deeper into local areas. Along winding back streets, through residential areas set on canals, and to smaller, tranquil temples that few tourists see, but are just as beautiful as the well-trodden Erawan Temple and Wat Pho. A new, more characterful Bangkok revealed itself as we enjoyed this slice of real life.
Two days later we flew north to Chiang Mai, a wonderful city with a delicious food scene. In our next delightful challenge we visited an A&K Philanthropy project. Wildflower Home Foundation’s mission is to provide safety, shelter, education, and health care to young, single mothers in crisis. It’s one of the most worthwhile places we’ve ever visited and we delighted in finding out about its excellent mushroom farm - providing food and income for the families. We also had fun preparing lunch for the young mums and their children; using their home-grown produce. Seeing the children’s playful smiles, and knowing how much the project is helping these families get established, warmed our hearts and was a highlight of our trip.
Next, we got creative. Under the tutelage of internationally renowned artist, Phet Wiriya, Sarah carved an elephant in Indian corkwood at Baan Jang Nak. I went to Bor Sang Umbrella Factory, where 12 years earlier I’d watched local artisans painting decorative umbrellas in fascination. Today I was to be one of them, with umbrella maker Noi, showing me the craft.
The third leg of our ‘Discover Thailand’ package took us to the luxurious Banyan Tree in Phuket. Here Sarah had a swing at learning Muay Thai boxing, while I was given hands-on training in Thai massage at the Banyan Tree’s Spa Academy. There was one clear winner in the learning challenge – Sarah will do well from my massage skills. I meanwhile need to beware her right hook.
We took something from every experience – cultural development, growing our knowledge or taking away a new skill. From the moment we landed to the second we left, we enjoyed every bit of our ‘Discover Thailand’ package. There were outstanding hotels, fabulous guides, the very best meals, and rejuvenating spa treatments. Everything carefully designed for an unforgettable experience. But most importantly, it deepened our connection to, and cemented our love for Thailand.
Sarah and Terry Lee are founders of LiveShareTravel, an award-winning online travel and lifestyle magazine with a focus on luxury travel and shared ownership. Sarah is a print journalist and editor, who is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Terry’s background is in PR and communications.