It is 10:38 a.m. local time in Bangkok. I arrived in Thailand less than 12 hours ago and I have already crossed two items off my bucket list (1. Crash a royal reception 2. Sample the notorious durian fruit). I am not sure what the explanation is for my newfound modern-day Cinderella slash Anthony Bourdain-esque antics, but I like it. Perhaps it’s the jet lag, the humidity, or the absurd amount of fresh coconut water I have already consumed, but I know one thing for certain: there is a lot more to Thailand than pad Thai and The King and I.
Geographically, the country sits just 15 degrees north of the equator, making the climate tropical and quite humid year round. Thailand is ideally visited between the months of October and May, when most of the debilitating heat has worn off and the monsoon season is at bay. But, as the 16 million tourists visiting Thailand annually can attest, there never is a bad time to visit this Southeastern Asian country.
Bangkok is for Beginners
Blending the very best of a frenetic Asian city with the cosmopolitan, Bangkok, the country’s capital and regional heavyweight in the business realm, is the perfect introduction to all things Thai. Known as the “Venice of the East” until the 19th century, navigating and mastering this city relies heavily on the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the populous city and is a major asset for transportation (and a lost visitor’s fail-safe point of direction).
Situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River is the epitome of Asian elegance, also known as The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok. Originally built in 1876, the whispers of a bygone colonial era still linger in the hotel’s Author’s Lounge. The property has played host to many elite guests over its tenure, including The Prime Minister of Bahrain (that aforementioned reception may have involved this guest) and Architect Frank Gehry during my visit alone.
Bangkok is brimming with attractions and vibrant markets—it is imperative to give the bustling city the attention it deserves, and visiting The Grand Palace, Wat Pho: Temple of the Reclining Buddha, and a taking a quick spin through the world’s largest weekend market, Chatuchak, should be at the top of everyone’s list. The Grand Palace and Wat Pho Temple are conveniently located within walking distance of each other and a simple cab ride from the hotel. Both are spectacular, yield ample grounds for impressive pictures, and provide an education in Thai monarchy and Buddhist religion. It should be noted that these attractions employ strict dress codes for both men and women; legs should be covered as well as shoulders, and visitors should wear shoes that slip on and off easily.
Chatuchak Market, on the other hand, is an “anything goes” kind of place, with stalls selling everything from exotic animals to precious antiques to “designer” handbags. Reminiscent of a scene from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, the market is a harried maze of stall upon stall; impulse purchasing is encouraged, as even with the best of maps you’ll probably never find that unique vendor ever again.
The Jungle Book
Convinced I had seen it all upon departing Chatuchak, I headed to the airport weighed down with freshly purchased souvenirs and homemade macaroons from The Mandarin Oriental’s pastry chef. Next stop: the sleepy northern town of Chiang Rai.
A hidden gem, Chiang Rai is situated in the mountains of Thailand, in what is known as the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet on the banks of the Mekong River. Nestled in the vast jungle of Chiang Rai is the Four Seasons Tented Camp. Lauded as not only one of the best hotels in the world but also a one-of-a-kind experience by travelers and critics alike, it did not take me very long to see what, exactly, everyone was talking about. In fact, the transfer from the airport rivals that of a James Bond movie, rife with a Wi-Fi enabled car, speeding long-tail boat, and winding stairs into the jungle, all culminating at the edge of the resort where the staff and resident elephants greet you.
The Ruydard Kipling-esque décor of each of the “tents” come replete with open-air shower, expansive balcony overlooking the jungle and river, luxurious soaking tub, and, most importantly, electricity, coffee maker, and Wi-Fi. Truly, the Four Seasons Tented Camp is “glamping” at its finest and most thoughtful.
After seeing the luxurious accommodations, it may be hard to believe that the resident elephants are the real superstars of the resort. From the Mahout Training Experience to the frequent elephant visits during delicious meal times, it quickly becomes apparent just how revered and respected these creatures are by the camp and their employees. Being a guest at the camp contributes to the well-being of the elephants; The Four Season Tented Camp has helped finance the rescue of several elephants from a life of forced labor.
Life’s a Beach
Saying goodbye to my new two-ton friends was nothing short of difficult, but they didn’t seem to fit in my carry-on and the cerulean shores of Krabi beckoned for the final leg of my Thai tour.
Still a well-kept secret, Krabi and its provinces have been the preferred beach destination for locals and well-informed travelers for decades. Located off the west coast of Southern Thailand, on the shores of the Andaman Sea, Krabi is postcard-perfect with jagged limestone islands dotting the horizon, spectacular sunsets, and blonde, sandy beaches. Leave it to the Ritz Carlton to discover it; as the hotel brand chose Krabi to develop Phulay Bay, a Ritz Carlton Reserve property as the first of its kind—and, it should be noted, one-of-a-kind—in its architecture, amenities, and welcome ceremony (which concludes with a deliriously refreshing lemongrass iced tea).
Most beach vacations exist so that you can sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself, and at Phulay Bay that is not only entirely possible, it is encouraged. From the oversized king beds to the personal butler assigned to you, if you dream it, Phulay Bay can probably pull it off. So, when I found out we were near the Phi Phi Islands, the famous filming location of the often-overlooked Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Beach, I had Steve, my butler, help charter a boat for a quick day trip. Ironically though, I ended up spending most of my time off the coast of the six-island chain snorkeling due to the insane crystal waters and reef fish rivaled only by scenes from Finding Nemo.
My sojourn to Thailand ended with a bang, thunder, and lightening—but not to be outdone, when the weather cleared, Phulay Bay arranged a lantern lighting ceremony for the final night. Before releasing my paper lantern over the dark seas, I was told to make a wish; I’ll leave what it was up to your imagination.
Until next time, Thailand.