Thailand is aptly called the “Land of Smiles”, but it is also the land of surprises! My recent trip to Bangkok, Chiang Rai, and Chiang Mai was educational, fun, fascinating, delicious, exhausting, and – yes – surprising. And that’s exactly why I go and visit these destinations personally 😊
The flight is long. That was no surprise. But doing it on Qatar Airways in their fabulous business class Q-Suite made it much more enjoyable. With my own private little cubicle, a freshly-made lay-flat bed, and their pajamas, I was able to get a solid night’s sleep en route from Boston to Doha, and then order an on-demand breakfast when I woke up. The Doha Airport is fantastic. Modern, well-run, with a gorgeous business-class lounge. And the eight-hour flight from there to Bangkok was basically two movies and two meals. Who can complain about that?
The Bangkok airport was a breeze. We were traveling during the slower “rainy season” (more on that later), so the airport was not busy, and my host (Abercrombie and Kent Southeast Asia) had arranged VIP service to whisk me through the formalities, onto a bus, and to my hotel.
The Peninsula Bangkok was my first surprise. I’ve stayed in five-star hotels before, but I quickly learned that there’s a big difference between a five-star hotel and a five-star Asian hotel. For a nightly rate that might get you a basic four-star hotel in Rome or Paris, you get over-the-top service and amenities.
A huge room with Panoramic views over the city. Pillowcases embroidered with my name. Exotic fresh fruit and chocolate presentations in the room every evening at turn-down.
A pot of tea delivered (un-requested) to my room moments after my luggage arrived, just in case I needed some refreshment after my long journey. And laundry service that came back (within hours) so beautifully folded and wrapped that it looked like a gift.
This kind of service was not limited to the first hotel. It was consistent throughout my trip. And it was not just because I was a travel advisor there on an educational visit. It’s simply how they treat guests. Amazing.
My second surprise came that afternoon. I had booked a Thai Massage at the hotel spa, hoping it would relax and unwind me after the long flights. Spa services in Thailand are much less expensive than here in the US, and I was very happy with my very inexpensive price, but I was not at all prepared for exactly what a “thai” massage meant.
I was bent into positions I did not know my body could handle and kneaded so deeply that I was sure I would be black and blue for days. I did tell the therapist that I preferred lighter pressure, and I did not have her walk on me (which many of them do), but it still was borderline unpleasant and painful. That being said, I woke up the next morning feeling amazing. And without a bruise in sight. So it clearly worked. And my fellow agents on the trip with me became Thai Massage addicts, scheduling them every few days. So let’s just say that opinions vary, lol.
So much eating! We experienced everything from street food and market stalls to lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant and an amazing ten-course gourmet tasting menu at Baan Phraya at the Mandarin Oriental. All I can say about that experience is do not miss it. And make your reservations the moment you book your Bangkok hotel.
What we did NOT experience was rain. And this was yet another surprise. Traveling in June, I was prepared for torrential downpours. I had planned (and packed) accordingly, making sure I had not only the required “modest attire” (shoulders to knees covered) for visiting temples, but also an umbrella, rain jacket, and shoes that could trudge through puddles. With the exception of one very brief downpour, while we ate lunch one day, the skies were surprisingly clear. It was very hot and humid, but not nearly as wet as I had expected.
When we left Bangkok, we flew north to Chiang Rai to spend a couple of nights at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort.
I know that I should not play favorites, but I could easily have spent a week here. The setting is idyllic, overlooking grasslands, rice paddies, and the Mekong River, at the confluence where Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos all come together (the Golden Triangle). The hotel itself is serene, with a focus on wellness and relaxation, and activities that include cooking classes and visits to the onsite beehives and gardens.
But the elephants, of course, are the stars! There are fourteen rescued elephants that live on the grasslands with their mahouts (handlers/keepers) and guests can interact with them in various ways. We did a “Walking with Giants” experience that I will never forget.
Honeymooners should check out their Jungle Bubbles, and the “Explorer’s Arrival”, where you arrive at the resort via longtail boat along the Mekong River, and the gentle giants greet you. Seriously.
The White Temple
From Chiang Rai, it’s about a 3 ½ hour drive to Chiang Mai, which would be our last home base.
We broke up the drive through rural northern Thailand with a visit to Wat Rong Khun (the “White Temple”) which was yet another surprise. I had wrongly assumed that the temples in Thailand would all be ancient, with lots of history behind them, but this quirky temple was created by a famous Thai artist in 1997 and is still not entirely complete.
It glitters with millions of mirrored mosaic tiles and contains paintings/murals/sculptures referencing everything from Buddha to Elvis and Hello Kitty. Very unexpected and strange, but fun.
In Chiang Mai, we stayed at the Anantara Chiang Mai, which is a beautifully peaceful and relaxing oasis in the surprisingly busy city. I had not expected Chiang Mai to be such a big city, and I have to admit that I was a bit overwhelmed in the crowded and bustling night market there. Far too many people for me!
I much preferred our day in the mountains, where we learned to drive tuk tuks, motored through the countryside, and stopped to visit an elephant home.
Far too quickly, it was time to say goodbye and fly back to Bangkok and on from there to Doha and Boston. We did not get to visit any of the beach destinations on this trip, but we did ask our host to give us a little impromptu seminar about some of the most popular beach towns, so I have lots of info about Phuket, Krabi, Koh Samui, etc. and am happy to share that if you’re ready to plan a trip!
If you’ve made it this far, and want my overall thoughts on Thailand in general, all I can say is that you have to experience it in person, and you need to see more than just Bangkok.
You get a lot of bang for your buck in Thailand. And this is a destination where it really pays to work with a well-connected travel advisor who can build in the amazing, magical moments that you didn’t even know you could experience. Let us know if you’re inspired to start planning your own Thailand Adventure!