We last visited Thailand ten years ago. It was the trip of a lifetime and we were thrilled to return. The countryside is beautiful, the cities – especially Bangkok – have a vibrancy and 24/7 buzz that’s just electric.
By RUBIN VAN NIEKERK & ALAN SAMONS
But what makes most visitors fall in love with Thailand are the people. They must surely rank as the friendliest nation on Earth. No wonder Thailand is called ‘The Land of Smiles.’
There are no direct flights, so you have to go via the Middle East, Addis Ababa, Hong Kong or Singapore. Singapore is best, as it gets you into the Asian vibe and if you have a long layover, as we did, you can book an expensive short stay hotel at the airport and have a good sleep. Our outbound layover was nine hours and the hotel stay made it all the more bearable, meaning we could hit the ground running as soon as we arrived in Chiang Mai.
Changi Airport is a wondrous place and you’d almost want a long layover. There is a free cinema, free city tours (highly recommended), butterfly house, orchid and succulent gardens, lounges, shops and restaurants. It’s the most logically laid out airport we know of and the sky train makes getting around a breeze. A long layover is only a problem on some days like Saturdays, so check your possible connections carefully. Another fast route to Chiang Mai is via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific.
We flew with Singapore Airlines and though it is usually excellent, our Johannesburg to Singapore trip was marred by us ending up with the worst seats on the plane – right at the back in the centre aisle. Cramped isn’t the word and with the loos right next to you, there is no chance of rest. Service was a bit lacking and there were no overhead luggage compartments at the back. On our return trip, we were booked in Premium Economy and that made a world of difference.
Our trip was put together by Marmalade Toast who specialise in bespoke travel focussing mainly on Southeast Asia and Indochina. They work closely with Diethelm Tours, an award-winning tour operator.
We were collected at the airport by our Diethelm Tours guide, Yaya and our driver. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second-largest city, but it feels small due to the lack of high-rise buildings. The airport is conveniently located and it took just a few minutes to get our hotel, the exquisite Shangri-La. Our suite on the Horizon Club level was spacious and elegant and had a gorgeous mountain view, with the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep visible in the distance.
Centrally-situated, the Shangri-La Hotel is a beautiful hotel blending old-world comfort and service with modern convenience. Our stunning suite was the perfect home-from-home and it came with perks such as a club lounge and dining area where guests can enjoy meals, happy hour, or just lounge in comfort while enjoying the beautiful city view. Upon arrival we were also presented with a delicious birthday cake for Rubin. Alan ate most of it!
Breakfasts are spectacular, and you can have anything from Continental, to sushi, Chinese and Thai. Naturally we opted for Thai and sushi. Now we are so used to having a substantial breakfast with noodles and rice and meat, that we’ve been quite spoiled and try to eat that way at home as well. It really does fill you up and keeps you going.
Chi, The Spa is housed in a traditional building on the hotel’s property and is a haven of Thai hospitality in the middle of the city. Do go there for a massage – it’s divine!
Chiang Mai is a city of temples with the most famous being Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or simply Doi Suthep, a Theravada temple enshrining a relic of the Buddha. This awe-inspiring temple is crowned by an elaborate chedi, twenty-four meters tall and covered in gold from top to bottom. On a clear day the chedi’s golden exterior catches the sun and blazes like a beacon over the city. The temple dates back to the 14th century and the tale of its founding is a quintessential Thai myth, full of magic and mystery.
We were thrilled to visit Doi Suthep again and Yaya was a super companion. She helped us figure out which Buddha image matched the day of the week we were born on and we made oil offerings and bought small images of ‘our’ Buddhas. In a side chapel a happy, chubby monk dispensed blessings by sprinkling holy water and we thought it auspicious to be blessed as well, especially since it was Rubin’s birthday. The monk asked us where we were from and when we told him, he asked Yaya in Thai why we were so pale, which made us all laugh!
Accessing the temple can be via 309 stairs, or a cable car. We were lazy and to our guide’s relief, opted to take the cable car.
We also visited a hill tribe village further along the road from Doi Suthep. It was interesting, but as with much else, designed to sell trinkets to tourists. This is a side trip you could easily pass on, but the drive does take one through some stunning mountain forests.
Chiang Mai is known for its handicrafts and lacquerware, so we went to see how lacquerware is produced at a factory with an impressive showroom. We also popped in at Gemsworld to buy some stingray skin wallets and to marvel at the magnificent jewellery.
The city is ideal for a longish stay and there is a lot to see and do. A boat trip along the Ping River is divine and ours ended at a small herb farm where we enjoyed some refreshing fruit and beer. Judge us not – beer is like water in the Thai heat! It’s also far more affordable than wine or spirit due to heavy sin taxes.
Visit the Sunday Night Market in the old town if you are there over a weekend, or the Night Bazaar every night till late. Local crafts are in abundance and we stocked up on beautiful carved soap flowers in hand painted lacquer containers. Just about anything you can imagine is available, from clothing, bags and shoes, to electronics, home décor and gemstones. Rubin bought a beautiful pewter repoussé dragon from an artist who makes them at his stall. It was interesting to see so many people making things while waiting for customers. There are also lots of places to eat and you can also watch the regular ladyboy shows. The performers are often seen in small groups calling out to tourists to advertise their shows. These ‘girls’ are some of the most beautiful gender illusionists you’ll ever see!
If you enjoy visiting temples, you will love Chiang Mai. If not, food is a good way to explore a culture and we had a superb meal at The Service 1921 Restaurant and Bar at the exquisitely beautiful Anantara Chiang Mai Resort. The hotel is a modern edifice in stark contrast to the old British Colonial consulate building dating to 1921. The building has been reimagined as a secret service lair complete with an interrogation chamber and secret dining room behind a bookcase. It is an amusing way to experience some of the best food in the city. The Peruvian-born chef, Patricio, also happened to have worked in Cape Town. His fusion of Thai, Chinese Szechuan, Vietnamese and South American flavours is masterful. The food is seriously high-end, but served and enjoyed in a relaxed, uncomplicated way that completely defuses any possibility of pretentiousness. Our host and dinner companion, General Manager Syahreza Ishwara was a delight and we thoroughly enjoyed his company. Hopefully we have convinced him to visit South Africa!
Since it was Rubin’s birthday, Syahreza invited us to sample a couple’s treatment at the Anantara Spa overlooking the Ping River. The ninety-minute Lanna Ritual begins with a foot ritual followed by a full body massage combining healing plai massage oil with Thai, Burmese and Chinese techniques to enhance energy flow and overall wellbeing, ending with a mini pressure point facial. A singing bowl signals the end of the treatment. Finally each of us was presented with a metal Bodhi leaf on which to inscribe our names and wishes for the future. The leaves are then taken to the next-door temple to ensure the wishes come true.
All too soon we had bid farewell to the lovely Yaya and Chiang Mai to continue our journey by car to Bangkok via Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. Our new guide, Goy was equally delightful. Our driver, Am, commented to her in Thai about our love of local food on more than one occasion. Goy was full of mirth and said we were the easiest tourists she’s ever hosted, because we were happy to eat anything and anywhere. We enjoyed a memorable meal with her and Am in a small village where the local craft is a form of mud dyeing. The cotton fabrics are handwoven and dyed with mostly natural dyes and then mordanted in mud to set the colour. Next to the small shop is a restaurant specialising in a local noodle dish. Rice flour paste is spread on cotton fabric and steamed. Some fresh ingredients including morning glory, bean sprouts, glass noodles and pork is wrapped in the steamed noodle parcel that’s then served in a delicious broth and finished with a sprinkling of pork crackling and fried egg on top. Simple, rustic and utterly divine! If you are willing to eat as simply as most Thai people do, you’ll be assured of great food and even better prices. In the countryside a meal for four cost only about R40.
Sukhothai is a bit off the tourist map, so we had ample time to wander around the ruins of the old city temples. So evocative of the past, Alan was spellbound, but Rubin was a bit less so. He’d contracted a head cold – possibly due to the temperature fluctuations between the outdoor heat and indoor air-conditioning. Alan would soon follow with an equally miserable head cold. Alan is a bit of a relic junky but if you are not, this part of the trip can be a bit trying as it takes a few days.
The ruins are breathtaking and only hint at the magnificence of what the city might have looked like when it was flourishing. One of the most splendid images of the Buddha is Phra Atchana at Wat Si Chum, the largest Buddha image in Sukhothai Historical Park. His gold-leafed hand is about the height of a man and the statue has an incredibly powerful presence. Local people still venerate this image and the pasting of gold leaf is a very pious act.
With Sukhothai being a bit off the tourist map, it’s not as crowded as Ayutthaya, which is only an hour’s drive from Bangkok.
We spent two nights in Sukhothai at the Tharaburi Resort, a charming small hotel. The food we were served at Tharabar on our first night was some of the best Thai food we’d ever eaten.
From Sukhothai we drove to Ayutthaya and spent the night at Classic Kameo. The hotel has been revamped and is more than comfortable. Once again we had an apartment-style suite complete with a washing machine, which was great.
Tapestry, the hotel’s restaurant serves mainly Chinese cuisine and dim sum, but Thai dishes are also on the menu. The food was divine. Around this time we both noticed our clothes were getting a tad tighter… Probably because it shrank in the heat. At least that’s our belief.
Rubin was feeling a bit off colour and had a touch of ‘temple fatigue,’ so Alan went on a whirlwind two-temple tour with the hotel’s GM, Rochidee Himbenman. It turned out to be a fun and informative trip. The ruins and temples are impressive and at Wat Mahathat is where one can see the famous Buddha head embedded among the roots of a strangler fig. Ancient Ayutthaya is believed to have been built around the 14th century but was destroyed and reduced to ruins in 1767 during the invasion of Ayutthaya by the Burmese army. Ayutthaya Historical Park is home to several temple complexes and we’d advise getting there early to beat the rush.
Rochidee clearly loved his city and was a wonderful host. He informed us that Ayutthaya is an industrial city with many industries being Japanese-owned, like Toyota. Interestingly, the Swarovski crystal factory is also located in Ayutthaya.
The next morning we headed off to visit one final temple before driving to Bangkok.
‘Bangkok’ is a name just for foreigners, as in Thai it’s called something else entirely. The city has the longest name of any on the planet. Its full name is Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. The name, composed of Pali and Sanskrit root words, translates roughly as: The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.
Thais will never call their capital city Bangkok – indeed, some Thais in the more remote provinces may never have even heard of it being called that. Instead in Thai it is known as Krung Thep, which roughly translates to ‘City of Angels.’
Our hotel was the recently opened 137 Pillars in Sukhumvit. A splendid high-rise with stunning city views, our spacious Ayutthaya Suite on the 25th floor was a decorator’s dream. From our balcony we could see a large piece of vacant land from where the chirping of crickets could be heard every night. Every creature comfort is provided for, including a large round bathtub and a Japanese loo. The latter is a rather funny contraption with a heated seat and every time you walk past, the lid pops open and it does a little flush/squirt to say ‘hi.’ It also has a built-in fan.
Meeting General Manager Bjorn Richardson was another highlight. He has a passion for his work and Thailand that is infectious. During our stay our butler, Danny, took good care of us and was always available to answer questions or check up on something for us. It seemed he never slept and was always on duty!
Nimitr restaurant was an experience we were lucky to enjoy twice. The name means ‘a special dream’ in Thai and this is surely one of the best restaurants in Bangkok. Food has been elevated to art and our dinner, the Iron Chef Experience, was exquisite. Chef Tammasak Chootong is a culinary alchemist and he was a special chef guest at Nimitr, and personally presented a heavenly six-course menu with freshly caught seafood ingredients from Japan.
We also enjoyed a spectacular lunch at Nimitr hosted by Bjorn and the elegant PR Manager Nuengruethai Sa-nguansakpakdee. Lunch was sublime and we were again bowled over.
Perched high above the skyline of Bangkok, Jack Bain’s Bar is dedicated to the colonial gentleman from 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai. His family lived in the historical teak homestead that today is the legend of the East Borneo Company dating back to the late 1800s. Marble Bar is just as gorgeous with its cool marble-clad setting next to the pool. But the cherry on top is the exclusive rooftop pool deck with breathtaking views, a rim-flow pool, small bar and curtained loungers. Heaven!
Nitra Spa & Wellness, located on the 28th floor, offers face and body care treatments and holistic therapies, and yet again, we were treated to a divine massage.
A cute purple London cab named Louie runs an hourly schedule between the hotel and EmQuarter near the sky train station. Getting around via the sky train is a breeze, but we mainly opted for taxis. A word of warning though, Bangkok’s traffic is pretty much non-stop, so it’s best not to try get anywhere in a hurry.
One of the best Bangkok experiences is a night tuk-tuk tour by Expique. Our group consisting of Americans, a German gent, and us South Africans met at a central point and were introduced to the owner of Expique, a British expat named Simon, our guide Tom and our drivers. Then we set off in the clear plastic-roofed tuk-tuks. Seeing the city at night is great, especially since its cooler. We stopped at a market mainly used by locals (boy the stuff is so cheap here!) and sampled some divine skewered pork mince balls. We also visited some temples and historic sites, among these the famous Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Sadly the temple housing the Buddha closes at 18h00, but the main complex was open. At night, it has a subtle splendour that is just breathtaking. Dinner was at the famous Thipsamai restaurant. This busy restaurant serves excellent Pad Thai and Simon had someone waiting in the long queue and our arrival was perfectly timed to coincide with tables becoming available. Watching the cooks prepare the food on open charcoal burners was interesting to see, but they must have been dying of heat!
The tour finished off at around 23h00 at Simon’s favourite place in Bangkok – the flower market. He took us through this incredible place that’s open twenty-four hours a day and we watched flowers being delivered and collected, as well as garlands being made for offering at the temples. He knew the people and their life-stories, and was clearly in his element. The final activity was to sample some divine desserts made with edible flowers at his new cooking school overlooking the market. We even learnt to fold lotus flowers in the traditional manner. Our drivers then took us all back to our hotels.
The following day we headed off to see the Grand Palace. Opting to just stroll around was a good idea, as it’s easier for two people to move around than for groups, since the site is packed with tourists. Do be advised that picture identification is required, so take your passport. Also, long pants and sleeves are to be worn as a sign of respect. This is arguably one of the most impressive sights you’ll ever see. Glittering buildings hint at the opulence of the Thai court.
Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is regarded as the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand and is located on the grounds of the Grand Palace. This splendid temple enshrines Phra Kaew Morakot – the Emerald Buddha. This highly revered Buddha image was meticulously carved from a single block of emerald green jade. The Emerald Buddha (Phra Putta Maha Mani Ratana Patimakorn) is a Buddha image in the meditating position in the style of the Lanna school of the north, dating from the 15th century AD. It is possible to enter the back of the temple and view this gorgeous image, but only Thais can approach the image to worship. Three times a year the King himself changes the golden robes of the Buddha according to the season. A diamond encrusted golden robe is worn by the Buddha image during the hot season. A golden robe is worn during the cold season and a gilded monk’s robe is worn during the rainy season. The robes not in use can be viewed at the museum.
Often overlooked by tourists, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles is located just inside the main visitor’s entrance to the Grand Palace and admission is free if you are visiting the Grand Palace.
The first impression on entry is of calm and beauty. Apart from it having very few visitors, the air-conditioning is also most welcome. Queen Sirikit donated the museum to the people of Thailand in 1976 to encourage the continued use of traditional Thai handicrafts. On display are some incredible costumes worn by traditional Thai dancers, as well as part of the Queen’s collection of garments made in the 1960s and 1970s by the House of Pierre Balmain, and her own seamstresses. Anyone with even a passing interest in textiles and fashion will find the display fascinating.
One of the most beautiful places to visit is surely Jim Thompson House. Thompson was an American businessman who revitalised the Thai silk industry in the 1050s and 1960s. He mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron Highlands while on Easter holiday in Malaysia in 1967. Apart from founding the company that still bears his name, Thompson was also known as a superb host and his house on the klong (canal) became well known. Actually, his house is made up of six antique teak houses that he had bought and reassembled on the estate. His art collection is stunning and a visit to this house is highly recommended. Join a guided tour and prepare to be enthralled. We would have loved to linger and drink in the exquisite beauty of this house, which is kept as he’d left it.
Shop for branded Jim Thompson merchandise or have a bite at the coffee shop, but for real bargains head to the Jim Thompson Factory Shop across town. Here you can buy silk by the metre and end of range goods at excellent prices. We’d recommend you buy your gifts for those at home here.
Alan has had a lifelong love of Asian art and this trip was also a perfect opportunity to scout for pretty things to bring home. The best place to shop for anything in Bangkok is at Chatuchak weekend market, the largest market in Asia. Forget the malls with all the designer shops and head off to this über market, but be warned, you might need help carrying all your shopping, so take a friend along. Print a map before you go, as this place is huge at 35 acres and has somewhere between 8 000 to 15 000 market stalls, depending on which guidebook you have. It can be a bit confusing, so if you see something you like, buy it on the spot. Thinking you’ll make your way back to the shop later is a huge mistake. Spend at least half a day here. Any less will leave you wanting more! And don’t forget to bargain. No price is truly set, and you should get at least 10 to 15 percent knocked off, but the stuff is cheap, if you’re uncomfortable with haggling.
Bangkok is famous for its nightlife and if you’re up for some partying, head off to Silom, a suburb filled with great bars and clubs. Friday and Saturday evenings are best, but the place buzzes every night. Some of the places are bars where you can enjoy a drink and relax, while others are a bit more racy. Consult your concierge and choose your venue. One of the clubs we heard about, but didn’t visit, is Classic Boys Club. They are famous for their live merman show. Next time…
Returning home with heavy hearts was made all the more bearable because we were booked to fly Premium Economy on Singapore Air and boy, what a difference a bit of extra legroom makes. We actually managed to sleep and put in a full day at the office on the day of arrival.
Whether you are interested in culture, shopping, clubbing or lazing on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Thailand has everything you could wish for in a destination. And best of all, the weak rand can still stretch far enough to make the holiday of a lifetime a reality. What are you waiting for?