From rugged rainforests and idyllic sandy shores to stunning cityscapes, Thailand offers a host of opportunities that teach valuable life lessons…
Assumption, they say, is the mother of mess-up. Oh, and what a fool was I to assume that on a long-haul flight with a duration of 11 hours there would be back-of-the-seat in-flight entertainment to keep a five-year-old amused. Instead, there was one big screen about eight rows ahead, with – as luck would have it – Marge Simpson sitting in front of us. Just as well our view was restricted, as the gloomy movie about the Roman Empire with nudity and pillaging was hardly suitable family viewing. Lesson One: when travelling with children, always arm yourself with copious Leapster games, Nintendo DS and a portable DVD player, all fully charged and with extra batteries. Flying east can also wreak havoc with your body clock. We departed Heathrow at 12.30pm and arrived in Bangkok at 6am. As we landed, Joe was deep in slumber and grumpy to be awoken: with the seven hours time difference, it felt like midnight.
Our first stop was Banyan Tree Bangkok, a towering 61-storey property in the heart of the central business district. Our two-bedroom suite was like the classy pied-à-terre you’ve always dreamed of: super-chic with a spacious living area with huge sofas, a large table and mini kitchenette; it also had two double bedrooms, with a huge deep bath with a flat-screen television above, and a rain shower – all with city views. Joe was intrigued by the bowl of strange looking exotic fruits that caused much hilarity: teeny-tiny bananas and a lumpy bumpy fruit that looked like a space rocket. And we loved the thoughtful touch of the aromatherapy burner with a daily selection of essential oils to evoke a different mood every day. Today was an aura of calm – just what we needed after the trials of our very long journey.
I was booked in for an early massage, so I left Grace and Joe watching television, cosied up on the bed with plumped-up cushions. The therapists, all trained at the Banyan Tree Spa Academy in Phuket, are expert in the 2,500-year-old art of Thai massage. As soon as I swapped my flip-flops for the fluffy slippers, the cares of the day melted away. With stepping stones at my feet and candles lighting the way, I shuffled to the treatment room (the one-size-fits-all slippers didn’t fit my size threes). After selecting my aromas – rose or jasmine? sandalwood or musk? – I succumbed to 90 minutes of kneading, my nimble therapist clambering up on the massage table to enlist her full strength to pull and stretch me.
When I got back to the room, I could practically hear the snoring through the door. And what a heart-warming picture of two children blissfully snuggled up together fast asleep – never mind that within the hour, they were squabbling over television channels, it was still a sweet moment.
We spent the rest of the day lazing at the hotel, with Grace and Joe enjoying the rooftop swimming pool. A signature of the Banyan Tree Bangkok is the spectacular views afforded from the restaurants on the top floors, including the aptly named Vertigo Grill And Moon Bar. We dined at Saffron, on the 51st floor, for our first taste of Thai cuisine, including tiny battered soft-shell crab (though not quite soft enough for 14-year-old Grace’s liking) and curry, while Joe nibbled on plain rice and mild chicken.
The following day was to be our big sightseeing day in Bangkok. Up early for breakfast, before catching the shuttle bus to the weekend market, then onto the Grand Palace and a walk in the sprawling Lumpini Park, before coming back to the hotel. Lesson Two: always set your alarm clock. We overslept and woke up at 2pm – too late to go the market, but just in time to get to the Grand Palace before closing time at 4pm. Built in 1782, the Grand Palace is, quite literally, a dazzling affair with golden roofs and intricate mosaics glinting like jewels in the sun. Outside, we were accosted by enthusiastic sellers, and Joe was very pleased with his novel purchase of a hat, which was both a fan and a hat, while Grace took shade under a more demure parasol. After an hour admiring the royal dwellings, we headed off in search of shopping.
Transport in Bangkok is a tricky affair; there are plenty of tuk-tuks eagerly touting for business, and there are metered taxis, but you’ll be lucky to find a driver who doesn’t tell you his meter is broken. The best way to counter this is to get a taxi from a hotel, where the doorman will ensure the meter is put on for you. With no bus stop in sight, we finally took a fixed-fee cab (for four times the price of the fare from our hotel) and headed to the bustling Siam Square.
It’s funny how when you’re in a foreign land, there’s something reassuring about discovering the familiar. Joe instantly recognised the golden arches – nothing to do with the King of Siam – while Grace found solace in Boots, perusing the shelves to discover the Thai equivalent of Cheryl Cole swishing her luscious locks.
That evening, we dined at the Banyan Tree’s Chinese restaurant, Bai Yun, which means white cloud – rather fitting since it nestles among the clouds. Voted Best Chinese Restaurant by Thai Tatler magazine for three years on the trot from 2004–6, sadly we found our meal rather disappointing, saved only by the view and enchanting effect of watching Bangkok’s neon lights twinkling in the night sky.
Alarm clock set good and early, we roused the following morning in time for a hearty breakfast, alongside the koi carp in the pond, before taking the 90-minute flight to Phuket. Reading my guide book, I felt a tinge of regret that we’d missed another must-see highlight in Bangkok: The Sylvanian Restaurant. Yes, there really is a super-kitsch restaurant that pays homage to these cutesy toys, where the waitresses dress as bunnies and badgers! Lesson Three: always read your guide book before, rather than after, your visit.
Our next destination, Elephant Hills, is billed as “Thailand’s first luxury tented jungle camp”. Situated in the largest area of rainforest in Thailand, Khao Sok National Park offers a chance to get close to elephants in their natural habitat. After a delicious welcome meal of piquant prawns and chicken curry, vegetables and rice, it was time for our trek.
Each elephant has its own keeper, or mahout, who will stay with his elephant throughout the elephant’s life. We were a little alarmed by the sharp metal hook the mahout used to prod the elephant into action, but we were assured it only feels like a little prick through the elephant’s thick skin. Lumbering yet graceful, the elephants took us on a trek through the soggy terrain, leaving giant muddy footprints, lurching us backwards then forwards in our seats as they laboured up impossibly steep hills (the mahouts always take the same route to reduce the environmental impact of erosion). We soon realised why they call it the rainforest, as the skies above the huge limestone mountains were ominously grey and you could feel the damp humidity in the air. Every so often, there was a giant roar of thunder, and our elephant would stop in its tracks and lift her trunk to the sky – and tipping us backwards – as if to acknowledge the mighty force above.
After our trek, it was time to give the elephants a tasty reward: a bucket full of fruit that was greedily gobbled up. And, with a responsible tourism strategy in place, nothing goes to waste: the elephants dung is used to fertilise the local organic vegetable garden and plants.
The evening entertainment is a big part of the experience at Elephant Hills, with everyone gathering in the semi open-air main camp for an educational film, followed by a demonstration of traditional Thai dancing by local school girls, one to a poignant ditty whose jauntiness belied its sorry tale of lost love that could have been penned by Dolly Parton. Joe joined in to learn some of the arm movements, and had his photograph taken with the girls, who each told us of their lofty ambitions when they grow up: to be a politician, a doctor, an air hostess, a singer, and – with a nod to their audience – a tour guide. After that, there was a cooking demonstration, with guests trying to identify all the raw ingredients before the evening’s buffet: a definite highlight with a delicious array of flavours, all locally sourced and super-fresh.Back in our tent, it was lights out and we had a little taste of what it’s like as night falls in the jungle. As the tropical rains beat down heavily on the roof, the loud claps of thunder and curious cacophony of nature sounds, including buzzing of mosquitoes, suddenly seemed amplified. Duly squirted with liberal lashings of DEET, we all pulled the covers up tightly and hunkered down for our very first night in the jungle.
The next day, the rain had disappeared and the sun was beating down for our canoe safari down the Sok River. It was then we realised that we hadn’t exactly packed appropriately, as everyone else was wearing shorts and hiking books. Lesson Four: when on safari, don’t forget to pack the appropriate jungle gear.
After another handsome lunch, it was feeding time for the elephants – and boy, do those fellas have big appetites! They can eat a pineapple whole, prickles and all. They’re less keen on the man-made pellets of fibre designed to keep their digestive system active (and ensure copious amounts of fertiliser), so these are wrapped in bamboo leaves to make them more palatable. By now, the heavens had opened again, but the children weren’t perturbed: they had come to bathe the elephants and that’s what they did, so while the parents cowered under a canopy, Joe took hold of a hose for elephant bathtime.
After two nights of jungle noises, we were ready for our Get Me Out Of Here moment, and looking forward to the comfort of soft beds and our toes-in-the-sand finale. It didn’t bode too well for sunny beach days with the torrential rain that fell on our four-hour jeep ride to the beach, but thankfully, the following day the Serenity Shore looked decidedly more serene.
The Katathani Beach Resort stretches along 850m of sand on Kata Noi Beach. Made up of 479 bedrooms and suites, it’s not exactly intimate, but there is a choice of six swimming pools and six restaurants. Our two-bedroom villa was huge, with a spacious ground floor with kitchen, dining area and sofas around a big television. At night, its vastness felt a little spooky as the wind rattled through. It didn’t help that Grace was watching a ghost series on television, and the doors kept slamming on their own. All three of us snuggled up in one double bed that night. Lesson Five: don’t spook yourself out with creepy movies.
The newest accommodation at Katathani is The Shore, a super-luxe five-star development with suites set in the hillside (for children over 12 only) and new beachside villas. Perfect for romantic honeymooners, who can also choose to get married on the beach, and invite a baby elephant if they so choose! We preferred to get our dose of romance with sunset swims and cocktails – well, that would be Joe swimming, and Grace and I supping Happy Hour sundowner cocktails.
Now that we’d got over our jet lag, we enjoyed the lack of structure in our days. After breakfast, Joe might go to the children’s club for an hour, while Grace and I perused the shops or had a manicure, as therapists roamed poolside offering treatments. I also enjoyed a blissful treatment at The Shore Spa, kicking off with a milk bath in an outdoor tub, followed by a top-to-toe massage. The highlight for Grace and Joe was the Splash Jungle water park, with its amazing near-vertical slide that looked like your rubber ring might whizz off the end, and one that twirled you round like a tornado. Height restrictions prevented Joe from trying these two, but he was happy enough having buckets of water tipped on his head in the watery children’s playground and bobbing around the Lazy River in a giant rubber ring.
Ours was a long and eventful journey through Thailand, from the buzzing excitement of Bangkok to our elephant experience in the rainforest and lazy beach days amid palm trees. We returned home with only one big regret – that we’d missed the chance to dine with the Sylvanians.
Two nights’ B&B at the Banyan Tree Bangkok, five nights’ B&B at the Katathani, and two nights on the Elephant Hills Jungle Safari, including all flights and transfers, from £1,694 per person, based on two people sharing. To book, quote ref FE9049. Tel: 01306 747008 or visit www.kuoni.co.uk