My trip to Thailand was such an incredible experience. While it was fun and relaxing, I also learned so much. I knew a little about Asian art and Buddhism from classes in college, but was eager to learn more. Even though I did quite a bit of reading and research before leaving, there was much to be learned from the various guides we hired and other experts at the tourist sights. It was also helpful to really read up on the cultural norms in Thailand. Two things you will read about are dressing modestly, see my Bangkok post, and speaking respectfully of the King and Queen of Thailand. Thailand is a monarchy and the power held by the Royal family is considerable. You will not see articles or hear people talk about them the same way we might about Kate and Will, for example. Some people we met did speak freely about how they felt about the monarchy, but most will not speak to tourists about this matter. Remember if you are peppering your guide with a lot of questions about the King, you may be putting him or her in a very awkward position. Conversation about politics in general is probably better to avoid for similar reasons.
After a short flight from Chiang Mai, we arrived at Koh Samui's small and charming airport. We found our driver from the Four Seasons without any trouble and set off for the resort. There is a wide range of hotels available on Koh Samui, but we chose the Four Seasons based on the location away from busy towns and beaches. We didn't want to be near the party beaches! Each room having its own pool was another factor in our choice.
The hotel grounds were absolutely beautiful. The entrance to the resort was at the top of the hill, with the grounds spreading down the hill towards the beach. Buggies were easy to call and arrived promptly. I walked a few places for a little exercise, but rarely! The rooms were scattered along several winding pathways.
Each room had a gate, which created a very private feel in the pool and patio area. The patios were covered and had plenty of shade, not to mention gorgeous views.
We spent each day at the beach, where the main pool and a restaurant were also found. We ordered lunch on the beach, and they brought it right to our seats. No need to get up from under the umbrella and brush off your sand! The beach is a fairly small area, with rocky areas to each side. This keeps other beach goers out, but it also means you can't walk too far. The water was very, very low the days we were there. Apparently, this happens often in the summer. There was a swimming platform floating out in the water that I went out to on a paddleboard, but mostly we just waded around the sea and saved our swimming for the large pool that was right on the beach. There were interesting birds to watch and a few boats out in the sea. It was also interesting to watch some local people fishing out in the shallows and seeing their catch as they walked by. There were some games available at the beach as well if you got tired of relaxing and reading. (I did not!) In the usual Four Seasons way, they had thought of anything you might need-sunscreen was available at the beach, ice water was constantly refilled, and someone came around with small complimentary snacks from time to time. My favorite was the fresh corn on the cob, hot from a small grill the server actually carried around.
We came to Koh Samui after some pretty strenuous sightseeing in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, so I have to admit we actually did not leave the resort to explore the island. If we had stayed one more day, I would have booked a tour of the island and a boat ride to the nearby marine park. We relaxed on the beach and spent quite a bit of time on our own patio swimming in our pool. My mother got a massage and reported that the spa was excellent. The treatment rooms were down a tranquil, forested path and very private. We ate our meals at the resort, and the food was very good. I think the breakfast may be the best hotel breakfast I have ever had. They put out a beautiful display of fresh pastries, tons of fruit, homemade yogurt in different flavors each morning, and eggs and other hot items cooked to order. The tables were all situated with plenty of shade and a view from each seat.
The highlight of the Four Seasons Koh Samui was definitely the warm welcome we received from the staff and the level of service was amazing. When we were chatting with the waitress and hostess at breakfast about the various tropical fruits that were new to us, we asked what durian tasted like. You hear about it all the time and is widely eaten in Thailand, but we hadn't seen any served. They had the chef pick up a durian on his next market run so we could try it! The caretaking continued even after we checked out. While we were waiting for the car, we got an email that said our flight to Bangkok was canceled. The men at the front desk kindly called Bangkok Airways and arranged for us to be switched to the next flight. He even had the boarding passes emailed to the hotel so he could print them for us before we left. It was extremely helpful to have him sort it out on the phone in Thai, rather than us trying the website. Meanwhile, we sat on chairs looking out over the sea sipping on the mango juice that magically appeared on a tray...What could have been a disaster turned out to be a lovely ending our stay.
In addition to spending a day at the Elephant Nature Park, we had two other days in Chiang Mai. We stayed at the Anantara Hotel, which is located in walking distance of many restaurants and the Night Market. The hotel grounds were simply gorgeous. One side of the property fronts onto the river, so you can watch small boats go by, fishermen at work, as well as a few interesting birds at the water's edge. We ate breakfast on the patio facing the river each day. Later in the morning, the inside would be preferable, but we found the shade to be very pleasant for breakfast on the early side.
We spent the afternoons under an umbrella by the pool. The water was really refreshing as it was very hot! Someone periodically came around offering drinks or ice water, but the bar was in easy reach if a server was not around. The spa is located just behind the pool, but it not affected by any noise from the pool. I tried a Thai massage and it was wonderful.
We booked a Kasara suite, which ended up being a very large space for two people. The laundry service included in this room rate was most welcome as we were halfway through our trip and had a suitcase full of dirty clothes! Although we did not find the flawless service we found at our other hotels in Thailand, the staff by and large was quite accommodating and eager to please. We booked the airport transfers through the front desk, as well as a tour guide for a day trip out to the hill country. These were both easy to arrange via email before our arrival.
After a few days in Bangkok, we flew to Chiang Mai on a quick Bangkok Airways flight. One of the activities we planned far in advance of arriving was seeing some of Thailand's famous elephants. Unfortunately, the more I researched the different elephant camps and treks found outside of the city, the more disappointed I became. Many of the elephants in the these venues are terribly mistreated and live horrible lives. However, I read about the Elephant Nature Park and was happy to find an elephant experience that was humane. The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for elephants (and cats and dogs!) from Northern Thailand and Burma where the elephants live in a somewhat wild setting. Visitors feed the elephants and go down to the river to bathe them, but there are no elephants rides or tricks performed.
You can schedule a visit online before arriving. They do have a limited number of visitors each day, so plan ahead. Their van will pick you up at your hotel in the morning. I asked our hotel front desk to call and confirm the day before. The ride through the forests and mountains was quite pretty. The driver shows a short video on the way about their work and the need for elephant sanctuaries. After arriving, you help feed the elephants and see them walking around the grounds. You are allowed to get quite close to them, but there is also a platform viewing area for those who are not as comfortable being close. A guide accompanies you throughout the day. Bring a large bottle of water and clothes that you don't mind getting wet (and dirty!) A vegetarian lunch was provided mid-day. After lunch, they show a video showing the traditional training process many of these elephants go through. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and I was not able to stay through much of it. You are welcome to leave and go out to the viewing platform until it is over.
While the house (actually a compound of several houses from around Thailand and rebuilt on site) was interesting, to me, the most outstanding features of the museum were the garden rooms you pass through between the buildings. There were water gardens, tropical flowers, and gorgeously composed niches throughout the complex.
When you visit the museum, you must take a guided tour. The tour was not long, but informative and a worthwhile addition to your itinerary.
I traveled to Thailand two years ago, but it remains one of my most memorable trips. Thailand has the amazing combination of history and culture, beautiful sights, warm people, and delicious food!
We stayed at the Peninsula in Bangkok. As you can see in the photos below, the grounds and pool area were all gorgeous, but the best part of the hotel was the service. Every employee we encountered was incredibly friendly and helpful. All the rooms and dining areas face the Chao Phraya River, and we enjoyed watching the non-stop activity. We made good use of the pool in the afternoons after long mornings of sight seeing. There was plenty of shade and ice water to help everyone cool off! The little boat with the green roof takes you across the river to the elevated train stop/ferry dock and other places along the river.
Working with the concierge ahead of our arrival, we booked a guide and driver for two days to see the sights in Bangkok. This allowed us to see what we wanted to see and not have to travel in a large group on a set schedule. It is totally possible to do the sightseeing on your own and take public transportation-or book a guide and travel on public transportation. However, it was extremely hot, so having the air conditioned car gave us a chance to rest up between sights. Our guide was excellent and having her tell us about each location was so interesting. She also taught us a lot about Buddhist religion and culture and how it shapes so many things in the country. We got so much more out of our visits to the temples and palaces than we would have by just reading the guidebook as we walked along. Check with the concierge desk to see what your hotel offers in the way of tours and guides. Due to the exchange rate and the generally low prices of Thailand, we found it was an extremely reasonable expense. We did tip her and the driver a small amount at the end of the second day. It is also a nice gesture to offer to buy them a bottle of water or soda as you stop for refreshments.
She helped us plan our days to include all the major sights in Bangkok, such as the Grand Palace, the Reclining Buddha, and the Golden Buddha. Take your time to examine the details in these structures-the tile work, the gilding, the small water gardens placed along the walkways. The level of detail is dizzying at times, but all incredible. Also take note of what the Buddha does with his hands as you encounter the various Buddhas around the city. The different hand positions signify different things, meaning all the Buddhas you think look the same are actually all quite different! Also look for the Chinese and Khmer influences in the architecture and decoration.