Thailand, just in time

Thailand has been opened to fully vaccinated foreign visitors since November 1 - join the Magazine on a week-long trip.

 PHUKET, THAILAND’S largest island, offers all the sand, sea and jungle one could want.  (photo credit: TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND IN ISRAEL)
PHUKET, THAILAND’S largest island, offers all the sand, sea and jungle one could want.
(photo credit: TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND IN ISRAEL)

I had resigned myself to remaining in Jerusalem indefinitely.

It had been nearly two years since my last pre-pandemic trip out of the country, to the Republic of Georgia in November 2019 (which I’m sure you read about in these pages, ahem). Given all the hassles of travel these days, I had accepted my lot as someone staying put in the Holy Land. Heck, I had barely left the Holy City since COVID hit.

Then out of nowhere, in early October, the opportunity fell in my lap to take part in a trip arranged by the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Israel in conjunction with El Al. A week in the tropical paradise of Phuket? After the drudgery of #CoronaLife, what could be more glorious!

Thailand had essentially been closed to tourists since the pandemic became a reality, so this was an extra-special opportunity.

So that’s how I found myself – masked and ready, suitcase filled with sarongs and heart filled with nervous anticipation – for a direct El Al flight to deepest overseas.

 ZIPLINING HIGH above the rainforest at Hanuman World.  (credit: HANUAN WORLD PHUKET) ZIPLINING HIGH above the rainforest at Hanuman World. (credit: HANUAN WORLD PHUKET)

It’s Thai time

There was, of course, preparation ahead of the trip: I duly took my pre-flight PCR test, got my required travel insurance, and put together my vaccination paperwork. Then there I was, scooting down the long corridor that signals every trip out of Natbag, nearly empty on that late night.

I took a moment to salute the bust of Ben-Gurion – how I missed you, fella! – had a few snacks in the King David Lounge – the top floor with its scotch bar sadly closed, damn you, corona! – and we boarded.

I’m not gonna lie, I did not love wearing a mask on the 11-hour flight. But it was all worth it when our delegation of media types arrived on Thai soil, as part of the “Blue Zone Sandbox” that made our travel in the area possible (see box). Greeted by be-gowned health officials, we – and our paperwork – were summarily poked and prodded. Happily, after getting the on-site PCR test, the one that goes all the way up your nasal cavity, I emerged with eyeballs intact and was given the go-ahead (lockdown would be required until I received the result).

Wearing masks outside was still the law of the land, so I gulped the fresh air where I could. I had landed in Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, offering all the sand, sea and jungle one could want alongside the comforts and attractions of a more equipped, less “castaway” atoll. And we were off!

Banyan Tree bidud

Blown away: That was my feeling upon arrival at the Banyan Tree hotel.

Whisked away via golf cart over the impossibly green grounds, a staffer welcomed me and showed me around my spacious villa. Sumptuous bedding? Check. Huge bathroom with comfy robes and Japanese-style toilet, replete with lid that magically lifted every time I came close? Check. Personal swimming pool and jacuzzi? You got it.

And that’s how I spent what I’m confident was the best bidud in the history of the world. Room service delivered the first in a series of many, many vegetarian curries with tofu and white rice (all delicious, all a bit tough on my Ashkenazi stomach); I then settled in the jacuzzi with a complimentary coconut in hand, sipping the sweet nectar as I had been born to do.

This was just the beginning of my tour of the most beautiful, romantic hotels in Phuket (more on that shortly). For the night, I was thrilled to honeymoon with myself.

Action-packed Day 1

Released from lockdown and ready to tour! The breakfast buffet, overlooking a man-made lagoon, was extensive, offering sweet, sour and salty delights. Somehow watermelon juice, rice noodles and veggie dumplings rounded off with iced coffee seemed like the right choice.

  AT BAN Bang Rong: a pineapple grows in Phuket; a local extracts juice from a coconut. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) AT BAN Bang Rong: a pineapple grows in Phuket; a local extracts juice from a coconut. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)
 AT BAN Bang Rong: a pineapple grows in Phuket; a local extracts juice from a coconut. (credit: TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND IN ISRAEL) AT BAN Bang Rong: a pineapple grows in Phuket; a local extracts juice from a coconut. (credit: TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND IN ISRAEL)

My wallet swelling with thousands of the Baht currency (currently at 10.5 Baht to the shekel, though we traded in dollars), I climbed into what would be our van for the week and met Woody, our faithful, patient guide arranged by the Thai Authority, who supplied never-ending bottles of water and cooling towels for the heavy humidity. (Being the end of monsoon season, we enjoyed smatterings of rain throughout our trip; the undeniable heat was less fun, though we were in A/C or submerged in water for much of the time.)

 THE TOWEL elephant, an adorable species native to the Banyan Tree hotel. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) THE TOWEL elephant, an adorable species native to the Banyan Tree hotel. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

The wonderful Woody, it turned out, was characteristic of the Thai people as a whole. I fell in love with their engaging, service-oriented dispositions and their greeting – “Sawadika” (Herbrew-esque: “sawadi-ka” is for females and “sawadi-krap” for males), accompanied by hands in prayer position.

Our first stop was Old Town, where at the Thai Hua Museum we learned how Phuket’s culture developed as a result of being one of the major trading routes between India and China. I was intrigued – and a bit creeped out – by the marionettes closely modeled on actual living people, and I admired the way traditional Thai families respect and look after their elders.

The streets were charmingly quaint, yet the mostly empty gift shops and cafés attested to how markedly corona had impacted tourism.

On to the teahouse at the historic Woo Gallery & Boutique Hotel, where we sampled locally baked fancies as a blind young woman told us her courageous personal story and played Disney ballads on the khim, a musical instrument derived from the Mesopotamian/Persian Santur.

I had to blink a few times. Where was I? I took a sip of my refreshing passion fruit tea drink – the first in a long line of fresh juices of many flavors – and took in the vibes.

Then off to a class at the famed Blue Elephant Restaurant & Cooking School situated in a former governor’s palace, making curry with founder, respected chef and “Thai food ambassador” Nooror Somany Steppe, who we were told would soon be debuting a new line of Thai culinary products at Shufersal. I tried my hand at it – doable! I was more in my element at lunch, which served up pomelo salad and wild sea bass with tamarind sauce, and where all were awarded a cooking certificate (or “participation trophy”).

 JOSEPH HAD a coat of many colors; I had fresh juices of many flavors (here at Blue Elephant).  (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) JOSEPH HAD a coat of many colors; I had fresh juices of many flavors (here at Blue Elephant). (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

Never a dull moment, we then headed to the Aquaria with its adorable penguins. I made a mental note to have dinner at the in-house restaurant and bar – set next to a large tank where leopard sharks and stingrays frolic – on a future trip.

At Central Phuket Floresta Mall I perused the supermarket’s regional goodies, which included six-packs of Jack Daniels & cola and an iced cannabis drink (?). Hmm.

The night ended with a tour of the dramatic Keemala hotel, a “tropical wonderland” high up in the rainforest. The honeymoon suite – accessed via a nearly vertical golf cart ride up the mountain – with its dark lighting, a mosquito-netted island of a bed, huge shower, and private pool with panoramic view, screamed romance. Or more accurately, sexy time.

Once the nesting couple comes up for air, they can dine – just as I did – at the Mala Restaurant, offering impeccable service and a “feast for the senses.” My senses certainly appreciated the crème brûlée served in a flower-adorned shell.

Day 2: Adventure & urchins

Rested and ready, satiated by a surprisingly shakshuka-like dish and papaya from the breakfast buffet, I was ready to get active. And that we did at Hanuman World Phuket Zipline Adventure Park. Suited up in a harness and assisted by the very competent and amusing staff, I was soon zipping away from platform to platform over the Thai forest. While previous zipline experiences had involved a touch of fear, this one left me invigorated. (Hanuman also offers a Rainforest Skywalk, which I hope to try one day.)

Lunch at the in-house Three Monkeys was simple, satisfying veggie dishes. Venturing upstairs to the bar, I was enchanted by the location, high amid the trees, with “forest carpets” where one could lay down, sip a cocktail and contemplate the sky. (Another note to Future Me to return.)

The adventures continued as – finally out on the Thailand water! – we took a catamaran to Kahung Beach (Coral Island) & Sunset Promthep Cape. As local fishing boats bobbed and the occasional booze cruise docked, I lolled around on a lounger reading a paperback, interspersed with bouts of snorkeling in the murky water (caused by the pesky monsoon, the sea will have cleared by this month), avoiding the spikes of the kipodei yam, sea urchins. I later saw these very sea urchins cooked on an episode of Netflix’s Chef Table. Very good, but I prefer them on my screen rather than underfoot.

We then made a pit stop at a 7-Eleven “makolet,” and let me tell you, it was nothing like the ones I remember from New York City – not a Big Gulp in sight. Having been foiled in my previous attempt to purchase jacuzzi wine at the mall supermarket due to some very specific (and odd) hours one is legally able to buy spirits, I finally procured a lowbrow Chardonnay for late-night glugging amid the bubbles.

But first: A foot massage! Choosing a more upscale venue among the many on the area’s main drag, I relaxed into a comfy recliner as an attendant kneaded, rubbed and squeezed my soles and toes within an inch of my life. The price for this extensive treatment? The equivalent of 50 shekels. A metziah!

After two years of corona, a disco with pumping music and gyrating bodies at first enticed my nightlife-starved self, but I opted to lazily retire to my beckoning villa.

Day 3: Tropical harvest

Pineapples and coconuts – the lifeblood of exotic isles. But who grows them? Why, Ban Bang Rong community, of course! We strode the fields with the Thai version of cowboys, familiarizing ourselves with the spiky baby pineapples and how the fully grown ones are harvested with what look like machetes (I stayed far away for that part). We were then served the ubiquitous fresh juice and fruit kebab by cheery locals in a clearing. As I mopped my brow for the millionth time, I marveled at how they seemed impervious to the fiery temps.

Then on to coconut cracking. Not an easy job! I was tempted to wash my face with the pure coconut water, so healthy it seemed.

After our exhausting (not really) trip to the farm, it was time for an afternoon repast at COMO Point Yamu hotel at the tip of Cape Yamu overlooking the Andaman Sea – with calming pools of water everywhere you turned, fresh decor that impressed me as being almost Miami-like in style, and dreamy balconies and views. Though I did not have the opportunity to visit their Shambhala wellness retreat, I felt well indeed after sampling the chilled rice pudding with vanilla and mango.

 SERENE LOBBY of the COMO Point Yamu hotel. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) SERENE LOBBY of the COMO Point Yamu hotel. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

A fave item was next on our agenda: Blue Tree Phuket water park! A playground for both kids and adults, I had a ball paddleboarding in the huge pool, and the DJ-led water aerobics/dancing was very reminiscent of activities at the more hilarious of Israeli hotels. I took one turn at being spit out of the Slide N Fly tube, nearly lost my bathing suit, and went back to the kiddie slides. If someone had handed me a popsicle, I swear I would have died and gone to 13-year-old heaven. (Blue Tree also has a zipline and high plunges for those wanting extra thrills.)

Sinking into the 20,000-ply sheets at my villa later that night, I laughed myself to sleep at the memory of my water park escapades.

Day 4: Beach & shore vistas

 CHECKING OUT the choppy waves at Kata Beach, popular with surfers.  (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) CHECKING OUT the choppy waves at Kata Beach, popular with surfers. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

After an early morning of munching poached eggs on toast at the breakfast buffet, it was time for some views. We headed to the observation point of three gorgeous beaches – Kata, with its choppy waves prized by surfers; Kata Noi, with its soft sand and crystal-clear water against a lush green backdrop; and Karon, one of the island’s longest beaches, with the northern end perfect for those seeking a more remote spot.

Then off to lunch at The Shore by Kathathani, a hotel designed to give one the feeling of both lavish seclusion and boundless space. Villas feature private infinity pools, sunken lounges, baths with rain showers and panoramic ocean views. It took all my self-control not to jump into the refreshing waters of said infinity pool fully clothed. A luscious banana shake soothed my thirsty spirit.

 THE SHORE by Kathathani’s impossibly luxurious in-villa infinity pool. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) THE SHORE by Kathathani’s impossibly luxurious in-villa infinity pool. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

Our next stop was Le Meridien Phuket, which seemed ideal for families, though romance is certainly not out of the question. Heaven was lying on a lounger at the pool and gazing at the palm trees and the resort’s secluded beach on Relax Bay. Dinner at sunset on the beach was a highlight, with a chef-prepared menu that included delectable rice served in a (machete-free) pineapple. What fun!

 A HIGHLIGHT: Beachside dinner at Le Meridien, on Relax Bay. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) A HIGHLIGHT: Beachside dinner at Le Meridien, on Relax Bay. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

Heading back, we made a quick stop in Patong, the island’s nightlife center. The normally thriving pedestrian mall, lined with clubs, bars, cabarets and massage parlors, was all but deserted. A live rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by a couple of enthusiastic street performers with a plinking keyboard elevated my mood. The tourists would soon be back (to here, not John Denver’s West Virginia)!

Day 5: Going to the chapel... to get a PCR test

The morning began with a bit of business: our required second in-country PCR test. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the strip mall housing the clinic to find it also featured... a wedding chapel? Elvis impersonators optional.

Test complete, despite my annoying the stern nurse who demanded silence, I headed to the complex’s CVS-like drug/everything store, where I purchased a matcha latte for the equivalent of two shekels. Unheard of! I gulped it down happily.

Lunch? Si si. We headed to the Nai Harn, boasting sea views of its sublime namesake beach from every terrace. Nestled in a hillside rainforest opposite Promthep Cape, the resort & spa offers “intimacy, privacy and restful seclusion.” I nestled myself on one of the oversized comfy pillows scattered everywhere, took in the vistas and felt my shoulders relax (all while eating my lunchtime risotto, of course).

 NESTLE in a comfy pillow at the Nai Harn and marvel at the sea views. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) NESTLE in a comfy pillow at the Nai Harn and marvel at the sea views. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

As if I wasn’t relaxed enough, our next stop was Chivitr Wellness Retreat, an elegant Asian-style spa in the mountains focused on long-term health maintenance, tailored to individuals’ needs. Despite all the leisure I had experienced, owner Pornthip Noppakoon, a masseuse herself, must have seen stress on my face since she chose me out of everyone in the group for a Watsu massage. Led into a small wooden building, I changed into my bathing suit and entered a large pool with chest-deep warm water, whereupon she covered my eyes with a mask and had me insert earplugs. My senses attuned, I was treated to many minutes of Pornthip gently cradling, moving and stretching my floating body. It was a different sort of therapy for me, but this was a different sort of place.

Later, our group received breathing lessons, first on a yoga mat, then in a cold pool. Never one able to focus long enough to meditate with my mind racing at a million KPH, I was impressed that the retreat had gotten me to shake it off somewhat and give myself over to the moment.

Dinner was on the porch at the cliffside Baan Rim Pa. I spooned up my coconut curry soup, still not jaded by the impossibly breathtaking views.

Day 6: Local luxuries

In lieu of what I was later told was a blast – ATV’ing, visiting Bang Pae waterfall, and lunch at the magnificent Anantara Mai Khao Phuket Villas – I chose to spend the day on the beach at our hotel, the Banyan Tree.

Despite the strong wind, I had quite the time lying on the soft sand and listening to the waves. I found every Thai beach I visited lovely in its own way, and this was no exception. I finished my book and with nearly no other beach-goers around, savored the chance to be alone in this peaceful place.

I stayed local for the rest of the day as well, with an excellent massage at the Banyan Tree Spa. As noted, I usually do not enjoy lying prone and action-less for an hour, but the skillful masseuse had even me loosening up. Dinner at the hotel was flavorful; I particularly took to the profusion of finger foods. I drifted off to my villa, feeling tranquil, well-kneaded and well-fed.

Day 7: Our last day! Sob!

Sigh. It was off to lunch at Saii Laguna Phuket, with its “signature Thai hospitality and sensory aesthetics providing postcard-perfect memories.” The pool with water slide adjacent to beautiful Bangtao Beach certainly felt like a tropical fantasy, as I took a moment to sit on one of the swings bordering the pool and beach.

We capped off our trip with high tea at the honeymoon villa in Phuket Marriott Resort and Spa, Nai Yang Beach. Tiered trays boasted every sort of pastry and delicate sandwich, and I took a quick farewell dip in the private pool and wandered through the spacious garden leading to the beach, where fishermen were casting their lines in the waters.

 READY FOR lovers at the Marriott Resort and Spa. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE) READY FOR lovers at the Marriott Resort and Spa. (credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

And then, there we were, back at the airport. But we couldn’t leave without one last massage, could we? Naturally, the lounge had roving staff offering just that. Where else but in Thailand could you get pampered with a shoulder rub while waiting for your flight?

El Al “Dreamlinered” us home in premium class. The upgrade in seat comfort, legroom and service was appreciable, and the flight passed like a breeze.

And just like that, I was back on Israeli terra firma, searching for a sheirut to take me back to Jerusalem.

I GENUINELY found it hard to leave Phuket, the captivating island that had showered me with so much comfort and contentment. I had to return to reality, yet I was better for it – having aired out my exhausted corona brain and reignited my zest for travel.

I heartily recommend you do the same. Practice your coconut sipping and pack your airiest threads. You’re off to Thailand!

Sawadika!

The fine print

Thailand has been open since November 1 to fully vaccinated foreign visitors from the approved countries/territories – which include Israel – to enter the Kingdom by air with no quarantine requirements. 

Tourists may enter Phuket as part of the “Blue Zone Sandbox,” which comprise 17 Thai destinations that include the Israeli favorites of Ko Samui and Ko Pha-ngan. You must stay within the sandbox for seven nights before going on to other locations in the country.

For more information on required documents and details: www.tatnews.org/

Through February 28, El Al is operating three flights a week to Bangkok Airport (nonstop/via Phuket). Prices from $638.

The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Israel and of El Al.