Thailand = Happiness

The popular destination spot remains an alluring escape for a high-class getaway.

A pristine island beach on a typical Andaman Sea island is just a short speedboat ride from Krabi. (photo credit: LIOR PATEL)
A pristine island beach on a typical Andaman Sea island is just a short speedboat ride from Krabi.
(photo credit: LIOR PATEL)
Thailand has always been on my wish list of places to go, especially after all four of our children visited after their IDF service – while my only travel destination after my own service was reserve duty. One daughter even spent some time there volunteering in a government reserve for abused elephants, which made Thailand sound like a very caring sort of place.
Indeed, that is precisely what the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) recently decided to show the world, in the form of a VIP tour of the country for some 1,000 journalists from around the globe, including our party of 12 Israelis. The government was eager to demonstrate how the country is now thriving under the leadership of the National Council for Peace and Order, whose generals took power in a bloodless coup in May from a government that was rife with corruption.
Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, 60, was chosen as premier by a national assembly made up mainly of military figures, endorsed by Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The junta took power after months of protests against corruption left dozens killed and hundreds more wounded. Besides paralyzing the government and suppressing the economy, the unrest was frightening off the tourists who are the country’s lifeblood.
New elections have been scheduled for October 2015, after the junta oversees reforms aimed at cleaning up politics. A new and more democratic constitution is under preparation.
Accordingly, TAT pulled out all stops in showcasing the country, arranging visits to some of its most exquisite parts, all of which reflected the calm beauty Thailand and its people are known for, without any signs of tension or unrest. “Thailand Happiness” was the official theme of the trip, which began in Bangkok in late July with a gala reception followed by a street festival, seemingly attended by a good portion of the city’s eight million residents.
As befits a VIP tour that was also sponsored by El Al, our magical journey began with complimentary (domestic) champagne in our first-class cabin, whose fully reclining seats enabled a restful sleep all the way to Bangkok. It was uphill from then on out.
The gala reception that began our week’s tour was the highlight of our first two days in the country, spent touring such must-see sites in the teeming urban capital as the royal palace. Our base was a new, cutting-edge skyscraper hotel, the Sofitel.
Not your ordinary 30-story pension with a pool deck outside the 10th floor, the French luxury hotel brand is a true work of art, whose floors and public areas were designed by leading Thai architects in groups according to the five elements: earth, water, fire, wood and metal. For example, in my wood element room, different grains of wood and indirect lighting interacted to create a feeling of being in a work of art, a calmness that was a total relief from the bustle of the city.
The reception was on a grand scale, in the rooftop hall of Bangkok’s largest mall, which could easily house four Jerusalem malls. Cocktails were followed by a short informational film, choral selection and brief welcome by a junta representative, but then the celebration took off outside. A parade included Ms. Thailand in an open vintage Oldsmobile convertible – and thousands of balloons released into the happy nighttime Thai sky.
The next day, we were off for some serious touring: flying to the southern province of Krabi on the Andaman Sea for two days of island-hopping and hiking to waterfalls in limestone hills, based at the five-star Sofitel Krabi Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort. A day’s outing by speedboat for a swim and picnic on the pristine beach of one of many nearby islands didn’t leave any time to try out the nine-hole golf course; but there was a full-body massage to attend to, a mountaintop restaurant dinner and a rather spectacular pool party the next day.
While the Sofitel Krabi is a beach resort, it also boasts what is reportedly the longest swimming pool in Thailand. This aquatic marvel extends for some 300 meters, winding its way around the resort on a channel crossed by footbridges and culminating in a large pool with an island in the middle. A leisurely circumnavigation of the pool ended perfectly at the island bar.
The design of the resort itself is the antithesis of the urban Bangkok Sofitel: classic colonial style with dark-paneled wood, teak floors, soaring arches and lofty, high-vaulted ceilings. Instead of Bangkok’s central park, the large private balconies overlook the ocean, pool and gardens.
Just when we had finally transitioned from any lingering jet lag and settled in at the Krabi oasis for some serious relaxation, we were off at 5 the next morning to catch a flight for Chiang Mai in the north, and our last two days in paradise.
Needless to say, our Chiang Mai experience was not that of backpackers. The Dhara Devi is a modern resort built in the style of an ancient palace, situated in the countryside on almost 25 hectares (60 acres) of tropical gardens. It offers suites, villas and residences arranged like exhibits in a botanical garden; in fact, the whole country is a botanical garden.
Among the refinements at Dhara Devi is a French restaurant that serves an exquisite nouveau cuisine, the kind serviced by separate waiters for the rolls, butter, water, wine and at last, food. The accommodations are what one would expect for a five-star-plus resort, ranging in price from an average suite at NIS 4,800 per night to the Royal Residence at NIS 46,500 per night (breakfast included).
Luxury aside, no visit to Chiang Mai would be complete without two Thai staples: massages and elephants. For the former, we were taken to the Tao Garden Health Spa & Resort, where we underwent a combination of health evaluation and treatment in accordance with traditional Chinese medicine, but with a modern twist.
The modern technology was an aura bio-electrographic evaluation. This fortunately painless procedure involves placing well-scrubbed fingers into a fingerprint- reading machine, which then prints out one’s aura in living color. My aura was a very attractive deep blue surrounding an outline of my body, overlaid with a rather spiky orange line. But looks were deceiving: According to the diagnostic consultant, my aura indicated lower back problems and a weakened immune system.
Fingerprints don’t lie.
After the dubious diagnosis, I looked forward to being delivered by golf cart across the exotic Tao gardens to a hut in a serene glade, where I would receive a stomach massage. It sounded promising, but I really had no idea what to expect after bowing in greeting to the masseuse. This sweet-looking, little Thai grandmother had fingers of steel. For a solid hour she manipulated my flab, seeming to reach through my abdomen to my inner organs.
“Ah, sir. You have toxins in your kidney on the left. I push them out. If I hurt, you say.”
I said so, more than once. The Chinese stomach massage is not for sissies. Fortunately, Chiang Mai is known for more pleasant massage experiences. Not to be missed is the traditional foot massage, also an hour long, meaning 30 minutes of ecstasy on each foot.
While I’ve never thought of owning an elephant, there’s a place in Chiang Mai that invites one to become “an elephant owner for a day.” The Patara Elephant Farm is dedicated to preserving and cultivating Thailand’s elephant population, which has been on the decline. The farm tends to a herd of elephants from different species, which roam unconfined in a natural environment, and finances itself by offering tourists a chance to care for them for a day.
“Ethical and meaningful tourism with happy elephants” is Patara’s motto, and this is achieved by teaching groups of visitors how to approach the pachyderms, feed them, bathe them in a river and enjoy riding them bareback. The training is held at a lush mountain range in Hang Dong Valley, about half an hour south of the city. Our group of hardened journalists melted at the encounter with the Patara elephant family, for this is how the elephants were described: some two-dozen magnificent creatures the farm has adopted from unsuitable living conditions – such as exploitation by the logging industry – that now live in a friendly environment conducive to natural breeding. Patara boasts the only elephant family in the country that has given birth to 18 babies, with zero mortality, over the past 10 years.
We strolled among these beautiful fellow mammals, petting and feeding them, and marveling that we were doing so in a jungle clearing rather than from behind a barrier in a zoo. Our visit, like most of the stops on our trip, was brief, but we escorted a hotel group of “owners for a day” as they led the elephants on a trail through the forest to the river to bathe them.
Each member of a mixed group of Britons, Scandinavians and Japanese led an elephant to the water and proceeded to wash and scrub it with a brush. As it was 37° and very humid, everyone enjoyed the water, especially the elephants – who sprayed the day-trippers with their trunks.
After only a week in paradise, Thailand is high on my list of places to return to.
The writer is the editor of The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition and the paper’s former chief copy editor.