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Thailand: the land of smiles

Strike a balance between the laid-back charm, luxury spas and beautiful beaches of Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand, and bustling city life in Bangkok and you, like Teena Punjwani, will soon be grinning...

  • Luxury spas and beautiful beaches of Hua Hin make up the Gulf of Thailand. Image Credit: Shutterstock
  • Dusit Thani Hua Hin boasts two huge swimming pools, a lily pond and tranquil tropical gardens.Image Credit: Supplied
  • InterContinental Hua Hin has amazing poolside pavilions.Image Credit: Supplied
  • The functioning Hua Hin Railway station, withits disused steam trains on display, is a populartourist attrImage Credit: Getty Images
  • Clever presentation means San Marco’s crème brûlée looks like a little island.Image Credit: Supplied
  • Chiva-Som Spa has seven acres of tropical gardens, plus spectacular views of the Gulfof Thailand.Image Credit: Supplied
  • Cicada market showcases local art, music, crafts and good food.Image Credit: Shutterstock
  • The Apsara cruise lasts four hours and offers plenty of sites – and delicious Thai treats!Image Credit: Supplied
  • Terminal 21 mall has over 600 shops, themed around market streets of the world.Image Credit: Shutterstock

A light fragrance of fresh orchids floated through the air and as I walked down the softly lit corridor I felt plush, thick carpet between my toes. Every now and then I’d glance up at the huge Thai paintings portraying local culture and traditions, lost in my own thoughts. Then I realised someone was walking towards me.

Bowing my head slightly, I pressed my palms together, “Sawasdee Ka,” I said – which means “hello” in Thai – only to realise I was greeting my own reflection in the mirror. I laughed and quickly pressed the elevator button hoping no one had seen me. But my experience shows how stunning the interiors of Siam Kempinski hotel in Bangkok are – so mesmerising that they can trick your mind. Or maybe I was just so relaxed, instead of my usual alert self.

I’d arrived in Bangkok two days earlier and met my tour guide, Prasong Wandee, when I got off the plane feeling lethargic, but excited too. “Call me Song,” he’d said, smiling. I immediately knew I’d be in good hands throughout my five days in Thailand’s capital Bangkok and Hua Hin, our first stop.

One of the oldest Thai beach resort areas, Hua Hin is three hours’ drive from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and home to one of the well-known Dusit Thani hotels, where I’d be staying. After an almost-seven-hour flight from Dubai to Bangkok, I couldn’t wait to get there.

On our way to Hua Hin, we saw huge statues of buddha in gold, Thai temples, small shops and the national flag. Upon arrival, the staff of the hotel greeted us in the lobby with a cool glass of lemongrass and ginger iced tea. A traditional Thai song and dance and a garland of heavenly smelling jasmine and orchids that was tied around my wrist.

I headed to my room for a quick freshen up before lunch. My room – or mini apartment – was called the club suite, and had a private balcony offering panoramic views of the beachfront, lagoon and tropical gardens outside. It even had a separate living room, walk-in wardrobe and twin sinks in the bathroom with separate bathtub and a rain shower. It was all so sumptuously decorated, that I had to tear myself away to go downstairs for lunch at the San Marco restaurant.

Still a little dehydrated after travelling, I chose a refreshing Sogno d’Amore, a cold-pressed fruity mix of beetroot and green apple with a dollop of honey. It was delicious.

My stomach was rumbling by now, so I ordered lentil soup, a salad of pomelo, crabmeat and avocado, Italian flat bread and truffle-laced new-potato rosti. It was all so tasty but I still had room for the to-die-for mango crème brûlée with coconut ice cream. It was served in a coconut shell base and topped with a chocolate tree – like a little edible island.


Stuffed, I decided to take a slow stroll down the beach overlooking the Gulf of Thailand before taking in the hotel’s grounds with its two huge swimming pools, a lily pond and tranquil tropical gardens. I felt so relaxed, I retired to my room for a nap.

Luckily I woke up in time to meet Song and some other holidaymakers in the lobby at 6pm, feeling refreshed. We were all excited about exploring Hua Hin by night and hurriedly introduced ourselves while piling into a swish VIP van. Ten minutes later we reached our first stop, Hua Hin Railway station, one of the oldest in Thailand, in Sanam Chan Palace, Nakhon Pathom Province built in the 1920s. It was finally rebuilt at Hua Hin in 1968 under the reign of King Rama VI. It’s now a popular tourist spot for visitors eager to see The Royal waiting room, which is a magnificent wooden pavilion painted in shades of red and white and which was used to welcome the Head of State when he visited. Disused steam engines dating back to the 1930s are exhibited outside.

The station is still operational with old rickety trains regularly running between the four-hour journey from Hua Hin to Bangkok.

Next stop was the night market in the centre of town, just off Phetkasem Road, which is open nightly from 6pm to around midnight. Small stalls are set up on the pavements and you can buy souvenirs, T-shirts, shoes, lights, candles and locally made traditional Thai handicrafts such as buddha statues, batik, silk, lamps, wood carvings, hand-painted parasols and embroidery. It covers a four-block area and is also known for its freshly cooked Thai cuisine, seafood, fresh fruit and yummy desserts.

Prices are reasonable if you’re ready to flex your bargaining skills. I couldn’t wait to treat myself to some new things without burning a hole in my purse. We shopped for two hours and I was laden with bags by the time I staggered back to the van. “I suggest you leave some things for Bangkok,” Song laughed as we set off.

Struggling to keep my balance as we sped back to the hotel, I demonstrated how one versatile black and beige dress I’d bought could be worn five ways. “And it was only 250 baht (Dh28),” I told my new friends, who then excitedly showed off their buys too – a shirt for 100 baht, a string of fairy lights for just 150, a set of table mats for 100...

We were still showing off our bargains as we reached the InterContinental Hua Hin resort where we were going for dinner at the beachfront Azure restaurant.

On the menu was freshly caught seafood, which we would eat outside overlooking the ocean. We opted for the fisherman’s sharing platter, piled high with barbecued baby squid, grilled white sea prawns, and steamed mussels with ginger-fried rice.

We couldn’t stop raving about every dish – it was the best seafood I had ever tasted. But occasionally we’d take our eyes off our plates and look at the poolside pavilions and fibre-optic lighting creating an enchanting starlight effect at night.

I was exhausted by the end of the evening, but happy – we had already seen so much and I’d only been here one day.

After a wonderful night’s sleep back at the Dusit Thani I woke up excited. Today we were off on a whistle-stop visit of Chiva-Som, the uber-luxurious private spa, which is also in Hua Hin. The name means ‘haven of life’ and the spa was launched in 1995 by Thailand’s former deputy prime minister, Boonchu Rojanastien.

I was greeted at the reception with a cold ginger iced tea and felt like I had entered a spa paradise, with its seven acres of lush tropical gardens and spectacular views of the Gulf of Thailand.

My Chiva-Som journey began with a personal consultation with a health expert who suggested I try the signature Thai massage.

My friendly therapist greeted me at the spa reception and led me to a private room where she kneaded away all my knots and tension.

I floated out of the treatment room and went off to explore. The ocean-view Thai pavilion suites are painted in calm pastel colours, presumably to help you sleep well and clear your mind. I saw only a few other people, who were also strolling around in loose clothing and flip-flops enjoying the quiet and gentle sea breeze.

This place is certainly set up to recharge batteries and coax out your inner peace. Phones, tablets and cameras are prohibited in public areas so it’s a good chance to get back to nature.

At lunch I sampled fresh vegetables sourced from the spa’s own organic farm – they grow 30 kinds of fruit and vegetables here – and thrown together with local herbs and spices for a low-calorie detoxifying menu. I didn’t want to leave after lunch, but our busy schedule dictated it was time to head for the Cicada market in the Khao Takiab area, near Takiab Mountain.

Cicada stands for the Community of Identity Culture, Arts and Dynamic Activities and is all about showcasing local art, music, crafts and good food. The first thing I saw was a band of local artists playing Thai fusion music. In another corner, a group of young Thai breakdancers did a turtle freeze (a step where they are balancing on their hands), then a headstand – performing to the staccato beats coming from a shiny boombox. I stood watching in awe, wishing I could dance like them.

Fairy lights hung on the trees, while art installations and illuminated pathways gave the place a romantic feel. There were stalls selling everything from T-shirts to handmade jewellery, postcards, lamps and dolls. Both locals and tourists were milling around.

I bought some beautiful handmade jewellery for 250 baht and a few scented candles for my mum (100 baht each) before we left.

Around 5km from the Cicada market we stopped at the vintage-style eco village PlearnWan.

‘Plearn’ means play and learn and ‘Wan’ means yesterday in the Thai language and the village is designed to take visitors back in time to the good old days of Hua Hin and to reminisce and learn about bygone eras.

I say ‘village’ but actually it is a rickety looking two-storey wooden complex with shops that hawk a variety of retro favourites and toys, fashion boutiques, a beauty salon, massage centre and food stalls.

The vintage theme is complete with wooden cart stalls, retro street signs, colourful bunting, classic cars parked next to tuks-tuks and 1950s-style scooters.

There is a fairground too, with a Ferris wheel lit up with neon lights, and shooting games to bring out your inner child. It also has an outdoor cinema showing classic Thai movies at weekends. Inspired by all the Thai locals taking pictures, I quickly took a selfie next to a vintage scooter to capture a retro memory.

All the walking around, and the smoke and steam rising from the boiling pans and spitting grills of the food stalls had made me ravenous. I came across a shop where a man was selling sliced mangoes with sticky rice, a traditional Thai dessert. I quickly bit into its soft texture and felt like a small kid all over again. Dessert before dinner – well it was a holiday!

We headed to a local restaurant, Baan Itsara, for a dinner of authentic Thai cuisine. Dish after dish arrived at our table and we filled our plates with fried rice, crabmeat, steamed lemony squid, deep-fried snapper, and fried grouper drizzled with sweet and sour sauce. The dishes kept coming – spicy deep-fried catfish salad, stir-fried kangkung with soya sauce, soft-shelled crab in curry powder and Tom Yum Goong (a spicy prawn soup).

I soon felt sleepy after so much food, and back at the hotel collapsed into bed.

The next day I was up early to check out and head back to Bangkok. The capital city is known for its dazzling temples, floating markets, street food and shopping. I was looking forward to exploring the city.

After checking in the Siam Kempinski hotel, I changed into comfy clothes, ready for a nap, but I was too excited to sleep and went for a wander around the hotel corridors – that’s when I found myself talking to a mirror!

Back in the comfort of my room I got ready for dinner at the Apsara cruise – a Thai-style wooden rice barge (2,300 baht per adult and
1,150 baht for a child).

It set off from Saphan Takism station and gently chugged along Chao Phraya River travelling past Watt Arun (temple of dawn) to the Golden Rama VIII Bridge.

The cruise takes four hours – plenty of time to devour more authentic Thai cuisine such as crackers with coconut meat sauce, wing bean salad, crab meat, slow braised beef spice soup shallot, snow fish with coconut red curry and wok-tossed chicken cashew nuts. Then more mango sticky rice for dessert and Thai tea panna cotta. “I never knew Thailand did desserts so well,” I thought happily. 


Over dinner I described the mirror incident in the Siam Kempinski hotel corridor to my new friends. Everyone laughed about it and one by one confessed the same had happened to them. We couldn’t figure out if we were too relaxed or the hotel corridor was too dark.

By now, the barge had stopped at the Grand Palace along the Chao Phraya River so that we could take photos. The Grand or Royal Palace is one of the major tourist attractions in Bangkok, and dates back to 1782, the year in which Bangkok was founded. It looked so beautiful glittering and sparkling at night.

As I was clicking away, a member of my group called me to join her on the cruise deck. With our full stomachs we sat in silence, watching the bustling waterway, dazzling stars and enjoying the cool breeze blowing on our faces. It was stunning.

Sadly my last day in Thailand arrived too quickly. But I was staying in the heart of Bangkok’s premier shopping and entertainment district with easy access to the BTS Skytrain through Siam Paragon Mall.

I also had just enough time to visit Terminal 21 and MBK for some last-minute shopping.

Terminal 21 is a massive mixed-use complex with nine floors and houses 600 shops. The theme running throughout is ‘market streets of the world’, covering Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and Istanbul. It celebrates the dream of travelling the world and seeing new things, which I was delighted to be doing right then and there.

Arriving back at my hotel room I found a small memento on my table. A beautifully framed group picture taken at the Grand Palace with a little note from Siam Kempinski hotel staff: “We hope you had a wonderful stay with us and your visit to the land of smiles was a memorable one.”

I packed it into an over-stuffed bag feeling a little sad to leave. Five days in Thailand just wasn’t enough. But I was going back to Dubai with more than just a few good memories and new friends.

This story first appeared on Friday in December 2015

 

Getting there

Flights: Thai Airways flies direct from Dubai to Bangkok. For more information and to book visit www.thaiairways.ae. 

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