Economical oases and luxurious resorts in Thailand

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by Bill Kizorek, Lisle, IL

On my thirtieth trip to Thailand, I spent 30 days roving the country via taxis, tuk-tuks, buses, planes, boats and elephants. Here is the recap for not only budget travelers but also those who want to savor the pinnacle of Thai luxury. Half of the trip was an independent (and expensive) journey; the other half was with a tour group.

Luxury accommodations

I began in Bangkok at the Sukhothai (fax 800/223-6800 or visit www.sukhothai.com), an incredible boutique hotel on Sathorn Road. This is seven acres of heaven located only a mile from the Patpong night market. Rooms start at about $140 per night, but they often run deals.

For a real treat, try to get upgraded to one of the garden suites, a series of rooms with 20-foot ceilings and impeccable decor and loaded with tropical flowers and exotic fruits.

Kamphol, one of the main concierge staffers, can take care of travel issues for you even before you get to Thailand.

This January ’04 trip was during high season, so there were not many deals to be had in the Thai islands. I prebooked the Central Samui Beach Resort (www.samui-hotels.com/csbr) on the island of Koh Samui for $200 a night per room. (That was the price after the 40% discount I received in exchange for some free P.R. shots I gave the resort.)

We were creating a Thai cooking documentary on the island, and when two of my staff moved out to stay at the Health Oasis Resort (www.healthoasisresort.com — rooms from $16 to $100 per night), the Central Samui put me in a suite.

Extremely well located for night action and shoppers, the resort had one very major drawback: between January 1st and 6th, fireworks were set off on the beach every night at
11:30 p.m. Each night was like an enemy attack with incoming mortar rounds. (The hotel condoned only the New Year’s Eve blasts; the other nights, businesses on the beach set off their own.) During the day, jet skiers plied the waters in front of the hotel.

We also tried an exclusive resort on the island called Santiburi Resort (fax +66 77 425040 or visit www.lhw.com). Almost all rooms were private villas starting at $435 per night. The resort was so full that I was shifted to three rooms in three nights, ending up in the Jacuzzi Suite. Rooms here are “lifestyles of the rich and famous” exquisite. A quiet (even at the height of the season) and elegant beach fronts the property — another plus. Director of rooms Chak Paladsongkram was totally attentive to guests’ needs.

Much of our Thai cooking video was taped on location, adjacent to the beach, at the previously mentioned Health Oasis Resort. Manta, the owner and a lovely Thai woman, was the chef.

This resort, even though economical, seemed to be filled with happy travelers. My daughter, like many other guests, was enamored of Chinese-medicine specialist Alicia, who gives poignant nutritional advice as well as acupuncture treatments. The Health Oasis was my favorite place on the island.

Local finds

I have mixed reviews to offer on B. Armani Tailors, located across from the Central Samui Resort. Five fittings were necessary for some garments, and the proprietors seemed to be more interested that the clothes fit according to their preferences rather than the purchaser’s. Luckily, I had my wife along to battle with the tailors. And the Thai silks on their shelves made into the most comfortable and attractive shirts.

Chartering a sailboat is often associated with big bucks, but Sam Miller and Mac McGrath (e-mail sail@worldguide.com or visit www.worldguide.com/sail), two good-looking and thoughtful Americans, will take you all around this part of oceanic Thailand for $150 a day on a boat that sleeps seven. Rates may be even lower for extended travel or during low season. They will also rig fishing poles off the back of the boat.

Restaurant reviews

Although I could eat Thai food twice a day, others in the group needed a break. The following restaurants were the best of the Thailand journey:

Aye’s Restaurant, located across from the night market in Chiang Mai — offering French bread better than that in Paris, with a congenial owner (Kkun Aye), an efficient staff and reasonable prices. Dinner for two, with wine, cost less than $16.

Anna’s Café (118 Saladaeng Rd., Bangkok; phone 02-6320619-20 or visit www. annascafe.com) — where you may be the only Westerner in the place, as this is where the Thais go. Chic male waiters in black T-shirts provided fast service. Lunch for two cost about $14 with beers.

Giorgio Italian Restaurant (2/6 Prachasamphan Rd., Chiang Mai; phone 053 818236) — had pizza better than that in Rome and the house red wine was unusually good for Thailand. (Thailand is producing some sophisticated red wines that are better values than their imported European or American counterparts.)

Joining our tour

Gate 1 Travel (Glenside, PA; phone 800/682-3333 or visit www.gate1 travel.com) provided an economical tour to northern Thailand. (The local agency was Diethelm Travel). For about a $1,000, I got a round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Bangkok, a room for 11 nights, daily elaborate breakfast buffets and bus and air travel around Thailand.

Supremely comfortable red buses hauled us from one place to another. Both guides on the tour, Penny and Pensri, were highly regarded by my fellow travelers. I’d give Gate 1 an A+.

The tour was so well done that, instead of focusing our video production on northern Thailand cuisine, we shifted gears and created a secondary DVD on the Gate 1 adventure. Hotels were better than we thought they would be for the money. I could not figure out how they could put this tour together so economically.

Although the Buddhas were awesome, the visit to the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai was a highlight. Elephants playing soccer and painting flowers on canvas were amazing; riding on the back of an elephant was a little disconcerting, though.

Monkey business

The most bizarre part of the tour was the Monkey Temple in Lopburi. Inside the grounds, about 50 monkeys, ranging from one-pound babies to 25-pound thugs, pestered visitors for peanuts. The smaller monkeys were polite little beggars, but the biggest monkeys ruled.

One came up to me and boldly snatched the entire bag of peanuts from my hand. When I tried to reason with the creature, he bared his fangs and faked an assault on me. Within seconds, one of the local monkey control guys put a marble-sized stone into a slingshot and pelted the assailant.

Simultaneously, one member of our tour group came out of the temple with a coaster-sized welt on her arm. She was just taking a picture and a monkey bit her. Although she did not have any broken skin, she did carry with her a purple monkey-bite tattoo for the rest of the trip.

Gate 1 did forewarn us of the dangers, but this stop was well worth it. Most of us just assumed that if there was ever a serious injury (ie., rabies) that this stop would have been removed from the tour.

One tip — don’t smile at wild monkeys. This is the kind of expression they interpret as aggressive.

An unexpected extention

The month’s journey had an extraordinary ending. My traveling companion of 25 years, my wife, Janie, became so sick that she could not travel back to Bangkok on the scheduled flight. We checked into the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai (phone 800/819-5053 or visit www.fourseasons.com) to help her recuperate.

The hotel, set amidst the mountains of Chiang Mai and built around a working rice field, could be the subject of an entire photo book. Rustic works of art dotted the property, and the landscaping flawlessly respected the environment.

Rates here started at $400 per night for the Garden View Pavilion during high season and, like all hotels in Thailand, had an 18.5% surcharge. The rooms are all small, stand-alone villas, and each had a planked walkway out to a private thatch-covered dining and sofa area.

The care and attention paid to Janie by General Manager Patrick Ghelmetti and the concern of the staff for her welfare were incredible.

The spa was festooned with works of art and flowers, and the treatments, although expensive, were the best Janie had received in Thailand — ever.

To further assist in Janie’s recovery, Patrick arranged for a room at the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok and, at no additional charge over the rack rate for the smallest room, ensconced us in a 1,300-square-foot deluxe suite. The grounds of this hotel are also award-winning and the shops exquisite, and the hotel had just been chosen the second-best hotel in Bangkok.

More important than the size of the suite was the measure of generosity on the part of the staff of the Four Seasons in two different cities.

Although many travelers might consider costly hotels a needless folly, the stays at the Four Seasons were a magnificent way to end the journey. Surrounded by a soothing environment and caring staff, Janie quickly recovered.

Across the road from the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai is a small new eco-resort called Bamboo Torch Garden Home (e-mail info@northtrips.com). Each accommodation was a tiny, thatch-covered hut; many were air-conditioned.

The rates here started at about $14 per day. The rooms were clean, the air-conditioner was quiet and the owners were congenial. We could even rent bikes and kayaks here.

Although the Four Seasons was otherworldly in its beauty and serenity, and a treat for those who could afford it, I would not hesitate to stay at the Bamboo Torch. Of course, I would go to lunch on the beach at the Four Seasons across the street.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Bill Kizorek, Lisle, IL

On my thirtieth trip to Thailand, I spent 30 days roving the country via taxis, tuk-tuks, buses, planes, boats and elephants. Here is the recap for not only budget travelers but also those who want to savor the pinnacle of Thai luxury. Half of the trip was an independent (and expensive) journey; the other half was with a tour group.

Luxury accommodations

I began in Bangkok at the Sukhothai (fax 800/223-6800 or visit www.sukhothai.com), an incredible boutique hotel on Sathorn Road. This is seven acres of heaven located only a mile from the Patpong night market. Rooms start at about $140 per night, but they often run deals.

For a real treat, try to get upgraded to one of the garden suites, a series of rooms with 20-foot ceilings and impeccable decor and loaded with tropical flowers and exotic fruits.

Kamphol, one of the main concierge staffers, can take care of travel issues for you even before you get to Thailand.

This January ’04 trip was during high season, so there were not many deals to be had in the Thai islands. I prebooked the Central Samui Beach Resort (www.samui-hotels.com/csbr) on the island of Koh Samui for $200 a night per room. (That was the price after the 40% discount I received in exchange for some free P.R. shots I gave the resort.)

We were creating a Thai cooking documentary on the island, and when two of my staff moved out to stay at the Health Oasis Resort (www.healthoasisresort.com — rooms from $16 to $100 per night), the Central Samui put me in a suite.

Extremely well located for night action and shoppers, the resort had one very major drawback: between January 1st and 6th, fireworks were set off on the beach every night at
11:30 p.m. Each night was like an enemy attack with incoming mortar rounds. (The hotel condoned only the New Year’s Eve blasts; the other nights, businesses on the beach set off their own.) During the day, jet skiers plied the waters in front of the hotel.

We also tried an exclusive resort on the island called Santiburi Resort (fax +66 77 425040 or visit www.lhw.com). Almost all rooms were private villas starting at $435 per night. The resort was so full that I was shifted to three rooms in three nights, ending up in the Jacuzzi Suite. Rooms here are “lifestyles of the rich and famous” exquisite. A quiet (even at the height of the season) and elegant beach fronts the property — another plus. Director of rooms Chak Paladsongkram was totally attentive to guests’ needs.

Much of our Thai cooking video was taped on location, adjacent to the beach, at the previously mentioned Health Oasis Resort. Manta, the owner and a lovely Thai woman, was the chef.

This resort, even though economical, seemed to be filled with happy travelers. My daughter, like many other guests, was enamored of Chinese-medicine specialist Alicia, who gives poignant nutritional advice as well as acupuncture treatments. The Health Oasis was my favorite place on the island.

Local finds

I have mixed reviews to offer on B. Armani Tailors, located across from the Central Samui Resort. Five fittings were necessary for some garments, and the proprietors seemed to be more interested that the clothes fit according to their preferences rather than the purchaser’s. Luckily, I had my wife along to battle with the tailors. And the Thai silks on their shelves made into the most comfortable and attractive shirts.

Chartering a sailboat is often associated with big bucks, but Sam Miller and Mac McGrath (e-mail sail@worldguide.com or visit www.worldguide.com/sail), two good-looking and thoughtful Americans, will take you all around this part of oceanic Thailand for $150 a day on a boat that sleeps seven. Rates may be even lower for extended travel or during low season. They will also rig fishing poles off the back of the boat.

Restaurant reviews

Although I could eat Thai food twice a day, others in the group needed a break. The following restaurants were the best of the Thailand journey:

Aye’s Restaurant, located across from the night market in Chiang Mai — offering French bread better than that in Paris, with a congenial owner (Kkun Aye), an efficient staff and reasonable prices. Dinner for two, with wine, cost less than $16.

Anna’s Café (118 Saladaeng Rd., Bangkok; phone 02-6320619-20 or visit www. annascafe.com) — where you may be the only Westerner in the place, as this is where the Thais go. Chic male waiters in black T-shirts provided fast service. Lunch for two cost about $14 with beers.

Giorgio Italian Restaurant (2/6 Prachasamphan Rd., Chiang Mai; phone 053 818236) — had pizza better than that in Rome and the house red wine was unusually good for Thailand. (Thailand is producing some sophisticated red wines that are better values than their imported European or American counterparts.)

Joining our tour

Gate 1 Travel (Glenside, PA; phone 800/682-3333 or visit www.gate1 travel.com) provided an economical tour to northern Thailand. (The local agency was Diethelm Travel). For about a $1,000, I got a round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Bangkok, a room for 11 nights, daily elaborate breakfast buffets and bus and air travel around Thailand.

Supremely comfortable red buses hauled us from one place to another. Both guides on the tour, Penny and Pensri, were highly regarded by my fellow travelers. I’d give Gate 1 an A+.

The tour was so well done that, instead of focusing our video production on northern Thailand cuisine, we shifted gears and created a secondary DVD on the Gate 1 adventure. Hotels were better than we thought they would be for the money. I could not figure out how they could put this tour together so economically.

Although the Buddhas were awesome, the visit to the Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai was a highlight. Elephants playing soccer and painting flowers on canvas were amazing; riding on the back of an elephant was a little disconcerting, though.

Monkey business

The most bizarre part of the tour was the Monkey Temple in Lopburi. Inside the grounds, about 50 monkeys, ranging from one-pound babies to 25-pound thugs, pestered visitors for peanuts. The smaller monkeys were polite little beggars, but the biggest monkeys ruled.

One came up to me and boldly snatched the entire bag of peanuts from my hand. When I tried to reason with the creature, he bared his fangs and faked an assault on me. Within seconds, one of the local monkey control guys put a marble-sized stone into a slingshot and pelted the assailant.

Simultaneously, one member of our tour group came out of the temple with a coaster-sized welt on her arm. She was just taking a picture and a monkey bit her. Although she did not have any broken skin, she did carry with her a purple monkey-bite tattoo for the rest of the trip.

Gate 1 did forewarn us of the dangers, but this stop was well worth it. Most of us just assumed that if there was ever a serious injury (ie., rabies) that this stop would have been removed from the tour.

One tip — don’t smile at wild monkeys. This is the kind of expression they interpret as aggressive.

An unexpected extention

The month’s journey had an extraordinary ending. My traveling companion of 25 years, my wife, Janie, became so sick that she could not travel back to Bangkok on the scheduled flight. We checked into the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai (phone 800/819-5053 or visit www.fourseasons.com) to help her recuperate.

The hotel, set amidst the mountains of Chiang Mai and built around a working rice field, could be the subject of an entire photo book. Rustic works of art dotted the property, and the landscaping flawlessly respected the environment.

Rates here started at $400 per night for the Garden View Pavilion during high season and, like all hotels in Thailand, had an 18.5% surcharge. The rooms are all small, stand-alone villas, and each had a planked walkway out to a private thatch-covered dining and sofa area.

The care and attention paid to Janie by General Manager Patrick Ghelmetti and the concern of the staff for her welfare were incredible.

The spa was festooned with works of art and flowers, and the treatments, although expensive, were the best Janie had received in Thailand — ever.

To further assist in Janie’s recovery, Patrick arranged for a room at the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok and, at no additional charge over the rack rate for the smallest room, ensconced us in a 1,300-square-foot deluxe suite. The grounds of this hotel are also award-winning and the shops exquisite, and the hotel had just been chosen the second-best hotel in Bangkok.

More important than the size of the suite was the measure of generosity on the part of the staff of the Four Seasons in two different cities.

Although many travelers might consider costly hotels a needless folly, the stays at the Four Seasons were a magnificent way to end the journey. Surrounded by a soothing environment and caring staff, Janie quickly recovered.

Across the road from the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai is a small new eco-resort called Bamboo Torch Garden Home (e-mail info@northtrips.com). Each accommodation was a tiny, thatch-covered hut; many were air-conditioned.

The rates here started at about $14 per day. The rooms were clean, the air-conditioner was quiet and the owners were congenial. We could even rent bikes and kayaks here.

Although the Four Seasons was otherworldly in its beauty and serenity, and a treat for those who could afford it, I would not hesitate to stay at the Bamboo Torch. Of course, I would go to lunch on the beach at the Four Seasons across the street.