The Slow and the Fast
When my traveling partner and I decided to go to Thailand, we opted to first stay for a week at a five-star spa resort on the island of Koh Samui. We wanted to slow down and have everything within reach before maneuvering through Bangkok's shopping, attractions and sidewalk vendors.
It was a wise decision. After 24 hours of travel, I fell asleep while being massaged in an open air pavilion overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary and Holistic Spa is an amazingly beautiful architectural feat, with villas and other structures built on a rocky hillside covered with lush tropical trees and flowers. There are 60 villas and rooms tucked among banana and palm trees. I stood on the porch of our villa and watched the early morning mist roll away to showcase the blue mountains in the distance.
Neither the private beach nor the two-level pool was ever crowded or noisy. The only sounds I heard, generally were the occasional cawing of an exotic bird or the sweet melodies of a small, steel drum instrument played by a New Zealand musician who planted himself in various spots around the property.
At Kamalaya, you can choose to do as much or as little as you want. I met European vacationers who came just for the spectacular view, the renowned and healthy cuisine and the personal attention delivered with such sincerity that each gesture is memorable.
Shortly after arriving, we were led to the Wellness Sanctuary for a brief physical examination. We had already filled out more extensive forms and emailed them. A consultant helped us choose a health program. My girlfriend Earni chose the "Ideal Weight" program, which meant in addition to a menu of massages she worked out with a trainer. I wanted total relaxation, so I chose "Asian Bliss," a week of massages with time for lounging at the beach. I also took Tai Chi and stretch classes, spent time with a meditation instructor and visited an acupuncturist. Both Earni and I decided Kamalaya was a perfect place to return to with a group of girlfriends. We could all have our personal routines, then meet at the beach, shower and have dinner at sunset in the restaurant overlooking the Gulf.
The service by the mostly Thai staff was impeccable yet unobtrusive. When I sat on a veranda in the afternoon heat, mesmerized by the sparkling white sands, deep blue waters and mountains, a woman quietly appeared and offered me a damp, chilled towel. At sunset as I lounged on a chaise suspended from another pavilion's ceiling, a man gingerly placed a glass of cold lemongrass tea on the table next to me.
Our villa had a luxurious outdoor bathroom. The overhang of the roof covered most of it but I could look up at the shower head and see the blue sky and tops of palm trees. Great respect is paid to nature at Kamalaya. In some cases buildings were constructed around a large tree or boulder. Steps are chiseled into rocks beside the winding walkways. My acupuncturist stepped onto a large boulder to get to his desk.
"It keeps me grounded," he laughed.
Most buildings are not fully enclosed, so that you always have a view of the beautiful grounds. There are vignettes everywhere: Walking into the breakfast pavilion, we see a cauldron of lotuses; walking a path we see large pottery holding floating water lilies.
We left the grounds one day to visit a bar and restaurant and a beach on the other side of the island. My traveling companion also insisted we ride an elephant so we called a taxi and went to Namuang Safari Park. Today, I'm glad to say, "I have ridden an elephant," but every smile I flashed for photos was a fake, an attempt to mask my fear and my concern for the elephant. It was a half hour ride that seemed like two days to me. Still, it's a popular tourist attraction on the island.
When it was time to head for Bangkok, just over an hour's flight away, we regretted we had not made reservations to stay longer at Kamalaya. Earni lost four pounds; I shed at least four pounds in worries and anxiety.
While Koh Samui was a tropical paradise, Bangkok was all urban bustle. We stayed at the Park Plaza Sukhumvit, because of its convenient location near a Sky Train stop and its rooftop pool offering spectacular views of the skyline. The hotel was chic and trendy"”think boutique"”but the room, especially the bathroom was a bit small for two. We considered moving a couple of blocks down the street to the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, A Luxury Collection Hotel which we checked out. But we decided to hit the streets for our next adventure instead. We did go to the Sheraton one evening for drinks and a jazz set and were surprised to find the vocalist was from Cincinnati.
If there's a hotel chain you love, Bangkok probably has it. In addition to the Sheraton, try the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, the Grand Hyatt Erawan, the Banyan Tree Bangkok or the lebua at State Tower, a member of Preferred Hotels. Many of the hotels also have proper English afternoon tea. If you have tea at the Mandarin Oriental you can sit on the terrace outside and watch the boats on the Chao Phraya River. The elegant Shangri-La Hotel is also riverside and has a great Sunday "High Tea Buffet" with a brass band and dance floor.
The best way to get around the city is public transportation, as even a cab driver told us. The overhead Sky Train and the underground subway are both easy to navigate.
We visited the Grand Palace, built in 1782, still called home to the royal family, though they now live in newer, air-conditioned housing. It's a complex of buildings adorned with gold and intricate bejeweled mosaics. Most popular and revered is the Emerald Buddha, which is really made of jade. You have to dress appropriately--no shorts for men, no sleeveless or short dresses for women. But be forewarned, scammers will try to sell or rent you clothes just outside the palace. Pass them by. Inside the complex, you can receive a shirt, sarong or whatever you need by leaving a deposit that is returned when you bring back the article of clothing.
One way to get to the Grand Palace is on a long tail boat, which you have to ride just for the fun of it anyway. We rented a boat and driver to cruise the river for an hour. We passed through a floating market with vendors selling their wares from canoes. It was so peaceful to lie back and catch a steady breeze while seeing the city from another perspective. Another time, we took a tour ferry that allowed us to jump on and off at shopping complexes and tourist sites.
Good food is everywhere in Bangkok. We weren't afraid to eat off the streets. In fact, we prefer what we consider the "real food". The vendors are ingenuous and have all kinds of cooking apparatuses made into their carts. If you prefer fancier fare, the Banyan Tree hotel has several good restaurants but the one that everyone talks about is the Vertigo Grill and Moon Bar. Here the sky is your roof, as you dine perched 61 stories above the city. The views are breathtaking, but I'm not a lover of such heights so I found Long Table, a restaurant and bar on the 25th floor of the Column condominiums, more to my liking. There's inside dining but even when I sat outside there was a roof overhead and I was looking across rather than down at skyscrapers.
One of the best things we did was to take a cooking class at Isan House Thai Cooking School. We cooked three dishes each, including two curries, a steamed sea bass, and green papaya salad. Then we ate and our instructor, Tor, took us to the market to buy some ingredients that we could carry back on the plane. It was a pleasant day. We enjoyed Tor's company and her talking about her life. The food was magnificent and she gave us copies of the recipes, which I am still happily using.
Before heading home, we wanted to see the red light district called Soi Cowboy. It's a tourist attraction also and we thought we might even find a decent bar outside bar where we could sit and stare. We had also been told it was a block of neon signs and 40 plus bars and restaurants. We were disappointed; the area was more like a crowded alley rather than a street and we never found a bar to visit.
You can't run out of things to do in Bangkok. Ask your concierge about entertainment. We caught a concert at the Bangkok Jazz Festival, which was going on the week we were there in the city. Shopping is a joy. We went to a mall that was seven stories high! In the Central Retail District, reached by Sky Train, Central Department Store offered designer fashions. I found more European designers at Zen, a trendy mega-store where I bought an unusual couture jacket and my girlfriend bought a dress.
By the time we boarded the plane to head home, all I could think of was that I had ridden on a "taxi" motorcycle, clinging to the driver's waist; I had zoomed around Bangkok in an open air taxi nicknamed a "Tut-tut" while my girlfriend, who so desperately wanted to ride the elephant, gripped me and the side of the cab. I had cruised along the river in a long tail boat and ridden the subway and the Sky Train. Surely, I said to myself, the return trip home with its two flights and 21 hours in the air would be a cinch now, made easier by the sweet, sweet memories of two weeks of adventure.