Amazing Thailand doesn’t disappoint

An invite to stay in a top Bangkok hotel, watch some former All Blacks try and train an elephant, and soak up the calm of Hua Hin was enough to lure Barry Coughlan back to Thailand’s shores.

I DIDN’T need any particular excuse to pay a return visit to Thailand. People love the country for a host of reasons; its diversity, brashness, calmness, but mostly for its welcoming people. It is every bit what the Thai tourist people like to call it, Amazing Thailand.

However, the invite did catch my eye; it included a one-night stay in a particularly favourite Bangkok riverside hotel and a really nice few days in the city of calm, Hua Hin. The excuse was to go watch elephant polo and stay in a couple of top five-star hotels, a five-star in Thailand generally being somewhat grander than many similarly rated hotels around the world.

When it also offered an opportunity to watch some former New Zealand All Black icons playing outside their chosen box, well, it was a no-brainer; watching them trying to tame an elephant (fail) and even score a goal (a few but never enough) was a bit of fun for a change given what they generally produce on the rugby field.

The annual King’s Cup charity event is promoted and supported by the Anantara Hotel group and it really is a bit of fun that, in fact, allows working elephants a couple of weeks’ holiday where they are treated like royalty, bar the requirement that they trundle around a football pitch for 15 minutes a day assisting their temporary Mahouts score goals and ultimately help the disadvantaged in Thai society.

The Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort and Spa, a thriving oasis in the City of Angels, was our first overnight stop and included the mandatory and acclaimed Manohra Dinner Cruise down the Chao Phraya River, giving an up-close and personal view of Bangkok. We went on to Hua Hin, a city I visited 10 or more years ago, and unlike the dark side (parts of the eastern coastal resort of Pattaya), this and nearby Cha Am are very much like the real Thailand. The revered Royal family has made Hua Hin a second home for many decades now; there’s nothing flaky about it, it’s just got a really nice personal feel and, like the smaller nearest town of Cha Am, is safe and secure, with welcome written all over it.

We stayed in the 119-bedroom family-owned (and the attention to detail shows) beachfront InterContinental hotel that was, to say the least, luxurious, and those looking to book rooms there on or offline will find it to be suitably good value, with a host of small but delightful added features included in the price.

Apart from the hugely important link to the Royal family, Hua Hin’s other claim to fame, and the hotels benefit from this, is that golfers can enjoy hotel luxury and quality golf in any one of a number of the area’s spectacular courses, including Springfield Royal Country Club designed by Jack Nicklaus, and Black Mountain, opened in 2007 and recipient of the ‘Best Championship Golf Course in Thailand’ award in 2009.

There are many more — Hua Hin provides the highest density of world-class courses anywhere in Thailand. Green-fees and other costs are currently among the lowest in the world while course maintenance and services are superb.

The oldest and most traditional Thai resort combines the attractions of a modern holiday destination with the charm and fascination of a still active fishing port. And while most other Thai holiday destinations cater mainly to foreign tourists, Hua Hin is a holiday resort for both foreigners and Thais.

The resort was discovered in the early 1920s by King Rama VII as an ideal getaway from the sultry metropolis of Bangkok. The tranquil fishing village was turned into the Royal resort and consequently became popular among Siam’s nobility and upper-class.

The construction of a rail line from Bangkok ensured its accessibility and popularity with a wider part of the Thai public. But it was the resort’s royal endorsement which has given Hua Hin a special character of its very own.

In 1928, King Rama VII built Klai Kangwon (Far From Worries) Palace which remains until this day an official royal residence. It is still frequently used by members of the royal family and is open to the public for visits.

Hua Hin continued to develop in its own leisurely way, both as an aristocratic resort with the added attraction of an 18-hole golf course, and as a fishing port. The Railway Hotel, today’s Sofitel Central Hua Hin, was built by the State Railways of Thailand in 1923 in the architectural style of old Siam. A visit to the town’s rail terminal is a must.

Many of Bangkok’s rich and famous built their own beachfront summer homes to the north and south along the curving five-mile sandy bay, enjoying leisurely family weekends in a resort which has maintained its unique identity.

Even though nearby Cha Am is not as popular as some of the other, more famous tourist destinations in Thailand, the town and surrounding area still offers a wide variety of different things to see and do.

Throughout Cha Am you will find a number of excellent tourist attractions, wonderful natural parks, and also some first-class golfing facilities. The surrounding area is home to some of Thailand’s most beautiful temples, palaces and shrines, which give you a real insight to parts of Thai history and culture.

KING’S CUP

Anantara has been known for its strong CSR-based community activities and are part of a world first — The Thai Elephant Therapy Project (TETP) — where autistic children develop their skills with elephants as their working partners. The free clinic held in Thailand in conjunction with Chiang Mai University and the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre allows the children to interact and bond with the elephants in a series of activities that focuses on their social interaction and emotional skills. The elephants are accompanied by their expert mahout handlers, alongside human therapists and researchers. TETP is funded by money raised from Anantara’s largest charity event The King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament.

HOW TO GET THERE

Flights

Dozens of options including ex-Cork, Dublin, Shannon over London with Thai Airways direct to Bangkok, or over Amsterdam with China Airlines, ex Dublin with Etihad via Abu Dhabi or Emirates via Dubai (both have regular good deals). Prices (return inclusive of taxes) can start from as low at €650.

Hotels

In Bangkok, try the Anantara BKK Riverside Resort and Spa (€80 B&B for 2) or the Hua Hin, Intercontinental Hua Hin (€140 per room for 2). Those on different budgets and seeking accommodation in other cities, towns or resorts should check out AsiaRooms.com, where genuine good deals are available (I have booked through them several times.)

Packages

There are several Irish operators offering inclusive tour packages to the Thai mainland and any one or a combination of the islands such as Phuket, Koh Samui or Krabi. Check with Ebookers, Trailfinders or the Midleton, County Cork, based Discovertravel.ie, who have been specialising in the Thai and Asian market for over a decade (lead in prices from €1,085 for 12-night stays).

Cost of living

Cheap hotels can be booked directly with very basic accommodation starting at €10, mid range from €30 and top class from about €60. That’s for two people. Thai hotels sell rooms and don’t charge anything more for having a couple in the room. Expect to pay no more than half of Ireland’s prices for drink and food, with Asian dishes particularly good value for money. European and American food is widely available and very reasonable. All in all, you could eat, sleep and drink there for €50 a day.


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