At large in Thailand: Trunk callers
The setting is stunning, the spas superb, the Thai cuisine tasty – but the elephants are what make this the perfect family holiday
Saturday 07 May 2011
Picture the scene: it's November 2009. Me: "So, what would everyone like for Christmas?" The three-year-old: "Some colouring pens, peas." (She has an issue with "l"s.) The seven-year-old: "I'd like to meet an elephant if that's OK." The husband: "A lie-in would be nice."
Yes, I know. Total cheek. A lie-in? Not here, love. Anyway, the little girl got an assortment from Crayola and my son had to be content with a set of dominoes. But 16 months later he got what he asked for. I don't want you to think I'm unhinged, or a little bit whatever-my-child-wants-he-gets; I'm not Daddy Warbucks. When he sweetly enquired about the chances of a face-to-face elephant experience I didn't immediately call Thai Airways and ask for four seats. Instead, I said something about the joys of squirrel-spotting in the park and promised that we could visit Auntie Sally because she has a cat, and it has a long tail which is sort of like a trunk. You know, in the dark.
But truthfully, ever since he mentioned how much he'd love to meet a "real-life elephant" I've looked at the Whipsnade Zoo leaflet (photographs of small cars doing 2mph in drizzle quite near something that might be a monkey, or it might just be a big crow) and I've looked at Chiang Mai websites (elephants wandering around eating bananas) and I'm afraid only one could win.
Blaming very high traffic on the B4540, I convinced the husband who wants a lie-in (nope, still hasn't happened) that it was actually easier to go to Bangkok and get a connecting flight to Chiang Mai to visit an elephant sanctuary than it would be to pack the car with tuna sandwiches and queue for hours waiting to try to get to a British safari park, where we'd end up spending a fortune on giraffe puppets and lollies in the shape of amphibians. I'll be frank, he was quite tired at that point, so instead of saying "Are you insane, woman?" he just muttered: "You might be right."
Turns out Thai Airways are very nice on the phone. I booked four seats and, with six months to go, we sat down the now eight-year-old and told him what we were doing. "YOU'RE KIDDING! YOU'RE KIDDING! YOU'RE KIDDING!" was pretty much what he said for three days straight. And then there was a slight pause. "Does this mean you'll want the dominoes back? Because I traded them for six Pokémon cards and half a bottle of Lucozade in January."
And that was it. We read everything we could about elephants, we packed enough sun cream to cover a football team for a month, we asked people where we should stay, took their advice and booked a room at the Four Seasons, and then we just waited until the moment arrived. By now, I was enormously pregnant.
The stewardesses on the plane (lovely purple dresses and enormous smiles) had never met four people so giddy. When it was "sleep time" on the plane we laughed and watched Dumbo again. They gave us fruit plates and amazing colouring sets and we landed in Bangkok sleepy but delirious. Because all we'd focussed on was meeting the tall trumpeting animals, we sort of forgot about Thailand and we sort of forgot about the hotel and nobody had mentioned noodles once.
So when we took the small plane to Chiang Mai and arrived at the resort it was a bit like being punched in the stomach.
Oh. Right. I see. Wow. Holy moly. That's all we could say. The whole hotel is built around paddy fields. This sounds bizarre but I promise it isn't. It's the most beautiful setting for a hotel I think I've ever seen. The valley is bright green and extremely lush and water buffalo wallow in a lake, which is right next to the pool. Frogs sing and cicadas racket. Ridiculously colourful trees are dotted absolutely everywhere; it looks like a five-year-old has grabbed their brightest paints and just thrown their purples, pinks and yellows over the landscape. Iridescent butterflies flap about, humming birds hum, and enormous papaya trees groan with the delicious fruit that are then picked right in front of you for breakfast. We couldn't speak or close our mouths for a good half a day.
Thai hospitality is legendary, and it's here in buckets. The friendliest-ever people bowed and placed sweet-smelling flower garlands round our necks and then they showed us to our room.
No. You're quite right: if you've looked on the website you'll already know it's not a room. We live in a bunch of rooms in London. Rooms are four walls, maybe a rug and a table. Sure, I've seen rooms before: all my life, in fact. Room 12 at the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai is not a room; it is, to quote Aladdin, a whole new world. The floors are made of shiny strips of mahogany that you can see your face reflected in and there is so much floor space you could get lost. Every room has a sunken bath that could bathe four rhinos and the beds are enormous. Desks heaving with nature books are in every corner and there are lots of lie-back-and-relax areas with twinkly reading lamps and overflowing bowls of local dragon fruit. The balconies hang over the paddy fields, and huge jugs of lime-infused water are placed there seemingly every hour.
Now you absolutely can do nothing. I'm a massive fan of nothing. There are dove-grey sunbeds with fresh jasmine on them and lovely men and women bring you the best snacks on the planet. (If you come and you don't try the crispy fried pork strips with green chilli paste I will hunt you down and hurt you.) But we were excited, so we got involved.
I attended cooking school and an amazing boy called Tu took six of us to the local food market where we revelled in amazing dishes – fried frogs, snail soup, sticky coconut rice pudding with mango – and then we all came back to the hotel where we learnt how to make tom yum soup, beef salad and steamed fish with lemongrass. I should say the food in the hotel is mesmerising. I didn't eat for two. I ate for 18. We also went to the nearby Tiger Kingdom (small kids will love it but if you're at all concerned about big cats in small cages then avoid it) and a snake farm. Young Thai kids seem to run the place, which is teeming with spitting cobras and massive pythons. Every hour there's a show where someone sticks "The Final Countdown" by Europe on the CD player (I'm not making this up) and snake charmers tickle huge snakes in the middle of a dusty stage. I thought the eight-year-old was going to combust.
So, this is all great. But the cherry on top, the most extraordinary day ever, will be spent at Elephant Life Experience (ELE), which is about 45 minutes from the hotel. It's an elephant sanctuary and it's totally private. They only let one family come in at a time as they don't want to bother their amazing animals too much. You arrive and two beautiful, soft, twinkly, playful and happy elephants are waiting for you. They are so magnificent up close that they quite seriously took my breath away. We fed them and stroked them – and their mahouts showed us how to talk to them. There are only eight elephants here and each one is different. After spending four wonderful hours with them you could work out which one was being naughty and who was upsetting whom.
Natalie was our favourite. She's eight and cheeky – and if you give her three pieces of sugar cane at a time she actually giggles, bats her eyelashes and trumpets with delight. The rest of the trip (I promise this whole piece isn't just an ode to elephants) was great but we'll remember the elephants and the people who looked after them for the rest of our lives. The eight-year-old (human) cried when we left and Natalie almost knew and cuddled him with her trunk. ELE – write it down. If you're near Chiang Mai please, please go.
I have to mention the spa at the hotel. It's placed at the back of the resort and you wander along a bridge, which feels almost suspended over the trees to get there. The whole place smells of mint and lemongrass and the people who work there officially have magic hands. In the world of "what's the best spa you've ever been to?" this one is often listed and I totally understand why.
I had a foot massage when we first arrived because my pregnant ankles were the size of hippos, and I promise (I am right at this very minute touching my heart with my right hand) it is the best treatment I have ever had. Two women kneaded me for 45 minutes and I practically left my own body while it happened. Plus, normally after a treatment you sign something and get given a glass of water and then are waved at. Not here. They actually make you sit and relax and drink ginger tea and you're surrounded by miniature lakes of red rose petals and candles. This is a special, harmonious place filled with geckos and elephants and brilliantly talented kneading people, and I will definitely visit again.
It felt slightly weird to travel so far and not see the sea, so after a few days of Chiang Mai we transferred to the Four Seasons in Koh Samui. I almost don't want to tell you about check-in because I just need you to go there to experience it. It's simply the greatest "arrivals area" I've ever visited. It is a small, open room at the absolute top of a mountain covered in palm trees. All you can see for hundreds of miles is sea and other islands. If you have ever seen The Man With The Golden Gun and thought the scenery was pretty cool, then you must come here immediately. The whole resort, designed by the freakishly brilliant Bill Bensley, is totally immersed in the landscape. There are other villas but you never see anything other than your own. And they are beautifully designed – all dark wood and enormous white beds and fluttering mosquito nets (for the romance of it more than for the insect) and fantastic glass-fronted showers and gigantic petal filled oval stone baths.
The beach is private and small and littered with palm trees and there's an infinity pool bang on the beach which you will never want to leave. There's a barbecue every Sunday night that's placed right next to the sea and you absolutely must attend. A man called Bobby plays with fire and traditional beautiful Thai dancers perform while you tuck into locally caught fish and fresh papaya salads. There are some stand-out people at this resort and you will love them when you meet them. Namwan is the person you'll want to babysit your children. If you're not coming with kids and you see someone who is extraordinarily beautiful and kind to the small people and who is possibly organising a crabbing outing, then that's her.
Meanwhile, if you're ever tempted by a massage in the beautiful spa then please ask for Nim. She looks super-cute and meek. But wait until she's standing on your neck and pulling your legs out of your sockets – firm yet brilliant. And I think the sweetest one of all is Buz at breakfast. He'll remember that you like your bacon extra crispy and that you like lots of chocolate in your hot chocolate. He's adorable. Find him and ask for crispy French toast. He'll nod and come back with the best breakfast of your life.
My final bossy advice (now you can see why he wants a lie-in) is to take the resort's small boat out to the marine park one day. It's called Siam Seas and three men will stack the cabin with delicious wooden bowls of jackfruit, freshly grilled fish and sticky rice, and they'll take you to the most stunning scenery on Earth. An hour away from Koh Samui lies the marine park – a host of small limestone islands that appear out of nowhere in the bluest of waters. Tiny white-bellied eagles sweep through the sky looking for meaty striped fish that you can see fly out of the water. You don't see another soul and the captain will take you to a remote beach and pass you a fresh coconut.
We swam and ate and explored and made friends with a family of horseshoe crabs. On the way home as we skimmed across the surface of the water, just when we didn't think it could get any better, we spotted a pink dolphin. Pink. Now you don't get those in Whipsnade Zoo.
Travel essentials: Thailand
* Bangkok is served non-stop from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Eva Air (020-7380 8300; evaair.com), Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk) and Thai Airways (0844 561 0911; thaiairways.co.uk), which provides connections to Chiang Mai and Koh Samui). Bangkok Airways ( bangkokair.com) and Air Asia ( airasia.com) also operate domestic flights.
* The Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai (doubles from 21,330 baht/£435 room only) and the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui (doubles from 29,081 baht/£590, room only) are both bookable through 00800 6488 6488 or fourseasons.com.
* Elegant Resorts (01244 897515; elegantresorts.co.uk) offers a package including economy flights from London Heathrow with Thai Airways and transfers with Bangkok Airways; three nights (room only) at the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai in two Garden Pavilions; and seven nights (room only) at Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui in a one-bedroom villa. Based on a departure on 15 October 2011, the price starts at 2,680 for each adult and from £2,430 per child.
* The Foreign and Commonwealth Office ( fco.gov.uk) warns of "a high threat of terrorism" in Thailand. It adds: "Bomb and grenade attacks have been indiscriminate, including in places visited by expatriates and foreign travellers".
* Tourism Authority of Thailand (020-7925 2511; tourismthailand.org/uk).
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