As the pandemic’s restrictions eased up and travel resumed between India and Thailand earlier this year, our contributor travelled to the Land of Smiles for a much-needed detox. By Ranjan Pal
For the last two years, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the travel and hospitality industry. And travel writers like I have been on the thinnest end of the wedge. So, when I got an invite to travel to Thailand in February, it was like a lifebuoy being thrown to a drowning man and I grabbed at it without a second thought. Besides, who could ever say no to Thailand, the Land of Smiles?
Re-exploring Thailand after it reopens amid the pandemic
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) had invited a bunch of us to witness the Thai lotus unfolding its petals after the many pandemic-imposed lockdowns. When we landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport, I was impressed by the quick and efficient way in which we were processed and issued visas. Soon, we were whisked away to the Sindhorn Kempinski Hotel Bangkok, where we were to undergo a COVID-19 test.
As I waited for my test reports, I was ushered into a palatial suite, which featured a huge bedroom, spacious sitting and changing areas, and a bathroom with a shower and a giant soaking tub. The interiors wore bright shades of yellow, orange, and blue, and the picture windows opened to lush green gardens, a residential extension of Lumphini Park.
Once we were cleared to move around, our group caught a bus to the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River, where a sumptuous lunch buffet had been laid out. I made a beeline for my favourite smoked Peking duck with hoisin sauce, and chatted with Andrea Accordi, the affable Italian executive chef. On the terrace, sous-chef Ruslan was preparing a delicious taglioni pasta in the Ligurian style, with pesto, green beans, and piennolo tomato fondue.
In all my previous visits to Thailand, I had never been to the island of Koh Samui. The drive from the airport reminded me of Goa with its lush greenery, small one-storey homes with red roofs, and glimpses of the sea between groves of coconut palms. We were welcomed like royalty at Anantara Bophut; the resort is beautifully landscaped with ornamental pools—lilies floating on the water—and a dining pavillion overlooking a sculpted swimming pool with superb views of the beach.
Later that evening, we embarked on a large boat for a sunset cruise on the calm waters of the Gulf of Thailand. The weather was somewhat overcast, but it didn’t dampen our spirits as the food and drink flowed liberally. In the distance was the imposing bulk of Koh Pha Ngan Island, popular for its full moon rave parties, one of which was supposed to happen that very night.
The best meal of our entire trip was the lunch we had at The Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui. We were hosted at a fine dining restaurant, The View. The sit-down meal had a range of delicious appetisers and main courses specially prepared for us. The highlights were the softshell crab in garlic pepper sauce and the herb-crusted Australian rack of lamb. A 2019 Sauvignon Blanc and a 2019 Pinot Noir from Pascal Jolivet in France completed the gourmet experience.
While I am not a huge fan of getting massaged, I was in the birthplace of the Thai massage. So, I ended up experiencing three different styles of massage on this trip, and they turned out to be a major learning experience. First up was the Anantara Bophut massage. A young masseuse named Kwan suggested the signature Cannabis Stress Release Journey (INR 7,886 for 90 minutes), where the massage is administered by means of a warm herbal compress that spreads a cannabis-based lavender oil all over your body. Kwan started with an exfoliating food scrub in a bowl of warm water before helping me onto the massage table. I drifted off to sleep and awoke 90 minutes later feeling rejuvenated.
For a speciality spa experience, you have to visit the Tamarind Springs Forest Spa, which offers a unique combination of a massage and steam cave treatment. I started by climbing a small hill to an open-air massage platform cooled by the breeze. A smiling Thai masseuse welcomed me and started her work skilfully, kneading lemongrass oil into my muscles while I drifted into a contented doze. Upon awakening, I made my way down and through a jumble of giant boulders feeling like Frodo in Mordor, until I came upon the Mantri steam cave carved out of a huge boulder. The cave door swung open inwards, and I entered the hot, wet cavern tentatively, glancing nervously at the giant wall of rock that loomed over me. Even though the treatment was supposed to help me, I couldn’t help feeling claustrophobic. The sight of a lone rope dangling from the roof with the sign “Pull three times in case of emergency” did little to reassure me. I took a few deep breaths to regain control.
I stumbled out into the bright sunlight and splashed down into a pool of cold water being replenished by a mountain stream. After a few minutes, I ventured back into the cave more confidently. The low growl of the boilers generating steam sounded like a disturbed giant, and the fumes of steam issuing through the vents his agonised breath. But these flights of imagination no longer disturbed me, and I enjoyed the experience, oscillating between the cave and the pool a few more times.
Back on the mainland, my final massage treatment awaited me at the famous Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). It was a no-frills massage station. Forget the soothing sound of ocean waves, expect only the plebeian view of tourists strolling through the Wat Pho grounds. Apparently, the Wat Pho school trains the best in the land, and my masseuse, Yod, lived up to this reputation. He pulled and pushed at my body with consummate professionalism, treading the fine line between pleasure and pain to perfection using a special plai oil, a far cry from the delicate healing touch of the Anantara. At INR 1,352 an hour, it is a mere fraction of what you would pay in a luxury resort, but I would thoroughly recommend this as a great experience.
The last stop on our trip was the recently opened RAKxa. Derived from the Sanskrit word raksha, meaning protection, RAKxa is the first fully integrated wellness and medical retreat in Thailand. Situated on Bang Krachao Island, where the Chao Phraya bends back on itself in a closed-loop, it is an emerald-hued heaven amid the urban sprawl of Bangkok, and is commonly referred to as the ‘green lung of Bangkok’. At the brand new reception centre, a smiling group of Thai personnel dressed in white uniforms—like Stormtroopers—took us on a guided tour of the wellness centre with its state-of-the-art testing equipment. I particularly liked the one that tests for your centre of gravity by having you lean against the programmed tilt of a circular board. I felt like Luke Skywalker in his X-wing Starfighter zeroing in on the Death Star, as I struggled to keep the red dot in the centre of the display. There are several options for healing therapies at RAKxa, ranging from hydrotherapy to a Moroccan water massage and a full-fledged medical clinic with two resident doctors and top-of-the-line equipment. The residential villas are luxurious and spacious with a separate living room and dining space looking out to the central lake. All of this comes with a hefty price tag, of course (a 3N Sense of RAKxa package costs INT 3,10,925 for a single person). But that shouldn’t be a deterrent to a jet-setter at all!
Indian metros like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru are connected to Bangkok by a variety of airlines, including the national carriers Air India and Thai Airways. From Bangkok to Koh Samui, the only option is Bangkok Airways, which runs direct flights almost every hour.
Sindhorn Kempinski Hotel Bangkok is an oasis of greenery and quietude amid the hustle-bustle of Bangkok with a strong emphasis on wellness. Doubles from INR 18,000
Anantara Bophut Koh Samui Resort has luxurious rooms featuring southern Thai decor set on beautifully landscaped grounds, and an excellent spa facility. Doubles from INR 14,000
The Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui is sprawled over a hillside, which slopes down to a private beach, and has stunning views. Doubles from INR 18,000