Sunday 22 September 2019

Forget backpacking, here's how to experience Thailand as a 'luxury traveller'

'Listen to your inner voice', says Emily Hourican on a luxury trip to Bangkok and Koh Samui

Take a boat trip out to some of the stunning 44 islands which make up the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park and take in a bit of snorkelling, swimming or just laze on the white sands
Take a boat trip out to some of the stunning 44 islands which make up the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park and take in a bit of snorkelling, swimming or just laze on the white sands
Emily gets to grips with a scorpion snack

Emily Hourican

I never 'did' Thailand as a backpacker.

Actually, my backpacking never took me much further than Spain. Which means that arriving in Bangkok for the first time is as a 'luxury traveller', complete with curated itinerary and appropriate luggage, rather than three sarongs and sketchy directions to the Khao San Road. I am alone among my travelling companions in not having stories to tell of grotty hostels and full-moon parties, but I am also totally fresh to the experience.

Although at first, I am not feeling it. Such is my travel exhaustion - I left home 22 hours and many time zones ago - that Bangkok airport reminds me strongly of the early scenes in Bladerunner. It is close to midnight, there is that floating feeling that comes with jetlag, a dense, humid heat, people eating noodles and announcements in an Asian language I do not understand. Already, I love it.

We arrive at the Avani+ Riverside hotel and enter a crisp, elegant urban oasis. The hotel is tall and coolly contemporary, perched on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, which flows through the country and into the Gulf of Thailand. From the restaurant and rooftop bar (and indeed the infinity pool), the city is spread out below, a mix of traditional, pointy roofs and sleek skyscrapers rising up among them like exclamation marks.

The next morning, I'm up and swimming in the infinity pool early enough that the sun is still low and apricot-coloured. Already, it's hot. Properly hot. After breakfast, which majors on the kinds of fresh fruit we can only dream about at home, we take a trip around the city by river and canal, in a low-slung, brightly painted traditional Thai boat, accompanied by a knowledgeable hotel guide who calls himself 'Diamond Geezer'.

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Emily gets to grips with a scorpion snack

This turns out to be an excellent way to sightsee, because we get all of Bangkok life as we glide by. There are homes, floating markets, royal palaces, colonial outposts, industrial buildings and temples. The canals are busy - acting as road, shop and even playground: we watch kids, some tiny, diving in from banks, disappearing under water then popping up again, laughing.

We stop for sights of significance along the way, including the temple Wat Rajaorasaram Rajawaravihara, built by King Rama III. It is, as is the way of Thai temples, very lavish, with plenty of gold and ornate marble. Monks in saffron robes move about their business, which is considerable - a novice must pass through nine levels of study before he is ordained.

Buddha himself is reclining, leaning on one arm and looking very pleased with something. Perhaps his own impressive size - 20m long and entirely covered in gold leaf. He has a scattering of pillows at his feet. Apparently, if you are beset by bad dreams, you bring your pillow to Buddha and he takes the dreams away.

For lunch, we tie the boat up at a small covered market - although we're hours too late for any proper commercial activity, which happens at dawn - and eat at a small restaurant, where our guide, Diamond Geezer, first orders refreshing, chilled coconut water, brought to us in half a green coconut, then a variety of local dishes which were delicious. A kind of chicken satay on skewers, two types of noodles, a salad with shredded cabbage, peanuts and lots of chilli.

Then it's back to the hotel for a lounge around the infinity pool in the late afternoon sun, followed by dinner at the Skyline Restaurant - local Thai food and Western fare sit easily side by side, served in an abundant buffet style so that it's easy to try anything you like the look of - and a drink at Seen, the rooftop bar.

This is very sophisticated and busy, clearly something of a hot-spot. But I've never seen the Khao San Road, Mecca to backpackers, and don't know when, if ever, I will next be in Bangkok. I beg my companions to accompany me, for a quick peek, and bless them, they do.

The Khao San Road is just what it should be - noisy, dirty, crowded, seedy (although the side streets off it are much seedier), shabby, boozy. There are street vendors with soy-roasted scorpions on sticks and others with hand woven wrist-bands carrying the filthiest slogans I've ever seen (no, I'm not giving examples…). It is perfect, and a little goes a very long way. Soon, we are back at the Avani+ Riverside, tucked up between crisp white sheets for an early morning start to Koh Samui, the second largest of Thailand's many islands.

The internal flight takes just over an hour, and the airport transfer takes another hour, so that it is afternoon by the time we reach the paradise that is the Avani+ Samui, and we are in the perfect frame of mind for beachside relaxation and low-key glamour. The resort is spacious, set right on the beach, with dense, mountainous rainforest rising up on either side, and cobalt-blue sea in front. So wonderfully remote is the resort that there is no competition from cars or crowds for the sound of birdsong.

Rooms are arranged villa-style so that each is its own compound, complete with individual private pool, as well as the larger, communal pool. The restaurant is beach-front, and manages to be both relaxed and elegant. Food is Thai, obviously, but also, should you tire of that, plenty of other options. Beyond it, close to shore, traditional Thai fishing boats bob alongside sleek yachts in a sea that is largely tide-less and certainly without the noisy breakers known to Irish beach-goers.

First stop, the AvaniSpa, where a lovely therapist called Reeya gives me what is simply the best full-body massage I have ever had. After the days of travelling and day-tripping, I feel restored to myself, and perhaps a little better.

That night, we dine on the beach, at tables set up for this purpose, and, after dinner, watch a skilful, spectacular fire show. Four men, with long ropes and flaming ends, weave gracefully in an out of each other, like duelling dragons or archangels.

A boat trip out to some of the 44 islands which make up the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park takes in a bit of snorkelling - silver and blue fish dart about in crystal-clear water - and a packed lunch on Dam island. Later we stop at Madsum island, which is tiny and has a strip of white-sand beach, aquamarine sea and a bar. As we leave, a large party boat is arriving, complete with pumping dance music, young men in off-duty James-Bond style suits and girls in bikinis.

Heading back to our resort, what strikes me is the lack of seabirds. There isn't a seagull or gannet to be seen. I ask about this, and apparently it's because there are no cliffs - dense greenery covers every rock face, and so there is nowhere for seabirds to nest. With no birds and no breakers, there is relative silence out there in the Gulf of Thailand, so that I am reminded of the title of Donal Ryan's book - From a Low and Quiet Sea.

Koh Samui itself is a busy island, however. There are roadside fruit stalls, shrines to Buddha, bars ranging from shabby to sleek, mixed in with the odd Tesco and lots of motorbike shops. There are markets, of the day and night varieties, and small trucks with tannoys driving around, loudly promoting Thai boxing. It is also clearly well into its second or even third wave of tourism. The hipsters have arrived. Alongside the traditional foodstalls are mushrooming up the kind of place that offers single estate cold-brew coffee in cute tin mugs, turmeric smoothies or lemongrass juice served in a bowl woven from palm leaves.

Island life has a relaxed, almost lazy pace, and we quickly fall into a routine of swimming and lounging in the glorious sun, so that pretty quickly, time stops having much meaning. "Lunch already?" we say, astonished at the hours that have gone past so smoothly. Everywhere we turn, there are smiling attempts to make our lives, our stay, even more blissful than it is.

On our final day, we prepare for departure with some early morning yoga by the pool, taught by a local practitioner who is as flexible as a baby. We follow, to the best of our ability. As we rest in our final stretch - child's pose - he tells us "Listen to your inner voice".

I think my inner voice may be telling me I need to do more of this.

Take two Top attractions

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The Jungle Club

Set high in the hills, overlooking the bay of Chaweng, The Jungle Club is perfect for a sundowner. Relax on beanbags, sip a cocktail, try a plate of spicy calamari, and people watch.

www.jungleclubsamui.com

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Trash Heroes

A brilliant, and simple, idea — clean the beaches and ocean around Koh Samui, and do it in style. Led here by the effervescent Donna, this appeals to locals and visitors alike.

www.facebook.com/samuibins

How to do it

In Bangkok, Emily stayed at the Avani+ Riverside Bangkok: www.avanihotels.com/en/riverside-bangkok

In Koh Samui, Emily stayed at the Avani+Samui: www.avanihotels.com/en/samui

Emily flew from Dublin to London with Aer Lingus, and London to Bangkok via Dubai with Emirates, and Bangkok to Koh Samui with Bangkok Airways.

NB: This feature originally appeared in the Sunday Independent.

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