Travel Review - Discovering Thailand


I HAD my doubts about Thailand  at first – not because of the place, I had heard so many great things and seen so many great images - I’m just not a lover of flying. And when a one-hour flight to the UK normally fills you with dread the thoughts of 18 hours to Thailand doesn’t exactly thrill you, writes Emer Cleary.

I was, however, eventually convinced.

The travel plan was simple enough – mid-afternoon flight to Heathrow, then Heathrow to Bangkok and finally Bangkok to Phuket. We had four destinations on the three-week break; something else I wouldn’t normally be keen on, unpacking and repacking every few days, but another thing I soon got over.

Thankfully the flight from Heathrow to Bangkok was a joy – the smoothest flight I have ever been on with the sweetest airline staff and the food, for plane food, was excellent. Thai Airways had me wondering why I hadn’t flown to Asia long before then.

We arrived in Phuket refreshed – unusual for such a long flight, which was also followed by an hour-long internal flight. The resort, The Centara Grand, was a deluxe spa and our beautiful ocean-facing room with balcony was the perfect way to end our travels – the first leg of them anyway.

Located on the beautiful Karon Beach the resort is surrounded by surreal greenery, the type you don’t expect to find in Thailand because it’s as lush as though it rains everyday. It also has breathtaking views of the Andaman Sea. There are 262 rooms, suites and villas on site, which is home to a fitness centre,  spa, a landscaped water park, and four swimming pools. There are seven bars and restaurants on site. The Cove, where breakfast, if you are half board (there is no full board option) is included.

The Centara Grand and Phuket itself was the perfect place to start our trip. We wanted to kick off our holiday with somewhere that didn’t require too much effort. Somewhere we could relax but sleep in and not feel like we were missing too much either.

The beach and the water were fantastically clean and the food a delight. The only downside was the entertainment. While there is a ‘club’ and music in the bars there is very little life at night and if it weren’t for some of the staff most of the places would be dead. Dinner and a bottle of wine was about as wild as it got.

A taxi, therefore, up to Patong, was the order of the night before we left. Here we enjoyed a delicious sea bass and traditional Thai dinner ending up in none other than an Irish bar!

That night was worked off the next morning with some Thai boxing with our own personal instructor, who also took us for yoga the following evening.

One of the highest points on the trip was a cave kayaking day. A lovely day on a boat taking in the most breathtaking scenes of the cliffs of the Andaman sea. It was full day tour with some hairy moments! Once off the boat we were assigned a kayak ‘captain’ who literally rowed us, two at a time, around the cliffs and eventually in through them. The tide needed to be right and there was slight doubt as to how high it was but once we lay flat on our backs, rock-the-boat-style, we sailed through. It was dark and smelly and we were about one inch from scratching our noses off the rocks but eventually we emerged into a fantastical lagoon (above).

Green and blue sparkling waters, we rowed around with our fellow day-trippers, rendered speechless by its sheer beauty. Inside we were pointed towards a strange animal with the head of a frog and the tail of a fish. Camouflaged on a tree branch it took a while to see it but when we did we could hardly believe our eyes. On the way out we saw many colourful crabs clinging to the walls of the cliffs but the biggest surprise was the baby shark, plucked from the net pulled up by our captain, and our day was complete.

After seven days in Phuket we were ready to leave the resort and it was onto our next stop. The amazing Phi Phi. The trip there was an hour-long private bus journey to the port and a speedboat to the island – a hugely appreciated upgrade from the standard ferry, which would otherwise have taken us three hours to get there.

We were dropped at the edge of the island where we jumped straight into the sea and walked the short distance to the shore. Phi Phi famously doesn’t do cars or any kinds of motorised transport on the island – except those on the boats which will get you around to the other side, if you so wish.

With our luggage carried to reception we were greeted with a refreshing drink and cool towel before being taken through a maze of sand and trees to our log cabin. With a beautiful deck, a large double bedroom with floor to ceiling windows, a dressing room complete with wardrobe and a separate shower (with an outside option) and toilet (no outside option!) it was like a little piece of heaven. The Zeovola is expensive, but then it’s a five-star resort. The strip of beach, the opposite side of the island to the area most frequented by tourists and shoppers – the main town – is occupied by no more than four hotels, all of which have a restaurant. But having had a superb evening and a Thai beef salad to die for on the first night, we couldn’t help ourselves but to return each night to the Zeovola restaurant. Although painful enough to pay €45 per night for a simple bottle of Sauvignon Blanc the service was attentive but not over the top and the peace and quiet was romantic. There were no late nights and barely a noise, save for the odd tunes wafting from the neighbouring bars on certain nights, but it was what it was, and what it was, was mostly tranquil.

Our third destination was Chiang Mai. With heavy hearts we left Phi Phi but itching for some nightlife we got over it and on our way to the north of Thailand. There we found a wonderful bustling town and a delightful room in the U Chiang Mai. It also boasted the best breakfast bar of the trip.

Chiang Mai was also where we would tick our most-anticipated trip of the holiday off our lists – elephant trekking. On day one our chaperone from the airport organised for us to go and after reading many disturbing stories about cruelly treated animals we wanted to ensure we went somewhere where the elephants were respected. That’s exactly what we got in our elephant sanctuary, Baan Chang Elephant Park. It was a day, which came after the only late night of the entire three weeks (we found a bar playing live music and some great covers, until 2am!) but we soon got over our need to sleep and on the elephant’s back! We were assigned our own elephant for the day and had training for the first hour and a half. We learned about the elephant’s history, what the sanctuary was about and how we needed to treat the animals. After that it was feeding time for them and feeding time for us before we went trekking in the nearby ‘jungle,’ then back for bath-time in the swamp where we gave our elephant a wash before saying goodbye.

The final leg of the Thailand holiday was Bangkok. On the advice of many we stayed just two nights and it was just enough. A hugely busy city with much smog, it also has its charms – such as the palace of the King and Queen, the shops and of course our hotel. Siam@Siam is the 25-story plush accommodation we were met with and were immediately upgraded to the executive floor, right down from the executive lounge where we were told that between 6pm and 8pm everyday we would eat (canapés etc) and drink for free. Not 15 minutes after we got to our room two miniature bottles of champagne and two small boxes of chocolates, beautifully presented, were delivered.

The highlight of the two-day trip however, was dinner atop the hotel. The Roof restaurant, situated on the 25th floor served impeccable food, beautiful wine and a view you wouldn’t have imagined you could possibly pay for.

Thailand as a country has so much more to it than the media-orientated tales. It is a country rich in tradition and beautiful people with beautiful attitudes. I didn’t need it but the flight home compounded it – not only will I return to Asia but given half the chance I will be back to Thailand too – just to see what I may have missed!