An Elephant and Island Adventure in Thailand

Two chairs over look a lush coastline.

A trip to Thailand can feel like three vacations in one, given the country’s remarkable diversity of landscapes and experiences. The itinerary that Michael Holtz of SmartFlyer has designed starts in Bangkok, a city that embodies both the dynamic energy and the rich culture of Thailand. In the space of a few hours, you may find yourself in a historic palace complex, visiting a traditional floating market, and sipping a cocktail in the newest luxury hotel.

In the north of Thailand, you’ll find a different world; in fact, much of it was historically a different country—the kingdom of Lanna. In Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, the influences of nearby Myanmar and Laos have shaped the culture and cuisine, while the landscape consists of verdant mountains and rainforests.

Finally, the southern part of Thailand is where you’ll find the country’s famously stunning beaches. Here you can spend days snorkeling or simply swimming in the crystal-clear waters, cooling off with Thai-inspired cocktails, and refueling with meals of fresh seafood and spicy curries.

Everywhere you visit on this 12-day overview of Thailand, you’ll experience the gracious welcome for which the Land of Smiles is famous. It’s a similar reception to the one that will greet you when you board your Korean Air flight to begin your Thai odyssey. With 50 years’ experience bringing travelers to destinations across Asia, Korean Air will get you to Thailand and back in comfort and style.



Playing with the Elephants

The rescued elephants at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle lucked out—who wouldn’t want to live out their days at a luxury resort? On a visit to its elephant camp, you can spend time with the majestic animals and then help give your new friends a bath.
Michael Holtz


Michael Holtz

Michael Holtz is the ultimate jet-setter and the original Smart Flyer. He founded SmartFlyer over 20 years ago after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis and has been globetrotting ever since. His curiosity sends him around the globe in search of the best that the world has to offer. Michael is widely known for designing unique, once-in-a-lifetime itineraries and always knows the smartest way to issue First/Business class tickets for his discerning clients. Michael sits on both the Starwood and Park Hyatt Advisory Boards.
A flight attendant presents an expansive and comfortable airplane seat.

DAY 1Fly to Bangkok

You’ll begin your journey to Asia as soon as your board your Korean Air flight in one of the airline’s 16 gateways in North America. The flight across the Pacific may be long, but Korean Air prioritizes friendly, efficient service and comfort. You’ll find seats that recline to fully flat beds in First Class and Prestige Class, as well as some of the widest Economy Class seats in the air, with 34” of legroom. Enjoy entertainment options like recent feature films and games and savor the airline’s award-winning cuisine. Once you land at the new Terminal 2 at Incheon airport, you’ll enjoy a remarkably short connection time; there are at least three flights daily to Bangkok.

DAY 2Arrive in Bangkok

After you land, you’ll be met by a car and driver to transfer you to your home for the next two nights, the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. The hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River is one of Asia’s most fabled properties—when the original building opened in 1876, it was the first hotel in Bangkok. Among the many famous names to have visited are Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, and Tsar Nicholas. The hotel has, however, kept pace with changing tastes: Rooms combine the latest in in-room technology and spacious bathrooms with décor that highlights Thai teak and silks.

After you’re settled, head out to start exploring the famous City of Angels. Your first stop is Yaowarat Road, in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which is lined with casual restaurants. You may want to stop at a few and try a variety of dishes: ba mee noodles, grilled squid, and ginger soup for dessert.

Traffic is often bad in Bangkok, so wave down a tuk-tuk, which can maneuver around the worst of it and visit the flower market, located just to the south of Wat Pho. The market serves up a dazzling floral display, with local flowers like orchids, lilies, and chrysanthemums, as well as imported delphiniums, snapdragons, and more. Then stop at nearby Wat Pho—the Temple of the Reclining Buddha—to see one of Bangkok’s most impressive sights, the 151-foot-long namesake Buddha gilded in gold.

After returning to the Mandarin Oriental for a rest, you’ll dine this evening at the Arun Residence, where the Deck restaurant overlooks the Chao Phraya River and (on the opposite bank) Wat Arun, with its Khmer-style tower illuminated at night.
A grand Thai palace with tiered roofs.


DAY 3Bangkok’s Grand Palace and the Canals of Thonburi

You’ll be met this morning at your hotel for a guided tour of Bangkok’s Grand Palace—a 60-acre complex of various temples, museums, halls, and (former) residences. Among the must-see sights are the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which houses a 26-inch-tall statue of the Buddha, carved from a single piece of jade.

While this was the primary residence of the Thai kings until 1932, today it’s used only for ceremonial events and a few royal offices. A number of the buildings have now been converted to museums, including ones dedicated to textiles and coins. As much of the palace complex consists of temples, dress modestly—no shorts or sleeveless tops.

After your visit, head to lunch at the Supatra River House restaurant, located in a traditional Thai house on the banks of the Chao Phraya. The menu consists mostly of seafood dishes, from salmon satay to a variety of curries.

In the afternoon, you’ll explore the city by water, starting with the river that has been the main artery of commerce to and from the capital for centuries. Then explore the canals of Thonburi, the former capital of Bangkok located west of the river. While Bangkok is a spectacle of skyscrapers and activity, Thonburi offers a glimpse of a quieter side of Thailand, with merchants and farmers selling their goods at floating markets, and small temples where you may be the only travelers when you visit.

At the end of your cruise, stop at Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, for a closer look at the Khmer-style building you saw from a distance at dinner last night.
A bathtub in an open-air room overlooking a forest


DAY 4Travel to Chiang Rai

Enjoy a leisurely morning at the Mandarin Oriental this morning before heading to the airport for your 80-minute flight to Chiang Rai.

The city of Chiang Rai and the province of the same name lie far to the north of Thailand, near the Laos and Myanmar (formerly Burma) borders. In fact, this area didn’t become part of Thailand until the end of the 18th century. It was long part of the Lanna Kingdom, before later being incorporated into Burma for some 300 years.

Today, the city boasts a number of historic sites of note, including the famous White Temple. Still, compared to its better-known sister city, Chiang Mai, it’s a relatively quiet provincial town. After you land, you’ll be met by a driver who will take you roughly an hour north to Chiang Rai and one of Thailand’s most luxurious hotels, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle.

Yes, you’ll be staying in a tent, but you will definitely not be roughing it. Each tent has its own luxurious bed, as well as a full bath, with copper tub and outdoor rain shower. The tents’ décor varies, though all have hardwood floors and are furnished with safari-style handcrafted items made of dark woods and local textiles. Decks look out over the rainforest-filled Golden Triangle—the point where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand meet.
A man sets out a meal for a human couple while an elephant couple walk by.


DAY 5Mahout Training

After breakfast, you’ll have an opportunity to learn about how mahouts, or elephant keepers, train their animals and form a unique bond with the majestic animals. All of the elephants here are rescues, and you can walk and feed the animals before helping to bathe them.

Later in the day, take advantage of the hotel’s spa—perhaps opting for the Mahout Recovery massage after your morning experiencing the life of a mahout. Poultices of camphor, lime, and lemongrass are used to get rid of knots and aches. The spa also offers a full menu of massages and face and body treatments, incorporating ingredients and techniques common to Burmese, Lao, or Thai wellness rituals.

After some time poolside, meet fellow guests and hotel staff at a wine and cheese tasting before dinner.
A small group of people sail past cows in a thin boat.


DAY 6Cruise the Mekong

This morning, head out on the Mekong River in a longtail boat. A naturalist will point out some of the bird species you can see along the banks, and you’ll get a glimpse of life in riverside villages. You can also choose to travel the entire way to the city of Chiang Rai and disembark briefly to visit some of the city’s temples and markets.

After lunch back at the Four Seasons, explore the rainforest on an afternoon hike. You’ll ascend to Camp Peak, the highest spot on the property, to take in the views of the Mekong River and the mountains of Laos on the other side. This being a Four Seasons, you can expect cold towels and water at exactly the moment you begin to feel warm; at the end of the walk, of course, the resort’s pools await. Another option is to join one of the foraging walks led by botanists, who point out all the edible herbs and other plants that grow in the wild here. You’ll learn about ingredients that fed the region’s residents for centuries and are now featured in dishes served by the camp’s restaurants.
An array of tables overlooking a serene pond.


DAY 7Chiang Mai

This morning after breakfast you’ll continue on for two nights at the Tented Camp’s sister property in northern Thailand, the Four Seasons Chiang Mai. Don’t be daunted by the five-hour drive, much of which is incredibly scenic. You’ll pass rice paddies stretching to the horizon and emerald peaks with waterfalls cascading down their faces.

The Four Seasons Chiang Mai sits amid rice fields roughly 40 minutes from the city, with rooms in pavilions located throughout the grounds. Book one of the Rice Pavilion Suites to take in the views from the daybed on your spacious outdoor sala, or terrace; or stay in one of the Garden Pavilions, set amid the tropical landscaped grounds.

After you’ve settled into your room and taken a dip in the infinity pool above the rice fields, head into Chiang Mai for a motor scooter tour, followed by a Northern Thai dinner. The night markets of Chiang Mai are one of the city’s main attractions and a favorite of serious shoppers. You can find everything from produce and T-shirts to high-quality crafts. There are more than a dozen different markets, each with its own specialty and atmosphere.
A Woman looks over a still pond from a terrace.


DAY 8Cooking School

After breakfast at the Four Seasons, learn some of the basics of Thai cuisine at the resort’s cooking school, the Rim Tai Kitchen Cooking Academy. The class starts with a trip to a local market, where one of the resort’s chefs will explain the ingredients essential to northern Thai dishes. Here, coconut is less frequently used than in the country’s south, but garlic, shallots, and freshwater fish feature prominently. Return to the resort for a hands-on cooking demonstration—you’ll end the class with a better appreciation of the complex mix of salty, sweet, and spicy that makes this cuisine so flavorful.

In the afternoon, visit the nearby 6,500-acre Queen Sikrit Botanic Garden, which includes 12 greenhouses. While its collection of plants is encyclopedic, its most interesting collections focus on the plants common to northern Thailand—cycads, palms, bananas, ginger, and other tropical species—and has become a vital resource for botanists around the world. Don’t miss the nature trail to the Mae Sa Noi Waterfall, lined with verbenas, mulberry, and other indigenous plants.

Afterwards, return to the Four Seasons for dinner at Khao, where the menu includes not only Thai dishes but specialties of Myanmar and Yunnan as well.
A seaside pool surrounded by palm trees.


DAY 9Travel to Phuket

This morning, check out of your hotel after breakfast and transfer to the Chiang Mai airport for your flight to Phuket.

Having experienced the excitement of Thailand’s capital and some of the cultural and natural highlights of the country’s north, you’ll spend the final days of your trip experiencing island living, Thai style. The country has, by some counts, more than 1,400 islands along its Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand coasts. Phuket, however, stands out from many of the others with its lush interior and beautiful beaches.

Your home on Phuket will be Amanpuri, the first Aman resort and one that helped set the standard for all that followed. Located on a private peninsula on the island’s west coast, the resort’s 40 pavilions celebrate Thai style, from their distinctive rooflines to the orchids and silk pillows. Many have private pools, and all have salas—open-air decks—with daybeds. Spend the rest of this day lounging poolside or on the resort’s Pansea Beach.
4 candlelit tables on the beach at twilight


DAY 10Phuket

After breakfast at Amanpuri, head out for a Robinson Crusoe experience on an even smaller island—Koh Bon, just over a mile off Phuket’s southeast coast. A private longtail boat will take you to the island, where there are no overnight accommodations and only one restaurant. Spend the morning snorkeling and splashing in the gin-clear waters of its beaches. When it’s time for lunch, the Bon Island restaurant serves up remarkably tasty Thai dishes, like steamed fish with garlic and spicy prawn soup.

Then head back to Amanpuri, where you can spend the afternoon trying some of the activities at the water sports center—stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, or one of the newest crazes, flyboarding. If you’d rather take it easy and doze off to the sound of ocean breezes rustling the coconut palms that dot the resort, do it—after all, it’s your vacation.
Two massage beds, each with their own carefully folded towel.


DAY 11Spa Day

Amanpuri doesn’t just have a spa; as of this year, it can boast that it also has the first Holistic Wellness Center in the entire Aman hotel group. The new name reflects a more comprehensive approach to health and beauty. Herbal and acupuncture treatments are among the alternative medicines that the center offers to slow the negative effects of aging, stress, and environmental factors.

Start your morning here with a daybreak yoga and meditation session before breakfast at the resort. When you return later for a treatment, you’ll get to enjoy the amenities of the recently renovated and expanded spa. New relaxation areas for before or after spa treatments include saunas, Jacuzzis, and cold plunge pools. The result is that the spa and wellness center have become destinations where you may want to spend much of your day.

You can venture out of the resort to check a few more items off your list of sights, like the Big Buddha—a 150-foot-tall statue that is Phuket’s most famous landmark. Or you may want to simply enjoy some of Amanpuri’s other services and amenities, like a cooking class or tennis lesson.

For your final dinner in Thailand, sample typical southern Thai dishes (and compare them to northern Thai cuisine) at the resort’s simply named Thai Restaurant. (You can also choose from Italian and Japanese options.)
A man in a vest serves a cocktail in an airplane bar.

DAY 12Departure

This morning after you check out, you’ll begin the journey home. You might have to connect through Bangkok on some other airlines, but with Korean Air’s extensive network, you can fly directly from Phuket to Incheon airport near Seoul, and then jet across the Pacific.

After exploring the best of Thailand, including some of the most luxurious hotels in all of Asia, it would be natural to feel a bit of a letdown to have reached the end of your adventure. But if you’re flying in First Class and Prestige Class on Korean Air, the return to everyday life can wait a little while longer as you enjoy some final luxurious touches, like the Atelier Cologne amenity kits, gourmet “farm-to-flight” meals, and the chic Celestial Bar—a cocktail lounge high in the sky that you’ll find on the A380 overseas flight.
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