Thai break: from eco-living in Koh Samui to cultural immersion in the capital

By Ross Forbes | 20 May 2019 | Travel

Discover why Thailand remains the ultimate luxury destination with tradition at its heart

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* Koh Samui's Tongsai Bay from above

The Kingdom of Thailand is known for its fine cuisine, sandy beaches and rich cultural heritage. But what efforts is this hot-spot making when it comes to luxury travel? From my experience hopping from the island of Koh Samui's Tongsai Bay to the Lancaster Bangkok in the country's capital, the real question is: what isn’t it doing?

One of the most exciting trends in luxury travel is an increasing focus on eco initiatives, and that’s where Thailand is leading the way. It can be easy to forget the planet while you’re lounging in the sun – after all, you’re on holiday. But setting off with sustainability in mind needn’t be a bore. In fact, choose the right resort and it can enrich your experience.

Another luxury travel aspiration that Thailand delivers with ease is authenticity. Travellers looking for cultural immersion will find an abundance of opportunities to entertain, educate and inspire.

From my experience of two very different five-star resorts, it’s clear there’s much more on offer here than your standard beach holiday. Whether you’re looking to experience the best in eco-travel or throw yourself into the culture of a colourful city, there’s opportunity aplenty to discover the ‘real’ Thailand – and see for yourself how the country is setting the pace in luxury travel.

Green and pleasant

For conscious travellers who don’t wish to forgo any of life’s luxuries The Tongsai Bay couldn’t be more perfect. Set over 28.5 acres of practically untouched land wrapped around a secluded bay, this family-owned eco-resort lives and breathes luxury and sustainability. Although the hotel is sizeable, a relatively modest 83 rooms span the main house and villas, preserving not only the privacy of the guests but the nature of the land. The resort has been designed in keeping with the landscape in order to protect local wildlife and vegetation – not a single tree has been touched in the building of the resort.

Guests can choose between ocean- or garden-front suites and cottages – many of which have their own pools and outdoor baths. The highlight is Akorn Villa, named after The Tongsai Bay’s late founder Akorn Hoontrakul, and our luxury base for the duration of our stay. This two-bedroom home from home has its own private terrace overlooking the sea that comes with an L-shaped infinity pool, dining area, vast bath plus a four-poster gazebo bed – and yes, I am still just talking about the terrace. Inside you’ll find equally sumptuous appointments – open-plan suite-style bedrooms and shower rooms, with a zen-like garden terrace leading out from the master bedroom and shower room. >>

Related: Which of these paradise islands in the Bahamas suits your holiday style?

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* Sea views from Tongsai Bay's famed Akorn Villa

Each morning, guests enjoy breakfast at Chef Chom’s Thai Restaurant, where we’re greeted by the ‘Fruit Lady’, as effervescent Chef Pu is lovingly known. Stroll towards the smoothie bar and before you can utter a greeting, Chef Pu tells you exactly what fruit and veg you need for a morning boost – apparently an injection of mango will be just the thing to help with my jet lag.

After a Thai-inspired breakfast, a visit to the hotel concierge enlightens us on the best things to do on the island. A real highlight is visiting the Samui Elephant Haven. The Tongsai Bay takes care not to work with attractions or businesses that mistreat animals or wildlife. Witnessing the respect for these majestic creatures and knowing they’re in such safe hands is far more insightful and rewarding than a visit where the wellbeing of the animals is unknown.

Another must-see is the fisherman’s market, a 10-minute drive from the hotel. Visit in the evening for relaxed island vibes brought to life as locals and visitors come together to enjoy the countless food stalls, restaurants and bars.

Back at the resort, a visit to the organic garden is a beautiful eye opener. A prime example of the hotel’s commitment to sustainability, this is filled with glossy vegetables and fruits, lush herbs and flowers, all purpose-grown for the hotel’s kitchens. Gardeners even produce their own effective microorganism, made from fermenting fruits, that is used in the hotel as a natural cleaning agent.

We continue our culinary discovery with a cooking class, taught by Chef Tube, who demonstrates how to create authentic local recipes using traditional processes and only the finest organic ingredients from the garden. The four-course meal I’m taught to make consists of Thai green pork curry, shrimp pad Thai, Thai chicken soup and a sweet coconut cream dessert – all whipped up within an hour.

Your stay wouldn’t be complete without dinner by the stunning bay, where the long-serving team blend specialty cocktails using a gorgeous Thai gin exclusive to the hotel called Iron Ball, as well as cooking local seafood on grills under the stars. The beach barbecue is just one weekly event the hotel hosts, alongside movie night on the beach, private dining experiences and yoga classes – a real taste of eco paradise. >>

Related: Lxury travel and conservation come together in Mozambique’s pristine Bazaruto Archipelago

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* Views of the capital from Lancaster Bangkok's rooftop pool

Eco-luxe citybreak

After a few days relaxing on Koh Samui, it’s time to say goodbye to the island and fly to the capital for a completely contrasting experience – and the newly opened Lancaster Bangkok is the perfect luxury base from which to take in one of the most exciting cities on the planet.

Located in the heart of cosmopolitan Bangkok, this family-owned hotel boasts enchanting views of the vibrant cityscape as well as all the creature comforts expected of a five-star city hotel – including a rooftop pool and state-of-the-art gym – making the Lancaster a perfect blend of traditional Thai culture and city modernity.

Rather than viewing the city through the tinted windows of an air-conditioned Mercedes, the concierge team recommends a more hands-on approach to get the best out of its culture-rich bustle. The preferred mode of public transport in Thailand is either tuk-tuk or high-speed khlong boat – not dissimilar to a supercharged gondola. Trust me, after a thrilling commute on either of these, you’ll never want to travel on the underground again.

The hotel is within easy reach of a number of historical sites, temples and markets, all of which are worth visiting but might leave you scratching your head as to which to see first on a tight itinerary. Of the three temples we visited – Golden Mountain, Wat Mongkorn Kamalawat and Wat Pho – I recommend Wat Pho (near the Grand Palace in Rattanakosin), home to a giant reclining gold-leaf Buddha, measuring a whopping 46m in length. This is also a fantastic place to step out of the bustle and indulge in traditional relaxation treatments from the country’s leading school of massage, Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School.

You also mustn’t miss the Viva Jiva Spa at the Lancaster Bangkok. Here therapists focus on the unique anatomy of your body, combining scientific and holistic methods from the East and West to create a treatment tailor-made for you. In all honesty, I thought I’d be limping after a firm Thai massage, but this is probably the best massage I’ve ever experienced – by the end I can’t believe how rejuvenated I’m feeling (a good thing as I’m ready for more sightseeing).

As the sun sets, we head out to the Rot Fai night market in the Ratchada area for a taste of Thai atmosphere and nightlife. Here you can indulge in incredible portions of leng – delicious pork bone soup – from the street-food restaurants, shop for artisanal crafts from hundreds of stalls and dance the night away to live music at one of the many outdoor pubs. All part of the Bangkok experience.

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* The elegant lobby at Lancaster Bangkok