With a fascinating culture, dazzling natural beauty, by far my favourite cuisine and the best nickname ever, 'The Land of Smiles' has always been somewhere at the very top of my travel wish list. Having finally got the chance to visit back in early March, it's safe to say that Thailand was everything I imagined it would be and more, especially when staying in Anantara's beautiful hotels that combine five-star luxury with an authentic Thai experience.
The Golden Triangle
After a short yet sweet stay in bonkers Bangkok, we took the short flight (of only around an hour) up to Chiang Rai right in the north of Thailand, where we were whisked away to our first Anantara property, the Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. Soon enough, the residential areas seemed to fade away and our surroundings became greener and more remote, as we pulled up at our home for the next two nights. After a gong was sounded to let the elephants know we'd arrived (this is when I started to get really excited!) a wonderfully warm welcome awaited in the temple-inspired lobby. I'm talking a delicious drink made with local flowers, a bracelet crafted by local artisans, a tasty snack of mini pineapple dipped in a unique sugar/chilli combination and, to top it off, a mini massage from a therapist at the Anantara Spa. It was then I knew that I'd arrived somewhere special.
A truly unique location, the Golden Triangle is the name given to the area where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. As well as it being pretty cool to be able to say you can see two other countries from the daybed on your suite's balcony, the area is also something seriously special to look at and exudes a real sense of calm, particularly as the sun rises over the misty jungle. The northern location also becomes clear across the menus at the Thai restaurant Sala Mae Nam, with the locally inspired Lanna dishes highlighted throughout and heartily recommended by the friendly waiting staff. I am so glad I took their advice... the Chiang Rai fried rice with green chilli and crispy pork was seriously good!
The highlight of my stay at this resort, though? The clue is in its name. Inhabiting the 160 acres of jungle in front of the resort are 21 elephants (19 females and two males) cared for as part of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. I was lucky enough to take part in the 'Walking with Giants' experience, joining expert vet Nissa, three elephants and their mahouts for a sunny stroll through the jungle. The elephants were huge - they can weigh up to 5 tonnes! - but incredibly gentle and inquisitive. A highlight had to be watching them be bathed by their mahouts in the river, although they were dusty again as soon as they left the water! Nissa was also so much fun and so informative, sharing countless interesting facts about the animals that she so clearly cherishes. A truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, walking with these wonderful elephants is something I will never forget.
Three things I learned about elephants...
1. An elephant's trunk has tens of thousands of muscles, more than all the muscles in a human body. These body parts are absolutely amazing, acting as an upper lip and a nose, as well as a way to grab objects, communicate and drink!
2. Elephants have been proven to be able to recognise themselves in the mirror. Along with humans, apes and dolphins, they are the only animals with self-awareness!
3. Elephants have evolved to have their signature wrinkly skin as a mechanism to fight heat. The teeny crevices retain water and mud to protect the skin from UV radiation, as well as insects.
I was also able to sneak a peek at the resort's new 'Jungle Bubbles', utterly unique transparent domes located amid the Golden Triangle jungle, in which the elephants roam. Guests are able to spend an unforgettable night in them, staying from dusk to dawn just metres from these amazing animals, enjoying a gourmet picnic dinner before drifting off to the sights and sounds of the jungle. While these amazing bubbles are designed to get you closer to nature (you're asked to bring only what is essential for your night in there, the rest of your stuff is left in your resort room or suite) they certainly maintain the Anantara level of luxury, complete with a four-poster king bed, Nespresso coffee machine, well-stocked minibar and spacious bathroom with a shower, soft robes and signature toiletries.
Paradise in Phuket
Another short flight took us right down south to Phuket, Thailand's largest island. Another warm Anantara welcome awaited at our next home for a few days, Anantara Layan Phuket Resort, where we were shown to the most beautiful Beachfront Layan Pool Villa. Literally steps from the beach (and, conveniently, The Mojito Factory that serves over 20 variations of a mojito using local rum), we were also within easy reach of the complimentary watersports, the wonderfully warm Andaman Sea, the main swimming pool and the Dee Plee restaurant, where we enjoyed the best breakfast of our trip, as well as delicious Thai cuisine for dinner.
Anantara's resorts are renowned for their wellness offerings, so it was only right that I enjoyed a massage at the hillside spa, located adjacent to the fitness centre and serene jungle pool which soon became one of my favourite places to hangout. I opted for an amazing full body Anantara Signature Massage that combined eastern and western techniques, while using a delicious smelling signature oil blend. A great choice after several flights in the past few days, I felt both relaxed and energised. I also loved how I got to choose which spa music accompanied my massage, with options ranging from traditional Thai instruments to the soothing sound of the ocean. Rounding off my massage with delicious hot ginger tea and homemade granola bites, I felt well and truly rejuvenated.
We also enjoyed a stay at Anantara Mai Khao Phuket Villas, where we took part in a famous Anantara Spice Spoons cookery class. This immersive and interactive culinary experience is available at many Anantara properties across the world, including Anantara Layan Phuket Resort, with the aim to give guests the skills to cook authentic cuisine from the destination they're visiting. As a lover of Thai food, this was seriously exciting, and after mulling over the extensive menu we were given to choose from, we opted to cook Thai fishcakes, spicy prawn soup, chicken green curry, chicken red curry and, to finish, coconut sticky rice with fresh mango. The whole experience was so much fun, and our chef teacher let us really get stuck in, chopping the chillies, frying the fishcakes and ensuring our curries were seasoned to perfection! As well as the cooking methods, I learned loads about Thai ingredients and the importance of food in Thai culture. Once our masterpieces were complete, it was time to sit down and feast. And feast, we did. Though I was getting fuller and fuller, I just couldn't stop - it was all so delicious! I honestly can't even pick one dish as my favourite, the combination of them all was just perfect. Absolutely stuffed with authentic, home-cooked food, we left with amazing memories, as well as a Spice Spoons apron, chopping board, certificate and USB stick filled with the recipes we'd created.
With all these fabulous facilities and authentic activities on offer, we barely felt the need to leave the hotel! However, sunny Phuket is an island well worth exploring. One evening, just in time for sunset, we head down to Phuket Old Town, the streets lined with charming coloured Portuguese-style shophouses, now housing some quality restaurants and cute boutique stores.
We also took a day trip to Phang Nga Bay, an area known for its iconic limestone cliffs and rock formations. Booked through Anantara's Discovery Guide, we joined the highly reputable John Gray's Sea Canoe team, heading out to the bay by large boat, before hopping into canoes to explore some lesser-known caves (one filled with bats!) and lagoons. Some of these caves were originally discovered by John Gray himself, who just so happened to be on our trip! The surroundings were simply stunning, and our guide shared plenty of fascinating facts about the area's geology and wildlife. Back on the boat, we enjoyed an incredible spread of Thai food, as well as crafting our own krathong, a Thai offering made from fresh flowers and banana tree trunk, created as part of the annual Loy Krathong Festival. As the sun set, we head back into a cave (otherwise known as a hong) by canoe, krathong in hand. Here, we lit candles and set it afloat, traditionally done by the Thai to both worship and ask for forgiveness from the water. While in the dark hong, we also witnessed the waters lit up by the utterly unique natural bioluminescent plankton, a truly serene experience and the perfect end to a perfect Thai adventure.