On Location: Bangkok + Phuket

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Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Temple of the Reclining Buddha

A study in contrasts, Bangkok’s ancient golden temples glimmer amidst a skyline dominated by modern glass highrises. It’s a city comfortable with both the old and the new—the familiar and the unexpected. By day, Bangkok is all business. Well-dressed professionals travel via elevated rail systems linking the entire scope of Bangkok with five major convention centers. Although, few visitors come here without riding the motorized “tuk-tuk” rickshaws, ranging from 2-seaters to 20-pax stretch rides.

By night, vendors set up carts and kiosks along the streets selling silks, jewelry and handicrafts from across the Far East. Scents of curry mingle with fried fish and every imaginable variety of pad Thai noodles. This is the Night Market, a transformation occurring in most Thai cities every day of the week.

A 1-hour flight north of Bangkok, the insanely beautiful island of Phuket makes an ideal second phase to any MICE program. Malay natives first named Phuket “Crystal Mountain” because of its rocky peaks glimmering in the luminous sea. Long a backpacker paradise before the 2004 tsunami, Phuket has rebuilt with a chic array of affordable, high-end incentive resorts along one of Asia’s finest beach destinations.

Bangkok: City of Angels
Upon arriving at Bangkok’s ultra-modern Suvarnabhumi Int’l Airport, Asia World DMC welcomed our group with traditional phuang malai garlands and whisked us to the 381-room InterContinental Bangkok, last renovated in 2009. Set in the hub of Bangkok’s central business district, the InterCon embodies the vivacity and stature of a big city hotel without losing its individuality. With several variations of sumptuous suites—39 in all—your VIPs feel like royalty. Even standard rooms are bright, elegant, spacious and appointed with soothing tawny satin and glistening beige tone decor. A marble bath with separate soaking tub and European rain shower ratchet up the luxury in all room categories, while the tony Club Lounge offers club level guests a cosmopolitan business HQ with the vibe of a multi-million dollar residential condo.

Planners wishing to keep their programs under one roof will appreciate the 13,500-sf convention space. Four restaurants offer menu options to meet the most discerning foodies, including one of the oldest and most respected steakhouses in Bangkok, Fireplace Grill. The Grossi Trattoria & Wine Bar features a gastronomic hybrid of Italian/Australian cuisine headed by Aussie celeb chef Guy Grossi. And nestled within the Balcony Lounge is Humidor, one of the only cigar lounges in Bangkok.

Here’s how you should kick off any program in Thailand.

Asia World delivered us for traditional Thai massage at the elegant Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok Hotel (see Prevue July/Aug 2010). Unlike other forms of massage, Thai massage doesn’t require disrobing or oils. The therapist climbs atop the massage table and uses his/her entire body weight, including hands, elbows and knees, to compress and stretch muscles, flex joints and stimulate blood flow. Rather than slinking into relaxation as after most massages, I sprang from the table invigorated and ready to tackle the streets and rivers of Asia’s “City of Angels.”

Thai food has become wildly popular in North America and I was anxious to try something other than just the familiar pad Thai noodles. The award-winning Baan Khanitha Restaurant is renowned for its traditional Thai cuisine fused with contemporary panache. With two locations in Bangkok, Baan Khanitha can easily accommodate small business dinners or large groups within their various dining rooms. Food here is made to order, so if you can’t take the heat, or like it extra hot, be sure to ask your server to adjust the spiciness to your liking.

I found the deep fried soft-shell crabs in yellow curry powder sauce delightfully crunchy and savory, with just the right heat. Don’t miss the mango and sticky rice with coconut ice cream that cools the palate at the end of the meal.

InterContinental Bangkok
InterContinental Bangkok

Chao Phraya River
Water taxis are plentiful, with the Chao Phraya River Express shuttling passengers up and down the main artery 24 hours a day. Many of the city’s grand dame hotels border its banks, but we stopped for sumptuous high tea at the supremely charming Praya Palazzo, an exclusive 17-room hotel and special event venue occupying what was once a private mansion. Three function rooms dressed in lavish European splendor and outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment can host as many as 250 guests. Phraya Palazzo features authentic Thai cuisine, yet also boasts a 5-star Western menu.

We also took in sunset from Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok’s Garden Gallery, and closed the day with a 7-course Thai dinner fit for royalty. Isn’t that how you want your clients to feel after you’ve promised them a magical experience across the ocean? The magic didn’t end with the food, though. A soundtrack of jubilant Thai music listed through the air as three elegant Thai women shimmering in sapphire silk costumes drew every eye as they floated into the room. With fingers adorned with 6-inch ornaments, and their graceful tilting of the torso and head, the dancers delighted us with the traditional Fawn Leb, or “Fingernail Dance,” once performed only at royal court functions.

Thai Temples
There are more than 20 primary Buddhist temples within Bangkok cherished for their artistic beauty and cultural gravity. The largest and most visited is the 16th century Wat Po, known worldwide as the “Temple of the Reclining Buddha.” The happy, horizontal holy man stretches 140-feet long, covered in flaking gold leaf, with 10-foot giant feet decorated in mother of pearl.

The surrounding facilities in the many courtyards were once home to Thailand’s first university, and this spot is the birthplace of Thai massage. So make sure you plan at least a couple hours here because it’s not the kind of place to feel rushed.

About 15 minutes away on the Chao Phraya River, Wat Phra Kaeo is known as the “Temple of the Emerald Buddha” ensconced among the many golden spires of the Grand Palace complex. Within this sacred temple sits the holiest of Thai relics, a 2-foot statue of Buddha carved from a single piece of jade. It was here where ancient kings of Siam once lived and held audiences in the throne halls surrounding the palace. If you see only one cultural site during your visit to Bangkok, make it here.


Centara Grand + Siam Niramit
For our last day in Bangkok, we checked into the landmark Centara Grand at CentralWorld, which anchors a micro-metropolis with an immense shopping center, myriad restaurants and the attached 667,000-sf Bangkok Convention Center.

You walk into Centara’s soaring lobby over a softly underlit floor between floating water lilies and orchids, beneath massive contemporary artworks. Centara Grand’s 469 rooms and 36 suites are designed with minimalist/mod furnishings and subtle orange, dusty rose and violet textiles.

There are nine club level floors and a sleek club lounge taking up the entire 51st floor, with exclusive breakfast, afternoon tea, hors d’oeuvres/drinks, private meeting rooms and butler service available.

Centara is topped off with the 122-seat Restaurant 55 and Red Sky Restaurant, hosting 81 indoor and 149 on the stunning outdoor deck where we tried the delicious mixed urban bistro fare. If only for cocktails on the Red Sky terrace, the view of Bangkok from here is worth the visit any time of day. The 24th floor Ginger restaurant adds another 60 indoor and 208 outdoor dining options with trendy pan-Asian cuisine.

A royal city boasting the world’s longest reigning monarch, Thailand is proud of its rich cultural history. That’s celebrated at the spectacular show, Siam Niramit—“A Journey to the Enchanted Kingdom of Thailand.”

The Phuket Postcard
As much as we enjoyed the bright lights and buzz of Bangkok, our group was excited to head to the island paradise of Phuket. Following our exceptionally breezy transfer through both airports, our first stop was lunch at the Tin Mine restaurant at the sultry Indigo Pearl Phuket Resort near Thalang. Hidden in a grotto of palms, vines and ferns, the 177-room resort exudes chic sophistication with its rustic wood and tin materials, much of which were salvaged from the tsunami. The pseudo-industrial feel is softened with flowing silks, candles and floral prints throughout the seven restaurants, three pools and Coqoon Spa.

Surrounded by teal blue water and lush greenery, Indigo Pearl is less than 10 minutes from the airport and completely separate from the busy tourist beaches, but close enough for a foray into the scene for beach dining and shopping.

Two musts: Book an oceanfront feast at the Côtémer Beach Club. And be sure to take part in the onsite Moo’s Kitchen Thai Cooking School, which includes a group trip to the fresh market.

We then checked into the 676-room Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort situated on a sprawling 75-acre tropical retreat in a cylindrical glass tower. Five dining choices, three pools, beach access, a lagoon and plenty of sunshine ensure guests receive the royal treatment. Situated near the popular Karon Beach toward the south coast, this group friendly hotel is close to golf courses, nightlife, the Phuket’s FantaSea theme park and the inspiring Chalong Temple.

Sunshine and water activities were a huge draw to most of our group, but the elephant safari was the highlight. A short transfer into Chalong, we disembarked at Siam Safari where guides took us by Land Rover into the jungle to the Elephant Camp. Siam Safari focuses on the health and preservation of these majestic mammals in one of the last jungle habitats on Phuket.

We paired 2-by-2 for trekking with a Thai mahout, or elephant driver. The mahouts sit bareback across the neck of the elephant, hooking their feet under the floppy ears. We climbed into the canopied bench seat strapped across the elephant’s shoulders and off we went into the jungle of Chalong highlands. Rocking and rolling on our pachyderm pony through tunnels of vines and banana trees, both of us fell into a trance at the sights and sounds of the jungle.

Red Sky Restaurant, Bangkok
Red Sky Restaurant, Bangkok

Gibbon monkeys peeked from the canopy and exotic birds called to mates. In the distance, the tiny islands dotting the Andaman Sea around Phuket glittered in the morning light. We rumbled along the well-worn path while the mahout occasionally broke into low sing-song signals to his mount. Following our trek, we helped feed our elephant bananas leaves, bamboo and assorted fruit, which is a whole experience in its own right.

Dotting the ocean’s horizon from Phuket are other small islands in the Andaman Sea. Some groups prefer a getaway from the getaway and a trip to Raya (or Racha) Island is just what our group ordered. After a wind-slinging speedboat crossing from Chalong Pier, we stepped off onto the white sands of Raya Island and headed up the hill to a luscious Thai lunch at Ban Raya Resort. This is a well known spot for exceptional snorkeling among the thriving coral forests, as well as the impossibly clear seas the likes of which I’d never seen before. Others simply sunbathed on the beach, knowing it might be a while before experiencing again one of the world’s ultimate beach escapes.