Thursday, 9 February 2017

99 Hours in Thailand… A Romantic Trip for Two

Sometimes, unexpected things happen in your life.  Like entering competitions on the internet and winning holidays.  It generally doesn’t happen to people like me.  But this time, it did. Naturally, I didn’t quite believe it.  Then we received flight confirmations from British Airways.  Then the itinerary arrived.  It was on.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand – the government agency promoting tourism in the country opened a competition for bloggers to come and experience Thailand as a honeymoon destination.  I wrote an article in November and never did I think that as a newly engaged couple, less than 8 weeks later we’d be on a plane to Bangkok. 

We're now in the final of the competition to win our honeymoon... please feel free to give us a vote and watch our support video! 

Day 1

Touching down at Suvarnabhuni Airport, I had no idea what to expect.  But the Amazing Thailand sign and a group of 7 people (including a film crew) were there waiting on us.  There was no denying it was for us.  We were probably the only Douglas and Claire in the place at that moment in time.  On a 4 day trip, we were determined to fit in AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE and from the moment we arrived, Amazing Thailand were whisking us off to romantic places, destinations and activities.  

arriving at the airport
Off the plane and straight to the city… zooming past roadside street vendors and three wheeled Tuk Tuks, we arrived at Baan Glom Gig for lunch.  A great story – the restaurant is owned by a family who mum (Khun Suchada) was a celebrity chef in Thailand and they dreamed of opening a restaurant.  And they did. Spring rolls awaited us, reviving our tired, jet lagged faces.  Followed by aromatic stir fried, vegetables chicken with cashews and rice.  All were delicious and the tonic we needed after our 30 hour journey. 

Even better news was our next stop, straight to a Thai massage at the traditional medical school found in the grounds of Wat Pho temple. From the moment we stepped into the cool air conditioned room and smelled fragrant balms in the air, it was heavenly. We were treated to 1h traditional massage.

My masseuse was AMAZING and helped me with my neck and back problems.
Wat Po Traditional Massage School in Bangkok

Relaxed and revitalised after our massage, the day continued with a tour of Wat Po.  As we were near to Grand Palace, we witnessed hordes of Thai people coming to pay their respects to the late King and I was touched by the groups of volunteers providing free meals to individuals who had travelled halfway across the country for this mark of respect.  We also visited on Children's Day – a celebration of children: balloons everywhere, families hosting parties on the street. But Back to Wat Pho, one of Bangkok’s famous temples, dates back at least 300 years.  We queued to visit the Reclining Buddha which was truly spectacular.  And 46 metres in length.    Our first day ended here, after our epic journey, we were completely exhausted. 

Reclining Buddha at Wat Po, Bangkok

 But there was more excitement as we arrived at the W Hotel, Bangkok. Time to take full advantage of our amazing facilities. First experience of staying at a W hotel and I would definitely go back!  Walking through the front doors, it was obvious this was somewhere special.  Staff were incredibly attentive. Lobby area was decked out in rich jewel purple, black and white.  A spiral staircase leads to The Kitchen Table restaurant on the 1st floor (a restaurant with outdoor terrace) but more about that later...
Outside W Bangkok

Hotel Lobby

Through the doors we went, to our romantic honeymoon suite. We were lucky enough to be staying in a 64m2 studio suite on the 29th floor of the hotel with amazing views over Bangkok.  First time staying in a W hotel. Walking into the room was an experience in itself. Staff went to the effort of decorating the suite for honeymoon. We had a printed welcome sign on the bed, a room covered in balloons, two delicious cupcakes left on the desk for our enjoyment. The panoramic window provided views in every direction. The bed was huge and the focal point of the open plan bathroom was a huge tub style bath at the window behind blinds, to enjoy more city views, from the privacy of a big deep, bubble filled tub.
Welcome balloons in our suite
After 19 hours of travelling and 30 hours with very little sleep, our suite provided the calm oasis we needed away from the city. W Hotel focused on the detail. 6 bottles of complementary water at various places around the suite. There is nothing worse than arriving somewhere with nothing to quench your thirst, especially for foreign travellers who can't drink the tap water.  The room had a proper coffee machine with pods. Nice touch. Also welcomed.  There were bathrobes, slippers, plenty of towels and not only did we have a huge bathtub, there was the old favourite, the rain shower.
That bath...

Back to those little details; the mats in the elevators rotate through the day, welcoming you with the appropriate message.  Determined to make the most of our stay, we left the draw of the huge bed and a well needed sleep in favour of a visit to The Kitchen Table, the hotel restaurant 28 floors below us.  Those little touches appeared again; the offer of an indoor or outdoor table.  Given it is currently -3c in Scotland and 32c in Bangkok, we took up the offer of the outdoor setting.  For two British people, outdoor dining is a novelty any time of the year, but especially in the middle of our winter!

I feel the need to commend the staff in the hotel. From the moment we arrived, to the moment we left, the experience was faultless. Service sits at the heart of their ethos. The restaurant staff had the right amount of welcome... enough to make sure our glasses were full and our food was acceptable, but not the overbear of someone standing over your table for an entire meal.

We decided to share a starter to kick off, opting for the pork and chicken satay served with a peanut dip and cucumber relish.  Whilst waiting, our bread basket arrived, giving us time to sit down, start drinks and enjoy the ambience before our food arrived.  Not wanting to spoil the main event (portion sizes are incredibly generous), a shared starter was plenty.  Next up, we chose main dishes from the a la carte menu. We had the option of create your own burgers from a separate menu, but decided to go a little more authentic.  Again, the staff excelled themselves - before I ordered my pad thai, they checked how much spice I wanted and again, during the meal, came back to make sure it was to my liking. Mr WhatClaireDid opted for a butter chicken curry.  It was rich, aromatic and he may have been overheard saying it was one of the best chicken curries he had ever eaten.

We stopped off for a quick nightcap in the Woowoo bar, on the ground floor. I tried a house cocktail, whilst beer was MrWhatClaireDid went for a local beer... when in Thailand. Those little touches appeared again: not one but two bowls of nuts were left for us, the bar was table service and we had the option to play some Jenga over drinks.

An early night was long overdue and fairly swiftly, we were fast asleep, in preparation for our next stop... Nakhon Phanom.


Early rise and back in the luxury minivan for our journey to Don Muang airport (around 45 minutes from the hotel), for a 1 hour internal flight with Nok Air to Nakhon Phanom.  Again, great service - flight ran on time, given complimentary water and a snack 10 mins into the flight, and the plane parked outside the back door of the airport. Perks of a regional flight to a small airport. I’ve never walked from the plane straight to the terminal until now.  
Honestly, the plane landed at the back door!

The Nakhon Phanom province is in the north east of Thailand and not hugely visited by westerners coming to the country.  But it’s beautiful. It’s full of culture and sits right on the Mekong River, bordering Laos.  The people are friendly and the feel is very different from that of Bangkok. I was incredibly grateful for the chance to see two sides to such an amazing country. 

We landed and headed straight to a local restaurant for lunch. We met with the owner who, with the help of a translator, told us that his fish is caught locally, in the Mekong River. We even got to see his langoustine pools out the back of the restaurant.  Now that’s fresh fish!  We tried a number of fish dishes over lunch.  Some fried with herbs, others cooked in a sauce, one made with prawns and lime and a spicy fish soup.  Each was incredibly fragrant and aromatic.  My favourite dish was the house special.  We couldn't quite manage all the food but were delighted with the chance to try so many great things. The owner was delighted we’d visited and we were more than happy to pose for photos with the staff!
Amazing lunch overlooking the Mekong River 

Afternoon was approaching and so was our next stop to Wat That Phanom temple. We met our guide, who spoke no English, but we had our interpreter. Wat That Phanom temple, is incredibly sacred in Buddhism. It is favoured by those born in the Chinese year of the monkey, many make a pilgrimage to visit.  Our guide encouraged us to take part in a number of the Buddhist traditions, including lighting incense, gifting lotus flowers in prayer, walking clockwise around the temple three times for prosperity and telling our fortune with numbered sticks. Turns out 13 is my lucky number.

We felt incredibly honoured to be part of this unique experience. A private tour, and we would encourage more people to consider stopping off in this beautiful part of the country. Incredibly special.

After the amazing hotel on night 1, we couldn’t wait to see what was in store for the second night. We arrived at The River Hotel to be told we would be staying in the honeymoon suite for 2 nights. It was so exciting! It comes with a double balcony from bedroom and lounge, with panoramic views of the Mekong River.  On Day 3, I woke up to watch the sun rise and spotted fisherman casting their nets for an early morning catch before trying the rain shower. It was tranquil, peaceful and beautiful.  The suite had a separate bedroom, lounge and bathroom and we felt there was plenty of space to unwind.  The simple modern dĂ©cor was a welcome touch. 
The River Hotel and Honeymoon Suite, Nakhhon Phanom

Our day 2 evening activity, was a romantic sunset river cruise on the Mekong river.  Boat owner Nikki and her family came to meet with us to tell us about her project and how it grew from a few visitors, to a full river boat throughout the year. Word is spreading about the sunset cruise, which included dinner, drinks and entertainment from the staff. We were welcomed aboard as some of the first western visitors so far and have promised to try and increase this after our visit!  We tried seafood salad, baked whole Mekong River fish served with a sweet sauce, peppers and pineapple, followed by a fish broth, served with a heater to keep it warm whilst we sailed the river.  We tried stir fried greens in a savoury sauce and finished with a fruit plate and a photo shoot with the local tourists... it seems our international visit with Tourism Authority of Thailand caused quite a stir.  We are currently enjoying our new found celebrity status.
Our night out on the river cruise in Nakhon Phanom

Day 3

Another early start, with breakfast at 7am at The River Hotel.  Great to have a selection of Thai and European items to start the day.  It was a big novelty to be sat on the terrace in summer clothes as the sun came up, in January (-3c at home!).  We set off for nearby province Sakhon Nakhon, to visit Saint Michaels Catholic Church and the surrounding community, where a number of Vietnamese descendants have settled. This is the largest catholic community in Thailand and we were kindly taken on a tour of the church, by a community volunteer. We saw local houses and visited the local lake which is the second largest in the whole of Thailand.  The whole area was so clean and well maintained – there was a real community feel to the place.  
Visit to the Catholic community in Sakhon Nakhon
We followed on with a trip to the lotus garden nearby - a secluded green space with bicycle hire, many walks and a boardwalk over the lily pads and lotus flowers, out to the pagodas. A very romantic place and we could imagine, a great place to take photos for Thai couples marrying nearby. It was lovely to spend some time on a hot day, strolling hand in hand across the wooden bridges, watching the lotus flowers drift by on the water. 
An amazing morning at the Lotus Gardens

As we had a packed schedule, it was back in the minivan and off on our way - stopping for a nearby lunch at an American style ranch and farm.  We sat in the wooden saloon overlooking the river, enjoying a bbq steak lunch and saw our group cook bbq style at the table, with various meats and vegetables.

After lunch we spent some time at the venue, visiting their sheep farm and even having the opportunity to feed the sheep... some of which were crafty enough to jump the fence and go for the grass from behind you. There are some hilarious photos of us with our new friends, for your enjoyment.  There were many activities on the farm, however, hopefully very little evidence of me trying to ride a penny farthing bicycle....
Enjoying our time at Farm Hug and feeding the animals
We were soon off to our next stop.   The assistant director for tourism in the north east area of Nakhon Phanom joined us for the day, as we visited some cultural sites.  The afternoon started with a trip to a small cooperative deep in the villages of Sakhon Nakhon.   This was probably the most touching part of the entire trip, as the elders of the church came to greet us and carried out a blessing ceremony with Mr WhatClaireBaked and I.  We found out afterwards that it is something incredibly special, that not many western people have been asked to participate in.  Our future marriage was blessed, for many years of happiness, prosperity, wealth and a healthy family.  Despite our lack of ability to speak Thai, our interpreter did a great job of telling us what was happening at each stage.   Afterwards, we felt incredibly humbled to be part of such a cultural tradition. We each had a band tied around our wrist for the 4 points we were blessed for. It was a truly magical moment on the trip. 

Following the ceremony, the elders took us on a tour of their enterprise and it just goes to show that with a small pot of money and a drive for success, great things can happen.  9 ladies each invested 100bhat to start a community project, dying indigo fabric and turning it into scarves, tableware and stylish patterned fabrics.  Everything is done by hand - from the creation of the patterns on a loom, to the dying and washing, the detangling of the cotton thread, then the weaving work manually done on traditional looms.  This is a success story... now 53 woman are part of the cooperative, bringing income to their families in the rural community.   This visit was probably the most powerful experience I had on the trip.   Working as a business adviser by day in the United Kingdom, I could see that success comes from hard work and dedication.  Even a small capital investment can get an enterprise started. I bought a scarf on my trip, which is now at home in the UK and it will always remind me of that day and the blessing ceremony. 
Learning to die indigo fabric at a community project
We had so much to fit into our day, we weren't able stay for long, before heading off to another project- set up by the Thai royal family.   In a similar rural area, there were a number of issues with economic migration, to the bigger towns and cities.  The royal project was set up to keep employment in the local town.The project was a ceramics factory providing a number of employment opportunities for skilled local craftspeople including potters and painters.

We were given a tour of the factory and shop as well as the chance to be painters for the day - being given our own ceramics to paint.  Mr WhatClaireDid painted an elephant whilst I went for a sheep.  It was very competitive and great fun, although we aren't sure if our pieces would quite make shop sale! 
My painting project

Dinner in Sakhon Nakhon

Day 4

All too soon it was the last day of our culture trip.  Although short and sweet, we managed to fit in so many activities and enjoyed all that was offered of north-east Thailand.  On our last day we awoke before sunrise, at 5.45am to take a trip to the local temple and provide a food offering to the local monks.   This is a traditional activity undertaken by the local people and sometimes visitors too.   We each had a bag of food to offer to the monks and just after 6am, the bells sounded at the temple and one by one, the monks left the temple in a line, wearing their orange robes, bare footed.   We lined up across the road and each offered some foods, placed inside their bags.  To be respectful, we removed our shoes for the ceremony, bowed our heads as they came past us and as the sun fully filled the sky, they returned to the temple for their day of activities.  I learned from our guide that the local monks did not eat after midday.   The event was fascinating, to see how other cultures work and it felt so special to be part of an age-old tradition as the sun rose.
Food offering to the local monks

We had time for a short rest at the hotel so we took the time to look out on the balcony, over the river.  We repacked our bags and headed out to the hotel gardens, to record our final interview with the crew, summing up all the activities we had done during our time in Nakhon Phanom province.  We reflected on the people we met, food we had eaten and photos we had taken.   We took an instant camera on the trip to record our time in Thailand - these photos will be used as part of our wedding early next year.  The first spots of rain on the entire trip fell as we left for the airport - a sign it was time to move on.
Sunrise from the Honeymoon Suite at The River Hotel, Nakhon Phanom
A quick run through the airport and we were back on the tarmac for our departing flight to Bangkok. No time to waste, we were in our seats, seat belts fastened and soaring upwards away from the peaceful landscape of the area, back to the hustle and bustle of the city.  I would highly recommend Nok Air - a low cost and efficient airline which even had free Wi-Fi in the air - something we don't get in the UK.  Very much a novelty and I took the time to share some photos from the trip. If we return to Thailand in future, we’d definitely look to fly with them again. 
Heading back to Bangkok with Nok Air 
After 1 hour we were back in Bangkok and on our way to lunch.  We had some amazing food on the trip and our visit to the upscale restaurant Baan Khanitha at Sukumvit 23 was no exception.  We both really enjoyed the food served.  I had been waiting the whole trip to enjoy traditional fish cakes and was not disappointed when they arrived with a sweet dipping sauce alongside crispy spring rolls.  For our main course we tried a selection of dishes including scallops stir fried with green vegetables and a traditional pomelo salad which I really want to recreate at home. The tang of the pomelo worked perfectly with the heat of the chilli, balancing out the flavours.  During the trip I couldn't wait to try mango, sticky rice and coconut ice cream as a dessert.  It was worth the wait as the creaminess of the ice cream worked brilliantly with the sweet mango and the crunch of the topping.  We left for our next stop feeling full and happy. The restaurant was cool, airy and the perfect place to stop for a lazy lunch, enjoying several dishes.   I also loved the little Tuk Tuk in the car park (perhaps I could get one to drive to work?!) 
Pomelo salad in Bangkok - so tasty!
Our final day was almost done, but we had time for a stop at Bangkok Platinum Mall in the heart of the city for shopping. A 6 floor bazaar selling everything from homeware to clothing to children's toys and souvenirs. We visited some clothing stores, met with the owners and I heard about a young Thai designer who was making great progress with her collection of patterned dresses and clothes for women of all sizes. She even had a collection for ladies from the Middle East looking for modest pieces in bright colours.  The marketing team for the mall deserve a huge thank you - helping me to find silk robes as a gift for my bridesmaids to wear as we all get ready on the morning of the wedding next year.  I bought one in white for me and three in gold for them... to feel like royalty on the big day!  6 years ago on my last visit I bought a pink version of these robes and it was great quality, I still wear it at home today and on my holidays.

I could have spent a whole day at the mall, but only had a small suitcase to take goods home!  It was time to leave - but we had more activities to do on our last day.  We drove through Bangkok at sunset and arrived at a fantastic restaurant across the road from Wat Pho temple and near the Grand Palace, called The Deck.  We wandered through a narrow street to get there and were astonished by the panoramic views on the other side.  The Deck is what it says it is.... a large wooden deck with views across the river in Bangkok, to an ancient temple lit up as well as the joy of watching the commuter boats and river cruises with their neon lights pass by in the darkness.  The river in itself echoes the busy vibe of the city: every 30 seconds another boat would pass by - carrying happy tourists, or mounds of rice or soy in its cargo.  Yet despite the constant river traffic, The Deck felt tranquil and peaceful.  Perfect for a romantic dinner for two at sunset.   We tried a number of dishes including a Bangkok take on a pizza, a curried chicken dish with potatoes and my favourite - soft shell battered crab.  In the UK, we sometimes go to a local restaurant which makes this dish, but The Deck was SO MUCH BETTER.  It was soft, authentic and easy to bite through with delicious flavours of the sea.  We even tried some lovely local bite size pastries.   The ones made with mango and coconut were delicious and a great way to finish the meal, as we sipped the last of our cocktails and watched the world go by.

Drinks at The Deck, Bangkok

After dinner, we headed back to the W Hotel and this time, enjoyed more views of the city from the 28th floor.  Our studio suite was on the other side of the hotel this time, so a different view greeted us as we pulled back the curtains on the panoramic windows. I couldn't resist enjoying a peaceful bath in the huge tub and Mr WhatClaireBaked even brought me through some complimentary macarons to enjoy as I soaked!  Being our last night in Bangkok, we ventured out to the local area and took a trip on the sky train to see the city from above.  The air conditioned carriages provided welcome relief from the humid night air, as we watched the lights of the city whizz by beneath us.  Chong Nonsi is the nearest station from the hotel - just a 2 minute walk away, providing an easy connection to the major city sights.
View of the traffic from 29th floor of W, Bangkok

Day 5

After a restful night, we were up early for breakfast, this time opting to sit outdoors on the terrace, in the same location as we enjoyed dinner at the start of the trip. Mr WhatClaireDid has developed a love for guava juice and since returning home I've been sent on a mission to find some locally (at the continental supermarket across the road they have it, who knew?!)

Our guide Neat came to meet as the hotel and by 8am we were on our way back to the airport to check in for our international flight.  As a cultural gift, we gave her a Loch Ness Monster from Scotland to decorate her desk at work and always remember us long after we left! 

Before we knew it, we were boarding the British Airways flight back to the UK and 13 hours later arrived back in London, with our treasured memories of an incredibly special cultural trip. 
I can’t thank the Tourism Authority of Thailand enough for their hospitality during our romantic stay.  We would have loved to stay on longer, but with work commitments and at short notice, we had 5 days to make the most of.  Bangkok is a unique place, where east meets west, where old meets new and tradition sits happily alongside modern.  Nakhon Phanom and Sakhon Nakon are two traditional provinces that may only be an hour away by plane, but feel a whole world apart from this major city.   We were incredibly luckily to witness two sides to the culture of Thailand and would love the opportunity to return again one day. 


Getting There

British Airways flies directly to Bangkok from London once a day.  Flight time approximately 11 hours 

Nakhon Phanom is easily reached from Bangkok via Nok Air, flying daily from Don Muang airport 

Travelling around Nakhon Phanom and Sakhon Nakon is recommended via van and guide, or if you are feeling brave… a moped!


This trip was sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand,  Any opinions expressed are my own.

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