Thailand: The Land of Smiles

by: Chad McCleary

Tuk tuk rides, elephant kisses, and happy Buddhas.  Thailand, the Land of Smiles, has once again earned its nickname!   Destinations just completed one of our annual retreats to this amazing country and between the delicious food, delightful people, and rich culture, the group was all smiles.


Our journey began in the Thai capital of Bangkok, a city where the familiar and exotic collide into an adventurous treat for the senses.  And if you’ve made the effort to get to Bangkok, you deserve the best accommodations possible—the Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel, a luxurious property with an unrivaled location, iconic design, and level of service that is second to none.  

Home to more than ten million people, a city of this size requires several modes of public transportation to support its booming population.  Having many options to choose from, we decided that our guests first experience outside the hotel should involve perhaps the most Thai method of transport, the Tuk Tuk—a motorcycle-powered rickshaw.  To enhance this experience, we arranged to have a police escort for our convoy of Tuk Tuks and headed out to see some of the city’s highlights. Riding in a Tuk Tuk can be a little bit nerve-wracking for the faint of heart.  But we were with a group of adventurers, and zipping through the bustling streets was our dive into breathtaking cultural immersion!

Our first stop was at the city’s flower market where we were able to breathe in the bouquet of different flowers native to Thailand and learn their significance to the Thai people and Buddhism.  We then moved on to one of the city’s oldest and most impressive temples, the 16th-century Wat Pho. Home to one of the largest shrines of Buddha in the world, the Reclining Buddha is a massive 49 feet tall and 150 feet long.  Mouths open, we couldn’t help but say, Soot Yaad— Amazing!  We followed that up with a visit to what is undoubtedly the most famous landmark in all of Bangkok, the spectacular Grand Palace.  Golden spires, ornate statues, and ornamented roof lines—as the main residence to the Thai King for 150 years, this impressive complex continues to wow guests with its beautiful architecture and intricate details.  Many of the Thai people feel this palace is still the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom. We finished our sightseeing in Bangkok with an amazing, authentic lunch at the Supattra River House restaurant followed by a boat tour on one of Bangkok’s many canals.  (A note to those who plan on visiting the Grand Palace, be sure to check their website to confirm the dress code. It’s updated often and they are very strict about what people wear within their sacred walls).

After having such an amazing experience in Bangkok, it would be easy to wonder how you could top that.  Well, the answer to that question is simple and can be summarized by one name: Chiang Mai.

The former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city and is only an hour and twenty-minute flight from Bangkok.  Located in the northern region of the country, its temperatures are milder and the scenery more majestic than the humid, metropolitan city of Bangkok.

Chiang Mai

With its misty mountains and colorful hill tribes, Chiang Mai was the perfect location for the second leg of our journey.  After leaving the airport, we got things started quickly by visiting two of the city’s most iconic temples, the 14th-century Wat Pra Singh and the 15th-century Wat Chedi Luang–architectural wonders that tell the story of the Thai people.  Wat Chedi Luang was destroyed in the 16th-century by an earthquake and only a portion of it was rebuilt. What remains today, although incredible, only provides you with a glimpse of how grand and imposing this temple was in its former glory.  While there our group was able to take some amazing photos as well as spend some time chatting with Buddhist Monks who study within its walls. And no trip to Chiang Mai is complete without a visit to the night markets. Shopping for Thai goods at a great price and a little khaw soi, a particularly popular northern Thai dish, was the perfect punctuation to an incredible day.  

We were able to spend the next three nights at the amazing Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai. Nestled among tiered rice fields with beautiful mountains as a backdrop, this property will rival any you’ve ever experienced.  Each couple in our group had their own private villa with an attached pavilion where they were able to relax and unwind. Four Seasons has done an amazing job of delivering a uniquely Northern Thai experience coupled with their world renown service.  A huge Kháawp-khun (Thank you!) to our hosts at Four Seasons for making our stay unforgettable.

From morning Yoga sessions to mountain biking excursions, Four Seasons has so many incredible options.  Two group activities we were able to do while there were rice planting and a group cooking competition. Dressed in traditional Thai rice planting attire, our guests went knee deep into the rice paddies and learned the ways of the Thai rice farmers.  This experience was not only fun, but it opened our eyes as to how difficult planting and harvesting rice is. As we moved on the next day to our cooking competition, we all had a much greater appreciation for the rice we would be eating. For the competition they broke us up into four teams and had each team prepare a plate of spring rolls as well as a dish of Green Curry.  The activity went fast and was super informative, fun, and arroy maag—Delicious!

Some members of the group got a bird’s eye view of the rolling green hills of Chiang Mai…before plummeting toward a lake below at breakneck speeds.  Don’t panic! They had bungee cords attached to their ankles. Talk about living your best life!

While everything about Chiang Mai was amazing, the highlight of our time there was getting real-life elephant kisses at the Maesa Elephant Camp.  Elephants, revered in Thailand for many centuries for their intelligence, loyalty, and use in battle, are a huge part of the Thai culture. The elephants in this camp are treated extremely well and are loved by all who work with them.  What an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to feed the elephants, ride them, and watch the little calves interact with their mothers.

Can it get better than Chiang Mai?   How about one of Thailand’s most sought-after destinations, the island of Koh Samui (koh means island in Thai, it’s pronounced more like the word “got”).  Just an hour and thirty-five minute plane ride from Chiang Mai, Koh Samui is one of the many amazing gems you’ll find in southern Thailand and was the perfect third and final leg in our Thai journey.  Located in the Gulf of Thailand about twenty-two miles off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, Koh Samui is an island paradise.

Koh Samui

We were able to spend three relaxing (although monsoon-soaked) days in Samui enjoying one of the most amazing hotels the island has to offer, the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui.  A 5-Star luxury hotel set on a mountainside just above a white sand beach and the turquoise Gulf of Thailand, the views from this hotel are as good as it gets. Each couple again had their own villa that included an infinity swimming pool, and we were treated to some of the best that island life can offer: Yoga with a view.  Paddleboarding in the bay. Relaxing on the beach. Or even better, learning a little Muay Thai kickboxing, “the art of 8 limbs,” with the swaying palm trees cheering us on.

Tearing ourselves away from our gorgeous resort wasn’t easy, but our group did venture off property for a day to visit a few of the island’s highlights.  Like the Samui Coco Life & Products Farm and Museum where we were able to play with some monkeys and learn about the process of growing and harvesting coconuts and other amazing vegetables they have in Samui.  We then continued on to see one of Samui’s most famous temples, Wat Phra Yai, also known as the Big Buddha. This temple sits on a small, rocky island called Koh Faan located directly off the northeast coast of Samui.  Compared to many of the other temples we had seen, this one was quite new having been built in 1972. It’s quite famous however because of its 40 ft. tall sitting Buddha. If arriving in Koh Samui via airplane this Buddha is one of the first things that people see from their window.  But it’s even better up close! Between the monkeys and the Big Buddha, our cameras got a serious workout. We ended this day by going into the huge Fisherman’s Village night market for dinner and shopping. Can we just accept as truth that Thai cuisine is undeniably and verifiably the best?  This night ended with a nice downpour, but it just made the experience all the more authentic.

Eight nights, an incredible group of people, and one life-changing destination.  Of all the places I’ve traveled, Thailand is my absolute favorite! Geographically diverse, easy to travel from one region to another (no flight will take more than two hours), Muay Thai, and elephant kisses.  When you take into consideration the food, the quality of hotels, the amazing culture, the number of activities available, the affordability (the exchange rate currently is ฿33 THB to $1 USD), and above all, the wonderful Thai people, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better country in the world to to visit.  I know it’s a long flight to get there, but believe me, every minute of those long plane rides is worth it. The Land of Smiles should definitely be considered for your next incentive program!