On 18 February 2014, 18 members of the Anglo-Thai Society (ATS) arrived at Suvanabhumi Airport , Bangkok, at the start of the first organised ATS visit to Thailand in the more than 50 years of the society’s existence. It was well worth the wait.
For some it was their first visit to the Kingdom. Others had previously lived in Thailand but had not been to places in the “unseen” itinerary. Two members of the group had fascinating experiences of Thailand during World War II. All were impressed by a country that continues its rapid development whilst retaining the traditions of its unique culture and society.
The group spent four nights in Bangkok, based at the Chatrium Riverside Hotel on the Chao Praya River. The programme (affected only slightly by ongoing political demonstrations) included : a visit to the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles (which chronicles the development of Thailand’s silk and design industry); dinner at Chakrabhongse Villa (courtesy of M.R. Narisa Chakrabhongse); a tour of Ayudhaya Historical Park on foot and by boat (courtesy of the Tourist Authority of Thailand); lunch with committee members of the Siam Society (an ATS-linked cultural organisation); and tea at the British Embassy Residence (courtesy of HBM Ambassador, Mark Kent).
From Bangkok the group travelled by coach and train south-west to the unique railway market “Talad Rom Hoop” and then to a delightful canal-side Home Stay (B&B) in the village of Amphawa, which has a vibrant floating market. Early risers were able to offer food to monks paddling flat-bottomed boats along canals in the dawn mists.
The group then travelled south to the seaside fishing town and resort of Hua Hin, stopping on the way to visit a fascinating King’s project to recycle waste water, creating a bird sanctuary in the process. The programme in Hua Hin included wine-tasting and lunch at the scenic Monsoon Valley vineyard (courtesy of Monsoon Valley Wines) and a sumptuous beachside seafood dinner hosted by Surreal Holidays.
Old timers remember a different Hua Hin. The old narrow road from Bangkok, which used to be lined by flame trees and menaced by fume-belching sugar cane lorries, is now largely dual carriageway though continuous ribbon development. In the town, traditional wooden fishermen’s homes have been replaced by neon-lit concrete shop houses and an incongruous high-rise hotel. Nevertheless, Hua Hin is a thriving resort, which hosts a growing resident expatriate community. The Centara Grand Beach Resort (the old Railway Hotel), where the group spent two nights, remains one of the nicest hotels in SE Asia, retaining its colonial-style charm in the oasis of its luxuriant beach-side gardens. The railway station is still one of the most attractive in the Kingdom. After years in Bangkok, Their Majesties the King and Queen have returned to live in their favourite “Far from Worries” Palace on the town’s outskirts.
From Hua Hin the group headed back to Bangkok, via the beautifully restored Maruekhathaiyawan Summer Palace, in time to catch the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. Although Thailand’s transportation infrastructure has benefitted from decades of investment, the railway system remains sadly neglected. However, Hualampong Station in Bangkok has been restored and made easily accessible to tourists as well as locals. The overnight train to Chiang Mai is excellent value for money, comfortable, clean and punctual, and the attendants provide a cheerful, helpful service, including tasty Thai food.
The group stayed at the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort (formerly the Chedi), a beautiful designer hotel, which has preserved and tastefully incorporated the old British Consulate building (although sadly the elephant stables are long gone). The group enjoyed a northern-style lunch at the traditional Thai house of ATS member Khunying Noi Svasti in the tree-shrouded hills above Chiang Mai, a reception in town hosted by ATS correspondent, Colin Jarvis, and a visit to the historic foreigners’ cemetery.
The group continued its travels north through reforested mountains, stopping at the Disney-like Wat Rong Khun (“the White Temple”), to the Golden Triangle area of Chiang Rai province, where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma/Myanmar converge and wild elephants still roam across man’s borders.
The group stayed at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, another of Thailand’s amazing and unique hotels, which overlooks Laos and Myanmar. Time in the Golden Triangle was too short, but sufficient to allow a visit to the Opium Museum (an unexpectedly extensive, modern and interactive exposition of the drugs trade in Thailand and Asia), and an excursion across the Mekhong River to a village tourist market in Laos.
The Golden Triangle was a fitting culmination to an eclectic tour, thoroughly enjoyed by all the participants. After a river-side dinner in the attractive city of Chiang Rai, the group dispersed, some to spend more time in the north, some to head to the islands of the south and others to return to the UK.
Thanks are due to many, including the various hosts mentioned above, Surreal Holidays, who provided an excellent service throughout, and Khun Siripakorn Cheawsamoot of the Tourist Authority of Thailand, H.E. Mr Kitti Wasinondh, former Thai Ambassador to the UK, and H.E. Mr Pasan Teparak, current Thai Ambassador to the UK, for their support, advice and participation in elements of the programme.
Following the success of this inaugural ATS visit, consideration is being given to another ATS tour, possibly including Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. We hope it will not take another 50 years. 2016 is our target.