Onsite Review: The Beat Goes on for Thai Tourism

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W Retreat Koh Samui in Thailand
The sumptuous W Retreat Koh Samui.

It’s been three months since Thailand’s military staged a coup d’etat—what in May seemed like disturbing news proved by June, during the month Recommend visited, to be the “non-event” that some tourism officials in the Southeast Asian kingdom maintained it was all along.

Even a short stroll along Bangkok’s teeming avenues will convince even the less-discerning visitor that, as far as the travel industry is concerned, Thailand remains unchanged: All tourist attractions are open, construction of new hotels and resorts proceeds unimpeded, airlines operate under their pre-coup schedules, the beach party atmosphere that’s the trademark of Thai resorts continues unabated and the coup has been relegated to the back pages of the country’s leading newspapers.

In short, when it comes to tourism, as the old song says, the beat goes on. And for travel agents and tour operators the picture looms even brighter than it did even in pre-coup days.

April Cole, director of operations and tours for Journeys Within, a tour operator specializing in Southeast Asia, says, “Americans, who make up the bulk of our business, seem to have put the coup in the past and are now booking Thailand again.”

It helped that after the coup, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) went on a full-court press to assure travelers that Thailand is “open for business.”

TAT governor Thawatchai Arunyik says: “TAT has maintained good relationships with many American travel agents for a long time. As such, we are willing to cooperate with them and with tour operators in terms of providing them with useful information like market profiles and emerging destinations—including making
suggestions and insight about what the market needs. Apart from this, TAT has been doing its best to provide accurate and latest situation updates to affirm operators and travelers’ confidence about sending clients to Thailand. U.S visitors have always enjoyed [Thailand’s] unique culture, heritage and traditions. It’s no surprise that the U.S. provides one of our highest rates of repeat visitors.”

where to stay
As travel returns to normalcy, some of Thailand’s hotels and resorts have taken additional steps to ensure that the kingdom retains its status as one of Asia’s most visited countries.

Zulkifli Rahman, director of sales and marketing for 137 Pillars House, a singular boutique hotel in Chiang Mai (from about $360 per night) specifically designed to give guests a taste of bygone Thai elegance speckled with modern conveniences, says, “We have sent e-mail messages to those who canceled bookings during the days following the coup informing them that the crisis is over and that business is operating as usual, while re-assuring them that they will enjoy their dream vacation as expected.” 137 Pillars House, which opened a year ago, consists of 30 suites surrounding an original 1889 structure that serves as the resort’s focal point.

A notable Bangkok hotel is the Chatrium Hotel Riverside (starting at approximately $160 per night dbl). As its name makes clear, the Chatrium sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the fabled city’s lifeline.

In the five years since opening its doors, the five-star, 396-room property with 150 suites has gained a popularity that rivals some of Bangkok’s more established hotels. What makes Chatrium so appealing is its modern touches, efficient service and the magnificent river and city views seen from practically every room.

Of course, an Anantara property is always a good choice, and the Anantara Bangkok Riverside Resort and Spa (from approximately $175 per night dbl), with 407 rooms, is a convenient arrival and departure point for any Thailand vacation.

Those craving to go one step further in discovering Thailand, will find that Koh Samui is a photogenic island rich in adventure and exploration. The W Retreat may be the island’s most fabled resort and visitors will find it to be “an island within an island,” as W bills itself.

With 74 private-pool villas on the north shore, W Retreat Koh Samui is a virtual masterpiece of modern design that underlines its vibrant and contemporary atmosphere.

It is not inexpensive. Rates begin at approximately $1,500 per night dbl, but its amenities and service belong in the first tier. All villas have outstanding panoramic views of the Gulf of Thailand, its restaurants are among the best in the area, and its service is unparalleled.

Nattiya Sangkuttiya, marketing communications specialist, explains that the resort was “designed as a modern, cutting-edge paradise where [for guests] daytime is dedicated to individual moments in which they can slip away from themselves and each other to refuel for whatever may come next. When night falls, the people and the retreat come to life, full of energy and ready to mingle.”

W currently offers special offers that include up to a 50 percent discount on some packages.

For more Thailand hotel options, including Anantara properties outside Bangkok, check this out.

package it
One of Journeys Within’s more popular Thai excursions is a 14-day Classic Thailand Tour (from $3,220 pp) that includes side trips to Phuket, Chang Mai and Doi Inthanon National Park while taking in activities like kayaking, cooking classes and cultural activities at various stops.

Northern Thailand Revealed (from $2,220 pp) is an 8-day romp through the heart of that alluring region—a destination notable for its magnificent landscapes. Participants have the rare option to visit hill tribes and to explore the area’s vast rivers and inscrutable jungles.

while in bangkok, don’t miss…

  • A ride on the Maeklong Railway (about one hour from Bangkok—50 cents) through Talad Rom, a sprawling market built over the tracks. Here, vendors must dismantle their stalls to make way for the train only to immediately set them up again once it passes. It’s a unique Asian experience. And the food from the stalls is cheap and fabulous.
  • Wat Traimit is an elaborate, classic temple near Chinatown. Don’t miss the early morning ritual of donating food to mendicant monks who live nearby.
  • Exploring the klongs (canals) on a long-tailed boat. See weathered teak houses on the banks, merchants carrying their wares on rowboats while basking in the placid atmosphere of what Bangkok looked like a century ago.
  • Jim Thompson’s house is a monument to the American spy who single-handedly revived Thailand’s silk industry. The house, a masterpiece of Thai architecture, is a time capsule. Thompson mysteriously disappeared in the late ‘60s.

while in koh samui, don’t miss…

  • Tarua Samui just might be the best restaurant on Samui. It’s a modest, thatched-roof, open-air pavilion on the waterfront overlooking the beach at Lami. Glass noodles and tiger prawns are legendary.
  • Koh Tao, a former penal colony surrounded by coral reefs custom-made for snorkeling and scuba diving is only an hour away from Samui. Walk 15 minutes to three small islands connected by a sandbar, or just enjoy the majesty of the Gulf of Thailand from a beach chair.

contact information
137 Pillars House: snhcollection.com/137pillarshouse
Chatrium Hotel Riverside: chatrium.com
Journeys Within: (877) 454-3672; journeys-within.com
Tourism Authority of Thailand: tourismthailand.org or operator.tourismthailand.org (travel agent login)
W Retreat Koh Samui: (877) 946-8357; wretreatkohsamui.com or starwoodpro.com