A meditative experience. That’s what my weeklong, whirlwind fam tour of Bangkok and nearby Hua Hin in late August, hosted by the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB), felt most like to me. Inhale deeply as you experience a fever-pitch of activity, and exhale slowly as you encounter unexpected cool breezes and pockets of beauty and serenity.
If landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport, one of the busiest in Southeast Asia, is an inhale, checking into The Sukhothai Bangkok, our first stop, is most certainly the exhale. I could not find a better place of contentment following my 30-hour journey.
My room, part of the hotel’s new Club Wing, was sleek and generous. Our first gathering took place at Celadon, the hotel’s fine dining Thai restaurant, and was a seven-course feast of impeccably executed dishes — from stir-fried morning glory, also known as water spinach, to squid in spicy green curry. The Sukhothai Bangkok is one Adrian Zecha’s first projects, although the hotelier is now more well-known as the founder of Aman Resorts. His trademark simplicity and symmetry are evident in this manicured oasis in the thick of the city.
Beautiful, luxurious hotels like The Sukhothai are a trademark feature of Bangkok — and that inventory is steadily growing. In 2019 alone, nine hotels with a total of 2,440 guest rooms opened in Bangkok, including the 159-room Rosewood Bangkok. More properties are slated to open, including the 101-room Capella Bangkok at the end of this year and the 299-room Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River in February 2020. Aman Resorts recently announced it will open its second Thailand property in Bangkok in 2022, 34 years after the brand opened its first-ever hotel in Phuket, Amanpuri.
New event venues are cropping up, too. The following day, we toured True Icon Hall, a nearly complete meeting and event space on the seventh floor of Iconsiam, a development anchored by more than 5.6 million square feet of luxury retail shopping. Connected to an outdoor terrace overlooking Chao Phraya River and an airy foyer spanning 21,500 square feet, True Icon Hall will be able to accommodate up to 3,000 guests with a modern retractable seating system or divide into 14 breakout rooms for conferences. Iconsiam sits within a short walk or water-taxi ride of some of the city’s most popular hotels, including the neighboring Millennium Hilton Bangkok and the just-refreshed Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, which is just across the river.
The main draw of this $1.65-billion mega-mall, which opened in late 2018, is, of course, the shopping and dining — eight floors’ worth. But groups attending events on the seventh floor will want to go down a floor to stop at the Alangkarn dining zone, where a 50-foot-tall water-fall dances with light and color (custom branding can be arranged), flanked by gardens designed to resemble the rice farms that cover a large swath of rural Thailand. On the ground floor, SookSiam offers an Epcot-like experience where visitors can stroll through all four of country’s geographic regions, sampling street food from an indoor floating market or shopping hard-to-find creations of artisans. For time-strapped meeting attendees, it’s the perfect air-conditioned compromise for experiencing a slice of Thailand’s culture.
Authentic Bangkok Dining
As impressive and comfortable as SookSiam might be, it still can’t quite compare to the real thing. My evening tour of Chinatown — one of the world’s oldest and largest Chinatown neighborhoods — was booked through Context Travel, a company specializing in cultural tours guided by expert locals, which also arranges private tours for groups. My guide and local restaurateur, Chatchai Chanvej, took me on a crash course of one of Bangkok’s most popular neighborhoods for street food. Over the course of three hours, he expertly led me through the crowds to more than a half-dozen stalls, peppering our conversation with tidbits of history along the way.
At our first — and my favorite — stop, Nai Ek Roll Noodle, we slurped a hearty soup of rolled rice noodles and the crispiest slivers of pork to ever grace a spoon. Nai Ek opened his stand 30 years ago on Yaowarat Road, the Broadway of Bangkok’s Chinatown, and it now appears in the Michelin Guide and sees lines that often snake around the block, Chanvej told me. That’s becoming less and less of an unusual sight. About a mile away, people line up at dawn to try Jay Fai’s crab omelets and curries, which earned her a Michelin star in 2018 — and for the record, it’s best to make a reservation by e-mail, but I’m told you should still expect to have to wait.
For four years in a row, Bangkok has topped Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index for the number of international overnight visitors, and during the Thailand MICE Forum 2019, which we attended on the second day of our fam, the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) revealed that Southeast Asia now tops the list of regions on planners’ radars for 2020 and 2021.
“That means Thailand for all intents and purposes,” added Philip Eidsvold, president of SITE, during his presentation of SITE’s latest Incentive Travel Industry Index, “… and it tells us that long-haul travel is coming back.” In January, SITE held its 2019 SITE Global Conference in Bangkok.
But it’s not just an incentive destination — according to ICCA, Bangkok ranks No. 10 on its list of most popular cities worldwide for international association meetings, hosting 135 of them in 2018. Smaller cities like Chiang Mai and Pattaya are increasing in popularity, especially for meetings and conferences that fall within the education and science sectors, while beach destinations like Phuket and Krabi are hosting a handful of events as well.
Traveling Back in Time to Hua Hin
Hua Hin, slightly less than a three-hour drive south of Bangkok, is one of the closest seaside escapes from Bangkok by car. Some may argue for taking a flight to more popular islands like Phuket, but the upside to driving is that it affords a glimpse into a very different, more rural side of Thailand. Through the window on the drive through Samut Sakhon province, I watched a dance between land and sea. Every so often, my view gave way to the gentle dunes of a salt farm or a white-gold temple, shooting up from the green horizon like a flame. We stopped a little more than an hour after leaving Bangkok to stretch our legs at Tha Kha Floating Market.
This weekend market has operated for more than 100 years, its vendors selling everything from local fruits to handwoven hats directly from their boats. But the best part is still a boat ride away. Climb inside one of the traditional Thai wooden boats, which are as old as the market itself, and with a few strokes of the paddle you’ll find yourself floating into another world. All of a sudden, the madness of Bangkok and the buzz of the market fades away, and it’s just me, the swish of the paddle stroke, and the song of the birds hidden up in the trees. Finally, my exhale.
This gentle meditation of nature continued when we climbed back in the car and proceeded to Baan Tha Ka, a small village where visitors can stay in traditional teak homes along the river and see life as it was, and still is. Our afternoon was spent under the shade of palm trees, watching farmers turn coconuts into a kind of sweet molasses that we sampled in handmade desserts and drinks.
Driving farther south, we eventually reached Hua Hin and checked into Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin. Once again, I felt like I had returned to another time. Built in the 1920s, the 209-room property has been preserved to evoke a bygone era when the opening of a railway between Bangkok and Hua Hin transformed the destination from a small fishing village into one of the country’s first resort towns. You can sense this history in the resort’s deep hardwoods and the lush, sprawling grounds — much of which can be used for outdoor event space in addition to its three dedicated indoor spaces.
Less than a mile away, we visited the sleek new Hua Hin Marriott Resort & Spa, which offers a slightly larger property at the more modern end of the design spectrum. Some of its 300-plus guest rooms feature direct pool access, and planners can easily move their groups from one of eight indoor meeting rooms to an outdoor reception on the terrace or directly on the beach — where a barbecue complete with a DJ was waiting for us that evening.
Our long day’s journey complete, we drank and feasted, relaxing into easy conversation. I slowly breathed in, as the cool ocean breezes enveloped us, and out, following the rhythm of the gentle waves lapping against the shore.