From Bangkok to Khao Lak: A wellness guide to Thailand
It’s official: 2023 is the year of the emotional detox retreat. “I’ve seen many clients post-pandemic who are on edge,” says Wellbeing Escapes founder Stella Photi, in our latest holiday trend report. “People are realising our ‘keep calm and carry on’ culture is harmful and it’s not good to bury your emotions.”
I can relate. Facing a return to work after a month-long burnout, I was offered the chance to spend a week sampling the finer things in life in Thailand. It had been a horrible time, so I was understandably into this idea. If a combo city break-cum-beach holiday in Bangkok and Khao Lak can’t help me regain my mojo, I reasoned, nothing can. After all, isn’t this where every recent grad heads to find themselves?
As it turns out, far from its reputation as a hotspot for boozy backpackers, Thailand holds many delights for those looking to nourish their body over putting it through an alcohol-induced ringer. Here’s how I got on.
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Things to do in Bangkok: Where to stay
Let’s face it: a grotty hostel doesn’t exactly scream ‘wellness retreat’, and especially in a city as hectic as Bangkok. So leave your backpack at home and check into the luxurious Athenee Hotel for some proper R&R. To describe its environs as palatial is not an overstatement. Located on the grounds of a former royal residence, it’s hosted both a wedding for a Thai princess and the Japanese president, among other esteemed guests. If you’re looking for indulgence, you’ve found it.
After a long, sleepless flight, visiting the hotel’s new Forbes 4-star certified spa was first on the agenda. I have a lot of tightness in my upper back that diligent strength and conditioning training, plus the odd massage, hasn’t resolved. I appreciated the lengths my therapist took to assess my personal pain points before getting stuck in for the dreamiest, most thorough massage I’ve ever had.
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Afterwards, she gave more recommendations to help further unknot my tense muscles, namely sitting in the sauna (if I must) and having another massage (sigh, okay). The result? A completely pain-free trip.
We only had 48 hours in Bangkok and I was tempted to spend it all sitting in a jacuzzi or lounging, martini in hand, by the pool. And I did both of these things. But refreshed from a sleep in a scandalously comfy bed, I was ready to work up a sweat. The Athenee has a fully-equipped gym, but I opted for a 7am Muay Thai class in its beautiful poolside garden instead. If you’ve never tried boxing before, I’d recommend; 45 minutes later I felt completely reinvigorated.
Things to do in Bangkok: What to visit
We were based right by Lumpini Park, the city’s oldest and largest, which is a scenic spot with ponds, palm trees and lots of lizards to point at. Head here for a peaceful morning run before it gets too hot. This area is well-connected thanks to plenty of taxis to hail and the high-speed Skytrain. A couple of stops later and you’ll reach the upmarket Siam Paragon mall, where you can enjoy a Kardashian-worthy retail therapy session, before jumping in a 15-minute taxi to the Chao Phraya riverside for dinner, dancing and more shopping at the newly-relaunched Asiatique.
This was a highlight of my Bangkok trip. Once an international trade port, Asiatique is now a warehouse-style complex with 40 restaurants and 1,500 boutiques to explore. Weaving through the stalls, I picked up some sundresses, sandals (and a pair of Muay Thai shorts) to get beach-ready, then sat down for dinner and watched the party boats sail across the water. On which note…
Things to do in Bangkok: Where to eat
If ‘wellness’ equals ‘well fed’ to you, I have good news: you will not leave Bangkok hungry. There are eight bars and restaurants inside the hotel alone, running the gamut from modern French to Michelin-starred Japanese to unusual Thai cuisine you won’t find on a market stall.
The international breakfast buffet, with its 100-plus offerings, left me speechless. We also enjoyed the theatrics (and delicious sashimi) at Kintsugi, where a cold noodle dish dosed in dry ice was a standout. For proper Thai food, check out the rich, authentic flavours at The House of Smooth Curry, but not before stopping at the Glaz bar for a pre-dinner snack of DIY lotus petals stacked with dried prawns, chilli, lemongrass and various tasty sauces.
Out and about? The House on Sathorn makes a fab lunch spot for big (and we mean *big*) seafood sharing plates. An octopus dish finished with Insta-perfect flower petals and a chilli soy sauce drizzle was divine, as were some sweet, pillowy-soft lobster claws. And our dinner rec for Asiatique has to be Sirimahannop; a huge replica of a traditional three-masted Thai navy warship, right on the waterfront. The cocktails here were especially good – and, if you’re lucky, you might be let into the secret basement rum bar…
The next morning we were back at the airport for our connecting flight to Phuket. After a slightly boozy night, a trip to the beach was feeling more and more appealing.
Things to do in Khao Lak: Where to stay
Khao Lak, situated 90 minutes from Phuket in Thailand’s Takua Pa District, is the country’s premier sandy hotspot. In total, there’s some 16 miles (25 km) of shoreline stretching across six beaches to explore, so check into a beachside resort to take full advantage. We stayed at the JW Marriott Khao Lak and, after a whirlwind 48-hours, it was a *total* vibe shift. Where the Athenee’s opulent surroundings showcases humans’ impressive ability to create beauty where it didn’t previously exist, the Marriott instead leans into our planet’s effortless natural allure.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of man-made wonders on display. Gazing upon the series of lotus-scattered ponds dotted about near-forces you to relax and, of course, there’s the 2.5km-long lagoon pool winding around the resort, accessible directly from each room. But it’s witnessing stretches of sand giving way into an impossibly-blue ocean, topped off with fiery pink and purple sunsets, that make a stay here feel truly restorative.
Of course, a trip to the Quan Spa was in order. After two massages in Bangkok, I opted for something new. A full-body scrub and lotion treatment was very soothing for my now slightly sunburned skin while a hot oil head massage proved just what my hair needed after a dip in the ocean. At one point, I think I even fell asleep.
Things to do in Khao Lak: What to visit
Once again, I’d have been perfectly happy to spend the entire trip laid pool-side on a lounger, but there’s plenty to do to get your heart rate up before retreating back to the sanctity of the swim-up bar. In the lagoon, you can work your core and balance skills with a floating yoga session before swimming lazily back to your room to shower. Head to the private beach for a paddleboard lesson in the sea, or hire a bike and ride to a nearby temple to squeeze in some sightseeing with your cardio. There’s a racket court and a fully-equipped gym (the aircon in here is so good), along with daily classes including the likes of Muay Thai and Crossfit.
A half-day bamboo rafting jaunt across a jungly river was a high point (aside from the rafter poking the snakes in the trees overhead!), and there are plenty of gorgeous spots nearby to experience more of the world’s natural wonders. Take a whole day to see the famously dreamy national parks on the Similan, Surin and James Bond Islands, or trek into the tropical mangrove forests for some kayaking on the Little Amazon.
Make sure to stop in at the Turtle Conservation Centre at the Khao Lak navy base, too. The centre rescues sick turtles and nurses them back to health, along with hundreds of baby turtles that likely wouldn’t make it to adulthood, until they’re large enough to fend for themselves. Before heading home, stop at the Bang Niang market to haggle for souvenirs or tuck into something naughty and deep fried from one of the many food stalls.
Things to do in Khao Lak: Where to eat
But if you’ve no time to hit the markets, or can’t handle any more grease (a lot of the street food is fried), don’t worry. With seven restaurants and four more bars onsite, the hotel has you covered. Along with Japanese treats at Sakura, I sampled some beautiful Thai dishes at Sala and Ta-Krai, tackled another behemoth breakfast buffet at the Waterfront restaurant, and worked my way through a truly impressive amount of Italian cheese at Olive. Yes, swimming in a sea so warm it’s essentially a jacuzzi is lovely and all, but I’m a die-hard foodie: give me a glass of ultra-crisp white wine and leave me to my plate of smoked ricotta and truffle Brie. I’ll be just fine here on my own.
You can also take a cooking class at Ta-Krai, in which you pick your own Thai herbs from the resort’s gardens before making two dishes; we made a sticky, sweet hoisin egg fried rice with prawns, offset perfectly with a sharp, spicy pomelo salad. Would recommend!
So, how am I feeling post-trip? Well I’m back at work, for one, so that says something. It pays to listen to your body and, as it happens, mine just needed some TLC, a spa treatment (or four), a lot of good food and a stint on a beautiful beach to feel good-as-new. I might not have found myself in the traditional sense in Thailand, but I certainly feel more like my old self. That’s definitely good enough for me.
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