From the perch of The Lobby Bar & Lounge at the chic Siam@Siam Design Hotel (www.siamatsiam.com), Bangkok is a city of contrasts: humble shacks with sheet metal roofs bookend concrete-and-glass towers. The capital and industrial hub of Thailand has a population of nearly 7 million, largely migratory workers in industries such as textiles, furniture manufacturing, electronics, and processed foods. Our first destination, around 163 miles from Bangkok, is less cosmopolitanâ€”Nakhon Ratchasima, or Korat, is the mountainous gateway to the northeast region. But first we must do what most visitors to the land of fragrant orchids, golden Buddhas, and Thai massage consider mandatory: visit the Grand Palace.
Every Thai king, from 1782 to the mid-20th century, has lived on the bedazzling Grand Palace compound. Today, vendors hustle their wares before tourists can slip inside the palaceâ€™s guarded white walls. There are about 400 Buddhist temples or wats in Bangkokâ€”more than 300,000 in all of Thailand. These sacred spaces are part of the fabric of village life, facilitating meditation, learning, even medical treatment. To align mind, muscles, and joints for the long excursion ahead, we savor 60 minutes of rejuvenation at S Medical Spa (www.smedspa.com).
Half the fun of a road trip occurs on detours and pit stops. On this first leg, curiosity steers us to taste test local fruit at Klang Dong, a bustling roadside market with a bounty of durian, betel nut, and dragon fruit. Nearby is another intriguing site: Wat Thep Phithak Punnaram, where the snow-white Luang Pho Yai Buddha, 150 feet by 90 feet, gazes down from the plush mountainside. It is the largest Buddha in the region. By lunchtime weâ€™re near Khao Yai National Park and sitting before a plate of stir-fried fillet of ostrich at the Great Hornbill Grill in PB Valley (www.khaoyaiwinery.com), an estate that produces world class wineâ€”in fact, Japan consumes 25% of its export. We then retire to Kirimaya (www.kirimaya.com) and indulge in guilt-free affordable luxury that includes an attentive staff, a Jack Nicklaus golf course, and hiking trails in lush, majestic surroundings.