This is the moment. We’re sitting on a street in Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, eating a sharp, sour tom yum soup. The night has everything: neon lights, crowds dodging tuktuks, street vendors adjusting the flavours of enormous vats of curry. The humidity enhances the aromas of the street, including the unmistakable pungency of durian, the prized fruit sold at more stalls than I can count. I love every bright, steamy, chaotic minute of it.
No, this is the moment. We’re on a boat in Phang Nga Bay, streaming through the greenest of water past weathered emerald islands, some so thin and high that I have to crane my neck. Others reveal gloomy caves and promise mystery.
But wait, this is the moment. I am sliding my hands over the rumpled skin of Linda, an 18-year-old elephant rescued off the streets, when she flaps her ears. I feel the warm air first, then the impact as one giant, cabbage-leaf ear whacks my face. I shriek and my daughters fall about laughing.
The truth is, this holiday is hundreds of moments stitched together with blue skies, clear water and the infectious smiles of the Thai people.
We travel for so many reasons – to behold something wondrously new, to chase hot weather when it’s cold, to lose ourselves in a chaotic metropolis or find ourselves in a remote corner. But this trip? This is about shrugging off relentless deadlines and the absorbing minutiae of life to focus on what really matters. Family. Time. Connection.
I’m in Thailand with my mother and my two young daughters and, to be honest, we are bruised. I lost my father to cancer in January and put my grandmother in a nursing home in May. I’m hoping this holiday will be the balm that smooths the sharp edges of our grief.
We’ve picked the right place. The drive up the hill to our villa at Phuket’s Layan Residences by Anantara sets the dial to tropical thanks to giant palms and the mesmerising dance of the island’s technicoloured butterflies. But the true knockout moment occurs when we venture through the villa’s giant wooden doors and see the next five days laid out before us. A 21-metre infinity pool, as sparkling as the Andaman Sea it overlooks, waits for dive bombs and games of Marco Polo. Six umbrella-shaded sun lounges invite hours of reading. By the end of the day, the round wooden table at the sala – an outdoor dining pavilion – will be laden with food from the barbecue.
The girls are already off, exploring the three oversized bedrooms, the lounge room (where there are brownies, madeleines and marshmallows under glass), the dining area, study, treatment room and the rooftop. The seven-year-old quickly dubs our retreat “Paradise Island”, both for the surroundings and the fact that our attentive butler, Kun Kan, seems genuinely happy to whip up virgin mojitos for small girls.
The residences (there are 15 in all), which dot a hillside overlooking Layan Beach, are attached to Anantara’s Layan Phuket Resort so we have reclusive family time and the opportunity to mix it up in the resort as the mood takes us.
For the most part, our days pass switching from pool to sun lounge, sun lounge to pool but we break up the loafing with a cooking class at the resort’s much-lauded Thai restaurant, Dee Plee. Under the tutelage of Chef Hong, we identify everything from cardamom pods to kaffir limes and learn to chop galangal (“lock the fingers,” exhorts Kun Hong, “and then you won’t cut them”). We also attempt a Muay Thai kickboxing class with Nee, a certified fighter who teaches us how to kick and use our elbows to disarm potential assailants.
The activities are fun but there are also simple joys in three generations holidaying together. Skipping stones across the flat, glassy water at Layan Beach. Dealing a pack of cards on our rooftop at sunset and watching the clouds play at being pink. Listening for the chuck-chuck-chuck of geckos and marvelling at their ability to stick to the ceiling.
We can do all this largely thanks to Kun Kan, who organises every meal, whether we want to eat in the sala (he makes a mean scrambled eggs for breakfast) or down in the resort. He even watches over the girls in the pool while Mum and I indulge in Anantara’s signature massage at the decadent spa.
The few times we leave the resort, our adventures are wildly different but similarly intoxicating. At the Walking Street market in Old Phuket Town, we stand up to eat fish cakes and seafood fritters dipped in sweet chilli sauce. At Phang Nga Bay, we spend the day cruising, swimming and drinking champagne aboard Major Affair, a 28-metre superyacht. In the bay, we spot Khao Phing Kan, which is more commonly known as James Bond Island thanks to its starring role in The Man with the Golden Gun (fittingly, one of my father’s favourites).
Canoes and boats mill around the islet that the film’s villain, Scaramanga, famously scaled. Its 20-metre limestone tower juts out of the water, defying gravity. One side of the main island is crowded with souvenir stalls selling cheap replicas of the golden gun – beauty and commerce happily coexisting.
We take a speedboat into the islands’ caves where stalactites drip like candle wax from rocky arches. “That wasn’t just amazing,” says the 11-year-old as she clambers back on board our luxury home-for-the-day. “That was spectacular.”
I’m drawing as much glee from her smile as she got from the caves. We have six days left of our Thailand sojourn. How will we match this?
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The answer lands the next day when we swap the extravagance of the superyacht for the exhilaration of a traditional longtail boat, which features a propeller attached to a long pole. We’ve left Phuket for Chiang Saen, an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. We throttle along the mighty Mekong, with Thailand to our left, Laos to our right and Myanmar up ahead. On the shoreline, women are doing their laundry. Their children shout and wave.
Docking at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, we’re met by two doe-eyed elephants – Boonsri, who is 50 years old, and Raing Ngern, who is 42 – and their mahouts (keepers), as well as Laddawan “Ou” Yonthantham, the resort’s guest program and development manager.
While Ou talks, we sip juice in fresh coconuts as the elephants’ trunks wave at us. “They want to eat the coconuts,” says Ou, smiling. “You can give it to them.” The girls offer one up (sans straw) and Boonsri takes it in her trunk, places it under her foot and crushes it before devouring it.
After the blue-water openness of Phuket, the jungle of the Golden Triangle feels deliciously intense. The colours are ever-changing – from tropical green foliage to flowing gold rivers and moody grey mountains – and the days are sultry.
There is so much to love about this resort – spacious Thai-style suites, a photogenic pool and an insanely good restaurant that offers northern specialties such as spicy Lanna sausage with green vegetable dip – but without question, the highlight of any stay here is the chance to get close to the elephants. Walking with Giants, the resort’s signature experience, is a 90-minute meander through the forest with them and their mahouts. Ou gives us a few instructions: “Elephants have blind spots so please give them some space. They don’t like loud noises. Just follow me; I will see their behaviour and let you know what is happening.”
And with that, three females – Beau, 39, Jathong, 28, and Manoi, 19 – lumber over to us. Beau is so warm, I can almost feel the heat seeping out of her. Her skin is leathery and wrinkled but supple and soft. Her eyelashes are ridiculously long and though she flicks it nonchalantly, her tail is robust, with hairs like steel bristles.
We’re in the middle of the jungle at the bottom of South-East Asia with three majestic creatures – all the elephants here have been rescued from the streets by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation – and they’re happy to let us stroke their sides and gaze into their amber eyes. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
At the river, the elephants are drawn to the mud. Manoi rolls in the water like a puppy, while Beau and Jathong stand contentedly on the bank, covering their rotund figures with layers of the brown stuff, honking away. “They sound like a horrible trumpet,” says my youngest daughter, giggling.
We watch the elephants for 20 minutes, holding hands and laughing uproariously as our three pachyderm pals refuse to come back to dry land and instead plonk themselves down into the water.
This is why we travel. To see something new. To stop and clear our minds. To spend quality time together. And to have fun.
Those 50, 100 times we all laughed together? Those were the moments.