This is the story of our perfect honeymoon. Perfectly us, that is. And far from perfect. Our trip was rarely the exotic escape that we expected our honeymoon would be; instead, with equal parts adventure and excitement, chaos and confusion, romance and relaxation, our honeymoon was an affirming reflection of the many sides of our relationship.
A Plan We agreed from the beginning that our honeymoon would include a mix of recreation, adventure, pampering, beaches, culture and cuisine. Thailand has them all. From the gorgeous beaches of the south, to the mountainous jungles of the north, Thailand seemed to be, in many ways, an ideal destination for our honeymoon.
What really sold us on Thailand, however, was the unlikely place that Thai cuisine holds in our relationship.
Chandra: "It's our fourth date, and Matt invites me to his house for a home cooked meal. The menu: Green Curry with Tofu & Shrimp, and Mango Salad. Being the Californian Mexican-food junkie that I was, I had never laid eyes on nor tasted Thai food before that night. It was my first experience, and I fell head over heels in love; with the chef, first and foremost, but also the food.”
Matt: "I really wanted our honeymoon to be exotic and once-in-a-lifetime, but I also wanted it to reflect who we are as a couple. We came up with a list of fantastic locations on six continents (sorry, Antarctica), and Thailand kept rising to the top. The more we discussed Thailand, the more we realized how much Thailand reflected so many aspects of our relationship.”
The plan was to leave Nashville on December 18, 2009, and start our honeymoon by indulging in the pleasures of Koh Samui, a tropical island located off the country's eastern seaboard, in the Gulf of Thailand. From Samui, we'd fly north to the city of Chiang Mai. Lastly, our trip would end with three nights in Bangkok, Thailand's capital of eight million people. We'd celebrate our last night amidst Bangkok’s renowned New Year’s Eve celebration, before returning to the United States on New Year's Day. A simple plan.
An Obstacle Much like our relationship, however, things are never as simple as they seem. In the excitement of planning our trip, we overlooked some obvious complications… none more critical than cost. Our trip required hotel reservations for 12 nights during the busy and expensive holiday season. We didn’t want to stay in hostels and sleeping bags (not that we’re above that, but it’s our honeymoon!) and decent hotels and resorts were not hesitant to gouge us. Furthermore, our trip required 11 airplane rides, ranging from short flights aboard propeller planes to a 16-hour trans-Pacific flight on an internationally recognized holiday.
The bill for airfare? Almost $5000, which was slightly more than half the cost of the entire trip. Yikes.
Traveler’s Joy to the rescue! With our noses buried in guidebooks, and our sights set on defraying the cost of our perfect (but expensive) honeymoon, we created a personal and comprehensive Traveler’s Joy registry that furthered our excitement for the trip, and solidified our commitment to Thailand as the perfect destination. For us.
A Beginning The exhausting 10,000 mile trip from our home in Nashville to our resort in Koh Samui involved four flights on three different airlines, and 34 hours of travel… but the warm reception at the Bo Phut Resort and Spa quickly forced the journey to the back of our minds. From the gracious welcoming by hotel staff at the quaint Samui airport, to the fresh orchids and roses strewn throughout our sleek and spotless room, the Bo Phut Resort staff showed us, within the first 30-minutes of our being in Thailand, the care and warmth that would be the hallmark of their hospitality for the next six days.
Day one was intentionally under-scheduled to let us to catch our breath, shake the jet-lag, and acclimate to our new surroundings. Our only scheduled event was a gloriously indulgent 4-hour spa treatment at the Tamarind Springs Resort and Spa. Ninety minutes in their steam cave – a sauna built into a natural cave formation (picture a house for a hobbit, but really hot!) – and our choice of two plunge pools. This pre-massage relaxation time even included a light Thai lunch of delicious fish cakes and spring rolls, and a refreshing ginger-tamarind beverage. Then, it was off to experience a two-and-a-half hour full body massage and facial in an open-air sala-for-two on a forest hillside, amidst the sounds of birds, frogs and waterfalls. There may be a wide variety of spas on Koh Samui, but none as otherworldly and indulgent as Tamarind Springs. Absolute paradise.
An Adventure Our taxi ride to and from Tamarind Springs nearly undid the serenity of our spa visit, however. The streets of Samui are chaotic and dangerous, without many discernible rules of the road. We discovered two local laws - “drive on the left side of the road” and “don’t hit the motorbikes and stray dogs” -- both or which are merely loose guidelines, often ignored at the expense of terrified tourists like us.
Still, we insisted upon exploring the island, and the best means of doing so was to rent a car. With the help of Kai, our wonderful concierge, we managed to rent the island’s only automatic four-wheel-drive vehicle to explore the Samui’s mountainous roads, and satisfy our adventurous spirit.
And what an adventure it was. Within an hour of renting the car, we found ourselves lost on a dirt road atop Samui’s highest mountain, looking for (and eventually finding) Khun Nim’s Magic Garden, the surreal home and extensive sculpture garden created in 1976 by 77-year-old fruit farmer Nim Thongsuk. From there, we made our way to scenic Namuang Waterfall, and the Samui Butterfly Garden, a sanctuary for butterfly conservation and research on the southern end of the island. At one point, just to ensure a memorable day, we offered a ride to four soaking wet Australian hitchhikers who helped free our rental car from a ditch.
These are the stories that define any great trip. The challenges we were able to overcome together, the limitless excitement of discovery, and the lasting memories of exploring unfamiliar territory. Our trip, much like our relationship, was defined by our response to unplanned and unexpected adventure.
Of course, we made other less-adventurous stops in our 48-hours with a rental car. We found husband and wife team Usa and Kellie, owners of Usa Thai Silk – a friendly tailor shop with locations off the typical tourist path in Mae Nam and Nathong – and hired them to custom design a Thai-silk dress for Chandra for New Year’s Eve. We stumbled upon a small art gallery in the Bo Phut fisherman’s village where we purchased two beautiful paintings from local artist Sumittra Dechanupap. We even found the Samui Starbucks in Chewang, and stopped by hoping to steal some Splenda – no such luck.
All the while, we’re proud to say, we never wrecked the car. We never collided with a motorbike or a stray dog. We successfully drove on the left hand side of the road. We even managed to avoid hitting the surprisingly hard-to-see elephant parade in the lane next to us. It’s difficult to overstate our pride (and relief) when we returned the rental car in one piece.
An Appetite It’s also difficult to overstate the amount of food that we ate in Koh Samui. The succulent rack of lamb that we enjoyed during a romantic beachside dinner at Ocean 11 Restaurant and Bar. The top-notch red curry at Sala Samui Restaurant, followed by a dessert martini with vanilla ice-cream, vodka and Baileys. The extensive Thai and American breakfast buffet at our resort, featuring eight delicious homemade jams and a half-dozen fresh-squeezed juices. The goat cheese mouse at Beach Republic. The $2 pad thai at an unnamed roadside restaurant in Mae Nam. The list of restaurants was long, and the gastronomic pleasures endless.
Each adventure in Samui ended with a warm welcoming by the Bo Phut Resort staff: a greeting by name, a smile and a wai (a small respectful bow), and an inquiry about our day’s experiences on the island. Bo Phut Resort was our trip's most indulgent accommodation, and staying there ensured that our honeymoon began with relaxation, luxury, and pampering. It was worth every penny. We cannot say enough good things about the resort, and we are already fantasizing about our return.
An Unexpected Accommodation When our stay in Koh Samui was over, we were ready for our next adventure in northern Thailand. Christmas is a great day to travel, it turns out. Empty airplanes, short security lines, and free cookies at the airport. Our trip to Chiang Mai was pleasant and trouble-free.
Our stay in Chiang Mai, however, was not.
In preparation for our trip, we had done heavy research about where to stay in Chiang Mai, and we decided to save money by staying in a small “bed-and-breakfast” just outside the city. The Secret Garden Resort sits about 12 km from Chiang Mai, and features a dozen or so bungalows spread out over one acre of suburban Borsang Village. It’s not the sort of place where, upon arrival, you are given a comforting overview of the grounds; we didn't notice the pool, for instance, until the day we left. Instead, for better or for worse, you’re handed a glass of wine and told to make yourself at home. We were never informed about the procedures regarding meals; Peter and Pai, the owners, serve wonderful homemade breakfasts and dinners, but we were never formally told about them, or the “help-yourself-and-just-keep-track” system that applies to meals, snacks and the 24-hour open bar.
It was a quirky place, for sure – a far cry from the luxury of our fabulous resort in Samui – and it was full of trial-by-fire surprises. For instance, the owners will have your laundry washed and dried for free, which is great! But they won’t wash underwear, which is not great. Who knew that our honeymoon would involve buying a bag of cheap detergent from the local 7-11 (they’re everywhere in Thailand) and washing underwear by hand in the sink?
Stories like that were a dime a dozen at The Secret Garden, but the truth is that we enjoyed the adventure. The owners, and their daughter Isabel, are lovely, if a bit perplexing; we figure that they either loved us and felt terrible that we had a few incidents (like our bungalow being double-booked, or not having hot water for 24-hours… the list is long), or they hated us and couldn't wait for us to leave. We’re still not sure. But we liked the place, and would consider staying there again. It’s unique, charming, and a relaxing spot outside the city to join other guests in the evening and share stories from the day over a glass of wine and homemade fried bananas.
Best of all, our bill for four nights, including food and alcohol, was 7980 baht, or about $280. Can't beat that.
An Exploration In spite of our surreal suburban accommodations, we had no trouble exploring Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city of around 2 million people. Our favorite experience was the day we spent learning about elephant rehabilitation at the Elephant Nature Park, about an hour from the city. Elephants are sacred animals in Thailand, but they are brutally abused in the name of training for tourist attractions. On more than one occasion, we were brought to tears learning the stories of the reserve's elephants. There's Jokia, the blind elephant whose owners stabbed her eyes with spears when she wouldn't obey their commands. And Malai Tong, whose left leg was horribly disfigured when she stepped on a landmine while employed for an illegal logging operation. And dozens more.
Not all of our experiences in Chiang Mai were as serious, however. We took a four-and-a-half-hour cooking class at the Thai Orchid Cooking School, which included an informative trip to the local market, and personal instruction on how to make five of our favorite Thai dishes. We spent an exhilarating morning in the treetops of a 1500-year-old rainforest, being chased by a gibbon and zip-lining between 800-year-old fig trees. And we visited our first wat (temple), where, after a 20-minute whispered debate about whether we could (or should) take a picture of the meditating head monk sitting in front of the Buddha, and after finally doing so amidst great fear of being yelled at or sent to prison, we learned, a day later, that we were fretting over nothing more than an incredibly lifelike wax statue. Our bad.
A Reflection Near the end of our stay in Chiang Mai, we found time to reflect on the ways in which our honeymoon had, so far, appealed to so many parts of our relationship, and all of the things we love… adventure, exploration, relaxation, food, being together… the whole spectrum. But it was our private five-hour dinner at The Four Seasons that enabled us to have the quiet, alone time we didn’t realize we needed. Time alone to focus on each other. Time to reflect on our relationship. Time to remember why we fell in love, and how we ended up eating dinner, alone, at the edge of a rice paddy, halfway around the world. Stripped of excitement and activity, this incredible night together was the highlight of our trip. Too dim and intimate for many pictures, the memory will live only in our minds. A new pace
Having found closure in Chiang Mai, we were ready for the next leg of our journey – two days in the urban jungle of Thailand’s capital.
Bangkok is as wild and chaotic as the size of its name implies. Not Bangkok, the nickname... but the city's formal name. All 43 syllables of it: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. (The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarm.)
Our first day in Bangkok was jam-packed. We took a three-hour Segway tour of the city, during which we fell off the Segway only once - onto a forgiving and frightened German tourist. While our tour was informative and enjoyable, the real star was the Segway itself. Incredibly intuitive to learn, and an absolute joy to ride, we left our tour discussing whether we should sell our cars back home, and buy Segways instead. Sailing through Bangkok together, laughing and smiling, was one our trip’s most enjoyable and connected experiences.
Following lunch at Cabbages and Condoms, a restaurant established to promote acceptance and understanding of family planning, we made our way to the Jim Thompson house. Tucked in the Siam Square neighborhood of Bangkok, the house was built in a traditional Thai style by an American businessman, and remains standing today in recognition of Mr. Thompson's extensive contributions to the Thai silk industry.
A busy day in Bangkok requires some late-afternoon rest, and a shower - and not in that order. After washing away the sweaty grime of the city, we made our way to the 57th floor lounge of our hotel, the Intercontinental Bangkok, where we enjoyed happy hour drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Booking three nights at The Intercontinental was a stroke of brilliance on our part; it's certainly not the cheapest hotel in Thailand's capital, but it's centrally located, clean and luxurious, and just the proper relief after a hard day of pounding the busy streets of Bangkok.
A Sign By day two, our last full day in Bangkok, we were exhausted. And, apparently, Bangkok was exhausted with us as well. It seems that everything we tried to do went awry. Breakfast in bed? Overslept. Final spa treatment? Everywhere was booked. Walking down the street? Crowded, and full of the off-key sounds of mediocre Thai bands rehearsing for that evening’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. I even woke up with a mysterious bruise the size of a doughnut on my upper arm. A rough day, to be sure. On our last day in Thailand, we were finally ready to go home.
But, first, we had one more night of indulgence ahead of us. For New Year’s Eve, we made reservations at Pier 59, an excellent seafood restaurant on the 59th floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel, where we enjoyed a six-course meal with stunning views of the Bangkok skyline. We spent the evening laughing and smiling, blind to the chaos of the streets below. When midnight approached, we celebrated the end of our honeymoon with a champagne toast, and the spectacular sight of fireworks erupting before us in all directions.
An Ending, and a Beginning While Samui and Chiang Mai were full of relaxation and adventure, Bangkok was an exercise in endurance and understanding.
The stresses of those two days, piled atop the exhaustion of our two-week adventure, reminded us that our relationship will not always be graced with comfort and clarity. Instead, it may wear us down at times, with stress and confusion, frustration and fatigue. And, together, we must soar through those moments, like a tourist on a Segway. Even if, now and then, we fall off.
And we will, because that’s us. That's our marriage. That's our commitment to one another. That’s how we made it through our honeymoon, and that’s how we’ll make it through our unscripted adventures in life together. We can’t wait.