Grand, graceful and royal Thailand
In the West, India, China and Japan are seen as the three great “classic” cultures of Asia, and all are much studied and traveled. However, there is a fourth civilization that should be ranked alongside them: Thailand, the great royal culture of Southeast Asia. Thailand is not merely a fun beach destination: its cultural depth and beauty are truly remarkable. Additionally, Thailand exerts a major influence, both culturally and economically, on its neighbors Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, and stands alone in having never been colonized. It’s the only Southeast Asian culture that remains completely intact with its king, its palaces, and devout Buddhist temples and faith.
Thailand is a fusion between two peoples: the Mon/Khmer, original inhabitants of the lower Mekong river valley, and the Thais, who came from China. The Thais merged with the Mon/Khmer (who built the great Angkor empire) and from this fusion came the refined Royal Bangkok culture that still thrives today. Meanwhile, in the old capital of Chiang Mai in the north, you find the vibrant and free-spirited culture of Lanna very much alive.
This itinerary journeys to the heart of the three great centers of Lanna (Chiang Mai), Thai (Bangkok), and Khmer (Angkor), exploring their rich traditions and the common threads between them. You will experience Khmer grandeur, Thai grace, and Bangkok regalness and modern vibrancy—in short, you will see the full range of one of the world’s great cultures.
Day 1: Siem Reap
In the evening, Sean, your guide will meet you upon arrival in Siem Reap. Sean will act as the special advisor and tour leader for this itinerary, working with his network of local experts, master artists and artisans, and guides. With degrees in Japanese from Yale, and Chinese and Tibetan studies from Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), Sean brings a special insight into the common threads that connect the arts and cultures of Southeast and East Asia. He has written several seminal books about Japan and his most recent book is a meditation upon the many facets, old and new, of this endlessly fascinating city. He leads museum and university groups to Japan, China, Indonesia, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, and brings a deep knowledge and connoisseurship of the antiquities, theater, music and dance traditions of these cultures to every one of these adventures.
Tired from your journey, the Grand Hotel d’Angkor will offer a welcome haven. This hotel, one of the greatest hotels of the legendary Grand Tour of Indochina, combines old-world grandeur with peace and tranquility, surrounded by 15 acres of beautifully landscaped French gardens. Once you’ve rested, attend to your appetite with dinner at the Restaurant Le Grand in the hotel.
Day 2: Angkor’s art and architecture
If you’re rested enough to wake early, rise before dawn to view sunrise over Angkor Wat. Let the heart-stopping beauty of the sunrise set the tone for a day of revelatory explorations of this ancient temple. Sean will meet you after breakfast, joined by a local expert on Khmer art and culture.
After leaving the hotel, you will begin by visiting the east entrance of Angkor Wat. Sean will provide you with a wealth of knowledge about this 12th century structure, the sheer size and grandeur of this temple—the largest religious monument in the world—will defy comprehension through facts and figures. Here, you will feel part of what pulls westerners to explore the unknown east: the ancientness of these lands, the vastness of their monuments, their enduring cultures, and their timelessness that speaks to those of us contending, on a daily basis, with an ever-changing cultural landscape of shifting values and priorities.
Once you’ve had time to absorb this mammoth miracle, your exploration of Khmer temples will continue on to Bayon. Though this temple, built between the 12th and 13th centuries, is comparatively small, you will particularly appreciate it because of your background in sculpture. Here, note the bas-reliefs of varied realistic and mythical scenes. Be sure to spot the faces, posed in various expressions, on the towers of the upper terrace. Sean will ensure that you not only appreciate the architectural brilliance of these monuments, but also gain a sense of their religious and cultural significance.
After feeding your spiritual and aesthetic appetite at the temples, your body will be hungry too—enjoy lunch at Artisans d’Angkor. After lunch, you will continuing to explore temples further afield in Roluos, which was once the ancient city of Hariharalaya. First, you will visit Prasat Preah Ko, located to the southeast of the main temples in Angkor and built in the late 9th century, and notable for its sandstone bull statutes, from which the temple takes its name. Your final temple visit of the day will be at Bakong temple—a fitting end to a day of backward time travel.
In the late afternoon, perhaps after stopping for a refreshing coffee or tea, you will have a chance to experience the process behind some of the aesthetic pleasures you’ve enjoyed. At Prolung Khmer, artisans dedicate themselves to preserving ancient Khmer weaving and pottery practices. Here, you will be able to not only observe but also learn, through workshops personalized to your interests and abilities.
Day 3: Delving into Khmer culture
The day will begin early again, with Sean arriving promptly after breakfast to usher you toward another morning resplendent with art, culture, and architecture. First up will be Ta Prohm, where you will find yourself mesmerized by the war between human will and natural power. Here, muscular root formations grapple with the stones of this Buddhist temple. Though the reality of the demise of a once-fruitful culture is evident, one can also to view this temple as a testimony to the possibility of collaboration, even if accidental, between the beauty of nature and of human engineering. You will have plenty of time to explore the labyrinthine corridors, allowing the otherworldly atmosphere to draw you in.
From the tangle of the roots of Ta Prohm, head upwards, to Ta Keo, an 11th century temple-mountain, which some conjecture was the first Khmer temple to be built entirely from sandstone. You will then return by way of Victory Gate, passing through this magnificent structure on your way to Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Here, the power of this now-passed kingdom is palpable; in these stones one can sense not only the artistic and cultural achievements but also the technological and economic hegemony of the Khmer Empire.
You will return to the hotel for lunch. Per our discussions, your day will once again be balanced between observing both the products of creativity of the past and the present process of creation. You will spend your afternoon on a private visit to a workshop, where you will witness the delicate process of producing haute couture silk.
In the early evening, bid goodbye to Angkor as you depart for Phnom Penh. After settling in to the Hotel le Royal, you will dine at the elegant Restaurant le Royal, which offers both modern French and Royal Khmer cuisine. When your meal is finished, enjoy a private performance of traditional Khmer dance and music, together with a short talk and introduction to these art forms by our local expert on Khmer music and dance.
Day 4: Sculpture in Phnom Penh
Today, you will get a chance to focus in on sculpture—an opportunity I know you will relish. Sean will bring you to the National Museum, and deliver you into the expert hands of one of the curators, who give you an intimate and detailed tour. This is one of the most important sculpture collections in the world—the Asian equivalent of the Uffizi in Florence. Many visitors to Cambodia, in passing over Phnom Penh and only visiting Siem Reap and Angkor, miss this extraordinary collection—thereby seeing only architecture and not the magnificent sculpture.
Enjoy lunch at the historic Foreign Correspondents Club, a restaurant with rich history. Savor your meal and the view of the river, and bid the city goodbye—in the afternoon, you will make your way to Bangkok. Once there, you will find your lodgings at the 5-star Sukhothai Hotel, where traditional motifs and minimalist flair merge to create exquisite beauty in a surprisingly quiet corner of the city center. Your evening will be spent at your leisure. If you wish, Sean can arrange dinner in the city, or dine at the breathtaking Celadon restaurant in the Sukhothai– rated the best in Bangkok by Travel & Leisure magazine.
Day 5: Thai traditions
Your first full day in Thailand will begin on a personalized and interactive note, with a visit to a private home for a specialized program introducing you to the traditional Thai arts and culture. This program, conducted by your expert guide, will take the strands of experience you’ve gathered in Cambodia and begin to weave them into a coherent tapestry of cultural understanding. This narrative will flow into practice, with a hands-on lesson in Marayaat (Thai etiquette) and dance, taught by disciples of the leading master of classical Bangkok court style dance.
After a traditional catered lunch, immerse yourself in the arts of Thai flower arrangement (usually taught by the same master who arranges flowers for the Royal Palace) and Lai Thai design. This design can be seen in everything from the elegantly intricate patterns on Thai textiles to the elaborate finials and upswept eaves of the temple roofs.
Your day will close with a meal of deeply flavorful traditional Thai cuisine, aligning your taste buds with the thorough understanding of Thai culture and etiquette that you have developed over the course of the day.
Day 6: Royal Bangkok
After breakfast, you will explore the wonders of the Grand Palace. This experience will develop the theme of cultural and architectural evolution over time that you’ve already observed through your visits to varied sites in Cambodia. Here, the building itself exhibitions a sort of organic development across time and space. Wander through the varied buildings, pavilions, lawns, gardens, and courtyards, and appreciate the asymmetrical and eclectic nature of this palace, reflective of its slow evolution.
You will eat lunch at an old-style Thai restaurant overlooking the river, and then embark on our special “Bangkok Found” tour. This tour will include visits to Puthaisawan Chapel and the National Museum, the City Pillar, and Wat Po. The sights you see will be tailored to your preferences, as by now Sean will be familiar with your particular interests, and will even be able to anticipate what attractions you might find unexpectedly edifying.
Return to the present from a day of historical exploration with a modern dinner choice—either Le Normandie (modern French), or Face (Northern Thai with a modern flair). After dinner, enjoy drinks and the stunning view on our favorite rooftop bar.
Day 7: Modern Bangkok
After breakfast, you will depart for a tour of the Jim Thompson House. This house offers a different take on Thai culture, as it comes through the curatorial lens of American businessman Jim Thompson. This mediation will provide a chance to consider the role of curator and also the history of western interaction with Thai tradition. Sean will offer specific insight into the plentiful objects on view here, but will also inform you of Thompson’s life and role in creating the collection.
After lunch at restaurant in Sathorn, you will be transported through time to modern Bangkok. This introduction will include contemporary Thai art at the Modern Art Museum, and the Bangkok Art & Culture Center. Depending on your interest, private visits to leading galleries can be arranged. If you prefer, you can also take a portion, or all, of this time for shopping or leisure.
Tonight, you will bring all of your Bangkok experiences together with a private catered dinner and party together featuring dance masters. Matching the grandeur of this culture, the party will be held at a prince’s palace overlooking the river.
Day 8: Chiang Mai—a concentration of culture
You will depart as the morning fog dissipates, bound for cultural capital of Chiang Mai. After early check-in to the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, you will spend your afternoon in a compound of old restored houses on the grounds of Chiang Mai University. Here, you will enjoy a half-day program introducing you to the traditional Lanna (Northern Thai) arts of architecture, music and dance. Given by a premier scholar of the Lanna culture from Chiang Mai University, this program will be detail-dense, but also highly enjoyable, peppered with urbane witticism and personal insight from the professor. Per your preferences, this program will add breadth to your experience: because the arts of Northern Thailand and the peoples of the Mekhong River are very different from the Royal Thai culture of Bangkok, this program will not repeat what you’ve learned. However, travelers do often find that these experiences complement one another, as they are able to make sense of the wealth of knowledge they have gained through comparing and contrasting these different cultures.
Comparisons won’t just come from facts and figures: you will also have a chance to discern your favorite traditional cuisine. For today’s lunch, you will enjoy a traditional catered Lanna-style lunch on the deck of one of the houses. After lunch, spend the rest of the day visiting unique temples and other special sights off the tourist track with our guide and professor.
In the evening, bask in the light of flickering candles and the shining moon as you enjoy a private dinner at the Rice Barn, overlooking the lake and rice paddies of the Four Seasons resort.
Day 9: Beyond Chiang Mai
In the morning, you will be met at the hotel by Sean and the professor. Together, you will enjoy the scenic journey to Mae Chaem—a picturesque old town in a small bowl-shaped valley, lined with lush rice paddies and old temples. As you travel through the countryside, you will get toview Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s tallest mountain peak. This idyllic site is also known for its rough hand-spun cotton fabrics and ancient dyeing traditions, providing a sample of life in old rural Northern Thailand. From Mae Chaem, you will venture further into mountains to visit a truly undiscovered locale—the traditional Hill-Tribe village, where tourists rarely venture.
Now that you’ve had some time to acclimate to the cuisine, you will have a chance to learn the methods behind it. Indulge in dinner at the Chef’s Table at the Four Seasons’ cooking school. Here, you will learn traditional cooking techniques as you savor a ten course Northern Thai feast.
Day 10: A view into Lanna life
Today you will experience the towns of Lamphun and Lamphan through the eyes of an expert scholar. Our Chiang Mai University professor, by now a friend and fountain of knowledge for you, will provide company and commentary. In Lamphun, you will view one of the oldest surviving pagodas of Northern Thailand—built by the original Mon inhabitants of Lanna. Lamphang is similarly old, but offers a view of a different side of history: the oldest wooden building in Thailand, it is a fortress temple built on a hill in ancient style. Before heading back to your hotel, enjoy lunch in an historic private house on Lamphang’s picturesque old main street.
After a restful afternoon, you will be ready to live life to the fullest on your final evening in Thailand. The evening will begin with a traditional, elegant and opulent dinner party with the leading Lanna dancers and musicians of Chiang Mai at a grand restaurant along the banks of the river. Afterwards, mingle late into the evening, celebrating the friends you have made and the culture you have come to know.
Day 11: Departure
Before departing, savor a final breakfast at the Four Seasons—if the weather is cooperative, you can take your meal outside and let the ambiance add seasoning to your final meal in Thailand. Once you’re done, you will fly home, leaving Thailand with an understanding of the diversity of cultural, religious, and artistic offerings of the region.
Nicole, I have crafted this journey with care and am confident that you will find what you sought here: the perfect balance of personal relaxation, artistic inspiration, and perspective-shifting cultural insight. As always, please let me know if I can be of assistance to you in the future.