In 2013, we visited Thailand…and it was a game changer.
Clearly we hadn’t learned from our first international trip together to Panama so we decided to keep trekking—except this time, halfway across the world! Though this trip was years ago, we reminisce often as tiny life lessons creep into our minds about what luxury means, what it means to be rich and the makings of a truly fulfilling life.
What made us pick Thailand? Well, it was most likely something we saw on the Travel Channel or something by Anthony Bourdain. After a long week of the corporate grind, it was routine for us to head home, pour an adult beverage and imagine ourselves in the places we saw on the episodes of his shows. Since we traveled on business frequently and were also employees of a hotel company, we racked up points and miles pretty quickly. So if we happened to have really nice properties in the places where we could get employee rate, it was a no-brainer to start planning a trip affordably…so that’s exactly what we did.
The other key benefit of Thailand is the exchange rate. At the time, it was about 33 Thai Baht to 1 US dollar. This gave us buying power so we knew we could splurge in some areas since we saved in others. That trade-off is key to traveling on a budget and is a “technique” we would use to make several vacations unforgettable.
At the time, we were pretty loyal to Delta Airlines because they were a preferred partner for our employer. Looking at least 8 months out from departure, we saw it would only cost us 85K Skymiles per person from Atlanta, through Tokyo and onto Bangkok. We didn’t have the miles yet but knew that with just a few more biz trips we could easily secure the trip.
Unfortunately, we learned pretty quickly that Delta’s savvy marketing team slowly increases the amount of miles needed for a trip as you get closer to the departure date (among other factors). Ultimately, we ended up using our miles to discount the cost of the ticket instead of covering it in full. All in, we paid about $600 per person round trip. That also gave us the flexibility to upgrade our seats on the long leg of the trip (Atl to Tokyo) since you oftentimes can’t do that when you use miles. We “toughed it out” from Tokyo to Bangkok in coach which was fine since we were asleep the majority of that leg.
To get from Bangkok to Koh Samui is a really short trip so we booked that flight directly on Thai Airways. Note, you can also book through Expedia or Booking.com if that makes you more comfortable or if you prefer a more streamlined online booking experience.
In Bangkok, we stayed at the InterContinental Bangkok and it was amazing! While it is a more of a business hotel, it is centrally located to everywhere you want to be in the city. The rooms are nice, spacious, modern and the hotel fitness center is dope offering sweeping views of the city! Downstairs, there’s a great little lobby coffee shop, full service bar experience, an amazing onsite all-day restaurant and more. A trip to Bangkok wouldn’t be complete without a rooftop pool/bar experience and this hotel had both.
In Koh Samui, we stayed at the InterContinental Koh Samui- Ban Taling Ngam after watching a hypnotic video like this one on YouTube.
The resort is jaw-droppingly gorgeous spread across acres of lush jungle and coconut groves. Every room has a view of the gulf of Thailand and some villa suites are what we could only describe as luxury treehouses. Since we were using points for our stay, we couldn’t get the villa suites BUT Mrs. r&R opted to purchase the InterContinental Ambassador program status which upgraded us into a Deluxe room and gave us perks throughout our stay like Club lounge access and free drinks. We enjoyed those perks at the Bangkok InterContinental hotel too which made the cost of membership totally worth it! IHG Rewards Club member status can get some of these perks but not all.
Like the Thai Baht-to-dollar exchange rate, the point values for our stays in Thailand were also super affordable. We’ve found that for the same cost of a crummy big brand hotel in a big US city, you can get a luxury experience for the same price/value or even less in Thailand. That was the case here and we’ve been playing that card ever since. Point values fluctuate though so you may not be so lucky. The good news is, hotel companies aren’t as savvy as the airlines and don’t adjust their point values as frequently.
If you don’t know by now, Mr. r&R used to be a chef, so his primary objective was to go knee deep into the cuisine and this trip did not disappoint. From amazing noodle bowls, Bangkok’s street food scene in Chinatown, the floating market, mango and sticky rice and some truly weird $hit we can’t pronounce, the food culture in Thailand is absolutely amazing. Aside from gorging ourselves we visited amazing temples, went scuba diving, played soccer with elephants, got custom fitted for clothes, the single best couples massage we’ve ever had and more. The only thing we were bummed we didn’t get to do was to see a live Thai kick-boxing match because our tour guide was fearful of aggressive political demonstrations.
While we’re adventurous, we didn’t do this all on our own so based on the recommendation of a friend, we opted to use a travel planner that coordinated tour dates, tickets, travel and translations for us. It was an affordable VIP experience from airport pickup to dropoff. During our stay we could simply walk out of our hotel lobby into an air-conditioned van [clutch] and zip around this beautiful country without hassle. From the moment we touched down, we were greeted warmly by our driver and they were there for all of our planned excursions. Super dope!
Here are a few highlights from the experience.
If you haven’t made it out to Thailand yet, we’d strongly recommend that you consider it. Getting out of the routine/comfort zone, trying new things and having stories to tell is what makes life worth living. In Thailand, we learned that sometimes a $5 plate of noodles is better than a five-course-meal, that breakfast can be whatever and whenever you want it to be and that luxury is a spectrum that we can define for ourselves. Til this day, our Koh Samui massage tops any of the fancy-schmancy massages we’ve experienced around the world and was 1/5th of the cost. It was also humbling to see the simple lives of the locals and to experience “island life” in a context outside of the Caribbean.
r&R Travel Tips for Thailand-
- Never ever hold onto points in your account. As soon as you see something that you can afford and coordinate quickly…book it! Every year, these loyalty programs find ways to de-value your point value or to make the math work in their favor; not yours.
- Bring extra clothes since it’s so hot and humid there. Don’t be afraid to send out for your laundry through your hotel and use that laundry day for your massage day.
- Book a travel guide/translator…and tip them well. Remember, you have pricing power so a little goes a long way.
- Don’t bring too much cash for Bangkok. You can use your credit card almost everywhere.
- Be mindful and respectful of dress codes while visiting temples. There are no exceptions.
- Plan your custom-suit day for the front end of your trip. That gives them time to make your suit and deliver to you.
- Skip any of the Bangkok “traditional theater shows” unless you’re really into that sort of thing. They’re mostly tourist traps.
- Visit Chinatown and try the street food.
- Be mindful that not all stadiums for Thai kickboxing are air-conditioned (Lumpini) and fights are not scheduled for every night of the week.
- The Damnoen Saduak floating market is a full day trip and hours outside of Bangkok. Plan your travel accordingly.
- You can get temple fatigue pretty quickly. Pick the handful you want to see but you probably don’t need to see more than three.
- Do your research on elephant and wildlife tours. We learned after our trip that some places in Thailand don’t have the best reputation of treating animals well. While we didn’t experience it while we were there and don’t endorse the unfair treatment of animals we wish we’d known before we booked anything.