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Small blessings in Thailand

What would Buddha do – in Bangkok? The capital of the Thai kingdom is a monkey mind of forward pressing architecture, serpentine shopping palaces, skyscraping hotels and canyons of urbanity blazing the trails of contemporary fashion for Asia.

What would Buddha do if he needed a place of peace in Bangkok or beyond? For starters, he would look for hotels in Bangkok that could deliver an encapsulating experience of “Thai-ness,” good for the mind, body and spirit.

Bedtime for Buddha

He might try the Siam or the Bangkok Tree House for some artful layovers, or go to the tried and trusted Mandarin Oriental for some over-the-top pampering. When nirvana can’t wait, here are some Bangkok properties that will get any trip to Thailand into the right ‘vedana.’

The Siam

The Siam sits with an assured aura of boutique luxury on the banks of Bangkok’s River of Kings. With only 39 keys, the Siam offers a certain peaceful intimacy as each room strikes a colonial or literary vision as imagined by socialites of the last century. Those socialites would include silk tycoon/spy Jim Thompson (whose life story crescendos with his final disappearance into the jungles of Malaysia never to be seen again) and his notorious cocktail buddy Connie Mangskau, once the toast of Bangkok with parties that attracted the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Henry Ford, John Rockefeller and Roger Moore.

The legend lives on in each room and suite filled with worldly antiques and flourishes found in the pages of Architectural Digest. It uses Thai houses initially salvaged by Thompson and Mangskau from the former Thai capital and now reconfigured to fit this three-acre space of prime riverfront in the royal Dusit neighborhood (the Royal Palace is nearby) to form a restaurant, a teaching kitchen and the Siam’s top suite, Connie’s House.

If plans call for rest and meditation, The Siam’s Opium Spa houses a hammam – and a full array of massage and body treatments. A boxing Buddha would enjoy the onsite Muay Thai ring with instructors available for on-the-spot lessons in strength training and weight loss.

The property is a member of Small Luxury Hotels and a part of the Virtuoso collection. It is represented by Kurtz-Ahlers & Associates. Rates start at $423.

Bangkok Tree House

It’s hard to imagine a place of little noise, clear skies and lush landscape within a 30-minute ride from the crush of downtown Bangkok. But the Bangkok Tree House is just that – an eco-paradise, in a parallel universe where accommodations are jungle tree house “nests” made of driftwood and bamboo, where food is organic and slow, and where garbage is a distant memory.

Even the roofs are edible here. But that does not mean guests are sleeping on a rock under a jackfruit tree. It does mean most of the residences are built into the dense treeline.

Most of the 12 rooms available have walls, air-conditioning, comfortable beds, TV, DVD and electricity to run them and, of course, complimentary WiFi.

And while the Bangkok Tree House could very well write the book on how to leave nary a footprint on nature (all kitchen and organic wastes are composted; laundry is line-dried; water runs through refillable glass bottles; natural springs provide the swimming options; appliances are powered by wind and sun) some 2.2 pounds of trash are removed from the adjacent Chao Phraya River for every booking made.

The property is a great take-in for high brows that want a change, as well as backpackers that want to save their change. Rates start at $170 per night.

Sofitel So Bangkok

Sofitel So Bangkok channels all of its energies it into the principals of Feng Shui – at least as far as room themes go. Find floors of rooms draped in the motifs of wood, fire, metal, water and earth expressed in colors, tapestries and appointments as chosen by a battery of Bangkok-chic designers, and directed by fashion phenom Christian Lacroix.

All rooms offer floor-to-ceiling windows and windowed bathrooms containing inviting soaking tubs and open shower presentations. Then there are the king beds with feather-soft toppers, the in-room Macs integrated into the televisions, and the clean-lined work spaces. The 238 rooms fill the 14th to 28th floors of the tower overlooking serene Lumpini Park. The Lacroix-designed Club Sofitel is an upgrade option.

Onsite find such delights as the Chocolab devoted to all things chocolate, as well as design-heavy pool and cabana areas high over the city, a bi-level spa themed as a mythological forest, and treatments focusing on French beauty concepts.

Rates run as low as $170 per night with breakfast. (Call 800-SOFITEL).

Mandarin Oriental

Luxury, like the Buddha himself, has many faces in Asia and a most recognizable hotel form has been, consistently, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The property has long charmed the stays of dignitaries, celebrities and writers in its 140 years.

It was the first hotel in Asia when it opened in 1876 and since that time has hosted the world’s most famous – especially writers inspired by the din and the dust of this exotic city: Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Tennessee Williams, James A. Michener …

The hotel of kings put its famous spa on the map in 1993 – and instantly made a hit with its meditation treatments based on Zen and Ayurvedic practices and its highly detailed decor and private spaces.

Rates start around $428 per night.

Afternoon Chi Time

Not far from Bangkok – well, two hours away by Mercedes S350 if you are met at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) – is Chiva Som: Buddha sightings guaranteed. This is “Thai-ness” in the truest sense, in a complex of Wellness pavilions and Lanna-style guest cottages. It opens onto a quiet and seemingly endless sugar sand beach in Hua Hin, the former summer Thai capital for royals.

And although Hua Hin offers much to explore as a resort town on the Gulf of Thailand, guests will opt to stay on site at Chiva Som. This is because Chiva Som is Thailand’s top spot for pampering, healing, inner peace, finding your own small light.

There are 58 cottage, room and suite accommodations amid ponds and pools. Highly trained practitioners take it from there delivering a full schedule of healthy delights – from crystal massages to chakra cleanses to medi-spa beauty treatments. The food is inspired by freshness and purity and spices that calm and galvanize your chi.

Squeeze in seminars on mindfulness, lectures on Karmic imperatives or talks on awakening your thymus between stretching classes and strength-building fitness sessions. Fully-inclusive pampering and healing packages start at $2,500 for one person, for three days.

Experiencing Elephants …

Add an element of “never forgetting” to a Thai vacation through a variety of possible elephant encounters. Only in Thailand is the elephant made so available to visitors. And while these pachyderms receive protection throughout the Kingdom, they also receive love and attention from travelers who may stay for an hour, a day or a week in an immersive experience of all things elephant.

There are dozens of elephant camps to be found in tourist destinations such as Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phuket, and Pattaya. These range from rustic tent camps in the jungle to elaborate luxury resorts in the mountains of the Golden Triangle.

Motivated travelers can volunteer at an elephant hospital, learn how to train an elephant with a mahout, or just amble through the overgrowth, listening to the call of gibbons while sitting on the back of a lumbering trunk-bearing beast. No matter what type of elephant experience it is, it will be hands-on and hugely rewarding.

Topping the list of elephant-focused luxury resorts is Four Seasons Tented Camp, Golden Triangle, an easy drive from Chiang Rai. The camp’s 15 inside/outside bungalows are primitive enough to evoke the era of 19th century explorers but chock with amenities that range from wood-burning fireplaces, private terraces over the rainforest, rain shower bathroom features, and copper tubs for two.

Guests can take off on jungle walks through the cliffside resort expanse, or indulge in jungle-shrouded side-by-side spa treatments, or cool off in a swimming pool overlooking the river.

But the camp offers something not found elsewhere – mahout lessons. The all-inclusive nature of this luxury camp includes the care and feeding of elephants, and guests adopt an elephant for the duration of their stay – riding it, talking to it, feeding it, leading it and caring for it while visiting.

Each elephant is a rescue elephant that was abandoned by loggers or farmers and left to wander to streets of Thailand’s cities with dim prospects for survival. A portion of each booking at the camp goes to an active elephant rescue foundation in Thailand.

A fully-inclusive program for two persons for two nights will run around $5,000 in a superior tent.

… And More Elephants

For those who want to get their hands dirty, immersive elephant moments can be found in some of Thailand’s majestic national parks. Elephant Hills, a comfy, laid back jungle camp, sits just outside Khao Sak National Park, about three hours north of Phuket and near the coastal town of Surat Thani.

The park is a favorite place to look for wild elephants, gibbons and colorful hornbills amid ancient and untouched rainforest. But a phalanx of tame elephants is on hand at Elephant Hills where guests get to ride them, feed them, bathe them and work with them, getting to know them between sojourns into the forest, park, river and lake areas.

Accommodations are in comfortable and private permanent tents with full bath amenities, all open enough to hear the call of the gibbons in the morning and choruses of frogs in the evening. All-inclusive packages start at $312 per adult (double) for two days and one night.

Making Time for Monks

Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist and monk training is part and parcel of growing up Thai for most pre-adolescent boys. As they mature to choose this path, there are at least 200 rules that will govern their life as an ordained monk.

At various streets, temples and outposts throughout the enchanting countryside of Thailand it is possible to bring breakfast as an offering. One of the most sacred sites to do this is Doi Suthep Mountain in Chiang Mai, home to an abundance of temples and shrines.

It’s a serene setting that starts before dawn as dozens of saffron-robed monks walk barefoot through the streets, collecting food and everyday items from people who pass. Local tours provide the offerings for you to give the monks, and then lead you onward to sacred temple caves in the mountain that date back to the 14th century. Here, you can receive a private blessing.

Or you can stop by the Wat Chedi Luang temple in the Old City and have a private “Monk Chat.” This spiritual encounter is a new tourism trend in Chiang Mai that allows guests to drop in and talk with young monks and teachers about their lives, their choices and the true face of Buddha in the Land of Smiles.

Information: Tourism Authority of Thailand: (212) 432-0433.

By Lark Gould