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Thailand is a feast for the senses, and yours will be fully indulged starting with the 55-minute cab ride from the airport to Bangkok. Jewel-colored Theravada Buddhist temples–about 90% of Thais practice the religion–dot the landscape. Among them, luscious pink lotus beds and watery salt flats quickly give way to glittering high-rises. As you close in on the city (pop. over 5 million), posters of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit–Siam’s reigning monarchy–appear over roads choked with humidity and exhaust fumes and the aroma of pad thai, Thailand’s ubiquitous noodle dish sold from street carts for about 20 baht, or 50 cents .
East disparately meets West in this Southeast Asian country. Along Bangkok’s Rajadamri Road, motorcycles compete with tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) under the shadow of the sparkling Skytrain rail system. And within every disco, Internet cafÃ©, and Starbucks dwell spirit homes–decorated miniature houses inhabited by figurines that represent the ancestors.
It all comes together at the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok. While its lobby, more of a huge living room, displays hand-painted silk walls and handcrafted Thai antiques, the hotel’s Sports and Health Club, silk shop, chic dining establishments (Aqua and The Spice Market), and Regent Club 24-hour executive service attract the modern, sophisticated traveler.
A couple of hours drive from Bangkok is Hua Hin, home of the annual Anantara King’s Elephant Polo Tournament held in October. Teams from around the world pay to compete in the charity event–a slow-moving game where spectators sip on Chivas Regal mojitos (a delicious libation with lime, ginger, and lemongrass) while a ball is batted around with elongated polo mallets. Controlling the beast is its mahout, a surrogate mother, of sorts, who raises the animal from birth, seated on the pachyderm’s neck. A ride through the rainforest trails is an undulating, bumpy, yet thrilling experience. As you tighten your grip–sliding out is way too easy–on a simple wood seat perched on the elephant’s back, you’re grateful for the provided umbrella sheltering you from the hot sun and errant leaves. Passing the elephant hospital, you’ll choke up as you see a newborn up close.
Everything’s used here, including the processed elephant dung, which is turned into pretty stationary and is sold at Chiang Mai’s night market. While you’re there, pick up chopsticks, pottery, hand-painted umbrellas, and famous hand-woven Thai silk for a song (about 4,000 baht–or $100–will get you a table-length beauty).
You’ll find such fabrics decorating the luxurious Lanna Spa at the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, which is nestled in the tranquil Mae Rim Valley. In your own lanna-style pavilion, furnished with teakwood and Siamese art, settle on the veranda with a delicious mangosteen fruit and admire the Himalayan foothills in the distance.
Try shrimp sate and Thai beer by the infinity pool, where you’ll be surrounded by the property’s own rice paddies (and, yes, that was water buffalo you passed along the way).
Take a taste of Thailand home with a course at the Cooking School, where in the open air, you can grind spices like galangal and