Friday, December 23, 2011

Traveling through Thailand

Steven Kalt, Shari Kalt and the Wanna Tours Team

Thailand is known as the "Land of Smiles". I found this to be a fitting phrase, as the people I met were so gracious and welcoming. The traditional greeting of "sawatdee" is usually accompanied by the greeter placing his or her hands in prayer position and giving a slight bow. It immediately puts you at ease makes you feel welcome.

Our adventure in Thailand started in Chiang Mai. This northern Thai city was founded in the late 13th century. Today is has a bustling downtown with a few high rise hotels and shops. The city really comes alive each evening with the night market. Here, vendors open their stalls lining the main street, selling everything from T-shirts to local handicrafts. I had heard about spas which offer Thai massages for the equivalent of $6.00. I did try a reflexology foot massage and my experience was "you get what you pay for", but I think it really depends on the individual therapist you end up with.

We had a terrific time just walking around, shopping and people watching. In and around Chiang Mai, we found beautiful silk scarves, silver jewelry, and all types of handicrafts.

During the day, you can spend your time visiting famous temples in the area. You can also visit factories and see how they make paper umbrellas, ceramics and woodcarvings.
A very popular activity is riding an elephant. There are several different elephant camps which offer elephant interactions, and we really enjoyed our morning at the Elephant Life Experience (ELE). Here, you can have a private day or half day with the elephants and their trainers (called mahouts). We were able to participate in bathing the elephants, feeding them sugarcane, riding them and watching them paint a picture. It was fabulous! You can also enjoy a serene bamboo raft ride down the river and have a delicious lunch as part of your day there.

The Chiang Mai area has no dearth of luxury lodgings. We recommend:

The Four Seasons Chiang Mai

The Four Seasons resort is located about 30 minutes outside of town, in a spectacular hillside setting. It offers a variety of room and residences ranging from one to four-bedroom villas. The newer pool villas were my favorite: open floor plan, one bedroom with contemporary decor. All of these rooms have a beautiful private pool and garden. Great for celebrating a special occasion!

The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi 

This is a self-contained resort in Chiang Mai, spreading over 60 acres. It opened in 2004 and the architecture encompasses many styles of the historic Lanna kingdom of northern Thailand. The property is composed of suites and villas, set about the resort amidst tropical foilage and greenery. They have one of the best destination spas, offering a variety of Ayurvedic treatments and wellness programs. I loved my Colonial suite during my stay here. This entry level room was over 900 square feet, had a separate living area, and a huge bathroom! These rooms are beside the main pool, and they all have terraces or patios for easy access. The morning breakfast buffet did not disappoint. There were stations for Asian food, Western food, and juicers for making fresh fruit juice to order. It is a great way to start the day!

A great hotel located right next to where the Night Market takes place is Le Meridien Chiang Mai. This new high rise hotel has very comfortable rooms and suites. It is a perfect location for the shoppers in the family. The junior suites are spacious and have all of the amenities you would expect from a 5 star hotel, and a deep-soaking tub with a view!

Book any of these preferred hotels with us and receive complimentary amenities such as upgrades and free breakfast!

Call the Travel Specialists at Bee Kalt Travel
Tel: 248-288-9600 or Toll-free 1-800-284-5258

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Exploring Laos

Luxury travel experts have predicted that Laos and Thailand will be among the top must-see destinations for 2012. Lucky for our readers, we have just come back from this fabulous part of the world and are happy to report our findings!

Mekong River
Laos is a mountainous, landlocked country, sharing borders with Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, China and Myanmar. It has the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed country in the world per capita. None of this is evident when visiting the historic city of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is the former Royal capital of Laos and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is set on the banks of the Mekong river, surrounded by green mountains, and filled with temples and monasteries. The town has quaint hotels and restaurants, combining traditional Lao with European colonial architecture. The French did leave their imprint on the city, with many restaurants specializing in French cuisine and bakeries serving up delicious, crusty french bread and pastries.

   I traveled here with my colleague and uncle, Steven Kalt, VP of Bee Kalt Travel. We flew to Luang Prabang direct from Bangkok, and spent our time exploring the city and surrounding area. There are many sights to keep one busy and three nights would be our recommended length of stay. We took a stroll through the morning market, with its stalls teeming with fresh vegetables, fish, and assorted local delicacies. We visited several Buddhist temples and were awed by the intricate mosaics made with colored glass. A cruise up the Mekong river in our own private long-tailed boat was a special treat. We visited the Pak Ou caves, filled with thousands of buddha statues, mostly left by locals over the years. A visit to the Kuang Si waterfalls gave us the opportunity to see more of the countryside and sadly, the poverty of the local village life.

One of the highlights of our visit to Luang Prabang was the merit-making ceremony of giving alms to the local monks. Each morning the saffron-robed monks walk through the city at dawn and accept food and offerings from the kneeling villagers. Our tour guide provided us with sticky rice prepared by his wife, so that we could participate in this moving and solemn event.

Where to stay in Luang Prabang? We stayed at La Residence Phou Vao, an Orient-Express hotel. It has a spectacular setting on a hillside, with serene gardens and a view of the golden stupa atop Mount Phou Si. My junior suite had beautiful, dark hardwood floors and cabinetry, a lovely stone bath/shower area and an outdoor sitting area with upholstered lounge chairs.  The complimentary wifi came in handy to stay connected with home and office. The restaurant served a variety of Lao and Western cuisine, all prepared to perfection. The breakfast buffet was seemingly endless: you could start with a lao noodle or rice soup, or have your morning omelette. It was hard to pass up the assortment of breads and croissants. OK, I didn't. I also didn't pass up the fresh, hot, made-to-order crepes each morning! I figured I walked the 350 steps up to the top of Phou Si hill, I could have the nutella and banana crepe.
La Residence Phou Vao has the beautiful Mekong spa, with individual treatment rooms surrounding a lotus pond. I wanted to try something new and typical to the region so I booked the Mo Hom herbal massage. It was a relaxing and healing treatment, where an herbal compress was used to massage warm oils into my skin. Perfect for jet lag!

This was a wonderful adventure, perfect to combine with a visit to the neighboring countries. We chose to follow our Laos visit with a whirlwind tour of Thailand - details coming up next!

Good to know: U.S. citizens need a valid passport and a visa for entering Laos. A tourist visa may be obtained upon arrival. Just present a signed visa form, a passport size photo and pay the current fee of $36.00.

If you would like more information on Laos or Indochina, contact the travel experts at Bee Kalt Travel!

Tel: 248-288-9600 or Toll-free 1-800-284-5258