Princess of Thailand
Elite Traveler’s own Doug Gollan had the chance to meet with HRH Princess Ubolratana of Thailand and get a royal viewpoint about her beautiful country and all it has to offer. The Princess shares her personal 2-week itinerary of the kingdom, provides insight as to the exceptional hospitality extended by the Thai people, and the future of tourism in Thailand.
ET: The readers of Elite Traveler enjoy luxury travel and are also very interested in culture, history, sports, resorts, design, fashion and so forth. Money for them is usually not a first concern. What would you personally recommend to them as an itinerary for a two-week visit to the kingdom?
HRH Princess Ubolratana: A visit to the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – the jewel in the Thai crown and very much the heart of this golden kingdom – is on the must see list for all first-time visitors to Thailand. All of the royal guests of His Majesty King Bhumibol and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit begin their tour of Thailand with this magnificent ancestral home of the great kings of the illustrious Chakri dynasty – which has ruled for more than two centuries. The architectural splendor of the buildings reflects the finest in Thai art and culture through exquisite craftsmanship. There are also splendid works of art inspired by the great cultures of the world, providing a vivid reminder of the historic diplomatic and trade ties forged by ancient Thai kingdoms with the great powers of the world – both Eastern and Western. Visitors of many nationalities are often pleasantly surprised to suddenly find themselves retracing journeys made by their ancestors and fellow countrymen centuries ago. Many also take the opportunity to pay respect to the sacred Buddha images housed in the religious sites.
In Bangkok, I would also recommend a visit to Vimarnmek Palace, built by King Chulalongkorn after his return from a tour of Europe in 1897. This remarkable palace is one of the largest teak structures in the world, and incorporates many elements inspired by European architectural styles that King Chulalongkorn so admired.
There is much to see outside Bangkok, of course, but I would recommend a visit to the Doi Tung Development Project and the Hall of Opium at the Golden Triangle Park in Chiang Rai province. Both of these were initiated by Her Royal Highness The Princess Mother, late mother of His Majesty the King. She was affectionately known to the Thai people as Somdej Ya [Royal Grandmother] or Mae Fah Luang [Royal Mother from the Sky].
Each of the royal projects plays a major role in helping to eradicate opium, drug use and rural poverty through sustainable alternative development strategies. Crop-substitution programs and the promotion of environmentally-friendly village craft industries, as well as tourism development, have helped to create new and better employment opportunities that lead to a wider distribution of income.
To mark the auspicious occasion of His Majesty the King’s 80th birthday anniversary in December 2007, a selection of nine royal projects were identified as being of particular interest to visitors interested in educational travel, nature-based tourism, ecotourism and agro-tourism. These are now being promoted internationally under The Royal Initiative Discovery projects theme.
In a more relaxing vein, I always recommend spending a few days at a resort or spa in the hills or countryside enjoying the natural and cultural splendor of the beautiful northern province of Chiang Mai – a treasure trove of ancient Lanna – or Northern – Thai art and culture. Then think about heading off to any one of the secluded tropical island resorts dotted around the Andaman Sea to catch lots of sun. The island paradise of Phuket is also noted for its first-class boating facilities, which include modern marinas, state-of-the-art docks and world-class chartering options. We are all very proud that Phuket was named Asia’s Maritime Capital at the 2007 Christofle Asia Boating Awards.
There are plenty of top-end alternatives since there has been a steady increase throughout Thailand over the years in the number of luxury resorts, spas and prime properties. Deluxe private villas and holiday homes cater specifically to affluent international travelers visiting the many beachside destinations along the Andaman Sea coast in Phuket, Phang-nga and Krabi. Further east in the Gulf of Thailand, there is Koh Samui and numerous other resorts, including the ‘royal paradise’ of Hua Hin. This sleepy old town was Thailand’s first real seaside resort, and with its palace has for many years been the summer retreat of Thai royalty.
As an ever-increasing number of people come to realize that inner beauty is just as important as physical beauty, Thailand is attracting increasing attention from international visitors who come in search of holistic healing affecting mind, body and spirit. Others come in search of a life-changing experience, exploring traditional meditation techniques to calm their restless spirits.
Thailand’s reputation as a world-class spa capital is well established, so indulge in some royal pampering during your visit. If you are looking for a relaxing, health-restoring holiday, Thailand features dozens of first-class spas and wellness retreats that offer a vast range of treatments derived from ancient therapies in Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, China, India and elsewhere. Nowhere else can such a depth and range of choices be found in a one-stop health and beauty destination.
As people increasingly recognize that prevention is better than cure, many more visitors across all age groups are coming to Thailand to seek inner peace by learning how to meditate.
Buddhist temples have traditionally been centers of knowledge and learning, as well as places of traditional healing. It is no surprise therefore that a number of Buddhist temples with meditation centers now also offer training in the therapeutic benefits of traditional Thai massage.
ET: Many people commend Thailand for its high tourism standards and naturally warm hospitality. Why are Thais so welcoming to visitors, and what is it in Thai culture that leads to such world-renowned service?
HRH Princess Ubolratana: What international visitors experience during their time in Thailand is the natural grace and charm, friendliness and warm hospitality of Thai people. This is in essence the Thai way – the well-practiced observance of centuries-old, time-honored traditions. We are extremely fortunate that in many Thai families and homes, especially in rural communities, grandparents and other elderly relatives remain actively involved in raising young children, ensuring that traditional ways are passed on to the next generation. For example, the graceful wai greeting beautifully executed as a gesture of respect, or nam jai – the thoughtfulness, care and concern we have for the comfort and wellbeing of others. Everyone is a welcome guest in a Thai home. This traditional value is clearly demonstrated by the ancient custom of leaving a jar of drinking water, along with a ladle, in front of one’s home so that passers-by can break their journey and quench their thirst. These water jars are still commonly seen today as decorative items, and are often placed at the entrances to hotels and resorts throughout Thailand. Other than the greeting “Sawasdee,” the next most popular Thai greeting, is “Have you eaten?” As a courtesy, the invitation to share a meal is extended not just to friends and family, but often to complete strangers. These admirable cultural values and traditions are imbued in young Thais, most of who are proud of their roots. Those who choose to work in the Thai tourism and hospitality industries have countless opportunities to share their ways with visitors to Thailand – people they regard as honorable guests. A warm welcome is simply a part of our way of life. When you are in our home, you are our guest. We are also taught to offer nothing less than the very best when receiving guests. If we present someone with a gift, it is the best we have to offer and it always comes from the heart. That is the Thai way.
ET: What are the most important developments taking place today in Thai tourism?
HRH Princess Ubolratana: One recent development that I am sure will be of particular interest to Elite Traveler readers is the emergence of some remarkably hip and intimate boutique products which are being marketed under the CHIC By Thailand slogan. Chic new offerings include hotels, restaurants, art galleries, museums, bars and similar attractions throughout the country. The recent explosion of new boutique-style properties is prominently featured in a new brochure aimed at trendy travelers.
In line with Chic By Thailand, the kingdom has seen a phenomenal increase in the number of small, exclusive boutique hotels. These are rather fabulous smaller properties geared to discerning guests in search of a comfortable but very contemporary ambience complemented by traditional high standards of personalized service and real privacy.
Another very significant development in the Thai tourism industry today is the growing interest in educational travel and meaningful tourism among an ever-increasing number of international visitors. In response to this new trend, agencies of the Royal Thai Government, particularly the Ministry of Tourism and Sports and the Tourism Authority of Thailand, have been inspired by His Majesty the King’s life-long efforts to promote sustainable development. They have embraced His Majesty’s Sufficiency Economy, a philosophy that bolsters sustainable tourism development among other things. As a result, the Thai tourism industry has embarked on the development of new tourism products and destinations that showcase a selection of royal projects initiated by members of the royal family, as well as others that promote community-based tourism as a tribute to His Majesty.
Sustainable community-based tourism is valued for its effectiveness in channeling tourism revenue to grassroots communities, thereby helping alleviate rural poverty. Community-based tourism promotes the conservation of the country’s precious natural and cultural resources, and supports sustainable tourism development in tandem with qualitative development of the Thai tourism industry.
Projects like these reflect the best of Thailand. Visitors will find them a unique experience because they show that tourism does not always have to be driven by commercial considerations in order to have meaningful impact. This also reflects official national policy to focus more on quality tourism and less on mass tourism.
ET: What are your personal plans for the future of the tourism industry in Thailand in terms of developing new products and destinations?
HRH Princess Ubolratana: My role is to promote greater visibility and awareness of innovative and exciting new tourism products and services, and to help inspire confidence in Thailand as one of the world’s leading destinations for international visitors. I always urge Thais to be proud of the folk wisdom of our ancestors, and to cherish our priceless heritage. We need to work together to keep our traditional Thai ways alive for future generations.
ET: How much of your time do you spend promoting tourism in Thailand?
HRH Princess Ubolratana: Tourism plays a very significant role in the country’s national, economic and social development. Some 14-million foreign tourists contribute more than US$ 12-billion to the Thai economy. Tourism creates widespread and diverse employment opportunities, and contributes to a more widespread distribution of income. Tourism’s growth has also contributed to the sustainable development of numerous communities and attractions nationwide.
Given tourism’s ever-increasing national importance, whenever I receive an invitation from the Tourism Authority of Thailand or The Ministry of Tourism and Sports to attend the world’s most important international travel trade shows, such as the World Travel Mart (WTM) in London or the International Tourismus Borse (ITB) in Berlin, it is always a great pleasure and honor to join the Thai delegation as one of the kingdom’s tourism and cultural ambassadors. These trips provide opportunities for me to meet with Thailand’s travel partners and visitors from around the world. Such individuals are true friends of Thailand. I can express heartfelt thanks for their steadfast support, forge new friendships and get more involved in the exchanging thoughts and fresh ideas.
ET: What do you like to do most when you travel?
HRH Princess Ubolratana: My parents – His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit – both work tirelessly for the happiness and wellbeing of the Thai people in all 76 provinces of the kingdom. As their children, all of us have followed in their footsteps since childhood. There is still much work to be done to alleviate rural poverty and help underprivileged families throughout the kingdom, especially children and young adults. It is extremely rare that we have leisure time to ourselves. Whatever free time we have from the royal duties delegated to us we devote to causes we personally champion. For example, in addition to “To Be No. 1” – a drug prevention program I personally initiated to encourage Thai youth to steer clear of drugs and addictive substances, I probably spend at least half of my time encouraging Thais – especially younger ones – through ‘edu-tainment’ programs to discover their own country. I believe everybody should get out and about and see things.
ET: Where are your favorite places abroad? Do you have any favorite hotels or suites?
HRH Princess Ubolratana: Most of our overseas travel relates to official engagements we undertake on behalf of His Majesty the King at the invitation of our official hosts. Each and every country contributes to the wealth of world heritage. During the many official overseas trips we’ve made through the years, we’ve been very privileged to be shown so many of the world’s magnificent places – all with amazing stories related alongside. I am very fortunate to have so many ‘favorite’ places, so it wouldn’t be fair of me to just name a few. They all hold a special place in my heart.