‘Khao Yai National Park?’ says film director Ton sceptically over his whisky. ‘There’s very little to do there.’ After a thoughtful pause, he adds: ‘The air is good.’
To our Bangkok friends, Khao Yai National Park, two hours’ drive from the Thai capital, seems an easy but boring getaway from the fumes and grid-locked traffic of their home city. Truth be told, these urbanites are allergic to anything considered remotely rustic. They would rather eat their own branded sneakers than risk an elephant ride in the rainforest.
So it’s impressive that they have all heard of Kirimaya
, the famous hotel perched on the outskirts of the 2,200-square kilometre nature reserve. When they hear that Mr Smith and I are going to Muthi Maya, Kirimaya’s newer sister property nearby, they respond with a mix of envy and awe. Even fashion stylist W, a nocturnal being who sleeps with his trilby on, is inspired to remark that he remembers directing a fashion shoot there.
Well, the hotel’s killer mix of cutting-edge architecture, Thai accents and gorgeous scenery would make the most hardcore city slicker melt. Before we get to the hotel proper, the three-kilometre drive from the entrance is a cinematic pan through manicured fields, lying flat against a rolling chain of mountains. Even our driver chuckles – a view this beautiful is ridiculous.
We arrive at the high-ceilinged reception area, which embraces guests with masculine, dark wooden panelling and slate greys – a cooling respite from the relentless glare of the tropical sun outside. Most of Muthi Maya’s design elements – clean lines punctuated by a well-placed artifact or bursts of local flora in a tasteful vase – are shorthand for Asian contemporary style in many eco-luxury retreats. But little details stand out, such as the statement fabric necklaces with pretty stones on the female staff; very 2011.
Statement Necklace ushers us to our Pool Villa, an unfussy space with a welcoming air. The facilities are top-notch: two flatscreen TVs (one facing an obscenely large bed, the other in front of a similarly proportioned day-bed in the other room) and a gigantic bath tub with built-in Jacuzzi. Referencing Kirimaya's top-tier Tented Villas, our room has a canvas screen with cloth windows, a quirky touch that shows the hotel is serious about its design.
But it’s outside that the real drama begins: a sun-deck warms your feet, a dipping pool glows turquoise and a panoramic view of Khao Yai’s mist-covered mountains opens out in front of you. Mr Smith wastes no time in shrugging off his clothes and plunging into the pool. Considering the damage done by a previous night out partying with Bangkok’s young and beautiful, I applaud his athleticism (or foolhardiness, depending on how you look at it) and follow his example.
We have a lazy room-service lunch in the cabaña, of egg-wrapped pad thai and slow-cooked fried rice with crunchy prawns. Then there’s no fighting the post-lunch coma, lulled as we are by birdsong and the gentle lapping of our pool.
The sun sets and the temperature drops. It’s dinner time. A quick shower and a spray of perfume and we’re out. Ditching the buggy, we amble to Myth, a Japanese-Thai restaurant above the hotel lobby. Succumbing to our inner Japanese tourist, we have the shabu-shabu for two, demolishing a tray of raw seafood and vegetables by cooking the ingredients in a pot of fish broth.
We linger over the steaming pot and our Singha beers – and soon find ourselves the last survivors in the restaurant. The singer-guitarist, with his languid repertoire of old country songs, asks for requests. ‘Anything by the Beatles!’ I say. He plays ‘From Me To You’ and then ‘Across The Universe’, which seems made for the evening, given its trippy Zen-ness. I look out of the restaurant and the night sky is velvet black and studded with infinite stars.
Day two is activity day. As Muthi Maya shares a spa with sister hotel Kirimaya, we are chauffeured by a hotel car there. Mr Smith, of the aching photographer’s shoulder, chooses the traditional Thai massage and I go for the Kirimaya Scrub, a 90-minute session that ends with me glowing. Mr Smith reports that the masseuse fulfilled his masochistic idea of a great massage, which is equal parts pleasure and pain.
Then he announces that he wants to go on a tour of the bat caves in Khao Yai National Park. Apparently someone has been perusing the catalogue of day trips while Mrs Smith was communing with her inner self. We book a driver who takes us on a trip that is easy on the eye but not so easy on the derrière – blame the potholes. We stumble onto a red dirt path and stare at an underwhelming hole in a mountain. At about 6pm, the first few bats start wiggling out of the cave. Ten minutes later, a ribbon of them starts to unspool across the dusky pink sky, forming a trail of black confetti that dissolves into the distance. Mr Smith clicks away.
Returning to the hotel after our National Geographic encounter, we have dinner at Acala, the Thai restaurant at Kirimaya. The cool, woody sanctuary we saw in the day transforms into a sexy and intimate grotto by night. We settle into a quiet corner and study the menu by candlelight. As usual, we over-order, but who can blame us?
To cap the evening, we retire to the Mist, the bar upstairs that gives an uninterrupted view of the moonlit greenery. The decor seems to be inspired by a colonial natural historian’s home, with small rocking chairs on the balcony and a telescope to boot. We peer into the long lens. Nothing but darkness. We raise a toast to the little we did in Muthi Maya. And then another to Ton, our Bangkok friend. He was so right and yet so wrong.