Pride of Thailand
EVERYTHING about Thailand is lyrical. From the genteel and gentle nature of the people, who speak in their sing-song dialect, to the street signs where the language looks more like the crotchets and quavers of a musical composition than an alphabet, the Thais put a lot of store in beauty and the magic of life.
Traditional dance, for example, is an exploration of the body's ability to bend beautifully, with the famous long fingernails of the female entertainers twisting and gyrating into mesmerising shapes.
Their food, also, is a tribute to culinary beauty - it's not enough to eat delicious morsels, it must also be a sensory overload with delicate vegetable carvings, fragrant spices and the most intricate of sweets, tiny packages of bliss trussed with visually splendid details.
And the charming service and hospitality offered to visitors is calm, serene and fulsome.
It seems your every thought is predicted by the Thais and they're one step ahead of your imminent needs. Many would wrongly attribute this five star treatment as servitude.
Think again. This is the land of Siam - the proud and ancient kingdom that gave rise to fierce warriors (think a bare chested Yul Brynner in The King and I) dating back to 1096AD.
It is testament to the Thai character that the country has maintained independence while most Asian nations around them have fallen to imperial colonisation over the centuries.
Siam's greatness through the ages has evolved into the modern powerhouse that is Thailand today.Sun's out after the storm
Thailand calls itself the Land of Smiles - it's an apt moniker.
But since the horror of the fatal Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the smiles are tinged with haunting sadness at Khao Lak, the southern Thailand beachside resort about 80km north of Phuket airport, where victims exceeded 4000 official casualties, with unofficial estimates topping 10,000.
It's not until you visit this small, tight community that you fully appreciate the devastation that accompanies these statistics.
In the stunning Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach and Spa resort, set on the coastline of Phang Nga Bay, general manager Torsten Richter (German born but now a firm Khao Lak resident), tells how the tragedy tore to the core.
“The owner of this resort pulled his daughter's body from the waters,” he says.
“He has built a tribute to her in the grounds here, but there were so many people who never found that kind of closure. So many simply disappeared forever - loved ones who were going about their business one minute, then vanished under the waters.
“I had only just arrived to take up work here and was sailing off (nearby) Phi Phi island when the wave struck.
“I didn't even realise at first what had happened - we felt nothing but a ripple on the water.
“But as soon as we hit shore, the chaos was apparent. Like everyone else, I just tried to pull people to safety and save any lives I could.”
Torsten says the tragedy has left a lasting impression - but it also forged an unbreakable bond.
“Locals and expats like myself worked and cried together. Friendships were born during that terrible time that will last a lifetime.”
Today, though, Khao Lak is a place of sunshine, smiles and joy.
The horror of yesterday has been usurped by the hope of tomorrow. It is one of Thailand's great unspoiled tourism meccas.Jungle adventure
From the white sandy beach to the dense jungles surrounding the region, Khao Lak's soft adventure activities provide a perfect opportunity for anyone wanting to experience a nature-based Thai holiday as much as a seaside sojourn.
Say the word elephant to most people and they get all gooey - elephants are the land-based version of whales and dolphins, the epitome of all that is good, solid and reliable in this world.
The thought of sitting atop one of these gentle giants traversing rainforest tracks is enough to get a girl swinging through the vines with excitement.
We took an inflatable river raft down the Sok River, where the looming mountains cocooned our little boats, giving a true feeling of Indiana Jones style rafting.
Snaking through the jungle-flanked waters, about 45 minutes later we docked ready to meet our mammoths - well, they're slightly smaller than their African equivalents, but they're still huge, cute and an exotic way to take a ride.
Being an animal lover, it was important for me to see the close bond and respect that each elephant has with its mahout, or elephant keeper. Typically, a mahout begins training as a small boy, and is assigned a young elephant who will become his charge throughout their respective lifetimes.
It's a story of two beings growing together, earning each other's trust and sharing a love that withstands the test of time.
Riding atop our girl, who we found out was in her mid-30s, the sensation of feeling every sinew and muscle under our chair-saddle, the wonderful dusty smell of her skin and the gentleness she showed when asked to let down her mahout - by extending her trunk to allow him ease in alighting and boarding her giant frame - was a remarkable experience.Magical night ceremony
Back at Le Meridien after a wonderful day of natural highs, the magic continued.
Torsten had organised a surprise dinner for us - a candlelit affair on the beach, where tables had been set up around a stunning array of gourmet “stalls”, each serving a Thai specialty, from fragrant curries, spicy soups and the freshest seafood, though to banana pancakes and other delicious sweet morsels.
Dinner was spectacular under the stars, the gentle waves lapping on the beach. But the true delight came after the meal. A bonfire suddenly blazed on the beach.
Le Meridien staffers appeared with what looked like giant pillowcases but were, in fact, huge paper lanterns. A small flame was placed at the base of each lantern, and hot air was allowed to fill the void. This was our chance to be part of an ancient ceremony, Khom Loy, or the flying lanterns.
Originally from the ancient northern capital of Chiang Mai, Khom Loy was once let fly to warn nearby villagers of impending danger. Today, though, the spectacle is one of joy and wonder.
Two people must let a lantern go, making a wish as it soars skyward. As the night sky, already a blanket of stars illuminated by a full moon, lit up further with our soaring firelights, the only wish I could think of was to return soon to this magical place to fly another lantern. As the scores of flying lights finally petered out into the dark voids of the heavens, the stars looked lonely without them.Thai Airways International flies daily from Sydney to Bangkok, but is also introducing non-stop services five times a week between Bangkok and Brisbane from October 25, 2009. For more call THAI on 1300 651 960 or go to www.thaiairways.com.au. For more on Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach & Spa Resort go to www.lemeridien.com/khaolak.