I've attended dozens of conventions and incentive trips during my husband Burt's 40-year career as a life insurance agent. He and I have been wined and dined on several continents by the world's top insurance and investment companies. Recently, Burt affiliated with a specialty- casualty agency as its life/investment specialist and easily qualified for an incentive trip to Thailand. In fact, with extra points awarded to those who write life business, he qualified so easily that we lowered our expectations for this trip, even though it was billed as a "once in a lifetime" experience by the sponsoring company, Auto-Owners Insurance.
We were about to be pleasantly surprised.
Right from the start, it was mai pen rai (that's Thai for "no problem"), beginning with the hassle-free check-in and the $50 meal credit at the conveniently located Sheraton airport hotel in Los Angeles. The next morning, after a buffet breakfast, we were each given a plastic "Auto-Owners" laundry bag containing a pillow and a bottle of water--thoughtful gifts for travelers facing a 20-hour flight from Los Angeles to Bangkok. We flew Thai Airways, a fine choice to get us in a "to-Thai-for" mood. As with any long haul, those of us who upgraded to business class were happy we did. By the time we arrived in Bangkok, all our body clocks had run amok.
Upon deplaning, 150 passengers carrying Auto-Owners pillows were whisked through Customs and Immigration. A crowd of smiling Thais had been mobilized to welcome us to the "Land of Smiles." There must have been 50 greeters, wearing Auto-Owners T-shirts, to guide us through the airport and lead us onto waiting buses. Once aboard, our Thai guides briefed us on the next day's plans.
It was just past midnight, perhaps the only good time for motorized transportation to negotiate the streets of Bangkok. When we reached the Royal Orchid Sheraton, another greeting party welcomed us with cool drinks. We had been preregistered, so all we had to do was pick up our room keys. Ensconced in our spacious river-view rooms, we were delighted to find a plateful of premium chocolates and a tray of exotic fruit (a printed "Guide to the Fruit of Thailand" had been thoughtfully included). Our pre-tagged luggage appeared in our rooms a few hours later.
The next morning, still sleep-deprived, we enjoyed a delicious buffet breakfast on the riverside terrace prior to being loaded onto waiting boats for a short ride up the "River of Kings" to visit the Royal Palace. A two-hour guided tour of the exotic Royal Palace compound was an interesting introduction to Thailand's history and culture.
Then we were in for the first of many surprises. A convoy of the famous Thai tuk-tuks (a motorized cousin of the rickshaw) was revved up and waiting to take us back to the hotel. But first we were given surgical masks to help protect us from Bangkok's noxious traffic fumes. Auto-Owners had even arranged for a police escort to zip us through the noontime crush in a city notorious for its traffic jams. The tuk-tuk brigade gave us a high-speed close encounter with the buses, taxis, autos, and motorcycles that clog Bangkok's streets. It was an exciting ride.
The weather in Bangkok is steamy, but the company had thought of that, too. At welcome intervals throughout the trip we were handed cold water bottles and moistened towels.
In Bangkok, and later in Chiang Mai, daily shopping shuttles were available to gem factories, silk fabric factories, handicraft centers, and furniture showrooms. Some attendees were leery at first, refusing to shop at these "tourist traps." But by the time we had reached the northern shopping centers, most people realized that there were real bargains to be found. Some even bought entire dining room sets and bars of teakwood at great prices that included shipping.
Some of the planned excursions received low marks, especially by folks who hate bus tours in general. In Bangkok, traffic was a spoiler. We spent several hours stuck in traffic in order to spend less than an hour at the floating market. Then, our guide advised us not to do much shopping there. "The merchandise is overpriced. Not great quality. Wait for the night bazaar in Chiang Mai," we were told.
The next day we chose an optional tour to the Bridge at the River Kwai. For some, exasperating traffic jams in and out of Bangkok nearly spoiled the trip. Yet I'll never forget the emotional experience of visiting the infamous site of the "death railway." Burt and I agreed it was one of the highlights of the trip.
One night in Bangkok and another in Chiang Mai were designated as dine-around evenings. Menus were available to help us choose from among the Thai, Italian, Chinese, and French restaurants on the eclectic list. All the other evenings, the company hosted special theme parties, which were outstanding (with sumptuous buffets, free-flowing wine and beer, and even native markets with artists demonstrating local handicrafts).
And then there was the entertainment. On three special nights we were treated to Thai cultural shows, gala spectacles featuring many different types of traditional Siamese music and dance, plus a demonstration of Thai boxing and martial arts. Most nights, the pageantry concluded with a spectacular fireworks display.
Events featured a variety of Thai food tailored to the tastes of American tourists. The menu consisted of plainly labeled beef, chicken, shrimp, and lobster dishes, served not too hot and spicy, but with sauces and condiments available for those who wanted their food molten. At a dinner in Chiang Mai, we enjoyed northern Thai dishes, similar to Chinese food, served family-style. Fireworks launched from small hot-air balloons added to the festive atmosphere.
The best evening was our last night in Bangkok. Once again, we had to board a bus to travel outside the city. This night, a police escort valiantly attempted to steer us through the clogged streets. Upon arriving at the Rose Garden, we were greeted by dozens of colorfully costumed dancers and musicians, plus six elephants sporting Auto-Owners signs (for those brave enough to take a ride). We were given orchid leis and led to the reception area, where drinks and canapes were served. This was an all-out effort to make us feel special and privileged--and it worked.
The Rose Garden's buffet was just a little more bountiful and the Thai cultural show more extravagant, with a finale that included fireworks and the lighting of the Auto-Owners logo in flames. But the evening was not quite over: A procession took us to the river to see a beautiful replica of a floral-laden, candlelit Royal Barge. At the river's edge, we each lowered a lotus blossom with a candle into the water and watched our offerings float downstream. A dreamy conclusion to a perfect night.
Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city, is an excellent antidote to Bangkok. It's cooler, cleaner, and much less crowded.
Shopping in Chiang Mai lived up to advance billing. Shopping shuttles were again arranged during free time. Besides the many factory outlets and showrooms, the famous Chiang Mai night bazaar offered a chance to see the handicrafts of the regional hill tribes, products ranging from textiles to pottery, bronzeware to lacquered goods. It's fascinating to encounter these native people in their colorful costumes. We also got to visit a hill tribe village the next day.
For me, the most memorable travel experience in Thailand was our elephant encounter. Thailand's once elephant-rich jungles have been decimated by logging. Ironically, elephants were used as beasts of burden to clear the teak and hardwood forests and now they have lost their habitat and their livelihood.
Tourism has given the dwindling number of animals a new lease on life. Elephant rides are popular and provide money to keep these gentle giants alive. We signed up for a tour to Chiang Dao elephant camp. The $49 price included lunch and nearly an hour's ride along a tropical jungle trail and back through the river. We were perched high and dry atop the gently rolling elephant, guided by a mahout who sat on the animal's head steering with his bare feet. After this ride, we boarded a bamboo raft, donned coolie hats for sun protection, and were poled down the Ping River, a cool and peaceful 45-minute journey.
On the final night in Chiang Mai, a farewell party at the hotel was designed as a "Roman Holiday." Travel posters of Rome and Florence reminded potential qualifiers to start thinking about the next Auto-Owners trip, to Italy in 1999. It was all subtle. No hard sell from company executives, simply a few words of thanks from a member of the travel agency staff. But it worked. As we ate our antipasto and lasagna, we bade goodbye to new friends by saying, "See you in Rome in '99."
Our departure was handled just as efficiently as our arrival. Bags out in the hall by midnight and wake-up calls to each room at 4 a.m. Our passports and airline tickets had been collected so that the official stamps were affixed and departure taxes paid. We were handed our documents at the airport. Those who were extending their once-in-a-lifetime trip were pointed in the proper direction. It was mai pen rai from beginning to end.