Faced with the prospect of sharing 42 square meters (~450 square feet) with my mother for seven days didn't sound like a good time. So rather than figure out awkward sleeping arrangements for me, my wife, and my mom in our one bedroom Bangkok flat, I reached out to our friends at the JW Marriott Khao Lak. Sheila and I had been invited down months ago by the management team, and this seemed a good way for us to experience the property without drinking ourselves silly, as often happens when we accompany other travel bloggers who shall not be named (until later in this piece). That, and the angle I'd pitched for our coverage was an important one: intergenerational travel, a growing and highly desirable segment. So I made a list of all the things we'd like to do, and booked three tickets to Phuket, where the friendly staff from the JW Marriott Khao Lak would transport the three of us the hour-ish ride north to the secluded five-star resort tucked back in the jungle and only steps from the beach. Legitimate travel writing, here we come!
You can imagine my dismay when I received the "CALL ME RIGHT NOW" text message from my mom only hours before she was scheduled to depart LAX on an 18-hour journey to Bangkok.
"I can't do it," she said. I had talked to her the previous night where she confessed that she'd been with my sick nephew (let's call him Typhoid Larry, even though his name isn't Larry) the night before, and she thought he might have generously passed on the bug. No matter. She's a trooper and won't let a little tummy gurgle stand in the way of making the trek halfway across the globe to see her son and daughter-in-law for the first time in 18 months.
As it turns out, this was no little tummy gurgle. I'll spare you the details, but it took her about two weeks to get over that bug, and all too much of the time spent in abject misery. So no, she literally couldn't make it, and in hindsight, we're all glad she didn't try. (And she’s fine now, thanks for asking.)
But we had two rooms waiting for us at the JW Marriott Khao Lak. Rather than show up and say "sorry, we only need one", we initiated a volley of emails, phone calls, and Facebook Messenger pings to work out a plan. Instead of going with mom, our great friends and luxury-food-and-wine travel bloggers Amber and Eric would accompany us. Intergenerational travel was out, but twice the blogger/social media coverage for the hotel was in! Assuming we could keep from drinking ourselves silly.
Spoiler alert: we didn't.
Upon arrival, we learned that the Thai military (yeah, you read that right) had recently made some rather unusual requests of the JW Marriott Khao Lak. Specifically, the management was “asked” (by the military, which makes hard to say "no") to remove some of the bars constructed near the beach, and to move the lounge chairs closer to the resort. The rational? Yeah... we're not sure. Something to do with "keeping the beach clean", which sounds sketchy to us, having first-hand knowledge of just how meticulous five-star resorts like the JW Marriott Khao Lak keep their beaches. And I can't think of the last time I saw a military guy trading in his rifle for a rake to bag up the flotsam and jetsam. Nor did I see that happen this time either.
But we’re professionals. We weren’t going to let fickle enforcement by a tenuous government (or one sick mother) get in the way of us enjoying our stay at the JW Marriott Khao Lak. More to the point, it wasn’t getting in my way. I wanted beach. I wanted pool. I wanted spa treatments. I wanted fantastic food. I wanted fresh fruit waiting for me in my room. I wanted someone to bring me drinks all day long with little umbrellas in them so I could be somebody. They delivered. In spades. And then I wanted to nap. A lot.
Oh, and did I mention it was the rainy season? We timed the trip to coincide with Sheila's vacation schedule, so that little fact couldn't be avoided. But living in Thailand, we're not afraid of a little rain. However, the rain in southern Thailand is different than what we experience in Bangkok. Quite often, and especially during the rainy season, it's not to be trifled with. Case in point was when I joined four other guests from the hotel (let’s call them “suckers”) for an easy mountain bike ride to the Rainbow waterfall just 8 km away from the hotel. By "easy", I mean we were drenched from the moment we left the resort. But dammit, I wasn't going to let a little rain get in my way. Yeah... I probably should have. You'll note I've not posted any photos of the trek or the waterfall due to the fact that I couldn't tell the difference between rain and Rainbow waterfall. I've seen pictures of the waterfall. It looks amazing. And it looks sunny when those photos were taken. For me? Not so much. Lots of "rain", "water", and "fall". Didn't see any "bow" on that trip. I've got more to say about that bike trek, but you'll have to subscribe to the podcast to hear it.
While I was trying evolve gills as I pedaled, my three companions found a much better way to spend a rainy afternoon: Lounging at one of the swim-up bars in the pool. For the lazy, I recommend a pool-side room. Which is all they have. For all 250 rooms. Most hotels manage this feat with multiple pools. But not the JW Marriott Khao Lak. The have one pool. One 3 km long pool that snakes its way through the entire grounds of the hotel, giving every ground floor room a pool entrance for their patio, and tempting broken legs for those of us on the 2nd floor. Uh... don't do it. Not even after a whole bunch of drinks with little umbrellas in them that are making you feel like somebody. You don't want to be somebody with a broken leg.
When the rain did break -- as it always does -- the town of Khao Lak proper was only a short taxi ride away. I'm using the word "town" somewhat ironically, as it's more a hodge-podge of opportunistic business that have sprung up along the roads to various resorts that dot the region. When you visit, just have the taxi take you to Bang Niang Beach Road and jump off when it starts looking interesting. There are plenty of small places to grab a bite or drink the evening away. You'll probably find a taxi hanging out to take you back to the JW Marriott Khao Lak. And if not, the proprietor of the bar will happily call one for you, if only so he can go home for the evening. I’m not saying that’s what happened to us… but I am writing it.
I know it sounds dumb to visit Thailand in the rainy season. But a lot of people do it, simply for the costs savings. If you’re considering a resort on Phuket, do yourself a favor and go an hour farther north. With the JW Marriott Khao Lak, you’ll get amazing facilities, exceptional staff, and perfect location off the beaten path. Unless you’re a 20-something (or are in the market for drunken 20-somethings), Phuket is an island best handled in small doses. That’s coming from a guy who lives full-time in Bangkok and doesn’t mind spending a weekend or two in Pattaya. I’m a fan of crazy wild times, and there are lots of great spots in Phuket for insanity. And to be honest, there are lots of spots on Phuket where you can have a quiet, relaxing time. Personally, I really wasn't in the mood to drive a motorscooter around yet another huge island while risking becoming a traffic statistic after getting ran over by a semi. Yeah, that happened to me last year in Phuket. Skip it. Go north. And leave the driving to them.