Meet Uwern Jong, LGBT travel ambassador and Editor in Chief of the award-winning travel journal dedicated to luxury and experiential travel for gay men, Out There Magazine. He may call London home, but Uwern is well versed in travelling around the world and has a particular soft-spot for South East Asia. We chat to him about his favourite hotels and his top tips for making the most of a trip to Thailand.
Tell us a bit about yourself and Out There Mag.
Armed with a passion for luxury travel, I co-founded OutThere magazine back in 2013, and have been growing our nomadic baby ever since, in my capacity of Editor-in-Chief. OutThere is now the world’s leading luxury and experiential travel journal for gay men of distinction, in over 20 countries worldwide. We’re proud to be an award-winning magazine, but more so to deliver sublime travel inspiration to our unique, affluent and discerning community. We specialize in curating opinion-leading content, from in-depth, first person essays on the world’s most amazing experiences – taking our readers on journeys that extend beyond the mainstream – to celebrating global cultural expressions and the people responsible for making the OutThere world so fabulous.
I have a deep love for South East Asia, having spent some part of my childhood years in the region. And Thailand in particular has always thrilled and excited me – everything from its liberalism, to its food, its culture – not to mention stunning natural beauty and even more beautiful people. Over the near decade that I’ve been doing this, I’ve had the pleasure to return to Thailand over and over again, and yet each time I’m captivated by the country as if it was my first time again. Thailand is an inherently cultural and experiential destination, a place that truly inspires and engages all my senses.
Thailand is a luxury hotel hotspot, tell us about some of your favourite properties you have visited in Thailand?
Thailand is a luxury travel hotspot indeed, offering some of the world’s most gorgeous hotels, resorts and villas to complement any amazing experiential itinerary. There is also a real understanding of luxury travel and coupled with everything else it offers, it is a divine destination. But it also means that you’re spoilt for choice; and everyone has their own specific preferences. My god, where do I start?
In Bangkok, I love the Bill Bensley designed ‘The Siam’ that’s absolutely stunning, I have had the pleasure of staying here a number of times, and once had to vacate a Muay Thai class in the gym there once because the Royal Princess was waiting to use it for a personal training session – just to give you an idea of the sort of clientele. ‘The Peninsula Bangkok‘ just across the river will always have a special place in my heart as that’s where I woo’d my now partner, I think us arriving into its fabulous Terrace Suite by helicopter may have had something to do with it!
These are the Bangkok stalwarts, but there are some new kids on the block too that are worth checking out (or in to). I recently reviewed the new ‘Park Hyatt Bangkok‘, a super contemporary design option, but truly amazing. The ‘137 Pillars Suites and Residences’ has a blow-your-mind rooftop pool deck, limited only to the suite guests (not to mention among the best butler service I’ve ever received in Thailand), and the ‘Relais and Chateux’s The Eugenia’ gives a piece of old-world splendour for those looking for it. For the ultimate VVIP experience, those with royal ambitions can stay at ‘Chakrabongse Villas’, the Royal Princess’s private retreat which comes complete with use of her classic Riva speedboat.
Outside Bangkok there’s even more, as some of the world’s most magical resorts come into play. A personal favourite is the ‘Point Yamu, by COMO’ in Phuket – a piece of Italian chic in Thailand with views to write home about. Phuket has many luxury resorts – from the spellbinding ‘Trisara’, to the quirky tree-house ‘Keemala’, to the playful ‘Kata Rocks’. For those who love a buy-out, the exclusive Ani Villas Yao Noi is a short boat ride from Phuket and is perfect for a milestone celebration.
On the other Southern island playgrounds, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Rayavadee – its setting is truly magical. The Four Seasons Koh Samui will quench the most discerning of traveller’s thirst for unadulterated luxury.
Up North, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle will be etched in my memory forever.
For people coming to Thailand for the first time looking for a luxury getaway, what would you recommend they do and where would you recommend they stay?
First timers should always aim to do what I call the ‘luxury triangle’, to get a real flavour of Thailand. Start in pulsing Bangkok, then up to historical Chiang Mai and ending up at one or more of the Southern beach destinations to recharge. You can do it in a week, but 10 days or more is optimum.
My big tip is to not overlook Bangkok. I’ve been hearing that many travel designers recommend just a short stopover in the city enroute out to the islands, which I think is a real shame. Bangkok is by far the most experiential Asian city and my favourite place to imbibe in what I call ’Thainess’. Just being in the hubbub is enough for me, but for avid sightseers, there is plenty to do. A Royal Palace and Wat Pho private tour is a perfect activity for a late afternoon, after the big tour bus parties have gone. Moving around the old city in luxury is not always about a limo especially not in the chaotic Bangkok traffic and narrow streets, you must take a ride in a tuk-tuk around to experience where the Thai nobility used to live. Do it quickly as it’s potentially at risk of disappearing forever as times change.
For a touch of the colonial, high-tea in the old Oriental Hotel building of the now ‘Mandarin Oriental Bangkok‘ is a bucket-list item, history wafts through its hallowed halls and it’s the place where Noel Coward allegedly penned ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. The suites are also sublime, I’ve just returned from a stay there.
Visitors must also check out one of Bangkok’s infamous rooftop bars, my favourite is the Vertigo and Moon Lounge at the top of the Banyan Tree Bangkok, or its Michelin-starred restaurants, super-luxury shopping establishments and chic nightlife options. And finally, no trip to Bangkok is complete without a journey on the mighty Chao Phraya River. And the most chic option in which to do this is the five star, intimate Supanniga Cruise.
Up North, Chiang Mai is the seat of the ancient Lanna Kingdom – steeped in history and real Thai culture. Festivals are amazing times to visit, albeit busy – but there’s nothing like experiencing the charms of Thai New Year (Songkran) in April or the Festival of Light (Loy Krathong) in November. I’m in awe of the 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai, set around the original teak house built by Louis Lenowens, the son of Anne of ‘The King and I’ fame.
The Southern paradises of Phuket, Krabi, Koh Samui and their surrounding islands aren’t short of amazing resorts. But in a place so saturated with luxury offerings, I’m the sort that likes to get off the beaten track. I’ve recently visited the secluded ’The Racha’ with its lighthouse suite and impossibly turquoise, snorkel-inducing seas. The ‘Soneve Kiri‘ in Koh Kood is also something worth Insta-bragging about.
What are your favourite hotels in Thailand for a spa experience?
An almost impossible question to answer as Thailand abounds in luxurious spa hotels. Nearly every luxury property will have a sublime spa attached. In Bangkok, spa-bunnies will love Chi at the Shangri-la, with its individual spa-in-spa facilities, each treatment room a spa in its own right. In Koh Samui, the contemporary spa at the W Retreat Koh Samui does it for me everytime, my favourite place to recharge on the island. For those who want to go the whole hog, check into the Amatara Wellness Resort on Cape Panwa, a resort with a view so magnificent you’ll gasp out loud when you see it. Here you can bootcamp by day and sip organic, sulphite and sugar-free champers by night.
Final top tips for making the most of a holiday in Thailand.
Don’t go to Thailand thinking that it’s a once in a lifetime trip. I guarantee that once you visit, you’ll be back soon. So don’t try cram it all in, that’s not the Thai way. Choose your flavour of holiday and know you’ll be back to explore more. I’d also suggest you enlist the help of a travel professional. It’s a place where there are a multitude of choices that for some people can be overwhelming so having an expert to help you navigate is worth it. More seasoned travellers or repeat visitors should try to get off the beaten path, the pure luxury options may not yet exist in such places like Trat or Koh Lipe, but there are many barefoot luxury options worth considering if you’re the type that like to be ahead of the curve.
Uwern Jong is Editor-in-Chief of OutThere magazine, LGBT travel ambassador for the Tourism Authority of Thailand and a board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, the IGLTA.