CHIANG RAI – You could say it was an excursion to see how the other half lives. You know the “haves” of this world as opposed to the “have nots”. They are usually so rich they can sneak under the radar, flying in on private jets and heading off to luxury holiday addresses that are not even identified on a map, never mind Lonely Planet.
At first I had my doubts. Was it really a top notch, perhaps over-the-top resort villa in a small farming village on the outskirts of Chiang Rai?
Hold on, Chiang Rai is not exactly the pits of budget tourism. It has a Four Seasons tented village, 60 km up the road at Bt200,000 for two days and a hot shower. In town, TripAdvisor reckons the riverside restaurant Chitwit Thamada is out of this world.
There is also a Le Meridien on the banks of the Mae Kok River suitably attired with a fine Italian restaurant that TripAdvisor says is a close runner up to Chitwit Thamada’s fish and chips.
I learn all this from those who monitor the lifestyle charts that peg our station in life by the food and booze we consume. Market noodles or posh nosh; crates of ale or flawless French wine by the bottle. It says something about the way we live.
I am mulling over what constitutes a quality tourist as we turn off the old Chiang Mai road about 12 km clear of Chiang Rai town into a small country lane as obscure as they come.
So obscure we lose our way and a friendly villager puts us back on course to Baan Farang. No matter the architectural aspirations or money splashed on construction, villagers across the land, file and label them all as simply the “foreigner’s house”.
There are no grand entrances at Pa Sak Tong to warn us to loosen our wallets, or that we are approaching 70 rai of spacious park land that has two magnificent, stately villas of enormous proportions.
A solitary guard raises a bamboo barrier and waves us to a car park surrounded by lush trees and shrubs.
This is a hush, hush twilight tour of the grounds and the imposing hillside villas. Led by Ni Hao publisher, Jaffee Yee and a Google regional director, Myia Ross, I recognise I am in the company of wine and luxury travel experts, way out of my league for sure.
We are led along tiny winding paths illuminated by lanterns to a hillside where an imposing three-bedroom villa commands spectacular views of vast stretches of rice fields, while the last rays of sunlight silhouette Chiang Rai’s hazy, blue mountains due west.
Our host Pa Sak Tong’s general manager, John Dunbar, explains the sea of emerald green rice extending as far as I can see, without my glasses, is all part of this magnificent property. So are the two buffalos posing under a small shelter and the organic herb and veggie gardens. The list of agricultural distractions goes on for ever. This is a working estate where most of the garden’s produce finds its way to the kitchen tables.
My mind boggles at owning a garden of 70 rai. Well, we know Singha Park, just 5 km north of here, has literally thousands of acres, but they need them to grow barley to brew their famous ale.
I focus on the business at hand. We are scouting out luxury accommodation, so to speak. The two-level three-bedroom villa sits comfortably on a gentle slope with a spacious terrace. If there was a morning mist you wouldn’t see the far end of it.
I am admiring the mountainview thinking this is an ideal location for an afternoon snooze between reading a book on the comfy sofas and admiring hilly vistas. Perhaps even a sip or two of chilled white wine? I notice two maids hovering in the background with a tray of drinks. There are chefs and butlers discreetly blending in with the wall paper of a villa that rents for US$1,500 a day lock, stock and barrel.
I could get used to it. An entire floor is packed with exercise machines and other play items that are supposed to keep you fit, while you indulge on the best wines and three wholesome meals a day, probably more if you let your wishes be known to the resident chef.
The villa has its own swimming pool, a pavilion for yoga classes and gardens where a massive marble ball revolves on a thin skin of water. It’s an invitation to be philosophical, a pastime that you could easily adopt in this setting if you own a bank or a shopping mall chain.
My first impressions are that this is a holiday spot for families, quite large ones, very rich ones too. There are three bedrooms, an enormous teak floor lounge and dining area and a gadget-packed home theatre room where children can be suitable get lost in video games for hours, while mom and pop enjoy champagne and canapés.
We leave the vast villa on the hillside to explore the rest of the property. It is a kind of blur by now as we admire the second villa from afar. Bamboo bridges are being repaired over a small stream that cuts a gully around the main luxurious property that waits for its owner to return once the sun dips below the horizon late October in faraway chilly Europe.
When the gaffer is not around, his villa is rented out to anyone who has visions of grandeur and the cash to splurge to feed their dreams.
Like the attractive villas of Bali, Pa Sak Tong sells as an all- inclusive holiday where the service, food, wine and liqueur is included in the price tag.
But you can also disappoint the villa’s resident chef by telling him to feed the kids beefburgers, while you sneak off to the resort’s stand-alone restaurant. That is where Mr Dunbar entertains our little group of scouts.
You could say we are sussing this out for our readers. You really believe that. We are about to enjoy a heavenly meal with great wines and not even a passing thought for anyone else.
I am immediately impressed when our host warns us not to bump into the Chinese porcelain vases standing at the four corners of this semi-open restaurant. They are irreplaceable. We skirt around the impressive vases on tip toes and head for the bar and lounge that is separated from the restaurant’s single teak wood banquet table by a fireplace and brick chimney.
“That’s the owner’s idea, but we do need a log fire here in the winter, it gets very chilly,” Mr Dunbar points out.
My colleagues insist on taking photos of the wine labels, while I am concentrating on the contents. I am sure the photos are all destined for TripAdvisor, each course accompanied by superlatives that will be hard to believe when online. In this instance they are probably an understatement.
I always thought my mum was the best cook in the world and she was famed for lamb chops or a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding. But nothing came close to the tender, perfectly cooked lamb chops we enjoyed as we rambled carefree through a four-course meal flawlessly presented and served by Pa Sak Tong’s courteous restaurant staff.
Long after the recollections of good wine and fine dining recede, we will ask what is the message of Pa Sak Tong? It is not sending us an invite to a health farm or a retreat to meditate or cultivate a new hobby or skill in arts and crafts.
Just where does it fit? Its nearest rivals are probably the villas on the mountains of Bali where families and group of friends can celebrate an anniversary or another equally auspicious event.
Mr Dunbar gives us a hint when he says: “The resort’s clients often don’t bother with world famous frequent flyer cards”. They would show considerable distaste at owning even a Star Alliance Gold or super platinum if it exists.
They travel to Pa Sak Tong to chill out with their families, to become anonymous and touch exclusivity, but that does not mean they disappear behind the vast bamboo clusters never to emerge into the real world of Chiang Rai. They do engage, visiting sustainable tourism projects, shopping incognito and relying on the management to steer them to places and experiences that have been honed to appeal to their luxury holiday needs.
But there are factors that challenge the promise of quality. One of them is getting there.
“The end of THAI’s services to Chiang Rai early next year in favour of THAI Smile is worrying,” Mr Dunbar says. “At least they could travel in business class and use the lounge albeit one of the shabbiest around.”
THAI Smile flights will represent a drop on the quality scale, although the aircraft it uses (A320s) are newer than THAI’s A300-600s and Boeing 737s on the Bangkok-Chiang Rai route.
“There will be more business for private jet companies,” quips the general manager. “Some of our guests have their own private jets, but we already book others with companies offering services out Don Mueang Airport.”
Since I visited Pa Sak Tong, I noticed that every time I open Google and search perhaps for the nearest nuts and bolts shop, Agoda alerts me with an invitation to book two nights at this exclusive resort.
Google has me tagged, knows where I am and what I have been up to lately. Somewhere the little chips in cloud computing whirl out a prompt to Agoda and between them they reckon I am dying to spend US$1,500 to go back to Pa Sak Tong.
If only they could profile me more accurately, they would quickly realize my bank manager would have something to say about my aspirations. No harm in dreaming? Check how the other half lives at www.pasaktong.com. – by Don Ross