InterContinental Khao Yai: New luxury resort celebrates Thailand’s railway history

Editor’s note: Monthly Ticket is a CNN travel series that focuses on some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In January, we turn our attention to the new experiences that 2023 has to offer.

Khao Yai, Thailand

Railroads have long been a source of fascination for travelers, allowing us to experience travel at a slower pace and relive a time when full planes and overcrowded airports weren’t the norm.

Thailand has its storied railway history dating back to the early 1900s, when Bangkokians would climb aboard the steel wheels to get out of the city to escape the beach or cooler climates.

More than 100 years later, a new resort designed by the incomparable Bill Bensley immerses guests in the essence of that era.

Comprised of more than 65 apartments and villas, InterContinental Khao Yai features a series of modernized Thai carriages that have been converted into luxury accommodation.

About a 2.5-hour drive from Bangkok, outside Khao Yai National Park, the resort’s design was inspired by the early days of the Thai railway and the area’s history as the gateway to northeastern Thailand during the reign of King Rama V (1868 to 1910 d.).

Guests are enveloped in the past as soon as they enter the reception area. Housed in a stand-alone building resembling a classic Thai railway station, it is filled with passenger trunks, wooden benches, classic train parts, illustrations and historical photographs.

The attention to detail is exceptional, though expected with any property with the Bensley name attached to it.

Words like whimsical and fantastical are often used to describe the work of the Bangkok-based American – and rightly so. Bensley is second to none in his ability to let his imagination run wild in all the best ways. The result is properties that tell a story, with every detail a clever anecdote that adds to the pages.

In the case of the InterContinental Khao Yai, Bensley says his lifelong love of train travel influenced the design. He has traveled on many large luxury trains on different continents and spent a summer taking groups of elderly passengers on coastal rail journeys across Canada.

When he came across a train station in Thailand full of decommissioned trains, he had to act.

“I was looking at all these rusty, old railcars and I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re just sitting there rotting…really, we’ve got to do something about it,'” he recalled.

“Six months later, we were buying as many of them as we could … You don’t have to build everything from scratch,” he adds.

Then came the hard part. Transporting a bunch of heavy, decaying old trains across the resort’s hilly landscape proved as challenging as one might expect.

“We planned to put them on the rails,” he says. But a sharp turn at the end of the road at the resort, where they had to put the wagons, meant they had to call in extra help to finish the job.

“We hired this huge crane that has to go up about 70 meters in the air. Then we drove the wagons in and left them on the slope. It was a hell of a day… It was a very expensive tap, but we got it done for the day,” says Bensley.

In addition to luxury suites, the resort’s redesigned carriages also feature a spa, kids’ club and three food and beverage outlets – Poirot, Papillon and Tea Carriage.

“We originally thought all the carriages would be accommodation, but once we started working with them we really fell in love with the whole idea of ​​Murder on the Orient Express. So here comes Poirot,” he says of the French restaurant overlooking nearby Swan Lake.

Papillon, right next door, is a jazz bar offering strong cocktails and live music on weekends. The Tea Carriage is located in another area of ​​the beautifully landscaped resort where guests can sample a variety of beverages such as iced coffee and a lovely afternoon tea service.

Breakfast is served at Somying’s Kitchen, a spacious all-day restaurant featuring booths reminiscent of dining cars and bright blue and white interiors. Outside the restaurant there is a small pool and the Terminus Bar, which also has traditional Thai railway motifs.

Even if you can’t check into one of the upgraded carriages, the other rooms and suites are nothing to scoff at. Each one, designed to look like a classic motor coach, is unique and features dramatic paneling forming picturesque wallpapers.

There are connecting suites with bunk beds for larger groups, while others have lake-view balconies and private plunge pools.

The King Classic is a 34 sq m apartment with a private balcony and a view of the nearby lake.

Guests are encouraged to head into the national park – more on that below – but it’s worth spending some time enjoying the resort.

InterContinental Khao Yai’s 19 hectares are filled with more than 30,000 trees and several lakes, the largest of which is occupied by numerous black and white swans – hence the name Swan Lake. Free bikes can be booked on the lakeside path, while there are plenty of places to sit and watch the swans stroll by.

Although incredibly popular with Bangkokians looking for a weekend getaway to escape the city, Khao Yai is not the biggest draw for foreign tourists who tend to head for Thailand’s beaches or Chiang Mai, the gateway to the mountainous north.

The stamp of a Bensley property managed by InterContinental will no doubt give the area a boost on the international stage.

The scenery outside Khao Yai National Park is often compared to the Italian countryside, and some of the resorts, cafes, restaurants and wineries play on that vibe.

There is only one international brand resort in the area besides the InterContinental, Movenpick, which features a sprawling castle-like hotel and 18-hole golf course.

Visitors who really want to pursue that Italian getaway fantasy can head to Tuscany Valley, a mixed-use project with a replica of the Leaning Tower.

Khao Yai National Park is home to about 200 wild elephants, according to park officials.

But at its core, Khao Yai remains a top destination for nature lovers. Part of the UNESCO-listed Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, it is Thailand’s oldest national park and consists of more than 2,000 square kilometers of forest and grassland.

Hiking trails cater to a variety of options, many of which offer access to beautiful waterfalls. Among the most famous is Haew Narok, from which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character jumped in the 2000 film The Beach.

Wildlife includes elephants, bears, gibbons and tigers (although people rarely spot the big cats). Park officials offer nighttime wildlife viewing tours that can be booked through the visitor center.

Bensley says the InterContinental’s location near the national park is what drew him to the project in the first place.

“I’m a wildlife lover, so for me, being so close to virgin forest really makes me buzz, to be able to go up to this park and see some of the few remaining wild elephants left in Asia. .. that’s probably my favorite part.”

Although most guests arrive by car, it is possible to take a train from Bangkok to Pak Chong Station, which is about 40-45 minutes from the resort.

In the future, Bensley says they want to organize weekend train trips where costumed guests will play Murder on the Orient Express.

Guests, whether traveling to Khao Yai from Bangkok by car or rail, may notice the construction of long overhead railway lines – they are part of the long-delayed route of the Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasima high-speed train, which will eventually run through Laos and into China.

The 250-kilometer Bangkok-Nakhon Ratchasmia line is due to open in 2026, according to recent media reports.

As travelers begin to dream of the coming years when high-speed rail will make it easier to get around the Thai countryside, it’s good to know that there’s a resort that pays homage to the country’s railway history as well.

InterContinental Khao Yai Resort, 262, Pong Talong Sub-District, Pak Chong District, Nakhon Ratchasima 30450; +66 (0)44 082 039; rates from 8,700 baht ($265) per night.

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