InterContinental Khao Yai: New Luxury Resort Celebrates Thailand’s Railway History

Editor’s Note – Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that sheds light on some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In January, we shine the spotlight on the new experiences 2023 has to offer.

Khao Yai, Thailand (CNN) — Railways have long fascinated travellers, allowing us to travel at a slower pace and revisit a time when packed planes and crowded airports weren’t the norm.

Thailand has its own rail history dating back to the early 1900s, when Bangkok city dwellers boarded the steel wheels to get out of town for beach jaunts or cooler climes.

The InterContinental Khao Yai, made up of more than 65 suites and villas, includes a series of recycled Thai train cars that have been converted into luxury accommodations.

About 2.5 hours’ drive from Bangkok, outside Khao Yai National Park, the resort’s design draws inspiration from the early days of Thai rail and the area’s history as a gateway to the northeast of Thailand during the reign of King Rama V (1868 to 1910).

Designer Bill Bensley has converted a series of old Thai train carriages into luxury accommodations.

BENSLEY

Guests are enveloped in the past as soon as they enter reception. Located in a stand-alone building resembling a classic Thai railway station, it’s filled with travel trunks, wooden benches, classic train parts, historic artwork and photos.

The attention to detail is exceptional, although expected of any property bearing the Bensley name.

Words like whimsical and fantastical are often used to describe the work of the Bangkok-based American – and rightly so. Bensley is unrivaled 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 adding a clever anecdote to the pages.

Logistic challenges

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

When he came across a Thai rail yard filled with disused trains, he had to act.

“I was looking at all these rusty old cars and I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re just there rotting…really, we should do something with that,'” he recalled.

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

Then comes the hard part. Hauling a bunch of old, heavy, decaying trains through the station’s hilly landscape proved as difficult as expected.

“We planned to drive them on rails,” he says. But a sharp turn at the end of a station road where the cars needed to be placed meant calling in extra help to finish the job.

“We rented this huge crane which has to go up about 70 meters in the air. Then we flew the trolleys and dropped them on the slope. It was a hell of a day… It was a very expensive crane , but we all got it done in the day,” Bensley says.

In addition to the luxury suites, the resort’s recycled carriages also house a spa, kids’ club, and three dining outlets — Poirot, Papillon, and the Tea Carriage.

“Initially, we thought all the cars would be for accommodation, but when we started working with them, we really fell in love with the very idea of ​​Murder on the Orient Express. So that’s where Poirot intervenes,” he said. says of the French restaurant overlooking nearby Swan Lake.

Papillon, next door, is a jazz-themed speakeasy serving strong cocktails and, on weekends, live music. The Tea Carriage is in another area of ​​the beautifully landscaped resort, where guests can try a variety of beverages such as iced coffees and delicious afternoon tea service.

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

Even if you can’t check into one of the recycled cars, the other rooms and suites are not to be overlooked. Each one, designed to look like a classic wagon, is unique and features dramatic panels framing panoramic wallpaper.

Each room at the InterContinental Khao Yai is unique.

Each room at the InterContinental Khao Yai is unique.

InterContinental Khao Yai

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

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

The 19 hectares of the InterContinental Khao Yai are filled with more than 30,000 trees and several lakes, the largest of which is occupied by several black and white swans – hence the name “Swan Lake”. Free bikes can be borrowed on the lake trail, while there are plenty of places to sit and watch the swans waddle.

Khao Yai National Park

Although incredibly popular among Bangkok locals looking for a weekend getaway to escape the city, Khao Yai is not a major draw for foreign tourists, who tend to shy away from the city. head for the beaches of Thailand or Chiang Mai, the gateway to the mountainous north.

The cachet of having a Bensley property managed by the InterContinental will undoubtedly give the area a boost on the international stage.

The landscapes outside of Khao Yai National Park are often compared to the Italian countryside and some resorts, cafes, restaurants and vineyards play into this vibe.

There’s only one internationally-branded resort in the area besides the InterContinental, a Movenpick that features a sprawling castle-like hotel and an 18-hole golf course.
Visitors who really want to pursue that Italian getaway fantasy can head to Toscana Valley – a mixed-use project with a replica of the Leaning Tower.
Khao Yai National Park is home to up to 200 wild elephants, park officials say.

Khao Yai National Park is home to up to 200 wild elephants, park officials say.

Pratya Chutipaskul/AFP/Getty Images

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 over 2,000 square kilometers of forest and grassland.

The hiking trails cater to a variety of abilities, many providing access to beautiful waterfalls. Among the most famous is Haew Narok, whose Leonardo DiCaprio character jumped into the 2000 film “The Beach.”

Wildlife includes elephants, bears, gibbons, and tigers (although humans rarely spot the big cats). Park officials offer nighttime wildlife viewing tours, which 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 nature guy, so for me to be so close to primary forest is really what thrills me, to be able to climb into this park and see some of the few remaining wild elephants in Asia…it’s is for sure my favorite part.”

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

In the future, Bensley says he wants to organize weekend train trips in which costumed guests will play Murder on the Orient Express.

Guests, whether traveling to Khao Yai from Bangkok by car or train, may notice the erection of a length of elevated railway tracks – these are part of the delayed Bangkok-Nakhon high-speed train line Ratchasima who will eventually cross Laos and enter China.

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

As travelers begin to dream of years to come when high-speed rail will make traversing Thailand’s countryside easier, it’s good to know that there’s also a resort town that pays homage to the country’s rail history.

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

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