Thailand has long reigned as the king of Southeast Asian vacation destinations, and rightly so. Its combination of sizzling golden beaches and bath-warm waters to the south, the lure of buzzing Bangkok in the center and the jungle, waterfall and hot spring-rich north make it a dream destination.
Throw in the phenomenal food, countrywide hospitality and cheap flights from the likes of Eva Air and we have a winning combination worthy of a spot on anyone’s must-visit list.
But why settle for just one region when it’s easy to do all three over the course of a couple of weeks? Here then are my three favorite spots to make sure you get the best out of everything Thailand has to offer. And with easy transport links between them – be it short haul flights or fantastic train journeys – you can choose any order you like for your visit.
The Island of Koh Samui Thailand
Thailand’s island paradise sits in the Gulf of Thailand, a short hop from Bangkok. The realization of picture postcard beautiful, it attracts travelers and vacationers of every ilk keen to sample its many wonders. From the buzz of touristy Chaweng Beach to the authenticity of Bophut Fisherman’s Village to the calm of tropical Maenam, there really is something for everyone.
Stay: Six Senses Samui
There’s no shortage of luxurious hotels peppered along Koh Samui’s coastline, but none surpasses the Six Senses Samui. The epitome of understated luxury, it hugs the island’s northernmost peninsula – a series of chic villas dotted along the coast offering jaw dropping views, total privacy and every possible amenity including, in most cases, your own private pool. If you opt for a villa without, don’t despair – the vast oceanfront infinity pool more than makes up for it.
Elsewhere, eating is al fresco and about as romantic as it gets at award-winning Dining on the Rocks where you “come for the view but remember the food,” or traditional Thai at the relaxed Dining on the Hill, with much of the produce sourced from their own animals and extraordinary gardens (a triumph of eco practices and sustainability worth visiting in their own right.)
This weekly market in the fishing village of Bophut is the place to be between 5pm and 11pm every Friday night. Go hungry and be bold and you can try some of southern Thailand’s best street food, from racks of toasty insects washed down with an ice cold Chang to legendary mango sticky rice with a sweet chai tea. Once sated, stroll the crammed alleyways lined with stalls of every kind – pick up a questionable designer watch or a local designer outfit, unique handicrafts and homemade oddities or just let the crowd carry you along and see where you end up.
Thailand’s capital city is a true mecca. Vast, neon, indefatigable, cosmopolitan, traditional, filthy, dynamic – there aren’t enough adjectives to apply to it. As with all such cities it divides opinion, but to miss out on it is to deny yourself a glimpse into Asia as the global powerhouse of the 21st century and the chance to decide for yourself. For me it’s one of the world’s great cities – it just demands a little planning and a lot of zen to make the most of it.
Stay: a traditional shophouse
As you’d expect, there are myriad amazing hotels to choose from in Bangkok, each offering five star luxury and everything you could possibly desire. But if you’re doing the purest luxury experience in Koh Samui, it’s well worth trying something different in the big city.
A recent trend has seen some of Bangkok’s most characterful and interesting buildings – often century-old Chinese shophouses – turned into fantastic private spaces, available to rent. Usually spread over three or four levels, the ground floor opens directly onto the street for use as a business – be it a restaurant, shop or anything else you can think of. Upper levels are for living – small kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and if you’re lucky a rooftop terrace. Typically these renovations are done with the utmost care and respect for the original architecture and designs, gorgeously rendered, furnished and mostly set in the heart of Chinatown, perfectly located for a fun few days of urban exploration.
Do: Chatuchak Market
You’ll often hear people say (in particular travel journalists!) that a market visit is the quickest way to get to the heart of a city. But when a city has hundreds, how do you decide which one to choose? In Bangkok it’s a given – the Chatuchak weekend market is the world’s largest with a frankly ridiculous 15,000 stalls to browse! In one visit you could furnish a home, fill a hundred wardrobes, eat a thousand different meals and still only scratch its surface. From the latest fashion trends sold direct from Asia’s hottest young designers to the best vintage clothes you’ll find anywhere, its range is superb and thanks to a clever, logical layout it’s surprisingly easy to navigate and manage. Just remember to wear comfy shoes.
Pai Mae Hong Son
Heading north from Bangkok, most visitors make Chiang Mai their last destination – but they’re missing a trick by stopping short of multicultural Pai in the far north of Mae Hong Son Province. Rent a moped in Chiang Mai and spend a day riding winding roads into rural Thailand through rice paddies, waterfalls, mountain ranges and more before puttering into this chilled out hippy town fringed by natural wonders on the banks of the Pai River.
Stay: Pai Treehouse Resort
What better way to embrace the natural surroundings than with a stay in a bonafide tree house? The mad-as-a-hatter Pai Treehouse Resort is exactly that – a series of rooms, tree houses and villas spread over huge landscaped gardens that reach down to the river’s edge. It’s basic but comfy, not for the less mobile (you have to climb rickety wooden steps to get to most rooms) and gets you up close and personal with the local wildlife (bring mosquito spray) but as a unique experience it’s tough to beat. And the sunrises and sunsets seen from the very top tree house are reason enough to brave the climb.
Do: Tha Pai Hot Spring
On the outer fringes of Pai, not far from the Pai Treehouse Resort, the Tha Pai Hot Spring is a welcome salve for weary bikers and travelers heading north. A series of natural springs that trickle and pool their way down a hillside, you can pick your temperatures and soak to your heart’s content from lower pools in the high 80 degrees fahrenheit getting hotter as they ascend.
There’s no entry to the upper pools, but at 180 degrees that’s likely a good thing – instead do as the locals do and boil some eggs for your dinner!
By Duncan Madden – Forbes Travel