Some holiday destinations are like a loaf of bread – they go stale over time as the tourist traffic picks up. Not true with Thailand. Akin to a fine wine, the south-east Asian country remains one of the peak experiences in travel; a kaleidoscope of contrasting landscapes that couldn’t be further removed from the building sites of the UAE. Palm-fringed beaches, magnificent mountains, Buddhist temples, herds of elephants, superb dive sites, lively nightlife and fabulous food – everything is yours for the taking. Then there’s the Thais themselves – charming and hospitable, they always have time to talk and engage in a spot of ‘sanuk’ (fun). Finally, there’s the small matter of money: to have a bad time in Thailand, you’d really have to hate bargains.
So, what’s the catch? Only how to cram the country into the Eid or Christmas breaks on the horizon. Let us assist you…
The country’s largest city, with just over eight million people, Bangkok makes an ideal introduction to Thailand. East doesn’t just meet West; they collide in one almighty explosion. A heady mix of traditional and modern, from temples and tuk tuks to cocktails and clubs, this chaotic capital pulsates with life at all hours.
What to see and do
Staple sites include the temple of Wat Pho (www.watpho.com), with its remarkable reclining Buddha image and sumptuous grounds, and Wat Phra Kaew (0 2222 6889) – home to the country’s most holy image – the Emerald Buddha. Adjacent to Wat Phra Kaew is the Grand Palace – an old royal residence that is still used today for ceremonial occasions. The royal family are revered by the Thais and loudspeakers play the national anthem at 8am and 6pm daily.
When you’ve had your fill of culture, pop over to Patpong – Asia’s seedy underbelly. Yes, the place is packed with middle-aged men ogling bikini-clad pole dancers. But it also attracts curious tourists keen to snatch a few stolen glances of planet Patpong after buying dozens of bootleg DVDs at the night market. Another shopping honey pot for visitors is the sprawling Chatuchak market. Anything and everything is sold at this weekend institution, from pets to plants, and souvenirs to shoes – all for the price of a shawarma.
Of course, you really can’t leave Bangkok without visiting the legendary Khao San Road, the decades-popular backpackers’ haunt made household-name famous by Alex Garland’s bestselling 1997 novel The Beach. On Khao San, you can have your hair braided, enjoy the abundant budget beauty spots or just fill up in one of the many bars and cafés, while swapping travel tales with newfound friends. However, the very hippest destination for drinks, dinner and partying has to be Bed Supper Club (www.bedsupperclub.com) in Sukhumvit – provided you can get past the clipboard Nazis. The bouncers at Bed take their jobs a tad too seriously, so ditch the flip flops for just one night.
Where to stay
The most enviable address is the Shangri La Bangkok (www.shangri-la.com). The only hotel to have a Sky Train (metro) station – Sapha Taksin – on its doorstep is the last word in luxury. Expect complimentary canapés and cocktails to be delivered to your room every evening. Rooms overlook the famous Chao Phraya, aka ‘River of Kings’, and are an elegant affair with beds big enough to get lost in for days. The hotel also houses the award-winning Chi: the Spa, which boasts Bangkok’s largest suites.
When the traffic jams and unashamed consumerism gets too much, make the journey to Chiang Mai. Time seems to stand still in the ‘rose of the north’. On arrival, prepare to be blown away by the awe inspiring scenery – rolling hills, verdant jungles and a blanket of mountains.
What to see and do
Most travellers come for the temples – the province is home to no fewer than 300 wats. Wat Phra Singh (www.chiangdao.com) – housing the Lion Buddha – or Wat Chedi Luang (www.chiangmai1.com) are both worth a look. On the north side of the latter, the ‘Monk Chat’ area gives travellers a chance to meet and speak with Buddhist monks in English. But to see the region’s most treasured temple – Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (www.chiangmai-chiangrai.com) – you’ll have to hire a red ‘sawngthaew’ (pick–up truck taxi) for an afternoon. The temple dates to the 14th century and is purported to house the Buddha’s shoulder bone, carried to the site by a white elephant. It is reached via a monumental 304-step staircase flanked by a restored monastery.
The Doi Suthep-Pui National Park (www.dnp.go.th) is a must for anyone who loves the outdoors – elephant trekking, hiking and river rafting are just a few of the options on offer. In the evening, life revolves around the famous night market. This buzzing bazaar is home to a multitude of stalls, selling cheap clothes, as well as good quality handicrafts. Later, refuel over at Anusarn Night Market – a one-stop shop for all your Thai food favourites.
Where to stay
Chedi Chiang Mai (www.chiangdao.com) exudes class. The property has a steady reputation as a luxurious base from which to explore Thailand’s second city, thanks to its location – 84 rooms right on the banks of the Mae Ping River, each with private courtyards, open balconies and sprawling views.
When it comes to Persil-white beaches, you can’t beat those in Phuket. Your archetypal tropical paradise, Phuket attracts some 5.3 million farang (foreigners) annually. The beach resort has now recovered from the tsunami of 2004 that killed hundreds of locals and tourists and ravaged the island.
What to see and do
There are few unexplored pockets of Phuket province, but Phuket town is one of them. Rich in history and heritage, a stroll around the old town serves as a reminder that Phuket isn’t purely beaches and bars. Time your visit well and you could coincide with the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, held every year in early October. A meat-free diet is combined with meditation, while processions, religious ceremonies and very public displays of face and body piercing are all part of the party.
Moving on, there’s much to entice nature lovers to linger and explore, from elephant excursions to visits to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre (www.gibbonproject.org). And Ian Flemming fans – or anyone in the grip of James Bond fever – will want to make a memorable day trip to Phangna Bay, which served as a setting for the 1974 Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun.
However, if all you want to do is recharge your batteries, rest assured that there are talcum-powder soft beaches to laze on, the azure Andaman sea to float in and when you’re ready for action, the underwater kingdom to explore – in the shape of Phuket’s supreme dive sites.
Where to sleep
The Six Senses Hideaway Yao Noi (www.sixsenses.com/hideaway-yanoi) is hard to match. This newcomer has resisted the pressure to become the same as everywhere else. Paths wind through jungle-esque landscape towards villas built to resemble old Thai villages, all of which are kitted out with their own private pools. It’s not cheap, mind.
When to go
Other tourist guides will tell you the best time to travel is during the months of November to February when the monsoon season is over, but really there’s no bad time to enjoy Thailand’s charms. One thing is certain though: you can’t see everything that Thailand has to offer in one trip. You’ll be back. And back. And back.
A return flight with Thai Airways from DXB costs approximately Dhs4,000.