Most people think they know Thailand, but the Asian hotspot still has a few surprises on offer, says Duncan Forgan
Tell me about it
Easy and relatively cheap to reach from all corners of the globe, and with an enviable infrastructure, Thailand is the vacation destination other Asian countries are judged against.
At once exotic and accessible, the ‘Land of Smiles’ has been doing brisk business with tourists for several decades now.
Sleek hotels line paradise beaches in established coastal favorites such as Phuket and Koh Samui, while the capital, Bangkok, and the northern city of Chiang Mai are perennial favorites.
Most travelers kick off their Thai adventure in the country’s capital Bangkok, an exhilarating place where tradition and modernity collide. Away from the big city, Thailand supplies the whole spectrum of travel experiences. The country’s north offers emerald forests and mist-shrouded mountains, while the south offers some of the world’s best beaches and diving.
There’s much more to the country than its biggest hitters, as any visitor who’s trekked through virgin jungle, explored out-of-the-way cultural gems or reclined on deserted sand beaches will attest.
Thailand hasn’t been without its troubles in recent years. It remains under military rule and major incidents such as the 2015 bombing of the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok also tarnished its luster. Nevertheless, ‘brand Thailand’ remains robust.
Last year’s ‘Discover Thainess’ marketing campaign — which stressed cultural highlights
— was seen as a huge success, with the Tourism Authority of Thailand reporting a surge in visitor arrivals of up to 25% during the first half of 2015. Looking ahead, the tourism authority says its 2016 promotional campaign will focus on quality over quantity, by promoting a wide array of luxury options and unique experiences.
With beautiful landscapes, culinary treasures and friendly, welcoming people, Thailand looks set to continue capturing the hearts of visitors.
Gimme 5: must sees
1. The Grand Palace – Bangkok
It can get busy at peak tourist periods, but the history and grandeur of the Grand Palace is palpable. Another central part of the complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), the spiritual core of Thai Buddhism.
2. Elephant adventures
The national symbol of Thailand, the elephant, is revered throughout the nation. Whether you want to train to become a mahout (trainer), or simply learn more about the animals, check outthe likes of Patara Elephant Farm, near Chiang Mai, or the Chiang Dao Elephant Camp. To combine an elephant experience with luxury accommodation, try Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort.
3. Island Hopping
With over 5,000 miles of coastline to explore, Thailand is a beach-lover’s paradise. Phuket, Koh Lanta and Kho Phi Phi are among the famous names around the Andaman Sea in the southwest. Other not-to-be-missed spots around the country include Koh Chang, Koh Kood, Koh Samui and Ko Pha Ngan.
4. Thai Festivals
Must-see events include river festival Loy Krathong, in November, which sees fireworks, lanterns and thousands of offerings to the river spirits being floated downstream. Thai New Year (Songkran) brings a raucous celebration where revelers drench each other in water as they dance.
5. Thai food
Northern Thai food carries Burmese and Chinese influences, Issan (northeastern) cuisine shares much with Laos and Cambodia, while the spicy, coconut milk-infused dishes of Southern Thailand carry strong notes of Malay and even Indonesian cuisine. The best introduction to Thai cuisine can be found in Bangkok, where the whole country’s larder can be sampled.
From sumptuous tropical hideaways to affordable, boutique options, the country covers all needs. What’s perhaps most appealing about Thailand is the fact that this broad spread of hotels to suit all tastes and financial capabilities can be found at destinations around the country. In Bangkok, luxurious riverside retreats such as The Siam compete with smart city-center five stars and a host of other reasonably priced options. Similar patterns can be observed at other major hubs such as Phuket and Chiang Mai. New hotels slated for 2016 include the eagerly awaited Park Hyatt Bangkok and the X2 Vibe Phuket Patong, the latest offering from award-winning design hotel chain X2. For a more authentically Thai experience, many travellers opt for a homestay, where local families welcome visitors into
Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok
One of the country’s most striking hotels, the halls, spacious rooms and public spaces of the 303-room property are adorned with one of the world’s largest collections of Thai art. Around 1,500 paintings, sculptures and collages by local artists are showcased. kempinski.com
Anantara Chiang Mai Resort
The waterside location is a major draw at the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort. Nestled between a towering wall and the peaceful Mae Ping River, the resort is a true sanctuary that offers both glorious seclusion plus a convenient launch pad for forays out to nearby sights. chiang-mai.anantara.com
Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui
The hillside villas of Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui make an ideal rejuvenating retreat. A lush, tropical setting with epic views over the Gulf of Thailand provides visual stimulation, while the culinary team and resort concierge ensure every guest’s needs are catered to. fourseasons.com/kohsamui