A trip to Thailand is like several vacations wrapped into one. Start in the bustling capital city of Bangkok, work your way north to Chiang Mai for true Thai culture then spend the final days of your holiday relaxing on a white-sand beach on the southern island of Phuket. Along the way, enjoy the exquisite cuisine, adventures and experiences the Southeast Asian country has to offer. It’s apparent tourism contributes significantly to Thailand’s economy as tourists — and tourist traps — abound. Plan well, however, and that won’t put a damper on a trip to the Land of 10,000 Smiles.
One of the world’s most visited cities, Thailand’s capital is a study in contrasts: Incredible wats (temples) and palaces juxtapose the skyscraper-ridden skyline and busy streets. Whether the agenda includes touring the canal, visiting the Grand Palace or sitting ringside at a muay Thai fight, the City of Angels is waiting to entertain, entice and inspire. Built in 1876 on the banks of the Chao Phraya River that runs through the city, the Mandarin Oriental remains the hotel of choice for royalty, dignitaries and travelers looking for a truly luxe experience. Book the Joseph Conrad Suite; its private terrace overlooking lush gardens and the river is prime for unwinding.
Dining alfresco high in the sky is the trend here, and acclaimed eatery Sirocco affords some of the most stunning views of the city from the 63rd floor of the five-star Lebua hotel at State Tower. Arrive early to enjoy one of Sky Bar’s innovative cocktails crafted by resident mixologist Ron Ramirez.
Bangkok is a shopping mecca, with luxury malls, street stalls and everything in between. The specialty in the City of Angels? Bespoke clothing, from suits and dresses to traditional Thai garb. While many shops boast too-good-to-be-true turnaround times, the best tailors require a week or more, so plan to pick up your new ensemble when you return to the city for your departing flight.
Thailand’s laid-back second city blends culture, nature and adventure. Bypass the tourist traps and retreat to the Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai, a picturesque Thai kingdom set amid lush rice paddies on 60 tranquil acres.
A frequent Travel + Leisure World’s Best Hotels contender, the resort features Lanna-inspired suites and villas as well as a 33,000-square-foot spa, award-winning eateries and a full lineup of activities (think yoga, bamboo weaving and even rice planting).
Head into the heart of the city for the requisite Chiang Mai experiences: haggle at one of the many markets, slurp down some khao soi, get a $5-an-hour foot massage and learn the secrets of Thai cooking. Should you find yourself yearning for more adventure, opportunities abound, from zip lining through pristine rainforests to spending the day at a wildlife sanctuary. Lest a wat didn’t make the itinerary in Bangkok, more than 300 await you here.
Thailand’s largest island in the Andaman Sea is home to myriad beaches, each with a distinct personality. Some are brimming with tourist attractions (like hard-partying Patong Beach) and others so secluded they feel like a private hideaway. Most offer turquoise sea views and white-sand beaches off Phuket’s west coast.
If a beachfront address is non-negotiable, check into Amanpuri. Situated on private Pansea Beach, the luxury resort features Thai-style pavilions as well as luxury villas, many with private pools and ocean vistas. If just a view of the ocean will do, book one of Trisara’s lust-worthy villas or residences hovering above the ocean. The best bet? Designed to feel like a luxury yacht, the resort’s Boathouse comes complete with a private 22-meter infinity pool.
Both Amanpuri and Trisara offer excursions, from golf to scuba diving to cruises to one of the many picturesque surrounding islands. The small archipelago of Koh Phi Phi is a popular destination, having been the site of the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach. It’s difficult to believe the area was devastated by a 2004 tsunami that left a path of death and destruction in its wake. Koh Phi Phi Don (the largest of the archipelago’s islands) was hardest hit but largely has been brought back to life, its hotels and restaurants once more at the mercy of the incredible forces of nature.
If You Go
Direct flights aren’t available from Minneapolis (MSP) to Bangkok (BKK) — after all, it is literally halfway around the world. Pack plenty to keep you entertained and comfortable so you can settle in for the long journey to Suvarnabhumi Airport.
WHEN TO GO
Book between November and February, when temperatures run cooler and rain is minimal. Typically hot and humid year-round, Thailand features a hot season (March to May), rainy season (June to October) and cool season (November to February).
WHAT TO PACK
Though the tropical climate calls for a lighter suitcase, the unofficial dress code varies from city to city, requiring some thoughtful packing. Bangkok is a chic metro, whereas Chiang Mai and the beaches of Phuket are much more casual. Visitors to temples are required to cover their shoulders and knees, and the Grand Palace doesn’t allow sandals. And pack a pair of slip-on shoes; they’ll come in handy at the many shops and attractions that request that patrons remove their shoes as they are seen as uncleanly.
Thai Airways, the country’s main airline, is the transportation mode of choice to get across Thailand. Taxis abound in major cities, and Bangkok has a sky train (the BTS) and subway system (the MRT). Feeling adventurous? Hail a tuk tuk or a songthaew (red truck) or rent a motorbike once outside the busy streets of the capital city.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Though Thailand is infamous for tourist scams, a crackdown on crime accompanied last year’s military coup. Don’t be put off by the locals’ friendliness — they truly are that nice. While Thai is the national language, many residents speak English (particularly those in the service industry) and are more than willing to give travelers directions or recommendations.
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.