Thailand looks beautiful in my Lonely Planet magazine, with crystal waters, robed monks and noodles galore; yet I’ve always had my suspicions. With over 32 million tourists visiting the country last year, it can’t be that idyllic, can it? Mildly intrigued, I figured there’d be room for 2 more, so we flew to Bangkok.
Bangkok Arrivals resembled a rather dull, multi-storey car park, which was quite apt as traffic then backed up pretty much the whole 30km to the city centre. On the plus side, taxis are cheap, and watching life unravel through the window is always captivating when you first arrive on foreign shores.
We were staying on the 17th floor of the rather trendy Siam@Siam hotel, with lofty views over the national stadium and smoggy city beyond. Siam, the former name for Thailand and once powerful Kingdom in Asia, is now more recognisable as Bangkok’s go to shopping district, and a good base. Yet, despite the city’s boom in retail malls and sky scrapers, Bangkok’s real gems date back centuries - the Grand Palace and Wat Pho being particularly popular. We explored the latter during an evening’s organised tuk tuk excursion, wandering around the grounds in the moonlight, with the intricate, regal chedis rising up into the night. Our Street Eats Tuk Tuk combo also took us to the front of the queue of Thailand’s best Pad Thai take-out; and into the depths of a late-night food market, our local guide negotiating the questionable delicacies for a more trustworthy ginger chicken salad.
The following morning, weary eyed we fell for the oldest trick in the book, embarking on an overpriced boat ‘tour’ that promised all the sites and instead navigated a smelly backwater for ninety minutes. Fellow sailors looked equally sullen, their long-tail boats belching black fumes thick enough to obscure any view. Bangkok did have an air of dishonesty, unashamedly overcharging at almost every opportunity. Had we invested more time and determination, we could have haggled the going rates, but for us one night here was plenty and not worth the fuss - those Insta-perfect images lay elsewhere.
That evening we made our way through more traffic to Hualamphong train station, which was surprisingly calm and organised. This was a part of our travels I was really looking forward to, the overnight service up the spine of the country to Chiang Mai, 751km away. Passing temples shimmered in the carriage lights; and sleeping stations stirred to life with the approaching rumble of diesel locomotive. Cosily tucked up in our first class cabin, we drifted off to the gentle kuh-clunk of the rails, and awoke to the verdant hills of the north.
Recommendation: Tickets can only be purchased within 60 days of travel, & have to be purchased in person. We used www.thailandtrainticket.com which worked perfectly; they buy them on your behalf, & deliver to your hotel. At around £40pp for a first class berth, it’s more comfortable, interesting, and environmentally friendly than a flight, plus saves a night’s accommodation.
We stayed at the lovely Centara Khum Phaya Resort and Spa, tucked away on the outskirts of the city. With lagoon pool and over 200 species of mature trees and plants, it was an oasis of serenity and good service. Chiang Mai wasn’t quite the quaint city I was expecting, but I can see the appeal, with temples peeping over walls at every turn, and trendy cafés lining the main streets. We explored the local flower and food markets in the company of an insightful Intrepid guide, before puttering along the Mae Ping River, coconut in hand – this was more like it.
"the water plateaued, and we’d drift silently by bathing elephants and others chomping on the river banks"
Tucked away from the main thoroughfares, we offered alms at one of the city’s 300 plus temples. Kneeling alongside a few local worshippers, and personally lacking in spirituality up until this point, I surprised myself at how poignant the blessing was. Handing over our garishly orange bucket of treats, the resident monks take their share and surplus provisions are distributed to surrounding villages. Other temples visited along the way weren’t quite so peaceful, the modest Buddhist lifestyle contradicted by the parade of tourist smartphones, of which we were equally guilty. Nonetheless, the crowds at ground level do little to detract from the golden architecture adorning the walls, doors, ceilings and roofs.
This northern area of Thailand is the epicentre of active pursuits, from elephant trekking to zip lining through the forest canopy. We fancied ourselves at white water rafting, which we loved. The Mae Taeng River cuts through the lush valley, and offers an inviting challenge for the inexperienced rafter at this time of year. The gentle current lures you into this tranquil paradise, before lurching you down a series of decent torrents. After surviving several drenchings, the water plateaued, and we’d drift silently by bathing elephants and others chomping on the river banks.
Koh Yao Yai
The final and most anticipated leg of our journey was awaiting us on the idyllic island of Koh Yao Yai in the Andaman Sea, a glamorous speedboat ride off the coast of Phuket. As we cut through the emerald waters, the sparsely populated island grew in clarity; the Santhiya Resort and Spa prominently sprawling up the hillside. To date, this is one of my favourite hotels I’ve stayed at – every inch of the property is carved from wood, the attention to detail quite spectacular.
Recommendation: Stay at the Santhiya!
Completely against the spirit of most of my posts, the lures of the infinity pool, beach, cocktails and Thai food meant we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to leave the resort. The furthest we ventured was about 50 meters out to sea on a stand-up paddle board – turns out we were significantly better than our fellow, unsteady and rather wet guests. This was a real couples destination, with many of the luxuries promised in the Maldives or Mauritius, but at a fraction of the price. Surely there’s no better way to end the day than having a bath on the balcony, Chang in hand, watching the distant night-time storms crack across the sky.
So in the end, we too found those picture perfect views to self-indulge our social media, achieving the FC trio of Bangkok, Jungle and Beach. Bangkok is a city with an international airport – worth dropping in if you’re passing by, but by no stretch a destination city in my book. Chiang Mai is a haven for backpackers and the active traveller, with an easy-going centre and plenty on its doorstep to get your heart racing. For me though, the islands are the jewels in the Thai’s royal crown, with beautiful scenery and gentle seas. With just a little research, it’s possible to bypass the throngs and find that Thailand you'd pictured.
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