Travel feature: Touring Thailand in style
- Credit: Archant
The last time I crept across Thailand’s amazing array of white sandy beaches was 15 years ago and a very different affair to how I holiday now.
On a classic pre-university gap year, I spent most of my time wearing Thai fisherman pants, slumming it in hovel-like dormitories and swigging luke-warm Chang beer at full-moon parties.
But not this time; as a fully-fledged grown up I certainly wasn’t about to be seen buying knock-off T-shirts from the Koh San Road. This trip was a chance for me to prove how far I’ve come from those heady teenage years by seeing the land of smiles in style.
And travel in style we did.
First stop was Bangkok, and the unbelievably gorgeous Siam hotel, which is rather a far cry from a back street guest house.
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Despite its obvious charms, Bangkok is a hot, hectic city and some folks can find it quite hard-work.
But the Siam lurks in the laid-back royal Dusit district on the banks of the Chao Praya river, where there is not much of the notorious hustle, bustle and hawking of Bangkok street life.
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You might not want to venture out from the tranquil, historic old building with its riverside infinity pool, fantastic Chon Thai restaurant and full spa with oiled up treatments ready to take away your shopping stress.
It also has a well-equipped gym complete with Bangkok’s only luxury Muay Thai instructor who put us through our paces. My wife was worryingly good at it, particularly the uppercuts, and was certainly competent enough to keep me on my toes for the rest of the trip.
We did venture out, though, to the incredible Chatuchak weekend market, which sells a dizzying array of everything from designer clothes to live snakes.
After an exhausting few hours browsing, we then spent quite a while stuck in of one of Bangkok’s famous traffic jams before finally making it back to sanctuary. In our room, which was an enormous, beautifully furnished, three-room suite, we were tempted to stay in and order room service.
But, we took one of the Siam’s boats for a sunset cruise down the river, before a rather disappointing pilgrimage to Koh San Road (it’s changed) and Pat Pong (it’s still seedy).
After a few days in the crazy, slightly overbearing swelter of the capital it’s almost medically necessary to head to some islands.
Koh Chang is a perfect break from Bangkok – a lush, jungle clad wilderness populated by elephants and traveller-types. Lonely Beach, where we stayed, is a genuine hippy-haven of long-haired Aussies and flower children; spending a few nights watching sunsets and swilling cocktails was just the ticket.
Then we went haring off down the coast to the obligatory full moon party.
Kho Phangan is a beautiful island, with some stunning beaches but I felt a bit old heading to Haad Rin for the monthly moon shindig. Those buckets of almost pure booze don’t fill me with the same joy as they used to, and you now have to pay to get in, which strikes me as somewhat against the original ethos.
Speaking of commercialism, I had always considered our next stop, Thailand’s biggest island Phuket, as somewhere to be avoided – packaged holidays and pasty, lobster faced Europeans basking in the sun, and hanging around go-go bars at night.
There’s an element of that of course, but the fact it is a well known tourism hot spot means it has ventured into realms of luxury unknown in other parts of Thailand.
I’m a man of the world but rarely have I been so awestruck by a hotel than the Sri Panwa. And I’m clearly not the only one; hip-hop superstar Snoop Dogg stays there, singer Rita Ora is a fan and Gordon Ramsay takes his family once a year.
It’s a load of mega exclusive, very private villas set on a hillside on the southern tip of the island. They are almost too lovely for words – each with an amazing view over the bay and with a private infinity pool running all around the villa – a tad different from the cockroach-infested bedsit of my last visit. Souped up tuk-tuks (three wheelers) take you around from the private beach to the gym, the luxury swimming pool and the two top-notch restaurants and you don’t ever have to leave the complex – you won’t want to.
The only downside was the weather – but if you hit the west coast of Thailand during May you’re always taking a chance.
While we were that side we enjoyed some other delights of the Andaman coasts. The karst monuments off Krabi remain stunning, and if you can stretch to it (which, as fully fledged grown ups, we could naturally), Railay West and Phra Nang are about as impressive as beaches get.
Stunning rock formations shoot from vivid emerald and azure waters as climbers and sunbathers do their thing. And if you’re willing to get back to nature Hat Ton Sai is as pretty feral – only approachable by boat, with little electricity and plenty of mosquitoes, it’s a real get away.
Is wandering the peaceful old kingdom more fun in the lap of luxury or on a shoe string in the lap of the gods? Horses for courses, I would say, but as I accelerate past 30 at an alarming rate, it’s nice to pretend to be travelling edgily, whilst actually retreating to a luxury every night.