Bangkok & Beyond - One Thai City Just Won't Suffice

19 April 2015

Here I am, clinging to the back of a motorbike taxi as my smiling driver cuts through the honking traffic and shoots through the parking bay of an office block to skim a traffic-clogged corner – waving at a surprised security guard as he goes, for good measure. I’m late for dinner and figured that in this vast city, two wheels might be better than four.

My journey is more of an adrenaline rush than I bargained for – it feels a bit like we’ve robbed a bank and are making our getaway – but it’s also a whistlestop tour of the sights and sounds of Bangkok’s streets.

 Motorbikes whizz through the traffic in the Thai capital. Photograph: Getty

The silvery Skytrain and ancient ficus trees fly past, as do saffron-robed monks, mirrored skyscrapers glinting in the sunlight, gold-clad temples and 10-storey mega malls. Before I know it, we’ve bumped up on to the pavement and I have reached my destination – early. One thing’s for sure, no one can ever accuse this city of being boring.

Bangkok’s swirling intensity reached new levels last year when anti-government protests were followed by a military coup. As a result, some visitors chose to bypass the capital, heading to the temples in Chiang Mai, the clubs of Koh Samui, the spas of Hua Hin and the beaches of Phuket instead.

And what a great shame that was.

For life in Bangkok ticked over pretty much as usual – woks still fired up in the streets every morning, maze-like markets sprang forth every afternoon, and bright pink tuk-tuks whizzed around town.

Six months on, evidence of the unrest is all but invisible.

To woo back travellers, the city’s already highly competitive hotels have pulled out all the stops – free nights and fancy room upgrades – while the Tourism Authority of Thailand has introduced special travel insurance schemes, ‘happiness’ festivals and beach cleanups. There has never been a better time to visit.

And really, how could you miss out on this colourful, complex capital city? A place where Thailand’s kaleidoscopic cultures collide so magnificently; where dawn risers are rewarded with the sight of lilac-swathed nuns cutting through the lush Lumpini Park and the shimmering gold spires of the Grand Palace.

 The Grand Palace rises amid the cityscape of modern Bangkok. Photograph: Getty

Where a bowl of blisteringly delicious noodles costs less than $1 in Chinatown or on the bustling Sukhumvit Soi 38. Where you can bust your baggage allowance shopping at the bargain mecca of MBK Center at the upscale Siam Paragon, or at the vast, 8,000-stall Chatuchak Weekend Market.

Where you can have a 90-minute massage for a fraction of the price you’d pay at home, or drink cocktails up high at the open-air Sky Bar on the 63rd floor of lebua At State Tower. And where you can spend the next day lolling in a long-tail boat, drifting past twinkling temples on the Chao Phraya river. Or perhaps enjoying the unique atmosphere of the famous floating markets.

And when this town tuckers you out – and it inevitably will – there’s no better way to experience all that Thailand has to offer than by teaming the bright lights of the capital with a stay in one of the country’s more laidback resorts.

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Phuket

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Situated in the Andaman Sea on the south-west coast of Thailand, Phuket has rolling emerald mountains, creamy crescent-shaped beaches, to-die-for designer hotels and glorious cerise sunsets.

Chic beach clubs, bars and restaurants litter the island and come into their own over high season (November to April), when superyachts bob alongside the beach and parties bounce into the small hours.

 

The island’s lifestyle is fabulous fun but after a few days, you might desire a change of scene. Set sail for the surreally beautiful seascape of Phang Nga Bay, island hop between Phi Phi and the Similans Islands, or head inland to the prehistoric rainforest of Khao Sok National Park.

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Krabi

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If food is your passion, you’ll want to climb into bed with Krabi Province. It’s famed for its fantastic cuisine, much of which is based on the flavours of India, Indonesia and Malaysia – think rich massaman curries, puffy roti and hot biryanis. The Old Town is the place to find the best dishes but food stalls also line many of Krabi’s long beaches.

 Rock climbing will counter any over-indulgence in Krabi's cuisine. Photograph: Getty

Need to work it all off? Tackle some rock climbing on the mountains that flank the coastline, or kayak through Krabi’s rivers and mangroves spotting mudskippers and sea eagles along the way.

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Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai, founded in the 13th Century, is home to ancient temples, a walled city, markets, night bazaars and a host of galleries. Its appeal lies in its provincial pace of life plus world-class sights – don’t miss the glittering wats (temples), some of which are more than 1,000 years old (Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man).

 The ancient temple known as Wat Chedi Luang is a highlight of Chiang Mai. Photograph: Getty

Venture beyond the city centre to appreciate artful flora at Ratchaphruek Garden, or the natural beauty of Doi Inthanon and Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Parks, and support village communities at the Royal Folk Arts and Crafts Training Centre.

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Koh Samui

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With its bright white sand, crayon blue sea and thickly forested hills, the island of Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand, has been attracting sun-seekers for decades. Here, virtue and vice sit side by side: on its angelic shoulder there are swanky spas and hillside meditation retreats; while the devil whispering in its ear comes in the form of blurry full moon parties on nearby Koh Phangan.

 Meditation in the hills will take your mind off the vices below in Koh Samui. Photograph: Getty

Whichever itch you decide to scratch, there’s no better way to see Samui than to circumnavigate it sprawled on a glossy catamaran.

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Hua Hin

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If you’re in Bangkok for a couple of days and fancy a relaxing retreat close by, then head south. Nestled in the north-western curves of the Gulf of Thailand, a three-hour drive from the capital, the undulating countryside and golden sands of Hua Hin have long been a favourite escape for the Thai royal family.

 Hua Hin is a relaxing retreat fit for royalty. Photograph: Getty

The beach ticks all the right boxes: wide and clean with bath-warm waters. Favourable winds mean you can kitesurf and sail nearly all year round. There’s plenty more sport to be found in the area, too, from PGA golf courses and fishing, to upside-down yoga, temple hopping and shopping.


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Don't Miss...

City and temple tour

This half-day tour will leave you breathless as you gain a deeper understanding of Bangkok’s culture and history. You will visit the spectacular temples of the city, together with an experienced local guide who will bring Bangkok’s history to life.

Damnoen Saduak Floating market

Immerse yourself in an experience you’ll never forget with a visit to Bangkok’s nearby floating markets. Enjoy the hustle and bustle and get a fantastic insight into Thai life as you watch vendors ply their trade from narrow boats on the canals.

Ayutthaya by cruise

Transport yourself back to Thailand’s past with a visit to Ayutthaya, the country’s former capital. You’ll be mesmerised by the stunning ancient ruins of this UNESCO World Heritage Site while benefiting from the knowledge of a local guide.

Lee Cobaj

Lee Cobaj was born in Glasgow, raised in Hong Kong and now lives in Phuket. She specialises in writing about Asia, covering the latest happenings for the likes of The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, National Geographic Traveller, Elle and others. Twitter @Lee_Cobaj and Instagram @Leecobaj