FROM TOWERING MODERN SUPERSTRUCTURES TO MILLENNIA-OLD RAINFORESTS AND STUNNING EMERALD WATERS, GET LOST IN THE WILD WONDERLAND THAT IS THAILAND
BY AMANDA MCCOY
In the Southeast Asian nation of Thailand, wonder seems to know no bounds. Between 1,500 miles of sinuous coastline, gravity-defying karsts rising from sparkling emerald waters, untamed rainforests teeming with wildlife, exquisite ancient temples plated with gold, streets of food vendors hawking delectable and cheap bites, and the tropical sun warming your skin, this culturally rich country tantalizes all five senses. While most visitors flock to the palm-dotted beaches of southern Thailand, the northern region boasts a different but equally enchanting appeal, covered in a rolling tapestry of thickly forested mountains. With so much geological diversity and more than 10,000 registered hotels, Thailand can accommodate every type of vacation, from adrenaline-thumping to relaxing, late-night rollicking to holistic and spiritual.
As of press time, the majority of the country is still implementing two-week quarantine restrictions for U.S. travelers, with the exception of the tourist hotspot Phuket, Thailand’s largest island and stunning ne-sand beach haven, which began welcoming fully vaccinated travelers July 1. The remainder of the country is set to reopen to inoculated visitors this October. Phuket harbors its own international airport with several operators, including Bangkok Airways. Famed for friendly light attendants, lounge access for both business and economy travelers, and street food-style meals, the boutique airline is a regular recipient of Skytrax World Airline Awards, including World’s Best Regional Airline and Best Regional Airline in Asia in 2019.
Thailand is filled with traditionally warm, welcoming, and friendly locals, earning the nickname the “Land of Smiles.” One useful phrase to learn before you visit is the Thai greeting and farewell, “Sawasdee” (pronounced sahwah-dee) followed by “ka” when spoken by a female and “krab” when spoken by a male. While generally a safe country with low crime rates in tourist areas, scams and rip-off tricks can be quite common, particularly with gemstone sales or drivers informing tourists their chosen destination is closed (then suggesting a new one). Located wholly within the tropics, Thailand’s climate is hot and humid, even in the winter. Clothing expectations for visitors are fairly relaxed, but note that if you plan to visit a Wat (temple) or the Grand Palace in Bangkok, there are strict dress codes, but many will provide loose fitting garments at no charge.
ELEPHANT NATURE PARK
Asian elephants, indigenous to Thailand, are majestic creatures, but unfortunately factors like habitat loss and poaching have caused them to become an endangered species. The tourism industry has also perpetuated elephant abuse, and in some cases the social giants are kept chained up in tight cages, released only to give rides or pose for pictures. Elephant rescue and rehabilitation centers known as sanctuaries exist throughout the country, providing a natural environment for formerly captive elephants to roam, socialize, and play with the herd. At Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, single day visitors are invited to observe and learn more about these magnificent animals, and they can take part in elephant bathing and feeding. Weeklong volunteer opportunities are also available. elephantnaturepark.org
PHI PHI ISLANDS
Only a 45 minute speedboat ride off the coast of Phuket, Phi Phi is a group of six remote islands that are considered among the most beautiful on the planet. The two main islands are Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh, the latter home to the famed Maya Bay, the set of Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2000 film The Beach. Vehiclefree Phi Phi Don is the largest and only inhabited island, home to several luxe accommodations. Visitors can also opt for a day trip from Phuket or Krabi that includes stops at popular destinations like Monkey Beach and Maya Bay. The islands can get quite crowded, but there are sunrise excursions that arrive on the beaches before the usual boatloads of tourists are dropped off. With plush, powdery sand, vivid turquoise waters, and towering limestone cliffs covered in thick green vegetation, this group of islands epitomizes southern Thailand’s striking natural beauty. phiphi.phuket.com
KHAO SOK NATIONAL PARK
Lounging on a beach is a classic Thai experience, but for a taste of adventure, journey deep into the native rainforest of Khao Sok National Park, a dense, untamed jungle reserve on the southern peninsula that transports intrepid travelers back in time millions of years. Sculpted during the same tectonic shift that created the Himalayan mountains, Khao Sok is famous for its many soaring limestone karsts reflecting o the lake, and it hides a myriad of waterfalls and deep, dark caves. Stay in a tree house resort along the macaque monkeys’ migration trail or opt for a floating bungalow on the mountain anked lake. Hike to behold the parasitic raffesia the largest flower in the world which only flowers for a single week each year. khaosok.com
WHERE TO STAY
THE SIAM HOTEL
Planted on three acres of lush river frontage within the capital city of Bangkok, this urban escape offers peaceful reprieve from the never-ceasing bustle of the country’s largest metropolis. Siam spans spacious suites, boho contemporary pool villas, and its signature Connie’s Cottage, a romantic, 100-year-old teak villa named after one of Thailand’s most famous socialites. The five-star resort offers a sweeping menu of authentic ai experiences; take a Muay Thai fighting class, get a sacred Sak Yant tattoo, or set sail on a midday wine cruise from Sathorn Pier. Guests can also indulge in holistic face and body treatments at the spa, or explore the beautifully manicured grounds, where over 5,000 original artworks and antiques are waiting to be discovered. thesiamhotel.com
Luxury hospitality group Aman’s first resort, this dreamy seaside retreat is hidden among towering coconut palms on its own secluded peninsula. Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z have all vacationed here. Massive freestanding pavilions and villas an Aman signature range from one to nine bedrooms and are luxuriously appointed with oversized bathrooms, sprawling outdoor lounges with garden and sea views, and available private pools. There are four restaurants on the property, plus an holistic wellness center with several saunas, a steam room, Jacuzzi and plunge pool, and finishing salon. Embark on a three-night wellness immersion, blending fitness, performance, cleansing, and detox, or see a traditional Chinese medicine therapist who works to identify patterns of disharmony or imbalance and assess what the body needs. Rates start around $900 per night. aman.com/resorts/amanpuri
WHERE TO DINE
The Mandarin Oriental’s two-star Michelin restaurant Le Normandie features the culinary genius of French chef Arnaud Dunand Sauthier, who trained under the tutelage of world famous cuisiner Jean-François Piège. The ultra-posh white tableclothed locale, backdropped with vistas of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, serves craft dishes of Krystal caviar with sea urchin and light potato foam; Mediterranean Carabinero prawns with cucumber and green olive; and line-caught sea bass with celery and onion. Open for lunch and dinner daily. mandarinoriental.com
An authentic Thai experience would be rendered incomplete without visiting a few street food carts, where generation sold recipes are available for typically less than $1 USD. Bangkok alone has an estimated 500,000 street vendors, and stalls can be found all over the country, luring hungry travelers with aromas of cinnamon, basil, and sizzling red chilis. Enjoy steaming bowls of minced pork, crispy pork belly with guay jub (a peppery rice noodle soup), congee (rice porridge), and fish ball noodle soup, among other savory varieties. The street coffee is equally delicious, strong and potent and sweetened with condensed milk.
Get up close and personal with the famous limestone cliffs in this casual cave-dining experience, nestled along the serrated shore of Phranang Beach in the luxe Rayavadee Resort in Krabi. The Grotto serves a smorgasbord of Eastern and Wester
Fan favorites; feast on a medley of pastas with lobster or slow-cooked minced lamb or try mains like Pak Chong white lamb shoulder with summer vegetables and raisin couscous. The restaurant specializes in sizzling seafood barbecue, served with light tropical rum or gin cocktails. Open for lunch and dinner, and non-hotel guests are welcome as well. rayavadee.com/en/the-grotto.php