As you may already know if you’ve read my previous blog posts, I was lucky enough to have been invited to Thailand this October, by tailor-made luxury specialist Kuoni, as a regional winner of their Worldwide College Far East programme. Having visited Thailand on personal holidays in the past, it’s truly one of my favourite destinations in the world, and I was thrilled to have the chance to visit again and learn more about this fascinating country.
Chiang Mai; Temples, Hill Tribes & Night Markets
Departing from London Heathrow, I met an excited convoy of agents and boarded a direct Thai Airlines service to Bangkok. A swift 13 hours later (including a brief connecting flight) we arrived in our first destination, Chiang Mai, home of misty mountains, indigenous hill tribes and chaotic night markets. If you want to include something a bit different in your Thailand holiday, a visit to Chiang Mai brings heaps of history and culture, and the best way to experience it is with a local tour guide, which Kuoni are experts in providing within their tailor-made itineraries.
We were fortunate enough to stay in the stunning five-star Shangri-La Chiang Mai. Perfectly positioned a brisk 10 minute walk from the bustling night market, but set-back in peaceful landscaped gardens where you can get away from it all. The property was as exquisite as expected, with beautiful spa, pool and fitness facilities, world-class food and a breakfast buffet that still gives me food envy just thinking about it.
If five-star isn’t your thing, there are plenty of alternatives to choose from, including one of my favourite properties that we visited, boutique U-Chiang Mai, which is brimming with cool boho style and is nestled right in the centre of town (with a bar terrace that’s perfectly positioned for people watching!).
We would recommend a 3-night stay in Chiang Mai, but with a whirlwind itinerary in front of us, we packed as much as possible into just 2 days, including a visit to the colourful Meo Hilltribe Village to learn about their way of life and a tour of the shimmering golden temples of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (you’ll need sunglasses for this one!). As Chiang Mai is a historic citadel, there’s culture at every turn and you can still see the beautiful old walls which encase this laid-back city, which you can easily explore by foot or tuk-tuk. If you’re looking for a more wildlife-rich experience, ethical excursions in the surrounding hilly rainforest can be arranged with a guide, so you can see some of Thailand’s beautiful nature close-up!
With our time in Chiang Mai coming to an end, and after an incredible meal at The Riverside (amazing atmosphere, live band and river view), we were challenged to an apprentice-esque night market shopping challenge where we were asked to source a range of items for the best price; one of which was something to wear (I was particularly pleased with my spoils – see below!).
As you can tell, you can literally buy anything here, from clothes to crafts, and we even found time to grab a quick massage to soothe our weary feet! It was time to leave Chiang Mai, but we were ready for some beach time at our next destination, Koh Samet.
Koh Samet; Speedboats, Sunsets & Snorkelling
From Chiang Mai, getting to a beachy island paradise is easy, and for Koh Samet we took a short hour-long flight to U-Tapao airport (which serves Pattaya City), followed by a 2-hour car transfer in a comfortable air-conditioned mini-van, and finally a thrilling 15 minute speedboat, arriving to our island feeling like James Bond (if James Bond rocked an orange life vest).
Unlike some beach resorts in Thailand, Koh Samet can be considered a bit of a hidden gem, so it isn’t too overcrowded and remains largely unspoilt by tourism, meaning you can stroll along the beach and enjoy food and drink at a selection of local beach-shack-style bars and restaurants. That said, Koh Samet is more than equipped to provide a truly luxurious stay, with your pick of gorgeous properties dotted over the island…which we were about to discover for ourselves!
The first resort that we experienced was Sai Kaew Beach Resort, located right on Sai Kaew beach (the liveliest beach on the island, lined with bar shacks) and in walking distance of a smaller town area with a handful of bars and local restaurants. The property feels spacious, set in a sprawling garden, where you can choose from cottage-style accommodation, or one of their many well-appointed rooms. Wherever you choose, you’re never more than a couple of minutes stroll from a pool, or the endless stretch of white sandy beach.
After one night at Sai Kaew, we hopped in a truck to transfer 15 minutes to our next property, the gorgeous Le Vimarn Cottages & Spa. Although slightly more remote (set on a cove with only its sister hotel in sight) it’s perfect for a more peaceful stay, and you can enjoy a much quieter beach and pool (there are only 31 cottages, all of which are either modern or Thai-style which have an incredibly decadent Maldivian beachhut vibe). The cove itself is very serene with limited boats in the area, and you can snorkel just metres off the shore. This property is perfect for honeymooners, couples, or families looking for calm and relaxation (with just a 15-minute taxi to the busier island centre if you wanted an evening out exploring).
Our third and final property in Koh Samet was the ridiculously stunning Paradee; another level of luxury and with perfect positioning at the very tip of the island, so you can enjoy incredible panoramic sunrises and sunsets (at their dedicated Sunset bar – delicious cocktails mandatory!).
Around a 30-minute drive from Sai Kaew, Paradee is far more secluded than the previous two resorts, but we guarantee, once you set foot on the private white sand beach, you’ll never want to leave!
The property is all-villa, with the main difference between villa types being that they come with or without private pool. These decadent villas are positively palatial, with so much space, incredible views and plenty of privacy. The entire hotel feels rustic and understated yet modern, maintaining a cool Ibizan atmosphere which is high-end without ever feeling too showy. All of the facilities here are world-class, and we spent hours enjoying a delicious meal on the beach, listening to the lull of the sea with our toes in the sand… *heart eyes emoji*
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, so we boarded our speedboats with heavy hearts and waved goodbye (for now) to our paradise island. The silver lining? Knowing that we still had two nights of fun in Bangkok. And after another (much calmer) speedboat and a 3-hour car transfer, we had arrived!
Bangkok; River Cruising, Temples & Thai Cooking Classes
Bangkok is the epitome of a city of two halves, where you can find the most exquisitely detailed religious temples, royal palaces and fascinating culture-lined streets; but also enjoy cocktails at decadent modern sky bars, and marvel at the many weird and wonderful sights of Khao San road and Patpong night market (if you so wish!). It’s one of my favourite cities and you can tailor your stay here to suit your tastes and interests.
We stayed at the excellently located Shangri-La Bangkok, where the sumptuous lobby was a clear sign on arrival that our final resting place for our Thai adventure was to be filled with luxury! The hotel has two wings, which you can walk between, and with over 800 rooms, 9 restaurants, and amazing spa and panoramic views of Chao Phraya river, you really couldn’t ask for anything more. Situated right next to the sky train station, and at the central pier for water taxis, a stay here means you can access the city easily, and using public transport will help you to get around quicker when the city traffic is hectic!
After settling in to our elegant rooms, we were lucky enough to sample one of Shangri-La’s main attractions; its famed Horizon River Cruise, where you can spend a pleasant few hours on board enjoying a delicious buffet meal and taking in the illuminated sights of the city. If you only have a short time to explore Bangkok, this is a great option for your first night – allowing you to tick-off some of the must-see’s and also helping you to get your bearings!
After this amazing experience, we landed back at the Shangri-La’s jetty and took a 5-minute stroll to find a very special sky bar. Fans of The Hangover will recognise Lebua’s golden dome from the movie, and the views from this 63rd floor venue are definitely worth the ear-popping elevator ride. It’s certainly not a wallet-friendly option, but a fun experience and great photo opportunity (make sure you order the ‘Hangovertini’ cocktail, created by the movie stars whilst on set!).
The following morning, we woke early, ready to learn how to cook some authentic Thai cuisine (my favourite thing about Thailand…I literally couldn’t wait!). This immersive experience at the quaint Silom Thai Cooking School lasts around 4 hours and includes a shopping trip to the food market, and cookery lessons for five Thai dishes including Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai and Massaman curry. Make sure you pass on breakfast if you’re doing a morning session as the food just keeps coming and it’s far too delicious to turn down. This excursion is very popular and can be pre-booked to your trip, so just ask us to include it in your itinerary so you don’t miss out! With bellies full, we headed back to our hotel for a final 1 hour exam, to see which member of our group would be crowned Kuoni’s Far East Expert….but more on that later!
For our final evening in Thailand, we went to the super-luxe Banyan Tree Bangkok, to take a look at their jaw-dropping facilities and to experience their famous 61st floor Moon Bar and Vertigo restaurant which have incredible 360-degree views of Bangkok, stunning décor and exceptional quality food and drink. Whether you’re a guest here or not, reserving a table at one of these exclusive venues is a must if you have a special occasion to celebrate!
Banyan Tree is a little further out of the main city hub, so is more suited to a luxury stay rather than for customers who are wanting to do lots of exploration. We enjoyed a delicious meal, during which it was announced that Footprint Travel had won the overall title of Kuoni’s Far East Expert (and with it, a holiday to Bali) which we are still so thrilled about, giving us such a memorable ending to a wonderful trip.
On our final day, with a late-night flight ahead of us, we spent the day exploring more of Bangkok’s temples, with a trip to Wat Pho to roam around the intricate temple complex, and marvel at its remarkable 46 ft long reclining golden buddha. We paid a visit for a delicious lunch at Avani Riverside hotel (part of the Anantara group) which has a very fresh, contemporary feel and the dreamiest roof top pool we’ve ever seen! Although not quite as central on the river as the Shangri-La, this is a fantastic (slightly more budget friendly) option, which has its own jetty and boat transfer for guests to Central Pier.
What can I say, Thailand absolutely has my heart and I’d recommend this itinerary wholeheartedly to anyone; whether you’re visiting Thailand for the first time, or if you’ve visited before but are looking to see something new. We can tailor-make an itinerary to suit you perfectly, to include as much (or as little) activity as you fancy, and in hotels of various grades, locations and styles.
We would be delighted to help you plan a holiday to Thailand, please get in touch with our (now official!) Far East Expert, Mia, on 0161 772 0149 to chat about your ideas and for a bespoke quote.