Thailand hooks in more tourists than any other country in South East Asia. We discover why it’s a winner on so many levels…
If you’re wondering what Thailand’s got that other countries don’t, ‘Khwaam pen thai’ is your answer. The phrase translates as ‘Thai-ness’. It means street food, temples known as wats, and floating markets where longtail boats stand in for stalls. In a country of 513,000 square kilometres, it can be hard to know where to cut your Thai teeth – even return visitors have trouble choosing their favourite place. Those that do pledge their allegiances, though, tend to do it to Phuket, Khao Lak, Krabi and Bangkok. Here’s why…
Set on Thailand’s southwest coast, Khao Lak is one of the country’s quietest beach resorts. It signs its autograph in white sand – 20 kilometres to be precise. And, more often than not, it’s footprint free. Unlike some of the more southern sun-and-sea destinations, Khao Lak doesn’t accessorise its beaches with bars and restaurants. Instead, the sands here nuzzle up to three national parks. Khao Lak Lam Ru National Park alone is patterned with 125 square kilometres of tropical forest, walking trails, mangroves and waterfalls. Even the accommodation in this part of Thailand keeps things on the QT. Most of the villa resorts and hotels have been built so they’re camouflaged from view. Ideal for living a Swiss Family Robinson existence.
Phuket, just off Thailand’s south west coast, is corralled by more than 80 kilometres of coastline, so there’s bound to be a bay, cove or sandy stretch to suit your palate. Patong Beach sits at one end of the spectrum. The daylight beach scene here is summed up by the Thai phrase ‘Mi pen rai’, which has a similar meaning to the Jamaican ‘no worries’. Sunbathers loaf on sunloungers while the sporty parasail and wakeboard in the Andaman Sea. At night, the place plugs itself into the mains, and tourists flow like an electrical current between the cocktail bars and live music pubs on Bangla Road. Mai Khao Beach, on Phuket’s northwest coast, is the reverse of Patong. A virtual vacant sign hangs over the 11-kilometre band of sand here. It always will, too. This part of the island belongs to the Sirinat National Park, so it’s protected from development. Definitely a destination for those who like the best of both worlds.
If you want to pull a vanishing act, Krabi is your place. The 150-mile coastline is split up into almost 100 different beaches and coves, and they’re blockaded from the rest of the world by a screen of limestone cliffs. The sea off the Krabi coast is dotted with desert islands, which are contoured by cliffs, beaches and coconut groves. The underwater scenery is just as compelling. Manta rays and seahorses are the natural satellites of coral reefs, while glassfish and pipefish dart between the rocks. You don’t have to be anonymous in Krabi, though. In Ao Nang, in the centre of the Krabi coast, there are plenty of restaurants and bars, offering everything from happy-hour cocktails to Swiss food. But, despite being one of Krabi’s best-known resorts, it’s not bowed to all the trappings of tourism. The 2-kilometre beach is still largely sunlounger free, and traditional Thai longtail boats, shaped like bananas, bob in the waters close to the shore. Thailand with all the trimmings.
Thailand’s capital city is hard to summarise. In fact, entire guidebooks fail to do it justice. Bangkok is the city of meditative wats, holy shrines and markets where humans form tides to swirl between 15,000 stalls. It’s a capital where, at night, monks pray in pin-drop silence as drinkers stream between open-air beer stands, cocktail bars and techno clubs. Then there’s the food. You could do a master’s degree on the cuisine in this city. Out here, peanuts are used as condiments, eating alone is considered odd, soup equals breakfast, and small restaurants don’t have menus. Street food adds another dimension. For a handful of change, pushcart vendors cook up sticky rice and noodles as thick as shoe laces. Indulge in foodie heaven.