Our travel editor tours the Southeast Asian land of smiles.By: Jenna Mahoney
It’s a place where the jungle is filled with ornate temples, and the cities are packed with rickshaws, ancient palaces and an array of street food. Here, the beaches are wide swaths of sand set against a sparkling ocean that’s punctuated with towering limestone island formations. It’s Thailand, Asia’s welcoming country for adventure- and not-so-adventure-seeking honeymooners. I love it for a host of reasons — it not only offers diverse landscapes, but also a mix of delectable food flavors, and the service in the hotels, restaurants and spas is the best in the world. But really, I also love Thailand because the country’s first university was a massage school!
An overview of Thailand's gorgeous beaches in the south (photo courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand)
The Big City
Bangkok, the capital, is the classic Asian city — packed with people, skyscrapers and loads of traffic. Most visitors bookend their journey with a night here to acclimate to the time difference, and then wait out the hours until the early-morning return flight. There are, however, some must-sees that I think are worth extending your capital stay.
The first is the Grand Palace, which housed the royal family of Siam from 1782 until 1925. The enormous complex (it’s more than two million square feet!) encompasses endless buildings and pavilions with intricately tiled roofs and golden spires. At every turn you’ll see Buddha images, statues and religious depictions, along with pilgrims, international tour groups and peddlers selling lotus flowers, incense and oranges. The most visited site is the gold-cloaked Emerald Buddha, a statue made of jadeite that dates to 43 BC.
One of the thousands of gilded images at this popular site in Bangkok (photo courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand)
Travel Tip: It is considered a grave insult to sit with the bottoms of your feet facing the image of Buddha. It’s also mandatory to remove your shoes before entering a temple.
A neighboring site, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, houses a gigantic depiction of the figure. Just outside this mosaic-lined pavilion sits Thailand’s first university — a massage school. Take a tour and get a traditional rubdown, which is experienced while clothed. Another popular spot is the Jim Thompson house, which is actually a series of traditional Thai homes that the American silk magnate (and rumored international spy!) cobbled together to form a single residence. The restaurant offers classic Thai food.
An intimate bar area (photo courtesy of Four Seasons Bangkok)
Just north of Bangkok sits Ayuthaya, an imperial city that isn’t often seen by visitors hopping through Bangkok. What’s cool about this area (besides the banyan tree growing around a Buddha bust) is the architecture,which is in stark contrast to Bangkok’s. Here, the spires and temples are in the Khmer style: that’s not gilded, yet intricate with brick and sandstone relief work, most often found in Cambodia. Fun fact: Some of the Tomb Raider movies were shot here. While there, visit the elephant conservation initiative and take a ride on the giant animals.
For many years, I thought sand, sea and sun denote a perfect beach, but I’ve found that all things are
not created equal. And some of the world’s most spectacular strands are in Thailand. The most famous, Phuket, an island in the southwest, has pristine (albeit a bit crowded) sands and a cuisine that celebrates the sea — don’t miss massaman curry, one of the region’s marquee dishes, which combines coconut milk with tamarind and cinnamon.
Escape the touristy hoopla and check into Amanpuri, a 40-room and 30-villa beachfront resort that defines the word “luxury” and hassome of the country’s best food. Stay in one of the villas and you’ll enjoy the service of a private Thai chef. Each accommodation is different, but all feature enormous bathrooms, large living areas and cushioned seating in outside areas. The intimate spa offers local treatments in six individual pavilions (room rates start at $875 a night and include airport transfer, breakfast and dinner; amanpuri.com).
The Thai-owned hotel is made up of a collection of rooms and villas (photo courtesy of Aman Resorts)
Traditional Thai seating in a private outdoor area (photo courtesy of Aman Resorts)
Like Phuket, Koh Samui, the island, teems with an international party crowd, but staying at the right resort is paradise found. Set on a former coconut plantation, The Four Seasons, Koi Samui, is a 73-villa hideaway carved into a towering palm-studded mountain overlooking the crystalline Gulf of Siam. Accommodations are oversize with indoor/outdoor living spaces, deep soaking tubs and private plunge pools. For a spectacular experience, take a day-long snorkeling excursion around the surrounding islands (room rates start at $805 a night; fourseasons.com).
Enormous beds are swathed in netting (photo courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui)
A suite's private plunge pool (photo courtesy ofFour Seasons Resort Koh Samui)
In the North
In case the rest of this article didn’t praise Thailand’s cuisine enough, let me tell you, it is off-thechain, especially in the north, where the spicy, garlic noodle dishes are based on the cuisine of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, which once included portions of Laos and Burma. Cooking classes and market tours are popular in the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai regions, as are elephant excursions, hot air ballooning and jungle hiking.
This northern hotel has a famous cooking school (photo courtesy of Four Seasons Chiang Mai)
Soaring high above the jungle (photo courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai)
Travel tip: Traffic in Bangkok is outrageous, but skip the lure of the shady tuk- tuk (rickshaw) drivers and opt for the SkyTrain (efficient mass transit).