- Chiang Mai,
- Chiang Rai,
- Golden Triangle,
- Khao Yai National Park,
- Phang Nga,
- Uthai Thani
After two trips to Thailand, I can't help feeling like it's one of those destinations that I will always return to. Current political woes aside, I have never felt a more genuine welcome (or tasted more exciting street food). This trip plan is a sort of greatest hits of both my favorite spots and those I can't wait to check out on my next trip.
Terrace Bar, Thailand
Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 253 333
The tall rooms and broad verandas of the former British Consulate, a splendid slice of colonial design on the grounds of the Chedi hotel, now hold an atmospheric restaurant and bar that are ideal for sundowners. Take your gin and tonic on a second-floor daybed (hookah-puffing is optional), or chill on the breezy deck beneath sacred, centuries-old bodhi trees overlooking the Ping River. For no-brainer nibbles, there are Asian-themed tapas with wine pairings: A generous pour of '04 Terra Mater, a silky Maipo Valley shiraz, and a dozen spicy murgh pakora chicken croquettes with mint-yogurt chutney costs about $12. Mosquito repellent, in a stylish Chedi spritzer, is complimentary.
Open daily 5 pm to 1 am.
Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 243 239
The east bank of the Ping River running north of the Narawat Bridge claims one of the best sunset views in town, so it's no surprise the shore is lined with restaurants and bars. The Riverside is its anchor tenant, with well over 100 tables in a rambling, refurbished wooden house. Riverside's menu lists an enormous number of homogenized Asian and Western dishes, but the house specialty is really live music. Jazz and piano serenade diners, but as night descends, the restaurant morphs into a popular honky-tonk. Thai cover bands play until 1 a.m. on stages at both ends of the building; the mixed crowd and the music are more raucous at the north-side platform. Next door, the shed-like Good View serves up better Thai food and live music in a sit-down atmosphere (13 Charoenrat Rd.; 66 53 241 866; www.goodview.co.th).
Open daily 10 pm to 1 am.
Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 245 965
Think of a Thai-style attic full of treasures. The owners have filled several restored wooden homes with a trove of Burmese lacquerware, old teak furniture, modern textiles, and Lanna accent pieces, all of it organizedor disorganizedto encourage serendipitous shopping. The Treehouse will also help to arrange shipping of any purchases. Shaded by huge longan trees, the gardenlike setting is also a welcome interlude from the bustle and blare of narrow, traffic-filled Charoenrat Road.
Night Bazaar, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand
The empress of outdoor retail therapy, this nightly bazaar stretches more than a mile along Changklan Road, a major north-south street a half mile east of the old city. Wheeled, portable stalls are set out every evening, piled with predictable tourist products: knockoff T-shirts, athletic shoes, sportswear, and designer clothes; pirated CDs and DVDs; and cheap woodwork. If you haggle, you're likely to find prices cheaper than those in Bangkok. Just south of D2 hotel, a three-story purpose-built structure on Changklan Road contains a better class of shops: Under the Bo sells owner François Villaret's collection of antique tribal jewelry and art from Asia and Africa (Rooms 22–23 and 56–57 Night Bazaar; 66-53-818-831; www.underthebo.com), and Chang Siam Company offers original T-shirts with vintage graphics (141–142 Night Bazaar; 66-53-204-001).
See + Do
The trade caravans that trod for centuries between China and Burma gave Chiang Mai its cosmopolitan flavor. This is exemplified by the unique Lanna architectural style: multiple, overlapping roofs and elaborate teakwood finials on the gables of the viharn, a building that houses important Buddha images. In the old city, Wat Chedi Luang once enshrined the sacred Emerald Buddha now displayed in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaeo. The chedi (a cone-shaped monument that holds relics) towered more than 300 feet upon completion in 1481; partially destroyed by a 1545 earthquake, it still remained the city's tallest structure for 500 years. But don't expect any fortune tellers or trinket sellers; this noncommercial temple houses a Buddhist university and offers daily "monk chats.'' Don't overlook the all-teak viharn of Wat Phan Tao, just next door. A few hundred yards to the west, Wat Phra Singh's exquisite 14th-century viharn contains the city's most venerated Buddha image. Ten miles west of town, mountaintop Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep provides exceptional vistas, except during March and April, the hazy, hot season. Shorts and halter or tank tops are not considered acceptable dress for entry into any temple compound.
See + Do
Songkhran (Thai New Year Celebration), Thailand
On the Thai New Year (April 12-15), the island becomes an enormous outdoor water fight. The fest springs from the tradition of sprinkling water on statues of Buddha, but you're more likely to have a drunken Swede dump a bucket of water on your head or get squirted with a watergun by a seven-year-old Thai kid. Actually, being soaked to the skin anywhere in Patong is a nice refreshment in April's boiling-hot weather. Beware: Some pranksters mix the water with talc, resulting in a white spray that makes for a really bad hair day.
See + Do
Longtail Boating in Phuket
More than 40 limestone islands with deserted beaches, underground streams, and caves rise out of Phang Nga Bay amid thick mangrove forests. The two big stops on any boat trip through the area are Tapu, or "James Bond," Island, where The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed; and Koh Panyee, a village built entirely on stilts where you can observe the culture of the so-called "sea gypsies." In order to avoid the tourist hordes, it's best to book a trip that leaves early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Although you can go directly to Yacht Haven Marina and hire a longtail boat for less than $50 to take you to the major sites, it's best to book a more formal tour to ensure that you have English-speaking guides with proper safety training. The best companies are John Gray's Sea Canoe and Asia Marine. We think the trips on the traditional longtail boats are more fun than those on the more luxurious cruisersthe distinctively shaped longtails are fast, small, and ride closer to the water. In order to properly navigate through dark sea caves to the area's famous hongscaves whose roofs have collapsedyou'll have to hop into a sea kayak. John Gray runs an excellent night tour that explores the hongs by candlelight, as well as overnight kayak-and-camping trips for more seasoned paddlers.
See + Do
Hill-Tribe Regions near Chiang Mai
Society here has traditionally been organized by altitude, with Buddhist Thai living in permanent lowland settlements and animist ethnic minorities scattered on mountain slopes. Dozens of outfitters, including Maeping Riverside Tours, offer day trips and multiday treks to hill-tribe hamlets (66-53-302-121; www.norththaitour.com). These excursions often include an elephant ride, bamboo raft trip, rock climbing, or a dip in a mountain waterfall. Sadly, some villages near Chiang Mai have become detribalized, with the attendant big-city commercialization and social problems. Before you book, find out the packing list and degree of hiking difficulty, the size of the trekking group, and whether other tourists will visit the same villages on the same day. Avoid any "opium tours" or programs that include the Padaung, or "Long-Neck Karen,'' whose women encase their necks in brass rings. Though indigenous to Burma, the Padaung are frequently exhibited in Thailand in zoo-like conditions. Check with the Tourism Authority of Thailand for a list of licensed operators. Staffed and managed by hill-tribers, the 24-room Lisu Lodge near Chiang Dao is a soft-adventure base for trekking, river rafting, and mountain biking, with more amenities (hot water, Western-style toilets) than many other operations (66-53-278-338; www.asian-oasis.com).
See + Do
Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaeo, Thailand
Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Tel: 66 2 623 5500
One of Thailand's most impressive sights: 54 acres featuring a collection of palatial buildings, golden stupas, sculpted nine-foot demons, and richly ornamented wats (temples). The architecture spans more than 200 years, and the highlight is undoubtedly the glorious Wat Phra Keo, the most sacred Buddhist sight in Thailand. The Wat is a complex of buildings culminating in the Chapel Royal, home to the venerated Emerald Buddha. As at all Thai temples, you must dress modestly (no bare knees or shoulders, no flip-flops) and remove your shoes before entering. The object of all the prostrations inside the Ubosoth, or Assembly Hall, is a tiny jadeite Buddha. Just two feet tall, the statue is so sacred that the king himself changes its clothing for each new season.
Ticket booth closes daily at 3:30pm; grounds at 4:30 p.m.
See + Do
Golden Triangle, Thailand
Once notorious for its poppy farmers and drug lords, the Thai-Burma-Laos frontier has largely cleaned up its act. In northernmost Chiang Rai province, a three-hour drive from Chiang Mai, the hill tribes of Doi Tung mountain now cultivate coffee and macadamia nuts for sale at boutique shops across Thailand (66-53-767-015; www.doitung.org). Skip the seedy border crossing of Mae Sai and head instead for sleepy Chiang Sean, a Mekong River port with ruins dating to the sixth century. The "triangle''—actually the confluence of the Mekong and Sop Ruak rivers—is just seven miles upstream, complete with an enormous, surreal Buddha; a lonely Burmese casino; and an excellent and informative museum, the Hall of Opium (66-53-784-444; www.goldentrianglepark.com). Bed down at the spectacular Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, 15 air-conditioned pavilions set in a lush, bird-filled forest inhabited by the resort's private herd of elephants along a quiet bend in the Sop Ruak (66-53-910-200; www.fourseasons.com).
See + Do
Wear drip-dry clothing for Songkran. The mid-April Thai New Year celebration is a blow-out splash party throughout the kingdom, but Chiang Mai's water festival is less hysterical—and more mindful of history and ritual—than Bangkok's. The celebration kicks off when Wat Phra Singh's sacred Buddha statue is paraded through the streets and sprinkled with lustral water. The following day, the devout also deliver handfuls of sand to build small chedis at various temples, symbolic of the dust they carry away on their bare feet throughout the year. The most magical event, however, is November's Loy Krathong. On the full-moon night, tens of thousands of Thai launch small banana-leaf boats containing candles, flowers, and incense on the Ping River in thanks for the life-giving waters or release paper lanterns into the sky to carry away bad luck.
See + Do
Elephant Camps near Chiang Mai
For centuries, timber elephants played a crucial role in northern Thailand's economy. The Thai government banned commercial logging in 1989, but the skills of these huge yet graceful animals are still displayed at tourist-oriented elephant camps scattered around the province. Pang Mae Sa, about 15 miles northwest of town, is the closestand most commercialoperation (66-53-297-060). At Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre, 35 miles north of Chiang Mai on Highway 107, the mahouts and their charges demonstrate more traditional forest talents (66-53-298-553). You can also clamber atop a howdah, or elephant saddle, for a rumble through the jungle. Tour companies usually include hotel pick-up and round-trip transport in their packages.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
See + Do
Boat Trips, Thailand
Whether by public ferry or private water taxi, leisurely cruises down the Chao Phraya River guarantee great views. Better yet, get off the river and explore some of Bangkok's extensive network of khlong, or canals—hence the city's former nickname, the Venice of the East. Long-tailed boats—Thailand's distinctive elongated canoes with giant diesel motors roaring at the stern—depart from Tha Chang Pier by the Grand Palace and from most of the riverside hotels, such as the Mandarin Oriental. There are several boat companies that operate along the river, but the largest is Chao Phraya Express Boat (66-2-623-6143; www.chaophrayaboat.co.th).
Sala Mae Rim, Thailand
Mae Rim 50180, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 298 181
The view from the Four Seasons ' 70-seat Thai restaurant—think verdant rice paddies—is so stunning that you'll swear it's been Photoshopped. The enchanting setting and high-end cuisine make it more than worth the half-hour drive north of Chiang Mai. Pop by the adjacent Elephant Bar for a Rice Field cocktail (gin, crème de banana, mango, pineapple, lime, and grapefruit juice topped with blue curaçao), then order such Thai classics as yum hua plee (banana-blossom salad). Hotel guests can request a special five-course set menu, limited to one couple per evening, served at an old barn. Evening reservations are recommended for non–resort customers.
Open daily 7 to 10 am, noon to 2:30 pm, and 6 to 10 pm.
Night Markets, Phuket, Thailand
Phuket Town, Phuket, Thailand
Any traveler who comes all the way to Thailand without visiting the food-centric night markets has missed an essential part of the Thai experience. Phuket Town's night market is a block-sized collection of food vendors serving up the freshest (and cheapest) fare you're likely to see on the island. Two people can gorge to excess, with beers, for under ten bucks. Things start stirring around six in the evening and usually peter out toward midnight.
Le Normandie, Thailand
Bangkok 10500, Thailand
Tel: 66 2 659 9000
The Thai royal family has been known to spend an evening at Le Normandie at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and not just for the sweeping views of the Chao Phraya River. Over the years, the French kitchen has been overseen by some to the world's most renowned chefs, like Guy Martin of Le Grand Véfour in Paris and visiting chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se. The menu offers classic recipes reimagined by a Michelin-starred mind: Handmade goose liver ravioli is smothered with truffle sauce and garnished with diced truffles; a fillet of sole is poached in white wine and vermouth, topped with osetra caviar cream sauce and clams. Lunch is smart casual, even in these plush, elegant surroundings, complete with gilded chairs, crisp white tablecloths, and fresh cut flowers with panoramic river views. But for dinner, men must break out the jacket and tie.
Le Grand Lanna, Thailand
Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 888 888
The Mandarin Oriental has several of the city's most well-regarded food establishments, including Fujian (contemporary Chinese) and Farang Ses (French). But the pick of the litter is Le Grand Lanna, a Thai restaurant set in a group of raised, antique-filled buildings shaded by enormous raintrees and cooled by mist-spraying fans. Chef Noppakorn uses the freshest ingredients possible to prepare popular Thai and Chiang Mai entrées, including kaeng hang-lay moo, a spicy northern curry with pork and pickled garlic, and yam som-o, a salad of pomelo, peanuts, and roasted red onion. Evening reservations are advisable for non–resort customers.
Open daily 11:30 am to 2:30 pm and 6:30 to 10:30 pm.
House Restaurant, Wine and Tapas Bar, Thailand
Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 419 011
In 2003, Danish-born businessman Hans Christensen rehabbed this prewar house a few hundred yards north of Thapae Gate into a swank dining room. The fusion and international fare served was nice enough, but the most interesting dining option is the adjacent tapas bar that he added two years later, a breezy terrace outfitted with Middle Eastern ottomans and local rattan chairs. The city's considerable expat community dines on familiar dishes with a Thai twist, like grilled shrimp with roasted chili or chicken satay on fragrant lemongrass skewers. And since each plate comes in at $4 or less, you'll have plenty of cash left over for the on-site boutique, Ginger.
Open daily 6 to 10:30 pm.
Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 248 601
Location and atmosphere, history and food mix happily in this relaxed restaurant and art gallery inside an 1892 teakwood building along the Ping River. Descendants of the original owner converted the family store to a restaurant in 1989, and the architectural conservation awards, glowing food reviews, and VIP clients (including a 1996 visit by Hillary Clinton) have rolled in ever since. Ask for a waterfront table beneath the vaulting tamarind tree, and order Chiang Mai specialties such as kaeng ung lay, a coconut milkfree pork curry slow-cooked with ginger, garlic, chili, and tamarind and served with sticky rice. A Western menu is also available, but in such a quintessentially Thai setting, pork fondue seems a sacrilege. Stop in between 7 and 9 pm to hear live jazz at a small adjacent bar.
Open daily noon to midnight.
Dalaabaa Bar & Restaurant, Thailand
Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 242 491
Set in a sleek, glass-sided house that looks like it was lifted from an L.A. canyon, the former Indian consulate was reincarnated in 2004 as one of Chiang Mai's hippest eateries. Mind your way negotiating the entrance of stepping stones laid out in a reflecting pool, and settle down at a candlelit table. Low lighting and a ruby-red color scheme conjure romance, though the mood is slightly marred by the neon glow of Heineken and Jim Beam signs. However, the kitchen's take on contemporary Thai cuisine is innovativeorder the crab-filled spring rolls, which are shaped like breadsticks and deep-fried. Reservations are suggested in the high season.
Open daily 6 pm to midnight.
Cabbages & Condoms, Thailand
Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Tel: 66 2 229 4610
Don't let the name fool you into thinking that this is a hot spot in the red-light district. Cabbages & Condoms is in fact a quirky, tasty restaurant in the fish market district run by a wholly respectable Thai charity, the Population and Community Development Association, devoted to helping the country's rural poor. In other words, you get to support a worthy cause while you tuck into your marinated chicken satay. Follow the little path under the Cabbages & Condoms sign, duck under a passageway through a modern building, and enter the restaurant's huge courtyard, with shade trees dripping with white holiday lights, and a sheet of water cascading quietly down a longstone wall. The food is traditional Thai with a few unexpected touches. Take a friend and share the massive mieng khum, an ancient Thai appetizer consisting of a dozen tiny nests of ingredients (lemon, dried shrimp, peanuts, ginger, deep-fried coconut, chilis, and shallots), each piled onto an herbal leaf to be wrapped up like a present and dipped into the hot, sweet sauce. For presents to take home, there's a fantastic little gift shop that sells inexpensive crafts from villages across Thailand.
Metropolitan Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok 10120, Thailand
Tel: 800 223 6800, Tel: 66 2 625 3333
Not far from the Skytrain and subway, the Metropolitan, sister to the ultrahip London hotel, strives to be the epitome of modernism, with its Mies van der Rohe–style façade and staff dressed in black and white Comme des Garçons uniforms. Once in the lobby—all cream and dark Makha wood—the sequenced mood lighting establishes the theatrical ambience. The 171 bedrooms avoid obvious Asian references in favor of clean lines, natural lighting, stone bathrooms, and handwoven Thai silk curtains. High speed Internet, flat-screen TVs, DVD players, and (naturally) yoga mats are all included, as well as the occasional artistic flourish by local up-and-comer Natee Utarit. Michelin-starred chef David Thompson serves authentic Thai curries and kanom jeen at Nahm, while over at the Met Bar, the DJs compete with the martini mixologists for the attention of stylish guests. A different West-reinterprets-East vibe reigns at Glow, a second restaurant where the menu is organic and mainly raw, and at Como Shambhala, a holistic spa that offers aromatherapy and reflexology treatments, urban retreat packages, a yoga center, a lap pool, and steam rooms.
Mandarin Oriental, Dhara Dhevi, Thailand
Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 888 888
A successful truck dealer with a taste for art, Suchet Suwanmongkol underwrote the $75 million dream of a young, unknown architect to build an ancient Asian city within the confines of Chiang Mai. The resulting 60-acre confection of the now-famous Rachen Intawong quotes some of the most iconic structures in Southeast Asia, including Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos. The 123 suites nod to colonial mansion style, and the individual villas encompass various Thai vernaculars. At the heart of the resort is the sumptuous Dheva Spa, a glowing, multi-tiered Xanadu with 18 treatment rooms and five residences. Throughout, the bedrooms are huge: 16-foot ceilings are the norm in the colonial wing, as are private verandas and adjoining living rooms, all lavishly fitted with silk-covered chaise longues and hill-tribe textiles. Superlatives extend to the two pools (enormous) and library (more than 5,000 books and 1,500 DVDs). Kids can learn muay Thai boxing, plant rice, and even care for an elephant. As for service: Not only does the staff know the name of the flowering trees outside the Akaligo restaurant (raintrees), they also quickly produce the Thai name (jamjuree) and Latin genus and species (Albizia lebbeck). Now that's precision.
Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Tel: 66 44 426 099
Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, Thailand
Tel: 66 53 910 200, Fax: 66 53 652 189
Avatar Spa Mountain Suites, Thailand
Uthai Thani, Thailand
Tel: 66 25 136 171
Amanpuri, Phuket, Thailand
Tel: 66 76 324 333
Few hotels in the world make a better first impression than Amanpuri. Upon arriving from the madness of the airport—only 25 minutes as the limo glides—you find yourself in a serene green enclave in a former coconut grove. Amanpuri is the Sanskrit word for "place of peace," and the computer-free, open-air lobby sets that tone, guiding the eye past a midnight-blue pool to the Andaman Sea. Thai sculptures, orchids, and reddish maka wood lend romantic warmth to the otherwise spare decor of the 40 enormous (1,200-square-foot) pavilions, some with private infinity pools, and the 30 villas, which include a maid, cook, outdoor living room, and private infinity pool. Service is beyond thoughtful: Attendants on the wedding-white beach deliver drinks and snacks; take guests snorkeling, windsurfing, sailing, and kayaking (all complimentary); and spray water on the sand to keep it cool beneath your feet. There is another infinity pool at the beach club directly along Surin Beach. Buggies cruise around the property 24/7, stopping off at the hilltop gym, which has Andaman Sea views and a Pilates studio, and the spa, where guests glide between the black granite steam room, Thai herbal massages, and jungle-shrouded beds overlooking the ocean. The resort also owns a fleet of 20 boats, including a 90-foot cruiser featured in Architectural Digest. The isolation and expansiveness of the hotel may frustrate more social travelers, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a resort more perfectly configured for a couple's escape. Even if you can't afford to stay, come for lunch or dinner at the terrace Thai and Italian restaurants or at Naoki, the oceanfront Japanese spot, to see how the other one half of one percent lives.—Updated by Cynthia Rosenfeld
Alila Cha-Am, Thailand
Petchaburi 76120, Thailand
Tel: 66 32 709 555
Aleenta PhuketPhang Nga, Thailand
Phang Nga 82140, Thailand
Tel: 66 25 085 333
The 30-minute drive to Aleenta takes you away from the resort-clogged circus of Phuket through small towns, rubber-tree farms, and rolling hills of palm trees. But the feeling once you step into your room is pure Malibu. The 30 all-white villas (the larger ones with kitchens and living areas) have floor-to-ceiling retractable glass panels that open onto expansive views of the Andaman Sea. The neutral interiorspolished concrete floors, mocha and cream bedding, beech-wood furniturekeep the focus outdoors, where teak decks open onto infinity pools. And the Cali vibe extends to the service, which lacks the stiffness sometimes found at other luxury properties. Nearly everything has been custom-designed for the resort, from the electro-lounge playlist on the in-room iPods to the complimentary yoga mats and featherlight cotton meditation clothes. The two on-site restaurants benefit from the presence of visiting Michelin-star chefs (pastries and breakfasts are outstanding). You can spend a night at the tasting table, schedule a cooking class, or have a private seafood barbecue on the beach. The hotel donates a small portion of each night's bill to support a nearby sea turtle sanctuary, which guests can visit. Aleenta may lack the laundry list of facilities that come standard at places like Amanpuri and Trisarathere are no dive instructors or tennis pros on the premises, for examplebut the thoughtful design, secluded location, and mellow vibe attract the laid-back sophisticated set.