A land of spiritual awakenings, urban meccas
and serene beaches waiting to be explored
by Dwight Brown
Thailand, a lush and vibrant land filled with stunning beaches, exciting cities and majestic spiritual mountains, offers three distinct vacations in one. It’s the kind of destination where you can eat, pray, swim and fall deeply in love with the food, nature and welcoming spirit of its people.
*Bangkok has the rhythm of an electric city
Urban lovers will rejoice the moment they step foot in Thailand’s capital city, population 9 million. Bangkok has the thrill of New York City and the whimsy of Venice. The Chao Phraya River, a series of canals (khlongs) and bustling streets spider web through lively neighborhoods filled with modern skyscrapers, ancient temples and regal palaces. In a cab, a tuc tuc (a motorcycle taxi with three wheels), or on a boat, you’ll pass shanties that sit next door to ostentatious mansions.
If you love to walk, this bustling city is filled with beautiful surprises. Consider the Suan Pakkad Palace, once the royal home of Princess Chumbhot of Nagara Svarga, the granddaughter of the young prince who was immortalized in “The King and I.” This palace contains exhibits of traditional Thai antiques and ancient pots—some dating back 5,000 years. Trek to The Grand Palace, which houses the former Royal Residence, throne halls and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. At the palace grounds you can view brilliant gold-painted buildings, a changing of the guard and the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha (circa 1400s). Ninety-five percent of Thai people are Buddhists, and Buddhist artifacts are dear to their beliefs.
Stop by the Democracy Monument—the Arc de Triomphe of Bangkok—in the city center, which commemorates the 1932 Siamese coup d’état that began Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. Also visit the floating market in the Taling Chan district. Floating markets, where vendors sell flowers, fruits and souvenirs, are a fundamental and unique part of Thai life and culture and can be found all over. Check out the National Gallery of Thailand, and for hand-made silk shirts, dresses and suits, head to Betty Thai Silk & Jewellers Co.
The open-air Sirocco restaurant sits atop the 63rd floor of the State Tower Building. No walls. No windows. As you walk out on the huge terrace, a jazz combo, often led by American singers, serenades you. The dazzling nighttime skyline view of Bangkok is the floorshow. Lights in buildings glow like diamonds. The highway below with its speeding cars looks like a necklace of kinetic pearls. The midnight-blue sky above is blanketed with stars as a fashionable, international crowd sits entranced. The food is as exquisite as the view: Dine on a caesar salad with fried soft shell baby crab, followed by pan-seared sea bass with tiger prawns, and top it with warm apple tart and ice cream for dessert.
• Phuket Beach is heaven in blue
When Thais crave a beach scene, they head to Phuket, an island off the southwest coast in the Andaman Sea. The best beaches are on the western coast, where the lively resort town of Patong Beach has a two-mile long beach and a bustling nightlife. Nightclubs, restaurants and souvenir shops thrive as tourists and locals promenade. Phuket is reminiscent of the Caribbean, with an average year-round temperature of 84 to 91 degrees, mellow yet gregarious people, a laid-back lifestyle and fine places to eat (taste the sticky rice topped with sweet custard at Baan Rim Pa restaurant).
Cruise the emerald green waters of Phang Nga Bay off the north coast of Phuket and view the limestone cliffs. Walk past the colonial and Chinese architecture in Old Phuket Town, the island’s provincial capital. Wat Chalong is one of Phuket’s most important temples, decorated with several pagodas. Take a day trip to tranquil Phi Phi Island where the Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Beach” was shot.
• Chiang Mai touches the soul
The city of Chiang Mai, founded in 1296 on the Mae Ping River in northern Thailand, is mystical. The landscape is peaceful and pastoral. Once a major trading post known for its fine silver, jewelry and woodcarvings, the city now has 300 Buddhist temples. The famous Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple (built in 1383) overlooks the city from a mountainside. The oldest temple, Wat Chiang Man, dates back to the founding of the city and is noted for its elephant-shaped buttresses and an ancient Buddha image named Phra Kaeo Khao.
Chiang Mai National Museum showcases the city’s history, and the Tribal Museum exhibits the culture of the hill tribes. Thirty-seven miles north of the city, 30 rescued elephants reside in the Elephant Nature Park. Tourists take hiking or elephant riding tours in surrounding hills and visit local tribes, such as the Akha. Bars and nightclubs jump and jive in Chiang Mai, and there’s always a crowd at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, a flea market in the heart of town. It’s a shopper’s paradise where you can buy food, souvenirs, handicrafts and foot massages. Half the fun is eyeing the international tourists looking for gifts. Don’t be afraid to bargain; it’s expected.
Where to stay
• In Bangkok, consider the Mandarin Oriental with its Le Normandie, a three-star Michelin French restaurant, which sits regally on the fifth floor of the hotel’s Old Wing. Many believe the eatery serves the finest French cuisine in all of Asia. Dressy wear, jackets and ties are required for dinner. Sophisticated menu. $333/night;
• On Phuket Island, Twin Palms Phuket Resort has an elongated swimming pool with residences on one side and a boardwalk and palm trees on the other. It’s as hip as Miami’s Delano and a celebrity hub. $230/night;
• The beachfront Zeavola Hotel on Phi Phi Island is more rustic and exotic. Rooms are made of slats of hand-hewn teak wood with stylish, upscale interiors. Your shower is outside, under the sky. $315/night; zeavola.com
• In Chiang Mai, try the inner-city, ultra-modern Asian-designed Chedi Chiang Mai Hotel, which overlooks the Night Bazaar. With its teak wood flooring and warm rich colors, it looks like the interior of an exquisite modern art museum. $200/night;
For more information:
• How to get there:
Direct flights on Thai Airways originate in Los Angeles and land 17 hours later, after an 8,263-mile flight, in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi. Cathay Pacific offers one-stop (Hong Kong) flights from Los Angeles that take around 22 hours.
• Average cost of flight:
Round-trip economy tickets start at $1,300 on Thai Airways and $1,200 on Cathay Pacific. U.S. citizens visiting Thailand by air and staying for fewer than 30 days do not need a visa, but passports must be valid for at least six months beyond the date of entry. If you enter Thailand by land without a visa, you are allowed to stay for 15 days per visit.
• Do as the Thais:
To be culturally correct, women should skip short-shorts and instead wear pants or a sarong, especially in the south, which has a larger Muslim population that is more conservative. Keep in mind that women must cover their shoulders and wear skirts below knee-length, men can’t wear tank tops and everyone has to take their shoes off in temples.