In Thailand, you can start your day learning how to make coconut palm sugar before having drinks at the world’s highest Champagne bar. Or you can feast your eyes at the myriad markets before queuing up for Michelin-starred street food. And that’s just in Bangkok. In the country’s northern region, Chiang Mai affords cultural riches all its own, from elephant sanctuaries to khao soi curry, while the island of Phuket along the southwestern shores begets oceanic riches like sea cave kayaking and crab curry. No place in the world fuses luxury and rustic adventure — both of the gastronomic and outdoor varieties — quite like Thailand. Each region offers its own distinct style, experiences and flavors, all melding together in memorable harmony. A trip here is the trip of a lifetime, and here are three places and three ways to partake in everything Thailand has to offer.
Bangkok: Street Food, Tasting Menus, Silk History, Rooftop Bars
One of the most visited cities on the planet is a tourist sensation for good reason. The sights, sounds and flavors of Bangkok, Thailand’s bustling capital, make for an apt starting point for any Southeast Asian excursion. With skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, clamorous flower markets on seemingly every block, canals that double as aquatic motorways and street food vendors covering practically every square foot of sidewalk space, Bangkok is a metropolis like no other. Beyond the iconic, energetic streetscape, there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered inside those hulking buildings and outside city limits.
Start your journey with a trip to the Wat Saket temple (pictured at top), or “Golden Mount,” the quintessential Bangkok fixture looming over the city with its gilded dome. Ascend a series of stairs around trees, sacred sculptures and gongs to reach the apex, where visitors can remove their shoes and pray to Buddha at one of the statues. There’s an ample outdoor deck that surrounds the temple’s crowning tower, affording prime skyline views in the backdrop.
Next, get acquainted with the city by hitching a long boat ride through Bangkok’s canals. Along the way, you’ll see homes and businesses precariously perched on stilts, waterside restaurants and most likely a few water monitor lizards — don’t worry, they only eat fish. Hop off and head to lunch at ERR, a Michelin-rated gem specializing in Thai street food with a modern twist. Coconut-smoked curry sausage, five-spice pork trotters with orange chile vinegar and toasted watermelon seeds with kaffir lime leaf are a few examples, joined by an impressive (and colorful) cocktail program. The space itself is cozy, vibrant and airy, with exposed brick and murals lending an outdoors-meets-indoors vibe.
One side of Bangkok that many visitors don’t delve into is its silk history, which you can explore for yourself at the venerable Jim Thompson House. The former home of American expat James H.W. Thompson, an ex-CIA member who fell in love with Bangkok on his international travels and eventually moved there before disappearing in the Malaysian jungle mysteriously. Today, his sprawling home is a museum with tours and insight into Thompson’s post-CIA life as the founder of the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. There’s a ritzy retail shop on-site, with materials so exquisite you’ll be tempted to fork over the baht.
When it comes to luxe lodging in Bangkok, you can’t beat Lebua (pictured above). One of the city’s tallest, most ornate towers is home to a world-class hotel brimming with amenities, unparalleled views and enough restaurants and bars to keep you entertained for an entire week. All rooms boast balconies, and considering hotel floor ascend upwards of the 51st floor, you can rest assured that city and river views will be insane. If you really feel like treating yourself, the hotel offers an in-room signature oil massage, which does wonders with warding off jet lag.
Once you’re done with that, head up to the world’s highest Champagne bar for a toast. Flûte, A Perrier-JouëtBar, provides sweeping views of Bangkok from its bubbly perch underneath the tower’s lustrous dome. There’s no better place to clink glassware as the sun sets over the skyscraper-lined horizon. From here, head to the 65th floor for an upscale degustation at Mezzaluna (pictured below). With two Michelin stars to its name, the restaurant is a dazzling and can’t-miss experience for food-lovers. While Thai ingredients and influences weave their way into the menu, this is mostly a showcase for chef Ryuki Kawasaki to flex his creative muscles and showcase his culinary dexterity. His skills are evident in a spree of ever-changing seasonal dishes, like sea snails served in their shells with herb butter and sweet garlic foam; Brittany blue lobster with red capsicum bisque, chorizo and puffed rice; and binchō-grilled A5 Wagyu beef with potato, smoked eel, horseradish and watercress. Served in a stately, subdued dining room with top-tier views, the pleasant twinkle of a string quartet in the background and wine pairings with masterful service, it’s easy to understand the starry acclaim for Mezzaluna, a powerhouse way to begin a trip to Thailand’s capital.
While much of the Bangkok experience consists of urban hustle and bustle, it’s a good idea to spend a day outside city limits, getting acquainted with the local culture that helps Bangkok tick. Spend a day in the Baan Bang Plug community in Samutsongkram, about an hour and a half from downtown Bangkok. Here, you can tour a coconut plantation and see how coconut palm sugar is made, then take it full-circle with lunch utilizing palm sugar in dishes like papaya salad. Nearby, the Maeklong Railway Market is a marvel to behold. The tightly packed marketplace is literally situated on active railway tracks, with a slow-moving train coming through a couple times per day, requiring all the vendors to scurry out of the way for a few minutes. Everything from produce and fish to accessories and sweets are on-hand here, just be mindful of the train schedule.
Back in Bangkok, you’d be remiss coming here if you kept your dining to tasting menus. Street food is a cultural backbone in this city, just as revered and high-quality as the ritziest prix fixe. Case in point: Raan Jay Fai is a casual, bare-bones street food-style eatery that couldn’t be more polar opposite from the likes of Mezzaluna, yet it sports a Michelin star all its own. Under the tutelage of its chef/owner Jay Fai, aka “Auntie Fai,” the buzzy eatery is famed for its wok-fired noodles with prawns and crab, cooked over scorching hot charcoal flames by a goggle-clad Fai — to shield her eyes from the hot oil, you see. Don’t miss the meaty crab omelet, a signature dish that’s so massive and stuffed it looks more like an arm-sized burrito. Keep the street style going after dinner by hopping in a tuk tuk and jetting off to Chinatown, which is quite a dizzying streetscape after sunset. Whatever you do, make sure you find the street cart selling freshly fried donuts with pandan dipping cream.
Other essential dining stopovers in the mighty metropolis include Sri Trat, a rustic and homey family-run oasis, known for its regional eastern Thai cuisine. Expect fiery seafood dishes, durian curry (if you dare), picture-perfect cocktails and a roster of recipes from the owner’s mother, a matriarch whose image is displayed on a mural in the dining room. For dinner, Sra Bua By Kiin Kiin provides another “wow” experience, toeing the line between Thai tradition and masterful modernity. Located in the gorgeous Siam Kempinski hotel, which looks more like a Disney-style castle than your typical resort, the lotus-scented destination is the work of famed Scandinavian chef Henrik Yde-Andersen and local chef Chayawee Sutcharitchan. The pair tag-team seasonally inspired menus designed to take guests on a gustatory journey through Thailand — for summer, that means cotton candy salad with red snapper and cucumber (pictured above); slow-cooked beef rib with housemade oyster sauce; and pistachio soufflé with pandan ice cream and pandan noodle. Look for little tricks and surprises along the way, like edible “Legos” for dessert and a smattering of neoteric street foods that double as amuse bouches.
Chiang Mai: Mountaintop Temples, Elephant Daycare, Noodles, Jungle Paradise
From the glitz and towers of Bangkok, Chiang Mai feels worlds away. So it’s hard to believe northern Thailand’s largest city is merely an hour’s flight, especially considering when you land the environment is suddenly lush jungle and rolling mountains. Compared to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and its forested surroundings are a place of relaxation and calm — and curry and elephants, of course.
First thing’s first: khao soi. These rich, heady curried noodles are to Chiang Mai as pizza is to New York City or croissants are to Paris. Simmered with coconut milk, this spicy-sweet medley features noodles both toothsome and fried, provide a contrast of texture and tastes in each slurp. Your best bet for khao soi is as Khao Soi Khun Yai, a frills-free outdoor eatery with a pared-down menu that’s got nothing but noodles and a few fruit juices. Pop a squat on a small plastic chair and get ready to dive in to Chiang Mai’s best.
Another staple stopover in this region is the iconic Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple (pictured above), one of the holiest locales in the nation perched atop a mountain overlooking the city. The long, winding road is well worth the drive, not only for the panoramic views, but for the opportunity to witness the embodiment of Lanna culture and receive a Buddhist blessing.
Keep the luxe theme going with a stay at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai (pictured above) a zen-like paradise immersed in soothing nature. Accessed by a quiet, roving roadway, the resort goes above-and-beyond with its welcoming customer service and its pristine confines, but the mere setting speaks for itself. Infinity pools look out over rice paddy fields, and manor-like rooms boast intimate terraces and deep bathtubs surrounded by plant-lined glass, which make you feel like you’re taking a bubble bath in the middle of the jungle. Then there’s the restaurant, the aptly dubbed Khao, which features an array of pastries and savories at the breakfast buffet, as well as northern Thai dishes for dinner. Borrowing inspiration from Burmese and Yunanese cuisines, the restaurant ensures a wholly unique experience paired with teas, coffees, Thai wines and intricate cocktails. By day, you can explore the regional cuisine even further with a Thai cooking class, which starts with a guided tour of a nearby market before friendly chef instructors guide you through a series of traditional dishes in one of the resort’s meticulous kitchens. After you head home from Chiang Mai, you’ll be left craving good khao soi, so this is a handy lesson indeed.
On another night, head into town for a tour of a different kind. Chiang Mai Food Tours is a company that gets you up close and personal with the city’s best dishes and eateries, from street food stalls and pad Thai to spicy Thai-style sausage, rooftop cocktails and the famed Tha Pae Walking Street market.
You can’t come to northern Thailand and not make it a point to see elephants. The perfect day in the Chiang Mai area is one spent at “Elephant Daycare” at Patara Elephant Farm. This sanctuary specializes in rescuing elephants, rehabilitating them and eventually releasing them back into the wild. The daycare experience allows select few groups to interact with elephants young and old for a few hours, feeding them and bathing them by a jungle waterfall. It’s an incredible, heartwarming and soul-soothing excursion that’s of the utmost importance during a time when elephant territory is increasingly endangered, and their numbers are dwindling.
Phuket: Seafood, Beaches, Aquatic Exploration, Infinite Infinity Pools
On the opposite side of the country from Chiang Mai, just shy of a two-hour flight south, Phuket is a far cry from mountains, jungles and elephants. Here, the bill of fare is world-famous beaches, crystalline waters, palm trees and seafood galore. It’s really no wonder that Thailand’s largest island is all about the nautical lifestyle.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or rather, when in Phuket, have lunch on a floating raft restaurant. Pae Kruvit is a seafood raft in the Laem Hin area of the island, accessible by a quick boat ride from Laem Hin Pier. The restaurant sources fresh seafood from local fisherman and keeps them in submerged enclosures until customers order. Fish, crabs, lobster, prawns and other delicacies are all on-hand for diners to peruse, and the massive menu offers preparations that really run the gamut, from garlicky shellfish and fried rice to whole-fried fish.
Of course, Phuket has no shortage of opulent accommodations of its own. Chief among them is COMO Point Yamu (pictured above), a serene seaside retreat on a peninsula with ocean views on nearly every side. The uber-contemporary resort looks like a modern art museum, with sleek lines, pops of color and infinity pools overlooking every angle. Whether you’re in a private villa or a balcony-clad room in the main resort, comfort and hospitality are top-of-the-line, with an airy, warm motif that feels almost Grecian. Enjoy dinner at one of the resort’s restaurants, NHAMYAA, where a seafood-centric meal derives inspiration from Thai street food. The smartly designed dining room, bedecked with goldfish imagery and bubbles along the walls and ceiling, provide an aquarium-like feel befitting a seafood dining experience.
The resort also sports its own beach club on a small island off-shore, accessible via a private boat. Outfitted with comfy beach chairs, a swimming pool, water sports equipment and seafood BBQ, it’s a little slice of tranquil paradise within the natural paradise that is Phuket.
For breakfast, trek to Ketho Dimsum for a spree of steamed dumplings and buns bursting with molten plum jam. Egg-topped noodle soups, quenching iced coffee and crispy rice salads round out the roster at this versatile, bustling eatery. Later in the day, tag along with Phuket Food Tours to venture beyond the beaches and into the revered world of the island’s dining scene (Phuket is slated to get its own Michelin guide later this year). Restaurants and vendors here offer everything from traditional, bracing southern Thai fare to dishes infused with flavors from Chinese and Muslim cuisines. You’ll journey through colorful, historic Old Town Phuket, and culminate with a jaunt to one of the island’s energetic night markets, where you can round out your night with snacks or crafty souvenirs.
Every region of the country has its must-do sights and adventures. In Chiang Mai, it was elephants; in Phuket, it’s kayaking through sea caves in Phang Nga Bay. John Gray’s Sea Canoe is a reputable outfitter that takes visitors on a lengthy ferry ride off Phuket and into the island-lined bay. Here you’ll explore bat-filled limestone caves and find peaceful hidden lagoons. Keep your eyes peeled for mudskippers, egrets, kingfishers and other wildlife, though rest assured there’s nothing dangerous. The excursion includes lunch and dinner on the boat, and finishes by letting attendees float their own self-made flower “kratongs” in the water. Illuminated with candles and incense, it’s a spiritual and visceral finale to a truly special day, and the ultimate trip of a lifetime.