A common conundrum for travelers planning their next getaway is the city versus country debate. Do you want culture or relaxation? A buzzing metropolis or not a single soul in sight? Beach or jungle? The beauty of Thailand is you can have every single option above without ever leaving the country.
Most travelers enter Thailand via Bangkok, but it would be a mistake to treat the bright, bold city as merely a gate to the islands. Bangkok is a destination unto itself, with its dazzling ornate temples, delectable street food and intriguing markets.
Spend a day exploring the temples, which are filled with so many details that you won’t know where to look first. Start at Wat Pho, a sprawling temple complex famous for its Reclining Buddha, the largest Buddha in Thailand at more than 150 feet long. Incredibly immense, it shimmers and mesmerizes. Wat Pho is also home to the country’s largest collection of Buddha images, the oldest center for public education and the national headquarters for teaching traditional Thai medicine, including Thai massage. Another can’t-miss Buddha is at Wat Traimit in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Dating back to the 13th century, the impressively large gold statue of a seated Buddha rests inside an adorned temple. True to its name, Wat Benchamabophit, aka the Marble Temple, is a stunning piece of lavish architecture made from white marble. It boasts a beautiful garden with fountains, courtyard made of Italian marble and a replica of the Phra Buddhajinaraja Buddha statue. Another stop on the Buddha tour should be the Emerald Buddha from the 14th century, known as Wat Phra Kaew, which is on the grounds of the Grand Palace and considered the most sacred site in the country. The robes of the Emerald Buddha are changed every season by the king of Thailand in an important ritual. The palace was built in 1782 and was the seat of the Thai king, royal court and administrative governments for 150 years.
Chances are all that temple touring in the heat will leave you tuckered out, so rest and recharge at The Siam, an oasis in the middle of the bustling city. Nestled along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok’s historic district, you can take a dip in the beautiful swimming pool overlooking the river, find your Zen at the serene Opium Spa with a meditation or treatment, or explore the three acres of lush gardens. The rooms are elegantly appointed and exploring the boutique hotel feels like wandering through a museum as you look upon old photographs, antiques and a collection of Buddhas. In the morning, eat breakfast al fresco at their restaurant along the river.
Thailand is home to some of the most unique markets in the world, including the Maeklong Railway Market. About an hour by car outside of Bangkok, the market is right on top of train tracks, where people sell everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to flowers, clothing, street food and souvenirs. The train comes through a few times a day; watch vendors and shoppers alike scramble to clear the tracks. After the train passes—it’s close enough to touch—they quickly move everything back until it comes again. While you’re waiting for the next one, you can watch people stringing flowers on garlands or sample local bites like fried bananas or salted dried fish.
From the Maeklong Railway Market, make your way to Damnoen Saduak, the country’s most famous floating market. Take the scenic route there via boat through the countryside, passing lush greenery and homes on water. As you enter the iconic passageway, it feels like you’re in a movie when you float by other boats and stands selling everything you can imagine—even snake handlers are on standby. Perhaps most impressive is the vendors who have turned their boats into kitchens, making noodles with a range of ingredients simmering in a giant pot, or grilling chicken satay or peddling homemade coconut ice cream. A feast for all the senses, consider it the Uber Eats of Thailand.
Back in Bangkok, take a stroll through the flower market after dark to see it in action—it’s open 24 hours a day. There is a true art to folding the flowers, similar to origami, to make garlands and floral sculptures. A friendly florist may even show you the traditional technique of how to fold lotus leaves.
If a city escape is what you’re after, make Koh Samui your next destination. Thailand’s second largest island is in the Gulf of Thailand and filled with gorgeous beaches, coconut groves and luxurious resorts, including Six Senses Samui. Its location at the northern tip of the island offers sweeping panoramic views. It’s hard to beat having your own private villa with a patio. Tear yourself away from your abode to lounge by the infinity pool or soak up the sun on the private beach along the white sand and turquoise waters. Their al fresco restaurants serve traditional Thai dishes, which taste even better while you’re watching the sunset. The Six Senses Samui offers cooking classes so you can learn how to whip them up yourself. If you want to burn off calories, take a Muay Thai class overlooking the ocean.
Island hopping is always a great option and you can charter a boat with a guide. Other popular local sites to explore are the Big Buddha Temple and fisherman’s village. Get in the water yourself to snorkel or dive at Ang Thong National Marine Park, or stay close to home and enjoy water sports at the resort with complimentary gear including kayaks and snorkeling masks and fins.
Thailand’s islands are as varied as the country itself, so after seeing the north, travel to the south to Koh Kut, the fourth largest island, but the least populated. There you’ll find Soneva Kiri in the Gulf of Siam in the tropical rainforest, a resort that redefines eco luxury. You’ll feel like a celebrity taking the property’s private plane the short flight from Bangkok, landing on a tiny air strip in the middle of the jungle, then escorted by speedboat to the resort. Every guest has access to a butler and a personal golf cart to explore the massive property. Each villa is a jungalow dream house, with an outdoor bathroom in which you can suds up in a choice of fresh air showers or an oversized tub. The private patio has a swimming pool all to yourself, as well as your own strip of beach complete with lounge chairs and an umbrella.
Though you’ll never tire of your own beach and pool, you still have to see Soneva Kiri’s private beach, which is a few minutes away by speedboat and adorned with hammocks and ice cold drinks at your service. Take an eco tour of the property to see Soneva Kiri’s sustainability efforts, including a mushroom hut where four varieties are grown, a tree nursery, onsite recycling center that uses food waste from their restaurants for compost, water purifying system and an organic vegetable garden that grows nearly half of their restaurants’ produce. After dark, catch a film screening at Cinema Paradiso, their al fresco movie theater, or explore the night sky at the observatory.
Get up close and personal with sea life in the crystal clear waters during a snorkeling trip to Koh Rang National Marine Park. Just a 40-minute scenic ride away by speedboat, you can explore the coral reefs and countless schools of colorful fish that make you feel as if you’re inside your own aquarium. Another magical spot is taking an afternoon trip to Koh Kut, where you can explore a temple, then venture to Klong Chao Waterfall.
Soneva Kiri offers a plethora of dining options. Make a reservation at The View restaurant with a wraparound deck, where you can watch the waves crash as the sun sets as you chow down on the seasonal European fine dining menu with an Asian twist. Nearby is a wine-tasting room overlooking the ocean with incredible views. A meal at Benz’s is sure to be one of the most memorable of your life, where you arrive by boat and can dine on the restaurant’s deck. The chef whips up a traditional gourmet Thai meal based on whatever fresh ingredients are available and the seafood caught by local fishermen that day. Each course is a surprise that veers between simple dishes and culinary works of art, with spices and flavors that will leave you speechless.
To satisfy a sweet tooth, there’s an entire room near the main dining room dedicated to chocolate, in every form you can imagine—chocolate milk, mousses, cookies, bonbons, truffles and macaroons. Next door is their Ice Cream Parlour with more than 60 flavors. Another unique dining experience is The Tree Pod. Sit in the bamboo pod and be lifted among the treetops of the rainforest. The server delivers your meal via zipline, making the service as impressive as the view. It feels like you’re tucked into a delightfully cozy nest as you enjoy the vista of the azure shoreline. The literal bird’s eye view stretches as far as the eye can see, letting you take in the many wonders of Thailand.