The Essential Thailand: A Guide to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket
Thailand—one of Southeast Asia’s most popular countries—continues to grow and flourish. It has so much to offer, from magnificent temples to ancient ruins to bustling cities to beautiful palm-studded beaches. Once the sun begins to set, the streets come alive with markets and street vendors, selling fun trinkets and doling out inexpensive yet delicious food. Bursting with places to see, things to do, and food to eat, the Land of Smiles is one destination you’ll never be bored in.
As with any tropical destination, Thailand can get extremely hot and humid, so avoid the wet, summer season and instead aim to travel from November through February. And, like most places worth visiting, getting to this exotic locale is quite the journey. There are no direct flights from the United States, so be sure to choose an airline that you are not only comfortable with, but that affords you a layover in a desirable airport. Cathay Pacific is arguably one of the best options: You’ll stop in Hong Kong and you won’t have to go through customs, immigration, or a terminal change. Not to mention, HKG is home to some of the best business- and first-class lounges in the world, with luxurious shower rooms that are exactly what you need after a long-haul flight and scrumptious noodle bars to prep you for your three-hour trip to Bangkok.
Once you get to Thailand, you’ll have plenty to do. Here, a look at how to get around, where to stay, and what to eat in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket.
Skyscrapers, multilane highways, and bumper-to-bumper traffic—unlike anywhere else in Thailand, the country’s capital is as urban as you get. If you’re coming from a big city, Bangkok will feel familiar. It can be a little gritty, but take it at face value and you’ll appreciate the hustle and bustle a lot more.
While tuk-tuks may be a fun experience, they’re not particularly practical or safe. There are plenty of metered cabs that you can hail (make sure you remind the driver to “meter” when you get in) and Uber is fairly ubiquitous as well. For those who want to avoid heavy traffic during rush hour, a comprehensive metro system running through the main parts of the city is also an option.
Where to Eat
Most days you’ll find a pop-up, tented street food market outside of CentralWorld mall on the plaza hugging Ratchadamri Road. It’s unpretentious and inexpensive, and you’ll find everything from fresh fruit juice to fried seafood to grilled chicken on skewers. Those who are hesitant to try food from one of the outdoor makeshift stalls can head over to Eathai at Central Embassy, where more commercialized versions of hawker fare are served up in the basement level of the mall.
Local haunt P’Aor’s must-order dish, tom yum goong noodles, just might be one of your favorite meals ever. Paired with a variety of seafood, the broth is rich and creamy, packed with flavor from the herbs and spices used to make the soup. For some stellar pad thai, head over to Baan Phadthai, where you have to get the traditional noodle dish with blue crab. Afterward, make a short trip over to Lebua’s rooftop bar Sky Bar and grab a cocktail while enjoying stellar views of the city. Lastly, for those who want a fine-dining experience, Como Metropolitan’s highly regarded Nahm restaurant will not disappoint.
What to Do and See
The Grand Palace is undoubtedly the attraction in Bangkok. The grounds also host the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, allowing you to knock off two landmarks from your list quickly. Remember to dress modestly, but in case your shorts are a little too short or your top a smidge too revealing, the tourist office has clothes for you to borrow. Wat Pho is also nearby should you want to pay a visit to the Reclining Buddha.
In the evenings, (except for Mondays), the relatively new Ratchada Train Market offers not only a variety of street food stalls, but is a fun shopping destination as well, with vendors selling everything from touristy knickknacks to vintage clothing. And if you happen to be in Bangkok on the weekend, make sure you make the trip out to Amphawa Floating Market for the quintessential Thai experience. You’ll find everything from exotic fruits like mangosteen and rambutan being sold on the wooden boats floating along the canal, as well as ridiculously large prawns and fresh scallops being grilled onboard. Full disclosure: Unlike Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, you won’t be rowing your way through the canal at Amphawa, but this does fortunately mean it’s a little less tourist-laden than its popular counterpart.
Where to Stay
A respite from the cacophony of the city, the Siam Hotel, with its sleek Art Deco black and white façade, is just far enough away from all of the excitement that it’s a welcomed retreat after a busy day of traipsing around Bangkok. With 39 spacious accommodations, a stunning infinity pool with views of the Chao Phraya River, a spa outfitted with a hammam-inspired room, and even a private boat shuttle to and from the BTS Saphan Taksin pier every 90 minutes, the Siam is the definition of luxury. Before you head out for the day, start your morning off at the hotel’s restaurant with an alfresco breakfast looking over the river, sipping on fresh watermelon juice and enjoying a plate of guay tiew talay (wok-fried flat rice noodles with prawns and squid), included in your room rate.
Chiang Mai will feel like a rural town in comparison to Thailand’s capital; the town square is characterized by low and rickety buildings and fairly basic infrastructure. Transportation is also a bit lackluster, but somehow perfectly plays into the charm of the northern capital. Head a little west and you’ll find a few skyscrapers, cute little neighborhoods, and even, gasp, a mall—all trademarks reminiscent of a burgeoning city conforming to a more modern-day lifestyle. Wander north or south and the adventurist inside you will be teeming with delight. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone here in this eclectic destination that’s just waiting to be explored.
Taxis are rare, but it’s relatively easy to get around by foot within and around the square, where an abundance of temples, restaurants, and markets are located. But for longer distances, opt for Uber, which just recently launched in Chiang Mai and is starting to gain some traction, or take a songthaews (red trucks), a shared form of transportation for locals and tourists alike.
Where to Eat
If there’s one dish you have to have in Chiang Mai, it’s khao soi. A regional food of northern Thailand, the best bowl is dished out at Khao Soi Khun Yai. A curry-based broth simmered for about three hours is topped off with coconut milk and served with egg noodles, cilantro, your choice of protein, and fried noodles. Add a little bit of lime juice and you’ll have the perfect balance of sourness and heat. Order seconds because this meal will undoubtedly be one that you’ll never forget.
Once dusk comes around, vendors start setting up along Manee Nopparat Road just past the North Gate in what is known as Prathu Chang Puak market. Find the stall being manned by a woman in a cowboy hat, chopping up loads of stewed pork hock and laying it over a bed of rice. The meat is unbelievably tender and chock-full of flavor from the soy sauce and spices used to stew the fatty protein. Make sure to also order a bowl of the pork rib soup for just a small additional charge. A few vendors down you’ll also find fresh mango sticky rice, the perfect dessert to end your dinner with.
Another favorite in Chiang Mai is Cherng Doi Roast Chicken. Grab a seat at one of the wooden benches outside and order a green papaya salad, the kai yang nang krob (grilled boneless chicken with crispy skin that’s served with an addictive, tangy tamarind sauce), and a side of sticky rice. This will be another feast for the books.
What to Do and See
One of the most magnificent temples in Chiang Mai is Wat Chedi Luang, adorned with stone naga and elephant statues standing guard around the brick structure that dates back to the 14th century. West of the Old City is Wat Suan Dok, where the white mausoleums leading up to the gold bell-shaped pagoda may remind you a little of Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Khun. Then there’s Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple said to be built over the site of where a royal white elephant carrying a magical, self-replicating relic on its back died.
For those who want to be adventurous, zipline through the canopies of a lush forest, go whitewater rafting down Mae Taeng River, cliff jump at Grand Canyon Chiang Mai, and climb up the sticky Bua Thong waterfall. But if you rather get some shopping done, head over to Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center, a seven-floor mall packed with clothes, electronics, and a food bazaar, followed by Think Park plaza just down the street, holding little shops highlighting the works of local artisans and a delightful ice cream shop called Seasons for a scoop of fruity sorbet (kiwi apple is a must) if you need a break from the heat. However, what is probably the biggest attraction of the year is the lantern release during Loi Krathong. The event takes place around the full moon of the 12th month per the Thai calendar, typically during what we know as November. It’s a true sight to be seen as thousands of khom loi are released into the evening sky.
Where to Stay
Having just opened October 2015 in the burgeoning trendy Nimmanhaemin neighborhood just west of the town square, the chic 30-suite Akyra Manor Chiang Mai is the new It boutique hotel in the area. A rooftop pool and bar are available should you want to catch some rays or grab a cocktail during happy hour, and after a tireless day wandering around, unwind in the standalone egg-shaped bathtub with a view of city.
With a proposal on the table to ban alcohol in Bali, Phuket is climbing up the ranks and getting ready to overshadow the popular Indonesian island as the top beach destination in Southeast Asia. Beautiful beaches and stellar resorts, Phuket is where you come for some much deserved reset and relaxation.
Unlike Bangkok and Chiang Mai, traveling around Phuket is neither as convenient nor as inexpensive as the aforementioned two cities. You’ll most likely need to call a car, but the other alternative is to download GrabTaxi, a transportation app similar to Uber. Your best bet is to hire a driver for the day to take you around the island and get all of the landmarks out of the way, then spend the rest of your vacation soaking in the sun at your hotel.
Where to Eat
An alfresco seafood dinner by the water is a must while in Phuket and Kan Eang @Pier is one of the most popular spots, with fresh lobster, wild-caught fish, tiger prawns the size of your hand, and a variety of curries all on the menu. If you’re in the mood for something that’s a little more like home cooking, Raya, tucked inside a Sino-Portuguese home in Phuket Town, will hit the spot. Don’t miss out on the crabmeat with curry and coconut milk served with small bundles of rice vermicelli—which is subtle in flavor, but delicious nevertheless—and what is known on the menu as steamed pork with pepper and garlic, an item native to the island where the meat is braised for hours and is packed with flavor from all of the peppercorns and garlicky goodness. Lastly, touted as the restaurant you go to for “Royal Thai cuisine,” Blue Elephant takes Thai food to next level, serving up dishes like crab soufflé, massaman lamb, and foie gras tamarind sauce.
What to Do and See
The most notable site on the island is Big Buddha, but for stunning panoramic views, head out to Karon View Point and Phromthep Cape to snap some FOMO-inducing photographs. For your expedition through Phang Nga Bay, skip the cliché James Bond Island and book a tour with John Gray’s Sea Canoe. You’ll be put in the expert hands of your guide, who paddles you in and out of magical sea caves and hidden lagoons, aweing over large mangroves and possibly even a rare monkey sighting while you listen to the songs of cicadas.
Should you want some sand between your toes, west Phuket is home to some exquisite beaches. With soft, white sand and an abundance of waves, the Andaman Sea’s blue hue is soothing, evoking a kind of peacefulness within that is characteristic of the island.
Where to Stay
When going to a beautiful beach destination like Phuket, your choice in accommodation is everything, and Sri Panwa is unlike any other resort you could imagine. Stretching over 40 acres of land on Cape Panwa, the breathtaking views of the Andaman Sea can be taken in from any vantage on the property. Each room is equipped with a balcony and infinity-edge pool, villas are outfitted with a coveted outdoor shower, and quarters are spacious. Start your day off with a buffet-style breakfast; schedule a relaxing massage at the Cool Spa; sunbathe at the private beach or one of the two pools onsite if you decide to not make use of your room’s balcony; grab cocktails on the rooftop deck at Baba Nest during sunset while taking in an unhindered, 360-degree view of Phuket; and end your night at Baba Soul Food with a scrumptious dinner. You’ll never want to leave.