Thailand conjures up images of baby elephants, pad thai, crazy Bangkok streets, beautiful beaches and the (in)famous full moon parties. It’s both a relaxing haven for romance and a party pod for graduates. I guess when I visited this time last year, I slotted rather nicely into both categories.
David and I wanted a gorgeous relaxing break – our first official holiday as a couple, and yet I also wanted to visit somewhere with lively culture where I could celebrate the end of my University career, no more dissertation, exams or living 100’s of miles away from home. Yipee!
And so we settled on Thailand. We blocked out 16 days in the diary and we found a very reasonable deal on the flights with Emirates. All that was left was to plan our itinerary. Easy right?
Well, um, nope.
The planning part was actually the most difficult, since there is a plethora of colourful, intriguing islands ready for you to explore, each enticing you with their stunning white sandy beaches and promise of incredible Thai cuisine.
Do we spend 2 days in Bangkok and forfeit visiting another island?
Or do we want to experience the craziness of the city before heading for the tranquility of the islands?
How long do we want to spend in each place?
Do we want to head north to Chiang Mai and visit the elephants?
Suddenly, this whirlwind of travel brochures, Lost Planet articles and personal recommendations all became a little bit much and I began to panic about whether we’d see everything in such a short space of time. So I took a step back, went back to good old pen and paper, whipped open an excel spreadsheet and morphed into some sort of organisation goddess. Well, maybe not the last part.
But anyway, the purpose behind this post was to give you a little insight into how we planned our trip, where I think you should go (and where is worth only giving a few days to) and how to make sure you get the most out of your trip.
Because as much as being able to have 3 months backpacking around the islands would be fab, we needed to squeeze everything into David’s holiday allowance.
Thailand. 16 days, let’s do this.
Recommended stay: 2 nights
If you’re flying from London or any other international airports, then you’ll probably find that you’ll start your Thai adventure in the capital, Bangkok. From here, many people choose to fly straight on to one of the main islands like Phuket, Koh Samui or Krabi, however it totally depends on how much time you have to explore and what you want from your trip.
I’d definitely recommend you spend at least one night in the city, because while it has been likened to Marmite (you’ll either love it or hate it), I do think it really immerses you into the culture from the offset, providing an insight both into the history of Thailand and how people live and work today.
The city is a bustling pod of craziness and the traffic (both pedestrians and road-wise) is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. Colourful tuk tuk’s whizz past you at lightening speed, while mopeds piled high with families of 4 on board weave in between the minuscule gaps of queuing cars. It’s humid, stifling hot and a teeny bit overwhelming at first. But then, you discover the hidden gems of the city.
Glistening gold temples, emblazoned with bright yellow floral displays wait for you around an unassuming corner, offering a sense of local life and culture. Take a boat trip down the Klongs, a series of waterways which gave Bangkok the nickname ‘Venice of the East’. Here you’ll gain a glimpse into how the city’s locals used to live, as you sail past thousands of tiny wooden crooked huts, balancing precariously on stilts, tin roofs caving in but still sheltering residents from the glaring heat. And if you look into the water carefully, you might even catch sight of the Klongs most intimidating residents, the 6ft long Monitor Lizard, who majestically glides through the water looking for his prey.
Just don’t do what I did and almost jump out of the boat in shock.
“It’s not an alligator Scarlett, I repeat, not an alligator!”
Two nights in the city is more than enough time to experience the culture, shop until you drop (Bangkok’s malls are something you HAVE to experience) and dine on street food and traditional cuisine. It’s a great way to ease yourself into the time difference, before you hit the islands as you’ll be much more relaxed and will have recovered from the long haul flight.
Accommodation wise, we stayed at two different hotels in Bangkok, since we actually extended our stay in the city to three nights (I’d recommend keeping it to two though) but it totally depends on what you want from your hotel, as they were both very different. The Hansar Hotel was our first choice, a relaxing retreat in the heart of the bustling city, it featured horizontal wall gardens, a beautiful skyline pool and an incredible spa. Plus their mini suites come as a standard and feature an all-inclusive mini bar (which is oh so helpful when you get weird jet-lag middle of the night Oreo cravings? Just me?).
For something with a bit more grandeur, try the palatial Eastin Grand Sathorn, which can only be described as ‘glittering’, it’s foyer lined with vast glimmering chandeliers. The rooms are very modern, clean and come with an incredible view over the city – so if you want your accommodation offering to make an impact on your Instagram feed, this is definitely the one to opt for.
Recommended stay: 4 nights
From Bangkok, we then jumped on a morning flight to Phuket for our very first taste of the islands. Phuket is one of the most touristy, so we weren’t exactly heading off the beaten track, but it’s a very logical place to start – as we aimed to work our way from the top left of the islands (Phuket), down to the bottom (Koh Phi Phi) and back up to the top right (Koh Samui). Plus, as the largest island Phuket offers something for everyone – tranquility, parties and luxury.
Our first port of call was the Manathai Surin Phuket, conveniently located on the serene Surin beach. Just 15 minutes from the party central of Patong, we were within very easy reach of everything the island has to offer – and yet, enveloped in the comfort of our beautiful hotel.
We spent the next few nights wandering along the nearby beaches, stopping off at the little bars for a Chang beer (and a Pad Thai or two) and generally basking in how beautiful our surroundings were. I’d never been anywhere quite like this in the world and I have the most wonderful memory of seeing the stretch of beach for the first time and running hand in hand with David, into the crashing waves. Being beside the ocean is my happy place – and I will treasure this moment forever!
On the third day on the island, we decided to move hotels, as we’d heard about a little nook called the ‘Nai Harn’, a private stretch secluded from the other parts, with its famous hotel built into the cliff-face, therefore offering the most stunning views. We packed up our backpacks and took a 30 minute drive to the area, which had previously been ravished by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and completely re-developed. It was scary thinking that all the locals in this area had had to completely re-build their homes and their livelihood, but it was also intriguing, as everything still looked very authentic and inviting.
We had two nights booked at the incredible Nai Harn Hotel, a tropical five star resort with a historical Hollywood guest-list, having previously hosted Roger Moore, Peter Ustinov, Prince Albert of Monaco and French president Jacques Chirac in its glamorous ocean-view bedrooms.
The hotel boasts one of the most beautiful locations on the island, set on the fringes of the gorgeous Nai Harn beach, a crescent of platinum white sand populated by day by only a few ‘in-the-know’ residents. The building itself has an almost Mediterranean elegance to it, with layers of crisp white buildings built into the cliff-face, hanging stylishly over the beach and offering bursts of fuchsia floral displays.
In other words, it’s an Instagrammer’s heaven – and what it offers in aesthetics, it also offers in service, style and comfort. Breakfast is a lavish affair, dinner can be held at the base of the hotel. Piri Piri chicken by award-winning chefs, all while the waves lap gently at the restaurant’s rocky walls. The tropical spa offers coconut juice to start and then a relaxing massage, transporting you to realms of relaxation that I’d really love to go back to.
We spent two blissful days drinking in our incredible surroundings, whiling the time to go far slower so that we wouldn’t have to leave. Without over-using the superlatives, I will say that I would make the 14 hour trip back to Thailand just to stay in this beautiful place again, because it felt like a tiny undiscovered part of the world that was our little secret. Only it’s no longer a secret, because I’ve told you! Shhh!
And if spa resorts are totally your thing, only you like to have a cocktail and party on the beach after your massage, then you’ll want to head to the Dream Hotel & Spa, where we spent a whole day feasting on pizza and sunbathing, without even leaving the pool! Quite literally, we ate at the swim up restaurant and bar. Before getting rose petal massages and drinking cocktails on the roof. They also offer hotel rooms if you can’t bear to leave after the afternoon is up!
“Our stay on Koh Phi Phi was where I felt most relaxed and free!”
Koh Phi Phi
Recommended stay: 4 nights
Now one thing I forgot to mention here was that David had previously visited Thailand with his friends and couldn’t stop raving about the one place that they’d loved so much, they’d spent their entire trip at. Koh Phi Phi (or Phi Phi Islands) is a tiny secluded piece of land just off the coast of Phuket. You’ll need to get there by boat, so I’d recommend booking the trip early on so that you don’t miss the departure times. The boat is crowded and a little overwhelming at first (not to mention bumpy) but what awaits for you on the other side is most definitely worth it!
You step off the boat, onto the pier and are thrusted immediately into island life. We did the rather exciting backpacker thing of not turning up with anywhere booked, so we weaved our way through the tiny pedestrianised streets in search of a place to stay. Eventually we stumbled across the Princess hotel, which backed onto the beach and had amazing ocean views – so we checked in, dumped our bags and ventured off to explore.
I think out of the whole trip, our stay on Koh Phi Phi was where I felt most relaxed and free.
The Southern part of the island where we stayed is very popular with backpackers and young people, whereas the more Northern parts feature far more luxurious accommodation offerings, however it was really lovely to experience a more budget-friendly side to Thailand and I loved immersing myself into the backpacker lifestyle.
Here, no-one wears shoes and you peruse the mini market stalls at a slow pace, stopping off at the teeny cafes for a slap up meal (with drinks) where the bill comes to £8 for the two of you. Parties take place on the beach every night and everyone is invited to watch the fire-twirling performers work their magic, illuminating the starry sky with their flaming treats.
If you’ve maxed out your sunbathing quota and want to explore a little more, luckily boat trips on the island are offered in abundance. We hired an entire private boat for the day for £25, which meant we could plan out our itinerary based on where we wanted to go. Monkey island was the first stop-off, a secluded stretch of beach populated by hundreds of energetic monkeys. It was quite a sight! Only I wouldn’t recommend trying to feed or stroke them, as a girl on another boat got a rather nasty bite from a monkey who tried to steal her phone when she attempted a monkey selfie. Selfie’s are great, I am partial to one or two myself. But apparently monkey’s don’t agree.
Next up was Maya Beach, the location for the famous Leonardo DiCaprio Film ‘The Beach’, directed by Danny Boyle and released in 2000, to a warm reception. And rightly so, as this beach is like something from a film set. I didn’t take my big camera with me on this beach, because you have to depart your boat and slide straight into the water to get there, however I did capture a few shots of this incredible place on my GoPro, so make sure you check out my Thailand vlog to see it in action.
While of course, you can just enjoy the beach for hours on end, there is an entire tropical National Park on the island to wander round. Only… Beware of the Coconuts!
Our stay on Phi Phi wasn’t luxurious by any means, we were staying in a £45 a night room on stilts and we had money stolen from our safe. However it was possibly my favourite part of the trip because I felt so free. I caught a glimpse of what backpackers must feel like, taking each day as it comes, exploring everywhere on foot, with no phone signal and no dinner reservations. I felt so happy and so at peace. We switched off our wifi (tuning out from the ever evolving and turbulent politics) and just experienced it the two of us. We explored by day, partied by night. And I loved every single second.
Next time, I’d love to see what Koh Phi Phi offers in terms of luxury accommodation, but at the same time, for me it was all about the experience rather than where our bed was located. And trust me, you wouldn’t hear me say that very often – so it must have been special!
Recommended stay: 2 nights
We didn’t really want to leave Koh Phi Phi, as in my head, it was my new found home. However we knew we were in for a treat with our next destination, even if the journey was going to take almost half a day!
We jumped on the boat, waved goodbye to Phi Phi and made way for Krabi – which is part of the mainline, but very popular for tourists and party-goers. From here, we got a transfer to Khanom, which is on the other side of the mainland, facing islands such as Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.
It took around three hours to reach our destination, but it was an incredible journey (not quite as mundane as a trip around the M25) as we passed huge tropical cliffs, vast expanse of jungle and whizzed our way through National Park’s. We stopped off at a service station and I bagged myself a packet of Oreo cookies for 25p! Dangerous stuff!
Eventually we arrived at our home for the next few nights, the Mr & Mrs Smith recommended Aava Resort & Spa, a green leafy paradise with cube pool-side suites and Scandinavian buildings. It was a stark contrast to the rest of its surroundings (wooden shacks and secluded white beaches) but at the same time, it just kind of worked. It’s an unusual paradise, but one recognised by Tatler – so I knew it had to be good!
While in Khanom, we had booked to go and visit the traditional markets and take a boat trip to see the rare pink dolphins which were often sighted on this side of the island, however on our first morning, I was struck down with food poisoning and so traded views of incredibly unusual creatures, for a view of the bathroom walls.
Sorry, if that’s TMI!
Luckily for me though, our toilet still had gorgeous views of the surrounding coastline.
So I didn’t miss out too much.
Unfortunately this meant that I don’t exactly have the fondest of memories of Khanom as a destination, however on our final day I was feeling much better and managed to take a stroll along the hotel’s stretch of private beach, coconut in hand and truly drink in my beautiful surroundings.
I may have been feeling very worse for wear, but I knew that this place was something rather special.
As a much less touristic place, our Khanom stay was where we really ventured off the beaten track, as we were pretty much the only people from the UK around and we enjoyed experiencing a different side to the islands.
The area itself offers a much more authentic taste of island life – and we were even paid a visit by a very scary looking local – a 5ft long lizard who positioned himself outside our hut door and wouldn’t move even with some gentle coaxing. Eventually we left him to claim his stake on our bedroom and retreated back to the bar.
Sometimes, you have to know when to pick your battles!
Recommended stay: 4 nights
Our final leg of the trip was to be spent on the beautiful island of Koh Samui, which I’d heard was predominantly touristic and party-fuelled but actually turned out to be just what the doctor had ordered after my ordeal in Khanom. In fact, I think Koh Samui stood out to me as the most romantic and relaxing part of the entire trip, largely down to the beautiful hotel we had the pleasure of staying in.
The Amari Koh Samui looked from the outset to be a complete tropical and beach-filled paradise and it certainly didn’t disappoint. We jumped off the boat at the port, onto a rickety old bus and made way for the hotel, eagerly hoping for something incredible to impress us.
Luckily, we weren’t disappointed, as we pulled up to the huge glass fronted Amari and were swept into the foyer, ready for check in. We were shown to our room on the ground floor, located right next to one of the beautiful pools – so almost immediately, we pulled out our swimming stuff and jumped right in! We whiled away the rest of the afternoon drinking Monkey Coladas (Banana flavoured Pina Coladas) and chatting to fellow guests.
From there on, our days were spent at the hotel and our evenings exploring the nearby town centre, which was filled with restaurants, shops and rather intriguing shows. In fact, it was during a performance at Starz Cabaret (the most incredible drag queens) were David turned to me – as we were both bobbing along to a badly mimed rendition of Mamma Mia, our smiles pinned from ear to ear – and said, “I think this is the highlight of our relationship.” And we both almost collapsed in a fit of laughter as the poor boy in front of us (sitting with his parents) got an eyeful of the performers bursting chest.
Within our package deal, we had a one-day car hire included, which was slightly terrifying (although no traffic seems to faze David) but exciting as it meant we could explore the island with our very own treasure map. From here, we made our way to the Giant Buddha, for which on our return journey, we promptly got very lost and ended up halfway round the island at the coconut plantation. Oh well, getting lost is the fun part, right?
“I think this is the highlight of our relationship!”
So there we have it, an entire 16 day itinerary for your Thailand adventure! Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the islands (although I wish I could visit them all) but just an overview of where we went and how long it’s worth spending at each.
If you’ve visited anywhere else in Thailand and have any recommendations, please do feel free to leave them below, as we’re actually planning our second trip back and would absolutely love your tips!
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to make it up to the north of Thailand and see the elephants, which I was a little disappointed about, as they’re my favourite animal and I would have loved the opportunity to see them up close! We did catch a glimpse of them while in Phuket but unfortunately they weren’t very well treated and it was uncomfortable to see them all chained up, with people riding them. They’re such majestic creatures and it was upsetting to see them being used for entertainment, but I am hoping we’ll be able to see the elephants in their natural environment on a return trip!
Where in the world are you off to over the coming months? Where should I visit next?