Meera Dattani celebrates the Asian favourite's variety.
Thailand’s beaches are undoubtedly one of its biggest attractions, but with Buddhist temples, limestone landscapes, hill trekking and sublime diving, spicing up a holiday here is simple.
It’s easy to pin labels to Thailand’s regions – the north for trekking and tribes, Bangkok for culture and shopping, the south for beach and diving. But there’s more to each one.
Northern Thailand, once the ancient Lanna Kingdom, has exquisite architecture and a strong culinary scene in Chiang Mai. Bangkok is unmissable, but the central region is also home to the ancient cities of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, as well as national parks and adventure hub Kanchanaburi.
In the south, the beaches are wonderful, but a spectacular limestone karst backdrop and inland attractions such as Khao Sok National Park provide depth.
The joy of Thailand is that it’s easy to dial up or down any element, providing clients with a mix suited to them.
Adventure: North to South
There’s a reason why northern Thailand is pitched as adventure-ville. The lush hills and valleys around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai offer treks for every level, plus activities such as rafting along the Mae Tang River, meeting hill tribes and cycling.
Intrepid Travel’s four-day Active Chiang Mai is a whistle-stop tour with rafting, hiking and cycling included in the £222 price.
If clients aren’t fans of group tours, they can add on shorter experiences. Viator offers mountain biking on Thailand’s highest mountain Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai province, and the Flight of the Gibbon treetop adventure, featuring Asia’s longest single-flight zipline, near Chonburi, east of Bangkok.
Central Thailand has plenty for the adventure-seeker. KE Adventures’ 13-day In the Kingdom of Siam Discovery Tour, from £995, features trekking in wildlife-rich Khao Yai National Park, meditating with monks in the ancient capital Ayutthaya, staying in jungle raft houses on the River Kwai and snorkelling around Koh Tao island.
In southern Thailand, sea kayaking is a big hitter. John Gray’s Sea Canoe offers a memorable Hong By Starlight trip through the caves and lagoons of Phang Nga Bay, Phuket.
Inland, Khao Sok National Park offers trekking, kayaking and wildlife-spotting with luxury accommodation at Elephant Hills jungle camp or the floating Rainforest Camp on Cheow Lan Lake.
To see several islands in one trip, suggest a sailing trip. G Adventures’ seven-day Sailing Thailand, from £999, explores Phuket and the Andaman Sea coast. Intrepid Travel’s week-long Koh Samui Sailing Adventure goes east to Koh Pha-Ngan and the Ang Thong Marine National Park in the gulf of Thailand, from £728.
For divers, the Similan Islands, west of Phuket, are a paradise of white-sand beaches and coral gardens. Dive Worldwide’s 10-night trip, from £1,445, includes two nights on a liveaboard, plus diving around Phuket and Khao Lak.
Beach: Limestone and luxury
Thailand’s beach accommodation is as impressive as its sands, with destination spas, family resorts, eco bungalows and secluded retreats by the bucketload.
And as the rainy season hits the western Andaman coast between April and November, and, to a lesser degree, the eastern Gulf coast between October and January, there’s a beach to suit year-round.
Forget assumptions about who goes where. Yes, Phuket’s Patong Beach lures the partygoers, but there are plenty of quieter alternatives to suggest to other types of clients, such as Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort on Bangtao Beach, tranquil Cape Panwa on the southern tip and Dewa on Nai Yang Beach in the north.
Since the 2004 tsunami, Thailand’s western coastline around Krabi has reinvented itself. In Khao Lak, luxury resort The Sarojin extends its beach offering to cooking lessons, trekking, rock-climbing and experiences with mahouts (elephant guardians) and rice farmers.
On the east coast lies Hua Hin, Thailand’s oldest beach resort. Its proximity to the fishing village of Cha Am, Pala-U waterfall, Sam Roi Yot National Park and golf courses attract many.
Banyan Tree Samui Beach
Accommodation ranges from the value – Premier Holidays offers a night at Regent Chalet Beach Resort from £23 per person – to luxury health resort Chiva-Som.
The eastern island trio of Koh Samui, Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao are firm favourites with UK travellers, especially Samui’s combination of backpacker bungalows, fishing villages, forested interior and boutique retreats.
Chaweng Beach continues to attract partygoers, but quieter beaches include Laem Set in the south. The Banyan Tree Samui sits on one of the island’s only private beaches, with rooms from £480 per night.
Boutique colonial-style Manathai on Lamai Beach opened on July 1, with introductory rates from £52 per night until October 31.
Culture: Cooking and customs
Clients can overdose on culture in Bangkok, where shrines, temples and rituals sit alongside a formidable shopping and restaurant scene.
The Grand Palace is the biggest attraction, home to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, while Chinatown, Little India, floating markets and historic waterways of the Chao Phraya River showcase Bangkok’s communities and traditions.
Strong competition comes from Chiang Mai, with its beautiful temples – the most famous is mountain-top Doi Suthep – and hill tribes who retain their distinctive culture.
Exodus’s two-week Classic Thailand Premium trip mixes beaches with back-street tours of Bangkok and cooking courses in Chiang Mai, from £1,279, while Trafalgar’s 10-day Secrets of Thailand, from £1,825, incorporates a tai chi session in Bangkok’s Lumpini Park, and lunch in a village near Chiang Mai.
Bangkok floating market
For real immersion, G Adventures’ Local Living Hilltribe Experience is a six-day trip out of Chiang Mai from £249. Guests experience homestays with the Black Lahu and Shan communities in the jungle highlands, learning how they cook, farm and create hand-crafted goods.
Clients don’t even need to head to the mainland for a taste of Thai culture.
Go beyond the beach and Phuket’s history comes to life. In Phuket Town, Sino (Chinese) Portuguese shop-houses offer an insight into the communities who lived here long before the tourists arrived, and many hotels and companies offer tours.
Luxury hotels such as Paresa Resort Phuket encourage guests to explore with Thai cooking courses and elephant bathing. Wider island tours visit a rubber plantation, old tin mines, Wat Prathong and the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project.
TransIndus’s 14-day City, Jungle and Beach trip includes cultural tours in Bangkok, a stay at an elephant camp in Khao Sok and time on the Andaman coast, from £1,450. transindus.co.uk
The Family Adventure Company’s 12-day Land of Smiles trip visits Bangkok, includes a waterfall in Kanchanaburi, elephant bathing in Chiang Mai and beach time in Hua Hin, from £1,583 for adults and £1,425 for children. familyadventurecompany.co.uk
G Adventures’ 14-day Thailand Hike, Bike and Kayak, from £1,089, combines cycling in Bangkok, Kanchanaburi and Ayutthaya with hill-tribe trekking in Chiang Mai and sea kayaking off Krabi. gadventures.co.uk
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