Thailand is a bucket-list destination for many travelers, and a great place for newbie world travelers to get started on their lifelong journeys. But how to begin planning a trip to such a diverse country, rich with vacation possibilities? Expert guide Brandon Presser, of Bravo's Tour Group, tells you how.
1. Plan for the right mix of experiences.
"Culturally, historically and geographically, the Kingdom of Thailand has four parts: Central Thailand, Southern Thailand, Northern Thailand, and Northeast Thailand, or Isan. For the sake of travel planning though, it’s easiest to conceive of the country as having three distinct sections: Central Thailand, or Bangkok, and all that surrounds the incredible international city; Southern Thailand with beautiful beaches along the Andaman and Gulf Coasts; and Northern Thailand where vibrant culture and large expanses of wilderness are experienced. And ideally a trip includes all three."
2. Bounce around on short (and cheap!) domestic flights.
"The easiest way to experience the three pillars of Thailand travel is to use short domestic flights. With the advent of low cost airfare it’s quite simple to bounce around the country — an ideal two-week itinerary could look something like: four days in and around Bangkok, four days outside of Chiang Mai, and four days on the beach. And with a ton of international connections you could even fly into Chiang Mai (from Hong Kong, say, on Cathay Pacific), drop down to Bangkok, continue on to Phuket and then head home (connecting back through Hong Kong, for example) without ever having to double back on a destination you’ve already visited."
3. Culture first, beaches last.
"When putting your itinerary in order, start with either Bangkok or Northern Thailand, then explore the other, and leave the beaches for the end of your trip. You’ll want to hustle and explore in Bangkok and the North, and save the beach relaxing for the last few days so that you don’t feel like you need a vacation from your vacation when you’re heading home (and you’ll have a great tan at the end of the trip that you can show off when you’re back home)."
4. Experience authentic culture, respectfully.
"So, let’s say you’re starting in Thailand’s North. Culturally, this is a very different destination than the rest of Thailand. Long ago this was the Lanna Kingdom, whereas most of Thailand was ruled under Siam — today the differences are still very palpable, and there’s a rural tribal element to the North that makes the region even more enticing. It’s important, however, that you take in these indigenous cultures, like the long-necked Karen, in a responsible and sustainable fashion — you’ll need a seasoned guiding team like Smiling Albino to best unveil the destination in a small touring environment. The local guides can bridge the gap for a more authentic and less ‘zoo-like’ experience."
5. Interact with animals without cruelty.
"Elephants are a crucial part of the Thailand experience, and the North is their domain. There are several conservation centers that offer full transparency about how they rescue and tend to their animals. My favorite option is the Four Seasons Tented Camp along the border of Myanmar near the Golden Triangle. The ultra-exclusive property has a chic safari vibe (the canvas tents have a climate control), an incredible on-site chef, and offer the full ‘mahoot’ experience where travelers get to learn how to properly care for these dear beasts."
6. Pick a posh crash pad.
Bangkok is one of the most vibrant cities on the planet, with so many things to see and do in and around the metropolis. Base yourself at the SO Sofitel, which is perfectly located near Lumpini Park; basically it’s between everything you’ll want to check out in the city. The property pulls out all the stops to show guests that it’s the hippest address in town: whimsically designed staff uniforms, sleek room decor based on the earth’s five elements, and the best buffet breakfast in town.
Sail down the Chao Phraya river taking in the temples, visit the floating market at Amphawa, enjoy the notorious nightlife, check out a tailor, maybe see the Tiffany transgender cabaret show in Pattaya, or spend a day in the old capital of Ayutthaya — the options are endless."
7. Pick the right beach experience for you.
"When it comes to Thailand’s beaches you can really make yourself crazy with choices. It’s easiest to think of the South as having two constellations of islands: the Gulf and the Andaman. Traditionally, the Andaman has those signature limestone crags that everyone writes home about, and the Andaman islands tend to be smaller and more varied. The Gulf really only has three islands in its orbit: Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan, and Ko Tao. All three are fairly large relative to some of the speckles on the Andaman Coast, but offer comparable amounts of natural beauty and luxury.
There’s something about the Gulf side that always draws me back — maybe because it’s slightly slower-paced than the Andaman side. A perfect visit would involve occupying one of Ko Samui’s private pool villas and spending a day in the undeveloped Ang Thong Marine Park archipelago (according to legend the producers of the Leonardo DiCaprio movieThe Beach wanted to film here but the government wouldn’t let it). For barefoot beach luxury, no brand strikes a better balance than Six Senses, which has a cluster of beautiful wooden villas on Ko Samui’s northeastern tip draped in bamboo and jungle vines. My favorite restaurant in all of Thailand is located on property: Dining on the Rocks is situated on a series of cantilevered verandas overlooking the sea and sunset. If local food’s really your thing, the staff will gladly take you to the nearby market or even have you tour the hotel’s private farm full of tropical produce."
8. Beat your own trail.
"Thailand has long been a popular destination for visitors, but the biggest misconception about the nation is that it’s all been explored. Not every corner is overrun with tourists — there are still plenty of incredible nooks and crannies (and lonely beaches) worth hunting down. I would recommend checking out @ThailandInsider on Instagram if you’re looking for some trip inspiration. The tourism board’s account does a good job of whetting the appetite and showing off different and unexpected corners of the Land of Smiles."
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Jet Set is Bravo's launch pad for the most extravagant, luxurious, and unforgettable travel experiences. Ready for takeoff? Then Like us on Facebook to stay connected to our daily updates.