Fantasy Fortnight: where Thailand-expert David Leck would recommend travelling after lockdown.
We can't travel further than our armchairs right now. But that doesn't stop us planning ahead and, for many people, a dream destination would be to head east to Thailand once lockdown is over.
The Southeast Asian country is a friendly, foodie haven and offers something for everyone whether it's bustling cities, golden temples, hiking alongside rice paddies or just lazing around on a beach.
David Leck - "copywriter, writer, PR and travel nut" - has written about Thailand for many newspapers and magazines and also regularly edits and updates the AA city guide to Bangkok (Fodor in the USA). Here he gives some ideas of how to fill two weeks in his favourite Asian country.
Gilded temples, beaches screaming “paradise”, spas to send lockdown stress packing, coconut-infused curries and charming people – there are many reasons Thailand is something of a champion when it comes to getting seriously under the skin of travellers.
But this Buddhist kingdom of 70 million people – the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonised – became mainstream long ago. The challenge for the adventurous first-timer and the returning visitor is to be one step ahead in pursuit of paths less trodden and corners untouched.
Beaches and islands are what tempt most of us. And with thousands scattered around the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea the selection is enough to keep you happily engaged in choosing for many an hour in lockdown.
Koh Samui and Phuket may top the premier league of coastal treasures but there’s much more to be discovered across a coastline of some 3,200 km. Don’t discard the big hitters though because they’re still pretty impressive when it comes to surprise and reinvention.
In fact, Samui is especially good at R&R retreats away from pulsating nightlife and fast food, big-name neon signage. Tamarind Springs is a delightful spa, complete with villa accommodation and its own restaurant set among a stunning backdrop of tropical vegetation, giant granite boulders, cooling rock pools and herbal steam caves.
If you want to give the default islands a miss, Koh Chang – the biggest after Phuket and Samui – is worth considering. It requires a bit of effort to get there (a 50-minute flight from Bangkok across the Gulf of Thailand to the ever-so-cute Trat airport followed by a ferry).
That, though, is the reason it still retains something of an atmosphere of the Thailand of “old” but one that’s perfectly blended with high-end hotels and plenty of island exploration should you wish to drag yourself off the sun lounger.
In fact, Thailand is so adept at island life there seems to be one for just about every type of traveller.
If you’re a diver, Koh Tao is the one for you; for the young (or young at heart!), it’s Koh Pha Ngan (think full moon parties); popular with couples are the islands that make up Koh Lanta, while Koh Kood, south of Koh Chang, is a (not so) little gem. Although one of the least visited, it’s convenient for the Cambodian border and combines a feeling of seclusion from the world while still actually being pretty accessible.
And, finally, if you’re spending time in Bangkok you don’t have to settle for soulless multinational hotels. For something a little quirky, check out the Bangkok Tree House or Ariyasom Villa – a charming boutique property fashioned out of a 1940s timber-framed house.
With its blend of history and culture, tradition and relaxation, Thailand is something of an all-round winner, as appealing to families as it is hard-core backpacking party-goers. Your first trip can be as effortlessly laid-back or as action-packed as you choose.
Most novices, though, opt for the combination of city, culture and coastal - and there are good reasons why this makes for the perfect introduction.
Taking a two-week holiday, I’d recommend starting in the northern hub of Chiang Mai from where you can explore beyond the ancient city, taking in hill tribe communities further north. When you're back in town, try a cookery course or an evening food tour by cycle.
Head south to Bangkok, one of the most exciting, vibrant cities in the world. It’s here swanky shopping malls sit alongside Buddhist temples, colourful food markets meet Michelin-starred dining, and gold-laden palaces provide a contrast to neighbourhoods generally untouched by the pace of change by which they are surrounded.
Then relax on one of Thailand's 1400 islands...from party heaven to wonderfully comatose, there’ll be one with your name on it.
Second Thai'm Around
I have a theory hardly anyone goes to Thailand just once and, after three decades of travelling around the Kingdom, the number of people I’ve met on the second, third (or more) visit is a testament to the country’s enduring appeal.
And it can still inspire an old hand like me. I’m often learning of places, attractions and activities of which I’d never previously heard. I currently have my eye on the island of Koh Phayam, which has 500 inhabitants and no cars.
Heading upcountry, and around 150 km north of Chiang Mai, there are those who describe Fang as Thailand like “it was 20 years ago”.
There are no plunge pools and happy hours, but this is a place in which to find experiences where you get stuck into the culture and mingle with the locals.
As a visitor, you can learn how to pick tea like a seasoned professional and weave a bamboo basket with those who’ve been doing it all their lives before tucking into a barbecue full of fresh ingredients against a backdrop of some of Thailand’s most scenic landscapes. Selective Asia features Fang as part of a 12-day tailor-made trip.
Kings of the Jungle
Animal tourism is an emotive issue – and rightly so. There are, though, still ways to enjoy Thailand’s wildlife in responsible ways that benefit both creatures and communities.
Situated within the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world, Elephant Hills has redefined our interaction with these magnificent animals – and amassed an impressive range of awards and praise in the process, including a 100 per cent rating for its animal welfare.
David Leck has written about Thailand for The Independent, Evening Standard and Marie Claire and for the inflight magazines of Emirates, Thai and Qatar airways. He also regularly edits and updates the AA (Fodor in the US) city guide to Bangkok.
David's Thai Top Twelve
1. The Grand Palace, Wat Arun and Wat Pho in Bangkok
2. Taste island life
3. Sign-up for a cookery lesson
4. A walking tour of old Bangkok
5. Have a massage on the beach
6. See Muay Thai (the country’s national sport) in action
7. Visit the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet
8. Enjoy an ethical elephant experience
9. Visit at Songkran (Thai New Year in April) and be prepared to get soaked!
10. Shop till you drop
11. Visit northern hill-tribe communities
Thanks to David Leck, Elephant Hills, Tan Kaninthano and Dan Freeman for the photos.