Forget everything you've heard about hot, dusty, hectic Bangkok. We've found a hidden gem
Words by Corinne Redfern
WHY GO TO BANGKOK?
In two words: Spring rolls. In a few more words: simply because – and despite its a long-standing reputation for hectic hustle and bustle – Bangkok is on track to becoming the Shoreditch of South East Asia. And you’re really going to want to get a head-start on where to go. Yep, while the sun may not have gone down on the backpacker-friendly Khao San Road, neon t-shirts and woven friendship bracelets just yet, you only have to wander through the Sukhumvit district to see a different side to the city. With pop-up supper clubs, basement speakeasies and flower markets to make London’s Colombia Road hang its head in shame (seriously, check out Pah Klong, along the historic Chak Phet Road), this is one city in the midst of a very cool cultural transformation. And with multiple connecting flights onwards to the nearby islands of Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Lanta and Koh Samui (more on that later), you’d be silly not to factor in a few days’ citybreak on your way to the beach.
And er, the spring rolls really are worth the 12 hour journey alone.
It’s hard to think of a bad time of year to visit Bangkok. They say the city never sleeps, but it’s worth noting that it never takes a day off, either. That said, peak tourist season runs from autumn until spring, and temperatures begin to soar in April – rising up to 40 degrees. But if you want to experience something truly spectacular, book your stay so it falls across Loy Krathong. Taking place on the night of the full moon during the Thai calendar’s 12th month (generally November), it’s easily South East Asia’s most beautiful festival, and sees residents head en masse to the city’s many lakes and rivers to celebrate the approaching new year. As fireworks explode across the sky, thousands of candlelit floating ‘krathongs’ (think mini rafts made out of flowers) are then launched onto the water in a bid for good luck. Buy your own krathong in advance, or make your own from scratch – either way, the celebration was made for Instagram.
Again, if you want some distance from the gap year students (and you probably do), then Sukhumvit is the area to make your new home. And since you’ve already made it to the other side of the world, it’s not difficult to justifying splashing out on a room at the eyebrow-raisingly shiny Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit.
With seven on-site restaurants – including potentially the best Italian outside of Italy, the hotel also features a futuristic-looking basement cocktail bar, complete with an elaborate sushi menu and achingly hipster Dining In The Dark experience – does what it says on the tin. Oh, there’s also the prettiest, palm-tree lined rooftop swimming pool we’ve ever dipped our toes in. And the rooms come with flat-screen TVs suspended above the baths.
Truth be told, so much opportunity demands a pretty strict schedule, so if you want to try and cram everything in, we recommend waking early and (reluctantly) dragging yourself out of your king sized bed to make the most of the buffet breakfast (Sheraton breakfasts are world renowned, and justifiably so – think exotic, mouthwatering fruits and delicious omelettes) in the golden lobby. And try to factor in at least one fresh lime juice under the poolside palms before heading out to start the day.
YOU REALLY MUST…
Take a trip to the Museum of Floral Culture and make sure you pack your camera. Whether you’re green fingered or not, this tiny garden hideaway acts as both a sanctuary away from the chaos of the streets outside, and the backdrop for every Facebook profile picture you’ll ever need going forward. Make sure to take the museum manager up on his offer of hibiscus-infused tea too – it’s unlike anything you’ll find on European shores. Relaxed, rejuvenated and presumably smelling like a veritable bouquet of flowers, head to the Chao Phraya River and take a boat trip along Bangkok’s narrow winding waters – making sure to ask your guide to stop off at a traditional floating market or two. Bring change – sales are made by leaning out precariously (and thrillingly) over the side of your boat – so ATMs aren’t an option.
Later, if you can bring yourself to leave the comfort of your hotel at night (and we wouldn’t blame you if you couldn’t), head round the corner to Bangkok Bold for an intimate, menu-free multi-course supper club, run by one of Thailand’s most highly-trained chefs. Sure, you don’t get a say in what you eat but that only adds to the experience.
NEXT STOP: KOH SAMUI
You’ve taken in the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok, now it’s time to take off your travel shoes and relax. Just an hour’s flight away from the capital, Koh Samui has long been established as one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, but don’t let that put you off. After all, its apparently universal adulation comes with good reason. The island’s endless white beaches, turquoise waters and pink sunsets are picture-book perfect. Of course, if full moon parties, bucket cocktails and beach bonfires are your bag, you can head to Chaweng or Lamai beaches, where DJs set up residence on the sand and ‘fire limbo’ is a right of alcohol-fuelled passage. But if you’re seeking an escape from other people (and you don’t fancy your chances of performing a deep back bend after consuming a vat full of rum) fear not. Surprisingly, there are still plenty of secret, secluded spots left to stumble upon, especially along the eastern coast. And they’re truly among the most beautiful in the world.
The driest, hottest months fall over February and March, with temperatures in the mid 30s and barely any rainfall. From March onwards, temperatures remain high but the odds of a smattering of rain begin to climb, peaking in late autumn, when tropical monsoons will catch you unaware and leave you Googling the Thai word for ‘umbrella’ (it’s ‘Rm’, by the way – but don’t ask us how to pronounce that). However, if a little rain doesn’t put you off, or you’re more night owl than beach bum, go with it. It’s rare for rain to fall after 6pm, and the clear, starry skies at night, combined with the season’s off-peak peacefulness make for dreamily romantic sunset beach picnics. And again, if you manage to time your stay with November’s Loy Krathong festival, you can even participate in the island’s local tradition of lighting large paper lanterns (called Khom Loys) and watching them float up into the night.
The idyllic Vana Belle, a beachfront resort that is part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection and specialises in tailoring your holiday to your individual needs, providing the kind of authentic, personal experiences that you imagine follow the likes of Kendall Jenner wherever she goes. Cosy, open-plan suites (and massive, huge beds) look directly out onto private infinity pools (which, incidentally, are ideally designed for taking 500+ selfies away from the judgement of fellow holidaymakers – not that we necessarily did that*), while staff are on hand to coordinate anything from cooking classes to beach barbecues, afternoon tea or one-to-one seaside yoga lessons at any time of day or night (at least in theory). But best of all is the overwhelming sense of peace and quiet. Built deep into the side of the island’s eastern coast, the resort is half sprawling jungle, half oceanview – and entirely away from civilisation.
*OK, OK. It was 600+.
YOU REALLY MUST…
Factor in at least four days to lie flat on the beach and breathe in the salty salty sea air while a waiter brings you Vana Belle cocktail after Vana Belle cocktail. Set up your out of office, switch off your phone and leave it in the bottom of your suitcase – this is potentially one of the most tranquil locations in the world, and you don’t want to jeopardise a moment of it. Book in a traditional Thai massage at the hotel’s on-site spa (again, make like a Kardashian and don’t bother trying to find it on the resort map – they’ll just come pick you up from your suite in a golf buggy anyway) and make sure to bring a particularly stretchy swimming costume to deal with all the food you’re going to be eating from the ever-updated buffet menus. Only then, when the stresses of Real Actual Adult Life have truly melted away, are you allowed to consider leaving the resort and exploring the island. But you might not even want to.
A night at the Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Bangkok starts from £170 based on two people sharing, and a night at Vana Belle, a Luxury Collection Resort, Koh Samui starts from £373 based on two people sharing