Never been to Thailand? Prepare yourself for a country full of beauty, contradictions and contrasts. I made my first trip there recently to participate in the country’s first, official LGBT+ Travel Symposium, sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Our first port of call was Bangkok. It’s not unusual for travellers to Thailand to pass through its capital city. It’s a gateway to the rest of the country and home to over 8million inhabitants.
As you would expect, given its density, Bangkok is a chaotic, noisy, sometimes scruffy, intoxicating place. There are cars everywhere, including alluring bright pink taxis that look a little like boiled sweets.
I visited in late June and the heat and humidity is stifling. The earlier you get up, the better. There’s less traffic and it’s cooler. You can visit many tourist attractions, such as the Bangkok flower market, from dawn.
I passed the market on my way to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. There are over 30,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand, and Buddhism runs throughout Thai life. This particular one remains one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
It opens at 8am and was blessedly quiet when my party arrived shortly after. It’s an expansive complex of buildings, temples, prayer rooms and monastic accommodation.
The reclining buddha is notably spectacular: 46 metres long and built from brick, concrete, plaster and gold leaf. Even its feet are incredibly intricate, embedded with toe print decorations in mother of pearl.
If visiting the temple, do also visit the Wat Pho massage school, which is within the compound walls. Don’t be put off by the fact that your masseur is a student. You can enjoy a one-hour Thai massage on a firm mattress in a cool, air conditioned communal space.
It’s a dry massage, rather than oils, with the masseur applying pressure to all your major muscle groups. You’ll definitely feel chilled out afterwards. And it’s incredible good value at just 430 baht (around $13/€11).
Take to the water
Bangkok is humid. Don’t plan on long excursions that require lots of walking unless you’re prepared. Better to go out early in the day, return to your hotel when things are steamiest in the afternoon and chill out by the pool, before heading out again for dinner or evening fun.
For a more relaxed day trip, take a slow river journey up the Chao Phraya River with the Ayutthaya River Experience. We took a boat around 8.30am from the River City complex, where a number of chartered tours are based.
Our luxury pleasure cruiser was wonderfully quiet. Sit in the air-conditioned dining room and enjoy the view through the windows or go above deck and sit on the roof to enjoy the heat and humidity.
You’ll find yourself drifting past plenty of old and new Thailand, including dozens of temples, palaces and shrines.
Our cruise took us to Ayutthaya. We were met by minibus to take us the 20-30 minute drive to Bang Pa-In.
This 19th century palace and grounds was built by King Rama V (son of the king dramatized in The King and I). It was the first palace to be built along European lines. The palatial grounds boast a mish-mash of styles – Roman-inspired bridges, Slovakian palaces, Spanish pergolas – but remain a hugely popular tourist draw just an hour’s drive outside Bangkok city (if you don’t take a more leisurely boat cruise).
Another hugely popular excursion are the Buddhist ruins at Wat Maha That, also in Ayutthaya and around half the distance back to Bangkok.
This former monastery and collection of temples dates back predominantly to the 1300s, although some relics are believed to date back 500 years earlier than that. Now, the decaying ruins only hint at their former glories, but they were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and are another tourist magnet.
Bangkok is a food-lover’s paradise, offering Indian, Chinese, and – of course, lots of Thai options. Check out the rather romantic The Deck Restaurant, opposite the Temple of the Dawn, or the PH1 at [email protected]. That hotel also offers a great rooftop bar.
Other hotel bars worth visiting are the Moon Bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel and the Sky Bar at the Lebua State Tower. Near the gay scene, we dined at Supanniga Eating Room by Khunyai. It’s a modern, contemporary Thai dining experience run by noted restranteur Thanaruek Laoraowirodge.
Skytrain and river taxi
Other Bangkok experiences include a trip on the Skytrain, which is an inexpensive and easy way to see the city from an elevated perspective. It’s also the quickest way to get around, given how congested the traffic can be on the roads. The same can be said of the Metro/subway system. Alternatively, take a trip on a river taxi through the central river system.
Looking to shop? You could easily spend a few hours browsing the large MBK Center. It’s crammed with small stores, covering fashion, technology, hair and nails, and food outlets. On a Saturday, venture out to Chatuchak.
Vendors sell every possible trinket, ornament, homeware and fabrics you could possibly desire. With something in the region of 8,000 stalls spread over 35 acres, you can literally find almost everything here.
Of course, Bangkok is also known for its lively gay scene. For beginners, head to the cluster of bars and clubs around Silom 4. Safe bets are Telephone Bar, which gets busy from early evening onwards. This dark, high-ceiling bar has two island bars, with plenty of seating lining the windows, making it perfect for people watching.
Next door is Stranger Bar, which has drag entertainment most nights of the week and often gets packed.
However, my personal favorite was Hugs Bar – the local bears club and karaoke bar, directly opposite Stranger. On the Saturday night I visited it was packed out with young Asian bear cubs dancing to camp pop remixes and despite being in the middle of Silom 4, is one of the venues less frequented by tourists.
If you only visit Bangkok, you’ll get a very one-dimensional view of Thailand. Most people visit the beach resorts in the south of the country, or the northern region of Chiang Mai in the foothills of the Himalayas.
After enjoying Bangkok, we headed south. It’s just an hour-long plane ride to Phuket. From there, we headed out to Yacht Haven Marina and caught a small boat out to one of the islands. Destinations such as Koh Samui are stunning, but tourist heavy.
Thankfully, Thailand offers no end of alternatives and lesser-known gems. One of these is Koh Yao Noi, a secluded island hideaway near Phuket-Krabi.
This beautiful destination now offers two vacation resorts. The first, Beach Paradise Koh Yao consists of 70 holiday chalets dotted around the hillside overlooking the tropical bay. If you’re seeking a quiet, jungle getaway next to crystal clear waters, this should tick all the right boxes.
It’s impossible not to feel your mind recalibrate itself as you soak up the humid warmth and Thai friendliness. Laze by the pool or enjoy your own private balcony (some with outdoor plunge pools or jacuzzis), or book yourself a spa treatment, local trek or bike ride.
From hipster to luxury
If you prefer to be somewhere more inhabited, with more to do, head for the many resorts and hotels in Phuket.
The region has a reputation for being a beach party destination or backpackers hangout. There’s also the seedier elements in Patong (the place to head for those infamous ‘ping pong’ cabaret shows). But there are other sides to Phuket, whether you’re looking for a luxury escape or something quirky and hipster.
Check out the old town section of Phuket, which dates back to the region’s tin mining days. A multitude of small souvenir shops – some selling better than average local produce – draw most of today’s visitors. Small cafes lend a hip vibe to the neighborhood – quite unlike the trashy image some might have of Phuket.
For more traditional Thai cuisine, I recommend Raya. It’s housed inside an early 20th century Sino-Thai mansion, with simple tiled floors and yellow walls decked out with vintage photos of the Thai Royal family. My party and I enjoyed a huge meal that worked out less than $13/€11 a head.
Enjoy coffee at Macchiato House or Cakebox, pop in the Phuket Thaihua Museum or Phuket Tourist Information Center, or pose for selfies in front of the many wall murals.
Want some more pampering? Head for Sukko Spa Resort. This spa complex has taken the attraction of Thai massage and healthy living to a whole new level. The entire, sizeable resort is dedicated to wellness. A visit begins with a welcome cleansing of your hands, before you are escorted away to one of the dozens of different treatment rooms for your chosen massage or body scrub.
Amazing food, massages and balmy humidity…. It’s impossible not to leave Thailand feeling invigorated and wrapped in its warming, golden glow.
Places to stay
[email protected], Bangkok
Opened 11 years ago, [email protected] used to promote itself as the first ‘design hotel’ in the city. It has over 200 rooms, each with interior flourishes. There’s ground floor restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a more exclusive bar and breakfast area for those with room reservations above the 21st floor. Highlights for me included a wonderful infinity pool and larger-than-average gym on the 11th floor.
So Sofitel Bangkok
This absolutely stunning hotel overlooks Lumphini Park, the city equivalent of NYC’s Central Park. Opened in 2013, the rooms are themed along the elements. An arresting blue hue ran throughout my stunning ‘earth’ room on the 21st floor.
This is a truly luxurious hotel and very LGBTI friendly – it played host to the country’s first LGBT+ Travel Symposium, during my visit. While its famed concierge, Paul Boonrungreung, is only happy to help with suggestions on places to go and things to do.
Even if you don’t stay there, you can visit and pay entry for the So Sofitel Pool Party on the last Saturday of the month. It’s an unmissable chance to swim with one of the best views over the city.
The Slate, Phuket
A truly luxurious report just a ten-minute drive from Phuket airport. This industrial themed, 170+ room resort is spread over 35 acres on the coast (golf buggies can be ordered to pick you and up and return you to your room). It offers a range of daily activities and excursions, three pools and several restaurants and bars. Check out a full review here.
David Hudson travelled to Thailand courtesy of Thai Airways.