A promise of sybaritic pursuits from exotic cuisine to tropical pearl-white beaches lure travelers from all over the world to the Land of Smiles, Thailand’s affectionate nickname, for the ultimate foodie vacation.
While the capital city of Bangkok serves as a gateway to explore the country’s diverse regions, it is also a cultural and culinary travel destination in its own right. With a population topping 10 million, the pulse of the city beats in its lively backstreets and tuk-tuk filled motorways. Everywhere you look traces of tradition meet modernity.
Old Siam’s ancient temples contrast gleaming skyscrapers, robed Buddhist monks walk side-by-side with well-heeled locals and slick megamalls juxtapose crammed open-air markets. To navigate the city, travelers can board long-tail boats to cruise age-old canals or zip through key downtown districts on the speedy Skytrain. And that’s to say nothing of Bangkok’s world-famous fare. Epicures can eat their hearts out at curbside food stalls hawking sticky pad thai, slurp stir-fried noodles in Chinatown and relish pungent curries in Phahurat, the city’s Indian quarter. Sacred sites like the Golden Mount Temple, Grand Palace’s Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho's Reclining Buddha are a must-visit. To experience the capital’s more mischievous side, head to hedonist hangouts in Patpong and Soi Cowboy whose go-go girls and “ladyboy” cabarets give the red-light district its name. The glossier neighborhoods of Sukhumvit and Silom are more cosmopolitan in spirit, offering an abundance of stylish restaurants, cocktail bars and clubs. For a dose of respite, book yourself a Thai massage at a local spa. Or enjoy some breathing room at Poomjai Gardens, the riverside alleyways of Thonburi and the floating market at Wat Ta Kian temple before diving back into the fray.
When your senses are sufficiently sated, get your fill of R&R in Phuket—Thailand's largest island best known for its powdery white sands lapped by the cerulean waters of the Andaman Sea. Tap Bangkok-based travel outfitter Smiling Albino to whisk you away by speedboat to visit an array of paradisiacal beaches and hidden coves from Ko Kradan to the Similan Islands. Or take in the seascape via kayak at Phang Nga Bay to explore dense mangroves, limestone caves illuminated by phosphorescent plankton and snorkel cliff-lined lagoons. On land, elephant and gibbon sanctuaries are ethical ways to have a memorable animal encounter, and the island’s hilly terrain makes for a fun cycling adventure or rainforest trek.
“Most travelers visit Phuket for the beaches, but in my opinion the unsung hero is the food scene,” says Dan Fraser, co-founder and CEO of Smiling Albino.
As an epicenter of Southeast Asia’s tin trade in the 19th century, Phuket Old Town became a melting pot of Thai, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and European influences. The cultural fusion forged an eclectic food scene that has earned Phuket a spot on UNESCO’s shortlist of designated gastronomic cities worldwide. Don’t miss a stroll along Soi Rommanee to take in the colorful Sino-Portuguese townhouses or a palatable bowl of classic Hokkian noodles, a Malay-style satay or fresh spring rolls at one of the many restaurants or food stands. When the sun goes down, bring your appetite to the night food market on Ong Sim Phai Road. Pull up a plastic chair to dine on flavorful local staples like crab curry with rice noodles, barbecued pork buns, grilled fish balls and sticky rice with mango. Foodies can also book a private Thai cooking class with Chef Pui, owner of the Brass Wok Cooking School, to recreate the country’s delicious dishes long after they’re home.