Holidays & Travel

Buddhas, beaches and Bangkok: How to plan a bucket list trip to Thailand

From the jaw-dropping chaos of Bangkok to a peaceful beach holiday on the country’s dreamy west coast, Nigel Pickover salutes a jewel of the Far East.

Where to go for a one-in-a-lifetime trip to Thailand
Where to go for a one-in-a-lifetime trip to Thailand (Alamy Stock Photo)

With your heart full of hope and excitement, you are not prepared for your exotic holiday to start with an assault.

This wasn’t a street-corner mobile phone snatch or a shopping bag grab – we didn’t feel the danger of crime at any point in our fortnight in Thailand.

It’s just the battering your senses take the moment you land in a country you’ve wanted to visit all your life.

A must-see is the Railway Market at Maeklong where goods are sold on the tracks and moved as a train approaches
A must-see is the Railway Market at Maeklong where goods are sold on the tracks and moved as a train approaches

Where else can you visit a teeming market based on stalls in, and on, a railway line, and watch transfixed as both people and goods are shoved out of the way of a train at the last second?

For many, a holiday adventure is all about experiences like the Railway Market or the nearby Water Market, a 90 minute minibus drive from Bangkok. Some might find Bangkok and its environs daunting – so detailed planning for your Thai adventure is essential.

With so much to see and do, in a holiday split between city and beach, we undertook hours of research ourselves and decided to use long-haul specialists Kuoni to organise air, ground and hotel arrangements.

Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok
Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok (Diep Chanel/Hotel)

This paid immediate dividends when we arrived in late afternoon after a 13-hour flight from the UK. In the hustle and bustle of a major international airport it was reassuring to be met by a driver and swiftly guided to an air-conditioned minibus in humid 35C conditions.

The overload of senses started on a 90-minute drive to our hotel – amongst the tens of thousands of cars, trucks, buses, taxis and tuk-tuks, there appeared little knowledge of traffic discipline. Had we hired a car and tried to reach the riverside Shangri-La Hotel we might have taken a couple of days and needed a police escort!

We travelled in a party of four, my wife and I and friends we have journeyed with before on long-haul holidays. They are expert researchers, by practice not profession, and this helped us to end a first day in style.

Jack’s Bar is a Bangkok institution
Jack’s Bar is a Bangkok institution (Alamy Stock Photo)

For a dinner location they had found the creaky, wooden, shack that is Jack’s Bar, overhanging the mighty Chao Phraya river close to the hotel. This was everything you want in a first night food experience.

Waiting for a table, and then being prepared to move once one closer to the river becomes available, is a Jack’s tradition. The food – sizzling seafood and meats and vegetables cooked in woks close to our table, was cheaper than UK prices. It was magnificent and we watched day turn to night as the courses and beers were delivered. Wine is very expensive in Thailand, but it is on offer.

The river is a 230-mile lifeline through central Thailand – giant barges bringing goods including teak and rice from inland to the capital’s port for shipping across the world. But we were captivated by the gaily-lit tourist boats ploughing up and down river while water taxis worked non-stop from side to side.

A magical start to the trip – but next day saw the pace of the holiday stepped up. We chose a day tour with a guide, taking us around some of the biggest temples and sights of the city. Our guide was courteous, kind, full of knowledge and extremely pleasant.

Visitors are encouraged to pay their respects to statues of Buddha
Visitors are encouraged to pay their respects to statues of Buddha

He summoned taxis when needed and knew where all the bottled cold water stops were as we moved from the temple featuring a 5.5 ton Golden Buddha to the King of Thailand’s ornate Grand Palace. Thousands of tourists were alongside, but we got through in good order.

Shoes and trainers must be left outside the temples and there are strict dress codes – Internet searches or your guide will be able to help. The love of the current (and all previous kings of Thai dynasties) is central to life, but for many in the country, everything is underpinned by devotion to the ancient religion of Buddhism.

I enjoyed the temple tours but when I got to the point of statue overload, I was thrilled with a boat trip along a slow-paced canal. I confess to a gasp when the newest of the Buddha temples, at Wat Paknam, came into view amongst tumbledown shacks.

On a historic Buddhist site, the new temple, which has been built since 2017, is 226 feet tall yet is somehow hidden away. When you finally see it you are in awe.

The thrill of a tuk-tuk ride is part of the Bangkok experience
The thrill of a tuk-tuk ride is part of the Bangkok experience

Before our four days in Bangkok ended we used tuk-tuks to reach night markets, ever-busy Chinatown, and tried the efficient Skytrain rail system. Street food from stalls were everywhere and well patronised.

Traffic remained chaotic throughout our visit so watch out when you go walking and try to cross roads. We didn’t have time to visit the city’s world-famous nightlife district, but many Brits head there for exotic highlights.

With that crazy rail market and the horn-tooting 11:10am train to Maeklong burning bright in our memories, it was time to move on. An early morning taxi ride to Bangkok airport and a 90-minute flight to the coast at Krabbi saw us met again by a courier.

Dreamy view from the Tubkaak Krabi Boutique Resort
Dreamy view from the Tubkaak Krabi Boutique Resort (Diep Chanel/Hotel)

We had chosen the Tubkaak Resort as our base – and it was excellent. Beachfront walkways under the trees and views of distant pocket-sized islands at every turn. This was a quiet, relaxed, hotel and every member of staff was delightful. The two restaurants were a real treat and the bills matched English prices.

One served Italian food, while the main restaurant was based on international cuisine and was the hub for breakfast. Its wooden decking hung over ponds teeming with koi carp. Thoughtfully, fish pellets were left out so guests could feed other hungry mouths.

A day trip to the islands saw a long-tailed boat draw up close to our villas – a picnic is possible in a six-hour voyage. On the next day our friends took on a ramble/climb through the nearby rain forest and loved it.

The beaches were soft-sand perfection and the nearby, independent, seafront cafes were greatly enjoyed.

How to plan your trip

We were delighted with our holiday experts, Kuoni. We were thrilled that every courier connection and flight worked perfectly – important as we had saved up long and hard for a special trip.

Based on four nights at the Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok, seven nights at The Tubkaak Krabi Boutique Resort, one night at Banyan Tree Bangkok, including breakfasts and transfers and economy flights with EVA Air from London Heathrow (selected September 2024 departures), the guide price for this trip per person is £2,162.

This basic price doesn’t include courier services, trips and any flight or hotel upgrades.