Thailand: relax in luxury

Thailand has long been a destination for back packers and tourists passing through Asia on a shoestring, but it is undergoing a luxurious makeover. Ed Thomas experiences the finer aspects of both the mainland and its island paradises

SPEAK to any gap year student and they will undoubtedly have dropped into Thailand to enjoy the hedonism it has to offer.

There will be stories of full moon parties on the beach and wild nights in Bangkok's nightclubs.

But Thailand has so much more to offer, at the other end of the travel spectrum.

Boutique Thailand has emerged over the past year or two, providing a luxury home away from home.

Chic, small hotels with as little as a dozen rooms and personal service in beautiful surroundings are cropping up more and more, where the traveller can relax in five-star comfort and unwind completely.

The country has so much to offer in various different regions - forested mountains in the north, ancient temples and Buddhist sanctuaries stretching back through the centuries, fast-paced cities and exceptional cuisine.

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Above all, coastal Thailand is perhaps the best place to experience the best of what the country has to offer, with miles of white sands and remote archipelagos of islands offering the perfect hideaway.

An hour's internal flight from the capital Bangkok is the island of Samui. This once untouched coconut plantation is in danger of becoming over-developed and is popular with the back packers and gap year travellers, yet it also provides a great place to recharge and relax. Stepping into the sea here is like poking a toe into a hot bath, the turquoise waters unsullied.

Having a Thai massage on the water's edge (at the Moroccan-inspired Absolute Sanctuary, for example) cannot fail to coax away life's stresses and strains. Full detox programs are also available, for those who've pushed life that little bit to far.

Speaking about the draws of the islands, tourist guide Naraporn Nunchamnong from Destination Asia says: "It's all about the relaxed atmosphere on the beach. And the nice and friendly people. Oh, and the food - of course!

"The environment is more green and natural - it's not so commercial. People aren't pushy, and you can chat to local people. But if you want to keep busy, in just 15 minutes in a taxi you can get to the good restaurants and the nightclubs.

"You haven't got a lot of ancient temples like places in the north of the mainland, but a lot of tourists chose the area as the last destination on their trip to Thailand, as they've done a lot of activities and they want to relax."

A range of boutique hotels and spa resorts have appeared of late to add a new dimension to Samui, including X2 (a little off the beaten track and minimal), Kala and the newer (and possibly superior) Saraan, which has to be one of the most romantic and opulent places to stay in south east Asia. Couple this with a Thai chef who serves up the best of the best seafood and local cuisine, and you have a perfect place to stay on the island seafront, looking across the waters to Chaweng beach, popular with the barflys and party goers but (thankfully) well out of earshot.

An hour by boat from Samui takes you to the more remote Pha Ngan, the latest place to experience luxury. Rasananda is a resplendent sea-front hotel which is leading the way, but other older hotels such as Panviman still boast five-star accommodation to rival the best in the world.

Far fewer crowds descend on Pha Ngan compared to Samui, and further boat trips will take you to entirely unspoilt sands such as those around the Ang Thong archipelago.

The wider western world was made aware of this hideaway through the book (and film) The Beach a decade ago, yet it still hasn't been overrun with visitors and resorts. Island lagoons, small palm-laden beaches and snorkelling with rainbows of fish make Ang Thong an unforgettable experience. Its remoteness makes it utterly magical, yet it is accessible in only an hour or so from the hotels on Pha Ngan.

Thailand's beaches are some of the best in the world. But the country offers so much more. For those who love the fast life of the big city, a stay in Bangkok on the way home provides an injection of energy and glitz.

The city (comparable in population to London and sprawling 60 miles across) has it all - nightlife, history, shopping and culture and it has long been famous for its glamourous hotels. The Mandarin Oriental, the Peninsular and the Hilton all have skyscrapers on the riverside, but it is the smaller chic hotels which are the best places to stay if you are looking for that 'home away from home' feel.

The Eugenia was only built three years ago, but its 12 rooms are modelled in the old colonial style. Drivers can pick you up from the airport in an old Jaguar mark II, a Daimler or old Mercedes, before you live like a king back at the opulent, antique-laden hotel.

The welcoming hotel manager Nipaporn Moleechart, who encourages her guests to call her by her nickname 'Lek', said: "None of the rooms are 100 per cent the same, but we keep to the same theme throughout.

"There's nowhere else in Bangkok like this. It's very unique.

"If you stay in a big 5-star hotel, you won't have the same feel as this. This place feels like home.

"Many of our customers come back time and time again, and know where everything is. But we also have all the 5-star features you would expect from a luxury hotel, like broadband internet and flatscreen TVs.

"In general, people tend to want old buildings to look new. But the owner [of the Eugenia, Eugene Yeh] has built a new building and made it look old. So things have been done the opposite way round."

All the furnishings are from the owner's private collection, amassed over some 20 years. Hand-beaten baths, four-poster beds and crocodile skin rugs are just some of the bygone features.

"He is more of an artist than a businessman. He is not that interested in profits, but just wants to create something beautiful," said Ms Moleechart.

"Even when it comes down to the food, he wants to see something beautiful on the plate. Decoration and appearance is very important. And we find guests are coming back time and time again."

International tourism is suffering the recession as much as, if not more than, other sectors right now, so great deals can be found at all these jewels in Thailand's crown. With the cooler 'high season' approaching this autumn, now is the time to book to experience a real pearl in the ocean of the East.

o Thai Airways operate international non-stop flights from Heathrow to

Bangkok. Flight time is 11 hours, 35 minutes.

o From Bangkok, passengers can continue on internal flights to other Thai destinations as well as throughout Asia and Australasia.

o Thai Airways is a founder member of Star Alliance. Thai's frequent flyer programme Royal Orchid Plus allows passengers to earn miles whilst travelling in selected classes. Points can be earned and redeemed on Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, ANA, Austrian Airlines, Asiana, BMI, Egyptair, Lufthansa, Lot, SAS, Shanghai Airlines, Spanair, TAP, Singapore Airlines, South African, Swiss, Turkish, United and US Airways.

o Thai Airways royal first class lounge at Suvarnabhumi airport has received an award for best first class lounge from Skytrax, and the airline has won a host of other awards.

o For more information visit