How to see Thailand without breaking the bank.
Best for Culture: Bangkok
Thailand’s rascal capital of 14.5 million has exceptional shopping, nightlife and attractions-a-plenty. It could also be Asia’s best food city.
Starwood’s first Aloft (doubles from 2918 Baht, or $91.50) for South East Asia is modelled on a W hotel, but without the price tag.
Jazzy décor and all the mod cons make this new 296-room tower on the mildly boisterous bar street, Sukhumvit Soi 11, a favourite with the young and plugged-in party crowd.
More subdued, The Atlanta (doubles start at $22) was the favoured hangout for foreign correspondents during the Vietnam War.
It’s fading, and the staff are reliably tetchy, but with a lush garden, swimming pool, a stunning art-deco lobby and strict no-sex-tourism policy, it’s great value.
Spiceroads (tours from $31) offer guided bicycle trips in and around Bangkok, including the narrow lanes through Chinatown and Phra Pradaeng, a corner of forested, rural Thailand on the Chao Praya River that is otherwise known as the city’s “green lung”.
Discover the Kingdom’s burgeoning art scene at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre on Siam Square.
The snazzy, 7600-square-metre not-for-profit space – designed by US architect Robert Boughey – opened in early 2009 as a platform for young and up-and-coming artists.
Eat & Drink
Bangkok is all about the street food. The best and most accessible eats are at Pratunam, on the corner of Phetchaburi and Ratchaprasong Roads. Come for legendary dishes like grilled fish, som tam (raw papaya salad) and sweetened rice with mango.
A step up in comfort and service is Home Kitchen (94 Soi Lang Suan, +66 2 253 1888). This two-storey restaurant on fashionable Lung Suan makes exceptional Thai salads, including yum gai (grilled chicken) and yum taikai (lemongrass with anchovies).
Bangkok’s best drinks are at Moon Bar (21/100 South Sathon Road), an el fresco bar on the roof of the five-star Banyan Tree Hotel with 360-degree city views.
Best for the Beach: Hua Hin
The original Thai beach resort, Hua Hin is still the most laidback and languid. The King lives here; the name of his palace, Klai Kangwon, means “far from worries”.
Five minutes north of the city centre, the Anantara Hua Hin (doubles from $105 for a three-night stay) has 187 rooms set in lush gardens that tumble down to a sandy beach.
The rooms are a little tired, but great value with private balconies and bathtubs. Best of all are the facilities: a spa, gym, tennis courts, water-sports, restaurants and bars.
Set back from the beach, the Ibis Hua Hin (doubles from $34) opened in February this year. The 200 guest rooms are small but make up for it with perks like satellite TV and internet. There is a small pool and restaurant on site.
Hire a car or motorbike and drive to Pranburi for the day. This coastal village half an hour south of Hua Hin has un-crowded beaches and seaside shacks serving ice-cold beer and snacks.
While there, stop by Kaeng Krachan National Park and spot wild elephants and tigers, or Hua Hin Vineyard (1037 Nong Ta Taem) for a glass of Colombard, a white wine originally from Bordeaux whose grapes grow remarkably well in Hua Hin.
Eat & Drink
Hua Hin’s bustling night market offers a variety of eats, with everything from stalls serving quick-fix dishes like pad thai, to sit-down barbecue restaurants with crab, king prawns, mussels and lobster.
Koti Restaurant (Phetkasem Rd, Dechanuchit Junction; +66 3251 1252) is popular for deep-fried crab sausages and stir-fried fish with crispy ginger.
Outside of town, Sopa Seafood (Khao Takeab Village; +66 8188 0771) is a dinky seaside shack on Hua Don Beach with superb yum talay – spicy seafood salad – and ginger-fried fish.
Best for Adventure: Chiang Mai
The former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, cool and cosmopolitan Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains, jungles, and vibrant tribal people.
Set amid rolling hills and rice fields, the Mai Siam Resort (doubles from $56) has three bungalows with balconies and hammocks overlooking a garden. Use their free mountain bikes to explore the countryside.
In the city, Vanilla Place (doubles from $28) has 15 bargain basement rooms with teakwood furniture, TV, air-conditioning and internet.
A few steps up in style and comfort, Dusit D2 (doubles from $104) has 131 sleek rooms with access to hotel facilities, including a lovely big pool, spa and rooftop gym.
If you’re travelling with kids, they’ll love the gentle giants at the Elephant Nature Park , a rescue and rehab centre where you can volunteer to take care of the animals.
Hire a car and drive to the Golden Triangle – the infamous border area with Burma and Laos that was once the heart of the opium trade.
The $10 million Royal-sponsored Hall of Opium Museum (+66 5378 4444) outside of Chiang Saen showcases the opiate’s 5000-year history.
Back in Chiang Mai, Baan Thai Cookery School can help you impress the folks back home with hands-on daily classes cooking Thai curries.
Eat & Drink
Chiang Mai’s illustrious khao soi – noodles in coconut curry topped with lime, pickled cabbage and shallots – are best at Samoer Jai (+66 5324 2928), a tiny diner near Wat Faham. For Sai ua, or northern-style herb and pork sausages, go to Damrong (+66 5323 4661) at Warorot Market; eat with raw chilli to release the flavours.
More upmarket, family run Huen Phen (112 Rachamankha Rd; +66 5327 7103) specialises in nam prik ong, a spicy pork dip served with fresh vegies.
Then join the throngs at Riverside (9-11 Charoenrat Road), a breezy outdoor restaurant on the Ping River, for live music with a beer or two.