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A First Timers Guide To Thailand From Chiang Mai To Bangkok

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A First Timers Guide To Thailand

I must be the only person I know who has never been to Thailand. Growing up it was the choice destination for all my classmates once they graduated from high school. Backpacks, low budget hotels and beaches. That’s what they were going for and from all accounts that is what they got. Not me, I’m hoping for a different Thailand. Yes, I want beaches, but there will be no backpacking and no low budget hotels. This trip is all about the luxe side of Thailand with a focus on the culture, culinary and unique attractions that make Thailand such a special place to visit. Also as a gay man travelling in Asia for the first time, I’m excited to experience how they welcome the LGBT community. Let the #AmazingThailand adventures begin.

Doing my part of elephant day care at Patara Elephant Farm

Doing my part of elephant day care at Patara Elephant Farm

Over the course of my seven days and eight nights in Thailand, I will visit 4 cities. Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai which is located in the northern portion of the country. Phuket Island lies to the south and then I’ll be flying north to Bangkok in central Thailand. It’s not as much time as I’d like in each city but it is enough to tease me and leave me wanting to come back.

The following is a brief recap of the adventures I had in each city. I will be following up with a full story on each region that will provide greater detail but I wanted to share in one piece some of what I learned about Thailand and some tips and trips if it is your first time in the country. Let’s start in the North in Chiang Mai.



Chiang Mai

Coming from Toronto I flew Eva Air Premium Economy. It is the only way to fly as the flight is about 24 hours in length with one stopover in Taiwan. Upon arrival, the first thing I did while waiting for my luggage was to change my Canadian money for the Thai Baht. At the time of my trip, the exchange was $1CA to 24 Baht. Then with luggage and money in hand, I secured a ride to my hotel for two nights, Pillars 137.

Pillars 137 original building

Pillars 137 original building

Pillars 137 is located at the site of the northern headquarters of the Borneo Trading Company. The main house was built 125 years ago and after careful restoration is the centrepiece of the property. Included in my suite are the services of a butler, which I am guilty of using. How nice to have fresh cold water in my room 20 minutes before I return, shirts ironed ready to wear for dinner and turn down service every night before bed. This is the life.

Most visitors to Chiang Mai focus on three things, markets, elephants, and temples and I am no different.

For markets, we visited the massive Warorat Market. What couldn’t you buy here? A great place to stock up on spices, especially chilis, and produce. There are also plenty of street foods available in the market for purchase and clothes shopping galore. This is where you can pick up your elephant pants if you are so inclined.

Elephants are one of the main draws for visitors in northern Thailand. The Patara Elephant Farm is one of the best in my opinion and offers a variety of experiences depending on your time and budget. The tour I choose was the Elephant Day Care package which includes transportation to and from your hotel. It does not include riding of the elephants which is something I did not want to do. I learned how to greet, feed and clean elephants with their handlers close by to assist if I needed it. This was a magical experience and quite honestly one I will never forget. BOOK THIS EXPERIENCE!

Washing my elephant at Patara Elephant Farm Chiang Mai

Washing my elephant at Patara Elephant Farm Chiang Mai

Temples are also a major attraction in Chiang Mai and during my two days, I visited three. Wat Prah Soi Duthep, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Sri Suphan. Each temple is different and offers a unique experience. Wat Prah Soi Duthep is located about 15 minutes outside of Chiang Mai and offers unparalleled views overlooking the city. Wat Chedi Luang is in the centre of the city and is a complex compromised of three temples with an ancient temple in the centre. Wat Sri Suphan is the silver temple and if you have time ask to sign up for a class where you will learn at the hands of a master how the artists make the ornaments that are on display in temples around the country. Wat Sri Suphan is made entirely from Aluminum and silver and is quite a sight.

PRO TIP: visiting temples in Thailand require that you respect their dress code. Men and women are not allowed entrance with shorts or skirts that are above the knee and shoulders must be covered at all times. 

Dining in Thailand is an adventure. Each region has its own specialities and dishes that are unique to the area. While in Chiang Mai you MUST try some Khao Soi (Khao Soi) at Woo Cafe-Art Gallery-Lifestyle Shop. A noodle dish made with a mix of deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk. It is delicious!

Khao Soy for lunch at Woo Cafe in Chiang Mai

Khao Soy for lunch at Woo Cafe in Chiang Mai

Coffee in Chiang Mai is also a thing and as a serious coffee drinker, I am in heaven. There are coffee shops everywhere. One of my favourites is a local chain called Wawee Coffee. There are so many to choose from I suggest you be adventurous and try as many as you can.

Wawee Coffee in Chiang Mai

Wawee Coffee in Chiang Mai

Chiang Rai

The journey to Chiang Rai takes you to the northeast portion of Thailand to the region known as the Golden Triangle. From my room at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, you can see three countries. Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The resort overlooks the Ruak and Mekong Rivers where some mornings you will see the resorts elephants walking about eating and playing.

The View of 3 countries from my room at Anantara Golden Triangle

The View of 3 countries from my room at Anantara Golden Triangle

If you are looking for a little escape and downtime this is the right place to be. With an on-site spa, excellent restaurants that also offer Thai cooking classes and of course elephant experiences you never need to leave the property. If laying by an infinity pool overlooking three countries is more your style they have that too.

Infinity Pool at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Farm

Infinity Pool at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Farm

This is Thailand so I had to see more temples. Two, in fact, the Blue and White temples. The Wat Rong Sear Tean is a temple painted entirely in blue and is quite a sight while the Wat Rong Khun temple is unique in that stands out being entirely white in colour and the use of pieces of glass in the plaster. It sparkles in the sun. The white signifies the purity of the Buddha, while the glass symbolizes the Buddha’s wisdom and the Dhamma, the Buddhist teachings. Very Instagram worthy

Another noteworthy stop along the way to and from Chiang Rai is the Doi Tung Royal Villa. Once the late King’s mothers residence it was also a project she initiated to teach the local hill tribe people a skill other than growing Opium. There are gift shops onsite, restaurants and a fabulous garden you can wander and enjoy at your leisure with your entrance ticket. Touring the royal villa is a must and I’m sure you will be as surprised as I was how simply the Princess Mother lived.

The gardens at Doi Tung Royal Villa

The gardens at Doi Tung Royal Villa

Bangkok Airways

The journey from Chiang Mai to Phuket would take forever via car or just a couple of hours by air so of course, I flew. For the first time, I was flying with Bangkok Airways, considered Asia’s boutique airline. Everywhere Bangkok Airways flies they have an airport lounge so, after check-in, all you have to do is relax in comfort while you wait for your flight to board. Complimentary snacks and beverages are available and fairly decent wifi.

Inside the Bangkok Airways lounge in Chiang Mai airport

Inside the Bangkok Airways lounge in Chiang Mai airport

The planes are comfy and provide plenty of leg room, even in economy class. It’s only two-hour hour flight to Phuket but a hot meal is included with our flight. I wasn’t particularly hungry but nice to have if you are.

First time with Bangkok Airways but not my last, for sure.

Phuket

Probably one of the most visited destinations in Thailand, Phuket is famous for its beaches and the tiny islands in the Andaman Sea and Phang Nga Bay. Upon my arrival, I head straight to Paresa Resort, Heaven of all Heavens. This privately owned boutique hotel in Kamala sits on the cliffs overlooking the Andaman Sea and offers private infinity pools in each room.

Enjoying a glass of wine in my own private infinity pool at the Paresa Phuket

Enjoying a glass of wine in my own private infinity pool at the Paresa Phuket

I never want to leave my suite. Indoor and outdoor showers, soaker tub overlooking the pool. Oh, and did I say that each room has a private infinity pool? I may have skinny dipped in my own pool as soon as I arrived.

The on property restaurants offer first-class dining including breakfast buffets that include western and Asian offerings, Eggs Benny with a side of dim sum? Yes, please.

You can’t visit Phuket though without heading out onto the water and checking out some of the islands. I hopped on a powerboat and made my way to Koh Yao Noi. This small island offers plenty to see and experience. I met up with some local women who are masters of Batik and learned how they apply their craft. Selling these wraps and linens to visiting tourists generates plenty of income for the women and families ensuring their financial independence.

I also was able to meet a local family that has built small guest houses for visitors to book and stay at. While I didn’t spend the night there I was invited to join them for lunch with my friends. A simple yet delicious meal.

Of course, I also took a moment to jump into the water. It’s the rainy season so it was no surprise that it rained on me while I was swimming. Pure magic.

Ready for a swim while the storm approaches

Ready for a swim while the storm approaches

Another reason Phuket is popular with the tourists is the nightlife. Bangla Walking Street comes alive at night and you can get anything here and I mean anything.

For us gays, there is a small strip of gay clubs within site of the Royal Paradise Hotel and Spa. Outside drag shows, cocktails on the street, it is a great place to party hop. If you come solo you’ll make friends fast, I promise.

Outdoor drag show about to begin in Phuket

Outdoor drag show about to begin in Phuket

Bangkok

The capital of Thailand is not a city you can see in a couple of days. It is massive, exciting and congested with plenty of traffic. Picking a hotel near to the part of town you want to explore is a great idea and for me, I’ve chosen the Banyan Tree Bangkok. Luxury with a great location and central to most of my planned activities.

The hotel is full of amazing amenities including a club floor for guests that register on it that comes with complimentary happy hour and breakfast. A nice perk to start the day and end the afternoon before dinner. There is also a word class spa and restaurants that are worth visiting even if you don’t stay here. The rooftop lounge, in particular, offers spectacular views of the city. Unfortunately for me the night I had planned to dine here it thundered and rained up a storm.

Cocktails with a view at the Moon Bar rooftop lounge at the Banyan Tree Bangkok

Cocktails with a view at the Moon Bar rooftop lounge at the Banyan Tree Bangkok

Speaking of dining in Bangkok, did you know that Bangkok has over 100 Michelin starred restaurants? In fact, three of those are rated 2 stars. One of those is Mezzaluna in the lebua Hotel & Resorts. Dinner here is an experience and not only because you are dining 65 floors up in the air.

Chef Ryuki Kawasaki has crafted a menu that highlights some of the finest ingredients available and makes them the star of each dish. I was treated to the chef’s menu which included six courses plus a couple extra thrown in at the whim of Chef. A true culinary experience not to be missed when you are in Bangkok. If you can also make sure you have a cocktail at Sky Bar, famous as a location in Hollywood’s Hangover II movie.

View from Sky Bar at lebua Hotel

View from Sky Bar at lebua Hotel

One of my favourite adventures while in Bangkok aside for all the great food was exploring Bangkok’s Chinatown. There is a rich history shared between the Chinese and Thai people in Bangkok and it shows in Chinatown. You need to get off the main streets and explore the side streets. This is where the real bargains can be found, but just make sure you are not shopping at a wholesale location. You have to buy a minimum of 6 of anything. so unless you want 6 of the same pair of shoes, it is best to ask. One thing to note in the market is that items are generally sold in common areas. For example, one area will specialize in shoes, another one will focus on bags, hats etc… Explore, explore, explore and make sure to hold onto your valuables as you can be pickpocketed here fairly easy.

After a long day of exploring and shopping you will want to relax under the skilled hands of a Thai masseur. While here I had a massage almost every second day. They are extremely affordable and also very talented. Here in Bangkok, I tried out a new massage concept in Thailand, blind massage. Perception Blind Massage opened in 2014 and has been training blind individuals in the art of massage. It teaches them a skill allowing them to earn financial independence while contributing to their community. Oh, and the massage was spot on. I had a foot massage that left my toes tingling they were so happy afterwards.

This was my week in Thailand. Not what you were expecting I’d imagine. Will I be back? Absolutely. Where will I go? I want to visit each city again with more time exploring the less visited aspects. I want to learn how to cook authentic Thai food from each region I visit, I want more massages and I want to really explore the temples in greater detail to get a fuller appreciation for the Buddhist religion and how it has helped shape Thai culture.

Gay, Bi or Straight Thailand welcomes all and I can’t wait to go back.

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Disclosure: General

Special thanks to the Tourism Authority of Thailand for inviting me and hosting this amazing adventure across Thailand. All views and opinions are 100% my own


About Author

Marc Smith is a former event planner turned vagabond adventurer. He loves strong Americano's, great wine, cold beer and zip lining over tree tops. Formerly of Vancouver, most of Marc's time when not travelling is in Canada's largest city, Toronto. Follow along on his nomad adventures and discover places to stay, things to do and where to eat & drink as he explores the world one city and region at a time.

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