Thailand should be the first place that jumps to mind when you think about affordable 5 star relaxation. Luxury holidays in Thailand involve a huge choice of fantastic beaches, paradise island-hopping, incredible accommodation, breathtaking scenery and genuinely some of the friendliest service you’ll find.
First things first; Bangkok is a 12 hour flight from the UK if you fly direct, as I did – on EVA Air, but cheaper, indirect flights will take you via Dubai or Singapore.
This was my first time in Thailand so I was primarily excited to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the beaches. I’d planned to spend some time in Krabi province on the mainland, before moving on to Ko Lanta and then flying up to Bangkok. Krabi is somewhat less developed than its popular neighbour Phuket, so if you’re looking to stay away from bigger resorts and high rise developments, I think Krabi is a safe bet.
Thailand’s southern regions are packed with beach and island experiences. On the western side of the Thai peninsula in the Andaman Sea you have Phuket and Krabi on the mainland and a number if islands off the coast, including Ko Phi Phi, the film location for ‘The Beach’. To the east of the peninsula in the Gulf of Thailand, you’ll find other islands including the very popular Ko Samui. It’s worth knowing that the monsoon season hits the western and eastern coasts of the peninsula at asynchronously, so check the weather before booking if you’re headed there August – November.
Krabi is a 1.5 hour direct flight from Bangkok, or you could fly into Phuket and take the ferry or a land transfer around the coast (by land it's about 3 hours). I flew down to the islands on Bangkok Airways who brand themselves as ‘Asia’s boutique airline’. If you're planning a multi-centre trip, Bangkok Airways offer a fixed-price air pass for 3 or more segments which can be good value.
They also offer a unique little benefit to make you feel special; all Economy Class passengers get access to a dedicated lounge in both Bangkok and Krabi. Here you’ll be able to make use of free wifi, plus there’s a selection of hot and cold drinks (no alcohol), and some nibbles including both Asian and western treats and popcorn. These kept the hunger from the door and kept a smile on our faces!
It’s about a 45-minute drive from Krabi airport to the main Krabi resorts and hotels and Ao Nang beach.
I stayed at the Dusit Thani, right on the beach. Expect really picturesque gardens including two or three enormous lily ponds. There are two beautiful pools to choose from, including a glimmering infinity pool with views over the garden towards the beach. The beach here is tree-lined, and all of the hotel’s sun loungers are actually on the lawn just before the beach, so you can lie in the breeze under the shade of tall trees without getting sand between your toes!
If you’re planning a holiday-of-a-lifetime, you should consider the Pulay Bay Ritz Carlton Reserve, a Middle-Eastern inspired oasis that offers you a personal butler and rooms with private pools. Every rooms has a truly enormous bed, spectacular bathrooms and secluded outdoor tubs, so if you’re looking for privacy, you’ll find it here.
There’s an immaculately sculpted pool area right beside the beach, a beach bar and a fantastic beach-front restaurant with its own infinity-edged pond. Yes, you’re picturing it correctly - this place has exclusive written all over it. But by the time we left, we were on first name terms with the staff and genuinely felt like ‘part of the family’. It may be exclusive, but there’s nothing ‘stuffy’; you can expect great service from people who are genuinely looking to make your trip as memorable as possible.
I’d seen photos of this secluded, wooden-style accommodation and leafy palm trees online, but turning up here brought the place to life. Honestly – this boutique resort stole my heart which is why I returned to stay here on my Thailand and Cambodia honeymoon.
The accommodation is in charming, two storey, wooden houses; several clustered round the central pool area and others on the beach. The whole resort is lush and leafy and exudes a really homely, informal vibe. The spa is located inside two cocoon-like structures; the implication being that you’ll emerge transformed after your treatment - ideal.
We visited the Tubkaak Resort & Spa for dinner and had time to enjoy a sunset cocktail beforehand. I don’t think I was prepared for how much of an event the sunset is in this area. The Tubkaak Krabi is a great example of what boutique hotels in Thailand are about; situated right on the beach with picturesque views over to Phi Phi Island. At sunset, you can recline on the beach on enormous bean bags and watch the sun dip low and turn blood red as it hits the horizon. What’s even better is that this reliable, spectacular sunset happens every day – it will fast become the highlight of your day.
During this trip, I learned that ‘ko’ means ‘island’. So the locals when speaking to you in English will refer to ‘Lanta Island’ or ‘Phi Phi Island’ rather than Ko Lanta or Ko Phi Phi.
Ko Lanta is a short distance from the mainland and the hotels here make for a great twin-centre break with those on the mainland in Krabi. We took the low-cost public ferry from the pier in Krabi over to Ko Lanta. It takes a leisurely 2-3 hours (depending on pick-ups en route), but you can opt for the much faster speedboat transfer to the jetty in Ko Lanta or direct to your hotel which takes about 20-30 minutes.
The ferry is a really good value and is a great choice when the seas are calm and you have some time. You’ll pass other islands and watch passengers from other islands pull up on traditional long tail boats to meet the ferry (which explains why it can take so long!). It’s a small passenger ferry (no cars) with an inside area and a top deck, so you can sit up top and lap up the glorious sunshine and views as you sail.
There are actually two islands here; Ko Lanta Yai (‘Yai’ meaning ‘large’ island) and Ko Lanta Noi (‘Noi’ meaning ‘small’). The day we arrived they finally opened the road bridge between the two islands, so you can now drive over, with a very short car ferry crossing from the mainland.
I stayed in a Terrace Suite at the 5* Layana Resort & Spa, which is set right on the beach. I loved the layout of this hotel - everything is centred on the two palm-lined pools; an infinity pool right beside the beach and the ‘Wellness pool’ just behind it. There’s a beach front bar and informal beachfront restaurant as well as ‘Tides’ which is a smarter restaurant with a bit of a dress code.
For families or small groups who want their own space, there’s a beautiful house called La Maison. Complete with its own butler and extremely spacious private pool – you could stay here and be waited on hand and foot!
Another great option for twenty and thirty-something couples is the Twin Lotus Ko Lanta. Rooms are modern and luxurious; some villas grouped around the gardens and some facing the beach. I’d say the ultimate ‘book-it-for-your-honeymoon’ room is a Deluxe Beachfront Villa – facing the beach and close to the pool. I nearly snapped it up there and then!
There are 2 pools here, one set back and an infinity pool on the beach, with a restaurant beside it. The food here is definitely worth a mention; we visited in April 2016 and were served one of the most delicious lunches. The Kiwi head chef who joined in late 2015 produced a delicious fish course, followed by a contemporary twist in Thailand’s favourite dessert that you’ll find everywhere in the south (Mango and sticky rice). He created a coconut pana cotta with a mango jelly which was absolutely divine!
Situated right at the southern tip of Lanta Island is the Crown Lanta Resort & Spa. If you’re looking for a good value, 4* hotel with a beach front reggae bar, this one is for you. I think it would suit you if you’ve graduated from backpacking but are looking for somewhere with a fun vibe. Families will like it too, with a large pool and plenty of pool access rooms.
I took a cooking class with the Thai chef who patiently demonstrated how to cook 3 Thai dishes, and then helped us to recreate them. I can’t say my effort was anywhere near as tasty as hers, but it did teach me the classic Thai flavour combinations; sweet, sour, salty and spicy. I find Thai food absolutely irresistible (particularly this southern, spicier variety), so I would highly recommend a fun morning spent learning to cook. Most hotels offer Thai cooking classes or we can easily arrange one for you.
Krabi holidays obviously offer great opportunities to get out on the water. All of the hotels in Ko Lanta and in Krabi can arrange day trips including the popular island-hopping and snorkelling, and they make for a fantastic experience of these limestone isles.
From Ko Lanta, I took a snorkelling trip to Ko Rok National Park – a cluster of islands an hour off the coast by speed boat. Our trip took us to three different snorkelling locations and we were not disappointed by the fish – it was like something out of a tropical fish tank. The water here is balmy and warm, so it’s fun and easy to snorkel close to your boat.
Approaching the islands in Ko Rok is breath-taking. I think I’d always imagined that photos of this part of Thailand had been touched up, but I can see now that the sky really is that blue; the sea really is that shade of aquamarine and the sand really is that white. You can’t help but smile about that in the ‘Land of Smiles’.
(Just an aside: if you’re thinking speedboat = nausea – so was I... however we were offered seasickness tablets (which I took), but our trip in April was plain sailing all the way, not a ripple in sight). If you're headed to Thailand in December or January, I think you could expect broadly similar conditions.
Whilst you’re here, you should definitely take an island-hopping trip. One morning I took a longtail boat trip organised by the Layana Resort hotel. Half a day is plenty of time to experience the coast and be back in time for lunch.
We headed out from Lanta’s east coast, and sailed south between both Lanta islands through mangrove swamps populated by stilt houses and monkeys.
Not much further, you soon reach some magnificent limestone karsts off the western coast of Lanta. You’ll get right up close to see the caves and stalactites in the limestone – the rock formations are breath-taking; casting huge shadows over the water, with tiny isolated beaches hidden in nooks and crannies. Some trips will take you even closer, by kayak – so that’s on my list for my next visit to Thailand!
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