Motorbikes darting through traffic in bustling city centres, picture-perfect beaches and sumptuous cuisine are synonymous with Thailand. I had always wanted to experience the true essence of this exotic and historic destination and my recent trip did not let me down.
The Sarojin, Khao Lak
After making our way through the hustle and bustle of Phuket, we headed for Khao Lak, about an hour North of the city. Khao Lak is an area of outstanding natural beauty, offering pure white beaches and cascading waterfalls. The only way to reach the area by road is over a bridge that connects it to the mainland, offering sublime views of the Andaman sea - a great way start to our trip. The Sarojin was very peaceful with a boutique ambience, yet still managed to retain a cosy, family feel. This familial ambience is echoed in personal touches around the hotel, the most striking being that each room is named after a member of staff that gave up their free time to re-build the hotel after the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. Thankfully the hotel was not open on that tragic day, but this detail was extremely moving and heart-warming.
The Beach restaurant was our venue for dinner and we were very much looking forward to the traditional Thai cuisine it had to offer - we were not disappointed. The traditional pad thai and chicken and cashew nut dishes were outstanding. The next morning we headed down to the pristine beach - the sand was so fine, soft and white that it reminded us of being on a private island in the Maldives. However, if you want to do more than flop on the beach, then The Sarojin has much more to offer you. From snorkelling, to visiting the waterfalls in the bordering national parks to a Thai cookery class by the river - the possibilities are endless for those who want to do experience authentic Thailand.
Intimate, exclusive and one of my personal favourites, this resort is made up entirely of villas, suites and residences. The hillside location provides spectacular panoramic sea views, but best of all, the hillside pathways to the villas were not too steep, yet provided spectacular photo opportunities. Upon arrival we were shown to our accommodation - a separate villa for each of us! The interiors were elegant and spacious and we really felt like we were living like queens.
Trisara means "Third Garden in Heaven" in Sanskrit and it is easy to see why - we took a stroll through the lush grounds before dinner and observed a number of beautiful flowers, plants and trees before relaxing under the palms to enjoy locally caught garlic king prawns and seabass at the speciality seafood restaurant. Whilst the seafood in Thailand is truly superb wherever you go due to the abundance available in the surrounding waters, the dishes on offer at Trisara are among the best, in our opinion.
We were full of anticipation for this hotel - the very first Aman. Established for over 25 years and with a name meaning 'peaceful place', it was no surprise that we had high hopes for this luxury Asian retreat. We were not disappointed - from the flower garlands presented to us on arrival to the sublime views, everything was as you would expect from an Aman - simple, elegant and clear attention to detail.
The beach at Amanpuri also deserves a mention, the sheltered bays and coves provide excellent snorkelling conditions and if privacy and seclusion is what you desire, Surin beach is a great option. The sand can only be reached by the hotel or by boat but if you wish to take a break from the sands and explore further afield, there are several beach clubs and boutiques within walking distance. This area of Phuket is amongst the most sought-after, with the rich, talented and famous investing in property here - British artist Damien Hirst has a villa close to the hotel.
If you stay here you must treat yourself to a spot of indulgent pampering at the spa. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the resort, the Thai-style treatment pavilions are open and filled with light. Try the full body massage, you will feel much looser and relaxed in the capable hands of Bee the therapist. After our massages, we stopped off to enjoy some traditional "hairy prawns" and sipped the most exquisite fresh coconut juice whilst listening to some live traditional Thai music. The perfect end to the perfect afternoon.
Point Yamu by COMO,
With its enviable location on the tip of Cape Yamu overlooking the beautiful limestone formations of Phang Nga Bay, the ultra-modern Point Yamu by COMO was our last stop in Phuket. Walking into the foyer, we were struck immediately by the spectacular, stylised interiors - it was like walking into the Tate Modern in London.
The thoughtful architecture showcases the amazing views available from almost anywhere in the hotel. Point Yamu looks like no other COMO property we have visited, but it still exudes the same balance of style and understated luxury - something that COMO do exceedingly well. The rooms here are bright and colourful, with large modern bathrooms and private plunge pools
The hotel is ideally located for the Big Buddha at Wat Pra Yai and James Bond Island - Khao Phing Kan - where the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed, the island acting as assassin Francisco Scaramanga's secret hideout.
We took in the sensational views over dinner in the La Sirena Italian restaurant - we recommend the black squid ink tagliatelle and the pizzas made fresh to order in the wood fired oven. There is a focus on health and wellbeing at Point Yamu, with a dedicated wellness menu offering everything from soups to juices and smoothies. Try the Berry Quencher for the ultimate in fruity refreshment. With our stomachs full and our minds and bodies rejuvenated, we retired for the evening ahead of our journey to Koh Yao Noi in the morning.
Six Senses Yao Noi, Koh Yao
The rugged island of Koh Yao Noi is reached by long-tail ferry boat - about an hour's journey from Bang Rong Pier, Phuket. A quiet refuge from the mainland, Koh Yao Noi is equidistant between vibrant Phuket and Krabi and is popular for kayaking, hiking and snorkelling. Arriving at Six Senses Yao Noi by private speedboat, we were immediately struck by the sense of total seclusion as we zoomed past private thatched villas perched on the hillside, each with their own sundeck, infinity pool and sublime panoramic views out over the cerulean Andaman Sea.
Six Senses Yao Noi boasts rustic luxury and was my colleague's favourite. The hotel's arsenal of charms are further strengthened by its beautiful grounds. Taking a stroll around the hotel's lush mangrove surroundings, we were greeted by a plethora of creatures - monitor lizards, exotic birds, squirrels and tropical fish.
Outside of the hotel, the island's alluring simplicity continued to enamour us. We took a drive around the quiet roads and passed quaint wooden houses shaded by leafy rubber trees and buffalos cooling off from the midday sun, wallowing in the mud baths among the paddy fields. The famed Koh Phi Phi island is also close to Yao Noi - made famous by Danny Boyle's 2000 film The Beach, which was filmed there.
We had worked up an appetite for a mid-afternoon snack so headed to the gourmet deli. The deli serves homemade ice cream throughout the day, with over 20 flavours to pick from and more being added every day, we struggled to pick just one but opted for vanilla and marshmallow - a tasty choice. You can even try your own hand at gourmet at Six Senses Yao Noi by cooking up your own pad thai in the traditional Thai cooking classes. You begin each class by gathering herbs from the hotel's own gardens, before using them in your own cooking. The hotel also grows its own aloe vera and lemongrass for use in the spa.
Banyan Tree Samui, Koh
If beautiful white sand beaches, clear warm water and lush tropical gardens are your thing, look no further than Banyan Tree Koh Samui. Built on a series of cascading terraces, the stilted villas come compete with infinity pools and sensational views of the surrounding bay. Add that to calm, warm waters and one of the most pristine beaches in South East Asia and you certainly have a recipe for success. Tear yourself away from the hotel and take advantage of its enviable location - ideally located for Ang Thong National Park and the Green Lagoon. Koh Samui itself is a great year-round destination, with a comparatively short rainy season, so you are pretty much guaranteed good weather during your stay.
Definitely a hotel for foodies, the real stand-out feature of this hotel is its gastronomy. Dining options include international favourites at the Edge, classic beach grills at Sands, or candlelit in-villa barbeques. If you only visit one restaurant while you are here - it absolutely must be Saffron. Set at the top of the resort, this award-winning venue serves contemporary Thai creations against a backdrop of spectacular oceanic panoramas.The food here was the best on our trip by some measure - try the prawns with tamarind sauce which are tender, flavoursome and oh so moreish, followed by the coconut creme brûlée served in a coconut shell, simply divine! The service here was also second to none - the little details really make this a superior dining experience. Our names were inscribed in white ink on large leaves positioned amongst our place settings and we were served refreshing sundowners amongst local diners - certain confirmation that Saffron is among the best restaurants for Koh Samui's epicureans.
After clearing away dessert, our server enthusiastically gestured towards the ocean. Under the gaze of the full moon, the sea was transformed - silvers and whites danced on the surface of the water - truly mesmerising. The visual wonder was actually the work of the local squid fisherman. As they haul in their nets, the light emitted from the firefly squids causes a glowing display. This sight, as well as the fantastic meal we had just savoured, made this the ultimate highlight of our trip.
Four Seasons Resort Koh
Samui, Koh Samui
Set in a coconut plantation - amongst over 800 coconut trees to be more precise - the accommodation here is very much in-keeping with the natural environment, camouflaged amongst existing foliage and trees. The horeshoe bay is sprinkled with gorgeous powdery sand and the warm temperatures of the shallows provide excellent bathing opportunities.
As far as eateries go, there is a good variety to choose from here. KOH Thai Kitchen and Bar serves up some of the island's favourite dishes from its palm-covered hilltop location, but Pla Pla was our favourite. Located right on the beach, Pla Pla - meaning "many fish" in Thai - is unsurprisingly a great spot for fish and seafood. Our top picks from the menu are the snowfish, sardines, seafood risotto and pad thai kang wok-fried rice noodles with samui rock lobster - absolutely delicious. On Tuesdays and Fridays, those in the know can take advantage of pop-up restaurant Castaway which provides a beach barbecue-style offering served in a hidden cove.
Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui was perfect for a relaxing end to our trip. The focus here is on pure pampering in a pristine environment - golf carts are provided for you to zip your way around the hillside resort and you can spot beautiful butterflies and geckos as you dart around the immaculately manicured grounds. You can even charter a three bedroom private yacht for some private island-hopping, complete with on board chef. The spa here is first class, with five individual spa salas offering a revitalising range of holistic treatments - try a deeply regenerative Thai herbal compress in the privacy of your own villa or even on the beach.
A unique offering of this hotel is the Thai boxing ring that can be found at the very height of the resort. A champion of muay thai- the Thai variety of boxing - puts you through your paces as you kick, punch and grapple your way towards mastering this centuries-old martial art. Sometimes called the "art of eight limbs", this beloved national sport is suitable for all ages and abilities and is a great alternative workout - we used our class to justify an extra bowl of coconut ice cream.
It was with mixed emotions that we bid farewell to Thailand. We were sad to leave this earthly paradise where we had met so many lovely people and tried the most amazing food but we went home happy, knowing that we had truly experienced authentic Thailand.