Asia's hospitalitydestination par excellence, Thailand has an epic history of welcoming foreigners, from the European imperialists colonizing neighboring lands to the American GIs on leave from the Vietnam War. With the pressed palms of the wai (the traditional Thai greeting) and a serene glint in the eye, the kingdom has earned its moniker as the Land of a Thousand Smiles, staking its claim on modern-day vacationers.
By the 1980s the first Full Moon Party had taken place on the now-infamous Sunrise Beach, making the shores of southern Thailand a permanent mark on the map for young explorers everywhere. Flash forward 30 years, and those directions to secret coves scribbled on the back pages of tattered Lonely Planet guidebooks have been swapped for a very performative travel ritual--documenting one's journey through pictures and prose for the masses to consume on Instagram or Facebook. And as we carefully edit and filter our experiences, the popularity of the destinations themselves wax and wane like fashion trends.
As such, Thailand's readiness to welcome strangers has in a way become its handicap as more remote corners of the globe start to reveal themselves. The ease with which travelers move around the country has, also, somehow begun to betray the vast swaths of jungle, dozens of temple-topped cities, and hundreds of dramatically sited islands offering plenty of pockets that feel wonderfully unexplored.
But it's not the delicate balance of lost and found that nourishes Thailand's evergreen appeal--it's the fact that the kingdom does an incredible job of constantly reminding its visitors that they're in the Land of Smiles. Within an hour after touching down in Bangkok, you'll be spouting sawasdee with the alacrity of a Hawaiian "aloha," and as you tramp further afield you'll begin to digest a special dialect of tourist English that requires the acquisition of several other key Thai phrases. Even the blank canvas of a sandy beach feels distinctly Thai as seaside stalls serve spoonfuls of spicy som tam (papaya salad) and colorful long-tail boats putter around the bay.
Though the beaches are the keystone of Thailand's tourism infrastructure, locals have long considered them an unlikely source of income, as they were once thought to hold little monetary value. Traditionally, when parents bequeathed property to their children, they would give the arable lands to their oldest sons and leave the sandy patches to their youngest daughters. The rise in beach tourism--a decidedly Western pursuit, as tan skin is not considered a convention of beauty in Thailand--flipped the local economy on its head, filling the coffers of those who held the keys to the limestone towers and impossibly blue waters immortalized in Alex Garland's cult classic The Beach.
Garland's novel, later turned into a film by Danny Boyle, explores the early days of Full Moon madness and the search for an idyllic island, flanked by a warm lagoon, hidden somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand. The characters lament the threat of unchecked tourism that globalization inevitably begets, and while some of their fear has been realized (as is the case with the hundreds of beach destinations around the world), there are plenty of balances in place afforded by the upswing in luxury travel.
The Six Senses Samui (SixSenses.com) represents a changing of the guard on Koh Samui, the largest island in the gulf. Occupying a private peninsula on the northeast corner of the island, the enclave promises 66 villas--many with private plunge pools--and a newly cleared tropical farm intended to maximize sustainability efforts beyond the already-implemented state-of-the-art water and waste management. Combined with morning visits to the local market, the on-site farm will fulfill the regular need for fresh produce both in the kitchen and at the award-winning holistic spa.
Green-thumbed guests are welcome to schedule exclusive meals on the farm, but the property's unmissable eating experience is Dining on the Rocks, set on a series of cantilevered teak verandas leaning over sheer rock and open water. The unobstructed views of the sunset pair perfectly with the colorful cocktails created from the bounty of the resort's garden. After dark, while savoring your fusion mains, it feels as though the bamboo balconies have magically transformed into rafts floating on a placid sea.
The property also offers semi-private tours of Ang Thong Marine Park, a cluster of islets in the heart of the Gulf of Thailand that dramatically spring forth from the depths of the sea, rising to more than 1,000 feet. Largely believed to be the inspiration for Garland's novel, the park's rocky karsts protect coral shoals and hidden lagoons best explored with a snorkel in hand.
Thailand paints on its cultural cues with thicker brushstrokes in the north, where Chiang Mai--considered the country's seat of higher learning--acts as the gateway to a vast realm once ruled as the prosperous Lanna kingdom. While Bangkok plays up its cosmopolitan appeal, Chiang Mai holds its heritage dear and surges to life when national festivals sweep across the city.
Not to be missed is Songkran, the Thai lunar New Year, held in mid-April over two full days. All bets are off as thousands of well-wishers take to the streets of the city, dousing one another with incredible amounts of water as part of the annual ritual cleansing. Balloons, buckets, and even Super Soakers are used in the biggest water fight on the planet, held with the same pomp as the Running of the Bulls in Spain or the tossing of colored powders during Holi in India.
In late November, the city also performs what is perhaps the most cinematic rite on the planet during the holiday of Loi Krathong. Throughout the kingdom small lanterns are gingerly set afloat along riverbanks, but in Chiang Mai the ritual coincides with the Lanna lunar festival of Yi Peng, and special wishes are made as thousands of additional sky lanterns are gently released into the starry night.
Let Smiling Albino (SmilingAlbino.com) lead you beyond Chiang Mai to unlock Thailand's northern hinterland of wandering tribes and roving elephants. Offering tailored trips to individuals and small groups, the cadre of expert guides concertedly works against the exotification of the indigenous Karen--known for their long, gold-ringed necks--by providing thoughtful programs that allow visitors to understand what really makes the region tick, from homestays in the highlands to the exploration of the jade markets and tea plantations near Myanmar. Nothing has a glossy veneer--the way true travel should be.
At the very northern tip of Thailand, where the Burmese and Laotian borders come to a single point, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle (FourSeasons.com) preserves a hidden acreage of misty hills that's home to a rehabilitation center for abused elephants. As the name suggests, a handful of canvas-clad huts are set on stilts throughout the lush jungle, loosely connected by a series of footbridges. Inside, the throwback decor elicits a safari vibe perfectly suited for your early-morning mahout training sessions bathing elephants down at the gully.
Over the course of each stay, every guest is paired with an elephant in the reserve, learning its backstory and helping with some of its preliminary feeding. After you remove your keeper's uniform, you'll spend your afternoons as if in a scene from a Kipling novel, relaxing on your balcony governing the leafy expanse below or taking a cue from your new pet elephant and sloughing off the midday heat with a dip in the pool. Dinners are a culinary miracle, as gourmet twists on Thai staples (think flash-fried soft-shell crab on a bed of papaya) appear as if from the surrounding thatch.
Complete your Thailand experience with a stop in modern Bangkok, which somehow spins its chaos into bliss. A futuristic skytrain swooshes across the city, connecting traditional neighborhoods where steel food carts clang and motorbikes slide by honking taxis. And while a crop of towers rise above the grit--most of them glass spires, the warrens of the "high so," or well-heeled elite--you'll notice the odd golden-topped temple always poking through to subtly remind you that you're never not in Thailand.
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