A backpacker’s paradise for generations, Thailand is arguably no longer the best-kept secret in Asia. It is, in fact, a household name.
But, with the popularity of its stunning scenery and bustling cities continuing to grow on an international level, the need for high-quality hotels is greater than ever before.
But as diverse as the Thailand terrain is, so must the hotels be, from the jungles of Chiang Mai in the north to the party islands in the south and the business districts of Bangkok.
In the past few years, Thailand has set about creating a destination for all international guests, using its exquisite world-renowned cuisine and you-can-only-get-it-here ingredients to entice and delight.
We set off around Thailand to get a taste of how the hotel operators are putting F&B at the centre of everything they do.
The Premier Resorts and Hotels Company Ltd. has an enviable collection of hotels to its name spread across a number of the most sought-after destinations in all of Thailand.
In the northern city of Chiang Mai, which is an overnight sleeper train ride through the jungle away (you have got to try it) or just an hour or so by plane from Bangkok, the group is represented by the Tamarind Village Hotel and the stunning new Raya Heritage.
Chiang Mai is famous for its lush greenery and rivers and, while it still caters for international travellers, there is something still very authentic-Thai about it.
The famous Walking Market features locally-made arts, crafts and cuisine with knick-knacks and traditional street food available at a third of Bangkok prices.
TAMARIND VILLAGE, CHIANG MAI
Based on the Thai Lanna-style design, the Tamarind Village is close-knit set of villas and rooms set around a central pool and gardens filled with the tamarind trees.
A charming boutique property inspired by local history and culture, it is set within the old city halfway between the Wat Phra Singh temple and the Tha Phae Gate on the crumbling city wall.
A curved bamboo tunnel entrance invites both overnight guests and passing tourists to try its jewel in the crown – Ruen.
Ruen Tamarind is a cosy poolside café-style restaurant serving a variety of delicious classic and northern Thai dishes among bamboo-clad features and lemongrass scents.
Guests can satisfy their cravings for regional specialities with the Top Ten of the Now & Then signature menu, the pick of which is arguably the yum tawai gai – a healthy and savoury salad made of fresh local vegetables such as morning glory, sweet basil and tamarind (the fruit from the tree) tossed in mildly spiced coconut milk dressing and topped with fried garlic, shallots, peanut and chicken.
Authentic northern Thai dishes like ‘nam prik noom’, a green chili dipping sauce; gaeng hang lay, a mild pork and ginger curry or; yum sanut, a vegetable salad tossed in a tangy, chili dressing offer something very different to your normal green, red or yellow curry.
An afternoon tea service sees bael fruit cake, santal brownie, mango pudding, jasmine panna cotta and chicken tortillas wrapped in freshly-cut banana leaves served alongside organic teas and coffees.
If you are only in the Chiang Mai Old City for one meal, you cannot go wrong with a visit to Tamarind Village (Tamarindvillage.com).
RAYA HERITAGE, CHIANG MAI
The outskirts of Chiang Mai city are known for their tourist destinations. Elephant sanctuaries (animal welfare accredited-only, please), jungle trekking and trips to the mountainside Buddhist monk temple Doi Suthep are on most people’s to-do lists.
But if you want to escape the hustle and bustle, the best hotel for you is the Raya Heritage.
One of the newer 5-star properties in Chiang Mai province, Raya Heritage is a haven of peace and quiet, with a large open reception lounge, candle-lit water features and the gentle babble of the Ping River.
Again, in the Lanna-style of architecture, the hotel stays authentic Thai, with staff dressed in traditional white flowing uniforms and raised voices a rarity. Stunning gardens and a multiple-level layout offer guests an interesting expedition around the site.
But it is the multiple F&B outlets that allow guests to really explore. The Laan Cha Tea Terrace is an outdoor roofed terrace perfect for lounging and enjoying afternoon tea, herbal teas and fresh juices while watching the river flow by. A daily high tea offers Thai-grown natural teas, a speciality is cha payom – a herbal infusion made with the fragrant flowers of the payom tree.
With most other dining and drinking options a 10- to 15-minute taxi ride away, the evenings are centred on the drinking and dining establishments on-site.
Before dinner, it is a prerequisite to take in the Bann Ta Lounge & Lawn for cocktails or lighter evening meals. The bar’s namesake cocktail is made with local Mekhong rum, Thai herbs and passionfruit, while the Long Mae Ping is a refreshing combination of local Phraya rum and fresh fruit juices. The menu of light dishes includes sandwiches, soups, salads and local specialities. The low-lit cosy spot is bursting with tranquil atmosphere as mixologists serve up beverage creations backed by serene music and a cicada symphony.
The first thing you will notice about Khu Kaho is the rustic elegance of the space inspired by the rice-based culture of the north, with a number of threshing baskets and sorting bowls used by northern Thai rice farmers in the past, cleverly incorporated into the décor.
Chef Somyot, the resort’s executive chef, has created a unique crossroads concept, offering a menu of delicious, healthy and original recipes drawing influence from the greater Lanna region, including northern Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Yunnan, China.
Signature dishes, under headings of River, Earth & Fire, Noodles and Garden, include khao raem Fuen Sai Gai Yunnan (Yunnanese rice-curd salad with spicy grilled chicken beansprouts) and jin-loong (Shan-style minced-pork meatballs seasoned with ginger, garlic, shallot and coriander served with rice vermicelli noodles tossed in coconut and spicy peanut sauce) and are examples of the delicious variety on offer.
Virtually all ingredients are sourced from local, sustainable farms (likewise the beauty products in the bedrooms). Guests may choose between the elegantly rustic indoor dining room or outdoor table settings on the terrace and garden, on the banks of the Ping.
If you aren’t still stuffed, the morning repast is an amazing fusion of international classics with a Thai flavour; try the chef’s signature Cloudy Eggs; you won’t be disappointed. (rayaheritage.com)
Rayavadee, Railay, Krabi
At the secluded beach resort of Railay – you can only get there by boat from Ao Nang in Krabi – there is a fantastic mix of shabby-chic and outright luxury and Rayavadee certainly falls into the latter.
Just a short beach walk away from the surf shacks and Rastafarian mango sticky rice street-food vendors the Rayavadee is a huge site, with more than 100 villas and pavilions, private pools and even a monkey or two.
Guests could quite easily stay, eat and drink on site, with views of the white sand and rockfaces encasing the secluded beach.
Restaurants include the Raya Dining offer with international cuisine in an elegant yet informal setting. Innovative grill cuisine with Thai and Western influences puts an emphasis on high-quality ingredients that include locally sourced seafood and top cuts of meat.
Krua Phranang is the resort’s romantic open-air Thai restaurant, while the Raitalay Terrace offers casual-style all-day dining with a menu of light, Asian-inspired cuisine.
But the highlight is The Grotto.
Set against a backdrop of limestone cliffs with views on to stunning Phranang beach, The Grotto offers a selection of refreshing drinks, light snacks, fresh salads and tasty stir-fries in a casual beachside setting.
Under the guidance of head chef Roman Aletru, a mixture of international cuisine from Italian to Spanish to Japanese to Aletru’s native France boasts dishes such as pan-seared white snapper proveçale with capers, cherry tomatoes, croutons and rice berry or Moroccan-style slow-braised chicken lemon confit cooked in a tajine with raisin couscous, apricot, chickpeas and almonds.
Cocktails can be quaffed while watching the tide roll in before chef fires up the barbecues at the open-theatre kitchen.
This is a beach resort restaurant that is tough to be beaten. (www.rayavadee.com)
ULTRA-MODERN vs TOTALLY THAI
Koh Samui is one of the more popular island destinations in Thailand, but there really is something for everyone. If sunset beach parties turning into sunrise strolls are your thing, Chaweng is the place to go. Bohput Fisherman’s Village is the Shoreditch of Samui, with trendy tattoo parlours sat next to destination restaurants, funky bars and arts and crafts pop-ups. But head north to Maenam and the choice of hotel is just as varied.
W KOH SAMUI
Known in the UK for its pumping Leicester Square outlet, complete with regular world-renowned DJ sets and model-looking staff in trainers and suits, the W Koh Samui has taken the Marriott’s vibrant brand to new levels when it comes to hospitality.
Under the gaze of vibrant pop-art murals, the W Lounge is not your ordinary hotel lounge. Lotus-shaped sunken seats – part of a spectacular circular water feature – offer panoramic views of the islands and seascape, while the WOOBAR serves a variety of custom cocktails and light bites.
Expert mixologists serve up while the DJ spins up a curated list of tunes. Smart menus mean that you can order cocktails having already seen them on Instagram, while on Wednesdays guests can play a game of 50/50. When they order a signature cocktail or local beer they flip the W coin to see if they pay or if it is on the house.
Guests can sample local, regional, continental and international cuisine at The Kitchen Table. Its original menu blends global favourites ranging from curry to gourmet pizza and salads.
The destination dining comes in the form of Namu, where contemporary Japanese cuisine is presented in creative fashion.
From shiromi carpaccio served with inspired Southeast Asian dressing to brandy flambé wagyu, each dish is given an unexpected twist. Sashimi is served as you like it – or with one of the innovative special dressings from the chef. The tempting teppan grill is also always ablaze with a symphony of sauces, like jalapeno dressing and chilli bean sauce, which flawlessly garnish a Maine lobster served with udon.
Dishes such as wagyu gyoza dipping with teriyaki black truffle sauce and Thai spider maki stuffed with softshell crab tempura… the creations are varied and flavourful.
Down on the beach, SIP is home to breathtaking views, colourful cocktails and a creative menu. Settle into the resin seats, which appear frosted by day but take on a glow at night, transforming into vibrant shades to suit the mood. Large stainless steel and wood elements blend with raw-cut bamboo poles, creating an original traditional/modern mix.
And if that wasn’t enough, guests should watch out for their special tasting events. For example, on our visit we were fortunate to have an inspired menu, complete with explanation from Noma (former best restaurant in the world) co-founder chef Mads Refslund.
In the private dining room a group of international foodies were treated to dishes such as hamachi with black radish and chestnuts, watermelon with sweet shrimps and salted plums, king crab in rosemary branches and grilled salmon with cucumbers and dry-aged duck, complete with course by course wine pairing. (www.marriott.co.uk)
Santiburi, Koh Samui
Part of The Leading Hotels of the World association, the Santiburi Koh Samui is a distinctive, elegant escape with 300 metres of private beach.
Traditional in style and 5-star in service the Santiburi is majority made up, of private villas sprawled across a site that is part wild garden, part luxury resort.
Walking through the orchids, guests will stumble across almost hidden wonders, from the pool (which is as big as a small lake) across a babbling brook through to beachside restaurants, relaxing spa and exciting watersports centre.
There are enough varied F&B options at Santiburi to satisfy guests’ needs, so much so you may forget that there is a world outside of this paradise.
The Beach House & Bar offers an irresistible menu of delicacies sourced from the land and sea. Flavourful cocktails complement the signature surf and turf dishes that you can select from the fresh market display in the restaurant. With an open-theatre kitchen one side, the beach front the other, and only a canopy between you and stars, it is a spectacular option.
At Sala Thai, traditional flavours of Thai cuisine can be enjoyed overlooking the resort’s verdant gardens through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and opening on to a terrace.
Choose a sharing menu and sample a wide range of classic recipes while dining in traditional Thai fashion. Classic dishes can be spicy, but you can order them here to suit your personal taste, while the in-house sommelier also offers the wine pairings.
The Lounge is in a Sino-Thai-style making it a peaceful retreat to enjoy a cup of tea, coffee or a chilled fresh fruit juice in the afternoon. The Lounge is also a great place for a pre-dinner aperitif or simply to retreat with a magazine or a book from the library in quiet, air-conditioned comfort (not that anywhere else is noisy).
The Pool House is a great spot for a relaxed poolside meal with friends or family, offering tapas, healthy salads, skewers from the grill, sandwiches and burgers as well as smoothies, mocktails and, of course, cocktails.
Finally, the Vimarnmek is the specialist breakfast restaurant offering a lavish breakfast buffet that’s legendary for its range of flavours and ingredients. Start with a healthy drink of freshly squeezed vegetables, roots or fruit – from the juice bar – you choose the fruit and they pop it in the blender.
Freshly-baked breads and pastries, cereals, seasonal fruits, nuts, cold cuts and cheeses make a continental offering, while classic Asian breakfast dishes are prepared at live cooking stations, along with made-to-order eggs, a full selection of Western sides as well as waffles and crepes – again made bespoke to each customer.
The Santiburi says it prides itself on “creating outstanding dining experiences throughout the day and night”, and they have done exactly that. (www.santiburisamui.com)
Novotel Bangkok Sukhumvit 20
Part of the Accor Group, the Novotel brand prides itself on being “modern easy living” with a digital-rich experience and full-service.
The new Novotel Bangkok Sukhumvit 20 hotel is exactly that.
Set in the increasingly trendy Sukhumvit area of the city and with great access to the must-see sites by the Sky Train, the hotel is so convenient to travel around Bangkok that is has made hard work for itself in keeping its guests dining on-site… or so you might think.
Located on the 7th floor, Food Exchange is a city-view restaurant based on the concept of open cooking stations, a modern interpretation of traditional food markets from around the world. Diners can interact with chefs to see how their meals are specifically created.
With everything from fresh seafood (I have never eaten so many oysters in one siting) to the daily selection of Thai and international food, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Signature dishes include Hoo Hong, a Phuket-style braised pork belly with Chinese herb; Mussamun Kae, braised New Zealand lamb shank in peanut curry sauce; and oven-baked Chilean seabass fillet with roasted pumpkin.
Charm Korean Steak House is a refined Korean barbecue restaurant, offering melt-in-your mouth whole rib-eye steaks, imported Hite beer from South Korea and signature whiskey.
Charm Korean Steak House is not an imported brand but a home-grown success, founded by Lauren Kim. After graduating from the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu, Kim opened Banjoo, her first restaurant in Bangkok, three years ago.
The dinner is a full repertoire, starting from the medley of meat options for grilling to kimchi soups, rice and, finishing off, a bowl of cold noodles.
Sot Soju Bar is a new Korean-inspired soju bar, located on the 8th floor of the hotel.
Sot Soju Bar is dedicated to the art of organic soju made from speciality rice and distilled in a unique way, the soju is then aged in the traditional Korean clay pots that allow air flow to permeate the ageing liquor.
The bar’s signature soju is Hwayo distilled and absolutely worth a try.
Arguably the icing on the cake is the rooftop bar Sky on 20.
No trip to Bangkok is complete without a visit to one of the city’s magnificent
sky bars and fortunately the Novotel has its own on the 26th floor.
House DJs and live bands take it in turn to entertain guests at what is a truly mesmerising facility. Guests can gaze upon the twinkling lights of the stunning city skyline and sip on delicious new and classic cocktails (check out the Wake Me Up punches and tiki range), while a sharing menu serves up Mediterranean pizzas, mini sliders, piri piri chicken wings, crab mayonnaise bruschetta, fried arancini balls and more. Glass sides mean that nothing obstructs the views, even when sunken down into the comfy sofas. A real must-see. (www.novotelbangkoksukhumvit20.com)
A draw for tourists for many years, Thailand rightly has the reputatuon for offering hostel dwellers a cut-price paradise; well now it has the counterpart touch of luxury in its hotel F&B, too.