THAILAND is where you go to find yourself. But if you already know who you are (a spice-loving boozehound), then you’ll want to find top-notch beer and curry instead.
These two staples of modern British life are everywhere in Thailand — so a beer and spice tour was right up my street. The journey begins in toasty Bangkok with a cold glass of Chang, the country’s popular and widely exported lager.
It tastes best supped wearing trunks at the 137 Pillars hotel, while paddling in the Thai capital’s highest infinity pool. The views are unforgettable, and glass panels stop you falling off the edge if you knock back too many brews.
Sightseeing is better with some grub, so I head to the riverside Mango Tree. You can get a sweet red curry, a cool drink and cracking views of three famous Bangkok temples all for around £3. In the evening, head downtown to Cabbages and Condoms.
The name isn’t a bonkers mistranslation: this is a Thai restaurant themed around condoms. There are condom statues, condom paintings and even free condoms to take away at the end.
It’s all for a good cause (raising sexual health awareness in the capital), and it’s a great laugh — with live music and dancing. Enjoy a green curry, a colourful Thai classic that’s just spicy enough to distract you from the condom lights fluttering overhead.
Last stop on the Bangkok booze tour is Craft, an open-air bar just yards from the infamous pink-neon Soi Cowboy street — but much more wholesome. There are 40 beers on tap from around the world, constantly on rotation.
Round the night off with a crisp and appropriately worldly Japanese pilsner. So far, so touristy. For a more authentic taste of Thailand, next head to Chiang Mai by sleeper train.
A £30 ticket will net you first-class travel in a private cabin, taking you to the northern city beloved by backpackers. The overnight journey is bumpy but painless, and you wake to stunning jungle views, hot coffee and a chocolate brownie. Hangover: cured. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern powerhouse. A stay should begin in the low and slow “Old Town”, ideally at the old-world Tamarind Village hotel.
It has colonial-style apartments, a 200-year-old tree at its centre, and fragrant and spicy green curry you’ll never want to stop eating. It also has some of the best spring rolls you’ll ever eat. The city is a perfect hub for exploring the surrounding jungle.
Trips to elephant sanctuaries or mountain-top temples are cheap and widely available. Pack some travel-sickness-busting medicine for the rural roads — especially on a full stomach. Explore by day, then sate your appetite in the evening. Foodies should not miss Chiang Mai’s bustling night markets, where sweet aromas of world cuisines waft temptingly from endless rows of food stalls — you can literally sniff out your next meal.
An Indian hawker dishes up sumptuous paneer curry, onion bhaji, pilau rice and naan for about £1. For taste per pound spent, you’ll struggle to find better value. Next, move to Na Nirand — a gorgeous and romantic riverside hotel. It’s in a more developed part of the city, but is surprisingly zen.
The hotel is stupidly photogenic — even rubbish photographers will struggle to take snaps that aren’t Instagram gold. Colonial buildings, river views and an enormous rain tree make it a feast for the eyes. But you can also feast on khao soi, an addictive local dish found in northern cities.
It’s a sweet and mild yellow curry typically served with chicken or beef, and always with crispy noodles. The crunchy texture of the noodles combined with a sour, salty and sweet taste means this will probably be your favourite dish of the trip.
Lastly, you’ll want to explore the nearby Nimman Road. It’s the most developed part of Chiang Mai, and is home to Beer Lab. This hip and bustling bar has exceptional cocktails, but the highlight is a truly expansive menu of global beers. Go local instead however, and try Beer Lab’s refreshing Chiang Mai Red Truck IPA.
It’s named after the breezy open-back taxis that whizz tourists anywhere in the city for a flat fee of 30 baht — about 80p. No trip to Thailand is complete without a visit to one of its world-famous islands. A short internal flight (for about £70) will whisk you from Chiang Mai to Ko Samui.
This is Thailand’s largest and busiest island with well-equipped towns all along the coast and dense hilly jungle in the centre. Stay at Outrigger, a beach resort with a waterside restaurant that serves everything from traditional Thai curries to western fare such as pizza or pasta.
Resist the urge to hunker down in your pool-villa and sign up to Outrigger’s phenomenal cooking classes. Learn to make a particularly tasty (and very spicy) panang curry with loads of fresh veg and generous helpings of coconut milk under the guidance of an expert chef.
Sea views and a complimentary cocktail make the experience even better, and you’ll walk away with a signed certificate proving you’re not a complete cookery dunce. Once you’re stuffed with curry, explore Ko Samui’s endless shops and beach bars. Then head inland and quench your thirst at the Bees Knees Brew Pub.
It’s owned and run by an Englishman who brews four different beers on-site. The golden Summer Bee is refreshing, and well sunk in the tropical heat. By now, you’ll be truly sloshed and about ten pounds heavier. So it’s perhaps best for everyone if you catch a flight home. You’ll miss eating curry three times a day.
But with an (un)healthy roster of takeaways available in Britain — and a cheeky panang recipe in your back pocket — you’ll never be far from Thailand. Now off to Tesco’s for a six-pack of Chang . . .
GETTING/STAYING THERE: Fly from London to Bangkok from £484 with Thai Airways. See thaiairways.com.
A night’s room only at the 137 Pillars is from £66pp (137pillarsbangkok.com).
A night’s B&B at Tamarind Village Chiang Mai is from £54pp (tamarindvillage.com).
A night’s B&B at Na Nirand is from £61pp (nanirand.com).
A night’s B&B at Outrigger Koh Samui is from £47pp (outrigger.com).
All accommodation prices above based on two people sharing.
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