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From the food to the hospitality, a trip to southern Thailand is filled with vibrancy, writes Jane Druker
The word Thailand literally translates into ‘land of the free’, and I have been privileged to visit this stunning place many times and at many different stages in life (bad boyfriends, big partying, friends’ weddings and girls’ trips among them) and seeing it again in mid-life was a real tonic.
Located just above the equator, Thailand has Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia as neighbours, as well as an arm of the country that reaches out to Malaysia. The unified Thai kingdom was created in the mid-14th century and much of the food and religious leanings date back to then. It’s a place known for its vibrant street culture, incredible cuisine and the hospitality of delightful locals, and 2022 marked a return to tourism for this land that is dependent on it.
The best time to visit is from November to March when the heat and humidity are at their lowest. The tropical climate means temperatures can often soar into the mid-30s, so high-SPF sunscreen and gallons of mosquito repellent are suitcase essentials for most tourists.
On this visit I stayed in the south of the country, including the islands Phuket (pronounced poo-ket) and Koh Lanta, which sit in the Andaman Sea. I was a guest of the Avani+ hotel group, which specialises in Asia Pacific hospitality and the details that matter when you travel so far from home, such as space and abundance on all levels. I was to visit three of their properties on my week-long trip.
Travelling at the beginning of a balmy April this year, it was admittedly a bit of faff completing a Thailand Pass prior to flying. The Covid rules have changed again since I visited, so be sure to check online before you get to the airport. A word of warning – one of my fellow travellers was actually turned away at Heathrow and not allowed to fly, as he had filled in his form incorrectly. Pre-trip admin is important!
My Thai Airways direct night flight to Phuket took 12 hours, so after supper and a movie I slumbered, arriving at the airport feeling refreshed. Getting to the Avani+ Khao Lak Resort in Phang Nga took about an hour by car. It’s a big resort with three pools, a beach, multiple restaurants and a fabulous spa. I was checked in promptly to my heavenly suite, which had two bedrooms, two spacious bathrooms, a chic living area and, the pièce de résistance, my own private pool, which I immediately skinny dipped in – until I spied some balconies to the left that had a bird’s eye view! It seemed uber luxurious for just little old me, and I would love to return one day with my family.
Now starving and excited for my first Thai meal, I ordered room service classics: pad Thai and papaya salad. The cuisine here is aromatic, largely seafood- based and packed with chillies. Completely sated, I relaxed before falling asleep in my massive bed, which could easily accommodate four.
The next morning – cossie on – I wandered down to the ocean for a dip in the sea before getting ready for a morning of local culture. This part of Thailand was badly affected by that fateful tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, and there is a sobering commemorative museum here. From there it was on to the breathtakingly beautiful temples in the Takua Pa region, which are packed with awe-inspiring golden Buddhas of all sizes.
My sweet tooth needed satisfying and the job was done with a swift stop for matcha ice cream. Then it was back to the hotel where a Thai massage awaited; just the thing after a long flight, it really restored my equilibrium. The day ended with a stunning sunset. The sundowner portion at the start of each evening in this part of the universe was epic – the sky seemed so huge, and sipping mojitos as I witnessed the slow drop of the sun while the sky turned pink, purple and yellow was one of the most memorable experiences.
Dinner that evening was a pop-up on the beach, feet in the sand, where I enjoyed mushroom soup and a seafood platter. Eating prawns, crabs, sea bass and squid was a fantastic feature of the trip, but if you are vegetarian or vegan you would be well catered for here. There is a feast of vegetables on offer on every menu.
The second day started with rafting down the Wang Kieng Ku river. Otherwise known as the ‘Little Amazon’, this gentle journey was beautiful and suitably tropical – we spied snakes hanging from the trees above and giant frogs. Magical. On then to a Thai cookery class at nearby Nai Mueang restaurant. I learnt the art of making deep-fried prawns wrapped in egg noodles and a chicken panang curry – what we know as Thai red curry – rich in fish sauce, lime leaves and coconut. The main thing with Thai cookery is the prep – the actual wok cooking takes literally seconds but the creation of the plate of ingredients is absorbing and satisfying. It’s also wonderful to eat what you’ve rustled up, which happened to be accompanied by thunder, lightning and a crazy tropical storm – a common occurrence in this part of the world, but they only last minutes.
On the following day we switched resorts to Avani+ Koh Lanta, which is three hours and a ferry away. The atmosphere is markedly different: super romantic and designed for couples who want privacy, with private infinity pools and outdoor showers away from the hub of the hotel.
It is set on a cliff right on the beach, and it’s the spot to see some of the best sunsets of your life, I kid you not. Settle yourself with a cocktail in the reggae bar for a dip into heaven Thai-style. The next day was spent island hopping on a small boat, taking in Maya Bay, the famous location used for filming The Beach, plus the white-sanded Koh Ha and Koh Rok. Then to my favourite meal of the entire week – a local restaurant in Lanta Old Town where four of us indulged in a sea bass multi-course feast for the princely sum of £60. Food is for sharing in this part of the world and dip-in-dip-out in style. Money also goes very far here, which is why it’s such a rite-of-passage destination for students and the young and hungry for experience.
The most magical part of the trip for me was the final day and a gondola trip into Lanta Bay to see the sunrise. It did mean leaving the hotel at 5am but gosh was it worth it. The little boats, the charming staff, the sun rising slowly and powerfully creating a mirror-effect that was like seeing an orb reflected in crystal glass alongside the fishermen catching the first fish of the day. To make the journey home a bit easier, on the final day we stayed at the Avani hotel nearest to Phuket airport – the Avani+ Mai Khao – which is equally fabulous and caters for families with its large pools and multiple child-friendly restaurants. Another glorious sunset and, this time, mango mojitos. Then a fish supper of crab, squid and prawns. I really didn’t feel ready to leave, but this really was a trip I won’t forget in a hurry. I felt I had been immersed in this wonderful culture and community and, wow, after Covid that felt better than good. It felt fabulous.
A stay at Avani+ Mai Khao starts from £90pn for a one-bedroom suite with breakfast. A one-bedroom villa starts at £180pn with breakfast. Avani+ Khao Lak Resort starts from £64pn for a Deluxe Room with breakfast (excluding tax and service). Avani+ Koh Lanta Krabi Resort starts from £120pn for an Avani Pool View Room with breakfast (excluding tax and service). For more information, visit avanihotels.com