There’s only one Travel + Leisure A-List expert for Thailand and Absolute Travel’s Holly Monahan is it. She’s so good at inspiring travelers to visit with her ever-deepening knowledge of how to explore the region, she even has other Absolute Travel staffers packing their bags for Southeast Asia: Meghan Black is just back from taste-testing night markets, kayaking through mangroves, and waking up in our favorite boutique hotels, and Maryana Dudkina is on her heels with a trip to nearby Cambodia and Vietnam in March!
Part of what makes her knowledge so noteworthy is her former Bangkok zip code. Now, she’s based in Singapore–a short hop to anywhere in the region. But she returns to her old stomping grounds regularly to delve deeper into the culture and local scene. After her most recent visit to Thailand and Cambodia, we asked her to share her latest tipping-point reasons you should go now. If anyone is going to convince you to go, it’s Holly. And if anyone should help you plan your trip, it’s also Holly. Read on for her six must-dos in Thailand and Cambodia, the 2017 edition, and you’ll know why.
BANGKOK AFTER DARK
New hangouts rooted in place, yet forward looking
Bangkok is known for experiencing wave after wave of nightlife transformation. Along the Chao Phraya River, on Rattanakosin Island, there are a handful of new hangouts including the casual roof deck of the Riva Arun boutique, Above Riva. The unique location offers stunning views of Wat Pho temple in one direction, and the Wat Arun temple across the river. After sunset drinks at Above Riva, Holly suggests taking a taxi through Yaowarat (Bangkok’s Chinatown) to Tep Bar in the Soi Nana area. A cool-kids haunt, Tep Bar occupies a restored shop-house. The renovation gravitates toward Brooklyn aesthetics with exposed brick walls, cement floors, and a generous raw-marble bar top. This is contrasted with distinctly Thai elements like drinks infused with Thai fruits, herbs, and spices. Their crowd pleaser is ya dong, a Thai-style herbal whiskey. On most nights, Thai musicians play traditional instruments while patrons dine on Thai favorites like Deep Fried Baby Bamboo Butterfly.
RETHINKING PHUKET (& THE SOUTH)
Yes, it can be picturesque and even tranquil
If Phuket equals over-saturated beaches and late-night partying in your mind, it doesn’t have to. Holly knows a better way to do it. “I hear from many clients that friends tell them to avoid Phuket as it’s too crowded, commercial, and overdeveloped,” she says. “Sure, that can be true, but it doesn’t apply to the entire island. I have a few choice hotels that clients love. Their sprawling private grounds feel completely removed from it all. Phuket is particularly ideal for shorter trips because the international airport means you can land and be on the beach in under an hour.”
However, for those with more time, you’ll be rewarded with stunning landscape and more local charm if you venture beyond Phuket. Holly’s favorite spots are Tubkaak in Krabi for its unbeatable sunsets, The Sarojin in Khao Lak for its expansive white sand beach, and Six Senses Yao Noi which overlooks the iconic Phang Nga Bay from a picturesque island. Insider tip: modernist Iniala Beach House on Natai Beach is expanding with new private villas—book now to avoid the waitlist.
CHIANG MAI’S BOUTIQUE HOTELS & COFFEE SHOPS
Chiang Mai has a stronghold on atmospheric
boutique hotels & coffee shops
“Of anywhere in Thailand, Chiang Mai has become the place to go if you have an affinity for gorgeous, one-of-kind, boutique hotels and cozy, aromatic coffee shops,” says Holly. There’s 137 Pillars House, the former home of Louis Leonowens. Leonowens is the son of Anna, the governess whose life inspired the musical The King and I. Now the property and its gardens are a rich mix of traditional Thai architecture infused with modern design and one of the prettiest garden pools we’ve come across. Then, there is Rachamankha. Located inside the Old City, Rachamankha’s swanky grounds are dedicated to Chiang Mai’s heritage and showcase a carefully-curated collection of Thai antiques and raw silks. The newcomer to our list is Villa Mahabhirom. On her most recent trip, Holly fell for Villa Mahabhirom’s seductive stilted villas which are restored antique Thai houses known as ruean thai. Each one is over a century old. The gabled roofs are protected by handmade clay tiles and the teak interiors look out over lush courtyard gardens decorated with antiques from the owner’s private collection.
“For brunch, Woo Café is very cool,” says Holly. “Downstairs is a café, upstairs is an art gallery, and next door is a lifestyle shop. It’s the perfect place to see what Thailand’s contemporary artists are producing and to pick up some special gifts.” Plus, they take their coffee very seriously. On the other side of town, coffee culture is alive and well in the hip district around Nimmanhaemin Road, which is brimming with coffee shops. A favorite with locals and expats is Ristr8to Lab, whose owner is the reigning champion of Latte Art in Thailand.
SIEM REAP BY BICYCLE
Cycle through crumbling temples, stop for a picnic
After working your way through Southern and Northern Thailand, fly across the border to catch some of Cambodia’s unmissable ruins, most notably, the temples of Angkor. What’s new when it comes to seeing this breathtaking temple complex? “I’m putting more and more clients on bicycles,” Holly reveals. “It’s a fun way to quickly navigate down the long pathway leading up to the temples, and the breeze from riding helps to beat the heat. Most visitors don’t realize that there are a few families living on the grounds with in the Angkor Archaeological Park. As a break from an early morning temple ride, we can arrange a private al fresco breakfast picnic in the yard of a local home. When I was last cycling there, I heard some jealous grumbling from other travelers wishing that they were on bicycles, too!”
RUINS TO YOURSELF
Helicopter to virtually untouched ruins
The Angkorian era ruins around Siem Reap are quite popular, and rightly so. To have a more exclusive temple encounter, take a private helicopter northwest about 75 minutes to the remote Banteay Chmaar. “Banteay Chmaar is another massive temple complex from the same era as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but the ruins are still mostly untouched and barely visited. It’s estimated that Banteay Chmaar receives fewer visitors in a year than Angkor Wat does in a single day.” But those who are willing to make the extra journey will be rewarded with a real sense of being on the edge of adventure and discovering something few others have seen.
CRUISE TONLE SAP LAKE
A glimpse at life beyond the temples
For a change of pace after touring temples in Cambodia, board a classic wooden boat to explore Tonle Sap Lake (the largest in Southeast Asia) and visit the floating village of Meachrey. As Holly says, “it’s a fascinating glimpse into real life around the lake. You’ll pass floating houses, crocodile farms, and stop at tiny island with a temple which serves as a school and a center for the surrounding community. Or for nature lovers, an early start and a different route takes you to the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, home to a thriving colony of water birds. Either way, your crew serves delicious drinks and snacks as you float along. The top deck is ideal for photography, lounging or just soaking in the sun.
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