Second Cities: Destinations to add onto a trip to Bangkok
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
Welcome to TPG’s Second Cities series, where we help you find amazing places that are only a couple of hours away from your original destination. This is the way to get the most out of your itinerary by visiting places with fewer tourists that deserve your attention.
After you've sampled Thailand's exuberant capital city of Bangkok, there are islands, jungles and mountains or the wondrous temples in neighboring Cambodia to round out your visit to this exotic part of the world. Here are the best side trips to tack on to a trip to Bangkok.
Northern Thailand (and maybe Laos,too)
Thailand's northern regions are different from the hectic pace of bustling Bangkok. Outside the tourist-trodden cities of Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai are places offering off-the-beaten-path adventures: floating along the Mekong River or exploring local villages. The northern part of the country offers a completely different side of Thailand.
Getting there: Fly to Chiang Mai (CNX) on budget carriers like AirAsia, Nok Air or Thai Lion Air or fly Bangkok Airways, which brands itself as a boutique airline and offers extras like onboard complimentary meals and drinks. Thai Airways (part of Star Alliance) also flies between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. You may be able to build this stop into your international itinerary if you're flying the airline from abroad. Low-cost carriers fly out of Bangkok's smaller Don Mueang International Airport (DMK), while the full-fare carriers (including Bangkok Airways) fly out of Bangkok's main Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK), also known as Bangkok Airport.
Where to stay: For the ultimate in relaxation, stay at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, slightly outside the city center amid rice paddies and lily ponds. Between the free bicycles, gorgeous infinity pool, daily yoga classes and on-site cooking classes, you may not even want to leave to explore the city. Book through American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts using your Platinum Card® from American Express to enjoy benefits like daily breakfast, early check-in, late checkout, an upgrade (subject to availability) and a $100 spa credit to be used during the stay.
What to do: The most popular towns to visit in northern Thailand are Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Chiang Mai is a vibrant city with a busy night market and many temples. Chiang Rai is known for its elaborate white temple, but the black temples are just as interesting, exuding a mysterious, creepy vibe. These cities are excellent spots to try your hand at cooking Thai food with a class.
The town of Pai is worth a visit, if you want to explore some of Thailand's natural wonders, like Pai Canyon or nearby waterfalls. Evenings are best spent climbing the hilltop Big Buddha at sunset and then sampling street food along the Pai Walking Street. Be careful when tubing on Pai River. Currents can be strong, especially during the rainy season.
If you want a serene getaway a bit farther away, head up to Chiang Khong, a border town where you can cross over to Huay Xai, Laos. Here, you can hop on a cruise along the Mekong River through green hills, tiny villages and rice paddies until you reach Luang Prabang, stopping to spend the night in the tiny village of Pakbeng. This isn't your typical cruise -- think long, wooden boats and cushioned seats -- with not much to do but enjoy the scenery and recharge your creative energies. Once in Luang Prabang, spend time exploring the town's French colonial history, Asian temples and the famous Kuang Si Falls before flying back to Bangkok (several carriers fly the route).
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Home to the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex, Siem Reap is just an hour away by plane from Bangkok. A UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the 12th century, the crumbling Khmer stone temples rising out of Angkor's jungle, are simply awe-inspiring -- especially at sunrise.
Getting there: An easy, one-hour hop from Bangkok, the best (and most affordable) way to arrive is on a low-cost carrier AirAsia from Don Mueang Airport (DMK) to Siem Reap Airport (REP).
Where to stay: The Park Hyatt Siem Reap is a 10-minute drive from the Angkor Wat temple complex. The hotel has two pools and several open-air pavilions. Prices start at $140 or 12,000 points per night, making it one of the most affordable Park Hyatt properties out there.
What to do: Plan to purchase a day pass (for one, three or seven days) to see the stunning Angkor Wat temple complex. You can hire a private tuk-tuk driver to explore the temples at your own pace. It's best to arrange this with your hotel to avoid rogue drivers who may try to scam you. Always pay your driver at the end of your trip, never beforehand (unscrupulous drivers will take your money and leave you stranded in the jungle).
Getting up to see the sunrise at the main Angkor Wat temple is a must, though you should expect to see hundreds of other travelers with the same idea. Once you've seen it, an extra-early start on another day will allow you to explore different temples during sunrise -- and you may just be on your own, since everyone else is at the main temple.
Some of the most famous temples to see are Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm (the “Tomb Raider” temple), Preah Khan, Neak Pean and Ta Som. If you have extra time, visit the Banteay Srei Temple.
Beyond the temples, wander around Siem Reap Pub Street, where you can eat street food and enjoy the lively ambience. For a quiet dinner, eat at Marum, which benefits local youth, who are studying to work in the restaurant industry.
Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai
Although there are a number of islands in Thailand for that blissful beach experience, some (Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and even Koh Samui) have become crowded in recent years. Getting to some of the less-visited islands can mean lots of time spent on planes, buses and ferries. Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai are two small islands that manage to retain some rustic Thai charm but are still accessible with relative ease (just a short boat ride away from Phuket).
Getting there: Arrive in Phuket Airport (HKT) via Bangkok (from DMK and BKK) on a variety of airlines. Hourly ferries operate daily from Bang Rong Pier to both of the islands.
Where to stay: For the ultimate in luxury, stay at the Six Senses Koh Yao Yai, where villas have private plunge pools and stunning views of Phang Nga Bay. Be prepared to spend about $2,000 per night. For more affordable and unique lodging, TreeHouse Villas are sustainable, indoor-outdoor suites suspended in the jungle foliage for a few hundred dollars per night. The Island Yoga retreat center on Koh Yao Noi, is ideal for yogis looking for no-frills accommodations, including two yoga classes per day (prices start at $60 per night).
What to do: "Escape" is the key word when it comes to the Koh Yao islands. They aren't quite as developed, touristy or busy as some of Thailand's other islands, and that's precisely why they're so intriguing. The beaches aren't the best in the country, as high and low tides dictate the best times to swim, but the views overlooking the limestone cliffs that jut out of Phang Nga Bay are awe-inspiring.
Generally speaking, many of the high-end resorts are on Koh Yao Yai, and budget beachfront cabins line the shores of Koh Yao Noi. Neither island has much in the way of tourist infrastructure, so expect sleepy Thai restaurants and busy fishing villages.
It is possible to hop between islands via ferry or boat, or explore each of the islands via scooter or bike. You will weave through local villages, discover hidden beaches and lush hills and, of course, enjoy epic panoramas of the bay from many of the viewpoints on the island. There are a variety of wellness activities like yoga and spa visits, as well as kayaking or canoe trips through lagoons, sea caves and mangrove-covered beaches. But one of the best things to do on these relaxing islands is, well, nothing at all.