We should have stayed at the hotel’s rooftop bar, where the deep house rolled and the wine remained ice cold as the warm breeze swirled across the 27th floor. Tourists took selfies against the sparkling backdrop of the city below, which pulsed with all the expectation of a Friday night in a capital city.
But it was, of course, impossible to sit still when downtown called, and before long taxis were lined up outside. Those who had been to Bangkok before knew there was only one destination to head for, given we were there for one night: Khao San Road.
So it was there that we landed, the centre of the backpacking universe, and like any such strip the world over, heaving with bars and those hustling for custom. And there was a McDonald’s too.
As we were propelled along by the crowds, a band belted out Nirvana covers, potent smoke rose from the street food stands and travellers crowded massage parlours for an inexpensive rub down. Street sellers punted grilled scorpions on skewers for the equivalent of 20p. No-one seemed to eat them, but they served as a decent enough selfie prop for many.
Hawkers were all around. A team of elderly women circled with an array of wristbands woven with sayings so filthy there was barely anywhere safe enough to repeat them. My curiosity only encouraged them more. A couple of large Chan beers were taken - a sharp exit quickly followed.
It was a relief to get back to the Avani + Riverside Hotel, which sits slightly out of downtown in the business district. There simplicity talks. The public spaces are vast and the bedrooms restful and plain, with white linens, teak and muted colours. There are plenty of peaceful spots, including the rooftop infinity pool which appears to stretch out over the Chao Phraya River far below.
Bangkok – and Thailand generally – is a mix of chaos and calm. It’s like the sweet and the sour and the hot and the salty coming together in the best green curry you have ever had. It just works – and it will probably blow your mind. To see the city by day is to see it in all its glory as a city of peace, wonder and beauty. There are around 20 royal Buddhist temples that are places of everyday importance to the city’s people with the skyline shaped by their majestic structures of the wildest shapes and proportions.
We wandered into Wat Ratcha Orasaram Ratchaworawiharn royal monastery, where dozens of monks draped in orange settled down for a language class, our presence in this quiet moment unable to phase them. The gigantic golden reclining Buddha was a stirring sight with pillows placed at its feet by believers in the hope that all those bad dreams will be driven away.
But the temple I’ll never forget is Wat Pak Nam, where the stupa – the sphere-like space at the top – appears like something from a different cosmos. The spire, said to represent enlightenment and the pinnacle of Buddhist achievement, is made from thousands of pieces of the most intensely green jade. Surrounded by elaborate golden columns and embellished with midnight blue and deep orange decoration, this is truly higher-level stuff.
Travel through Bangkok feels easy on a boat and you’ll get a sense of how the city lives when you navigate its network of waterways. Children splash and play in the water and food is knocked up in rapid style by river vendors, some working with tiny gas stoves.
The lucky ritual of throwing loaves of sweet bread – or giant coloured rice puffs – into the water for the catfish to fight over is everywhere.
Bangkok, you were a blast, but the islands were calling, and I had to go.
Flight time to Koh Samui is a little over an hour but in that time we were fed duck noodles and a pudding of papaya and melon plus coffee in a show of clockwork efficiency from Bangkok Air. Touching down was like arriving in a tropical garden that just happens to have a runway attached. Never has an airport appeared so pretty.
Koh Samui is Thailand’s second largest island with a population of 63,000 as well as the many tourists drawn by its beach resorts and picture perfect white sandy shorelines.
Avani, the hotel chain behind our Bangkok stay, has set up a new resort in the southwest, the Avani + Samui Resort, around 50 minutes’ drive from the main holiday destination of Chaweng. Created to take guests away from the tourist trail, it’s a modern sanctuary full of wellness and comfort.
For the equivalent of around £120 a night you’ll get an attractive private bungalow with your own small pool and outside seating area, all in your own enclosure sealed by a large wooden gate to one side and a hedge to the other.
Behind the door, happy calm prevails with a colour scheme of white and grey with flashes of tropical aqua. It feels contemporary but cosy with wood panelling adding a touch of rustic charm. Slide open the doors and dip down into the pool.
There was so much me time to be had here, it was an utter indulgence. You could have a private pool party thanks to the generous audio of the room’s bluetooth speaker, or take a free yoga class by the pool at sunrise. And the massages were a different level at the spa where the signature treatment, around £35 for an hour, managed to bust out a neck complaint I had been carrying for around three years.
For that alone I thank Avani +, but there was so much more to be grateful for. Staff were smiley and extremely helpful. The breakfast buffet was laden with treats from turmeric shots and seeds to croissants and bacon and eggs. At night the meals had a sophisticated European twist, dialling down the intensity of Thai cuisine, and there was a BBQ on the beach as I watched a fire show put on by a local father and his two sons.
The resort beach has a few day beds and a water sports hut with paddle boards but the beach swimming is not the best as the water is shallow and the sea bed a little squelchy underfoot given the nearby river mouth. However, free shuttle buses take you to some of the island’s classic beaches with boat excursions also available to the nearby tiny islands. Jump off the boat for a snorkel and then shore up for lunch or a freshly made pineapple juice.
One stop, Ko Taen, was particularly memorable, not least because of the giant wooden penis that greeted me as I stepped off the boat. After a few translation issues, its meaning became clear. It was there to ward off evil spirits – many of whom come in the guise of a woman.
Seven generations of the Dam family have lived on this island, where mangrove forests dominate the interior, running a simple restaurant among the trees. At tables that extend on to a wooden jetty you can disembark from your boat and sit down to a glorious lunch of whole fish with garlic and pepper sauce and coconut milk soup as the ocean laps around you.
Avani + Samui works hard to give you a sense that nothing else matters, apart from you and the right now. Now, that is something to hold on to – and carry all the way home.
Delux rooms at Avani + Samui start from £70 a night. Private Pool Villas, from £120 per night. Dinner on the beach at Samui starts from around £40 per person.
River View Rooms at Avani + Riverside start from around £115 per night; signature massage at the AvaniSPA, around £65
Avani + Riverside Bangkok, 257 Charoennakorn Road, Thonburi, Bangkok 10600 Thailand
Avani + Samui Resort, 53/5 Moo 4, Phang Ka, Taling Ngam, Koh Samui, Suratthani 84140 Thailand