From Bangkok to Phuket, Thailand is a country of contrasts that's full of surprises

 
Melissa York
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The Grand Palace in Bangkok

What are you missing?” the chef asked. I looked down at a soggy pile of noodles, looked back up and replied, “More soy?”

“Sugar!” he barked, then he dumped an entire saucer’s worth into the pan. “Now that’s pad thai.”

As someone with severely savoury tastebuds, I was appalled. I was in Issaya Cooking Studios, learning how to make authentic Thai cuisine in the heart of Bangkok, but this felt all wrong. In my eyes, the chef had just ruined my steaming bowl of noodley goodness. “I didn’t realise there was so much sugar in Thai cuisine.”

“Of course there is,” the chef said, unabashed. “Thai food is all about balance – you need to have naughty and nice.”

It was my first day in Thailand and it was already apparent that I was in a country of extremes. I was going to veer from the capital to the coast of Phuket, to take in as many experiences as I could in five days.

Off my face on sugar, I shot out of my cooking class into the shiny surrounds of Central Embassy, one of Bangkok’s newest contemporary wonders. Costing around £350m to build, it sits on the site of the former British embassy – hence the name – and coils upwards into the skyline like a steel and glass cobra, its minimalist white interior housing ultra luxe brands like Versace, Chanel and Givenchy.

A typical tuk-tuk in Bangkok

I stayed nearby, next door to the American embassy in fact, at Oriental Residence, which looks remarkably similar to the shopping centre, all stark glossy surfaces. Clearly a hit with local diplomats and businessmen, there’s a standout Michelin-starred French restaurant attached called Savelberg that serves up delicate, enormously fussy tasting menus. It couldn’t be further removed from Bangkok’s famous street food scene.

So far, so refined, but it was time to join the sweaty hordes at the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which dates back to the 14th century. They may be tourist hotspots, but they’re also revered sites. There are no fun and games when it comes to Buddhism and the Thai royal family. It’s a little known fact that the MailOnline is blocked in Thailand because it published a video of Princess Srirasmi “cavorting” in a G-string. How’s that for a sidebar shaming? There’s no news yet on whether Bangkok’s office workers are more productive as a result.

Visitors are expected to dress conservatively when they visit the Grand Palace – no open-toed shoes or tight leggings – and reprimanded with prominent signs that read “Buddha is peace, not decoration or tattoo.” But it’s worth putting on a jumper and a po-face as the architecture – which is continually maintained by local university students – is seriously impressive.

Fishing in Phuket

If, like me, you have a nerdy predilection for museum gift shops, you must also check out the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It’s a slightly sycophantic look at how the Queen has championed traditional Thai dress and silk craftsmanship over the years, featuring many of the outfits made for her to wear at official functions. The real treat, as I mentioned, is the gift shop, which is enormous and packed with handmade cotton and silk products, from cushions, to handbags, to stationary.

It’s worth jostling with the backpackers and the bum-bagged in the night markets, too. Jump on a boat – mandatory for all cities with a river – and head to Patpong for knock-off brands and a bloody good haggle, or check out Asiatique for a classier experience and a breezy stroll by the riverside.

Luxury Thailand; check. Tourist Thailand; check. Now, for Tipsy Thailand. Thousands of pissed-up Brits flood Thai shores every year for its lively nightlife, and I wanted a taste of it. Earlier, I had observed a group of lads – for lads is what they were – stocking up on condoms and Dioralyte at the airport and I later spotted them in Ku De Ta, a pumpin’ club perched atop a concrete tower. While it was packed with Thai women, British men and urban choons, it also had a roomy, sofa-filled terrace with the best views in the city over Chao Phaya River. I have since learned that Ku De Ta is calling itself Ce La Vi these days, because its name wasn't phonetically French enough.

The clubhouse at Amari Phuket

When I went to compare the club scene in Phuket – only an hour and a half away by plane – I did it in considerable style. I hailed what was fondly christened the Disco Tuk-tuk, crammed with lights and speakers blaring Usher circa 2004. You’ll be laughing all the way to Bangla Road in Central Patong, which, with its sports bars, cheap shots and dancing girls in hot pants, is a world away from the conservatism of the Grand Palace.

It has to be done, but I was lucky to be able to retreat to the calm of Amari Phuket afterwards, a resort just under a mile away on Patong Beach. It’s cavernous and expanding; I stayed in the newly opened Ocean Wing, which also comes with free airport transfers and access to The Clubhouse – a private dining area and infinity pool – until September. Its interiors are classic paradise island, all wicker chairs and pinewood panelling, with surprising splots of orange.

Its Italian restaurant, La Gritta, is rather good too, but Raya is even better. Set in town in a two-storey Sino-Portuguese house, it’s a family run affair that looks unassuming, with a gramophone and vintage film posters hanging from the flocked wallpaper. But it’s packed with Thai celebs and it’s a favourite with the royal family, too. When I was there, a local politician was celebrating his birthday and there were speeches galore, while I was busy tucking into the fiery crabmeat coconut curry (this dish is frequently flown to Bangkok as a takeaway by the city’s super-rich). It almost goes without saying, but you have to book in advance to be sure of a table.

From jumpin’ clubs and scantily clad dancers, to hushed holy temples filled with golden effigies, Thailand is a country of extremes. Travelling from the big city to the secluded southern islands is therefore ideal. As the chef said, it’s all about balance – you’ve got to have some naughty with your nice.

NEED TO KNOW

Room prices at Oriental Residence Bangkok in a one-bedroom suite start from THB 6,800 (approx. £123) per room. Visit: oriental-residence.com

Room prices at Amari Phuket in the new Ocean Wing in a one-bedroom suite start from THB 6,100 (approx. £110) per room. Visit: amari.com/phuket

Thai Airways flies from London Heathrow to Bangkok daily on its flagship Airbus A380 and onwards to Phuket with return prices starting from £540. To book call 0330 400 4022 or visit thaiairways.co.uk

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