Islands in the Dream

Thailand has hundreds of islands. Guest blogger John Borthwick focuses on those in the beautiful Gulf of Thailand and goes island-hopping.

Koh Chang (Elephant Island) is the Kingdom’s second largest island and while increasingly popular, still has plenty of jungle and sandy coves. Its White Sand Beach (Hat Sai Khao) is the main place for a seafood-eating, novel-reading, hair-braiding sort of holiday, while other places like Bang Bao and Klong Prao offer a more local flavour.

Much of the west coast was rapidly and unsympathetically developed so, if you’re looking for peace and quiet, there are 47 islands in the Koh Chang National Park group, although most do not offer accommodation. Koh Chang has good restaurants, cheap shopping and massages galore.

Koh Kood in thefar easternKoh Chang Archipelago is Thailand’s fourth-largest island. Its range of resorts is limited but the quality is good, including at Cham’s House, Peter Pan and Soneva Kiri (about as far up-market as one can go without needing oxygen). Koh Kood’s sands haven’t been hived off to beach umbrellas or its taxis to extortionists. There’s great diving offshore and snorkeling, plus some river kayaking. In general, on untrammeled, jungle-clad Koh Kood there’s not that much to do for visitors who love to do not that much.

Koh Phangan, 15 km north of Koh Samui, was once known mostly for its full-moon raves at Hat Rin beach. Then came half-moon and no-moon parties. In their wake a number of resorts of growing sophistication have made the island more than a backpacker haunt. There are now several hundred accommodation options, ranging from bungalows to luxury pool suites. “Try getting away from Hat Rin. It’s no more Phangan than Bangkok is Thailand,” wisely advises one blogger. Following that suggestion, other Phangan beaches like Hat Mae, Hat Yao and Hat Sadet still deliver the kicked-back, siesta’d-out stay you’ve dreamed of.

Koh Samet, only a half-day drive southeast from Bangkok could be, you might fear, somewhat over-paved and raved-up but, on the contrary, this forested national park island off Rayong still has tranquil beaches and a reasonably low-key tourist scene. Much accommodation is in bungalow-style resorts, plus select upmarket retreats. The fun include beach combing, beach dining (with fire-dancers) and swimming. Weekdays feel like a siesta while weekends are busier with Bangkok escapees. Samet (aka Ko Samed) embodies a Thai-style contradiction in being both a ”protected” National Park and intensively developed with resorts, particularly along the eastern beaches like Hat Sai Kaew.

Koh Samui saw its first tourists 50 years ago. With no accommodation they hadto sleep in the temple. Today, this tourist magnet in the western sector of the Gulf (off Surat Thani) hosts millions of visitors a year.

There are two faces to its development: the teeming pub-and-club strips at Chaweng and Lamai beaches, and a growing number of exclusive resorts. Tex-Mex restaurants, Swiss pubs and dive shops confirm that you are in modern Thailand, but a rugged jungle interior and a chain of west coast beaches (best at high tide) are your getaway zones on this 25 km long island.

Koh Si Chang, 120 km from Bangkok, was a favoured escape for Siam’s royals in the 19th century. Today you can wander the beautiful terraced parklands gardens remaining around the former Chudhadhuj Rajthan palace. Despite the closeness to Bangkok, there is no forest of glitzy resorts here. Si Chang was “saved” from becoming a tourist purgatory by its lack of spectacular beaches. There are no cars, so hire a motorbike to orbit this craggy island. Head up to the white “Buddha Footprint” temple overlooking the island and sea. Dine or have coffee in town or a sunset beer at Chong Khao Khad viewpoint.

Koh Talu in the southwestern waters of Gulf has just one resort, clean sands, plenty of palms and no neons. The 1500-ha island sits on the “the sunrise side” of the Gulf, 370 km south of Bangkok. The comfortable, Thai-style bungalows of Koh Talu Island Resort overlook the long white sands of Big Bay and the smaller, absurdly pretty Ao Muk (Pearl Bay). The “might-do’s” of your day include snorkeling, kayaking, a bushwalk and then cocktails. To get there, travel 160 km by train or road south from Hua Hin to Bang Saphan and then take the resort ferry to the island.

Hat Sai Daeng Ko Tao

Koh Tao (Turtle Island), 45 km north of Koh Samui, is said to be the largest dive-training centre in Southeast Asia. Its plentiful reefs, rich marine life and excellent visibility have ensured that this divers’ “paradise” features in both guidebooks and resort developers’ sights. Compared to larger, more sophisticated Koh Samui, most of tiny (21 sq km) Koh Tao’s accommodation is more basic and mid-market — which suits its enthusiastic backpacker clientele — but the true attraction here is below the waterline. Even launching directly from the often-crowded beach you can easily reach good coral reefs.

Words and photographs © John Borthwick 2020

See yourself in Thailand

See YourSelf in Thailand

This week sees the launch of our See Yourself in Thailand campaign, placing a spotlight on Thailand’s Luxury, Gastronomy, Adventure and Nightlife offerings, and offering Australians and New Zealanders the chance to win a dream trip to Thailand for two people.

Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) will be the first in this region to use fast-growing social media platform Tik Tok as a platform for this new campaign, which features a four-part mini-series, highlighting four travel niches.

Residents of Australia and New Zealand are invited to enter here to win a dream trip to celebrate the launch, with additional information on Tik Tok, Facebook, Instagram.

Taking a uniquely Oceania view, the Luxury, Gastronomy, Adventure and Nightlife stories are viewed through the eyes of Adam Rikys, Founder of Bucketvision and Anna McEvoy, Former Miss World Australia. The campaign will focus on Bangkok and Surat Thani (Ko Samui, Ko Tao, Ko Nang Yuan).

TAT is collaborating with leading hoteliers and restaurateurs across the featured districts to promote the program.


In 2018, Thailand welcomed a record number of tourists, 38.27 million, an increase of 7.5 percent from the previous year. We hope to greet over 39 million visitors in 2020 through targeted and focused campaigns in market.

10 Reasons to visit Sukhothai, Thailand’s ancient capital

Sukhothai_Historical_Park_Wat_Mahathat_01Thailand’s ancient capital, established in the early 13th century, Sukhothai is located 427km north of Bangkok, and literally means “Dawn of Happiness.” For 120 years Sukhothai was ruled by many kings, the most famous being King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, who created the Thai alphabet and laid the foundation for politics, monarchy and religion.

Here are 10 reasons to visit and 10 things to do in Sukhothai. Continue reading “10 Reasons to visit Sukhothai, Thailand’s ancient capital”

Chiang Rai’s White Temple, a treasure trove of artistic delights and oddities.

Northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai is well-known as a centre for the arts, with several incredible cultural attractions and colourful characters from Thailand’s art world. The White Temple is one of these attractions, a place that really earns the description: unique.

Chiang Rai White Temple_4790

While it looks like a traditional Thai temple, Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple as it is known to foreigners, is anything but. The creation of millionaire Thai artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, it’s both an homage to traditional Thai artistry and popular culture.

Chiang Rai White Temple forest of hands_4795

As you approach the White Temple itself, past a pool of reflection surrounded by ornate sculptures and incredibly decorative walls and turrets, a forest of disembodied arms reach up to you as you pass over a bridge to the entrance.

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Surrounding the temple grounds, the heads of demons hang from trees – traditional Thai demons alongside the Incredible Hulk, Terminator, even Gollum.

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Ancient Buddhist legends, the struggle between Lord Buddha and the Mara (demon) are told in traditional style, a mural on the walls of the temple interior, but the characters depicted are 20th century heroes and villains, like Spiderman, Ultraman and Neo, facing off Darth Vader and the Terminator.

Chiang Rai White Temple terminator head_4819

There’s a message here to the world, that we have lost a moral compass to guide us, in Chalermchai’s words; “look at each other with kindness, not with hate that can lead to war”. The eyes of a huge demon each have portraits of George Bush and Osama Bin Laden inside them, looking to each other, as below them, the Twin Towers burn. The artist’s message by including these characters is that in reality, while we need real-life heroes – no movie screen heroes could save the Twin Towers.

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As you move through the temple, a path of enlightenment takes you towards a statue of the Lord Buddha with artwork transforming from demons to angels as you pass through, out the other end to a heavenly garden’, down a passage decorated with silver leaves and beyond to another golden temple surrounded by a pool.

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The White Temple, and its surrounding garden and buildings, is an ongoing project, worked on by Chalermchai and some 300 apprentices.

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In a studio the size of a hanger, we were able to observe the artists at work on their latest project, a giant mural and statue commemorating the heroes of the nearby rescue of schoolboy soccer team, the ‘Wild Boars’ from their ordeal in the flooded Tham Luang cave.

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The centrepiece of this memorial artwork, which will eventually be located near the entrance to Tham Luang cave, is a larger than life statue of the former Thai Navy Seal, Saman Kunan.

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Back towards the entrance of this enormous compound, there is an art gallery which houses a great collection of the artist’s more traditional pieces, painted in traditional Thai style, illustrations depicting Buddhist legends, as well as pieces of memorabilia from Chalermchai’s private collection, old vinyl LPs, comics and various other toys and kitsch oddities.

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The complex is something you won’t find anywhere else. With each turn you take you stumble across another beautiful construction or oddity of sorts, like this toilet block fit for a king, for example, more like a palace than a bathroom.

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Where to countdown the New Year in Thailand

Thailand will countdown the new year in spectacular fashion this year, in Bangkok as well as four emerging tourism provinces in Chiang Rai, Nakhon Phanom, Ratchaburi and Satun.

New Years Eve Bangkok shutterstock_524887834

Spectacular fireworks and music and dance performances celebrating Thailand’s rich and diverse cultural heritage will be held at the following locations:

  • Bangkok: ICONSIAM, the glittering new shopping, entertainment and educational complex on the Chao Phraya River, the River of Kings;
  • Northern Region: Clock Tower, Chiang Rai province;
  • Northeastern Region: Clock Tower, Nakhon Phanom province;
  • Central Region: Clock Tower, Ratchaburi province;
  • Southern Region: Pakbara Pier, Satun province.

Mr. Yuthasak Supasorn, TAT Governor (above photo), said; “This is our annual New Year gift to our foreign guests and the Thai people. I hope it will raise the happiness of everyone across the country.”

The “Amazing Thailand Countdown 2019” in Bangkok will begin at 6pm on 31 December 2018. This is six hours of back-to-back celebrations and performances based on the theme of “The River of Prosperity”.


The highlight will be a magnificent display of fireworks made from Thai sticky rice to ensure minimal environmental impact. The five-minute, five-part fireworks extravaganza will showcase the history of the Chao Phraya River pertaining to the Thai way of life, traditions and legends of Siam.

The best visibility spots are as follows: Peninsula Hotel, Millennial Hilton Hotel, Shangri-La Hotel, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel, Sathorn Bridge, Chaloem Phrakiat Park, Sathon Pier, Police Station 2, Khlong San Pier, Sampheng Parking Lot, CAT-Bang Rak Branch, Wat Suwan Pier, Siam Commercial Bank and LHONG 1919.

Diving Thailand’s Andaman Sea


The Andaman Sea is famous for its spectacular diving. The marine life and coral reefs surrounding the Similan and Surin islands have been attracting scuba divers from all over the world for years. But recently, more and more divers are discovering the underwater wonders both north and south of these well-known dive sites. To the south, the Phi Phi national Marine park and southern islands of Koh Ha, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, and to the north, Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago.

Koh Ha diver and swim through with coral trout credit Pete McGee

NOW there are two new dive liveaboard boats that specialise in these emerging diving destinations. Based in Phuket, ‘The Phinisi’, a traditionally designed yacht runs dive trips to the southern islands, the Similan and Surin Islands and north into Myanmar. The ‘Smiling Seahorse’, based in Ranong on the Thailand and Myanmar border, offers dive cruises to the Similan and Surin Islands, and is a specialist in Myanmar’s remote Mergui Archipelago.

Koh Ha Jacks and soft coral credit Pete McGee

The South: from Phi Phi to Hin Muang

The Phi Phi National Marine Park and the southern islands of Koh Haa, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang offer pinnacles, incredible limestone walls covered in healthy soft corals and gorgonians, with caverns and swim-throughs with lots of macro life. There is a good chance of seeing large schools of barracuda, Jack fish and snapper, as well as, manta rays, leopard sharks, black tip sharks, if you’re lucky, maybe a whale shark.


The Similans, Surin Islands and Richelieu Rock.

In the Marine National Parks of the Similan Islands and the Surin Islands you’ll see over 200 species of hard coral spread amongst walls, coral gardens and pinnacles, where turtles, giant trevallies, schools of Jack fish, barracudas, and many kinds of tropical fish, patrol. All this as well as one of the best dive sites in the world, Richelieu Rock – one of the few dive sites in the world so special it has its own website.

39-MV-Smiling-Seahorse-Liveaboard-credit-Franck-Fogarolo-Whaleshark-opengraphMyanmar and the Mergui Archipelago

Still relatively undiscovered and under-explored, Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago offers marine life for all kinds of underwater fauna lovers. From mantas, dogtooth tunas, and barracudas to frogfish, cuttlefish, and seahorses. Macro lovers can expect to see all kinds of crabs, shrimps and experience some rare macro interactions.

Many different kinds of sharks also populate the area. Its reefs are some of the most impressive, not just because of the beauty of the corals, gorgonians and table corals but also because of their size.


The Phinisi

The Phinisi Liveaboard, which starts operating in November 2018, has three itineraries offering the very best diving in Thailand and Myanmar: in the south: the islands of Koh Haa, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang; in the north: the Similan Islands and Surin Islands (and the infamous Richelieu Rock); and in Myanmar: the Mergui Archipelago.

Koh Ha diver with whip coral credit Pete McGee

The Phinisi is a 34m custom built diving liveaboard yacht of traditional Indonesian gaft rigged Phinisi style with 7 sails. She hosts 18 guests in 7 en-suited cabins. The main deck features a large indoor salon with comfortable sofas and personal storage. There is an outside dining area with bench seating to the rear complete with full refreshment making facilities. Forward of the Salon is the dive deck, outdoor shaded relaxation area and camera charging station. Upstairs is the large half covered sun deck with cushioned loungers for après dive cocktails.

Koh Ha_soft coral credit Pete McGee

40% Discount

Celebrate the launch of The Phinisi with a 40% discount on all Thailand trips from November 2018 to January 2019. Choose from a 4-DAY Southern Trip: Koh Ha, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, or a 6-DAY Northern Trip. OR do the two itineraries back to back for a 10 night best of Thailand trip from just USD 1620 pp (quad-share). Find out more HERE.


The Smiling Seahorse

The new MV Smiling Seahorse Liveaboard commenced operations in October 2018. With itineraries in Myanmar and Thailand, an experienced and knowledgeable crew, the MV Smiling Seahorse liveaboard presents the best opportunity to dive some of the region’s least explored dive sites in air-conditioned comfort.


Dive Thailand’s Richelieu Rock, considered one of the Top Ten Best Dive sites in the world, or visit the Torres Islands or the Burma Banks for some exploratory diving to sites that have rarely been dived before. The Smiling Seahorse can also take you to Western Rocky in Myanmar, highlight of which is a tunnel/cave at 20m that goes right through the island, plus a dive in a volcano the very next day with some very rare marine species.


Get the gang together.

To celebrate their launch, the MV Smiling Seahorse liveaboard every fifth diver goes for free. So find four friends to join you and you could cruise for FREE. This offer, effectively a 20% discount for a group of 5 is available on their first six Thailand trips, and also Trip 3 The Mergui Archipelago on the 7-12 December trip. Find out more HERE.

Hotel Review: Shanghai Mansion in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Hidden behind a lively street front bar in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown, is a luxurious oasis: a step back in time to 1930s Shanghai. Beyond the glamorous jazz bar and fine dining, a peaceful atrium, the centrepiece of which is a pond, surrounded by deck chairs, day beds and antique furniture and overhead, colourful paper lanterns.

Shanghai Mansion_Water garden Continue reading “Hotel Review: Shanghai Mansion in Bangkok’s Chinatown”