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Dipping a Toe into Luxury Thailand

Our first trip to Thailand, 5 years ago, was definitely not of the luxury variety. It involved $5 beach bungalows with doors that sort of locked, stained mattresses I’ve tried very hard to forget about, and bathrooms as far from pristine as you can imagine. Resident geckos and mosquitos buzzing annoyingly in my ear were all part of a normal night’s sleep. Transport involved noisy local buses and 3rd class trains, and don’t even talk to me about air conditioning. In those days, we counted ourselves lucky, if we scored a rickety and rusty fan that actually worked on command.

I’m not complaining though. At the time, we felt like we’d stepped into some kind of magical paradise. One where you could sleep with the serene sounds of the sea in your ear for less than the price of a Starbucks venti, rent a scooter for the same amount, and eat flavourful Thai soups and curries on the street for just a few dollars.

Over the years, we’ve slowly graduated from $5 beach bungalows to $30 guesthouses, from nausea-inducing catamaran journeys to direct flights, and hey, we’ve even managed a spa massage or two along the way. Still, aside from the few days surrounding our wedding in Koh Samui, our trips to Thailand have never been what you could call opulent. Increasingly comfortable. Most definitely. But never luxurious.

Four trips and a wedding later, we decided that the time had finally come to experience luxury Thailand.

Now you’d think this would be a piece of cake, but for 2 hardcore travelers like us, every penny spent while on a trip, is weighed against the possibility of future trips that could be taken, by saving a few dollars on the current trip. Wah wah boohoo, I know, but when you know you can get excellent pad thai on the street for $2, it’s hard to pay $13 for it at a hotel.

After all, that $11 of savings could go into my Maldives travel fund…

Nevertheless, we determined that our 5 day trip to Phuket for a friend’s wedding was the perfect excuse to travel in style, and booked ourselves into a 5 star hotel. We vowed not to stress about what we were spending and to just enjoy ourselves for the duration of the trip.

We made our way to the Mai Khao Dream Resort located just north of the Phuket border, where we were immediately greeted with complimentary fresh papaya juice. A quick walk around the hotel lobby and grounds confirmed that we weren’t in backpacker land any longer.

The pool was huge and surrounded by lush vegetation, fountains, and a huge variety of lounging options. The immaculate private beach was but a 20 second stroll away, complete with umbrellas, cushions and huge towels.

The room was large, stylish, had 2 televisions, a jacuzzi tub, balcony facing the sea, and included bathrobes and slippers, an electronic safe and free wifi. Our booking also included an excellent buffet breakfast with unlimited lattes and made to order omelets at a gorgeous beachfront location.

The Mai Khao Resort easily clicked all the 5 star checkboxes and was a fantastic place to spend a few days (despite the $13 pad thai), but it paled massively in comparison to the place that my newly wedded friends were staying at – the Sava Villa.

A private 6 room beachfront villa, with in-house staff, a stunning swimming pool and perfectly placed for a glorious view of the sunset, I think of it as NEXT-LEVEL luxury Thailand. At a cost of $1800 per day in low season, 6 couples could stay there extremely comfortably for $300 per night each.

As for us? I’m afraid we haven’t quite shaken our budget backpacker inclinations just yet. On our last night in Thailand, we HAD to escape all that luxury and visit a street food stall for some flavourful Thai noodle soup.

We sure didn’t mind visiting though. πŸ™‚

How to Enjoy Luxury Thailand as Inexpensively as Possible
1) Visit during shoulder seasons
As a major tourist destination, Thailand has a vast supply of hotels, resorts and guesthouses on offer – enough to satisfy the peak numbers of high season. This means that prices are usually reduced (sometimes drastically) during the low or shoulder seasons.

For most of the country, low season coincides with the May to August monsoons. However, on the southeast coast of Thailand, the rains are reversed, and low season typically runs from November to February.

To take advantage of both Thailand’s best weather AND it’s discounted rates, book in the shoulder seasons, as close to the end or beginning of high season as possible.

2) Check the booking engines regularly
We booked our stay at the Mai Khao Resort by checking Agoda religiously every day. In my experience, Agoda is not afraid to slash prices last minute, and I’ve scored some really fantastic deals all over the world by following this method.

By doing this, we got our 5 star room for a fraction of the posted rate – less than $90 per night, breakfast included.

3) Opt into the Hotel Breakfast
The breakfast offered in 5 star hotels is unsurprisingly, pretty amazing, with unlimited (good) coffee, fresh fruits and made to order omelettes. It will add some dollars to the cost of your stay, but breakfast is the one meal I think is worth paying for in a luxury hotel. The extra cost is usually not exorbitant, and nothing beats rolling out of bed, and strolling across the grounds to a lovely breakfast by the sea.

It’s a simply superb way to start the day.

The Library's Breakfast Culture

The Library’s Breakfast Culture

The best view

The best view

4) Make sure your 5 star hotel is not too isolated
Some luxury hotels are super isolated. This exclusivity is of course, all part of the whole 5 star resort experience, but it sure makes it difficult to take advantage of Thailand’s delicious and affordable food.

At Mai Khao, there were literally no other options for dining within walking distance, except the hotel’s restaurants. The cost of the meals there was certainly a factor, but our greater issue was with the lack of choice and variety.

One of the things I most adore in Thailand, is having a coconut shake every day. And our hotel DID NOT have them. Not to mention that the shakes they did offer were “westernized” and cost $7 each.

The easiest way to deal with this is to make sure your hotel is within walking distance of a town or village. That way, you’ll have access to all the fantastic pad thais, curries and shakes your heart could possibly desire. πŸ™‚

5) Rent a car or scooter
If staying at a resort close to town is not an option, rent a car or scooter. We finally caved and rented one on our 3rd day in Phuket at the inflated hotel fee of 400 baht per day (we’ve gotten them as cheap as 150 baht per day). So worth it though. Ahhh, the freedom!

How do you usually travel? Budget backpacker style or full-our luxury?

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. We do it every way from budget to luxury. They all have their beauty πŸ™‚

    November 22, 2013
    • Until pretty recently, our travels have been mostly of the budget variety, but I would say that we’re definitely moving towards mid-range travel now. Where we used to make all kinds of sacrifices to travel longer (dirty beach huts, skimping on food etc..etc…) I just can’t seem to tolerate the same things I used to. Must be getting older… πŸ˜‰

      November 25, 2013
  2. We first experienced Thailand on a backpacker budget but went back for our honeymoon staying in a luxury resort in Hua Hin. Couldn’t resist the night markets and street food though!

    November 22, 2013
    • The only time I haven’t felt the slightest bit guilty about all the money we were spending on our “luxury” trip was for our wedding. Too bad you can’t get married more often. πŸ˜‰

      The street food in Hua Hin is amazing!! I still think about going back there just to eat some more of their bbq prawns!

      November 25, 2013
  3. Once a backpacker, always a backpacker! I know how hard it is to fight the impulse to NOT spend. In Cusco, our in-laws treated us to a very nice boutique hotel which was a lovely luxury for us, but chock-a-block in the centre of all things touristy. As we were walking to the bus station on the outskirts of Cusco I saw a bunch of cheap restaurants and regular shops and it was like a weight lifted off me, like I felt at home! Pretty silly, huh?

    November 23, 2013
    • Haha, I totally know how you feel. We loved parking ourselves on the street and slurping up that Thai street soup. It’s weird, but somehow, unless we’re doing something like that, I don’t really feel like we’re TRAVELING.

      Although I sure don’t miss sleeping in some of the places I used to sleep in…just gross. It’s nice to finally be able to afford to stay in decent and clean places and still take advantage of all the local food prices.

      November 25, 2013
  4. Those discomforts are awesome! With conviction, I want to feel discomfort travel transportation once again!
    Your images are really magazine worthy. I get in awe with the sights you see.
    And I love how you talk about budgeting on your travels. Definitely, it’s never about what you buy during travel anyways. It’s whatever you went to a place for. I hate when people would ask me to go shopping when we travel. It grinds my teeth. πŸ˜€

    November 29, 2013
    • Heh heh… I know, it’s so weird. Somehow it doesn’t feel like ‘real’ traveling, unless we’re a having a little bit of an adventure. When it’s too easy, it feels just like vacation. And I can’t handle the shopping while traveling either! I never understand how people travel halfway around the world, and then spend all their time shopping for gifts, instead of exploring the sights and meeting the locals!

      December 4, 2013
  5. I need to get myself to Thailand!

    Just stumbled across your blog, so hello! Thanks for the post πŸ™‚

    December 24, 2013
    • Hi Michelle! Thanks for visiting! and yes, you do need to get yourself to Thailand. We’ve been several times now, and there’s always something new to discover, plus the food is just so good. It’s one of those countries that I don’t think we’ll ever get tired of visiting!

      December 26, 2013

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