Thailand on the chic (or luxury for next to nothing)

It's the ultimate backpacker destination. And yet, says Andrew Spooner, you really can stay there in some style
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The Independent Travel

Thailand, long the definitive backpacking destination, is accessible to the lowest budget. But why should the independent traveller slum it in this beguiling country? After all, the inventive luxury on offer here is, without doubt, the cheapest in the world. Standards are high, while five-star spas, designer boutique hotels and executive-stylecity accommodation are available at prices that shouldn't bust the bank.

You can travel around Thailand on a rapidly expanding number of budget carriers. The main players are funky Bangkok Airways (01293 596626; www. bangkokair.com), Air Asia (00 60 3 7884 9000; www.airasia.com) and One-Two-Go (00 66 2 267 2999; www.fly2go.com), all bookable online. Coaches, hire cars and sleeper trains are inexpensive.

Thailand is one of the most competitive long-haul leisure routes from the UK. Flights via the Gulf offer the best deals. The outstanding Doha-based airline Qatar Airways (0870 7704215; www. qatarairways.com) flies from Manchester and London, currently charging £526 including taxes. Taiwan-based Eva Air offers flights direct to Bangkok from Heathrow. Its premium economy Elite class costs from £670 through Thailand specialist Travelmood (0870-500 1002 www.travelmood.co.uk).

Travelmood can also organise independent itineraries. Good-value and well-organised trekking and beach packages are also available from experienced adventure travel operator Exodus (0870-240 5550 www.exodus.co.uk) from £750 for 14 nights (excluding flights).

However, if you are happier doing your own thing, here is a selection of some of the coolest places and best deals - from spas to restaurants to hotels:

Bangkok

Intense, bewildering and dynamic, the Thai capital is often too much for first-time visitors. At times it resembles a giant car-boot sale held in a sauna, the streets choked with exhaust fumes and debauchery. If you take your time getting to know this incredible city, you will also witness the serenity of its temples, the succulent drama of its food and a burgeoning, cutting-edge, modern culture.

Sleeping
The brand new super-hip art hotel Reflections (00 66 2 2703344; www.reflections-thai.com) is so cool it burns. Twenty-eight double rooms start at 2,050 baht (£30) per night.

Bangkok's serviced apartments have long been used by savvy antipodeans. Cape House (00 66 2 6587444; www.capehouse.com) is the pick of the bunch, with roof-top pool, gym, wireless broadband, TV, DVD, stereo, kitchen and room-service in spacious city-centre flats. Rates start at £40 per room per night.

For unbridled luxury, the five-star Sheraton Grande (00 66 2 649888; www.luxurycollection.com/bangkok) is one of the best hotels and deals in town. A two-night Luxury Romance package in a grand suite, including breakfast, champagne and flowers, starts at £267 for two.

Indulgence
Want to have those jet-lagged knots kneaded away? Opt for spa luxury at the Sheraton Grande, where a 95-minute herbal pound and aromatherapy massage will have you melting like an ice cream for 3,500 baht (£50). An earthier option is found at the Buddhist temple of Wat Pho where you will get an hour-long, Thai massage for 300 baht (£4).

Some of the best street food can be gorged on at Soi Suan Plu, a famed back street a 10-minute walk from Sala Daeng skytrain station. Plates of salted pork belly and som tam (spicy papaya salad) cost around £1. For an organic lunch, Glow, at the stylish Metropolitan Hotel at 27 South Sathorn Road (00 66 2 625 3333; www.bangkok.com/metropolitan), serves scrummy spirulina noodles with raw tuna. Bangkok has some superb Middle Eastern restaurants. Take the Nana skytrain to the gaudy Egyptian Restaurant at 16 Soi Nana (00 66 2 655 7944), which serves up buttery humus with wonderful lamb shish.

Chiang Mai and the North

With its deep forests, meandering hills and ethnic diversity, northern Thailand is a soothing counterpoint to the raucous charms of Bangkok. Lively, ancient Chiang Mai is Thailand's second biggest conurbation. Head west and you will find mountains and misty Mae Hong Son. Getting here is half the fun - the brave fly into the tiny hillside airstrip or take the switch-back road past the resort town of Pai.

Sleeping
Sited in the old part of Chiang Mai, the elegant Rachamankha (00 66 5 390 4111; www.rachamankha.com), built from recycled teak, is one of the most atmospheric hotels in the country. From 5,500 baht (£75) per room per night. The same management also runs a larger boutique hotel, Tamarind Village (00 66 5 341 8896; www. tamarindvillage.com), where rooms cost from 3,500 baht (£45) per night.

Pai, with its dramatic location and healing hot springs, has long been on the backpacker route. It is moving upmarket with Bangkok hipsters staying at the boutique-style resorts. Tha Pai Spa Camping (00 66 5 321 1444) has cute bungalows with water from hot springs pumped into the huge private bathtubs. Doubles start at 750 baht (£10) per night.

The serenity and ethnic diversity of Mae Hong Son (several "hill tribes" are based in the area) make it worth a visit. The Mountain Inn (00 66 5 361 2283) has rooms furnished in a traditional northern Thailand or Lanna style set around a garden - and serves great grub. Doubles from 1,200 baht (£18) per night.

Indulgence
Detox and stress bust at Chiang Mai's Feuillage (00 66 5 327 7373; www.chiangmainews.com/feuillage) boutique day-spa from 900 baht (£12).

Restaurants in Chiang Mai are notable for diversity. Dine on Med-inspired nosh in a funky 1930s colonial house called The House (00 66 5 341 9011), next to the old city walls at 199 Moonmuang Road. Mike's, set on the corner of Chang Moi and Chaiyapoom Road, serves up the best burgers you will find outside Brooklyn.

Pai has a superlative Thai restaurant, Baan Benjarong (00 66 5 369 8010), a simple place on the Chiang Mai road where the fried banana flowers are unforgettable. In Mae Hong Son, the strip of hill-tribe food stalls next to the Mountain Inn serve up fiery offal curries and red rice.

Islands

Want beach, sun and sea? Head for any one of dozens of Thai islands and you should be able to find your own slice of paradise. The white sands of Koh Samet - the island of choice for Bangkok youth - are a three-hour, £30 taxi ride from the centre of the capital. Or fly from Bangkok to Krabi, from where it is a short hop to both the sultry beauty of Koh Phi Phi and the endless beaches of Koh Lanta.

Sleeping
Set away from the bustle of Koh Samet's crystalline White Sand beach, the modish, comfortable bungalows at Sai Kaew Beach Resort (00 66 2 438 9771; www.aopraoresort.co) are a perfect place to watch the jaw-dropping sunsets. From 2,500 baht (£35) per night.

There are beach bungalows and then there is Koh Lanta's Costa Lanta (00 66 2 662 3550; www.costalanta.com), where the wall of your incredible beachside home slides open to reveal its arty interior. From 2,800 baht (£40) per night. If you want evidence that Koh Phi Phi is rising after the fury of the tsunami, the wonder that is the Zeavola (00 66 7 562 7024; www.zeavola.com) all-suite eco-boutique resort is it. The new bungalows look over a jaw-dropping white-sand beach. From 6,500 baht (£90) per night.

Indulgence
A two-hour spa package at the Le Vimarn resort on tiny Ao Prao beach, Koh Samet, should iron out any creases at 1,500 baht (£20).

Koh Samet has an awesome seafood restaurant on stilts called Ploy Samed (00 66 3 864 4188), set in the bay at Ao Klong beach. Ring the bell, they will send over a boat and you will soon be eating the freshest crab and shrimp. On Koh Lanta, head for one of the street kitchens at one of the numerous Sea Gypsy villages. If you want authentic Italian dining while on Koh Phi Phi, head for Zeavola's Baxil restaurant.

Andrew Spooner is the present author of 'Footprint Thailand'

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