The alternative guide to Thailand


The alternative guide to Thailand

When was the last time you dined on rainbow cupcakes, got a tattoo from a former Buddhist monk or became friends with a goat named Damien? It may be time for a visit to Thailand.

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir20 January 2017

Let’s play a little word association – ok, ready? And go…
First up – holidays in Thailand
You: ‘Beaches, long-tail boats, street food…’
Us: ‘Unicorns! Goats! Tattoos! Wait, where are you going?’

We’re still besotted with Thailand’s island hopping, curacao-blue waters and beauty-contest-winning beaches, but the country’s more unique charms are as subtle as decorative Thai script or the seasoning in a locally made gaeng daeng (red curry). You just need to know where to look, and luckily we do…

Thailand’s capital has reality-defying skyscrapers (and as such, plenty of bars and pools with cityscape views), madcap markets and a Chinatown that’s Vegas-bright after sundown. Amid the urban sprawl – the stilted houses and placid parks – we found the end of the rainbow, and a souvenir that won’t end up relegated to a drawer…

Unicorn Café, Phuket, Thailand

Hit and a myth
The Unicorn Café sits on a side street in Bang Rak, a strangely low-key setting for a place Lisa Frank might deem ridiculously flamboyant. It’s as sweet – and to some, as cloying – as one of the rainbow-cream-topped cupcakes served here. There’s a lot of heart, and e-numbers (even the salmon tom yum noodles come in colours everywhere) in this Instagrammable spot, with a wardrobe of unicorn onesies (some with sparkly wings), soft toys, statuettes… All that’s missing is The Last Unicorn theme tune playing on repeat (too soon?). And, for non-believers, there’s horn-topped unicorn burger (order it medium rare) and a unicorn-blood slushie. Magic.

Get inked
This isn’t like the time you got the Thai for ‘fishcake’ etched into your skin on a beach. Sak Yan tattooing takes place in a consecrated space within the elegant Siam hotel’s Opium spa. A khem (metal spike) is guided by former Buddhist monk Arjan Boo; if that sounds a little hardcore, he kicks off with a simple hah taew (a simple scripted design) to test your tolerance. From there, Boo’s repertoire covers fantastical creatures and intricate sigils; he crafts Buddhist and Brahman designs too, but don’t ask for one of the Buddha – it’s considered deeply disrespectful. On completion, offerings are made to the artist and your fresh ink is blessed – et voila, a permanent souvenir you won’t regret.

This lush green isle is known to host quite the party, but beyond frolicking in the luminescent-blue Andaman or nursing a sundowner while the darkening sky puts on a colourful show, there’s an eye-catching cultural scene to be sought and something on the tip of our tongue…

Street art, Old Town, Phuket

Fresh paint
Phuket’s Old Town is lined with Sino-colonial townhouses in birds-of-paradise colours. Its Walking Street, where tourists and locals amble past trinket shops, market stalls and the sweetest of cafés, was recently given a colourful new coat. But, it’s not all that’s been brushed-up: graffiti artists such as Noe Two, Rukkit and Ludmila Letnikova have brought their geometric, fanciful and near-photorealist artwork to the streets, in the most vivacious of shades. Head to Thalang Road for soaring birds, tigers and cute characters; wander Dibuk Road for a cupcake rodeo and Soi Romanee to come face to face with a sultry Thai girl.

Street-food roulette
Dinky stalls emitting enticingly scented steam or displaying a smorgasbord of mystery meats and tropical-fruit slices on sticks, pop up in the most unlikely of places, often with makeshift booths to dine in. A sense of adventure favours the brave; alongside favourites such as ‘drunken’ noodles, super-spicy tom yum (papaya salad) and comforting sticky rice with mango, we recommend shovelling a handful of fried mealworms with white pepper and soy sauce into your mouth; building bespoke dumplings from trays of idiosyncratic fillings; and spooning fresh coconut ice-cream from the shell, topped with caramelised pineapple and slivers of coconut jelly.

Deftly living up to its ‘paradise isle’ rep, Koh Samui is a jungly, laid-back spot to explore on sand-dusted feet. Beyond its beaches are exquisite religious monuments and wild encounters that don’t involve lashings of rum.

Pay your respects
Wat Khunaram to the south of the island is an exquisite example of sacred Thai architecture: a scarlet roof bedecked with gilded chofas and finials glinting in the sun, decorous doorways and an abundance of floral offerings. Ensure your shoulders and knees are covered, place your shoes at the bottom of the steps and deferentially enter the shrine that holds self-mummified Buddhist monk Loung Pordaeng, who’s assumed his lotus position and peaceful repose for more than 20 years after his demise. It’s a remarkable glimpse into Thailand’s spiritual side, and the magnificent Buddha statue at Wat Phra Yai is just a short drive away.

Totes ma goats
Devastatingly good-looking retreat Six Senses Samui is better known for helping even the most amorous of honeymooners to fall just that bit more in love (nothing like a private pool to amp up the pheromones) than communing with chickens. However, their new Farm on the Hill has welcomed a brood of birds and stable full of goats who act more like dogs (named, as of going to press, Marvin, Damien, Mafia, Fluffy, Tic, Tac, Coco, and Lola) to up the resort’s eco cred. Guests can pick eggs from the coop, and fresh vegetables and herbs from the ‘waste to wealth’ garden, and help to feed the friendly, furred and feathered residents. Staff are more than happy to arrange a tour of the natural reed beds and aquaponic system (trust us, it’s more interesting than it sounds) followed with a barbecue on the grounds.