Remember the first time you’d heard of Koh Samui? What about Koh Kood or Krabi or Chiang Mai or Khao Yai? Surely you’ve heard of some of them by now, and it’s likely thanks to these hotels, some culinary diplomacy, and a certain film from 2000.
The first time I’d ever heard the words “Koh Samui” was in the movie Meet the Parents. Spoiler alert, but it was presented as a mysterious phrase that many characters in the film had never heard before — nor had, presumably, many members of the audience. Safe to say that, nearly 25 years on (yes, you’re that old), a lot more people will have now heard of Koh Samui, a glorious island off the coast of Thailand and extremely popular vacation destination filled with top-shelf luxury hotels and resorts.
The same could be said for Thailand in general, which has continued to grow as a tourist destination since 2000 — when we first learned that you can milk anything with nipples — expanding at a pace projected to triple by the end of the decade. Is it because of all the incredible accommodations being built in amazing destinations, exemplified by the ten hotels below? That’s a bit too chicken-or-egg to take all the credit. Maybe it’s due to the country’s gastrodiplomacy program, begun in 2002 as an official government effort to spread Thai cuisine throughout the world, the idea being that “the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach.” Maybe. Or maybe it was because of Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller.
Whatever the exact reason, it worked.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Set among lush gardens at the side of the Ping river, only twenty minutes from Chiang Mai, Raya Heritage is as calm and tranquil as many a more far-flung rural resort. It’s styled as Thailand’s first “artisanal” resort, which means that not only did the architect and designer get free rein to let their imaginations run wild, but they also employed local artisans and craftspeople wherever possible.
Amanpuri was the first Aman — the flagship for their winning blend of captivating design, classic luxury, stunning settings, and first-rate service. This exclusive beachfront resort on the west coast of Phuket occupies what was once a coconut plantation, isolated on a lush peninsula overlooking Pansea Beach. The design is a smart take on traditional Thai elements derived from the Ayutthaya period.
Koh Kood, Thailand
To reach Soneva Kiri, you’re flown in the resort’s private plane to its private airstrip, then taken to the resort via speedboat, then driven to your bungalow in an eco-buggy. Despite the dramatic arrival, where the resort sets itself apart is with common spaces like the dining pods; perched in the trees like nests, they give diners a bird’s-eye view of white sands and sunsets.
Khao Yai, Thailand
The InterContinental collection is diverse, ranging from skyscraping business hotels to something as unique as the InterContinental Khao Yai Resort: a lakeside jungle escape right outside of the UNESCO-listed Khao Yai National Park, and featuring an extraordinary collection of suites and villas built from upcycled train cars, inspired by the region’s pivotal role in Thai railway history.
Choeng Mon Beach, Thailand
Kimpton’s tour of the hot spots of global tourism continues apace; this California-born brand looks just as at home in Thailand as it does on the other side of the Pacific Rim. Kitalay, on the northeast corner of Koh Samui, stands over Choeng Mon Beach, a location both convenient and surprisingly tranquil, and in its style it’s a lively blend of contemporary design and traditional Thai motifs.
Andara is proof that Phuket, done right, is still fully extraordinary. Its location, on a hillside up above Kamala Beach, immediately places it in a different class. This stretch is called the Millionaires’ Mile, but even by those standards, Andara is something special, a collection of stylish modern-Thai villas and lodges, spread across a lush estate with seemingly unlimited views over the bay below.
Koh Samui, Thailand
Six Senses Samui is hidden away at the end of a raised promontory looking out into the Gulf of Thailand, its 66 villas strewn across 20 acres of lush indigenous growth. The split-level villas are classic island accommodations in every way, decked out in rich local hardwoods, with open-plan bathrooms, outdoor showers, and in most units, infinity-edge pools with unimpeded views out to sea.
Koh Samui, Thailand
Set high on a hilltop overlooking a coral cove, Samujana features a range of spacious villas, all lavishly outfitted with infinity pools, kitchens, private cinemas, and sweeping views over the water. This is a place for entertaining as much as relaxing. Indeed, there are no regular hotel rooms here. The most modest option is a villa with three bedrooms, and some have as many as eight.
The only way to reach Rayavadee’s particular stretch of Thailand’s dramatic Phranang Peninsula is by boat. As you approach, you’ll be greeted by sheer rock walls that seem to rise from the lush greenery of the peninsula. Scattered about the grounds of the hotel are some hundred-odd private pavilions and villas, inspired by the natural beauty of a traditional Thai village.
Hotel categories aren’t as rigid as they can seem. Where, after all, is the line between a boutique hotel and a luxury resort? Better to follow Keemala’s lead, and call them what they call themselves: an “all pool villa wonderland.” Every villa here, on the edge of Phuket’s coastal rainforest — perched just above the coastal town of Kamala — comes with its own pool. Even the tree houses and bird’s nests.