This year, I boldly went where few Australians have been before.
To Thailand, sober. And I’ve never had a more enriching travel experience.
While the thought of Aussies in Thailand may evoke visions of questionable tattoos and Chang-fuelled island hopping, the calming surrounds and predominantly-Buddhist religious influences make it the ideal destination to dip in to the wellness travel trend, which encourages holidaymakers to truly reset, relax and detox.
So for 10 days in Thailand starting in Phuket, just an 8-hour direct flight from Melbourne via Jetstar, I decided to forego the traditional airport beer to mark the beginning of the trip, and swap cocktails for mocktails by the pool on arrival.
Four of Thailand’s top-tier resorts were central to making the challenge a success: Melia Phuket Mai Khao, Banyan Tree Krabi, Melia Chiang Mai and Banyan Tree Koh Samui. All of them had their own unique twists to offer an all-encompassing experience of the area without a hint of tipsy FOMO.
And while the hangovers stayed at bay, there was certainly no lack of indulgence thanks to the multitude of culinary delights Thailand has to offer, curated and plated by world-class chefs at each resort.
Days 1 – 3 at Melia Phuket Mai Khao
After a seamless Jetstar flight from Adelaide to Melbourne (1 hour and 20 minutes) then onto Phuket (8 hours and 50 minutes), our group of 6 stepped off the plane to a wall of the telltale perfumed, humid air of the tropics that elicits an instant sense of calm from top to toe. Having not travelled internationally since pre-pandemic times, it was surreal to be in a different country, not to mention a relief to escape the winter bite back home.
Arriving late to the sprawling oasis of the Melia resort, we were taken to our rooms by the friendly staff, where a platter of healthy treats were quickly gobbled up before bed.
Equipped with an indoor-outdoor shower, a private plunge pool, a large freestanding outdoor bath that made me feel like I was in a Herbal Essences commercial and an enormous, cloudlike bed, it set the bar high for the luxury accommodation of the trip.
Waking to the pitter-patter of tropical rain, it was time for breakfast at the extremely well-stocked buffet, boasting traditional Thai and Western dishes and coffee strong enough to kickstart a morning of sightseeing, including a trip to a local Buffalo farm and sand crabbing at Mai Khao beach.
Back at the resort, we were treated to an in-house cooking lesson, where we fried sandcrabs (sadly not caught by us) for lunch, before a Thai boxing lesson on the beach with multi-talented instructor Aum.
Given my eagerness to soak up Melia’s wellness ethos as best I could, it was off to the spa for a massage before dinner.
If you’ve never had a Thai massage, prepare to be presented with a set of white pyjamas before being twisted, tugged and contorted like never before, and try not to spend the entire time giggling like I did.
Feeling soft and floppy after requesting my massage “extra hard”, dinner at the Gaia restaurant was accompanied by a tangy ginger mocktail (my favourite of the trip) and another incredible meal.
Day two began with yoga with Aum before another delicious, healthy lunch in the main restaurant and a befitting farewell from the Melia team before heading off to destination number two.
Days 3 – 6 at Banyan Tree Krabi
If you’ve never travelled to Thailand, Krabi should top your list of destinations. The gorgeous Andaman coastal town itself is like stepping into a postcard, and the Banyan Tree resort, with its majestic architectural design inspired by Thai folklore and outlooks to the surrounding islands dotting glasslike ocean, is no less than stunning.
Here, my room came complete with a private infinity pool, and an uninterrupted sea view from a marshmallow of a king bed. We all know sleep without alcohol is infinitely better, but a sober sleep in one of these rooms? Life-changing.
After a dip in the infinity pool, it was down to the beach bar for a virgin mojito as the sun set. Dinner, set in a private room at the resort’s sophisticated Naga Kitchen was a multi-course western-fusion extravaganza.
After a blissful eight hours in my marshmallow bed, I awoke early for a beach stroll with the monitor lizards and the rising sun, then down to gleefully hit a new buffet for breakfast.
This morning, we were taken by long boat to Hong Island, where a trudge up multiple flights of steep stairs provided panoramic vista views of the impossibly still ocean, treetops and crisp, powdery sand below.
Around the bend in a nearby lagoon, diving directly off the boat to float beneath the limestone cliffs was a highlight (but watch out for lurking jellyfish!)
Tip: It’s a good idea to head off early for a day trip to the limestone islands off Krabi. The area is often brimming with tourists hoping to get the perfect shot for the Instagram grid, which can result in longboat traffic jams.
With windswept hair, sandy feet and salty skin we headed back to the resort, fresh coconuts and pineapple in hand, to prepare for the next activity: another massage. Tough life.
A traditional Thai dinner on the resort’s pristine stretch of sandy beach ended the day, then early to bed with the promise of an unforgettable adventure bathing elephants in mud at a nearby rescue sanctuary the following day.
Aonang Elephant Sanctuary, which houses just four elephants rescued by its passionate operators, is an absolute must-do for kids if you’re heading to Krabi.
Committed to care and nurture of these gentle giants, there’s no controversial elephant-back riding here. Instead, you’ll feed, pet, and bathe the wondrous creatures in mud and water under the watchful eye of their Mahout — a 24-hour trainer and carer appointed to each animal with whom they form an unbreakable bond.
A truly humbling experience and a fantastic organisation.
Back at the Banyan Tree, the afternoon consisted of lounging lazily by the pool, then a hilariously-retro water aerobics class held by upbeat fitness guru Badi.
From tote bags to carry down to the pool, to a daily incense to burn in your room, the attention to detail is something to marvel at in this resort.
I even inadvertently synced my phone alarm to the bluetooth system, which was a pleasant surprise when I awoke to gentle music coming from the bedside clock rather than the jarring trill of my iPhone. (I was convinced I had a ghost the first time this happened, but was assured the Banyan Tree is entirely spectre-free).
Day 6 – 8 at the Melia Chiang Mai
Upping the seaside pace, next stop was a city break in Chiang Mai, the less chaotic younger sister of Bangkok.
As the largest religion in Thailand, Buddhism practised by 93 per cent of the population, and Chiang Mai is a major spiritual hub. While there’s plenty of good shopping here, incredible food and a buzzy bar scene, there’s an ethereal air to Chiang Mai which radiates from the streets you’ll share with practising monks out receiving offerings each morning.
For your temple fix, take a trip to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (around 40 minutes from the city) with a guide in tow to learn the ornate golden temple’s rich history and significance to the area. If you’re open to an immersive excursion, you can be blessed by monks who will tie a string around your wrist for luck, and have bestowed upon you an ancient prophecy.
Mine, the number 13, translated to: “This is a lucky number, the man who gets this number will be prosperous and full of property, dignity and success. Asking about illness, it’s already recovered from illness. As for the inside infant, it’s surely be male.”
(I’m definitely not expecting a child, but my enthusiastic daily hitting of the breakfast buffet made the gender reveal of my food baby all the more hilarious).
For a little juxtaposition, an after-dinner drink (of water) at one of the city’s drag bars is a fun way to end a night. Even without alcohol, it’s impossible not to be swept up with excited travellers and friendly locals at one of these bars. Like all drag, the artistry of the queen’s costumes, makeup and spirited routines will leave you awe-struck and grinning from ear to ear.
For me, the real standout of Chiang Mai was the food.
On a tour through the region’s best dining spots you’ll find a $1 laksa-type chicken in broth called Khao Soi that will blow your socks off, spicy grilled river fish, and various pork and chicken curries cooked up in small, unassuming local restaurants.
There’s even a red ant egg omelette traditional to the area if you’re game.
Back at the Melia, which sources its produce from organic farm Ori9in, a Mediterranean influence offers something different for guests.
Try the Spanish tapas afternoon tea for a light nibble. But don’t fill up before dinner at Mai Restaurant and Bar, where chef Billy is a serious mastermind.
Days 8 – 10 in Koh Samui
This is where my transition from perpetually frazzled journo to zenned-out resort pig was complete.
Perched on the mountains of Lamai Beach, Banyan Tree Koh Samui might be the most beautiful accommodation I will ever have the pleasure of experiencing in my entire life.
A huge private villa was my home for the next two nights, which boasted direct views from the pool to the quiet sandy beach through leafy canopies from the many trees of the lush green grounds.
There’s a reason Banyan Tree Koh Samui is considered one of Thailand’s best resorts, and it’s safe to say by this point of the trip, my Instagram followers were beyond sick of Thailand spam.
Aside from it being breathtakingly pretty, it’s the ideal retreat for a sober traveller.
Wellness and vitality is key to the Banyan Tree, with each site dedicated to helping its guests find a sense of clarity and balance during their stay. The resort has enlisted a host of experts to offer lessons on mindfulness and an array of activity options to keep your body moving between lazy days by the pool.
One particularly luxurious and unusual feature of this resort is the hydrotherapy rainforest, designed to inspire a sense of tranquillity through different water techniques as the user moves through each level. From trickling “rain” to a tipping bucket of water, steam room and pool with various styles of jets, you’ll leave feeling refreshed, if a little wrinkly from all the soaking.
I found pool jets extremely ticklish which set me off (again) into a giggle-frenzy, so I must apologise to my travel companions for disturbing the peace.
Pilates, yoga, sleep meditation and breathing exercise lessons between more sumptuous meals, ocean dips and suntanning in my exclusive mini paradise rounded out a truly magical introduction to Thailand.
Despite an action-packed 10 days of sightseeing, exercise and borderline competitive eating, I still left feeling more relaxed (and slightly rounder) than any holiday before, and I’m convinced it’s because booze was taken out of the equation.
Without wine and cocktails, I slept far sounder than usual, and waking up hangover-free gave me the energy to partake in every activity on offer, plus extra sightseeing I had time to squeeze in for the day.
So if you’ve ever wondered whether travelling sober is worthwhile, if indeed possible, it most definitely is, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The writer travelled to Thailand from May 15th – 26th as a guest of Jetstar.
Jetstar flies direct to Phuket from Melbourne, with one-way fares starting from $349.