New amusement parks, music festivals and the pioneering success of Thai "New Latitude" wines are just some of the attractions encouraging Singaporeans to extend their stay in Bangkok.
It is no secret that Singaporeans love the Thai capital. Almost one million visit Thailand every year, returning time and again for the city's variety of inexpensive shopping and excellent food.
Just a 21/2-hour flight away, Bangkok's proximity to Singapore, great hospitality, Muslim-friendly facilities, affordability of flights and tour packages as well as flexibility of travel also make it an attractive destination, say travel experts here.
According to TripAdvisor, most holidays to Bangkok are booked less than 60 days before the trip date, which is much less than bookings for long-haul destinations, which most Singaporeans book at least six months to a year ahead.
With thousands of hotel rooms in the city and more than 27 direct flights from Singapore a day, it is easy to book a last-minute trip, says Ms Jane Chang, head of marketing for Chan Brothers Travel, which has seen a 30 per cent rise in bookings to Bangkok this year compared with the same period last year.
In August, Thai immigration announced that it would allow Singaporeans who pre-register with immigration to use the automatic passport scanners at Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang international airports for faster clearance, a privilege previously held only by Thai citizens, making connections between the two countries even smoother.
Travel search engine Expedia Singapore's data reveals that Bangkok has consistently ranked among the top five destinations for Singapore travellers since at least 2010, and has remained the top destination for travellers here since 2012.
Data collected by TripAdvisor, Expedia and Booking.com shows that Singaporeans typically stay for three nights, but travel agents and booking platforms which offer experiences outside of Bangkok, such as Klook, say the average stay is increasing to five days, four nights.
Klook president and co-founder Eric Gnock Fah says Singaporean travellers are starting to show an interest beyond their favourite, familiar activities such as shopping and massages. "Interestingly, there is an increasing appetite for experiences that go beyond the city or the norm, which is why we have expanded our range of activities to include things like cooking classes, food discovery trails and even biking tours."
Bookings for Klook's custom Khao Yai charter have risen eightfold since the company launched the tour in May, while bookings for day trips to Kanchanaburi and Amphawa have also experienced healthy growth, he says.
Blogger Vickii Ma, 26, estimates she has visited Bangkok eight times, besides trips to Khao Yai, Chiang Rai and, most recently, Hua Hin, where she visited the bustling night markets, seafood restaurants, beaches and a picturesque old train station.
Venturing out of the city is a welcome change of pace, she says, and an opportunity to take in Thailand's pristine coast, good food, beautiful boutique hotels and local culture.
"It's a totally different experience. Less busy and congested, with beautiful scenery. I appreciated the slower pace of life, which is a good respite from our hectic lifestyles," she says.
After visiting Hua Hin once, she is eager to return. "There are so many activities I've yet to experience and beautiful hotels to explore. I will consider making it a pit stop when I next visit Bangkok, since it is only about three hours away."
The Sunday Times has rounded up five easy-to-reach destinations which offer more to do, see and experience beyond Bangkok.
Kanchanaburi province, 130km west of Bangkok on the border with Myanmar, is perhaps best known for its infamous Burma Railway.
Also known as the Death Railway, the 415km track was built by the Japanese, who forced more than 200,000 Asian labourers and an estimated 60,000 Allied prisoners of war - many shipped in from Changi Prison - to work on it at the cost of about 100,000 lives.
The most famous portion of the railway is Bridge 277, also known as the Bridge over the River Kwai, after the 1952 novel by Pierre Boulle and the subsequent 1957 movie, which were inspired by the horrific events there. Travellers continue to venture to Kanchanaburi for the World War II museums, memorial and Allied cemetery, but its enchanting natural beauty is another draw.
Sometimes referred to as Thailand's "Wild West", Kanchanaburi holds seven national parks full of pristine forests and wildlife - elephants, tigers, monkeys, deer, boar and hundreds of species of birds among them - with vast networks of limestone caves and hiking trails.
Erawan National Park is the most famous, mostly because of its beautiful seven-tiered falls, which span an astonishing 1.5km in length.
ElephantsWorld (www.elephantsworld.org) is another worthwhile stop. This animal sanctuary was founded in 2008 and rescues sick, old, disabled and abused elephants from around Thailand.
Visitors can take day trips, spend the night or enter a one-to four-week mahout programme to care for the elephants.
Getting there: Take a train from Bangkok's Thonburi station. The ride (prices start at 100 baht or S$4.10) takes about 21/2 hours and affords the opportunity to cross the Death Railway and the Bridge over the River Kwai. Or catch a 12-seat minivan from Bangkok's Mo Chit or Southern Bus Terminal (100 to 200 baht a person, one way), which leaves as soon as it is full, about every 30 minutes, and takes 11/2 hours.
With sun, sand and raucous nightlife, Bangkok's satellite city Pattaya is the go-to destination for people looking for a weekend getaway.
A three-hour drive from Bangkok, visitors can spend their days lying on several kilometres of beaches, enjoying any number of water activities from jet-skiing to paragliding and snorkelling in clear turquoise waters at nearby islands, or head to the vibrant day and night markets for shopping.
Pattaya is one of Thailand's liveliest beach resorts and has a reputation for its nightlife - some of it the seedy kind - but there are plenty of activities for families, too.
Try go-karting at Easy Kart, the biggest track in Thailand (www.easykart.net/pattaya) or visit Art In Paradise (www.artinparadise.co.th/main.php), an amusing interactive art museum where visitors can "insert" themselves into large-scale 3D paintings. There are also a number of water parks, the biggest and newest of which is Ramayana (www.ramayanawaterpark.com), which opened in May last year.
Near Jomtien Beach, the acclaimed Nong Nooch Tropical Garden (www.nongnoochtropicalgarden.com) is home to 21/2 sq km of award-winning gardens and meticulously landscaped specimens of bonsai, cacti, tropical palms and more than 670 species of orchids.
Travellers looking for a bit of spiritual sustenance should not miss The Sanctuary of Truth, a one-of-a-kind temple-like structure with a 105m-tall hall intricately carved from teak wood.
Over the past few years, Pattaya has also attracted hip music lovers, who flock to the beaches and fields which host high-octane music festivals, such as Wonderfruit (wonderfruitfestival.com) and Warp Music Fest (www.warpmusicfest.com).
Getting there: The best way is to rent or charter a car, or take a minivan, which leaves every 30 minutes from Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal. Tickets cost 117 baht (S$4.80).
Hua Hin has been a favourite seaside destination for more than 100 years. It has changed a lot since then, with the build-up of hotels, resorts and restaurants catering to tourists, but parts of it retain an old-world charm.
The Hua Hin train station, for instance, is an elegant red-and-cream building of Victorian-esque Thai architecture. And European flair sounds loud and clear at Santorini Park (www.santoriniparkchaam.com) and The Venezia Hua Hin (www.theveneziahuahin.com) amusement parks and shopping centres in Cha-Am, a 30-minute drive north of Hua Hin.
Like Pattaya, Hua Hin does not have the best beaches in Thailand, but they are nice enough for a short getaway. People venture here for the quieter atmosphere and it is an ideal base from which to explore surrounding sites.
The town offers the unique combination of tropical beaches and wine. Monsoon Valley Vineyard (www.monsoonvalley.com/en) is nestled among the hills, where grape varietals such as shiraz and sangiovese thrive. The winery offers tastings and tours as well as a respected restaurant, just 35km from Hua Hin beach.
Visitors must also not miss the chance to visit Phraya Nakhon Cave in Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, 60km south of the seaside resort. Thailand's first marine national park, the highlights of the reserve are its mangroves, towering limestone hills - the tallest of which is 605m above sea level - and, of course, its caves.
Getting there: Travelling to Hua Hin takes roughly three hours by car and slightly longer by train (tickets start at 44 baht or S$1.80 one way) or minivan (about 200 baht a person, one way).
Just a three-hour drive from Bangkok, Unesco World Heritage Site Khao Yai is one of Thailand's most visited national parks. Its lush valleys, mountains and rolling fields are home to a surprising range of attractions, from stunning waterfalls, caves and hiking trails to kitschy European-style parks and quirky hotels.
For instance, Thames Valley Khao Yai (www.thamesvalleykhaoyai.com/index.php) is an English-style hotel designed to look like a fortified manor house, complete with a hedge maze, rose garden and afternoon tea, while Palio (www.palio-khaoyai.com) is a shopping centre designed to look like a Tuscan village.
There is also a Cotswolds cottage resort, a spaceship resort, a campervan resort, a castle resort and more.
The region's attractions also appeal to those looking for a taste of country life. Farm Chokchai (www.farmchokchai.com) allows visitors to milk a cow and make their own ice cream. Famed silk manufacturer Jim Thompson has a silk farm (www.jimthompsonfarm.com/jimthompson_farm/english.html) which guests can tour in December or January. This is the best time to visit Khao Yai, when it is cooler, more activities and tours are available and there are fields of bright flowers, particularly at The Bloom hotel (www.thebloom.co.th).
December to February is also when some of Thailand's award-winning wines are harvested. Khao Yai is home to the PB Valley (www.khaoyaiwinery.com) and GranMonte (www.granmonte.com) wineries and travellers can visit them for tastings and tours.
Getting there: The best way is to rent or charter a car, or to book a tour (starting at about $70 a person).
About 85km north of Bangkok, the historic city of Ayutthaya was once one of the world's greatest cities.
The former capital of Thailand, it was founded in 1350 and experienced its heyday in the early 1700s. By then, it had become the largest and one of the most cosmopolitan cities, with one million inhabitants and attracting merchants from the Middle East, China, India, Japan, the Netherlands, France and Portugal.
Strategically located on an island surrounded by three rivers which connected the city to the sea, its grid of streets and canals was filled with trading vessels, gilded palaces and towering temples.
But when the Burmese invaded in 1767, it was almost entirely burnt to the ground. It was never rebuilt and the capital was moved to Bangkok. Today, most visitors make their way to Ayutthaya Historical Park (www.tourismthailand.org/Attraction/Ayutthaya-Historical-Park--2352), an extensive 289ha Unesco World Heritage site around the former Royal Palace precinct. It can take a day to fully explore the site, its royal palace and many wats with tall prang (reliquary towers) which provide a glimpse of its former glory. Visitors can walk or explore the site by bicycle.
Getting there: Go directly by bus or minivan, which departs about every 20 minutes from Bangkok's Northern Bus Terminal. The journey takes 11/2 to two hours. A minivan ticket costs about 70 baht (S$2.90) a journey. Visitors can also take the train (15 to 1,000 baht a journey, depending on the train and carriage class), which will take about the same time as a bus, or longer, depending on the service.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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