Southern Thailand is one of the country’s biggest tourism draw-cards – it’s the region you see splashed across glossy brochures, and in picture-perfect postcard shots. But there’s more to the south of Thailand than the most well-known destinations – here’s where to head for a real flavour of the south.
Best known for its stunning beaches – some of Thailand’s most renowned tourist destinations – Phuket has more to offer than just Patong and Karon beaches. While getting the most out of Thailand’s biggest island is easiest with a rental car (rather than relying on Phuket’s infamously overpriced taxis), there are plenty of quieter, less trafficked and still far more unspoilt beaches to discover in the island’s further reaches.
Away from the sand, Phuket Town is also home to gorgeously preserved old Sino-Portuguese shophouses and more architecture to ogle at. Come to Phuket during the annual vegetarian festival and you’ll find incredible self-mutilation rituals that leave you wondering whether to stare or look away in horror. What’s more, Phuket has a distinct cuisine all of its own that, while overlooked by most unknowing visitors, is well worth exploring.
Krabi has plenty going for it – the stunning coastline of Ao Nang that most visitors see, plus beautifully secluded beaches on the Railay peninsular, which includes Railay East, Railay West and, most hidden away of all, Ao Tonsai. There are also countless smaller islands offshore with jaw-dropping beauty that makes them perfect for memorable day trips – we’re thinking the likes of Koh Gai and Koh Hong in particular.
And back in Krabi town, a destination much overlooked by tourists keen to feel the sand between their toes, there’s a killer food scene influenced by southern Thai cuisine’s reliance on spices of Malaysian and Indian origin (including probably the best massuman curry we’ve tasted in the whole country), as well as a general easy-going vibe that makes it a more than pleasant place to spend a few days relaxing.
Phattalung is all but entirely off the mainstream tourist trail, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay a visit. This southern Thai province is easily reached by train from Bangkok, making for an admittedly long but nevertheless enjoyable and romantic ride, and a splendid way to arrive.
Unlike the majority of the Thai provinces that get all the tourist action, Phattalung is landlocked, without white-sand beaches with which to lure in visitors. But it does have water, in the form of Songkhla Lake (so big it boasts its own islands), and limestone karst-like mountains loom over the city to atmospheric effect. There’s also great food to be had in Phattalung, with a similar mix of Chinese and Malaysian-influenced-southern-Thai flavours as you’ll find in nearby, more well-trodden Trang (see below).
Though arguably still better known for its pristine islands like Koh Kradan, Koh Ngai and Koh Muk, Trang is home to a ridiculously photogenic provincial capital that is well worth visiting all by itself. If you’re a fan of strong coffee and fried pork (and most of us love at least one of those things, if not both!), you’ll fit right in here – throw fiery southern Thai food into the mix along with some dim sum and plenty of beautiful colonial-style Sino-Portuguese architecture, and you’ve got a combination to rave about.
Trang city is largely walkable, or else its one-of-a-kind green frog-like tuk tuks make getting around easy – and, if you’ve got wheels or fancy a minivan ride, Pak Meng Beach is a pretty stretch of sand that makes for a pleasant day trip. There’s a handful of other suitably low-key yet cultured-feeling sights to be considered in and around Trang city, while train is far and away the best way to get here – it’s a pleasant overnight ride from Bangkok, you arrive at the heart of the city and as little as a few steps from many of the best accommodation options, and you can even hop back on the train for the short ride to the line’s famous and photogenic terminus at Kantang. And once you’ve done all of that, those unbelievably tempting beaches will still be waiting for you.
These islands need no introduction. None of them are anywhere near off the tourist radar (though you’ll find quieter areas on all three islands), but they are still attractive enough to pull in countless visitors year after year.
Koh Samui has long been a big player in the tourist industry, and it’s Thailand’s third largest island after Phuket and Koh Chang. There’s everything from happening party-fuelled beaches to quieter, more local feeling spots, and a full range of accommodation options from budget-friendly to about as high-end as it gets. There’s plenty to do away from the sea, too – Samui even has its own rum distillery!
Meanwhile, Koh Pha Ngan has made its name for the heady Full Moon Party that happens every month on undeniably beautiful Had Rin Beach (beautiful, that is, except when it’s thronging with tens of thousands of revellers, or the following morning when it’s covered in the rubbish they’ve left behind). Koh Pha Ngan is a big enough island to have numerous much quieter hideaway options where the scene couldn’t be more different from Full Moon Central (in fact, the majority of the island’s interior is still entirely untouched jungle), and it’s also home to a growing number of wellness retreats. Finally, for all the bad international press it’s received, Koh Tao remains a thriving destination for divers.
Comprising vast sretches of national park ranging from tropical jungle to Halong-Bay-like limestone karsts reaching out of the glistening water of the Ratchaphrara Dam (also known as Chiew Lan lake), Surat Thani province’s Khao Sok is a magnet for adventurous, thrill-seeking travellers. Take a longtail boat across those calm waters to one of the secluded homestay-like setups of floating huts tucked away in one of the lake’s many hidden corners.
It’s possible to visit on a somewhat rushed organised day trip or one-night stay or, at greater expense yet arguably still preferably, under your own steam for a longer trip. Once here, you can feast on freshly caught fish and seafood transformed into delicious Thai dishes, laze around and soak up the sun, and enjoy the fact that few of these spots have even the most remote semblance of mobile phone or internet signal – out here, you’re on your own in the peace and quiet. Those looking for more of a buzz might take a night safari by boat, or alternatively head off trekking into the surrounding caves. More exerting still, the land-based section of Khao Sok National Park’s wide diversity of wildlife makes it a great place to head for a challenging trek.
Nakhon Si Thammarat is pretty firmly off southern Thailand’s tourist trail, but that’s not at all to say that it isn’t worth visiting – in fact, the opposite is true. Both this bustling city and indeed the wider province have plenty to offer the kind of traveller who is happy to explore a little in a somewhat less traveller-geared setting.
That includes cultural sights, natural beauty like waterfalls and mountainous jungle, and seemingly endless beaches that you’re unlikely to have to share with the kind of crowds seen at more well-known and popular holiday destinations in southern Thailand. Nakhon Si Thammarat also has a particularly strong reputation as a producer of delicious tropical fruits, and the fairly multicultural provincial capital city is as good a place as any to get a taste for Thailand’s fiery southern cuisine.
In the northern stretches of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Khanom district is home to one of the province’s better-known beaches. Nevertheless, this is still somewhere that’s a good option when it comes to hunting out a fairly serene, hassle-free beach getaway, where it’s unlikely you will need to contend with hordes of visitors. Hidden-away sandy coves abound here, and Khanom is also renowned as a place to spot the area’s pink dolphins.
The Andaman-Sea-hugging province of Phang Nga sits just north of the island of Phuket and, though it now has a thriving tourism industry, it arguably still sees far fewer visitors than Thailand’s brochure-stars like Phuket itself. Phang Nga certainly isn’t entirely untouched, but it remains at least a fairly lesser-touched destination than other spots.
Phang Nga is primarily a beachgoer’s destination, with plenty of top-range sun and sand to be enjoyed both along the Andaman coast and on the shore of Phang Nga Bay. The latter also boasts strikingly photogenic limestone karsts comparable to those in Khao Sok’s Ratchaphrapra Lake (see above) and Vietnam’s Halong Bay, as well as heavily over-touristed sights like so-called James Bond Island, more culturally rewarding spots like majority-Muslim Koh Panyee island with its famous floating football pitch, and the Similan and Surin groups of islands renowned in diving circles.
Back on the mainland, Phang Nga town, too, is worth a stopover in order to soak up its relaxed, multicultural vibe, while Khao Lak – an area in Phang Nga that actually refers to only a small number of villages, but which these days is used to market a more expansive stretch of the coastline – is an especially low-key, family-friendly and yet developed and comfortable part of the province’s beach scene.
At Expique, we’re experts at showing you the unique parts of Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand that most tours don’t take you to – and which you probably won’t discover on your own. Joining one of our tours or experiences (or having us create a custom tour for you) is a great way to make the most of your time in Thailand and ensure you leave with a memorable experience.
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Where are your favourite destinations in southern Thailand? Let us know in the comments!
Phuket photo by Nicolas Vollmer; Phang Nga photo by Phuket@photographer.net; Phattalung and Nakhon Si Thammarat photos by Will Anderson; all other photos by Chris Wotton
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