By Teresa Manring
Thailand makes it to many peoples’ lists of the most exotic, beautiful and diverse holiday destinations in the world. Mouth-watering food, the legendary ‘Thai smile,’ pristine beaches, unspoiled mountains and a big, busy city; Thailand truly seems to offer it all - and tourist numbers show it. In a country that welcomed more than 25 million travelers in 2013 (almost half of its population), it almost seems like it would be hard to find a quiet spot that’s not packed with other travellers. Fortunately, there are still some hidden gems left to discover in Thailand. The following seven hidden gems offer an authentic experience of Thailand’s natural beauty and ancient, diverse culture.
1. Koh Lanta
Koh Lanta has been making the ‘Up and Coming’ Thai island lists for years, but luckily, travellers still haven’t swarmed its shores and overwhelmed its laid-back, undiscovered vibe. Lanta offers all of the natural beauty and diving options of nearby Phi-Phi Island, while remaining far more calm, authentic, and accessible to all budgets. Much of the island is also somewhat flat compared to many other Thai islands, making it possible to explore by bike or motorbike. Although Koh Lanta is pretty well known on the travel circuit now, one can still find remote and empty beaches in the southwest of the island. For a worthwhile cultural experience, drive through the lush green interior of the island and pay the east coast of Lanta a visit. It’s a quiet and peaceful area with a few small communities of simple bamboo huts located nearby the historic Old Town; a village of teak stilt houses built on the edge of the sea.
Known for its mountains and natural beauty, Lampang locals will say that their home province is the only paradise left in Thailand, and travellers who make it up here will wholeheartedly agree. The national parks, including Chae Son National Park, where hikers can swim at the base of waterfalls or take a dip in the hot springs, are highlights of this northern province. The city of Lampang itself is pleasant as well—see it through a horse and carriage tour with a Lampang tour guide, as it’s the only city in Thailand that still uses this sort of transportation. If there’s time, visit the nearby Elephant Sanctuary, which is known for taking better care of its elephants than most in Thailand.
The country’s capital from the 13th-14th century, the period of Thailand’s Golden Age, the ruins of Sukhothai offer a magnificent view of Thailand's history. Around 45 sq km of partially re-constructed ruins compose Sukhothai Historical Park, which showcase the remains of the kingdom. Although Sukhothai is popular with tourists, the park is so expansive that it’s easy to find a solitary ruin to explore and take in. To get off the beaten track, take a day trip with a Sukhothai tour guide up to Si Satchanalai, a medieval city located north of Sukhothai, thought to have been built as an extension of the capital. Though not as well preserved as its predecessor, not as many people make the journey up to Si Satchanalai, so travellers who do can spend the day wandering through ruins in peace.
4. Koh Mak
Koh Mak, a small and still virtually unknown paradise sits on the far eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, close to Cambodia. Lucky for travellers, Koh Mak will most likely be able to keep its paradise status, as the owners of the island are determined not to let too many hotels and nightlife spots enter the island and spoil its natural beauty. Although very undeveloped, there are still plenty of things to do on Koh Mak. The island’s stunningly clear turquoise waters and location within the National Marine Park means that some of the best diving in the country can be found here. Windsurfing, kayaking and day trips to nearby islands are all readily available. For something different, spend an afternoon visiting the local museum, which displays a quirky collection of local antiques.
5. Chiang Rai
Most travellers looking to experience a northern Thai city head straight to more-visited cities of Chiang Mai or Pai, skipping Chiang Rai altogether. And the few travellers who do make it to Chiang Rai, often come for the nearby trekking, but Chiang Rai itself is a great place to visit for those searching for the small town charm sorely lacking in other Thai cities. Whether travellers want to take a trip down the Mae Kok River to see the local scenery, relax on the banks of the river at “Chiang Rai Beach,” hike in the nearby hills, or simply enjoy what the delightful town itself has to offer, there’s something for everyone in this little Thai city. Take some time to visit Wat Rong Khun, also called ‘The White Temple,’ a contemporary and unconventional Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai.
Perched in Thailand’s upper-most northwestern corner, Nan is the province to visit for those looking for a more unique and authentic trekking experience than the ones available near Chiang Mai. Taking a trip with a local Nan tour guide to see some of the area’s tribal communities, including the Hmong, N’tin, and Khamu, cannot be missed, as some of these communities only live in Nan. Or, more adventurous travellers can hop on a motorbike and explore the region’s numerous caves, waterfalls, and trails on their own. Other must sees in the province include the beautiful Thai Sakura (Cherry Blossom) trees in Phu Kha National Park, which bloom during January and February, the unusual Sao Din Earth Pillars—an ancient and unique geological formation, and the view of the charming city of Nan from the top of Wat Phra That.
Khanom is an ideal place for those looking for a quiet holiday by the beach away from the tourist masses. Located on the shore of mainland southern Thailand, Khanom has a more local feel than many of the nearby islands. While the best food and accomodation can be found at Hat Nai Phlao beach, the most beautiful beach in the area is Ao Thang Yi beach, where anyone who contacts the owner first can camp. Travellers can keep busy in Khanom with yoga and tai chi classes, or take day trips to the nearby southern cities of Nakhon Si Thammarat and Surat Thani. Plan to take a day and visit Khao Wang Thong, one of the most incredible caves in the province. After obtaining the key from the cave’s keeper, enjoy exploring, crawling, and climbing through the cave’s large and small chambers. Lastly, if visiting Khanom between March and September, take a tour to see the wonderful and rare pink dolphins that the district is well known for among locals.
(Teresa Manring is a yoga teacher and writer from the US, currently calling Sri Lanka home.)
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/aDbWSW (Roger Wollstadt, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/jBmxfC (Rushen, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/dKzSLt (Seba Della y Sole Bossio, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/9jS4cC (Mike Behnken, CC BY-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/cd43of (neajjean, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/dFTiSN (Qsimple, Memories For Th…, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/nK23Ev (Lode Engelen - ลุงฝรั่ง,x CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/5DhhyD (chem7, CC BY 2.0)