Vast swathes of Thailand remain little-visited, with most travellers opting for its tried and trusted spots. But Stuart McDonald heads off the tourist trail to discover the other side of the kingdom...
The early morning was misty, cool and fresh. Sitting on the edge of a long wooden bridge, my feet dangling over the edge, arms and head resting on its railing, I stared straight down to the waters of Lake Vajiralongkorn in the little-visited district of Sangkhlaburi.
Slowly, the prow of a sampan appeared below, hauling an emerging trove of mangoes, bananas and a full clutch of rambutan. The only sound was the splash of wood on water as an old man wearing a tattered bamboo hat materialised, paddling his rafthouse and his breakfast.
Taking time out to savour the quiet moments while travelling in Thailand is what can make a trip here so very memorable. Whether you're daydreaming above the lake in Sangkhlaburi, cycling through the 'lungs of Bangkok', tracking wild elephants in a national park or just lazing on the beach of a little-known island, the country offers plenty of opportunities for introspection and connection with not only nature but the local people.
So much of the Thai kingdom remains little-visited by mainstream tourism, and exploring these overlooked areas is a profoundly rewarding experience. On even the simplest trips to Thailand, it's easy to take the road less travelled and go somewhere you've never heard of...
Best for: Culture vultures and floating markets
Duration: 3-5 days
Bangkok is so full of traffic and noise, who would have thought you could simply putter across a river in a long tail and be delivered to a world utterly removed from its bustle?
Bang Krachao is a small conservation area formed by an oxbow in the Chao Phraya River and given over to palms, market gardens and mango plantations. It gives an insight into what Bangkok must have been like before it became, well, Bangkok. If you'd just like a taste, try a day-long bicycle tour with ABC Bangkok Cyclist (abcbiking.com). Those with more time can stay at eco-hotel Bangkok Tree House (bangkoktreehouse.com) or one of the traditional homestays in the area.
While Bang Krachao fires the imagination, Thonburi – on the western bank of the Chao Phraya – fires the senses. A community of artists is clustered around Baan Silapin, a period teak house that sits beside an even older chedi structure, dating back to the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767 AD). Inside is an artist-run café and performance zone, with exhibits, puppet shows and local acts aplenty.
The area is easily visited via canal boat and cycling day trips. To soak up the area some more, try a longer stay at the waterside Bang Luang House (bangluanghouse.com), across the canal from Baan Silapin.
Next, head to Wongwian Yai railway station and catch the local train to Samut Sakhon (one hour), then a ferry across the Tha Chin River for another train from Ban Laem Station. This tracks west, inching through the legendary Mae Khlong Market (shoppers will scatter), finishing in Samut Songkhram.
Grab a tuk-tuk or songtheaw (shared taxi) to Amphawa (16km away), which is known for its wooden housing and its traditional vibe (at least on weekdays). Fruit orchards feed into the area, and Tha Kha floating market (10km away) should also be on your hit list.
Route: Bang - Thonburi - Amphawa
Why go: To experience traditional, green Thailand up close and personal
When to go: Year-round
Best for: History, waterfalls and boat trips to a sunken village
Duration: 5-7 days
Just a couple of hours' drive west of the Thai capital is Kanchanaburi, best known for its Death Railway and Hellfire Pass. Some 15,000 Allied POWs and 90,000 Asian conscripted labourers died in constructing this infamous rail link in the Second World War. Cemeteries and museums honour their memory, and a visit to Hellfire Pass, where the line cuts through the Tenasserim Hills, is essential.
Elsewhere in the region, it's all about the outdoors. Test your legs by clambering up Erawan National Park's namesake falls or work up a sweat by kayaking the River Kwai. Alternatively, grab a bite of local life back in the city with a cookery course at Apple and Noi's (applenoikanchanaburi.com).
About 200km north-west of Kanchanaburi lies the lakeside town of Sangkhlaburi. What you see here today is relatively new, built after the site's Mon (originally a Burmese ethnic minority) town was flooded in the early 1980s, creating Vajiralongkorn Lake. Near the end of dry season (March-May), when its waters recede enough, you can take a boat to the remains of its old central temple and walk through its ruins. The roof may be gone but its Buddha niches remain in the walls, their icons replaced by shiny black mussels.
A large Mon community now lives on the far side of the water here, near the Burmese border. Cross the 400m-long wooden bridge to visit and explore Wat Wang Wiwekaram and Buddhakaya Chedi – the latter is a replica of the Mahabodhi stupa of Bodhgaya, India.
Route: Kanchanaburi - Erawan National Park - Sangkhlaburi
Why go: For cooling off in a jungle waterfall
When to go: Year-round, although April and May can be extremely hot
Best for: Mountains, waterfalls and volunteering opportunities
Duration: 6-10 days
Weather-worn Buddha statues adorned with lichen and golden sashes sit evocatively in the woods at Kamphaeng Phet, once a key defensive stronghold for the Sukhothai kingdom (1238-1438 AD). The city was flattened by marauding Burmese in the 18th century, and what remains today is mostly spread across two atmospheric, yet little-visited, historic parks.
Bag a stay at the family-run Three J Guesthouse (threejguesthouse.com), where staff can also arrange multi-day retreats on the edge of Khlong Lan National Park, with camping and chalets on hand. Here you can hike, swim in waterfall pools, learn silk weaving at a Karen village, and relax around an evening campfire.
Mae Sot's population – a legacy of its position near the Burmese border – is a heady mix of Karen, Mon and Shan minorities, as well as Thais and Westerners. It also boasts a rich and diverse market scene, while stays at the creative and socially-responsible Picturebook Guesthouse (picturebookthailand.org) can hook you up with Youth Connect (youthconnectthailand.org) for volunteering opportunities. The centrally located Borderline Café (borderlinecollective.org) also offers a cookery course, so you can learn to cook some of the fine Shan, Karen and Mon fare.
Head south from Mae Sot to Umphang, driving the 'Death Highway', so-named for traversing what was once prime opium-growing and guerrilla territory. Its 164km route ribbons along a spine of mountains that abut the western reaches of Khlong Lan National Park. And while the dangerous bandits and poppies are now long gone, the compelling views remain.
As one of the most isolated towns in Thailand, Umphang is the launching point to visit the lush jungles of Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary. Here the Thi Lor Su waterfall crashes over its 200m-high cliffs and can swell up to 400m across during rainy season. Rafting is pretty popular, where you get to cruise behind, around and directly under the falls over an exhilarating half kilometre – just be prepared for a shower.
Route: Kamphaend Phet - Mae Sot - Umphang
Why go: Ancient civilisations and the wilds of Thailand
When to go: November to March
Best for: Wildlife, trekking, Khmer ruins and food
Duration: 6-10 days
Khao Yai National Park is just a half-day's travel from Bangkok and is home to more than 40 waterfalls, 112 mammals and almost 400 bird species. Larger mammals include deer and wild Asian elephants, but while tigers are believed to inhabit the park, don't hold your breath. There are a number of campsites and bungalows, though, as well as accommodation outside its bounds. Visit independently or opt for private tours with Ms Nang at Thailand Your Way (thailandyourway.com) or trips with perennial backpacker favourite Greenleaf (greenleaftour.com).
Continue east and make your way to Nang Rong, where you can ascend an extinct 402m volcano to visit the best preserved and most spectacular set of Khmer ruins in Thailand, Prasat Phanom Rung. This temple complex (similar in style to Cambodia's Angkor Wat) was built between the 10th and 12th centuries, when the site formed a part of the greater Khmer Empire. It was created to honour the Hindu god Shiva, and some of its lintels and carvings are more than 1,000 years old.
Move on to Buriram and catch the eastbound train (3.5 hours) to Ubon Ratchathani, bordering Laos and Cambodia. The Royal Lotus City, as it's known, has long been something of a cultural melting pot, and you're as likely to hear the Lao dialect spoken here as Thai.
The city is famous for its spicy salads and has some impressive cuisine – be sure to try the kuay chab yuan, a Vietnamese-inspired pork-based soup. As a seat of Buddhist learning, it also has several interesting downtown temples, though it pays to venture outside town to Wat Nong Pah Pong and Wat Pah Nanachat, too. These fascinating forest temples are primarily known as meditation retreats, but the serenity of their grounds is unmatched.
Route: Khao Yai - Phanom Rung - Ubon Ratchathani
Why go: Trek through the jungle in the footsteps of wild elephants
When to go: Year-round, but June to October (wet season) is best for Khao Yai, with cooler hiking.
Best for: Beaches, culture and birdwatching
Duration: 6-8 days
Sit on the sands of Khanom and Sichon on Thailand's mainland and watch the ferries chug back and forth with their cargo of tourists to the more popular islands in the Gulf. While you'll not find the crystalline waters of those picturebook islands here, you will discover a sedate scene with lashings of peace and quiet. Come on weekdays and you will likely be the only foreigner on the beaches, which stretch for 50km or so. Stick around longer and just a few days of exploration can deliver you to some wild waterfalls and splendid viewpoints.
Head south to the little-visited provincial capital of Nakhon Si Thammarat, where you can fill a day taking a cultural walk along the downtown section of Rajdamnern Road. The route takes you by old wooden houses and historic buildings, with one highlight being Suchart Subsin's House of Shadow Puppetry, home to one of the country's largest collections of shadow puppets.
Nakhon Si Thammarat is also famous for its khanom jeen – fresh rice noodles served with Southern Thai curry, a spread of fresh and pickled vegetables, and an egg (or two). Try it on the street or at dedicated small restaurants, such as the accomplished Khanom Jeen Mae Add, near Wat Mahathat.
Just 25km west of Nakhon Si Thammarat, at the foot of Khao Luang mountain (1,835m), lies Baan Khiri Wong. This eco-friendly market garden area has blossomed into one of Southern Thailand's best examples of community-based tourism. The best way to experience the area is at a village homestay, and those with time on their hands can engage a local guide for the three-day trek to the summit of Khao Luang. If you're pressed for time, hire an inflatable tube for the day and hit the waters of the nearby rivers, fed by the surrounding waterfalls.
Route: Khanom - Sichon - Nakhon Si Thammarat - Baan Khiri Wong
Why go: Experience some Thai-style homestay hospitality
When to go: Year-round, but November to March – after the monsoons end – is best
Best for: Beaches, diving and snorkelling, and lots of hiking
Duration: 8-14 days
The island of Ko Libong is reached from the mainland by boats leaving from Hat Yao pier, but it isn't an obvious destination. While the fine tan sands of its Haad Lang Kao beach are none too shabby, nor are they the best on the Andaman coast. But the real lure of this little-visited isle isn't what lies above the high watermark – it's what lives below it.
Over 100 dugongs feed on the seagrasses stretching out from the island's east-coast mangroves, a part of the Libong Archipelago Wildlife Reserve. To see them, bag a dugong-spotting trip with the LifeLong Learning Foundation (lifelong-learning.org), which uses peaceful kayaks rather than noisy longtails, which can disturb the creatures. At night, skip the popular beach bungalows for east-coast village Batu Bute, where homestays afford the chance to experience traditional life in a Muslim fishing community.
Boats to Ko Bulon Lae go from the pier at Pak Bara, back on the mainland. The majority will likely be going to the more popular Ko Lipe, though, which is rather the appeal of this remote escape, slightly north of the main ferry run. In fact, it is an anomaly as far as Thai islands go, having become a model for sustainable tourism in the area, with solar panels providing clean power to the gaggle of locally owned resorts that scatter its bays and hinterlands. These are often simply furnished, with most only flicking on power in the evening, but wandering the lonely shores is a serene experience, and it's worth a visit to see another side of Thailand.
For many, Ko Tarutao is little more than a pause on the ferry to Ko Lipe, yet its history is truly fascinating. Once a home to political prisoners, including the son of a Thai king, its residents later turned to piracy after food supplies stopped. Today, little remains of their former pirate lair save for some cell barracks, but the Ao Talo Wao historical trail, which runs halfway down the island (set aside a day for it), delivers a curious insight into the island's story, with camping also allowed on several of the beaches here.
Route: Ko Libong - Ko Bulon Lae - Ko Tarutao
Why go: Indulge your inner Robinson Crusoe
When to go: November to March