Travel blueprint: alternative Thailand

Yes, the water is shimmering turquoise, the food toothsome and travel cheap – but there’s so much more to South-East Asia’s most popular country

5 mins

Thailand’s many charms are well documented. Eleven million visitors a year lounge on dazzling beaches, admire glittering temples, shop for designer bargains and consume chilli-hot curries. A nationwide can-do attitude makes things easy, and the backpacker scene is the liveliest in South-East Asia.

On top of this, accommodation is a snip, the transport infrastructure works well and someone nearly always speaks English.

But that’s just a fraction of the picture. Thailand is a big country – roughly the size of France – with plenty of enticing destinations in between the hotspots: villages that are used to guests but not in thrall to them; national parks where most other visitors are Thai; beaches where livelihoods revolve around squid fishing and boat building.

Unlike its neighbours, Thailand has never been colonised; despite tourism, its cultural integrity still endures. Some 90% of the population are Theravada Buddhists and this unifying faith colours daily life, from tiered temple rooftops on every skyline to the omnipresent, saffron-robed monks. Though tourism is hugely important, 40% of Thais still earn their living from the land or the sea.

Away from Thailand’s cultural big hitters in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, less-visited regions are studded with pearls. The gracefully proportioned statues and stupas of Sukhothai are considered by many to be the acme of Thai religious art. The stone temple complexes in Isan, left by the builders of Angkor, are quite simply magnificent, while Phetchaburi’s old quarter, with its wooden shophouses and countless historic temples, has a more low-key charm.

Veering off the major routes gives a taste of Thailand’s varied landscapes, from the misty hills of the green north-west to the jungles of Um Phang, home to wild elephants and Karen hilltribes. The serene curves of the Mekong River, along Thailand’s north-eastern border, are a pleasure to boat along, while the cultivated lushness of the central plains around Amphawa offer a different glimpse of rural life. Are Thailand’s islands the most beautiful in the world? The sparkling national park archipelagos of Ko Surin and Ko Tarutao make a sturdy case.

And it’s all so easy to explore. Wherever you pitch up you’ll find boats, buses, bicycle rental and tour operators ready to help you. Just consult the unthumbed sections of the guidebook to design the perfect route.

West by north-west

Ancient capitals, Burmese borderlands and a scenic 600km loop through misty valleys

Duration: one to two weeks

Sukhothai – Si Satchanalai – Kamphaeng Phet – Mae Sot – Um Phang – Mae Sot – Mae Sariang – Mae Hong Son – Soppong – Pai – Chiang Mai

A remote trek near the Burmese border is the focus of this itinerary, but the journey begins more sedately in Sukhothai, one of Thailand’s ancient capitals. The route works well as an excursion from the northern hub of Chiang Mai, and can be extended to include the famous Mae Hong Son loop, which returns you to Chiang Mai the long way round.

Thailand’s first capital makes for a civilised start. The elegant lotus-bud stupas and sinuous Buddhas of Sukhothai’s 13th-century temples are conserved within a historical park and enjoyably explored by bicycle. A well-presented museum puts it all in context, and inviting guesthouses in new Sukhothai, 12km away, make a good base for day trips to other atmospheric ruined cities at Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet.

West of Sukhothai, ethnically mixed Mae Sot accommodates many more NGOs than tourists because of the influx of refugees from Burma, just 6km away. There is some opportunity for short-term voluntary work here, but for most tourists it’s simply a pit stop on the way to Um Phang, an isolated village at the end of the dramatically twisty ‘Sky Highway’, four hours and 1,219 bends away.

From Um Phang local Karen guides lead you off into the montane forest of Um Phang Wildlife Sanctuary, on hearty treks that last three to seven days and usually include the impressive Tee Lor Su Falls, likely sightings of monkeys, hornbills and myriad orchids, plus bamboo rafting and elephant riding; nights are spent under canvas and in Karen hilltribe villages.

Um Phang is a dead end, so it’s back to Mae Sot for buses to Chiang Mai and Bangkok, or you can divert instead to Mae Sariang, with its river trips and easy treks. This puts you on the so-called Mae Hong Song Loop, a well-travelled 600km route that runs west and north of Chiang Mai through cool green hills and prettily situated towns.

Mae Hong Song itself is surrounded by misty peaks, but is busy with hotels and trekking businesses. Next up is Soppong, with its famous Tham Lot cave and subterranean river, and then Pai, a laid-back travellers’ town just four hours north of Chiang Mai.

North-eastern highlights

Lar gibbons and great hornbills, 900-year-old Khmer ruins, Isan cuisine and the mighty Mekong River

Duration: two weeks

Khao Yai National Park – Phimai – Phanom Rung & Muang Tam – Khon Kaen –Chiang Khan – Pak Chom – Sangkhom – Nong Khai

Bordered by Laos and Cambodia on three sides, north-east Thailand – the region known as Isan – is the least-visited and poorest part of the country. The food, language and silk weavings up here are more Lao than Thai, while the Khmers’ great legacies are the Angkor-style temple complexes that dot southern Isan.

Just three hours out of Bangkok, Khao Yai is one of Thailand’s most popular national parks, a cool upland retreat of forest and savannah where city folk can splash in the waterfalls and follow undemanding trails in search of white-handed gibbons, great hornbills and wild elephants.

Moving on from Khao Yai means changing buses in unappealing Khorat. Instead of overnighting in the city, head for Phimai, a small town at whose centre stands a pretty, dusky-pink 12th-century Khmer temple. Other nearby Khmer ruins, at Phanom Rung and Muang Tam, are out in the sticks and best visited on a day trip. Phanom Rung is especially imposing, dramatically sited on a hilltop and covered in exquisite carvings.

Large, lively Khon Kaen is a university town that lacks sights but has useful transport links and is a good place to buy Isan silk and cotton. It’s at least five hours by bus from here to the Mekong River town of Chiang Khan, but once you’ve seen the broad, placid river – South-East Asia’s most important waterway and, at 4,184km from source to mouth, the third-longest in Asia – you’ll be hooked. Guesthouses can arrange boat trips along the river, including the lovely six-hour meander down to Pak Chom, via islets, gentle rapids and waterside gardens framed by cliffs and receding hills. East of Pak Chom, the hammocks at Bouy Guest House in Sangkhom afford hours of river-gazing entertainment, while nearby villages and temples make ideal cycling destinations.

Journey’s end is Nong Khai, where you can either cross the bridge over the Mekong into Laos and on to Vientiane, just 24km away, or take the overnight train south to Bangkok. Before you leave, be sure to visit nearby Wat Phu Tok, where a sheer sandstone outcrop has been precariously transformed into a clifftop meditation temple.

From Bangkok to the beach

Floating markets, rural village life, flapping-fresh seafood, temple murals, beach escapes and birdspotting

Duration: one week

Bangkok – Samut Songkhram – Amphawa – Phetchaburi – Pak Nam Pran – Khao Sam Roi Yot NP

This brief but rewarding break from the capital involves minimal travelling but takes you to areas that are off the radar for most foreign tourists. It can also incorporate a stay at the mainstream beach resort of Hua Hin.

The journey begins with Thailand’s most atmospheric train ride, from Bangkok to Samut Songkhram. Entirely on a single track that slices its way through palm groves and mangrove swamps, the line literally squeezes between market stalls and, three hours later, deposits you beside the Mae Khlong River. The river and its network of 300 canals is key to life in this estuarine province, best appreciated from Baan Tai Had hotel in Amphawa. From here you can hire a boat, kayak or bicycle to investigate the genuinely local floating markets, bencharong (five-coloured) ceramic workshops and fresh-as-it-comes seafood stalls. At night the canalside trees twinkle with fireflies.

Heading south, the historic town of Phetchaburi is well worth a stop. King Rama IV liked the place so much he built a palace on the hill of Khao Wang here in the 1850s. The palace is open to all, but the town’s 30-odd temples are more alluring, particularly the still-functioning 17th-century Wat Yai Suwannaram, with its elaborately carved doors and charming murals.

The main tourist resort in these parts is Hua Hin, but sophisticated Bangkokians prefer Pak Nam Pran, 33km further south, a far less commercial beach known for its idiosyncratic accommodation. Cosy boho is the prevailing style, with Aleenta and Huaplee Lazy Beach particularly good choices, and the vibe is all hammocks and long lunches – very Thai. As along much of the Gulf coast, the long, sandy beach is not exceptional, but it is nearly always empty, and dolphins sometimes play close to shore.

Trails, cave temples and boat trips are all good reasons to explore the mudflats and limestone crags of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, ‘the Mountain with Three Hundred Peaks’. But the park’s main draw is its birds: between September and November, 300 species migrate here from Siberia, China and northern Europe, and purple herons breed in the freshwater wetlands.

Andaman Coast alternatives

Community homestay programme and less-visited island gems – dive among dugong, turtles and whales

Duration: one to three weeks

Khuraburi – Ko Surin NP – Ko Yao Noi – Ko Jum – Ko Tarutao NP

The Andaman Coast is Thailand’s most jaw-droppingly beautiful region. Its azure waters, squeaky white beaches and dramatic limestone crags host thousands of appreciative visitors every year, most of them around Phuket, Krabi and Ko Phi Phi. But venture a little further and you’ll find plenty of less-developed island alternatives. Airports at Ranong, Phuket, Krabi and Trang make access from Bangkok straightforward, but during the rainy season (May-October) many ferry services are scaled down or suspended.

Begin near Khuraburi with the award-winning Andaman Discoveries community tourism programme, set up to aid post-tsunami recovery. Village guides host you in their homes and organise tours that might feature fishing, boating through mangrove swamps, cooking, snorkelling, rainforest hikes or handicraft workshops. Khuraburi is also the departure point for boats to the magnificent Ko Surin National Park, whose two main islands are encircled by tantalisingly shallow reefs. The islands’ only residents are Moken sea gypsies, and visitor accommodation is in beachfront tents.

Surrounded by wonderfully weird limestone pinnacles, the small Muslim island of Ko Yao Noi lies in the centre of scenic Phang Nga bay, midway between Phuket and Krabi. It offers opportunities to kayak, snorkel and rock climb, but the special pleasure here is cycling into the interior and happening upon the hamlets, mosques, rice fields and forests of this most slow-paced of islands.

Ko Jum is another supremely laid-back island, with just a trio of tiny towns, barely perceptible commercialism and a string of long, occasionally wild beaches. Nightlife on Long Beach centres around a couple of driftwood beach-shacks – anyone wanting a livelier scene heads to big-sister resort island Ko Lanta, a 45-minute ferry ride away.

The 51 islands of the Ko Tarutao archipelago are such forest-filled, sand-fringed, reef-encircled beauties that they’re protected as national park. Residents include langurs, macaques, mouse deer, hornbills, dugong, turtles and sperm whales. There’s visitor accommodation on the three main islands – long, green, mountainous Ko Tarutao; quiet, rugged little Ko Adang; and the backpackers’ favourite, tiny Ko Lipe – from where it’s easy to arrange diving, boating, kayaking and hiking excursions.

Chao ley: people of the sea

Sometimes called sea gypsies, the chao ley (‘people of the sea’) have been sailing the Andaman waters off Thailand, Burma and Malaysia for hundreds of years. Some still pursue a nomadic existence in houseboats, but many have permanent huts on Thailand’s quieter beaches, including on Ko Surin, Ko Jum and Ko Lipe, as well as on Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta.

Of the different chao ley groups, the Urak Lawoy are the most integrated into Thai society and the Moken the most traditional. They are all animists; on Ko Surin Tai they will often set up totem poles on the beach as a contact point between the spirits, their ancestors and their shaman. Many still dive for pearls and seashells, attaching stones to their waists to reach depths of 60m with only an air-hose connecting them to the surface; sometimes they fish in this way, walking along the seabed with enormous nets.

Thai homestays

Homestays range from a billet in a rudimentary hilltribe hut to a middle-class home in a quiet Bangkok suburb. Common to all is the pleasure of seeing a side of life that’s rarely apparent on the mainstream trail. It’s also a positive way of involving communities that don’t normally benefit from tourism.

Companies organising homestay-based holidays in Thailand include: Responsible Ecological Social Tours (REST), Andaman Discoveries and Lisu Hill Tribe Homestay.

Bangkok: capital ideas

Over the past decade Bangkok has transformed itself into South-East Asia’s most fashionable and exciting city, stacked full of chic restaurants and idiosyncratic places to stay.

Despite the 21st-century modishness, much of Bangkok’s appeal comes from the old ways of life that persist around the ankles of the glitzy skyscrapers. Take a bicycle tour through the city’s traditional canalside neighbourhoods (ABC or Amazing Bangkok Cyclist tours), where stilted wooden houses still dominate. Alternatively, take to the water: the Chao Phraya Express ferry is the scenic way to cover longer distances, or ride the commuters’ longtail boat shuttle downtown along Khlong Saen Saeb canal.

Though many visitors stay in a hotel overlooking the Chao Phraya River or around the
Khao San Road backpacker ghetto, less-touristed neighbourhoods offer interesting alternatives. In the chaos of Chinatown, you can stay among the gold shops and temples at the stylishly Sino - Thai Shanghai Inn; in Thonburi, on the northern, residential bank of the Chao Phraya, sits the tiny, three-roomed Ibrik Resort by the River; while Old Bangkok Inn is a calm, elegant B&B among local businesses south-east of Khao San.

Getting Started

Visas: UK nationals don’t require visas for stays of up to 30 days. You do need a tourist visa for a longer trip of up to 60 days; these cost £28 and are issued in two working days. For full details contact the Royal Thai Embassy.

When to go: November to February sees the coolest, driest weather; December and January are peak season, with airfares and room prices at their highest. Heavy rain and rough seas render some Andaman Coast islands inaccessible from May to November and trekking isn’t much fun then, either.

Getting there: British Airways, Qantas, Thai Airways International and Etihad Airways all fly direct non-stop from London to Bangkok in about 11.5 hours. Return fares start from around £500 depending on the season. Indirect flights are available with several other airlines, and are usually cheaper.

Getting Around: The main domestic airlines all do e-ticketing: Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Air Asia and Nok Air. For train timetables see Inter-town buses are also a convenient way to get around. Longtail boats will ferry you between islands.

Cost of travel: You could scrape by on £10 a day if you sleep in guesthouses and eat, drink and travel as locals do. More upscale accommodation will cost from around £20 for a standard air-conditioned double, £50 in a boutique hotel, or £100 for five-star luxury. A good local meal won’t cost more than a couple of pounds, while the poshest restaurants rarely charge over £15.

Health & safety: Visit your GP or a travel-health professional to check requirements for vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis. For most regions of Thailand, anti-malarial tablets are not usually recommended; however, malaria is a significant risk along the forested borders with Burma, Laos and Cambodia so check your itinerary. Far southern Thailand continues to be plagued by sectarian violence so the FCO advises against all non-essential travel to or through the border provinces of Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

Lucy Ridout is co-author of The Rough Guide to Thailand. She can often be found lurching round Thailand’s tiniest islands on a bicycle

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