Touring Beyond Thailand’s Big Cities
Touring Beyond Thailand’s Big Cities
Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand is the perfect starting or transit point for your journey to the region. Its big cities – Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket – have modern infrastructure, and plenty of accommodation and transport options for international travellers, whether travelling for business or leisure. There are frequent international and domestic flights from their airports and many regional cruise ships call into ports near Bangkok, and in Phuket. But there is so much more to explore beyond these big cities. With its rich history, diverse culture and traditions, good value accommodation and activities in a warm climate, visitors to Thailand will find an endless selection of places to see and things to do.
Central Region – Beyond Bangkok
Thailand’s capital Bangkok is ranked the World’s Most Visited City by international overnight visitor arrivals in 2016, according to the sixth annual MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index released in September 2016. The Index forecasts that Bangkok is set to receive 21.5 million international overnight visitors in 2016, a strong growth from 15.8 million in 2012. It projects that of these international overnight visitors, 85% travel for leisure and 15% for business, with peak numbers in January and April. Bangkok is also projected to be the top-ranked city in the AsiaPacific in terms of spending. From Bangkok, visitors can easily travel to destinations including Ayutthaya, Kanchanaburi, Amphawa, Hua Hin, Khao Yai, whether for one day or a few.
Ayutthaya was Thailand’s capital before Bangkok. It is easily reached by car in just over an hour or by train in an hour and a half making it the perfect destination for Bangkok’s visitors who are short on time. Visitors who have a little more time can travel by boat or an old rice barge along Chao Phraya River – a pleasant half day trip. Along the way, they can enjoy the scenery of the countryside, and watch the local way of life along the river banks. Some tours also stop at attractions along the way such as the island villages of Ko Kret in Nonthaburi.
Examples of the operators offering a cruise between Bangkok and Ayutthaya include: – A day trip from Bangkok to Ayutthaya by Chao Phraya Express Boat www.chaophrayaexpressboat.com/en – A day trip from Bangkok to Ayutthaya by River Sun Cruise www.riversuncruise.co.th – An overnight trip on an old rice barge by Mekhala www.mekhala.com/mekhala-chartered-cruises/?lang=en Ayutthaya Historical Park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a visit is said to be like travelling back in time. There are several ancient temples and ruins around Ayutthaya, the highlights being Wat Mahathat, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, Wat Chai Wattanaram, and Wat Phra Si Sanphet. The best way to travel around these sites is by bike or car.
Bangpa-In Summer Palace is another attraction visitors should not miss. The compound features vast gardens and several impressive buildings in very different architectural styles, some in classical Thai, some Chinese and some European. Ayutthaya Elephant Kraal is also located near the Historical Park. There visitors can learn all about the elephants and every detail of how they have played a major role in Thai history and the country’s development. Tips: Visitors to Ayutthaya are requested to dress appropriately i.e. no shorts or mini-skirts, and no see-through costumes or sleeveless tops. As these attractions are all outdoor, it is highly recommended that visitors bring a hat, an umbrella and wear sunblock. http://www.bangkokbeyond.com/en/bangkok-sightseeing-tours/day-tours-frombangkok/ayutthaya-day-tour-temple-ruins-buddha-in-tree-bang-pa-in/
2.Amphawa in Samut Songkhram
Being just an hour and a half drive from Bangkok, Amphawa is another option for visitors who are short on time, with many tour operators offering it as a day trip. More adventurous travellers might like to take the train and stop at the unique Mae Klong Railway Market (AKA Rom Hub Market). Unlike anywhere else, this market is located on the tracks of an active railway line. Oncoming trains sound their horns to warn the vendors of their approach. The vendors then quickly
fold away their stands and umbrellas and clear the tracks. Once the train has passed, they set everything back up again.
Amphawa is home to two famous floating markets being Amphawa Floating Market and Tha Kha Floating Market. The former is bigger and has more tourists, whereas the latter, though much smaller, is more authentic. Visitors who stay overnight can take a cruise on a paddle boat to see fireflies along the banks of the canals. Accommodation options here range from luxury, to eco resort, to home stay.
Kanchanaburi is located to the west of Bangkok, just a two and a half hour drive away. Several tourist attractions here feature WWII history including the River Kwai Bridge, the Death Railway, Hellfire Pass and three war cemeteries, with Don Rak War Cemetery being the biggest. Every year on April 25th (ANZAC Day), there is a Dawn Service held at Hellfire Pass and a Wreath Laying Service held at Don Rak Cemetery with former POWs from Allied nations, representatives of several foreign embassies and foreign visitors attending.
Besides WWII related sites, Kanchanaburi has several national parks with beautiful jungles, waterfalls and caves. The impressive seven-tiered Erawan Waterfall is one of Thailand’s most beautiful and is located in the Erawan National Park. Other impressive waterfalls include Sai Yok Yai and Sai Yok Noi, where visitors can enjoy trekking, swimming and camping.
Sangkhlaburi district, which lies close to the border between Thailand and Myanmar, has much to offer in terms of culture, activities and landscapes. It is home to the Mon Village, the Mon Bridge and the Underwater Temple. The Underwater Temple was originally Wat Wang Wiwekaram Temple, but was submerged when the dam was constructed. During March to May, the water usually recedes sufficiently for the whole temple to be seen. At other times, only the top half is visible and visitors can access the site by boat. The Mon Bridge is the longest man-made wooden bridge in Thailand. It is a good viewpoint from which to watch the sunrise and the way of life of the Thai and Mon people, especially early in the morning when the villagers are offering food to the monks.
Many tour operators in Bangkok offer tours to Kanchanaburi, but most only go to the WWII related attractions, and do not include Sangkhlaburi. Visitors who have the time should take the special train from Bangkok Noi Station to Kanchanaburi, as part of the train trip goes on the Death Railway. More information at www.railway.co.th/home/Default.aspx?ID=&lang=EN. Travellers taking the unique and luxury train ride on the Eastern & Oriental Express, which travels between Bangkok and Singapore, can also stop off in Kanchanaburi. See www.belmond.com/eastern-and-oriental-express for details.
4.Hua Hin in Prachuab Khirikhan
Hua Hin is a seaside resort in the Gulf of Thailand, less than three hours’ drive southwest of Bangkok. Once a quiet fishing village, it has become a popular holiday destination for residents of Bangkok after the Thai royal family built the summer palace there. It is a perfect holiday destination for all types of travellers. Accommodation options range from simple to high-end luxury resorts. It is home to several world class golf courses, wellness resorts, modern waterparks, shopping and outlet malls, and night markets. Hua Hin Beach is perfect for water sports such as swimming, jet skiing and kite surfing, though alternatives include horse riding, having a massage on the beach, or simply sun bathing.
There are a few interesting markets in Hua Hin including Hua Hin Night Market, Cicada Art Market and Plearn Wan Vintage Market.
With very well connected highways, travellers can easily drive to Hua Hin from Bangkok in under three hours. Other options include taking a bus or hiring a private shuttle, and the train is another popular alternative. It takes just over four hours and passengers arrive at an old and classy Hua Hin train station right in the centre of town. www.railway.co.th/home/Default.aspx?ID=&lang=EN From January 2017, travellers will be able to travel between Hua Hin and Pattaya by sea ferry across the Gulf of Thailand. The drive between the two resort towns currently takes six hours, but the ferry will shorten the travel time to less than two.
4.Khao Yai in Nakhon Ratchasima
Khao Yai is home to Thailand’s first and biggest national park which also houses vineyards, farms and world class golf courses. Its accommodation options range from simple camping sites to luxury glamping resorts. As Thailand’s first national park, the Khao Yai National Park, with its abundance of flora and fauna, has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are about 50 trekking routes throughout the park, several big and small waterfalls, deer, elephants, tigers, gaur, gibbon, langur, macaque, rabbits and more than 340 species of birds. The park is also a popular location for mountain biking.
More information at www.dnp.go.th or email email@example.com There are several organic vegetable and dairy farms as well as vineyards in this area. GranMonte and PB Valley not only produce excellent quality wines and have restaurants serving international cuisines, but also offer private tours to visitors. More information at www.granmonte.com and www.khaoyaiwinery.com. Farm Chokchai is a livestock farm that has numerous fun-filled activities for the whole family to enjoy, from watching a cowboy show, to visiting a mini zoo, touring the farm on a tractor, making ice cream, or simply enjoying delicious food at Chokchai Steakhouse. More information at www.farmchokchai.com. Another recommended farm is the Jim Thompson Farm, which only welcomes visitors in December and January. Visitors can take a farm tour to see the full life cycle of silkworms up close, and observe the silk weaving process. They can try milling rice using antique hand-operated wooden rice grinders, and in the Northeastern Village see houses and a way of life typical of the people of the Northeast of Thailand. They can also shop at the Jim Thompson Market where a large selection of fresh organic fruit and vegetables, farm-made snacks and Thai silk products are on sale. More information at www.jimthompsonfarm.com. The most convenient way to get from Bangkok to Khao Yai is by car, as the public transport (bus and train) only stops in Pak Chong.
The South – Beyond Phuket
The South of Thailand extends southward along a narrow peninsular lying between the Andaman Sea, to the west, and the Gulf of Thailand, to the east. The west coast has rugged and strange limestone rock formations, alternating between cliffs and sandy beaches whereas the Gulf of Thailand has wide bays and calmer seas. The region is rich in natural resources both on land and in the water. Thailand’s biggest island, Phuket, is the most popular beach destination in Thailand with a large airport with frequent international, as well as domestic in-bound flights. From Australia, Jetstar operates direct flights to Phuket from Melbourne and Sydney. Many regional cruise ships also stop there. Alternate destinations not far from Phuket include Ko Lanta in Krabi, Khaolak in Phang-Nga, Khao Sok in Surat Thani and Trang Islands in Trang.
1.Ko Lanta in Krabi
While Krabi is home to the world’s famous Ko Phi Phi and the rock climbing haven Railay Beach, Ko Lanta on the other hand is not very well known. Ko Lanta is popular with tourists seeking a holiday away from the crowds. It comprises the two main islands of Ko Lanta Yai and Ko Lanta Noi, and several small islands all within Krabi province, with Ko Lanta Yai being the most developed.
Most of Ko Lanta’s attractions and accommodations are on the west coast of the island, and the southern end is largely national park. The island is hilly with mangroves and coral rimmed beaches. The majority of the population are Thai-Chinese and Thai-Muslim. Ko Lanta is accessible from the mainland by car or passenger ferry. The passenger ferry from Krabi is the most popular option but only operates during November to April. In the off season and after the last passenger ferry has left, the only way to get to the island is to drive, (it’s 80 km south from Krabi) and cross via the car ferry. The easiest way to get from Phuket to Ko Lanta is take a ferry directly from Phuket’s Rassada Pier. Alternately, travellers can get to Ko Lanta by car to Krabi, then speedboat (usually the fastest way), or by car then car ferry (but this can be very slow, depending on the ferry waiting time). Useful websites: www.lanta-islands.com and www.kolanta.net/phuket-to-ko-lanta
2.Khaolak in Phang-Nga
Khaolak in Phang-Nga province is located just 82 km (or a 1½ hour drive) north of Phuket Airport. That’s a 100 km (or a 2 hour drive) from Phuket town. It is ideal for travellers looking for a tranquil beach destination, though there are plenty of activities on both land and water. Visitors can take a boat to scuba dive or snorkel in Mu Ko Similans or take a sightseeing cruise around Ko Phra Thong. There are hiking opportunities in Khao Lak Laem Ru National Park and nearby in Si Phang Nga and Thai Muang National Parks.
Takua Pa is the main town, about 30 km or 40 minute drive north of Khao Lak. It’s not a busy town, and both sides of the main road are dotted with old buildings in the Sino-Portuguese architecture, Chinese shrines and tea houses. Useful websites: http://khaolaktourism.com/ and http://khaolak.com/
3.Khao Sok in Surat Thani
Khao Sok, north-east of Khaolak, in Surat Thani province is a nature reserve in southern Thailand featuring rainforest jungle, limestone karst formations and the man-made Cheow Lan Lake and Rajjaprabha Dam. It is home to many rare species including great hornbills, gibbons, wild elephants, gaurs, clouded leopards and tigers. There are many ways to explore the park and lake including hiking, rafting, canoeing and kayaking.
Although it is possible to visit Khao Sok on a day trip from Phuket, staying overnight is highly recommended, as this entails a stay in one of the lake’s floating raft houses within the park. Khao Sok is located about 150 km from Phuket town or 2½ hours’ drive from Phuket Airport. Useful website: www.khaosok.com
4.Trang Islands in Trang
Trang is located south of Krabi, 280 km (or 4½ hour drive) from Phuket. The town itself is rather small and quiet, but famous for its Chinese-Malay-Thai influenced cuisines. Visitors can take
a local Tuk Tuk ride around town to see the local way of life. The mainland countryside of Trang features waterfalls, caves and several forest trails. However, most travellers visit Trang for its various islands scattered off shore in the Andaman Sea. Ko Libong is the biggest of all these islands and its highlights are the dugongs and migrating birds. Ko Muk is home to the Emerald Cave where visitors can enter by boat during low tide or swim through the dark tunnel that zigzags through solid rock before emerging into an enchanting lagoon with a small sandy beach totally surrounded by towering cliffs topped with vegetation. Ko Chuek is a small island best known for its snorkelling and diving on the shallow and deeper coral reefs which are home to colourful fish. Other islands that are worth a visit include Ko Ngai, Ko Kradan and Ko Laoliang. For information on Trang, see www.trang-travel.com/index.htm and www.trang-islands.com
The North – Beyond Chiang Mai
The North’s largest city, Chiang Mai, was once the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. It features old-world beauty and charm as well as modern luxury and convenience coexisting side by side. The city is a showcase of indigenous cultural identity that includes unique dialects, delectable cuisine, distinctive architecture and lively festivals. Attractions in the North are very diverse and include ancient temples, handicraft markets and street food, the Royal Projects (crop substitution of opium plants) and the mountainous national parks. Chiang Mai is the best connecting point for the North of Thailand, with frequent international flights to other countries in South East Asia and domestic flights to Ko Samui and Phuket. Chiang Mai is a modern city with highways connecting it to the nearby provinces of Lampang, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Sukhothai.
Lampang is located about 90 km southeast of Chiang Mai. It takes just one hour to drive from Chiang Mai town to the Elephant Conservation Centre and 1½ hours to drive to Lampang town. There is also a rail service between Chiang Mai and Lampang. Lampang’s highlights include Wat Phra That Lampang Luang (one of Thailand’s most beautiful wooden temples), a ride in a horse drawn carriage (used by locals as a means of transport, not just for the tourists), the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre and the national parks.
As Thailand’s only government-owned elephant camp, the TECC promotes affordability and accessibility. The admission price is only 200 Baht for adults and 100 Baht for children. The TECC offers many enjoyable activities for the whole family. Day trip “musts” include watching elephants bathing, the elephant show and a visit to the baby elephants. Most guests take an elephant-back ride and tour the hospital. Overnight activities include the popular Homestay program and trekking in the forest.
Active in conservation, the TECC operates an onsite hospital and manages Thailand’s first mobile clinic, treating needy elephants free of charge. The TECC has an excellent natural breeding rate, usually producing at least two baby elephants a year. More information at www.thailandelephant.org. Chae Son National Park is a lush mountainous forest where visitors can camp and explore nature trails, waterfalls, viewpoints, hot springs and mineral baths. The heat from the 73°C hot springs provide a misty and picturesque sight which is at its most beautiful in the mornings. There are bathing facilities for visitors to enjoy a warm mineral water spa. Just 1 km away, the six-level Chae Son Waterfall cascades through the high mountains. Accommodation and camping is available.
The laid back Chiang Rai attracts travellers who are looking for a relaxing and quiet vacation close to nature. The road trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai takes between 2½ to 3½ hours. The variety of attractions in Chiang Rai include the ruins of ancient settlements, Buddhist temples, hill tribe villages, the Royal Project Doi Tung (reforestation post-opium production), the Golden Triangle and the magnificent mountains.
Doi Tung Palace and Mae Fah Luang Garden feature beautiful landscaped gardens filled with different kinds of cool-climate plants and flowers, scenic lookouts, a café serving locally grown coffee and the very trendy Doi Tung shop. The Golden Triangle is the intersection of the three countries: Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, on the banks of Mekong River. From Sop Ruak visitors can rent a boat to view scenery around the Golden Triangle and along the Mekong River to Chiang Saen (40 minutes) or further east to Chiang Khong (90 minutes). Another attraction here is the Hall of Opium, in Golden Triangle Park. It is one of the best museums in Thailand with exhibitions focusing on the history of opium around the world and in the area, the process of production, the effects of opium smoking and campaigns to eradicate and substitute the crop. The White Temple (or Wat Rong Khun) is a unique temple conspicuous by its brilliant white colour and the use of glass in the plaster, which sparkles in the sun. The temple was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai visual artist whose hometown is Chiang Rai. Every detail of the temple reflects the cycle of rebirth and encourages the visitor to reflect on the Buddhist teachings that show the way to escape from the worldly temptations, desires and greed, and focus on the mind instead.
The Black House (or Baan Dam) is the work of Thawan Duchanee, another Chiang Rai born Thai artist who has developed a style representing the darker side of humanity. The extensive
grounds are filled with many interesting compositions, adorned with lots of animal skins, skulls, horns and other controversial artworks. Singha Park, at 450 m above sea level and spanning 13 km2 of fertile land, is an agrotourism attraction focusing on the development of sustainable tourism in Chiang Rai. There are a variety of family-friendly activities set in landscaped gardens. More information at http://singhapark.com/. Doi Mae Salong is home to a community settled by the villagers who moved from Myanmar in 1960s. The village is known for its enchanting scenery, tranquil atmosphere and tea plantation. Choui Fong Tea Plantation grows several types of tea such as Assum, Green, Oolong and Black Tea in the highlands of Chiang Rai in an area of over 1 km2. The plantation produces excellent teas due to its ideal climate and soil conditions. Phu Chi Fah is Chiang Rai’s best location to watch the sunrise above the mountain mist. At 1,628 m, the spectacular view makes the trek up to the remote location via winding roads absolutely worthwhile.
3.Pai in Mae Hong Son
Nestled in a deep valley hemmed in by high mountain ranges, Mae Hong Son town has long been isolated from the outside world. Mae Hong Son is a fascinating province of Burmese and Lanna style temples, hot springs, hill tribe villages, and national parks. 111 km further on from Mae Hong Son town is the romantic town of Pai. Driving the 138 km from Chiang Mai to Pai through several hundred turns may not be an easy drive, but the beauty of the countryside and natural attractions along the way make it worthwhile. Kan Air offers flights from Chiang Mai to Pai. More information at www.kanairlines.com/web/?lang=en or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
While in Pai, visitors can enjoy trekking to waterfalls and caves, rafting along the Pai river, riding a bike or motorbike through the glorious scenery to visit small temples or simply touring around on foot. Pai Walking Street is the best place to eat and shop.
Sukhothai was Thailand’s former capital prior to Ayutthaya and Bangkok and is located 300 km south of Chiang Mai. Its highlights are the two historical parks: Sukhothai Historical Park and Si Satchanalai Historical Park, both of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The best way to tour Sukhothai’s many sights like the Buddhist temples, the Royal Palace and the ruins within these two historical parks is by bike.
Sukhothai is also known for its handicrafts, especially Sangkhalok or Celadon ceramic ware, Si Satchanalai gold jewellery and mud soaked cotton fabric of Ban Na Ton Chan.
The East – Beyond Pattaya (Chonburi)
Pattaya is one of Thailand’s best known beach destinations and is easily reached in a 1½ hour drive from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Besides the sandy beach and clear blue sea, Pattaya features various attractions and activities suitable for all. Visitors can enjoy water sports, visit one of the waterparks, learn Muay Thai, play golf, pamper themselves with a spa treatment, party in town, and visit cultural attractions such as Thai Thani Arts & Cultural Village or the magnificent Sanctuary of Truth temple. Visitors looking for something a little more tranquil can visit the coastal provinces of Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat south of Pattaya.
1.Ko Samet in Rayong
Ko Samet is a small island in Rayong Province with several white sandy beaches and accommodation and dining options. The 800 m long sandy Sai Kaew beach is perfect for just relaxing and sunbathing, though kayaks are also available. There are plenty of places to stay and eat along the beach. The 200 m long Ao Prao beach is more private with only three resorts. It is the only beach on the west of the island, and therefore perfect for watching the sunset. Several other small beaches are scattered around the island, some with accommodation, and some without.
From Pattaya it takes 1½ hours to drive to Ban Pae Pier, where visitors can catch a ferry or speedboat the short ride to Ko Samet. On Ko Samet the transport options include public transport, motorbike or simply walking. More information at www.kohsamed.org/travel-eng.htm.
Chanthaburi, about a 2½ hour drive from Pattaya, is known for its tropical fruit orchards, gem stones, beautiful beaches and coastal viewpoints. Most fruits ripen between May and July and visitors can enjoy tropical fresh fruits like durian, mangosteen, and rambutan at farmer gate prices. Many orchards welcome visitors to see, taste or even pick fruit. The best time to visit the beaches however, is November to May and there are few that can beat Kung Wiman and Chao Lao beaches in terms of romantic beauty and peaceful scenery. Both have long beaches, crystal clear water and facilities including beach side accommodation and restaurants. Kung Wiman viewpoint is the best spot to watch the sunset and Chalerm Burapa Chonlathit boasts the most picturesque winding coastal road in the region. Chanthaburi is nicknamed “the city of gems”,and Si Chan Road is the heart of the gem business with Chanthaburi Gems & Jewellery Centre being the best place to shop for quality gems and jewellery.
Another interesting attraction is Kung Krabaen Mangrove Forest Study Walkway – a 1,600 m long wooden walkway passing through unspoiled mangrove forest where all kinds of fauna and flora can be seen. Renting a kayak and paddling through the mangrove is also an option. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic church in the city of Chanthaburi, is also worth a visit. Visible from most of the city, it was built in the Gothic style during the brief French occupation at the turn of the previous century. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands in front of the cathedral, and another, adorned with gems donated by locals, is to be found inside.
3.Ko Chang, Ko Kood and Ko Mak in Trat
Trat is Thailand’s eastern most province, bordering with Cambodia and its rich farmland supplies abundant natural produce. From a visitor’s perspective, Trat is best known for the three islands within Mu Ko Chang Marine Park: Ko Chang, Ko Kood and Ko Mak, being the largest three islands.
These islands are blessed with scenic bays, beautiful quiet sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. All three offer several diving and snorkelling sites. Besides sea, sand, and sun, Mu Ko Chang offers tropical rainforests where trekkers can swim at the bottom of the waterfalls, see birds and wildlife in the tropical flora. There are also many viewpoints up on high cliffs where trekkers can take a break to absorb the scenic view. For the thrill seekers, there are tree top adventure activities such as high ropes courses complete with zip lines. The best time to visit is October to May as it tends to have less rain. From Pattaya, it takes up to 4 hours to drive to Trat. From Trat mainland, visitors can catch a ferry or speedboat from one of three piers to these islands. Trips between the mainland and islands, and between each island, are between 1 and 2½ hours. For speedboat options, see www.kohkoodboat.com. For express ferry, see www.boonsiriferry.com or www.kokutexpress.in.th.
Glossary: Koh (Ko) – an island, e.g., Koh (Ko) Phi Phi in Krabi, Ko Samet in Rayong Mu Koh (Mu Ko) – a group of islands, e.g., Mu Koh (Mu Ko) Similan/ Similan Islands in Phang Nga Ao – bay, e.g., Ao Chalong – where most of Phuket’s boats depart Hat – beach, e.g., Hat Patong/ Patong Beach – the most developed beach in Phuket Hin – rock, e.g., Hin Muang Hin Daeng – one of Thailand’s best diving sites
Wat – temple, e.g. Wat Phra That Lampang Luang Doi – peak, e.g. Doi Mae Salong, Doi Tung