Beyond the obviously vibrant and popular hubs, Thailand invites exploration of its lesser-known regions that ooze character and charm, especially in areas where the local life remains largely unaffected by tourists and the natural beauty Is matched with genuine warm hospitality.
This month we bring you Surat Thani, Chumphon and Ranong to you in more detail.
Surat Thani translates to ‘City of Good People’ and is the capital of Surat Thani Province in southern Thailand. Lying 651 km south of Bangkok, the city dates back to the 5th century and is one of the oldest in the country. Yet the average visitor probably only spends a few hours in this coastal city, as it predominantly serves as the transportation hub from which to reach the east coast islands Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Samui and Ko Tao.
At first glance, Surat is a medium-sized working-class Thai city with rubber trees and coconut groves, yet it is also the ideal place to reconnect with nature while taking a temporary escape from the stress of modern living.
From there you can visit Khanom, a sleepy oceanfront town with gentle winding roads, pristine coastal scenery, deserted beaches and a few late-night bars. Truly undiscovered by tourists, the only foreigners you’ll likely see are ex-pats and English teachers.
Chaiya is a tiny fishing village surrounded by rubber tree groves and littered with temples and ancient ruins. Wat Phra Borommathat has particularly impressive architecture, while Wat Kaeo displays an interesting contrast between old and new.
Visit the Silk Village, located at the end of a dusty road and where you’ll find well priced handmade Thai silk blankets. You can even see the local women making them at the shop.
At Wat Tham Singkhon Cave Temple a massive golden Buddha guards the entrance to a mysterious cave shrouded in dense jungle. Dat Fa Waterfall is perfect if you’re craving some time alone in the dense nature surrounding Surat Thani. Rent a motorbike and head one hour south of the city to the waterfalls that are accessible by moderate trek through the dense jungle. There’s a pool for swimming too.
Don Pier, or the Night Boat Pier, is the place to be on a Friday or Saturday night. A simple platform over the water with chairs and tables making it a laid-back hangout. Street food is available from the stalls lining the nearby road. You’ll also find travellers hanging around here as they wait to board the night boat heading to Koh Tao.
You can hire a local longtail boat from near the pier and ask for a Tapi River tour. Your captain will guide you through the jungle-fringed canals while you get a closer look at rural life in Surat. Along the banks are stilted homes, lush coconut groves, and even a few homestays.
The city brims with restaurants and street markets and is ideal for exploring Thai food. A special mention must be made of the Night Market on an offshoot of Namueang Road. It offers some of the best food in the city.
Located on the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side of the Malaysian Peninsular, many travellers to Chumphon stop only briefly en route to Bangkok or the popular islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Meaning ‘lots of blessings’ Chumphon city deserves much more though.
The main attraction is the natural beauty, tropical beaches, coral reef, national parks and scenic mountains, as well as a variety of cultural events that take place throughout the year, each beautifully reflecting the unique Chumphon way of life.
In the south, the forested Phato district is home to the Phato Canal and the Heo Lom Waterfall. Chumphon National Museum is very informative with artefacts dating back as far as 4000 years. Tools, bowls, jewellery and artwork are among some of the items on display. The museum includes interactive displays of architecture, history, culture and military pieces.
Visiting Wat Phra That Buddhist Temple is a mystical experience. Explore the local traditions throughout the temple and taste the local cuisine on offer. The views are very impressive too.
The Chumphon Night Market offers outstanding street food, sights, sounds and smells that will keep your senses stimulated. The market reflects the vibrancy of the city and the best part is you can watch the food being cooked right in front you in steaming hot pans.
During kitesurfing season (October to January) there is plenty of wind and waves. Chumphon has numerous kitesurfing schools that teach complete beginners to the more advanced kiter. It’s a great place to learn to kitesurf with gentle winds, few tourists and affordable prices.
Scuba diving off Thung Wua Laen delivers clear and calm waters, while the true mecca for diving is the island of Koh Tao just offshore. If you’re looking for an off the beaten track, uncrowded place to dive, this may be the place. The dive sites are clustered together about 1.5km east of Thung Wua Laen beach.
Ranong on Thailand’s west Andaman Sea is the least populated of all the Thai provinces. Just a 45-minute boat ride from Myanmar, this border town on the eastern bank of Mae Nam Pak Chan’s estuary has a thriving population, bubbling hot springs, crumbling historical buildings and sensational street food.
Visitors have been drawn here since at least 1890 when King Rama V visited Ranong and sampled its famous hot springs. Most travellers still do the same, relishing the benefits of the open-air Raksawarin public baths.
A slice of authentic Thailand, the city was settled long ago and developed by predominantly Hoklo immigrants from China’s Fujian Province. Ranong’s streets are lined with traditional shop houses that sell everything from electronics, fruit, nuts and clothing to washing machines, motorcycles and gold. You’ll find quirky boutique hotels and a style-conscious local stores
Dive operators specialising in live-aboard trips to the Surin Islands and Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago have established themselves here adding an expat dimension, but this Andaman Sea port is predominantly a fishing and trading town.
Kra Isthmus is home to the narrowest point on the Malay Peninsula — just 44 km of land divides the Gulf of Thailand from the Andaman Sea. Offshore to the south is a cluster of pristine national park islands such as Koh Khangkhao, Koh Kam Yai and Koh Kam Nui, all excellent for day trips.
Other attractions include the Chinese grave of Phraya Damrongsucharit Mahisornphakdee (Kho Su Chiang), the Ranong’s first governor. Ton Phet Waterfall, the 11-level beautiful waterfall that cascades all year round from the Phota Chong Dong Mountains, the highest in Ranong.
Ngao Waterfall is located in Tambon Ngao in the Namtok Ngao Natinal Park. The water flows down from the high mountain ridge and can be seen from afar.
The Ngao Mangrove Forest Research Center is a heart lifting project that offers a home for young offspring of many species of marine life, wild floras and animals. To visit you’ll need to write an official letter to the head of research centre at least 3 weeks prior to arriving, so that the staff may prepare to host you.
Ranong Province is the wettest in Thailand, the result being that 80 percent of it is still forest. Ranong Canyon’s Bald Hill or Grass Hill will please the nature lover with its rolling hills and treeless hills. You can either hike or take a drive there.
Just 2km outside town are the natural hot springs. There are four pools at different temperatures ranging between 20-45 degrees. This is the most healing hot spring in all of Thailand and apparently the third most healing in the world and has become somewhat of a pilgrimage for some people.
It may not be the biggest, but Ranong Canyon is likely to be one of the more isolated – you may even have the whole place to yourself. It takes about 25 minutes on a scooter to get there and you can enjoy a swim, time relaxing with a book and simply soaking up the peacefulness.
The best spot in Ranong to watch the sunset is from Hat Chan Damri View Point that overlooks the Andaman sea. About 10km from the city and a little hard to find, it is certainly worth the effort.
Written by Dawn Jorgensen