So you want to visit Thailand. That’s cool. It’s a great place to travel to. Got your guidebook yet? Have you noticed all those ‘Must see’ destinations, and the ‘Hidden Gems’?
Well guess what. They aren’t so hidden any more.
You can expect that “deserted beach with powder soft white sand and turquoise blue water” to be full of fat Australians with tribal tattoos drinking buckets of watered down expensive alcohol. That “charming little village with smiling locals and cheap phad thai” is now a backpacker slum bursting with tattoo parlors and crazy Germans on scooters, oh and those locals aren’t exactly smiling because of you, though they are pretty happy to see your baht.
You really can’t blame Lonely Planet or Rough Guides for the gentrification of these places, sure they opened up a lot of destinations to the less than intrepid traveller and in doing so they’ve also helped boost the livelihood of so many locals through boosting tourism, albeit at the expense of a lcations uniqueness and character.
So what do you do – head straight to Phuket, spend some times in the sports bars paying slightly less than you would for a beer back home? Squish into the cramped Shuttle bus, herded along to the Tiger Temple? Buy some ‘Singha Beer’ t-shirts, get a shoddy suit made and be on your way? Au contraire! Quelle horreur! And all those other French sayings that mean no freaken way.
The thing is it’s quite easy to have a great unique travel experience in Thailand, you just have to know where to go. Here’s a few words on my favourite places to visit and avoid the tourist crowd.
We’ll start in the south.
Krabi region isn’t the lonely, off the tourist trail province it once was, and there’s good reason for that. It’s cheap, people are friendly and there’s plenty to do. Krabi Region boasts a beautiful National Park (cabins for rent) as well as some great islands, there’s some limestone cliff climbing (or you could do as I do and watch from below, mango shake in hand). If you’re particularly adventurous you can climb the 1,227 steps to the top of Wat Tham Sua (temple of the Tiger Cave) and there’s a great night marked right on the river.
There’s some nice beaches in the area, most of which are inaccessible by land, so you’ll need to hire a longtail boat to get there, which sort of makes it Krabi town is a cool little town to while away a few days. Check out the night market and a lot of the guesthouses are run by really chatty family’s happy to talk over a cold Singha beer. Krabi town is still one of the only places I’ve come across in Thailand where after turning down an offer of a Massage you are still wished a good day anyway.
Forget Phuket and Koh Phi Phi for that matter. Ko Lanta is where it’s at. The largest island in the Krabi region, it’s a relaxing place to while away a week or so, maybe hire a motorbike and go visit the sea gypsies or if you’re lucky enough to make friends with the kitchen staff at your guesthouse you might get invited up to the market to pick up the days groceries. The beach isn’t the nicest beach in the world, but it’s still beautiful, there’s plenty of beach bars full of cool Rasta Thai guys (more than up for a chat, especially if you’re a pretty foreign girl) and a small expat community, noticeable by the Scandinavian and German bakeries popping up in town.
Also worth mentioning is the flashpacker haven of Railay, the climber & stoner Nirvana that is Ton Sai, and the chilled out Nopparat Thara – all accessible by long tail boat from Krabi town. The best resource you could check out for Krabi is YourKrabi.com. Seema is an expat living in Krabi for years now and runs the website. Independent reviews and online booking facility for most hotels in the area, and a great guide on what to expect at each beach, island and town within the region. Seriously, best guide to the area.
Moving north we’ll bypass the tourist ghettos of Koh Samui and Pha Ngan and go straight to Koh Chang. Chang’s got about 7 good bays worth visiting, catering to all different demographics. The backpackers tend to stay at ‘Lonely Beach’, the cashed up Russians tend to hang out at ‘White Sands’, and as far as kai Bae Beach goes, well, iamkohchang.com says it best;
“If your name is Sven and you are travelling with your wife Annika and your four children aged between 4-12, then this is the beach for you”
Not exactly a rave review, I know. But Koh Chang really is the place to go for an island holiday away from the normal tourist crowds, the touts and the shoddy tailors. It’s a relaxed place where you are just as likely to make friends with a few guesthouse owners as you are talking to other backpackers and there is plenty of sites to keep you occupied and away from the beach, if you’re so inclined. Or you could spend a week floating on a tire tube drinking a Mai Tai like I did. Check out iamkohchang.com or travelfish.org (the best and most up to date resource on S.E. Asia) for more info.
It’s a sprawling, dirty city. And I love it. Most people don’t. The majority only stay a couple of days before heading out but if you dig deeper than the general tourist sites there’s really a lot going on and more than enough to keep you happy for a week or so, if you don’t mind the constant hassle from the touts around Khao San Rd.
Further north there’s Chang Mai, Chang Rai and Pai, but there’s plenty written about those places, and hordes of travelers passing through each day. There’s a reason they are so popular so do make sure you travel through, but for a taste of an authentic Thai city, try Udon Thani. It’s sort of like any mid size city back home, but signs aren’t in English (except for Sizzler) people still give you that quizzical, suprisedlook when they see you, and prices are cheap. There’s not much to see but it’s a good taste of what provincial Thai life is like.
In the North East and just on the border of the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge is the town of Nong Khai. It’s basically old man-young wife territory with not much besides a market to interest the modern backpacker, but this sleepy border town is worth a look. There are no massage parlors, or ping pong shows. Nor tailors or alcohol buckets. There’s a few temples, restaurants on the river and happy people saying ‘Sawadee’. And that’s perfect. Obviously if you list all the interesting and yet unspoiled places, this page would go on for a while. Also, there’s so much that I’m yet to see. So how about a trade – I’ve told you mine, now you tell me yours. Share your favourite sort of secret Thai destination in the comments below, and we’ll just keep it between us. We don’t want another Phuket, do we?
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