Southern Thailand’s gently undulating Gulf coast is famed above all for the Samui archipelago, three small, idyllic islands lying off the most prominent hump of the coastline. This is the country’s most popular seaside venue for independent travellers, and a lazy stay in a beachfront bungalow is so seductive a prospect that most people overlook the attractions of the mainland, where the sheltered sandy beaches and warm clear water rival the top sunspots in most countries. Added to that you’ll find scenery dominated by forested mountains that rise abruptly behind the coastal strip, and a sprinkling of fascinating historic sights.
The crumbling temples of ancient Phetchaburi are the first historic sight you’ll meet heading south out of Bangkok and fully justify a break in your journey. Beyond, the stretch of coast around Cha-am and Hua Hin is popular with weekending Thais escaping the capital and is crammed with condos, high-rise hotels and bars, not to mention a large population of foreign tourists. Far quieter and preferable are the beaches further south: the sophisticated little resort of Pak Nam Pran; golden-sand Hat Phu Noi, which is also the best base for exploring the karsts and caves of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park; the welcoming town of Prachuap Khiri Khan, fronted by a lovely bay and flanked by an equally appealing beach; and laidback, lightly developed Ban Krud.
Of the islands, Ko Samui is by far the most naturally beautiful, with its long white-sand beaches and arching fringes of palm trees. The island’s beauty has not gone unnoticed by tourist developers of course, and its varied spread of accommodation these days draws as many package tourists and second-homers as backpackers. In recent years the next island out, Ko Pha Ngan, has drawn increasing numbers of independent travellers away from its neighbour: its accommodation is generally simpler and cheaper than Ko Samui’s, and it offers a few stunning beaches with a more laidback atmosphere. The island’s southeastern headland, Hat Rin, has no fewer than three white-sand beaches to choose from, but now provides all the amenities the demanding backpacker could want, not to mention its notorious full moon parties. The furthest inhabited island of the archipelago, Ko Tao, has taken off as a scuba-diving centre, but despite a growing nightlife and restaurant scene, still has the feel of a small, rugged and isolated outcrop.
Tucked away beneath the islands, Nakhon Si Thammarat, the cultural capital of the south, is well worth a short detour from the main routes through the centre of the peninsula – it’s a sophisticated city of grand old temples, delicious cuisine and distinctive handicrafts. With its small but significant Muslim population, and machine-gun dialect, Nakhon begins the transition into Thailand’s deep south.
The Gulf coast has a slightly different climate from the Andaman coast and much of the rest of Thailand, being hit heavily by the northeast monsoon’s rains, especially in November, when it’s best to avoid this part of the country altogether. Most times during the rest of the year should see pleasant, if changeable, weather, with some effects of the southwest monsoon felt between May and October. Late December to April is the driest period, and is therefore the region’s high season, which also includes July and August.