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.
Forever in the shadow of its more famous neighbour, Hua Hin, 25km to the south, the resort of CHA-AM is nevertheless very popular with Thais on short breaks, and it sports one or two package-holiday high-rises and Western-style restaurants for Europeans, too. Mostly, though, it’s weekending families and partying student groups from Bangkok who eat and drink at the rows of umbrella-shaded tables and deckchairs on the sand, or brave the sea on banana boats or rubber tyres, the women clad modestly in T-shirts and shorts rather than bikinis. The long, straight beach here is pleasantly shaded, though rather gritty and very narrow at high tide, and the water is perfectly swimmable, if not pristine. During the week the pace of life in Cha-am is slow, and it’s easy to find a solitary spot under the thick canopy of casuarinas, particularly at the northerly end of the beach, but that’s rarely possible at weekends, when prices shoot up and traffic thickens considerably.
Cha-am has a functional pocket of development around Thanon Phetkasem (Highway 4), close to the junction with Thanon Narathip, the main access road to the beach, 1km to the east. However, the 3km seaside promenade of Thanon Ruamchit is where you’ll find most of the hotels, restaurants, a small police station (corner of Thanon Narathip), several internet shops and a few other tourist-oriented businesses; Thanon Ruamchit’s sois are numbered according to whether they’re north or south of Thanon Narathip.
The stretch of coast between Hua Hin and Chumphon barely registers on most foreign tourists’ radar, but many better-off Bangkokians have favourite beaches in this area, the nicest of which is sophisticated PAK NAM PRAN (aka Pranburi). Just 30km or so south of Hua Hin, Pak Nam Pran used to cater only for families who owned beach villas here, but in the past few years the shorefront homes have been joined by a growing number of enticing, if pricey, boutique hotels, and signs are there’s more development to come. For now, facilities consist of just a few minimarkets, car-rental outlets and independent bars and restaurants, especially around the Evason hotel towards the northern end of the beach, plus the possibility of organizing day-trips to nearby Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park through hotel staff; there’s also kiteboarding through Kiteboarding Asia, about 1km south of the Evason.
As along much of the Gulf coast, the beach itself, also known as Hat Naresuan, is not exceptional (it has hardly any shade and is suffering from erosion in parts), but it is long, with fine sand, and nearly always empty, and you’re quite likely to see dolphins playing within sight of the shore. The strand stretches south from Pak Nam Pran town at the mouth of the Pran River – which is known for its colourful fishing boats, specializing in squid – for around 7km to Khao Kalok headland and the tiny Thao Kosa Forest Park.
Despite lacking any must-see attractions, the tiny, unfrequented provincial capital of PRACHUAP KHIRI KHAN, 67km south of Pranburi, makes a pleasant place to break any journey up or down the coast. Its greatest asset is its setting: a huge, palm-fringed, half-moon bay, dotted with colourful fishing boats and tipped by a rocky outcrop at the north end and by a small group of jungly islands to the south – the waterfront promenade in the town centre is great for a seafood lunch with a view. There’s a lovely beach in the next bay to the south, Ao Manao, and generally Prachuap is a fine spot to settle into small-town Thai life.
The town is contained in a small grid of streets that runs just 250m east to west, between the sea and the train station – with Highway 4 beyond the railway tracks – and around 1km north to south, from the Khao Chong Krajok hill at the northern end to the Wing 5 air-force base in the south. Orientation couldn’t be simpler: the major road across from the station to the pier is Thanon Kongkiat, and there are four main north–south roads: Thanon Phitak Chat near the station, Thanon Salacheep, Thanon Susuek and the seafront road, Thanon Chai Thalay.
Graced with a tranquil, 5km sweep of white sand, pale-blue sea and swaying casuarinas, BAN KRUD, 70km south of Prachuap, supports a dozen or so fairly upmarket bungalow outfits and seafood restaurants along the central stretch of its shorefront road. About 1km inland from the main T-junction at the beach, the small, traditional village, which now includes several ATMs, clusters around the train station. At the beach’s northern end are a colourful fishing village, which hosts a Thursday afternoon market, and a panoramic headland beyond, Khao Thongchai, that’s dominated by the 14m-high Phra Phut Kitti Sirichai Buddha image and its sparkling modern temple, Wat Phra Mahathat Phraphat. Crowned with nine golden chedis, the temple displays an impressive fusion of traditional and contemporary features, including a series of charming modern stained-glass windows depicting Buddhist stories; reach it via a 1.5km-long road that spirals up from the beachfront. Other than a visit to the temple and possibly a snorkelling trip to Ko Thalu (B350/person through, for example, Sala Thai Resort), the main pastime in Ban Krud is sitting under the trees and enjoying a long seafood lunch or dinner.
South Thailand officially starts at CHUMPHON, where the main highway splits into west- and east-coast branches, and inevitably the provincial capital saddles itself with the title “gateway to the south”. Most tourists take this tag literally and use the town as nothing more than a transport interchange between the Bangkok train and boats to Ko Tao, Pha Ngan and Samui, so the town is well equipped to serve these passers-through, offering clued-up travel agents, efficient transport links and plenty of internet cafés. In truth, there’s little call for exploring the fairly average beaches, islands and reefs around town when the varied and attractive strands of Ko Tao are just a short hop away, while the Chumphon National Museum is little short of pitiful.
About 140km south of Chumphon, CHAIYA is thought to have been the capital of southern Thailand under the Srivijayan civilization, which fanned out from Sumatra between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. Today there’s little to mark the passing of Srivijaya, but this small, sleepy town has gained new fame as the site of Wat Suan Mokkh, a progressively minded temple whose meditation retreats account for the bulk of Chaiya’s foreign visitors (most Thais only stop to buy the famous local salted eggs). Unless you’re interested in one of the retreats, the town is best visited on a day-trip, either as a break in the journey south, or as an excursion from Surat Thani.
Meditation retreats are led by Western and Thai teachers over the first ten days of every month at the International Dharma Heritage, a purpose-built compound 1km from the main temple at Wat Suan Mokkh. Large numbers of foreign travellers, both novices and experienced meditators, turn up for the retreats, which are intended as a challenging exercise in mental development – it’s not an opportunity to relax and live at low cost for a few days. Conditions imitate the rigorous lifestyle of a bhikkhu (monk) as far as possible, each day beginning before dawn with meditation according to the Anapanasati method, which aims to achieve mindfulness by focusing on the breathing process. Although talks are given on Dharma (the doctrines of the Buddha – as interpreted by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu) and meditation technique, most of each day is spent practising Anapanasati in solitude. To aid concentration, participants maintain a rule of silence, broken only by daily chanting sessions, although supervisors are sometimes available for individual interviews if there are any questions or problems. Men and women are segregated into separate dormitory blocks and, like monks, are expected to help out with chores.
Even if you don’t get your buns off the beach for the rest of your stay on Samui or Pha Ngan, it’s worth taking at least a day out to visit the beautiful Ang Thong National Marine Park, a lush, dense group of 42 small islands strewn like a dragon’s teeth over the deep-blue Gulf of Thailand, 30km or so west of Samui. Once a haven for pirate junks, then a Royal Thai Navy training base, the islands and their coral reefs, white-sand beaches and virgin rainforest are now preserved under the aegis of the National Parks Department. Erosion of the soft limestone has dug caves and chiselled out fantastic shapes that are variously said to resemble seals, a rhinoceros, a Buddha image and even the temple complex at Angkor.
The surrounding waters are home to dolphins, wary of humans because local fishermen catch them for their meat, and pla thu (short-bodied mackerel), part of the national staple diet, which gather in huge numbers between February and April to spawn around the islands. On land, long-tailed macaques, leopard cats, wild pigs, sea otters, squirrels, monitor lizards and pythons are found, as well as dusky langurs, which, because they have no natural enemies here, are unusually friendly and easy to spot. Around forty bird species have had confirmed sightings, including the white-rumped shama, noted for its singing, the brahminy kite, black baza, little heron, Eurasian woodcock, several species of pigeon, kingfisher and wagtail, as well as common and hill mynah; in addition, island caves shelter swiftlets, whose homes are stolen for bird’s nest soup.
Rising to the west of Nakhon Si Thammarat and temptingly visible from all over town is 1835m-high Khao Luang, southern Thailand’s highest mountain. A huge national park encompasses Khao Luang’s jagged green peaks, beautiful streams with numerous waterfalls, tropical rainforest and fruit orchards. The mountain is also the source of the Tapi River, one of the peninsula’s main waterways, which flows into the Gulf of Thailand at Surat Thani. Fauna here include macaques, musk deer, civets and binturongs, as well as more difficult-to-see Malayan tapirs, serows, tigers, panthers and clouded leopards, plus over two hundred bird species. There’s an astonishing diversity of flora too, notably rhododendrons and begonias, dense mosses, ferns and lichens, plus more than three hundred species of both ground-growing and epiphytic orchids, some of which are unique to the park.
The best time to visit is after the rainy season, from January onwards, when there should still be a decent flow in the waterfalls, but the trails will be dry and the leeches not so bad. However, the park’s most distinguishing feature for visitors is probably its difficulty of access: main roads run around the 570-square-kilometre park with spurs into some of the waterfalls, but there are no roads across the park and very sparse public transport along the spur roads. The Ban Khiriwong Ecotourism Club can arrange treks to the peak between January and June, beginning at Ban Khiriwong on the southeast side of the park and including two nights camping on the mountain, meals and guides, as well as homestays in the village. Otherwise only Krung Ching Waterfall, one of Thailand’s most spectacular, really justifies the hassle of getting to the park.
A trip to Krung Ching, a nine-tier waterfall on the north side of the park, makes for a highly satisfying day out with a nature trail taking you through dense, steamy jungle to the most beautiful, third tier. Starting at the Krung Ching park office, which lies 13km south of Ban Huai Phan, this shady, mostly paved, 4km trail is very steep in parts, so you should allow four hours at least there and back. On the way you’ll pass giant ferns, including a variety known as maha sadam, the largest fern in the world, gnarled banyan trees, forests of mangosteen and beautiful, thick stands of bamboo. You’re bound to see colourful birds and insects, but you may well only hear macaques and other mammals. At the end, a long, stepped descent brings you to a perfectly positioned wooden platform with fantastic views of the 40m fall, which used to appear on the back of thousand-baht notes; here you can see how, shrouded in thick spray, it earns its Thai name, Fon Saen Ha, meaning “thousands of rainfalls”.