The rainforests are full of elephants, ancient temples are home to rambunctious monkeys and the local people are as friendly as can be. Add beautiful beaches, towering karsts and some of the world’s best food, and you have the makings of paradise. And you can get whatever kind of experience you want in Thailand’s small towns, from the seedy nightlife of Ao Nang to the natural escape of Pai. Pick your visit carefully to curate a Thai experience unique to you.
Lamphun was once the northernmost outpost of the ancient Mon Dvaravati Kingdom. There is an old fortress that guards ancient temples from when the city was an important defensive post for Queen Chama Thevi, one of Thailand’s most beloved rulers. The city does not promote or celebrate this ancient history too much, but it is quite a charming place as it sits on the Mae Kuang River. The most beautiful attraction might be the scenic 26-km (16-mile) country drive from nearby Chang Mai that gives tourists a visual taste of the beautiful river valley landscape.
Accomodation standards are high in this beach town near Krabi. There is a loud, somewhat seedy nature to the nightlife in Ao Nang where you are likely to find tourists from all over the world on a booze crawl. But the town is cradled by limestone karsts and the beaches are weaved in between these impressive pillars, as well. If you fancy a private beach, friendly locals will take you on longtail boats to karst islands just off in the distance. There’s plenty of outdoor adventure to be found at Ao Nang, from dive trips to mangrove adventures.
Deep in northern Thailand and just south of the Golden Triangle, Chiang Saen is a former ghost town crawling back to life. Once one of the most important cities of Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Saen has been sacked and conquered many times throughout history. In 1900, the repopulation began but you can still see the crumbling fortified walls of a violent past. You can see massive barges carrying fruit, car parts and other goods from China out to sea on the Mekong river. And Laos lies just across the Mekong from this sleepy river town.
Chaweng awaits you on the island of Ko Samui in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand. Rent a scooter to get around this little island paradise that is fit with great tourist infrastructure. The long, white, sandy beach of Chaweng is busy day and night as restaurants and bars come to life when the sun sets over the azure blue waters. Keep any eye out for two small islands just off the sand. There you’ll find a great snorkeling reef and the islands are accessible on foot during low tide. When night falls, pick your poison — a loud, club-like beach party, or a subdued, laid-back, chill beach bar.
Deep in the heart of northeastern Thailand, Chiang Khan gives you the opportunity to swim in the Mekong river. To get to the swimming hole at Gaeng Kut Kuu, follow the road next to the river down into the valley a mile or two. If the river bed is dry, pop-up restaurants will await you. Chiang Khan is popular with vacationing Thais because of the beautiful views of mountains in neighboring Laos and the town’s famous walking street. The street, closed to traffic, is lined with vendors, restaurants, bars, shops, yoga studios and boutiques. Be sure to get a guesthouse high on a hill to enjoy the view of Laos yourself.
The white sand of Karon beach squeaks under your feet. This two-mile beach can be found about 19 km (12 miles) from Phuket city and not too far from the world-famous Patong Beach. You won’t find resorts claiming any of the sand here as private property, so there is more beach space per capita than almost anywhere else in Phuket. The beach is lined with homes and then there is a street. Across the street, you’ll find all sort of accommodations from mega-resorts to hostels. You’ll see a lot of Russian signage in the swirling streets of town amongst the T-shirt and food vendors.
The thick rainforest of Kaeng Krachan National Park surrounds this city that borders Myanmar. Phetchaburi is not too far from Bangkok, but you are unlikely to see throngs of tourists. Instead, you’ll see groups of Thai students on day trips learning about their own culture as Phetchaburi is one of the most historic and cultured towns in the nation. You can still see the traces of the Khmer, Sukhothai and Ayuthaya kingdoms with many artifacts still intact even through a violent history. The city stays sleepy at night allowing you full energy to enjoy the Gulf of Thailand and the hiking trails of the rainforest during the day.
Hiding in the jungle three hours north of Bangkok is one of Thailand’s oldest cities — Lopburi. The city came to life during the Dvaravati period between the 6th and 10th centuries. The ancient architecture of the Khmer and Ayuthaya empires can still be seen in the Old Town part of the city. That’s where you’ll spend most of your time because Lopburi is famous for the mischevious and massive colony of crab-eating macaque monkeys that live in the ruins of Old Town. You can even spend a day at the monkey adventure park buying food to feed to your feisty friends. The city is also surrounded by sunflower fields and caves ready for exploration.
Backpackers looking to escape the fever pace of life in Bangkok come here for the riverside peace. Movie lovers flock to Kanchanaburi to catch a glimpse of the actual bridge over the River Kwai. Kanchanaburi’s chill riverside vibe belies a dark past when the occupying Japanese used American and other Allied POW’s to construct a railway to Burma (now Myanmar). Museums and monuments dedicated to this history dot the small town, often called the center of Thailand’s Wild West.
Pai is populated by local rastas, Western hippies and Muslims. This thriving tourist town north of Chang Mai is nestled in a picturesque valley crowned with waterfalls and hiking trails. A large mosque in the center of town stands as the largest building and the main drag is lined with guesthouses. The burgenoning tourism industry still hasn’t ruined the serenity of the natural surrounding. Nearby Huai Nam Dang National Park, Pai Canyon and the WWII Memorial Bridge make Pai the perfect jumping point to North Thailand adventures.