In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. Marco Ferrarese, a Penang-based expert in offbeat travel, has the answers to this Thailand-related query.
Question: Where should I visit in southern Thailand?
Marco Ferrarese: The Phuket, Krabi and the Phi Phi Islands attract hordes of tourists for a reason: they’re simply stunning. Yet what most travelers leave unexplored in southern Thailand is even more incredible – think astounding nature, warm hospitality, fiery food and a unique mix of Thai, Muslim and Chinese cultures that still leaves me scratching my head even after dozens of trips here.
Here are five places in different outlying provinces that can be easily explored using local trains, buses and minivans – or, even better, on your own set of rented wheels.
Hat Yai and Songkhla: monumental Buddhas and Thai-Chinese delights
Hat Yai offers much more beyond the busy street markets surrounding the station of this crucial transport hub, which lies on the southernmost end of the main train line between Bangkok and Malaysia. North of town, discover a monumental reclining Buddha, as well as a panoramic cable car and views that look all over the sprawling city from Hat Yai Municipal Park. On weekends, the Khlong Hae floating market, with its longtail dinghies filled with food and vegetables, is a photographer’s dream.
Don’t leave without checking out the lesser-known (and unique) Phra Maha Chedi Tripob Trimongkol, also called the Stainless Steel Temple: come sunset, the cone-like steel pagoda fires up with an otherworldly light show. And don’t forget that just 15km (9 miles) east of Hat Yai, the pretty beach town of Songkhla sits on a strip of land between the sea and the 1040-sq-m (12,000-sq-ft) Songkhla Lake, the largest natural body of water in Thailand.
Songkhla’s wide beaches – Samilla, guarded by the statue of a sitting mermaid, is beautiful at sunset – protect a very special Old Town. On Nakornhok, Raman, Yala and Patani Rds, old walls come alive with murals that rival the celebrated street art of George Town in Penang, while compact rows of Sino-Portuguese shophouses serve up a smorgasbord of Thai-Chinese delicacies.
Phattalung and Thale Noi: majestic caves and migrating birds
Few stop in Phattalung, a charming and offbeat town a short 82km (51-mile) train ride north of Hat Yai. Their loss. Towering above the town center is Khuha Sawan, the most accessible of Phattalung’s many limestone Buddhist cave temples. From its main cavern, filled with statues of Buddhas and lersi (hermit monks), stairs descend by stalactites and stalagmites to a smaller chamber.
Phattalung’s surroundings merit renting some wheels: about 30km (19 miles) west of town, the mountain temple Wat Tham Sumano has 18 more caves and is near the entrance to the Khao Bantat Wildlife Sanctuary. Directly to the north, Khao-Pu Khao-Ya National Park offers more trails and the ethereal light of Matcha Cave, where sun rays pierce through a massive hole in the ceiling.
No visit to Phattalung is complete without seeing the shores of Thale Noi, one of Thailand’s largest freshwater waterfowl reserves. Only 20km (12 miles) inland from the sea, it’s home to over 280 species of aquatic migratory birds, who arrive in droves in the summer months, when the lake turns green and bright pink with carpets of floating water lilies and lotus flowers. This is the absolute best time of year for an epic longtail boat trip to observe the flora and fauna, and the way local fishermen work their unique Chinese fishing nets. Using stationary lifts, they resemble those found in Kerala, India.
Trang and Satun: gorgeous islands near the Malaysian border
Some 50km (31 miles) along a well-paved road west of Phattalung is much overlooked Trang. This cute town has a compact old town center lined with coffee houses dishing up a mix of Thai and Chinese food (the dim sum here are among the best in the country) and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops. Life gets slightly more hectic during the Vegetarian Festival, held for nine days in October, when processions of white-clad devotees with gruesome ritual piercings arrive. On Valentine’s Day, the quirky annual Trang Underwater Wedding Ceremony (started in 1996) may be the world’s best (or only?) option for scuba divers to get hitched.
Speaking of blue depths, Trang is also the jump-off point for lesser visited and spectacular islands like Ko Muk, Ko Kradan, Ko Libong, Ko Sukon and Ko Ngai. You can’t pick a winner among them: all have gin-clear waters, white beaches and relaxed small resorts where you can kick back for days on end.
Just over an hour to the south is offbeat Satun, a blend of Thai and Malay flavors that’s right on the border with Perlis, Peninsular Malaysia’s smallest and greenest state. Satun is the jump-off point for even more idyllic islands, like Ko Adang, Ko Lipe and Ko Bulon Le, as well as Tarutao National Park. Once a penal colony surrounded by crocodile-infested waters, it’s today an uninhabited, protected and wild beauty where self-supported camping is the only lodging option.
Betong: an up-and-coming ecotourism hot spot
Once a seedy town for holidaying Malaysians, forest-fringed Betong is rising as a beacon of ecotourism hope in the southern province of Yala, which has long been a center for Islamic separatists. It’s a four-hour minivan ride from Hat Yai to Betong, though a new flight route is under discussion. Outside of a clock tower facing a 9m(29.5ft)-high postbox touted as Thailand’s largest, Betong’s attractions lie away from the center of town – and all are natural.
The new 61m(200ft)-long Skywalk Ayerweng floats 621m (2038ft) above sea level – and is a must at sunrise, when a carpet of clouds hovers amid the misty mountaintops. A little further north, you can take a boat on the Bang Lang Reservoir, or hike to a waterfall and camp at Bang Lang National Park.
On the one-hour drive back to town, don’t miss the diversion to the Piyamit Tunnels along the Thai and Malaysian border. This system of caves and passages brings to life the history of the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war started in 1948 against the British colonizers. During the conflict, groups of jungle-dwelling Malaysian and Thai Communist insurgents used these labyrinthine passages as their cross-border hideouts.
Nakhon Si Thammarat: a blend of cultures and natural beauty galore
Far too few come to southern Thailand’s most culturally sophisticated city. With its mixed Hindu, Thai and Muslim heritage dating back thousands of years, Nakhon Si Thammarat is a fascinating cross-cultural destination. The town’s history is well explained by the exhibits at the National Museum, and illustrated by the imposing red-brick Old City Walls. Don’t skip a performance of local shadow puppets – a close relative of Malaysian and Indonesian wayang kulit.
It’s also worth taking in Nakhon Si Tammarat’s natural bounty by renting a scooter and setting off into the hills surrounding Kiriwong village. Stunning waterfalls such as the seven-tiered Krungching and Karom, the five-tiered Phrom Lok, and the pools of Ai Khiao are all tucked inside Khao Luang National Park, and can be all visited in one day using the same entry ticket.