As the largest province in South Thailand, Surat Thani stretches from the brilliant white-sand shores of popular Gulf islands to forest-shrouded karsts found within 20 kilometres of the Andaman Sea. The provincial capital, commonly known as Surat, is a busy transport hub where locals unload fresh seafood as travellers hunt for ferry tickets.
Named after a city in India, Surat Thani translates as “City of Good People”, though you might feel otherwise after dealing with some of the aggressive touts and shifty travel agents. Most travellers who pass through are heading straight to/from the very popular islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. Few spend more than a night in Surat, which many see as nothing more than a place to catch a boat. We think the scenic riverfront, great food and worthwhile day trips make it a destination in its own right.
The old Chinese-influenced Ban Don part of town features century-old Sino-European architecture that — with a bit of restoration — could be as picturesque as some of the heritage shophouses found in old Phuket town. The nearby Tapi riverfront, with its laidback night market and longtail boat pier, reminds us of Krabi’s better-known waterfront area. A boat trip into the Tapi’s tributaries will take you past old stilted houses, towering coconut trees and dense feathered palms that turn waterways into tunnels.
While Surat lacks any must-see attractions, it’s a fun place to explore fiery Southern Thai eats and poke around the old Chinese-style teashops, bakeries and temples. The historically and spiritually inclined can head north to Chaiya for a glimpse of Srivijaya heritage at the ancient Wat Phra Borrommothat Chaiya, and perhaps a Buddhist retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh, a forest temple founded by one of modern Thailand’s most influential monks.
Nature lovers could venture south to check out the mountains and waterfalls of Tai Rom Yen National Park, where Thai Communist insurgents once plotted their next moves. Surat Thani province also includes Khao Sok National Park, home to the Guilin-esque karst outcrops of Chiew Lan Lake and some of the oldest rainforest on earth. While Khao Sok is closer to the towns of Takua Pa and Phang Nga over on the Andaman Sea coast, it can also be reached from Surat.
Then there are Surat Thani province’s biggest tourism draw cards: Ko Samui with its well-entrenched beach holiday scene; Ko Pha Ngan and its infamous Full Moon Parties; and Ko Tao with its phenomenal dive sites. All of these can be reached by a selection of ferries departing mostly from piers in Don Sak, 60 kilometres east of Surat. You could also head for the many pristine islands of Ang Thong National Marine Park or the largely empty coastal beaches in Khanom and Sichon.
Unfortunately, onward transport scams are extremely common in Surat. Do give our travel section a solid read before you book that “all-inclusive” ferry transfer to Ko Pha Ngan or tourist bus to Bangkok.
Surat Thani’s monsoon runs from late October to mid December, when storms often lash the coastline. The province’s abundant fruit is celebrated with a yearly Rambutan Festival in early August. At the end of the Buddhist rains retreat in October, the city holds South Thailand’s largest Chak Phra festival — complete with decorated boats and parades — to honour the Buddha’s return from a heavenly realm.
Surat Thani province covers a huge expanse of land bordered to the north by Chumphon, northwest by Ranong, west by Phang Nga, southwest by Krabi, south by Nakhon Si Thammarat, and east by the Gulf of Thailand. The provincial capital, Amphoe Muang Surat Thani, to use its full name, is 650 kilometres south of Bangkok.
Surat is one of the larger cities in South Thailand. It sprawls to the south of the Tapi River, which empties into the Gulf some 15 kilometres east of downtown. Most travellers stay within walking distance of the river and municipal fresh market in the old part of town, known as Ban Don; the whole city went by this name until King Rama VII reinvented it in the 1930s. Further from the river, the southern part of town has a more youthful feel and newer (read: uglier) buildings.
The main drag through downtown is Talad Mai Road, which runs from west to east, parallel to the river. Along Talad Mai you’ll find two of the city’s three bus stations (more on those in the travel section), a bunch of travel offices where you can buy boat tickets, the large Wat Tham Bucha and the Srivijaya-style City Pillar Shrine sitting right next to a bridge that cuts over to the turnoff for Ko Lamphu, a riverine island and public park only accessible from the north bank of the Tapi. About a kilometre and a half west of the bridge, the TAT office is found at the far west end of Talad Mai Road and opens daily from 08:30 to 16:30.
The narrower Namuang and Bandon roads also run west to east, between the river and Talad Mai Road. Starting at the centrally located Bandon pier, where night boats depart for the islands and longtail boats are available for river cruises, a walk up Bandon Road will take you past many of the most picturesque of Surat’s old shophouses. This area feels like a small Chinatown.
Continue east on Bandon and you’ll hit the main night market, spanning the length of Soi Tonpo between Bandon and Namuang. Walk south to the Namuang side, take a left and after five minutes you’ll reach a large statue of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, at one of Surat’s larger Chinese-style temples. Keep heading east to find the Thaksin Hospital, just past Talad Mai Soi 39.
The larger Surat Thani Hospital is located a few kilometres southwest of downtown on Si Wichai Road (Talad Mai Road becomes Si Wichai south of a canal). The police station is centrally located just west of the downtown bridge, across the street from Talad Mai Soi 13.
If you need to extend a visa, Surat Thani Immigration is located in the back of the provincial hall (“Salar Karn” in Thai) to the northeast of town off the south side of Donnok Road, just west of Chonkasem Road.
Banks and ATMs are scattered around the main downtown streets, with a bunch clustered near the CBD Hotel on Namuang Road. Surat Thai hotels all offer free WiFi; otherwise head to Monnet Internet and Game on Soi Rungruang, across from the Thairungruang Hotel and a short walk from the two downtown bus stations, known as Talad Kaset 1 and 2.
Further afield, the long-distance bus station is located several kilometres west of downtown near the Central Plaza shopping mall off Route 401, while the train station is found further west in the village of Phun Phin — both can be reached by local buses from downtown Surat. Continue west and you’ll hit the province’s largest highway, Route 41, running from north to south past Surat Thani Airport. Route 41 also runs north up to Chaiya, but from downtown Surat you’re better off going over the bridge to link up with Route 2007 and, later, 4112.
Route 401 continues southwest all the way to Khao Sok National Park with its main accommodation area located over 120 kilometres from Surat town. Head east on Route 401 out of Surat town and, after some 60 kilometres, you’ll pass the turnoff for the Seatran, Raja and Lomprayah ferries in Don Sak district. Keep going and 401 bends south along the Gulf coast, cutting into Nakhon Si Thammarat province and the beach towns of Khanom and Sichon.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Surat Thani or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Surat Thani. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Surat Thani. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Surat Thani, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 13th February, 2017.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.