Published: 20th August, 2019
Many of the travellers who flock to Southern Thailand’s big-name islands don’t realise how much more there is to this region than beaches alone. Give the following itinerary a go if you’re ready to jump off the tourist trail and dig into the food, history, culture and nature of the less-travelled South.
This four-week swing takes you to big cities and small towns loaded with mosques, wats, markets and heritage shophouses. The unmistakable flavours of Southern Thai food will be the highlight for many. Others will prefer the museums and old towns. Underrated natural attractions include mountains reaching close to 2,000 metres, impressive waterfalls, serene farming villages, wetlands filled with birdlife and the largest lake in Thailand. Sprinkled on top are mainland beaches that will show you how the Southern Thais enjoy the sea.
We mapped a U-shaped route buttoning much of the region’s lower half into an ambitious 800 km journey. If you have limited time, want to spend more time in certain places, or will be crossing south into Malaysia halfway through, go ahead and bite off smaller pieces of the itinerary. Also keep in mind that both the Gulf (east) and Andaman (west) coasts offer loads of stellar islands and while this itinerary focuses on the mainland, adding an island or 12 never hurt anyone.
Left off are the deep Southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. While all three of these have a lot of potential for travel, they remain in the midst of an often-violent conflict pitting Thai military against local separatist forces seeking autonomy for their sub-region, which once held kingdoms of its own and is—historically, ethnically and culturally—far more Malay than Thai. If you head down there, read up on the current situation and check with your travel insurance provider to be aware of exclusions.
Cramped minibuses (vans) pinball around southern Thai provincial capitals and carry the bulk of regional travellers, though regular-size buses also ply many routes. While the main Southern railway line connects the east coast provinces from Surat Thani down to Hat Yai and beyond, the west coast has no railway apart from a short extension to Trang. Flights connect Bangkok to airports in Surat Thani, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Hat Yai, Trang and Krabi, and the larger of these serve flights to/from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore as well.
Available at any airport, a rental car would work great for this region, or you could use public transport to go between the main centres before arranging songthaews and tuk tuks to taxi you to outlying attractions. Motorbike rental is available in most destinations—if you plan to rent one, please make the time to learn to ride and get a license in your home country, and always wear a helmet. If you’re thinking of riding without an international motorcycle license, you may want to read up on the travel insurance implications first.
See our dedicated transport pages for each destination, such as this one for Phatthalung, to find more details on getting around.
The Andaman coast’s monsoon usually tapers in gradually around May and lasts until late October or early November. The Gulf coast’s monsoon blows in around September and often keeps that east side well drenched into early December. So this route would work best any time from mid December to April.
A November start would also be fine if you flip the itinerary around to go from west to east. May and June should work as well—just keep umbrellas handy. Flooding is relatively common in the western provinces during August and September, and in the eastern provinces in October and November.
Day 1: Surat Thani
The capital of Surat Thani province makes a good starting point because it’s well connected by air, bus, rail and ferries, with heaps of travellers coming from Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. Stay a night for the well-stocked night market and a walk through the old Ban Don part of town, perhaps followed by a sunset cruise on the Tapi River with Mr Lek. The next morning, dash to Talad Kaset 2 station to catch a minibus to Khanom.
Days 2-5: Khanom and Sichon
A 70-km ride east from Surat introduces windswept beaches that extend for miles in these two sleepy fishing districts. We suggest choosing one to stay in, hitting the other on a day trip. Unwind and fill up on affordable seafood. Throw in a boat trip for a chance of spotting rare pink dolphins. Those travelling with a vehicle could sidetrack to the little-known yet beautiful Thong Yang waterfall before passing beach after beach on the way south towards the next stop.
Days 6-7: Nakhon Si Thammarat
Known as “Nakhon” to friends and set a full 100 km south of Khanom, the commercial area in this large city hits with fresh markets, curry stalls and second- or third-generation Chinese-Thai businesses dealing in noodles, teacakes and gold. The city was born way back in the sixth century as a centre of the Srivijaya civilisation, and later it hosted the powerful Tambralinga (or Ligor) kingdom that maintained close ties to Sri Lanka, vectoring the eastward spread of Theravada Buddhism. In the 13th century the domain was renamed Nakhon Si Thammarat, “City of the Sacred Dharma King”.
Explore this deep history at Nakhon’s National Museum, which displays a fascinating collection of artefacts. Afterwards, pop into Suchart Subsin’s house of shadow puppetry before paying respects to the towering chedi at Wat Phra Mahathat, a sacred temple and one of a handful of the city’s landmarks that date to the Tambralinga period. Cover all of the above on a cultural walk that will also take you to stalls dishing out pungent khanom jeen and old-style coffee (or kopi) along Nakhon’s energetic streets.
Days 7-10: Khiri Wong and Khao Luang National Park
In Nakhon, catch a songthaew 25 km west to the sedate fruit-growing village of Baan Khiri Wong. Surrounded by forested ridgelines at the foot of 1,835-metre Khao Luang—the tallest mountain in the South—a community of farmers and craftspeople dwell in wooden houses beside a clear river. Try the durian, mangosteen and rambutan, grown on trees that hide behind fog each morning. Small resorts are available, but only with a homestay program will you learn farming and crafts including batik, jewellery and soap making.
Hiking to the summit of Khao Luang is possible with a guide via a trail headed near Khiri Wong village. Those not prepared for a multi-night jungle trek can still enjoy the natural beauty at several waterfalls which are also part of Khao Luang National Park, though you’ll need to hire a vehicle in Nakhon or haggle a songthaew driver away from his normal route to reach them.
Days 11-12: Phatthalung
You’ll likely be the only foreigners in the small provincial capital of Phatthalung, located 110 km south of Nakhon. Don’t worry! Locals are usually delighted to see the elusive tourists who wander into their charming town. A daring tongue might meet its match at Raan Thale Noi in dishes like the fiery fish innard curry known as gaeng tai pla, and gaeng som tai, the sour orange curry that’s ubiquitous throughout the South. Here they serve it with delicious button-size roots known as man kii nuu, “rat shit potato”.
To burn off the calories go climb Khao Ok Thalu, an imposing limestone massif strung with stairways leading to Buddhist/Hindu statuary, forest temples where monks and nuns go to meditate, and a vast hole near the top where you can gaze straight down to the ground 250 metres below. If you have a second day for Phatthalung, consider a side trip east to the centuries-old palace and temple in the lakeside town of Baan Lam Pan.
Day 13: Thale Noi and Songkhla Lake
Shared between Phatthalung and Songkhla provinces, Songkhla Lake (or Thale Sap) covers more than 1,000 square km of brackish and freshwater, including vital fisheries and wetlands. The best-known birdwatching site is Thale Noi, a vast wetland just north of the main lake where cotton pygmy geese and bronze-winged jacanas thrill visitors in longtail boats. From February to April, hot-pink waterlilies join the brightly coloured feathers out on the marsh. At any time, Thale Noi village is worth a stroll to meet and patronise locals who weave all sorts of products from krajud, a hardy local grass.
On the lake’s west coast you could settle into Sri Pak Pra Resort to watch a sunrise framed by the area’s signature giant fishing nets being slowly lowered and raised—a scene that we’ve found magical. Public songthaews connect Phatthalung town to Baan Thale Noi, and from there you can return to Phatthalung and switch to a bus bound for Songkhla.
If travelling with a vehicle, you could cut east from Thale Noi after your boat ride to pass the north end of the lake via a scenic causeway. Turn south a few km before you bump into the Gulf coast and you’ll be cruising on an isthmus that narrows to two km of land separating lake from sea. Beaches and small resorts rim the seaside as more wetlands taper to lake islands in the west. If taking the Phatthalung provincial route south, consider pulling off at the motley shadow puppetry workshop, hot springs and temples found in Khao Chaison district. Either way, expect a 130 km ride down to the next stop.
Days 14-15: Songkhla
Few Westerners visit the capital of Songkhla province because it’s often tacked on to travel safety advisories despite having seen minimal spillover—a motorbike bomb in 2005 that did no damage—from Thailand’s deep Southern conflict. It’s one of our favourite spots in this itinerary: a calm and colourful town hosting some of the most attractive and best-preserved heritage architecture in the region. Much of the old town street art is pretty rad too, and there’s even a bit of World War II history involving heroic British pilots resisting a Japanese landing in 1941.
Expressing the area’s Chinese heritage, the elegant Songkhla National Museum is worth a stop on the way to climb up Khao Tang Kuan for a panoramic vista of the lake, the Gulf and the entire town clustered in between. Lounge as locals fly kites on Samila beach at dusk, enjoying Southern-style seafood before you retire to a room at Baan Nai Nakhon that evokes the feel of an early 20th-century Chinese merchant’s home. Also factor in a trip to the terrific Southern Thai Folklore Museum on Ko Yo, a lake island tapering to stilted fishing stacks as far as the eye can see.
Days 16-17: Hat Yai
As the third largest city in Thailand and the largest in the South by far, Hat Yai lies only 35 km west of Songkhla town but emerged much later when the railway brought migrants from China and Malaysia in the early to mid 20th century. The sprawling city has an overachieving public park and a wealth of food ranging from Chinese offal soup to Malay char kuay tiao and no shortage of Southern Thai eats. Quite a few Malaysian tourists visit on weekends to hit the floating market and shop in the labyrinthine markets.
Before you arrive at Hat Yai, be aware that attacks blamed on deep southern separatists have occasionally rattled the city—most recently were three 2014 bombings that simultaneously wounded nine near a police station, the train station and a convenience store. Sporadic attacks have not deterred us from visiting, but you may decide otherwise. The city’s mega-web of public transport includes minibuses (and trains in some cases) to four different Malaysia border crossings. If sticking to our plan, minibuses depart for Satun from both bus terminals.
Day 18: Ton Nga Chang waterfall
Before saying goodbye to the Hat Yai area, nature lovers need to climb Nam Tok Ton Nga Chang, the “Waterfall Like Elephant Tusks” that cascades over seven tiers revealing stunning views amid the jungle. It’s the namesake attraction of a wildlife sanctuary that covers miles of mountainous wilderness beginning 25 km west of the city. You could hit the falls as a day trip by rented motorbike or taxi from Hat Yai, or make them a stop on the way west towards Satun if you have a personal vehicle. We think Ton Nga Chang rates among the South’s most dazzling waterfalls—don’t miss it.
Day 19: Satun
Now near the Andaman coast, 100 km west of Hat Yai, the small capital of Satun province keeps a low profile by leaving the mainstream tourism zoo to nearby Ko Lipe and Pakbara. Check out the giant mosque before visiting another well-done museum set in the old governor’s residence. Muslim-Thai food steams in the markets, and we’ve always enjoyed our stays and meals at On’s Living Room.
You do run out of things to do quickly in Satun town, but we like the laidback vibe and violence from the deep Southern conflict has not reached the area. If you have a few days extra at this point, consider sidetracking to rugged national park islands Ko Tarutao or Ko Adang, both part of the same archipelago that includes Ko Lipe. For a more offbeat island trip, look into joining Thai tourists for kayaking around a lagoon and striking rock formations at little-known Ko Khao Yai.
Days 20-24: Trang
Having pivoted north for 150 km from Satun, you will now meet one of our favourite eating towns in Thailand. Hundreds of curries paint trays and giant bowls in thousands of colours at the night market, though on our first evening we always opt for the fabulous panang and gaeng tae poh at Yue Chiang, which doubles as one of Trang’s many old-style kopi shops. Throw in wood-roasted herbed pork from the day market and sponge cake fished out of shophouse bakeries, and you will not leave hungry.
With any of several good-value guesthouses providing a base in the capital, we also think of Trang province as Thailand’s unsung coastal star. Islands like Ko Muk, Ko Kradan and Ko Libong are indeed magnificent, but some of the empty mainland beaches boast similar scenes of vertical limestone cliffs, fisher shacks and casuarina trees. The province also has caving opportunities to go with another impressive waterfall, a thrilling treetop walkway and a bit of history in the old port town of Kantang. Modest mosques join vast rubber groves and locals gathering for bird singing competitions to colour out the area.
Days 25-28: Krabi
Another 130 km up the Andaman coast takes you to Krabi town with its picturesque riverside scenery and tourism infrastructure serving the many travellers dashing off to islands like Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. The food adventure picks up again at Talad City’s curry alley. Traveller-oriented bars and cafes also join a growing list of hotels and guesthouses in the provincial capital, while nearby Ao Nang anchors the tacky beach resort scene.
In a few days you could wander the photogenic town, take a side trip to Railay for rock climbing and choose from a wealth of other outlying attractions. Options include Wat Tham Seua’s dramatic clifftop chedi, waterfalls and caves in two different national parks, and Ko Klang, a pastoral and traditional Muslim-Thai island reached via a five-minute ferry from Krabi town. Like Surat Thani, Krabi has a solid public transport system to plot your next move by.
Where to next
Still not exhausted? From Krabi you could pop over to Phuket, hit Khao Sok National Park on the way back towards the upper Gulf coast, or get lost on the northern Andaman coast heading up towards Ranong, beyond which lies Burma.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.