One of the very common questions we see on Travelfish.org is "What is the fastest way to get down south?" Down south referring generally to one of the three Gulf islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan or Ko Tao, or to the west coast Andaman islands out from Krabi, Phuket and Trang. You can fly, get an overnight bus or a train, but before that, take a breath, slow down and think about what you might be missing. With a sly week or so up your sleeve, here are five spots we'd venture are worth a look in and hey, you may like them so much you'll never make it to the islands!
While it isn't on the beach itself, the little-touristed provincial capital of Phetburi (often also referred to as Phetchaburi) marks the beginning of the "real" southern Thailand. It's a temple town, set astride a decidedly average looking river (keep an eye out for monitor lizards). There is a Royal Palace overrun with monkeys and a couple or pretty interesting caves worth a look in. There are peddle-powered samlors to get around in and a wealth of great Thai food — be sure to sample the sickly sweet desert khanom mo kaeng.
Further afield there are beaches — Haad Puk Tian and Haad Chao Samran are the most accessible, and while neither will win "Beach of the year" awards, they're most than appropriate for a meal and drinks under the shade. Puk Tian also has some pretty, ahhh, noteworthy sculptures by the water.
Phetburi is also a launching point for trips to Kaeng Krachan National Park (Thailand's largest). Trekking is available along with bird-watching, boat trips and over overnight ventures. We saw a lot of hornbills on one visit. The park is best visited on at least a semi-organised basis, and Tom at Rabieng Guesthouse is the man to talk to.
Allow at least two days to visit Phetburi's temples, palace and caves, two days if you're fitting in some beach time. Another couple of days will be needed if you're planning an overnight stay in the National Park. Phetburi is on both the train and main north-south bus line.
While Phetburi is the leaping off point for Thailand's largest national park, Khao Sam Roi Yot is one of the smallest. It is a fractured park, beset by competing land claims and shrimp farms, but what has been protected is well worth a look. There are a couple of viewpoints you can climb to, boat trips and an especially photogenic royal pavilion inside a cave. There are a handful of beaches you can visit, and, best of all, there is reasonably priced accommodation at Phu Noi Beach, which sits just outside the park boundary.
There's little else in the way of "tourist services" but, for a couple of slow days in a relatively natural setting this can be a good choice. It's worth noting though that weekends are best avoided due to larger groups taking the bulk of the Park accommodation and Bangkok-exiles grabbing the best digs on Phu Noi.
All that nature-loving in Kaeng Krachan and Khao Sam Roi Yot will have helped you work up and appetite, and nowhere can an appetite be better satisfied than in Prachuap Khiri Khan! The seaside provincial capital is famous for its seafood and while Hua Hin is perhaps better known, we'd say hands down is the food not only better here, it is also a good deal cheaper. make sure you set aside at least one evening for seafood munchies down by the water.
Eating aside, Prachuap has it's own rather pretty beach, but there are even nicer beaches just to the north and accommodation is available at both. There's also a hilltop temple (including the mandatory marauding simians) with splendid views of the bay.Allow two full days to take in the beaches and to cram in sufficient seafood.
There are actually two Bang Saphans. Bang Saphan Noi and Bang Saphan Yai, and let's put it this way, if they were islands, we'd be writing "this is what Ko Samui was like 20 years ago". These are old style beach digs. There are plenty of places to stay and lots of cheap, local-focussed eateries.
The beaches are not manicured, touristed affairs — there will be debris and flotsam on the beach — but there won't be any Full Moon Parties, never-ending tailor shops and pesky beach vendors flogging you pineapple and massages. Pack a book or three, a lot of sunscreen and perhaps hire a motorbike to explore the surrounds — there are a lot of surrounds worth exploring around here.
Allow two days to two weeks.
So this is where you were going to rush to to get the ferry to Ko Tao right? Well don't jump on it just yet. First and foremost, at least one night in Chumphon is mandatory so you can avail yourself of the absolutely cracking night market. It is a culinary coup. Prices are rock bottom and the food fabulous — and it is open late — really late.
If sitting around eating for three days straight isn't your idea of fun, there's scope for boat trips to offshore islands and Chumphon also has a budding spelunking scene. You'll most likely need to arrange trips for either of these via the near endless supply of travel agents in town. If that is too much trouble, then hit the beach. Haad Sairee would be our first choice, but Thung Wua laen is also reasonable.
Allow two days for Chumphon itself and another day or so to explore the nearby beaches.
So there you go, you're allowed to go get the ferry to Ko Tao now :)
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.