By Jack Duncan
So often we hear people say “I’d love to go to Thailand but isn’t it really commercialised and touristy now?” The answer to this is both yes and no:
Yes there are areas that to avoid if you don’t want to be surrounded by international chain restaurants, higher prices and beaches 10 times busier than they looked in the brochure; and no because so much of the country remains as authentically beautiful and culturally intoxicating as it was decades and centuries ago. Here are some of our favourite spots to connect with the ‘real’ Thailand.
5. Koh Samet
At 6km long by 2km wide, Koh Samet is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Given it’s just 2 hours by car from bustling Bangkok, Koh Samet is not necessarily the obvious choice for this list. However, give this gem a chance and you’ll likely be surprised by what you see.
Samet is home to beautiful white sandy beaches, sweeping bays, and some of the most affordable luxury boutique accommodation in all of Thailand. Our personal favourite is the Paradee: a stunning all-villa 5 star property with private pools, a relaxed yet intimate atmosphere, and two beaches straddling both coasts at the narrow tip of the island. From the moment you arrive, by speedboat, to smiling staff ready and waiting with a cool towel and a cold drink – you feel like a VIP.
As the island’s so small, you can easily get around on rented mopeds, or open-top jeep taxis. There’s plenty of laid-back dining options serving tasty local grub with stunning views out over the ocean.
4. Doi Ang Khang
This is Thailand, but not as you know it. Doi Ang Khang, in the country’s far north near the border with Myanmar, is a high altitude ‘station’ used by royalty throughout history to escape the oppressive summer heat. Due to its climate, Doi Ang Khang is home to rolling fields of strawberries, plums, peaches, and other foods not normally found in Thailand. The air is fresh, and the views staggering. This is a great place for trekking and mountain biking.
People also come here to get an insight into Thailand’s tribal life – left virtually untouched by outside interference for 100s of years, the two most famous in the area are the Black Lahu and Palong tribes. We strongly recommend an immersive experience that treats your visit as educational, rather than invasive.
As for accommodation, there’s plenty of rustic guesthouses and homestays in the area. Our favourite, however, is the Angkhang Nature Resort.
3. Koh Kood
You might expect the fourth largest island in a country known for its beaches and island hopping to be one of its most developed – Koh Kood bucks that trend and then some.
Located just off the coast of Cambodia, Koh Kood was kept closed to the public for decades in order to preserve its natural beauty. While similar places in other parts of the country were getting the ‘globalisation treatment,’ Koh Kood, with its lush tropical rainforests and bright white sandy beaches, lay dormant and uninterrupted.
These days, despite the arrival of a handful of luxury resorts and more traditional guesthouses, it remains a hidden gem. There’s not even a road here, so transport is mostly by foot and by boat.
If you want to experience Thai island life as it was, and relax in total seclusion, head to Koh Kood before inevitable development comes knocking.
We’re still not sure exactly how Sukhothai remains off so many itineraries. The only reason we can think of is its geography. Sukhothai is located right in the heart of the country between Chiang Mai and Bangkok – an area mostly overlooked by tourists.
The city was the imperial capital of Siam in the 13th and 14th centuries and is home to some of the most stunning (and intact) ancient ruins in all of Thailand. This is the place to come if you’re a history buff and a lover of temple culture.
The highlight of any visit here is the huge Sukhothai Historical Park. This UNESCO protected ancient walled city houses 21 historical sites, four ponds and 70 additional sites located outside the old walls. Divided into five separate zones, the best way to make sure you see all Sukhothai has to offer is to hire a motorbike or bike – and a guide.
As Sukhothai continues to fly somewhat under the radar, you can often have huge swathes of the park all to yourself!
Top of our ‘hidden’ list, however, is Isaan – the traditional name given to the collection of provinces that makes up Thailand’s most eastern region. Isaan is the least visited region in the country: miles from the coast, mostly flat and with soil hostile to growing crops – people here have struggled to thrive, making it Thailand’s least prosperous region.
Due the influx of people leaving to find work in other parts of the country – tourism never really took off here. Only recently has Isaan started to be recognised for what it is, the definition of a hidden gem.
Isaan is home to its own dialects, its own (super spicy) cuisine and some of best-preserved Khmer temples in all of Asia. Our favourite site is Phanom Rung – think Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but without the crowds, and you’re along the right lines.
Add this to authentic villages, stunning national parks where you can see elephant in their natural habitat, and a culture virtually untouched by the 21st century – and you can see why it’s topped our list! Go now, before it changes.