Think Thailand and you’ve got Bangkok, the culinary capital for city slickers, on one hand and Phuket, the seaside party central, on the other. But the Land of Smiles has so much more to offer every kind of traveller. So quit being a mere tourist and veer off the beaten path into scarcely ventured territory. Thailand’s got something for everyone beyond its archetypal go-tos and here are a few you should check out:
Culture Vultures: Chiang Mai
An underrated gem residing in the shadows of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the quintessential cultural capital of Thailand. Comparatively more laid-back than the chaotic hubbub of Bangkok, the city is no less awash with its own unique sights and sounds. Amid more than 300 temples here, Doi Suthep stands out in all its golden resplendence as a must-visit.
The northern hills and mountains are home to several friendly ethnic tribes, each bringing a different slab of tradition to the table to be experienced in eye-opening rural homestays. At the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, interact with these gentle giants, learn their intriguing personal histories and attest to their cultural significance to Thai society.
At dusk, Chiang Mai comes to life with the frenzy of its many night bazaars which are abuzz with activity you’ll want to be in the centre of. The busiest of these is the Sunday Walking Street Market – the vibrant epitome of Chiang Mai’s distinctive street market culture where anything and everything is on offer.
History Buffs: Sukhothai
This UNESCO World Heritage City is an ancient playground chock full of historical wonders. It was the country’s first Siamese Kingdom and is now grounds for some fulfilling exploration.
The Sukhothai Historical Park, in particular, is a sprawling attraction of almost 200 ancient sites, including the most famous Wat Mahathat, Wat Si Chum and Sra Si Wat temple ruins as well as rolling rice fields and villages. Get a taste of Thailand’s ancient civilisation as well as the refreshing, rural charm of life in the countryside. History buffs should also pay Ramkamhaeng National Museum a visit for a vivid display of ancient customs and lifestyles.
War Aficionados: Kanchanaburi
The setting for the cinematic masterpiece, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi bears an unforgiving association to all things war-related. Visit the River Kwai, now dotted with famous floating restaurants best explored by boat, and its iconic bridge which you can walk across.
River Kwai’s most famous (probably in all of Thailand) Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is truly a sight and a beautiful opportunity for a bargain, with vendors and produce-laden boats drifting its waters. Take a two-hour train ride through history’s most gruesome on the notorious Death Railway past vast fields of sugarcane, rice and farmland.
To delve deeper, the Hellfire Pass Memorial recounts the building of the railway by Allied prisoners for the Japanese army during WWII. War aficionados get a bleaker glimpse into Thailand’s darker past as opposed to its rosier landscapes in other cities. Across from the museum is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, or Don Rak, where visitors pay tribute to the railway’s thousands of victims.
Beach Bums: Koh Lipe
Unlike Phuket – something of an overrated beach overrun with tourists, Koh Lipe presents an idyllic, more secluded alternative. Showcasing powdery white sand beaches and clear blue waters, it is no wonder postcard-esque Koh Lipe is known as the ‘Maldives of Thailand’. This is the perfect getaway from our fast-paced urban lifestyles. Go sea-kayaking to neighbouring islands in the Adang archipelago and explore its hidden snorkelling spots.
Of Koh Lipe’s three beaches, Sunset Beach is the least frequented and provides the most privacy for a laidback Saturday afternoon. Or venture into the lush green foliage on the island and discover captivating wildlife within the jungle. In the evening, indulge in the relaxing ambience of the bars and restaurants (with local seafood!) that line the beaches. When you’ve had your fill of lazy beach days, head inland to Hat Yai and experience the exuberant atmosphere of its Khong Hae Floating Market and famed sprawling night markets.
Dive Enthusiasts: Similan Islands
Housing arguably the most stunning dive sites in the world, the Similan Islands of Thailand is a second home for dive enthusiasts. These nine secluded islands are well-protected by the Thai government, boasting an astonishing array of colourful tropical coral and crystal-clear waters teeming with plentiful marine life.
From Kuhl stingrays and manta rays to leopard sharks and whale sharks, keep your eyes peeled for an exotic underwater sighting. Your options range from speedboats, daytrips or even liveaboards to give you the full experience. Dive sites like Christmas Point, Richelieu Rock and Elephant Head Rock offer phenomenal tunnels, swim-throughs and canyons to delight even the most seasoned of divers.