If you’re planning a beach holiday in the south of Thailand you are spoilt for choice. With so many tropical islands and resorts to choose from, the decision of where to go is an enjoyable dilemma to have. There are plenty of good reasons why Ko Samui and Phuket are the two most popular beach destinations in southern Thailand, but they are by no means the only ones to consider. If Ko Samui and Phuket are too mainstream for your liking, you don’t have to travel very far from them to find alternative destinations off the beaten track. That’s not to say you should totally dismiss Phuket and Ko Samui. They are both wonderful destinations in their own right and their long-standing popularity is testimony to that. However, if you’re seeking somewhere with more of a local feel or just looking to explore areas of Thailand you haven’t visited before, take a look at the three southern Thai provinces of Chumphon, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Ranong. Most overseas tourists bypass these locations on their travels in Thailand which is a pity, because this trio of provinces is home to some gorgeous beaches and unique local attractions.
The city of Chumphon has a reputation as being a transit town and for many tourists their experience of Chumphon is limited to the train station and the ferry for onward travel to Ko Tao. Those that do take time to explore Chumphon will find an amiable destination and if you are seeking a quieter holiday away from the better known tourist resorts, this southern Thai province may well fit the bill.
Chumphon beaches and islands
Tourists in this part of Thailand usually make a beeline for Ko Tao, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui. With the bulk of travellers heading out to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, it leaves Chumphon’s beaches blissfully quiet. It’s fair to say that Chumphon’s mainland beaches aren’t as stunningly beautiful as those found on the islands, but they are mostly untouched and the absence of commercialisation is a definite plus for the tourists who do stay here. The lack of development means that accommodation options are limited, but it also means that guest houses and hotels near the beach can be excellent value for money.
Mu Ko Chumphon National Park
Mu Ko Chumphon National Park covers a large chunk of the Chumphon coastline and incorporates more than 40 islands. With attractive beaches, coral reefs and diverse marine life, the area is home to some superb diving and snorkelling locations including Ko Ngam Yai and Ko Ngam Noi.
Sairee Beach is a popular location for local families at weekends and public holidays. At the northern end of the beach there’s a shrine to the the Prince of Chumphon. Thai people come here to pay their respects to the man who is regarded as the Father of the Thai Royal Navy and to take snapshots of the decommissioned navy ship which sits next to the shrine. There is an elevated viewing platform close to the shrine and for even more panoramic views of the Chumphon coastline, head to Khao Chao Mueang a short drive away from Sairee Beach.
Thung Wua Laen Beach
The pleasant stretch of sand at Hat Thung Wua Laen is a good choice for a beach break. Easy to reach from downtown Chumphon, this beach has a decent selection of low-rise budget hotels and guest houses to choose from and is a great place to visit for a peaceful holiday. To the north of Thung Wua Laen Beach you can find an even quieter stretch of coastline although you will need your own transport to explore further.
Away from the beach
From homestays to river rafting to hiking, there is much to do to keep adventurous travellers occupied in Chumphon. Take in the viewpoints at Khao Matsee and Khao Dinsor with the latter regarded as a fabulous location for birdwatchers. Enjoy a homestay at Ban Mai Chai Khlong or on the tranquil island of Ko Pitak. Go bamboo rafting on the Lang Suan River and enjoy the natural diversity Chumphon has to offer.
Air Asia and Nok Air fly from Bangkok Don Muang airport to Chumphon with a journey time of just over an hour. Trains from Bangkok to Chumphon take around eight hours. Large songthaews to Sairee Beach depart from near the City Pillar Shrine in Chumphon town. Smaller songthaews depart from opposite the Municipal Market to Thung Wua Laen Beach. The fare to each beach is 30 Baht with the journey taking approximately half an hour.
Chumphon Cabana Resort (Thung Wua Laen Beach)
Sairi Beach Cabanas (Sairee Beach)
Nakhon Si Thammarat
With its long stretch of sandy beaches barely touched by tourism, the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat is probably one of the best kept secrets in southern Thailand. While nearby Ko Samui has morphed from a quiet island of coconut palms into a busy and world-renowned tourist destination, the mainland beaches at Khanom in Nakhon Si Thammarat province have remained virtually untouched. This makes the area ideal for anybody who finds Ko Samui too developed or who wants to enjoy the simple pleasures that Khanom has to offer.
Nakhon Si Thammarat beaches and islands
Located in the northern half of Nakhon Si Thammarat province, Khanom may be geographically close to Ko Samui, but it is miles away in terms of development and the number of tourists. And it is this lack of development that appeals to discerning visitors who eschew Thailand’s bigger and better known destinations in favour of laid-back Khanom with its long sandy beaches and friendly atmosphere.
There are a number of different beaches and bays to explore in Khanom district with all of them enjoying a similar low-key vibe. Take in the sea air with a long stroll along the empty beach or sit down with a good book and simply relax. The majority of the beachfront in Khanom is undeveloped with just a smattering of resorts and restaurants making it an ideal location to chill out away from the crowds. Looking out to sea you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Khanom’s most famous residents, the pink dolphins. For a better chance of seeing the dolphins, book a boat trip with a responsible operator such as Khanom Tour.
Away from the beach
Few foreign visitors make it to the historic city of Nakhon Si Thammarat and you can expect a warm welcome as you wander around town. This is one of the most culturally important locations in southern Thailand and if you are staying in Khanom, do try to make time for a day trip to Nakhon Si Thammarat. Highlights include the city’s main attraction, the impressive Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahavihan, and the wonderful Ban Nang Talung shadow puppet museum. With your own transport, make the journey into the countryside to visit Baan Khiri Wong, an excellent example of community based tourism that is helping to preserve local traditions.
The airport at Nakhon Si Thammarat is located around 10 miles north of the city centre. If you are travelling to the beaches of Khanom you can use either Nakhon Si Thammarat or Surat Thani airport which are both approximately 90 minutes away by taxi.
Much like neighbouring Chumphon province, Ranong is another region of Thailand that most overseas tourists tend to bypass. Ranong is often overlooked by travellers en route to the more famous sites of Phuket and Krabi to the south. That’s a shame because there is much to enjoy in this picturesque province that shares a land and maritime border with Myanmar.
Ranong beaches and islands
The attractive island of Ko Phayam is one of Ranong’s star attractions. If you draw up a list of the many locations in Thailand that could justifiably be described as laid-back, Ko Phayam would feature high up on that list. The stress-free island attracts an eclectic mix of visitors seeking a relaxing retreat. Many islanders make their living from the cashew trees and rubber plantations that can be seen across Ko Phayam. There are no cars on the island, but a good network of trails and paved tracks criss-cross through the trees and plantations to make getting around on foot or motorcycle convenient. If you look carefully you can often see hornbills at various locations around Ko Phayam with the temple at Wat Ko Phayam one of the best locations to spot these magnificent birds.
If Ko Phayam is laid-back, neighbouring Ko Chang* takes the mellow vibe to another level. This is another location to unwind and do very little. Much of the accommodation on Ko Chang is basic, but people come here seeking seclusion not luxury.
(*This island is in the Andaman Sea. The better known and more developed island of Ko Chang is in Trat province on the eastern seaboard)
Laemson National Park
Visitors to Ranong can take boat trips to the lovely Laemson National Park with the small uninhabited islands and bays making this a good location for snorkelling. Day trips can be arranged via tour operators in Ranong Town or on Ko Phayam.
Away from the beach
Ranong Town is an enjoyable destination to explore with a number of attractions to look out for. The area is famous for its hot springs with the pick of the bunch being Raksawarin Hot Springs. Situated in a scenic hillside setting close to the town centre, Raksawarin Hot Springs are easy to get to without your own transport. And also close to the middle of town, the impressive Rattanarangsan Palace is a good location to watch sunsets over the Andaman. For an even better view of those spectacular Andaman sunsets, join an afternoon cruise on the Royal Andaman with many Thai people on board wearing period costumes that hark back to a bygone era. If you have your own transport, take a trip out to Phu Kao Ya (also known as ‘Bald Hill’) to admire the views and stroll along the walking trails. After all that exercise, coffee lovers should head to Gong Valley Eco Friendly in Kraburi district to learn all about the process that goes into producing Ranong coffee.
Nok Air and Air Asia fly from Bangkok Don Muang to Ranong with a flight time of around 85 minutes. There is no railway line connecting Ranong, but it’s possible to travel by train to Chumphon and take the bus from there across to Ranong with a journey time of approximately 2.5 hours. There are frequent boats from Ranong to Ko Phayam during the November-April high season months. Boat services to Ko Chang are less frequent and you should check at the pier in Ranong or your resort on Ko Chang for more advice.
The Blue Sky Resort (Ko Phayam)
Resort Sawasdee (Ko Chang)
Chumphon, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Khanom are located on Thailand’s Gulf Coast which usually experiences good weather and long spells of sunshine from February through to September. From November into early January can see unsettled weather with heavy downpours and blustery winds. Mu Ko Chumphon National Park is normally closed from November to mid-December. Over on the Andaman Coast the weather pattern is different so the best months to visit Ranong and nearby islands are from November-April.