CENTRAL & EAST COAST
This is Thailand’s most fertile farming area, a wide-ranging landscape of paddy fields, orchards and plantations. More than 1,000 years ago Thai settlers moved down from the north, gradually replacing Mon and Khmer influences and establishing communities at Lop CENTRAL & EAST COAST Buri then at Sukhothai, before founding a kingdom that lasted 417 years with Ayutthaya as its capital. When the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya in 1767, the capital moved to Bangkok.
The Central region has a dramatic history, and its heritage of ancient temples, battlefields and ruins and two capitals, Ayutthaya and Bangkok, are a continuing fascination for visitors. The east and west sea coasts at the region’s southern end also draw huge numbers of visitors every year. Bangkok residents spend long weekends enjoying the relaxing seaside atmosphere, while holiday-makers from around the world to discover the delights of the tropical beach life.
On the eastern side, 400 kilometres of coastline extend from Chon Buri to Rayong with some of the finest beaches in Asia. Pattaya, with an enormous range of resorts, hotels and guesthouses, is its centre. If you are seeking a more relaxing experience, travel further down the coast to Rayong or Ko Samet, and the lovely islands of Ko Chang National Park near the Cambodian border.
On the west coast, the resorts of Cha-am and Hua Hin attract international travellers who prefer their more sophisticated yet laid-back atmosphere.
Far from the sea in the northwest of the region is Kanchanaburi, whose forested mountains, waterfalls and caves, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries on the border with Myanmar provide some of Thailand’s most enthralling scenery.
The 26 provinces of Central and East Coast are Ang Thong, Bangkok, Chachoengsao, Chai Nat, Chanthaburi, Chon Buri, Kanchanaburi, Lop Buri, Nakhon Nayok, Nakhon Pathom, Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Phetchaburi, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Prachin Buri, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Ratchaburi, Rayong, Sa Kaeo, Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon, Samut Songkhram, Saraburi, Sing Buri, Suphan Buri and Trat.
The North is the birthplace of the earliest Thai civilisation and has many sites of archaeological and cultural interest. Northern people are famous for their courtesy and hospitality, and the region is also noted for its variety of cultural traditions. Many tourists from the surrounding provinces converge on Chiang Mai for the annual Songkran Festival, and to Sukhothai for Loi Krathong.
The North falls into two distinct areas, the plains of the lower north from Nakhon Sawan to Sukhothai, and the mountainous upper north leading to borders of Myanmar and Laos. The mountain ranges along the borders are breathtaking, with waterfalls and fast-flowing rivers ideal for rafting. They are also the home of many ethnic hill people.
The region has three seasons, hot from March to May, wet from June to November and cool from December to February. High up in the mountains, though, “cool” may often mean extremely cold.
The Thai nation had its origins in the North, in city states that were gradually incorporated into the Lanna kingdom centred on Chiang Mai. Sukhothai became the first capital of Thailand, but the influence of the Lanna states of Laos and Myanmar can be clearly seen in the architecture and cuisine of the North.
The nomadic hill people of the region pursued their own course, moving back and forth across frontiers. There are six main tribal groups, Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Mien, Akha and Lisu, each with its own unique customs and clothing. Today, they are settled in villages on the mountainsides, a great attraction for travellers.
Most overseas visitors make for Chiang Mai, the northern capital, as a base for visiting ethnic tribes, soft adventure activities and shopping. Further north still, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son are centres for rafting, trekking and tours of tribal villages. To the south, the Historical Park at Sukhothai is an essential destination for all those wishing to discover more about the history and culture of Thailand.
The 17 provinces that comprise the North are Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Tak, Kamphaeng Phet, Lampang, Lamphun, Mae Hong Son, Nakhon Sawan, Nan, Phayao, Phetchabun, Phichit, Uthai Thani, Phitsanulok, Phrae, Sukhothai, and Uttaradit.
The Northeast of Thailand, a vast plateau covering nearly one third of the country, is usually known as Isan. It extends northwards to the Mekong River which divides Thailand from Laos, and to the south and it ends at the Dong Rek mountain range along the border with Cambodia.
It is known to be an arid region with soil of poor quality, but for tourism, Isan is one of the country’s most intriguing destinations with many Stone Age and Bronze Age dwellings and artifacts, and several significant temples that are a legacy of the great Khmer empire.
The sandstone shrines are popular tourist attractions, particularly the superbly restored sites at the historical parks of Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima and Phanom Rung in Buri Ram. The great temple complex at Khao Phra Viharn in Si Sa Ket on the border with Cambodian is now accessible to visitors after a long period of isolation.
The Bronze Age settlements at Ban Chiang in the province of Udon Thani provide fascinating evidence of the work of the local potters some 5,000 years ago. The red and white pottery with characteristic “fingerprint” designs are thought to be the first earthenware vessels known to man.
Two of Thailand’s best-loved national parks, Khao Yai, Phu Kradung and Phu Rua in Loei, are in Isan. Other major attractions include the villages in Khorat and Khon Kaen where the beautiful local silk is woven by hand.
Isan is a comparatively poor region whose main income is from agriculture, and many of the younger people in the villages migrate to the city. But Isan folk have a distinctive character and dialect and a vigorous culture, with their old traditions still reflected in the many festivals unique to the region.
With its strategic position bordering Laos and Cambodia, Isan has in recent years risen to become a useful starting point for adventurous journeys to destinations along the mighty Mekong River. There have been important developments in infrastructure to accommodate what is expected to be a boom in tourism.
Travel in the region has been improved by domestic airlines with regular flights to regional airports; and it is no longer impossible to find luxury accommodation, especially in large provinces of Khon Kaen, Udon Thani Nakhon, Ratchasima and Ubon Ratchathani.
The Northeast consists of 19 provinces: Amnat Charoen, Buri Ram, Chaiyaphum, Kalasin, Khon Kaen, Loei, Maha Sarakham, Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nong Bua Lamphu, Nong Khai, Roi Et, Sakon Nakhon, Si Sa Ket, Surin, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani and Yasothon.
This region extends southward along a narrow peninsula lying between the Andaman Sea its west side and the South China Sea on the east. It is a rich land in terms of the abundance of its natural resources, the fertility of its soil, the diversity of its people and its commercial viability.
The South is made up of 14 provinces from Chumphon in the north down to the Malaysian border 1,200 kilometres from Bangkok. It has a long coastline on either side with sandy beaches and offshore islands on both, and a rugged central hinterland of mountains and forests.
The east coast on the Gulf of Thailand always seems to be more relaxed, with long, wide bays and calm seas; the Andaman Sea coast tends to be more rugged and exhilarating, with its strange limestone rock formations and cliffs.
The occurrence of two seasonal monsoons means that the climate differs from the rest of Thailand. The southwest monsoon sweeps the west coast and the Andaman Sea from May to October, while the northeast monsoon moves across the Gulf of Thailand form November to February. The peninsula forms a barrier so that rain rarely falls on both coastlines simultaneously.
The area was once part of the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire but later came under the rule of Ayutthaya and then Bangkok. Chinese and Malaysian influences have played a large part in the cultural makeup of the region; the further south, the stronger the Malaysian influence, with a dialect akin to Malay, a predominance of Muslim communities and mosques. Rice fields give way to rubber plantations, and Chinese tin mining operations become evidence.
The coastline attracts most tourists, though Samui island in the Gulf of Thailand is growing in popularity as a laid-back holiday spot with first class diving opportunities nearby on Tao and Pha-ngan islands.
The Andaman Sea coast offers more sophisticated choices in the island province of Phuket, Thailand’s premier holiday resort. However, the fascinating rock formations and offshore islands at Phang-nga, Krabi and Trang are extremely popular for the diving and sailing opportunities they offer.
The mountains, rivers and forests in the national parks in the interior of the peninsula are also gaining popularity with eco-tourists, as can be seen with the growing numbers of safari expeditions on foot, by elephant and in canoes.
The South of Thailand consists of 14 provinces: Chumphon, Krabi, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Narathiwat, Pattani, Phang-nga, Phatthalung, Phuket, Ranong, Satun, Songkhla, Surat Thani, Trang and Yala.
DAY 1-2: Bangkok
Many people like to get in and out of Bangkok as fast as they possibly can, catching a flight straight out from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the islands, but to miss out on a night or two in Bangkok is to misunderstand Thailand entirely!
If it’s the weekend, spend your day in Bangkok at Chatuchak Market, one of the biggest open-air markets in the world that sells everything from vintage clothes to puppies! (Be warned – it gets pretty crowded.)
If you want a quiet start to your trip, head out to the green refuge of Lumphini Park and people watch – you can even join in the 5 pm open-air aerobics if you like! Alternatively, grab a river boat taxi on the Chao Phraya River and head to Bangkok’s so-called “Green Lung” or ‘Bang Krachao’.
This little-visited area of the city is the perfect place to hire a bicycle and cycle along the tree-lined canals and alleyways. Head to Wat Klong Toey (temple) to start your adventure. While you’re at it, visit Wat Arun, also known as the ‘Temple of the Dawn’, that’s also located on the quieter side of the river.
In the evening (just because you can’t visit Bangkok without laying eyes on it just once!) hit up the famous backpacker street Khao San Road for a messy evening of insect tasting, beer and buckets! Grab yourself a Singha Beer singlet and a multi-coloured hat with bells on and blend in with the rookie backpackers.
Or, for a classier evening, head to Vertigo, the rooftop bar on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel for amazing views of the city! Drinks are naturally more expensive here, but the view is worth the price.
The following day, if you have time, why not head to Wat Pho, the most beautiful temple in Bangkok (in our opinion!) and find out about the history of Thai Massage through the interesting murals that line the walls of the temple. Of course, it would be rude if you didn’t go for a traditional Thai massage yourself!
One hour will cost you 420 THB. Be prepared to get beaten up! (Many people take courses here to learn the ancient art for themselves) While you’re here you can also visit the reclining Buddha. (100 THB entry fee to Wat Pho and the Reclining Buddha.)
From here, the Grand Palace is just up the road so if this is on your bucket list, then, by all means, feel free to tick it off today! It will set you back a hefty 500 THB though!
That evening, head over to Chinatown for some amazing street food in this unique and chaotic part of the city. About a 5-minute cycle ride or 10-minute walk from Chinatown you will also find the unique 24-hour Flower Market (Pak Khlong Talat) which is busiest between 1 am and 3 am as people buy fresh flowers for events and ceremonies taking place the next day! It’s an interesting market and one of the best smelling!
From Chinatown, the train station of Hua Lamphong is just a short walk where you can hop on an overnight train to Chumphon, on the east coast of Thailand.
Travellers looking to customise these suggestions should check out our recommended Bangkok itinerary. Feel free to trade out attractions to better suit your interests!
DAY 3-5: Koh Tao
You’ll wake up in the very early morning on the train in the South of Thailand – a land of paradise beaches and picture-postcard islands! So many islands – which one to choose?
We recommend starting with the tiny turtle shaped Koh Tao – a manageable island with gorgeous beaches and a great place for beginners to learn how to dive! From Chumphon Pier, the first ferry of the morning leaves at 7 am with Songserm which takes 2-3 hours to reach Koh Tao. Later ferries take 1 hour 30 minutes.
Once you’re settled in, why not take a 3-day Open Water Dive Course, or if you have less time on the island, take a one-day Discover SCUBA Diver Course where you can explore the amazing underwater world of Koh Tao without having a diving certificate.
Backpackers who don’t quite have the budget to dive in Koh Tao won’t want to miss the snorkeling! A full day snorkeling trip costs just $29USD with Oxygen Koh Tao.
Chilling out on Koh Tao’s beaches in the evening with a cocktail in hand watching the fire dancing, you’ll feel your body start to relax as you fully embrace laid-back Thai beach life!
Let’s throw an extra day in here to chill out on the beach. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, hire a motorbike and explore the quieter eastern of the island with its gorgeous beaches and unusual rock formations. For those of you who can’t sit still, why not do some rock climbing or even the flying trapeze with our friends over at Goodtime Adventures.
DAY 6-8: Khao Sok National Park
Today, it’s time to start your journey to Jurassic…(Khao Sok National) Park.(See what I did there?) You’ll hop on a boat to the mainland and take a minivan for three hours to reach the national park, home to wild elephants, giant monitor lizards, spectacled langurs and the world’s biggest flower that gives off the stench of rotting flesh – the Rafflesia!
Why not book yourself on a 2-day, 1-night trek where you’ll stay overnight in a floating bungalow on the gorgeous Cheow Larn Lake. You’ll also visit caves, waterfalls and swim in the lake next to the beautiful karst rock formations. (A 2-day, 1-night tour with a stay in a floating hut is around 2,500 THB)
You can also explore the park independently, buying a ticket for 300 THB at the park entrance and setting off on one of the hiking trails. Give yourself a full day for this as the best bits of the park (and the areas where you are most likely to spot wildlife) start when you’re already around 2 hours into your trek!
After that… why not go for another massage to soothe your aching muscles after all that trekking!
DAY 9-11: Railay Beach
Today, hop on a minivan and head to Krabi (two-hour journey), the West coast of Thailand that’s famous for the limestone cliffs that make it a Mecca for rock climbing enthusiasts from all over the world!
From Krabi Town, where your minivan will deposit you, it’s just a 20-minute long-tail boat ride to the spectacular Railay Beach, one of our favourite beaches in the whole of Thailand! As your boat turns the corner around the enormous limestone cliffs and you cast eyes on Railay for the first time – you’ll see why!
If you haven’t tried rock climbing before, there is no better place to try it, with the most amazing views imaginable.
If you prefer chilling out on the beach, then be our guest… but you can’t miss a visit to the Penis Cave – just saying!
The more adventurous of you may want to trek to the lagoon or trek over to nearby Ton Sai Beach. 4 Island Hopping trips are also available from Railay where you’ll kayak, paddleboard, swim and enjoy a beach barbecue on one of the nearby islands…
Railay Accommodation is expensive. The cheapest option is the rustic Rapala Rock Wood Resort. You may prefer to look on Ton Sai, try Chill Out Bar & Bungalow or on the mainland, Sleeper Hostel in Ao Nang.
DAY 12-14: A Castaway Island of Your Choice!
Get away from all of the crowds and head out to one of the smaller islands dotted around the Andaman Sea. Google Koh Jum, Koh Bu Bu, Koh Ngai or Koh Kraadan – all peaceful dreamy islands that have barely any visitors compared to neighbouring Koh Phi Phi!(Which recently closed down its most popular beach, Maya Bay, due to damage from too many tourists!)
Spend a night in a beach hut on Koh Jum and live that castaway island feeling! (Joy Bungalows is a good option. Affordable and beautiful beach just footsteps away… (Be warned though, there is no electricity in the basic rooms – purely for that added castaway island feel!) You can catch a boat from Krabi mainland to all of the islands mentioned above.
As we only have two weeks, I’m afraid it’s now time to drag ourselves away from the beaches of Southern Thailand and catch a flight from Krabi Airport back to Bangkok!