10 Ways to Get Off the Tourist Track in Thailand

Get off the beaten path in Thailand with these 10 tips for travelers.

Many nationalities can get a two-month visa for travel to Thailand. The visa is free at the moment, and once you're in-country you can extend it for at least another month. Three months in the Land of Smiles equates to an awful lot of shopping, barhopping in Bangkok and Crusoe-ing it in the islands, so what's one to do?

Our friend Stuart from Travelfish.org shares his tips on breaking away from the crowd (believe you me, it's amazing just how many Crusoes there are on the islands), and best of all you don't need three months to do it.

1. Start With Your Stomach

You don't need to walk across the country to find an off-the-beaten track destination in Thailand. Start instead by walking across the street. Forget about the 100 baht ABF and head to the closest street stall for a Thai breakfast. Lunchtime = street food. Come dinner, just about everywhere in Thailand has terrific night markets so head to one. You'll save money, have more fun, learn something about Thai food and meet regular Thai people. Don't speak Thai? Use your finger to point at what you want! Or learn basic Thai with the World Nomads language guide!

2. Your Home Away From Home

Those looking for an alternative to shmarmy hotels and decadent spas (yes, such people do exist) should try a homestay. You sleep in a local's house, often, like them, on a mattress on the floor, eat with them and get to partake in their day-to-day life. This may include shopping for dinner at the wet market, picking the kids up from school (by boat of course), or lending a hand in the kitchen. Homestays are available all over the country, but are especially well regarded in Nonthaburi (just north of Bangkok) and Ayutthaya (a little further north still). If you'd prefer a beach homestay, look into Ko Chang over toward Cambodia.

3. The Other Sukhothais

The former Thai capital, Sukhothai, is famous for its stunning Historical Park, dotted with ruined royal temples and religious monuments and easily explored by bicycle. The main town is a handful of kilometers away and there are plenty of farang-friendly places to stay, eat and be social. It's easy and fun. But because it is easy and fun, Sukhothai is well and truly on the tourist trail and you'll rarely have the monuments to yourself. If you'd like something a little less touristed, consider either a day trip north to Si Satchanalai, or strike west for an overnight stop at Kamphaeng Phet. Personally I'd lean towards the later as there's a great night market and an excellent guesthouse, but in either case you're likely to be the only foreigner in town.

4. A Hammock With a View

There's something about laying in a hammock, with a view of the Mekong River, that never gets old. And one of the best places to do just that is Sangkhom, in Thailand's northeast. It's one of those "middle of nowhere" type places where there's not really all that much to do aside from wear out your hammock. The slow pace of life charm is a little difficult to explain but if you'd just like to chill, this could be the spot. You can hire motorbikes and bicycles for a bit of exploring, but just pack a book or three and lose your laptop charger.

5. Lighten Your Load, Part 1

Thailand is something like 97% Buddhist, and all Thai men (in theory) do a stint staying in a Buddhist monastery (or a wat). During this time they simplify their life and concentrate on looking inwards. It's not necessarily a religious revelation (though the shaving of one's head comes close) but it can be a contemplative period - a holiday from a holiday. While you'd need Thai language skills at most Thai wats, some have specific programs catering to non-Thai speakers. You can stay for as little as a few days or as long as a lifetime, but either away it can offer a short escape from the pressures and anxieties of day to day life.

6. Lighten Your Load, Part 2

Imagine a beach holiday with next to no food, no booze and a colonic twice a day. You'd have to be mad. That's what I used to think. Then I tried a 7-day fast on Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand's south. A week later, and 11 kilos lighter, I walked out onto the beach and floated in the ocean for hours. It was a health and lifestyle watershed for me and I've repeated it four times since. It's not just about giving the body a good cleanse, it's also about relaxing the mind. Days were filled with yoga, massage and quality hammock time with other travellers doing the same thing. Nights I slept like never before. Fasting courses are available in both northern and southern Thailand, but the Wellness Centre on Ko Pha Ngan remains one of the best.

7. Trek Off the Map

Chiang Mai has been famous for its trekking since the mid- to late- 70s, so just about the only creature comfort missing from those "New Remote Villages" you'll see advertised all over town are Coke vending machines. If you're looking for a less-touristed trekking route, consider Nan in the far north of Thailand or Umphang in western Thailand. In both cases, treks will cost you more money, but it will be cash well spent. Nan is especially well regarded for its caving opportunities, while Umphang, which lies at the end of a 165km mountaintop road, still retains a fair amount of its jungle coverage. Both are more popular with domestic tourists than foreigners so hell, you may even get to know some locals. If you want to go real remote, check out Phu Lang Ka - but you will need to bring your own group.

8. Forget Coral, Try Diving Caves and Temples

If you're a certified diver and looking for something a bit unusual, Thailand has it. Out near the Burmese border lies lakeside new Sangkhlaburi; "new" because Old Sangkhlaburi was submerged by the lake when a dam was constructed. At the height of dry season, some parts of town peek through the surface, but in the wet, it is possible to dive the ruins and swim through the old temple. In the south, Khao Sok National Park centres around a similar reservoir. While there's no sunken town, there are caves that make for fascinating diving.

9. Elephants With a Difference

Thailand used to have a white elephant on its flag and while pachyderms are in general are revered by most, some fare not so well and end up in abusive situations. The Elephant Nature Park, north of Chiang Mai, was established to look after such elephants and it's possible to visit the park for the day or even volunteer there for a week. As with all the elephant parks in Thailand, tourists are a regular part of the daily activities, but this is a park with a difference and is well worth the hefty admission.

10. Just One Island

If you're a beach bum, one of the great things about Thailand is all the islands to choose from. If you're into nightlife and tourist services, then Koh Samui or Phuket are great. Diving? Ko Phi Phi or Ko Tao. Full Moon Party? Ko Pha Ngan. But what if you're looking for something a bit more unadulterated? You know, something that isn't awash in MP3 stores and tailor shops, and where it's just as easy to get rice soup as a banana pancake for brekky? Try Ko Libong. Far down the west coast of Thailand, just before the better-known Ko Lipe and Tarutao group of islands, Ko Libong has dark sand, a low-key lifestyle and dugongs swimming offshore. The only problem with heading here is that once you've been you'll never go anywhere else.


  • Christel said

    Hi<br>Like to know where the photo was taken?

  • Pete J said

    Great post! I only went to Thailand once as part of a side trip to the Philippines and loved Bangkok. I can't wait to return and dive into the amazing culture in other parts of the country. Thanks for the great tips!! :)

  • afolabi adewale said

    I have never been to thailand before,i will be really glad to be in Asia and to visit all these interesting places in thailand

  • robin said

    I have friends in the Thai navy and have always dreamed of visiting. Now I think I need to put that idea on the front burner!

  • Marg said

    Where are those over water bungalows in the photo ??

  • Carmel jansen said

    Yes where are those bungalow in the photo

  • JR said

    Bangkok is my favorite place on earth.

  • Matt said

    OKAY...that was an epic article to read! Thanks a bunch, I knew few of those gems, super helpful!

    Matt from Hostelgeeks.com

  • Bernadette said

    Loved Thailand 20 years ago, I'm afraid to go back and see the tourist mecca it has become. I'm told I won't recognize it. I bet you can still score raw opium in the northern hills though.

  • Simon said

    Having lived in Thailand for the best part of 20 years I can safely say a lot has changed and not for the better. Public transport was always slow and not that safe, now it's lethal (check the statistics). Happy friendly people are still around, but the younger generation coming up has some really bad people who ruin Thailand's reputation (check the local papers). Law and order seems to be breaking down everyday. Yes it's a reasonably safe country, but you really have to be careful.

    For me compared to other countries Thailand has always been overrated: the food isn't that good (personal view I know), interesting places to visit-there are some, but not much truly special beaches/islands-mostly dirty, crowded and over priced, etc.

  • Stuart at Travelfish said

    The title pic was taken in Khao Sok National Park in Southern Thailand. You can stay in floating raft houses (like those pictured) via the national park authority.


  • Jordan Zoe Wellard said

    I think this article needs editing if you're still sending it out. The 60 day visas are not free at the moment as this article was from 2010! Confusing information.

  • Somsak said

    Whether the visa is free or not depends on which country you come from.

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