Dreams of Thailand often reveal karst rock formations projecting out of crystal blue waters along its southern shores, or lanterns glowing against a night sky in the northern jewel of Chiang Mai during Loy Krathong, the festival of light. With more than 26 million tourists who flock to these destinations each year, there’s no doubt that places such as Krabi, Phuket and Ayutthaya are worth visiting.
However, if you’ve had your fill of overcrowded tourist markets, party beaches and interpretations of local culture via dinner shows and sidewalk displays, I’ve found there are still a few spots that remain largely untouched, where similar sites can fulfill those cultural, adventurous and scenic fantasies of a paradise nearly to yourself.
I taught English in Northeastern Thailand (the locals call it Isaan) for nearly one year before starting this business, and exploring the little known parts of the country helped me feel at home there. These are the best places to visit in Thailand that I know you won’t want to miss.
1) Through Cave in Pang Mapha
Tham Lod, or “through cave,” is so named for the river that runs idly through its 5,465-foot rock opening. The cave widens to 100 feet in some areas, and you can ride a bamboo raft to a rocky beach in the middle, where you’ll debark and wander through with lantern in hand, careful not to bump into the enormous stalactites jutting from the ceiling. At dusk, return to the exit and admire the thousands of swifts that enter each night to sleep.
2) Grand Canyon of Chiang Mai
About 30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai’s City Center lies a reservoir of vibrant green water, deemed the Grand Canyon for its various dirt walls extending into the middle, providing perfect cliff diving if you want to take the plunge (rumor has it the highest point provides a 40-foot drop!). If that’s not your thing, swim to one of the anchored bamboo rafts and watch those who prefer the adrenaline rush.
3) Old Town Thailand in Chiang Khan
In the northernmost part of Isaan, just under the border of Laos and sitting along the Mekong River, sits a small town of picturesque quality that will make you question which decade you’re in. Teakwood buildings line the quaint streets, which offer kitsch bikes holding flower baskets and cartoonish signs positioned for prime photo opportunities, which the locals love. While Chiang Khan is a bit flooded with domestic tourists, you won’t see many foreigners here, as it’s too far off the well-trod path.
4) Modern Temple in Nakhon Ratchasima
Wat Sorapong in Nakhon Ratchasima (commonly shortened to Korat) is quite unlike all the other Buddhist temples in the country. It’s the largest temple in the province, and is often referred to as a prominent landmark because of its stunning modern design with grey walls, gold decals and countless windows. Its tall spires are reflected in the lake outside, where everything is immaculately landscaped.
5) Little Italy
Italy in Thailand? Yes, it’s true. Also in Korat is a small winemaking region where the beauty of traditional vineyards line dirt roads, and in the middle of it all sits an Italian shopping mall fit for a Tuscan hillside. From the staccato to the gelato, they didn’t miss a beat in designing this upscale outdoor entertainment zone.
6) Ancient Khmer Ruins in Buriram
Buriram province is perhaps best known for its soccer team, but it’s also home to two Khmer temple sites. The creator of Phnom Rung Historical Park is said to have been related to the mastermind of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the similarities are certainly striking. The entire monument, made of pink sandstone, was devoted to Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of immortality, and its location on top of an extinct volcano symbolized the center of the universe.
A little further down the road is Prasat Muang Tam, another monument built for Shiva, where the community ceremonies were held. It is a symmetrical rectangle with a courtyard and ponds surrounding a group of towers, and it housed a reservoir, a library with sacred texts and many detailed carvings, each depicting unique stories of the Gods.
7) Monkey Temple in Ban Ku
Just a few miles outside the small town where I taught English, in Suwannaphum, Roi Et there is a Jumanji-esque temple where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of monkeys call home. Once you enter the gates to the Ku Phra Ko Na temple in Ban Ku, you’re instantly transfixed into a forest wonderland, with towering trees and the sound of so many crickets you can no longer hear the traffic outside. It’s suddenly just you and the monkeys, which will surround you in search of any food you have to offer. Come prepared!
8) Pillow-Making Village in Yasothon
Even further down the road past Ban Ku, you’ll come to the small village of Ban Si Than in Yasothon province, where in each of the old wooden workshops is a family in the business of making pillows. Traditional Thai pillows are found all around the country, and they are unique in the fact that they’re often square and hard, or triangular and folding, and almost always colored in stripes. This is where a majority of the nation’s supply is made, mostly still by hand.
9) The Great, Victorious and Auspicious Pagoda in Roi Et
When I last visited Phra Maha Chedi Chai Mongkol, or the Great, Victorious and Auspicious pagoda, it had yet to be finished because it’s one of the largest and most detailed in Thailand, and thus costly. Every square inch is an ornate design, from floor to ceiling. Its location is also a bit strange, seemingly in the middle of nowhere outside the provincial capital of Roi Et, but the community had to find somewhere to build such a sprawling place of worship, complete with gardens and a mote.
10) Secluded Beaches on Koh Kood
And finally, because no visit to Thailand would be complete without an escape to the beach, head to the small island of Koh Kood, about 70 minutes by speedboat from Koh Chang, off Thailand’s southeastern peninsula. Surrounded by the bathwater warm Gulf of Thailand, Koh Kood is nothing but lush jungle, a few resorts and one local bar. There’s only one paved road, and it covers less than half of the island, used mostly by taxis to shuttle people between the resorts and the rickety wooden dock where the ferry enters.
While many plan trips to Thailand based solely on the popular destinations, it’s possible to spend your entire time visiting only these lesser-known sites. Whether it’s your first trip or your thirtieth (nobody can go just once!), it seems there’s always something new to explore.
Words and images (unless otherwise noted) by Jessica Hill.