The South of Thailand
The South of Thailand
Southern Thailand: The Gulf coast
The major part of southern Thailand's Gulf coast, gently undulating from Bangkok to Nakhon Si Thammarat, 750km away, if famed above all for the Samui archipelago, three small idyllic islands lying off the most prominent hump of the coastline. This is the country's most popular seaside venue for independent travellers, and a lazy stay in Samui beachfront bungalow is so seductive a prospect that most people overlook the attractions of the mainland, where the sheltered sandy beaches and warm clear water rival the top sunspots in most countries. Added to that you'll find scenery dominated by forested mountains that rise abruptly behind the coastal strip, especially impressive in Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, which is one of Thailand's most rewarding bird-watching spots, and a sprinkling of historic sights-notably the crumbling temples of ancient Phetchaburi.
Though not a patch on the islands further south, the stretch of coast around Cha-am and Hua Hin is popular with weekending Thais escaping the capital and is crammed with condos, high-rise hotels, bars and restaurants, not to mention a large population of foreign tourists. The scene at the sophisticated little beach resort of Pak Nam Pran, just a short distance further south, is much quieter, and there's only slightly more development at Ban Krud. Though the provincial capital of Chumphon, 150km further down the coast, has little to offer in its own right, it is the convenient departure point for direct boats to Ko Tao.
Southeast of Chumphon lies Ko Samui, by far the most naturally beautiful of the islands, with its long white-sand beaches and arching fringes of palm trees. The island's beauty has not gone unnoticed by tourist developers of course,but this at least means you can buy a little luxury if you've got the cash. In recent years the next island out, Ko Pha Ngan, has drawn increasing numbers of backpackers away from the its nighbour: its buagalow generally simpler and cost less than Ko Samui's, and it offers a few stunning beaches with a more laid-back atmosphere. Hat Rin is the distillation of all these features, with back-to-back white sands, relaxed resident hippies and t'ai chi classes- though after dusk it swings into action as Thailand's dance capital, a reputation cemented by its farang-thronged full moon parties. The furthest inhabited island of the archipelago, Ko Tao, has taken off as a scuba-diving centre, but despite a growing nightlife and restaurant scene, still has the feel of a small, rugged and isolated outcrop.
Tucked away beneath the islands, Nakhon Si Thammarat, the cultural capital of the south, is well worth a short detour from the main routes through the centre of the peninsula- it's a sophisticated city of grand old temples, delicious cuisine and distinctive handicrafts. With its small but significant Muslim population, and machine-gun dialect, Nakhon begins the transition into Thailand's deep south.
The train from Bangkok connects all the mainland towns, including a branch line to Nakhon, and bus services, along highways 4 (also known as the Phetkasem Highway, or, usually, Thanon Phetkasem when passing through towns) and 41, are frequent. From Bangkok, Thai Airways flies to Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat, Air Andaman to Chumphon, and Bangkok Airway runs a variety of popular routes to Ko Samui's airport. Daily boats run to the islands from two jumping-off points: Surat Thani, 650km from Bangkok, has the best choice of routes, but the alternatives from Chumphon get you straight to the tranquility of Ko Tao.
The Gulf coast has a slightly different climate to the Andaman coast and much of the rest of Thailand, being hit heavily by the northeast monsoon's rains, especially in November, when it's best to avoid this part of the country altogether. Most times during the rest of the year should see pleasant, if changeable, weather, with some mild effects of the southwest monsoon felt on the islands between May and October. Late December to April in the driest period, and is therefore the region's high season, which also includes July and August. Jellyfish can be a problem on the Gulf coast, particularly just after a storm. Fatalities are very rare, but two travellers on Ko Pha Ngan died from (unidentified) jellyfish stings in August 2002. Ask for local advice before swimming, and scour the shore for dead jellyfish, which are a sign that they're in the area.
The Andaman coast
As Highway 4 switches from the east flank of the Thailand peninsula to the Andaman coast it enters a markedly different country: nourished by train nearly all the year round, the vegetation down here is lushly tropical, with forests reaching up to 80m in hight, and massive rubber and coconut plantations replacing the rice and sugar-cane fields of central Thailand. In this region's heartland the drama of the landscape is enhanced by sheer limestone crags, topographical hallmarks that spike every horizon and make for stunning views from the road. Even more spectacular and the main crowd-puller-is the Andaman sea itself: translucent turquoise and so clear in some places that you can see to a depth of 30m, it harbors the country's largest coral reefs and is far and away the top diving area in Thailand.
Unlike the Gulf coast, the Andaman coast is hit by the southwest monsoon, which usually gets going by the end of May and lasts into the middle of October. During this period heavy rain and high seas render some of the outer islands inaccessible, but conditions aren't generally severe enough to ruin a holiday on the other islands, or on the mainland, and you're likely to get good discounts on accommodation. Although some bungalows at the smaller resorts shut down entirely during low season, nearly every beach detailed in this chapter keeps at least one place open, and an increasing number of Andaman coast dive shops are leading expeditions year-round as well.
Eager to hit the high-profile beaches of Phuket and Krabi, most people either fly over the first three-hundred-kilometer stretch of the west coast or pass through it on an overnight bus, thereby missing out on the lushly forested hills of Ranong province and bypassing several gems: the tiny and still idyllic islands of Ko Chang (not to be confused with its larger, more famous namesake of the east coast) and Ko Phayam; the Ko Surin and Ko Similan island chains, whose reefs rate alongside the Maldives and the Great Barrier; the enjoyable Khao Sok National Park, where you can stay in a tree house beneath the shadows of looming limestone outcrops; and the mid-market resort of Khao Lak, which hugs the rugged mainland coast of the edge of Khao Lak National Park. Tourism begins in earnest on Phuket, Thailand's largest island and a popular place to learn to dive, though the high-rises and consumerist gloss the characterize many of the beaches here don't appeal to everyone.
East around the mainland coast from Phuket, the limestone pinnacles that do dominate the landscape of southern Thailand suddenly begin to pepper the sea as well, making Ao Phang Nga one of the most fascinating bays in the country. Most travellers, however, head straight for the hub of the region at Krabi, springboard for the hugely popular mainland beaches of unexceptional Ao Nang, spectacular Laem Phra Nang and beautiful but depressingly over-exploited Ko Phi Phi. Bigger, better preserved Ko Lanta Yai makes a more laid-back alternative, with tiny nearby Ko Jum another calm option.
Getting to Andaman coast destinations is made easy by Highway 4, also know as the Phetkasem Highway- and usually called Thanon Phetkasem when it passes through towns. The road runs from Bangkok to the Malaysia border, and frequent buses play this route, connecting all mainland tourist destinations. There is no rail line down the Andaman coast, but many travellers take the train from Bangkok to the Gulf coast, enjoy that region's splendors for a while and then nip over to the Andaman coast by bus before proceeding southwards. A less common alternative for access to the Krabi region is to take the train down to Trang, south of Ko Lanta, and bus northwards from there. Ferries to the most popular islands usually leave several times a day (with reduced services during the monsoon season), and you can also fly direct to the Andaman coast: there's a busy international airport on Phuket, plus useful local ones in Krabi and Ranong.
Getting to Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan is most easily accessed via Koh Samui Airport though it is slightly cheaper to fly to the regional transport hub of Suratthani. From Koh Samui a fast boat takes only 25 minutes whereas the journey from the mainland takes around eight times longer. If you come overland, the overnight train is the best option with a first class sleeper carriage ideal for families. Buses are the most economic choice with a trip from Bangkok costing only around 650 Baht, all the way to Koh Phangan. Ferry services are more or less hourly throughout the day from Koh Samui and every couple of hours from the mainland; several boats also go regularly from Koh Tao.
Getting Around Phuket City
Getting around Phuket is easy enough. There are plenty of transport options but Phuket does have a reputation in Thailand for having the most expensive transport system in the country. However, for visitors from the west the transport costs will still seem reasonable. For many people, the trip from the airport is their first experience of transport in Phuket. Unfortunately it is often a bad experience. There are two companies that pay for the concession to run the taxi service from the airport. And of course that means they charge extra to their passengers. Their cheapest option is a shared minibus which will cost 100-200 baht. This will take longer than a taxi as they wait until they have sold all the seats before they leave and it will then go around the hotels of every passenger. An air-con taxi (they call a limousine) to Patong will cost around 550 baht.
About Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan is located in Suratthani province in the Southern Gulf of Thailand and is part of the group of islands that make up the Samui Archipelago; a group of over 40 islands fashioned in granite from age old igneous formations. The provincial capital is also called Suaratthani and acts as the main overland transport hub for the islands. Koh Phangan is 70kms from the mainland and approximately 12km away from Koh Samui which acts as the main airlink to Koh Phangan.
Did you know about Phuket City!
Phuket (Thai: ภูเก็ต; formerly known as Tha-Laang or Talang, or Junk Ceylon in Western sources, a distortion of the Malay Tanjung Salang, "Cape Salang") is one of the southern provinces (changwat) of Thailand. Neighbouring provinces are (from north clockwise) Phang Nga and Krabi, but as Phuket is an island there are no land boundaries.
Koh Tao - Tao Island
So your first tentative steps on Koh Tao - Thailand are through the wonders of the internet. But what is Koh Tao really like when you get here? My site will give you a feeling for what is really quite a special place. It's no wonder so many people come for a holiday and end up staying! If you are interested to learn more about the way of life on the Turtle, speak to one of the expats on the island, after a couple of beers as incentive, they will be happy to entertain you with funny and weird stories, as well as share essential culture shock knowledge.
Getting to Phuket island
Quiet a few airlines operate direct international flights to Phuket, so if you're starting your Thailand trip in the south, it may be worth flying straight here or via another Asian city rather than having to make connections via Bangkok. Given that bus journeys from Bangkok are so long and tedious, you might want to consider taking a domestic flight from the capital or elsewhere to Phuket. Thai Airways runs sixteen flights a day between Phuket and Bangkok (1hr 25min) and also links the island with Hat Yai; Bangkok Airways also runs a few Phuket-Bangkok shuttles and has flights to Pattaya and Ko Samui, and there is a daily seaplane service from Phuket Airport to Ko Phi Phi run by Blue Water Air.
Koh Samui is one of Thailand's most popular islands and its third-largest. It's also part of an archipelago that includes 80 smaller islands, of which only six – Pha-Ngan, Ta Loy, Tao, Taen, Ma Ko and Ta Pao – are also inhabited. Samui's first settlers were islanders from Hainan Island (now part of the People's Republic of China) who took up coconut farming here around 150 years ago. You can still see a map of Hainan on the saan jao (Chinese spirit shrine) near Siam City Bank in Na Thon, the oldest town on the island.
Surat Thani Province
The area of Surat Thani was already inhabited in prehistoric times by Semang and Malayan tribes. Founded in the 3rd century, until the 13th century the Srivijaya kingdom dominated the Malay Peninsula. The city Chaiya contains several ruins from Srivijaya times, and was probably a regional capital of the kingdom. Some Thai historians even claim that it was the capital of the kingdom itself for some time, but this is generally disputed. Wiang Sa was another main settlement of that time.