Thursday, September 21, 2017

Off the beaten track in Thailand

Travelling to Thailand but want to avoid the crowds? Believe it or not, there are still parts of the country that haven’t been overrun by tourists. 

Lampang is home to gleaming pagodas to rival Chiang Mai’s, such as Chalermprakiet Temple. Photo: ShutterstockLampang is home to gleaming pagodas to rival Chiang Mai’s, such as Chalermprakiet Temple. Photo: Shutterstock

For a responsible elephant experience visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center on the highway to delightful Lampang (just over an hour’s drive south-east by road), which is under Royal Patronage and cares for over 50 elephants, including the king’s white elephants, and is active in rehabilitation, conservation, breeding and research.

Lampang, which is home to gleaming pagodas and antique timber houses to rival Chiang Mai’s, is worth a detour. Burmese temple Wat Sri Rong Muang has embellished pillars and multi-tiered roofs, while atmospheric Ban Sao Nak (or House of Many Pillars), dating to 1895, has 116 pillars and antique-filled rooms. Ironically, for one of the area’s least touristy towns, the most popular activity is an old town horse-drawn carriage – because it was once the town’s only form of transport.

Countryside and Khmer ruins
North-eastern Isaan is Thailand’s largest, poorest and least developed region. It’s also the country’s most dramatic, delicious, bucolic and quirkiest destination. This is cowboy country, Thailand’s rural heartland, beloved by locals for its folk music called Mor lam, fiery cuisine and farm stays. It’s also home to splendid Khmer Empire temples – like Cambodia’s, but without the tourists.

While distances are long, it’s possible to get a taste of the region in a few days. From Chiang Mai fly to Udon Thani airport, where you can collect a rental car (try Sixt, from US$30 per day) or hire a car with a driver (from $100 per day). Buses run less frequently but are better for longer trips.

From Udon Thani, do a loop west over rolling green hills toward Loei and its colourful flower market-gardens, south-west to Dan Sai, for its ramshackle wooden houses and mask-makers – the masks are worn during the town’s rainmaking festival Phi Ta Kon in March-July – before driving south via Lom Sak and east along quiet roads covered by tree canopies to Khon Kaen.

Friendly university city Khon Kaen is Isaan’s foodie capital, famous for spicy som tam salad and fiery curries, best sampled at its lakeside night market. Stay at family-owned Supanniga Home, set in sprawling gardens just out of town, or in the centre at modern Piman Garden Hotel, close to the markets and lake Beung Kaen Nakhon, where locals exercise and eat.

Head south via the silk weaving village of Chonnabot, where you can watch weavers work in their homes when they’re not working their farms, to the walled town of Phimai for its elegant 11th-century Khmer empire temple complex Prasat Hin Phimai. Push on to Surin, home to an annual elephant round-up, as well as a laid-back Isaan vibe, and stay overnight at a welcoming homestay, Pirim-Aree’s House.

Nakhon Ratchasima
This busy little Thai city with fantastic street food rarely sees tourists. Check out kooky Farm Chokchai, a favourite with Bangkok tourists for learning to ride tractors, milk cows, make ice cream and watch cowboys performing horseback stunts.

Islands and beaches
Most travellers stay on southern Thailand’s most popular destinations – Phuket, Krabi and Koh Samui. They’re easy to reach, included in most packages and boast fine beaches, and Phuket’s old town has its charms; but on the downside, they get uncomfortably crowded and are very developed, hideously so in parts. Instead, spend a couple of days each at two low-key alternatives.

Equidistant from Phuket and Krabi, and easy to reach from both by boat, Ko Yao Noi lies on the edge of striking Phang Nga Bay and is one of Thailand’s most laid-back islands. The beaches may not be breathtaking and swimming is best at high tide, but the lack of development, unpretentious accommodation, easygoing locals, pristine forests, birdlife, wildlife and fishing make it infinitely more appealing than its neighbours. Did I mention the spectacular sunsets?

In the Andaman Sea, near Myanmar’s southern coast, are two blissful islands, surprisingly accessible from Bangkok with Nok Air to Ranong (95 minutes) and then transfer by boat.

Koh Phayam is the sort of island where not long after checking into your beach bungalow and settling into your hammock to listen to the waves lap against the shore, you find yourself drafting a job resignation letter in your head. There are a dozen rustic places to stay, no ATMs, one supermarket and a few roads. When you tire of doing nothing, there’s diving, snorkelling, kayaking, fishing, jungle treks and birdwatching.

If that sounds like too much activity, then try Ko Chang Noi. A favourite of artists and musicians, this is an island for beach bums who want to get back to nature. Don’t expect room service, air conditioning, hot water or even electricity for the entire day. Best pack a guitar or paintbrushes.

– The Guardian