Phuket, tick. Koh Samui, tick. Bangkok, tick.
If you, like many other Australians, have happy snaps of yourself exploring any of these much-loved holiday destinations, you may very well have ticked Thailand completely off your to-do list. So when considering your next holiday, venture off the beaten track in Thailand and find out what else this mind-blowing country has to add to your travel bucket list.
The (authentic) island life
Bordering Cambodia, Trat is Thailand’s eastern-most province with a collection of islands just off its coast that swoop under the tourist radar. Blessed with scenic bays, quiet sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, these islands are paradisiacal and serene, almost the antithesis to bustling Samui and Phuket.
While there are around 50 islands, Koh Chang, Koh Mak and Koh Kood are the best for visitors with regards to infrastructure. However, since theyare located within Mu Koh Chang National Park, they maintain a blissful rugged and remote vibe – giving visitors a taste of what Thailand was like some 30 years ago before we all became obsessed with the place.
Koh Chang is Thailand’s second-largest island after Phuket, however tourists have only frequented it for the past 20 or so years. Also named ‘Elephant Island’ after its elephant-shaped headland, Koh Chang has a mountainous jungle terrain, an abundance of waterfalls, and boasts fine-sand beaches and reefs, ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving. Koh Chang is also the most vibrant of the Trat islands, with a buzzing nightlife and plenty of activities to keep you busy during the day.
Koh Kood is similar to Koh Chang in that it’s mountainous, covered in jungle and is fringed by crystal-clear waters. However, it’s sparsely populated with no public transport making for a slower pace to village life. If the idea of being back-to-basics gives you the chills, you’re in luck: Soneva Kiri is the island’s incredible eco-luxury resort that serves up its creature comforts with a healthy dose of solitude.
Relatively flat compared to the other islands, Koh Mak is the island to explore by bike with small fishing hamlets, quiet beaches, rubber and coconut plantations. The island is privately owned so it’s not experienced much development; boutique accommodation and laid-back eateries set the scene here. So kick off your shoes, let down your hair and play castaway for a few days.
Location: Eastern Thailand, approximately 300 kilometres south-east of Bangkok.
How to get there: Bangkok Airways operates three daily flights from Bangkok to Trat (one-hour flight). From Trat, boat services operate to the islands.
When to visit: The best time to visit is between October and May as there is less rain.
Must-do: Adventurers will love the Tree Top Adventure Park on Koh Chang, an obstacle course among the trees, with zip lines, swinging ropes, bridges and the like.
Hot tip: With limited facilities on these islands, be sure to pack any essentials that you cannot live without before arriving.
A (real) escape to the mountains
You may have heard of Thailand’s unofficial ‘second city’ Chiang Mai, where the more adventurous come for a change of scenery and some fresh mountain air. But what about Chiang Rai? Located in the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar share a border, this city is the underrated and less crowded alternative for that escape. Chiang Rai is a hub for breathtaking landscapes, waterfalls and caves, unique temples, a fabulous night bazaar, and remote hill tribes, including the ‘Long Neck’ Karen Hill Tribe whose women famously wear brass rings around their necks.
Location: North Thailand, around 200 kilometres north-east of Chiang Rai.
How to get there: Air Asia, Nok Air, Thai Lion Air, Bangkok Airways, and Thai Smile Airways operate daily flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai
When to visit: Between November and January when temperatures are cooler, which makes for more comfortable hiking conditions.
Must-do: Wat Rong Khun, also known as ‘The White Temple’, is a fascinating contemporary Buddhist Temple designed and constructed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat in 1997 when the original temple fell into disrepair. You might find similarities between this remarkable temple and the ‘The Blue Temple’, which was believed to be designed by Kositpipat’s student and is also located in Chiang Rai.
Doi Mae Salong is one of the most popular places to visit in winter because of its low temperature on the mountain. The activities include a visit to tea houses, tea plantations, tasting local food such as stewed pork leg with hot steamed buns and Yunnan food.
Hot tip: Trekking in Chiang Rai is an incredible way to see local hill tribe life (and is a lot less busier than in Chiang Mai). If you intend trekking, be sure to book with a guide or tour group and be wary if the tour includes elephant rides. If you want to see and interact with elephants, we recommend Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, which offers fun, educational and conservational experiences with elephants that have been rescued.