When it comes to the provinces of Thailand, you can be sure that there are only really three that are commanding all the attention: Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai.
While we love those destinations – hell, they’re popular for a reason – we know that there’s so much more to Thailand than them.
There are 77 provinces in Thailand, each offering something a little different in terms of character, culture and history. We’re leaving behind Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai to bring you the best 11 provinces in Thailand that you need to add to your bucket list.
Let’s take it away…
Loei is found in Thailand’s Isaan region and borders Laos on its northeastern border.
Loei is Beautiful — with a capital ‘B’ — bordered as it is by stunning mountain ranges and lush flora with the Loei River – a tributary of the Mekong – flowing through it.
The most celebrated mountains of Loei include Phu Kradueng, Phu Ruea, Phu Luang and Phu Tap Buek, the highest mountain of the Phetchabun range. It’s also home to the Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary and five national parks. If you’re a nature lover, chances are you’re a Loei lover too.
As well as being Thailand’s coldest province, it’s also one of the least populous. Loei is certainly the location to get away from it all.
Trat is occupies the position of Thailand’s most southeastern province, buried beneath Chantaburi and bordering Cambodia on its eastern flank.
As well as being home to some of Thailand’s most charming fishing villages, serene beaches and the Cardamom mountains that form the border with Cambodia, Trat comprises an additional 52 islands off its coast including the popular Koh Chang and the beautiful Koh Mak and Koh Kood.
Koh Chang is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination and is the country’s third largest island. It’s also known for a decidedly wet rainy season. Koh Kood and Koh Mak are incredibly scenic, blessed with waterfalls, coconut groves and white-sand beaches.
This is definitely a spot for beach lovers.
Ayutthaya, found about an hour driving north of Bangkok, is one of Thailand’s most important provinces and a must-visit if you want to find out more about the country’s history and culture.
The main highlight is undoubtedly the Ayutthaya Historical Park which comprises the ruins of the old city – once the centre of the Ayutthaya Kingdom before its sacking by the Burmese in 1767.
Temples and palaces abound here: it will become very clear why this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the most notable sites include Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest temple in the city, Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit, the site of a large bronze Buddha image, and Wat Phra Mahathat, where a sacred Buddha head has become entwined within the roots of a tree.
Also worth visiting are the daily floating market and the Royal Elephant Kraal and village.
4. Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is celebrated for its beautiful solitude and remoteness, nestled up in Thailand’s northwestern corner, bordering Myanmar.
Most tourists, expats and backpackers opt for neighbouring Chiang Mai when they want to experience the thrill of Thailand’s north, so you can expect a quiet serenity throughout the province – even in the capital town – and few, if any, foreigners in sight. Ethnic Shan are the most populous group here.
It’s another cracking destination for hiking, being the most mountainous province in Thailand — the Daen Lo Range hems in the north, the Dawna Range to the west and the Thanon Thongchai Range serves as the eastern border with Chiang Mai.
Mae Hong Son is also home to glorious Pai, which is decidedly more lively than the town of Mae Hong Son, and the place to visit if you’re craving more familiar company and comforts.
The first thing people will tell you about Ranong is that it’s rainy. And they’re right; the rainy season last for around 8 months of every year.
But thanks to the abundant rain, Ranong is also absolutely lush in landscape; mangrove forests, waterfalls, hot springs, heavy jungle and searing mountains all make their home here. There’s also a biosphere reserve protecting the mangrove forests, Khlong Nakha Wildlife Sanctuary in the south and the Laem Son National Park.
The province is found in the South, at the northern point of Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast, bordering the south of Myanmar. It’s also home to 62 islands — if you want long sandy beaches, Koh Phayam and Koh Khang Khao are well worth your time.
It’s also the least populous province in the entire country (although you may be likely to spot a few foreigners on visa runs to nearby Myanmar).
Korat, officially known as Nakhon Ratchasima, is at the heart of Thailand’s Isaan region in the country’s Northeast. It’s the country’s largest province and has a distinct Khmer heritage.
Phimai historical park — home to one of Thailand’s most important Khmer temples — indicates the importance of Korat to the Khmer kingdom, at least as far back as the 11th century. It’s also been used as an important military base in Thailand’s recent history too: serving as a royalist stronghold in the 1933 Boworade Revolt and a base for the US air force from 1961 until 1976.
Also worth seeing in Korat is the Khao Yai National Park, the Mueang Sema Historical Site and the Dan Kwian Pottery Village.
As one of the four major cities of Isaan, the capital city (also known as Korat/Nakhon Ratchasima) is the perfect place to better understand the complex culture and heritage of the region: the people are of Khmer, Laotian and Chinese ancestry, which is reflected in their unique cuisine, language and lifestyle.
7. Ubon Ratchathani
Staying in Isaan, Ubon is one of Thailand’s most naturally beautiful provinces, and its most eastern one.
It serves as a meeting point for both countries and rivers: the Mun River joins the Mekong at lovely Khong Chiam, while in the Dângrêk Mountains is the so-called Emerald Triangle, where Thailand meets both Laos and Cambodia.
Ubon is also home to three national parks, including Pha Taem National Park — this is where a series of sheer cliffs were borne of earthquakes many millennia ago. On these cliffs are some historically significant prehistoric cave paintings. The city of Ubon is also well-known for its plethora of temples and for being a centre of Buddhist teaching.
If Korat is the administrative engine of Isaan, then Ubon is its heart and soul: laidback, full of friendly locals who serve up some of the spiciest food you’re likely ever choke on.
8. Prachuap Khiri Khan
Around 250km south of Bangkok on the western coast of the Gulf of Thailand, Prachuap Khiri Khan is the perfect province for those after a sleepy seaside town feel.
Hua Hin — the resort favoured by the Thai royal family — is perhaps the best known part of the province, but it’s by no means the only part worth visiting. Prachuap Khiri Khan itself is just as charmingly pretty, with a more beautiful bay and a much less touristic vibe, while the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park is home to the country’s largest freshwater marshes and the stunning Phraya Nakhon cave.
There’s also some recent history associated with the province; it was the site of the Japanese army’s first strike against Thailand in 1941 during World War II. After a couple of days of battle – seeing 38 dead on the Thai side and 217 on the Japanese – Thailand made the decision to ally with Japan until the end of the war.
Also an important province in terms of recent military history is Kanchanaburi, home to the infamous Death Railway where during the Japanese occupation in World War II, many allied prisoners of war and Asian labourers were forced to build a railway to Burma. Over 100,000 died from the horrific working conditions.
You can ride on the railway in Kanchanaburi as well as visit the famous landmarks of the period: the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and Hellfire Pass.
But there’s plenty more to this province too: national parks abound, with 6 at the last count — including the stunning Erawan — while the Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The controversial Tiger Temple can also be found in Kanchanaburi. At the time of writing, over 100 tigers were planning to be removed from the temple in response to allegations of mistreatment and trafficking.
Phetchabun is one of Thailand’s most underrated provinces when it comes to the power and beauty of the natural landscape. Perched towards the north of the central plains, it’s a great spot for nature lovers and walkers.
Surrounded by the Phetchabun mountain range on its eastern and western flanks, some of the best sights in Phetchabun include Khao Kho National Park – home to caves, cliffs, streams, a waterfall and monuments to historic battles – Nam Nao National Park – a huge tract of mostly intact forest – and Tat Mok National Park – a 12-tier waterfall.
There’s also plenty of history in the province as it served such an important role in the rise and fall of the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms.
Phetchabun is also home to the Si Thep Historical Park, which dates back to the ancient Khmer kingdom.
11. Phang Nga
While most of the provinces on this list are relatively untouched by tourists, the same cannot be said for Phang Nga, found just above Phuket in Thailand’s South. However, there’s so much sheer beauty in this spot that it’s impossible not to include.
As well as the well-trodden tourist trails of Phang Nga Bay – home to the somewhat overhyped James Bond Island – the province is home to the Similan Islands, one of the best spots for SCUBA diving in the world, Koh Surin National Park, the impeccable beaches of Koh Phra Thong, Khao Lak, Koh Yao, the beautiful Khao Lampi-Hat Thai Mueang National Park, and the Kainui Mountain.
The culture and heritage of Phang Nga is incredibly interesting too: mostly Muslim, as well as Buddhists and Chinese. Koh Surin is home to the Moken ‘sea gypsies’, who live traditionally nomadic sea-faring lives.
What’s your favourite of the Thai provinces?