Thought Thailand began and ended at Bangkok and Chiang Mai?
While they may be the Kingdom’s best known and most popular metropolises, you’re missing out on a whole world of Siamese beauty and character if you skip everything in between.
We’ve rounded up Thailand’s best towns and cities to add to your bucket list. “Best” is hard to define, but we’ve settled on a combination of unique character, a plethora of things to do and some of that classic Thai charm.
Let us know what you think we’ve missed out in the comments!
If you love the culture and heritage of Northern Thailand and fancy somewhere a little off the beaten path for most expats and tourists, Lampang – capital of the province with the same name – could be the city for you.
Once an important city of the Lanna Kingdom, Lampang is now well known for its horse-drawn carriages, Burmese-style temples, handful of universities and the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. It’s a gateway city to the North of Thailand without the same touristic zeal of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
It’s not just an urban centre though and has plenty of natural beauty to escape to also – it’s in the Wang River valley and is surrounded by imposing mountains. There are around five national parks in the vicinity too.
2. Hat Yai
From the North to the South, and to Thailand’s 5th largest city: Hat Yai. In its position in Thailand’s ‘deep south’, the city is a major transport hub and the entry point to Malaysia and Singapore, as well as an important stop for Malaysian Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca.
Hat Yai is a great city for those looking for a large urban centre, complete with shopping and markets, and for those who want to experience another face of Thai culture. There’s a strong Chinese and Muslim presence in Hat Yai, which is reflected in the city’s character, culture and food, and Malaysian and Singaporean tourists replace the Westerners found in more central cities.
A word of warning: Hat Yai is in close proximity to the insurgency dominating the Thai South and has been targeted by terrorists in the past. Keep your wits about you and follow all travel advice.
The provincial capital is beautifully set along the Chanthaburi river and is a much loved city by those who pass through on their way either to Cambodia or the eastern Gulf islands of Koh Chang and Koh Kood.
A cultural blend of Thai, Chinese, Khmer, Vietnamese and French — it was occupied by French colonial troops for 11 years until 1905 — again make for an incredibly charming and interesting city, by way of character, food and architecture. There has even been a sitting Bishop of Chantaburi since 1944. It’s most well known for its incredible supply of tropical fruits, most notably the stinky durian.
The beauty and charm of Chantaburi extends to the rest of the province too, which boasts mountains, rivers, national parks and coastal beaches.
In Central Thailand, not far from Bangkok, can be found the history-rich town of Kanchanaburi. It’s perched at the confluence of the rivers Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai as they converge into the Mae Klong river.
Kanchanaburi province is huge and boasts a mighty seven national parks, but there’s still plenty to do and see in the town itself. The sight most well-known is undoubtedly the Bridge Over The River Kwai — the starting point of the Death Railway, built by Asian Romusha and Allied prisoners of war under duress of the Japanese in World War II — and related cemeteries and museums can be found scattered in the vicinity.
However, Kanchanaburi probably isn’t the place to escape to if you’re fleeing from tourists and Western influence – its history, natural beauty and proximity to Bangkok means that it’s incredibly popular.
5. Khon Kaen
Khon Kaen Province
Khon Kaen is one of the ‘big four of Isaan’ and one of the region’s most vibrant and exciting cities, home to the largest university in the northeast. If you’re looking for a growing, modern metropolis that’s authentically Thai in character, Khon Kaen is it.
Buddhist symbols and temples adorn the city, while the culture is a blend of Laos and Northeastern Thailand, similar to much of Isaan. There’s also large communities of Chinese, Indians and Vietnamese.
As something of a financial hub, Khon Kaen is typically on the business traveller’s itinerary rather than the tourist, but for those looking for an alternative urban home to Bangkok, Khon Kaen is worth considering.
6. Mae Sot
Right on the border of Myanmar is the beautiful and culturally diverse city of Mae Sot. As you might expect from such a location, the city is notable for its large population of Burmese and for its status as something of a trafficking hub — from drugs to people.
Most visitors to this remote corner of Thailand are generally on a visa run to bordering Myanmar, but many stay longer; hooked and intrigued by the city’s utterly unique cultural blend. As well as Burmese and Thai, ethnic Hmong and Karen hill tribes can be found here, as well as Muslims, Chinese, military personnel and a handful of Western foreigners, many of whom work for NGOs, organising the nearby refugee camps.
Such a diverse city makes for delicious food and it’s certainly a popular foodie spot. The border market is also buzzing, and the city boasts a unique shopping and arts and crafts scene.
Back down South is beautiful Trang — mostly seen as nothing more than a stopping point to the province’s beautiful islands. But the city itself is well worth your time, particularly if you’re into markets and food.
Trang will be of particular interest to those who appreciate the topography and climate of nearby provinces like Krabi and Phuket, but prefer more of a low-key experience with a lower footfall of tourists. It should also pique the interest of any culture vultures thanks to the strong Chinese influence seen in the city’s architecture and culinary scene.
Be sure to check out the night and hawker markets too!
Mae Hong Son Province
Pai isn’t necessarily underrated — it’s already pretty popular with the backpacking crowd. But we think it’s worth including as fun and low-key alternative to nearby Chiang Mai, as well as being totally beautiful to boot.
Gorgeous hills, hot springs, waterfalls and nearby hill tribes provide the culture and natural beauty, while the markets, good value restaurants, resorts and even an airport bring the home comforts. It does get loaded with tourists, particularly in the high season, but there are good reasons for its popularity.
While many visitors view Pai as an easy stop-off before trekking expeditions in the great North, others prefer to stay and soak up the relaxed and friendly vibe.
Hovering just inland on the western banks of the Gulf of Thailand, Chumpon is one of the most underrated provincial towns in the country – those that know it, can’t get enough of it, however.
For most travellers, this is nothing more than a quick stop-off before venturing to Koh Tao in the southeast or Phuket in the southwest, but others prefer to take some time out and explore the town: food options aplenty and some gorgeous, isolated fine sand beaches are nearby.
Tourists are few and the landscape lush and largely untouched – this is a great place to just get away from it all. If you’re into nature and adventure, Chumpon will be right up your alley – hiking, caving, fishing, sailing, diving and more are all on your doorstep.
What’s your favourite Thai city?