Visit the southern Gulf of Thailand for idyllic islands, off-the-beaten-path beaches on the mainland, and some charming small historical cities where you can learn about the culture and history of the region.
White-sand beaches, coconut trees, and green rolling hills make the lower southern Gulf a top choice if you’re looking for a beach vacation in Thailand. The region has plenty to offer that you won’t find on the other side of the Kra Isthmus. The landscapes are not as dramatic as the karst cliffs that pepper Phuket, Krabi, and Trang, but thanks to an abundance of coconut trees and a softer, more rolling topography, the islands are greener and lusher. The resorts can be as posh as those on the Andaman coast, and at the cheaper end, the selection is better. The rainy season is much shorter, lasting from only mid-October to mid-December.
Though the mainland beaches north of Nakhon Si Thammarat aren’t as slick and foreigner-friendly as the more popular beach spots, the natural landscape is mostly unmarred by development, and the area still retains the typically Thai culture that’s often harder to see in more popular destinations. The city of Nakhon Si Thammarat doesn’t have enough attractions to draw huge crowds of foreign tourists, but it has plenty of temples to visit, and plenty of authentic Thai food to try. Visit Khanom and Sichon for their beaches, which still attract more locals than foreign visitors. Khao Sok National Park, closer to the Andaman Coast, has some beautiful waterfalls and plenty of opportunities to canoe.
South of Nakhon Si Thammarat, the coast along the Gulf of Thailand changes significantly. You’ll still find stretches of beach and plenty of friendly people, but once you enter Songkhla Province, Islam begins to be more apparent. Hat Yai, the area’s economic hub, attracts hordes of visitors, but mostly people from Malaysia, who come for shopping and to take advantage of Thailand’s more permissive culture. This makes it a very interesting place to people-watch if you happen to be passing through, although it’s probably not going to be a primary destination for most.
Although these days the mainland cities in this part of the country look more like semi-industrialized towns and transport hubs for travelers moving onto the beaches and islands, Surat Thani was once the seat of the Srivijaya Empire in Thailand. Though little is known about the lost empire, historians speculate that it existed from somewhere between the 3rd and 5th centuries to the 13th century. The center of the Srivijaya Empire’s power was on the island of Sumatra, in present-day Indonesia, but the empire spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago and northward, encompassing the Malay Peninsula up to present-day Surat Thani. Although the kingdom was Hindu, Buddhist, and then Muslim, remains from the Surat Thani area are Mahayana Buddhist, and there are temple ruins in the city of Chaiya, outside of Surat Thani, as well as the Chaiya National Museum.
In some sense, Thailand became its own kingdom in the 13th century when the region became ruled by Thai people instead of outsiders, but the country as it is known today did not exist until the 20th century. Southeast Asia had for centuries been under the influence of innumerable empires bearing little relation to current national borders, and it was the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 that put the last pieces of the puzzle (at least in the south) together for the Kingdom of Siam. It was then that Siam got the provinces of Satun, Songkhla, Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala in exchange for giving up claims to provinces farther south that are now part of Malaysia. While the country as a whole identifies with the Kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, the south has always had a somewhat different history.
Since the Srivijaya period, Nakhon Si Thammarat emerged as its own kingdom of sorts, existing independently but paying tribute to the Sukhothai and then Ayutthaya Kingdoms. By the 18th century, the region was ruled by the Kingdom of Siam, although at least with respect to Songkhla, that rule was challenged until the 1909 treaty.
Nakhon Si Thammarat has become an important city for Buddhists, and you’ll see plenty of wats if you visit. Just south, in Songkhla, the predominant religion is Islam.
Planning Your Time
If you’re planning on a visit to the cities of Nakhon Si Thammarat or Songkhla, you can easily see most of the important sights in a day or two, leaving plenty of extra time to relax on one of the beaches up north. With direct flights on Nok Air to Nakhon Si Thammarat, it’s surprisingly easy to get to the city or nearby Songkhla without spending hours transferring from one place to another.
Although Islam and Buddhism have coexisted in this part of the country for centuries with few problems, sectarian violence currently gripping Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat has recently spilled over into parts of Songkhla. Hat Yai, the province’s capital, has had multiple bomb attacks in the past decade that have targeted hotels, pubs, and shopping centers. The violence so far has been limited to Hat Yai and has been very sporadic, but it’s something that cannot be ignored if you’re traveling to this part of the country. There have been no incidents, however, in any of the popular tourist spots and no indication that there is a threat of violence there.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Phuket & Ko Samui.