Southern Thailand: historical temples, tropical beaches and Offshore Islands
Forming a narrow peninsula, southern Thailand is some 1,200 km ( 750 miles) from Bangkok towards the Malaysian border. The land is characterized by a mountainous spine and humped limestone karsts formations which appear both as cliffs and offshore islets, while the coastline is indented with coves and stunning beaches. Numerous islands, including the country’s largest, Phuket, dot the coastal waters.
Topographically and , to large extent, culturally, the region could be divided in two parts, the upper and lower south. The upper south, which extends down to Chumphon, faces the gulf of Thailand to the east and it is bordered to the west by Myanmar ( Burma).
Beyond Chumphon, the lower south is distinguished by a more truly tropical climate and the last vestiges of Thailand’s rainforests. The border with Myanmar ends near the city of Ranong and the Thai shore faces both the Andaman Sea , on the west, and the Gulf of Thailand to the east
Most of the coastline is now taken over by beach resorts, notably Cha-Am and Hua Hin which are within easy driving from Bangkok, although fishing still provides the main livelihood for coastal fishing villages. Away from the sea, cultivation on the narrow coastal plain is dominated by plantations, mostly pineapple.
The history of the upper south is linked closely with that of the Central Plains. The main city of the area, Petchaburi, was an important provincial center during the Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods and still boasts several venerable temples, as well as a 19th- century hilltop palace built by Rama IV.
Hua Hin retains regal connections to this days, being the site of Klai Kangwon Villa (“Palace Far from Worries”) ,a summer palace in old days, but it is where the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX spended much of his time, although the monarchy’s official residence is the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The landscape is defined by rubber and coconut plantations that, along with the tin mining in Phuket and fishing in both coasts, have been the traditional activities of the area.
The coastal ports of the lower south were once staging posts on the sea route from India to China, while the area also boats important sites dating back to the Srivijaya period ( 8th – 13th centuries). But although ancient settlements, such as Nakhon Si Thamarat and Songkla, retain vestiges of the past, modern commercial development in the South is largely inspiring, as witnessed in the region’s major business hub, Hat Yai, where, sadly, during the last years, there were several acts of violence. A strong muslim influence typifies what is a distinctive southern culture.
The lower south is best known today as the nation’s top tourist attraction. Phuket and Phi Phi islands, Krabi along with Phang Nga Bay, on the Andaman coast, and Samui island in the Gulf of Thailand , can all claim tropical beaches that rank among the best in the world.
In many ways we could say that the south is a world far removed from the rest of the country, especially in the deep south near Malaysia. A different climate, religion and type of farming make it unique among Thailand’s regions. Groves of rubber trees are more common than rice fields, and the gilded dome of a Muslim mosque becomes a more familiar sight than the sloping orange roof of a Buddhist temple.
Yet Pukhet is not only a land with extraordinary beaches. Being the largest island of Thailand, nearly the size of Singapore, has much more to offer. The undeniable physical beauty of Phuket island stems from its picturesque villages, coconut groves, and rubber plantations as much as its patchwork of wild flowers set against a backdrop of forested hills. For centuries Phuket was a backwater. The long road south from Bangkok to reach it wasn’t built yet, the lack of a bridge across the causeway, bad roads on the island itself, and a seeming lack of interest for developing as a touristic attraction, meant that it has been forgotten in relative isolation for decades.
Today, the road from Phang Nga on the mainland crosses the 600 -metre Thaothep Kasaetri bridge to Phuket. The town of Pukhet, located on the island southeast coast, has a rich identity of its own. The charm of Pukhet’s old Sino -Portuguese architectural style buildings is complemented by the many Chinese shrines that bath the city with bright splashes of brigth colour. Among them are Jui Tui temple, which is the starting point for the five days of colourful and bizarre parades that mark the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival , held in October; and its smaller companion, Put Jaw, just next door.
Phuket’s fame and glory, however, lies in its many beautiful beaches. Following a coastal road that starts in Phuket town, going clock wise, you will get first to Rawai, from there, while enjoying the great views, until to get the first beach , Nai Harn, one of the island’s prettiest beaches. Further north, the more picturesque bays of Kata Noi and Kata have a more intimate feel due to their small size. There is fine snorkeling at the southern end of Kata Noi beach.
Karon Beach is quite a long strip of sand that has excellent snorkelling and even, diving spots at its southern end and it is wide enough for beachgoers to never feel crowed. The center section of Karon is a lively small city in which visitors can find a good choice of dining, shopping and nightlife entertainment opportunities as well as a beautiful Buddhist temple.
Karon beach Road is ideal for taking an evening stroll and is mostly occupied by large resorts interrupted by restaurants and shops. Both Karon and Kata are much more less frenetic than Patong Beach, located at the north of Karon.
Patong Beach is the most developed beach of the island. In the early 1970s Patong was little more than a huge banana plantation wedged between the mountains a a wide crescent of sand. That plantation is now a tourist city -by- the sea, with multistories condominiums and hotels rising above night markets, shopping malls, seafood emporiums, beer bars, discos and tour shops…just think of Pattaya and you will get an idea of what Patong Beach is.
Kamala Beach lies just north of the lights and noise of Patong and it is a quieter stretch of sand with a more relaxed feel that makes it the favorite among retirees and long-term visitors.This well- enclosed bay and fishing village surrounded by forested hills is one of the most beautiful places in Phuket. Regarding nightlife, Kamala Beach may not be the most buzzing resort town, but it does have the most popular cultural show on the island: Phuket Fantasea, which everyday attracts many more visitors in its large Disneyland- like complex. Ideal for families with children.
The attractive coastal road north to Surin Beach passes Laem Singh Beach an extraordinary beautiful beach, situated under a steep promontory, nestled in a hidden bay surrounded by palm trees and dotted by giant boulders, it has a feeling os secret beach.
Naturally beautiful Surin beach, with its fine white sand and turquoise water has ensured that the picturesque beach is very popular among tourists and Thais alike. The whole area is awash with high-end hotels and housing, which, in turn, has created opportunities for high-end restaurants and wine bars.
Surin beach gives way to idillic Pansea Bay, a secluded piece of paradise, dominated by two proprietary resorts , that occupy, although the privatization of coastline is illegal in Thailand, the length of the beach, to the point that the access to Pansea beach is only through the reception of one of the resorts.
Phang Nga Bay
A distinctive feauture of Phang Nga Bay are the sheer limestone karsts that jut vertically out of the emerald-green water. By far the best way of enjoying the spectacular scenery, with only brief encounters with tourist crowds at James Bond island and Koh Panyee, is to take one of the boat trips from the northern end of Phuket. A leisurely day trip cruising through the dramatic limestone islands, occasionally stopping to enjoy a quiet beach or a Hong, is far more rewarding than the standard bus-boat tour.
“Here, there are lost worlds awaiting discovery. It wasn’t many years ago that aerial surveys first revealed the Hong , or “rooms”, that lie inside some of Phang Nga’s islands. These fabulous microcosmos, hidden realms rich in unspoiled flora and fauna, are collapsed cave systems open to the sky and surrounded by towering limestone walls. Try sea-kayaking, where you will peddle sturdy plastic boats through caves into the mysterious hearts of islands such as Koh Panak and Koh Hong. It is really worth trying…” Read more visiting this website: www.phuket.com/island/phangnga.htm
Krabi, a coastal province, has countless natural attractions that never fail to impress visitors, as white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, fascinating coral reefs, caves and waterfalls, as well as numerous islands. The distinguishing feature of both Krabi and neighbouring province Phang Nga is the massive limestone karsts, rising vertiginously out of the flat rice paddies on land and as islands from the sea.
Add some gorgeous beaches and excellent scuba diving and rock climbing, and it is little wonder why tourism in the area has been booming. While less commercialized than neighbouring Phuket, Krabi province cannot be described as undiscovered when more than 2 million visitors a year go there.
Krabi Town is a small but bustling service center majestically situated among impossibly angular limestone karsts jutting from the mangroves. Anyone visiting this city will be surprised by the sheer volume of guesthouses, travel agencies and building work packed in this compact town.
It is a key transport hub, around which a busy traveller scene continues to evolve. From town, Kravi river mangroves can be explored by renting a long-tail boat, first stopping off to visit the huge cavern inside the Kanab Nam twin peaks, which flank the river.
Boat travel is one of the major ways to visit some of the more secluded beaches on the Krabi mainland, as well as the many islands and islets dotting the Andaman sea. A wide variety of options to suit different tastes and budgets is available, from distinctive long- tail boats used by the locals to speedboats and cruise trips.
Koh Phi Phi, or Phi Phi Island
One of the islands that could be reached from Krabi, is Koh Phi Phi , which lies equidistant , about 45 km ( 30 miles) from both Krabi and Phuket. Koh Phi Phi with its turquoise and crystalline water, beaches so dazzlingly white that it is almost painful to the eye, palm fringed beaches and lofty limestone mountains as a backdrop, arguably surpasses Phuket as one of the most beautiful islands in Asia.
Phi Phi island, or Koh Phi Phi, as Koh means island in Thai, is Thailand’s superstar island. It has been in the movies, anyone remembers Leonardo di Caprio in “The Beach”. It is the topic of conversation for travelers all over Thailand. For some, it is the only reason to touchdown Phuket. The island, when approached by boat, rises from the sea like a fortress. Sheer cliffs tower overhead, then give away to beach-fronted jungle. It is love a first sight.
The island is in fact , more than one island:
Phi Phi Don, a national park and the only populated island. Most of the development of Phi Phi Don is situated in or around Ton Sai village, which is on the low, sandy isthmus that joins the two hills spurs that comprise the rest of the island. There are also other, quieter resorts on Long beach, Laem Thong and other accessible areas of the island.
It Is difficult to believe the amount of development this place has undergone, which is almost entirely restricted to the narrow sandbar separating two of the island’s most prominent beaches. Marketed as tropical island, you will be surprised by the flurry of activity around numerous supermarkets, restaurants, tattoo parlors and ATMs.
Phi Phi Ley, a craggy limestone monolith similar to the other shrub- covered peaks of Phang Nga Bay, located to the south of Phi Phi Don, popularized when parts of the movie “The Beach” were filmed there. This island is inhabited apart from the birds nest harvesters and a few wardens in Maya Beach, also known as “The beach”, where is expected plenty of tourists during daylight hours.
There are more small islands as Koh Mai Phai, or “Bamboo Island”, a small low-lying islet to the north of Phi Phi Don with a beach and some very limited snorkelling; Koh Yung or “Mosquito Island” located north of Phi Phi Don which has a stone beach in the east and small andy beaches at the foot of the hills; Bida Nok and Bida Nai, two small adjacent limestone karsts to the south of Phi hi Lei, with near-vertical cliff walls rising from the sea.
Koh Phi Phi was devastated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, when nearly all of the island’s infrastructure was wiped out. Redevelopment has, however, been swift and services are back with building regulations in place to limit the height of new buildings to preserve the island’s stunning views. You could find this and more information about Phuket and ko Phi Phi visiting this website: www.phuket.com
Taking the ferry from Surat Thani, the visitor arrives to Koh Samui, an island of great beauty and variety, Samui is home to about 40,000 full-time inhabitants, 90 percent of whom are Buddhist. The palm -fringed shoreline and coconut and fruit cultivation of the coast lowlands rise to a central granite massive, the slopes of which are cloaked in virgin rainforest.
Samui is the second -largest island in Thailand and the largest island in the Chumphon Archipelago of over 80 islands, mostly inhabited, that form the Ang Thong National Marine Park, a kayaking and snorkeling paradise. Samui is big enough for serious exploration by the adventurous and fit, but it can be circumnavigated in just a couple of hours by motorbike or car…so there is for all tastes and budgets.
The island was probably first inhabited about 15 centuries ago, by fisherman from the Malay Peninsula and Southern China. It appears on Chinese maps dating back to 1687, under the name of Pulo Coman. The Chinese influence is still evident in Samui, especially at Fisherman’s village, where rows of Chinese shophouses sit next to European-influenced buildings and create a village atmosphere. The island is home to several Chinese temples and Chinese New Year is celebrated with a bang, literally, at temple located near the Mae Nam walking street market.
Until the late 20th century, Samui was an isolated , self-sufficient community, having little connection with Thailand mainland. The island was even without roads, a 15 km- journey from one side to the other involved a whole-day trek through the mountainous central jungles, until the early 1970s, when the first backpackers traveling on the back of coconut boat arrived on Ko Samui..
For years after that, the island had just a few bungalows and a trickle of tourists. Things started to change in the early 1990s when tourists were arriving on full boats and since then, the place has grown substantially until became the second-most popular place as an island destination in Thailand, second only to Phuket.
With an international airport, a mass of ferry connections and a huge amount of hotels and guesthouses, this is not a place that one could call “untouched by tourism development”. But one good thing about Samui’s development is that the written law limits the hight of buildings, what means, unlike Phuket, that tall apartment blocks and hotels do not ruin the skyline.
Koh Samui may be not the country’s most beautiful island, but is still an oasis of natural beauty with its white sandy beaches, dazzling corals, picturesque waterfalls, swaying coconut trees and crystal clear waters attracting a great number of visitors, nearly one million each year. In Samui there are attractions for all budgets, from travelers staying for a month or two in single beachside bungalows, to the wealthiest holidaymakers dropping in for a weekend at one of the many luxury resorts or villas on any of Samui’s beaches.
From the hustle and bustle of Chaweng Beach to the lively yet relaxed atmosphere of Lamai beach , from the timeless feel of Bophut’s Fisherman’s Village to the tropical beach paradise of Maenam, Koh Samui is unique among Thailand’s islands in maintaining a broad appeal for everyone.
Samui’s repertoire of things to do and see is varied and interesting: the island hosts a great deal of splendid natural and man-made attractions which range from mummified monks to the famous grandma and grandpa rocks (Hin Ta and Hin Yai) to attractive waterfalls.
For those interested in religious imaginary and architecture , the shrine of Big Buddha will impress, especially at sunset. Probably Samui’s most well known landmark, the 12 meters high golden Buddha, so called the Big Buddha, can be seen from several kilometers away. Inside the surrounding temple are many different shrines and other smaller ornate Buddhas. There is also, as it can’t be in other way, a small market selling a wide range of lucky charms and other sourveniers, alongside numerous food stalls.
Nature lovers, using Samui as a base to explore the neighbouring islands of Koh Pha Ngan, famous for its Full Moon Party, which is monthly dance music festival set on Haad Rin Not Beach scheduled every month at full moon, and koh Tao, a paradise for divers, as well as the Ang Thong Marine National Park on a day trip to enjoy a genuine “get away from it all” feel in the splendid tropical islands it hosts. The islands and the park are both only a short boat or ferry trip away.
As we have said, the content of this page is the result of our research plus some comments of our own. We gathered and put together interesting information that we thought it would be of help,that we had found while reading the books listed below or visiting the websites which are also included in the list. So you could find all this information and more, reading:
- Insight Guides- Southeast Asia, by Discovery Channel
- This is Thailand, by John Hoskin, Gerald Cubitt
- The Wonder of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Ang Thong Maritime National Park, by Mark Standen
Or visiting these websites:
We just hope that you had enjoyed reading this page, and that we had being of help. If you have some comment, please, lets know. In this way, we would be able to keep linking Pattaya together