“Arrive with an empty cup; let the community fill up your cup.” This is the advice given by Khun Ball, a local guide in Mae Hong Son, North Thailand. He encourages anyone visiting Thailand to travel with an open mind; be open to meeting new people and experiencing different cultures. It’s sound advice and neatly sums up the inclusive approach of meaningful travel.
Arrive with an empty cup; let the community fill up your cup.– Khun Ball, guide in Mae Hong Son
Meaningful travel can be defined in a number of ways, but at the core of it all is responsible tourism. Respect the places you visit and the people who live there. And when you do that, you enrich the travel experience, not only for yourself, but also for the people you meet on the way.
Thailand travel inspiration
Whether you are planning your first visit to Thailand or your fifteenth, we are here to help. If you’re a first-time visitor check out these resources first:
If you’re one of the many repeat visitors to Thailand (over 80% of visitors to Thailand from the UK and Ireland are repeat visitors) you already know how special this country is. If you’re looking for travel inspiration and new places to go on your next visit, take a look at the destination combinations below.
Throughout 2023 and 2024, we will continue to showcase destinations in Thailand which remain off the main tourist trail and are perfect for travellers who are seeking more meaningful travel experiences. We’ve selected a cross-section of destinations from different regions of the country to highlight the diversity of Thailand; a diversity of landscapes, culture, food, and history.
Phitsanulok, Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai
Located approximately halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Sukhothai province is a wonderful destination for culture lovers. This area is home to two historical parks; Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai. Both are a delight to cycle around as you admire the atmospheric ruins and picturesque countryside. If you do visit Si Satchanalai, consider an overnight homestay in the village of Ban Na Ton Chan where you can enjoy more local culture and hospitality.
To get to Sukhothai, you can take the train from either Bangkok or Chiang Mai to the amiable riverside town of Phitsanulok. Known locally as P’lok, most overseas visitors arriving in the town head straight to Sukhothai on arrival. But travellers who do spend more time in P’lok will find enough attractions to make it an enjoyable stopover for a night or two.
Khao Yai and Nakhon Ratchasima
Travel a few hour’s north-east of Bangkok and you arrive at Khao Yai, Thailand’s oldest National Park. The park is a haven for wildlife including wild elephants, gibbons, macaques, bears, and hornbills. It’s also home to a number of excellent hiking trails. To make the most out of your Khao Yai adventure, use the services of a local guide to help you.
The vast national park covers a number of provinces, but it is Nakhon Ratchasima which is the main gateway to Khao Yai. Also known locally as Korat, Nakhon Ratchasima is a good introduction to the delights of Isaan. The north-east region of Thailand is famous for its fiery food, warm hospitality and ancient Khmer temples. Nakhon Ratchasima town is the perfect base to explore more of the province and the wonderful Phimai Historical Park.
EAST COAST THAILAND
Ko Kood, Ko Mak and Ko Wai
Although Ko Chang is the best known island in the east of Thailand, there are a number of others in the Ko Chang archipelago which may appeal if you are seeking somewhere more remote.
Ko Kood is a fine choice for an island getaway. Even in the high season months, Ko Kood still feels quiet. Accommodation options cover a range of budgets from simple home-stays through to eco-luxury resorts like Soneva Kiri.
Ko Mak is another good choice for a relaxing holiday with attractive beaches and a low-key vibe. Ko Mak has also been at the forefront of sustainable tourism in Thailand with islanders and businesses supporting the ‘Ko Mak Low-Carbon Destination Declaration’ which was signed in 2012. Since then, more eco-friendly practices have been introduced:
- Eat it Fresh: A campaign for hotels and restaurants to grow organic fruit and vegetables on the island and buy seafood from local fishermen
- Help Ko Mak: Encouraging tourists to adopt simple eco-friendly behaviour like turning off lights when not in use and reusing towels
- Good Host: Encouraging locals to sort waste and use renewable energy solar cells.
“Busy doing nothing” is the default setting for travellers staying on Ko Wai. In the best possible way, there isn’t too much to do on Ko Wai apart from swimming and relaxing, but that is exactly why this island appeals to the discerning travellers who do stay here.
Chumphon and Ranong
Known as the gateway to southern Thailand, Chumphon is often overlooked by travellers in their rush to get to the Gulf Coast islands of Ko Samui, Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan. With most tourists heading to the islands, it leaves the Chumphon mainland an excellent option for anybody wanting a quieter, more local experience while still enjoying attractive beaches and having plenty to see and do.
If you like the look of Chumphon, combine it with a trip to the neighbouring province of Ranong. The advantage of this is it allows you to enjoy the attractions on two different coastlines; the Gulf Coast at Chumphon and the Andaman Coast at Ranong.
The provincial capital of Ranong Town has plenty of charm and is worth spending at least a few nights here before heading over to the islands of Ko Phayam and Ko Chang Noi. Life on both these little islands is decidedly sabai sabai, so kick off your shoes and forget about your worries.
Hat Yai, Phatthalung and Songkhla Town
If you’re seeking to explore off the beaten path destinations and see more of ‘Unseen Thailand’, check out Phatthalung and Songkhla Town on your next visit. Both are easy to reach from Hat Yai which in turn has good connections via air and rail with Bangkok.
Hat Yai is a wonderful town for foodies with the cuisine reflecting the Thai, Malay and Chinese heritage of the city. Feast on fabulous dishes like dim-sum, khao mok (Thai-style biryani) and the signature dish of the city, gai tod Hat Yai (Hat Yai-style fried chicken).
Most international travellers won’t be familiar with Phatthalung, but this is where you can find one of Thailand’s most stunning natural attractions, Thale Noi. This vast wetlands area makes up one of the most biodiverse sites in Thailand and is a treat for nature lovers and birdwatchers.
Just as Hat Yai is foodie heaven, so too is Songkhla Town. This is also one of the most underrated destinations in Thailand with a beach located within easy reach of the city, a charming old town area, and a thriving arts and craft scene.
Khao Lak and Khao Sok
If you’re looking for an alternative to Phuket or Krabi, check-out the genteel charms of Khao Lak. The long coastline that forms the Khao Lak area means that it’s easy to find an empty stretch of beach even in the high season months. Although Khao Lak is a quiet resort area, there is enough to see and do here to make it ideal for families or couples.
Staying in Khao Lak makes it easy for a number of day trips including the gorgeous Similan Islands or the Surin Islands. The serene beauty of Khao Sok National Park can also be enjoyed on a day trip from Khao Lak, but to truly appreciate Khao Sok, spend at least a few nights here. Go for a hike through some of the oldest evergreen forests in the world, take a cruise across spectacular Cheow Larn Lake and stay at unique accommodation like 500 Rai Floating Resort or Elephant Hills.
Ko Kradan, Ko Ngai and Ko Mook
If you’ve already stayed on some of the better-known islands in Thailand and are looking for alternatives, check out this trio of islands in the Andaman Sea. They all offer something a little different while still providing a serene experience, powder-soft sandy beaches and inviting turquoise waters.
The World Beach Guide listed Ko Kradan as the number one beach in the world in 2023. Whether you trust lists like this or not, there is no doubting the charms of Ko Kradan. At a little over two miles long and with sandy shores and a jungle-clad interior, Ko Kradan is the epitome of a tropical hideaway. Part of the Chao Mai National Park, development on the island is restricted, but there are options to stay overnight.
The diminutive island of Ko Ngai (also known as Ko Hai) is ideal for a romantic break. Although the island is located within the borders of Krabi province, it’s handily placed to be explored with some of the other Trang Islands including Ko Kradan and Ko Mook.
Out of the three islands we’ve included in this combination, Ko Mook has the widest range of places to stay and is as suitable for budget travellers as it is for those seeking a little more luxury. While tourism plays a welcome role on Ko Mook, it’s very much a working island with fishing and farming at the core of the local economy.
Ko Tarutao, Ko Bulon Leh and Ko Lipe
More options for an island holiday can be found in and around the Tarutao National Marine Park. We’ve selected three islands which will suit a different range of travelling styles.
Ko Tarutao has a fascinating history. A former penal colony and hangout of pirates, Ko Tarutao is the largest island in the eponymous National Marine Park. There are no hotels on the island, but there is the option to camp overnight or stay in National Park bungalows. Whichever option you choose, you can stroll along empty beaches, cycle along traffic-free roads and enjoy the tranquillity of this unspoiled island.
Ko Bulon Leh is smaller than Ko Tarutao, but does have a number of low-key places to stay. Don’t come here if you need guaranteed electricity or rapid wifi. Do come here if you want to switch off and forget about the outside world for a while.
When you step off the boat and arrive on Ko Lipe’s soft sandy beaches, it’s easy to see why the island seduces so many travellers. But that beauty can come at a price. The pace of development on Ko Lipe is not to everybody’s liking and although Ko Lipe is still lovely, it does get busy. If you’d prefer to really get away from it all, Ko Bulon or Ko Tarutao may be better options.
Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai
If you’re planning to stay in Krabi or Phuket, the unspoiled twin islands of Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai make for an excellent add-on to your holiday. With one or two exceptions, the beaches here aren’t as spectacular as those you can find in Krabi or Phuket, but that also means they remain blissfully quiet. Hire a bicycle to ride along the rural roads and enjoy the tranquillity.
Although Yao Yai is the larger island, there’s a broader selection of accommodation choices on Yao Noi with stand-out options including 9 Hornbills Tented Camp, Six Senses Yao Noi, and Treehouse Villas. Travelling between the two islands is convenient with just a short ride by longtail boat separating the two. Wherever you choose to stay, you’ll soon relax into the slow rhythm of island life.
Trang Town, Ko Libong and Ko Sukorn
Home to some of Thailand’s most charming islands and beaches, the southern province of Trang is another good alternative to Krabi or Phuket. Stay in the provincial capital of Trang Town to enjoy the local food and culture before heading out to the islands. We’ve already mentioned the islands of Ko Kradan and Ko Mook, but there are other islands in Trang province which are also ideal for meaningful travel.
It’s fair to say that the beaches of Ko Libong aren’t as stunning as some of the other Thai islands, but there is more to Libong than that. If you’re interested in local life and nature, Ko Libong is perfect. Although a trickle of tourists do come here, it is fishing and farming which drives the local economy. Jump on a bicycle to explore the quiet roads and appreciate nature. Ko Libong is home to one of Thailand’s most endearing animals, the elusive dugong (similar to a manatee). Travel on an eco-friendly boat trip to try and spot these graceful creatures who feed on the seagrass near Ko Libong.
Ko Sukorn is another island which is not renowned for its beaches. But the appeal of Ko Sukorn is the community who live and work here. As with Ko Libong, only a trickle of tourists make their way here and those that do are assured a warm welcome from the islanders. The population is predominantly Muslim and visitors who respect local culture will be welcomed. Cycle along the coastline and through small villages and you’ll find yourself being greeted with smiles and cheery ‘hellos’ and ‘sawatdees’ on an island where overseas tourists are still a rarity.
Responsible tourism in Thailand
Meaningful travel and responsible tourism are closely connected. For more ideas on how to appreciate Thailand and Thai culture, take a look at these articles on our site:
- 21 ways to support responsible tourism in Thailand
- 40 hotels in Thailand supporting responsible tourism
You may also enjoy:
Fan Club Thailand
Tourism Thailand (UK & Ireland)
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