Thailand is shaped kind of like an elephant’s head. Two big ears (admittedly more like an African than an Asian elephant), an open mouth surrounding the Bay of Bangkok, and a long trunk reaching south towards Malaysia. OK, you kind of have to use your imagination, but it’s a pleasing coincidence, isn’t it?
When it comes to tourism to Thailand, nearly everyone focusses on the head and ears of the elephant. That’s where you’ll find Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Rai, the ancient cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, and links to neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. Those who do head south are usually making a beeline for the beaches of Phuket. So, what about the trunk?
Thailand’s trunk isn’t just an appendage, it’s a destination in itself. Full of exciting things to see and do, with the glittering coasts of the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea on either side. Here are ten reasons to visit southern Thailand.
1. Stay in a floating lodge
Often compared to Vietnam’s Halong Bay for its towering, jagged limestone karsts, Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park is one of the most beautiful spots in Thailand — not just in the south.
Come here to stay in a floating raft house lodge on the water, paddle beneath trailing vines on the Sok River, trek through jungle to luminous pools surrounded by the hoots of gibbons and meet the gentle giants at Elephant Hills (more on this later).
2. Learn rural skills in Kui Buri
Hemmed in by pineapple and rubber plantations, on the edge of a national park, the village of Kui Buri isn’t just a jumping-off point for adventures in the wilderness — it’s one of our favourite places to learn about traditional arts and crafts.
Here, you can watch and have a go at all sorts of rural activities, including rubber tapping, silk harvesting and papermaking (using pineapple and elephant poo!)
3. Meet elephants at some of our favourite ethical sanctuaries
Elephant tourism is a fraught subject, but some of the best, most sustainable elephant experiences are to be found in southern Thailand.
One of these is at Elephant Hills, a luxurious tented camp in Khao Sok National Park where you can meet rescued elephants who are free to roam and don’t give rides or performances.
Another is at Kui Buri, which has the highest concentration of wild elephants in Thailand. Living free in their natural habitat is the best of all circumstances in which to see elephants, and it’s not uncommon to see herds of up to 40 animals hanging out here, undisturbed.
4. Street-food tour of Krabi
In a country with a cuisine as monumental as Thailand’s, a street-food tour is a must. You might think that the best would be in the sprawling food centres of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but the unassuming southern beach town of Krabi might be our favourite.
In addition to all the usual Thai staples, you’ll find roti and curries influenced by Muslim Malay cuisine, southern dry-fry curries, grilled squid skewers, spicy fishcakes, tropical fruits with spicy dipping salt, and much, much more. Go with a guide to discover the best spots, or just explore for yourself. It’s all delicious.
5. Go on a cycling adventure from Krabi
A great way to see the countryside and work up an appetite for your street-food tour (see above), a bicycle trip out of Krabi is one of our favourite things to do in southern Thailand.
You won’t have to travel far out of town to find yourself pedalling through little villages and along jungle paths, stopping to swim in hidden pools or explore local chedis (small temples). One of our favourite spots is a hot spring right beside a waterfall — perhaps not as inviting as a cold swim after a vigorous ride, but epic, nonetheless.
6. Conquer the cliffs of Railay Beach
Tucked away along the rugged, rocky Andaman coastline is Railay Beach: world-famous among climbers for its dramatic cliffs overlooking a beautiful, sandy beach. There are literally hundreds of routes to follow, from the beginner-friendly to the practically gravity-defying, meaning that anybody with an active streak can join in the fun. Then, when you’re spent, flop down on the sand and enjoy the views.
7. Get to see how organic coffee is grown and made
Take a guided trip to Gong Valley – a community enterprise in the Kra Buri District outside Ranong which specialises in chemical-free coffee growing. Their growing techniques, combined with hand-roasting techniques give the coffee a distinctive sweet aroma and bitter taste like that of Robusta coffee. You’ll get to learn more about the production process before trying the coffee yourself.
8. Island-hopping from Phuket
While most tourists to Phuket essentially fly and flop, you can ditch the crowds and head off by boat to explore some of southern Thailand’s less visited isles. There are hundreds of islands to explore — plenty to go around — as you zip to secluded bays, relax on deserted beaches, clamber to spectacular viewpoints, and discover coral reefs in which to snorkel and swim.
9. Meet rescued wildlife in Phetchaburi
The Wildlife Friends Foundation near Phetchaburi provides a haven for wildlife rescued from exploitative tourism, poaching, and the illegal pet trade.
It’s tricky to spot many of these creatures in the wild (either because they’re shy, rare, or nocturnal) so this is one of the best places to see gibbons, bears, lorises, wildcats and elephants on your holiday in Thailand. These animals aren’t kept for tourism, and wherever possible they’re on their way to rehabilitation and release back into the wild. It’s a wonderful experience, and a great cause to support.
After a day with the animals, spend a night in one of the foundation’s ecolodges, surrounded by the sounds of the jungle. It’s not uncommon to see an elephant passing by your bedroom window in the morning!
10. Chill out on the beaches of Khao Lak
Popular without being mobbed, with a laid-back, beachy atmosphere and an excellent choice of accommodation and restaurants, Khao Lak perfectly balances tourist-orientated services with charm and beautiful surroundings.
Explore its low-key villages along the Andaman coast, relax on the lovely beaches, take day trips to waterfalls and caves, and maybe join a cooking class to try your hand at authentic southern Thai cuisine.
Our Active Southern Thailand and Wild Family Thailand itineraries focus on the beautiful south. Between them, they encompass all the destinations and experiences on this list. If you’d like to design your own adventure down Thailand’s trunk, just contact us.