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Thailand’s Best-Kept Secrets

SmarterTravel

Thailand sees millions of visitors every year, so it’s no surprise that almost anywhere you go, you’ll encounter a crowd, from the beach bunnies of Phuket to the bustling masses in Bangkok. But the crowds don’t preclude a truly authentic Thai vacation. Some of the nation’s best sights are far afield from cities, tucked into rural inland provinces or Treasure Island-like atolls afloat in the Andaman Sea. All it takes to experience them? A sense of adventure and a few baht for transportation.

Here are some of the country’s best-kept secrets, whether you are backpacking on a buck a day or embarking on a luxurious journey.

Nakhon Si Thammarat

Nakhon Si Thammarat, or simply Nakhon to locals, may not look like a destination in and of itself. It’s a small, unprepossessing city without world-class restaurants or postcard-perfect beaches—at least at first. But look again. One of Thailand’s oldest and most important temples (or wats) makes its home here. UNESCO designates Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan a World Heritage site for its early 13th-century architecture and massive scarlet pagoda. A quick tour costs just a handful of baht.

Elsewhere in Nakhon, a shadow-puppet theater provides family-friendly diversion, and in the waters off the small district of Khanom, pink dolphins can be spotted on a boat tour (yes, they really are bubblegum-pink!). Of course, this being Thailand, there are gastronomic gems to be uncovered. Kopi, a local Nakhon chain, dishes out the best Thai iced coffee and steamed buns in southern Thailand; I am only half kidding when I suggest the iced coffee is worth the drive alone.

Bangkok’s Best Markets

When visitors want Bangkok’s best street food, they flock to the wobbly metal tables and busy food stands of Soi 38. But the heavily trafficked district is not the only game in town. The Pak Klong Talad flower market is a favorite not just for its colorful mounds of flowers, fruits, and vegetables but for its food sellers as well. Amid tables piled high with orchids and marigolds, food vendors serve spicy papaya salad, pad thai, sweet confections, and other dishes.

Another oft-missed must-do is the Bang Nam Pheung floating market on the eastern outskirts of the city. It’s smaller and more low-key than other floating markets frequented by travelers, with just a few traditional boats bobbing along the Chao Phraya under a velvety green canopy of trees. Here, among locals, sample smelly jackfruit or a strange, spiky gac fruit. You will feel like you’re in a traditional Thai village, despite the noise and crowds just a few miles west.

Andaman Coast Kohs

Once a backpacker’s backwater of deserted beaches and cheap huts for rent, the Andaman Islands are now both posh and very popular. But they’re well worth your time, especially on a day trip, and they’re far less frequented than Phuket and Koh Phi Phi to the north. Some of these tiny islands are inhabited, but most are not.

From Pak Meng Pier, set off on a tour of the small karsts, or limestone formations that rise steeply out of the sea. Snorkel around the outer fringes of Koh Kradan or Koh Mook, where schools of tropical fish trawl the vibrant fan corals. Watch out for spiny sea urchins that tuck themselves into the shallows. At Koh Ngai, find a small resort and a stretch of white sand facing out to the sea. Colorful longtail boats floating on the glassy sea are one of many Instagram-worthy moments just waiting to be captured.

Finally, ask your captain to stop at Morakot Cave, or the Emerald Cave. Don a swimsuit and life jacket (if you’re not a strong swimmer). Dive into the warm turquoise water and swim through a pitch-black cave opening. The sea is calm but the cave ceilings are low, so guide yourself along the rock wall or follow a rope line in. After a short, dark swim, you’ll emerge in a perfectly clear and shallow pool. Look up! You’re in a protected cove inside a koh. A steep rock wall, hundreds of feet high and topped by rainforest, protects a small beach. If you time your visit to avoid the large boats of tourists that stop by on the hour, you’ll have this spot of paradise to yourself.

Trang

I’ve already written about   the near-endless buffet of dim sum you can find in this southern province, and the islands mentioned above provide the most seaworthy adventures in the Trang and Krabi provinces. But what of mainland Trang itself? Aside from its kohs, Trang has national parks and wildlife preserves to explore, from Khlong Lamchan’s waterfalls to Mu Ko Phetra, where tropical birds build their nests in protected cliffsides. (These spots are best accessed via tour guide; signage can be hard to find and is usually in Thai.)

Trang city itself is a commercial hub whose Chinese and Malaysian traditions are reflected in its architecture, cuisine, and old-school markets. In many ways, this is the “real” Thailand: small and busy, a little rough around the edges, the air redolent of cooking oil, spices, and motorcycle exhaust. Traditional religious and cultural festivals dot the calendar, but perhaps the city’s strangest is the Trang Underwater Wedding Ceremony, in which brides and grooms are married under the waves each February—scuba gear and all.

Chiang Rai

In Thailand, if you sit still long enough, you will get no fewer than 10 recommendations for where to go and, more importantly, what to eat. This usually leads to a friendly debate among expats, the exchange of contact information, an offer to call one’s friend to meet you, and a long list of no-name food stalls to visit via confusing directions like “past the skinny tree, next to the blue or green boat.”

On my second-to-last night in Thailand, an expat, skin browned long past the shade of shoe leather, tells me that Chiang Rai is the new Chiang Mai (the latter being the popular stop for elephants and raucous night bazaars that Anthony Bourdain made famous). This recommendation happens several times throughout my visit, and indeed, it’s true: About five hours from its more famous neighbor, Chiang Rai is a compact culinary haven with its very own night market. Brimming with eats for the adventurous, such as deep-fried insects and Laotian curries, as well as souvenirs from local artisans and cheap trinkets from abroad, the night market is widely considered Thailand’s best. Tribal villagers sell intricately woven textiles and antique bits and bobs. Bars pour plenty of cold beer. And, under strings of fading twinkly lights, everyone eats cheaply but well.

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(Photos: Dara Continenza)

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