Thailand is a master in the delicate balance of being both exotic and accessible: it delivers a chilli-spiked dose of South-east Asia with all the modern comforts. And despite its popularity, moving beyond the tourist buzz is easy to do, even at the kingdom's star attractions.
Tranquil, gem-coloured seas wash away the winter blues, the high-octane capital of Bangkok keeps night owls up until dawn, and the mist-shrouded hills of the north invite adventure seekers. Most travellers slide down the elephant's trunk of the Malay peninsula to one of Thailand's famed island resorts such as Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan to the east, or those scattered around the west coast tourist hubs of Phuket and Krabi. Often, the prettiest stretch of sand on each island is the brashest, with an abundance of admirers and a penchant for hedonism, while less buxom beaches boast a quieter, family-friendly ambiance. It is something of a traveller myth – popularised by the book and subsequent film, The Beach – that there are secret Thai beaches known only to the initiated. The good ones have all been found, but there are quiet corners beyond the sun-worshipping crowds.
A mountain-studded crown adorns northern Thailand, where forests and high-altitude minority villages are criss-crossed by elephant treks and bamboo-rafting trips. A new breed of adventure tours, from ziplining to kayaking, has proliferated in the northern hub city of Chiang Mai. This was once the capital of the Lanna kingdom, a distant cultural cousin of China's Yunnan province and neighbouring Burma. Old Lanna ways still survive in the local architecture and dialect.
The little-visited north-east, the agricultural heartland of the country, claims a mixed heritage with neighbouring Laos and Cambodia; mini versions of Angkor Wat dot the rural, rice paddy-carved landscape. But it is the local festivals, such as Ubon Ratchathani's Candle Parade in August and Yasothon's Rocket Festival in May, where the north-east proudly displays its unique cultural heritage with traditional music and dance and a zeal for a good party.
Known for its hospitality (it is the self-styled "Land of Smiles"), Thailand can often feel overcrowded with tourists. More than 20 million visitors come here each year, so advance planning is advisable if you intend to travel during peak seasons (Northern European and Chinese holidays). But you don't have to go to the middle of nowhere to escape the crowds. Pick accommodation close to, but not smack dab in, the tourist zone, opt for local transport instead of private hire or tourist buses, and eat at roadside stalls where curious locals can practise their English and compliment your rudimentary attempts at speaking Thai.
Water, fire and stone
Provincial Thailand is at its most charming in the sleepy riverside town of Nong Khai, on the banks of the muddy Mekong River, within view of Laos. A day can slip by with an unhurried agenda of shopping for colourful curios at the riverside Tha Sadet Market (Rimkhong Road; open 7am-6pm daily), cruising around town on a squeaky bicycle, and dining by the river on locally caught fish grilled with a thick coat of salt.
Slightly outside of town is Sala Keaw Ku (admission 20B/£0.40, 8am-6pm), a sculpture garden (above) that transforms Buddhist and Hindu myths into statuesque creations envisioned by a local mystic. It is a glorious mix of sacred and bizarre.
Nong Khai is also domestically famous for the curious phenomenon known as Naga fireballs, when balls of light rise out of the river. Locals have many fantastic explanations for the mysterious occurrences, which usually coincide with the end of the Buddhist Lent in October.
Mut Mee Guesthouse (00 66 4246 0717), on the riverside, is mainly a thatched-hut backpacker spot with a few higher-end options tucked into the shady garden. Doubles, without breakfast, are 180B-1,500B (£4-£29).
Thailand inherited a monument-making tradition from the masterbuilders of the Khmer empire. Some of the best surviving examples of these spiritual places can be found in Sukhothai, a worthwhile detour on the Bangkok-to-Chiang Mai migration route.
A collection of weather-worn ruins feature the area's signature architectural accomplishments – elegant Buddhist statues (below) and lotus-bud-topped stupas – residing in the Sukhothai Historical Park. Entry is 100B (£2), plus extra fees for private transport. The beloved Thai festival of Loi Krathong (November) is spectacularly celebrated within the park.
In the new city that sprang up south of the ruins, Ruen Thai Hotel (00 66 90 520 5878; ruean thaihotel.com) is a lovely traditional Thai house with double rooms starting at 1,480B (£29), B&B.
Hidden Koh Samui
After a long international flight, few travellers have the stamina to hurtle through space and time again to reach a mythical, unmapped Thai island. Instead they hop on a quick flight from the capital to one of the country's best-known beach resorts, Koh Samui, and find the instant rewards of paradise. Luckily, the island still has a few secrets of its own, and beyond the popular beaches of Chaweng and Lamai are lesser-known stretches such as Mae Nam, Bo Phut and Choeng Mon, all of which are delightfully laid-back.
Bo Phut (left) is a quaint fishing village that's gone upmarket with boutiques, restaurants and chic "flashpacker" hotels. The Lodge (00 66 7742 5337; lodge samui.com) has doubles from 2500B (£49).
Head for the hills
An easy sojourn north of Chiang Mai, Tha Ton is a modest but picturesque settlement on a forested bend of the Mae Nam Kok (Kok River, above), overlooking the wild corners of the Burmese frontier. It is a less touristy base for hikes to hill-tribe villages and countryside cycling.
Some tourists blast through briefly in order to catch a long-tail boat to Chiang Rai with the Mae Kok Boat Company. The scenic river journey costs 350B (£7), departs at 12.30pm daily and takes three to five hours.
Tha Ton's best accommodation is Old Tree's House (00 66 85 722 9002), a mini-resort tucked into the hillside with vistas of cascading mountains. Doubles cost 1200B-1400B (£23-£25), without breakfast.
Continue up the main road through Tha Ton along the twisty-turny spine of a mountain ridge and you will reach the cultural anomaly of Mae Salong, an ethnic Chinese village settled by former Kuomintang fighters after their defeat by communist forces in 1949.
Trekking is one of the primary draws as well as exploring the tea plantations that cling to the steep hillsides. You can stay at one of the old-fashioned guesthouses in the village, or escape to the mountainside retreat of Phu Chaisai Resort & Spa (00 66 5391 0500), with doubles for 4,700B (£98), with breakfast.
It is increasingly difficult to find the rustic hippy beaches that originally made Thailand famous. But Koh Phayam, off the coast of Ranong in the Andaman Sea, strikes a balance between castaway and convenience. There is one village on the island, a few roads and a whole lot of jungle. The beaches are powdery and ideal for lazy days. Heaven Beach (00 66 8 2806 0413), which has bungalows for 2,000B (£39), is a supreme place to chill on Ao Khao Kwai.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Thai Airways (020 7491 7953; thaiairways.com) and Eva Air (020 7380 8300; evaair.com) all fly non-stop from Heathrow to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport.
Domestic air travel is affordable and plentiful and has, for most travellers, replaced long-haul buses from Bangkok to the beaches or to Chiang Mai. Domestic budget carriers such as Air Asia (00 66 2515 9999; airasia.com), Nok Air (00 66 2900 9955; nokair.com) and Orient Thai (00 66 2229 4100; flyorientthai.com) use Bangkok's Don Muang Airport, with connections all over Thailand. Bangkok's notoriously bad traffic makes it inadvisable to plan a flight from Don Muang the same day you land at Suvarnabhumi.
Buses and mini vans are recommended for shorter trips, with several bus stations across Bangkok. Companies operating from government-run bus stations usually have better customer care than private companies departing from tourist zones.
Thailand's train system is aging and derailments are more frequent, especially in 2012 and 2013 on the northern line and more recently on the southern line. Infrastructure upgrades have addressed some but not all of the needed maintenance.
Local transport, such as tuk-tuk taxis, is easy to find but haggling is required. Cars and motorcycles can easily be hired, though road safety is a concern and rules are often flouted.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies