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History & Culture

5 Off the Beaten Path Highlights of Thailand

6 min read
Published on Feb 28, 2024
Aren Bergstrom
By Aren BergstromManaging Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

Whether you’re feasting on fresh pad thai at a street food stall in Bangkok or watching baby elephants frolicking in an orphanage outside Chiang Mai, a journey to Thailand features nearly limitless delights. And the delights don’t stop on return visits to the country. Thailand is a place to return to again and again throughout your life to discover more and experience all its diverse pleasures.

Thailand’s most popular destinations are famous for a reason. Bangkok is a massive city with an exceptional food scene, great historical and cultural sites to explore, and some of the best nightlife in the region—probably even the planet. Chiang Mai is a deceptively large northern city with a comfortable market atmosphere and easy access to the surrounding hillsides to see elephants and other fascinating wildlife. The beaches of the south, from Phuket to Koh Samui and all the islands in between, are ideal spots for North American travellers to escape in winter. If you’re looking to relax at a beachside resort, explore clear waters and gorgeous islands, and recharge with wellness treatments, you owe it to yourself to visit southern Thailand. And Thailand is affordable, letting you stretch your dollar further and upgrade some of your accommodations or splurge on dinners at award-winning restaurants. But there’s more to the country than the clubs of Bangkok or the beaches of Phuket.

Whether you’re exploring Thailand for the first time or returning to experience more of its famously-friendly culture for yourself, check out these off-the-beaten-path highlights, which will transform your great vacation into an extraordinary one.

Lampang & Thailand’s Little Bhutan

An overhead shot of Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat's white pagodas atop a rugged mountain ridge
The stupas of Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat have given it the name of Little Bhutan.

Ride the train around two hours southeast from Chiang Mai and you’ll reach Lampang, one of the oldest cities in the nation. Lampang dates back to the 7th century and it’s not uncommon to see locals getting around by traditional means, such as horse-drawn carriages known as rot daeng. There are several places to explore in town, from the local temples, such as Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, to the old walking street of Talad Gao Road, which takes you past beautiful homes and open-air market stalls. But get outside the city in Lampang province to really experience a hidden highlight of Thailand. Head into the hills north of the city to hike up a mountainside toward the temple of Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat. The mountain is dotted with stupas, shrines, and flags, which has given the area the moniker of Little Bhutan. The views are spectacular.

Kanchanaburi & the River Kwai

Wooden houses, lush vegetation, and a railway along River Kwai
The Kanchanaburi region is the best area to explore the River Kwai.

You might have seen the Oscar-winning movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, without knowing that you can explore this area for yourself. Head west of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi to explore the River Kwai, which is brimming with historical and natural sites to explore. History buffs and movie fans will want to learn about the Thailand-Burma Railway, which was largely built by Allied POWs during World War II. The Hellfire Pass Museum, Thailand-Burma Railway Center Museum, and Memorial Walking Trail showcase the history of the so-called Death Railway. You can even see the bridge itself (sorry movie fans, but it was never blown up like in the movie). But the River Kwai isn’t only for history fans. The region is gorgeous, with lush forests and waterways to explore. You can even stay in a floating hotel over the river for an immersive accommodation experience.

Sam Roi Yot National Park

Sun shinning on a Royal Pavilion inside the cave of Phraya Nakhon
You’ll find a Royal Pavilion inside the massive cave of Phraya Nakhon.

This coastal park lies 28 mi (45 km) south of Hua Hin and was the first marine national park in the nation. Its name means the Three Hundred Peaks, which is right on the money as the entire area is covered in beautiful limestone spires piercing the sky. This is a great place to escape for a day to explore coastal beaches, massive caves, and sleepy fishing villages. There are 355 bird species within the park, including spotted crakes and steppe eagles, making it one of Thailand’s best spots for birdwatching, especially along the freshwater marsh of Thung Sam Roi Yot. But the main attraction is Phraya Nakhon Cave, a massive underground cavern created by sinkholes that’s home to a royal pavilion, which sits conspicuously alongside the dripping stalagmites and stalactites.

Hill Tribe Villages Outside Chiang Mai

Two people with baskets walking along the edge of the edge of natural hillside terraces
The hillsides outside Chiang Mai are home to many hill tribe villagers.

The countryside around Chiang Mai is full of fascinating hill tribe villages, where the local inhabitants keep ancient traditions alive and sell gorgeous handcrafts to travellers lucky enough to visit. There are dozens of such villages near Chiang Mai, but Baan Thong Youa and Baan Phong Ngan are two of our favourites. Home to Lahu, as well as Akha and Karen hill tribes, Baan Thong Youa, is the starting point for an exciting jungle trek. Starting at the village, you can hike through the lush rainforest, passing coffee plantations and farms operated by local hill tribes. The journey through the forest rewards you with cultural encounters and some incredible natural sites, including gorgeous views over the hillside. Baan Phong Ngan is in the Mae Taeng district north of Chiang Mai and is inhabited by the Lahu Hill Tribe. Starting in the village, you can board a floating bamboo raft for a journey down the Mae Taeng River steered by a Lahu oarsman. You’ll pass by riverside communities and maybe even spot buffalo bathing in the waters.

Town of Lamphun

Rows of multicoloured lanterns outside Wat Phra That Hariphunchai
Lamphun holds a light festival in the fall of each year.

There are few better places to discover the flavours of northern Thailand and learn about the Lanna culture of the region than the town of Lamphun to the south of Chiang Mai. The town is home to one of the most important temples in the nation, Wat Phra That Hariphunchai, which houses a relic of the Buddha. But it’s the lush surrounding countryside that is most notable in Lamphun. Locals rely on fresh produce from local gardens for the majority of their ingredients. This is a great place to join a cooking class to learn how to cook over a traditional charcoal fire and taste some unique Lanna specialties, such as miang (fermented tea leaves) and betel nuts, a popular snack for elderly Lanna family members.

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History & Culture
Aren Bergstrom
Aren Bergstrom
Goway - Managing Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

You might say that Aren was destined to become a globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has travelled across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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