A sample itinerary for four weeks in far southern thailand

A 70-km ride east from Surat introduces windswept beaches that extend for miles in these two sleepy fishing districts. We suggest choosing one to stay in, hitting the other on a day trip. Unwind and fill up on affordable seafood. Throw in a boat trip for a chance of spotting rare pink dolphins. Those travelling with a vehicle could sidetrack to the little-known yet beautiful Thong Yang waterfall before passing beach after beach on the way south towards the next stop.

Known as “Nakhon” to friends and set a full 100 km south of Khanom, the commercial area in this large city hits with fresh markets, curry stalls and second- or third-generation Chinese-Thai businesses dealing in noodles, teacakes and gold. The city was born way back in the sixth century as a centre of the Srivijaya civilisation, and later it hosted the powerful Tambralinga (or Ligor) kingdom that maintained close ties to Sri Lanka, vectoring the eastward spread of Theravada Buddhism.

In the 13th century the domain was renamed Nakhon Si Thammarat, “City of the Sacred Dharma King”.

Explore this deep history at Nakhon’s National Museum, which displays a fascinating collection of artefacts. Afterwards, pop into Suchart Subsin’s house of shadow puppetry before paying respects to the towering chedi at Wat Phra Mahathat, a sacred temple and one of a handful of the city’s landmarks that date to the Tambralinga period. Cover all of the above on a cultural walk that will also take you to stalls dishing out pungent khanom jeen and old-style coffee (or kopi) along Nakhon’s energetic streets.

In Nakhon, catch a songthaew 25 km west to the sedate fruit-growing village of Baan Khiri Wong. Surrounded by forested ridgelines at the foot of 1,835-metre Khao Luang—the tallest mountain in the South—a community of farmers and craftspeople dwell in wooden houses beside a clear river. Try the durian, mangosteen and rambutan, grown on trees that hide behind fog each morning. Small resorts are available, but only with a homestay program will you learn farming and crafts including batik, jewellery and soap making.

To burn off the calories go climb Khao Ok Thalu, an imposing limestone massif strung with stairways leading to Buddhist/Hindu statuary, forest temples where monks and nuns go to meditate, and a vast hole near the top where you can gaze straight down to the ground 250 metres below. If you have a second day for Phatthalung, consider a side trip east to the centuries-old palace and temple in the lakeside town of Baan Lam Pan.

Shared between Phatthalung and Songkhla provinces, Songkhla Lake (or Thale Sap) covers more than 1,000 square km of brackish and freshwater, including vital fisheries and wetlands. The best-known birdwatching site is Thale Noi, a vast wetland just north of the main lake where cotton pygmy geese and bronze-winged jacanas thrill visitors in longtail boats. From February to April, hot-pink waterlilies join the brightly coloured feathers out on the marsh. At any time, Thale Noi village is worth a stroll to meet and patronise locals who weave all sorts of products from krajud, a hardy local grass.

Few Westerners visit the capital of Songkhla province because it’s often tacked on to travel safety advisories despite having seen minimal spillover—a motorbike bomb in 2005 that did no damage—from Thailand’s deep Southern conflict. It’s one of our favourite spots in this itinerary: a calm and colourful town hosting some of the most attractive and best-preserved heritage architecture in the region. Much of the old town street art is pretty rad too, and there’s even a bit of World War II history involving heroic British pilots resisting a Japanese landing in 1941.

Expressing the area’s Chinese heritage, the elegant Songkhla National Museum is worth a stop on the way to climb up Khao Tang Kuan for a panoramic vista of the lake, the Gulf and the entire town clustered in between. Lounge as locals fly kites on Samila beach at dusk, enjoying Southern-style seafood before you retire to a room at Baan Nai Nakhon that evokes the feel of an early 20th-century Chinese merchant’s home. Also factor in a trip to the terrific Southern Thai Folklore Museum on Ko Yo, a lake island tapering to stilted fishing stacks as far as the eye can see.

As the third largest city in Thailand and the largest in the South by far, Hat Yai lies only 35 km west of Songkhla town but emerged much later when the railway brought migrants from China and Malaysia in the early to mid 20th century. The sprawling city has an overachieving public park and a wealth of food ranging from Chinese offal soup to Malay char kuay tiao and no shortage of Southern Thai eats. Quite a few Malaysian tourists visit on weekends to hit the floating market and shop in the labyrinthine markets.

Before you arrive at Hat Yai, be aware that attacks blamed on deep southern separatists have occasionally rattled the city—most recently were three 2014 bombings that simultaneously wounded nine near a police station, the train station and a convenience store. Sporadic attacks have not deterred us from visiting, but you may decide otherwise. The city’s mega-web of public transport includes minibuses (and trains in some cases) to four different Malaysia border crossings. If sticking to our plan, minibuses depart for Satun from both bus terminals.

With any of several good-value guesthouses providing a base in the capital, we also think of Trang province as Thailand’s unsung coastal star. Islands like Ko Muk, Ko Kradan and Ko Libong are indeed magnificent, but some of the empty mainland beaches boast similar scenes of vertical limestone cliffs, fisher shacks and casuarina trees. The province also has caving opportunities to go with another impressive waterfall, a thrilling treetop walkway and a bit of history in the old port town of Kantang. Modest mosques join vast rubber groves and locals gathering for bird singing competitions to colour out the area.

Another 130 km up the Andaman coast takes you to Krabi town with its picturesque riverside scenery and tourism infrastructure serving the many travellers dashing off to islands like Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. The food adventure picks up again at Talad City’s curry alley. Traveller-oriented bars and cafes also join a growing list of hotels and guesthouses in the provincial capital, while nearby Ao Nang anchors the tacky beach resort scene.