When most people think of the Land of Smiles, they picture the balmy, sun-drenched beaches of Koh Samui or the bustling streets of Bangkok. While you certainly shouldn’t overlook the capital city or idyllic Koh Samui, there are plenty of other Thai treasures that shouldn’t be missed.
These off-the-beaten-path destinations showcase the best of splendid Siam, and each one is a bucket-list-worthy journey all on its own.
Kanchanaburi is a peaceful town with a tragic past. During World War II, POWs were forced to construct a railroad between Siam and neighboring Burma. The project, dubbed Death Railway, cost many POWs their lives as they grappled with excessive heat, tropical diseases, and fatigue. The Bridge on the River Kwai, a major motion picture from 1957, details their struggle. Today, you can pay your respects to the fallen and even ride a portion of Death Railway.
Kanchanaburi is now quite a different place, and its location on the River Kwai makes it a hub for fresh seafood and plenty of water-related sports.
It’s also home to one of the most whimsical places to stay in the kingdom: Banphasawan. This resort is made up of various fruit-shaped accommodations -- it is certainly one of the most unique places in the world to lay your head!
Pai is a dreamy little artistic town in northern Thailand. Just 3 hours from Chiang Mai by car, Pai is both accessible and just far enough off the tourist map for you to have an authentic experience.
Full of natural splendor and plenty of hiking, Pai is the ideal destination for those who want to lace up their boots and explore Thailand's rugged north.
Shopping aficionados and bargain hunters will find their Eden on Pai’s Walking Street, where you can get authentic Thai souvenirs for exceptionally reasonable prices.
Pai is also one of the best places in the country to sample khao soi, an addictive combination of decadent coconut curry, egg noodles, and chicken. Khao soi is the definitive dish of the Thai north -- it is often called “northern noodles” -- and you can’t leave the kingdom without sampling some.
3. Khao Yai National Park
Just 3 hours from Bangkok by train is one of Thailand’s natural gems. Khao Yai National Park is a massive park and UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to hundreds of different species, big and small.
The area is the ultimate wild getaway: a vast expanse of terrain just begging to be explored. Bicycles and motorbikes are available at the entrance of the park, but a common and safe way to get around inside is hitchhiking.
Most people camp inside of the park, and you can rent everything that you need to hunker down in the wilderness. If you decide to walk on the Thai wild side and spend the night under the stars, make sure that you clean up your campsite thoroughly. Monkeys frequent Khao Yai National Park and will gladly raid your camp if given the chance.
Khao Yai is also home to plenty of snakes, so wear thick socks and hiking boots. Although some refreshments are available within the park, it’s better to bring food and water with you, especially on long hikes.
4. Nakhon Sawan
Nakhon Sawan is a major city on the Ping River that’s often overlooked by tourists but popular with locals and visitors in the know.
This jewel of the Thai north is notable for its extraordinary food, specifically its elevation of the humble fish ball. Residents pluck fresh fish directly out of the Ping and pair carefully crafted fish balls with noodles and fragrant broth. The result is a deeply flavorful dish that is unique to this part of the country.
This city offers a much more authentic Thai experience and an entirely different geographical landscape. Visit the Nakhon Sawan Tower for one of the best sunsets that you’ll ever experience, or wander through some of the city’s ancient chedis.
The official name of this city is Nakhon Ratchasima, but everyone knows it as Korat, one of the most prominent cities in Isan. Most tourists haven’t even heard of Korat, but it’s a popular destination for expats and Thais who want to dip their toes in Isan culture while still having access to the modern amenities of a city.
Korat is roughly 5 hours away from Bangkok by train and boasts one of the most comprehensive museums of Thai art and archeology, the Maha Viravong National Museum.
Korat is also the birthplace of a special breed of cat. The sleek, silver Korat Cat is supposed to bring good luck and is one of the most revered animals in the city.
For more animal encounters, check out the world-class Korat Zoo. It’s a wonderful, family-friendly place to pass the afternoon.
6. Chiang Rai
Most visitors to the Thai north make a beeline for Chiang Mai, and while this incredible city is well worth a visit, you shouldn’t miss its humble cousin Chiang Rai, about a 4-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai. Alternatively, you could hop on a domestic flight to the Mae Fah Luang Airport. Flying takes roughly 45 minutes.
Like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is wreathed in mountains, making it an ideal spot for those who love the great outdoors.
Chiang Rai’s biggest draw is Wat Rong Khun, known regionally as the White Temple. This ornate, alabaster temple is known for its otherworldly beauty and phenomenal design.
Chiang Rai is also noteworthy for its Night Bazaar, a celebration of sumptuous street foods and traditional Thai handicrafts.
7. Koh Larn
Skip the touristy destinations of Koh Samui and Phuket and get your dose of Vitamin Sea on Koh Larn, a lesser-known slice of paradise off the coast of Pattaya. This idyllic island has marvelous beaches, azure waters, and unparalleled views of the sunset.
What’s more, it hasn’t hit the tourist map yet. Unlike many of the beaches on the more popular Gulf islands, the pristine beaches of Koh Larn aren’t jammed with clubs or bars, making them the perfect spots for relaxation. Koh Larn’s Lareena Resort is a fabulous place to stay right on the shore.
While visiting Koh Larn, why not try your hand at some water sports? The clear coastal waters are optimal for snorkeling and sea walking.
Koh Larn is a quick hour-long ferry ride from Pattaya.
For beachy bliss without the crowds, visit Rayong. This seaside town is where you can catch the ferry to neighboring Koh Samet, but savvy visitors will linger a little longer in Rayong itself. The city is a popular Thai vacation spot but hasn’t quite caught on with the tourists, so your visit to Rayong will be an authentic experience that you won’t forget anytime soon.
Rayong’s location on the Gulf of Thailand makes it an excellent spot to sample fresh seafood. On weekends, you can visit the Star Night Bazaar Market for incredible street food and great bargains on Thai handicrafts and souvenirs.
Rayong is the best of both worlds: a city in paradise that remains blissfully tourist-free. Visit it before the secret is out.
9. Erawan National Park
Erawan National Park is arguably one of the loveliest natural places in Thailand -- and that means a lot when you consider the magnificence of the country as a whole. It’s roughly 5 hours from Bangkok by car, and you can go by yourself or with a tour.
Erawan National Park is known for its extraordinary seven-tiered waterfall and system of caves. There are plenty of trails crisscrossing the park, and you can easily find one that suits your fitness level. Some of the trails become muddy or impassable during the rainy season, however, so make the most of your trip by traveling during the dry season.
There are snakes and all sorts of insects in Erawan National Park, so wear thick socks and hiking boots, especially while caving. It’s also a good idea to bring plenty of water and sunblock with you on your Erawan National Park adventure.
The Land of Smiles is full of fantastic and awe-inspiring things to see and do. Everyone knows not to miss the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and the beautiful beaches of Phuket. Smarter travelers realize that it pays to set aside some time to travel off the beaten path. These destinations are unique, incredible, and certainly fitting for any bucket-list Thailand adventure.
Planning a trip to Thailand? Check out these eight things to know before you go, this guide to cultural etiquette in the country, and this list of the best things to see and do while you're there.