Our Where Locals Go series features under-the-radar holiday destinations that are often overlooked by visitors but cherished by locals. Here, we ask three experts on Thailand for their top picks.
As Thailand’s peak travel season kicks off in November, visitors flock from colder destinations to bask in sun-kissed resorts like Krabi, Ko Samui, and Chiang Mai. With the rainy season behind us, Bangkok comes alive at this time of year with night markets, parties, and endless entertainment opportunities.
While these places, renowned for their vibrant landscapes and culture, attract international visitors in their droves, locals tend to seek sites that offer a more relaxed experience. These hidden gems are where traditions are cherished and pristine beaches are quiet and secluded.
A pink paradise in southern Thailand: Phatthalung
Chawadee Nualkhair is a food writer based in Bangkok
Sleepy Phatthalung is not the first destination people think of in southern Thailand for a holiday. But when COVID hit, and travel abroad was impossible, my family and I thought to leave Bangkok for a road trip, taking a detour from typical hotspots such as Phuket and Krabi. We have since visited twice; my husband was charmed by blooming water lilies as far as the eye can see, and I, the food writer, was craving dinners of fried fish plucked fresh from the water. Both of us love the “off-the-beaten-track” feel of Phatthalung, where fishermen work giant fishing nets called “phongphang” every morning and there is always a quiet spot offering a cold beer every afternoon.
Phatthalung is landlocked, one of only two such provinces in the south (the other being Yala bordering Malaysia). Yet 80-meter-long Songkhla Lake, shared with neighboring Songkhla and Thailand’s largest, is the province’s biggest draw, carpeting much of its eastern edge with white and purple blooms between 6-8 every morning. Officially known as “Thale Noi,” this protected area is not only the largest water lotus “sea” in southern Thailand but also hosts around 287 species of waterfowl.
Close by, early birds enjoy the sunrise at the Kuan Dancing Bird Viewpoint, a gorgeous area with a coffee shop for those in need of caffeine after welcoming the dawn. Not surprisingly, Phatthalung’s seafood is super-fresh, especially at Bang Charm Restaurant, where the tom yum soup and local baer fish are most popular. A similarly laid-back vibe can be found at the Canal Village in Pakpra, where guests will find comfortable beds and local breakfasts.
Boating, hiking and local markets in a coastal retreat: Khao Lak
Choltanutkun Tun-atiruj is a Lonely Planet guidebook author based in Bangkok.
I live right in the heart of Bangkok, so my typical everyday life is full of traffic jams, packed sky trains, and people everywhere I go. So, while I’m a big city girl at heart, I escape that metropolitan life to a small island or remote coastal town whenever I get a chance to travel.
I have a few favorites, all still quite relatively under the radar to mass travelers—Ko Kut in Trat and Ko Phayam in Ranong, but my favorite, the one I return to time and time again, is Khao Lak in Phang-nga.
Khao Lak, a series of quiet villages, became more popular among the Bangkokians during the pandemic, and many even decided to move down there for good to open a cafe or hostel. The area can be busy during the peak season but offers activities for visitors year-round, from diving in the high season to surfing in the monsoon season.
I like basing myself here and taking a boat out to the popular Similan Islands for a snorkeling trip. The water is so clear that you can see the sea life without having to duck your head underwater. If you want to visit, make sure to book your trip from November because the island is generally closed from mid-May to mid-October to preserve the marine life.
A must-visit in Khao Lak is Phan Teh Rice Noodle. I stop by here every time I visit. What makes it truly special is that you have to embark on a mini hike to reach it, but the reward is worth the effort as you get to dine beside a canal and waterfall. The Place Khao-lak is another hidden gem. This charming spot not only serves excellent coffee but also serves as a meeting place for Thais to gather and socialize. It’s a great opportunity to connect with the local community.
When it comes to accommodation, I recommend staying at Khaolak Merlin. Tucked away in a mini forest, this resort is surrounded by majestic old drees, representing over 40 different species. The resort is also home to 150 species of wildlife. Every room even has a Compact Guide to Wildlife book to help guests identify each animal they may encounter within the resort’s compound.
Blink and you’ll miss it: Ao Yon Beach
Amy Bensema is a Phuket-based copywriter who enjoys getting off the beaten track
Living in Phuket, I’m spoilt for choice regarding beautiful (and often busy) beaches, but I often need to escape the crowds and find some tranquility, so I jump on my scooter and hit the open road to Ao Yon Beach.
Ao Yon Beach, located near Cape Panwa in the island’s southwest, is considered out of the way (even though it’s about a 15-minute drive from Phuket Town) and not well indicated by street signs. Blink and you might miss it, but that’s precisely what makes Ao Yon Beach so special. It’s a favorite among locals and expats, yet it remains blissfully uncrowded compared to other popular Phuket beaches.
Hugged by tall, swaying coconut palms and surrounded by the mesmerizing turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, Ao Yon Beach is a haven for swimming all year round. As the area is primarily residential and not geared towards tourism, it maintains an authentic local ambiance. While you won’t find any beach facilities here, you may have the opportunity to rent a long-tail boat from a friendly local resident if you inquire around.
Drop into Flamingo Phuket, a beachfront cafe, and dine on fresh seafood, enjoy a tropical drink while admiring the dozens of yachts that dot the bay, or opt for a sunset dinner in The Cove Phuket’s artsy yet relaxing atmosphere. The Cove’s cozy beachfront cottages are a great place to base yourself if you plan to stick around.
If you do choose to stay in the Ao Yon Beach neighborhood, it is best to have your own transportation as taxis are few and far between. When visiting, you will need to park on the main road and meander down a short path to reach the beach, but it’s an easy jaunt.