Both of the trips I’ve taken within Thailand since relocating here have been to rather mainstream destinations, so I’ve began eager to get off the beaten path, especially since I can now speak a bit of Thai.
My original plan had been to split this past weekend between Narathiwat and Pattani, two Muslim-majority provinces along the Kingdom’s border with Malaysia—and it aroused reactions of terror and worry in my local friends. I assumed this was Islamophobia, but further research suggested otherwise: Sectarian violence in deep southern Thailand has intensified in recent years.
Dejected, I turned to my old friend Google. Most authentic place in southern Thailand, I typed, then hit the “Enter” key.
I anticipated a long and messy search, but the first sentence of the first page I clicked bore the only three words I needed to read: “Unadulterated southern Thailand.”
Nakhon Si Thammarat it is, I let out of a sigh of relief, then opened a new tab and booked my ticket right then and there.
Where to Stay in Nakhon Si Thammarat
Nothing says “authentically Thai” like someone who’s so late you wonder if they’re coming at all. To be sure, by the time the man who owns Tree Home Plus in Nakhon Si Thammarat’s city center called me to let me know he’d arrived at the airport, the taxi I’d hailed in his absence was pulling up to the boutique hotel.
In spite of this questionable first impression, Tree Home struck a perfect balance between laid-back and luxurious, and managed to be stylish and slightly ramshackle (there were ants in the room, but only a few) at the same time. Most importantly, it makes a great base for exploring Nakhon Si Thammarat province in all its unadulterated glory.
Stories from the City
There were a couple hours of light left by the time I settled into Tree Home, so I quickly set off with my camera. It took about 15 minutes by foot to reach Ratchadamnoen Road, the city’s main boulevard, and where most of its main attractions are found.
I started at the Old City Wall, which dates back to the late 13th-century, when Nakhon Si Thammarat became an important outpost of the Srivijaya Empire. I quickly made my way to the City Pillar and then to Salahuddin Mosque, and intended to watch sunset from Wat Phra Mahatat.
Instead, however, I found myself stuck at the intersection of Ratachadamnoen Road with Panead Road, fixated on the minaret-crowned flyover bridge that rose above it. It amazed me that someone thought to add such ornate accents to an otherwise anonymous piece of infrastructure. It amazed me, and it delighted me.
“Amazed” and “delighted” also describe how my interactions with the people of Nakhon Si Thammarat made me feel. From the watermelon seller who begged me to take his picture, to the group of schoolchildren who begged me to help them practice English then simply said “Hello” a dozen times each, to the waitress I begged to bring me extremely spicy gaeng leuang pla, even though my blue eyes suggested I couldn’t handle it
Stories from the Sea
On the other hand, a place in Thailand is only as “unadulterated” as its beaches. I decided my best bet for discovering Nakhon Si Thammarat’s beaches would be in Khanom, located about 90 minutes up the coast from the city center by minibus (or motorbike, if you can drive one of those—I can’t).
I did take a motorbike taxi upon arrival in Khanom Town, and the driver dropped me off at a dilapidated beach hut where two white girls were drinking frozen cocktails. As it turns out, these were not just the only foreigners I would see during my day at the beach, but the only human beings I would encounter for nearly an hour, save a man in a fishing boat far offshore.
On one level, it’s easy to see why Nakhon Si Thammarat hasn’t become another Phuket or Koh Samui. While its palm-fringed coastline and shell-covered white sands are beautiful, its water is often cloudy, and sometimes mud-brown.
A local man I met at one of the (empty) hotels along the coast insisted me it was safe for swimming, but I decided against it when I couldn’t tell whether the object at my feet was a jellyfish or a plastic bag. Then again, solitude and silence define the world’s best beaches, as far as I’m concerned.
In total, I walked about two hours up the beach, arriving at the Golden Beach Resort just in time for slurp down some pad gra pao gai for lunch. I almost never eat seafood when I dine by the sea—isn’t that strange?
Chasing Waterfalls and Hunting Orchids
Nakhon Si Thammarat’s coastline is its most obvious attraction, but its most famous one (certainly among locals) is Khao Luang National Park, home to the tallest peak in southern Thailand. (Called Khao Luang, obviously.)
Of course, I wasn’t about to scale a mountain on a weekend trip. Instead, I went with Tree Home’s owner to Krung Ching Waterfall, from which I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much. Certainly, I wasn’t expecting the path to be in near-fatal disrepair at several points along the trek, which took about 90 minutes in each direction.
The waterfall was truly majestic, however, as were the wild orchids that climbed out of the dozens of pools at its base. I wasn’t surprised at the existence of them —the national park is as famous for the 300+ species of orchids found within it as it is for Khao Luang itself—but I was delighted by the way they manifested.
That could be an interesting alternative career choice, I laughed, imagining myself single-handedly upending the global indoor-plant industry. Robert Schrader—orchid hunter.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re looking for charming towns, deserted beaches, quirky national parks or just want to get away from foreigners for a while, Nakhon Si Thammarat is unpretentious, understated and, yes, unadulterated. While I imagine Nakhon Si Thammarat will grow in popularity as more people seek out authentic places in Thailand, the lack of English speakers, tourism infrastructure and hugely impressive attraction should keep most of the adulterers away.