Couchfish: A Thai jigsaw

My feet be itching

  
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-11:15

So with all this talk of Thailand sort of reopening come November, if you could go for a month, where would you go? I asked myself this question this morning, thinking it would be an easy post to write—turns out it wasn’t.

Why? Because I’d like to go everywhere. I’d like to catch up with friends all over the country. I’d like to hit the northeast for the food, the south for the beaches and I’d like to grab a scooter and hit the northern hills. But I’d also not want to spend half the month moving from place to place—try that and I’d need a holiday at the end to recover.

This is one of Thailand’s major weaknesses—there is just so damn much to see, do, eat and meet. A point I hope I’ve illustrated with the Couchfish itinerary, which spent plenty of time in the country and still missed loads!

A performer during Chinese New Year, Bangkok. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Another problem I face is, as I’m fairly well-travelled in Thailand, I have perhaps more than my share of favourites. These places were at the forefront of my mind when I sat down to put pen to paper this morning, and there’s a lot. Thailand has few places that I dislike, and that didn’t make the task at hand easier.

Most important though, is what I like, you might not. What I love, you may loathe.

So with all this in mind, I’ve decided to cheat. Rather than the itinerary, I set out to write, I instead present you with a jigsaw. Don’t worry, it is only a dozen pieces, so it isn’t too hard. Take the pieces you like, discard the others, and build your own perfect month. There is some overlap!

Take us to your leader. Patong Beach, Phuket. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Bright lights big city

Thailand is no slouch when it comes to megacities and they don’t get grander than Bangkok. You don’t need to supersize your urban sprawl though to get a taste of how Thai’s do it. Somewhere like Chiang Mai offers the best of both worlds, the old city locked down and the sprawl beyond. Down south, Nakhon Si Thammarat is, for once, an easy to navigate city (north or south) and the food is amazing. Also in the south, Phuket Town, the central bit at least, makes for good walking, eating, boozing and photos. In the Northeast’s southern corner, Ubon Ratchathani has terrific food and a social crowd.

There is no such thing as too much. Khao soi in Chiang Mai. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

One has to eat

Ok, I have to include Bangkok and Chiang Mai, if for no other reason than the absurd wealth of choice. Also, khao soi. Phayao I’m adding for an amazing salt-encrusted barbeque fish I had by the lake once many moons ago. Likewise Ko Kut, for a memorable seafood meal I had in a fishing village there. If I had to pick one town for soup, it would be Sukhothai.

Ancient relic. With pigeon. Phimai. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

History matters

Phimai and Phanom Rung are both stunning sights and belong at the top of any list. I’ll always go for intermingled with sprawl Ayutthaya over manicured Sukhothai. Though the latter is great for those with kids, and, as already mentioned, soup! There’s also Kamphaeng Phet, with alien-like statuary and a fantastic guesthouse. Chiang Saen, because almost nobody goes there, despite it being wildly ancient. Also, an iced beer by the river goes down awfully well there.

Another full house at Lao Liang. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Getting wet

Be it diving, snorkelling or floating around (no banana boating or jet skiing please!) Ko Tao, despite its reputation, remains a popular spot. Ko Lao Liang is one of those spots where I always scratch my head wondering where everyone else is. I won’t have that problem on woefully over-developed Ko Lipe, but it does remain pretty under the surface. Out east, while I prefer Ko Kut, Ko Chang is better equipped for diving and snorkelling trips. A last one, mostly because I don’t have a waterfall section, is Kanchanaburi. Take your pick from the many falls, and don’t forget your cowboy hat.

Exploring Ko Kut. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Drying off

You’ve gone and got yourself all wet, now where to dry off? Ko Kut has the best beaches in Thailand and yes, I will die on this hill. Another cracker is the back beach at Ko Ngai. Why Nam on Ko Pha Ngan proves size does not matter. Mae Nam on Samui is the best there. Further afield? Want to be deserted? Short of heading to Pattani, try the southern end of Si Chon’s many beaches.

Big skies in Nan. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

A walk in the woods

Some of Thailand’s most popular national parks are deservedly so. Khao Yai and Kaeng Krachan, particularly the latter, impress. Though I should note the latter is embroiled in an unsavoury drama. Khao Sok is one of the most visually stunning parks in the country and waking up in a raft house is special. If you prefer your parkland island-style—Ko Chang is the best bet. Want something a bit different? Try trekking in Nan.

Watching the orchids grow. Nong Khai. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

By a slow river

Regular Couchfish readers will know I’m partial to sitting by the river doing nothing. Nong Khai and Khong Chiam are my two favourites in the northeast—don’t forget to give Laos a wave. In the north, Chiang Khong is for most the exit point to Laos, but give it some time and explore the river coast up that way. You won’t regret it. Bangkok is a given, they don’t call it the River of Kings for nothing, but for something different, try Thailand’s “Small Sea”. My outlier is Narathiwat—on account of the Narathiwat Hotel and its riverside deck.

Border layering at Phu Chee Fah. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Sunrise

You get up early right? I hope so as you’ll need to be up well early to admire the sunrise from Phu Chee Fah. If it wasn’t for the haze, I reckon you could see the glistening temple spires of Luang Prabang from here. Haad Rin really? Yes! Your Full Moon Party beer goggles might be foggy, but the sunrise should clear your blurry vision. Sangkhom I list for an amazing sunrise I saw about thirty years ago—yes it was that good—but anywhere (east-facing) along the Mekong should be great. Another island option if you can rouse a speedboat dude early enough is the islands near Ko Samet—so pretty you’ll want to spend the day. Last one? On a night train. There is just something about watching the sunrise out a train window.

Bang Bao sunset, Ko Kut. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Sunset

Where did the day go? It was sunrise a few words ago! Bang Bao on Ko Kut, with its wobbly wooden pier nails sunset (and your feet if you’re not careful). For something au naturel, Ko Phra Thong delivers. South again, some of Phuket’s west-facing beaches and viewpoints make for extremely photogenic sundowners. Last stop south? The back beach on Ko Kradan. Divine. Want something more urban? Get on up high at one of Bangkok’s many rooftop bars. The drinks list may be extortionate, but the only legal way you’ll get higher will be by buying a plane ticket.

I’m here for the culture. Full Moon Party. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Letting off some steam

Yes, I confess it—I have enjoyed more than my fair share of nights out on Bangkok’s Khao San Road. It isn’t the backpacker mess people portray it as. Well, it is actually, but there is a tonne of Thais there too—a great spot to mingle and meet. Also in Bangkok is Soi Nana (in Chinatown, not Sukhumvit). Not cheap, but lots of fun. Then yes the Full Moon Party, once a decade is enough for me. At the other end of the spectrum, a sleepy few drinks on Ko Muk’s Farang Beach are hard to say no to. Last but not least, if you’ve always wanted to see drunk backpackers fight in a boxing ring, there is always Ko Phi Phi.

Just keep riding. Somewhere in Nan. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Two wheels good, four wheels work too

Mirroring the country’s political process, Thailand has some great circular loops. Best on a scooter, they also work by car—or even public transport. The Mae Hong Son Loop, Mae Salong Loop, Nan Loop and Chiang Rai Loop are all in the north. My last pick is “The Death Highway”—a 165km ride to the end of a dead-end road, and one of the best rides in the country.

A weirdly peaceful moment in an unsunken village, Sangkhlaburi. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Touching the earth

Thailand does meditative as well as mayhem. Even if you’re not looking at doing a retreat at a forest wat, visitors are welcome and they’re a special spot for a breath. Try Wat Pah Nanachart and Wat Nong Pah Pong near Ubon Ratchathani, Wat Suan Mokh in Chaiya or Wat Kow Tahm on Ko Pha Ngan. If you’re looking for solitude rather than a retreat, try Wat Phu Thok near Nong Khai (note, it is a long ride, leave early). Or, one of my favourites, in the dry season only, charter a boat out to the sunken village at Sangkhlaburi.

So there you go, sixty places across twelve different areas of interest. Let me know how you’d assemble your jigsaw in the comments!


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