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While Thailand is well known for its full-moon parties, the bustling Khao San Road, local artisan markets in Chiang Mai and tropical sunshine on Koh Phi Phi, it also has plenty of less-visited attractions that will ensure a memorable holiday. Travel writer and photographer Dave Stamboulis guides us through some of the country’s best hidden gems.
Hidden away in the depths of a cave is this golden throne, and you’ll have to earn your visit. It’s located in Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park, and you first have to hike up and over a small mountain before descending into a cavern composed of two sinkholes with collapsed roofs. Inside is a golden throne pavilion with a four-gabled roof, constructed in 1890 for the visit of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).
The cavern is named after Lord Phraya Nakhon, who discovered it some 200 years ago after being shipwrecked in a violent storm. In the early morning, sunlight shines into the sinkhole, creating a surreal effect, with the throne bathed in golden light and the cavern walls reflecting the light.
Chaiyaphum Province is about as far off the foreign tourist radar as it gets in Thailand, but those in the know head here every summer rainy season, from June to August, when the wild Siam tulip, known as dok krachiao, blooms en masse. The flower, whose Latin name is Curcuma alismatifolia, belongs to the ginger and turmeric family, and the purple and pink blossoms, covered in dew and set against a misty backdrop, draw photographers, nature lovers and amateur botanists aplenty.
The park itself is stunning, set in 13,750 hectares (34,000 acres) of the Phang Hoei mountain range, featuring waterfalls and the comically named and very photogenic Pha Ham Hod (‘shrunken balls cliff’), so called in reference to those who dare crawl out to the rock slab jutting out high above the valley below for a photo op.
Forget about those full-moon parties for a while and head out to Thailand’s least-developed paradise. Tarutao, the kingdom’s fourth-largest island, is a protected national park, with park bungalows and camping the only available accommodation. You’ll find plenty of jungle trails, wildlife and empty white-sand beaches. It wasn’t always such a paradise, though.
Tarutao was used as a prison in the 1930s, housing political prisoners from Bangkok; with crocodiles and shark-infested waterways, escape from the island was close to impossible. During World War II the island became cut off, and its residents, both wardens and prisoners, turned to piracy in the Malay Straits for survival. Despite being featured as one of the locations on the Survivor reality-TV program, Tarutao remains well off the beaten path and is well worth a visit.
Known as the ‘Switzerland of Thailand’ for its pine forests and cool mountain weather, Pang Oung is a remote lake set deep in the mountains of Mae Hong Son Province, up on the border with Myanmar. The Karen Shan hill tribe inhabit the region, and have set up campsites and homestays near the lake. In the mornings, the chilly waters are drenched in an eerie fog caused by the low night-time temperatures. You can plunge right into the mist, as charming rustic bamboo rafts can be chartered to take you across the lake and back before the sun rises. Pang Oung really doesn’t feel like Thailand: the cold weather, alpine blue lake water, pine-needle-clad forests and black swans gliding across the lake are far more akin to a European alpine experience.
Meaning ‘red lotus sea’, Talay Bua Daeng is another once-a-year attraction that brings photographers and nature lovers to sleepy Udon Thani Province in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region. From December to the end of February, the large Nong Han Kumphawapi Lake becomes inundated with thousands of lotus flowers in full bloom, so much so that it resembles a red sea. Small pontoon boats ferry visitors out into the middle of the lake, where you may find yourself surrounded by pink and red lotuses on all sides. It’s a spectacle best seen early in the morning when the flowers are fully open. Local fishers and plenty of birdlife add to the scenery at this picturesque spot, and there’s even a small island with a temple set out in the middle of the lake; check out the local paddy farming, as well as climb a watchtower that gives wonderful panoramas of the sea of pink below.
Saying this tongue-twister is easier than finding out information about it, despite the fact that it was recently named as one of Unseen Thailand’s best spots by Thailand Tourism. Located in the north near Lampang, Chalermprakiat is a series of Buddhist stupas that have been constructed right on the top of jagged limestone pinnacles that tower above the plains far below. It was built in 2004 to commemorate 200 years since the birth of King Rama IV, and all materials had to be carried up here by hand. You’ll spend plenty of time wondering how on earth this was managed.
Just getting here is half the fun. Drive up one of Thailand’s most scenic mountain roads, filled with autumn colours during the cool months of December and January. Take a pickup truck up a steep, curvy, single-lane road, then walk up a kilometre of vertical staircases to reach the temples.
Just outside Chiang Rai, Chalermchai Kositpipat, one of Thailand’s top artists, spent over $1 million of his own money to refurbish a decrepit temple and turn it into a visual masterpiece. Wat Rong Khun is now a revered Buddhist temple that combines contemporary imagery with traditional Buddhist art. While it gleams brilliantly in the sunlight and looks as if it is all marble, it is made of whitewash and white chips. To enter the temple you’ll cross a bridge of rebirth, under which lie thousands of white hands symbolising desire, while inside you’ll find wild Surrealist murals with images of Freddy Krueger and the Terminator. Wat Rong Khun may look a bit over the top, but it is a very sacred site, with thousands of Thais coming here to make merit and pay tribute to Kositpipat’s vision, as he intends the ongoing project (the temple will not be completely finished for several more decades) to be an offering to Buddha and a peaceful Buddhist life.
Phu Chi Fah means ‘mountain pointing to the sky’, and indeed the high pinnacle of this peak points like a finger up towards the heavens. The views are divine, too, looking down on the Mekong River, surrounded by jungle-clad mountains and looking into the Lao wilderness. Plenty of locals come up here, but foreign visitors are scarce. During the coolest months (from the end of November through to February), Phu Chi Fah is famed for large ‘seas of clouds’, when the valleys below fill with dense mist caused by cold air draining down the mountain slopes. Early birds can camp just below the peak or stay in the small village 10 minutes down the hill, and pilgrimages are popular here at New Year, to see the first sun rising up from the mountains of Laos.
While its reputation as ‘the Grand Canyon of Thailand’ may be a bit far-fetched, Sam Phan Bok is nevertheless one of the kingdom’s most unique locations, and one that few tourists make it to, as it hides up in the northeast corner of the Isaan region, next to the Lao border. Meaning ‘3,000 holes’ in the Isaan/Lao languages, Sam Phan Bok is a rock reef set along the Mekong River in which colourful sandstone holes have been eroded by water over time, and now resemble all sorts of shapes (Mickey Mouse, poodle heads and so on). During the dry season, from March to June, the water level in the river is so low that the rock formations resemble small mountains or canyons when seen from below; hence the Grand Canyon comparison. This hot and dry landscape looks like the surface of Mars and is about as different from the tropical image of Thailand as it gets.
On sleepy Koh Mook island, an Andaman Island gem off the coast of Trang, you’ll find this spectacular natural wonder. The Emerald Cave is a sinkhole where the roof of an underwater cave has collapsed, allowing light to flood in and a jungle environment to spring up. The only access to the cave is via a pitch-black 100-metre (328-foot) tunnel in the sea, which can only be reached at low tide – many tour groups swim in using flashlights and buoys. Once you’re inside, the cave opens up to reveal a pristine jungle, towering walls and a white-sand beach fronted by emerald water. If you rent a kayak and go independently early in the day, you’ll most likely have the cave and beach all to yourself.