Southern Thailand’s spot on the backpacking trail is well established. The island archipelagos, rising sharply from the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand are, for many people, the quintessential visions of Thailand.
The first place to stop, however, when travelling south from Bangkok is the historic city of Phetchaburi. The town was first settled in the 11th century and ruled by the Khmer Empire. Its strategic position let it flourish as a cultural centre and it became a favourite retreat of the Thai royals when the capital was moved to Bangkok in 1767.
Today the town is dominated by the hilltop palace of Rama IV, Phra Nakhon Khiri (“Sacred City Mountain”). Other historical attractions include fascinating temple complexes; Wat Phra Phuttha Saiyat contains a gold reclining Buddha, 14th century Wat Mahathat has a colossal spire that can be seen for miles and Wat Yai Suwannaram has a great 17th century scripture house and ornate wooden hall. Many Thais also travel to this site for its famous sweets – custard and coconut desserts are specialities whilst its rose apples and limes are renowned.
Once your historical attractions are ticked off the list you can get on with what you are probably really here for — the beaches. Following the coast south, you pass popular Thai holidaying resorts, the best of which are Hat Phu Noi and Prachuap Khiri Khan. However, most travellers continue down into the heart of the South before either heading east to the Samui archipelago or west to Phuket, the Phi Phi Islands and Krabi holidays.
Koh Samui is probably the most famous of all Thai Islands and, as a result, one of the most overdeveloped. Despite the resorts it is still the most naturally beautiful of all the islands. Coming close behind is nearby Koh Pha Ngan, infamous for its non-stop Full Moon Parties at Hat Rin, and Koh Tao, great for diving.
On the other coast, where sheer mountains meet the Andaman Sea, avoid the overdeveloped island of Phuket and try some of the mainland resorts. The peninsular of Railay in Krabi is an up-and-coming destination increasingly renowned for its climbing opportunities. Climbing is available for all abilities in the incomparable islands of Phi Phi too, giving an unrivalled view of the unique landscape. For something a bit quieter try Koh Lanta, a family-oriented island away from the backpacker parties.
When you’re bored of beaches and cocktails (it will happen eventually!), head to Nakhon Si Thammarat. This cultural hotspot is famous for its Shadow Plays and large historic Muslim Quarter. It is also a great base to organise treks to Khao Luang National Park and its waterfalls.