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Deep in the South of Thailand, there are some unmissable gems that many travelers often overlook for the deep allure of the islands like Koh Samui, or Phuket. In this article, I’m going to share with you some very interesting, historical and cultural places in the south of Thailand that you never heard about, and that will give you a more unique travel plan for Thailand.
This article is based off my 4-month travel through Thailand and specifically a historical trip I took to learn more about WW2, the Thai cold war, and how this may have caused the current extremist issues plaguing the Deep South of Thailand.
9 places in the south of Thailand that you never heard about
A town that is steeped in fascinating history, and great tourist spot to visit if you want to go to Deep South Thailand and avoid the danger areas. It is very well protected and many tourists happily visit this area danger-free.
There are many things to do in Betong (including a secret museum/cafe that not many know about), but these are some of the best.
Peace Village & Piyamit Tunnels
Near Betong there’s a place often passed over by tourists called “Peace Village”. You’ll find it in a village called “Chulalongporn sib” (in Thai). Here you’ll find the village where the CPM members from Malaysia fled to Thailand in 1952.
You’ll find a musuem here that is kept by Malaysian owners, one of which who is a previous CPM member. It’s 60 baht entry and is close proximity to Piyamit Tunnels which is another tunnel system that helped to hide CPM members.
The village has the old member barracks, and these have since been converted into a guest house/hotel you can stay at. They rarely get Western tourist visitors and it’s mostly built for Chinese tourism, so you can bet this area has been pretty unexplored.
There is a helipad here, surrounded by lush jungle and mountains, beautiful views, the old barracks, a stage area, with ping pong tables, books to take & read, as well as games, and a museum full to the brim of history. It looks like a fantastic, and very peaceful getaway – especially if you’re into history at all.
Just up the road from Peace Village you’ll find Piyamit Tunnels.
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Gunung Village appears at first like any old Thai village, however it is the location to the attractions around it that make it special. It’s located on a spectacularly beautiful mountain road (the 410) about 25km outside Betong, and is close to the popular Aiyerwang Skywalk, Gunung Sea Mountain Mist, Tae Pu Su Bridge and King Rama IX waterfall.
Here you’ll find a great big Buddhist temple (strange considering the predominantly Muslim population), many local shops selling street food, and some of the best green, Shogun oranges (you heard that right) I’ve ever had in my life. They look awful on the outside, but wow!
The village is an interesting insight into Thai Muslim life and culture, you’ll see people fishing in the rivers, and working to earn a living in the depths of a remote village. I’d recommend driving here through the mountain roads from Betong on a motorbike or in a car – the drive is one of the most scenic I have taken in SEA, with Laos’ Vang Vieng only just topping it.
There are lots of guest houses here you can stay in which are closer proximity to the attractions than Betong, and if you’re going to Gunung Silipat (Sea Mist Mountain), then it’ll be easier to face the early before sunrise wake up hours you’re gonna need to hike, but there are also campsites available there too to camp overnight.
Here is a very unexplored part of Thailand (by tourists) and an almost unspoiled part due to tourism.
Prachuap Khiri Khan
One of the most amazing, beautiful, laid back beach towns. In close proximity to Hua Hin, if you’re looking for a quieter area, with beaches similar to Railay in Krabi, come here. There’s also a lot of extremely interesting history here.
Ao Manao Beach
Ao Manao beach could be confused for the beauty that is Railay in Krabi, but I’d go ahead and say it’s better. With similar, breathtaking sea cliffs, and crystal blue waters, you’ll get a similar experience to Krabi, but there’s a more laid back vibe and you’ll find it hard to find many tourists here, so is better for those that prefer a quiet getaway, rather than an action packed adventure.
You can chill here, swim, eat food, drink together with the friendly locals and take part in a number of activities like archery & quad biking.
But Ao Manao is not just beautiful, it’s also an extremely interesting place historically. It was one of 8 locations that was subject to the Japanese invasion of Thailand in 1941, during WW2.
But why is Ao Manao so interesting?
Ao Manao is located on a Royal Airbase called Wing 5. To get to the beach you have to pass onto the airbase, sign your name in, and on the walk you get to see some monuments to great airforce commanders, you get to see planes, learn the history of the invasion of Thailand in WW2 and even speak to some of the most friendly servicemen and women you’ll have ever met.
What’s more interesting is that this was the last place to fall in the Japanese invasion, after 33 hours of fighting. In fact, Bangkok had already fallen, and the wingcommander of Wing 5 received a telegram to ceasefire, but he thought it was a trick by the Japanese and held out, only until a Thai official drove all the way from Bangkok to wave a white flag for them to ceasefire.
One of the coolest stories of unsung war heros lies here.
Khao Lom Muak
Although this is also in Prachuap Khiri Khan, it deserves a mention here. Khao Lom Muak is a small mountain, located right next to the Wing 5 airbase in Prachuap Khiri Khan.
But, why does it deserve its own section I hear you cry?
Khao Lom Muak is an exclusive mountain. Not everyone can climb it. It’s a sign up only mountain, that is steeped in the history of the Japanese invasion in WW2, and is commonly only attempted once per year, in a small group.
The amazing quirk of this mountain is that you can’t sign up before arriving, but you have to actually be in the town before they run the event. Don’t worry, they usually announce the date beforehand.
It’s completely free to climb and you’ll be escorted by the servicemen, there are rope climbs, as well as carved out paths too.
One really interesting fact about this mountain is that, during the invasion of the Japanese in WW2, the town’s children and women were escorted up the mountainside to hide from the forces during the invasion and to protect them.
So not only are you taking on a challenging climb that will give you incredible views, that only a dozen per year see, you are walking the same path those brave servicemen did to protect the future generations of Prachuap Khiri Khan.
Hat Yai is a vibrant city located in the south in a province called Songkhla. It is also the home of Thailand’s tastiest fried chicken, which has made its way to markets all over Thailand due to its popularity and flavour. The taste of the chicken alone is worth the visit here and you’ll also get an insight into Thai muslim culture, foods etc.
It’s often an overlooked province by tourists due to the troubles in Deep South Thailand with extremism. However, Hat Yai is completely safe from these issues since the last attack in 2006.
There is a additionally a huge Chinese population in Hat Yai, and during Chinese New Year the city totally transforms into a massive centre of celebration, with decorations, lights, markets popping up, live shows on stages and dragons passing through the street.
Two of the notable attractions to see in Hat Yai: Khlong Hae floating market — a canal bursting with colors, lined with boats from locals selling their produce with traditional dance shows and music. The second one is Hat Yai Municipal park, home to a huge Golden Buddha that sits atop a hill/mountain.
You can get a cable car up here and see views over the entire city of Hat Yai that are completely breathtaking. There is also a load of massive statues in this park of the Chinese laughing Buddha, elephants, dragons, tigers, and more. Not only that, there’s an observation center for astronomy that sits atop the mountain, where there’s a museum to visit too which costs 20 baht. It also provides an amazing view of the Central Mosque
Hat Yai is additionally closely located to Songkhla, so you would be able to visit and see both Songkhla City and Hat Yai during your stay in either city. Some other sites I’d recommend visiting close by are the Songkhla Central Mosque, Songkhla lake and its small lake islands.
Oh and you can also pick up the local indigenous medicine Kratom anywhere here for cheap (if you’re into that sort of thing and want to try it).
Khao Nam Khang Historic Tunnels
Khao Nam Khang Historic Tunnels is Thailand’s largest and longest tunnel network, located on a must-see national park brimming with vibrancy and nature. About 2.4km from the National Park, you walk around the beautiful national park, before learning a bit about the history of who these tunnels were home to.
It’s a short 1hr drive to get to from Hat Yai, but it’s quite hard to get to if you don’t have a motorbike. These tunnnels were built over a period of two years in 1972 and were used as a hideout for the CPM (Communist Party of Malaya) to shelter from bombs dropped by the Thai army, during their fight against them in the Thai Cold war.
It homed around 200-300 members of the CPM, with functioning schools, a small temple for wedding ceremonies, a basketball court, kitchens and other essentials for daily life.
Coming here provides a really interesting insight to what it might have been like to be a CPM member hiding out here all those years ago, and the man who runs the museum is actually a previous member who lived right here during the cold war.
They also had an extremely intelligent system whereby the smoke/heat from cooking, would be dispensed atop the mountain through tubes to create mist and provide a camouflage that looks like mountainous mist that would cover them from attack.
Yala & Pattani
These two provinces & cities in Thailand are a very interesting visit. While 92.5% of Thailand is Buddhist, these regions home half of the 5% of the Muslim population in Thailand. This becomes a very interesting fact when you learn that the region used to be part of an Islamic Kingdom which changed hands over the years through wars between Kingdoms.
Yala is an entire province, but it’s also a city. These are both very unexplored parts of Thailand, largely due to the problems with extremism and is listed as an all but essential travel province, however the city is not that dangerous for tourists.
Much of the extremism is directed at Thai authorities, so for a foreigner to get caught up in an attack would be very rare. However, if you do dare venture here, proceed with caution.
If you are interested in the history of Thailand this is a must visit. It’s an interesting region, because it’s part of 3 provinces that were originally part of the Patani Kingdom (1400s) – a predominantly muslim Kingdom, with its own laws and customs, but believed to have spoken a dialect of Malay.
They later became part of the Sukothai Kingdom in 1792, and became independent after Burma took Ayutthaya. They then became independent, but shortly after were taken by the Siamese Kingdom.
This is arguably one of the reasons for the extremism in these areas. Buddhist culture was imposed, standard Thai was taught in schools instead of the local dialect, and there were many changes once the area became part of Siam (Thailand later on) again.
Pattani was also originally part of the Patani Kingdom and the city was the capital. It is also home to Thailand’s biggest Mosque – a very interesting fact considering its past (although built in 1952).
You can also see the Krue Se Mosque, left a ruin in 1785 after Siamese capture, with a very interesting history surrounding it.
It is also one of the 8 spots that the Japanese invaded in 1942, so if you’re into your World War history it’s a great place to check out.
These two cities, both Yala and Pattani are a very interesting insight into Thai-Muslim culture, and you’ll also be able to find some great food here. Influences from Malaysia and Thailand are combined to make some great tasting foods!
Dangers of The Southern Regions
There are some dangers in visiting some of these regions mentioned in this post. It’s advised against all travel here, so proceed with caution. If you are into history these are must visits in my humble opinion, but please keep an eye on the news to stay safe. There are sporadic attacks and most target Thai authorities, so tourists are mostly safe here.
Even my Thai friends told me I would likely be safe here as I am a foreigner and the tensions are mostly between Thai officials, and Buddhists & Muslims.
I was completely safe the entire time I was here and people were very shocked to see a foreigner and were interested, happy to help and show me around. Almost the total opposite of what I expected.