Nakhon Si Thammarat or 'Beautiful City of the Kings of the Four Noble Truths' as it was originally known is the second largest province in southern Thailand. This province includes 23 districts (such as Sichon and Khanom), several which are located along the east coast of Thailand and look out over the Gulf of Thailand.
Situated approximately 610 kilometres south of Bangkok, this inconspicuous province is often overlooked by tourists, who are heading to the popular islands of Phuket and Koh Samui (see image below). However, this historical town has much to offer those people who are willing to look a little deeper than destinations with just rowdy nightlife.
Nakhon's original name is said to be linked back to the first centuries A.D. which alludes to a long Buddhist tradition in this ancient city. Nakhon was previously known as the Kingdom of Ligor and has a number of ancient ruins and buildings of historical significance which attest to its long history, including an ancient city wall built circa 1278 A.D. which originally enclosed an area of city of about one square kilometre in size (see image below).
Nakhon Si Thammarat which is located on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula has a population of around 120,000 people (as of 2010) and was once the administrative centre of southern Thailand and an important station on the route that facilitated trade between Europe, Africa, India, and China.
While Nakhon is one of the most ancient cities of Thailand, you will rarely see any western tourists here, except for those who get off the train on their way down to the more popular southern provinces. Nakhon is also bordered to the north by Surat Thani province which is the gateway to Koh Samui.
Nakhon is actually a modern city with all the usual conveniences such as hotels (including the Twin Lotus Hotel, see image below) , shops (including Tesco Lotus, and Foursquare), restaurants (several are located next to the train station), malls, cinemas and outdoor markets.
But just remember that this is a city that caters to the local Thai population and not foreigners.
The region itself is quite beautiful even if it is understated and has a number of popular destinations and natural hidden treasures. As it borders the Gulf of Thailand to the east, there is plenty to do and see once you start looking in the right direction.
This is a region known for its tropical vegetation, national parks (including the Khao Luang National Park), beautiful waterfalls (including Si Khit Waterfall) and picture perfect beaches (including Hin Ngam Beach).
I first visited Nakhon back in 2010 to visit my extended family. Since this initial visit I have been discovering more about this less known province ever since.
Like most regions of Thailand, you don't need to walk far to see evidence of the intrinsic link between Thailand and Buddhism. There are a number of Buddhist temples that have been constructed in Nakhon Si Thammarat and a couple of these are of antiquity. Wat Phra Mahathat Vihan for example is probably the most important temple built in this city as it was constructed during the period when the town was founded. It is also said to contain a tooth relic from Buddha.
The temple is defined by its 78 metre high chedi although there are around 173 smaller chedi which adorn this religious complex which also contains a small museum in the Viharn Kien wing. The building is decorated with a number of elephant heads and Buddha statues and there is a stairway in the Viharn Phra Song Ma building which leads to the chedi above the gallery. The temple underwent a restoration back in 2009 and the main chedi now looks completely renewed (see image below).
However, apart from these visible cultural symbols, Nakhon Si Thammarat is one of those places that can surprise you when you dig a little deeper. For example, Nakhon Si Thammarat is the cultural centre of one of Thailand's performing arts known as shadow puppetry (i.e. 'Nang Thalung') and the city is world famous for helping to continue this art form.
This form of puppetry starts from the making of the puppets. Buffalo hide is the material of choice and it is cut into intricate characters such as animals, people and/or mythological figures.
These often colorful figures are then silhouetted, usually against a curtain or wall using light and are then used to tell stories regarding Thai culture and history.
The puppet master provides audio commentary while the puppets themselves provide the visual story telling.
This art form dates back hundreds of years and has been practiced in a number of countries other than Thailand including Indonesia, Greece, Egypt and Turkey to name a few. There is a shadow puppetry museum in Nakhon called Ban Nang Talung and it is located about ten minutes from Wat Phra Mahathat Vihan noted above.
Probably the most famous shadow puppeteer in Thailand is Suchart Subsin. He was born at Ban Sakaew in the Thasala district of Nakhon Si Thammarat and he has helped to put Nakhon on the map for foreign tourists interested in puppetry. As a young boy Subsin observed artisans drawing Thai designs at the Sakaew Monastery at his school and he was eventually sent to study drawing and puppetry under Mr Tong Nukhao.
By the time he turned 14, Subsin had already become a professional shadow puppet play artist and his talent has been acknowledged ever since allowing him in 1985 to perform for the King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Ratchantvesha Palace. Subsin (see image below) has continued his involvement in the shadow puppet industry in Thailand, and has taught a number of students including his own children students this rare and unique art form.
For those wishing to venture out of the town itself there are a number of interesting places to visit including the Wat Mokhlan Archaeological Site and the Khao Ka Archaeological Site with the latter being located approximately 40 kilometres north of Nakhon at Tambon Sao Phao.
Khao Ka was both a sacred and religious centre for a sect of Hindu people known as the Saiwanikai who worshiped the god Shiva. Apart from the ancient ruins which include a pond, many artefacts have also been found which include holy water pipes, and phallic symbols. The site is said to date back to around the 8th century A.D. and restorations to the site were undertaken by the Thai Fine Arts Department back in 1997.
There is also a small museum located in the village close to the archaeological site. This one room museum houses a number of the artefacts which have been uncovered at the site by archaeologists including the bottom half of an ancient statue (see image below).
Located approximately 65 kilometres north of Nakhon Si Thammarat town is the district of Sichon. Located within the northern region of the province, Sichon (see image below) is nothing more than a quiet little fishing village which happens to look out over the Gulf of Thailand. It has shops restaurants, fresh food markets as you would expect in a rural setting but this is a laid back area so there's none of the hype and commercialism that you find on Phuket or Koh Samui.
Did I also mention that this district has a number of largely undiscovered beaches.
In my view the real beauty of Sichon is the unspoiled landscape including its beaches which are predominantly undeveloped. That means there are kilometres of pristine sandy beaches that have largely been undiscovered by western tourists. Access to some of the beaches is only available via private property while others have easy access (see image below).
Some of these beaches include: Na Dan Beach, Bang Por Beach, Piti Beach, Sichon Beach and Hin Ngam Beach (see image below).
While there are hotels and restaurants located at Sichon, being a fishing village means that tourists in general are somewhat rare, and most of the people frequenting these beaches are Thai. The easiest way to get around here is by motorcycle taxi.
However, that doesn't mean this region is void of beach resorts because that isn't the case. For example, the Prasarnsook Villa Beach resort is but a short walk to the idyllic Hin Ngam Beach which provides wonderful views over the Gulf of Thailand.
Buses run to Sichon daily from the Nakhon Si Thammarat Bus Station located on Ratchadamnoen Road.
Located just to the north of Sichon is the district of Phanom. This is also a quiet fishing village which became a full district back in 1959 and has thus far been overlooked by the majority of tourists visiting Thailand. Being a small town it has several restaurants, fresh food markets, a couple of 7-Eleven shops, and several hotels and resorts.
However, the area is also known for the pink dolphins which are apparently found in good numbers of the coast.
Located in the far northern tip of Nakhon Si Thammarat (see image below), and bordering the province of Surat Thani, Phanom has a number of interesting destinations to visit including two caves, several waterfalls (including Samed Chun Waterfall), 10 bays (including Khanom Bay) and over 9 kilometres of pristine beaches which run in a north to south direction along the coastline.
There are also forests, jungles and mountains to explore including the Dat Fa Mountain and the Khao Phlao hills .
The most popular area to visit in Phanom is probably Khanom Bay and its associated beaches which include Na Dan Beach, Kor Khao Beach and Nai Plao Beach which is the most popular. Although, there are nine beaches in total within Khanom district.
As is the case in Sichon the beaches here long, pretty and almost deserted (see image below).
As noted above, Khanom is also home to a number of beautiful waterfalls and none are more pretty than the Samed Chun Waterfall which is located within the hills of the Ban Praet sub-district (see image below). This is by far the largest waterfall in Khanom and apart from providing some excellent views down to the coastline over Khanom Bay the waterfall has a nice pool at the base which is great for cooling off on a hot day.
Buses run to Khanom daily from the Nakhon Si Thammarat Bus Station located on Ratchadamnoen Road.
Further, buses depart daily from the Bangkok (Sai Tai) Southern Bus Terminal. However, there is an airport located at both Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat provinces, although mini bus travel from these airports would still be required.
The best way to travel from Bangkok to Nakhon Si Thammarat within southern Thailand is by either plane bus or train. I have actuallly traveled to Nakhon by each of these modes of transport and they are each very easy and hassle free.
Buses depart daily from Bangkok's Southern Bus Terminal (located in Thonburi district) for Nakhon. An overnight bus journey takes around 10 hours from memory.
The Nakhon Si Thammarat Airport which was first opened in 1998, is a small airport located approximately 14 kilometres from the centre of town in the Muang district. The airport is frequented by Thai Airways and Air Asia. Flight time from Bangkok is approximately 70 minutes.
depart Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Railway Station at 5.30 PM and 7.15 PM. Travel time is approximately 12 hours and the Nakhon Railway Station is located within the town. Sleeper carriages are available and I would recommend them for such a long journey.