Hit that open road and head on out to these nearby provinces
There’s nothing quite like hitting the open road and leaving the city behind. One of the many benefits of living in Thailand is the vast array of weekend escapes and road trip destinations available. Only hours away from the madness of Bangkok you’ll find the likes of Khao Yai, Lopburi, and Nakhon Pathom, each offering unique attractions and proving you don’t have to travel far from Bangkok to find something spectacular. Driving is the best option, but these destinations are also easily accessible by bus or train.
Spanning over 2,000 sq.km and stretching over four provinces—Nakhon Ratchasima, Saraburi, Prachin Buri, and Nakhon Nayok—Khao Yai National Park is the centrepiece of what most people refer to as ‘Khao Yai’. It is also Thailand’s oldest and most visited nature reserve, and the park’s splendid scenery includes both tropical seasonal forests, mountainous areas, and sprawling grasslands. It’s also home to raging waterfalls, thousands of species of plants, and hundreds of species of animals (including wild elephants). There are over 50 km of hiking trails, of varying degrees of difficulty, and information and maps pertaining to the trails are available at the visitors’ centre. Guides are also on hand to lead you along the trails if you’re not an experienced trekker.
But there’s more to Khao Yai than just wilderness hiking. The area surrounding the national park has undergone extensive development over the past few decades and has increasingly become a go-to weekend getaway for urbanized city dwellers. It’s just a two to three-hour drive from Bangkok, and it boasts the 7th best ozone level in the world—providing folks with a breath of fresh air (literally). Meanwhile, many resorts, villas, vacation houses, and camping and glamping spots are now located throughout the greater Khao Yai region, and the choices are vast. For a glorious upscale stay at a faux French chateau check in at the beautiful U Khao Yai resort. Or, if you want to “sort of” rough it, try the air-conditioned luxury glamping tents at the Lala Mukha Tented Resort.
The Khao Yai region has also become recognized lately for producing some of the best quality wines in the country, and several wineries in the area offer tours, tastings, restaurants, and even luxurious overnight stays. A weekend wine tour should definitely include stops at GranMonte Vineyard & Winery, PB Valley Estate, Alcidini, and Village Farm.
There are lots of other attractions here too—some less deserving of attention than others—but a culturally uplifting visit to the Khao Yai Art Museum, an afternoon of sweet indulgence at The Chocolate Factory, and a glorious dinner at the Midwinter Green restaurant are all worthy diversions—once you’ve finished your mountain treks and forest walks.
Situated 150 km north of Bangkok, the city of Lopburi is the capital of Lopburi province and one of the oldest cities in the Kingdom. With a history dating back to the Dvaravati period (6th to 10th century), and its prominent in role the Khmer and Ayutthya empires, it’s no surprise that remnants from throughout Thai history can still be found in this city. Today Lopburi is divided into two main areas: New Town and Old Town. Along with the train station, most of the tourist sites are located in the Old Town, while majority of the hotels, and the bus station, can be found in the New Town.
Often referred to as ‘Monkey City’, Lopburi is famous, or infamous, for the hundreds of crab-eating macaques that overrun the Old Town, most of which you will find around the Khmer-style temple Phra Prang Sam Yot and the Phra Kaan Shrine (in what looks like a scene out of The Jungle Book). Nuts and fruit are on sale throughout the year to feed the monkeys, while on the last weekend of November the annual Lopburi Monkey Festival is held and a buffet of fruit is offered to the monkeys to thank them for bringing prosperity to the town. The monkeys provide many great photo opportunities but do be careful of your belongings—these avaricious apes have gotten rather greedy over the years.
Another must-see is the annual Lopburi Sunflower Blooming Festival. From November through January thousands of sunflowers come into full bloom at Khao Jean Lae, located approximately 45 km outside of the city. Spanning a total area of 1,400 rai, it is the largest sunflower field in Thailand.
Moving further away from the city, Wat Khao Wongkhot, also known as the ‘Bat Cave’, is located roughly 4 km from Ban Mi District and covers an area of 30 rai. The temple itself is situated in the middle of three mountains with a reclining buddha enshrined at the foot of Sanam Daeng Mountain. Also within the temple’s compound is Lopburi’s biggest bat cave. Each day at 6pm millions of bats take flight and leave the cave—sometimes taking up to two hours to empty—in search of food.
Lying only 57 km west of Bangkok, this neighbouring province takes less than an hour to get to. Although it lies in close proximity to the overdeveloped Thai capital, lush green trees and shrubbery run throughout this region, making for stunning views and picture-perfect landscapes, particularly alongside the Tha Chin River—also known as the Nakhon Chai Si River—that runs throughout Nakhom Pathom.
One of the most famous temples in the region is Wat Phra Pathom Chedi, located in the city of Nakhom Pathom, which houses the tallest stupa in the world (measuring 120.5 metres high). To pay homage to the temple, each November the Phra Pathom Chedi Festival is held for nine consecutive days, during which you’ll find local products on display, and entertainment for all ages.
Throughout the year, the Night Market—situated on the west side of the temple—is open daily from 6pm till midnight. You’ll find an array of food vendors selling Thai favourites, as well as some of the dishes that Nakhom Pathom is famed for. Known for having the best Khao Lam—sticky rice and coconut milk cooked in bamboo—in all of Thailand, as well as sweet pomelo, this market is a must-visit to pick up some of the kingdom’s best produce.
The Don Wai Floating Market—situated next to Wat Don Mai on the Nakhom Chai Si River in the southern district of Sam Phran—also makes a good stop for foodies. Although it is referred to a ‘floating market’, most of the vendors and restaurants are set up on land with boat trips on offer to visitors. It’s open daily from 7am to 6pm.
Also located in the district of Sam Phran is Wat Samphran, better known as the ‘Dragon Temple’. This bright pink 17-storey tower is encircled by a giant green dragon climbing towards the top. Inside the dragon is a staircase, which unfortunately has deteriorated in some places. At the foot of the temple you will also find an array of interesting sculptures of beasts as well as a giant bronze Buddha. This gigantic temple is currently closed to the public, but it is, arguably, best seen from a distance anyway.
Finally, Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist monastery in Nakhon Chaisi district, is home to the sak yant mystical tattoo cult. The temple became famous in the 20th century thanks to Luang Phor Phern, the late abbot known for his mastery in both the technical and magical sides of sak yant. Each year in March, thousands of curious revellers and believers attend the Wai Kruu Festival in which they undergo a ceremonious “re-charge” of their tattoos. This offbeat event is memorable for the many people who apparently become possessed by spirits that cause them to dash wildly through the crowds while screaming and gesticulating wildly.
Where do you go?
Editor, Bangkok Coconuts
If you’ve had the kind of week that you need to escape from, Koh Samet is the closest island to Bangkok. In just a few hours, you can be watching the sunset while eating fresh seafood on the beach. Many of the restaurants put their tables and chairs out in the sand so you can eat whole fresh fish, clams, or lobster while the waves wash over your feet. Once the sun goes down, Naga Bar, on Sai Kaeow Beach, is the top destination. Join the throngs and have your face painted with the fluorescent body paint the place is famous for, and dance till the sun comes up.
Will C. Corbin
Musician: Jenny & The Scallywags, Lips Manly
I think Pranburi is great. It’s still is my favourite place. I wrote a song about it called “Down in Old Pranburi” where I mention Dolphin Bay. I love the national park there with the shrine in the hollow cave (Praya Nakorn), and there are really nice boutique hotels there as well. It’s simple, reasonably priced, close to BKK, and has that sleepy fishing town charm. Driving inland on a motorbike is also cool as you go through all these marine agriculture farms and past big cliffs, sand dune trails, etc. About three years ago I was there and we rented a longtail boat with driver for the day (just B1,200), and he dropped us briefly at Koh Kho Ram, the “monkey island”, which is an intense experience—the small monkeys climb all over you to get food, and they pinch on your ears with their fingers, but they don’t have nasty nails or anything. Meanwhile the boat guy fished for clams while we were hiking.
Thailand Travel Blogger
There are very few “unseen” attractions left around Bangkok, however Ban Khun Samut Chin, in Samut Prakan province, is still largely unknown by foreigners (and Thais). This is mainly due to its isolation. There are no roads in this area, so to reach this community, tourists have to hail a taxi boat and then walk a further 30 minutes. But, the effort is rewarding. Due to land erosion and the advancing sea, many families in the community have moved their houses inland half a dozen times. The only people that refused to move are the monks whose temple complex is now surrounded by the sea. To reach this islet, you have to walk along a raised concrete platform. If you need more time to explore the area, there is a homestay on stilts behind the village chief’s house. Call 086 567 5296 to reserve a room. Prices start at B600 per person which includes three meals.
Author, journalist, and musician
If Hua Hin is too full of tourists for you, head for sleepy, overlooked Prachuap Khiri Khan only 80 km to the south. Eight trains a day make the trip from Bangkok to Prachuap’s quaint, 1914-vintage teak-plank railway station. From the station, stroll straight down Kong Kiat Road—a charming street flanked by pre-1970s two-story shophouses—to the Yuttichai Hotel, one of the last old-school wooden hotels found anywhere in the province (tel: 032 611 055). Here a clean, fan-cooled room with king-sized bed and private bathroom costs just B350 a night, and there’s a cozy coffee corner downstairs serving espresso drinks and economical meals.
Rent a bicycle or scooter to make the quick 6 km hike to Ao Manao, an island-dotted bay, rimmed by a long white-sand beach and lofty sea pines, found inside the Wing 5 air force base. In exchange for registering at the gate, you can enjoy a pristine beach experience free from beach hawkers and tacky resorts. Just north of town, a rocky limestone crag known as Khao Chong Krajok is topped by Wat Thammikaram, a monastery established by King Rama VI with sweeping views of Ao Prachuap, the town’s main bay. A sizeable tribe of mischievous longtail macaques make the hill their home.
Finally, Thai foodies say Prachuap offers the best-priced fresh seafood anywhere along the gulf. We can vouch for Rap Lom, a semi-outdoor place a couple of kilometers north of Khao Chong Krajok.
By Kelly Harvey