Before I came to Thailand, if you had asked me to name any Thai city beginning with the word “Nakhon”, I would have been fairly stuck. I’m guessing that you might be a bit like me in this regard. If not, maximum points, well done.
As it is, our adventures in Thailand have taken us to two cities starting with the word Nakhon. These were Nakhon Ratchasima (better known locally as Korat, although I hadn’t heard of it by either name), and the city of Nakhon Si Thammarat, which most Thai people refer to simply as Nakhon, and which is the subject of today’s post.
If you’ve never heard of Nakhon Si Thammarat, don’t worry, it doesn’t seem to feature particularly high up on most itineraries. This is probably because whilst it is in the south of Thailand, it’s not exactly on the beach, and when you think of southern Thailand you probably think of the gorgeous Andaman coast, or some beautiful far flung islands ringed with white sands and turquoise waters.
Slightly grubby and, in the words of the Lonely Planet, “not likely to win any beauty contests”, Nakhon doesn’t even make the radar as somewhere to pass through.
Which, I would argue, is a tremendous mistake, for at least two big reasons, and countless other smaller ones. Let’s get started with some knowledge on Nakhon.
All about Nakhon Si Thammarat, and our arrival
Nakhon is the regional capital of the Nakhon Si Thammarat province, and is one of Thailand’s oldest cities, dating from at least the 7th century and certainly prominent as a large city during the times of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.
It is located on the east side of the Thai peninsula, a couple of hours drive south of Surat Thani, which most folks will pass through on their way to somewhere like Koh Samui.
The first thing we noticed when we arrived into Nakhon was that there weren’t exactly a massive number of Westerners around. The second thing we noticed, after a brisk walk, was that the hotel we had picked wasn’t where our map suggested it might be.
We were rescued from our predicament as we slowly melted in the sun (Nakhon is a hot place) by a lovely shop owner, who grabbed her boys and bundled us into a motorbike and sidecar affair, where we were whisked the few blocks across town to where we were supposed to be staying, at the Nakhon Garden Inn. (More on accommodation options a bit further down). They refused any payment, and further reinforced in my mind the idea that Thai people are some of the friendliest on earth.
I said there are two main reasons to visit. There are of course more – this is a funky city to spend a bit of time, even if it’s not a particularly beautiful one. I’ll start with the two main attractions, and then throw out a couple more options for you.
Wat Phra Maha That Woramaha Wihan
Try saying that after a couple of beers. This temple is the number one reason that Thai people visit Nakhon, being as it is one of Thailand’s most important temples, and certainly the most important temple in southern Thailand.
The temple is believed to date from the founding of the city, well over a thousand years ago, and the main draw is the Chedi: Phar Borom That Chedi. This is believed to have been constructed in 757AD, and stands at eighty metres in height. It’s also topped with around 200 kilos of pure gold, and if that wasn’t enough, it’s also home to one of the Lord Buddha’s teeth.
The main Chedi is surrounded by 173 smaller Chedi, and there is a museum on site which houses all the offerings that people have brought to the temple. It’s a wonderful place for a wander, and entry is free.
Khao Luang National Park
Situated around 30km from Nakhon Si Thammarat is the Khao Luang National Park, home to Khao Luang mountain, which at just over 1.7km in height is the highest in southern Thailand.
The park features a number of absolutely stunning waterfalls, as well as villages for homestays and hiking opportunities galore – including a two to three day hike to the summit of Khao Luang itself.
We didn’t have quite the time for that, so instead spend a day visiting the Namtok Karom waterfall, said to be one of the most beautiful in the park, which cascades down over 19 levels.
This is an easy songthaew (covered pickup) ride from Nakhon, with the 20km trip taking no longer than 30 minutes and costing 30-50 Baht per person. If in doubt, just ask any local about the local bus to Namtok Karom and they’ll direct you to the local songthaew stop. The route you’ll want is the Lan Saka – Khao Kaeo one. Park entry is the same as it is everywhere else in Thailand, at 200 Baht per person at time of writing.
Namtok Karom turned out to be a pretty darn spectacular waterfall, with seven levels open to the public, and the seventh being the most impressive. The 2km walk from entrance up to the seventh level (taking in levels four to six on the way) was steep but worth it! The park was deserted when we arrived, although started to fill up with Thai people as the day progressed, all keen to have a refreshing swim.
Further information on Khao Luang National Park (as well as maps and information in English on the whole region) can be picked up at the local TAT tourist office, in downtown Nakhon.
Wat Thao Kot - The Crumbling Jungle Temple
A little further down from Wat Phra Maha That, this old riverside temple complex contains five temples that are slowly falling apart. The temples themselves aren’t terribly impressive, but the location, with the jungle reclaiming its own, is very atmospheric. This spot is also home to a lively market, which warrants the visit.
The City Walls
Like a number of other Thai cities, Chiang Mai being the one that springs readily to mind, Nakhon Si Thammarat has some parts of its original city wall still intact. These are a fairly impressive pile of brickwork, giving an idea of the stature this city once held. There were also ten city gates originally, although there isn’t much left to see of these.
Those are just four great reasons to visit Nakhon. There are of course multiple others, including a number of other Wats, mosques and museums, and the famous shadow theatre, in which you can while away some time. The aforementioned TAT office is stuffed full of ideas and is the best place to get more options.
Where and how long to stay in Nakhon Si Thammarat
The actual city of Nakhon and the main sights can be easily explored in a day. For your second day you could take a day trip (or longer) out to Khao Luang National Park, and see some of the spectacular natural beauty on offer.
We stayed for three nights, which let us pretty comprehensively explore all the sights we were interested in, take more photos than you can imagine, and also head out to the Nakhon Karom waterfall.
In terms of accommodation Nakhon isn’t quite as well equipped for tourists as other Thai cities, with guesthouses / hostels being pretty much non-existent. Instead, you have to pick from a variety of hotels ranging from basic to relatively expensive.
After some research, we settled on the Nakhon Garden Inn, which featured fairly pleasant rooms in a nice garden setting for around 500 Baht a night. There are other options, depending on your budget, but don’t expect a quaint hostel experience!
How to get to Nakhon Si Thammarat
It’s about a two hour minibus ride from the cities of Trang or Surat Thani to Nakhon Si Thammarat, and these run very regularly. From further afield, you can get large air conditioned buses from as far away as Bangkok, which will take around 10-12 hours.
There’s also a train station, so you could get here by rail if you were so inclined, although these are normally a bit slower than the road options, and more likely to be a one-a-day option.
As with many Thai cities, the central main street is plied by songthaews (covered pick ups) that will get you from one end of town to the other for a fixed fee of 10 Baht. As Nakhon is a town which is longer than it is wide, you will probably find this to be the easiest way to take in all the temples.
And that’s it for our thoughts on Nakhon Si Thammarat! Have we persuaded you that this Thai city is worth visiting? Had you already heard of it? Anything we’ve missed that you’d like to hear about? Let us know in the comments below!