Set to a historical backdrop of Buddhist kings and bustling trade, modern Nakhon Si Thammarat is a fast-paced cultural and commercial center. The eponymous province boasts miles of coastal beaches to go with several waterfalls flowing amid a formidable mountain range. If you’re after a taste of unadulterated South Thailand and you don’t mind sliding off the tourist trail, give Nakhon Si Thammarat a shot.
Based at the site of modern Nakhon Si Thammarat town (“Nakhon” among friends), the Tambralinga Kingdom maintained close ties to the Srivijaya Empire while also paying tribute to Chinese dynasties between the sixth and 14th centuries. The boomtown capital was situated at one end of a land route that linked the Andaman Sea to what’s now the Gulf of Thailand. At its zenith around the 13th century, Nakhon Si Thammarat (same kingdom, new name) was an independent kingdom that may have controlled most of the Malay Peninsula. Foreigners knew the kingdom as Ligor, a name that can still be seen in Nakhon today.
In addition to trade, Tambralinga was an important crossroads for religions. Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism arrived by way of the Srivajaya, which is thought to have maintained a measure of control, if not an outright rule, over Tambralinga throughout much of its existence. In the 12th century, a Tambralingan king temporarily ruled over part of northern Sri Lanka, helping to facilitate the spread of Theravada Buddhism to Thailand.
Around the same time, Sri Lanka-ordained Theravada monks renamed the city Nagara Sri Dhammaraja, a Pali term meaning “City of the Sacred Dharma King.” This evolved into “Nakhon Si Thammarat” when increasing numbers of Thai tongues arrived from Ayutthaya in the late 14th century. Nakhon Si Thammarat retained a measure of autonomy for a while longer: It wasn’t until King Taksin marched south in the 1770s that the city became part of Siam/Thailand for good.
With a population of around 100,000, today’s Nakhon Si Thammarat is the second largest city in Southern Thailand, after Hat Yai. The majority is Buddhist but Islam is also prominent, and the Chinese have left their mark as well. The non-touristy atmosphere and low cost of living have also attracted quite a few expat English teachers from Western countries. While stacks of concrete structures aren’t winning Nakhon any architectural awards, some of the temples, mosques, and shrines just might.
History enthusiasts will enjoy a walking tour through the 900-year-old Wat Phra Mahathat along with portions of the ancient city wall, an excellent National Museum and a string of smaller attractions. Also don’t miss the studio, museum and theater at Suchart Subsin’s House, one of Thailand’s most important venues for preserving the art of nang thalung, or shadow puppetry.
Just west of Nakhon town is Khao Luang National Park and its numerous waterfalls backed by the park’s namesake peak, the highest in South Thailand. The rivers that form here are said to be Thailand’s cleanest, while blankets of fog help to produce exceptional mangosteen, rambutan, durian and other tropical fruits. Travelers in search of a rural homestay experience should head to the fruit-growing village of Baan Khiri Wong.
Beach lovers can lounge on empty stretches of sand at Laem Talumpuk and Haad Sa Bua, both located within a 60 km drive from Nakhon town. For more plentiful beachside accommodation to go with isolated bays, caves, and more waterfalls, head further afield to Khanom and Sichon. The ferry piers for Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao are just 25 kilometers north of Khanom, making Nakhon Si Thammarat a fine post-island option.