Surat Thani: Waters of Life |

Surat Thani

The spectacular landscapes of Southern Thailand lure millions of tourists every year with their soft, sandy beaches and emerald waters. Many visitors will no doubt be familiar with popular sun, sand, and sea destinations like Hat Yai, Phuket, and Ko Samui. However, one southern region that’s sometimes overlooked is Surat Thani, tucked between the Phuket Mountains and the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

Situated near mangrove forests, the city and its dense network of khlongs (canals) and rivers are within a unique area known as Khlong Roi Sai – or “The Little Amazon.” 

This little-known region is the abode of many local communities who’ve made their livelihood for generations in this pristine environment by farming and fishing, making it a unique destination for bucolic, water-based adventures.

And while Surat Thani’s nickname is “the province of a thousand islands,” some of its most interesting destinations are situated along its intricate network of inland waterways.

Leeled Community

One of the best ways to see what traditional Thai life was like in this region is to visit the riverside communities along its distinctive khlongs that traverse and connect the greenery of the mangrove forest. One of the best-preserved, most authentic of which is the Leeled community, who live along Ban Don Bay, just a 30-minute drive from Surat Thani. 

The locals here have been thriving off the mangrove forests for centuries, developing a unique way of life with cottage industries like shrimp paste-making, nipa palm desserts, and wickerware – all seasonal activities vary depending on the time of year. This traditional community of fishermen (mainly shrimp) and coconut farmers still use boats as a means of transportation.

As it’s located close to Surat Thani, you can easily visit the area on a day-trip or as an overnight stay, allowing you to explore the surrounding mangroves by boat, taste the wide range of local organic food Leeled produces, or simply immerse yourself in the natural beauty of “The Little Amazon.”


While the Leeled community isn’t geographically remote, it does feel far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern Thai life. The best way to experience Leeled is by taking advantage of homestays in the village which allows you the time to immerse yourself in the community’s traditional way of life.

The local community offers a wide range of activities and attractions, from cruising and observing the nature of the waterways, to preparing various local foods, and seeing centuries-old practices, like how monkeys are trained to pick coconuts. You can also shop for unique local products, from nipa palm leaf and coconut shell handicrafts to delicious local foods like shrimp paste and bird’s nest.

Given its unique, yet fragile mangrove environment, participating in conservation-related activities is a great way for visitors to understand the opportunities and challenges that communities like Leeled face. These include helping replant coastal patches of mangrove which face seasonal erosion patterns linked to the monsoon, or helping locals gather nipa palm fronds. These are skillfully turned into everything from roofing material for local houses to underwater homes for fish larvae where they can mature in safety, helping ensure the ecological diversity of the native mangroves. 

Leeled has a network of homestays which provide basic facilities that include mosquito nets and fans (some have air-conditioning), and can be arranged through various travel agents. 

Activities: Local Food & Drink

Living in such a pristine, ecologically sensitive environment, it’s not surprising the Leeled community places a strong emphasis on organic, sustainable produce, from fruits to seafood.

One famous local specialty which Leeled is renowned for is its kapi (spicy shrimp paste). The aromatic paste is made by hand from local, sustainably-farmed, large yellow shrimps (instead of traditionally using small shrimps), caught fresh from the many shrimp farms dotted all over the mangroves. You can even visit these farms to see how they catch and dry the shrimps, and at some homestays you can learn how to make kapi.

Another Surat Thani specialty is the khanom jak, a sweet, starchy dessert cooked over a small charcoal grill, popular as street food. It’s made from steamed rice flour, coconut, and “jak” – the sugary sap of the local Nipa palm – and wrapped in its leaves. One activity that’s popular at homestays is learning how to make jak from the sap of the Nipa palm. 

The landscape of southern Thailand features coconut plantations, so it’s no surprise that coconut features prominently in local products. In addition, along the canals, many of the old houses were built to accommodate swallows that produce the region’s famous bird’s nests. The home-based production of bird’s nests is a huge, sustainable source of income for the community. Combining both of these local produce has resulted in interesting drink concoctions, like Coconut Bird’s Nest with Butterfly Pea, which combines locally-grown coconut, fruits, butterfly pea, bird’s nest, and herbs. The beautiful blue, refreshing drink is known to contain plenty of antioxidants.

Butterfly pea juice with coconut on wooden background

Another popular locally-grown product is the Nasan Rambutan with its thin peel, sweet taste, and pleasant aroma. Not only is it sold fresh, the rambutan has been creatively incorporated into the local produce – for example, it’s sometimes added to the local shrimp paste, and is also available as Nasan Rambutan wine which is pleasantly sweet and fruity. Nasan rambutan wine is also used to make local cocktails, with the addition of soda.

As a coastal community, the region is well-known for its seafood. Not far from Leeled, the Kanchanadit District is famous for its oyster farms where you can visit the picturesque boardwalks of Kradae and explore the oyster farms along the canals. Fresh oysters and seafood can also be enjoyed at restaurants along the coast here.

Activities: Canals and Rivers

There are many things to do in Leeled, but the one thing you absolutely have to do is take a locally-guided boat tour of the waterways. Thanks to the ever-changing nature of mangroves, there are often many new water routes created every season. In addition to learning about one of the most complete ecosystems in Southeast Asia, you can also help with planting new shoots to help expand the mangrove forest areas. 

A visit to Surat Thani isn’t complete without a visit to Bang Bai Mai, locally called “Nai Bang.” This old community features a network of little canals that you can cruise along and enjoy being cocooned by a natural green tunnel of coconut trees and Nipa palms. Some of the historic houses along the canal are over 200 years old. Also located along the canals is the Bang Bai Mai Pracharat Market, which is a popular floating market where you can procure local products and savour local dishes.

If you’re lucky, when the sun sets, a special performance takes place in the canals of Bang Bai Mai. Fireflies will flit around the big trees along the waterways, creating a rare, nightly spectacle as they light up the green tunnels in search of a mate.

Getting to Leeled (Surat Thani) 

Surat Thani is popularly accessible via overnight train from Bangkok. The train from Bangkok to Surat Thani leaves Hua Lamphong Train Station multiple times a day, and takes 9-12 hours to cover the 650km route (the Special Express service is the fastest). The train arrives at Surat Thani station which is about a 20-minute drive to Leeled.

The fastest way from Bangkok to Surat Thani is via a 1-hour flight – most airlines fly directly from Don Mueang Airport and arrive at Surat Thani Airport which is a 30-minute drive to Leeled.

History Comes Alive at U-Thong

Further up north, another lesser-known – and very different – Thai destination is U-Thong, an ancient district in Suphanburi Province that’s just a 2-hour drive from Bangkok. Historians believe that U-Thong was a bustling trading city of an ancient civilisation called Suvarnabhumi that thrived from the 1st to 4th centuries. It has a long history from when Buddhism was spread from India to Thailand.

Starting with a trip to U-Thong National Museum, you can get an idea of what the area was like during the Tawarawadee era over 3,000 years ago. A number of attractions have been curated to make its millennia-old history come to life at the museum’s Tawarawadee U-Thong Ancient City Community. 

Not far away is Luang Phor U-Thong, where a large Buddha image is carved on Mangkon Bin cliff, transforming an abandoned quarry into a spectacular Buddhist pilgrimage site. You can also learn about the history of its people at the nearby Khao Phra Folk Museum.

For a more hands-on experience, you can try your hand at metal crafting, learn how to make sweets with locally-sourced water chestnuts, and have a go at making a rattan basket with a local artisan. Alternatively, you can always just pamper yourself with a relaxing foot massage that uses the famous Thip Kasorn brand of herbal oil.

Travelling around the province is like drifting through a historical novel, and those who love Thai culture will appreciate how this area played a big part in shaping Thai history.

Getting to U-Thong 

U-Thong is located in Suphanburi province, which is about 100km from Bangkok, and easily accessible by road in just over 2 hours via Highway 340. 

For more travel information on activities in Surat Thani and U-Thong, visit