Wandering off the well-worn tourist trail in Thailand can mean that travel is a little more challenging, and you may need to hire a car or pay more than usual for tours.

But in Thailand's lesser-known regions you’ll find genuine local hospitality and some truly extraordinary attractions. Here's a smattering of what you're missing out on if you stick too closely to the Banana Pancake Trail.

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Ancient salt wells in Bo Kluea, near Doi Phuka National Park

Go see Nan

One alternative to Chiang Mai is Nan (it rhymes with John) which boasts its own historic temples. Check out the giant fighting rhinoceros beetles in the fresh market before hitting the terraced mountains in Doi Phuka National Park, named after a pink flower that blossoms—only here— in February. On the eastern slopes is Bo Kluea, a remote village where salt has been pulled up from the earth for more than 1,000 years.

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Chiang Rai's Chinese tea village

The village of Mae Salong balances on a nearly 1,000m high ridgeline overlooking tea plantations that blanket the valleys. Settled by Chinese descended from Kuomintang supporters who fled China after Mao Zedong's forces won the Civil War in 1950, the Mae Salong area is also home to Akha tribes at minimally touristed villages like Hloyo and Lorcha.

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Jurassic Park Phu Wiang National Park

On the dinosaur trail in Khon Kaen

Back in the Cretacious period, an early cousin of the T-Rex roamed in what is now Phu Wiang National Park west of Khon Kaen, the north east's largest city. View the bones remaining in several dig sites, followed by a life-size dinosaur park and museum to thrill burgeoning archaeologists. Also consider a climb up Phu Kradueng, a high plateau in neighbouring Loei province with slopes rimmed by waterfalls and topped by a campground. Bring sweaters.

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Wat Sala Kaew Ku sculpture park

Eye-popping sculptures in Nong Khai

Created in the 1970s by celebrated Lao artist Boun Leua Sulilat, Wat Sala Kaew Ku sculpture park contains more than 100 giant, detailed images inspired by Hinduism, Buddhism and animist beliefs. One crowd-pleaser is a 25m tall, seven-headed naga serpent. Riverside guesthouses accommodate many families, including those crossing the Mekong to enter Laos at Vientiane.

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Glorious sunrise over Pha Taem

Mekong vistas and ancient cliff art at Pha Taem

Near the junction of the Mekong and the Moon River in a distant corner of Ubon Ratchathani province, Pha Taem National Park is the venue for Thailand's earliest sunrise, viewed with plenty of drama from atop a towering sandstone cliff. Also see mystifying 3,000-year-old cliff paintings before striking north for a boat ride at Sam Phan Bok, named after three million large holes – probably not an exact count – pegging a canyon at one of the Mekong's narrowest points.

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Cultural immersion at Khiri Wong

Immersive homestays at Khiri Wong

Award-winning, eco-conscious homestays dot this fog-draped village at the foot of southern Thailand's tallest peak, 1,835m Khao Luang. Visitors learn crafts like basketry and soap making along with techniques for tending tropical fruits such as rambutan, mangosteen and durian. The latter is a golden treat with a repulsive stench, creamy texture and strangely delicious flavour emerging from a spiky green shell. Approach with caution.

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About the author

Family travel in Thailand off the tourist trail

David Luekens

Based in Thailand since 2011, David first waded into Southeast Asia in the early 2000s via friendships forged in the Thai, Vietnamese and Karen communities of Vermont, almost Canada, USA. He is a bona fide nerd in maps, islands and travel planning with a research background in Buddhism and the environmental, political and human rights issues of Southeast Asia. Bylines include CNN Travel, Conde Nast Traveller China and more than 100 Travelfish guides.

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