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Thailand Travel : Southern Region


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240x120_3PhuketThe South's 14 provinces stretch along the narrow peninsula of Thailand from Chumphon to the Malaysian border, 1,200 kilometres from Bangkok. Its long coastline of golden beaches and islands, with a rugged hinterland of mountains and forests, is of two characters. The east coast, facing the Gulf of Thailand, is softer with long wide bays and gentle seas; the Andaman Sea coast is more rugged and exciting, with stunning islands, limestone rock formations and cliffs.

The climate differs from the rest of Thailand due to two seasonal monsoons: the southwest monsoon sweeping the west coast and Andaman Sea from May to October, while the northeast monsoon moves across the Gulf of Thailand form November to February. The peninsula acts as a barrier, causing different rainy periods to the two coastlines.

It's an ancient region that was independent until the 9th century, when the Buddhist Srivijaya empire united the area. Eventually it came under the rule of Ayutthaya and then Bangkok. Throughout its history there has been strong Chinese and Malaysian influence, which has impacted on its culture. The further south you go, the stronger the Malaysian influence, with a predominance of Muslim communities, Islamic mosques and a dialect akin to Malays. Rice fields are replaced by rubber plantations, and Chinese tin mining operations are more evident.

The coastline plays a major role in attracting tourists, with Samui island in the Gulf of Thailand becoming increasingly popular as a laid-back holiday spot, with excellent diving opportunities at nearby Tao and Pha-ngan islands. The Andaman Sea coast offers many more exciting travel opportunities, led by the beautiful beaches of Phuket island, Thailand's top vacation resort. However, the fascinating rock formations and offshore islands at Phang-nga, Krabi and Trang are becoming increasing popular with tourists, divers and sailors.

The rugged interior of mountains, rivers and forests in a host of national parks is also gaining in popularity among eco-tourists, with growing numbers of safari expeditions on foot, by elephant and by canoe.

Krabi has some of the most attractive scenery in southern Thailand: stunning limestone cliffs fronting on fine white beaches, coupled with fascinating islands in the Andaman Sea.
Phra Nang Beach is considered the most beautiful, rivalled only by neighbouring Railay. Here steep limestone cliffs have isolated fine sandy coves that provide a haven for tourists. Thailand's climbing industry has sprung up around these cliffs, with companies offering instruction and equipment for climbers of all levels. Further north, Nopparat Thara is a long sandy beach lined with pine trees, popular among Thais.

Offshore the uninhabited islands of Poda, Rang Nok and Hua Kwan offer opportunities for sea canoe expeditions, snorkelling and diving. However, it is the renowned Phi Phi islands that attract tourists to marvel at glistening white sands, towering cliffs and blue waters. Diving is one of the major attractions to explore the offshore coral reefs.

Further south the Lanta islands, with their unspoilt beaches, are preparing to be the next big destina tion, with numerous resorts now under construction. Book Hotels in Krabi >>

The gateway to the South, Chumphon is an elongated province with 220 kms of coastline, offering many fine-sanded beaches and attractive offshore islands, with plenty of opportunities for sunbathing, swimming, yachting, paragliding, diving and snorkelling.

The most popular beach is Sai Ri, close to the town and lined with some good seafood restaurants. Here you find a small museum and statue to Prince Chumphon, founder of the Royal Thai Navy, and an old torpedo boat The Royal Chumphon.

Other beaches worth visiting are Thung Wua Laen, a long quiet stretch of sand that hosts an annual windsurfing contest, and the idyllic semi-circular bays of Thung Makham Yai and Thung Makham Noi. However, the many islands just offshore are a real treasure, particularly Samet, Mattra and Ngam Noi. Growing numbers of divers are attracted to their excellent coral formations and abundant sea life.

By contrast, the hinterland of mountains and forests provides attractions for many eco-safaris, which are discovering the beauty of Khlong Phrao National Park, a forest park, waterfalls and numerous caves. Book Hotels in Chumpon >>

Nakhon Si Thammarat town is the centre of Buddhism in the South, with a history dating back to the Srivijaya period. The most famous sight is Wat Phra Mahathat with its massive 1,500year-old chedi containing relics of Lord Buddha brought from Sri Lanka.

History permeates the town, with an almost intact old city wall dating to the 13th century, various Brahman shrines and old temples, and a sala containing the revered Phra Buddha Sihing image. The National Museum houses a huge collection of fascinating Thai artifacts.

To the west, the province is very mountainous with Khao Luang National Park home to the highest peak in southern Thailand and full of fascinating scenery, waterfalls and flora. At the foot of the mountains, the agrotourism village of Khiriwong is the place to hire guides for treks into the park. The beaches are some of the best on the southeast coast, especially those like Khanom beach close to Surat Thani.

Located in the deep South on the border with Malaysia, Narathiwat is predominantly Muslim and dependent on cross-border trade. The rail line ends at Sungai Golok, 1,215 kms from Bangkok, which is an important border crossing.

When His Majesty the King traditionally visits in September, it is a time of great festivity, handicraft fairs, dove cooing contests, and celebrations for fishermen. The Bang Nara River, which flows by the town, is the setting for Korlae (southern-style) boat racing.

A little north of the town, the beaches are undisturbed, apart from a few small hotels, seafood restaurants and prawn farms, while Manao Bay, next to the palace, is a popular spot. Away from the coast, the province is quite mountainous. BudoSungai Padi Mountains National Park is home to the towering Bacho waterfall, a temple built during the reign of King Rama V and paths for trekking and tours. Pa Phru To Daeng, the biggest peat swamp forest in Thailand, houses a large variety of flora and fauna.

Pattani is the Muslim centre of the South and home to hundreds of decorative mosques. There is a strong economy revolving around seafood and a thriving handicraft cottage industry, with batik, artificial flowers, woodcarvings and wickerwork the main items made for export.

Around Pattani, there are many mosques, forest parks and trails for trekking. Pattani Central Mosque is the largest and most beautiful mosque in Thailand, while the Kreuze Mosque outside of town is the most unusual as remains half finished. Begun by a Chinese man who converted to Islam, it was cursed never to be completed by his sister Lim Ko Nice. Her shrine is nearby and the scene of an annual fair.

Phang-nga is a province with two characters - land and sea - and packed with national parks that guard magnificent scenery with immensely different attractions.
Most famous is Phang-nga Bay National Park, a geological wonder filled with islets, sunken caverns and startling rock formations rising sheer out of the sea. Tour boats visit many of the most popular attractions: Panyi, an island famed for its Muslim village built entirely on stilts; James Bond Island (Khao Ping Kan) with its split cliffs leaning against each other; Thalu island and its wondrous sea caverns; and Khao Khien, home to the rare swimming iguana.

The bay is extremely sheltered, ideal for expeditions of sea canoes to explore the many fascinating caverns (hongs) with their own eco-systems. Many of the larger islands have bungalow accommodation. Phang-nga's Andaman coast offers parks of a different kind. The island groups of Surin and Similan are renowned for their beautiful unspoilt beaches and spectacular underwater scenery, attracting divers from around
the world.

Khao Lak is a coastal park full of birds, mammals and scenic waterfalls, with a number of hotel developments at the nearby beach; Si Phang-nga also offers interesting waterfalls and superb scenery.

Phatthalung is characterised by towering limestone mountains, home to myriad caves used for meditation, and flat rice growing areas. The popular shadow plays, using puppets carved from buffalo hides, and the famous Nora dance originated here.

The town is dominated by an unusual outcropping, Ok Thalu (Broken Chest) with a large hole in it, while nearby is Hua Tack, a formation resembling a broken head. Legend has it that these are injuries suffered by two jealous women fighting over their lover.

Wat Kuhasawan sits at the foot of a large limestone peak where interlinked caves contain votive tablets dating back to the 8th century Srivijaya period. While just northwest of the town is Ma1ai Cave, an illumi­nated complex full of enormous stalactites and stalagmites.

The province's most famous attraction is Thale Noi Waterfowl Sanctuary, an extension of Songkhla Lake and Thailand's largest water park. Early morning is the best time to see the hundreds of birds species by Ion-tail boat.

Famous for its beautiful beaches, excellent offshore dive sites and superb sailing opportunities, Phuket is Thailand's and Asia's premier holiday resort. The best beaches are on the west coast, facing the Andaman Sea, with fine sands and clear water. Patong and Kata/Karon are the most popular, thanks also to numerous resort hotels, fine restaurants and an extensive nightlife.

The west coast is also home to many dive companies which arrange expeditions to a wide variety of offshore diving areas, including the Surin, Similan and Racha island groups that are rated world-class for their colourful corals, clear waters and myriad sea creatures.

Phuket is also a regional centre for yachting, while the annual King's Cup Regatta is a top international event. Other activities include sea canoeing among the rock formations in Phang-nga Bay and windsurfing.

In the island's interior, environmentalists can find forests, mountains, waterfalls and a national park. Eco-tour companies take out large groups every day on elephant trekking, hiking, canoeing and visiting places like the Gibbon Rehabilitation Sanctuary.

Phuket town offers good shopping, restaurants, hotels and interesting architecture, with old Thai, Malaysian, Portuguese, and Chinese-influenced buildings an indication of the island's heritage. Every October, the town's Chinese temples host the famous Vegetarian Festival, during which worshippers forego meat and alcohol, and mutilate their bodies with metal spikes as a sign of devotion.

For those who prefer more relaxing pleasures, the island has some of the best spas in Asia, offering superb Thai massage and therapy treatments. While Phuket FantaSea theme park puts on a popular cultural stage show each night.
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A mountainous and heavily forested province, Ranong is best known as a fishing and trading port. It was settled by the Hokkien Chinese, and their strong influence is evident in the town.

Ranong town is a gateway to Myanmar, with colourful longboats ferrying produce and people across the narrow divide that separates the two countries. The traffic is even heavier these days since a casino opened at Victoria Point.

The famous hot springs are just outside of town, where an arboretum and various first-class hotels cater to visitors eager to benefit from the medicinal properties of the mineral waters.

Ramong has one of the highest rainfalls in the country, giving rise to lush greenery and stunning waterfalls, like Punyaban Falls that cascade off a cliff on the outskirts of town. Further south, Laem Son National Park is an intriguing seascape of mangroves, cliff, beautiful beaches and uninhabited islands that offer interesting diving.
The large island of Chang is increasingly popular as a relaxing destination, with quiet beaches, herb gardens and prolific fruit orchards.

Satun is a small, mountainous province on the west coast, bordering Malaysia, and predominantly Muslim, as evidenced by the large Bambang Mosque in the centre of town.

Most tourists head out to the pristine islands of Tarutao Marine National Park. There are 51 islands in two main groups - Tarutao group and Adang-Rawi group - ranging from the largest, Tarutao, to small, uninhabited retreats used for scientific study.

The landscape is full of underwater peaks, excellent beaches, calm and peaceful coves, jungle and mangrove swamps. There's plenty of wildlife on offer, including numerous birds and monkeys, as well as green turtles, dolphins and dugong.

There used to be crocodiles on Tarutao - have a look at Crocodile Cave - and it was also a penal colony, but now it is a top tourist attraction. Excellent snorkelling can be found at Lipe island, while neighbour Adang is stunning with forest, hills and waterfalls.

Around Satun, there are plenty of interesting sights, including dove farms, forest parks, huge waterfalls and temples. Thale Ban National
Park is famous for its abundant wildlife, with many waterfalls and caves worth visiting.

The bustling town of Hat Yai is the province's main shopping, commercial and entertainment centre, and a magnet for visiting Malaysian and Singaporean tourists.

But it is the seaside town of Songkhla, southern Thailand's oldest beach resort, that gives the province its laid-back character. Samila Beach is the main leisure area with 8 kms of golden sand dotted with seafood restaurants and hotels, and guarded by a brass mermaid, the symbol of Songkhla.

Southern history can be traced at Songkhla National Museum, located in one of the Sino-Portuguese mansions so famous in this resort, and housing an outstanding collection of Thai and Chinese art treasures gathered from the southern provinces.

Songkhla Lake is Thailand's largest inland body of water, where fishing predominates. Yo island is famous for its fabrics, the Institute of Southern Studies and its collection of folk arts, and Wat Pha Kho, a temple where legend says a holy man prevented a pirate invasion by turning salt water into fresh water with his feet. At the northern end of the lake is Khu Khut Waterfowl Park, renowned for its wide variety of birdlife. Book hotels in Had Yai >>

The largest southern province, Surat Thani is steeped in history as part of the Srivijaya empire with ancient Chaiya a key city. A must-visit spot is Phra Boromthat Chaiya, with its authentic Srivijaya architecture. Its beautiful 1,200-year-old c{iedi contains relics of the Buddha, while the nearby national museum contains statues and artifacts discovered in Chaiya.

Surat Thani is famous for coconuts, mainly picked by pig-tailed monkeys which are trained in special schools around the province. The schools also put on entertaining shows for visitors.

Although the town is a major road and rail hub, it is more famous as the gateway to Samui island, the province's top tourist destination. Thailand's third largest island, Samui is fabled for its long, clean beaches (most especially Chaweng) lined with high quality resorts, numerous restaurants and entertainment spots. The island's interior is mountainous and forested, giving rise to growing numbers of treks and eco-tours.

Divers head to the quieter Pha­ngan and Tao islands, whose superb coral reefs and underwater scenery are great attractions. Further west, the Ang Thong National Park comprises 40 islands with beautiful beaches, clear waters, and stunning rock formations. Many tour companies arrange sea canoe explorations of the islands.
In Surat Thani's hinterland, Khao Sok National Park is a popular ecotourism destination, thanks to a great variety of flora and fauna, coupled with outstanding scenery with lots of trekking and boating trails.
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Trang is famous for its sandy beaches, beautiful views and underwater scenery at numerous offshore islands. The main town is very clean, with a domestic airport that has opened up the region to tourism, and its own distinctive brand of rich coffee.

Forests, lakes, waterfalls and rivers are plentiful within the province. Khlong Lamchan Waterfowl Park is a popular attraction, as is the Khao Chong Wildlife and Nature Education Centre, a tropical rainforest with lots of birdlife.

There are plenty of islands within easy reach, with varying degrees of underwater celebrity. Phetra Islands National Park is popular for day visits and diving. Chao Mai National Park includes Kradan island, with its powdery beaches and picturesque coral reef, and Muk island, with the incredible Emerald Cave, whose watery entrance leads to an immense cavern open to the sky.

The underwater world is so popular in Trang that it is the venue for an annual underwater wedding ceremony, with couples coming from around the world to get married in scuba gear on Valentine's Day.
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Thailand's southernmost province, Yala is extremely mountainous, with lush forests, waterfalls and great cultural diversity Mosques and Buddhist temples are found around every corner. Wat Khuha Phimuk sits in front of a limestone cave complex housing a large and highly venerated reclining Buddha from the Srivijaya period, made around 750 AD.

Ban Sakai is home to the aboriginal Sakai people, descendants of the race that once populated the Malay Penin sula. Today they grow rice and work in rubber plantations around their traditional village.

The lush scenery is a great draw for visitors, with numerous waterfalls such as the spectacular Than To Falls, which cascades down nine levels. Bang Lang Dam offers excellent views of the mountains, forests and surrounding area.

Down on the border, Betong - the Town in the Mist - is a pleasant place to visit, with hot springs, the tallest letterbox in the world (over three metres), numerous hotels, plenty of local handicrafts and cross-border trade.

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