Where to go?
Thailand is situated in the heart of Southeast Asia, bordered to the north by Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, to the east by Kampuchea (Cambodia) and to the south by Malaysia. Its largely flat terrain, tropical climate and abundant rivers have made it one of the most fertile countries in the world. The topography has favoured migrations that have had a profound impact on its history.
From the air, the Thai landscape resembles a vast and intricate canvas of rice fields criss-crossed by rivers and canals that stretch to an endless horizon. On closer view, however, the country has distinctive topographical features that vary from region to region.
The central region is composed of a vast plain cut by the limestone ridges of river valleys and incorporates the Mae Nam Chao Phraya Basin, also known as the Mae Nam Basin, and its fertile delta.
The northern region is more mountainous with forests and deep valleys and is delineated by the Burmese and Lao borders. The northeast is largely made up of the arid Khorat Plateau that juts out towards Cambodia and Laos.
The Gulf region, which stretches southeast from Bangkok to the narrow Cambodian border, is more tropical and boasts beautiful beaches and islands. The south is the region best known for palm-fringed beaches and turquoise seas, all set against a largely mountainous interior.
The Central Basin
Lush, green and flat, the central region is one of the most bountiful areas on earth, producing up to three rice crops every year. Irrigated by the Chao Phraya River, the Mae Nam Basin constitutes a giant delta that covers a total of 12 424km2. Delineated to the west by the rugged Thanen Thong Dan mountains and to the east by the Dong Phaya Yen mountain range, it is home to some 30 percent of the population. The people have evolved a distinctive way of life with houses on stilts and waterborne transport along an extensive network of canals. Barges carry rice and sand downstream to Bangkok.
Thailand’s mightiest river the Chao Phraya (352km) starts out at the confluence of the Mae Nam Ping, Yom and Nan in Nakhon Sawan. From this city, it runs due south, irrigating the fertile central plains before flowing into the Gulf of Thailand. Known as Mae Nam, “mother of waters”, this is the historic and symbolic lifeline of the country, celebrated by poets and monarchs alike.
Favourable geographic and geological factors have made this region the cradle of Thailand’s three successive capitals: Ayutthaya, Thonburi and Bangkok. Besides the countless villages and rice fields, the area also provides a variety of landscapes, from the floating market of Damnoen Saduak, to the salt plains near Samut Sakhon and, farther west, the tropical forest of the Sai Yok National Park.
To the south of the Mae Nam Basin, sediment carried by the Mae Nam Chao Phraya has altered the topography of the region. Originally Bangkok was at the mouth of the river. Today it is separated by a giant mass of sediment that continues to expand into the Gulf of Thailand. High tides reach up to 30km upriver and during the rainy season the low-lying areas are liable to flooding in spite of the building of dykes and dams.
To the west lies Kanchanaburi, a vital watershed and a region of spectacular waterfalls, caves and forested conservation areas. The Mae Nam Mae Klong and Tha Chin are the main waterways.
The Mountainous North
The northern region is Thailand’s most mountainous region. Sweeping down from the foothills of the Himalayas: a land of valleys, forests and hills which offers some of the most dramatic scenery in the country. Its highest mountain Doi Inthanon culminates at 2 565m and overshadows the canyoned headwaters of the Mae Nam Mae Ping. Varying amounts of rainfall and higher elevations make this area less suitable for rice farming than the Central Plain, although agriculture, including temperate fruits and vegetables, remains the cornerstone for the people. Once forested with teak, redwood and evergreen, the north now boasts extensive conservation areas, notably the Doi Inthanon and Lan Sang National Parks.
This is also a region of great ethnic contrasts. Around the Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son districts, some 500 000 hill-tribe people inhabit the generally higher areas, practising slash-and-burn agriculture. Along the eastern border with Laos are other groups of hilltribes including the elusive Mrabri.
Geologically the area has limestone mountains and precipitous rocks, especially around Doi Inthanon and the village of Pai in Mae Hong Son District. Numerous rivers including the Mekong, the Nan, the Yom, the Ping and the Wang, run across this spectacular landscape, which is renowned for its waterfalls and caves. The rich soil supports rhododendrons as well as almost 1 000 species of orchid.
The Mae Nam Khong (Mekong), the world’s 12th-longest river, enters Thailand at Chiang Saen, at the centre of the infamous Golden Triangle at Sop Ruak. The river then wends its majestic course round north and northeastern Thailand on its 4 022km journey from Tibet to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Another important waterway, the Salween, forms part of the border with Myanmar.
During the cool months from November to January, early morning mist clings to the landscape with temperatures falling as low as 5oC (40oF). In the centre of the region lies Chiang Mai, which is the major hub and capital of the north.
The Khorat Plateau
The northeast is dominated by a vast plateau that rises to an average height of 200m above sea-level and slopes gently toward the Sakhon Nakhon and Mekong basins. It is cut by the Mekong tributaries (Mun, Chi) rising in the Phetchabun range and is delimited in the south by the Dong Rak chain on the Cambodian border. For the most part the Mekong is the natural border with Laos.
It is the poorest, the most arid and least visited region in Thailand. Its terrain is made up largely of red sandstone and laterite. This makes it less water-absorbent and less able to support traditional rice crops. Despite countless dams, including the giant Ubonrat Dam at Khon Kaen and the Sirinthon Reservoir near Ubon Ratchathani, tapioca, sweet corn, tobacco and carrots have proved to be better suited to the soil. In summer, temperatures soar as high as 40oC (103oF). In the rainy season, flooding constantly threatens the countryside.
The northeast region, which is known as Isan after the Kingdom of Shiva, is made up predominantly of small villages that have changed little in recent times. None the less the region also boasts major cities like Khorat, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani which were used as major US air bases during the Vietnam war. It has benefited from programmes for the improvement of agriculture, transport and general living conditions.
In the upper region of the northeast, a change to higher elevations occurs with the vast parks dominated by the imposing peaks of Phu Kradung (1 316m), Phu Luang (1 571m) and Phu Rua (1 365m) and covered in pine and evergreen. To the north and east where the Mekong marks the border with Laos, the land is more fertile, its rich alluvial silt nourishing mulberry plantations and vegetable gardens.
In the northeast several archaeological sites (Phu Wiang, Sahat Sakan, Chaiyaphum) have revealed amazing evidence of species of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals (Siamosaurus sutheethorni, Siamotyrannus isanensis, Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae), some previously unknown, which raise many interesting issues in the field of palaeontology. The region’s Khmer legacy comprises exceptional temples ranging from Prasat Hin Phimai to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tham. As its population is largely of Khmer and Lao origin, the cultural flavour is akin to neighbouring Laos and Cambodia.
The Gulf Region
Tropical fruits, fish and rubies are the major products of this fertile region squeezed between the Gulf of Thailand, the northeast and the border with Cambodia. Predominantly flat to the west, the winding valley parallels the Khao Soi Dao mountain range (1 633m) eventually tapering down to Hat Lek in the south. Here evergreen forests combine with mountainous granite country to create the spectacular scenery of Khao Chamao (1 024m) and the Nam Tok Phliu. The deep sea port of Laem Chabang has attracted new industries to the region which is undergoing rapid development.
Along the coast, there are countless small fishing villages hugging the narrow coves. Other towns like Bang Saen, Pattaya and Rayong have developed into major tourist destinations. The prosperity of the country has also resulted in a building boom with condominiums springing up along the coast.
The area around Chanthaburi in the centre of the region was once known for its rubies and sapphires, traditionally mined using pans and ladders. Nowadays these precious stones are mainly smuggled in from over the border from Cambodia.
Off the coast lie some of the kingdom’s most magnificent island national parks: Ko Chang with its 52 islands dotted around the Gulf of Thailand, and the better known Ko Samet with its white sandy beaches and turquoise sea.
The Peninsular Area
Shaped like the trunk of an elephant, this narrow sliver of land that stretches all the way down the Malay Peninsula comprises some 2 080km of coastline bounded by the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west. This area is best known for its pristine beaches, idyllic islands and turquoise waters.
The inland area is characterised by mountainous foothills rising as high as 2 000m. The tropical climate and fertile soil make this region better suited for rubber trees and palm oil than rice. Along the coast, coconut plantations are numerous, while in Phuket tin mining was until recently the primary motor of the economy.
To the west, the Tenasserim Mountains form a natural frontier with Myanmar rising to 1 494m at Khao Luang. Farther south, the Kra Isthmus measures just 22km across the neck of land which separates the two countries. Various governments have proposed building a canal here which would cut nearly 1 000 kilometres off shipping routes between ports on the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand. To date, it remains a pipe dream.
The two coastal regions of the south have striking geological differences. On the west coast, magnificent limestone formations and towering rocks erupt out of the sea in Ao Phangnga and Ao Phra Nang. To the east, extensive mangrove forests grow along much of the coast, although areas have been partially cleared to make way for shrimp farming.
The secluded islands of Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao are sited off the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand. Off the west coast lie Phuket and Ko Phi Phi which are popular destinations, as well as the archipelagos of Mu Ko Similan, Mu Ko Lanta and the lesser known island national parks of Mu Ko Surin and Mu Ko Tarutao.
In the far south, beyond the town of Hat Yai, the San Sara Khiri Mountains rising as high as 1 490m divide the region from Malaysia. Until recently, this mountainous terrain was used as a hideout by Muslim separatists but now peace has been restored. The southern provinces of Satun, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat remain heavily influenced by Islam.
From the northern tip at Mae Sai to the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, Thailand’s regions have alternating rainy and temperate seasons, although both temperatures and annual rainfall can vary markedly. In the central region, the north and the northeast, the climate is more predictable with a dry season, a hot season and a wet season. In the south, the climate is less changeable throughout the year with rain occurring during most months.
Northern, Northeastern and Central Regions
During the cool season from November to February, temperatures average 26oC (79oF) with cooler temperatures recorded in the more mountainous northern region and around Loei Province in the northeast. In the hot season from March to May, temperatures can reach 40oC (103oF) with some of the highest temperatures recorded in the northeast. In the wet season, from June to October, humidity remains extremely high with an average rainfall of 1 438mm. In the north, the average yearly rainfall is lower with the greatest precipitation likely to occur in August and September, the latter months of the monsoon.
The Tropical South
In the southern region, there are considerably fewer fluctuations in climate, although temperatures and rainfall can vary from coast to coast. From May to October, the southeast monsoon comes up from the Andaman Sea bringing heavy rain to Phuket, Krabi, Ko Phi Phi and Phangnga. From November to February, the northeast monsoon sweeps across from Cambodia spreading rains and wind over Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao. Waters can be choppy during these months. The average annual rainfall for Phuket is 2 500mm.
Flora and Fauna
Thailand was once densely wooded and rich in animal and plant life. It still offers an amazing variety of flora and fauna, although the forests have been reduced by illegal logging, land encroachment and slash-and-burn agriculture. Roughly 17% of land is now estimated to be covered in primary forest compared with 52% about three decades ago. Thailand’s tropical environment still supports some rare animal species including the Khun Kitti Bat, the world’s smallest bat, the Tragulus or mouse deer, and the climbing perch known as Pla Maw. There are also estimated to be more than 5 000 species of plant and tree throughout the kingdom.
They are usually evergreen, pine and redwood and they are found mainly in the national parks. Although less common, oakwood is also a feature of Thailand’s forests. Teak trees, once abundant in the northern region, are now a rarity. Eucalyptus which is used in commercial plantations is widespread, although it drains the soil of valuable nutrients. Since 1989 a nationwide logging ban has been in effect in a bid to halt the deforestation. Only strict implementation of the ban and concerted re-afforestation schemes will save Thailand’s once-rich forests.
The tropical rain forest that exists in southern Thailand is a complex environment with high humidity where thrive varied types of vegetation and animal and plant species. Under the canopy of tall trees grow evergreen plants mainly of the Dipterocarpaceae family with ferns, bushes and small trees at ground level. There are also extensive mangrove forests which provide a suitable habitat for many species of flora and fauna.
There are more than 1 000 varieties of orchids, almost all renowned for their subtle fragrance and elegance. Main orchid-growing areas are in the north around Chiang Mai and the Mae Sa Valley where the exotic blooms are specially cultivated for export.
Azaleas and rhododendrons also thrive in the cool northern climate. Numerous species of bougainvillaea and hibiscus flourish in the countryside along with acacia, lotus, frangipani and jacaranda. Even in Bangkok, there are believed to be more than 500 species of plant and shrub.
Tigers, elephants and bears inhabited the forests of Thailand in large numbers until the early 20C. These days, they are largely restricted to national parks and wildlife reserves. The number of elephants has fallen from an estimated 20 000 a century ago to fewer than 5 000 today. Wild boar, gibbons, flying squirrels, deer and tropical butterflies are more numerous. They inhabit the thickly wooded hills around Phetchaburi as well as the vast tracts of conservation land near Um Phang and along the border north of Kanchanaburi.
If these wilder forest regions harbour the occasional bear and tiger, the area around Khao Yai is famous for its birds. Orange-breasted and red-headed trogons, moustached barbets and hornbills can all be found here, along with black-throated sunbirds. For the popular swiftlets whose edible nests are used by the Chinese for expensive soup, travellers must visit the southwest coast around Ko Phi Phi and Krabi. A more sought-after bird in the northern National Park of Doi Inthanon is the rare ashy-throated warbler. Other popular varieties are the yellow-bellied flowerpecker, egrets and purple swamp hens.
In the seas angel fish, parrot fish and manta rays abound as well as prized gamefish such as barracuda, marlin and wahoo. In the northern and northeastern stretches of the Mekong River thrives the pla buk, a giant catfish which can grow up to three metres long and weigh up to 300kg.
Thailand’s 52 national parks which range from island retreats to dense tracts of rainforest, flower-covered valleys and spectacular waterfalls were set up under royal patronage to protect wildlife and the environment and to prevent deforestation. The oldest and best known National Park, Khao Yai, acts as a magnet for bird watchers and weekenders from Bangkok who spread out along its signposted trails. Other popular parks are the island paradise of Phi Phi Le in the south, the island of Ko Samet in the Gulf of Thailand, and the forests of Kaeng Krachan near the southern town of Phetchaburi. The National Parks Authority is responsible for access to all the parks and will have the latest information on local flora and fauna. The parks generally offer good opportunities for walking. Some provide overnight accommodation or camping facilities. Guides are often available, especially for trekking in remote areas.