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Often referred to as "Pearl of the Andaman," Phuket is the largest in Thailand. About 885 kilometres from Bangkok, this island is connected to the mainland by Sarasin Bridge. Since Phuket lies near the equator, temperatures are fairly uniform throughout the year. The monsoon lasts from June to late October. Although Phuket is a year-round destination, the ideal time to visit it is from November to February.
Unlike many islands, Phuket 's beauty is not limited to its beaches. Just about the size of Singapore, it has a rich history. The first known inhabitants of the island were a nomadic tribe, or sea gypsies, known as Chao Lay. The Thais reached the island in the 1 3th century during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai. Western explorers arrived in the 1 6th century.
Phuket was invaded by the Burmese in 1785. However, a five-week-long insurgence led by two women, Chan and Muk, drove the Burmese out of Phuket. Chan and Muk were sisters, the former being the widow of governor of the northern town of Thalang. The streets in the inner city are lined with old-style shophouses built in what is known as Sino Portuguese style. Some of the finest examples of these can be found in balconies of shophouses as well as huge mansions at Pha Nga, Talang and Yawarat Roads. Panwa House, on the grounds of Cape Panwa Hotel is a well preserved piece of such architecture. It contains an impressive collection of objets d'art and antique furniture apart from a library. Further ahead is the Saphan Hin Mine Monument which looks like a sea shell from behind. Phuket Hill provides a beautiful view of the town, jungle and sea. The attractions here include the oldest and largest Chinese temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy on anong Road.
Phuket has more than a dozen beaches. The picturesque Pansea, the secluded Nai Harn, the breathtaking Kamala Bay and the idyllic Karon and Kata. And, of course, the most well known, Patong. Most visitors start their tour of Phuket by spending a few days at the picturesque Patong Beach. Patong is the most developed beach. It is dotted with colourful umbrellas and the bay is host to colourful yachts. It has a wide range of water sports like windsurfing, sailing, and scuba diving.
Patong has an array or restaurants which serve seafood delicacies Thai-style. Top of the menu is Phuket Lobster, which has enough meat to feed two persons. South of Patong, just across a low hill, the long white Karon beach stretches manificently with pines and palms standing tall over the rolling sand dunes. This beach flourishes side by side with Kata, but is more placid. The sea waters at both the beaches are clean, thus making it ideal for swimming and diving.
At the southwestern edge is Nai Harn, a strand of sand sandwiched between two high rising hills. Beyond Nai Harn, at the southern tip is the small fishing village, which is home to the Chao Lae, or the sea gypsies. It is Rawai beach which brought fame to the island. The coconut-fringed route from the Chalong intersection to Rawai is a beautiful sight. Another tourist attraction is Mai Khao where giant sea turtles come ashore to lay eggs from November to February. The island has two picturesque waterfalls. Tong Sai on the east coast and Bang Pae. Close to the Kao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Park is Wat Phra Thong consisting of a half-buried image of Buddha.
The most popular of all day trips from Phuket is to Phang Nga, the spectacular limestone-studded bay. Almost every travel agent organises a trip to this place. Typical excursions glide through mangrove swamps thick with mudskippers, countless limestone outcroppings on the verge of collapse, caves festooned wit, prehistoric rock paintings, and stop over at Koh Pannyi, a highly commercialised Muslim sea gypsy village standing on stilts.
One of the most attractive provinces, the beaches here are lined with coconut palms. Shell collecting is also good at Noppharat Thara beach. About 6 km north of Ao Phra Nang is the Shell Cemetery, a graveyard of freshwater snails said to have died 75 million years ago. The huge slabs are in fact shells cemented together. This site is considered one of the three in the world - the other two being in the US and Japan. Other attractions are Wat Tham Seua also known as the Tiger Cave Temple. About 3 km from the town, this temple can be reached by following a path through the jungle.
Though closer to Krabi, Phi Phi islands are usually approached from Phuket. The twin islands of Phi Phi Le and Phi Phi Don lie east of Phuket, but only about 45 kilometres from Krabi. The natural and pristine beauty of these islands is stunning. The tiny population of Phi Phi still lives in huts. It was discovered in the early seventies by backpackers who hitched rides with fishermen from Krabi and stayed with villagers at the port of Tonsai.
The islands are now deluged with over 250,000 visitors every year. Phi Phi Don is the larger of the two islands with jungle-clad hills, lush greenery, high cliffs and white sand beaches. The Pee Pee Village Resort on the northeast coast has a number of bungalows for tourists. Transport around the island is by long-tail boats. Diving and other water sports are the main attraction for tourists at the Phi Phi Don and off Bamboo island. Further off is the small island Phi Phi Lae. It is almost sheer limestone cliffs rising out of the sea, the turquoise inlets offering excellent swimming
One island in the south which is fast coming up as a competitor to Phuket is Koh Samui. About 645 km from Bangkok, it lies off the eastern coast of southern peninsula. Koh Samui is easily reachable from Bangkok, with Bangkok Airways flying directly to the island everyday. Alternatively, tourists can reach the island from Surat Thani by boarding a ferry. The undying charm of the island is its breathtaking scenery and palm-fringed beaches. With crystal-clear waters, fresh green coconut plantations and rice paddies, Koh Samui is one of the few islands good for excursions into the hilly green interiors.
The two most popular beaches are Chawaeng and Lamai with clear sparkling waters, clean sands, coconut palms and windsurfing being the main attractions. Bophut has a charm of its own. The island has two picturesque waterfalls - Hin Lad about 3 kilometres from the island and Na Muang about l O kilometres away. Also in the vicinity is the Samui Highland Park which provides a good view of Ang Thong Islands to the west. Koh Samui is surrounded by about 80 smaller islands, the best known of which are Phangan and Koh Tao.
One of the oldest towns of Thailand, Lamphun is 26 km south of Chiang Mai. An ancient town, it has a typical Laotian atmosphere. An easy day-trip, Lamphun offers a small museum, a royal monastery with almost a dozen buildings, and an intriguing chedi that ranks as the finest surviving example of Dvaravati architecture in Thailand.
Located on the right bank of the Kuang river, a tributary of the Ping, the provincial town was once situated on the main road to Chiang Mai. Lamphun has two ancient wats, Wat Phra That Haripunchai and Wat Ku Kut. Wat Phra That Haripunchai's buildings belong to the Chiang Saen and Dvaravati styles. The wat dates back to 1108 A.D. The central chedi is 195 ft high and its summit is protected by a nire-tiered golden umbrella. The somewhat disorganised temple museum contains a representative sampling of several styles of old Buddhist art, including a rare silver Buddha head.
A kilometre west of Lamphunis old moat stands Wat Ku Kut. The temple has a pair of unusual chedis. The larger chedi consists of five tiers, each of which contains three niches, each holding a Buddha statue, making an impressive display of 15 Buddha images on each side, or 60 Buddhas gazing from their ancient domicile. This chedi is thought to have been built by Chama Devi, the fabled princess of Lop Buri and queen of Lamphun.
Occupying both banks of the River Wang, Lampang is an interesting provincial town about 100 km southeast of Chiang Mai. Lampang conserves much of Lanna tradition, particularly in its temples and festivals. It dates back to the Haripunchai period, about the 7th century. The town's claim to uniqueness is its horse-drawn carriages.
The main attraction here is Wat Phra Keo, a Burmese-style temple with an impressive chedi. Next to it is a small museum where the image of Buddha was enshrined for 32 years on its journey from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai. Another example of beautiful Burmese architecture is Wat Sri Chum. Both the bot and viharn are intricately decorated. Wat Sri Rong Muang has a dazzling exterior with woodwork painted in different colours. Noted for its tall chedi is Wat Pha Fang surrounded by seven small chapels. About 15 km south of Lampang is Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. Consisting of many buildings it also includes an Emerald Buddha image.
For those less interested in temples and more interested in scenery, a pleasant walk can be taken around Wat Phra Kaew and along the river where few tourists stray, and down the narrow roads with their rickety wooden houses. Elephant Training Center: About 54 km east of Lampang, behind Pang La Village, is the Elephant Training Centre. Elephants are enrolled to learn discipline and forest skills to enable them to work in the government-owned teak forests. The center is open to visitors in the morning when you can watch the elephants being trained.