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Eastern Gulf coast known for its beautiful beaches

The very name of Thailand evokes images of lotus ponds, whiteelephants and saffron-robed. Buddhist monks and straw-hatted figures bent over paddy fields. After it dropped its old name Siam in 1939, along with the habit of chewing betel nuts, it shifted gears and is now riding in the fast lane. It is even threatening to overtake some of the booming economies in the region.

Located at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, Thailand is now being perceived as the Gateway to Indochina. A land of rivers, lush paddy fields, clean beaches, tropical rain forests and rugged mountains, Thailand seems to be several countries rolled into one. One day you can be on an island surrounded by limestone cliffs, the next day you can be on the arid plains of northeast or rolling mountain ranges in the north. Covering an area of 514,000 square kilometers, the country has been divided into four topographical regions t the fertile Central Plains traversed from north to south by Chao Phraya River and its tributaries, the mountainous North, the semi-dry plateau of Northeast and the South, representing hilly rain forests, beaches and a number of offshore islands.

Thailand is blessed with various natural resources and its major exports include rice, maize, rubber, tin, tapioca products and textiles. The Gulf of Thailand is also rich in marine life.

Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia which could not be colonized by any foreign power. It has also withstood the pressure of civil wars and ideological struggles which plagued the neighboring countries. The first inhabitants of Thailand whose origins are known were Khoms, who spread from a powerful Indian influenced kingdom in Kampuchea. The Thais are thought to have migrated from China, somewhere on the western border of Outer Mongolia. From there, they moved to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan and, later, further down towards Siam. But long before that appended, parts of the land were already inhabited by peasant communities.

The first important influence on the Thais was the impact of Indian civilization. In fact, India left an indelible mark on the whole of Southeast Asia. Around the beginning of the 10th century, the Thais began to move down the river and into modern Thailand, where they split into two main groups. One concentrated in the north and formed the kingdom of Lanna. The other gathered further south, where they defeated the Khmers and set up the kingdom of Sukhothai.

The Mons and Khmers had a major influence on Thai art and culture, though the Indian and Chinese influences dominated them. The country had been ruled by a succession of absolute monarchs until a coup detat in 1932 put an end to it, ushering in a new era. A few years later, the old name Siam was changed to Thailand, meaning Land of the Free.

As Buddhism, which had its roots in India, gained acceptance in the region, the Thais eventually adopted Theravada Buddhism, though shades of Brahminism still persisted. Brahminism, the ancient form of Hinduism had a special attraction for the people and it supported the concept of a god-king. Even today, it is the Brahmin priests in Thailand who conduct major royal rites and ceremonies.

Although Thailand is situated well within the tropics, there is a wide climatic range, depending on the time of year and the part of the country. The Central Plains (including Bangkok), the hilly North, and the arid, flat Northeast share the same seasonal patterns. The so-called hot season spans March, April and May, although many foreign residents argue that it is hot throughout the year when it is not raining. The daytime temperatures in the hot season are in the 30 degrees centigrade range and can reach 40 degrees, especially in the Northeast.

In June, the southwest Monsoon ushers in the rainy season with slightly lower temperatures, but high humidity. In Thailand, the monsoon season could be five months of unpredictable weather. November brings in the cool season, particularly in the North, here night temperatures can drop to 8 degrees Centigrade. It is wise to carry a sweater or jacket if visiting North from November to February.

The long isthmus in South Thailand, which straddles the Gulf of Thailand and the Indian Ocean, has a climate similar to that of Malaysia o subtle seasonal variations with the weather generally warm, humid and sunny all the year. Rain is possible almost any time.

A majority of the present Thai population is of Thai origin. As a racially tolerant people, they have assimilated large numbers of Chinese, Mons, Khmers, Burmese, Malays, Laotians, Persian Indians, Vietnamese and Kampuchean. Ask anybody who has been to Thailand and the answer will be uThais are a delightful people who believe in enjoying their life to the full.u Perhaps because of their Buddhist upbringing, Thais detest any form of conflict.

Thais are by nature easy going and fun-loving people. The fun trait finds expression in many ways in the number ours festivals they celebrate with gaiety to sports that include boxing and kite-flying. The lifestyles of people living in Bangkok and those living in other provinces, vary quite a lot. The Bangkokians, especially the younger lot, seem to be influenced by the Western culture. They may not be able to speak English, but they listen to pop music from Europe and the United States.

Myth: Thai is a difficult language. Reality: The vocabulary and syntax are not difficult to grasp. With a few weeks of diligent practice and a basic dictionary, almost anyone can communicate the essentials. Given the brief nature of most peoples stay and the complexity of Thai language, few visitors get much farther than phoot pasar thai mai dai. It is a monosyllabic and tonal language which has several unique sounds that cannot be properly expressed with Roman letters. Thais speak very little English and it is advisable for you to learn a little bit of Thai in order to meet a common ground where your Thai friend is able to get your message and you get the hang of what he is trying to convey to you. If you cannot manage this, it can be a pretty tough going for you.

The capital of Thailand for about 120 years, Sukhothai, which means 'Dawn of Happinessl, as founded in the first half of the 13th century. About 350 km southeast of Chiang Mai, the ancient Khmers lived in Sukhothai until they were driven out by the northern Thai kingdoms. One of the eight monarchs was King Ramkhamhaeng who inherited the throne in 1278. The ruins are spread around Old Sukhothai. The old city area was declared a National Historic Park in 1968 by the present King Bhumibol. The ancient site is easily accessible by road from Tak. The best gateway is a small town Phitsanulok, about 55 km southwest. This town boasts of Wat Phra Sri Ratana Manathat. Famous for its Sukhothai sculpture housed in the main chapel, it has a Buddha image of Phra Buddha Chinaraj. For sightseeing, the following places are recommended.

Ramkhamhaeng Museum: The statue of the walking Buddha, considered the finest achievement of Sukhothai artists, and famous Sawankalok pottery attributed to the Chinese artisans - are some of the artefacts housed here.

Wat Mahathat: It was the city's main monastery in the 13th century. The biggest wat in Sukhothai is dominated by a chedi in the form of a lotus bud. The surrounding platform has four stupas and four prangs. On the sides are two big statues of the standing Buddha, a viharn and a platform bearing a large image of a seated Buddha. Its architecture reflects both Khmer and Sri Lankan styles while other monuments have Hindu origins in stucco work of animals and gods.

Wat Sri Sawai: Built during the Khmer period it has three well-preserved prangs of Hindu origin. The construction of this wat is said to be from the 12th or early 13th century.

Wat Trapang Ngoen: Situated on a small island, this wat comprises the remains of a chedi and a viharn. Wat Sra Sri: The temple is known for its chedi which is Sri-Lankan in style and a viharn with a statue of the Buddha. It lies to the northwest of Wat Mahathat<./p>

Wat Phra Phai Luang: Located outside the city, this wat has a Khmer-style prang, in front of which are the ruins of a viharn and a chedi. There are also ruined slatues of Buddha in different postures.

Wat Si Chum: Southwest of Wat Phra Phai Luang is an enormous stucco-over-brick Buddha statue. The ceiling of the corridor is made up of more than 50 carved slabs illustrating scenes from Buddhist folklore.

Wat Saphan Hin: About 2 km west of the city, this wat is situated on top of a small hill. It comprises a 40-feet statue of the standing Buddha.

Wat Chetupon: It has ruins of mandap, enshrining Buddha in four postures. It lies in the south of the city.

Wat Chang Lom: With a bell-shaped chedi in Sri Lankan style, this wat is a sanctuary on the eastem side of the historical park.

Wat Chedi Sung: Situated in the south of Wat Chang Lom, it has a chedi whose upper part is bell-shaped and the base is in the form of a plafform.

Wat Trapang Thong Lang : Also in the south of Wat Chang Lom, it has a square mandap and is known for its stucco decoration on the outer walls. The temple is said to be the original site of the famous 'Loy Krathong' festival.

Founded about the same time as Sukhothai, it was the seat of the viceroys of Sukhothai and as always mentioned as the twin city of the capital. Situated on the west bank of River Yom, Si Satchanalai is about 70 km north of Sukhothai. The most important monument here is the Wat Chang Lom. Its principal feature is a bell-shaped chedi described in King Ramkhamhaeng's stone inscription as the 'Temple Surrounded by Elephants'. Other wats include - Wat Chedi Chet Thaew, Wat Uthayan Yai, Wat Nang Phaya, Wat Khao Phanom Phloeng, Wat Khao Suwan Khiri and Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat.

The Northeast or the Isan region has well preserved traditions be they music, folk dances, festivals or dialects. It is bound by River Mekong in the north and east which is close to the border of Laos. Almost the entire region comprises a vast plateau where farming is popular. It has its own scenic beauty. Between Korat and Bangkok is Khao Yai National Park and the Loei Province in the northeast is famous for its natural scenic beauty, especially around the Phu Krakung mountains.

The richest and largest city of the northeast, Korat serves as a trade, communications and military center. About 256 km northeast of Bangkok, it is also known as Nakhon Ratchasima. Korat is a convenient base for making excursions to several Khmer historical sites. The Department of Fine Arts has done a wonderful job of restoration at Phimai, about 49 km northeast of Korat. En route is Prasat Phanom Wan. The 1,000-year-old Khmer sanctuary lies in a walled compound. Khmer architectural styles are evident in the windows. It comprises several Buddha images including a large statue of the standing Buddha inside the main tower.

A fine example of Thailand's Khmer monuments, Phimai occupied an artificial island on the River Mun during the 12th century. The sanctuary tower and other buildings stand in a massive walled compound. The tower is a grand structure with an adjoining antechamber and porticos on three sides which bear testimony to the master craftsmanship of the Khmer empire. The inner courtyard has a prang of the Hindaeng Sanctuary, behind which is a shrine. These structures date back to the reign of Khmer monarch Jayavarman (1181 to 1201). In the courtyard are four ponds representing the rivers of India. The open-air museum nearby contains a good and vast collection of carved lintels gathered from Phimai and other Khmer sites in the northeast.

Prasat Phanom Rung: An ancient site, it lies close to the Cambodian border and 118 km to the east of Korat. Well preserved, this temple complex enjoys the advantage of a scenic view of the plateau below. The 12th century buildings within the complex include a main gateway structure and a sanctuary tower with four entrances. Also worth seeing are the pediments and carved lintels of interior an exterior doorways.

Prasat Muang Tam: About 5 km from Prasat Phanom Rung at the bottom of the hill is Prasat Muang Tam. Built in the 10th century, this temple is encircled by laterite walls with four gateways and four ponds. The main sanctuary now has four prangs and a couple of carved lintels are also visible.

Considered a very progressive town of the northeast, it is known for the annual Silk Fair held in December. About 190 km north of Korat, the well-known mudmee silk is produced here. The spinning process from cocoon to spinning and dyeing to weaving on handlooms, can be seen at the village of Chonnabot, about 50 km from Khon Kaen.

This village came into prominence when 6,000 year old discoveries were made here in 1970. The excavations included skeletons, pottery and tools. About 50 km east of Udon, it also houses a small museum, open from Wednesday to Sunday. Wat That Phanom: A sacred Buddhist shrine, this wat is at That Pranom, about 55 km from Nakhon Phanom. The wat dates back to the ninth century. About 8 km north of That Phanom is Renu Nakhon, a village famous for its weaving industry.

Well known for its elephants festival, this place is renowned for the skills of the people in handling elephants. It lies about 260 km west of Ubon.

This small town is known for Wat Sri Nongkran built in 1956 by Vietnamese refugees. The temple is a unique blend of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai motifs and styles. The town lies 53km south of That Phanom.

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