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Which way to Thailand?
Only a few visitors to Isaan, Thailand's impoverished and in some ways most traditional area. A journey through the gentle modulation of the Mekong River Valley that defined Thailand's north-eastern limbs leads through archetypical farming towns and a stunning variety of places of worship, while the foothills of Isaan in the south contain some of Thailand's best-kept mysteries - the splendid Phimai, Phanom Rung and Khao Phra Viharn temples of stones, all of which were erected by the Khmers of Cambodia almost ten hundred years ago.
Nearer to the city is Khao Yai National Park, which encompasses the spectacular variety of Thai plants and animals, ranging from rugged orchid to choking Fig, Elephant and Hornbill. In self perfection lessons - from ascitic mediation to the terrestrial delights of Thai cooking lessons - there is a budding line, while the view of hiking through towns populated by a diverse indigenous people is the primary temptation of the area.
Since Chiang Mai and the northern part are so close to the self-contained touristic path, the intermediate middle levels are kept rather brief. However, there are worthwhile walks around Umphang, near the Myanmar frontier, and the imposing remains of the former capital cities of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai represent a rich cultural legacy that demonstrates Thailand's unique capacity to take in influence from a wide variety of nationalities.
Kanchanaburi, breathtakingly situated on the banks of the Kwai riverbank, recounts a much murkier story in Thailand's past, as the Jordanian military constructed the Thailand-Burma railway along this riverbank during the Second World War, costing untold prisoner of war life. The coastline is in the south of Thailand, where the Samui Islands off the Gulf is one of the highpoints.
Next to it Ko Pha Ngan is still largely backpacking ground, where you have the option between bleak bays and Hat Rin, Thailand's festival city. Southeast Asia's most remote isle, the Ko Tao Rock, is becoming increasingly important as the biggest diving school in Southeast Asia. On the other side of the Andaman Sea the Andaman Sea offers an even more exciting landscape and the most beautiful sea corals in the land, especially around the Ko Similan archipelago, which is one of the best diving spots in the canal.
Phuket, the biggest of the Andaman Islands, is one of Thailand's most popular travel destination and has a large number of lovely sandy spots, although some of them have been overbuilt with overcrowded skyscrapers and shabby night life. The gorgeous little Ko Phi Phi Phi Phi is an important club set in blue sea and dramatically rocky limestones that mark the Krabi coasts.
The large, wooded Ko Lanta is a quieter option for the time being at least for the family, but for a real jungles you have to drive into the interior, into the rain forests of the Khao Sok National Park. Down on the Thai promontory, in the southern province, the busy marine environment and unspoilt sand of the Trang Isles and Ko Tarutao National Marine Park are the major attractions.
There is now the fascinating opportunity to make your way from Phuket to Penang in Malaysia without ever set foot ashore.