Central and eastern Thailand consists of 26 provinces, including the capital, Bangkok. Geographically, this is Thailand's heartland, from Lop Buri in the north covering the great rice bowl of the Central Plains surrounding the Chao Phraya River, and turning down the east and west coasts of the upper Gulf of Thailand. This is Thailand's most fertile farming area, home to orchards, paddy fields and plantations.
The central region is one of history - ancient temples, battlefields and ruins, with the two capitals of Ayutthaya and Bangkok providing the greatest attractions for visitors. The east and west coasts draw huge numbers of visitors every year - Thais taking long weekends and holidays to enjoy the beaches, whilst holiday-makers from across the world are discovering the warm tropical beaches.
Historically the Thais moved gradually down from the north, replacing Khmer influence as they came. First at Lop Buri, then setting up a kingdom that lasted 417 years with a capital at Ayutthaya. When the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya in 1767, the capital moved to Bangkok, which will celebrate its 220th anniversary in 2002.
On the East Coast, the 400 kilometres of coastline that stretches from Chon Buri down to Rayong boasts some of the finest beaches in Asia, with Pattaya and its vast range of accommodation, facilities and activities as the centre. Those wanting a more relaxing time, move further down the coast to Rayong, Ko So Met island, and the stunning islands of Ko Chang National Park near the Cambodian border.
On the west coast, the resorts of Cha-am and Hua Hin are beginning to attract more international travellers who prefer their more laid-back atmosphere, with Hua Hin in particular developing infrastructure rapidly.
The odd-man out in this region is Kanchanaburi, the western-most province that wends its way into the great mountains on the Myanmar border, providing some of Thailand's best scenery of forest, mountains, lakes and caves centred around a number of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Astride the Chao Phraya River, Ang Thong was long dominated by its involvement with neighbouring Ayutthaya. There are many temples of note. Wat Chaiyo Worawihan is home to a large seated Buddha image, with a sizeable collection of sacred amulets popular amongst collectors.
Wat Phra Buddha Saiyat Pha Mok has an old reclining Buddha where King Naresuan paid homage prior to tackling the invading Burmese. Wat Sa Kaeo is also part orphanage and part royal weaving project, displaying hand-made textiles, clothes and household wares.
Handicraft villages dot the province, with the most notable being Bang Phae for its famous drums, and Bang Sadet, which makes miniature dolls under a royal project set up by Her Majesty the Queen.
This scenic province is famous for its mangoes and farm produce, but the main attraction is Wat Sothon Wararam Worawihan, housing Phra Buddha Sothon, one of the most revered Buddha images in Thailand. The 1.98-metre-high image has a mysterious past. Legend says it was one of three images seen floating down the Bang Pakong River, which was retrieved by famous monk Luang Pho Sothon and enshrined in this temple, which is frequently crowded with people paying homage.
Bang Pakong River is a scenic spot for boat rides. An ancient fortress still displaying old cannons is a good view point. Sorn Thawee meditation centre, 20 kilometres north of the town, offers meditation classes in both English and German.
Chai Nat is home to the Chao Phraya Dam, built in 1956 to control the water supply to farmland across the rich Central Plains. The nearby Chai Nat Bird Sanctuary protects over 100 species of bird in huge cages, and is the setting for the Straw Bird Fair every February. There is also a large aquarium and handicraft shops.
Chai Nat Muni National Museum displays artifacts discovered in the town, Thai and Chinese ceramics, several Buddha images and votive tablets. Of its temples, Wat Phra Borommathat is the oldest and largest, with a pagoda housing Buddha relics. Wat Mahathat is an ancient temple, dating back to the Dvaravati period.
Chanthaburi was occupied by the French during the early part of the 20th century Their influence can be seen in the architecture of many buildings including the largest Catholic cathedral in Thailand, catering to a sizeable Christian population.
As well as a signature noodle dish, the province is a major centre of ruby and sapphire mining, with dealers turning Si Chan Road into a great weeken market for gemstones. For a bit of fun, Oasis Sea World, a breeding
A large agricultural province, Chon Buri is rapidly industrialising thanks to the government's Eastern Seaboard Development Project. However, the province is more famous for its coastal attractions, having the closest beaches to Bangkok.
Pattaya is Thailand's busiest beach resort, with a wide range of accommodation, restaurants and shopping centres lining Pattaya and Jomtien beaches, as well as a very lively nightlife. It is also one of the country's biggest diving centres, with high quality dive shops taking clients to offshore wrecks and coral beds at the nearby islands. There are close to 20 golf courses throughout the province, and you can also go sailing, windsurfing, go-karting, play tennis, ride elephants or try all manner of activities on land and sea.
Popular attractions around Pattaya include the offshore islands, particularly 'Larn island with its clear waters and coral beds; Khao Khieo and conservation centre for river dolphins, puts on daily shows. Or for a different type of show, try the Chamsom Crocodile Farm and Zoo, just off the Sukhumvit Road. The Underwater Archaeological Museum at Khai Noen Wong displays relics and treasures recovered from old sunken ships, including a lot of pottery.
There are spectacular waterfalls at Khao Khitchakut National Park, whose Krathing Falls courses down 13 levels, and at Phliu-Kha Sabap National Park, with a royal connection when King Chulalongkorn visited the Phliu Falls and built a memorial there. About 70 kilometres from Chanthaburi is Khao Soi Dao Waterfall. The trail to the 15level waterfall is amid unspoiled forests with a large variety of butterfly and bird. As it is a waterfall within a wildlife sanctuary, visitors are permitted only daytime only.
Open Zoo with a wide range of wildlife wandering its 2,000 acres; Si Racha Tiger Farm combines the sights of a tiger-breeding facility, crocodile farm, scorpion farm and daily performances.
To the south is Nong Nooch Village, a botanical gardens famous for its orchids and palms, which also puts on daily cultural and elephant show. Wat Yansangawaram is a royal sponsored temple with numerous pavilions of different national designs. Highly popular is the Chinese Pavilion housing antiques and art objects
Bang Saray, a fishing village with numerous good seafood restaurants around its pier, is the centre of the province's sports fishing activities.
Lop Buri was ruled by the Khmers from the 10th-13th centuries, resulting in a great deal of Khmer and Hindu influence in its monuments. The Lop Buri style features Khmer type prangs. Phra Prang Sam Yot, an old Hindu shrine with three prangs, is considered a Lop Buri landmark. Wat Mahathat is one of the best examples of Khmer provincial artwork, stucco, wood-carving and statues left in Thailand. Another temple, Wat Nakhon Kosa was recently restored by the Fine Arts Department, although some finds are now on display in the museum, not on site. Besides these new additions, the Lop Buri National Museum houses some fine examples of paintings, pottery and artifacts.
The most magnificent attraction is King Narai s Palace (Phra Narai Ratchaniwet), built in the late 17th century when the king decided to make Lop Buri his second capital after Ayutthaya. Having been maintained well and restored in the late 19th century, the palace houses large pavilions, an audience hall and still has traces of a complex water storage system to view.
Kanchanaburi is an elongated province that borders Myanmar to the west, packed with national parks, rivers, dams and wonderful scenery. However, it is the events of World War II that has driven the tourism industry, most notably the building of Death Railway and the famous bridge portrayed in the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Each December it is the site of a spectacular light and sound show depicting its history and bombing.
An estimated 16,000 PoWs died building the railway from Thailand to Myanmar, and their remains are buried in two well-kept war cemeteries in town. The JEATH War Museum is a reconstructed PoW detention hut, with photos and relics showing how they lived and died. At Hellfire, 80 kilometres outside town, the Australians have built a second fascinating museum, while the pass itself is a haunting tribute. Steam trains run the route from Kanchanaburi to Namtok, along rickety cliffside trellises, giving visitors a feel for the old railway line.
For history buffs, Prasat Muang Singh represents the western outpost of the Khmer empire, whose stone ruins have been renovated into a pleasant green park.
Further to the north, Erawan and Than Lot national parks contain beautiful waterfalls, caves, wonderful scenery and plenty of wildlife. While the Sri Nakharin and Khao Laem dams have formed huge reservoirs with resorts and raft-houses lining the shores, popular with visitors who want to enjoy the natural surroundings.
Established during the Dvaravati period, the province was an eastern garrison during the Ayutthaya period. It's a quiet province at the southern entrance to Khao Yai National Park (see Nakhon Ratchasima), with great scenery, lots of waterfalls and fast moving rivers as its main attractions.
Sarika and Nang Rong are the two most visited waterfalls, both spectacular during the rainy season. Wang Takrai is a resort and tropical garden nearby. Bungalows and campsites are available. Canoeing is a popular activity along the Nakhon Nayok River, catering to all levels of expertise, with the Sarika Canoe Club making all the arrangements.
Nakhon Pathom lies on the main overland route used for centuries to link India to Thailand via the Three Pagodas Pass, so it is only natural that Buddhism in Thailand began at this ancient town.
The town is dominated by the massive Phra Pathom Chedi, 127 metres tall and the most venerated Buddhist monument in Thailand. The original chzdi was built by the Mons in the 10th century, and successive renovations have placed a bigger chedi on top. All sorts of interesting items surround the chedi, including Buddhas in every sort of pose, holy trees, replica chedis, museums and ceremonial halls. The ashes of King Vajiravudh, who completed the present-day restoration, are buried there.
The king's lovely summer residence, Sanam Chan Palace is close by, built in the English Tudor style. Beauti fully restored, it is an interesting museum of a royal residence, where the king translated Shakespeare's plays.
Other places of interest include Buddha Monthon, a large park area dedicated to the promotion of Buddhism; the Rose Garden, a resort popular for its extensive gardens and well presented cultural show; and Samphran Elephant Ground and Zoo that puts on daily elephant and crocodile performances.
PHRA NAKHON SI AYUTTHAYA
From 1350 to 1767, Ayutthaya served as the capital of Thailand and as its cultural centre, until it was sacked by the Burmese. The remains of this island city are of extreme archaeological importance and restoration has been extensive. Today it is a historical park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Chao Sam Phraya National Museum contains many relics rescued from the ruins, including gold items buried in temples. Ayutthaya Historical Study Centre researches the period when Ayutthaya was the capital.
The park is strewn with ruins of palaces, temples, and monuments. Wat Phra Si Sanphet was the largest in its day, within the royal palace compound. The line of three chedis, containing the ashes of the first three kings, is in the style now known as Ayutthayan.
During excavations of Wat Phra Mahathat and Wat Ratburana, the Fine Arts Department found treasure chests containing priceless objects including gold Buddhas, jewels, royal regalia, etc, which are now housed in Bangkok's National Museum.
Some 20 kilometres south of the town is Bang Pa-In Summer Palace, an old country residence that became popular with King Chulalongkorn who constructed many buildings in different styles. Most picturesque is the Tsawan Thippa-at Pavilion standing in the centre of a lake.
The Royal Folk Arts & Crafts Centre at Bang Sai was established by HM the Queen to promote cottage industries and train artisans in traditional arts and crafts. Skills taught include basketry, weaving, wood-carving, artificial flower making, miniature doll making, etc.
Nonthaburi is now part of Bangkok, dominated by the Chao Phraya River, with express boats the most popular way to get here. Wat Chalerm Phrakiat is a royal temple, renowned for its design and architecture, and constructed from bricks made available from the demolition of a nearby fortress. Inside are beautiful murals and stucco designs.
Wat Paramaiyikawat is an old temple on Ko Kret, the small island which was settled by Mons. The temple is constructed in the Mon style with reclining Buddha and lovely murals. There's a small village on the island famed for its Mon-style pottery.
Because of the fertile soil, the province is a major producer of plants and cut flowers. Two flower gardens on the river, Suan Thip and Suan Tan Noi each with a restaurant, are popular with visitors. Every April-June, the Nonthaburi Fruit Fair celebrates the abundance of durian, mangosteen and mangoes.
Founded during the Ayutthaya era over three centuries ago, Pathum Thani is home to Wat Hong Pathummawat, with its fish sanctuary, and other old temples like Wat Sing, the first monastery built by the Mon community with a museum of Mon artifacts.
Up the Chao Phraya River, Wat Pailom is one of the world's largest sanctuaries for Indian open-billed storks, which winter here during the mating season.
The agricultural basin of the central plains channels its vast produce to the equally as large Talad Thai, a gigantic international wholesale and retail produce market, selling fruit, vegetables, cut flowers and plants.
The ancient town of Phetchaburi has had many influences in its past - Mons, Khmers and the Ayutthaya kingdom, whose hand can be seen in various temple murals. The best example of Ayutthaya art is at Wat Yai Suwannaram, with murals and a beautiful teak sala transported from the former capital, and at Wat Ko Kaew Sutharam.
Dominating the town is Phra Nakhon Khiri, a beautifully restored summer palace built for King Mongkut on top of a hill, accessible by cable car. It is now a historical park, containing a residence, observatory and temple that resembles the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok.
On the outskirts of the city, Khao Luang Cave is known for its Buddha images, miniature chedis and stalactites, all spectacularly enhanced by sunlight in the afternoon.
South of Phetchaburi is the beach resort of Cha-Am, popular with Thai holiday-makers, who enjoy its numer ous activities and shaded beach areas. The lovely teak-wood Maruk Khathayawan Palace, facing sea, was built for King Vajiravudh as a summer retreat, with a large hall where the king used to put on his famous plays.
Thailand's largest national park, Kaeng Krachan is a vast forested and mountainous area stretching to the Myanmar border, and packed with wildlife and impressive waterfalls. Guided treks are popular, as are rafting on the Phetchaburi River or boating on the massive lake.
PRACHUAP KHIRI KHAN
The province is renowned for the resort of Hua Hin, where the Royal Family has a summer palace, Klai Kangwon, which is open to the public when royalty is not in residence. Thailand's first beach resort, it maintains a quaint old world feeling with small streets and night market to walk around, Thailand's oldest golf course, and a beautiful railway station.
To the south is the magnificent Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, a marsh wetland park, with soaring peaks, quiet beaches and a wide range of exotic bird life. Popular activities include nature walks, bird watching and boat rides along Khao Daeng Canal. Of the numerous caves, visitors usually head for Phraya Nakhon Cave, where a superb royal pavilion, built for King Chulalongkorn, stands inside the mouth.
Prachuap Khiri Khan is a delightful town with a wide curving bay. At the north end is Khao Chong Krachok (Mirror Tunnel Mountain), with a large hole in it that appears to reflect the sky. At the top, Wat Thammikaram offers good views of the bay and is home to a colony of monkeys.
Nearby Manao Bay, part of an Air Force base, is an attractive beach open to visitors, while Wa Kor beach has a small astronomy museum plus a monument to King Rama IV. At the southernmost tip of the province, Thalu island is popular as a diving centre.
This small, agricultural province is sandwiched between the Cambodian border and Bangkok. Home to many ruins from the Dvaravati and Khmer periods, the province is also well known for its national parks of Khao Yai, Thap Lan and Pang Sida, which together cover over 3,000 square kilometres and make up the largest protected area in Thailand.
Thap Lan contains many plants from the palm family, especially the talipot palms whose leaves were used for Buddhist manuscripts. Further south, reservoirs provide holy water used in many Thai coronation ceremonies.
Wat Kaeo Phichit is an old temple, unusually combining Thai and Greek arts, while the oldest Buddha footprints can be found at Sa Morokot.
Ratchaburi, a province famous for its water jars, has some well-preserved temples. Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat features some stucco designs that retain much of their original beauty. Wat Khao Wang was originally built as a residence for King Chulalongkorn, and later turned into a temple on a hill overlooking the town. Wat Khongkharam in Photharam District is a classic Mon temple, with beautiful murals in the main hall dating back 200 years.
Most visitors stop by to enjoy Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, one of the most-photographed sights in Thailand. Originally a working market, it is now a major tourist attraction, with small boats filled with produce are on sale daily - usually to the visitors. Boat tours of the surrounding tiny canals give fascinating views of rural life.
Rayong is famous for Sunthorn Phu, Thailand's most notable poet, with a picturesque park in his honour, and for its great fruit orchards. Come May and June, the province is awash in succulent pomelo, rambutan, durian and jackfruit.
Most people head for Samet island, renowned for its white sandy beaches, irregular shaped rocks and clear waters. Part of a marine national park, the island's beaches are clean and relaxing along the East Coast, with Sai Kaeo and Wong Duan the most popular. The island has bungalow accommodation and restaurants, with good diving at its southern tip.
Boats for the island leave regularly from the fishing village of Ban Phe, where Sopha Botanical Gardens has a great variety of trees and plants, plus some pleasant old Thai houses. The long stretch of Mae Ramphung Beach with a gentle slope makes it a popular place to relax.
On the border with Chanthaburi, Khao Chamao-Khao Wong National Park contains two forested mountains, with many waterfalls and caves, that connects to Khao Soi Dao Wildlife Sanctuary.
Saraburi was most likely built in the mid-16th century, nowadays sitting astride the main route to the Northeast.
The main attraction is Phra Buddha Bat, which houses Thailand's most important Buddha footprint inside a beautiful mondop decorated with thousands of glass pieces. The glittering abode, fine naga staircase leading up to it and the temple next door attract numerous visitors to pay tribute. Outside of the town, Phra Buddha Chai is a shadow of Lord Buddha on a cliff wall within a temple compound.
Muak Lek Arboretum and nearby Chet Sao Noi Waterfall attract many local residents for picnics or to eat at small cafes in natural surround ings. Khao Sam Lan National Park is the nearest to Bangkok. It is a forest area with some beautiful waterfalls and is becoming popular for hiking tours.
Sa Kaeo was split from Prachin Buri in 1993 and is an important centre for trade between Thailand and Cambodia, primarily through the border town of Aranyaprathet.
Main attractions are the Pang Sida National Park, with lots of species of birds, freshwater crocodiles and two beautiful waterfalls, and Prasat Khao Noi, an archaeological site dating back to the Khmer period. Many of the artefacts found here are on display in the Prachin Buri National Museum.
Virtually part of Greater Bangkok, this province is at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. One of its principle attractions is the Ancient City, a beautifully designed Thailand in miniature. Covering over 100 acres created in the shape of Thailand, the Ancient City is an open museum that contains 109 scaled-down versions of the country's most famous monuments, all carefully located in their correct place on the map.
The Crocodile Farm is the world's largest, with up to 30,000 inhabitants. Besides breeding all manner of croco diles, eventually to be turned into handbags, shoes, etc, the farm also puts on fascinating crocodile wrestling shows. A number of other animals are also raised here, including tigers, elephants and chimpanzees.
At the mouth of the Tha Chin River, Samut Sakhon is a busy fishing centre, providing fresh catches for nearby Bangkok. Wichian Chodok Fort was built to withstand possible invasion, and its collection of old cannons now stand in front of the city pillar. Culture addicts not wishing to drive to Damnoen Saduak can try the Khlong Pho Hak Floating Market, which can be reached by long-tail boat. The Chao Mae Kuan Im shrine at Wat Chong Lom is famous due to its nine-metre fountain, pouring water into the right hand of a sculpture of the Mahayana Buddha, Goddess of Mercy.
Thailand's smallest province is very flat, known for the salt produced at numerous artificial lakes. The town sits beside the Mae Klong River, at whose mouth villagers scramble to collect hoi lot (worm shells) beloved by Thais. There are three floating markets on the outskirts of town, including Tha Kha Floating Market, set in an open area of traditional wooden houses. Ban Bencharong is a small village producing traditional fivecoloured ceramics.
Attractions include Wat Phet Samut Worawihan, containing a large Buddha image known as Luang Pho Wat Ban Laem, Wat Satthatham, whose main building is made of teak, encrusted with mother of pearl depicting scenes from the life of Buddha; and a delightful Memorial Park full of trees and plants, honouring the birthplace of King Rama II.
Sing Buri, a small province beside the Chao Phraya River, was built during the reign of King Rama V.
Sights to see include Wat Sawang Arom, a centre for Buddha image sculpting with the most complete set of Nang Yai shadow play pieces in Thailand. Wat Phra Non Chaksi and Wat Na Phrathat have recently been renovated and house Buddha images as well as relics from the Khmer period.
The heroic deeds of Bang Rachan villagers, who bravely fought the Burmese in 1765 (the theme of a popular recent movie), are commemorated in a pleasant arboretum, containing a replica of their old fortress. The province is famous for its freshwater fish, with specialty restaurants catering the many hungry visitors.
Suphan Buri is an ancient city mentioned in many Buddhist chronicles, although then supposedly named Suwanaphum. Today it's a very modern town with superb roads; courtesy of a local politician.
Because of its location, Suphan Buri featured regularly in fights with Burmese forces. Don Chedi outside the main town commemorates King Naresuan's victory over his Burmese counterpart in single combat on elephant back.
Wat Pa Lelai has a large Buddha shrine, housed inside a sanctuary built in the Ayutthaya style. Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Rub and Wat Suwanaphum are also built in the Ayutthaya style and house rare artefacts, antiques and Buddha images. Wat Phra Rub has the only known Buddha footprint made of wood. In the south of the province, Wat Phai Rong Wua houses the largest cast metal Buddha in the world at 26 metres tall.
Like Chanthaburi, there is a lively gem trading scene in Trat. Otherwise its location right up against the Cambodian border kept the province rather isolated from tourism, until travellers discovered the beauty of its offshore islands.
Ko Chang National Park includes 52 islands, with Chang island itself the main draw. The island is covered with dense jungle and steep mountains,
ideal for trekking and mountain biking. Beautiful waterfalls on the island include Khlong Phlu and Than Mayom. However, it is the magnificent beaches on the west coast that draw the visitors, especially Hat Sai Khao. Most accommodation remains simple yet comfortable.
Other islands are worth exploring, especially Wai island and its spectacular coral beds and marine life, Ngam - an island in two parts, and Lao Ya for its luxury resort.