Southern Thailand consists of a long peninsula, reaching all the way down to Malaysia. Rugged limestone mountains, covered with lush jungle, rise along its spine, while its two coastlines-- 1,875 kilometers long on the Gulf of Thailand and 740 kilometers on the Indian Ocean shelter countless beaches of exceptional pristine beauty along with prosperous fishing ports. Besides its rare natural beauty, the south also has vast plantations of rubber, coconut, and pineapple and near the Malaysian border, a distinctive cultural difference thanks to a largely Muslim population.
Hua Hin, on the western coast of the gulf, became Thailand's first popular seaside resort in the 1920s when the southern railway line made it easily accessible to Bangkok. King Rama VII built a summer palace there, called Klai Kangwon, "Far From Worries", and other aristocratic families acquired property along the scenic beach. Now the resort can boast a number of modern hotels and has spread to include nearby Cha-am, but it still has a quieter, more restful ambiance than vibrant Pattaya across the gulf.
Modern travelers further south, where they have discovered other exciting destinations. The most celebrated is Phuket, a large island in the Andaman Sea, was widely known among ancient traders for such natural wealth as tin ore and edible birds nests harvested from limestone caves and cliff sides. Phuket today, just an hour's flight from Bangkok, is famous for a string of picture - postcard beaches on its western coast, each with its own particular charms and a wide range of accommodations
Not far from Phuket is Phang Nga Bay, a marine national park, where hundreds of limestone islands rise dramatically from the sea to form a breath taking scenic spectacle, along with the equally beautiful Phi Phi islands, where turquoise waters lap the white sands of a dozen secret coves and daring sea gypsies scale the walls of a vast, cathedral-like cave to collect the birds' nests so prized by Chinese gourmets throughout the world.
More adventurous travelers in search of unspoiled natural beauty and diving thrills can explore the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea, a group of nine small islands off which lie countless dazzling coral reefs, or, southward near Malaysia, the huge Tarutao National Park, where 51 islands cover an area of nearly 1,500 square kilometers.
Across the peninsula, off the southeast coast, lies the island of Koh Samui, a more recent tourist discovery that also offers memorable beaches fringed by graceful coconut palms and a number of smaller off-shore islands.
Several southern cities such as Nakhon Si Thammarat, Chaiya, and Songkhla can look back on an ancient history, reflected in deep-seated traditions, the remains of splendid temples, and elegant old houses. Others like Hat Yai, Thailand's third largest provincial capital, have a booming modern energy fueled by the region's prosperity, attracting large numbers of Malaysian tourists with shops and entertainment facilities. In the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and Satun, the domed mosque is as much a part of the landscape as the spires of a Buddhist temple, and Malay is the second language of most people.
Southern food is as distinctive as its scenery. Not surprisingly, the coconut, which grows so widely throughout the region, plays a prominent role in many dishes; its milk tempers the heat of chill-laced soups and curries, its oil is often used for flying, and its grated meat serves as a condiment. Also only to be expected is the abundance of fresh seafood from the surrounding waters: marine fish, some of huge size, prawns, rock lobsters, crab, squid, scallops, clams, and mussels. Cashew nuts from local plantations are eaten as appetizers or stir-fried with chicken and dried chillies, while a pungent flat bean called sataw adds an exotic, somewhat bitter flavor much admired by southern diners. Regional fruits include finger-sized bananas, mango-steens, durians, and small, sweet pineapples.
Sino-Thai food is popular in most large cities; every year the large Chinese community of Phuket stages a ten-day Vegetarian Festival during October, with colorful parades as well as exotic culinary treats. Other foreign influences can be found in such dishes as gaeng massaman, a mild Indian-style curry seasoned with cardamon, cloves, and cinnamon, several Malayan fish curries, and Satan skewered meat with a spicy peanut sauce that originally came from Indonesia.