Comprising the five provinces of Songkla, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung, Satun, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, Sounthernmost Thailand is a region with its own distinct charm
Topographically, the area is a narrow isthmus with a mountainous spine and a lush hinterland of great natural beauty. Between rain forests, rubber plantations, beaches, lakes, and waterfalls are dotted with a number of fascinating towns.
Sightseeing options include Muslim mosques as well as many intriguing examples of Thailand's unique Buddhist temples. Scenic attractions are no less and range from fine, sandy beaches to Songkhla Lake, a haven for countless waterbirds, and several National Parks, such as Tah Le Ban and Tarutao.
The hub of the south is Hat Yai, its thriving city attractions complemented by the tranquil neighbouring seaside town of Songkhla. Either makes an ideal base for exploring a region that is full of rich and varied sights.
Among the city sights is Wat Hat Yai Nai, notable for its 35-metre long statue of the reclining Buddha, the world's third largest image of its kind. The Southern Cultural Village is also worth visiting for its daily shows which offer an excellent introduction to the region's highly distinctive traditional dance and other folk arts
Hat Yai, however, is best known as a fun city and opportunities for sports and entertainment abound. Children will enjoy the Bhasawang Big Splash, a 15 metre slide in the middle of a lagoon-like swimming pool, while a different type of recreation is to be enjoyed at the city's two shooting ranges. For a spectator sport, there is bull fighting, a traditional southern entertainment in which two beasts lock horns in a trial of strength. There are two arenas for the sport in Hat Yai and fights are held on the first Sunday of every month.
Shopping is another big attraction and Hat Yai offers many good buys in Thai handicrafts - especially local cotton products and cut-out leather shadow puppets - leisure and sportswear, and a large variety of preserved Thai fruits, dried seafood and other culinary delicacies.
The principal shopping area is concentrated in Niphat Uthit 2 & 3 Roads, Sanehanuson Road and the Plaza Market. Such is the popularity of shopping among both Thai and foreign visitors that browsing and people-watching can be as much fun as bargain hunting.
Being something of a cultural crossroads, Hat Yai affords ample opportunity for dining on a variety of cuisines. In addition to spicy Thai cooking and the seafood for which the South is famed, Chinese and Muslim specialities are to be enjoyed at a number of excellent restaurants. After dinner, a fun evening can continue at any one of the numerous nightclubs, many of the best being located in the major hotels.
Hat Yai is the South's major city, its commercial,shopping and entertainment centre. Located in Songkhla province, 947 kilometres from Bangkok and about 550 kilometres north of the Malayian border. Hat Yai is also the region's communications hub and is well served by road, rail and air access. The city is also provided with a wide choice of hotel accommodation in all price ranges.
Located 24 kilometres west of the city is the picturesque waterfall of Tong Nga Chang. Water cascades spectacularly over seven tiers and splits into two streams, resembling elephant tusks which gives it its name. Best seen after the rainy season from October through December when the water is most abundant, this is a particularly scenic spot, ideal for picnics.
Adifferent natural attraction is Tham Khao Rup Chang, "Cave of the Elephant Fountain", situated about 10 kilometres from Padang Besar market. There are three large caverns, with curious stalagmite and stalactite formations, which enshrine Mahayana Buddhist images.
Chana District, some 40 kilometres southwest of Hat Yai, is famous for its cooing doves, and singing contests are held annually between January and July. The competitions are taken seriously and with the caged doves raised on poles three to six metres tall, judges listen to the songs and award points according to pitch, melody and volume.
For recreation, there is the nine-hole Khao Hong Golf Course, on the city's outskirts. The course is open to the public, and has some challenging fairways
Just a 30-minutes drive from Hat Yai, and Accessible by bus or taxi, is Songkhla. In spite of Hat Yai' bright city lights, it is this sleepy little coastal town which is the provincial capital, but its main claim to fame is as a charming beach resort. Steeped in history and long ago infamous as a pirate stronghold, the resort offers a peaceful retreat and managed to retain its own identity, while also ensuring the visitor a choice of hotel accommodation and other modern facilities.
Songkhla boasts two main beaches, Samila Beach and Son Orin Beach. The former is a three kilometre pine-fringed stretch of soft white sand, where there is a watersports centre and a nine-hole beachside golf course. Behind the beach is Khao Nor hill, which has a small topiary garden and commands panoramic views of the town. Directly north of Samila is Son Onn Beach, an idyllic spot where pine trees provide cool shade and several restaurants serve deliciously fresh seafood.
Offshore are Cat and Mouse islands, coastal landmarks that are popular with anglers. Other scenic places include Khao Seng headland, which shelters a Muslim fishing village, and Tung Khuan Mountain, dotted with ancient pagodas and royal pavilions.
Songkhla is ideal for a lazy time by the sea, though it also offers much that is of historical interest. A good starting place for a glimpse into the past is Songkhla National Museum which, in addition to displaying a fascinating collection of archaeological finds and objects d'art, is housed in a lovely complex that dates from the 1870s and exemplifies southern Sino-Thai architectural style. Similar turn-of-the century architecture can be seen in Nakhom Nai Road, the town's oldest thoroughfare.
Also of considerable cultural interest are Wat Matchimawat, a 4100-year-old temple which also contains a museum, Wat Chaimongkhom where the main pagoda enshrines a holy relic of the Lord Buddha, and Pak Nam Laem Sal Fort, dating from the early 1800s.
Outside of the town, the main attraction is the huge Songkhla Lake, Thailand's largest body of inland water at some 80 kilometres long and 20 kilometres at its widest point. It contains several islands and, near Songkhla, there is Khu Khut Waterfowl Park, a sanctuary that supports about 140 species of resident and migratory birds, best seen in the late afternoon when they are at their most active.
Also located on Songkhla Lake is Wat Pakho, famous for its highly venerated monk who long ago, as legend has it, turned salt water into fresh water when his pirate captors were dying of thirst, and was thus released out of gratitude. A statue of this famous monk, a reclining Buddha image, a stupa and mural paintings are among Wat Pakho's attractions.
On the estuary shore of the lake is the Songkhla Fishery Station where you can watch trawlers unload their catch. Fishing is a major occupation in the South and anyone wishing to gain a deeper insight into the wealth and significance of marine life can call Songkhla's National Institute of Coastal Aquaculture and arrange for a visit to its laboratories, hatcheries and fish museum.
Beyond Hat Yai, the region's other sights extend both to the north and the south. Some can be reached on day trips from the city, while others lie further afield, and the best way to appreciate the Far South is to tour the region by hire car readily available from any one of several rental agencies in Hat Yai
Some 90 kilometres north of Hat Yai is Phatthalung, where the big attraction is Nok Nam Thale Nor Bird Park situated on the northern edge of Songkhla Lake. This lotus-bordered and scenically spectacular sanctuary is home to some 150 resident and migratory species and offers endless fascination for bird-watchers and nature enthusiasts. About 100 kilometres further north is the ancient provincial capital of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Among a number of intriguing sights are Wat Mahathat, one of the oldest temples in the South, and the nearby Phra Viharn Luang, an impressive sanctuary dating from the Sukhothai period (13th-early 15th centuries). Outside the town are two scenic waterfalls, Phrom Lok and Ka Rom, while good swimming can be enjoyed at the long unspoilt beach at Pak Phanang, 28 kilometres from town.
Nakhon Si Thammarat is the home of the traditional shadow puppet theatre, and is also the original centre of nielloware, a decorative craft in which an alloy is mixed with silver to produce various attractive items.
Southwest of Hat Yai is Satun province, situated on the west coast of the peninsula, bordering the Andaman Sea. Principal among the province's destinations is Tarutao Marine National Park, located 31 kilometres off the coast near the Malaysian border. Around the cluster of 51 islands is to be find a wealth of marine life, including whales, dolphins, small sharks, sea turtles, rockfish, flying fish, and thousands of colourfully diverse coral fish. Here you will discover some of Southeast Asia's best scuba-diving waters.
On land Tarutao's attractions are no less and the largely untouched forested islands provide a natural habitat for wild boars, macaques, langurs, mouse deer and numerous bird species. There are regular weekend excursions to Tarutao from Satun's Pak Bara Pier during the non-monsoon months of December through April. Among Satun's other places of interest are the aquatic Puyu Grotto and Tha Le Ban National Park, where there is lakeside cabin accommodation.
The three provinces between Hat Yai and the Malaysian border - Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are predominantly Muslim, and contain the loveliest mosques in southern Thailand. Besides the interest of a Muslim-influenced culture, the provinces hold considerably scenic beauty.
Topping the cultural sights in Pattani are two important mosques. Pattani Central Mosque, located on the outskirts of the provincial capital, is the most beautiful and largest of Thailand's mosques, and a focal point for Thai Muslims. Kruesae Mosque, seven kilometres from Pattam town, was founded in the late 16th century and, according to legend, was never finished due to the curse of the Goddess Lim Ko Niao, recognized today in a thrilling annual festival celebrated during the third lunar month.
As for beaches, close to Pattani town are pinefringed Ratchadapisek Beach, to the west, and Talo Kapo Beach, to the east, where there is also a harbour for the beautifully hand-painted traditional korlae fishing boats. Further south along the coast there are even more pristine beaches, most famously at Khae Khae in Panarae district. Sightseeing possibilities in Pattam include Sai Khao Waterfall, 38 kilometres from town, and Palas Market, on the byroad leading to Panarae district, where a bustling market on Wednesdays and Sundays offers a fascinating insight into typical southern life.
Yala, Thailand's southernmost province, is characterized by a landscape of mainly mountains and forests. The most famous sight in the area is the large ancient statue of the reclining Buddha, enshrined in a cave at Wat Khuhaphimuk, eight kilometres from Yala town. Dating from the 8th century, this image is considered one of the three most important monuments of the South. Scenic attractions include Than To Waterfall, located on the Yala-Betong highway. Set in an arboretum and surrounded by high mountains, these impressive falls tumble over seven levels.
Last of the southern provinces, Narathiwat, facing the Gulf of Thailand and bordering Malaysia, is best known for the large and vibrant frontier town of Sungai Golok. As a rail junction, it is a major communications crossroads and a place offering a wealth of shopping and entertainment.
Elsewhere Narathiwat boasts one of the South's most beautiful beaches, a 2-kilometre stretch of fine white sand just outside the provincial capital, while notable among the cultural attractions are the 24metre-high golden seated Buddha image of Mingmongkhon Thaksin, Thaksin Ratcha Nivet Palace and the old Buddhist temple of Wat Chonthala Singhe.
Songkhla may be visited on a day trip from Hat Yai, though it is a destination in its own right, with the dual attraction of cultural sights and the beach. The resort is a relaxing complement to the city and is the perfect place to enjoy a quiet break from touring.
Whether coming from Malaysia or continuing your travels in that direction, Hat Yai is an ideal stopover. It is also a good sightseeing base for visitors travelling between Thailand's main beach resorts on the east and west coasts of the peninsula. You should allow one or two days for sightseeing and shopping in Hat Yai, and three to seven for exploring the surrounding provinces
Spend dream holiday on beaches chosen for Hollywood films, with a backdrop of majestic limestone towers and bays speckled with uninhabited islands. Thailand's peninsula presents a prehistoric paradise with caves to explore, spectacular flora, and exotic birds.