377km (234 miles) N of Bangkok; 93km (58 miles) SE of Sukhothai

Phitsanulok is a bustling agricultural, transportation, and military center, with a population of over 100,000, nestled on the banks of the Nan River. It is the crossroads of Thailand, located in the center of the country and roughly equidistant from Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Like most transportation hubs, it's hectic, noisy, and just a stopover for most people on their way to the more charming Sukhothai.

Outside of town, the terrain is flat and the rice paddies are endless -- they turn a vivid green in July to August. In winter, white-flowering tobacco and pink-flowering soybeans are planted in rotation. Rice barges, houseboats, and longtail boats ply the Nan and Song Kwai rivers, which eventually connect to the Chao Phraya River and feed into the Gulf of Thailand.

For 25 years, Phitsanulok served as the capital, and it is the birthplace of King Naresuan (the Great), the Ayutthayan king who, on elephant-back, defended Thailand from the Burmese army during the 16th century. Other Ayutthayan kings used Phitsanulok as a staging ground for battles with the Burmese.

When a tragic fire burned most of the city in 1959, one of the only buildings to survive was Wat Yai, famed for its unique statue of Buddha; the temple is now a holy pilgrimage site. For travelers, Wat Yai is worth a visit on the way west to Sukhothai or farther to the Burmese border. Phitsanulok is also famous for the Bangkaew dog, a notoriously fierce and faithful breed that's prized globally, and is thought to have originated from the Bang Rakham District.