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The Far South & On To Malaysia

From Surat Thani south, Thailand slowly gives way to Malay culture, and Buddhism -- predominant in the central and northern parts of the country -- is replaced by Islam. Nakhon Si Thammarat is an ancient Buddhist city of note but often ignored by visitors from overseas. In the far south, Had Yai is a major transport hub and a destination popular with Malay and Singaporean sex tourists, where HIV rates are known to be extremely high; in 2000, a Time magazine report called it a boomtown "built on the sex trade." It's mostly a stopover for onward travel to or from Malaysia.

Note: The far south of Thailand has seen years of violence by separatist insurgents. Their attacks are becoming increasingly widespread but are aimed at any institution with government or Buddhist links. Few travelers pass Nakhon Si Thammarat, except those going on to Malaysia or to Singapore via Had Yai. Stay abreast of events before traveling here.

Nakhon Si Thammarat -- Nakhon Si Thammarat is one of the south's oldest cities, though it has a rather unappealing "new" town in addition to its more charming older quarters. It has long been a religious capital and stages some dazzling festivals. Wat Phra Mahathat, the town's 1,000-year-old main temple, houses some of the Buddha's relics in its large chedi brought from Sri Lanka, from where it is believed Theravada Buddhism came to Thailand; it's therefore an important place of pilgrimage for Thai Buddhists. This region is also the locus for traditional Thai shadow plays. Ban Nang Thalung Suchart Subsin (Mr. Subsin's House of Shadow Plays), at 110/18 Sri Thammasok, Soi 3 (tel. 07534-6394), makes for an interesting introduction to this art form.

Budget carrier Nok Air (tel. 1318; www.nokair.com) connects Nakhon Si Thammarat with Bangkok. All north-south trains make a stop at the main train station (tel. 07535-6364), and affordable minivans (which are the best way to travel in the south) can be arranged from any tour company. Southeast of the city, the Twin Lotus Hotel, 97/8 Phattanakan Rd. (tel. 07532-3777), is a high-rise block, providing comfortable rooms starting at 1,000B.

Had Yai -- Known to travelers as the gateway to Malaysia and one of the bigger cities in Thailand, Had Yai is today a hotbed of political unrest. For some time now, it has been plagued with bouts of violence, regular pipe bombings, fatal attacks, and frequent murders of Buddhist monks, rubber workers, and schoolchildren. The situation is now extremely unstable. Its busy Night Market was once a highlight, but, these days, I recommend asking around if it's safe to visit. Still, the unspoiled beaches at nearby Songkhla (45-min. away) are a great escape from the urban sprawl of Had Yai. Famous for its seafood and the attractive island of Ko Yo, floating in the inland sea, this little isle is a cotton-weaving center, with a folklore museum and nice hikes.

Had Yai International Airport (airport code HDY), 9km (5 2/3 miles) from downtown Had Yai, welcomes flights from Malaysia and Singapore frequently throughout the week via Silk Air, Malaysia Airlines, and some budget airlines, and there are domestic connections to Bangkok and Phuket.

Minibuses still make trips to the border at Pedang Besar and connect from other parts of the region, and long-distance buses connect with the Bangkok Southern Bus Terminal (tel. 02793-8111). Five trains depart daily from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Station (tel. 02621-8701 or 1690) to Had Yai Junction, with connections on to Malaysia. The once-daily Singapore-Bangkok Express also stops at Had Yai.

There are dozens of low- and midpriced hotels located near the railway station, most with air-conditioned rooms, and several tourist-class hotels with the usual amenities. The best on offer (if you like character-filled old charm) is the Regency Hotel, 23 Prachathipat Rd. (tel. 07423-4400), with rooms from 1,000B, and J&B Hotel, 99 Jootee-Ausom Rd., Had Yai (tel. 07423-4300), with rooms from 1,050B. The popular backpacker haunt, Cathay Guest House, 93/1 Niphat Uthit 2 Rd. (tel. 07424-3815), could do with a lick of paint, but it has reasonable singles from 200B.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.