Thailand is in the center of Southeast Asia, roughly equidistant from China and India, and shares cultural affinities with both. It borders Myanmar (Burma) to the north and west, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia (Kampuchea) to the east, and Malaysia to the south. Thailand's southwestern coast stretches along the Andaman Sea, and its southern and southeastern coastlines border the Gulf of Thailand (still often called the Gulf of Siam). The country covers approximately 514,000 sq. km (198,000 sq. miles) -- about the size of France or California -- and spans over 1,600km (over 1,000 miles) from north to south. It is divided into six major geographic zones, within which there are 75 provinces. The zones are the mountainous north, the Khorat Plateau in the northeast, the central plains, the eastern seaboard, the western hills, and the southern peninsula.
These different geographical regions provide a large variety of ecosystems, which support a great diversity of animal and plant life. Most of the country's forests are deciduous or montane, such as those in the northern hills, where the summit of Doi Inthanon forms the highest point in Thailand at 2,565m (8415 ft.). There are a few pockets of primary rainforest on the southern peninsula, in places such as Khao Sok National Park. Other ecosystems that predominate on the southern peninsula and eastern seaboard are coastal forests, mangrove swamps, and coral reefs. Around half of these reefs are under the nominal protection of marine national parks, such as Ko Similan and Ko Tarutao, both off the Andaman Coast. Several regions of the country, most notably Phang Nga Bay, are characterized by karst outcrops -- islands or mountains of porous limestone that conceal caves and pristine lagoons.
Flora & Fauna
Thailand boasts a fantastic range of plant and animal life, though many species are under threat due to loss of habitat. There are around 15,000 vascular plants, including over 500 types of trees and 1000 types of orchids. Most of these plants are typical of tropical climates, such as palms, teak, and bamboo, though at higher elevations in the north, it is not uncommon to find such things as pines, ferns, and rhododendrons, which are more familiar in temperate zones. The country is particularly well-blessed with birds, many of which winter in the country, and over 1,000 species have been sighted to date. These include common species, such as bulbuls and mynahs, but also rarities, such as great hornbills and sarus cranes. As for mammals, around 300 species have been recorded, including primates, deer, civets, tigers, and elephants, most of which survive under national park protection, but all are under constant threat from poachers.
The best place to watch wildlife in Thailand is in the country's national parks. Since the first one was established at Khao Yai in 1962, more than 100 have been opened, and they now occupy around 13% of the country's land area -- more than most countries. Most have log-cabin-style accommodation and campsites that can be reserved through the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department website (http://web2.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/nature.asp?lg=2).
Khao Yai National Park, just 120km (75 miles) from Bangkok, is one of the best places to see wildlife, and on a typical trail, visitors are likely to see gibbons, macaques, deer, and hornbills, especially in the company of guides who know the habits of these creatures and where they are likely to be at a certain time of day. Doi Inthanon National Park in the north is particularly popular with birders, while divers looking for coral reefs teeming with tropical fish usually head for the marine national parks in the Andaman Sea, such as Similan and Surin.