Huge snaking rivers cut a muddy swathe through Thailand's low-lying heartland, converging on the delta at the Bay of Bangkok. As the plane gently dropped beneath the tropical haze, I had a bird's-eye view of the ‘rice bowl of Asia', a watery landscape of paddies and tributaries that feeds the country's people and its economy.
This is a side of Thailand that few travellers will see from the ground, instead choosing to stick to the country's traditional tourist staple of Wats (temples) and Kohs (beaches). Most go south for the Malay Peninsula's palm forests and idyllic beaches, or north for tropical hill towns and temples – landscapes that feed the country's other big industry – tourism.
Deciding to save the sights of hectic Bangkok for the end of the trip, I headed from the international airport into the nation's rice bowl to experience a taste of typical Thai provincial life and take in Khmer and Thai temple ruins. The ancient royal city of Ayutthaya, which served as the country's capital for 400 years until 1767, is just a one-and-a-half-hour train ride from Bangkok. Situated at a spot where three rivers merge, its UNESCO-listed historical park is encircled by a canal and full of ancient Khmer curiosities.
Arriving by little passenger ferry, bell-shaped temples and crumbling stone structures can be glimpsed between the bodhi and frangipani trees. Once on the island, the place is a playground for archaeology enthusiasts. Giant Buddhas clothed in bright saffron robes keep watch over the sacred sites, countless temples climb toward the sky in ornately-carved, rounded tiers and a disembodied Buddha head peaks out from beneath a twisted trunk.
Travelling north-west through Thailand's central plains, and a patchwork of orchards, ponds and paddies stretches to the horizon. Supported on stilts, villages of pointy traditional wooden houses and colourful shrines dot the landscape around Suphanburi, where farmers in woven conical hats stalk the fields cultivating jasmine rice.
In this fertile region, the ancient kingdoms of Siam first rose to power, and another former capital, the laid-back city of Lopburi, has ruins that stretch back to the era of the Hindu Khmers. One of Thailand's oldest cities, it is far from the metropolitan madness of Bangkok, though the rowdy local monkeys keep visitors on their toes. Having clashed with Southeast Asia's frisky macaques on previous occasions, I kept my distance, but the monkeys are known to get up to all sorts of mischief – snatching bags and even biting the hand that feeds them on occasion.
Having got to grips with the ancient roots of the country, it was time for an altogether more superficial experience amid the stunning islands of the Gulf of Thailand. Through the darkness during the uncomfortable overnight bus ride south, I could make out mile-upon-mile of mysterious thickly forested hills. It felt as if we were moving deep into the tropical landscape now, away from the cultivated heartlands and into a region of mountains and jungle.
At first light in Surat Thani, the world was wrapped in a sleepy blanket of windless tropical air and all seemed quiet and calm. All except from the birds of paradise, chirping from bamboo cages that dangled from the rafters of a high-roofed wooden shack. I paused for a moment to commiserate with these brightly-plumed unfortunates, victims of the Thai fashion for keeping wild birds as ornamental pets. As our ferry pulled away from the Dan Sak quayside, destined for Ko Samui, I could see the fingered roots of mango swamps reaching into the muddy banks of the river mouth. If this was slightly less dramatic scenery than I had been expecting, I didn't have to wait long to be immensely impressed.
As we sailed out into the gulf, the ghostly shapes of Ang Thong National Marine Park's little uninhabited islands rose into view. From a distance like monolithic moss-covered boulders dropped in the ocean, I was utterly transfixed as we passed by these pockets of paradise. Up close, each dome-shaped islet was shrouded in a blanket of green and surrounded in an azure aura. As I caught tantalising glimpses of empty white sand in the concaves between cliffs, I found myself yearning for a private boat to explore this freshly-discovered Eden.
Pockets of paradise
Old-time travellers will tell you that Ko Samui was once a deserted island covered in coconut plantations. There were just a few huts set on the fringes of white sand beaches and you had paradise pretty much to yourself. But once word got out, there was no stopping the tourism machine from taking over Thailand's third largest island. The mountainous interior is still covered in coconut groves and lush vegetation where you can hike to scenic waterfalls and pools like the ones at Nam Tok Na Muang. The beauty of the beaches of Chaweng and Lamai, with clear cerulean waters, fine pale sand and offshore reefs to snorkel, is barely diminished by resort development. But the sight of the odd lady bar and a branch of McDonalds or Tesco is slightly off-putting.
On the other hand, the east coast of neighbouring island Ko Phangan still doesn't have a road, which is perfect if, like me, you want to get away from the Full Moon Party madness that the place has become known for. From the docking point at Hat Rin it's a simple business to find a long-tail boat taxi that will take you round the coast to a choice of idyllic spots. The long-tail boats are a graceful hallmark of the Thai islands – their narrow half-moon design curving upwards at the front, usually strung with brightly coloured streamers.
As the sunset splashed the sky orange and pink, the ride past steep slopes of seemingly impenetrable forest and indentations of sand separated by high humped cliffs was made all the more romantic by a lantern dangling from the ‘long-tail'. Transfixed by the scenic beauty, my concentration was broken as another long-tail sidled up to us, lamp-light swinging on its bow, and shouts went up between the boatmen. After what seemed like a jolly exchange, the boats began to race like fireflies in a dance, chopping across the waves and spraying us with salt. As we landed at Hat Thian beach, the light from the sky had almost faded and I felt the hairs on my arms stand up as I caught sight of fairy lights twinkling behind the beach.
A jaunt across the steep headlands in either direction takes you to yet more low-key beaches at Hat Yuan and Hat Wai Nam, but navigating the footpaths is precarious in the dark. One night I played a pied piper of sorts, guiding a procession of travellers with my torch, and delighted as an iguana froze in the spotlight before scrambling into the undergrowth.
Taking up residence at Wai Nam Restaurant and Bungalows, ran by a warm and cheerful Thai family, the wide hammock on my wooden veranda had a perfect tropical view over a delicious slice of aquamarine-washed sand. Just off-shore, little reefs teeming with life provided the daytime entertainment. In the valley next door, chickens ranged about and fishing boats still bring in a daily catch, making the Thai curries served at the few restaurants extra delicious. With no power after 10pm and no artificial light, the night's here draw you into them, your senses attuning to the constant calming soundtrack of the waves echoing around the little coves, and the silhouettes of palms swaying against a sky glittering with stars.
After the slow pace of life on the islands, the steamy streets of Bangkok seemed to buzz with frenetic energy. Modern roads and bypasses cut through the older footprint of the city, at some points chiselling off the side of buildings, leaving once-inhabited rooms exposed to view. It's a higgledy-piggeldy colourful place, with ornate Buddhist temples and a few magnificent mansions and palaces, and there are the infamous floating markets to be explored just out of town.
With not much time left in the country, I headed for the city's old district around Ratanakosin, set in a bend on the Chao Phraya river. It's ideal for some sightseeing on foot, with Bangkok's oldest temple, Wat Pho, sitting beside the Grand Palace and the shining stupas of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Inside the white-washed compound walls of Wat Pho, there are some marvellous marvels. Though the giant golden reclining Buddha, his feet inset with mother-of-pearl, clearly takes centre stage, I spent almost as long exploring the mini ziggurats. Their tiers, intricately decorated in tiles with a bright three-dimensional flower design, are like enormous candied cakes.
For more insight into travel around south-east Asia, check out East of Java: Indonesia's top five cultural experiences, and look out for my upcoming blog on the best of Bali.