A NEW domestic airport has opened an uncharted region of Thailand to tourism. Daily flights have just started from Bangkok to Ranong, a southern region of tropical forests and mountains across the Chan River from Burma. Ranong lies on the sparsely populated southwest coast 300 kilometres north of Phuket and has been one of the areas of Thailand least visited by tourists. Until now, it has been accessible only by road, 'but the opening of the new airport and its direct daily service will certainly boost tourism', said the manager of the Tourism Authority of Thailand's Hong Kong office, Pusdi Agsuvat. 'The natural beauty of the area will not remain unknown for much longer.' The province is renowned for its hot springs at Wat Tapotarum, on the outskirts of Ranong township. The springs are in a shaded forest arboretum with rest pavilions and baths, while hot water is also piped to the Jansom Thara Hotel where hot 'mineral baths' can be taken in large public pools. The Burma border village, Victoria Point, is famous for its ivory and gem markets and can be visited by ferry. A two-hour boat trip from Ranong Landing, tourists can also visit the island Ko Phayam, a cashew nut centre and home to the sea gypsy Chao Le tribe. Also in the vicinity is the Laem Son National Park, home to a vast range of wildlife inhabiting the forests and mangrove swamps. Long, sandy beaches border the park and an archipelago of islands offshore in the Andaman Sea surrounded by spectacular coral reefs has lately become a magnet for divers from around the world. Flights to Ranong are being operated daily from the Thai capital by Bangkok Airways and via Surat Thani by Thai Airways International.