THE old man of the sea dragged his longtail boat across white sands speckled with pink and golden shells, his weathered face as furrowed as the shoreline lapping around of Sichon Bay. Behind the heaped dunes of sand, still glistening wet from the morning tide, the air was thick with the acrid smell of the jungle: raw, clammy and unpredictable. ''I remember when we had to fight our way through the swamps just to find somewhere to put the boat in, beat the crocodiles off with long sticks and walk waist-high in mud. ''Now they are calling this a 'resort area'. How the south is changing,'' the fisherman said. The pace of life in this region is as slow as it ever was, and change has come gradually without the upheaval wrought elsewhere by mass tourism. The south remains Thailand's least-known region, special and perplexing even to Thais who inhabit the sweeping central plains to the north. Though a cradle of Thai history, it is often regarded as being closer culturally to nearby Malaysia, which brought the Islamic religion to six provinces, a distinct linguistic dialect, and the bitingly hot cuisine. The 14 southern provinces run down the isthmus that divides the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, from Phetchaburi, only an hour out of Bangkok, to Narathiwat in the ''deep south'' only minutes from Malaysia. Tourism arrived a decade ago on the Andaman coast, dotted with the coral islands of Phuket, Phi Phi and Similan. But the wet, humid interior and the eastern shore remain largely untouched. Locals say the south really begins in Chumphon, a wind-swept province of tiny fishing villages rebuilt from the effects of a devastating typhoon three years ago, where the road winds through limestone cliffs scarring the purple-fringed mountains on its way to the Indian Ocean. Lush green rubber plantations - the ubiquitous symbol of the south - flow down hillsides that soon merge into a thick jungle foliage of palms, mangoes and wild bananas, inhabited by chattering monkeys. The highway cuts west to Ranong, the closest southern point to Burma, famed for its warm springs and an even hotter nightlife, catering for the Burmese vessels crammed into the fishing port. Most foreign tourists head to Surat Thani in the east, the crossing point for ferries to the island of Koh Samui. The Thais, however, prefer the deserted mainland beaches opposite, dotted with cheap bungalows perched above the mangroves. Khanom, Sichon and Tha Sala link the provinces of Surat Thani and Nakhon Sri Thammarat with thin strips of beach running between the mangroves and the sea, past the new shrimp farms that are rapidly drying up the swamps and into the wide waters of the Gulf. For the weekend trippers from Bangkok who are building simple holiday homes here, the drowsy east coast is a throw back to the upper south resorts of Hua Hin and Cha-Am before the condos arrived. The beaches are nowhere near Phuket standard. Rather, it is the simple and uncluttered lifestyle that draws increasing numbers here. Equipped with a hired car, the tourist can easily explore the back roads of the rubber belt, which include some of Thailand's oldest Buddhist temples and cultural shrines. At Chaiya, a small town one hour out of the provincial capital of Surat Thani, lie the ruins of what is thought to be the ancient capital of the Sriyichaya empire, which ruled a vast area of the Malay Peninsula from Java to Sumatra at least 1,500 years ago. Traces of the empire can also be seen at the 1,300-year-old Wat Mahathat temple, near the old city of Nakhon Sri Thammarat further south, which has a spectacular chedi (steeple) containing 270 kilograms of gold. Wat Makathat was used as the model for the beautiful golden chedis built in the later cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, each of which served as capital of Siam before present-day Bangkok. Currently under restoration, the chedi is 70 metres high and 23 metres in diameter, and towers above a more recent temple and museum filled with artifacts from the Sriyichaya and Dvaravati eras. Nakhon itself is one of the oldest settlements in Thailand, dating back to prehistoric times. It is also one of the few Thai cities to retain a partially-intact defensive wall, protecting grand, century-old wooden teak long houses that are still occupiedby descendants of the feudal village rulers. Nowadays, it is best known as the place where the distinctive nelloware jewellery etching originated in the 1940s. A dark enamel used to cover the joins in gold and silverware, nelloware fetches hundreds of dollars at craft shops outside of the province. Continuing south, the road passes through Khao Chong nature reserve en route to Trang, birthplace of Thailand's current prime minister, and the peaceful province of Phattalung, where the soggy climate helps wild flowers bloom year round. The green countryside rolls out to jagged hills reminiscent of southern China, where hermits built Buddhist retreats in limestone caves and communists found sanctuary during decades of Malaysian guerilla war. In Phattalung town, tall stone gates mark the home of the Viet Khieu - overseas Vietnamese - who followed Ho Chi Minh to Thailand after he was driven out by the French in 1949. Overlooking the bustling market town are three distinctive peaks said to represent a man and the two women in his life, who turned to stone because of their jealously. One of the hills, known as Broken-Heart Hill, has a hole right through the middle, showing her mortal wound. Another, Broken-Head Hill, is shattered on top, where she was beaten by her lover. Half an hour out of Phattalung on the coast is Talaynoi, a huge lake stretches out to the sea. It is one of Asia's biggest natural breeding centres for migratory birds. Nesting on clumps of pretty pink and white fillies, the birds can be seem at close quarters from boats for hire. But go soon: their habitat is deteriorating rapidly from too much exposure to local tourism. GETTING THERE There are scheduled air services from Bangkok at Hat Yai and Trang, with connecting flights to Phuket, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Trains run from Bangkok through Chumphon, Surat Thani, Nakon Sri Thammarat, Rayong and Phattalung.