By JIM EAGLES
There's often a bit of snobbery in travel. Bali may be beautiful and cheap but everyone who's anyone has been there already. It's much more satisfying to find a new tourist destination and get there ahead of the hordes.
Now there is an opportunity to do just that with the opening up of the small and little-known Southeast Asian kingdom of Phaic Tan to tourism.
Of course there is a downside: Phaic Tan's long period of isolation means there are few links with the outside world and facilities are patchy, to say the least.
Few major airlines fly there. According to a new Jetlag Travel Guide to Phaic Tan, published as part of the drive to encourage tourism, this is because Phlat Chat International Airport has refused to evict vendors who set up stalls on the edge of its runways so they get first crack at tourists.
However the national carrier Royal Fok Tok Airlines - named after a legendary flightless bird - has been working hard to improve its safety record. This year it was named as having the best-dressed cabin crew in Southeast Asia. It is also one of the few airlines to allow smoking.
In addition, the country is trying to improve the standard of tourist accommodation, developing resorts which are promoted as "so luxurious that staff are sacked daily just to maintain freshness".
Where Phaic Tan's lack of development really scores is in what the authors of the guide call its "genuine assault on the senses: an overwhelming explosion of sights, sounds, tastes, smells and strange colonic movements".
The climate is typically hot and wet. Indeed, the northeast region is so humid that some valleys have developed a condition known as "tinea of the foothills".
The country's recent history has been one of vicious fighting and constant coups, yet paradoxically it is also a land where good manners are valued above all else.
"In fact," says the guide, "it's not unusual to see two drivers, having been involved in a collision, get out of their vehicles and exchange gifts."
It offers a fascinating mix of history ("ruined temples, palaces and public hospitals dot the country"), nature (the chance to catch a rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphin), adventure tourism (adrenalin junkies can go "brown-water rafting" on the largest mud-slide in Asia), museums (the largest collection of souvenir teaspoons and snow domes in the world), and cuisine ("a fiery combination of chilli, garlic and pepper to which food is occasionally added").
Phaic Tan is able to open for tourism because armed conflict is now confined to a few northern provinces but it is still, the guide acknowledges, "not without its problems ... Even today young girls are being kidnapped from city brothels and taken to country villages where they are forced to work as teachers".
But most of its citizens "have at last downed their weapons and are now welcoming visitors with an open arm".
Jetlag Travel Guides has a remarkable track record of opening up undiscovered destinations. The previous guide, Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry, sold 390,000 copies and sparked a flood of inquiries for this fascinating former Soviet republic. Their latest book is bound to have the same impact.
* Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring, by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch, is published by Hardie Grant Books, $29.95.
* Jim Eagles financed his own sunburn and wouldn't have a Phaic Tan if you paid him.