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Prachuap Khiri Can-Do

Words and Pictures by JOHN BORTHWICK

 

Pattaya, Patpong and Phuket ... you know they’re in Thailand but you’d never mistake them for Thailand. Sidestep for a while these mutant zones where East meets West (and the worst meets the best) and discover a very different P-place — Prachuap.

 

The province of Prachuap Khiri Khan is like its full name, long and lyrical. Stretching 220 skinny kilometres down the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand, its near-empty beaches are populated more by driftwood than deckchair jams.

 

The province’s largest and best-known town is Hua Hin, 180 km south of Bangkok, and yet it isn’t the capital. Hua Hin is where the Thai royals retreat, Scandinavians and Germans retire, golfers gorge themselves and the barmy-but-serious elephant polo tournament is held annually. However, bypass Hua Hin. Stay on the train (or the highway) for another 90 km until you reach the province’s same-name capital, Prachuap Khiri Khan, aka simply Prachuap.

 

Suddenly you’re in the Thailand of the Thais. None of the usual suspects assail you — taxi touts, tailors’ pimps, Harley hoons and the “wewcome-hansum-man” chorus-line. Instead you find a low-rise, low-key town that faces three horseshoe bays with a tall temple mount watching over the shoreline. A long seafront promenade faces Prachuap Bay, which is perfect for sundowners and good dining in the footpath restaurants that pop up along it. A few blocks inland at the local night market the hawker food is hot and the beer cold.

 

You can hire a bicycle and pedal south across the runway of Prachuap’s Thai air force base to a small forest, there to be greeted by a troop of langur monkeys with punk Einstein hairdos. These friendly monkeys are nothing like their scungy cousins, the larcenous macaques that crowd the 396 steps up to Wat Khao Chong Krajok temple on the headland at the north end of Prachuap Bay. The views from the temple are spectacular, but make sure your backpack and any loose possessions are completely macaque-proofed.

 

The postcard-perfect arc of Ao Manao, “Lime Bay” — aptly named for its pale-green waters — sits just south of Prachuap town. The sands are wide, the waters clear and little beachfront eateries dish up fresh soft-shell crabs and good tom yam soup. This beautiful bay was briefly a battleground between Thai and Japanese forces in December 1941. Thai troops and flyers resisted heroically but the militarily and politically more powerful Japanese soon forced a surrender, leading to the de facto colonisation of Thailand during World War II.

 

Prachuap’s slogan translates as “City of pure gold, delectable coconuts and pineapples, delightful beaches, mountain and caves, land of spiritual beauty.” A long-winded boast, to be sure, but not a complete porky, although I’ve never found that street of pure gold.

 

Meanwhile, the province’s name translates roughly as “Land of Many Mountains” and it has plenty of the latter. Sam Roi Yot (“Three Hundred Peaks”) National Park, north of the capital encompasses some 100 sq km of mangrove shores, beaches and limestone peaks. Migrating birds are plentiful here from November to February but I have my eyes focussed firmly downwards while hiking to the spectacular cavern of Tham Praya Nakorn, the most photographed cave in Thailand. It’s a relatively easy, half-hour walk that brings you to a huge, open-sided sinkhole within which sits what looks like a small, elaborate Buddhist temple. It is actually a royal sitting room built for King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who often visited here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

Prachuap Khiri Khan stretches down the eastern side of the Kra Isthmus, the land bridge connecting mainland Asia with the Malay Peninsula. Looking inland from the Gulf beach in whose waters you should be swimming, you can see the blue hills of the Tenasserim Range, a 1,700 km granite chain older than the Himalayas. The farthest ridge you see will probably be the Thai-Myanmar border. Until 1767 the whole isthmus, coast-to-coast from the Gulf to the Andaman Sea, was Siam’s (as Thailand was then known), but long conflicts with Burma saw the western flank of the ranges lost to Rangoon. As one Thai rationalized their loss, “Sometimes you have to lose an arm to save your body.”

 

Just south of Prachuap town is the excellent but unsung Waghor Aquarium with vast displays of tropical fish. A little further on, and inland, you come to Dan Singkhon on the Myanmar border, where there’s an excellent Saturday market that teems with orchids, traditional medicines, local coffee and Burmese handicrafts. Thais and Burmese may cross this border, but not foreigners.

 

A couple of years ago I cycled down this overlooked coast (and long may it remain so), an easy, three-day cruise on empty back roads and mercifully level terrain. At Wang Duan, a whistle-stop 17 km south of Prachuap (where the trains don’t whistle and rarely stop), I saw a sign declaring, “The Narrowest of Thailand. 10.96 kilometres.” I determined to return one day and walk this pinch, from the Gulf shore to the Burma border.

 

Meanwhile, we pedalled on, stopping where we liked and over-nighting in very good local resorts. At one point in southern Prachaup province we pulled into a rubber plantation where the farmer showed how he taps the latex, then squeezes it through a mangle into sheets. “It’s a good business ... people always need latex,” he said, grinning towards his little forest of tomorrow’s car tyres and condoms.

 

A year later I came back to Wang Duan and did what I’d promised to do. Starting in the Gulf shore-break, we ambled inland, crossing a coastal plain of fruit-salad farms, jersey cows, satellite dishes and spirit houses. As the roads turned to tracks, the landscape tilted up towards those blue ridges. Where the track finally ended we found a bush clearing with several shrines.

 

After my Thai friends knelt to pray in front of an altar with three Buddhas we looked back across the plain to the sunlit Gulf sea. In less than half a day we had walked across Thailand. Prachuap lets you do things like that.