Phuket, Pattaya and Patpong: they may be in Thailand but never mistake them for Thailand. Leapfrog these famous or infamous zones, where East meets West, and the worst meets the best, and for a few days try a very different P-place - Prachuap.
The Thai province of Prachuap Khiri Khan is, like its name, long and lyrical. Stretching 220km down the western seaboard of the Gulf of Thailand, its beaches swoop from headland to distant blue headland, with their shores more populated by sea-pines and driftwood than resorts and deckchairs.
The province's biggest and best-known town is Hua Hin, 180km south of Bangkok, where the Thai royals retreat, the Scandinavians and Germans retire and others flock to play golf and once a year watch elephant polo. Fair beaches, better markets, proliferating condos and quality resorts. However, stay on the train (or the highway) for another 90km until you hit the province's same-name capital, Prachuap Khiri Khan, known simply as Prachuap.
Suddenly you're in the Thailand of the Thais. No hustle, no tuk-tuk frenzy, five-stars, beer bars nor screaming neons, and certainly no SkyTrain. Instead you find a low-rise, low-key town that faces three horseshoe bays, with a high temple mount watching over them all. Its long seafront faces Prachuap Bay and is there for strolling, sunset dreaming, and later for alfresco dining when restaurants pop up along it. After your walk or massage, or both, head out for dinner to that promenade or the nearby night market where the hawker spices are hot and the beer is cold. You can hire a bicycle and pedal south across the runway of a Thai air force base to a small forest, there to be greeted by a troop of protected langur monkeys which sport punk Einstein hairdos and startled, white fur-framed eyes.
They are not all like their scungy cousins, the kleptomane macaques that crowd the 396 steps up to Wat Khao Chong Krajok temple at the north end of Prachuap Bay. The views from here are spectacular but make sure your backpack and loose possessions are well monkey-proofed.
The postcard-perfect arc of Ao Manao, or Lime Bay - aptly named for its seductive, pale-green waters - sits just south of the town. The sands are wide, the waters clear and little beachfront eateries will dish you soft-shell crab, tom yam soup and pad thai noodles. This beautiful bay was briefly an historic battlefield between Thai and Japanese forces in December 1941. Thai forces resisted heroically but the militarily more powerful Japanese soon forced a surrender, leading to the de facto colonisation of Thailand for the duration of World War II.
Prachuap's slogan translates as: "City of pure gold, delectable coconuts and pineapples, delightful beaches, mountains and caves, land of spiritual beauty." A long-winded list of glories but not a fib, although I've not yet found those streets of pure gold.
The province name translates loosely as Land of Many Mountains. When you want to go exploring, it offers plenty of the latter. Sam Roi Yot (Three Hundred Peaks) National Park, 60km north of Prachuap town covers some 100sqkm of mangrove shores, beaches and myriad limestone peaks. Migrating birds are plentiful from November to February but I usually have my eyes looking downwards while descending to the spectacular cavern of Tham Praya Nakorn, the most photographed cave in Thailand. It's a relatively easy, half-hour walk that eventually brings you to a huge, open-sided sinkhole where sits a sunlit pavilion that looks like a small Buddhist temple but is actually a royal sitting room built for King Chulalongkorn, or Rama V, who often visited here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Prachuap Khiri Khan stretches down the Kra Isthmus, the narrow land bridge that connects mainland Asia with the Malay Peninsula to the south. Looking inland from the Gulf beach in whose warm waters you've been romping, you might see the blue hills of the Tenasserim Range, a 1700km chain of granite mountains that is older than the Himalayas. Just south of Prachuap town is the excellent but unsung Waghor Aquarium with vast displays of tropical fish. A little further on, and inland, is Dan Singkhon, right on the Myanmar border where an excellent Saturday market comes alive with orchids, traditional medicines, local coffee and handicrafts brought over by Burmese vendors. Thais and Burmese may cross this border but foreigners may not.
Two years ago I cycled down this overlooked coast , an easy three-day cruise on good back roads and mercifully level terrain. At Wang Duan, a whistle-stop 17km south of Prachuap, where the trains never whistle and rarely stop, I saw a sign saying "the Narrowest of Thailand. 10.96 kilometres". I determined to one day walk it, from Gulf waters to the Burma border. With a few friends I recently did. While the direct distance is less than 11km, the walking route along country roads and dogleg tracks is 13.4km.
Starting in the shore-break, we ambled inland from the beach, crossing a plain of lagoons and farmlands that's dotted with Jersey cows and bony brahmins, satellite dishes and spirit houses.
The roads turned to tracks that led past plantations of sago and sugar cane, with the landscape soon tilting up towards the blue ridges. Where the tracks finally ended we found a bush clearing with several shrines.
My Thai friends knelt to pray there in front of an altar with three Buddhas, then we looked back across the coastal plain and treetops to a sunlit sea. We had walked across Thailand in half a day.
·John Borthwick travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
·Catch the train from Bangkok's Hualamphong station to Prachuap Khiri Khan. Accommodation includes beachfront Hadthong Hotel (hadthong.com) and Yutichai Hotel at 115 Klongkiat Rd.
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