The overnight sleeper pulled out of Chiang Mai station at 6pm. By 6.30 it was dark and by 7.30 the attendant had come to make up the beds. We were awoken at 5.30 the following morning, still dark, and crawled the last few miles into Bangkok past roads that were already jammed with rush hour traffic and a vast network of new flyover construction and into Hue Lamphu station 30 minutes late at 7.20. It was a short stroll over to platform 7 where the 08.05 to Surathani would depart. The timing could hardly have been better.
We’d seen nothing of the countryside in our two overnight trips so it was a real delight when we finally left the sprawling squalor of the city behind us as we travelled west towards Nakhon Pathom, the region where many of the flowers that are destined for the Bangkok Flower Market are grown, out into open greenery: rice fields full of white egrets, banana plantations, lotus-covered lakes, palm trees, sugar cane, blue-roofed farms; then south through Petchaburi, with its distinctive hilltop palace overlooking the town full of mischievous monkeys, and south through that narrow strip of Thailand, only 11 kilometres wide in places with the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand to one side and the mountains of Burma to the other.
At mid morning the attendant delivered the second of our free meals, a fiery mackerel curry that brought water to the eyes, a catch to the back of the throat and a streaming nose.
At 12.30 we pulled into the neat little red roofed station at Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thai flags gaily fluttering along the platform, a shiny brass bell to ring the arrivals and departures and frangipani at the station entrance. Amongst the boxes and packages waiting to be transported, wrapped and bound in burnt orange cotton, is a six foot tall Buddhist effigy. There are a dozen smiling station staff, each in a uniform appropriate to their function. All stations should be like this.
It was a short walk to our hotel, the Grand – ‘No pets, no durians’ it says in reception – where we checked in and were shown to our room, the Junior Suite on the sixth floor, two stylish rooms plus bathroom and a magnificent spreading view from the corner windows of the bay and Khao Chong Krajok, or Mirror Tunnel Mountain and its mountain top temple. £30 for this? It seems to good to be true. It was. Before we had time to unpack two very apologetic hotel staff, sent in twos to give each other moral support perhaps, appeared to tell us that there had been a mistake and that the room had an electrical problem and would we please move to a room along the corridor. There were no complaints however. It was another Junior Suite. We could still just about make out the bay from the balcony and to compensate there was a view away from the sea over the mountains into Burma.
The sleepy seaside town of Prachuap Khiri Khan sits on beautiful Ao Pruchuap Bay, flanked on either side by limestone karsts. Like many Bristish seaside towns today, it seems poised between a flourishing and lively past and an uncertain future. There’s a pier that seems to serve no purpose, one or two hotel blocks in brutalist concrete that wouldn’t be out of place in Sixties Eastern Europe, sun-faded posters advertising non existent boat trips around the bay and a museum that appeared to have closed down. But if this points to someone’s vainglorious project that came to nothing, none of that would be fair to the town or to the pleasant five days we spent there.
In the waterfront bars and eating places and the guesthouses set back from the front and at the night market stalls there’s plenty of life, particularly as evening sets in, and the seafood is abundant and cheap. And at the weekend, when the hawkers set up their stalls all along the the promenade, the seafront comes alive with light and colour, noise and the smells of a bewildering array of cooking food: crab, squid, sausages, grilled mackerel on sticks, sweet corn, noodles, stir fries in woks twice the size of a dustbin lid, pancakes, huge pans of bubbling sesame in caramel stirred with a wooden paddle. Further along are the clothes stalls, the stall selling Siamese fighting fish in reused soda bottles, jewellery, make up, hats. The seafront is suddenly packed and bustling, grandma and grandpa, mum and dad, babies and children, strolling, laughing, bartering, eating, drinking. Where have they all come from?
But by early Sunday morning the whole promenade was eerily empty once more; the crowds had gone and so had the stall holders and their stalls. There was nothing to show that they had ever been there, not an empty bottle, not a piece of litter, nothing to show for the previous evening’s festivities, leaving not a rack behind, all vanished into thin air.
Prachuap has no beach to speak of. At high tide the sea comes up to the promenade wall but a few kilometres along in either direction there are fine stretches of sand. To the south is Ao Maon which actually sits within the Wing 5 base of the Thai Airforce. This was one of the seven places on the gulf where the Japanese invaded Thailand in 1941 and the site of fierce fighting. The guide book promised top gun fighter pilots lounging on the beaches. We paid 100 bhat for two sit up and beg bikes and set off mid morning, stopping as required to sign in at the base entrance, and riding through the well tended grounds until we reached the airstrip itself. A barrier had been lowered across the road and a young soldier stood on duty. We joined the waiting traffic, a few motor bikes and a car, expecting to see an F16 or a Tom Cat scream up into the sky. Instead, a doddery looking single propeller spotter plane, its nose adorned with an aggressive but unconvincing shark’s maw, puttered past and rose sluggishly up into the air. We later discovered that it was the only aircraft stationed there. The sentry raised the barrier and we rode across the runway and on a further two kilometres to Ao Maon, a beautiful beach fringed by casuarina trees. It was Chinese New Year’s Day and a weekend and the place was crowded with Thai families in holiday mood. We cycled on to the fishing village beyond, to return on a week day when things were quieter.
On the following day we upgraded to a 125cc Honda Click and suddenly we were putt putting along the sea front beside a mirror calm bay and through the paddy fields at 40 kilometres an hour sharing Toad’s exhilaration at the freedom of the Open Road. This was the way to travel. Poop Poop! We set off north along the coast, across the creek with its collection of fishing boats, and took a side road that ran to the point between Ao Noi and Ao Khan Kradai bays to the beautiful Ai Noi Wat with its rich red painted teak walls and pillars and glittering gold roof and its community of monks living in raised wooden bungalows beside the sea and beneath a jungle covered karst. It was an idyllic setting. Little blizzards of white butterflies gathered in the shade beside the lotus pond and in a tropical garden full of jackfruit, pomegranate, mango, rose apple, palm, hibiscus and frangipani. There are worse places to devote yourself to a spiritual life. We were told to expect an unpleasant whiff as the temple raises swiftlets for the edible birds’ nest business but we detected nothing.
Returning, we stopped off at the busy fishing village and watched the catch being unloaded then rode back. We kept the bike for another day, explored the coast to the north and then south and spent an afternoon at the now near deserted Ao Maon beach.
We ate well and cheaply at Prachuap Khiri Khan: Thai curries, red, green and yellow, Massaman curry, papaya salad, spicy beef salad, spicy seafood soups and pad Thai; but perhaps not as adventurously as we might have done, given what was on offer on the seafood stalls. There can’t be many opportunities to sample the prehistoric looking horseshoe crab. Next time, maybe. South to Surathani and the islands tomorrow