Off The Beaten Track - Hidden Thailand
Phil Hopkins, Travel & Arts Correspondent
The noise was ear-splitting and were it not for a man with a mask over his mouth to protect his lungs from the billowing smoke, you might have wondered where on earth it had come from.
But the explosive sounds repeated again and again, continuing with just a few periodic gaps.
Nearby, worshippers were kneeling prostrate in front an architecturally-beautiful monument, some with roses between their prayer-like palms, clearly paying homage. And the explosions? They were also paying for those and were happy to do so.
But this was no Hindu deity they were worshipping or even Buddha himself, but Krom Luang Chumphon Khet Udom Sak, or Prince Chumphon, 28th son of King Rama V and ‘Father of the Thai Navy’.
We were in Chumphon, nearly 300 miles south of the capital, Bangkok, and just across from the stunningly beautiful Hat Sairee Beach, said to be one of the finest in Thailand.
But in that moment, there was a profound sense that this was Asia in the East and certainly not the ‘West’. The shrine was house-like in size, the explosions were from industrial fire crackers, lit to announce prayers and paid for by those giving homage, and the ‘God’ was a man.
Prince Chumphon graduated in Naval Research in England before returning to his homeland and completely modernising the Navy. He died in May 1923 but, more to the point, is not forgotten and the shrine to his memory is as regal as his blood was in life.
Witnessing this spectacle is a defining moment and serves to remind Europeans that they are in a country where respect plays a fundamental part in defining society.
Several days earlier I had flown out of Bangkok with that famous tune from the musical, Chess, permeating my dreams.
But, when Abba’s Benny and Björn first penned One Night in Bangkok, they must have known they were short-changing their discerning public!
For as I waved goodbye to this most intriguing of cities and headed south towards Ranong and Chumphon, I quickly realised that even four nights had only given me a fleeting moment in which to enjoy Thailand’s premier city.
However, within the space of little more than an hour, we had touched down and I was checking into the Numsai Khaosuay Resort Hotel in Ranong, an amazing jungle-style property made up of individual lodges, each with gorgeous tropical outlooks with the offer of breakfast at traditional chabudai-style Japanese tables in the main lobby building.
It didn’t take long for a tiny lizard to find its way into my small packet of biscuits, inadvertently left on the worksurface, grateful that Hershey’s had somehow expanded their operations into Asia!
Ranong is Thailand’s first southern province on the coast of the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean, and is largely off-the-beaten track for Western tourists, other than independent travellers, hence why the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is determined to promote this area and its Sino-Portuguese architecture, keen to intercept revellers, honeymooners and families en-route to the islands of Phuket and Koh Samui.
And with good reason, for there’s plenty to keep aspiring adventurers occupied. A traditional wooden mini bus or Songtaew, will ferry you round this old tin mining town where you can take in a replica of the Rattana Rangsan Palace, residence of King Rama V during the Royal visit to Ranong in 1890, or enjoy the busy market area on Ruengrat Road.
The nearby Lighthouse Pier also offers the most stunning 360-degree panoramic views and is where you pick up the Royal Andaman Wooden junk for a dinner cruise along the Kra Buri River……
…..or for the more adventurous there is river rafting along the Lang Suan region’s Phato District. But, for me, the real gem are the hot springs at Raksawarin. The entire town is seemingly located on a mass of steaming water where those in the know – Thailanders – head for this comparative backwater and, for mere coppers, indulge its wonderful natural resources. The water temperature is around 65C and a gentle soak is said to have great healing properties. Alternatively you can choose to be pummelled at one of the country’s finest massage and wellness centres, the Namnong Hot Spa.
Chumphon, famed for its white sandy beaches and numerous large and small offshore islands, is only a couple of hours drive away, and not only has a reputation for banana and coconut production – they’ve even trained monkeys to harvest the latter! – but cashew nuts
…….as well as snorkelling on the spectacular coral reef around Koh Ngam Yai and Koh Ngam Noi Islands, a mere one-hour sail from the shoreline. Both islands are popular dive sites within Mu Koh Chumphon National Park and the area features high cliffs and many caves, nesting sites for swallows, a key source of the highly valuable ‘birds nest’ craved by China’s restaurant trade.
The Novotel Chumphon Beach Resort & Golf, as the number one hotel in the area, will provide you with ample refuge during your Chumphon sojourn and, providing you have plenty of mozzy spray, there is a wonderful opportunity to sample Namtok Ngao National Park, before you head off for one of the country’s numerous party islands.
Over the years Thailand has, to a large extent, grown its international reputation as an Asian party destination, although the Tourism Authority is keen to shed this one-dimensional perspective of its country. When you have sampled Ranong and Chumphon you will begin to appreciate why they have rooted their quest in these two regions, for they shine a light on a Thailand that is multi-faceted with many perspectives. In the same way that London is not the entire story of England, so Bangkok is not the final word on Thailand.
Food for Thought
As my journey progressed I couldn’t help but think about the monument to Prince Chumphon, visited by thousands of Thailanders every year.
Soon after touching down at Manchester Airport and making the arduous drive back to Leeds, I cut through the Holbeck district en-route to Kirkstall and couldn’t help but notice St Matthew’s church off Domestic Street, and the tall obelisk-shaped gravestone standing in the shadow of a 1960’ s multi-storey block of flats. Weathered by time it simply reads, ‘Matthew Murray, civil engineer of Holbeck.’ There is no pomp, no ceremony, no shrine and certainly no people on their knees paying homage to Mr Murray.
There was even a Leeds school named after him, long since closed, for Matthew Murray was a great man, building the first commercially viable steam locomotive in 1812. He was even said to have inspired the Father of Railways, George Stephenson.
He died in February 1826.
Matthew Murray wasn’t the Father of the Navy in the same way that Thailand’s Prince Chumphon was, but the difference is that this British hero is largely forgotten other than on Wikipedia.
But then, we are in the UK and not Thailand, where Gods are worshipped, heroes are rarely forgotten and wisdom is preserved for the elderly, a section of society that is also revered and looked up to.
In the West we have much to learn from Amazing Thailand.
QUICK TIPS / CONTACTS
Travel Tips Thailand
Fully comp travel insurance recommended.
Check policy covers motorbikes, diving or adventure pursuits.
Passport:- You will need six months validity on your passport to travel to
Thailand, as well as two blank pages.
On a British or Irish passport, you are visa exempt for 30 days.
Take a pre-loaded travel money ‘cash’ card.
This will save on bank / credit card fees.
Quickly cancelled if lost or stolen. Try Post Office’s multi-currency card.
Be aware that some retail outlets still try and charge you 3% for using a ‘credit card’.
It isn’t a credit / debit card so stand your ground!
The currency used in Thailand is baht. It is a good idea to exchange your
money in Thailand as you get a better rate.
UK Post Office nearly 39 baht to the £1. In Chiang Mai nearly 43 baht!
Cash definitely works in Thailand!
Don’t drink tap water. Buy bottled.
Temples – men and women are required to cover shoulders.
Men should have over the knee shorts.
Women a long skirt / sarong.
Pack as if you were going to enjoy an excellent English summer!
Take a hat, a light waterproof and a small umbrella if there in the rainy season.
Take a plug adapter for your electronic devices……and lots of sun cream!
www.tourismthailand.org - Official site of Thai Tourism
www.destination-asia.com - The company that set up this trip
www.bangkokair.com - Internal Flights
www.airasia.com - Internal Flights
www.cibtvisas.co.uk - Visas
www.thaiembassyuk.org.uk - Travel Help
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Off The Beaten Track - Hidden Thailand, 13th May 2018, 15:22 PM