Phang Nga’s official slogan goes something like this: “A town of valuable minerals, amidst water-village, fantastic caves, peculiar mountains, Champoon flowering plants and fertile natural resources.”
Well said – though if they were interested in increasing tourism they might consider adding, “and only an hour from Phuket.”
As people who enjoy fantastic caves and peculiar mountains – not to mention temples, waterfalls, and the occasional wild-goose chase – Stephan (photographer and chauffeur) and I built a do-it-yourself daytrip. Northern neighbour, prepare to be checked out.
08:00 With fuelled bodies and a fuelled car, we point the car north and left Phuket Town. Fifty minutes later, we cross Sarasin Bridge and arrive in Phang Nga Province.
08:57 At the Highway 4 junction, we head east towards Krabi. Go the other way and you could end up in Bangkok.
09:12 Our first destination is a temple - Wat Suwannakhuha. Between us, we’re armed with ambiguous directions and a faulty memory, but being confused is a good way to meet people. We stop and ask the family running the gas shack near a green and orange pay-phone. They’re very nice, though their sense of distance leaves something to be desired.
09:16 Thailand has many, many Buddhist temples. And most have arches over the entrance. We brake often – is this it? – and usually continue on. But this temple has an attractive sign: Free Museum. It’s closed.
09:22 Another gas station, more questionable assistance we graciously accept.
09:30 Monks are good sources of temple-related information, even if you’re not in the right temple. Three more kilometres, and don’t park too near the entrance or you’ll have monkeys all over your car. Wise words.
09:42 At kilometre-marker 29.5 – look for the small vertical posts in the median strip – we find another arch and an abundance of signs pointing to our first two (scheduled) stops: Wat Suwannakhuha (known to locals as the easier-to-pronounce Wat Tham) and Raman Waterfall Forest Park.
Wat (‘temple’ in Thai) Tham is unique because it’s in a cave. Inside the cool chamber are many Buddha images, including a massive one in the reclining pose. The displays would be beautiful anywhere, but this location makes them stunning. Stairs lead out the back of the main cave to two additional chambers – Light Cave and Dark Cave – where statues mix with stalactites and stalagmites.
Outside the temple, the scene is a monkeys circus; they coat the mountain, trees, and ground with a layer of loud activity. Old women sell refreshments for all the primates – whether human or macaque. A clump of small bananas goes for 10 baht, a fact I won’t soon forget thanks to this clever marketing jingle shouted in a singsong voice: Hello, ten-baht-ten-baht. Repeat ad infinitum.
We each down an unexpectedly good coffee, check the time, and head to the car.
10:40 Leaving the wat’s parking lot, we turn right and make the ten-minute journey to the day’s first waterfall. The road winds around tight corners, meanders over hills, and provides scenic views of distant farms.
10:50 Raman Waterfall Natural Park is as much a park as it is the location of a waterfall. The grounds are meticulous. Smooth walkways lead through landscaped gardens, plant species are clearly marked in Thai and English, the shaded picnic tables are spotless, and food and drink are readily available. The park is dressed up like hoards of visitors are expected at any moment, but on this midweek morning we are the only guests.
The path to the falls – eight levels in total – is as easy as you could expect for a jungle trail. When the trail goes up, stone stairs are there to assist. Where water runoff may damage the trail, channels direct it harmlessly to the other side. Where you may want to litter, garbage cans collect your rubbish. The waterfalls, taken alone and out of context, aren’t impressive. But walking in the midst of exotic plant life next to a gurgling stream, combined with the high standards the park maintains, make this a worthwhile experience.
11:39 Leaving the park, we backtrack past Wat Tham to Highway 4 and continue north. There’s a stoplight at a T-junction – right to Krabi, straight on to Phang Nga Town – with a massive lump of a hill on the left. We pass under the welcome banner and head into town; that lump is our next stop.
12:08 Khao Chang, or Elephant Hill, definitely looks like a hill. Its resemblance to an elephant, however, requires powers of imagination that exceed my own. Turn left (west) at the first arch in Phang Nga Town and follow the drive to the base of the mountain.
According to local lore, the elephant was wrongfully killed with a spear to the stomach. The wound is now a stream-filled cavern – Tham Phung Chang (Elephant Belly Cave) – that runs 1,200 metres straight through the mountain. For 500 baht, you can strap on a headlamp and float the length aboard a kayak. We’re on a schedule, so we take a few pictures of the cave’s entrance and the next door temple (Wat Prarhas) and move on.
Stepping off the path and cutting across the grass to save four seconds of walking time, my left leg acquires a pair of unwanted guests. (At first, I think the tag is sticking out of my sock. But if such a thing exists (socks with tags), it’s a luxurious inconvenience I can’t afford.)
I flick first and ask questions later – a good strategy for removing bugs and spiders and anything that isn’t a leech, but of course these are leeches.
12:26 With one sock quickly going from white to red, we take a left and head north, deeper into Phang Nga Town. It’s time to eat.
12:45 Not many Phang Nga Town businesses have their own website, but Mr Satay (www.mrsatay.com) does. We each scarf ten sticks of charcoal grilled meat (pork or chicken) served with spicy peanut sauce and a bowl of chopped cucumbers and onions. Toast and iced chrysanthemum juice round out the tasty meal.
The menu is in English and the staff speak it well. The restaurant is in the north half of town on the west side of Phetkasem Rd; look for the orange sign.
13:19 We’re full, but I’m still bleeding. I wander into a pharmacy, show off the leech damage, and hand over 64 baht for isopropanol, iodine, gauze pads, a clump of cotton, and first aid tape.
13:46 Somdej Phra Sri Nakharin Park is across the street from Khao Chang at the far south end of town. It’s huge, appears new, and is well kept.
It has no less than three playgrounds, several ponds, lots of trails, and refreshment vendors.
But it also has a network of pathways winding in, around, and through rocky caverns and dark caves. It’s the perfect hide-and-seek venue, a fact not lost on local students.
14:39 Our next destination is Manohra Pond Natural Park, but we’re open to suggestions. We head north again, through Phang Nga Town and out the other side. Instantly, a sign promises a long list of wonders, if only we change course and turn left. We do.
15:10 Tone Waterfall is unremarkable, but it’s alongside the road and seeing it doesn’t require any effort. We park, walk down a small slope, snap a few photos and wave at people driving by.
15:16 The little blue signs say Klongtone Waterfall is next on our improvised agenda. These particular signs operate under an unusual set of rules. One reads “Klongtone Waterfall 4km”. In four kilometres, another sign says “Klongtone Waterfall 3km”.
Having no clue how much time and space separates you from your destination adds to the sense of adventure – just follow the breadcrumbs.
The road surface alternates between basic paving and mud. Against the advice of two men who suggested our car can’t handle what’s ahead, we drive over a ridge and into the valley below. The two unheeded advisors are waiting – with reinforcements – in front of a house at the bottom of the hill. This, the group tells us, really is the end of the road for our trusty Honda. But we can walk from here.
We don’t get far. Men on motorbikes chase us down and insist on helping. Saying no would be inconvenient at this point – to say nothing of getting lost. We climb aboard and slip-slide through mud pits.
My driver smells like a camp fire and is wearing tall rubber overshoes. Eventually we stop at a small river, which, for the next 500 metres, is our path. We follow our two guides, wading upstream through perfectly clear, cool, shin-deep water to where the trail resumes.
16:00 Like most waterfalls, we hear it before we see it – a natural suspense-builder that’s the trademark of falling water. The trek has been so freeing that even a disappointing cascade wouldn’t really be a disappointment. Lucky for us, the falls were quite nice. There are eight levels in all and we see the first two, but it’s getting late and we must turn back. (Note that you could discover this river and waterfall in Phang Nga ATV & Rafting Tour)
18:12 Back in Phuket Town, the verdict is in: Phang Nga is incredible. This day revealed only a sliver of what’s possible with a car, a pair of sturdy shoes, and a longing for fresh air with a bit of culture. (Even better, nearly everything was free. Wat Tham has a 20-baht entrance fee, and we gave our Klongtone guides a small cash thank you.) Rent a car, drive north, and make your own adventure. It’s worth it.