Prachuap Khiri Khan is unknown and unpronounceable outside of Thailand. But it couldn’t be one of Thailand’s “Hidden Gem” provinces – not because it isn’t worthy, but because so many people go there without realizing it. Confused?
In Thailand, most provinces are named after their capital city. The royal retreat and resort city of Hua Hin (which everybody knows) is actually in the north of Prachuap Khiri Khan Province (which few foreigners know). So is Pranburi, a more low-key beach area forty minutes south of Hua Hin. But few travel beyond Pranburi for a very simple reason: there are no nearby airports. It’s too far to drive for a weekend getaway from Bangkok.
That puts the capital of PKK City and the southern half of PKK Province in an access “dead zone”. You need time to get here. On a weekday, in good traffic, it takes four hours to drive to PKK City from Bangkok. On a weekend, that could easily stretch to six hours. Your whole weekend would be spent driving.
PKK Province is shaped like an hourglass. From Hua Hin, the Myanmar border is roughly 50km to the west as the crow flies. That distance contracts to just 12km near PKK City, the province’s waist. That was our goal. Nori had prepaid for a few nights at the Tri Shawa Resort, two bays south of the capital.
The resort was beautiful and the room was perfect for us. But the beach was a trash-strewn mudflat. I understand that hotels aren’t responsible for the rubbish that washes up on their beaches, but a twice daily trash pick-up would do wonders for aesthetics, and perhaps shame neighbors into cleaning up their act too.
In the morning, I ran down the main street towards the karst pinnacle that loomed over town. I got a lot of strange looks from the locals; foreign tourists aren’t so common there. But everyone was friendly as I stopped to investigate the street food carts in front of the wet market. I noticed that the street signs had whale figures atop them, but I hadn’t seen anyone offering whale-watching tours. I cut down a soi towards the shoreline and followed a path to a small inlet jammed with colorful fishing boats. But I couldn’t find a way to the trail that made its way up the peak. And there was no beach here to speak of.
Nearby Ao Manao (“Lime Bay”) was unusual in several respects. First, it was located inside an Air Force base (Wing 5). There were only two, guarded entrances to the base and no big hotels or apartment buildings near the beach. Second, the beach was a long, graceful ‘C’ of sand framed by high limestone headlands. It immediately reminded me of someplace else.
“I can’t believe this”, I remarked to Nori as we absorbed the view, “it looks like Rio de Janeiro! How have I never heard of this?”
While I filmed the surroundings with my drone (risky-stupid inside a military base), a tan, rangy foreigner approached. I assumed that he was American, but he was from Victoria, Canada and had lived in PKK for seven years.
“When I first came here it was like paradise. Nobody came here. Me and my friends climbed Khao Lom Muak whenever we wanted. We actually helped maintain the trail and the fixed ropes. One guy, a crazy American, used to climb it every day.”
Khao Long Muak was the tallest and most Brazilian of the headlands. Looking across the bay, I could see where the trail must go. It looked like an easy walk for the first 20 minutes and then it would get steep, really steep. A small pagoda crowned the sharp peak. The views from up there must be incredible. I had to climb it.
“Then it got too popular and they were afraid someone was going to get hurt. So they’ve gated it off and only open it up on holidays.”
Drat! But I wanted to make sure the situation hadn’t changed, so on his suggestion we drove out along the road that followed the northern arc of the beach. A large troop of dusky langurs lives at the foot of Khao Lom Muak.
We had to stop to let an airplane take off from the Air Force runway that bisected the peninsula. It didn’t take long to locate the langurs: there were dozens of the mild-mannered creatures eating bananas offered by visitors. We watched a troop of them scamper atop a fence, mothers with pink babies clutching their bellies still acrobatic enough to leap over lolligaggers.
Unfortunately, the trail up Khao Lom Muak was truly closed: barbed wire had been stretched across the access road and there was a soldier stationed in a guardpost nearby. As we drove back along the bay, I marveled that such an incredible beach could be mostly free of hotels and restaurants. Unintentionally, the Air Force was protecting the environment from the ugly free-for-all that happens all along Thailand’s coast. But how long could they resist the money that developers must already be offering? I agreed with the Canuck: “If the Bangkok people get a hold of some land here, this place is in trouble.”
He was also worried about the local tourism authority’s attempts to brand the area as ‘The Three Bays’, encouraging more Thai tourists to visit. “Domestic tourists are the worst: they all want to do the same thing and they have no respect for the environment.”
It’s condescending and even colonial to suggest that Thais shouldn’t see their own country because they’re herd-following litterers. But there is some truth to it. All over the country, we’d seen beautiful places despoiled by locals. They’d picnic on the beach and leave all their rubbish behind when they left. They tossed empty water bottles and candy wrappers on the side of hiking trails. Random stretches along rural roads became unofficial trash dumps. And the water anywhere near fishing villages was clogged with trash. Of course, foreign tourists could be filthy too, but Thais were often shamefully neglectful of their environment.
One set of PKK locals was unquestionably filthy: the malevolent macaques of Khao Chong Krachok. The jagged rocks and shit-covered stairs were teeming with nasty, thieving, diseased monkeys. Our ascent to the temple-topped mountain just north of downtown PKK City will be forever known as “The Assault on Monkey Mountain”. Even with a bamboo switch I was on guard. The boys, especially timid Tai, were terrified to walk past the larger, aggressive macaques, who seemed to enjoy baring their teeth, hissing and feigning attacks. I love animals but they needed a good kicking.
Thankfully, running the primate gauntlet was worth it. The views were extraordinary: a series of bays bookended by towering karst peaks. We could see all of PKK City, underwater ‘dunes’ shaped by the tides, long piers and the smudgy blue mountains to the west marking the border with Myanmar. I was sweating and parched when I reached the top. So a trio of kind youngsters offered me a swig of beer and my boys a gulp of Sprite.
Hua Hin certainly isn’t undiscovered. But much of southern PKK Province is, and the parts we’d seen had surprised us. Mass tourism will come to PKK City and Lime Bay, but I hope it comes slowly. Tourists need infrastructure: big hotels, whale-watching boats, restaurants and nightclubs. This part of PKK wasn’t virginal, but it still felt unspoiled and perhaps even naive about the total impact of tourism.
I happened to see the Canadian on his way back from his beach walk. I made a beeline for him; I had another question.
“We’ve not been to the south of Prachuap Khiri Khan Province or to Chumphon Province at all. Anything to see there?” I asked him.