All too often overlooked by those heading further south to the islands of Koh Tao and Koh Samui – and equally overshadowed by its provincial squatter Hua Hin stealing the limelight – the town of Prachuap Kiri Khan is an atmospheric and comfortable train ride from Bangkok. Prachuap Kiri Khan is also located close to many tourist destinations that are served by tour operators such as First Choice, which offers packages to suit a range of budgets. Once you arrive in Prachuap Kiri Khan, arm yourself with this checklist and see the best that this pearl of a laid-back seaside town has to offer.
Cross the runway to swim off the beach at Ao Manao
Set inside the Thai Air Force’s Wing 53 base at the southern end of town, Ao Manao is a pristine beach that feels a bit like a national park thanks to its weekly military-grade clean-up. The sheltered bay, framed by mountains that wouldn’t look out of place on the Andaman coast further south, provides for calm waters and great swimming. Fringed by pine trees along with a beachside food court, whiskey bar and sports activities frequented mostly by the families of forces who live on site, Ao Manao gets busy at weekends with locals who lounge for hours under parasols tucking into dirt cheap fresh seafood. Make a beeline for papaya salad with raw blue crab and yum sam grop, a salad that’s a medley of crispy delights. For marginally cheaper food and somewhere you are also encouraged to bring your own picnic (if you pay the 10 baht per day deckchair hire fee), head past the main food stands on the beach to almost the very end of the road’s southern tip, where a Wing 5 managed setup promises food and a drink ‘at friend price’. Walk, cycle or take a motorbike taxi from town – check in with the guard office on the way through the gate to record your passport details.
Climb the steps to Wat Ao Noi’s deserted caves
At the far northern end of the town bay the mountain housing this cave temple straddles the twin bays of Ao Prachuap and Ao Noi, also known as Ao Khan Kadai. Venture a little further round to Ao Noi itself and brave the unforgiving midday heat to climb the steps to Wat Ao Noi. Beside the picturesque temple complex at ground level that looks glorious against the deep blue sky and the evergreen of the mountains, the two caves house a series of reclining Buddha images and beautiful but rather spooky white sitting Buddhas. Like the bay below you’re likely to have the whole place to yourself – it’s worth making the time for a walk along the beach, which seems to get no traffic other than the fishermen who work its waters, but beware that there’s little to no shade.
Tuck into cheap, fresh and delicious seafood
What sort of a sin would it be to come to the coast and not chow down on seafood? Prachuap Kiri Khan has an abundance of locally-caught fish and shellfish that travels barely a few steps between leaving the boat and landing on your plate. Best of all, prices are low – meaning you can eat more. For the best of the best, shun the places with blatant English signs and large menus on the display, and instead head for spots where menus give way to understated displays of fresh fish that do all the talking. The pick of the bunch is the always-packed Krua Lung Meuk Pa Lord, about halfway along beachfront Chaitalay Road – the sign in English reads only ‘Seafood’. Don’t miss the stunning pla krapong pad cha, sea bass (or your choice of other fresh fish) stir fried in a hot and spicy blend of herbs that’s heavy on the prik thai on young green peppercorns and krachai wild ginger.
Eat cheap at the low-key night market
One of the best things about Prachuap Kiri Khan is the relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere it exudes everywhere. Nowhere is this truer than at the nightly food market opposite the police station in the centre of town – despite the modest size it still affords a good selection of food to eat there or take home. Among its best picks are a killer hoy tod crispy mussel pancake mess, pad thai with fresh prawns, a couple of whatever-you-order stir-fry stands and some wicked pork satay served up on a kiddie-style food tray with separate compartments for the satay sauce and vinegary cucumber salad. There’s also ice cream, traditional Thai desserts (more of which can be found in the small shop opposite the market’s western end, not far from the Yuttichai Hotel) and a seemingly endless selection of fruit shakes. The best part is the whole lot is ridiculously inexpensive. For breakfast or lunch further along the beach road towards Ao Manao, a hardworking and smiley family feeds the crowds with their vats of curries over rice noodles or rice – plus tod man pla fish cakes, a deliciously tangy salsa-like fruit medley and refreshing drinks like nam anchun, steeped butterfly pea flowers that start off as shocking blue but take on a deep shade of purple with a twist of lime.
Dodge monkeys to catch the view from Mirror Mountain
The 396 steps up Khao Chong Krachok, or Mirror Mountain, are littered with hundreds of feral monkeys that won’t hesitate to go for your camera, food, bag – whatever you have on hand. Resist the urge to feed them and head on up for a view and a half from the top of the hill. The peaceful temple complex at the top houses a Buddha footprint, a hole in the mountain that seemingly reflects the sky and so gives the spot its name, and endless views west to the Burmese border and east over just some of the most delicious-looking coastline you could dream of. With golden sandbars, crystal clear water and limestone outcrops you really could be looking at the Andaman.
Sip coffee and buy a bike (or just join a ride) at Hachi
One of the newest additions to Prachuap Kiri Khan’s fast-evolving café scene is Hachi Coffee, a Japanese-inspired coffee and bicycle shop set in a restored town house on Sue Suk Road, a street back from the seafront. Staff are super-friendly and chatty, the coffee is good and there are cakes (often not ready until late in the day), biscuits and other snacks and a range of all-too-cute postcards of the local area shot by the owner. It makes the perfect hidey-hole to take a breather from the sun and watch the few tourists wander past. If you fancy something slightly more energetic, pick up one of the new or second-hand mountain bikes and various accessories, or just join the local cycling club for one of the free cycling tours that leave from here.
Hachi Coffee & Bike Shop, 272 Sue Suk Road; 032-611-234
Take a day-trip to Ban Krut
One for those with patience – if you can face probable lengthy delays in both directions, the train makes for a reasonable way to squeeze in a side-trip to Ban Krut (though you’ll get more out of it if you can give yourself time for an overnight stopover). While Ban Krut has little to offer that you won’t find elsewhere – including, indeed, in Prachuap – it’s a cute little town with an attractive beachfront and a few spots for cheap seafood just back from the sand. The roughly ninety-minute train ride is also a good way to experience third class without killing yourself, as well as being a pleasant opportunity to strike slightly further south. On the way to Ban Krut there are two conveniently-timed departures, the faster, air-conditioned and more expensive 12.29 and the 13-baht, third-class-only 13.28 (but again, expect delays particularly on the later one – it eventually left at about 15.15 for us!). Be warned that Ban Krut goes to bed very early and that, if you’re heading back by train too, you’ll likely have a couple of hours to while away when just about everything but a western bistro (on the road from town to the beach) has already shut up shop.
Sup on sundowners at Jim’s
Prachuap Kiri Khan is not the place to head if you’re looking for a hectic nightlife scene – most of the drinking holes are little more than a few stools and a rickety table under a tree outside someone’s home or the local grocery shop (and that’s precisely why we love it), though still perfect for a couple of frosty beers. But aside from the hotels there are one or two places worthy of a ‘bar’ tag – and while it’s probably worth trusting your instinct that these western targeted restaurants along the seafront look like places to avoid if you want the best of the local cuisine (I didn’t brave the food), one or two make for pleasant spots to ease down a tipple or two with a top-notch view of Prachuap bay as dusk settles in. Among them is Jim’s, the upstairs of a two-storey townhouse reached by a flight of scarily precarious steps, where the owner takes his own merry time to mix up a surprisingly decent minty, muddy mojito picked from an impressive cocktail list. Surrounded by an eclectic collection of retro furniture and other trash, erm, vintage knick-knacks, and with the lapping twilight waves in sight (you’re facing the wrong way to catch the actual sunset), it’s a pretty tranquil place to end the day. Only a few irritating electricity wires hang between you and the sea view (and it wouldn’t be Prachuap if it was totally perfect, now). Otherwise there are a handful of more humble spots, often nothing more than a few stools and a rickety table but perfect for a couple of frosty beers.
Brave the heights of Khao Lommuak
Well signposted within the Wing 5 air force base, and short of Ao Manao beach itself, Khao Lommuak mountain is guarded by a group of dusky leaf monkeys just to the left of the steps up – take a moment to stop and admire their dreamy eyes, and relish in the fact that they are more interested in hugging each other than the aggressive antics of the monkeys elsewhere. Most of the upward slog is on well-paved steps, while for the final stretch there are ropes to pull yourself up to the peak – a downward trail then heads back along the other side, or you can go the way you came. Learn from our mistakes by taking water and wearing suncream and proper shoes – we did none of the above on our rather spontaneous climb.
Breeze into town for the weekend market
Prachuap always seems to have something or other going on and, even when there’s nothing out of the ordinary, there is this weekly Friday and Saturday market around the pier. Expect crowds of locals for loads more food stands than usual plus clothes, souvenirs, plants, heavy wooden garden furniture and plenty more. Come around a festival and things spread out yet further, throwing in live music (wherein if you get lucky, can win tickets for Copperfield in Vegas), horseback shows, a ferris wheel and massages.
Picnic along the more remote stretches of Ao Prachuap
The grass verges between the road and the sand on the way to Wat Ao Noi are just begging to be picnicked on. Take a motorbike sidecar here from town and follow the locals’ lead by popping yourself down on a blanket or straw mat in the shade of a tree. Tuck into whatever delights you’ve picked up in town – there are a few food stalls on this stretch of road too, if you’ve come unprepared – and punctuate the eating and drinking with a dip in the water along this relatively windy stretch of the coast. If foraging is your thing, venture a little further around the headland onto Ao Khan Kadai beach just past Wat Ao Noi, where there seems to be a bounty of freshly washed-up mussels and even oysters – and plenty of discarded shells at the edge of the sand as proof that you’re not the first to be let in on the secret.
RECOMMENDED: Check Agoda’s rates for the Prachuap Beach Hotel
How to get there
Several trains depart daily for Prachuap Khiri Khan from Bangkok’s main Hualumphong railway station, most continuing further south to Chumphon, Surat Thani and beyond. The most convenient departures are the air-conditioned Special Express (train number 43) at 8.05am – only second class seats are available, costing 425B – and the Rapid (train number 171) departing at 1.00pm – a second class fan-cooled seat costs 245B, third class is 168B. Sleeper berths on the afternoon service offer a little more space from 395 baht – almost the whole journey takes place in daylight so the beds aren’t folded out, but the larger seats afford double the legroom. The journey is scheduled to take around five hours depending on the service, but regularly lasts at least six and a half on the slower afternoon departure. Buses are also available from Bangkok’s southern terminal Sai Tai Mai and from Victory Monument, as are connections to Hua Hin.
Additional photography by Wisan Saentheweesuk.