No wonder people seem to think Prachuap Khiri Khan will be the ‘next big thing’. In just the three days I have spent there I have been wowed by the place and have come to the conclusion that, no matter what rubbish might be thrown up by trashy places like Pattaya or parts of Phuket, it is spots like Prachuap that earn Thailand the right to prefix itself with the word ‘amazing’ in its tourism literature.
Prachuap’s beauty is multi-levelled. Largely untouristed, peaceful yet buzzing and all the time stunningly beautiful, it is somewhere that is easy to fall in love with. I will hold back from using the usual ‘Thailand of twenty years ago’ cliché because, firstly, the phrase is old and so overused it is devoid of any meaning and, secondly, because I wasn’t here twenty years ago (I would have been one advanced toddler if I was).
But I will say this – Prachuap is the sort of place whose understated charm and simple attraction can excite even the most jaded traveller, can give you a real buzz at the sight of one its stunning wats no matter how templed out you might be, and can (and will) leave you with repetitive strain injury from the number of times your thumb has hit the button on your camera to shoot yet another unbelievably gorgeous photo. It is a place, above all, that induces a buzzing sense of excitement at having discovered it; as if it were you who has found it for the first time (and there are so few westerners, at times it can feel like it).
The town is not entirely off the tourist trail – to say there are no farang here would be an outright lie. The telltale signs are there that you are following in the steps of others; good English is spoken at the train station, hotels have room rates and signs displayed in English, and a series of western-targeted but otherwise low-key restaurants line the shore at Ao Prachuap, the on-the-whole unimpressive town beach (but more on beaches later). You will come across white faces, but they are few and far between. And rather than drunk backpackers or sleazy sex tourists, they are by-and-large families – and primarily French, German and Scandinavian ones, at that. In my three days I met one American retiree, coming to the end of his latest three-month stay in Prachuap, and not a single Brit.
Thais make up the majority of the tourists that are around – but even they are nowhere near in the numbers I had expected. While the beach at Ao Manao is clearly geared towards tourism, in the town itself there is little apart from locals getting on with their day-to-day lives. Round at Ao Noi and Ao Khan Kadai, where I spent a full day climbing to the cave temple at Wat Ao Noi and then walking the absolutely deserted shoreline, there were no tourists whatsoever; not domestic, not foreign.
The town’s layout is simple, helpful to someone lacking sense of direction as much as me. Arriving at the very central makes for a seamless transfer to one the plentiful, perfectly good and incredibly inexpensive accommodation options; my double room at the Yuttichai Hotel was admittedly basic but still clean and perfectly decent, and cost a grand total of 250B per night. The Yuttichai is literally a stone’s throw from the train station, as I found out when I took a 20B motorbike taxi for all of about five seconds down the road – the Travelfish listings online had told me it was close, but quite how close I hadn’t realised! The road from the train station runs all the way down to the sea at Ao Prachuap.
Perhaps the principal attraction in town, Mirror Mountain or Khao Chong Krachok is a hill (hardly a mountain) with 396 monkey-lined steps leading up to a mini monastery housing a Buddha footprint – and an absolutely stunning view out over the coastline. This view deserves a double mention; there are no words to describe quite how beautiful it is. With glistening sandbanks making an appearance as the water shallows a little way out from the shore, and the limestone outcrops on both sides of the bay, you could easily be looking at a scene from the Andaman. Farang largely on their way to Chumphon and Surat Thani (and so onward to Koh Tao, Pha Ngan and Samui) on my train journey to Prachuap got a quick glimpse of part of this stretch of coast, and it was enough to make them leap out of their seats, cameras at the ready, to get a shot – it is just a shame they don’t give it the time to stop over before they head further down to their tourist trap land of choice.
The view aside, a short spell at the top of Mirror Mountain is incredibly relaxing. Again, it would be a lie to pretend this is utter paradise – you can still hear the hum of the traffic on the roads below, but there is still a sense of calm at the top that would be worth the trek even if the view was only half as good as it is. Even the monkeys are relatively tame – a striking contrast to the Lopburi variety, who will jump at you for the chance of a bite to eat, these ones are quite content scrabbling around on the trees and sat on the steps. One even posed for me, a shot from behind as he too looked out and admired the view across this could-be Andaman.
From Mirror Mountain and the main town of Prachuap in the middle, Ao Manao sits to the right in a southerly direction, while to the north is Ao Noi and Ao Khan Kadai. Ao Manao, or Lime Bay, is within the confines of the Wing 53 Thai air force base, and getting there involves passing through the base entrance and signing yourself in with the military – preferably not doing as I did, and reaching the perimeter of the base sooner than expected as you walk absent-mindedly along the beach, only for a uniformed patrol guard and his gun to come out to ask you to go the road way. Signing in to the base is itself a peculiar basis, since no ID is required; you only need to write down your name, nationality and passport number (curiously they also want to know whether you have come by taxi or not – I hadn’t, although once I had started walking a passer-by kindly gave me a ride on his motorbike for the remaining couple of kilometres to the beach at Ao Manao from the base entrance) and the date and time you enter and leave; no-one checks what you have written, and I could conceivably have signed in as Mickey Mouse with passport number 12345. Which might not have been a bad thing, given I didn’t get a chance to sign out at the end of the day – my return taxi driver sped straight past and out through the gate, waved through by the guard, despite my requests, drowned out by the sound of his motorbike engine, that we pull in so I could keep the bureaucrats happy. Hopefully they don’t actually do anything with the data – I would quite like to go back to Ao Manao again in the future, and equally don’t fancy being stopped at immigration when I head out for my visa run next week (not going to happen, I know).
Getting to the beach involves passing right through the middle of a couple of the air force’s runways, which seems a bit bizarre at the time, but other than that it is more like a small, fully-functioning village than a military facility. Ao Manao itself is a long, awesomely beautiful bay that keeps going and going, with perfectly clear water gently lapping the shore; not a wave in sight, thanks to the shelter afforded by the outward headland at either end of the beach. The water here is relatively shallow but does attain some depth more quickly than I had expected, and is great for swimming but also perfect for kids to safely splash around in.
A few farang had made their way to Ao Manao the day I spent there, but by and large the parasol-covered deckchairs and low tables at the edge of the beach were occupied by Thai tourists, chowing down fresh seafood and papaya salad. With the beauty of a general lack of foreign tourism also comes lower prices; while the cost a light meal at a similar setup with my family in Hua Hin last year quickly mounted up, here a 1.25l bottle of Coke, a 1.5l bottle of water (apparently bottled on the beach – talk about zero food miles!) and a plate of som tum set me back 100B.
And yes, I would have liked something slightly less than 2.75l of fluid, but they had only large bottles – typical crazy farang behaviour for me to go somewhere like this alone rather than in a big group (hence the fact that I didn’t get served straight away while others arriving had menus brought over to them; the owner assumed I was waiting for others to join me). A few other stalls line the road behind the beach, peddling the usual touristy wares of T-shirts and the like, but other than that there is little in the way of tourist amenities – save for a few rather over-imposing toilet facilities. But the real beauty here is simply strolling the palm-fringed beach, taking a dip in the water and sitting back to enjoy the view.
In the other direction from Ao Prachuap, Ao Noi and Ao Khan Kadai seem even more of the tourist radar. In fact, aside from a couple of fishermen I saw not one single other person the whole time I was there. Perhaps this is partly due to the distance out from Prachuap town; it is about a 15-20 minute taxi ride, and Khan Kadai actually has its own train station one stop north of Prachuap Khiri Khan, though how far from the beach this is I’m not sure. My motorbike sidecar ride cost me 120B – originally 100B, but upped once the driver realised how far it actually was. But he had earned every penny, using hand gesticulations to give me a mini tour above the noise of his engine en route. Idle shouted banter between him and another taxi driver, plus him having random chats with people when he pulled in at the petrol station for a wee en route, all serve as reminders of how small town this is.
The drive to Ao Noi is itself stunning, almost the whole ride along the beach road tracking the coast, just a strip of palm trees separating the tarmac from the turf. It reminded me at once of the coast around the Lae Mae Phim area of Rayong and of beaches on Greek islands like Lesvos. People sat under trees, their motorbikes parked at the side of the road, were making the most of the scenery to soak up the atmosphere of a lazy day. Above all it is excellent proof that, however stunning some of Thailand’s islands may be, there is equally fabulous coastline to be found on the mainland.
At this point my sense of orientation unsurprisingly failed me once again. I had asked to be taken to Ao Noi, but was dropped at the entrance to Wat Ao Noi, at the side of the beach. Wat Ao Noi is the recently changed name for what was previously Wat Ao Khan Kadai. It is a cave temple some way up the mountain landscape, and is described in guides as being set on a ‘small hill’ separating Ao Noi from Ao Khan Kadai. While I would hardly call it a small hill (more of a huge bugger of a mountain), it makes me think that the beach it sits to the side of is actually Ao Khan Kadai, and that Ao Noi is slightly further south towards Prachuap town – but the Google maps on my phone thought otherwise, and I gave up trying to make sense of it in favour of just enjoying where I had ended up. The walk up the steps is not particularly taxing, but enough to break out a sweat as the midday heat pulses down – two sala shelters provide some much-needed shade and a chance for a brief pause on the way up, plus a chance to take in the great views that are afforded from this height. At the top the track leads into the first of two large, pretty well lit caves that house two stunning reclining golden Buddhas, plus a mesmerising eight-row deep set of smaller sitting Buddhas.
This place was entirely deserted on my visit and, though the Buddhas themselves are nothing more than what you would find in other temples elsewhere – where indeed you would be unlikely to find the almost rubbish dump of leftover offerings of food, drink and the like, never cleared away – it is the sheer peace, isolation and tranquility of the place that makes this so appealing, and so difficult to leave. There is not a soul up here, and the spot has a real air of calm – add to that the feeling that you’ve almost discovered something new and untouched, and it is at the same time both a great shame and unendingly wonderful that more people don’t make the trip here. On the day I visited Ao Noi, Ao Khan Kadai and Wat Ao Noi, the last full day of my trip before I headed back to Bangkok, I didn’t see a single tourist, western or even Thai. In fact, for all of the time I spent on this stretch of the Prachuap coastline, all I saw were the taxi driver who brought me here and perhaps another four of five locals at work fishing.
Whatever the beach itself is called, there is very little but beautiful white sandy and a few fishermen. Expect nothing in the way of amenities, including places to eat – don’t make my mistake of eating nothing for breakfast but a little of the previous night’s leftover satay, as there is literally nothing here at all. The southern end is somewhat littered by fishing debris, which detracts ever so slightly from its beauty, but take the chance to walk further down and you’ll be amply rewarded. This particular stretch of coast seems to go on and on and on forever, and I walked as long as I could in the sweltering heat – dumping my bag and flip flops part way along the beach, together with plenty of cash, my passport, phone and camera, well aware that with no-one here there was no chance of them going anywhere.
Apart from footprints that seemed to be about the size of a dog (or perhaps a monkey, in this area!) my tracks were the only ones at this end of the beach, and I went as long as I could before I had to give in to a combination of the heat, hunger and a growing need to go to the toilet. You could quite easily carry on right to the headland that sticks out and combines with headland on the opposite site of the bay to give completely calm water with not so much as a wave, and a few beautiful sandbanks as the generally shallow water level varies slightly at points. In fact, you can probably even carry on right around past that headland walk all the way to Hua Hin if you want to! If you came well prepared with lunch and supplies, this beach would make a lovely spot for a totally isolated picnic, just enough shade being provided by the edge of the beach as it turns to grassland that backs on to the road behind the odd house or, on the whole, unused but still generally charming wasteland. Heading back, it is pretty easy to pick up a motorbike sidecar taxi as you walk along the road you came down to get here.
Prachuap Khiri Khan has won itself a huge chunk of my heart already. Maybe it won’t happen tomorrow, but at some point this place will explode onto the tourist trail and will be huge. Until then, it’s yours – and mine – to explore while it still has a true Thai vibe, a ton of things to see and do and an untouristed, tranquil feel that is increasingly difficult to find. Now is the time to go.
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, arriving Prachuap Khiri Khan at 12.28pm – only second class seats are available, costing 425B – and the Rapid (train number 171) departing at 1.00pm and arriving at 6.35pm – a second class fan-cooled seat costs 245B, third class is 168B. There also appear to be second class fan-cooled or air-con sleeper berths available from 345B to 615B, but for a five and a half hour daytime journey a seat is perfectly comfortable. Buses are also available from Bangkok’s southern terminal Sai Tai Mai, as are connections to Hua Hin, which is linked to Bangkok by regular minibus departures.
The Yuttichai Hotel, on the same road that runs from the train station right down to the seafront, has double fan rooms with private bathroom available for 250B per night. Rooms with shared bathroom are as little as 160B, while air-con doubles go for 400B and quads are 500B. Staff speak good English and there is a coffee shop downstairs, which also serves breakfast and some light meals. Internet access and wi-fi are available for an extra charge, though note that the wi-fi is switched off at midnight, the same time the hotel locks its front doors (wi-fi is meant to be 60B per day but, as I was first logging on at around 7pm and would only have a few hours online, I was offered it at a discount for 30B). Tel: (032) 611 055.
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