By Percy Roxas.
When a Thailand visitor goes to Phuket or Krabi, they are usually encouraged to enjoy attractions and activities beyond the mainland beaches such as island-hopping or scuba diving. When they visit these attractions and enjoy the activities, more often than not, their tour organizer is sharing with them an experience of Phang-nga. Phang-nga province, located 788km from Bangkok, is relatively lesser known than its neighbors Phuket and Krabi but certainly no less endowed. Its scenic forest and islands — viewed along the Andaman coast in an area approximately 4,1700sqm — help this green destination dreamy, one that boasts superb natural beauty and riches onshore and underwater. Even Khao Lak, now a popular tourist spot in itself, is part of Phang-nga province.
Think James Bond Island, featured in a 1974 Bond movie, and one of the most iconic images of Phang-nga; or the Phang-nga Bay, which is home to many fascinating islands loved and visited by thousands of tourists; or the Similan Islands, one of Thailand’s main diving destinations. But these are just a few. The province is famed for its other islands, mountains, forest, beaches, islands, not to mention the waters of the Andaman Sea. On the more cultural side, Phang Nga is not lacking either: it is a melting pot of Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, Muslims and even sea gypsies. With this kind of mixture, Phang Nga is always celebrating something, be it part of Thai Buddhist, Thai-Chinese or Thai-Islamic tradition or any of the festivals that it shares with the rest of the kingdom.
WHAT TO SEE
Nature lovers will have a heyday in Phang-nga. The province is home to several national parks such Ao Phang-nga, Mu Ko Similan, Mu Ko Surin, and Khao Lak-Lam Ru. Ao Phang-nga (Phang-nga Bay) National Park boasts scenic views and features mass limestone formations scattered around in the sea near the shore. The same factors contribute to the density of caves in the area. The park is fertile with mangroves and a number of islands are in the vicinity. Many of national parks, like the Khao Lampi-Hat Thai Mueang National Park has interesting attractions such as waterfalls (Namtok Lampi, a 6-tiered waterfall that runs all year round is loacted here) and nature trails. Island-hopping is a must-do here, with islands and islets such as Ko Phra Thong, a large island northwest of Phang-nga with many beaches and Ko Yao , which covers an area of 137sqm. This island is made up of two large islands: Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai. Of course the Similan Islands is famous. Perhaps the best beaches are in Khao lak. Hat Khao Lak, located 32km from Takua Pa, is a long scenic beach along the Andaman Sea set beneath the green mountain of the Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park. The old town of Takua Pa has its own charm too. The accommodations at Takua Pa along Khao Lak and Bang Sak Beach, which are built in the original southern architecture style, are interesting. One must also take note of Koh Panyi, a Muslim fishing village on stilts. Being Thailand, Buddhist temples are everywhere too in case you are interested.
WHAT TO DO
Try elephant cave trekking at Tham Phung Chang which is a cave with numerous stalactites and stalagmites, and rafting in Ton Pariwat Wildlife Sanctuary north of Phang Nga town. Or, go rock climbing through several routes with their high quality limestone, steep-pocketed walls, overhangs, and hanging stalactites. You can also go kayaking especially in Khao Lak where the coastline consists of mangroves, limestone, small coves, caves, and islands. Its river interiors are lined up with fascinating cave systems. Other activities: bird watching (many rare birds can be seen including Gurneys, Finfoots, Bigwinged Brown Kingfishers, egrets, and herons); sailing and cruising in Ao Phang Nga National Park; fishing (for marlin, sailfish barracuda and tuna); jungle trekking; bamboo rafting (along Lam Ru Yai Canal at Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park); golf (there are two 18-hole golf courses near Khao Lak: Tablamu Navy Golf Course and Thai Muang Beach Golf & Marina); spa (many hotels and resorts offer world-class spa services; and diving (Similan Islands are famed for their reefs, coral and variety of marine life, Surin Islands are virtually untouched with reefs that slope to the seabed and located near Surin Islands is the horseshoe-shaped Richelieu Rock, which is considered by hoards of divers to be the best dive site in the whole of Thailand). You can also visit a local village to see how local folks try to maintain their traditional way of life through community-based tourism. Don’t expect nightlife as in Patong or Ao nang but there are several clusters of beer bars and live music venues scattered around the beach and bay areas. To relax and chill-out inn style, visit the hotel bars.
EAT & DRINK
Don’t forget to sample Southern Thai food, renowned for its spiciness. The Indian-style Muslim curry (massaman), rice noodles in fish curry sauce (Khanom Jeen) and chicken biryani available in Bangkok originated from the South, where the food is very much influenced by Malay, Indonesia, and Indian settlers. Phang-nga’s Panyi Island is famous for its Shrimp Paste, and Takuapa for its Chinese-style baked cakes. Restaurants specializing in foreign cuisine are largely limited to big hotels and areas like Khao Lak – but this should give you an opportunity to try more of the local fare.
Several hotels are available in Phang-nga Town although they are all of relatively low standard and rather old. But better hotels are in abundance in Phuket, Khao Lak, and Krabi and you can take one of the frequent and inexpensive buses to Phang Nga early in the morning. Several international hotel chains are now operating in Khao Lak, such as JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort & Spa (076-584-888), Le Meridien Khao Lak (076-427-500), Ramada Khao Lak Resort & Spa (076-427-777), and others. You might want to try Casa dela Flora (076-428-999), a very modernist property with a great beach. You will likely get better quality hotels simply by comparing prices. If you want to stay in Phang-nga itself and want budget hotels, you can try Phang Nga Guesthouse (076-411-358); Thawisuk Hotel, Petchakasem Rd (Just after Phang Nga Guesthouse on the main road); and Pattanapong Hotel, Petchakasem Rd (Just before Phang Nga Guesthouse on the main road, next to the 7-Eleven.
Shopping for local souvenirs can be an interesting activity for visitors. Some recommended buys are the artificial flowers made from rubber and fish scales, which are souvenirs symbolic of Phang-nga province. Also batik fabrics.
By Car — First route: From Bangkok, take Highway No. 4, passing the provinces of Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chumphon, and Ranong, then drive straight to Phang-nga town. The trip takes around 12 hours. Second route: From Bangkok take Highway No.4 to Chumphon. From there, take Highway No. 41 to Amphoe Tha Chang, then go straight to an intersection where a right turn is made to Highway No. 401, keep driving to Amphoe Ban Ta Khun for about 50km, and then take Highway No. 415 for 30km, take a right turn to Phang-nga town.
By bus — There are daily bus services from Bangkok. Air-conditioned buses, varying in three types, depart from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal at the following times: VIP Bus (6:30 p.m.), Standard 1 Bus (7:30 p.m.), and Standard 2 Bus (6:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.). Traveling time is 12 hours. For more info, call the Southern Bus Terminal at 02-435-119/200 or the Phang-nga Bus Terminal at 076-412-300 or 076-412-014. Buses from Phuket, Takua Pa, and Krabi pass through Phang-nga.
By plane — There is no airport here. The closest ones are in Phuket or Krabi. Thai Airways operates Bangkok-Phuket flights daily. From Phuket, take a bus or rent a car to Phang Nga, about 58km (02-280-0060, 02-628-2000 or Phuket office at 076-360-444). Bangkok Airways has daily flights connecting Phuket Airport with Pattaya and Ko Samui (02-265-5678). Air Asia also offers several daily flights connecting Bangkok and Phuket airport (02-515-9999)
By train — There is no train station. You must catch a bus from Phunphin, near Surat Thani province, where the rail service from Bangkok stops.