Our time spent in Nan Province a few months ago made me realize that I had lived in Thailand for almost three decades and just not experienced enough of it. I needed to get out and see more.
So once again I asked my wife to don her organiser's cap and sort us out ‘somewhere nice' for a four-day trip. Ranong was the next destination on her ever-growing hit list- so Southern Thailand here we come!
A quick look at Wikipedia then.
Ranong Province is on an isthmus (remember your geography lessons, folks) connecting Thailand with the Malay Peninsula. It's the least populated of all Thailand's provinces, in fact 80% of it is covered in forest. It's also known as one of the wettest provinces in Thailand. It can piddle down for eight months a year in what must feel to the locals like a never-ending rainy season. I'd better take me mac.
Wikitravel describes Ranong City itself as "a small border city with limited tourist interest and hence still quaintly Thai. Border access via boat to Kawthoung in Myanmar makes Ranong a popular visa run destination"
If ‘limited tourist activity' translates as the probability of meeting very few Westerners, then I'm in with bells on.
The flight to Ranong from Bangkok's Don Muang airport takes about 75 minutes and budget airline, Nok Air, flies the route several times a day. I'm a big fan of Nok Air. I think they look after their passengers well but I'm not sure who wants to be surrounded by so much yellow so early in the day.
We opted for a 9.00 am departure and a barely quarter full aircraft. "Ranong just isn't a popular destination for Thais" my wife remarked, looking around at the rows of empty seats behind her.
Ranong Airport looks like something from a 1970s book of architecture. It is completely devoid of any charm. There are no flowerbeds and no cute signage to take photos in front of. Even the solitary coffee shop was a grim place to linger. The airport is functional, rectangular and made of concrete. You collect your suitcase from the carousel and get out of there as fast as possible.
We picked up our hire car in front of the airport terminal and drove the 25 kilometres into Ranong City along a scenic stretch of Route 4, often referred to as The Phetkasem Highway. The Phetkasem is 1,274 kilometres long and Thailand's longest highway (don't say I never teach you anything)
The scenery en route to Ranong was pleasant albeit a little disappointing. To me it looked no different to Phetburi Province. I began to wonder if it had been necessary to venture this far south. Ranong Province - certainly at first glance - seemed to offer little more than Phetburi other than more litter dumped at the roadside. There sure was plenty of that!
We hadn't got ten minutes from the airport before we hit a police roadblock. I guess with Ranong's close proximity to Myanmar and numerous Burmese sneaking over the border each and every day, the boys in brown have to keep a vigilant eye on things. But a quick glance at my wife's driving licence and ID card and we were on our way.
For our accommodation, we had booked three nights at The Hidden Resort, a few kilometres from Ranong city centre and another darling of the Thai travel forums. I guess when a place has an average of five stars from almost a hundred Trip Advisor reviews, you know you are in for something special - and so it proved.
We discovered that the brains behind the resort was a Thai gentleman with a passion for travel and design. We sadly never got to meet him, because I would have liked the opportunity to shake him firmly by the hand and congratulate him on one of the nicest places I've ever stayed at in Thailand.
His attention to detail was mind-blowing. The dozen or so bungalows, surrounded (and hidden) by fastidiously-tended plants and trees, were gorgeous. Even the fresh coffee maker in each room was an expensive job imported from abroad.
The Hidden Village's biggest attraction though is its food. The menu is quirky and imaginative and the on-site restaurant is so delightful, you instinctively want to eat all your meals there. Why schlep into town and eat at somewhere inferior? One morning we opted for the healthy breakfast option which included slices of toast with peanut butter and topped with banana slices and chia seeds. Each slice of banana looked as if it had been placed on the toast using a ruler and a set square.
The staff got a ten out of ten as well. All of them clearly very well trained and immaculately turned out in quality cotton uniforms with the name of the resort across the shirt pocket. They obviously felt a great pride in working at what was surely Ranong's premium accommodation. We loved this place!
But let's get back to our first day in Ranong. We dropped off our suitcases and hit the road, eager to have a mosey around Ranong City. There was also the added attraction of all those Muslim restaurants (this is the south after all) and their beef massumans, goat curries and freshly-made rotis. Something I rarely get the chance to eat in Bangkok and oh boy, do I love Muslim food.
We headed straight to what was arguably the most popular Muslim joint in town but despite being little after midday, three quarters of the entire menu was sold out. What did remain available looked as if it had been sitting around for hours and was served up almost stone cold. We quickly learned that you had to get to Muslim restaurants early in the day if you wanted to beat the local Muslim population. By early afternoon, there was nothing left!
We walked around Ranong City for an hour but couldn't warm to it at all. Wikipedia might well have described it as ‘quaintly Thai' but unfortunately this can also translate as ‘dull as ditchwater'
My wife offered some interesting insight as to why Ranong City felt so underwhelming.
"Ranong City is just a stepping stone to somewhere else" she said, "Thai travellers carry on to explore the nearby islands. Foreigners might come here for a visa run and do an overnight stay - but that's about it"
Indeed, where were the cute, welcoming coffee shops and the souvenir shops selling local produce? (the area is famous for growing cashew nuts) It felt as if the whole city had just given up. It knew that tourists would only ever be the ‘just passing through' variety and accepted that that's the way it will always be.
There were pockets of the city with the odd nice-looking restaurant but they appeared to be few and far between.
We eventually found some places selling cashew nuts and a few other local delicacies but every foodstuff had just been poured into plain plastic bags and plonked on to rusting metal shelves in a dingy, airless shop-house.
"You know what Ranong needs?" my wife said, "a bloody good marketing manager. Someone to take a look at how they do things in the north of Thailand. The way the shops present and package their goods and the overall impressions and vibes that a city gives to its tourists and visitors. Ranong needs some serious help and guidance"
I couldn't have agreed with her more.
But let's get a bit more positive. When my wife had researched and planned the trip, she had told me from the get-go that the gems and must-sees would all be in the outlying province and not in the city itself. It was time to start ticking them off.
Backtracking up Route 4 towards the airport, we started with the excellent Punyaban Waterfall. Now I must confess that I've traipsed through many a forest in Thailand to get to a waterfall that has been no more than an ambitious stream but Punyaban was a delight. You don't even need to traipse through forest either, the falls are right there at the side of the highway.
To get close up and personal with the cascading waters, it's 50 baht for Thais and 100 baht for foreigners. However, once I had established my credentials in the local language, the kindly woman at the ticket hut wouldn't dream of charging me more than the Thai price. To be honest, I would have gladly paid a hundred because the waterfall was splendid and the fact we were virtually the only people there made things even better. We paddled in the waters, sat on the rocks and lingered for far longer than necessary but it was such a peaceful, idyllic spot, it was difficult to tear yourself away.
No trip to an unfamiliar province in Thailand is ever complete without knocking off a couple of temples but we ambled around them more out of a sense of duty than anything else. Both temples were a bit on the ramshackle side and there were no novice monks around looking to practice their English (as there sometimes is) In fact, my lasting memory of the second temple will always be me almost stepping into a great big lump of dog shit. Thankfully my wonderful wife grabbed my arm and pushed me away in the nick of time.
One thing that Ranong City is certainly famous for is its hot springs. And in the Raksa Warin district, there is a public bathing area, where for a small fee you can roll up your trousers and dangle your tootsies in the bubbling, steamy waters. Alas, with it being the day of the Loy Krathong festival, the public bathing area was closed for some reason. You couldn't even get through the barriers and drive a car down there. Never mind, we would come back another day.
We ended the afternoon at another temple, where locals were busy making ‘krathongs' - mainly for children from the nearby primary school to purchase and then float on the river that ran alongside. The river was also teeming with fish and so to boost temple funds, you could buy bread and other stuff that fish love to scoff. So we bought some fish food from an elderly vendor who took delight in telling us that we were about to feed the only vegetarian fish in Thailand. Anyway, we bought into the story hook, line and sinker.
We finished our first day in Ranong with a dip in The Hidden Resort's lovely swimming pool. Well, my wife did. I just sat at the side of the pool and looked after her handbag.
I'm a non-swimmer and I'll be a non-swimmer for whatever passes as the rest of my life. I have an unconquerable fear of water and that's just the way it is. At secondary school I was virtually the only boy in my year who couldn't swim. I faked a verruca on my foot for two years to get out of swimming classes and other kids used to jokingly call me ‘The Man from Atlantis'. The bastards!
But it was never for want of trying. In the mid 1970s, a local newspaper, The Birmingham Evening Mail, implemented a campaign to teach every child in the city to swim. For the price of a bag of chips, you could sign up for a two-week course of swimming lessons under the watchful eye of professional instructors.
And that's how ten goose-pimpled 12-year old kids came to be assembled in the shallow end at the decrepit Green Lane Swimming Baths for the first day of the programme. Within a few days, eight of the kids had progressed from non-swimmer to swan-diving off the top board. But I would always have Billy. Billy was a tiny little blonde-haired lad but more importantly, my partner in humiliation. Billy and I clung onto the sides of the swimming pool for dear life, begging the other boys not to splash us. But with a lot of coaxing and encouragement, Billy discovered something wonderful - he could actually float in water if he would just relax himself.
That was it. By the end of the final day of the course, he was doing lengths up and down the pool like fucking Mark Spitz. Me? I was clinging to the side-railing and begging Billy not to splash me.
So bearing all that in mind, I hope you'll forgive me for saying that I wasn't too thrilled about what lay ahead on our second day in Ranong. It would involve getting on a boat. And with that always comes the risk of going arse over tit into water. Very deep water at that.
After breakfast, we made the hour-long drive to a boat pier on the shores of The Andaman Sea, where hopefully there would be a man with a long-tailed boat waiting for us. It's worth mentioning at this stage that the receptionist at The Hidden Resort had organised everything for us in advance - the accommodation, car rental and also the hire of a boat for the day.
Sure enough, our friendly local and boat were already at the pier. He pointed us in the direction of the guy who would be navigating us around a selection of the islands today. He was busy doing what looked like bailing water out of the vessel with a small plastic bucket. But I'm sure there was a perfectly reasonable and logical explanation.
The islands are undoubtedly Ranong's draw card. There are dozens of islands out there ranging from the largest and most commercial one (Koh Kayam) down to smaller islands that consist of nothing more than a small beach and a few benches and tables on which day-trippers can sit and enjoy a packed lunch.
Most tour companies in the area seemed to promote day trips that took tourists to several of the smaller islands (Koh Kayam is a bit too far away). I had looked on various websites back home in Bangkok and all the tour companies charged around 3,900 baht a head. For that they would also throw in a bit of lunch, a few soft drinks perhaps and the use of snorkelling gear when the opportunity arose. So that's 7,800 baht for two people. Not cheap at all. So I think my wife did remarkably well to get the same kind of deal (minus the packed lunch which The Hidden Resort provided us with anyway) for 2,500 baht all in - for both of us!
I have to say - fear of water aside - I thoroughly enjoyed the day. At risk of sounding cliché, it really was like stepping into the pages of a travel brochure. That contrast of colour between the gaily-coloured long-tailed boats, the turquoise blue sea and the white sandy beaches was really something to behold.
I'll let the photos do the talking.
We ended up doing two islands - Koh Yippun and Koh Kham. We had planned to do a third island on the way back but our boatman didn't like the look of the tide and felt the island would be inaccessible. Either that or he wanted to get back for the football.
Kho Kham was probably the nicer of the two islands we moored at if only because it offered an incredible view point that was well worth the tricky climb to get to it.
For our third and final day in the province, the wife had organised what she called a ‘bits and pieces' day. A bit of this, a bit of that - and nothing in particular. Just the two of us out on the open road and exploring what else Ranong had to offer. It turned out to be quite a day.
We drove firstly to the village of Bang Kaew, in the shadow of Mount Faa Chi. A mile drive up a winding road brings you to the top of the mountain and some panoramic views of The Kraburi River and surrounding forests. But what had really lured us to Bang Kaew was the war museum. During WWII, this whole area was a stronghold for Japanese troops with its own railway network built to transport ammunition during invasions of Burma. I'm always up for a good war museum.
After a pleasant coffee stop and a chat with a local villager, we headed on to the museum. First impressions were good with the outside area dominated by a huge, if very rusty, WWII Japanese locomotive. But you can imagine our disappointment upon seeing the museum building closed and heavily padlocked. It looked like it hadn't seen a visitor for donkey's years. We peered through crud-covered windows but the place was nothing but an empty shell. A faded sign on the door that read ‘gone for lunch' added a final insult to injury.
The peace was broken by a group of teenagers arriving on motorcycles. They dismounted and immediately lit up cigarettes. Ah, the joys of the underage smoker looking for that special place to spark up away from parents' prying eyes.
Time for us to leave but later that day we did some Googling and discovered that a few years before, a local Thai historian, with a passion for all things war and military and obviously with a bit of spare cash, had approached the local authorities and offered to take over and renovate the museum. He simply had a dream to return the building to its past glories and become a place that visitors would flock to. The authorities turned the offer down. They simply weren't interested and so sadly, the doors of the museum remain closed and bolted. I thought it summed up Ranong perfectly. "Who's interested in coming here? We are just a stepping stone to somewhere else"
Someone famously said ‘travelling is always better in retrospect' and looking back at the trip now, could the next place on the itinerary have been the highlight? - Rattanarangsarn Palace back in Ranong City. Don't miss this one! The original residence was built in 1890 for King Rama V during a royal visit. It has since been completely rebuilt from teak wood and serves as a wonderful place to spend an hour because thanks to its knowledgable guide (who I must say had all the time in the world for us) this is Thai history coming alive! They have kept the price of admission low and all are welcome. The fact that we were the only two visitors there on a cool and comfortable Sunday afternoon was frankly criminal.
Next stop was the Ngao Mangrove Forest Research Centre (quite a mouthful what?) and again there wasn't a living soul around. We parked up at the entrance and were just about to begin a hike into the forest when a little girl - she couldn't have been more than six years old - appeared from nowhere on a kiddy's bicycle and gestured towards a small wooden hut where she invited us to sign a visitors book. Perhaps this information would help the forest rangers identify us if we met with horrible deaths deep in the forest but for now the whole area looked like it was under the jurisdiction of a little girl on a pink bike. Oh, and her dog as well. You've just got to love Thailand.
I scanned several pages of names in the visitors book and it indicated we were the first visitors that day. Four people had come yesterday. Three people the day before that. Business was clearly booming. And that was a crying shame because as little as I know about the world of mangrove forest research (or even care for that matter) it was well worth a visit. The scarcity of visitors just added to the eerie atmosphere and the haunting silence. It was like being part of a Tim Burton movie set. You half expected one of the trees to come alive, wrap a branch around you, lift you up wholesale and with legs flailing, feed you into an enormous cakehole hidden somewhere within its trunk.
By now the sun was beginning to set and when the sun is going down in Ranong and the temperature is at its coolest, there is only one place to be - and that's Bald Hill.
Also known locally as Ghost Hill and Grass Hill, the area stands out amid the surrounding forestry because its completely devoid of trees. It looks more like a grassy pasture you might see in say, Switzerland than anywhere else.
Bald Hill is an extremely popular place for families to come and enjoy a walk, have a picnic, buy an ice cream or fly a kite. It was great to see so many families chilling out and spending quality time with their kids in such a perfect environment. You've got mountains all around, an impressive waterfall away in the middle distance and lots and lots of fresh air. I didn't see a single kid with their face buried in a smartphone. They were too busy having fun with kite-strings and marbles and playing with their dogs. It felt wholesome and heartwarming.
I was so bowled over that I wanted to share the moment with my Mum and Dad so I thought what finer place than here to give them a Skype video call. And for the next ten minutes, the miles between us evaporated and they were there with me on Bald Hill, taking in the same views and watching the same children fly kites. I'm constantly in awe at the wonders of modern technology. I truly am.
We drove back into Ranong City. My wife wanted to buy some souvenirs to take back for work colleagues and this usually means a flying visit to an OTOP outlet. Normally, OTOPs are relatively pleasant places to browse in despite the fact they have nothing you could possibly want and nothing you can't get back in Bangkok anyway.
The OTOP in Ranong was ghastly. An elderly woman - presumably the proprietor - jumped out of her chair the moment we walked in with a cry of ‘customers!' Well not exactly but business was clearly slow. I instinctively put a hand over my nose. It smelled like she was keeping a dead horse under the floorboards and it had been there some time. I lasted 27.4 seconds before making for the exit door, which is something of a record for me in an OTOP. I usually manage a full minute at least. Just enough time to burst in and shout "do you have a small plastic tub of some disgustingly pungent foodstuff with a picture of an old woman on it? Oh thank God for that!"
Souvenirs purchased, we then noticed a hive of activity as the stallholders at the Ranong night market were setting up for the evening. When I first came to Thailand, night markets were exotic and unique, now I just find them dispiriting and virtually the same wherever you go. We walked around for ten minutes until we'd seen enough mobile phone covers, 39 baht leather belts, spiderman pyjamas, lime green bath towels, cotton socks (5 pairs for hundred baht) and dodgy music CDs to last us a lifetime.
We had one final thing to do - to revisit the hot springs at Raksa Warin that had been closed to us on day one. We parked up next to the public bathing area and were surprised to see very few people taking advantage of the water wells. Despite it being our last evening in town, my wife was still in holiday mode and whilst she fancied a dip in a hot spring, she was looking for something a little more ‘upmarket' shall we say. We noticed a rather glamorous looking spa that offered a private hot spring experience in a VIP room for 300 baht. That'll do!
We were hoping to share a private hot tub for two but the spa receptionist soon put the mockers on that idea. She pointed to a door on the left and another door on the right. "Men go that way and women go that way" she said. Oh well, we'd come all this way. Let's give it a try.
I was given a bath-towel with the texture of sandpaper and a pair of baggy blue shorts that I wasn't going to allow anywhere near my bare skin. The moment I walked through the door marked ‘Men Only' the spa's five-star facade vanished. I was alone in something that felt like a Chinatown bath-house.
A woman led me to a private room and shut the door behind me. I took in the surroundings and felt like bursting into tears. Firstly, there was no air-conditioning so the whole room was sweaty.....and what on earth was that smell? A battered mosquito screen hung off a window. It certainly wasn't keeping the mosquitoes out. The floor and wall tiles had mould between them and in the middle of the room was a chipped enamel bath half-filled with hot water. There was no steam and bubbles in this joint. Any minute I anticipated a knock on the door and someone handing me a selection of ladies' photos on a piece of laminated card. You know, that kind of card that's slightly sticky to the touch?
I decided to write off the 300 baht and sneak out past the receptionist while her back was turned. And God knows what I might have caught off the baggy blue shorts. Let me just say this - if you are ever in Raksa Warin and fancy a hot spring, stick to the free public area.
Final thoughts? Would I ever back to Ranong? The answer would have to be no. Although the province itself was scenic and enjoyable, we found Ranong City very ordinary. It was the Thai provincial town that you've seen a hundred times before. Even though we were only there for three days, I don't feel there was enough left unseen to merit a second trip. Besides, there are so many other places to see. Thailand's a big country.
I'll be the first to admit that I've spent very little time in Southern Thailand, however, I have spent considerable time in the north.
I don't want to get embroiled in some online argument over Southern Thailand versus Northern Thailand but for me there is something magical about the latter. Northern Thailand seems to have a character and style all of its own and I find the people great to talk to and easy to get along with.
But I do want to see more of the South for sure.