Nakhon Si Thammarat is a place for all seasons

Few provinces in Thailand pack as much bang for your tourist baht as Nakhon Si Thammarat

Mention Nakhon Si Thammarat and the image of the province's most revered Phra Borommathat pagoda would pop up in the mind of many Thais. That, perhaps, is followed by the famous sat duen sip ceremony, the grand event in which locals gather to make merit for their deceased relatives; nang talung shadow puppets; manorah folk performance and many more.

Some might even think of the playful yet decisive sound of the people's southern dialect, or feel one's appetite whetted by the thought of khanom jeen, the soft rice noodle, topped with different types of tasty southern-styled sauces and served with a variety of indigenous vegetables.

But with over 225km of coastline on the west side of the Gulf of Thailand, Nakhon Si Thammarat, also known in short as Nakhon or Muang Khon, has much more to be proud of than the above historical and cultural heritages.

A visit to Pak Phanang and Khanom, two of Nakhon Si Thammarat's six coastal districts, will make you see this southern province in a new light. And even though these two places are just a few hours' drive apart, they are very different from each other, reflecting the diverse experiences that Muang Khon has to offer to its visitors.

Let's begin with Pak Phanang, the charming town with its namesake river running through it from the south, before finally draining into the sea further north.

Situated about 35km slightly southeast of the provincial capital, Pak Phanang has undergone many ups and downs over the past centuries. When Nakhon Si Thammarat was still a vassal state of Ayutthaya and later Bangkok during the early reigns of the Chakri Dynasty, Pak Phanang was a bustling port town, a gateway for maritime trade between Muang Khon and foreign lands such as China and faraway Europe. The most important export item was rice, which was grown in abundance in the fertile river basin.

However, that changed after World War II when Bangkok became the only centre for rice export. At the same time, years of deforestation took its toll. The badly damaged forests could no longer provide the Pak Phanang River with a constant supply of fresh water, as a result, sea water managed to force its way deeper inland ruining the soil that was once perfect for paddies.

With the rice trade dying, Pak Phanang townspeople resorted to commercial fishing. Ships were converted into trawlers and before long the port town boasted some of the South's largest fishing fleets. However, the new economic boom lasted only about a decade-and-a-half. When the world was struck by the oil crisis of 1973, many fishing operations here were forced to quit, thus the end of another era.

But the people continued their struggles against fate, and shrimp farming was their new-found solution. No doubt, the rapid spread of shrimp farm ventures brought wealth to some people and debts to others. The chemical-intensive farming also produced huge amounts of waste water that severely contaminated the river basin. In the early 90s, the future for the people of Pak Phanang seemed doomed.

But once again, it turned out they survived another serious downturn; this time thanks to the helping hand of His Majesty the King who initiated the Pak Phanang River Basin Royal Development Project which gradually restored the environment as well as the livelihood of the locals.

Today, the town's economy is on the rise. And it's rising even higher with extra help from a particular species of bird.

Of course, you'll find out how the royal development project and the birds brought Pak Phanang back to life as you read on. But for now let's not forget that we also have another destination to visit: Khanom.

Despite the fact that it is adjacent to Surat Thani's Don Sak district, where the pier for ferries to the popular Koh Samui is located, Khanom's beaches remain unspoilt by mass tourism. The sea off this northernmost coastal district of Nakhon Si Thammarat is not just peaceful and gorgeous on the surface. Under water it maintains a healthy ecosystem with different types of habitats including mangroves and extensive beds of sea grass which are home to a variety of fish and other marine creatures. However, the stars of Khanom's sea are mammals, the so-called ''pink dolphins''.

Known scientifically as Sousa chinensis, the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins sport a skin colour that turns from grey to pinkish white as they grow older, which is why Thais called them loma si chomphu, i.e. pink dolphins. Actually, the pink dolphins are not the only species of dolphin found in Khanom's waters but they are kind of a sure bet. These cute marine mammals tend to hang around at certain areas and the local boatmen seem to know full well when and where to find them. So unless you're really unlucky, you're unlikely to miss them.

By now you probably have some idea about the difference between Khanom and Pak Phanang. But from my experience there is definitely one thing that the two districts share with other parts of Nakhon Si Thammarat: friendly people.

To me, the first image that springs up at the mention of Nakhon Si Thammarat is still its grand pagoda, followed by the locals' smiling faces, near pristine beaches, the pink dolphin, lives along Pak Phanang River, local dishes and seafood...the list can go on and on.

Howmuchwouldyoupay for a kilogrammeof saliva? Well,manywould bemorethan willing to payover 70,000 baht if it’s the top-grade saliva of the edible-nest swiftlet (Aerodramusfuciphagus). Nowimaginehowmuchyouwouldearn eachyear ifyouowna building that thousands of these birds use as shelterandbuild their precious saliva nests, theprizedChinesedelicacy, thatyoucanconveniently harvest? OK,wakeup.Alot of people are already doing that, although not all of themsucceed in attracting the birds into theirpurpose built buildings. Knownas ‘‘bird condos’’, these buildings havesprungupinmanycoastal areas over the past decade. Butit’s PakPhananginNakhonSiThammarat wherethis business started. About50 years ago,somehowa colony of this particular swiftlet,which normally nest in island caves, flocked toanold building in thetownand madeit theirhome.For the building’s owner, of course, itwasmuchbetter thanwinning a lottery. Seeing the lucrative business opportunity,manypeople didn’t wait for luck to falluponthem.Andthat’showbirdcondoscameto exist.Pak Phanangnowhas 150or sosuch tall buildings,whichcanbeeasily identifiedbytheir lack ofwindows.

The water gates on Pak Phanang River, which separate sea water from the fresh water upstream, are instrumental in the scheme of the Pak Phanang River Basin Royal Development Project initiated by HMthe King. By improving the environment, particularly the water and soil quality, the project has made it possible for the people living along the river, be they rice growers who need fresh water or fish and shrimp farmers who prefer brackish water, to continue with their way of life without conflict with one another. A cruise along Pak Phanang River is both enjoyable and educational. Along the river, you can see different types of homes and activities which the town residents do for a living as well as biodiversity-rich mangrove swamps.

Unlike in Bang Pakong, Chachoengsao, another place where dolphin watching has been promoted as a tourist attraction, here in Khanom the marine mammals are treated with respect. Instead of going out on a ‘‘hunt’’, or more accurately a mad chase to spot dolphins, here tourist boats just come to the animal’s foraging area, turn off the engine and wait for the friendly creatures to show up. Often the dolphins, especially the pink ones, swim up next to the boat so you can take pictures without the need of a telephoto lens. People are not allowed to feed the animals here because it would mess up their natural behaviour. Khanom people are serious about making sure tourism activities are sustainable. The best time to watch the dolphins is in the morning when the sea is calmer, making it easier to spot them.

Apart from the dolphins, another highlight of a tour of Khanom’s sea is a visit to an islet called Koh Nui Nok in Talet cove, where a natural well of fresh water is covered with sea water during high tide and exposed at low tide. On higher ground at the islet sit statues of the legendary Luang Pu Thuad, who is believed to have the power to turn salt water into fresh water by stepping on it. Devotees believe the submerged waterhole is his footprint.

In a bid to attract more tourists, a sober version of the nearby Koh Phangan’s world famous Full Moon Party is held once a month at Hat Na Dan, Khanom’s longest beach. Dubbed the ‘‘Ample Moon Party’’, the monthly event, of which the highlights are live reggae and ska music and food, takes place on any day of the weekend closest to the first evening of the waning moon. It is hoped that Khanom’s beach party will not evolve into a wild thing as its notorious model. Only time will tell.

TRAVEL INFO

Nakhon Si Thammarat can be reached by bus, train and plane. Currently there are six flights every day between Nakhon Si Thammarat and Don Mueang airports. Nok Air, which operates four of the daily flights, will add one more from Jan 1. The budget airline also joins with the Nakhon Tourism Association in devising travel packages that include air tickets and accommodation. The packages can be bought from now until Oct 24 through the association only. For details, call 075-317-091, 081-956-4666 and 081-450-0283.

For those who choose to explore the southern province on their own, the following might be useful.

Pak Phanang

Vans connecting downtown Nakhon to Pak Phanang leave from behind the Robinson Ocean Department Store every 20 minutes from 7am to 5pm.

Boat operators:

- Pak Phanang Municipality, tel 075-517-266 and 075-517-630

- Ban Chai Khlong Restaurant, tel 075-333-831 and 075-517-766

- Sor Phakdee Tour, tel 075-344-171 and 086-323-9999

There are a few hotels in town but most of them are of relatively poor standard. Visitors tend to spend the night at Nakhon Si Thammarat downtown, which is only half an hour's drive away, instead.

Khanom

Vans connecting downtown Nakhon to Khanom start from Yim Yim intersection, leaving every 40 minutes from 7am to 5pm.

Boat operators:

- Ban Laem Prathap Eco-tourism Club, tel 087-282-7761

- Khanom Fishing & Tours, tel 075-326-573 and 081-300-3678

A number of resorts can be found in beach areas.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Pongpet Mekloy
Position: Travel Editor