The old quarter of Takua Pa in Phangnga is a poignant reminder of a glorious chapter in its history
Overlooked by most travellers who pass it off as rather quiet, the old town area of Takua Pa district in Phangnga in fact has much to shout about for it still resonates with a glorious chapter from history dating back a century, now almost forgotten.
Both sides of the main Si Takua Pa Poad that bisects the old town are dotted with period buildings conspicuous by their Sino-Portuguese architecture, Chinese shrines and tea houses. Elderly people sit chatting in front of their homes while others ride bikes that show their age to the local market to buy food. Once in a while you spot motorised vehicles.
These days the entire district, comprising mostly of the elderly and retirees, seems to be moving in slow mode, in contrast to its glory days a century or so go when it was a trading hub for people in the tin business.
According to its history, tin ores were discovered in Takua Pa long before Ayutthaya, but the latter was first to gain prominence because ships from the West were already making port calls there to buy the ores.
Takua Pa took off in a big way only after the Dutch, British and Portuguese arrived prospecting for tin ores, and with them came Chinese labour to work the mines in Phangnga and neighbouring Phuket.
The tin mining business hit a peak during the reign of King Rama V, as tax records from the time show, growing four folds from 29,040 baht in 1872 to 120,000 baht in 1875.
When tin prices dropped the industry went into a gradual decline, followed by an exodus of Western investors who sold off or left their businesses in the hands of their Chinese employees, explained Chalermchat Janejaneprasert, our tour guide. These workers later married into local families and their descendants, called Peranakan or Nyonya, constitute a sizeable part of Takua Pa and Phuket's population today.
The death knell for the tin industry in south Thailand came in 1985 when all mines were shut down. But the mines, the very source of wealth for several families, have since become an environmental liability.
''Whole mountains were dug up to extract the ores,'' said the guide who was born in Takua Pa. Rain water collected in the pits forming huge pools that overflowed when it rained contaminating canals including the Takua Pa River, the main channel for transporting ores during the heyday of the tin industry.
Such run-offs are a common feature every monsoon and sometimes they flood the old town, but fortunately for residents the water recedes in quick time, said Nirut Joramas, who runs a shop selling postcards. Some of his neighbours, though, have abandoned their shophouses.
The locals are a friendly lot and one of them, a retiree from Bangkok kind enough to invite me to his house for a cup of tea, said that his children still worked in the capital, but he chose to return because Takua Pa was his home and be with his wife.
Sadly, I couldn't accept his offer because I had set out to explore and photograph as many natural and cultural attractions in Phangnga as possible.
From Takua Pa I went for a cruise on Sangnae Canal which snakes through 30 rai of banyan forest where some of the trees are more than a hundred years old. To lend a little colour to the tour, it was dubbed ''Little Amazon'' cruise, which if taken early morning rewards those aboard with sights of some rare exotic birds and snakes.
Apart from the cruise, you can take a day-long tour of Phangnga Bay and stop at a 200-year-old Islamic community on the island of Koh Panyi where you can sample choice seafood at any of its several restaurants.
Thereafter, you can proceed to the island of Khao Ta Pu which served as location for a James Bond movie. It is a great opportunity photo shoots. You can also paddle canoes to Tham Lod cave.
''Phangnga is rich in both nature and cultural attractions,'' said Pravit Limsakun, the mayor of Takua Pa. ''The further you explore, the more you are going to find our hidden treasures.''
The easiest way to get to Takua Pa is to drive there from Phuket Airport. The drive is about an hour long.
Tourist accommodations mostly comprise guesthouses, but if you are looking for bungalows or three- to five-star hotels, there are some between Khuk Khak and Khao Lak beaches.
If you want to photograph 'Nyonya' women, call Eco Khao-Lak Adventure at 087-264-2669 and ask for Chalermchat Janejaneprasert, website: www.khaolakholiday.com.
For Hua Lun foundry, call Surit Tantiwiboonchai at 087-282-0010.
For details and map, visit www.tourismthailand.org.
More info: http://www.bangkokpost.com/travel/localtrips/208039/destiny-shaped-by-tin