There will be no mention of beach sunsets or boat rides over azure seas in this article, in spite of being a travel story about the South of Thailand.
It had been many years since my last visit to south and I couldn’t have been more excited when the provincial offices of the Tourism and Sports Ministry invited well over 100 members of the national press and travel agents to visit Chumphon, Surat Thani, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Pattalung, though we will save the excitement of the two last destinations for next month’s magazine. We were warned beforehand that this would be a trip to explore the cultural aspects of these touristy provinces, but we weren’t quite prepared for the level of culture we would be engaged in.
Chumphon is the gateway to the south of Thailand, the governor of the province stated with pride as he welcomed us, explaining that most travellers merely passed through and didn’t spend any time in the province, something he wishes to change. Over the next few days our caravan of massive busses, spilling scoops of journalists at every stop traversed the province. Our first stop was to visit the Prince of Chumphon Monument, son of King Rama V and father of the Royal Navy Thai whose English education in the 1890s led to great reform. Following the naval theme, we saw a replica of the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, Thailand’s rather infamous, and certainly redundant, aircraft carrier. Next to the monument on Sai Ri beach, we got to see the sea for the first time, though unfortunately the beach wasn’t accessible. We drove north to Khao Matsi Viewpoint where a Guanyin shrine overlooks the whole city of Chumphon. We admired the Tha Taphao River flowing out of the Chumphon Estuary where it merges into the Gulf of Thailand, my eyes enviously being drawn towards the deep ultramarine sea beyond.
We were soon herded back into our busses and found ourselves heading south towards Surat Thani, making a stop at an astonishingly strange garden, Suan Nai Dum. This lush tropical agritourism destination, we were told, was famous for its use of toilets as décor; latrines, urinals and bidets peeking out between the foliage of over 200 types of plants. The garden had strange zones dedicated to various themes such as the sky toilets, avatar toilets, underground toilets and such. I did struggle to understand at first why we were there, but as the toilet humour echoed from one gossiping group of journos to another, I saw began to see the odd appeal. In spite of the latrine humour, Uncle Dum, the garden’s founder is a serious businessman and recipient of numerous awards in farming the Department of Agriculture Extension, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.
Finally we arrived in Surat Thani, famed for its tropical islands and full moon parties. The itinerary featured a great number of temple visits, so my Citylife colleague and I naughtily spent an extra day with a private guide exploring the incredible Klong Roi Sai. “Our lives are strongly bonded with water for as long as we know,” explained Dan, our guide for the day who took us on this exclusive trip. He was referring to a network of hundreds of canals woven together to create the community’s water transport. We puttered down small natural waterways, through dark tunnels of overhanging lush palm trees, emerging into the bright and sparkling daylight, as we meandered endlessly through this watery wonderland. Local shop keepers beckoned as we motored by, children came running out of wooden houses to wave at us and finally, we felt as though we were experiencing something truly special. Still rebelling away from the crowds, we continued our journey of exploration to visit Surat Thani’s night market, locally called San Chao Market where we sat down for a tasty pad thai and a nibble on some local grilled fish paste. Direct flights from Chiang Mai to Surat Thani are available or if you prefer a road trip, it will take about 12 hours to drive from Chiang Mai to Chumphon with another two hours to Surat Thani.
I recommendfor any travellers who want to enjoy exploring the city of Surat Thani. It’s only less than five minutes walk from the market and the night boat port.