Andaman Discoveries Blog

Monday, March 30, 2009

 

Journey to a Border Town

Experiences in Thailand
By Leslie Welshimer

There are many fabulous places for weekend excursions within a few hours of Kuraburi, like Phuket, Khao Lak, Koh Surin National Park (seasonal) and Khao Sok National Park. I ventured out for two days of solo travel in March to explore a town about two hours away from Kuraburi called Ranong. It is a small, border town that has remained mostly untouched by tourist influences.

Ranong is celebrated for its surrounding natural wonders, like hot springs, Ngao National Park, Bald Hill and Ko Phayam and Kam Islands. It’s also frequented by travelers in need of a speedy visa run.

I was greeted by a torrential downpour the moment I got off the bus in Ranong. Turning down offers from motorbike taxis, I walked about 10 minutes into town, determined to get a feel for the area and find lodging before setting out for the day.

Finally I couldn’t take the rain anymore. I was drenched. A tourist office / restaurant appeared and I joined others taking shelter.

Once the rain sort of cleared, I departed the restaurant. There she appeared, a woman with a giant backpack who was speed walking with authority. She didn’t have the clear confusion and lack of bearings that I did. She knew exactly where she was going. I paused for a moment and then doubled my speed to keep up. She was about 20 feet ahead.

After about 10 minutes I began to consider stopping my stalking attempt. She had turned on to a back road and was walking on a residential street that appeared to be leading out of town. Then she rounded a corner and my breath was taken away. There was Khao Kives View Point, with steps leading up a hillside, and Throne Hall, with immaculate landscaping and ornate temples on the grounds. Across the street from the viewpoint, I saw where she was headed, a guesthouse called Palmy Home.

This guesthouse had just opened three months prior, was in remarkable condition, had new furnishings and a welcoming staff. I never would have found this place with my normal strategies of wandering, asking locals, Google search, reading travel reviews and Lonely Planet. Perhaps stalking is the new Lonely Planet.

I felt like I’d won the travel lottery. My amazing fan room at the Palmy Home was 250 baht / less than $10 for a place significantly nicer than a dozen or so others I’d passed while wandering on my own.

Once lodging was taken care of, I went outside to flag a songtaew (a marriage of a taxi and metro bus). My goal was to reach Bald Hill, which is approximately 13 kilometers away. I got dropped off about 20 minutes later alongside a main highway.

Due to the moody weather earlier in the day, I found myself hiking around this wide-open Bald Hill area with no one around for a good mile or so, except for a man with an axe in hand.

I paused for a moment, thinking what close friends would think of me walking alone in a foreign country into a mountain area where the only person I could see was a man with an axe. As I approached this man with an axe, I listened to my gut. I felt only peace, so I continued past him and up to the top of Bald Hill. Bald Hill is famous for being naturally treeless, and in non-dry season, is covered in a blanket of grass.

Ngao National Park is within walking distance of Bald Hill. With my hiking shoes of flip flops on, I trekked through the national park to viewpoints, a breathtaking waterfall and checked out their awesome accommodations of a pod-like version of a tree house that tempted me to stay the night, foregoing my earlier find of the Palmy Home.

The natural beauty of Ngao National Park was overwhelming. The waterfall poured down into a lush forest with bright flowers.

I stopped in the park visitor center to look around. A warm, park staff member said hello and started a conversation. I asked her what the best way to get back to town was, admitting that I had gotten so absorbed in the beauty of nature at the park that I lost track of time. She said I could still flag down a songtaew along the highway. Then she said, “I noticed you came alone. Where are you staying tonight?” I told her and she began speaking Thai to a co-worker.

The woman showed amazing kindness. She said that I could catch a ride with the other staff member who lived in Ranong. I ended up sitting in the back of a pickup, while a husband, wife and their daughter sat in front. It made my day that someone would be as kind as to give a perfect stranger, a foreigner in their country, a ride. I can only imagine how my experience would have different had I tried to flag a songtaew as the sun went down.

As I arrived back at Palmy Home, I saw a rainbow that seemed to be bursting directly out of Throne Hall. There was energetic music playing that sounded like a concert. At a closer look, I found a Thai dance-aerobics performance on the grounds of Throne Hall. These are the moments I travel for, the surprise finds and glimpses into another culture. I joined the audience as people cheered on performers.

The night at Palmy Home was bliss. My feet were nearly raw from walking endless miles around Ranong, Ngao National Park and Bald Hill. Relaxing in the queen-size bed, watching television, felt like paradise. There were even two English channels.

Checking out of Palmy Home the next morning felt like saying farewell to a friend. It was one of the most comfortable places I’d rested my head in Thailand.

I trekked a sizable distance to the hot springs. The area around the hot springs was stunning. Vibrant green trees and flowing water are all around. People sat splashing water on their legs and soaked their feet. There were no other farangs around. I felt like I was seeing authentic Thai life. Families splashed in the river while others picnicked.

I attempted to soak my feet after observing how it was done. The pain was so intense on my sore feet I grimaced, which drew odd faces from the Thai people.

A captivating gold Buddha was discovered at the top of a steep staircase. As I climbed this staircase, a second dose of torrential rain came.

It was time to walk the three-plus kilometers to the bus station. Gaining more strange stares I walked and walked in the rain. A motorbike taxi stopped, looking concerned. I asked him how far to the bus station. He said, “far.” I said I would walk. What can I say, I love to explore on foot, even when my feet hurt so bad that it causes me to limp.

He came by a few minutes later and pointed at his bike. I asked, “tou rai/how much?” He shook his head. I decided to accept the offer and my interest was peaked about the possibility for my first motorbike taxi ride.

A few minutes later I was dropped off at the bus station, and I asked again, “tou rai/how much?” He shook his head, motioning that it was okay, that he just wanted to help. He walked me into the bus station office. I wanted to pay him, but before I could ask again, he was gone. This second act of Thai kindness touched my heart, making my last impression of Ranong positive.

The weekend was a mix of people, places and emotions. Ranong surprised me in many ways. It was the epitome of a border town in some areas, while in other areas, it seemed to match the theme of a hot spring, spa town. The mixture made for a smorgasbord of a travel experience.

The kind staff and tree house pods at Ngao National Park may inspire me to make a return trip.

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