Like most visitors I want to try Ranong’s thermal springs, the open-air Raksawarin public baths. Once there, I leap before looking into the 40-degree pool. It is truly hot! Five minutes is all I can manage before scuttling, lobster-like, to the relative cool of the nearby 35-degree pool. Bliss.
Such is my warm welcome to Ranong and its under-touristed piece of Thailand – if not of Chinese-Thai land.
Settled long ago by immigrants from China’s Fujian region, Ranong has a main street that is still dotted with classic Sino-Portuguese shop houses. I amble a mall-free half mile along its Ruengraj Road and find Chinese temples, food markets and gold shops galore (a telltale sign of prosperity) before reaching Rattana Rangsan Throne Hall.
Built for the visit of Siam’s King Rama V in 1890, the original palace is long gone and has been replaced by a lofty, pagoda-topped replica.
Its opening hours, however, are somewhat eccentric and so I don’t make it past the sweeping public gardens. As a tourist attraction, the palace, like Ranong itself, does things very much its own way.
Ranong town, population around 30,000, is the capital of Thailand’s rainiest and least populated province… and arguably its prettiest, too.
Ranong Province straddles the narrowest section on the Malay Peninsula, where an isthmus just 44 kilometres wide separates the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
Bring your walking shoes here because not far from town are the waterfalls of Ngao National Park, the mangrove forests of Ranong Biosphere Reserve and treeless Grass Mountain, aka Bald Hill.
Back in town I find plenty of evening action on upper Ruengrat Road. There’s coffee at Pon’s Place (plus travel bookings for the islands), beer and starters at The B Ranong bistro and good sushi at Masaru, plus cocktails and live music at MaSukor Cactus bar. Pretty cool Friday night options for a regional city.
Meanwhile, I’m staying at the new Raenong Boutique Hotel (not to be mistaken for the similar-sounding Ranong Boutique Inn), a spotlessly clean, mid-range, family-friendly hotel that’s a short walk from the main street.
Other quality accommodation options include the Galla, Numsai Khaosuay and Tinidee hotels, and the aptly named Hidden Resort.
Amid the near-imperatives in tourism today, that anywhere worth visiting should have a gauntlet of brand resorts and déjà-vu stores, Ranong delivers a simple antidote: genuine, down-home Thailand.
TO THE ISLANDS
Ranong is the crossing point to Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost town. A 30-minute longtail boat ride across the Kraburi River, Kawthaung is good for a day-trip or visa run, offering duty-free shopping, Burmese handicrafts and gems (caveat emptor), and the Andaman Club casino.
Better still, it’s the embarkation port for expedition cruises with Pandaw or Burma Boating into Myanmar’s unspoiled Mergui Archipelago.
Ranong is also your jumping-off point for Thai coastal excursions, such as live-aboard voyages to the spectacular dive site Richelieu Rock, or day trips to the offshore national parks of Koh Kangkao, Koh Kamtok and Koh Kum.
Most departures, however, are to the tourist islands of Koh Chang and Koh Phayam (pronounced “pie-am”), just 40 minutes away by speedboat.
Koh Chang (Elephant Island) is not the large, tourist resort island of the same-same-but-different name in the eastern Gulf of Thailand. Ranong’s smaller version is mostly undeveloped but for old rubber plantations and a slew of beach bungalow lodges that are more backpacker than flashpacker.
There are no cars, only light motorcycles.
On the sunset-washed west coast I try Cashew Resort facing the vast Ao Yai beach, while farther down the shore, Koh Chang Resort is probably the island’s most upmarket offering.
This is a generator-powered island, so think early nights, good reads and long walks. Bring insect repellent and pre-arrange an arrival pick-up from the pier to your accommodation. Listen and look for hornbills.
As a traveller, you probably know the feeling of returning to a once ‘secret’ spot that you’d loved only to find it now slick with villas, bars and tailors’ touts — the victim of “paradise now” promos.
Revisiting Koh Phayam after a decade I am relieved to find that while tourism is flourishing, the island hasn’t been ‘improved’ to death.
Phayam’s roads are still narrow, car-free, concrete ribbons running over jungle hill and plantation dale, with sidetracks leading to beaches like Aow Khao Kwai (White Buffalo Bay) and the spectacular, three-kilometre sweep of Aow Yai (Big Bay).
At the latter, I return to the long-established Bamboo Bungalows and its forest-shaded, air-conditioned villa cottages, still special after all these years. The Wi-Fi is faster, but the beer is as cold, the welcome as warm and the lazy shore-break still a relief from the April heat.
Koh Phayam has scores of bungalow resorts of varying quality, mostly on the west coast, with the east coast’s Blue Sky Resort probably the only establishment claiming ‘luxury’ status.
Hiring a motorbike to explore the island at the rugged, far-northern point of Aow Kwang Peeb, I revisit a hidden cove I remember from years ago. There’s a languid eatery there now but the fingernail of sandy shoreline and emerald waters are as they ever were. I drop everything and dive right into the past and present.
GETTING THERE: Nok Air and Air Asia fly daily from Bangkok (Don Mueang) to Ranong. The coach trip takes nine hours from Bangkok or five from Phuket. Chumphon, the closest train station, is 120km away.
WHEN TO GO: The weather is monsoonal and hot from May to October. November – early April is the best time for the islands, with only limited services available during the monsoon off-season.
HOW TO GET AROUND: In high season, frequent speedboats depart Ranong pier for the short trips to Koh Chang and Koh Phayam. It costs about 350Baht (approx $16).
ACCOMMODATION: Bamboo Bungalows on Koh Phayam.
The writer travelled at his own expense. All images John Borthwick.
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