We didn’t do any sightseeing as such (temples etc) for some days into our time at PKK. We were content to just absorb the sights in our immediate surrounds.
After ‘breakfast’ (ie: 10.30am or later), we might wander along the seafront promenade and look out on that irresistible bay, in between sizing up the restaurants in advance of lunch or dinner. We’d rarely last long traipsing about out in the sun before retreating to a premises with fans or aircon for a cold(ish) Singha. At 70 baht per 650ml bottle (53 in the supermarkets – about $1.75), other choices of beverage didn’t seem like choices at all.
Or we would amble uptown to change money, taking in the routines of the town as we went. You had to amble. It was too bloody hot to do otherwise. The heat is intruding on my recollections, just as it intruded on our days in PKK! Although the temperature was only low-mid 30s, it was a glaring sun and a relentless, humid and enervating heat. In the afternoons, a breeze would arrive to stir the soup but it was too warm to give much relief, apart from fanning sweat-soaked clothes and glistening necks and faces.
The breeze drops with the sun, leaving evenings still and balmy. Al fresco BBQ seafood restaurants set up chairs and tables along the promenade towards dark. Interestingly, the great majority of the clientele are local Thais – couples and family groups – with only a smattering of international tourists.
We’d wait for the crowd to disperse a little and eat late. It was peaceful, almost meditative, sipping at a cold beer waiting the 30 minutes or so it takes to barbecue a whole snapper in foil, gazing out at the comforting chain of green lights from small squid boats stretching between the northern and southern headlands that mark the extremities of Prachuap bay.
The fish is barbecued in foil with lemongrass, oyster sauce, chilli, garlic and kaffir lime leaves. This was a large fish, enough for two hungry people, and cost about 300 baht ($10).
There is a good variety of fresh local seafood at these simple little BBQ restaurants:
Not much flesh on these little blue swimmers, but o so sweet and delicate when you managed to get to it!
Battered squid with dipping sauce: 90 baht ($3)
A few things surprised us. Firstly, Prachuap is a very clean town, uncommonly so for SE Asia. There is little litter in the streets, and the long, wide seafront promenade is kept spotless. The beige sandy beach below, which is all but reclaimed by the sea at high tide, looks pristine, but no bathers are to be seen, other than an occasional fisherman wading to or from his anchored boat. According to the owner of our hotel, the water is polluted with oil and detritus from the fleets of local fishing boats.
By day, cuttlefish, squid and fish sit drying in the sun on the promenade, meticulously arranged on racks, an intense fishiness pervading the air. Some might call it a stink. I like it – it says nuts to any tourists who turn their noses up. The drying racks are part of everyday life in PKK. Take it or leave it. Curiously, incidentally, no cats or flies are drawn to the slowly desiccating seafood.
Prachuap is remarkable for its unassertiveness as a tourist spot. In fact, it hardly qualifies as such. It’s a Thai town first, and a tourist destination a long way second. Long may it remain so.
There are only a few guesthouses and hotels, and no big luxe 4 or 5 star jobs. There are no discos, no girly bars, no happening pubs (unless you count karaoke night at the Hadthong Hotel – probably featuring mostly Thai pop songs!). Nothing for the partying backpacker crowd, then. Or the old fart farangs on the hunt for young Thai trophies. Hua Hin, 100K north, takes good care of that demographic.
Tourism is on the creep in PKK, however. In my pre-trip research, I came across a couple of blogs from around 5 years ago warning that it was hard to find food after 9pm – certainly not the case now, although the restaurants that stay open late are all on the seafront. There is also a night market with a good array of hawker stalls, but the town itself shuts up shop very early, apart from a couple of small 24 hour supermarkets.
The local tourist trade picks up noticeably in the weekends; Bangkok folk after a breather begin rolling in by the busload on Friday night. Otherwise, there is a steady trickle of Caucasians, mostly middle-aged like us. The great majority are Scandinavian. Unlike us, most stayed only a couple of days. Perhaps they were just dropping in for a look on their way to a town 30K or so south solely comprising retired Swedes living off their generous super payments. We were told by a local Thai that the street signs are in Swedish and the shops are stocked with Swedish food and goods. Very annoying and a blight as far as I’m concerned. Evidently the Thais don’t agree – these ghettos of foreign retirees are scattered throughout Thailand and growing as the word spreads that living is easy on a decent pension, effectively fencing off some of the most pleasant areas.
The good news for PKK, at least from my perspective, is that the potential for tourist development is restricted because much of the surrounding land is owned by the military. The nearest swimming beach, Ao Manao, is accessible only via army land. Visitors are required to sign in and out at a check post as they travel to and from the beach. We saw no Western families at Ao Manao, but the Thais flock there in the weekends. The men lounge around on deckchairs among the mangroves sipping whiskey and water, while the women chat, watch the kids on the beach, and order frequent snacks like this from the nearby food courts:
Som tam – Thailand’s famous firey green papaya salad. This looks better than it was. No chilli kick and not much flavour.
Some extol Ao Manao as a wonderful swimming site, but I wasn’t greatly impressed. For me, as a spoilt Aussie, crystal-clear water and fine white sand are essential prerequisites of a great beach. The sand at Ao Manao is greyish and although the water seems clean, it’s very shallow. Waders a couple of hundred metres out were still only waist deep.
There’s a bonus on the way to Ao Manao, if you’re lucky – a small isolated colony of Spectacled Lemur living in a patch of jungle off the side of the road. We happened past at feeding time. An unexpected treat.
No funny business going on with Mum – baby Spectacled Lemur change colour as they mature.
Military possession of available land aside, unlike many other seaside locations in Thailand, PKK doesn’t need a thriving tourist industry. These guys are doing fine as they are. A bit more tourist traffic would no doubt be welcome, but I think the locals know they’ve got a good thing going in their charming little town, and will want to keep it that way.
The standard of living is obviously pretty good. We didn’t see a single beggar during our 7 day stay. Almost unheard of in SE Asia. I doubt anyone goes short of food in PKK. In fact, there’s a fair proportion of overweight folk among the locals. There are lots of fatties among the uniformed schoolkids who during recess descend on strategically positioned food carts and stalls serving Thai snack food. My partner, who travelled extensively in Thailand in the 80s and 90s, remarked that this was a notable change. Back then, to be overweight as a child – or an adult, for that matter – was to stand out, automatically qualifying for imaginative nicknames like “Owen” (translation: fat).
As the days of doing not much melded, we became agitated. Something was niggling at us. In previous trips we’d stayed switched to travelling mode, even when spending several days in one place. There was always at least a vague itinerary, a list of Essential Destinations, and you’d consider yourself a travelling failure to miss any of them. No matter how fascinating, pleasant, stimulating, or just plain fun a particular locale might be, we’d always pace ourselves, calculating how long we dared to indulge in mere holidaying before upping stumps and resuming the join the dots game. This time, the switch kept shutting off.
The guilt began to gnaw, the self-accusations fly. Lazy! Pathetic! 3 days in PKK, and you’ve hardly been anywhere. 4 days! 5! Get off your arse and see the temples, the fishermen’s village, the national park! Then pack the hell up and move on. Reclaim the right to call yourself a Traveller!
Then came the counter arguments. We like to be where the crowd ain’t. We like it quiet. And clean. And pretty. With character. Authentic. All boxes ticked. So why not stand still in a place like PKK, and let it reveal itself to you? Stationary travelling, man. Let’s call it that.
If only we’d gotten as clear as that during our stay in PKK, but alas the notion of stationary travelling came to me in hindsight, way too late to save us from our angst.
See, we weren’t really wasting time. We just thought we were. Staying in PKK without a sightseeing agenda, blatantly doing nothing for days on end when we should have been ‘travelling’, opened access to little things that might otherwise have slipped past as incidentals unworthy of note. Sometimes, you learn more about a place standing still than rushing about picking off the ‘sights.’
The old guy at the Chinese noodle soup place a couple of doors down from our hotel, eternally standing over a steaming pot, impassively stirring. He was there when I went past in the mornings, with a full house of customers slurping over their bowls. Still there in the afternoon, although closed for business. And late one night, when I was making a dash to the 24 hour Seven Eleven for some beer, there he was again. Tireless, a man who’d found his place as keeper of the pot.
A petite young woman with a portable coffee and drink stall set up on the footpath outside the bus ticket office, deftly serving up a steady stream of regulars with panache that would do any snooty cafe barista proud. I stood off to the side and watched her, unobtrusively I hoped, for quite a while. She never stopped. When she was not serving up espressos, iced coffees, or nimbly tying up plastic bags of takeaway beverages, she was wiping down her tiny working surface. She was doing very well indeed from her little business on wheels. Occasionally, she flashed me a shy smile. I think she knew I was admiring of her work and the pride she took in it.
Then there was the stunning ballbreaker prowling panther-like about her fruit and vege stall at the busy central market, hair piled high like Billie Holiday on one of her album covers. There was something of the mythical American South about this fierce and fascinating creature, a sense of rebellious, unshackled liberation, although she was probably born and bred PKK. She had a haughty aura about her, a withering authority she took for granted. As well she might, strutting around with her knockout figure, shapely hips a-swingin’ in tight jeans, eye-popping cleavage on huge and brazen display, midriff exposed as she stretched for the bananas. Her husband, you just knew, was to be envied and pitied.
When I asked about some oranges, she sized me up contemptuously, impatient at having to waste time working out what this stupid farang wanted. She shot a volley of Thai at me, relishing my uncomprehension, then shoved the oranges I had asked for into a bag and barked out the price. A couple of visits later, a softness came over her – I had paid my dues – and she went to some trouble to fetch me a papaya from deep in a pile, the ripest and smallest she had. Perfect for two people for breakfast, and just what I would have asked for if I’d had the language. “Kob khun krap” I ventured, beaming. “Ka”, she replied with the air of a queen nodding to a bowing subject, then dismissed me and returned to her wares. What a woman!
And so it went. These are the rewards – a gradually building mosaic of town life – that await the stationary traveller. It’s probably the same in any Thai town not ravaged by tourism, but my bet is that few are as downright pleasant to hang in as PKK.
On our sixth day, we hired a tuk-tuk driver and finally got around to some sightseeing:
Fearsome 9-headed cobras guard a temple on the way to the fishermen’s village.
Another pic taken from the fishermen’s village. Looks picturesque, but the area is strewn with garbage. Our driver told us the fisherfolk make their habitat as unattractive as possible to discourage tourists!
On Day 7, we reluctantly called time on PKK. We could have stayed days longer, but were booked in that night at a hotel in Bangkok and with our visa time running out, had to work out which border to cross, and where.
There was one last treat in store. Years ago, when working as an ESL teacher, I had heard my Thai students raving about mango and sticky rice pudding. I was determined to track some down for this last breakfast in PKK. Tum, our hotel host, had mentioned that it was mango season, and that there was no better time or place to try the famous pudding. She directed me to a stall a couple of streets away. She anticipated that I wouldn’t find it, and when I returned predictably empty-handed, presented me with a takeaway pack. She had sent her staff out for it, and wouldn’t hear of me paying.
Madame J and I shared Tum’s gift with much oohing and ahhing. What a send-off!
Not much of a pic, but quite simply, mango and sticky rice is one of the most delicious combinations imaginable, perfectly finished off with the most exquisite coconut sauce topping (in bag to left).
As we sat at the bus office, three thirties-something Russians, two male and one female, slopped past swigging out of cans of Chang. Not something I’d seen any locals doing. It seemed disrespectful. Their whole attitude seemed disrespectful. Then again, what do you expect from fucking Russians?
We sat in silence. By and by, a pretty local girl in smart office attire sitting next to us got up, sauntered to the roadside and flobbed into the gutter.
The bus came and we got on. There was an unsettling sense that our usual travel rhythm was out of whack. The call of the road seemed suddenly tiresome, which was no big deal – we were no strangers to travel fatigue. Thing is, this was the beginning of our trip, not the end! I cheered up when a 60s American hippy relic seated adjacent to us leaned over and said: “This must be the old long-haired farang section of the bus.”
He subsequently introduced himself as Steve. He was travelling with his deaf girlfriend, Andrea.
Turned out we had much in common. Conversation turned to Vietnam, where Madame J and I had travelled the year before, then to the war. Steve had missed out being conscripted due to a fortunate combination of circumstances. “Lucky for the army and me” he said. “I hate guns. Never even picked one up, never will. And I resent all forms of authority.”
I laughed out loud. It was good to be among like-minded folk. 5 hours from Bangkok, and all was well.