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Ranong Rocks (quietly)

“Ranong sneaks under the radar of the tourism monster that ate that last quiet coastal town you used to love. This Andaman Sea port, tucked in between the southernmost tip of Myanmar and Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, gets along prosperously as a fishing and trading town.” Travel writer John Borthwick reveals a few secrets…

Visitors are welcome, too, of course, and have been so since at least 1890 when King Rama V visited Ranong and sampled its famous hot springs. Most travellers still do the same and head to the free, open-air Raksawarin public baths. And believe me, they are hot. I first try the 40-degree Centigrade pool but after four minutes of cooking there I flee to the relative cool, and bliss, of the adjacent 35-degree natural spring.

Ranong Vintage Austin public taxi vehicle.

You can fly to Ranong, 570 km southwest Bangkok, or drive five hours north of Phuket. I discover here a slice of authentic Thailand or, given its ethnic mix, Chinese-Thai land, with around 25,000 citizens. Settled long ago and developed by predominantly Hoklo immigrants from China’s Fujian Province, Ranong’s streets are lined with traditional shop houses that sell everything from computers, fruit, nuts and bolts to washing machines, motorcycles and gold. The town is clearly doing well (I note the size of its banks) and yet it lacks the obvious, bi-polar social blights of bling-plus-poverty so often found elsewhere. I spot one BMW and no beggars.

Ranong Man on motorcyle on main street.

Ranong is an excellent jumping-off point for several nearby Thai islands or Andaman Sea excursions on live-aboard boats, such as to legendary dive spots like Richelieu Rock. If you’re cashed-up, a yacht cruise to Burma’s unplugged and unplundered Mergui Archipelago is unique, and Ranong is the starting point of your adventure. It’s a 20-minute, 500-baht longtail trip across the river from Ranong to Myanmar’s Kawthaung (formerly known as Victoria Point) to join a cruise; or for a visit to the nearby casino island (if that’s your thing) or a visa-renewal run for another 15 days in Thailand.

Man on bow of boat, Pakchan River.

The town’s ace is simply that it is real. I stroll up its main drag, Ruengrat Road — no touts, no come-ons — pass the gold shops, check out the markets, consider a Chinese temple or two and a new-old wooden palace, and then look for a watering hole. There’s beer or coffee at Pons Place (plus travel bookings and WiFi) and then a fine feed of fresh garlic prawns at the Hideaway.

Quiet, isolated beach of Ao Kwang Peep, northern Ko Phayam. © John Borthwick 2009

Ranong Province is the wettest in Thailand, as well as one of the country’s smallest and least populated. Eighty-percent of it is still forest while its Kra Isthmus is home to the narrowest point on the Malay Peninsula — just 44 km of land divides the Gulf of Thailand from the Andaman Sea. Not far out of town are waterfalls (some flowing year-round), plus Namtok Ngao National Park and biosphere reserves offering good jungle hikes.

"The village," Ko Phayam island, Ranong.© John Borthwick 2009

Offshore to the south is a cluster of pristine national park islands, excellent for day-trips from Ranong, such as Koh Khangkhao, Koh Kam Yai and Koh Kam Nui. The greater attraction for many visitors is a pair of low-key, Thai holiday islands that float not far from Ranong. There’s Koh Phayam with plenty of bungalow accommodation, plus peace and quiet, and no cars. Even more tranquil is Koh Chang — the other Koh Chang, not the one in the eastern Gulf — that covers just 18 sq km, has low-key visitor accommodation and promises you long reads and longer walks. A Thai friend from Ranong once saw 30 hornbills there in a single tree. Beat that, Phuket.

Aow Yai beach and Andaman Sea, Ko Phayam island, Ranong.

Season: September to May.

Getting there. Ranong is a four-hour drive north from Phuket. Nok Air flies daily from Bangkok (Don Mueang); the airport is 23 km south of Ranong. The nearest train station is Chumphon, 120 km east.

Staying

All photos by John Borthwick.

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