A bridge of fish, falling cameras, a touch of classy grayish patina, soft shadows and haunting hues in Thailand’s wettest province
by SeenThat on October 6, 2009
Most books dealing with photography put a heavy emphasis on light. Endless words have been written on how the light just before sunset is the best for taking pictures. The larger angle of the sunlight causes it to be softer, less bright and emphasizes the three-dimensional structure of any object; in bright light objects look flat, their details wane into a bright white.During sunset, soft shadows and haunting hues assure the most amateur photographer would take a perfect picture even if randomly aiming the camera. At that hour, probably even if the camera is accidentally operated by the impact of its falling on the ground, the result would be a perfect picture. That’s the magic of the moment.Certain places are blessed with awesome light qualities. Singapore, Kathmandu, and the triangle connecting London, Amsterdam and Paris are good examples of that. Bangkok is another one, especially during the rainy season. What these places share in common is a cover of clouds that lets in the right amount of grayish light. Not too bright, but neither too bright. On certain days the "sunset effect" can be enjoyed all along the day.However, during most of the year, Bangkok is too bright; taking good pictures during the day without proper filters is difficult. The exceptional monsoon’s season is too short. During the rest of the year - despite the weather being humid - there are not enough clouds to block the tropical sun. The situation is dramatically different in Ranong. The wettest province in Thailand seems to be below a permanent ceiling of clouds. The light is awesome and would be enjoyed not only by photographers. The rare combination of good light with a fishing port ensures an extraordinary experience.Why Should I Visit a Fishing Port?"Is SeenThat praising a visit to a smelly fishing port?" some readers are probably thinking by now. "Next he will praise the municipal dump!"My recommendation carries little weight. Many travelers would reach this port wanting or not: it is one of the few open border crosses between Thailand and Myanmar and the most beautiful one for renewing the Thai visa.Yet, there is no need to fall in despair; with the exception of Long Beach, this port is probably the most charming and clean one I have seen. The ships downloading area is far from the area accessible to travelers, who reach the fish factory next to the port and the smallish port from where longboats to Myanmar depart."I’m feeling better, SeenThat just recommended a fish factory!"Ranong's port is a fishing one; Burmese and Thais work together here classifying and selecting the fishes in several open warehouses, in the docks and in the back of the trucks parking there. The fish are kept fresh with the help of ice blocks and the area doesn’t smell at all.Below the factory is the pier of the longboats reaching Myanmar. Even if passing through the town without needing to renew the visa, visiting the pier is recommended. The colorful boats and the emerald colored islands on the wide river make an attractive sight.Saphan PhlaBut I’m running ahead. Taking the time to learn at least the meaning of locations’ names in foreign countries is rewarding. By the end of my longest stay in China, I could decipher the Chinese train timetable while waiting for my next train; my joy didn’t know limits. In Thailand the task is easier due to the alphabetical language – to be more exact it’s an abugida type of alphabet – and the name’s meanings are always interesting. That’s the case with Ranong’s port. Saphan Phla means "Bridge of Fish." What better name could be chosen for a fishing port?Reaching the PortRanong’s Morning Market (see that entry in this journal) doubles as the town’s transport hub, trucks leave from there during the day to the area’s main attractions, including the Saphan Phla Port. The last trip longs around twenty minutes and should cost 7 baht; however the driver may attempt to overprice tourists.Renewing the Thai VisaFor those eligible for a Thai 30-days visa-on-arrival, there is a possibility to get another thirty days stamp by crossing to a neighbor country and returning; this can be done twice in a row, offering thus a de facto ninety days visa to Thailand. By far, Myanmar offers the handiest opportunity. I have reviewed its border crosses with Thailand in another journal.Next to the Saphan Plah pier is a Thai immigration booth, where the passport can be stamped out and the immigration chit returned. It is open from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM; thus leaving after 2:30 PM is not recommended, unless planning to stay overnight in Myanmar. Once the formalities are over, it is time to negotiate the trip. The crossing is done with old longboats, which await for customers in a messy lump at the pier near the immigration. One possibility is to reach Myanmar with a one-way boat. This is the best if planning to stay an indefinite period of time there, from where return boats can later be booked. The other option is to book a return trip, which includes a two-hour stay in Kawthaung; booking it only up to the Burmese immigration while avoiding Kawthaung is also possible.A one-way trip should cost at least 200 baht (less than seven dollars), while a return trip plus a two hours stop at the town costs 500 baht. Cheaper options are available - especially from Burmese boats - but are not recommended. Simply, during the trip the passenger has a non defined status; if something happens to him, both Thailand and Myanmar can afterwards claim the passenger disappeared beyond their borders. Thus it is better to overpay the boatman, so that he won't get second thoughts of unplanned detours. The most surprising part of this trip is the stop at the Thai customs base on an island. A few minutes after the departure, the boat approaches a small island with a prominent Chinese temple on it; I thought it was done for my benefit, but below the temple was a military base. We approached the base, a soldier looked at the boat, and we left immediately. In the way back we stopped there again. This time a soldier boarded the boat, asked me to open my luggage and touched every single item in my backpack. The trip lengths between thirty and forty-five minutes, depending on the weather and other delays. At this spot, the Kra River is wide, calm, and relatively clean of trash; however, swimming or drinking its water is not recommended. Umbrellas were carried on the boats and supplied to the passengers whenever it began raining (every few minutes). Uncountable boats roamed the river at random directions; twice we bumped into other boats, once we dragged another boat until they succeeded to fix their engine. In front of Kawthaung town there is a small island; there, on the side facing Thailand, is a small structure built on stilts in the water, which hosts the Burmese immigration offices. It is possible to stamp the passport there and then to return immediately to Thailand. However, if willing to see Kawthaung, then that should be stated to the immigration officer there; he will take the passport details, but won't stamp it.If doing so, the boat would then surround the island and approach the mainland. At the time of my visit, birds were hunting fish all over this narrow pass; they definitely ignored the surrounding human activities. Near the pier, the mainland Burmese immigration offices stamp the passport and keep it during the stay. That is done to enforce the prohibition to leave the town into Myanmar. For more details on the Burmese side of this adventure, look at my Kawthaung journal.
At first sight, most Thai dishes are quite obvious and trivial. After all we can see what’s inside the Tom Yam Kung bowl, don’t we?Then – back at home – we may try to prepare the dish ourselves and get a tasteless soup undistinguishable from the instant ones sold at the nearest supermarket. Too late we comprehend then that the Thai cuisine secret is in its small details. Stinking ShrimpHow many times we refused to touch the stinking "nam phla" (fermented fish sauce) or shrimp paste while in Thailand? Yet, many dishes include one of them as the secret ingredient. The fermented fish sauce originates in Isaan, while dried shrimps and shrimps paste are prepared along southern Thailand coasts. Ranong is one of these spots; the raw product can be seen in the morning market: look for big bowls filled with a brownish paste and then smell it with care.Kapi (or gapi, or gkapi depending on the transliteration system used) is a paste made of finely ground fermented shrimps in sea salt. Many varieties exist, some of them smelling as bad as nam phla. Seldom is it used in its pure form; usually it is added during the cooking process, adding a faint shrimp flavor to the dish. Many of those snubbing the paste would devour all types of Thai curries, ignoring that kabi is an integral ingredient in most of them. Moreover, several types of nam prik (literally "water chili" a general name for spicy sauces) include kapi. These appear as dips accompanying other dishes. In general, these dips are extremely hot; some of them include ground insects. If the sauce smells of shrimp, it probably contains kapi paste.A related product is the dried little shrimps added to many dishes. Both products are prepared from shrimps that are too small to be consumed in any other way. The dried shrimps are eaten with their shell. It doesn’t taste as my Starbucks cup of chai! Few beverages are more varied in their preparation, or more confused to the English speaking world than chai. Without repeating common errors, "chai" means just tea (it is derived from the Chinese "cha"); the spiced version originating in India should be called "masala chai" (literally "spiced tea"). In Myanmar, "chai" means black tea brewed with milk and not the Indian "chai-masala" popularly known in the West as "chai." Regardless its origin, chai for me is the flavor and smell of Myanmar; it is ubiquitous and of a remarkably constant quality. The chai met in Ranong and all along the Thai-Burmese border is of the Burmese variety, while the chai served in American coffee shops is an approximation of the Indian Chai masala.Burmese chai is prepared by boiling black-tea leaves with water, milk and sugar for a long time; then, before it is served, condensed milk is usually added. The final result is a dark orange beverage as strong as coffee, which - due to the boiling - contains much more caffeine than regular tea. As a consequence, this is a morning drink; few establishments serve it after noon. Most shops prepare the drink in plain sight; seeing the process is an integral and enjoyable part of such a visit.This roti is a riot!Not only chai may suffer of misconceptions. Roti is a popular name in Asia, encompassing quite different products. It refers to unleavened flatbreads made from a whole wheat-flour based on an Indian variety of wheat. All varieties are round, but here end their similarities. The varieties of size and texture are endless; in Indian dishes the roti is used as a carrier - an edible spoon – for the main dish, pretty much as pita bread is in the Arabic cuisine. Very thin products are known as "chapatti." However, Thailand is not India and roti is used in a different fashion here.Rather small and thick, the Thai roti is consumed rolled into a squarish shape and filled with Thai condensed milk (meaning a product prepared with milk, sugar and about fifty percent palm oil). Though very popular, the dish can be found in the markets only during the early hours.Gafeeh and Bpaa-thaawng-gohIn the morning market entry of this journal, I commented about certain newcomers to the Thai cuisine. Some of these foods have become staple dishes in Thailand, though adaptations to the local taste and ingredients took place.Coffee is one of them. Introduced by the French to Indochina, it diffused into Thailand from Laos. The preparation method of ga-feeh – as it is known here - is similar to the Laotian and based on a sock filter, but the taste is quite different. Starbucks serves vanilla and chocolate flavored coffees; adding flavors is a common practice everywhere. Thais prefer other flavors; to the ground coffee, they add ground tamarind or pickled plum. The specific flavor is decided by the staff, since due to the nature of the process, all the coffees at a given moment are prepared from the same filter. As well, the condensed milk contains palm oil. The result is quite attractive and features that lush richness of the tropics.Thai coffee is served with a cup of green tea included in the price; its purpose is to help wash down the thick drink. Beyond that, bpaa-thaawng-goh is served with it.Bpaa-thaawng-goh is a strange word. A Thai loan from Chinese, it designs a deep-fried dough sweetmeat quite similar to the French beignet in the preparation method though its elongated shape resembles two connected cylinders instead of a square bun. It is hard to say if the Chinese word was used to design a beignet introduced with the coffee by the French, or if a Chinese sweetmeat was found suitable by the Thai to accompany the coffee. Who would imagine this international issue while enjoying a sweetish coffee with a couple of fried buns?
Thai pronunciation is counterintuitive to the Western ear: Ra-nong is how this province name is separated into syllables. "Ranong" is a Thai corruption of the name "Rundung," a former part of the Kedah Malay Sultanate. It was annexed by Siam after repeated Thai invasions during the 17th and 18th centuries. Until the beginning of the twentieth century it was ruled by a Chinese family in a kind of suzerainty.The less populated province in Thailand features lush vegetation on a mountainous landscape, the highest rainfall in the country and little else. Mangrove forests cover much of the coast and have been declared a biosphere reserve. Regardless the season during my visits, the weather was constant: grey and rainy, hot and humid; the perfect conditions for giving that special moldy look, a touch of classy grayish patina, to all exposed surfaces. Amidst all these dramatic features is a small town featuring the province’s name and serving as its capitalSurrounded by lush hills half hidden in eternal mist and almost drowning under roughly six meters of rain every year, the city is rural and lacks a definite downtown area, though the morning market is the best candidate for such a definition. Instead, several tiny centers have developed around the main market, the port and the routes accessing neighboring towns.Low rows of shophouses – many of them built of teakwood – delimit the main, paved road. Shophouses are two or three storey structures, where the entrance level is dedicated to commercial activity, while the upper floors are used as the living quarters of the owners. Most of the buildings in town that are not dedicated to administrative or religious tasks enter this category. Nowadays forbidden of being logged in Thailand, teak was a popular building material in the past. Many buildings have survived and many are being built with trees brought from Myanmar. Teak is popular not only due to being native of the area. It can be worked easily and its oils provide protection from weather and termites. The beautiful houses do create an illusion of being in an urban environment, but if looking between them at the junctions, it can be seen that the town has only one or two blocks depth beyond the main roads. Sometimes a single house separates between the road and the wilderness. Similar scenes can be witnessed in other Thai provincial capitals, but this one displays a stronger rural spirit.The morning market doubles as the transport hub of the town, trucks leave from there to all the main attractions in the surrounding area, including the Saphan Phla Port, from where Myanmar is accessed. The market spans on both sides of the main road; people seem to consider the road as an extension of the market, walking back and forth between its two halves without bothering to check the traffic. The same holds true for the rest of this sleepy town. The ubiquitous 7-Eleven chain has arrived at town, but no other international franchises are present.More often than not the streets are wet from the last rain; a sharp smell of wet greenery serves as collateral evidence of the same event. For me, it’s magic. Having lived most of my life in dry places, rain means life; a deep green against blue skies. Ranong’s rain exuberance is a feast and a blessing, the greenest point in a very green Thailand.Despite its humble size, Ranong provides several interesting sights. Next to the fountain, along the main road, is the old governor place, a long teakwood structure resembling an empty monastery. On the way leading to the port is the Stigmatines Catholic Church; the Thai-style church features a happy Christ, several big statues in the yard, and a school at its side. In front of it, over a low hill, is a big Buddhist temple, with a tower bell and the local crematorium. By the market is a small Chinese temple with a nice bird of paradise at the roof's corner; not far away a small mosque completes the religious scene. This mix of cultures and religions is typical of Southern Thailand.Three kilometers east of downtown are the thermal springs at Raksawarin Park, songtao (trucks) taxis reach them from downtown. There are three natural spring pools. The temperature of the water in its three natural pools is above 60°C. Nam Tok Ngao is a waterfall located twelve kilometers south of downtown; the best way of reaching it is taking any southward bus from the highway.SleepingDue to its nearness to the border cross, Ranong features more hotels than its size justifies; however, most of them are of low quality or in bad shape. Planning a stay as short as possible is recommended.Among them is only one mid range hotel, the Royal Princess Ranong. Located near downtown – at 41/144 Tamuang Road – it features hot spring water in its swimming pool and spa. Several guesthouses are in downtown, some of them within unmarked structures near the morning market. The Kiwi Orchid Guesthouse – across the highway from the town’s main road – is probably the best known among the guesthouses. It offers simple rooms for around 250 baht; their touring services are overpriced and are better arranged independently. The truth is that there are no really attractive options for a prolonged stay. If making a visa run through Kawthaung, then it is possible to stay overnight there. In all the Thai-Burmese border crosses, there were signs at the immigrations booths advertising the possibility to buy overnight visas. In Tachilek, a three days options was offered. Yet, the overnight stays prices seem to vary – as it happens sometimes with the regular visas - as I found in Myawaddy. My biggest surprise was here in Kawthaung. Out of the blue, the immigrations officer offered me a fifteen days visa if I added five dollars to the regular price. It didn’t make any sense, especially since Kawthaung is tiny and travelers are not allowed beyond its borders. Apparently it was a way to compensate me for the very weird incident I witnessed there.If deciding to stay there, it is worth noting that there is only one decent hotel in town. Honey Bear is its name, the pier its location. It very simple rooms are widely overpriced at 800 baht per night.
Few provincial capitals in Thailand still keep the traditional look of a Thai town: low teakwood houses, some of them on stilts, lush greenery and a nearby source of water; a morning market adorns their center. Ranong is one of those few.LocationThe morning market is located near the main junction leading to Saphan Phla – the fish port and pier to Myanmar. That means it is away from National Highway 4; actually very little of Ranong is near the highway.If arriving at Ranong on the way described in the travel’s entry of this journal, reaching the market – and downtown - means walking from the highway into town through the seafood market (or taking truck #2; however, the walk is highly enjoyable). The seafood market offers fresh and cooked merchandise; if crossing it during a meal time, stopping there is recommended. After a shallow stream and a sharp curve of the road, the market and downtown are to the right and clearly visible.The market is along the town’s main road; several guesthouses and restaurants are nearby, making it a good spot for beginning the town’s exploration; a point to keep in mind is that the best hotels in town are located elsewhere.If arriving with a night bus from Bangkok Index for the sake of a visa run, then the morning market would be the best stop until the immigration opens. The market opens before sunrise, offering tasty breakfasts and a close look into the local life. The main commercial area of town is on the same road and after the market.LayoutThe central part of the market is within a large, roofed structure, which includes the main stalls serving food. However, a substantial part of the market is across the road in an unordered lump of shops. The central structure side is on the side closer to the pier – many stalls continue the market outside the structure downwards. The part of the market across the road is on the lower parts of the hills delimiting the town. Beyond it is what seems to be a solid wall of greenery.FoodThe market offer several options for tasty breakfast and lunches. Being an Asian market means each stall specializes in one or two dishes. If willing to eat a full meal, several stalls should be visited. Taking food from one stall to another is acceptable if buying dishes from both.Ranong is known for its fruits. Mangos, papayas, coconuts, longans and lakams can be seen among many others. Cashews are another specialty of the province. Most of the fruit stalls are across the road from the central structure.Coffee and chai are available in many stalls; fried buns – tiny versions of French beignets - are offered next to them. One of the stalls specializes on roti - traditional Indian fried bread resembling small pancakes - serving them fresh and unusually covered with condensed milk. Their combination with chai or coffee is delicious. The presence of chai and roti is a reminder of the area’s substantial Burmese population.If arriving during the mango season, a rare delicacy awaits the visitor. Thais usually eat the mango while it is unripe with a mix of sugar and chili; however, when ripe, they prepare a heavenly dish called khao nio ma muang. Sticky rice is bathed with coconut cream and then covered with bright orange, sweet mango chunks.On Farangs, Guavas and CashewsThough formally never having been a colony, many signs of the colonial period can be seen in Thailand. Some of them reached the kingdom indirectly through a diffusion process across its borders: coffee arrived in such a way from French Indochina. Others arrived through trade. The Portuguese had diplomatic and commercial relations with the Kingdom of Siam since the seventeenth century and brought with them plants and fruits from Brazil, their South American colony.However, the Portuguese had arrived second. First were the French. Apparently the word "farang" – used in Thai and other Asian languages to denominate westerners – is a distortion of the word "French," (look at the consonants in both words. Consonants are the basic construction blocks of any abugida alphabet as Thai is). By association the word was used for the first fruit brought by a westerner. The Portuguese brought the guava and till this day this fruit is called "farang" in Thailand. "Farang eat farang" is a timeless and tasteless joke in Thai.A visit to nearby Phuket would show additional Portuguese influences. Phuket’s center is a wonderful example of Sino-Portuguese architecture, similarly to Macau.Another item brought by the Portuguese from Brazil was the cashew. The name originates from a South American indigenous language, the Tupi called it "acaju." Despite the popular conception, the cashew is neither a nut nor a fruit. Probably this is one of the most complex vegetal products we consume. From the flowers of that tree, a pear shaped false fruit grows up. Known as the "cashew apple" this sweet product is edible but it is too delicate to be moved around, thus it is little known. At the end of the false fruit the real fruit grows surrounded by a poisonous double shell. The seed of this fruit is what we call "cashew nut," which is probably the sweetest seed on earth. Ranong has perfect climate conditions for growing it and the product is readily available at the morning market.How would western travelers been called in Thailand, if the cashew nut had arrived first?
Despite being on the main road used by travelers to access Southern Thailand, Ranong is a relatively remote destination with few travelers stopping there. Being on a riverside is not attractive enough when the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand are nearby.Thinking off-the-beaten-track means here visiting Ranong while travelling between the two larger water bodies. The trip is very easy and highly enjoyable.BusReaching Ranong from Bangkok is not difficult, though it is getting harder. The problem is that the southern bus terminal has been recently moved further away into Thonburi. Bus number four reaches it from the Victory Monument in Bangkok; the trip costs a staggering thirty baht, as compared to the regular seven baht bus fare; to that, the transport to the Victory Monument should be added. From the bus terminal regular and VIP buses are available during the day and night. The trip longs up to twelve hours.A VIP bus from Bangkok costs a bit more than 500 baht, while providing superb facilities: air conditioner, comfortable coaches on the second floor allowing awesome views of the roads, snacks, coffee and meal stops. This is by far the best option for reaching the city. If traveling by bus in southern Thailand, then Ranong is best explored as a stopover between Surat Thani and Phuket. The first is by the shore of the Gulf of Thailand and is the gate to Koh Samui, while the other islands. The last is Thailand’s largest island and is on the Andaman Sea. Ranong – along the Kra River – provides yet a third type of beach in the same area.AirArriving at Ranong through air is possible but not recommended; the flights are scarce. If desiring to miss the beautiful overland road, it is better to reach Phuket – which is connected to Bangkok with many flights per day - and then continuing to Ranong overland.Isn’t this a nice road?The road leading to Ranong from Bangkok is National Highway 4; this is one of the four main highways in Thailand, each leading to a different direction from Bangkok.Also known as Petchkasem Road, it was named – as Sukhumvit Road, another National Highway – after a director general of the Department of Highways. Being almost 1300 kilometers long, this is the longest highway in the country, connecting Bangkok with Malaysia. Several parts of the road belong to the Asian Highway AH2.Kho Khot Kra: Kra IsthmusIf traveling by car, pick up Petchkasem Road at Bangkok and follow it for roughly 570 kilometers: Ranong would appear at the right.If traveling by car, keep in mind that just before arriving at Ranong, is the Kra Isthmus. This is the Malay Peninsula's narrowest point, where forty-four kilometers separate the Gulf of Thailand from the Andaman Sea. There are several viewpoints in the area, though none of them allows seeing both seas at once. Yet the broken shoreline surrounded by low, lush hills is a must.Where is the town?Ranong’s bus terminal is on Highway 4 near the Tansom Thara Hotel, away from the downtown area, and the last is away from the highway. Songthaew (public transport truck) number two connects the terminal with downtown.The result of this layout is that very little of Ranong is seen from the highway, except for a greeting sign next to the town’s main entrance. I strongly recommend avoiding the terminal and getting off the bus at the town’s main entrance. Across the highway from there are a few structures that may lead the traveler to think the town is south of the highway, but that’s a wrong impression. The small cluster of buildings includes the Kiwi Orchid Guesthouse and little else.The way from the main entrance to downtown crosses a fresh seafood market and a shallow stream; walking it allows good views of the town.
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