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A DIFFERENT TYPE OF ‘KHAN’

Rajen Bali

Shah Rukh Khan? No. Salman Khan? No. Aamir Khan? ‘NO’ again! We are going to talk about Prachuap Khiri Khan – commonly known just as ‘Prachuap’ - which is not ‘that’ kind of Khan at all. It is a delightful seaside town in Thailand, some 240 km south of Bangkok. It is the capital of the province of the same name. Hua Hin – the original royal seaside resort in Thailand, and an upmarket destination now – is in the same province, about 90 km before Prachuap on the highway from Bangkok.

Hua Hin has world class tourist facilities now and attracts the kind of people who like star-category hotels and spas and must have KFC and McDonald wherever they go. Prachuap has none of all that. But it does have three wonderful bays, a temple-on-a-mount, some of the best seafood in Thailand at most reasonable prices, decent hotels which appear to be a ‘steal’, very friendly people, stunning sunrises and sunsets, vibrant day and night markets, interesting history, and much, much more. It is very, very laid-back and vibrant at the same time. There were moments when I imagined I was not in Thailand but in the South of France. Does it mean anything that I went there for two days and very reluctantly left after twelve days!

Let us talk about my hotel first – The Prachuap Beach Hotel. It has to be the best accommodation in town, all things considered. What struck me first was some interesting signage. ‘No Smoking’, ‘No Pets’ and ‘No Durian”! Imagine some place in Thailand banning from its premises one of the most popular (?) fruits in the country. Okay, it is a bit smelly and the world is divided by those who think it is ‘just divine’ and those who find it obnoxious, but banning it in totality in a popular hotel?

Leaving my thoughts about the Durian aside for the moment, I took the lift from the comfortable and tastefully done up small lobby to go to my room on the 5th floor. On entering my room, I gaped in sheer amazement and delight at the stunning sweep of the panoramic view of the seaside and the town. I was so overwhelmed by the view that I just sat and gazed in wonder. After quite some time, I reluctantly went down to the lobby.

A door from the lobby led to a large wooden deck with rustic wooden tables and chairs, extended up to the narrow road. It was just this road which separated the hotel from all the blue waters in the bay. Green mountains stood as sentinels in the middle distance. Up above, puffy white clouds of various shapes and sizes were indulging in games, chasing one another in the vast expanse of the clear blue skies. Down below, much action was provided by humans darting about the deep blue seas in their big and small boats. It appeared that God was in His Heaven, benignly overseeing all the action in the skies and on the seas.

This deck area was a ‘yes smoking’ area and I sat – fascinated - on my favorite chair, enjoying my favorite cigars, watching the changing drama of seaside life unfold. Hour after hour. Day after day. For many days. I just did not seem to get enough of this sit-and-gaze-in-wonder experience.

The deck also doubled as a dining space. Breakfast here was an event because the excellent fare was supplemented by the stunning sea-view. I was reminded repeatedly by the very friendly hotel staff that free coffee and Ovaltine were always available at the counter in the deck. OVALTINE! This dairy malt drink pre-dated Horlicks in my life and was an essential part of my growing up. For many years, I must have had at least one cup of Ovaltine every day. But now I could not even vaguely recollect when I had my last Ovaltine. Was it forty years ago? Or, maybe fifty years? All that I could remember were the advertisements in London’s Piccadilly Circus – those too, quite a few years ago. I do not remember when I last had a cup of Ovaltine. But I made up for all those Ovaltine-less decades at Prachuap. I not only drank and enjoyed the stuff every day, but also discovered the virtues of a hot drink made with half-and-half of Ovaltine and coffee. This re-discovered Ovaltine. Heady stuff!

On the very first evening in Prachuap, in a matter of hours after reaching, I discovered the great change that the evening brought. But first, let us get the geography right. On the one side was the promenade bordering the ocean.  On the other side was the edge of the town studded with colorful residential buildings, hotels/guest houses, the odd shop and quite a few restaurants. But as if by magic, many seafood stalls mushroomed with many kinds of fish and seafood – the day’s catch – on display. Most of all this was sold by weight and cooked gratis as per your preference. Red Snapper, Grouper, Kingfish, Calamari, King-sized Prawns, Lobsters, Crabs and many kinds of Shellfish – make your choice and Bless the Lord! I do not remember if I have ever eaten so much great seafood in a matter of twelve days as I tucked away in Prachuap. There were the added attractions of the traditional Thai, Chinese and Western food. Plus some excellent breads, buns and cookies.

There was also the day market with interesting – and often, strange-to-me – stuff, on sale. Then there was a row of fruit stalls with very good quality guavas, bananas of many kinds, papayas, mangoes, apples, durian, pomegranates, excellent water melons, and – pineapples. I found that Prachuap region was the ‘headquarters’ of the Pineapple in Thailand. Though it was first grown in Si Racha, then it made its way to Prachuap and spread like wildfire. Common sights on the highway around Prachuap included stalls loaded with pineapples and many pineapple fields dotting the landscape. The food chapter has to end only after mention of the regular night market in town and the special week-end night market by the sea. The latter had an amazing range of amazing food – seafood dominating – at amazingly low prices!

But the joys of Prachuap were not confined to the great gastronomic experience that it was. There were many wonders of Nature and human endeavor. There was the Ao Prachuap, the bay that I saw from my room windows.  About 4 km to the south was Ao Manao, an island dotted bay with a tree-fringed clean sandy beach. It is located within the Thai airbase of Wing 5 and the whole area has that high grade military clean-up. The military does check entry in to the area but also provides accommodation for hire and permits eating places, shopping and other facilities. When not in use, the unfolded beach umbrellas look like lines of soldiers standing stiffly to ‘attention’ and waiting for the order, ‘open’. When the sun gets hot, the umbrellas open up like mushrooms and large crowds of locals and visitors bask in their shade to enjoy all the delights that a good beach has to offer.  Near the popular stretch of the beach are the dynamic statues of cavorting dolphins and the lawns across the road hold many joys for  children, like  life-size statues of various animals including a dinosaur.

The Japanese had landed at Prachuap during the Second World War on 8 December 1941 and the small Thai force engaged them. The fierce the battle went on for two days before the Thais had to capitulate. 38 Thai airmen and civilians lost their lives in the Battle of Prachuap Khiri Khan. Ao Manao’s 5 Wing area has a number of small aircraft on open display in the grounds. There must be interesting war-time stories about these aircraft, but today they are only mute witnesses to those times. Ao Manao is the best swimming beach in Prachuap. A little distance away is the historical park and a hill which is the habitat of white monkeys with black ‘spectacled’ eyes. There is a shrine, a number of monkey-statues and the monkeys to regale you with their antics. A panoramic view of Ao Prachuap is a bonus.

On the other side of the town, to the south, 6 km away is the third bay, Ao Noi with a decent road with many guest houses and restaurants. The road ends at a small and picturesque fishermen’s village, a scout camp and a hill-park. This area is much quieter than the rest of Prachuap, serene and peaceful. The only noise sometimes is the motors of the fishing boats.

The Prachuap Bay is overlooked from one side by the Khao Chong Krajok (Mirror Mountain). From near the City Hall, 396 steps take you to the top of the mountain with breathtaking views of all the three bays. There is also an important Buddhist Temple with a Buddha footprint, important religious relics and a bodhi tree taken from India. There is also a colony of more-than-playful monkeys. The tourist office issues a certificate to all those who climb 396 steps to the top.

Prachuap is quite a small place. One can comfortably cover the whole town on foot. I walked through its streets, lanes and bylanes, enjoying the culture, scents and impressive sights like the City Pillar.

I made Prachuap the base and travelled to a number of places around. These included the small Myanmar border town which was just 10 km away, and farther afield, Hua Hin, Hua Hin Winery, National Parks, waterfalls, other beaches and many other interesting sights. If, for some reason, you prefer to stay only in upmarket places, there are a number of good – and expensive – resorts not far from Prachuap.

My tale-of-joys-unlimited did have one disappointment. I wanted to see the elephants in the Kuburi Forest Park and my driver assured me that we would definitely meet the elephants. Only the previous day, he had taken some visitors to a spot near a watering place in the forest park and they had seen four herds come and drink water. But, my luck, while I waited and waited and waited, camera at the ready, Dear Elephant Sirs decided to skip a drink of water that evening. A frantic chase of fresh droppings towards many directions had only the droppings on view. The only elephant pictures I could take were of life-size elephant statues!

But forget the elephants. I fondly remember the three bays of Prachuap, the exceptional hospitality at the Prachuap Beach Hotel, and - Kingfish Steak, Broiled Crabs, Grilled Red Snapper, Lobster, Squids, a Local Fish baked in Banana Leaves, some of the best Seafood Tom Yum Soup and………

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