By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Nation Weekend
LOCATED SOME 800 kilometres from Bangkok, the Southern coastal province of Phang Nga is well known for its stunning scenery. Less known but equally as stunning are its culinary creations that take the visitors on a palate-pleasing journey through its streets.
Phang Nga is one of 55 secondary cities being promoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to draw travellers eager for new experiences. The second edition (2019) of the Michelin Guide Bangkok has been happy to play along, extending its coveted ratings to the best dining venues in Phang Nga and Phuket.
The fishing village of Bang Pat on the mangrove peninsula of Phang Nga Bay is home to about 80 families, most of them Muslim.
After a short flight from Bangkok to Phuket – the nearest airport to Phang Nga, I climb into a car for the 70-kilometre trip to the fishing village of Bang Pat on the mangrove peninsula of Phang Nga Bay.
A small 200-metre concrete bridge leads to the village, which is home to about 80 families, most of them Muslim. Fresh and dried fish, shrimp paste and palm sugar are on sale at very reasonable prices in front of many houses, which also offer comfortable homestays. I pass locals busy mending their nets before setting out to sea at night and other preparing sun-dried fish.
The Bang Pat Village offers fresh seafood and dried fish at affordable prices.
Her Majesty Queen Sirikit visited this village in 1997 with her son – the current King Maha Vajiralongkorn – to encourage its residents to preserve the mangrove forest and set up a crab bank to promote sustainable fisheries. Photos taken during their visit grace the walls of many homes.
The village is known for its fresh seafood and Khrua Aree is a seafood eatery packed with locals and tourists alike. Foreign travellers are dropped off at the pier for lunch after a morning spent visiting the various islands along this coast.
The seafood eatery Khrua Aree offers dishes at resonable prices, at Bt250 net per person for each meal.
Crab, fish, shrimps, squids, mantis shrimps and shellfish are cooked in different styles and each meal costs Bt250 net. Groups of up to four diners are invited to choose five dishes with seven offered to larger groups.
For our group of 15, the dishes on offer range from steamed crab, tom yum goong, stir-fried squid with ink, deep-fried sea bass, stir-fried Venus shells, spicy sea grape seaweed salad and fried rice with shrimp.
After lunch, we set off to explore the cultural route designed by the TAT’s Phang Nga Office and covering eight spots in the town’s Muang district. We pack into song thaew – the shared pickup taxi with a bench along each side of the cargo bed.
Travellers take photos in front of a mural painted by Alex Face and explore the city of Phang Nga in a song thaew, the local distinctive taxi.
The Song Thaew Cooperative of Phang Nga has joined the campaign, allowing eight to 10 interested travellers to hire the whole song thaew for a very reasonable Bt800 and takes them to visit the eight spots over the course of four to five hours.
Our schedule is tight and we only have time to visit three attractions. Driver Chanchana Saelim first takes us to the Phang Nga Museum housed in the Colonial-style building constructed in 1930 that once served as the town hall. After renovations, it opened as a museum in 2013 and relates the history of Phang Nga as a marine trading port and tin mining town.
The Phang Nga Museum tells the history of the Southern coastal province during its time as a marine trading port, emphasising its tin mines and cultural diversity.
Among the exhibits are maps illustrating the marine peninsular route in Southern Thailand, the equipment used for mining tin, the distinctive dress of the Buddhists, Muslims and Thai-Chinese who inhabited the town, as well as photographs of the Sino-Portuguese row houses in the old town and the Southern-style food.
The next stop is Chao Mae Ma Cho Po Shrine, one of the most revered shrines among Thai-Chinese residents, and the residence of the goddess of the sea who is believed to give Chinese merchants and immigrants a spiritual anchor along the coast.
Khanom Jeen Pa Son, opposite Chao Mae Ma Cho Po Shrine, offers riceflour noodles with curries and a wide array of vegetables.
Local guide Viriyah Hongkhao suggests we stop for food at local favourite Khanom Jeen Pa Son directly opposite the shrine. The self-service eatery is known for its rice-flour noodles and curries, which include nam ya, nam prik, tai pla and gaeng paa, priced at Bt30. Gracing the long tables are more than 20 vegetables – fresh, blanched and pickled – as well as fried dried small fish and pineapple for all you can eat.
Several walls in the city have been painted with colourful murals by Thai street artist Patcharapol Tangruen, aka Alex Face. He’s best known for his iconic three-eyed child Mardi, who peers out at passer-by with her eyes half-opened and a sense of weary vulnerability and who has graced walls in Bangkok as well as Singapore.
In Phang Nga, visitors are encouraged to ride song thaew to find the three Mardi murals in the city. In one Mardi is wearing a sarong and holding a metal pan to extract ore and in another, she is sitting behind a giant glass bottle containing a junk.
“Alex was commissioned by TAT and the local administrative office to paint three murals in the city to tell the history and the multi-cultural diversity of Phang Nga. He finished last month and the murals are now popular spots for visitors to snap a photo,” Viriyah says.
“Phang Nga is a charming and peaceful city where you can enjoy fabulous seascapes, mountain views and jungles bustling with wildlife. The city is also becoming a popular place for elderly Germans to live out their retirement. They rent a house and spend their time sunbathing and hiking.”
Members of Baan Pring Local Enterprise showcase how to make local sweet treats.
Our last stop is Baan Pring Local Enterprise, which produces such local foods and desserts as nam prik goong siab (Southern-style chilli dip made with dried shrimp) and local pastry tao sor in gift packaging. Visitors are also invited to knead the flour and cook the fillings.
The other five spots on the route are Phang Nga City Pillar Shrine, Chedi Khao Lang Bat, Tham Sam Rock Art, Saraphimuk Temple and Rai Foon Road and while we couldn’t visit them, we stop off at the popular viewpoint called Samed Nang Chee in Takua Thung district. To see the stunning scenes of Phang Nga Bay and pristine beaches from the top, visitors have to board four-wheel drive vehicles offered by the local community at Bt90 per person for a round trip.
A traveller takes a selfie with a backdrop of Phang Nga Bay from Samed Nang Chee viewpoint.
The two-kilometre, zig-zag trail is high and steep, requiring skilled driving and visitors are told to grab the rack firmly. It is a thrilling experience and the view from the top makes it all worthwhile.
Samed Nang Chee is actually a good spot to watch the sunrise and to marvel at the Milky Way at night. The only blimp is the sign bearing the name Samed Nang Chee, which has a colourful Thai font and is out of place with the natural scenery.
The street-food eatery Khrua Nong earned a Michelin’s Bib Gourmand award for good value for money.
My culinary journey in Phang Nga ends at the small street food eatery Khrua Nong in Takua Pa district that earned Michelin’s Bib Gourmand award for its good value for money. In this case, it means a maximum price of Bt1,000 for three-course meal.
The owners are husband-and-wife team Komson and Chanida Jewsakul who left behind their careers as a photographer and a secretary in Bangkok to operate this eatery 18 years ago. Despite its humble setting and compact space, Khrua Nong offers about 200 dishes made with fresh ingredients that are locally sourced.
“I returned to my hometown to take care of my mother. Cooking runs in the family. My grandfather had a Western-style restaurant when Westerners worked in the mines. My mother and her sister also run a made-to-order eatery. We started with just four tables and today can accommodate a maximum of 80 diners,” says Komson.
Komson and Chanida do all the cooking themselves in an open kitchen as diners watch on. During my visit, they had just taken delivery of fresh river prawns, which they used to make a delicious tom yum soup. A dish not to miss is the deep-fried spotted mackerel fillets seasoned with home-made soy sauce for Bt200. Other tempting choices include deep-fried soft shell crab with garlic (Bt160), stir-fried sato beans with shrimp and shrimp paste (Bt120), and stir-fried bai liang leaves with egg (Bt70).
“We were so honoured to get the prestigious Michelin’s Bib Gourmand award. From an overlooked eatery that normally serves local people, we are welcoming more customers from different provinces. We’re renovating the space by replacing the roof and building an additional toilet that is user-friendly for the elderly and handicapped,” Chanida says.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Authority of Thailand’ southern region.
IF YOU GO
Learn more about tourist attractions in Phang Nga at Facebook.com/wonderful.phangnga
Bangkok Airways operates daily flights to Phuket. Check the flight schedules at www.BangkokAir.com.
The Song Thaew Cooperative of Phang Nga can be reached by calling Chanchana Saelim at (093) 794 9966.
Contact Khrua Aree at Bang Pat Village at (086) 274 4557.
Khanom Jeen Pa Son, opposite Chao Mae Ma Cho Po Shrine, can be reached at (086) 593 9658.
Contact Baan Pring Local Enterprise at (081) 537 5370.
Khrua Nong can be reached at (080) 389 5554.