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Once ignored by the tourist trade because of an unfortunate perception that it wasn’t safe, Nakhon Si Thammarat is working hard to clean up its reputation. Crime has fallen dramatically as development assistance has poured in and the city is opening its arms to visitors looking for a break far from the madding crowd.
“Last year’s police operations have led to a major decline in violence as evidenced by the peaceful Songkran celebrations. We feel confident in saying that Nakhon Si Thammarat is a safe city,” he tells members of the press who have travelled south to take part in the “Nakhon Si Dee Dee” (“Nakhon Si Awesome”) campaign. In fact, the campaign was initiated in 2012 to promote tourism through a series of romantic and adventurous activities including a Valentine’s Day celebration atop Khao Men, the third highest mountain in the province. The new governor, Chamroen Tipayapongtada, decided to breathe fresh life into “Nakhon Si Awesome” this year in the hope that the province could earn some much-needed tourist dollars.
“We have put a lot of effort into cleaning up our natural attractions and we are very proud that the Tapee River has been voted by the Pollution Control Department as the least polluted of all rivers in the country, measuring between 77-93 on the water quality index. Visitors will feel comfortable and safe thanks to our great climate and clean water. I believe coming here allows you to live longer,” he says.
“We have spent more than Bt300 million in beefing up security, purchasing closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) and installing them at all tourist destinations. Nakhon Si Thammarat has tremendous potential for tourism. And we are determined to be good hosts so have trained many guides at all levels,” says Chacrit.
The airport too is getting an upgrade to international standards in a Bt1 billion-plus project scheduled to run for three years, and a new road is being built from Khao Plai Dam to Khanom district at a cost of Bt105 million. A further Bt10 million will be spent on constructing a bike path in parallel with the new road.
The province is also being promoted overseas, with the city fathers signing memoranda of understanding (MOU) with Bali in Indonesia and with Chengdu in China.
“Nakhon Si Thammarat and Bali share a richness of culture and nature and we are working with the Indonesians to promote tourism, culture, economy and education. For Chengdu, which has a population of 96 million people, we will be emphasising such attractions as the pink dolphin, fish spa and mud spa at Baan Laem Homestay and fruit orchards. Another selling point is religion. Our temples, especially Wat Chedi, are well known amongst tourists from Malaysia and Singapore,” Chacrit continues.
Another sacred site bound to appeal to Chinese tourists is Wat Khao Khun Phanom in Phrom Khiri district, where we climb the 245 steps to the cave in which King Taksin the Great is said to have stayed until his death. Today it is home to 30 bronze Buddha images and a bronze Buddha’s footprint. Leaving the cave I walk towards an ongoing temple fair and watch a group of young boys putting on a shadow play.
Our next stop is Prom Lok Community-based Tourism Centre. Set up 11 years ago, it offers visitors a range of interesting activities including trekking on Khao Luang, at 1,850 metres the highest mountain in the Southern region. Homestays can also be arranged as well as cycling tours around the village passing such attractions as Wat Khao Khun Phanom, farms and mangosteen orchard. Packages are priced at a very reasonable Bt1,800 for two days.
“We can support groups of 20 tourists and have welcomed visitors from Scandinavia, France and England. They’ve taken advantage of the homestays to learn about the local ways of life and our arts and culture including the traditional Thai dance known as manorah. This year, we have reintroduced our traditional folk games mark kep (pebble tossing), ri ri khao sarn (a form of catch) and mark khum, which can all be enjoyed at the folk game museum,” a member of the centre’s staff explains.
We also spend time in Khao Luang National Park, one of the most important areas for nature tourism in Southern Thailand. It has been visited by members of the Thai royal family over the years including Their Majesties the King and Queen who came to Phrom Lok Waterfall in 1959.
Time doesn’t allow for a trek to the top so instead we spend time walking on the Phrom Lok Waterfall Nature Trail, which meanders 600 metres through the evergreen forest to a soundtrack of birdsong. We stop briefly to admire the engravings of the emblems and initials of Their Majesties the King and Queen.
Another attraction likely to appeal to tourists is whitewater rafting at Khlong Klai in Krung Ching. The first section is ideal for beginners with easily navigable rapids though sufficiently tiring to ensure that we will all enjoy a good night’s sleep.
We start the next day high up with our heads in the mist at Khao Chang Lon before heading to Hong Cave in Tha Sala District. Part of Khao Nanthi National Park Protection Unit, the cave is entered through a narrow entrance and visitors need to crawl under the ceiling of stalactites to reach the waterfall that cascades down.
In the afternoon, we visit Khao Kha archaeological site, home in the eighth and ninth centuries to the Hindus of the Sawai Nikai Brahman order. Three ancient Hindu temples have been restored and a museum houses artefacts used during religious rites as well as holy water pipes and even an ancient pond. We end our day at Wat Chedi, which is packed with pilgrims making a wish at the wooden statue of temple boy Khai, a follower of revered monk Luang Pu Thuad who died at his age of nine.
Talet Bay is our final destination and while we don’t see the pink dolphins, we do get to admire the freshwater pond shaped like a foot on Koh Nui Nok before ending our trip at the fish spa in Khanom district’s Suan Ta San.
IF YOU GO
– Both Nok Air and Thai AirAsia have daily flights from Bangkok to Nakhon Si Thammarat. The province is also accessible by long-distance bus from the Southern Bus Terminal.