Tourism-wise, Chumphon, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung and (mainland) Surat Thani are feeling neglected
“Chumphon is the gateway to the South, but it’s only a small city that most travellers pass through on their way to Phuket, Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao,” says Veera Thongphichit. He and others are aiming to change that and keep the travellers around a little longer.
Veera is Chumphon’s provincial permanent secretary, and with Tikomporn Suttiudomrut and Somchai Semmanee, directors of the provincial Tourism and Sports offices in Surat Thani and Chumphon, respectively, he recently launched a Bt4-million campaign to promote the area.
Folks who whiz past Chumphon are “missing out on a great opportunity to explore many interesting historical, cultural and natural attractions”, Veera told participants in a 50-car caravan touring his province and neighbouring Surat Thani.
The same caravan heads next to two other Gulf provinces, Nakhon Si Thammarat and Phatthalung.
Among the draws in Chumphon are a monument to Prince Chumphon, father of the Royal Navy, Wat Phra That Sawi, Hat Sai Ree, coffee, durian and mangosteen plantations, and the finger bananas that are renowned throughout the country.
Wat Phra That Sawi is regarded as one of the most sacred sites in the four provinces on the tour, Tikomporn pointed out. Others include Wat Phra Borom That Chaiya in Surat Thani, Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan in Nakhon Si Thammarat and Wat Khien Bang Kaew in Phatthalung.
The first stop for the caravan was Chumphon’s Nong Yai Area Development Project, initiated by His Majesty King Bhumibol as one of the kaem ling (monkey cheek) water-retention areas he envisioned spreading across the land to help in times of flood and drought. And floods there were in Chumphon after Typhoon Gay struck in November 1989.
The development project also includes a habitat for several species of birds, a farm demonstration area, homestay cabins and the Phato Watershed Conservation and Management Centre.
A long wooden bridge is being built across a lake to connect with No 9 Island, where guests will be able to try planting mangrove shoots and making nipa palm sugar. There are also areas for snorkelling and rafting.
At the Swallow’s Nest Learning Centre, Tee Baan Nok, we got to see how various products are made from bird nests. At Baan Thamsing Coffee Community Enterprise, we saw beans make their way from the initial hulling to ageing in a sunny greenhouse.
All southern coffee is Robusta, but there’s a remarkable difference in the flavour of Thamsing and Khao Tha Lu, two brands from the South that Bangkok aficionados know well.
“They taste different because they’re processed differently,” a Baan Thamsing official explained. “All 14 provinces in the South cultivate the same Robusta coffee beans. The difference comes in the processing, especially the roasting.
“Robusta beans naturally have a bitter taste, so the processing has to overcome that. We use the same production processes that are used for Arabica beans. And we earned an award from the Food and Drug Administration for top-quality halal products.”
Day 2 of the tour rolled up to historic Wat Phra That Sawi, which is one of three temples in the South housing revered Buddha relics. It has a golden pagoda shaped like a bell – and a remarkable legend.
According to local lore, King Sri Thammasokarat, after whom the nearby province is named, was marching his army past this location in 1260 (even monarchs, even then, were “just passing through”) and saw a flock of crows around a mound of bricks. One of the birds was white.
The king interpreted this as a sign and ordered his soldiers to dig up the mound. Beneath it they found an urn containing relics of the Lord Buddha. The king, overwhelmed by the discovery, had a chedi erected on the spot to enshrine the relics.
After lunch we were off to Surat Thani to see Wat Phra Boromathat Chaiya Worawihan, surely one of the most beautiful temples in the South. At its centre is a stupa reconstructed in the Srivijaya style. The National Museum nearby has several important artefacts from the original structure, including wonderful Buddha statues.
Wat Suan Mohkha Phalaram, not far away, is the famous forest monastery founded in 1932 by Phra Buddhadasa, perhaps Thailand’s most revered Buddhism scholar. Monks were listening to a sermon in a plaza of paving stones and there’s an interesting “spiritual theatre” populated by religious statues.
Tikomporn told us that Surat Thani was “the most important province on the southern Gulf of Thailand”, ranking sixth among all the provinces of Thailand in terms of tourist visits.
“Fifteen million tourists visit the four provinces every year, generating Bt100 billion in revenue,” he said. “Surat Thani’s tourist magnets are Koh Samui, Koh Pangan and Koh Tao, which tourists, particularly from Germany, Sweden and China, find fascinating. The number of visitors keeps increasing and there are now four charter flights arriving every week, as well as all the commercial flights.”
But there’s much more to the province than the resort islands, Tikomporn said.
“We want to draw the tourists’ attention to the attractions here on the mainland in addition to the islands, where the density of visitors is so great already. We’re developing more mainland tourist attractions that should be open next year or by 2020. For now, there are the Cheow Lan or Ratchaprapha dam and Khao Sok National Park, which draw a lot of tourists.
“And Surat Thani is famous for its ngoh rongrien rambutan and durian, especially Ban Na San district, where we encourage visitors to tour the plantations. Surat Thani will also be promoted as an herbal hub, because we grow turmeric, which is processed into several healthy products that will interest Chinese tourists especially.
“In fact, we’re planning a ‘health tour’ with visits to spas and Tha Chang Hospital, where turmeric is used, at Phanom district, where it’s grown. We’re creating several different kinds of tours that can be related to each other.”
Our journey ends with a paddle-boat ride along a canal to the Pracharat Floating Market in Bang Bai Mai district. It’s a lovely outing, proceeding through a natural tunnel of bending nipa palms, and the market vendors offer samples of such traditional treats as khanom jang, khanom tom yang, khanom kho, khoei jee and niew aub.
The southern provinces’ grand plans will get major boosts from the construction of a double-track railway crossing the isthmus from the Gulf to the Andaman Sea and the expansion of Surat Thani’s airport.
In addition, the Surat Thani ferry pier that’s always busy with travellers is being moved from Donsak district to the provincial capital itself, just 20 minutes from the airport.