A small province wedged between Prachuap Khiri Khan to the north and Surat Thani to the south, Chumphon faces a tourism dilemma. That’s particularly true of its provincial seat, Chumphon town which, at 500 kilometres from Bangkok, is considered too far for a weekend getaway and while travellers may pull in for a night on their way to popular destinations like Phuket or Krabi, most holidaymakers tend to pass straight through. The result is that this province remains largely undisturbed though that makes it heaven for anyone wanting to far away from the madding crowd.
Back in the days when Thailand’s trains could not complete the long journey to the deep south in one trip, Chumphon was where passengers stopped for an overnight layover. Today, the town is still littered with old wooden shophouses, bustling markets and a few old inns that conjure up a clear picture of the town in its heyday.
But a holiday is Chumphon is mainly about the sea. The beaches are relatively calm year-round thanks to the natural harbour provided by the Gulf of Thailand and the coastline is dotted with beautiful islands perfect for snorkelling or scuba diving. Those who prefer lazing around on the sand should head to the vast Thung Wua Laen beach in Patieu district in the north of the province. Once dense with tropical forest, the beach is mostly unspoiled and thanks to committed locals remains free from loungers, umbrellas, food hawkers and roaming masseuses.
For breakfast and lunch, head into Chumphon town and enjoy delicious Southern fare prepared mostly from fresh seafood and made to well-preserved home recipes. On Saladaeng Road, which cuts through the town’s centre, you can sample dishes from many old shophouses that take turns opening throughout the day.
Guang Heng is a small rice-and-curry place housed in a wooden structure complete with folding screen doors. It opens at the crack of dawn and offers curries of all kinds, stir-fries, deep-fries and soups with steamed rice or rice vermicelli. It’s also famous for home-made Thai desserts, especially smooth durian and sticky rice.
If you think phad thai is a Thai food institution, don’t miss to try Chumphon’s version of this famous dish. Stir-fried on the muted heat of a charcoal stove, the phad thai at a nondescript shop at the back of the main market was one of the best I had ever tasted. The lady who cooks the noodles owns and runs the place, which can be busy during lunch hours.
A must-see in Chumphon is the sacred shrine of the late Prince of Chumphon at Sai Ri beach about 20 kilometres south of the town. A son of King Rama V, the Prince founded the Thai Royal Navy before his premature death back in 1923, while serving at sea. His shrine has become both a tourist spot and place of worship for Thais, especially those who work on the high seas.
Chumphon also boasts a lively night market near the railway station and for dinner, there’s little more satisfying than seafood BBQ, meats on skewers, crispy-fried mussels, sweet bua loy (dumplings) with eggs in coconut milk and old-style crispy Thai crepes. Just make sure your stomach is up for it.
A gourmet’s guide to town
>> Guang Heng is on Saladaeng Road and is open daily except Mondays. Call (077) 501-079.
>> The Phad Thai stall is at the back of the Saladaeng and Poraminmakka intersection. Fish ball noodles are also available.
>> Yen Sa, an old-fashioned shop selling ice cream in coconut, vanilla and chocolate flavours with corn soup or fruits in syrup toppings in also on Saladaeng Road.
>> For great Southern dishes including chicken Betong style and stir-fried morning glory with shrimp paste, drop by Nam Pung restaurant at Chansom Hotel near Saladaeng Road.
>> Ban Suan Sai Tarn, a small family-run restaurant near the Ta Tapao river, offers such Thai fare as steamed sea bass with spicy garlic sauce, shrimps with tamarind sauce and somtam. Call (081) 893 7871.
>> Guay Tiew Ton Mayom at Baan Saplee serves sumptuous seafood noodles. (077) 560 154.
>> Lung Rom Resort at Na Tung cooks fresh seafood to order. Reserve a table at (077) 526 650.
>> Sip a coffee at Cera Café on Highway 1007 while staring out at a field dotted with birds and water buffalo.
If you go
Chumphon is 500 km from Bangkok. Trains leave regularly from Hua Lampong station and the journey takes 7 to 9 hours. Visit www.Railway.co.th. Budget airline Solar Air (SolarAir.co.th) flies daily between Bangkok and Chumphon. Prices vary from Bt2,200 to Bt2,700.