Peace amid palms and palaces
The favoured summer escape of Siam's monarchs for more than a century, Phetchaburi is home to a wealth of temples and palaces
One of Thailand's oldest and richest towns, Phetchaburi has long served as a place to transit briefly on the way to Hua Hin. But this small town, home to a range of hidden gems, is a destination in itself, meriting a stop of days rather than hours.
If you take it slow on the drive to the popular resort and opt for the road that runs along the estuary leading to the Gulf of Thailand, you may wonder why most people bother with Phetchkasem highway at all. Dotted along this winding, two-way thoroughfare are the modest homes of villagers who live off the brackish land, salt farms, a superb fresh market and some majestic royal palaces overlooking the vast blue sea.
Strategically located at the top of the Gulf of Thailand, Phetchaburi benefits from its unique natural surroundings. Thanks to the rich mangrove forest in the north, the province is blessed with treasures from the sea while its mountainous ranges and plains make for excellent rice paddy. The briny area of Ban Laem once served as the country's wholesale market for seafood and was a prosperous trading port until the 1826 when the Burney Treaty put an end to Thailand's multi-sea portal trading arrangement that resulted in the capital's Klong Toey becoming the single sea port.
History aside, Ban Laem is an excellent place to stop and savour the district's famous mackerel or make merit at one of many old and decorative temples before hitting the road south towards Phetchaburi and Cha-am.
Food enthusiasts know Phetchaburi for its sea salt and palm sugar. Those with a sweet tooth can sate their appetites while culture buffs can become acquainted with the province's monumental royal palaces and temples.
In the city centre near Highway No. 4 is Khao Wang or Phra Nakhon Kiri as it is officially known. The summer palace of King Rama IV and King Rama V back in the 1800s, the neo-classical European-Chinese palace is perched on the top of a hill and can be reached by stairs cut into the rock. From the top, visitors can look out over an area carpeted with plumeria trees and line after line of intricate ceramic-potted bonsais and blooming lotus ponds.
Khao Wang is a great place to walk around and nurture nostalgia for Siam's glorious past. The royal residential complex takes up the whole hill with important mansions and a temple sitting on each of the three buttes. These once functional halls are closed to the public except for one mansion that has now been turned into a museum. There, the visitor can admire such artefacts as royal china sets, stationary and upholstery. You can also walk up the old narrow wooden staircase to the original royal bedroom, its humble and secluded ambience an anticlimax after the palace as a whole.
But Khao Wang is not the only stop for palace pilgrims. Downtown, next to the Phetchaburi river is the majestic Ban Peun Palace (Phra Ram Ratchaniwet Palace) boasting grandiose German "Jugendstil" architecture. The former rainy season palace of King Rama V, the palace was designed by the Berlin-educated Karl Siegfried Dohring, who was also the brains behind Bangkok's Bang Khun Prom Palace (now the premises of Bank of Thailand) and Woradit Palace on Lan Luang road. Part of the Ram Ratchaniwet Military Barracks, Ban Peun is open to the public and can be visited either with a tour guide or alone. The gardens are also worth seeing, as they are home to many hard-to-find plants and trees.
A visit to Phetchaburi is not complete without a stop at the exquisite Mrigadayavan Palace on the beach of Cha-am. The seaside summer palace of King Rama VI, who only resided there twice late in his reign back in the 1920s, this grand palace, built entirely of teak, suffered at the hands of the maritime climate and fell into disrepair but completely renovated in the 1980s.
On weekends, Mrigadayavan Palace organises group tours telling the story of how the palace was first built and its restoration. To the sound of a Thai classical orchestra playing in the background, you can slowly walk through each airy hall, enjoying each room and especially the simple space in the middle where the King used to dine.
Stay overnight in town and spend the following morning wandering around Petchaburi's old fresh market, which is lined with wooden shophouses that double as homes. If waking up at dawn to catch the best of the market is too much of a challenge, just take it easy and stroll around the town's abundance of temples. Phetchaburi boasts the largest numbers of Buddhist temples in the country with the most famous being Wat Yai Suwannaram, where you can reflect on life in the calm of an old teak chapel or trace the old murals in the main hall.
And when you've had enough culture, make a short trip to Uncle Thanom's sugar palm garden in Baan Lad. If you're lucky, the friendly farm owner might treat you to some delicious fresh palm juice and a home-made palm meat soufflé that's reputed to be the best in the province.
IF YOU GO
<< Phetchaburi is about 120 kilometres south Bangkok. You can take a short cut that runs from Klong Klone Samut Songkhram all the way to the centre of Phetchaburi by taking a left turn into a minor road at KM 75 of the Petchakasem highway.
<< Khao Wang is open daily from 8.30am to 4.30pm while the museum operates from Wednesday to Sunday between 9am and 4pm. Call (032) 401 006 or (032) 425 600.
<< Ban Peun Palace is open daily from 8am to 4pm. For information, call (032) 428 508-10
<< Mrigadavan Palace is open daily from 8.30am to 4pm. Book a tour at (032) 508-039
<< Lung Thanom Sugar Palm Garden is in Ban Lad Lad district. Call (087) 800 7716