Sunday, 28 May 2017

THAILAND: Jewel In Thailand’s Crown

The Tourist Authority of Thailand remembers the late Monarch with a trip to Prachuap Khiri Khan

While the country has moved on from the overwhelming grief following the death last October of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the late monarch and the benefits he provided to all his subjects are still being remembered and honoured nationwide.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand is among the organisations constantly paying tribute and is now inviting tourists, both local and foreign, to remember the monarch’s illustrious life with a trip to Prachuap Khiri Khan dubbed Follow the Royal Path at the City of Three Bays, the Gateway to the South.

We start our visit to the three bays at the Sirinart Rajini Ecosystem Learning Centre. Some 30 kilometres south of Hua Hin where the Pranburi River flows into the Gulf of Thailand, it is the largest mangrove forest in Thailand.

An ongoing flood prevention and sewage treatment project makes it easy for us to walk along a footbridge through the heart of a beautifully preserved natural mangrove forest that’s home to various species of crabs.

We also climb the 97 steps up to the three-storey Chakhram Lookout Tower from where we gaze out over the panorama of the reforested area.

We stop off at Tha Tabun Pavilion, which marks the spot where the late King and Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn planted mangrove trees at a reforestation ceremony held on November 16, 2002.

The late monarch returned to the centre two years before his death to see the development of the forest project and a new exhibition zone displaying native fishing tools and information about shrimp farms developed on deteriorated forest land.

The learning centre has been successful in promoting public awareness of natural conservation for the community’s common interest.

Our next stop is Phra Mahathat Chedi Phakdi Prakat on top of Khao Thong Chai at the northern end of Ban Krut beach. A stunning nine-peak pagoda built for King Rama IX in celebration of his golden jubilee, the chedi boasts colourful stained glass windows.

We climb to the top and admire the magnificent view over Ban Krut beach before turning back to pay our respects to the large golden Buddha statue called Phra Phut Kitti Sirichai, which measures an impressive 12 metres in width and rises 10 metres into the air.

The remarkable architecture of Wat Ao Noi also comes as a surprise. Built in 2003 entirely of golden teakwood, it is decorated with paintings and intricate carvings. Facing Ao Noi bay is Tham Phra Non Cave, home to two grand reclining Buddha images.

We end our first day at this gateway to the south by taking in the coastline and seascape from the top of Khao Chong Krachok, a tiring climb up 395 steps that’s enlivened by several stump-tailed macaques playing along the pathway.

The King came here June 12, 1958 to attend the containing ceremony of the relics of the Buddha and the Buddha’s footprint and oversaw the planting of a Bodhi tree.

Climbing is back on the following day’s agenda and there are more than a few winces as we make our way up 496 steps to the top of Khao Lom Muak inside the Airforce base of Prachuap Khiri Khan, better known as Wing 5. The agony doesn’t end there though, and soon we are scrambling up rocks to reach the summit.

Khao Lom Muak first opened to the public two years ago but was closed following a series of accidents involving visitors falling, slipping and tripping, especially at night. It is now open on holidays and members of the public are invited to conquer the summit. More than 14,000 have tried their luck and this Labour Day holiday we welcomed 1,532 adventurers, an officer from Wing 5 explains.

For safety, we issue queue cards that allow 50 visitors to go up every 20 minutes. We have personnel stationed at the summit to take care of the visitors and a small staff of military doctors. A replica of the Buddha’s footprint was built on the summit in 1989 at the order of the then commander.

The original plan was to install a Buddha image to mark the late Monarch’s birthday but when the five stones making up the foundation were connected, it looked like a Buddha footprint. In fact, the Fine Arts Department is of the opinion that the foundation was laid in the reign of King Rama IV.

While the climb is challenging, the view of the three bays of Ao Noi, Ao Prachuap and Ao Manao that awaits at the summit more than compensates for our tired legs.

A popular tourist destination today, Ao Manao was once a theatre of war.
During World War II, Japanese warships came into the bay and landed some 3,000 to 4,000 Japanese troops at Ao Manao at 4am on December 8, 1941. We had only 120 airmen on site and the Japanese troops quickly occupied City Hall and the post office at Ao Prachuap. Pilot Officer Srisak Sujarittham, together with other airmen, had gone fishing in order to prepare food for a farewell party for our soldiers, and saw the warships off Ao Manao. He contacted Wing Commander ML Prawat Chumsai of Wing 5 who immediately gave orders to resist. In the battle that ensued, we lost 38 airmen, two families, one policeman and a 13-year-old boy who was studying at Prachuap Wittayalai School. More than 400 Japanese troops were found dead on the beach. The site is today marked by three museums, the officer explains.

Later that day, we pay our respects to the fallen at the museums. The first museum offers an eight-minute light and sound show that takes us back to the past. The second is a former 10-room military home that’s been converted into a museum featuring five rooms. They include one dedicated to the “Incidents of War” and another named “The Dignity of the Brave”. The third museum reveals a conversation between an old man and a young boy about the events of that time.

A sandstone memorial depicts Thai soldiers fighting against the Japanese amphibious landing and, at the back, the signing of an armistice.