DAY 4 – November 7th. Exploring Phraya Nakhon Cave in Sam Roi Yot National Park

There was one place on the mainland that we definitely wanted to visit before heading down to the islands. Phraya Nakhon Cave is the reason that we’ve braved monsoon season on the east coast to come and stay near Pranburi, and after today’s experience we’re so pleased that we did. Phraya Nakhon is one of those images used over and over again by the Thai tourist board. It’s a huge collapsed cave buried in the side of one of the many limestone hills that dominate the landscape around here. Since the roof collapsed thousands of years ago, a small forest has grown up in the parts of the cave where the sunlight shines through. If nature made the cake, the Thai King put the cherry on top in the 19th century by having a pretty little temple built on a raised spot where the shafts of sunlight are the brightest. The result is one of the most breathtaking places that we’ve ever had the good fortune to visit.
First we had to get there, though. The most common way of making the journey from our resort is to pay for a boat to take you there by sea. One look at the ocean confirmed that this wouldn’t be possible – it was blowing a gale out there already, with thunderstorms predicted from 3pm onwards. We chose to hire a scooter and go by road to the national park entrance, where we’d have to hike 3-4km to get there. My only experience of driving a scooter was on our previous trip to Thailand last year, where we’d used one to buzz around the highways and byways of Pai. It’s fair to say that I’m not a natural – we spent most of our time trundling along in the gutter at 20kph whilst lorries and old lady scooter drivers flew past us. I’m also completely incapable of looking cool whilst using this method of transport – I have a big head, and I’m therefore usually lumbered with a helmet that resembles an upturned bucket, which tends to catch in the breeze and make me wobble if I try to look left or right. The journey to the park entrance got increasingly scenic as we got closer, with limestone cliffs rising up all around us as we drove through a basin full of paddy fields and swampland. We parked the scooter up in front of a cafe and entrusted the bloke who owned it with our helmets, on the understanding that we dined at his place upon our return.
The first part of the path climbed up and up along the edge of a cliff, offering increasingly spectacular vistas of the bay and the sea beyond. A few minutes into our journey Hollie screeched and leapt back, and I prepared myself as the alpha male that I am to do battle with a venomous snake. It wasn’t a snake, but it was a bloody big centipede – the biggest I’ve ever seen at about 30cm long. Just when we were starting to get knackered the path began to go down again, and we came out on the level to find ourselves walking through a grove of palm trees next to a beach. The respite was short-lived. The path began to climb again, steeper than it had before. We overtook couples who were pausing at the side of the path for a breather, only to be overtaken again when we got out of breath ourselves. We climbed a good 500 metres until we saw a gateway in the path, and quite unexpectedly we found ourselves in the first chamber of the cave.


There were shrines to the Buddha balanced on rocks as we descended down rickety stone steps. The first cave contained a massive “dry waterfall” formed from the dripping of stalactites over the millenia. Since the roof of the cave collapsed the dripping has stopped, and consequently the falls are preserved in stone.

We continued downwards through darkness, travelling through a part of the cave which still had a roof, before coming out into a clearing filled with brilliant shafts of light that kaleidescoped down onto the pagoda roof of a temple. As we got closer to the light our necks craned higher and higher to look at the sheer walls of the cave, until finally we were able to see clear daylight through the tree-lined hole at the top. We recognised this as being Phra Nakhon from the photos, but no picture can do justice to the sheer scale of the cave.

We went into full-on tourist mode, staring at everything with our gobs wide open, before photographing the cave and temple from every angle. With it being out of season there were very few tourists around, and there was an eerie silence around the place, broken only by the calls of tropical birds in the forest above.

We left the cave after about an hour and began to walk back. We were completely alone on the path when we heard the snapping of branches in the forest canopy above.  We looked up to see a family of monkeys making their way across the top of the treeline.  My past experience with monekys have been mixed.  In Mumbai I had to leg it from a particularly savage looking primate that wanted to nick my water bottle. I’ve been woken by them bouncing on the corrugated roofs of buildings, and I’ve laughed as they’ve tried to bite overfamiliar Chinese tourists.  I’m happy to say that this particular enounter was an absolute privilege. We watched in Attenborough-esque awe as they swung gracefully from branch to branch with no interest in us whatsoever.  When we got to the bottom of the hill we saw a tourist information sign advising us of the presence of dusky langurs –  a shy and endangered species that are easily distinguishable from other primates due to the white rings around their eyes.

We were aware of the storm approaching that afternoon and didn’t fancy being blown sideways into a swamp whilst riding back on the scooter. With this in mind we bid the monkeys farewell and hiked quickly back to the park entrance, which was a lot easier having covered most of the uphills on the way to the cave.

We had pork in holy basil and tom kha kai soup in the ramshackle cafe that I’d parked up in front of, after which our helmets were returned. I can’t rave enough about holy basil by the way – it’s a hot, slightly bitter herb which grows around most parts of Asia. Stir-fried with chicken or pork and chilli it makes a stunning meal, with a sauce that tastes a bit like a spicy gravy. I’ve looked all round Asian food shops in Britain for it, but apart from dried leaves that fall to bits and go all gritty when you cook them, I’ve had no joy in locating anything like the real thing.
We managed to drive back to the hotel without being blown into a ditch, which was nice. The storm we were promised never really set in, and we enjoyed a few beers with a massaman curry in the evening in the hotel bar, which had filled up with a group of noisy teenage schoolkids. I overheard the teacher, who was English, negotiating with the hotel receptionist. He wanted to have the staff remove all the alcohol from the minibars in the rooms occupied by the schoolkids, which made me chuckle – no wonder they were all so rowdy.
Tomorrow we continue the journey down south towards the islands.


DAY 3 – November 6th. Train from Bangkok to Hua Hin, then songthaew to Dolphin Bay Resort

The buffet breakfast was delectable again, and we made sure that we filled up for the long day of travelling ahead of us. We’ve never been as gutted to check out of a hotel, but at least we still have our trip ahead of us, and we’re not ruling out a return to the Chatrium before flying home if funds allow.

We took a taxi from Chatrium to Bang Sue railway station.  Having experienced rush hour traffic in Bangkok before, we were prepared to be in the taxi some time.  It turned out to be less than a half hour journey – the toll road through the centre of the city is worth the extra 50 baht to avoid breathing in exhaust fumes and wasting hours of your life.  

Bang Sue station is really pleasant, with little flower pots dotted around on the platform and friendly stray cats and dogs being fed by elderly Thai women.  To feed animals in Buddhist Thailand is considered very handy karma for your next life – they call it “Making merit”.  They’re building a massive new station next to the old one though, and you get the impression that nothing in Bangkok can be allowed to stay as it is.  Everything in this city is getting taller, louder, busier and pricier.

It turned out that the train to Pranburi that we’d carefully picked out on the internet wasn’t running – we have no idea what happened to it.  Instead we decided to wait two hours for a train to Hua Hin, which is a seaside resort on the Gulf of Thailand, about fifty miles south of Bangkok.  We chilled on the platform, watching pigeons puff themselves up at each other as they fought over crumbs dropped by commuters.  I had to prevent Hollie from putting a pigeon with hairy feet that she’d taken a shine to in her backpack to take home.  

The train was half an hour late, but in Thailand you always get an assigned seat rather than having to squat like a tramp in the corridor – UK railways 0, Thai railways 1.  You also get a constant flow of vendors trying to sell you food and drink. There were all sorts of wierd and wonderful fruits available, but I ended up having a kind of stir-fry thing with a fried egg on it which was really nice, but difficult to eat without catapulting into someone else’s lap.  

It took us ages to get out of Bangkok, and we seemed to keep stopping every mile or so for no apparent reason.  At one point the Thai Railway Police came through to our carriage and asked to see everyone’s ID cards.  They then took an ipad out and took a group shot photo of everyone in the carriage.  This is a really wierd thing that happened to us last time we were here – I think maybe it’s some kind of security thing in case there’s a criminal on board.  It’s all a bit 1984 really. The scenery was impressive as we rolled out of the suburbs into lush green paddy fields lined with palm trees. We came to Thailand in dry season last year and it’s nice to see everything looking greener and less dusty.

One for George Clark’s Amazing Spaces?

The train was an hour late and we arrived at Hua Hin in darkness.  Hollie was starving because she’d held off from eating on the train, so we nipped to the 7/11 store and she had her first cheese and ham toastie of the holiday.  The 7/11 toastie is a legendary part of the Thai backpacker experience – there’s nothing quite like that processed ham and cheese square, and they’ve helped us through many a dark time on the road when we’ve needed something quick that’s not going to give us the shits.  
We then chartered a songtheaw to the resort near Pranburi where we had a reservation.  A songtheaw is basically a cage in the back of a pickup truck with benches either side that operate as taxis in most places in Thailand.  They usually charge a set amount for each journey and you split it between however many people are going there – in this case as there were only the two of us it cost us 800 baht, or about 16 quid between us. Usually you’re crammed in with eight or nine other people, which stops you from sliding around.  In the absence of other passengers we had to hold on to avoid sliding down the seats and out of the back of the vehicle.  Noticing that we were a couple, our driver switched on some seedy pink lights to illuminate the back compartment and smiled at us.  I have no idea who he takes and what he does in there at weekends, but I was quite glad when we pulled up at the hotel 45 mins later and stepped out of his shagwagon.

(To the tune of Roxanne by The Police) “Straaange man, you don’t have to put on your pink light…”

The Dolphin Bay Resort resembles the kind of holiday resorts that you’d stay at if you booked a package holiday to Mallorca.  It’s a little different from the hostels and guesthouses that we’re used to staying in and comparatively pricey at twenty quid a night, but it has aircon and wifi, so we can’t really grumble.  

We couldn’t decide if these represent swans, or elephant’s trunks. Nice though!

What’s really wierd though, is that there’s more or less nobody here. With it being monsoon season on the Thai gulf the flocks of tourists are yet to arrive, and consequently we’re outnumbered by staff by about 4 to 1.  It reminds me of that episode of Alan Partridge when he’s live in a Travel Tavern hotel and he’s the only guest.  Our room is quite a comedown from the luxury of Chatrium.  This evening’s shower was fraught with danger, as the flow of water fluctuated from scolding hot to freezing cold and back again.  
We went downstairs for food and four waiters worked together to take our order of pad thai, spring rolls and tom kha soup.  It was happy hour on sangria and Chang lager, and in a surreal twist, a guitarist/singer had been hired in to perform, despite there being only the two of us and the waiting staff to perform to.  We smiled politely and dropped our cutlery to clap enthusiastically between tracks as he worked his way through hit songs by ‪Coldplay‬, ‪Noel Gallagher‬, ‪Green Day‬ and – oddly – White Christmas by ‪Bing Crosby‬.  He finished with the inevitable rendition of Wonderwall, and we gave him one last round of applause before paying the bill and heading upstairs to bed.

Tomorrow we’re going to visit a cave with a temple in it.