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An Andaman Sea Delight
Trang Town and Coast
The southern Thai province of Trang, tucked away on the Andaman Coast between Krabi and Satun on the Malaysian frontier, is a fortunate place. For more than a century its people have prospered from extensive rubber plantations, rich fisheries and fertile agricultural land, attaining one of the highest provincial per capita incomes in Thailand. What's more, in recent decades Trang's lovely and unspoiled coastline, together with more than forty offshore islands, has started to attract visitors. Not too many as yet, it is true, and more from Thailand and neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore than from Europe and the North America – but that is all part of Trang's discreet appeal.
The province is rich in history, providing a fascinating showcase for the south's flourishing Sino-Thai cultural traditions, architecture and food. Trang cuisine is distinctive and full of appeal – and the proud locals love to prepare and share it with visitors. From Trang City's historic alleyways to idyllic beaches lapped by the warm waters of the Andaman Sea, the pace of life is comfortable, tranquil and serene. In sum, there's no better place to experience the delights of the Deep South in an authentic and relaxing atmosphere.
A Distinguished Past
Trang – formerly called Thap Thiang – has a long history as a trading port dating back more than a thousand years to the time of the Srivijayan Empire. In its present incarnation, however, the town developed as an important commercial centre as recently as the 19th century due primarily to the settlement of Han Chinese migrants from southern China. These hard-working and thrifty settlers helped to develop Trang as an important port on the Andaman Sea trade route and are personified by the city's most famous patron, Khaw Sim Bee, a scion of Fujian Chinese migrants to southern Thailand in the mid-19th century.
In 1890 Khaw Sim Bee was made Governor of Trang by the administration of King Rama V in what would prove to be a seminal decision for the province. In 1893 the far-sighted new governor moved the little port to a more suitable location for trade on the Trang River estuary. Next he developed modern road links with Phattalung and Nakhon Si Thammarat, the leading towns on the Gulf of Thailand coast. Then he oversaw the construction of a railroad from Trang to Nakhon Si Thammarat, providing the first – and still only – railway link between Bangkok and the Andaman Coast. Finally, in 1899 he introduced the first Para rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) to Thailand. Khaw Sim Bee would, no doubt, have been gratified that today, with an annual production of more than 3,000,000 metric tons, Thailand is the largest rubber producer in the world.
Khaw Sim Bee's remarkable achievements were recognized by Bangkok. He was ennobled as Phraya Ratsadanupradit Mahitsaraphakdi and appointed Commissioner of Monthon Phuket – effectively governor of all southern Thailand – in 1902, a position he held until his death in 1916. He was posthumously honoured as one of Thailand's five most distinguished government officials in 1992, and a monument to his memory stands in a small Fitness Park on Phattalung Road about 1 kilometre east of Trang town centre.
Muang Trang – The Provincial Centre
The influence of Khaw Sim Bee and his Fujianese compatriots remains palpable, and while rural Trang is decidedly southern Thai in character, Trang City retains a distinct Sino-Thai feel. This is manifested in the population, in the architecture of the shop houses, Chinese temples and joss houses, and last but not least in Trang's distinctive cuisine which is well known and celebrated as far afield as Bangkok and beyond.
A quietly prosperous town, Trang is also relatively spread out. This makes a walking tour of the various attractions quite time consuming and – especially during the heat of the day – rather tiring. Fortunately the city has a series of well organized tours running at one hour (five destinations), two hours (nine destinations) and, for the real enthusiast, 4 hours (17 destinations). The tour vehicle of choice is the “tuk tuk hua gop”, a local style of motorized three wheeler that has been around for at least 60 years, and which – viewed from the front – looks rather like a frog. The tours have been devised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and the price includes a useful brochure guide to the city and its attractions.
The commercial heart of the city lies to the north and west of the modern clock tower by Trang City Hall. Here, along Ratchadamnoen Road and by the busy Tha Klang Market, are some interesting examples of Sino-Portuguese architecture including restored shop houses, ‘five foot way' arcade passages and elaborate stucco decorations. There are also shops selling Chinese funerary paraphernalia, red paper lanterns, kitchen god altars, brass incense burners and figurines of Mahayana Buddhist and Daoist deities.
To the north of this bustling central area, along Huai Yod Road, stands the attractive, ochre-coloured Thap Thiang Church of Christ, the spiritual heart of Trang's Christian community, in an architectural style similar to that of the former Straits Settlements. A little further to the north is the unmistakable bulk of the former Rubber Store with its specially designed roof to facilitate ventilation of the raw latex. Now no longer in use, the future of this historically significant structure is uncertain. Also to the north of town there are a number of Thai Buddhist temples, including Wat Nikrodhram and Wat Kaphang Surin, both close to the still waters of Kaphang Surin Lake, a popular picnic spot. Nearby, and well worth a visit for its colourful architecture, is Thamkong Yia Joss House, its elaborate entry gate surmounted by a leaping carp.
Another historic area lies to the west of the railway station along Tha Klang Road. Here can be found Kuiyong La Joss House and Paokong Joss House, both shrines a riot of red and gold lanterns, characters and san jiao images from the Chinese triple religion of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, both generally wreathed in smoke from burning incense coils and joss sticks. Also in this area is Wat Matchimaphum (known locally as Wat Na Khao), a Thai Buddhist temple that, nevertheless, is made very much Sino-Thai in style by a large “Laughing Buddha” image, the Phra Sangkajjayana statue, and a golden Guanyin “Goddess of Mercy” statue on a tall pillar that overlooks the town.
To the south of the clock tower, in the direction of the Trang River along the road to Trang Airport, is yet another attractive Chinese shrine, the Muenram Joss House. Almost next door is the House of Chuan Leekpai, a native of Trang who became leader of the Democratic Party and Prime Minister of Thailand between 1992-95 and 1997-2001. A third generation Sino-Thai, Chuan was born in Trang in 1938, the son of a local teacher of modest means. Now retired and a popular father figure for the Democratic Party, he remains one of Trang's favourite sons.
Trang Culinary Traditions
Trang is well known for its various epicurean delights which, like the city itself, have developed from a happy fusion of Fujianese-Hokkien and southern Thai traditions.
Perhaps the best time to sample Trang food is at breakfast – nowhere else in Thailand offers the unusual combination of tender roast pork served with a choice of up to 25 different types of Dim Sum, known locally as “tae tiam”. Or if that doesn't appeal, deep fried patongko Chinese dough strips or ja kuai deep fried bread served with bak kut teh pork bone soup is another popular favourite. Locals accompany their breakfasts with thick, black go pii coffee served with chasers of nam cha weak green tea.
For main meals, Trang residents favour a spicy-hot, sour curry called kaeng tai pla made with fermented fish innards. If that doesn't sound appealing, a more conventionally delicious dish is gaeng leuang yod maprao made with the heart of the coconut palm. Other local standbys are yam makheua yao or long green aubergines grilled for a smoky taste and served with half boiled eggs and fresh mint; sataw pad koong or shrimps fried with sataw beans, and mara bitter gourd diced and fried with egg.
Special mention should also be made of the ever-popular “Trang cake” that every Thai or Malaysian visitor to Trang takes home as a souvenir snack. According to local tradition, these are based on European-style sponge cake, but without sugar frosting. This may well be true, as the Thai name is “kehk”, not the more usual khanom, and they come in several flavours including orange, pandan leaf, butter and “three flavours” or sam rot. Boxes of these popular delicacies are piled high in food shops across Trang, but especially at the bus and train stations for visitors to take home to their families.
Just 22 kilometres southwest of Trang City, at the mouth of the Trang River, the old port town of Kantang, founded by Governor Khaw Sim Bee at the end of the 19th century, still houses Trang City's lak muang or “city pillar”, as well as some old Sino-Portuguese shop houses and, at no. 1 Khai Phitak Road, the Phraya Ratsadanupradit Mahitsaraphakdi Museum. This two-story wooden building was formerly the home of Khaw Sim Bee and houses a waxwork figure of the former governor together with a period collection of furniture, pictures and his personal possessions. A venerable rubber tree said to have been the first planted in Thailand still grows nearby – if the legend is true, it must now be well over 100 years old.
Kantang is also a major departure point for a series of gorgeous, unspoiled Andaman Sea islands that lie just off the Trang coast. Alternatively, these islands can be reached by boat from Pak Meng Pier some 31 kilometres due west of Trang City, in the Hat Chao Mai National Park. The coastal scenery is striking, with mangrove creeks, karst cliffs and outcrops, hidden caves and beaches, as well as a wealth of wildlife that is under park protection. Rare dugongs can sometimes be spotted in the shallow waters and seagrass beds between the mainland and the islands; other mammals to watch out for include sea otters and dolphins at sea, and langur, macaque, pangolin and wild boar on land.
Ko Hai is a tiny, beautiful island located about 15 kilometres from Pak Meng Pier. As tropical islands go, Ko Ngai has just about everything – a shady, green interior, lovely white powdery sand, warm, shallow waters and good coral reefs swarming with fish not far offshore. It's both possible and pleasant to stay on Ko Ngai, but there's no budget range accommodation available – be prepared for mid-range prices but good quality bungalows and restaurants, making this little island an ideal place for families with children. Activities, apart from just sunbathing, swimming and relaxing in a hammock, include sea-kayaking and snorkeling.
Ko Muk or ‘Pearl Island' lies 13 kilometres southwest of Pak Meng Pier. Until fairly recently a remote back-packer destination with a small resident population of Chao Lae “Sea Gypsies”, lovely Ko Muk is fast developing into a more up-market destination. The main beach on the island, Hat Sai Yao, offers crisp, clean white sand and warm, safe swimming, with some good mid-range resorts and restaurants. The east coast of the island is undeveloped by tourism and remains the domain of the local fisherfolk including Chao Lae.
Ko Kradan lies 13 kilometres south of Pak Meng Pier and is just one of the Andaman Sea pearls that lay off Trang's southwest coast. The main draw of Kradan, apart from its natural beauty and isolation, are the fine coral reefs just offshore which offer excellent snorkeling opportunities – as well as a unique opportunity to get married underwater!
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media