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Charming Chumphon

Well off the typical tourist radar, the still-neglected province's beaches are gloriously serene

Peerawat Jariyasombat

When thinking about beaches in Thailand, Pattaya and Hua Hin are two big names popping up first in the heads of holidaymakers, for sure. Those with more of a budget and a longer holiday may dream of Surat Thani, Phuket or beyond.

Chumphon is among the very last names you may think of. That is a reason why Chumphon's beaches are rather peaceful. And I really love them this way.

After a five-hour drive directly from Bangkok, I take a pit stop at the empty beach of Bang Boed situated on the northern most tip of the province. It is a beach stretching kilometres between two headlands. Though during a fine bank holiday evening, there are only a handful of tourists scattered on the vast shoreline with the backdrop of towering mountains.

In my line of sight, there are less than 20 people enjoying the picturesque beach.

Chumphon province has quite a number of beaches like this. As the province has a long and narrow shape, its more than 200km-long coast boasts many uncrowded fine-sand beaches, beautiful bays and peaceful fishing villages. From Bangkok, it's too far for an easy drive, and so Chumphon is always overlooked.

On back roads, I keep going south and drive through many coconut and oil palm plantations, passing hidden beaches. Some beaches are quiet, such as the beaches of Ao Thung Maha and Ao Thung Sang. Even on warm sunny days, you will hardly find anyone on the shore.

Finally I find myself among the liveliest beach of the province: Thung Wua Laen.

Located in Pathiu district, Thung Wua Laen stretches for 2km. Its vast white sandy beach is a great playground for everyone. When the Sun hangs over head, just before noon, the white sand underwater reflects the light and the sea glows bluish-green. Beachgoers seek shade, sit back and enjoy their easy days. Teenagers play football while kids tirelessly swim and build their sand castles.

Like other beaches, Thung Wua Laen remains peaceful, mostly. However, the beach has gained popularity. Today, with more foreign tourists, stylish restaurants have mushroomed. Pizza and beer are easily available. From a neglected beach which turned completely quiet after dark, Thung Wua Laen now is a place foreign tourists love to hang out.

While most tourists stick to those fascinating beaches, some discover that there are many more things to see in the sea. The shallow water of Chumphon is home to abundant marine creatures and just right off the coast are actually good dive sites. Koh Ngam Yai and Koh Ngam Noi are highlights. Beneath the greenish water, there are colonies of sea anemones occupying the area as big as a football field, huge schools of yellow-stripe scad swim side by side with divers, and often, gigantic whale sharks show up right by boats and excite visitors.

Chumphon's sea is also home to a number of sea swiftlets. Every year, the tiny birds migrate here to find undisturbed corners under cliff ledges of quiet islands for constructing nests and hatching eggs. The little bird uses its saliva to make its cup-shape nest attached to the cliff wall. This edible nest is considered a high value item. Its price can be as high as 70,000 baht per kilogramme for high quality and clean bird's nests.

If you want to see the busiest point in Chumphon, head south to Sai Ri Beach, a small beach where the shrine of the "Prince of Chumphon" is located.

Adm Prince Abhakara Kiartivongse, Prince of Chumphon (1880–1923), is known as the father of the Royal Thai Navy as he modernised the fleets and the naval service in general. Thai worshippers have strong belief that their wishes can come true when they ask the prince. Besides flowers and garlands, the worshippers also light firecrackers or fire pistols, believing that the loud noise will please him. Thus, every few minutes, bursts of firecrackers and firearms fill up the air over Sai Ri Beach.

That is the noisiest part of the province. Most prestige beaches remain uncrowded, as usual. I really like them that way.

Mu Koh Chumphon Marine National Park is famed for its dive sites where swimmers find themselves floating over hard corals and big colonies of sea anemones. Koh Ngam Yai, Koh Ngam Noi and the surrounding area are very good dive sites. Photo courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand

Situated some 20km south of Chumphon town is Sai Ri Beach which houses the shrine and life-sized statue of the Prince of Chumphon. The Prince of Chumphon is still widely revered by the Thai Navy as well as the public. The shrine turns busy all day long with local worshippers who make their wishes. Bangs from firecrackers and firearms fill the air every few minutes. Worshippers believe the sound will make their wishes fulfilled. Actually, there are more than 200 shrines nationwide built to honour him. But the shrine here is located at the place where he passed away in 1923. Next to the shrine is the old torpedo ship HMS Chumphon. It is pitiful that the ship is in such bad shape. There is nothing left to see and no visitor is allowed to get on her. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Sand sculptures at Chumphon Marine Festival. The annual event showcases the best of Chumphon, from seafood, local cuisine, organic produce and package tours to experience its sea. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Thung Wua Laen is among the best beaches of Chumphon. Thung Wua Laen means "the field of the running bull". The beach is named after a local story that wild animals here were scary. With black magic, they were immortal and hunters failed to get them. One day, hunters went out together in a bid to prove that the story was not true. They shot a bull and butchered it right on the beach. A hunter said his bullet could overcome the magic. After his words, the blood-soaked bull stood up and ran away. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Suan Nai Dam is a fun-filled garden packed with varieties of palms, ferns and bromeliads. However, the gimmick that really attracts visitors is different toilets set among the tropical garden. These fancy toilets, such as the Tarzan toilet in the treetop, pig's shape toilet etc, are actually built to encourage more hygienic toilets for people in the countryside. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Chumphon has a number of homestay operators which normally offer basic accommodation in fisherman's houses and serve sumptuous seafood. For example, Koh Pithak is a famous homestay where visitors can spend a day to experience the fishing routine and enjoy the local cuisine. Shown in the picture is a homestay at Ban Thong Tom Yai in the southern part of Chumphon. It offers nice view of a peaceful bay where guests can get around on kayak. Peerawat Jariyasombat

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