Monkeys, hot springs, temples, curry paste and shadow puppets are some of the draws of Baan Khao Chaison and Bang Kaeo, a pair of small towns located south of Phatthalung along the railroad tracks. None of the individual attractions will knock your socks off, but they combine for some unusual experiences along with glimpses of rural Southern Thai life.
Heading east out of Phatthalung town on Highway 4047, we cut south on 4050 and got sidetracked by a faded blue sign in Thai for Prik Gaeng Kan Yao (it also includes the phone numbers: 01 479 9107, 074 840 414). Following the sign west for a couple of kilometres, we arrived at a small “factory” that churns out this well-known brand of Southern Thai curry pastes, which are sold in markets all over Thailand.
After a career as a Muay Thai fighter, owner Mr Tui started the business to meet the insatiable demand for fiery Southern Thai curries. He specialises in three pastes — gaeng som, gaeng krathi and gaeng ped — that can be used as bases for dozens of different curry dishes. He showed us two large rooms filled with medicine-ball-size mounds of paste, claiming to sell all of it in just three days — we didn’t believe it until he took us around the corner to see his lavish mansion with a shiny Mercedes parked out front. While no English is spoken, anyone is welcome to stop by and purchase small sealed packets of the curry paste.
Continuing south, Route 4050 turns into 1011 before reaching the village of Baan Ton Don, where we turned left (east) for the ride to Baan Khao Chaison. A few of the town’s old wooden shophouses double as khao gaeng shops dishing out some of the curries that can be made with Mr Tui’s prik gaeng. The highlight here is the Khao Chaison Hot Springs, located a kilometre southwest of town along Route 1017 (take a right to go west on the main drag when you reach Baan Khao Chaison from the north, then it’s a left marked by an English sign).
At the foot of a steep and shaggy limestone cliff (Khao Chaison itself), several shallow springs attract locals who mostly dip their legs in the warm mineral water. Naturally heated showers can also be used, while steam rises from other pools that reach up to 60 degrees Celsius.
The hot springs blend into a park where troupes of monkeys seem to enjoy harassing the roosters. A human-made waterfall flows down a rock face that can be reached by a footbridge — if the simians let you pass. To the south, the hot springs blend into a dilapidated temple with moss-covered pavilions standing over spirit shrines and Buddha images.
Entering the hot springs costs only 10 baht per motorbike and 20 baht per car. Vendors sell food and drinks along with souvenirs in the car park; shadow puppets can be purchased here, but you should hold off if heading down to Bang Kaeo.
We kept south along Route 1017, hanging a left (southwest) towards Bang Kaeo after a few km. Along the way we passed Kaeng Nam Hu Rae, a stream that locals cool off in when the current calms during the dry months. Bang Kaeo is just three kilometres east of Hu Rae; we took a left (east) on Route 4138 just after passing the train station and then crossed the tracks before taking the next right, following a blue sign for Bang Kaeo Handicraft Arts Centre.
Three kilometres south of Bang Kaeo and marked by an English sign along with a pair of “joker” statues, the handicrafts centre looks like a rundown garage where you might expect to find greasy guys working on old motorbikes. But inside, a few artists plugged away at the art of shadow puppetry, or nang thalung, which is said to have been invented in Phatthalung.
During our visit, we watched as one artist painstakingly pounded carefully dictated holes in cow hide to create a detailed Buddha image. Another painted gold-and-green paint onto a depiction of the hermit Ruessi. Finished pieces on display portrayed finely detailed scenes from the Ramayana with multiple characters; Southern Thai-style jokers with bulging eyes and bellies; and a range of Hindu deities and Buddha images.
While the quality of work appeared to be excellent in Bang Kaeo, and watching the artists was intriguing, Suchart Subin’s House of Shadow Puppetry in Nakhon Si Thammarat provides a better experience for those interested in this visual and performing art. Still, the Bang Kaeo studio is worth a visit, especially if you’re after a one-of-a-kind souvenir. Prices range from less than 50 baht up to several thousands of baht for large framed puppets.
After doubling back to the centre of Bang Kaeo, we struck east (right) on Route 4138 and turned left (north) on 4004, which runs alongside Thale Sap in Chong Thanon district. Here we stopped to pick up a few bags of sun-dried fish, though we passed on the angry-looking fish heads and bottles of rank fermented fish bladder. We then cruised up through Laem Chong, a peninsula with lake views on one side and a colourful village on the other.
From here we followed 4004 as it cut west before turning south (left) on 4081 and then an almost immediate right (north) on 4003, following a sign for Wat Khien Bang Kaeo, an Ayutthaya-era temple.
Set amid leafy grounds beside the Bang Kaeo River, the temple features a slender Sri Lankan-style chedi that rises aboe a centuries-old wihaan with a wood-and-ceramic roof perched over a happy looking seated Buddha image. Other eye-grabbing attributes include fine gingerbread-style carvings on a wooden house that appears to hail form the late 19th century, and an immense tamarind tree draped in beard-like mosses and abundant orchids.
As the late-day sun glowed copper and children pedalled home, we drove back north, passing Phattha Thong Beach along Route 4003, which meets up with 4018 and continues north. Turning back west on 4047 to Phatthalung town, we passed within a km of the ancient palaces and temples in Baan Lam Pam, which could be squeezeed in as part of the loop if you get a real early start.
How to get there
You’ll need a vehicle to do this loop as we did it. You could hire a motorbike taxi or songthaew in Phatthalung town, but this would only be possible with some Thai language skills. If going with your own wheels, this map might help.
If sticking to public transport, you could take a Hat Yai- or Songkhla-bound minibus from the Phatthalung bus station and ask to be dropped in Baan Khao Chaison or Bang Kaeo and then take a motorbike taxi from one to the other, but even this would be tough without a basic command of Thai.
The best option if you don’t have your own wheels might be the train; they run south from Phatthalung town to Bang Kaeo at around 06:00, 07:30, 08:20 and 10:30, returning to Phatthalung at around 16:00, 18:00 and 19:00. If you’re limited to just one of the towns, both Baan Khao Chaison and Bang Kaeo have some decent markets and several more temples to explore.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 1st February, 2016.