If you’ve ever wondered what travelling in South Thailand was like before mass tourism arrived, make a trip to Phattalung. Filled with phenomenal food and laidback locals, the provincial capital stretches between striking limestone massifs where forest monks go to meditate. The rest of the province reveals one of Thailand’s best bird-watching venues along with mountains, waterfalls and an ancient palace set near the vast Songkhla Lake.
Phattalung truly is a rewarding destination for those who aren’t afraid to step off the well-trodden track. With that said, travellers accustomed to the English-speaking travel agents and Western restaurants found in places like Phuket, Krabi and Trang will be in for a shock. Very few locals speak English and getting around can be a challenge. Bring an open mind and a phrasebook, and you just might find the South Thailand that you’ve been searching for.
Historical details are foggy, but it’s thought that Phattalung was a minor kingdom administered by the Srivijaya Empire from the eighth to 11th centuries and the Nakhon Si Thammarat Kingdom in the 12th and 13th centuries, after which the area came under the sway of Ayutthaya. Most of the locals are Buddhist, with only around 10% of the population adhering to Islam. The violent civil disturbance that blights the nearby provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat has not spilled north into Phattalung.
Home to around 40,000 people, the low-key provincial capital features some of the most distinctive geography of any Thai city. Half a dozen limestone towers stand like a series of watchtowers as the Ban That Mountains loom in the west. A short drive east takes you to Songkhla Lake, known locally as Thale Sap (“Freshwater Lake”), the largest lake in Thailand. Just north of that is Thale Noi, a freshwater wetland that attracts a brilliant array of waterfowl.
The limestone crags, including Khao Muan, Khao Nian, Khao Daeng and Khao Khuha Sawan, are dotted with caves and often crowned by chedis. Appearing on the provincial seal, the roughly 250-metre-tall Khao Ok Thalu boasts immense vertical cliffs above a cushion of forested slopes. If you’re up for it, climb the 1,500 steps to peer back down through a massive hole in the rock.
The town itself feels a lot like Trang, but smaller and with no tourists. An eye-popping fresh market heaves from morning to afternoon in the heart of town. Several khao gaeng (rice and curry) shops will give you a crash course in fiery Southern Thai cuisine with Malay influences, while the town’s Chinese roots are expressed in the many shops that serve kopi, rice kongee and steamed buns.
While we weren’t able to explore the province’s mountainous western reaches on our most recent visit, we’ve heard good things about Phraiwan Waterfall in the Khao Banthat Wildlife Sanctuary, accessible via Route 4 on the way to Trang. This jungle highway also passes Wat Tham Sumano, a large forest temple with caves used for practicing insight meditation. Further northwest stretches the Khao Pu Khao Ya National Park and its caves, viewpoints and nature trails.
Phattalung is a small province bordered by Trang to the west, Nakhon Si Thammarat to the north, Yala in the south, and Songkhla Lake to the east. Beyond the lake stretches the northern arm of Songkhla province, which occupies an isthmus between the lake and the Gulf of Thailand.
A handful of islands, including the fairly large Ko Mak and smaller Ko See, are found within the lake in the far southeastern corner of Phattalung province. To the north stretches the Thale Noi Waterbird Park. The Ban That Mountains stand to the west and form the border with Trang province, with rice cultivation covering much of the terrain between the lake and mountains.
The provincial capital, Amphoe Mueang Phattalung (or Phattalung town), is 10 kilometres west of the lake and only 60 kilometres east of Trang town. A bustling downtown area is clustered around west-to-east running Apaiborirak Road (aka Route 4047), just west of the train station. Khao Ok Thalu and most other cliffs are two to three kilometres northeast of the train station along some lovely back roads. Apaiborirak Road continues east past the train station before ending at Baan Lam Pam, a historic town beside the lake.
Phattalung Hospital is two kilometres west of the train station along Route 4047, which is known as Ramesuan Road to the west of downtown. Head straight north from the hospital for a half-kilometre along Choeytukaraj Road, passing a roundabout along the way, and you’ll reach Phattalung Police Station. There’s also a police box found a stone’s throw south of the train station, on the west side of the tracks. Several ATMs and banks dot the streets near the train station.
Heading further afield, Route 4 runs west from Phattalung to Trang and south to Hat Yai, while Route 41 shoots north into Nakhon Si Thammarat. Beginning in Baan Lam Pam, smaller Route 4007 cruises north alongside the lake to Baan Pak Pra and Baan Thale Noi. South of Phattalung town are a series of back roads leading to a bunch of offbeat attractions around Baan Khao Chaison and Bang Kaeo.
By David Luekens. Last updated on 11th October, 2016.