Nuzzling up to the wide Kraburi Estuary just south of Burma’s far southern tip, Ranong is attracting growing numbers of travellers thanks in large part to a border crossing with Burma that’s now fully open for overland travel into either country. Markets bustle in the provincial capital while mountains, waterfalls, islands and a scenic coastline beckon you to explore the surrounding province.
The least populated and wettest of Thailand’s 77 provinces, Ranong receives around 4,200 millimetres of rain annually, with a monsoon that starts earlier and lasts longer than in most of Thailand. The moisture results in mist settling on mountains blanketed in jungle while ensuring that waterfalls like Ngao and Punyaban flow for much of the year. The province also includes several hot springs along with Laem Son National Marine Park, featuring vast coastal beaches and a pristine collection of islands.
While not a big draw card in its own right, Ranong town is a fun place to spend a night or two before or after hitting Kawthaung up in Burma or a pair of exceptionally mellow Thai islands: Ko Phayam and Ko Chang Noi. A few diving outfits are based in town, adding an expat presence while offering live-aboard journeys south to Thai sites and north into Burma’s Mergui Archipelago.
Founded as a tin-mining outpost by Chinese migrants in the 19th century, Ranong took its name from the phrase, rae nong, “flooded with minerals.” A large community of ethnic Chinese still lives here along with quite a few Muslim-Thais and migrants from Burma. Built into hillsides in the late 19th century, elaborate Chinese graves entomb the province’s first governor alongside pagodas and detailed statues of horses and guardians on the north side of town. Chinese gates, shrines and lanterns pop up all over the place.
Many signs are posted in Burmese, Thai and Chinese in the bustling Talad Gao (Old Market) area along Rueangrat Road downtown. Several eateries, bars and guesthouses cater to foreign travellers, often squeezed between Sino-European shophouses built a century ago. On the northwest side of town, many Burmese people dwell around a confusion of fish markets, docks and shops in the Saphan Pla (“Fish Bridge”) area, which you’ll pass through on the way to Burma.
On a more sobering note, Ranong has been a flash point for the trafficking of Muslim Rohingya people from Burma, “one of the most persecuted minority groups on earth” according to Amnesty International. Respected news organisations have documented cases of desperate Rohingya being lured by promises of jobs in friendlier countries, only to be held for ransom, enslaved or worse. The root of the trafficking problem can be traced back to the intolerance that festers inside Burma despite the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ranong to Kawthaung border crossing
Being the closest border crossing to big Southern Thai destinations like Phuket and Ko Samui, the Ranong to Kawthaung crossing has long been used by expats briefly leaving and re-entering Thailand to renew their stay in Kingdom. While such “visa runs” have been limited by immigration regulations, the crossing has fully opened to foreign travellers with Burmese visas for onward travel into the country. This is very practical for anyone arriving from the south since Kawthaung, apart from being a charming port town in its own right, is also the proud possessor of an airport with daily flights to Yangon.
As with all Burma land crossings, there is no visa-on-arrival system in place as of December 2016, though somewhat unusually you are permitted to stay up to two weeks in Kawthaung and surrounds without a visa. After being stamped out of Thailand, Burmese immigration will hold your passport for a flat fee of US $10 regardless of whether you stay two hours or two weeks. Note that you may be asked for a photocopy of your passport. Legal environs should just include the scenic Maliwan Waterfall and hot springs along with boat trips to nearby islands.
There were signs up at Thai immigration saying “no visa runs” but we did see people on obvious day trips in January 2016. Just keep in mind that, as of late 2016, Thai immigration allows no more than two overland entries per calendar year. If attempting to do a border run, we suggest chatting up the folks at Pon’s Place and perhaps local dive instructors to see what the situation is like, as Thailand changes its visa and border crossing rules often.
If you’re equipped with a Burmese visa then there’s no charge for entry or exit other than transport costs. From central Ranong town, songthaews number 3 and 6 make their way to Pak Nam Ranong for 20 baht. The actual Thai immigration office is at Saphan Pla Jetty behind a PTT station on the main road. Another sign stated that you need to show proof of onward travel when entering Burma, but nobody was interested when we crossed.
From Saphan Pla, longtail boats make the 20-minute crossing of the wide and murky Kraburi Estuary for 100 baht per person each way. There are plenty of boats but they will wait to get at least four or five passengers; expect to pay at least 500 baht for a private one. The scenic crossing weaves first through Pak Nam Port as brahminy kites dive for fish, before heading across the river mouth towards Kawthaung town nestled in the hills opposite.
There’s a stop at a second Thai checkpoint perched on stilts over the water but foreigners aren’t required to disembark and ditto for a Burmese office just before arriving at the Kawthaung jetty. The boatman will collect your passports to pass the office window. You then arrive at Kawthaung’s tiny but bustling waterfront, where eager moto and tuk tuk drivers can take you to the hotel of your choice, including waiting outside the immigration office while you get your stamp, for 20 baht. The crossing is open 07:00-17:00.
If you’re just here to cross the border and going it alone sounds too daunting, Pon’s Place was still offering “visa runs” to the Andaman Club as of late 2016. For 1,300 baht you get a return trip in an air-conditioned catamaran to the Club’s own private island, plus a taxi to/from town and the Burma border fee. You can then pay extra to spend a night at the Andaman Club Resort or head back to Thailand on the same day.
Long and narrow Ranong province consists of mountains to the north and east, with the wide Kraburi Seaway forming the border with Burma down to the mangrove-shrouded Andaman Sea coast. The provincial capital, Amphoe Mueang Ranong, or “Ranong town,” sprawls inland from Pak Nam Ranong, a busy fishing port where the Kraburi, Phoemphon and several other waterways empty into the Andaman Sea across from Kawthaung in Burma.
Accessed by Chalerm Phrakiat Road, the Pak Nam area hosts the immigration office, the Saphan Pla (“Fish Bridge”) jetty with longtail boats to Kawthaung, and the Ko Phayam Pier with ferries to Ko Phayam and Ko Chang Noi. Across the river from Saphan Pla to the north is Haad Chan Damri, a dirty beach with some good seafood and a decent viewpoint. Paknam Ranong Road runs back inland from here, passing the Chinese cemeteries on the way back to town.
Marking the town’s eastern rim is Route 4 (Phetkasem Road), a major highway that runs south to Ngao Waterfall National Park, Bald Hill and Haad Bang Ben, one of the mainland beaches found in Laem Son National Park, on the way towards Phang Nga, Phuket and beyond. In the other direction, Route 4 runs northeast, passing Punyaban Waterfall en route to Chumphon.
Downtown Ranong is clustered around south-to-north running Rueangrat Road some five kilometres northeast of the boat piers. Here you’ll find the Municipal Market (Talad Tesaban) along with a small traveller and nightlife strip beginning north of Kamlangsap Road, which shoots east to Rattanarangsan Palace. Follow Kamlangsap to the east side of town and a bridge cuts beneath Route 4 to Raksawarin Hot Springs.
All major Thai banks have branches and ATMs on Rueangrat or Tha Muang Road, which cuts east at the south end of Rueangrat and becomes Phoemphon Road on the way to the night market. Internet is available at JNet on the east side of Rueangrat, a short walk south of Luang Poj Hostel. Ranong Hospital is located on Kamlangsap, just west of Route 4 on the east side of town. The main police station is on Dap Khadi Road to the north.
A tourist info centre fronts the bus station out on Route 4 and is a good place to grab a map. Also at the bus station, Kiwi Orchid and Lukjapong Home can both arrange ferry tickets and rent you a cheap room. The most widely used travel office is probably Pon’s Place (T: 077 823 344 ; 085 356 9299 ; ponplace-ranong.com), doubling as a cafe just north of the Municipal Market on Rueangrat. Several travel offices are also found at Ko Phayam Pier.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 12th January, 2017.