The most dramatic of Phattalung’s many limestone massifs, Khao Ok Thalu looks like a giant shark’s fin of rock protruding from a jungle-clad body. A gaping crevasse near the roughly 250-metre peak is the highlight, while a second trail filled with animated Hindu/Buddhist statuary is also worth your while. Bring water and have a plus-size breakfast — you’ll need the energy.
Towering two kilometres northeast of the train station, Khao Ok Thalu appears on Phattalung’s provincial seal and can be seen from all over town. It’s the largest of several limestone outcrops found on this side of town, surrounded by paddy and punctuated by numerous chedis and pagodas. Bicycling this way can feel like cruising through Phang Nga Bay, with a sea of rice plants in place of the water.
There are two sets of cement stairs: the older and easier-to-miss steps on the right, if facing the mountain, lead straight up to the top, while the newer stairs marked by a pair of three-headed naga statues on the left meander through a forest monastery before ending at a meditation hermitage for Buddhist nuns. Many visitors stomp straight up to the top, but we also recommend the less-demanding temple trail.
Statues dotting the lower half of the temple trail include a chubby purple Ganesha; a four-faced Brahma next to an emerald-green Vishnu; and many different Buddha images striking many different postures. The largest Buddha, seated in the Subduing Mara posture with a saffron hue, stands high atop a hill and can be seen from the ground.
Then comes a newly built concrete meditation hall with a grand stature that looks out of place here; building materials were carried up the mountain by way of a pully system with carts attached to steel ropes. Inside sits a Chinese-style meditating Buddha marked by a svastika, an ancient Indian symbol that in Mahayana Buddhism represents the Buddha’s serene mind (and has nothing to do with Nazis). Further up the path are two Chinese-style pagodas joined by an image of Kuan Yin with 13 heads and over 200 hands (we lost count).
After backtracking, we embarked on the far longer and steeper climb to the top of Khao Ok Thalu. Draped in vines and palms, the steps seem to keep going and going, taunting you with intermittent platforms that look like they might be the end, but are only turning points to more stairs. It reminded us of climbing the limestone eminence at Krabi’s Wat Tham Seua, minus the tourists and bag-snatching monkeys.
Finally the steps culminate at a wide brick platform perched beside the “crown” of Khao Ok Thalu: a massive hole in the rock that allows you to gaze back down to the distant ground on the south side of the mountain. Looking back east you can make out Songkhla Lake through gaps in the branches. There’s also a small golden Buddha image seated at the foot of a cliff that reaches right up to the summit, which is impossible to reach without wings.
Next to the giant hole is a tall chain-link fence that’s great for safety but not-so-good for photography. Do keep an eye on children anyway, as the western side of the platform does not have a rail and a fall from there would not be pretty. Though it appears to be a great place for it, rock-climbing is off limits at Khao Ok Thalu.
How to get there
To reach Khao Ok Thalu from the train station, walk a hundred metres south and take the first left onto Apaiborirak Rd, then take the first left after crossing the tracks on Apaiborirak Soi 1. From there it’s a right onto Charoen Dit Rd; continue for another few hundred metres and there’s a blue sign pointing left to Khao Ok Thalu. Keep going past the tallest part of the mountain and you’ll see the stairways on the right, marked by some Buddhist statues.
Alternately you can take a motorbike taxi from the train station; we were quoted 80 baht for a round trip, including waiting time, which is darn cheap. Taking a motorbike taxi might be the way to go, as it’s an exhausting climb up either of the trails, let alone both of them. Once you’ve finished at Khao Ok Thalu, the motorbike could take you a bit further north to Tham Malai.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 8th February, 2016.