The symbol of Phrachuap Khiri Khan province, Phraya Nakhon Cave is a giant limestone cavern with trees reaching for a rooftop hole that bathes a 125-year-old Thai pavilion in sunlight. Though it has a long history of royal visits and the locals know it well, it deserves more hype than it gets.
The adventure begins at Laem Sala, from where you can traverse a steep trail over the rocky headland or loop around by hired longtail boat to Phraya Nakhon beach. From here, another rugged path ascends into the forest, breaking at a couple of perches for views over the Gulf of Thailand. The hike requires the use of hand-ropes in places and took us around 30 minutes; flip-flops are not recommended.
After hiking past monkeys swinging in the low canopy and long millipedes wriggling at our feet, the trail began to descend amid high limestone walls. A couple of spirit shrines with various depictions of tigers greeted us on the way down. The moss-covered rock revealed tall, dark gaps that looked like ghoulish faces to our eyes.
Two wide sections of the cave’s roof collapsed at some point in the distant path, creating a forest-within-a-cave with bright green leaves contrasting white, grey and amber-yellow walls. Trees at the centre of the main section almost look artificial, like the ones used to create a “forest” in a museum. A sign in front of one cradle of trees is marked, “Couple Marry Arbour”, hinting at the weddings that occasionally take place here.
At the centre of the main cavern sits the small but striking Khuha Kharuehat pavilion with its saddled roof, sparkling finials and statue of Phraya Nakhon. This one-time local ruler is said to have stumbled upon the cave after his ship was forced ashore in bad weather some 200 years ago. His dramatic discovery has since been punctuated by visits from a few Thai kings, including the current King Bhumibol on a couple of occasions.
Added in 1890 to mark a visit from King Rama V, the pavilion was situated in a precise spot where visible rays of sunlight shower over it at around 10:00 in the morning when the sun is out. Though clouds prevented us from seeing the full effect, we still had a sense that the sunlight at a certain hour might reveal a secret passageway.
While the pavilion, trees and history make Phraya Nakhon extra special, the main cavern itself remains its most impressive attribute. We’d estimate the roof (or what’s left of it) to stand a good 50 metres above the ground, with various side caves occupied by spooky shrines where monks sometimes chant and meditate. Strange rock formations can be found in the corners, and the bulbous floor looks like Godzilla’s skin.
After making it back to the beach, a meal in the on-site restaurant and relaxing wade in the sea is compulsory. If the serene atmosphere makes you want to stick around, tents and bungalows can be rented at an on-site national park office.
How to get there
The first step is to reach Laem Sala, from where the entrance to the initial 400-metre-trail is marked by a sign off to the side of a parking area and cluster of restaurants and souvenir stands. If you want to save energy for the trail up to the cave itself, boatmen are always waiting to shuttle passengers around the rocky headland to Phraya Nakhon beach for 200 baht one-way or 400 for a roundtrip. Upon reaching the shore you’ll need to head over to the small booth to purchase your 100-baht national park ticket if you haven’t already done so. Then it’s a matter of following signs to the trailhead and starting the climb -- don’t forget to bring some water along.