CHIANG RAI, 7 August 2018: It might sound incongruous to seek out hot springs in a tropical destination like Thailand, but it is right up there on the must-see list of attractions for hundreds of travellers who explore the Andaman coast beyond Phuket island.
Long before tourism established a foothold in Ranong its reputation for medicinal hot springs attracted overland travellers who journeyed south along the Gulf of Thailand and crossed the narrow 50 km wide Kra Isthmus to Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast.
Traveller discovered its hot springs and it wasn’t long before its therapeutic water was bottled, or piped to nearby spa resorts. The tourism story began.
Historians point to other milestones that have highlighted Ranong’s growth. The discovery of tin and the rich harvest of hardwood timber from its untouched forests turned the town into a prosperous community.
Then slowly as Myanmar opened its borders and introduced easier visa rules, Ranong benefited as a launch pad to explore dive tours to the exotic and remote Mergui archipelago.
Now Kawthaung is one of just three land checkpoints where eVisa travellers can freely enter, or exit Myanmar. Formerly known as Victoria Point the small port town, at the southern tip of Myanmar, is just a short 35-minute ferry ride from Ranong.
Overland travel could be traced back to the late 1890s when King Chulalongkorn visited Ranong town and stayed at the hilltop Rattanarangsan Palace, which today is one of the town’s heritage attractions housing a small museum.
Maritime engineers have always been fascinated with the idea of cutting a canal through the 44-km Kra isthmus to create a waterway between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
But for most of us the romance of travel beckons us to take the picturesque drive from Surat Thani across the forested green hills to Ranong to begin a leisurely journey to resorts and attractions along the Andaman coast.
This trend will continue allowing visitors to explore overland routes via Ranong to Myanmar’s capital Yangon and return by air to Phuket.
Ranong might be known as the least populated province in Thailand, or the one with the longest rainy season at eight months, but for most of us its hot springs are iconic.
There is something about Ranong’s rustic outdoor hot springs that appeals to visitors, who will queue up for the chance to boil an egg in the piping hot water. Like all natural hot spring resorts there is a pungent smell of vaporizing minerals that prompts a few queries or jokes. But ultimately reassurances that it will impart miraculous health benefits usually win the day. We linger and dip a toe in the waters.
The closest hot springs to town are located at Raksawarin Park shaded under the canopy of rainforest trees in a forested mountain area next to a river just 2 km northeast of town.
Three natural springs are appropriately called father, mother and daughter. The latter two are cooler where visitors can wash or dangle their feet over the edge. The ‘father’ pool are where eggs are boiled.
Opposite the pools, the more up-market Siam Hot Spa is located offering a sophisticated bathing pleasure with jacuzzi, sauna, steam bath and traditional massage. There is even a small restaurant serving Thai snacks, noodles, single spicy rice dishes and local curries.
The Raksawarin hot springs were remodelled over the last few years and this in turn encouraged small boutique hotels to open close by, although the original Jansom Hot Spa Hotel remains the most popular.
Jansom Hot Spa located on highway 4 offers 150 rooms and bungalows all with air-conditioning, TV and private bathroom with piping hot natural spring water pumped from the nearby spring. It claims to be the only resort to have 100% pure natural mineral water on tap flowing through the plumbing from the spring itself.
It’s also a great opportunity to meet local residents who are happy to chat with visitors and recommend the best spots to dine on street food, or where to catch a great traditional massage,
There’s an impressive line up of Thai food stalls near the hot springs and one of the popular favourites is an ice cream serving in a bread bun with lashings of condensed milk.
The free hot spring pools are the most popular, but shell out THB40 and go for the luxury version that gets you a clean towel and a small cubicle to change to your swimsuit so can enjoy immersion in the deeper, clearer pools.
The water can be as hot as 65 degree Celsius in one of the pools where visitors cautiously pat the surface, or attempt to boil an egg. A river flows through the park and a suspension bridge spans the short distance between banks an attraction for children who run its length back and forth to destabilize anyone in their wake. There is also a meditation pavilion with a warm floor created by underground piping that circulate water from the hot spring. The pavilion is used for meditation, a warm snooze or energetic hot yoga classes.
Pornrang Hot Springs is an alternative, a more natural and quieter spot 11 km south of town, just off highway 4 on the road to Khao Lak. Located just inside the Ngao Waterfall National Park, there is an entrance fee of THB100.
The river running close to the hot spring is crystal clear and the trick is to take a dip in the river cool down and then transfer to the hot spring pool to warm up.
The setting is natural and just sitting in the river as tiny fish take a nibble at your toes is akin to the expensive fad that took urban spas by storm. It still goes on in Ranong, a complimentary courtesy of the river’s fish population.
Ranong is great trip easily undertaken by hire car from Phuket with overnight stops in Khao Lak and Ranong before heading back to the airport at Phuket for the journey home. Exploring a neighbouring coastal province, renowned for natural beauty and heritage, rounds off your Phuket holiday in style.