In for the short haul
Cracking pace ... crossing the train line at Wang Duan. Photo: John Borthwick
For a cross-country trek, John Borthwick takes the fast, friendly option.
'You're going to walk where in a day?" my friends ask. "Half a day, actually - across Thailand." Then comes the support you can rely on from friends - guffaws, rolling eyes, raspberries.
To go anywhere without plentiful food and drink is unthinkable.
I leave them mesmerised by iThings and apps, catch a plane, a train and a tuk-tuk, and a few mornings later I am standing in the shore-break of a pristine beach on the Gulf of Thailand, 300 kilometres south-west of Bangkok.
Close watch ... langurs take a rest. Photo: John Borthwick
This is Wang Duan - don't bother looking, it's not on your map - just south of Prachuap Khiri Khan town. Few Thais have heard of this whistle-stop, where the trains never whistle and rarely stop. Wang Duan does have, however, a small claim to geographic fame and a sign that boasts it: "The Narrowest of Thailand. 10.96 kilometres."
This is the narrowest point of Thailand's Kra Isthmus, the land bridge that connects mainland Asia with the Malay Peninsula. While the direct distance west from the Gulf shore to the Thai-Burma border is less than 11 kilometres, the dog-leg route along country roads and tracks is 13.4 kilometres, an easy walk.
The morning sun is on our backs as I leave the beach with Khun Nithima, a farmer who will guide me. Like most Thais, she loves company and three of her girlfriends - Aum, On and Mam - soon arrive to join us. Half a kilometre from the shore, we come to Wang Duan's blink-and-you-miss-it station, where a Buddhist monk and a dog await a train that might stop, hopefully today. We pass Nithima's property while heading inland along a sealed road. It is a veritable fruit-salad farm that produces coconuts, pineapples, bananas, limes, mandarins and pawpaws. One of the farm boys comes out to join us. My original "solo" walk with a guide has expanded to a party of six.
I notice Nithima's husband's sports utility vehicle trailing a few hundred metres back. "In case we need help," Aum says. "Help" here is code for "food". My companions, being Thais, love eating as much as company. For most comfort-loving Thais, the idea of walking any unnecessary distance is bizarre - a discomfort only farang tourists might relish - but to go anywhere without plentiful food and drink is unthinkable. Thus, after just 45 minutes we stop for a second breakfast (we had eaten one before starting) of pa tong go Thai doughnuts and coffee, delivered by SUV.
Our road to Mandalay crosses a coastal plane of bamboos, lagoons and marshlands. There are satellite dishes and spirit houses, Jersey cows and bony Brahmans, mangoes, sagos, sugar cane and cascading bougainvilleas. The farms range, as farms will, from tidy to chaotic, but nowhere do I find discarded trash. Enjoying it all, I stride out. Mam, a local politician, says: "You have long legs." I do? This is again code, her politic Thai way of saying, without saying, "You're walking too fast". Remembering that I'm now on an excursion with four strolling Thai ladies, and not on a hairy-legged Himalayan trek, I shorten my stride and take in the scenery.
Ahead are the low blue hills of the Tenasserim Range, a 1700-kilometre chain of granite mountains. They are older than the Himalayas and form the border between Thailand and Burma. Until 1767, the whole Kra Isthmus, from the gulf to the Andaman coast, belonged to Siam, now Thailand, but wars with Burma resulted in the western flank of the ranges falling under Rangoon rule.
Our road from the beach to Burma crosses the Petchkasem Highway, the main route south to Malaysia. Passing farmers stop, stare briefly at me, then ask the women where they're going and, "What's with the farang guy?" One drives off, commenting, "Ting tong" - "Nuts!"
It's 10.30am - lunchtime already! Nithima pulls out her mobile phone and soon hubby's catering truck arrives with fried chicken, sticky rice, banana chips, biscuits and drinks.
When we hit the road again, the land climbs towards densely forested ridges. "Pamah is on the other side," Aum says, using the Thai word for Burma. We pass a rubber plantation just as a woman and child on a motorcycle emerge. They ask where we're going and join the caravan.
The sealed road runs out. A woman from a goat farm points us up a 400-metre bush trail, then she and her dog join us. It's starting to feel like a Forrest Gump-style rolling maul.
At the top of the track is a clearing with several shrines and a shade shelter. On and Aum kneel to pray in front of an altar with three Buddhas. From here we can look back across the coastal plain to the sunlit sea that we left three hours ago.
"This is it?" I ask. "The border?" Vague Thai hand gestures suggest that it's "just up there a little bit more". "Up there" is rugged, forested, bush-bashing terrain where my dear companions are clearly disinclined to go. Footwear issues? No catering truck? Who knows? The true border sits just out of reach, a ridge too far. So, I've almost walked across Thailand in a day. In fact, less than half a day.
As the expedition team and joiners pose for a trophy photo in front of the Buddha shrine, I do a quick stocktake. Our group is now Nithima, her three friends, her husband, his truck, a farm boy, two other women, one child, a motorbike, a dog and myself.
A week later, expat Australian writer Neil Hutchison emails me a photo he has taken of another sign that boasts "Narrowest Point of Thailand". It's on the opposite side of the country, the opposite side of the gulf, a point in Trat province where, he assures me, the distance from the sea to the Thai-Cambodia border pinches down to just 450 metres.
He adds with glee: "You can now only claim to have traversed the second-narrowest part of Thailand." More raspberries and guffaws. Just what friends are for.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Prachuap Khiri Khan
The gulf province of Prachuap Khiri Khan is, like its name, long and lyrical. Its easygoing capital is known as Prachuap for short. Climb the 396 steps to Wat Khao Chong Krajok temple at the north end of Prachuap Bay for spectacular views, but beware the thieving macaques. Ao Manao (Lime Bay), south of town, is a beautiful curved beach with clear waters. Nearby on the air force base is a colony of much-nicer langur monkeys. Also south, Dan Singkhon on the Burma border has an excellent Saturday market, and at Ban Krut visit the spectacular Wat Thang Sai temple. Sam Roi Yot ("Three Hundred Peaks") National Park, north of Prachuap, is home to the renowned Phraya Nakhon temple cave.
Catch the 8am train from Bangkok's Hualamphong station to Prachuap Khiri Khan, 280 kilometres south-west of Bangkok. Stay overnight at Hadthong Hotel and take a taxi to Wang Duan, which is 17 kilometres south.
To hire a guide, contact Khun Nithima. +66 08 1880 0051, firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, AF Holidays in Bangkok can make the arrangements. +66 2954 9401, email@example.com.
Take sun protection, water and snacks.