Travel Report: Phetchaburi, Thailand.
April 2015. “Welcome to monkey city!!!” cried the receptionist at White Monkey Guesthouse. “You wanna see old palace? Is here on map”, he explained, circling a huge, sprawling hilly area.
“You wanna see cave temple, is here” he continued, adding another messy blue circle. “And old monastery…. here”. He then handed me the map, before fetching my keys from the wooden rack next to the fridge. “Enjoy Phetchaburi!” he grinned, “and enjoy the monkeys!”
As my third buri in as many weeks, Phetchaburi certainly had a lot to live up to. At Kanchanburi I’d plunged into some unforgettable World War II history connected to the town’s infamous Death Railway. Next, in Sangkhlaburi, I’d crossed the world’s second longest wooden footbridge and seen an amazing sunken reservoir temple.
There were a number of factors that convinced me to make Phetchaburi my next stop. First, the ruins of a 19th century royal summer palace, located atop a 92 metre hill. The entire area, known as Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park, is home to hundreds of mischievous macaque monkeys.
Moreover, I was keen to see Tham Khao Luang, one of Thailand’s most beautiful cave shrines. Not to mention an ancient monastery converted into a meditation and prayer centre.
And the icing on the cake? For some strange reason Phetchaburi has managed to stay off the main tourist circuit. Which, I’d read, makes for a highly authentic and relaxed stay. With the promise of all these things rattling around in my head, I set off from White Monkey Guesthouse ready for another day of Thai adventuring.
I had actually made a pact with myself to stay away from temples. Nevertheless, I instinctively ducked into Wat Mahathat Worawihan as I walked through town on my way to the historical park. Mainly due to its gleaming whiteness, which has an almost hypnotic quality to it.
This royal temple, which dates back to the 11th century, has five towering prangs which can be seen throughout most of the town. Constructed in the Khmer style during the Sukothai era (1238-1348), they contain a number of golden Buddhas standing guard.
There are more Buddhas inside. In fact, the main shrine hosts dozens of ancient relics from across the region. Overall, the temple was well worth a look, though I made sure not to linger and was soon back on the route to Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park.
I spotted a dozen or so monkeys the moment I arrived at the entrance gates. Some were chomping on the diminishing remains of fruit from a nearby tree. Others were seemingly guarding their domain, eyeing me suspiciously with narrowed eyes. At first glance I feared that one fat monkey, slumped sideways on the floor, may have been a corpse. But thankfully he was just resting.
I’d read that you have to be careful with the monkeys. Above all, it’s best to keep one’s movements slow, so as not to cause them any panic. Making my way under the entrance arch, I passed another chunky monkey, who had somehow acquired a large bag of chips. Which he proceeded to nibble from in furious concentration.
Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park.
Phra Nakhon Khiri aptly translates as Holy City Hill. In Phetchaburi most locals refer to it as Khao Wang (hill with palace). The park’s beautiful, lush green paths wind upwards towards three peaks. The western peak belongs to the palace itself. While the eastern crest houses a royal temple, the central peak a red chedi.
Along the low lying paths, I saw what remains of the palace horse stables, servants quarters and kitchens. I’d been expecting to see at least a few other visitors, but there was nobody at all.
Before long I came across a mother monkey cradling her little one on a stone ledge by the side of the path. They looked right at me, but seemed undisturbed by my presence.
Then came a sudden rustling of leaves overhead. Craning my neck, I spotted a sizeable macaque up on a branch. It locked eyes with me for a second, then let out a high-pitched screech before scrambling off somewhere out of view.
Seconds later another monkey came hopping through the grass and bushes just a few metres before me. But then stopped behind a clump of plants to stare.
It was all starting to feel just a touch unsettling when I came across a beware of the monkeys sign. Hmm, if I don’t bother them they shouldn’t bother me, I figured, pressing on cautiously.
Hiking ever higher up the main trail, I stopped in my tracks upon seeing a positively grotesque monkey right in the centre of the path feasting on a mango. it took me a few beats to realise the poor thing was dying.
With red eyes, a deformed nose and painfully slow movements, he also had what appeared to be a cancerous tumour in his stomach.
It was so genuinely upsetting I found myself frozen to the spot. Obviously there was nothing I could do for the poor guy, plus I needed to figure out how best to get around him. Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice the five monkeys that had sprung out of the undergrowth and formed a semicircle around me.
Suddenly, I was surrounded. With the monkeys slowly hopping closer, I pushed forward past the sick monkey, quickening my pace up another set of stone steps. Most of the monkeys stayed where they were, except one who gave pursuit along the ledge.
Having spotted around me, he then doubled back and threw an exploratory paw towards my camera. Luckily, that was the extent of his interest and he quickly scampered back to his friends.
Nothing had actually happened and yet I felt a little shaken. Thus I was delighted to come upon a public toilet just a few minutes later. This gave me the opportunity to splash some water on my face and pull myself together. And have a chuckle at the brilliant English on the toilet door.
Phetchaburi’s Old Royal Palace.
Eventually I arrived at the staircase that leads to the palace peak. To my surprise, I came across an elderly Thai couple chilling on a pair of stone benches at the foot of the steps. Literally the first people I’d seen in the park all afternoon. They seemed to be having a Mexican standoff with two monkeys, who were eyeballing them both intensely.
With a breezy hello to the Thai couple, I squeezed past one of the monkeys and headed up the stairs. It didn’t flinch, keeping its eyes locked on the couple. But then the other monkey shot up the stone columns after me, letting out an unpleasant screech.
Happily the monkey’s antics died away and I emerged onto a large platform, facing what remains of the palace. Built by King Mongkut (Rama IV) in 1859, it served as the royal family’s summer retreat from Bangkok. Apparently he’d always had his heart set on a hilltop palace, due to his fascination with astrology.
If ol’ Mongkut seems vaguely familiar it’s because he features prominently in the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam. Which later became a 1951 stage musical and then an Oscar-winning movie in 1956.
By the 1940s the royal family had stopped using the palace altogether. And it wasn’t until 1979 that the authorities in Phetchaburi turned the hill and what was left of its famous buildings into today’s historical park.
Two of the buildings here stand as a branch of the Thai National Museum, with original furniture and art on display. Sadly the place was closed that afternoon. Hence I made do with the lovely views across the town and its surrounding countryside. And I had it all to myself, not so much as a mooching monkey in sight.
The following day I asked the receptionist what a good price would be for a tuk tuk to the cave shrine, Tham Khao Luang. “My uncle take you!” he grinned, “no moneys”. It was only a fifteen minute drive, but still much appreciated. And of course I insisted he accept something for his troubles.
Tham Khao Luang has a pretty cool backstory. In the 1830s Mongkut spent several months meditating here as a young monk, years before he took the throne.
Later, when he was king, Mongkut ordered the cave to be filled with some of the region’s most stunning Buddha images. Furthermore, he commissioned a handful of new sculptures from the finest artists in the country. According to one online article, there are over 180 different statues of Buddha depicting the various stages of his life.
Of these, I found my eyes drawn to a diminutive seated Buddha, perched high atop a golden serpent. When sunshine pours into the cave from the skylight, the Buddha seemingly comes alive in a shimmering golden glow. They say the best time to witness this is between nine in the morning and noon.
Tham Khao Luang.
Finally, I was happy to add yet another reclining Buddha to my Thai collection. Just because they make me smile.
From Tham Khao Luang I hailed a tuk tuk to Wat Khao Bandai-It, Phetchaburi’s handsome hillside monastery. Dating back to the Ayutthaya era, the compound fell into disrepair in the 1800s before being converted into a meditation centre.
On arrival, it was a return to monkey mania, with dozens of the cheeky beasts darting around all over the place. They ducked and dived between the iron railings and sat on top of the various Buddha sculptures in the main courtyard.
In one corner of the courtyard, I even saw a monkey hanging out with a dog. They seemed very comfortable in each other’s company.
Unlike Tham Khao Luang, I couldn’t shed much light on the monastery’s backstory. Much like everything else in Phetchaburi, the place seemed deserted. After a bit of poking around, I found a door that led inside to a series of prayer rooms and shrines.
From the moment I opened the door a bunch of monkeys shot towards me from all directions, clearly desperate to get inside. When I shut the door just in time it was like a scene from the movies, with three of them thudding onto the glass. They then sat there glaring at me, faces pressed against the door.
From one of the prayer halls I tried another door that gained me access to a wooden staircase. At the top I entered a charming, leaf-strewn balcony with stone columns and carved archways.
Leaning over the ledge, I took in the views of Phetchaburi’s flat, green farmland. A lone monkey, sat just a few metres away, appeared to join me in my appreciation of the panoramic. A nice and somewhat surreal shared moment.
I ended up taking a different staircase back down to ground level and was just about to head for the exit when I heard the sound of distant chanting. Following the low echoes, I was knocked for six to discover another cave shrine at the back of the compound!
This one was smaller than Tham Khao Luang, but much more atmospheric thanks to the presence of eight worshippers. Bowed down before the main shrine, they chanted solemnly to the booming drum beats of the sound system.
Standing at the back of the cave, I zoomed in, grabbed my shot, watched for a bit and exited, not wanting to disturb them. They never even knew I was there.
Phetchaburi Night Market.
On my final night I spent the evening gorging on local delicacies at the dark, indoor lanes of Phetchaburi Night Market. There were some wonderful dishes, including a sizzling ginger beef with rice. And a crispy fish and egg omelette, topped with bean sprouts and sweet chilli sauce.
And yet it was the dessert stalls that stood out. I had never seen or tasted anything quite like these sweets. Phetchaburi province is home to hundreds and thousands of coconut trees, so just about all the sweet bites on offer feature coconut.
After much deliberation, I settled on a coconut cream rice cake (pictured left) and a cupcake of coconut jelly infused with dried fruit. They were… interesting… is all I can say. Not mind blowing… not bad… definitely better than they look.
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