Since the beginning of November, I have been working at a school in the provincial capital of Phang Nga, about two hours north of my home on Phuket island. This was to be a temporary assignment while awaiting the arrival of the permanent teacher and I spent the past two weeks commuting back and forth each day (four-hour round-trip). As so often happens here in the “Land of Smiles”, the plans went awry and I agreed to stay here for the duration of the school year (which ends in late February or early March, date to be determined later). Yesterday, I moved into my teachers’ accommodation in the center of Phang Nga Town and right outside of the school gates (entirely paid for by my employers).
Muang Phang Nga (เมืองพังงา) is is the capital district (amphoe mueang) of Phang Nga Province. The province (changwat) is one of the southern provinces of Thailand, on the shore of the Andaman Sea to the west and Phang Nga Bay to the south. Neighboring provinces are (from north, clockwise) Ranong, Surat Thani, and Krabi. To the south is the Phuket Province, connected by a highway bridge.
The province is on the west side of the Malay Peninsula, and includes the many islands of the Phang Nga Bay. The most famous are the islands of Khao Phing Kan (เขาพิงกัน) and the 66-foot (20-meter) tall islet Ko Ta Pu (เกาะตาปู) which lies about 130 feet (40 meters) offshore of Ko Kao Phing. Since 1974, when they were featured in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, these two islands have been popularly called James Bond Island. In the movie, Francisco Scaramanga describes Ko Ta Pu as a “mushroom-shaped rock”, which houses two large solar panels that come up on top of Ko Ta Pu and lock on to the Sun. Ko Ta Pu is also featured in another James Bond film (Tomorrow Never Dies, identified as in Vietnam) and in the Italian film Quo Vado? (identified as in the Philippines). In Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Phang Nga Bay was used as main photography for the planet Kashyyyk.
Ao Phang Nga (Phang Nga Bay) National Park was established in 1981 to protect the many islands. The Similan Islands and Surin Islands, two of Thailand’s main diving destinations, are also part of Phang Nga Province. Limestone cliffs with caves, collapsed cave systems, and archaeological sites are found about Phang Nga Bay. Around 10,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower, it was possible to walk from Phuket and Krabi.
Phang Nga is the modern Thai transliteration of the Malay word pangan, literally ‘heathen, pagan, primitive people,’ in reference to a generalized tribe or people typically inhabiting jungle areas of the Malay Peninsula and its offshore islands. Phang Nga was originally inhabited by small communities on the bank of the Phang-nga river in a district called Kraphu-nga. The district expanded in the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824) when the Burmese troops invaded southern Thailand. As the army from central Siam did not arrive in time, the three important nearby towns of Takua Pa, Takua Thung, and Thalang (present-day Phuket) fell one after the other and their large numbers of inhabitants fled to Kraphu-nga and settled there.
In 1824, Siamese troops defeated the Burmese and the invaders were expelled. During the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851), the status of Kraphu-nga village as changed into a town. The area adjacent to the bay was given the name Phang-Nga. This bastardization of Malay pangan offers a vivid indication that the entire region was likely populated by Orang Asli or other aboriginal people. By the King’s order, Takua Thung became part of Phang-nga. In 1933 the town was promoted to provincial status.
On the morning of December 26, 2004, the Andaman Sea coastline of Phang Nga Province was devastated by a tsunami and thousands lost their lives.
Phang Nga Province is subdivided into eight districts (amphoe), which are further subdivided into 48 communes (tambon) and 314 villages (muban). The Khura Buri District, particularly Ko Phra Thong, has been called a “smuggler’s paradise” and thus a key entry point into Thailand for human trafficking, Rohingya, Uighur, and Syrian refugees particularly.
The capital district Muang Phang Nga is divided into nine sub-districts (tambon), which are further subdivided into 42 villages (muban). Phang Nga itself is a town (thesaban mueang) and covers the tambon Thai Chang (ท้ายช้าง), which had a population of 9,559 in 2005. There are a further seven tambon administrative organizations (TAO). Neighboring districts are (from the east clockwise) Thap Put, Phanom of Surat Thani Province, Kapong, Thai Mueang, and Takua Thung. To the south is Phang Nga Bay, with the insular district Ko Yao. Ao Phang Nga National Park covers the islands south of the capital district. Sa Nang Manora Forest Park protects 0.29 km² of the Khao Toy Nang Hong Forest around the Sa Nang Manora waterfall. The Ton Pariwat Wildlife Sanctuary in the north of the district is under construction. There are also several caves within the limestone hills.
The majority of the population in rural areas is Muslim. Phang Nga however, does not suffer from any religious tension and the folk live in peace and harmony. Outside of the provincial town, the rural folk speak with a thick Southern dialect which is difficult for even other Thais to understand. On the small island of Ko Surin is a community of Sea Gypsies who still live their traditional life as seafaring people. These sea gypsies speak the Yawi dialect. However, just like the long-necked Karen in Mae Hong Son, some folk complain that their village resembles a bit like a human zoo with hoards of tourists walking around gawking at the villagers.
Festivals held in Phang Nga include:
- Watermelon Day (งานวันแตงโม) includes a beauty contest
- Free The Turtles Fair (ประเพณีปล่อยเต่า), a seven-day annual celebration at Thai Muang Beach
- Songkran Festival (งานประเพณีสงกรานต์), Thai New Year starting on April 13
- The Ma Jor Poh Statue Procession (งานแห่เทพเจ้าศาลเจ้าแม่ม่าจ้อโป๋)
- Chao Ley (sea gypsy) Boat Floating Festival (งานประเพณีลอยเรือ)
- Narayana worshiping ceremony (งานบวงสรวงเทวรูปพระนารายณ์และบริวาร)
- Vegetarian Festival (ประเพณีถือศีลกินผัก)
- Amazing Phang Nga Festival: High Season Opening in Phang Nga (งานเปิดโลกมหัศจรรย์แดนสวรรค์เมืองพังงา)
Phang Nga Bay Marine National Park was declared a protected Ramsar Site (no. 1185) of international ecological significance on August 14, 2002. Phang Nga is a shallow bay with 42 islands, comprising shallow marine waters and intertidal forested wetlands, with at least 28 species of mangrove; seagrass beds and coral reefs are also present. At least 88 bird species, including the globally threatened Malaysian plover (Charadrius peronii) and Asiatic dowitcher (Limnodromus semipalmatus), can be found within the site, as well as 82 fish species, 18 reptiles, three amphibians, and 17 mammal species. These include the dugong (a vulnerable species), white-hand gibbon (Hylobates lar), the endangered serow (Capricornis sumatraensis), and the black finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides).
A number of diverse cultures co-exist in local communities, which practice fishing, harvesting Nypa palm fronds for thatch, and catering to an international tourist presence drawn both by the natural beauties and by the archaeological sites, which have paintings more than a thousand years old.
The provincial seal shows the Phu Khao Chang mountains in the background, with city hall in front. It also shows a dredge to represent the tin mining in the province. The provincial slogan is, “Massive mining industry, Ban Klang Nam “floating house”, delightful caves, strangely shaped hills, Jampun flower, rich in resources”. The provincial tree is the Cinnamomum porrectum (hardy cinnamon), and the provincial flower is Anaxagorea javanica.
On July 5, 2012, Thailand Post released a mini-sheet of 10 definitive stamps under the name “Seaside in Thailand”, promoting southern coastal areas (Michel #3225-3234). The stamps each bear the denomination of 15 baht, the international rate for post cards. There were five popular destinations portrayed on the stamps, a se-tenant pair for each: Promthep Cape on Phuket (the southwestern-most point on the island, a popular site to watch the sunset), Muko Ang Thong National Park in Surat Thani, Rai Le Bay in Krabi, Hong Island in Krabi, and Panyi Island in Phang Nga Bay. There is a small (and scenically spectacular) school on the latter and I’ve long wanted to work there. As it is, my current school is also in a beautiful area with limestone mountains jutting all around, just to the north of Khao Ngoom (my chief landmark to avoid getting lost) and east of Kao Chang (Elephant Mountain).