Ranong is famous for its geothermal hot springs, but for foreign travelers, the town more often serves as a waystation between Bangkok and points South. The journey proved to be at least as interesting as the destination.
About three hours South of Bangkok we stopped for a little shopping. The resort town of Hua Hin first came to prominence when the royal family built a Summer residence here to escape the heat of Bangkok. Judging by how hot this place was in January, Bangkok must really be intolerable in the Summer. We parked by the Starbucks (offering a nice Western style bathroom upstairs), across the street from the town's major market. During our 2005 visit, we squeezed through the crowds taking in the scent of delicious food prepared on the spot, fresh and dried seafood, and the exhaust of motorcycles weaving through the market's narrow walkways. We sampled the durian, the jackfruit, and an amazing coconut custard baked inside a small pumpkin-like squash. Due to renovations, our 2006 visit was more of a challenge. The vendors were scattered among several alleys in other buildings, and tracking down snacks left little time for tasting. Hopefully the market is back to normal by now.
In Pranburi, we left the highway and headed out to the coast for lunch. In 2005 the rainy weather left the beach and this seaside restaurant deserted, but with the bright, sunny weather in 2006, there were kids playing on the beach and business was humming. Most importantly, the food was again excellent. We began with slices of green mango and a salt-sugar-chillies mixtures to dip into or sprinkle on top. Green mango has the snap of cucumber, but with the dryness of zucchini, and despite a touch of sweetness, a taste more vegetal than fruity. This quickly was followed by a house specialty, solar squid, featuring squid that had been caught a day before and dried one day in the sun before being fried (without breading). The flavor and texture were excellent, even without any of the accompanying dipping sauces (fish sauce with hot peppers, a garlic-pepper sauce, and a sweet-hot sauce). These sauces also were useful for the oversized boiled shrimp served whole with their heads, tails, and everything in between. We had a salad of chopped fried baby clams; a deep fried whole grouper smothered in roasted garlic and peppers; mixed vegetables in oyster sauce; and local crab meat topped with deep fried holy basil and spiked with chopped Thai chillies. A hot and sour soup with mixed seafood contained so many chillies you almost couldn't avoid two or three in each spoonful. Eaten carefully, it was one of the best soups I've had. For dessert, we had pineapple and watermelon, and mango with a sticky rice confection topped with sweetened coconut milk and black beans.
A couple hours down the road, we stopped at a roadside stand selling siu mai (steamed pork dumplings) and steamed buns at mileage marker 42. The entire village appears to specialize in these items, but we could only try one vendor. The savory buns contained a heartily seasoned pork meatball, a chunk of hard boiled egg, and a brown gravy somewhat reminiscent of an American recipe. Delicious and addictive, with a relatively thin bun wrapper so you easily can eat more. The dessert buns ran from the traditional black bean filling (not bad) to a lemony cream (a little weird for my tastes) to a coconutty, Pandanus-colored green filling that was totally irresistable (fortunately they ran out of that one before I ate myself to a new pants size).
Relatively close to the highway, rather than in the heart of town, the Jansom Hot Spa Ranong Hotel (alternate page) has a direct feed from the springs. You also can purchase the spring water bottled, which is as good as any mineral water you can pick up in Bangkok.
In 2006, the hotel was undergoing extensive remodeling. Our rooms on the fourth floor showed their age, and presumably have been upgraded by now. There was a mildly annoying odor of stain or paint thinner wafting through the air conditioning, but that, too, should have cleared by now.
When we slid out of our vans at the Jansom Thara Hotel, we were greeted with small glasses of icy papaya juice. Rooms are attractively furnished and relaxing, although the view from the sitting area — of a nearby gulley — was not especially picturesque.
Before dinner, I tried the hot springs, a hot tub-like pool of 105 degree water (one each for the women and the men). It took me about half an hour and a liter of refrigerated mineral water to feel normal again. I think perhaps hot tubbing in the tropics is a bit too much for me.
We reconvened for our fourth major meal of the day in the hotel's Palm Court restaurant. We filled our remaining stomach space, and then some, with a variety of well prepared dishes. In 2005, my favorite was the soft-shelled crabs, perfectly fried and bathed in a delicious sauce. I could have eaten the entire plate. A steamed fish was topped with a chile-garlic-lime dressing, and other dishes included a curry with shrimp and locally grown rain forest beans; a ground pork and shrimp salad; and a somewhat sour Southern style vegetable. Dessert was a cooling coconut custard with taro.
In 2006, we enjoyed a squid salad; duck in a soup-like yellow curry; mixed vegetables (some lightly battered and fried) with a spicy shrimp-based dip; deep fried soft shelled crabs with a peppery coating; and a fish butterflied and deep fried, with something like "tapenade" spread thickly over it. We finished with two coconut confections from the market: a rich custard and a light green, gelatin-like dessert containing green (Pandanus colored/flavored) noodles.
Breakfast offerings included the usual eggs, toast, and rice porridge. In 2006, the restaurant also prepared the Southern staple of thin rice noodles with various sauces. One was a traditional mild peanut sauce (more like a soup than the peanut sauce served with satays) and the other a slightly stronger flavored fish curry. (Both were pretty gentle, tailored perhaps to Western palates.) In 2005, with the smaller number of visitors, we ordered breakfast off the menu. The mainstays were rice porridge combinations with a choice of "stuff" on the side. I ordered combination B, which came with three plates of strong-flavored dishes that could be eaten with or added into the porridge. These were Chinese sausage chunks stir-fried with vegetables, salted fish (not my favorite) stir-fried with vegetables, and thin pieces of fish (or was it chicken?) sauteed in a slightly sweet yellow sauce. The portions seemed immense for breakfast, but it turned out we would need the energy.
Our next destination was Koh Surin Marine National Park. (In 2006, that is; in 2005, due to park clean-up, we had to bypass Surin and return later.)