Last night, as I was at the end of the second bottle of beer, I fell off the chair when I tried to put the empty bottle in the bin. The result of it was a broken glass and spilt beer. Fortunately, the broken pieces slid under the table and were ‘arranged’ in a neat pile there. I had no worries of hurting my feet. More than the irreplaceable loss of the precious liquid adoring the floor I was more worried about the smell and the sticky floor. The odour was quite strong even when I woke up this morning. I tried to counter it by making a strong cup of coffee, and it worked. Breakfast consisted of bread and peanut butter with another cup of coffee.
The Ok Talu Mountain rises majestically from the centre of the town and can be seen from anywhere. The mountain appears on the provincial seal and hence, is also the symbol of the province. It was on top of the list of places to visit in the town. The town is so small that any place can be reached on foot. I decided to take the car so that I could drive around the town after that to take in whatever I could of this small administrative town. The town has a population of less than 40,000 people. Being the administrative capital of the Province of Phatthalung it has very little touristic importance; witness, the absence of any massage parlours in the town! The town is not even on the radar of most people visiting southern Thailand. However, here I was, transiting through to Malaysia determined to see the eastern and the western parts of the country.
The locals talk of the legend of the Ok Talu Mountain. Just some distance away is another mountain called the Khao Hua Taek, which means ‘cracked skull’ and Ok Talu means ‘punctured chest’ in local lingo. The Khao Hua Taek has a splintered peak and Ok Talu has a hole at the top of it. It is said that the two mountains were originally the ‘mistress’ and ‘wife’ of the male Khao Muang Mountain. They are said to have sustained injuries on their skull and chest from the fights over their lover!
The Centris Hotel is located quite close to the mountain. A visit to the town is not complete without climbing the vertical steps to the summit of the mountain, I was told. I drove and parked at a place which I thought is the entrance to the mountain climb. I did not see anyone there, even though many cars were parked. I surmised that tourists must have started the climb as soon as the premises opened at 8 am. I took a bottle of water, some cakes and camera for the ‘trek’. If anyone had told me that I would have to climb over 1000 steps to reach the summit of the mountain, I may have had more than second thoughts about the climb. The steps were steep and through a jungle. However, apart from dry leaves the steps were free and unencumbered. At regular intervals concrete benches and tables are available for those wanting to rest. I did not sit down because that would have put additional stress on the mind and body.
It took me about an hour to climb, halting at every flight to catch some breath as well as to take photographs of the ‘wife’ and ‘mistress’. Even though I was covered in sweat by the time I reached the top I was not exhausted because it was not so hot. Shrubs and vines have formed a neat arch to protect climbers from the harshness of the Sun. The steps end a few metres below the ‘punctured chest’. A platform has been made from where the hole in the limestone mountain can be seen. Through it a panoramic view of the city can be had. Work is still going on to make the place easier to access. After a few minutes there I began the descend, which was tougher than the climb. I found it difficult to balance with the thighs that felt as if a road roller had gone over them a few times. I had expected company of visitors on the way with so many cars parked at the entrance to the climb to the summit. There was not one; I was alone in that jungle. When I reached where I had parked my car I realised the reason for so many cars. There was a garage close by! There are many temples on the mountain and work is going on to improve the area. Winches have been set up on the sides of the mountain to ferry construction material and men.
The Phatthalung railway station is the next place I visited. It is on the southern link to Malaysia. The metre gauge trains and stations appeal to me because my first posting in Indian Railways was in Mysore Division of Southern Railway, which was a metre gauge division at the time. The premises are very well maintained; people do not litter – that is a feature I have seen on this journey. And they are unhurried and is possibly the reason why trains move so slow here.
One of the interesting things I noticed in the town is the number of jewellery shops. I did notice this in Laos too. People are fond of gold as a savings instrument, I am told. The jewellery and the counters are protected with steel railings, which means that customers can only see the items and not take them – may be as part of security systems. They are placed, piece by piece before the customers as and when they wish to see them at closer quarters. I did not see much business being transacted, like what we see in the jewellery shops in Kerala. But, of course, the population factor and the purchasing power are different.
I drove around the town and was on the highway in about 15 minutes! That is how small the town is. The administrative offices were all busy, indicating that government is the major employer in this town. The buildings that house the family court and school looked colonial with Thai facades. Work was going on to repair the Governor’s Residence. Once I got back to the hotel I thought of changing a few USD to THB and walked into a bank apprehensively, for I did not know what the procedures would be. As soon as I walked through the entrance a person at one of the counters stood up with folded hands and kept on saying something in Thai. I felt embarrassed as other customers started looking at me. He was treating me as if I had discovered gold on top of the Ok Talu Mountain and not one with a few measly USD. I went up to him and told him what I wanted. Apologetically, I surmised for he started bowing too with his folded hands, he asked me to go to Bangkok Bank. Yet again, in the Bangkok Bank, I was treated like royalty and my work was done in a jiffy.
I dropped in at a way side eatery for lunch. I was keen on rice but they had run out of it and there was no menu. I went up to the stall and pointed out to a few items to be mixed with the noodle soup. The soup with pork and minced chicken balls was heavenly; a different experience from that in the steakhouse last evening. For dessert I had a magnum almond dipped ice cream. I thought of returning to the same shop for dinner, of course, after a beer.
I took a walk in the evening to build up some appetite and landed up at the night market, which was just next to the railway station. By 6 pm the place was full of people and I stood out like a sore thumb. I was the only foreigner in the place and was cause of much mirth among the young. One of the stalls was doing brisk business and it had some items on the menu written in English. The chef was busy and I pointed out to him what I wanted. He immediately called his daughter who spoke to me in flawless English. I placed the order and watched the chef make a very large portion of Phad thai noodles, to cater to take away orders. He made a portion specially for me and embellished it with more shrimps than normal. I have always considered fresh and steaming street food safe and tasty. This was an experience that proved it.
It was time to move on from Thailand. Malaysia beckoned.