Discovering hidden jewel in paradise
"TAKE three steps forward towards the map on the sign and stop. Now turn 90 degrees to your left. Open your eyes."
My colleague already has unlocked the secret of the cave and is delighting in the chance to relive the magic of that first glimpse through the surprise on my face.
But I have trouble comprehending the surreal setting.
Like a tall-ship model sailing in a tiny bottle on a desk, the miniature "palace" with a green rainforest backdrop is sitting in a long, narrow slit of light, framed by the semi-darkness.
The "light" is the space between boulders on the cave floor and the limestone overhang. The noon sun is streaming through a natural window to the sky, bathing the palace in a golden glow.
The penny finally drops and I let out a gasp, acknowledging the object of our desire and half-expecting 100 angelic voices to burst into the Hallelujah Chorus.
We are hot, sweaty and have aching calves from the rocky climb on our stairway to heaven, but we are revelling in our Indiana Jones moment of discovery.
And, like any of the prized ancient icons the fictional film archeologist seeks, this treasure is beckoning us closer.
With its gold-paint trim, the four-gabled pavilion in Phraya Nakhon Cave is the jewel in the crown of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, central Thailand.
The impressive structure, built in 1890, commands attention atop a man-made hill in one of the two large caverns.
Recently refurbished, the pavilion belies its 120-year history.
A sign tells visitors that the cave was discovered by one of two lords, both named Nakorn Srithammaraja - one who governed in the late 17th century and the other during the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809).
One story goes that it was found by accident when taking shelter from a monsoon.
King Rama V, known as a great traveller, was the first Thai ruler to visit the cave on June 20, 1890, and he signed his name on the north wall of the cavern.
To commemorate the accession to the cave, he built the pavilion but never returned to see it.
The first king with that honour was Rama VII in 1926.
He also signed his name on the north wall.
The present King Rama IX twice has visited the pavilion, which has become the symbol of the surrounding Prachuap Khiri Khan Province.
Today, we are not alone in paying homage to one of the world's most unusual and creative cave
"decorations" as the national park is a popular inclusion on tour itineraries, being only 63km south of Hua Hin and about 300km south-west of Bangkok.
Our journey to this point has included an hour-long Absolutely Fantastic Holidays' mini-bus ride from Hua Hin.
We then stop briefly by the bright green water of the idyllic Bang Pu fishing village where we find ourselves caught in the mid-morning flurry of mackerel boats returning with their catches.
After a short drive to the nearby markets, we choose the long boat ride around the cape rather than a 30-minute, hilly trek to the white sands of Laem Sala Beach.
The cape is protected on three sides by limestone hills, so it appears like an island when arriving by water.
Through the plantation of she-oaks (casuarinas), we find a relaxed beachside resort with bungalows, camping, restaurant, picnic shelter and toilets plus a small visitor centre.
The restaurant offers sustenance and a cold drink before or after the bushwalk.
The first 100m or so of the 30-minute journey is a bit tough going, made easier by the placement of stones and rocks in a rough staircase.
The giggles and smiles of dozens of Thais and international tourists speak volumes as we stop to catch our breath and let others pass along the 430m trail, which rises to a height of 130m.
Once we drink in the coastal vista at the lookout, we find that much of the rest of the way to the cave is downhill and manageable.
But even taking the half-hour climb in the heat of the day in this tropical wonderland is worth every sweat bead to see the pavilion in all its glory.
* The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authoruity of Thailand.
SAM ROI YOT
Covering 98sq km, Sam Roi Yot is one of the smallest national parks in Thailand but is big on scenery, activities and adventure.
Sam Roi Yot means "mountains with 300 peaks", referring to the number of grey limestone hills of the dramatic surrounding landscape that rises from the Gulf of Thailand.
Khao Krachom is the largest of these at 605m above sea level.
Between the peaks, the adjacent coastal freshwater marsh - the largest in Thailand - is home to myriad birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
The marine park was created in 1966 as Thailand's first coastal national park.
The steep and relatively inaccessible nature of the park's interior make it idea for the population of serow - Thailand's rare goat-antelope. Three species of primate also can be found: the dusky (spectacled) langur, crab-eating or long-tailed macaque and the slow loris.
The cave is well-signposted, as are rock formations such as the Dry Waterfall, the back of a crocodile and the croc itself, Death Bridge, and Pagoda Rock..
The caverns are in fact sinkholes with collapsed roofs letting in sunlight and rain, encouraging the leafy green trees and delicate ferns to reach for the sky.
As well as Laem Sala beach, the freshwater marshes and Phraya Nakhon Cave, the national park includes: Sai Cave on a hill facing the ocean near Khung Tanot fishing village; a trail to the viewpoint and top of Khao Daeng, at an elevation of 157m; the 1km long Sam Phraya Beach, 5km from the park headquarters; Kaeo Cave in the Hup Chan Valley; and the mangrove nature trail.
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