Khanom is a small, quiet town in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, northeast of Phuket and facing Samui. With only one traffic light, it is well-known for its long white beaches, beautiful mountain scenery, and the pink dolphins. Yup, you heard right.
No trip to Khanom is complete without a sighting of the pink dolphins. I took a boat with Khanom Fishing & Tour to see them. The tour company provided an experience tour guide, Pakasit ‘Lung Daeng’ Paijitsattaya, who recently won two tour guide awards and also works as a Marine and Coastal Resources Conservation volunteer.
Lung Daeng explained that seeing pink dolphins along the coastline shows that the environment is clean, with a healthy ecosystem, though the locals and volunteers are planting more seaweed along the coast to provide a place for marine animals to lay eggs.
Our trip starts early at Klong Bang Paeng, the main port for local fishing boats (the best time to see pink dolphins is in the morning, from around 7.30am to 9am). We ride through the mangrove forest of the Hat Khanom-Mu Ko Thale Tai National Park. It's so peaceful, so quiet, and so different from Phuket. We pass the wooden houses of fishermen. It looks so classic, so rustic, so simple, yet still adorable. It’s a taste of how southern Thailand must have looked decades ago.
Soon, we start seeing dolphins swimming. We had to be fast when looking around because they were visible for just seconds. Then, suddenly, two baby dolphins jumped above the surface together.
Dolphin is a fun loving, playful and highly social mammal. There are four kinds of dolphins living in the waters off Thailand, but the most common is the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin. When they are born, the dolphin’s color is gray, but becomes pink as they become older.
Sadly, they are threatened with extinction, as Lung Daeng explains while recounting a story.
“One of the dolphins was caught by a businessman who wanted to put it in an aquarium in Samui, but luckily the police stopped him and took the dolphin back to the sea.”
On our trip I was fortunate to meet the male dolphin who had been captured and then released. He remembers the sound of Lung Daeng’s boat, and comes every time he hears it. Lung Daeng calls him ‘Tone’.
In Thai language, ‘Tone’ translates as “one, a singleton, the only child of a marriage, or the only one of a kind”. The fishermen and the locals call him that because they always see him traveling alone.
When we arrived at the place where Tone lived, Lung Daeng started tapping fish on the outside of the boat to let the dolphin know we’d arrived.
“I've been doing this for seven years. Nowadays, when he hears our boat coming, he will float nearby waiting for food,” laughed the guide.
“Many fishermen in the area feed them too. This is to stop them taking fish from the fishing net and becoming trapped.”
According to the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources Conservation, there are around 60 dolphins living in the area. They can swim as fast as 37 kph, and come to the surface every five minutes to breathe.
“We have agreement with fishermen that we will not go too close to the dolphins,” says Lung Daeng. “We must be at least 50 metres away from them if we want to watch them, and we stop the boat engine every time a dolphin is around to make sure we don’t hurt it. All operators should be careful when the engine is on. Some pink dolphins have scars on their bodies after being cut by the blade.”
Unfortunately, he says that many boats don't follow the agreement. They like to go close so that their customers can watch and take pictures of the pink dolphins. But he says this only makes the dolphins go further out to sea, meaning other boats that come later don't have a chance to see them.
“No one is going to stop us coming to see the dolphins in this area, but we must not do bad things that can hurt them.”
After our visit to the dolphins, our boat trip headed to tiny Koh Nui, famous for its spring water. Because it was high tide at the time, we were unable to taste it, but we did visit the ‘Luang Pu Tuad’ monk statue, who – according to our guide – was the one who first discovered the spring.
Back on the boat speeding along, we saw pancake-like rocks called ‘Khao Pabpa’ that only exist in two places in the world – Thailand and New Zealand. ‘Pabpa’ in Thai means “folding clothes”, which the rocks resemble.
Our last stop was at a small beach, where we ate lunch off an upturned canoe, using rocks as beach chairs.
Khanom at night is quiet, with not many things to see or do. That is, apart from the ‘Ample Moon’ party, which is held at Nadan Beach once a month for the full moon.
Don’t come expecting Phangan though – the Khanom party is much more family-friendly, with cocktails and seafood, and live Thai pop music (the vast majority of tourists here are Thais).
During the day, you might want to visit the natural fish spa at the Tontarn Resort and Spa in Kuan Thong sub-district, about a 15km drive from town.
If you’ve never experienced it before, it’s hard to describe the feeling when fish start cleaning your feet. Many people scream out when the fish start nibbling, though the sensation is just ticklish.
There are a few differences when compared to normal fish spas. For starters, these fish are larger, measuring from half an inch to three inches or even longer, there are also thousands.
Secondly, this is not just about removing dead skin. The idea is that the process helps your blood circulation. In fact, the operators told me that the elderly are particularly fond of the treatment.
As well as hosting a fish spa, the Tontarn Resort and Spa also has a sheep farm, the first and so far only one in the south of Thailand, although they share the paddock with goats and alpacas.
On my last night in Khanom, I visited the Once Upon A Time bar and restaurant in the centre of town, probably the most popular local hangout for young Thais and foreigners.
As the name suggests, the theme of the bar is old Thailand. There are many decorations that reminded me of my childhood and even further back, such as an old small scooter, 20 year old candy boxes, a three wheeled tricycle, traditional barber chairs, and school tables and chairs.
Just below the balcony of the bar is a small canal lined with working longtail fishing boats. It’s this juxtaposition of the old and new, working life and tourist attractions, which sums up Khanom.