Visitors to Narathiwat are guaranteed to find serenity in the Sirindhorn Peat Swamp Forest
Like the few ancient forests that remain around the world, Thailand’s last peat swamp forest abounds in tales of mystery and imagination
Local lore in Narathiwat province has it that Toh Daeng – an old Muslim woman who dabbled in black magic – rowed her sampan into the swampland. She went into the woods for couple of days and never made it back to the village. The villagers – young and old – retraced Daeng’s mosquito-infested trail into the woods. What they found wasn’t Daeng but an immense crocodile hunting for prey right by Daeng’s sampan.
“The crocodile was in Daeng’s clothes,” says a local guide in Narathiwat in a thick Southern dialect, as we walk into the forest. “The villagers believed that the old woman transformed into an immense crocodile. The swamp forest gets its name from Toh Daeng – or Grandmother Daeng.”
The forest was later renamed “Sirindhorn Peat Swamp Forest” to honour Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, a frequent visitor to the forest.
Today, you can follow the Princess’s passage and, of course, Toh Daeng’s footsteps into the swampland without getting your feet wet. A boardwalk winds its way over the water from the visitor’s centre to the middle of the swamp forest.
Located in Narathiwat in Thailand’s far south, Pru Toh Daeng Forest is Thailand’s last peat swamp forest. It spreads for 66,000 acres over the three districts of Tak Bai, Su-ngai Kolok and Su-ngai Padi. Eighty per cent of the forest is covered by evergreen forests, providing a fertile home for flora and fauna.
Three rivers – including the Bang Nara – pass through the forest before flowing into the sea. Living within this expansive wetland are more than 195 types of birds, 50 different kinds of mammals, 30 species of reptiles and 470 kinds of plants and they are the ones that have been identified.
“In fact, the forest was crawling with alligators. Horror tales were swapped by the old foragers and hunters who braved the brackish water and peat swamp forest to make a living,” says the guide.
The alligators are gone, leaving behind only the Malayan gharial, a freshwater crocodile.
Follow the path beyond the research building and the water becomes brownish and murky.
The peat swamp forest is really all about leaves. The leaves fall and hit the waterlogged soil preventing the dead foliage from fully decomposing. Year in and year out, the dying-yet-decomposing leaves create a thick layer of acidic peat.
“When people stroll along the nature trail in Pru Toh Daeng Forest, they expect to be blown away by the scenery or a breathtaking panoramic view,” says the guide. “We don’t have that here. But we do have biodiversity.”
For an hour, the guide leads us to different parts of the swamp forest and invites us to become more aware of the denizens of the forest.
Visitors can expect to see monkeys, hornbills, frogs and other critters. There is also a bird-watching tower and a suspension bridge. What counts for land here yields palm fruit – or lum pee – that tastes like cheesy vinegar and trees with the strange name of “buffalo blood”.
The mystical ropes of moss, walls of trees, strange-looking aerial roots and mirror images on the water make the swampland feel like it belongs in a fairytale and indeed, it is mystical in its own way. The forest’s ecological diversity makes it unique.
The Pru Toh Daeng Forest is well worth visiting for those who want to experience serenity. As you walk, you reconnect with nature by listening to the birds, watching crab-eating macaques in the canopy, and most importantly, looking at what’s moving under the water – Grandmother Daeng or a crocodile or both.
The nature trail with the boardwalk is barely two kilometres long but it does lead to happiness. The birdwatchers, walkers, nature lovers, solitude seeker — all members of the species Homo sapiens — will enjoy the sensation of being alive in the Pru Toh Daeng Forest. Here, where time stands still in the middle of swamp forest, you make a real connection with the woods – as if in a magical world.
IF YOU GO
Sirindhorn Peat Swamp Forest Nature Research and Study Centre is about 90 minutes ride from Narathiwat airport (and 15 minutes ride from Sungai-Kolok railway station). The trail opens daily from 8am to 4pm, and admission is free.