If you take a boat from Ao Nang and head south, after having rounded a couple of promontories you catch sight of the suggestive Railay peninsula and its high mountains that enclose it like a treasure chest, denying any other access to it than from the sea.
Railay’s tribute to the world are two of the most beautiful bays on the coast of Krabi: Railay West and Phra Nang, whose main characteristics are their beaches, their sea and their rock formations, panoramic pride of this province so coveted by climbers from all corner of the world.
Disembarking at Phra Nang Beach, the first thing you notice, especially if it’s hit by the sun’s rays, is the reddish color of a mountain at the extreme right of the bay, sculpted by nature as a work of art of Baroque architecture. In the central part of its base you immediately notice a cave.
It is Phra Nang cave, also known as the Cave of the Princess, characterised not only by the usual stalactites and stalagmites, but also by the presence of a small altar and numerous offerings. These comprise food, incense and all the usual suspects used in this part of the world to grace a spirit, but what stands out the most is a large quantity of wooden phalluses of every shape and size.
The cave with all its ‘comforts’ is the home of a legendary princess or, better said, of her spirit. A spirit that local fishermen try to propitiate by handing the rich gifts we have just mentioned.
But who is really this princess? What is the legend that makes her still alive and worshipped today? Talking to some of the slightly elderly fishermen, repositories of memory and traditions, one actually discovers more than a legend.
LEGEND 1- Tayomdeung’s Daughter
In a village in present-day Krabi province lived a man named Tayomdeung, who longed for a son that he could not have. One day, in a last desperate attempt to make his dream come true, he went to pray to the Dragon King, who granted him a child, in exchange for the promise that if a girl was born she would then have to marry his son. Eventually, a little girl was born into the world; she was named Nang and she grew up to be of extraordinary beauty over the years.
Over time, Nang grew up and fell in love with the son of Tawaprab, another villager. Tayomdeung, forgetting the promise made, arranged the wedding with the groom’s family. Inevitable was the fury of the Dragon King who, disguised as a guest, wreaked havoc during the ceremony, destroying everything to avenge the shame suffered.
A hermit who was passing by tried to appease the fury of the Dragon King and, failing to restore calm, he decided to transform everything into rock with a spell. Thus it was that the house of the couple was transformed into the cave of Phra Nang, the wedding dinner became Susahn Hoy – the fossil shells cemetery -, other objects of the house were transformed into the nearby islands of Mor and Tub and in other surrounding ones, and the Dragon King was transformed into the ‘Dragon Crest Mountain’, the mountain range bordering Klong Muang.
LEGEND 2- The fisherman’s wife
Phra Nang was the devoted wife of a local fisherman who one day never returned from the sea. Overwhelmed by pain, she spent the rest of her life waiting for him inside the cave that will take her name, and when she died, her spirit remained in constant expectation. To propitiate her protection, the local fishermen pay homage to her with all those objects that we still find in the cave.
LEGEND 3- Indian Princess Srikul Dhevi
Perhaps the best known myth tells us about an Indian princess named Srikul Dhevi, who sailed in those waters to go and meet her betrothed. In an adverse fate, her vessel sunk and wrecked, and with it her dreams. The princess lost her life while still young and without having known the joys of marriage.
As always happens in these circumstances, the spirit of the princess could not find peace and began to wander around those places so unfamiliar to her. She kept frightening the local fishermen, who had nothing left to do but try to win her favours.
The cave became her home and the fishermen set up a spirit house for her, providing for all her needs with offerings of food, drink, flowers, candles, incense and a large quantity of wooden phalluses. They were certain that the princess, as a sign of gratitude, would have them protected from the dangers of the sea and would have guaranteed them abundant catches.
During tsunami the coast of Krabi did not suffer serious damage and the victims were very few. An elderly boatman, who was ferrying me to Phang Nga beach a few days after the terrible event, said to me: “You know, it was the hand of the princess that stopped the wave and saved Krabi”.
Who knows… maybe it’s true and maybe not, the legend certainly continues.
Images by yGuglielmo Zanchi (Pluto)