In the Trang province of southern Thailand there is an almost secret attraction by the road that jolted me from my morning travel funk and put 100 photos on my memory card in the space of 15 minutes. A retired local teacher named Mr. Jaroon Keawla-eiad took over this land of theptaro trees many decades ago and made a dragon from the curvy tree’s roots. Then he made another, and one after that, then kept going. There are now 88 of them on the property.
He keeps the sad original dragon on display next to his latest creation. The original is like the first black and white Godzilla movie compared to the latest computer animated blockbuster when placed near the huge and intricate latest one. The evolution of his skill is amazing, with the dragons evolving over time into fluid designs that almost look like they’re moving, looking vividly different from alternate angles.
The local theptaro tree has been neglected over time in southern Thailand, thought of as just another wood source for building materials and often cleared to plant more profitable rubber trees. It’s an extremely versatile plant, however. Its fragrant leaves can be used for cooking and medicine, as can its flowers. The wood is not only a good carving material for Bhudda statues and other sculptures, but the extracted oil is used as an antiseptic and to treat conditions like acne and athlete’s foot.
The roots were usually cast aside, however, which is how the dragon sculptures started. The sculptor thought one of them looked like a head of a dragon so he ran with that idea. Over time his creations got larger and more grandiose, so he started putting them together in one place around his farm. Now it’s a tourist attraction and a carving school that earns money mostly through selling oil and carvings. He’s been offered big bucks for some of his dragons, but he doesn’t want to part with any of them.
The 88 of them are now scattered around the grounds and under pavilions. I was wondering about the significance of that number until the end when a guide told me that was Mr. Jaroon Keawla-eiad’s age—88. I never would have guessed he was anywhere close to that old, especially after he led me around a path that circled his rubber trees, in the sweltering tropical heat that was making me wilt. I suppose we’ll see number 89 next year and this post will be out of date…
If the man himself is not there, his English-speaking son probably will be. Admission is free.
Wang Thep Taro (also known as Wang Etptaor) is tough to get to by public transportation, so inquire at the tourism office in Trang town about a taxi or tour if you’re not in your own vehicle. If you are in your own, still stop by the office to get some good directions. Few western travelers make it to this part of Thailand a few hours south of Krabi, so you can’t assume someone who speaks English will magically show up when you need them.
You won’t find much written about this place online, especially in English. It doesn’t even appear on the official tourism site for Trang province. So if you want to get “off the beaten path” and visit some place “not in any guidebook,” this is one time where that might actually be true.
(I visited this region of Thailand on a post-trip tour after Travel Blog Exchange Asia, courtesy of Thai Tourism. As usual, all opinions are my own.)