Many tourists whizz through Chanthaburi en route to Trat and the islands of the Ko Chang archipelago. In their rush to reach the islands, they miss out on an area of Thailand with a fascinating history and an abundance of local character. If you’re planning a visit to the beaches or islands on Thailand’s east coast, spending at least a day or two in Chanthaburi can be a great addition to your itinerary.
Chanthaboon waterfront community
One of the highlights of a trip to Chanthaburi is a visit to the historic Chanthaboon waterfront area. Wander around the old streets where generations of the same family have lived for centuries and simply soak up the atmosphere. The antique wooden and brick shop houses which line the narrow streets add character to an area which has been preserved as part of a community conservation project. Learn more about the history of this area at the excellent community museum and visitor centre on Sukhaphiban Road.
The Chanthaboon riverside area has always been a melting pot of cultures with Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese residents living here in days gone by. The area retains much of its original charm and is a delight to explore with fabulous local food, coffee shops and handicraft outlets all adding to the ambiance.
Foodies heading to Chanthaburi are in for a treat. This is the home of the famous sen chan noodles which many Thai food aficionados regard as the best noodles to use in pad Thai. The Chanthaburi take on this classic Thai dish is known as sen chan pad pu with the essential ingredient of local blue swimmer crabs. Look out too for kui tiao nuea liang, a beef noodle dish served with a tasty broth.
Chanthaburi province is known as the ‘Orchard of Thailand’ because of the amount and variety of fruit that is produced here. This includes two of the most prized fruits in Thailand; durian, the so-called ‘king of fruits’ and mangosteen, the ‘queen of fruits’. The importance of fruit to Chanthaburi is recognised in the decorative street signs that can be seen in and around the Chanthaboon old town area. The signs also depict the rabbit emblem of Chanthaburi.
The rabbit on the moon
The name Chanthaburi translates as ‘moon city’. In Thai folklore there are stories about the ‘Rabbit on the Moon’ because if you look closely at a full moon, you may be able to make out the outline of something which looks similar to a rabbit or white hare. With Chanthaburi being the ‘moon city’ the rabbit has been adopted as an emblem of the province and pops up on street signs, local artwork and business logos.
Discover the history
To appreciate why Chanthaburi is so different compared to many other Thai cities, you need to delve back into the history of the region. Over the centuries, the arrival of migrants has resulted in a mix of cultures leaving their stamp on everything from food to architecture. Chanthaburi was also occupied by the French following the 1893 Paknam crisis which resulted in French troops arriving in Chanthaburi and the neighbouring province of Trat. The French forces remained for 14 years and the colonial-style architecture from that period can still be seen in parts of the Chanthaboon district.
The original Chong settlers and Chinese migrants have all played an important part in the Chanthaburi story, but it is the Vietnamese migrants who have made arguably the biggest impact. The first group of Christian migrants from Vietnam moved to Chanthaburi in the 19th century as they sought safe refuge from religious persecution in their homeland. More Vietnamese migrants followed in the 1920s as they escaped French colonial rule and a further wave of migrants arrived in the 1970s. One of the most striking legacies of the Vietnamese community is the cathedral they built here in the early 1900s.
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
With a cathedral as the most prominent landmark, arriving in Chanthaburi for the first time has a different feel compared to other Thai cities. When Vietnamese migrants first arrived in Chanthaburi they soon established a Catholic church. As the number of Vietnamese people increased, the Catholic community outgrew the original church. The Gothic-style building seen today with its 20-metre high twin towers is the fifth reincarnation of the church. Although the foundation stone was laid in 1906 it took a number of years to complete all the elaborate decorative features and the stained-glass windows. The building was granted the status of cathedral in 1944.
Located close to the Chanthaburi River, a footbridge spans the water providing easy access to the historic Chanthaboon waterfront district. Even if you’re not religious, this is a beautiful building to visit. One of the unique features inside the cathedral is the jewel-encrusted statue of the Virgin Mary located on a golden dais in front of the altar. Chanthaburi is famous for its gem trade and the precious stones encased in the statue showcase the skill of the local artisans.
Chanthaburi has a long association with the gemstone trade dating back to the time of the first Chinese merchants and Vietnamese migrants. The Chanthaboon area was the original hub for the traders and the modern gem market (Talad Ploy) Remains close to this historic area. Traders from around the world come here to buy and sell rubies and sapphires. Although some of the trading is completed in bland modern offices, there is still a nod to the past with simple trestle tables set up on the footpaths.
Explore the Chanthaburi coastline
Chanthaburi’s beaches may lack the outstanding visual appeal of those found further east on the Ko Chang archipelago, but the coastline here is still a pleasure to visit. With almost no overseas tourists, this stretch of the east coast retains an enjoyable local atmosphere and is popular with Thai visitors, especially at weekends and public holidays.
The sand at the two main beaches, Laem Singh and Chao Lao, tends to be coarser compared to the soft sand found on many Thai islands, but casuarina trees provide shade and during the week there’s a good chance you will have the beach almost to yourself.
Travel over the Laem Singh Bridge, the longest bridge on the east coast, and enjoy the views. And near to Laem Singh is a quirky reminder of the French occupation, ‘Khuk Khi Kai’. The translation may sound amusing now, ‘chicken poo prison’, but this was no laughing matter for the local people who resisted the French occupation and were held captive here during the 1890s. The colloquial name of the prison derives from the way the French troops used to punish the inmates. Mesh was placed above the cells and chickens were allowed to roam around and defecate on the prisoners below. It is a fascinating and little known period of Thai history and the prison and gardens are well maintained and make for an interesting visit.
Along the coastline to the south-west of the city, Wat Pak Nam Khaem Nu is famous for its ornate blue and white tiles. There is more colour to be found at the nearby Lan Hin Chompu (Pink Coastline) with the arkose sandstone giving the area its name. This area is also home to the Kung Krabaen Wildlife Reserve and Kung Krabaen Bay Mangrove Education Centre.
Mountains and waterfalls
To the south of Chanthaburi city, Namtok Phlio National Park with its waterfalls, nature trails and atmospheric chedis makes for an enjoyable excursion.
To the north of Chanthaburi city, the Buddha Footprint and overhanging rock on the mountain at Khao Khitchakut is a popular point of pilgrimage for Thai Buddhists. However, access to the public is only granted a few times a year.
Travel to Chanthaburi
The provincial capital of Chanthaburi city is located around 150 miles south-east of Bangkok with frequent bus services from Bangkok’s Eastern Bus terminal at Ekamai. The bus journey takes around four hours. There are also regular bus services between Chanthaburi and Trat (40 miles) and Chanthaburi and Pattaya (110 miles).