Known for its bountiful tropical fruits and seafood, stunning waterfalls, relaxed coastal region, rich history and a distinctive cultural blend, Chanthaburi has something for all tastes.
The eponymous provincial capital -- also known as the "city of the moon" -- is a melting pot of Asian cultures whose people have flocked here seeking fortune in the city's lucrative gems and precious stones trade. From the faces of the inhabitants to the architecture lining the streets, you'll see influences from the Thai, Khmer, Mon, Vietnamese, Chinese, Shan, Burmese and even French, who ruled the province between 1893 and 1905.
Decaying but charming French-built shophouses and historic Thai-Chinese temples are tucked over narrow old alleys that snake alongside the Chanthaburi river. Thailand's largest church, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, looms over the centre of town as a living monument to Chanthaburi's community of Roman Catholic Vietnamese, who made their homes here following the persecution of Christians in Vietnam in the 1800s, early 20th century and after the country's reunification in 1975.
"Mueang Chan" (as it's known to locals) was also a key city in the Thai kingdom's struggle against the Burmese in the late 1700s. The general (and later king of Siam) Taksin led his soldiers here to regroup after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 before successfully leading a counter-attack that re-claimed the country once and for all. Taksin, who was half Chinese, supposedly chose Chanthaburi due to its large Chinese community, and many of those who rallied to reunify Thailand were of Chinese descent. The city's largest park is named after him and locals are still enthusiastic about leaving offerings at the King Taksin shrine to the north of the old town.
The food of Chanthaburi reflects its cultural heritage, and it's one of the best cities in Thailand to casually stroll while sampling bites that you won't find elsewhere. Famous for its seafood, a cheap plate of Chanthaburi crab noodles goes nicely with a French croissant or mini Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwich stuffed with herbed pork and fresh crab meat.
Chanthaburi province is also well known across Thailand for its tropical fruit, especially mangosteen, rambutan and above all, durian. If visiting in early May, you might test your stomach's resilience at a durian eating contest, one of many activities offered during the annual Chanthaburi durian festival.
While exploring the city's food, culture and history warrants at least a day or two, the surrounding province also boasts some magnificent waterfalls and national parks that require an extra one or two days. If there's more time to spare, the coastal beach towns of Laem Singh and Chao Lao lack the white sands and circulean blue waters that can be found on Ko Samet and in the Ko Chang archipelago (both of which are about three hours' drive from Chan), but they do offer a low-key seaside vibe and are worth a day trip, if not an overnight. A cruise around the coast's many inlets, peninsulas, bays, fishing villages, secluded beaches and rocky viewpoints is a must for those who enjoy a scenic drive or motorbike ride.
The city of Chanthaburi is nestled along the north to south running Chanthaburi river, which feeds into the Gulf of Thailand at Laem Singh. Some notable hotels and markets are located to the east of the river, but the main downtown area, including the old town and most of the gem shops, are to the west.
The old town (aka Chanthabun Waterfront) is set along Sukhapiban Road as it straddles the river's western banks. At the northern end of the old town is historic Wat Bot Muang and King Taksin shrine just beyond that. At the southern end is a footbridge leading across the river to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Smack in the centre of the old town is the Thai-Chinese temple, Wat Kate Na Boonyaram, the western side of which borders the bustling north to south running Benchamarachuthis Road. What could be considered the city's centrepiece -- a roundabout surrounding a fountain that looks like a three-tiered mushroom guarded by two Chinese style dragons -- is a few hundred metres due west of Wat Kate Na Boonyaram, and the town's largest market, Talaat Nam Phuu, is just west of the fountain. From here, tightly packed streets filled with gem shops meander in all directions, and this entire old town/downtown area can easily be covered on foot.
Further west, Laeb Neon Road is a busy four-lane thoroughfare that runs just west of the expansive King Taksin Park. The bus terminal is located to the north of Laeb Neon at the corner of Saritdidet Road, and Chanthaburi hospital is across Laeb Neon from King Taksin Park. Bangkok Hospital, which is the more expensive but better of the two, is situated on Thaluang Road to the north of town, just west of King Taksin shrine.
The police station is on Thetsaphan 1 Road, just off Saritditet Road between the bus terminal and Kasemsarn Hotel.
Banks and ATMs are plentiful throughout town, and internet can be used at the River Guesthouse for 20 baht per hour.
A tourist information booth offering maps and general info on the area may also be found on Si Chan Road near the river, just east of Tha Chalaep Road.
Heading out of town, Sukhumvit Road (yes, it's the same one as in Bangkok) runs west to east to the north of Chanthaburi before cutting to the southeast and hitting Namtok Phlio National Park. Laem Singh is 20 kilometres south of town and is reachable via Route 3348. Follow the roads straddling the beach to the east of Laem Singh and you'll hit the small town of Khlung. To the west it's a lovely drive to Chao Lao and Khung Wiman beaches some 20-25 kilometres away. While Laem Singh has only a couple of ATMs at the 7-eleven near the day market to go with a handful of seafood restaurants and hotels, Chao Lao has plenty of ATMs, restaurants and no shortage of places to stay.
An interesting part of town is the busy Chinese and Vietnamese quarter by the river. The Vietnamese, mostly Christians, arrived in droves on three separate occasions -- during the persecution of Vietnamese Christians in the 1800s, during French rule in the early 20th century and in 1975 following the reunification of Vietnam.