Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi, Phuket and ... Chanthaburi? This coastal province in southeastern Thailand isn't usually listed among the kingdom's premier destinations, but maybe it should be. With waterfalls, a coastline full of surprises, fabulous regional food and a dreamy old riverfront district influenced by the Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and French, Chanthaburi offers a wealth of good stuff in one accessible package.
Chanthaburi town -- known as 'Chan' to locals -- is nestled along the Chanthaburi river some 20 kilometres from the Gulf of Thailand, a two- to four-hour's drive from Bangkok, Pattaya, Ko Samet, Ko Chang and either of two border crossings to Cambodia. Overshadowed by these better known destinations, Chan is often viewed as a convenient one-day stopover, but the province offers enough to keep you excited for a week. If we had that much time in the City of the Moon and surrounds, here's where we'd spend it.
Chanthaburi Old Town
Officially known as the Chanthabun Waterfront District, the old quarter's sleepy streets and alleyways meander alongside the river and are lined with attractive, if dilapidated old shophouses. The province fell under French control for 12 years following the 1893 Franco-Siamese War, and the French left their mark in the form of two-storey homes with photogenic French-colonial shutters and balconies. The architecture may be pleasing to the eye, but it's the mix of locals who bring the old town to life.
Thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese have made their homes in Chantaburi over the past few centuries, evidenced by a clutch of Chinese shrines and temples, and the Gothic-style Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The cathedral is Thailand's largest, and it continues to function under a predominantly Vietnamese-Catholic congregation.
Adding to Chan's historic allure, Siamese general-turned-king Taksin, himself half-Chinese, regrouped here after the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese in 1767 . He rallied thousands of men from Chanthaburi to join the army that ultimately repelled enemy forces once and for all. A memorial to him stands just north of the old quarter and is a sacred place for many Chinese-Thai residents.
The best way to soak up the town's quaint and artistic air is on a casual stroll with numerous stops to stuff yourself. Don't miss roasted pork shoulder with chaweng leaf curry at the 50-year old Chantorn Restaurant; fresh rambutan and durian (Thailand's best are grown here); the ubiquitous pad sen Chan buu, a sauteed rice noodle dish with fresh local crab; or durian, guava and Thai tea flavoured ice cream at 60 year-old Rocky Ice Cream Parlour.
Top it off with a strong coffee on a patio overlooking the river and the Moon City will have cast its spell. But be warned -- entranced travellers have been known to spend a bundle in Chanthaburi's trove of gem shops.
A manageable motorbike or songthaew ride to the southeast of town takes you to one of Thailand's most popular national parks (at least among Thais): Namtok Phlio. The park was named after a waterfall that roars over sheer cliffs, but don't forget to purchase long string beans to feed the fish that burst from a crystal clear water stream here.
The park also features a moss-covered hilltop chedi built to memorialise a queen of King Rama V and a series of steep hiking trails that take the adventurous high above the falls on Khao Sabap mountain. On the way back to town, don't miss the dazzling Chinese temple Wat Mong Gorn Phupharam.
If wanting to delve deeper into the wild, head up to Khao Kitchakut National Park 30 kilometres north of town. Bigger, more beastly and remote than Namtok Phlio, Khao Kitchakut's highlight is a 13-tier waterfall that can be viewed in several stages along a challenging hiking trail that winds up Khao Phra Bat mountain.
This 1,000 metre peak is home to some 53 bird species and is the source of the Chanthaburi river. Locals believe the streams to possess cleansing powers, and if visiting on a weekend you might follow Thai pilgrims as they trek to a Buddha footprint and meditation cave on the cool and often misty mountaintop. If you're taken with the Buddhist pilgrimage thing, make a detour to Wat Khao Sukim.
Beaches and coastline
If Chanthaburi's beaches were comparable to the stretches of white sand and emerald water of nearby Ko Samet, Ko Chang or Ko Maak, the province would unquestionably be a marquee tourism hotspot. Its coast does boast expansive beaches as far as the eye can see, some of which are worthy of a nice long lounge, but generally the water is on the murky side. The beaches are still lovely by more down-to-earth standards; they're just nothing to write home about if you've been to the islands. Even so, the Chantaburi coast is one of the most rewarding seaside areas in Thailand to explore thanks to its many inlets, bays, peninsulas, viewpoints and fishing villages.
With its long stretch of golden sand, Chao Lao village is the province's only beach area developed for tourism to any notable degree, though it's still a laidback affair, perfect for those seeking a quiet beach holiday. While in Chao Lao, don't miss the outstanding twin attractions -- Khun Krabaen aquarium and mangrove trail. Both are free, and you might even spot an endangered dugong in one of the salty inland tributaries.
The best way to approach the Chan coast is to rent a motorbike or charter a songthaew and set off on a loosely planned adventure. Empty beaches and family-run bungalows at the tips of this or that peninsula are too numerous to name, so just sit back and let the sea breezes take you where they will. Practically every restaurant along the coast serves seafood fresh from the bay, but for a quirky dining experience, head to Farm Buu Nim in the unassuming coastal town of Khlung to the east.
Perhaps Chanthaburi's relatively light tourism numbers are due to it lacking any one single all-star attraction that screams "if you miss it you'll never forgive yourself!" Yet it's the mosaic of culture, history, food, mountains, waterfalls and beaches that places Chanthaburi among our favourite Thai destinations. Wander through the old streets and temples, be dampened by the mist of a waterfall, lose yourself on an off-the-map peninsula and bite into the most pungent durian in Thailand. After all of that, if you still don't think Chanthaburi is as as great as we do, then hey, the islands are just two hours away.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 23rd May, 2015.