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.
By David Luekens.