If you're looking for one of those places in Thailand rarely visited by foreign tourists, whether backpackers or in groups, Bang Saen fits the bill. It has a reputation as an exclusively Thai enclave in an otherwise saturated market of overrun foreign tourist spots, partly gained from its location 90 minutes away from Bangkok, and partly due to it developing around the large Burapha University. While it's true that the town is awash with Thai seaside holiday-makers on the weekend, it's also true -- and relatively unknown -- that the town is an oasis of calm during the week, with a relaxed atmosphere and plenty to do.
Like most Thai beachside towns, Bang Saen sprung from an old fishing village. Its development can be charted back to 1967 when an ASEAN conference descended for golf and relaxation, followed closely by developers who saw its potential. Bang Saen however has remained free from the rampant over development characterising many of the more popular resort towns punctuating Thailand's coastline. Bang Saen really does have a sleepy feel, even at the weekend when the beach can be packed.
First impressions can be deceptive when you get into town because of its geography. The town has two main centres, the beach and the bustling university area. A main street runs through town connecting the two. The university area has all the shops, a mall and the sprawling university campus. First time visitors can be forgiven for being underwhelmed by the nondescript, bland metropolis which could be any Thai satellite town.
Arriving at the beach, however, you are greeted by a crescent of white sandy beach fronting a well groomed boulevard. Hawkers sell anything from seafood to clothes and offer deckchairs and banana boat rides. If you arrive at the central beach area it can be a little overpowering and off-putting, but a short walk or songthaew ride down to the quieter areas of the beach reveals a relaxing atmosphere, with friendly locals and a few interesting activities.
People come to Bang Saen for two main reasons: the seaside and its associated activities, and the seafood. Once outside the main area, the beach can be pleasant and is well worth a visit, but do not expect crystal blue waters -- this is not Ko Samet. The open bay geography means that the sea swell churns the ocean floor, giving the sea a grey appearance.
And like most resorts dotted along the eastern seaboard area, Bang Saen endures its share of pollution. In Bang Saen's case, it stems from local seafood packaging factories located on the eastern edge of town. The waste that drifted from these processing plants used to wash ashore on the public beach but the town has cleaned up its act in recent years, with a net in place to catches most of it.
Any visit to Bang Saen would be incomplete without sampling the seafood. Whether you eat it on the beach, under the shade of the palm trees, or try one of the beachside restaurants, it's fresh, cheap and excellent. Restaurant and pubs along the beach serve all manner of sea-going critters at very reasonable prices.
A few attractions around town may also keep you interested should you wish to saunter away from the beach. The university has one of Thailand's finest aquariums, stunning views can be had from Sam Muk Mountain and the local fish markets can be worth a peek. If you are bored with sunbathing, you can also enjoy a plethora of water sports, from sailing to kite-surfing.
One big advantage to a trip to Bang Saen is simply cost. Tourist price inflation is limited in town for two reasons: the university (students are poor the world over) and the Thai-dominated market. Prices are reasonable for most things -- including accommodation. As well, you will feel you have arrived in the 'real' Thailand as you wander around the beach and the streets.
By Stuart McDonald.