Wedged between the Gulf of Thailand and the Khao Ban That mountains that form a natural border with Cambodia, Trat province is best known for the 52 islands off its coast, including Ko Chang, Ko Maak and Ko Kut. Though most view the same-named provincial capital as little more than a transport hub, its pungent markets, laidback old quarter and cheap accommodation make it worth hanging around for a day or two.
Traditionally home to a mix of Thai, Lao, Chinese and Khmer people, Trat was briefly annexed into the French Empire after the Siamese traded it for Chanthaburi in 1904. It proved difficult for the colonialists to govern, and in 1907 was handed back to Siam in exchange for parts of what’s now western Cambodia. If the whims of early 20th century French and Siamese leaders had been different, Ko Chang may have ended up as part of Cambodia, while Thailand might be promoting Angkor Wat as its must-see attraction.
In recognition of their independence from this brush with colonialism, the people of Trat continue to fly the old Siamese flag with a single white elephant on a red backdrop throughout the province. The French occupation did not last long enough to leave any major cultural impact, but the former colonial governor’s mansion, Residang Gamport on Rhak Muang Road, has been preserved as a historical site.
The late 20th century once again saw Trat affected by its eastern neighbour, but this time the power struggle was far bloodier. Fleeing the genocidal horrors of Pol Pot in the late 1970s and early '80s, tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees streamed into Trat, and the glow from artillery occasionally haunted the eastern horizon straight up until the early '90s. The border area was a Khmer Rouge stronghold, and many smugglers reaped fortunes from gems, timber and arms -- on both sides.
Connected to Trat town by a wide and smooth road that cuts through the province’s southeast coastal panhandle, the border crossing at Had Lek is now used mainly by backpackers, visa-runners and merchants, though a heavy Thai military presence highlights how Trat remains a favoured thoroughfare for smugglers. A ticket purchased at Trat bus station can take you straight to the Cambodian beach town of Sihanoukville.
For those looking to kick back and save some cash, Trat town is one of the cheapest destinations in Thailand. Travellers had little choice but to pass through the city when Ko Chang first caught on in the late '80s and early '90s, and several cheap guesthouses sprung up to accommodate them. Easier access to the islands has since stymied demand in Trat, keeping prices at the over-abundance of guesthouses frozen in time. It’s not too difficult to find a private room and three basic meals for a total of 200 baht per day.