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Nakhon Chai Si

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Sitting quietly beside the Tha Jeen River some 40 kilometres west of Bangkok, the unassuming town of Nakhon Chai Si hardly registers on the travel radar. Yet the town and surrounding region are filled with one-of-a-kind attractions, scenic countryside and an old-style Thai atmosphere. It makes an enchanting day trip for those who don’t mind stepping off the conventional traveller trail.

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It's time Nakhon Chai Si got the attention it deserves.

It’s time that Nakhon Chai Si got some attention.

Nakhon Chai Si was founded way back in the mid-1500s during the early Ayutthaya period, making it one of the oldest settlements in central Thailand. It was an important trading post when the kingdom relied on waterways for transport and shipping. The town was so pivotal that the Tha Jeen is still alternately known as the “Nakhon Chai Si River”.

The town also served as the area’s main administrative centre until the late 1800s, when Nakhon Pathom town sprang up around Phra Pathom chedi 15 kilometres to the west. If not for the chedi, Nakhon Chai Si almost certainly would have been a provincial capital. Instead, it gradually turned into a backwater that’s best known for the nearly 150-year-old Thana market. This atmospheric riverside bazaar remains a great spot to sample grilled fish, local sweets and fresh fruit.

The view in front of Thana market.

The view in front of Thana market.

Papaya, mango, lychee and several other fruits are produced in abundance around here, but the regional star is pomelo, or sam-o in Thai. Peel away that thick green skin to uncover a sweet-and-sour citrus fruit that’s like a boring grapefruit transformed into an outgoing attention-grabber. Be sure to grab a plate of yum sam-o, a local specialty salad that blends hunks of pomelo with dried shrimp, fried pork skin and fresh chillies.

Savoury, spicy and refreshing in every bite.

Savoury, spicy and refreshing in every bite.

Tinker and taste your way through the antique shops, noodle stands and ice cream parlours found in the sometimes-neatly-restored-and-sometimes dilapidated-but-always-photogenic wooden shophouses that surround the market. Just north of town, Wat Sampathuan is also worth a peek for its venerable teakwood halls; just don’t linger too long as there’s loads to see in the outlying area.

We're guessing this is the first you've heard of Wat Sampathuan?

We’re guessing this is the first you’ve heard of Wat Sampathuan?

Over on the east side of the Tha Jeen, a scenic back road takes you to Thailand’s largest vintage car collection at Jesada Technik Museum. A Delorean, double-decker bus from London and countless toy-like mini vehicles are completely out of place amid the farmland, but that’s part of what makes the museum special. Along the way, make a stop at the Owl Art Museum to browse colourful owl-inspired creations and take a compulsory coffee break in the charming “owl garden”.

Exactly what you'd expect to see in the middle of rice fields.

Exactly what you’d expect in the middle of rice fields.

A 12-kilometre ride north of Nakhon Chai Si brings you to Wat Bang Phra, the epicentre of Thailand’s fascinating sak yant tattoo tradition. The temple draws a steady stream of people hoping for a “sacred tattoo” etched by monk-artists who tap ancient “yantra” designs onto the skin by way of long heated rods dipped in ink that supposedly contains snake venom. Hey, no one said Nakhon Chai Si was ordinary.

A tattoo might help you get home safe.

Angelina Jolie is one of many foreigners to have received authentic sak yant tattoos.

Another eight kilometres north of Wat Bang Phra, the quaint riverside village of Lam Phaya hosts what might be the most underrated weekend floating market in Thailand. Much of the fresh local food is prepared by weathered farmers who look like they’re straight out of 19th century Siam. You might also poke around a cosy museum filled with antiquated farming equipment, or row a boat through vast patches of lotus and waterlily.

Not a souvenir shop in sight.

Not a souvenir shop in sight.

A short ride east from Lam Phaya takes you to Air Orchid Farm, one of the kingdom’s most elaborate orchid cultivation centres. A massive roofed market displays thousands of varieties of these fully open-air plants, each delicate and dazzling in its own way. En route to Air you’ll pass sun-soaked fruit orchards along with rice and orchid fields that stretch into the horizon.

Sports cars to tattoos to orchids? This place is full of surprises!

Sports cars to tattoos to orchids? This place is full of surprises!

Rather than heading north from Nakhon Chai Si, a 15- to 20-kilometre trip to the southeast takes you to the gargantuan standing Buddha image at Putthamonthon; life-like wax sculptures at the Thai Human Imagery Museum; the dizzying and delicious Don Wai market; and the Thai art workshops, cultural performances and elephant rides at Sampran Riverside.

Don't mess with the duck dudes at Don Wai.

Don’t mess with the duck dudes at Don Wai.

The easiest, but most expensive, way to approach the area would be to arrange a custom tour with a reputable Bangkok tour company or private tour guide; we’d expect to pay 1,500 to 3,000 baht per person depending on what’s included. You could also hire a taxi for the day for around 3,000 baht. Some hotels can help arrange this, or you could try your luck with any passing driver.

Those looking to keep it independent and relatively cheap can catch the Kanchanaburi-bound train that departs Bangkok’s Thonburi station at 07:45; it will stop at Nakhon Chai Si rail station, a five-minute walk from the riverside and Thana market. Otherwise, buses from Bangkok’s Sai Tai Mai (southern) terminal depart in the morning for Nakhon Chai Si and are a bit cheaper and faster than the train. These will drop you near the entrance to Thana in the centre of town.

Once in Nakhon Chai Si, it’s not too difficult to find a motorbike taxi or tuk tuk to take you on a tour of the outlying attractions, but don’t expect English-speaking travel agents to arrange this for you. Thai-language skills (or at least a phrasebook) will help when negotiating prices and itineraries with drivers who rarely encounter foreigners. We’d expect to pay a moto taxi around 500 baht for a round-trip to Jesada Museum, Wat Bang Phra and Lam Phaya; or a bit more to Jesada, Phutthamonthon and Don Wai. Expect to pay a bit more for a tuk tuk.

Traffic in Nakhon Chai Si.

Traffic in Nakhon Chai Si.

Buses and minibuses can take you back to Bangkok as late as 18:00 (perhaps a bit later), while a Thonburi-bound train lumbers through around 17:00. Of course, you could always hit Nakhon Chai Si as a stop-off en route to Nakhon Pathom town and/or Kanchanaburi. Orange local buses depart regularly throughout the day for Nakhon Pathom from near Thana market, and an afternoon train picks up for Kanchanaburi around 15:00. You could also transfer to a Kanchanaburi-bound bus in Nakhon Pathom.

For a single day trip, you’ll need to decide on either the northern or southeastern route out of Nakhon Chai Si. We recommend hitting the town plus Jesada Museum and some of the northern attractions (Wat Bang Phra, Lam Phaya, Air Orchids) on a single Saturday or Sunday. You could always visit the southeastern spots on a separate day trip direct from Bangkok.

If you want to see it all in one swoop, or are just so charmed by Nakhon Chai Si that you want to stick around for an overnight, a couple of basic Chinese-Thai style hotels serve up rooms for under 600 baht a night on the main drag just west of Thana market. Just don’t expect reception to speak English.

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