Bursting with history and a distinct mix of cultures, the small eastern Thai city of Chanthaburi is among the country’s most precious undervisited gems. It's also the literal home to some of Thailand’s most precious gems — the city is the centre of Thailand’s lucrative precious stone trade. With its glittering jewels, French-influenced architecture, artsy riverside atmosphere, dazzling temples and churches, and a delicious mix of local food, a stroll through the Chanthaboon Old Town is a must for culture-oriented travellers.
Chanthaburi is one of Thailand’s most eclectic small cities. The French left their mark here after ruling the province from 1893 to 1905. Countless Khmer and Vietnamese have made their homes here over the years, and the ever-present Chinese have had a noticeably prominent influence as well. Not to be overshadowed, "Chan" is still a Thai city, evidenced by numerous Thai temples and a large monument to King Taksin, who led his army here to regroup before counter-attacking Burmese forces after their devastating raid on Ayutthaya in the late 1760s.
Setting out on Sukhapiban Road in the riverfront district, we were immediately taken by the charming yet often crumbling Sino-European buildings that line the narrow road; listen to the whispers of ancient traders, soldiers and sailors as you walk among the peeling walls and alleyways. Although the history is pronounced here, daily life continues as a reflection of the area’s past and its present.
Chanthaburi is undoubtedly famous for its gem stones and tropical fruit, but it’s also notorious for its exceedingly wet climate. During the rainy months from May to October, showers come and go consistently throughout the day and the skies are usually overcast. It wouldn’t be Chanthaburi without a little rain, and a short but heavy downpour proved to be a blessing during our stroll.
Seeking shelter, we stumbled into to an old noodle shop in a classic wooden house with images of the Thai king and famous monks overlooking steaming cauldrons of broth. We were warmly welcomed by a family who have served crab noodle soup (kwit tieau buu) — a local specialty — in this very spot for decades.
The Gulf of Thailand waters off Chanthaburi province are home to numerous crab farms, and the sweet, tender meat isn’t hard to find in town. At our little nameless noodle shop, we were treated to a simple but delicate broth filled with crab meat, roasted red pork, thin rice noodles, crispy fried noodles, and plenty of greens. With the rain coming down in streaks outside the rustic open-air shopfront, the hot bowls of crab soup were like gifts from the gods.
Right about the time we finished our soup, the rain eased to a drizzle and we headed all the way across the street to see what treats we could find at another shopfront with a shiny silver sign that read, “Rocket Ice Cream“. After learning how Rocket has been producing their signature frozen goodies for 50+ years, we indulged in Thai iced tea and durian flavoured ice cream. I had sampled durian ice cream before, but some of the best durian in the world comes from this area, and the pungent yet sweet icy durian treat proved that Chanthaburi does not mess around when it comes to durian.
More Chanthaburi specialties awaited us further down Sukhapiban Road, among them deep-fried fried lotus leaves with sugar and sesame seeds, fried sticky rice with a heavy garlic glaze, and mini banh mi style-rolls stuffed with shredded pork and crab meat and heavily spiced with pepper. The latter were so good that we practically emptied the vendor’s shelves.
We soon settled into a quaint cafe overlooking the Chanthaburi river. What better way to accompany our new found crab-pork sandwiches than with a lovely river view, a strong espresso and a milky Thai-style iced green tea?
Chanthaburi’s old town is pervaded by an artsy, and at times quirky, atmosphere. Many old homes and shops are decorated with colourful lanterns, flags, signs and paintings, and a number of striking blue-yellow-purple murals depicting Chanthaburi night scenes are found throughout town. Our favourite of the art we saw in the old town was an old advertisement that depicts a woman’s smiling face, which now beams from a crumbling brick wall down an alley.
Come to Chan and enjoy your history with heaping sides of crab and durian, but don’t forget that umbrella!
By David Luekens
Last updated on 8th January, 2015.