Home to prehistoric people 6,500 years ago and a major trading port as early as the fifth century CE, Chaiya district is the cultural and historical heart of Surat Thani province. Travellers looking for ancient ruins, intriguing temples, traditional silk-weaving workshops and maybe even a splash in the Gulf of Thailand will be rewarded by a day trip to Chaiya and the seaside village of Baan Phumriang.
Motoring north from Surat city on Route 41, our first stop was Wat Suan Mokkh, the “Garden of Liberation” founded by progressive Buddhist monk/scholar, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, in 1932. Even if you’re not up for the full 10-day meditation retreat for foreigners, a stroll through the forested grounds will provide glimpses of the simple Buddhist way of life that Buddhadasa helped to revitalise. Stone steps lead up to a white Buddha image where this influential monk’s ashes are enshrined, and a bookshop out front offers a handful of English titles.
Chaiya is famous for its salty duck eggs, or khai khem, which are preserved in sea salt and rice husks and then served mostly in spicy salads. If your taste buds lean heavily towards the salty, pick up a box or two from the many vendors who sell them in the car park that fronts Wat Suan Mokkh.
Leaving Route 41 and turning east towards Chaiya town on 4011, we stopped to check out an elaborate example of ancient Srivijayan art at Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya — a highlight of the area. Archaeological digs and ruins have shown that Chaiya was a centre of Srivijayan civilisation from around the seventh to the 11th centuries CE; it’s likely the term Chaiya derives from Srivijaya, or Siwichai as rendered by the Thai tongue. Reflecting the seafaring kingdom’s roots in Sumatra and Java, Wat Phra Borommathat’s namesake chedi displays a multi-pointed Javanese style that’s very rare in Thailand.
Beside the Wat Phra Borommathat complex is the Chaiya National Museum, where a 100-baht ticket provides a deeper look into the art and history of the Srivijaya kingdom — and the people who preceded it. Uncovered in the Chaiya area, exquisite 1,200-year-old statues depict a naga-hooded Buddha, a striking feminine Avolokitesvara and a sturdy Ganesha, exemplifying the Srivijaya’s adherence to a mix of Vajrayana/Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism. You’ll also find ancient stone tools, beads and porcelain.
Continuing east towards town, we hung a right at a 7-eleven to visit another ancient Srivijaya monument at Wat Kaeo (aka Wat Rattanaram). Constructed from sandstone bricks during the same time period as Phra Borrommathat, the sanctuary has been minimally restored and looks, well, how you would expect a 1,200-year-old brick tower to look. We felt fortunate to see a Srivijayan monument that hasn’t been reshaped or covered over by something that looks more “Thai.”
On the way back to 4011 we passed Wat Long, where only a brick base remains of what was once another sizable Srivijaya sanctuary. Another few hundred metres and we came to Wat Wiang, a fourth ancient site where an early 20th century wihaan stands on a brick base built by Srivijayan subjects. Seemingly home to more chickens than monks these days, Wat Wiang also contains a small collection of old silks, shadow puppets, masks, swords and other bits of curio at the free Chaiya Folk Museum.
When visiting the ruins at Wat Phra Borommathat, Wat Kaeo, Wat Long and Wat Wiang, each found within walking distance of the others, you’ll be tredding on land that likely was once the heart of a major port, where Srivijayan Malays probably traded with Indians and Chinese well over a millenium ago. Today the nearby centre of Chaiya, a rather typical small Thai town, has a few rows of old wooden houses and a decent market. It’s worth a pit stop for a fresh coffee and brownie at Moonjai Cafe, just south of the train station.
From here we followed 4011 east for seven kilometres into Baan Phumriang (also spelt Poomriang), which was the area’s largest town until people settled closer to the train station when the railroad arrived further west in the early 20th century. Today Baan Phumriang is a tangle of narrow lanes where many of the Muslim residents craft distinctive red, black and yellow silk products, and many of the Buddhists weave hats out of long, hardy grasses.
Baan Phumriang nuzzles up to where the Tha Chana River empties into the Gulf of Thailand at a seaside stretch known as Laem Pho. Here you’ll find locals fishing off the bridge, their poles dangling against a backdrop of colourful boats and seafood farms specialising in the area’s famous shellfish.
The shellfish is usually sold by the kilo, but vendors probably won’t mind popping a few clams open for slurping up roadside. If that sounds a little too rough and ready, head down some of the side lanes and you’ll find a few waterside seafood restaurants offering full spreads of Southern Thai seafood dishes at a fraction of what you’d pay on Ko Samui.
East of the bridge, the smooth and empty Route 4223 cuts north for several kilometres along the coastline. We stumbled onto a mangrove walkway that ended at a quiet pavilion set over the sea — a peaceful last stop before making our way back south to bustling Surat city.
If you’d prefer to spend a night or two in Chaiya, the artist-run Pradit Homestay appears to be a good option if you’d like some local, English-speaking help with exploring the area. We also noticed a couple of small Thai-style resorts along Route 4011, between Route 41 and Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya.
How to get there
There are a few ways to approach a day trip to Chaiya and Baan Phumriang, located in northern Surat Thani province near the border with Chumphon province. We rented a motorbike in Surat city and headed north over the downtown bridge onto Route 2007. After some 30 kilometres, we turned right, immediately after the railroad tracks, onto Route 4112, and after another 10 kilometres turned left onto 4262, which comes out at Highway 41, a few kilometres south of Wat Suan Mokkh.
From Suan Mokkh we continued north on 41 for a few more kilometres before turning right onto 4011 (clearly marked with a sign for Chaiya), which runs straight past all of the other temples, into Chaiya town and all the way to Baan Phumriang and Laem Pho. Heading back, we turned south onto 4012 before reaching Chaiya town, which allowed us to skip 41 and link back up with 2007 for the return to Surat city. We avoided 41 as much as possible because it's a major trucking route.
Depending on the route you choose, expect a 100 to 130 kilometre round trip from Surat city. All of the attractions mentioned here are marked by English signs. Beware of Google Maps, which at time of writing does not mark Suan Mokkh in English and has Wat Phra Borommathat Chaiya pinpointed in two different places, the correct one being a couple of kilometres west of Chaiya Railway Station.
If you're not into renting a motorbike or car, trains depart for Chaiya from the Phun Phin station near Surat city at 07:30 and 09:00, with the last one returning to Phun Phin at 16:00. Motorbike taxis are available at the train station in Chaiya; expect them to charge 300 to 500 baht for a trip to all of the places mentioned here, but don't expect them to speak much English. You could take a motorbike taxi only to Suan Mokkh and then return to the train station, from where it's a fairly easy walk over to Wat Phra Borommathat, Wat Kaeo, Wat Long and Wat Wiang. You could then take a motorbike taxi or songthaew to Baan Phumriang.
Minibuses also run between Surat city's Talad Kaset 2 station and Chaiya every 20 minutes between 06:00 and 17:00. These will drop you at the market in Chaiya, where motorbike taxis and songthaews are also available.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 11th September, 2016.