Chanthaburi is on the lips of those in the know. Countless travel blog posts have popped up over the last few months labelling it as the next big destination – and, to a certain extent, it is easy to see why. Often overlooked by those heading either eastward over land into Cambodia or towards the beaches of Koh Chang, the province’s eponymous capital city is a spot unlike many others in Thailand, its diverse population and cultural make-up offering a glimpse into a history that has seen it absorb French, Cambodian and Vietnamese influences among others.
Forget any notion you might have of Chanthaburi being a backwater haven of peace. Quaint it is, in particular in the old town area; quiet it is not. Part of my reason for wanting to get out of Bangkok was to take a break from the constant drone of traffic, but if that had been the only draw card for me then I would have been bitterly disappointed. It’s a busy, bustling town, with cars, vans and bikes to dodge as you cross every street corner.
The gem houses, for which Chanthaburi is primarily known, are everywhere – literally, walk along the road and behind just about every other shop front there seems to be a group of traders peering down a microscope at a small pile of glistening stones. The natural supply of precious jewels for which Chanthaburi originally got its reputation may have been long depleted, today’s stocks being imported primarily from overseas, but this is still a respected gem-trading hub.
My minivan ride from Bangkok’s Victory Monument set the scene for things to come in Chanthaburi. Unlike the usually near-on homogenous journeys to most non-touristy destinations around Thailand, this one put born-and-bred Thais in the minority. There was a very talkative Chinese guy who decided to make me his friend before we even got on board; a family of five Indians, British me and three or four Thais, two of whom got off before Chanthaburi anyway.
The side effect of such a varied mix of people in Chanthaburi is that the city exhibits a refreshing sense of religious harmony and co-existence. It reminded me of similar feelings I had in southern Thailand’s Krabi town, with its more expectedly majority Muslim population. In Chanthaburi this diversity was exemplified by the scene I witnessed on Good Friday of hordes of Muslim men on their way back from their midday-ish Friday prayers, stopping at the side of the pavement to let a parade of about 100 monks pass in some kind of local Buddhist ritual, before the Muslims then flooded back into their gem shops to carry on work for another few hours before the next call to pray at the nearby mosque. A few hundred feet down the road, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception dominates the banks of the Chanthaburi river.
Thais love to remind the world of the fact that they have never been colonised – but presumably what they really mean is that their entire country has never been colonised at once, since Chanthaburi is one of those places that was in fact ruled by a foreign power – the French, from 1893 to 1905. Indeed, the cathedral in the form it takes today was built during the French occupation of what was then Chanthabun, and points to another prevalent faith group in Chanthaburi – the Vietnamese Catholics who arrived here in several waves during the turbulent history of Thailand’s neighbouring countries.
Of course, a city with this kind of cultural heritage almost always has some pretty impressive food to match. Certainly, fresh seafood is in abundance in Chanthaburi – the Talat Nam Phu wet day market is alive with small, locally caught crabs, laid in perfect rows on rattan trays by vendors apparently suffering from OCD and so determined to have their seafood in total order. Enormous live langoustines, still wriggling on their underbelly, wait to be bought too. Even away from the market, fruit is available everywhere. Just as for its jewels, Chanthaburi is renowned for the produce from its numerous orchards, and testament to this are the tiny hole-in-the-wall shops lined with nothing but shelves brimming with durian and other local fruit; quite an unusual sight, but a pleasant one. Similar shops are fronted with simple trestle tables with local cookies and other snacks, among them bags of toasted rice, with the distinct taste of fresh salty seaweed.
The narrow road along Thanon Sukhabiphan, which makes up the city’s old town, is the obvious highlight for visitors drawn to its crumbling French-inspired architecture. As a pit stop during a stroll through the area, beautiful old hole-in-the-wall shop houses make the perfect spot to slurp on a bowl of one of Chanthaburi’s speciality noodle soups – made all the more memorable by the chatty, friendly local characters ladling out the broth.
Guay deow puu is the signature dish, made with rice noodles and local crab, while the dark, flavoursome porky guay deow moo liang noodle soup is also widely available. The latter came with a hearty recommendation from the lady at whose beautiful old shop house I ate a stunning bowl of guay deow nam sai seafood, clear noodle soup brimming with local squid and prawns – and though I promised I would return the next day to sample her prized pork dish, I ultimately didn’t get the chance. But even a standard bowl of noodles is made all the more exciting by the top-rate seafood fresh from Chanthaburi’s coast.
The city’s night market, comprising a wealth of food carts that come nightfall cluster around the site of the Talat Nam Phu market, offers disappointingly few places to sit and eat, despite a huge number of stalls – the emphasis is on take away dishes to eat at home, which can be a let-down for the traveller without a kitchen. But there are several stalls that do cater, including a yum salad spot with plenty of fresh seafood, at least one guay deow puu stall and the cheapest kanom jeen curry rice noodles I’ve ever seen in Thailand – an utter steal at 15 baht a bowl.
More unexpectedly but perhaps predictably given the prevalent local Muslim population, a nameless restaurant on the corner of Sri Chan Soi 4 dishes up southern specialities inspired by Indian and Malaysian cuisine. The gaeng neua beef curry, overly heavy on the cloves, was no match at all for the kind of divine curries I tasted at Krabi’s fresh market, but the khao mok gai Thai-style chicken biryani was as good a version of the dish as I have tasted away from Bangkok’s Areesaa Rote Dee restaurant; while the turmeric-infused yellow rice lacked the glistening flavour it has when this southern staple is done really well, the chicken was even more tender than usual to the point that it practically slid off the bone. The joint clearly offers simple home-style cooking, and the place had the feel of a real community hub from the number of locals wandering in, uttering ‘salaam alaykum’ and ordering their usual favourite, some popping to the toilet behind the counter to wash their hands before tucking into their meal with their fingers, the traditional way.
Minivans from Bangkok’s Victory Monument take around 3.5 hours to get to Chanthaburi and cost 220 baht; buses from Ekkamai or Mo Chit terminals take at least an hour longer and cost in the region of 205 baht. River Guest House (039 328 211) has fan or air-con single and double rooms from 150 to 450 baht, the cheapest with shared cold-water bathrooms.