Chanthaburi is among the 12 hidden gems, or provinces that are renowned for their unique history, culture and lifestyle, recommended as part of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) 2015 Discover Thainess campaign. I recently had a chance to spend a couple of days experiencing the tranquil Thai way of life and wonderful Thai arts in this lovely province.
This is the first part of my two-episode travel feature articles of Chanthaburi. In this episode, I’d like to share my experience in discovering Thainess in the centuries-old Chanthaboon riverside community. I was so amazed to learn that some of the families here can trace their roots back from the reign of King Narai the Great, over three centuries ago.
“In the old days, this area was called Yaowarat or Chinatown of Chanthaburi, and enjoyed flourishing trade and businesses,” said Ajarn Prapaphan Chatmalai (or Teacher Prapaphan), a familiar face in town and someone who’s done probably more than anyone else to preserve the local culture.
“Chanthaburi has been the hub for Thailand’s gem and jewellery trade since the old days,” added Ajarn Prapaphan, who now oversees the community conservation project.
As she explained, we explored the narrow street, lined with old wooden and brick shop houses. It felt like I was travelling back in time as we admired two-storey antique shop houses, with striking curved window arches influenced by European architecture. Indeed the French occupied this area for a short time in the early 20th Century.
“This riverside area is a melting pot of Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese culture. The upper part of Chanthaburi River was where the Vietnamese immigrants settled, the local Thai people claimed the lower end, and in between was the Chinese settlement,’’ Ajarn Prapaphan told me.
Despite this diverse blend of ancestry, the people of Chanthaburi have lived in harmony for centuries. We explored this convergence of cultures and architecture as we went further down the narrow alleyway which today is called Sukhaphiban Road.
The Vietnam immigrants were a Christian group who moved to this area some 300 years ago and evidence of their strong faith can be seen today in the towering edifice of their gothic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Built in 1909 this is the largest Church in Thailand, “or even Asia” one enthusiastic guide told me. It is known as the Notre Dame of Thailand.
The Chanthaboon riverside community can be reached by crossing the small bridge near the cathedral. There’s a street, around 900 metres long that runs parallel to the river. This is home to an ancient community and was the centre of gemstone and jewellery trade that has made Chanthaburi so famous. There is a distinctly laid back, old-word atmosphere here and there are some real treats waiting to be discovered in the little shop houses as you walk by.
While admiring the lovely buildings with the European-style window arches, I spotted a scented Chinese shrine; a lovely café emitting the scents of coffee beans and cakes; an old wooden house which is home to a museum telling the story of the community.
That’s not all. There are shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs as well as restaurants serving local food. Ajarn Praphaphan advised that we try the Moo Liang noodle, a Chanthaburi-style fried noodle as well as the Chamuangpork curry, or fresh seafood dishes with tasty local seasonings. It was all delicious.
The atmosphere is so charming that many people stay overnight and for a real taste of history, the elegant Baan Luangn Rajamaitri Historic Inn is the recommended place. This is a tasteful renovation of the house of Luang Rajamaitri, the legendary icon of Chanthaburi who was known as the father of rubber plantations. He created prosperity by starting up the local rubber business here in the reign of King Rama V, over a hundred years ago.
If you’re here for the weekend, get a taste of Chanthaburi’s famous gems and jewellery trade at the market on Srichan Road. Do drop by at the Chanthaburi Gems and Jewellery Centre, the largest of its kind in Asia, where I watched lapidaries working their skills on the precious stones, and toured its 3D exhibition of Chanthaburi’s famous trade.
As I sipped on a cold drink and watched the locals go about their evening schedules, I contemplated my first day in Chanthaburi. I now understand TAT’s reason behind the listing of Chanthaburi as one of its 12 hidden gems. Because the real gems along the way are the cultural treasures you’ll stumble across when you’re exploring this lovely province.
In the next episode, I will share my experience of another Thainess characteristic of Chanthaburi, the Thai arts, through exploring beautiful Buddhist monasteries as well as places where tourists can rest and relax.
By Car: Chanthaburi is 245km from Bangkok. To get there, take Highway No. 34 (Bang Na-Trat) or Motorway to Chon Buri, then use Highway No. 344 (Ban Bung-Klaeng) and proceed to Chanthaburi along Highway No. 3.
By Bus: Air-conditioned buses leave the Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekkamai) to Chanthaburi every hour from 4 a.m.-midnight. There are also minibuses depart hourly from Bangkok’s Victory Monument.