Discover more about Chanthaburi (จันทบุรี), the ‘City of the Moon’
Firstly, Chanthaburi is not a town that receives a lot of western visitors. Although the nearby beaches are popular with weekending Thais. It is a town built whose wealth has come from fruit farming and semi-precious gems, rather than industry or tourism. However, it is a very interesting city with a lot to offer visitors. One that us well worth a short stopover when travelling between Trat province and Bangkok. Although to see it properly, and the nearby beaches, it’s better to have your own transport.
A Brief History of Chanthaburi
Chanthaburi has a rich past. The first settlers were Khmer ( from what is now Cambodia) who established a settlement called Chong in the 13th Century. An ancient temple, Wat Thong Thua, located just outside the city, houses a large collection of ancient Khmer sculptures such as carved lintels and sandstone door columns which have been discovered at the temple and in the surrounding area.
In 1767 King Taksin the Great, visited the east of Siam, and spent several months in what is now Chanthaburi in order to raise an army to help fight the Burmese forces who had invaded the country. He was victorious and his forces drove the Burmese out. Which is why you’ll see several monuments to King Thaksin around the city. The park in the city centre is named after him.
However, many of the landmarks in modern day Chanthaburi date from the period it was occupied by the French during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The prime example being Thailand’s largest catholic church – Chanthaburi Cathedral. On the opposite side of the river, the Chanthaboon riverside community is undergoing a resurgence. This was the original settlement, then buildings fell into disuse.
But in the early 2000’s the historical significance of the area was realised and conservation efforts began. The area gives visitors insights into how traders and settlers from Vietnam, China and France have influenced the city over the years. Today, Chanthaboon riverside is home to numerous small guesthouses, cafes, art galleries, shops and restaurants selling traditional dishes from Chanthaburi province.
Chinese traders have been visiting Chanthaburi for hundreds of years but the other immigrants came later. Vietnamese Catholics arrived in the 19th century, when they were being persecuted. A second wave from Vietnam settled after fleeing French occupation in the mid 1900s. And 40 years ago southern Vietnamese boat people arrived following the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese. The French army occupied Chanthaburi from 1893 – 1904 and only left after a treaty was signed that allowed them to have Trat instead. The coast near Chanthaburi, around Laem Sing beach still has an old jail, officer’s quarters and remnants of a couple of forts that were used by the French forces.
One question visitors to Chanthaburi invariably have is ‘Why all the rabbits?’. There are emblems, statues and figures of rabbits everywhere, eg on the street signs, in logos of shops and restaurants, in topiary by the roads. The reason is that as Chanthaburi is the City of the Moon. And in Asian folklore a rabbit or hare is associated with the moon. This is because if you look at a full moon in this part of the world, and use your imagination, you might be able to make out the shape of a rabbit.
What to See and Do in Chanthaburi
Or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, to give it the full title. When Vietnamese Catholics arrived in Chanthaburi in the mid 19th century they quickly settled, established businesses and opened a church. Within a few decades funds were raised to build what was, and still is, Thailand’s largest catholic church. This Gothic edifice was completed in 1909.
The cathedral’s centerpiece is a jewel encrusted statue of the Virgin Mary. It is inlaid with gold and precious gems. The blue color of her cloak is thousands of tiny blue sapphires from the Chanthaburi and Kanchanburi areas. Other areas of the statue are decorated with white sapphires, rubies, and yellow and orange sapphires. These come not only from Chanthaburi but around the world. At the rear of the cathedral, leading to the river are wooden houses which have been lovingly resorted to their former glory.
I particularly like the cathedral’s donation box. Which offers visitors several options for how they want their money to be spent. Renovating the spires, buying new pews etc. The last option is the one that maybe Jesus would have had first – helping the poor.
Chanthaburi Gem Street
Whilst the gem trade in Chantaburi goes back over 500 years, it was only in the 1960s that Chanthaburi became wealthy almost overnight. This was due to discovery of rich veins of rubies in the lush hills nearby. Prospectors from Burma, China and Cambodia flooded the area in a bit to make it rich. In the town, other skilled workers perfected the heat treating the gems to improve the clarity and price. Chanthaburi’s reputation as a gem centre still thrives.
The city’s gem streets, Si Chan Road & the neighbouring Trok Kachang, draw traders from around the world. The town is still a world class centre for the heat treatment. Gems are imported form around the world, ‘cooked’ to improve clarity and therefore value and exported. This is now a billion dollar a year business and Chanthaburi is the place to go to pick up blue sapphires, rubies, emeralds and other gems at wholesale prices.
Take a walk down Gem Street and you’ll see dealers sitting down together at glass topped tables and gems are laid out for inspection, The buyer looking for flaws to justify a lower price, the seller accentuating the positives and aiming for the highest price. The trading is amicable and good humored as prices for grades of gems are well known in the community.
For newbies, it’s best to stick to one of the large gem superstores that have fixed price gems of varying quality that come with certificates of authentication. These huge emporiums also have free museums with displays of gems from all over the world.
The old town Chanthaboon Waterfront Community is located on Sukhapiban Road. It is easily accessible from the cathedral via a footbridge over the river.
Charming French-built shophouses and historic Thai-Chinese shrines lie alongside each other on this narrow alley alongside the Chanthaburi river. It is a very interesting area to wander through. Many of the heritage buildings have been re-fitted and renovated and made into small cafes and restaurants plus a couple of boutique guesthouses for people who want to stay in the area.
Crossing the footbridge from the cathedral to the southern end of Sukhapiban Rd, turn right and at house number 69, you’ll find the Community Learning Centre. A small museum which was established in 20010 by the community. It houses a collection of photos, artwork and details the history of specific houses and their owners. Spending some time at the museum will make your walk north along the street more interesting, as you’ll know what to look out for and the significance of architectural features on some buildings.
There is a lot of good printed material available in English, from walking route maps to a detailed architectural guide on the style of building and their significance. The aim is to get residents to keep the original facades of their 100+ year old houses and develop the area for visitors so they can get a glimpse into how a riverside town might have looked. But also be able to enjoy a cappuccino in a tastefully decorated, selfie friendly riverside coffee shop.
The old town area ends at the northern end of the walking street close to Wat Bot Muang. The temple’s golden chedi marks the end of the street. It’s also possible to take hour long boat tours along the river from this area.
Another of the landmarks that everyone stops to photograph is huge, old mural on the side of a house. It originally signposted the way to the Floridita Cafe, which has long gone. The mural was restored a few years ago.
One of the main highlights of Chanthaboon waterfront is the Baan Luangrajamaitri Historic Inn. The ground floor museum details the life of it’s original owner, Luang Rajamaitri, who was a benefactor of the local community over 150 years ago. Upstairs are ten colonial style guest rooms. Or if you’ve had enough of old buildings, you can grab an old fashioned ice cream at the nearby Rocket ice cream, easily identifiable by the large rocket logo. They specialise in retro Thai ice creams. It’s a step back into the 1950s.
Beaches near Chanthaburi
Chanthaburi isn’t the first place you think of when planning a beach holiday. But it does have a handful of long beaches which are within easy reach of the town. The beaches are all linked by a road that runs parallel to the coastline. It’s a very scenic drive and a great detour if you are driving between Bangkok to Koh Chang and aren’t in a hurry.
Unlike most areas of Thailand. Roads near the beaches also have red painted bike lanes. As cycling is a very popular activity for locals. The roads are in good condition, there’s not much traffic, there’s beautiful views and ample opportunities to stop at coffeeshops or restaurants for a break. Making it ideal for visiting by bike.
Whilst the views are scenic, the beaches aren’t in the same league as those on islands such as Koh Chang, Koh Kood or Koh Samet. Although they are much longer. And whilst there are resorts, the majority cater for weekending Thai visitors. But you will still see local life on the beaches.
The 9km long Laem Sing beach is the most easterly of the beaches. The eastern end is virtually undeveloped and home to numerous fisherman who have beachfront shacks and boats moored on the sand outside. The western end is more built up with several small resorts. Plus a large fishing community and two relics of the French occupation – the Red Building and Chicken Dung Prison.
Tuek Daeng (the Red building) is a former administrative centre for the French forces. It houses a small exhibition of photos and relics from the time. 5 minutes walk away, Khuk Khi Khai (Chicken Dung Prison) looks like a very short tower. It gets it’s name from the way prisoners were kept. They building has two floors. Prisoners were packed into the ground level. The ceiling was made form wire mesh. This allowed the shit from the chickens that lived on the second floor to fall onto the prisoners.
From Laem Sing a kilometre long bridge, with great views heads across the estuary at the mouth of the Chanthaburi river towards Chao Lao beach.
Chao Lao beach is the most developed in the area. There are numerous small seafood restaurants along it’s 7km length. But the majority of accommodation is clustered at the western end of the beach and spills over onto the neighbouring Laem Sadet beach. This is where you’ll find evocatively named resorts such as Maldives Beach Resort, St Tropez Resort, Blues River Resort and Sand Dunes Chaolao Beach Resort – which technically isn’t on Chao Lao beach and there aren’t any sand dunes. Away from the beach, one highlight is the Kung Kraben conservation area. Here there are free walkways through the mangroves with viewing towers and also a free aquarium with a selection of local marine life. Plus a Sea Farming Demonstration area that’s also free and more interesting that is sounds.
The road continues on around the shores of Kung Kraben bay which are lined with mangroves to the smaller Kung Wiman beach. Not a lot to see here, the main highlight is the Noen Nangphaya viewpoint which is the postcard view of the road hugging the shoreline which is used to promote the area. Stopping here for a selfie is a ritual for all Thai visitors. Nearby another popular spot for a photo is the Ban Hua Laem Chedi, an ancient white pagoda that is located on a rock in the middle of the sea. In the past this served to both guide fishermen and protect them whilst at sea.
If you have driven this far then it’s around 30 minutes further west to another excellent mangrove walkway located near the memorial for the HTMS Prasae. This is an old naval ship that visitors can look round. 5 minutes walk away is an excellent mangrove walk.
Where to Stay in Chanthaburi
As the town is a commercial centre, the top hotels catered more to gem dealers and Asian businessmen rather than tourists. There wasn’t a demand for any stylish or boutique resorts. Or homestays. Or backpacker dorms.
However that’s all changed. The old 1980s hotels in the city centre are still running. Kaesmsarn Hotel, 5 minutres from gem street was recently given a makeover which transformed it from dark and dingy to light, bright and welcoming. KP Grand Hotel on the other hand is still a reminder of bygone times. With interior decor that is very dated. Great location if you’re in town on business. But for tourists there are far nicer alternatives.
Manneechan Resort is another older property that was renovated. This lies just outside the city centre, which is accessible by free shuttle bus for guests. The main benefit are the huge landscaped gardens and pool. If you want the feel of staying in a resort in the countryside but to be only 5 minutes form the town centre it’s a good option. Although there’s nothing of interest nearby if you decide to take a walk out of the resort to look around the neighborhood of outside the resort.
For people who like to explore the city centre and old town on foot there are some good options. If you’re backpacking then the new Poonpun Poshtel offers dorm beds with shared bathrooms and also small, private ensuite rooms from around 300- 1,200 Baht/night. It is located in a tastefully renovated shophouse just 5 minutes walk from the cathedral. It’s is the type of hostel that wouldn’t look out of place in a hip, Chiang Mai neighbourhood.
A stone’s thrown from Gem Street is River View Guesthouse. This is another of the 1980s relics. But it is clean, cheap and the owners have a reputation for being very helpful. So if you just want a basic aircon room then you’ll find one here from around 500 Baht/night. Family rooms go for 1,000 – 1,200 Baht / night.
But the pick of the places to stay for people wanting to explore the old town Chanthaboon Riverside area is Baan Luang Rajamaitri Historic Inn. A boutique hotel with in-house museum. Where staff will explain the history of the house and area to you when you check in. The smart Colonial-era rooms go from 1,600 – 4,000 Baht / night.
One other hotel, just out of the centre that I’ll mention, The New Travel Lodge. Another older hotel that has been totally renovated. It’s where we often stay if we can’t get to Koh Chang the same evening. The reasons being : a good swimming pool and modern gym; they will always have a room available and, most importantly, a good restaurant – The pool Bistro’ with nice selection of craft beers. :-)
Down by the sea, on Laem Sing beach Nisasiri Boutique Resort is a popular spot for Thai visitors and so is usually quiet outside weekends and public holiday. This is close to the small village and local restaurants. Plus the French era buildings – the Red Building and Chicken Drop Prison – are within 5 minutes walk. It’s a good base if you want to explore the area by bicycle or scooter. It’s beachfront and also has a pool. Doubles from 1,200 Baht/night including breakfast.
On Chao Lao beach, Baan Vitamin Sea offers value for money at under 1,000 Baht / night for a bright, clean AC room right on the beach, There aren’t any real facilities as it;s aimed at Thai visitors who are driving and who have probably brought their own BBQ in the back of the pick up truck. Plus not much English spoke. But nice location.
At the other end of the scale, the pick of the beach resorts on Chao Lao beach is probably Sand Dunes Chaolao Beach Resort. A modern resort with two swimming pools. The well appointed rooms have all the comforts of home and floor to ceiling windows which provide awesome ocean views, Outside there are shops and restaurants within easy walking distance. Rooms from around 2,000 Baht/night which are as good as any 3 or 4 star beach resort elsewhere in Thailand.
Away from the beaches and around 10km from Chanthaburi is Durian Land. This is a fruit themed park with some accommodation. It’s only really suitable if you are visiting by car as it’s well away from shops and restaurants. But for fresh air and mountain views it can’t be beaten. Homely double rooms from just 1,100 Baht/night including breakfast.
Where to Eat in Chanthaburi?
Chanthaburi has a huge variety of food and also local variants of popular Thai dishes. Over the years recipes have been adapted and changed by the Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants who made their home in the province. Fruit features prominently and local chefs seem to enjoy experimenting and shoehorning various fruits into all types of dishes.
The best known restaurant in Chanthaburi is probably Chanthorn Pochana and this is also the best place to try some of these dishes. The restaurant was established almost 60 years ago and is still run by members of the same family, using the same family recipes. As an example of how common dishes are adapted, the province is famous for Durian. Therefore the local way to make massaman curry – which originates in the south of Thailand – is to substitute unripe durian for the more commonly used potato.
And certain dishes are only found in the Chanthaburi area, for example the restaurant’s signature dish, ‘Gaeng Moo Chamuang’. a type of stew made with pork belly, herbs and the sour leaves of the Chamuang (Garcinia Cowa) tree. And it is delicious. There are now two branches of this restaurant and for many Thai visitors a meal there is on their ‘must do’ list when visiting Chanthaburi. Order several dishes to share – the Thai way. This isn’t a ‘one plate dish’ restaurant. Dishes from 100 Baht and up.
Rock S’Presso and 100 Pans Pad Thai. Totally different places but they’re close to each other and also represent the old and the new in Chanthaburi. They are located on Thasing Rd. Under 5 minutes walk from the northern end of Chanthaboon Riverside. Just follow the road along the north side of the river (opposite the steps leading up to the golden chedi at Wat Bot Muang).
After about 400 metres you will come to the large, modern, glass fronted Rock’ S’Presso coffee shop. Excellent coffee, as so it should be as the huge machine they are using is one of only three in Thailand and cost over 1 million Baht. Plus a nice range of desserts and they also serve meals. Stop here for the aircon.
Then walk under 100 metres to the more old fashioned 100 Pans Pad Thai. There’s no sign in English but just look for the yellow sign by the roadside and you will also see a large covered seating area with wooden tables. They are famous for their Pad Thai which uses traditional Chanthaburi noodles. These are made from a mix of rice flour, tapioca flour and flour made from a root of a type of sweet potato. Prices from about 50 Baht, more for prawns, seafood variants. Only open mid morning to mid afternoon.
One place I like to take people is Chanthaburi’s ‘no plate’ pad krapow restaurant, Pum Kapoud Watjai. Pad Krapow (a spicy Thai basil leaf and meat dish, served on rice) is one of the staple foods in Thailand. If you aren’t sure what to have at any local restaurant you can always fall back on this.
The ‘no plate’ restaurant is an old wooden double shop unit, located roadside, 200 metres north of Blue Rabbit Resort, on the outskirts of the town centre. The interior is covered in various collectible figures, old posters and artifacts. Everywhere you look there’s something intriguing or fun. Such as the plastic squeaky chicken toy hanging from the ceiling. This is used to call for the bill.
As the name suggests, no plates are used in serving the food. Instead you get your food served in or on anything from a toy truck to a plant pot to a watering can to a woven basket to kitchen scales old rice cookers, upturned umbrellas etc. You never know what is going to be brought out of the kitchen. This makes for a very lighthearted atmosphere as diners watch to see what other tables are being given. And the food is great too. The menu, which is all in Thai, consists of staple Thai dishes with variations on Pad Krapow being most people’s choice. Dishes from 40 Baht and up.
To the south of Gem Street, not far from the large KP Grand Hotel, is one of the best Japanese restaurants I’ve been to – Dana Japanese Restaurant. Just a small place, located next to a branch of Siam Commercial Bank. It serves up great value sushi, sashimi and other Japanese dishes. A world away from the large chain Japanese restaurants. Always busy and you can watch your sashimi being prepared in the open kitchen. Dishes from around 150 Baht.
Smith Burger and Bear Cafe. Because sometimes it’s nice to have a taste of home. Simth Burger is located in the city centre on the main road to the south of the park. They offer a dozen different burgers, including vegetarian. Most have pork or beef options. All are made in-house and served up by very friendly staff. Try the ‘pad krapow burger’ if you want something spicy. Burgers from 100 – 200 Baht.
Out of the centre, just of Highway 3 in the vicinity of Makro and Homepro superstores is Bear Cafe. An unassuming small coffeeshop and restaurant with just a handful of tables that serves delicious slow cooked, fall off the bone BBQ pork ribs. Probably the best ribs I’ve had in this corner of Thailand. If you’re hungry order a full rack – and you’ll receive a metre long rack served on a wooden plank. The moist, succulent meat just falls off the bone. Ribs are served with a choice of three sauces, BBQ, Chili and pepper. Or you can mix and match and try all three on your rack. Other western dishes are on the menu but the ribs are the standout. Ribs from 300 Baht for half metre.
Getting to Chanthaburi
By car – The province is accessible by Highway 3 from Bangkok , Pattaya and the west of Thailand. Or if you are coming from the north Highway 317 leads down from Sakeo and the Cambodian border region. Highway No. 36 for 50 kilometres and Highway No. 3 for another 108 kilometres, a total distance of 248 kilometres.
By bus – From Bangkok Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekkamai) on Sukhumvit Road Air-conditioned Bus Transport Co., Ltd., there are buses leaving daily, for more details, Tel. 02 391 2504; Chanthaburi office, Tel. 0 3932 2197. Several private bus companies also run hourly services from Bangkok and Trat which stop at Chanthaburi bus station on the way.
By Minibus – Minibuses depart from Ekkamai bus station and Victory Monument in Bangkok. The van to Chanthaburi takes around three and a half to four hours, depending on the driver and traffic. The van stops in Chanthaburi just outside town at the Tesco Lotus. The vans also leave from the Tesco going to Victory Monument and Morchit bus station. Public minibuses from Pattaya depart from Central Pattaya Rd, 100m east of Foodland. 6:00-19:00 every hour.
More resources for Chanthaburi and surrounding area
Khao Khitchakut National Park – https://blog.takemetour.com/khao-khitchakut-national-park-chanthaburi/
Tourist attractions in Chanthaburi province – http://www.eculture.rbru.ac.th/index.php?group=12
More detailed Chanthabhuri province guide – https://www.travelfish.org/location/thailand/eastern_thailand/chanthaburi/chanthaburi
Video tour of popular attractions in Chanthaburi by travel blogger Steph Tayler – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1_0GOmr4E0