A few months ago, I wrote a blog about my first ever visit to Chantaburi province. That was a staff weekend trip organised by my wife's company so we were pretty much confined to our beach resort accommodation for the duration. We only had time to explore a short stretch of Chantaburi's coastline. But we loved what we saw.
I'd never seen an area of Thailand so green, so well looked after and so free of litter. Chantaburi was a province that its locals were clearly proud of. We promised ourselves there and then that we would return on our own - just us, the car and the open road - at the very first opportunity.
With the daytime temperatures cooling down by a few degrees, we decided on a long weekend in November. Let's do Chantaburi!
Most of the accommodation along Chantaburi's coastline and even inland, is of the Thai 'resort' type. Often a purpose-built complex of rustic bungalows or basic hotel style rooms, resorts can be jam-packed at weekends and like ghost towns during the week. Thai weekenders will arrive en masse - often on a company coach outing - and check in on Friday nights or Saturday morning and then leave on Sunday afternoon. I've stayed in a number of these Thai-style resorts - some offer good value for money; others can feel tired and neglected.
My wife and I fancied doing things in a little more style this time and opted for three nights at probably one of the best hotels in the area - the Jantraburee Boutique Hotel. Sitting on the edge of a natural lake and a couple of kilometres from the popular Chao Lao beach, the hotel has everything you could ask for. The staff are well-trained and efficient. The in-house Moon Restaurant serves up some amazing seafood dishes (the 'pla sam rot' was the best I'd ever tasted) And who wouldn't want to wake up each morning to those stunning views of the lake and to perhaps take a stroll along the jetty in the early morning sun, before tucking into one of the hotel's hearty American breakfasts?
This of course is one of the big advantages of having a Thai partner. My wife spends hours trawling threads on Thailand travel forums (the ones written by Thais and for Thais) and there are numerous accommodation gems that your average foreigner never gets to hear about.
The hotel only has a dozen or so rooms but still offers several types of accommodation. We decided to sample the very basic room with lake view (1,850 baht per night including breakfast) and then for our third and final night, we opted for one of the rooftop suites (3,999 baht per night including breakfast) The suite turned out to be twice the money and ten times the quality! We fell in love with it the moment we walked through the door.
You get a beautifully furnished bedroom on one level but climb the spiral staircase and you are standing on your very own rooftop terrace complete with hot tub and breakfast area. As part of the room package, the staff will serve breakfast on your private terrace at a pre-arranged time. All you have to do is butter your toast, sit back and take in the view. This is definitely how the other half live.
I'm not saying for a moment that The Jantraburee Hotel discourages foreigners from staying there (I wouldn't dare) but surprisingly, none of their website is in English and the hotel doesn't feature on any of the major hotel booking websites. Is this a little corner of paradise that the Thais want to keep for themselves? We eavesdropped on conversations going on around us in the restaurant and there was much talk of business trips to Japan and the hassles of applying for visas to holiday in Europe. The Jantraburee obviously attracted a loyal, middle-class Thai guest - and all couples with no children I noticed.
Chantaburi's old town
Top of our list of things to see and do in the province was Chantaburi old town - a 30-minute drive from our hotel and part of the main town itself. The old town is basically one street that runs alongside the river and consists of eclectic boutiques, handicraft shops, an excellent community museum and visitor's centre and numerous cafes and coffee shops. You can easily spend 2-3 hours meandering from one end of the street to the other and to use a well-worn travel cliche - it really is like taking a step back in time. Among the retail hubbub, there are still houses that you can glimpse inside and see families living just as they've done for generations.
However, what shocked and saddened me in equal measure was just how quiet the area was. Even on a Saturday afternoon, there were very few people about. In fact we returned to the old town on Sunday as well and it was even more peaceful. I'd have thought this was the kind of 'tourist attraction' that Thai weekenders would lap up in their droves, but clearly not the case.
Chantaburi folk have a reputation of being some of the friendliest in the country. I wouldn't disagree. We chatted at length with several of the business owners on the street and they all bemoaned the fact that there seemed to be little business about. I noticed that several shops were closed and shuttered. If they can't make money at the weekend, what chance have they got the rest of the time?
And that's why I implore you to go and see the old town while you have the chance. Could this be yet another example of an ambitious project destined for failure? I seriously wonder if the old town can last forever - certainly in its current format. But while the old town is alive and kicking (just about), let's focus on the positives.
Old town attractions
Most visitors to the old town start at the Roman Catholic church at the Eastern end. I'm not a particularly religious man, but I do love strolling around beautiful churches and Chantaburi's Roman Catholic church - the largest in Thailand - is certainly beautiful. There are not that many man-made structures in Thailand with a real wow factor but I got just as big a buzz from standing and gazing up at that magnificent building as I got from standing in St Peter's Square. This was the Chantaburi wonder I had most come to see - and it didn't disappoint.
After taking the usual photographs outside, we made our way to the side-entrance to see if we could have a look inside the church itself. A notice-board saying that people could not enter the church in shorts immediately put a damper on the afternoon. I expect that at a Thai temple, but a Roman Catholic church?
It was then that The Lord took pity on me as I stood there looking rather downcast. A very friendly church curator, possibly a Filipino, made a beeline for me and told me I was more than welcome to come inside. My respectable knee-length khaki shorts had obviously passed the modesty test. The curator directed my wife towards a rummage-box of sarongs and once she had made herself decent, we walked around the inner sanctum. And it was truly magnificent.
A gem not to be missed
One of Chantaburi Province's main businesses is the trading of gemstones, and in Chantaburi Town most of the buying and selling activity goes on in an area just a short walk from the Catholic church. Don't miss it! One moment you're making your peace with God and the next minute, you feel like you've stepped into The Wild West. The atmosphere is just electric. Buyers and sellers of all nationalities (Indian, Brazilian, European, you name it) are there trying to get the best prices on rubies and sapphires.
The lucky traders get to sit in air-conditioned offices with day-lamps and state-of-the-art weighing equipment. But for most traders, their 'office' is a trestle table on the footpath. Business on the street. This is what we'd come to see. I couldn't get enough of it, possibly because I spent a couple of years in the gemstone business many moons ago and yes, the passion still burns.
As I walked around the gemstone market, I noticed many traders eyeing me up with perhaps a degree of suspicion. Is he a buyer? What's he looking for? I've got some lovely fake emeralds he might be interested in? And yet in thirty minutes, we were approached by just one solitary Thai gentleman who casually asked if we were interested in buying stones. I smiled and shook my head and he was gone. Perhaps we really did just look like tourists.
Plenty for foodies
One of the major plusses of walking around a tourist attraction in Thailand is that there is never a shortage of street-food, snacks and gooey desserts to cram inside your belly - and Chantaburi's old town has got foodies well covered. If you do the walk from the 'church end' to the other end of the old town, you can reward yourself with a 'Rocket' ice cream. Several vendors sell this traditional Thai ice-cream-on-a-stick that has been around for over half a century. 20 baht very well spent!
But don't miss out on the opportunity to sample some of the fantastic bakeries and coffee shops along the way. One particular cafe - Sweet @ Moon - was doing a roaring trade on both days we were there. One glance at the menu and it was not difficult to see why. My wife opted for the chocolate lava cake with a dollop of ice cream and I went for a banana crepe smothered in chocolate sauce. Washed down with yoghurt smoothies, it was Heaven on a plate.
To be honest, I could have sampled everything on the menu if I wasn't such a conscientious calorie-counter. Anyway, pick out your desserts, order at the counter, select a comfy seat next to the river - I can't think of a better way to spend an hour.
What else to see?
I suppose I'm very lucky to be married to a Thai travel enthusiast. If we take a holiday in Europe, the organisation and planning generally rests on my shoulders but for short breaks in Thailand, my wife is the one in the driving seat. Browse in any Thai bookshop and you'll see that Thais (or Thai language readers) have access to an incredible range of guide-books. Thoroughly researched, these guide-books will often focus on one particular area or province of Thailand and make all sorts of great travel recommendations - many of them well off the beaten track.
My wife has a whole library of such reading material. So whenever we go away for a few days, I just settle into the passenger seat and leave the itinerary in her very capable hands.
Here are four other places that we visited during our time in Chantaburi Province
From the outside at least, the Kung Kraben Aquarium at Laem Sadet Beach looks nothing special. It stands there rather like a faceless government office where you'd go and get your work permit sorted, but step inside and you're up close and personal with a fantastic world of sea-life. Apart from the species of fish swimming around in tanks, there's the usual underwater tunnel that features in most aquariums of any note. But when you consider that there is no admission charge to walk around, you appreciate the displays even more. I gladly put a couple of hundred baht in the donation box on the way out and was pleased to see that most other visitors had done the same.
The aquarium is possibly the only thing to see in that area though. Laem Sadet beach is nowhere near as pretty as Chao Lao. There's a straggly line of food vendors and fruit sellers on the fringe between road and beach if you find yourself feeling peckish and also one of the most depressing OTOP shops I've ever been in. There was more empty shelf space than goods for sale. Little wonder both of the shop assistants were fast asleep. We tip-toed once around the shop for fearing of waking them up before making a hasty exit.
The chicken shit prison
We would never have found out about the 'chicken shit prison' (Khuk Khi Kai) without one of those brilliant Thai guidebooks - and even with my sat nav playing a blinder, we still ended up asking a local for directions.
The Khuk Khi Kai, near Laem Sing beach, was built to hold Thais who were against the French occupation of Chanthaburi in 1893. It's only a small building and I'm not sure how many prisoners were squeezed into it, but story goes that as a punishment, The French would let chickens roam around on a mesh floor high above the cell and in turn shit on the poor souls down below. It can't have been a pleasant experience at all.
The prison and small surrounding garden are both immaculately kept and once again, admission is free. The prison won't detain you for more than half an hour but it's well worth a look. Definitely one of the province's quirkier diversions.
The red building
Just a five-minute walk from the chicken shit prison is Tuek Daeng (The Red Building). Built by the French Army, this long, single-story structure served as military headquarters during the French occupation and is well over a hundred years old.
What a shame that those responsible for keeping the prison in such pristine condition don't also have the task of looking after The Red Building - because the place is literally falling apart. The wood is badly damaged in many sections and paint is flaking off all over the shop. It was incredibly sad to see such an important slice of history falling into rack and ruin. It should have been a living, breathing museum with French military clothing in glass showcases and the sounds of battle playing through tinny speakers. Instead, I peeked through a gap in the filthy net curtains and all I could see was a pile of old paint-tins and what looked like a dead rat.
Undoubtedly one of the main attractions in the province is the Phliu Waterfall, which is part of the Namtok Phliu National Park. I'm not sure why but I always seem to pick the worst possible day to visit a waterfall and I should have known that on a Sunday at the start of the cool season, there were sure to be plenty of day-trippers in attendance. But the falls were pleasant enough even if at times it took all my willpower to block out the whooping and selfies.
One of the reasons that Phliu Waterfall is so popular is down to its accessibility. There are no five-mile hikes through jungle terrain to end up at something which is no more than just an ambitious stream. Stick your car in the car-park and it's just a leisurely stroll up the hill to the falls.
On the way up, you'll see many vendors selling bundles of green string beans. This all becomes apparent once you arrive at the main attraction. The lower waters and rock pools are absolutely teeming with fish - and oh boy do they ever love green beans! Throw a few beans in the water and there's a fish fight to end all fish fights. Dangle your feet in the water and you'll get the cheapest fish spa in town.
On a final note, the Phliu Waterfall unfortunately has one of those disagreeable double-pricing systems - 40 baht for Thais and 200 baht for foreigners. If you're one of those folks who are prone to throwing a hissy fit when having to pony up five times more for the entrance free than a local, you might want to give the falls and its bean-scoffing fish a wide berth.
Chantaburi Province is a delightful area to visit. It's scenic without being touristy and when it comes to Thailand being promoted as 'The Land of Smiles' it's nice to see some locals who clearly got the memo. There are plenty of things to see and do and enough activities to easily fill up a four-day break. But I would say without hesitation that you will enjoy things a lot more if you have your own wheels.