Every year, the Japanese company that my wife works for organizes a ‘Mayday weekend trip' and despite the fact that it's never ever held on May 1st (it usually takes place in June or July) the format is always the same. It's basically a weekend jolly for staff from several departments to bond with each other and do the three things that Thais always enjoy doing - namely eating, drinking and gossiping about the staff who aren't there.
Because my wife holds a relatively senior position in the general affairs department, the company very kindly invites me to ‘tag along' as the token foreigner. Apart from the fact that it's always nice to get away for the weekend, it provides me with a great opportunity to practice my Thai language skills, given that the majority of the Thai staff are very poor in English.
The Mayday weekend is usually held at a Thai-style beach resort or perhaps a log cabin complex in the middle of a national park. Anywhere will do as long as there is some nice scenery and enough activities to keep folks occupied for 36 hours or more.
Staff have two options to get to the destination - they can either take their own car (which gives them a greater degree of flexibility) or they can hop aboard a chartered company bus.
I've just returned from my sixth annual Mayday outing. For the first couple of years, my wife and I ‘slummed it' and took the company bus, and while that option obviously appeals to those who don't own a car, the waiting around for latecomers and the ear-splitting karaoke videos does tend to wear a bit thin.
So now we do as most of the management staff do and take our own vehicle. This means we can arrive at the resort ‘fashionably late' and be totally in control of things when it's time to head back home to Bangkok.
I look forward to these company weekends. Although I'm not a company employee, over the years I've grown very fond of the staff who I see every twelve months on the Mayday jolly and at other events throughout the year such as weddings and birthday parties, etc.
This year, the venue was the excellent Cabana Chao Lao Resort in Chantaburi Province. It was the perfect place for Thai staff to escape to and really let their hair down.
Once everyone had arrived and been assigned their rooms, it was straight down to the sandy beach for some boisterous team games. There then followed snacks and beers at the open-air bar, with a gorgeous, late afternoon breeze blowing in from the ocean.
When darkness fell around 6pm, it was time for the main event - a buffet dinner followed by some live entertainment provided by local singers. And I'll say one thing about these weekends - someone does a fine job of making sure that the free beer and wine flow all evening. Thai companies never come up short in that department.
Sunday morning saw small groups of bleary-eyed and hungover friends, shuffling down for a late breakfast before taking a final stroll along the beach and packing bags in readiness for the journey home.
A fantastic time was had by all.
However; my main purpose for writing this blog is to ask one simple question - why oh why had no one ever told me to visit Chantaburi Province before? Admittedly I was only there for one night and a couple of half days, but by jove, did I love what I saw, even for such a brief period.
The only time I'd ever been to Chantaburi Province was over twenty years ago, when an Indian friend (a gemstone dealer by profession) took me down there to see one of the famous open-air gemstone markets. And although it was an interesting experience at the time, walking around on a muddy scrap of land, gawping at gemstone stalls, was still the only image that came to mind whenever Chantaburi was mentioned to me - until last weekend of course, when I came away with a completely different point of view.
If I only need one reason to feel ashamed at never going to Chantaburi since then, then let's start with the fact that it's just a leisurely four-hour drive from Bangkok. OK, it took us five and a half hours to get there last weekend but I'm going to blame all that on my smartphone sat nav. Chantaburi aficionados have already assured me that the journey can be done in easily four hours from Bangkok.
As you drive down from Bangkok on the main highway, you eventually see the exit signs for Pattaya and Rayong. - neither of which need any introduction. Is that why I saw so few people down in Chantaburi - the lure of Pattaya and Rayong are just too much? But ignore the road-signs, keep on going, and in no time at all, you hit mountains and greenery that follow you all the way down to the Chantaburi coastline.
I'm not going to turn this into an extended travel review because one weekend doesn't qualify me as an expert but here are the points that made the trip so memorable
The scenery was breath-taking, especially along the Chantaburi coast itself. For many years, I've considered the mountainous region around Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand as the place to visit for scenery. Chantaburi Province was on a par with that. I can give it no greater accolade or recommendation.
The whole area was spotlessly clean. I hardly saw a scrap of litter. And anyone who has travelled around Thailand knows the heartbreak of driving along a country road with views to die for, only to turn a corner and glimpse some unofficial dumping ground with the garbage piled six feet high.
I don't know who's in charge of keeping Chantaburi Province clean and tidy, but I certainly salute them here.
While we're on the subject of tidiness, how refreshing it was to see an area mercifully free of those awful advertising hoardings for hotels, new condominium developments and seafood restaurants, etc that blight the landscape of so many other regions (yes, Cha'am and Hua Hin, I'm talking about you)
Cyclists will be pleased to hear that Chantaburi is ideal for them as well. Long stretches of coastal road have clearly-marked cycle lanes and on Sunday morning, we passed many cycling clubs making the most of the perfect conditions for biking. I've never wanted to abandon the car and hop on two wheels quite as much as I did last Sunday.
Finally, Chantaburi Province isn't known as ‘The Garden of Thailand' for nothing. Everywhere you go, there are fruit-stalls selling durian, mangosteen, sala and longans - straight from the farm. No one drives back to Bangkok without stopping off to fill at least a couple of carrier bags to the brim with luscious fruits. And with mangosteens and longans at a hundred baht for three kilos, who can blame them?
I can't wait to get back to Chantaburi. But hopefully next time for a longer stay because I felt we only scratched the surface of this beautiful province. I'm looking forward to seeing so much more.
I'll see you down there!