Chanthaburi – Off the Beaten Path In Thailand’s Gem City

Chanthaburi is a province in the east of Thailand that is an easy 4 hour drive (245 kilometers) from Bangkok. It’s most famous for its gems and its fruit (especially durian). As the Gulf of Thailand runs along its border and the Chanthaburi River runs through it, Chanthaburi also offers some amazing seafood (especially oysters and crab).

I had the good fortune to be invited to join a few other bloggers for a sponsored trip by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). I felt very lucky for the opportunity, and the more I read about it the foodie in me got very excited!

Though Chanthaburi is a favorite destination for Thai tourists it’s not well known to foreign tourists and is rarely visited. Hoping to get some exposure, TAT put together a fantastic 2 1/2 day itinerary. I’m happy to share my experience with you so that you might be inspired to travel to this gem of a city!

Day 1 – Enjoying the Sea and Seafood!

Locks of love…

Chanthaburi, Thailand

We left Bangkok at around 8:00 am so that we’d arrive in Chanthaburi around lunchtime. The schedule for the first day seemed to focus on the sea and seafood which of course I was really excited about. Our first stop was along the famous scenic route along Kungwiman winding next to the Gulf of Thailand.

Noen Nang Phaya Scenic Point Chanthaburi
A poem about a lover’s forever promise…

The stop is called Noen Nang Phaya Scenic Point. One popular activity at the here is to demonstrate your commitment to your sweetie by affixing a lock to the fence.

Noen Nang Phaya Scenic Point Chanthaburi

This is a very popular stop for all the Thai tourist buses. The views are beautiful, and the locks are interesting. But if you see hordes of Thai tourists all wearing the same colored shirts pouring out of buses I’d advise waiting until they clear out (about 15 minutes). Move on to the nearby fishing village and come back after!

Fishing village

On the road in front of the scenic point they have motorcycle taxies with covered sidecars. These taxies will provide quick transportation downhill to the small fishing village for a very reasonable 10 baht.

Fishing Village Chanthaburi Thailand

On the pier of the fishing village you can watch the families sorting through the day’s catch, and folding/repairing the nets. They’re used to tourists taking pictures, but stay out of their way. This is their livelihood and some of their catch can bite!

Fishing Village Chanthaburi Thailand
Yes, these are baby sharks.

If you’re a fan of dried fish or squid you’ll be pleased to find that there are also a few vendors offering snacks!

An old Chedi…

Chedi Ban Hua Laem Chanthaburi Thailand
Chedi Ban Hua Laem

Next to the fishing village is a mini stupa perched on a rock in the middle of the water. Chedi Ban Hua Laem has been protecting fisherman for more than 200 years.

Chedi Ban Hua Laem Chanthaburi Thailand

As the chedi is out in the middle of the water you can’t access it. You can get a close view from land by walking along a wooden pier that terminates at a small alter. This is where fisherman pray and make offerings.

Peggy’s Cove – Chanthaburi food with a Nova Scotia vibe?

Peggy's Cove Chanthaburi Thailand

Near the fishing village is a boutique luxury beachfront resort called Peggy’s Cove. It looks normal from the beach but a little out of place for Thailand as the architecture is inspired by village of Peggy’s Cove in Novia Scotia.

Peggy's Cove Chanthaburi Thailand

The resort rooms are located in pastel colored bungalows with wooden bridge pathways winding over pools of water.

Chanthaburi Noodles
Chanthaburi Noodles with Soft Shelled Crab

We ate lunch in a room filled with pictures of Peggy’s Cove (the one in Nova Scotia) looking out over the beach and the Gulf of Thailand. For a moment it almost felt like I was no longer in Thailand. But don’t let the ambience fool you. The menu is all Thai food, and they specialize in unique Chanthaburi dishes.

This was where I received my introduction to Chanthaburi noodles with soft shelled crab. Don’t let the red sauce fool you. This dish is NOT spicy! Rather it’s a bit tangy from the tamarind.

 A lesson in marine conservation…

Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Center
Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Center

One of the things that Chanthaburi is very famous for is its blue swimmer crabs. Because of their popularity, there was a time of concern that these crabs would be severely depleted from Kung Krabean Bay due to overfishing. Thankfully, with the marine conservation efforts of the Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Center in concert with local fishermen these tasty crustaceans thrive in the local waters.

Chanthaburi Thailand
A crab and her 700,000 potential babies…

During the briefing we received about blue swimmer crab conservation we were told that on average the female blue swimmer crabs in the bay had between 300-700K eggs in a spongy mass located on their lower abdomen.

The center has an agreement with local fisherman that if they catch female crabs with the eggs then the fishermen would save those eggs. The center collects the eggs from the fishermen, allows the embryos to hatch, and then releases them in the bay after 9 pm so that they have a better chance of survival against predators.

But crabs are not the only thing the center studies…

Hand feeding sharks?

Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Center
Raymond from Man on the Lam enters the feeding arena…

The center also studies sea turtles, sharks, and other large fish. You can get buckets of small fish to feed them. If you’re daring you can even feed the nurse sharks by hand.

Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Center
Raymond counts his fingers after…

Nurse sharks are not aggressive (though you should still be cautious as they may not know the difference between a fish and your fingers!). If you’re a shark nut you can also feed bull sharks and blacktip sharks. Not by hand, of course. These breeds are known to be aggressive.

tip: Try to go early in the morning. If you go later in the afternoon then The sharks are not as hungry (after being fed by busloads of Thai tourists).

 The BIGGEST oysters I’ve ever had!

Chanthaburi Oyster
Monster oysters!

Chanthaburi is famous for its oysters. They’re especially well known for their large oysters. We went to Paa Louise Lung Thom Homestay to meet the Thom family and see their oyster farm operation.

We took a 20 minute boat ride to get to “Uncle” Thom’s floating oyster farm.

The farm itself is raft made of bamboo poles with garlands of string with oysters attached draped over each pole.  The oysters reach maturity after about 9 months. It takes 3 years to grow them to the monster size that Chanthaburi is famous for.

Uncle Thom showcases the monster mollusks!

Seeing these monster mollusks pulled from the water made me confident that we were about to eat some seriously large and seriously fresh oysters.

3 year oysters with Thai condiments

When we arrived to the home stay of Lung and Uncle Thom we were greeted with large serving trays of huge oysters along with all the condiments. We ate it “Thai style”.

Giant oysters “Thai style”!

Instead of lemon or vinaigrette sauce, the oysters are served with young tamarind leaves, spicy fish sauce, sweet chili paste, fried shallots, garlic cloves, and for the bold, fiery small chili peppers.

This was my favorite event of the trip. What can I say? I like oysters. If you’re a fan of oysters you really should try to get to Paa Louise Lung Thom Homestay.

TIP: At the bottom of this article are recommendations For Tour companies that can coordinate a visit!

Day 2 – Precious gems and some foodie gems!

A historical riverside stroll…

Chantaboon Waterfront (Wat Bot Muang in background)

For over 300 years the Chanthaboon Riverside Community has been an active settlement alongside a 1 km stretch of the Chanthaburi River. At one time it was considered the Chinatown of Chanthaburi. However the community is a melting pot of Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese influences.

Now called Sukhaphiban Road, it is lined with old wooden housing that’s influenced by Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and even Portuguese architecture.

Lining the street are shop houses that have been operating for generations, boutique hotels, mini-shrines, and funky street art to rival Penang’s offerings. Many of the shop houses offer opportunities for you to do more than just make a purchase.

Learn to polish gems…

As an example, House No. 19 sells polished gems. But for those interested in getting some instruction, you can learn to polish and keep your own gems.

The process is actually pretty simple. Lightly apply the gem which is affixed to a metal rod to the spinning polishing wheel. The most important lesson to learn from this experience is that you should NOT press the gem to the spinning wheel too firmly. Pressing the gem on the wheel too hard will launch the gem and rod across the room. True story.

Learning to cook madeleines…

Many may not realize this but at one time France occupied the Chanthaburi area. Though the occupation was short lived, one thing the French left was an appreciation for madeleines. Rimnam Chanthaboon Madeleine has been making madeleines in the same location for generations.

Making madeleines!

They have 2 ovens that churn out these little egg cakes full time. For a real treat, you can even try your hand at making them. The recipe is simple: egg, flour, sugar, and water. But it’s so amazing how delicious these simple treats are when they’re fresh from the oven!

Thailand’s largest cathedral!

Cathedral Chanthaburi
Mary Immaculate Conception Cathedral

For over 300 years Chanthaburi has had a presence of Catholic faithful. The Catholic community began when a small group of Vietnamese people fled religious persecution form Indochina around 1700 A.D.. The Mary Immaculate Conception Cathedral that stands today is the 5th church construction to service the worshipping needs of the Chanthaburi community. It is also the largest cathedral in Thailand!

The new cathedral was consecrated and dedicated January 10, 1909 though it took an additional 25 years to complete the installation of the ceiling, of all the stained glass, and 3 large bells.

Blessed Mary with a lot of bling!

One highlight of the cathedral tour was the statue of the Virgin Mary. This statue is made with over 60 kg of silver and thousands of small sapphires (after all Chanthaburi is famous for its gems!). It’s so glittery and gorgeous that it’s hard to to focus on!

The world’s largest gem market…

A gem buyer…

It’s hard to believe but Chanthaburi is actually one of the largest markets for precious gems in the world. Near the Chanthaboon waterfront community is a small area of crisscrossing streets in which gem dealers rent simple tables in the hopes of buying gems. They write in Thai the types of gems they’re interested in buying, tape that to the table front, then wait for folks to come with their gem offerings.

A gem buyer…
Tip: For the best action don’t come early! Come around lunchtime. That’s when the sun is at it’s peak and the natural light conditions are best for viewing the quality of gemstones!
Bring a wallet!

What struck me as a bit unusual was just how many non-Thai gem dealers there were in the market. Many of the dealers are from Africa or the Middle East. The reason for this is that Chanthaburi is actually a major hub for gem trading as 80% of the world’s precious gems are brought here for firing, cutting, and polishing. If you’re in the market for gems here’s where you want to bring your wallet!

The Gem and Jewelry Center

Learning about gems…

For a real education in gems, the Chanthaburi Gem and Jewelry Center offers a museum that explains the history of Chanthaburi’s popularity for gems, the origin of various precious gems, and an opportunity to purchase gems and jewelry.

Beautiful!

Their displays of raw gems and intricately carved gems are amazing.

There are ample options for shopping.

TIP: One thing that is very popular to shop for and very inexpensive here is the Chanthaburi Yellow Sapphire.

 Chanthorn Restaurant – A foodie gem!

The best meal experience I had during the tour was at the Chanthorn Restaurant. For over 56 years this family run restaurant has been serving famous Chanthaburi dishes to locals and tourists alike.

Massama Curry with Durian

One of the most popular ingredients in their dishes is durian. Now I know that many have very strong reactions to this fruit. I’m not a fan of the fruit myself (though I can tolerate it). However, trying this Massama Curry with Durian (instead of potatoes) was a game changing experience for me.

The durian no longer tastes like durian. It actually tastes almost like a sweet potato. Even if you’re not a fan of durian I highly recommend you try this dish!

Som Tum Durian!

I’m always happy to discover a new Som Tum salad (like the Som Tum Melon I found in Nakhon Phanom). As Chanthaburi is famous for it’s durian it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of their specialty dishes is Som Tom Durian. They use fresh young slivers of durian. Since it’s not very ripe there’s practically no pungent durian “smell”. The texture is slightly crunchy…like a soft almond. The salad is tangy and sweet and I highly recommend this dish!

Thai pork curry with Garcinia Cowa leaves
Thai pork curry with Garcinia Cowa leaves

Another local specialty, Thai Pork Curry with Chamuang (Garcinia Cowa) Leaves, is a must try dish. The pork is super tender, the curry has a flavor similar to BBQ sauce (sweet, tangy, with just a bit of vinegar). The leaves are slightly herbal and tender and add an extra depth of flavor to the dish!

Plenty of seating…

I highly recommend a visit to Chanthorn Restaurant during your visit to Chanthaburi!

More food…

Talat Tub Mor

After lunch we headed to a small community market called Talat Tub Mor. This themed market is a throwback to the days of long ago. In fact, “Talat Tub Mor” is literally translated to “destroyed cooking pots“. It’s based on the historical event where King Taksin was quoted as telling his men to destroy all of their cooking pots as their next meal would be in a conquered Chanthaburi.

The market is filled with vendors making simple snacks. Most of the folks here are locals with their families but tourists are welcomed with curiosity and warm enthusiasm. There are little sitting tables for folks to lounge about sampling the various market treats.

Wat Phlap

Wat Phlap

Directly next to the market is Wat Phlap. This 261 year old temple was patronized by King Taksin when he planned the attack and capture of Chanthaburi.

It’s an active temple that’s well maintained, beautiful, and historically significant for the area. Make sure to check it out and walk off some of those market eats!

Mining for gems!

The abyss…

For the adventurous treasure seeker who doesn’t mind getting their hands (and feet, and legs) dirty, Indy Stone Jewelery (บ่อพลอยเหล็กเพชร) offers an opportunity to mine for gems.

Unlike other mining operations that use heavy machinery that can cause a lot of environmental damage, here mining is done by hand. That means climbing down a rickety bamboo ladder to stand in muddy water and shovel mud and rock into a bucket. The buckets are then lifted out of the pit for sifting.

There are two methods for sifting through the rock and mud buckets. The old school method is to wade into a muddy waist high pool of water with a bamboo mesh sifting pan and swirl it around the water. The modern method (preferred) is to dump it all into a metal mesh pan and hose it down with loads of water until you’re left with only tiny pebbles that can be sorted through for gems.

The Lekpetch Family

The Lekpetch family have been running the mine for 4 generations. Visitors that try their hand in mining are able to keep 1 gem that they find (don’t expect to find a Hope Diamond). If you’re not happy with what you find they have a small store with gems mined from the site. You’re sure to not leave empty hand!

tip: you can clean up there after mining, but bring a change of clothes!

Day 3 – A final day of foodie fun!

Learning to cook Chanthaburi dishes…

Many chefs in the kitchen…Richard Barrow, AmiJan, Tim McMahon, Chef, Andrew Chen, and myself!

We started our final day learning how to cook 3 uniquely Chanthaburi food dishes a the Maneechan Resort. The above picture is a dish called Phla Pla, a spicy raw fish salad.

We also cooked Saen Chan Phat Goong (Phad Thai Chanthaburi style) and Khao Khluk Phrik Kluea (a salty and spicy fried rice with seafood). If interested in learning to cook Chanthaburi dishes the Maneechan Resort offers sessions (booked in advance).

Let’s eat some “monkey penis”!

Delicious “monkey penis”…

Our final stop was a visit to Khanom Plaek Market at Nong Bua Walking Street. The name “Khanom Plaek” is literally translated as “weird snacks”. With vendors selling things like “monkey penis” and “buffalo vagina” it’s no wonder!

Handmade “monkey penis”!

As it intriguing as it was to try “monkey penis“, I was pretty relieved to learn that no monkeys were harmed in the making of this snack. This snack is made with rolled rice flour and sweet potato that is rolled, boiled, then dipped in sugar and shredded coconut. These young gals have been making the snack from their family home front for generations. To give you an idea how long their family has been making this dish, the house is 120 years old!

The market is a fun walk. There’s interesting food everywhere you look. The vendors are very friendly, and happy to joke about with customers. They’re especially jovial when customers are shocked by the names of the snacks!

Similar to the Chanthaboon Riverside Community, this area has received an artistic flair. Many of the walls along the market walk have been painted with beautiful murals ranging from hip to traditional. So you’ll find that a visit to this market is both a feast for the eyes and the belly!

I like this itinerary! Who can help?

I was very fortunate because TAT put together the itinerary and then had an English speaking guide and driver take us about. Unless you’re a fluent Thai speaker with your own car, some of these places will be tough for you to coordinate a visit. But don’t despair! Here’s some resources that I would recommend you investigate if you’d like to have a guided experience for the activities I’ve written about.

  • To use the guide that we had on this visit, contact Auttapol Pongsawat with Oh Lan La Travel . He can tailor an itinerary to your liking.
  • CBT Travel offers guided tours for many of the activities described in this article, plus 2 and 3 day full itineraries. They seem worth checking out for pricing.
  • With the cooperation of Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Local Alike offers a 2 day/1 night itinerary that is very similar to much of the itinerary described in this article. They also offer a day trip which includes round trip transportation from Bangkok to the Chanthanburi Riverside Community and gem market for $118 per person (includes lunch at Chanthorn Restaurant).

This was just a taste!

Chanthaburi Monkey Penis
Just a taste!

Though the itinerary covered a lot of ground it really was just a taste of what Chanthaburi has to offer to those who visit. I hope to visit again soon to further explore the Chanthaboon Riverside Community, especially all of the wonderful family run foodie places I saw.

If this article inspires you to visit Chanthaburi, please leave a comment about any places that you find there that you feel are worth others (myself included) to check out!

2 Replies to “Chanthaburi – Off the Beaten Path In Thailand’s Gem City”

  1. Nice article! You definitely peaked our interest. Our favorite spot we’ve visited so far that doesn’t seem to be well-known outside of Thai tourists is Nakhon Nayok for white water rafting and a visit to the very impressive dam. We had a late lunch at a really great restaurant where you actually sit on tables in the river while you eat! Keep up the good work.
    -World Soul Tour

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.