Chanthaburi is all too often overlooked as a tourist destination. Located to the East of Pattaya on the way to Koh Chang, the only reason most foreign tourists visit is as a stop-over because they missed the last boat to Koh Chang. This is a huge mistake. Chanthaburi is an undiscovered gem (quite literally) and one of my favourite places in Thailand.
Historic Town Centre
Chanthaburi is well known to Thai people both as a holiday destination and a commercial (but not industrial) centre. This is a wealthy town built on fruit farming and semi-precious gems. This wealth is reflected in the diverse and beautiful architecture of the town centre. The centre piece of the town is the large Catholic Cathedral – arguably the most impressive in Thailand – serving a well-established Christian community in Chanthaburi. It is well worth a visit inside the Cathedral which features a statue of the Virgin Mary, reputedly adorned with over a quarter of a million gem stones. Surrounding the cathedral are fantastic wooden town houses dating back several hundred years and in immaculate condition.
Gem Street Market
The town also has a beautiful Buddhist temple by a river with an old bridge over it. Nearby to the temple is the famous gem ‘Gem Street Market’ (Si Chan Road) where semi-precious gems are traded out of old wooden Chinese style shop houses on winding narrow streets. It gets busy here at the weekends with buyers coming from India, China and Vietnam to make high value deals on bulk purchases of gems.
For the non-professional gem buyer, we suggest a visit to Ploy Chan gem centre. They have a free museum with displays of gems from all over the world with useful boards explaining the name and origin of each type of gem stone. There is an interesting section relating to the history of Chanthaburi and the mining of rubies and sapphires which used to be found in abundance in the province and are still mined there, largely by hand, today. Ploy Chan also has a small gem fair inside the building with well organised market counters with jewellery and unset gem stones from the region – no fakes here and the prices, whilst fair, reflect that assurance of authenticity. I bought my wife her birthday present here, a red garnet stone set with a gold clasp to wear on a chain. It cost 10,000 THB (about £200 or $300) and I felt it represented good value for money, as did our local friends who were showing us around Chanthaburi that day.
Farm Poo Nim
Farm Poo Nim is a very well-known restaurant in Thailand, less so amongst foreign travellers in Thailand, and is considered the focal point of the region’s culinary scene. The restaurant is on an estuary set amongst mangrove trees. You will need your own transport to get there as it is about a 20-minute drive outside town. Mention the name to any taxi driver and they will know exactly where you want to go.
We suggest a day time visit to enjoy the scenery. The only way to get there is from a small pier on the restaurant’s free shuttle boat. The journey there takes about 10 minutes across a lake-like expanse. The water is full of disused plastic bottles connected by string. This is not rubbish in the water; the bottles are connected to more string used to cultivate shell fish. Some areas have nets connected to largely plastic containers floating the in the water where fish and other seafood is farmed.
Farm Poo Nim sits idyllically on wooden stilts at the water’s edge. Don’t be put off by the ramshackle look of the restaurant with its old mismatched wooden planks and corrugated iron roof – there is some serious world class food prepared here and its popular with up to 200 people dining at any one time (all Thai, I saw not one foreigner there).
The menu is almost exclusively farmed fish and crustaceans from the estuary. The main draw is the ‘Poo Nim’ which is soft shelled crab. The crabs which the restaurant farms shed their hard shells every 28 days on a cycle leaving thin cellulose like covering over their bodies which means you can eat the meat without the fiddly business of breaking the shells open. The signature dish is Poo Nim Phad Gratiem Phrik Thai (soft shelled crab fried with garlic and pepper) and in my opinion a dish to rival anything you would find in a Michelin starred restaurant – simple, fresh and cooked to perfection. Please no one tell Rick Stein about it – he will make a TV programme about it and it will be ruined by the influx of Western tourists.
Farm Poo Nim isn’t cheap by Thai standards. Dishes cost 300 THB to 500 THB ($10 to $16 or £6 to £10) each depending on what you have. No wine on sale here but plenty of cold beer. There were around 10 of us dining and the bill came to around 7,500 (£150 or $250) for a 3 hour banquet which, on both food and location, I count as one of the best dining experiences I have ever had and worth the trip to Chanthaburi in its own right.
Fruit Farming in Chanthaburi
A lot of people choose to come to Chanthaburi, as we did, in June because this is when the fruit comes into season. Chanthaburi is famous in Thailand as a fruit growing centre and this is where most of Thailand’s export produce is farmed. The main crops are durian, rambutan, mangosteen and longon. The abundance of fruit is staggering – at this time of year the trees are literally pregnant with ripe fruit. We were invited to a friend’s small orchard to pick fruit as she literally has more than she knew what to do with. We packed several boxes to take to my wife’s home in Isan, which was the next stop on our trip.
Fruit growing is big business here. In June the major roads around Chanthaburi town are lined with trucks of varying size queuing to take fruit to the warehouses which are the staging posts for the international export business. Smaller growers simply pull up on the side of the road and sell directly to other small buyers that come from all over Thailand (particularly Bangkok) to fill a pickup truck with fruit to sell in markets and shops. Literally fruit everywhere and the air is filled with the sweet smell of ripened durian.
Hotels in Chanthaburi
The town’s wealth, and position as a commercial centre and up market Thai tourist destination, is also reflected in the quality of its hotels. The ‘place to stay’ in Chanthaburi is the Four Star Maneechan Resort. It is a very nice resort and excellent value for money. When we visited in June the hotel put on a special menu with each of the dishes using seasonal fruits such as mangosteen, longon and rambutan – an unusual choice of ingredient for savoury dishes but I felt they pulled it off very well.
The Maneechan Resort is a kilometre or so outside of town in a nice rural location. It is very popular with the better off locals who come to use the restaurant and the excellent sports facilities. This is in fact more of a country club than a hotel (although they cater well for the occasional tourists who stumble upon it) and the atmosphere is very friendly and relaxed.
The other two good hotels to stay in Chanthaburi are located in the town: KP Grand Hotel and the Kasemsarn Hotel. Both offer good standard rooms catering for the numerous well to do business travellers who come through Chanthaburi to buy fruit and gems. Good, solid, comfortable choices if you are just passing through or you want to stay for a couple of days as you are walking distance from the historic town centre.