If you ask overseas tourists what places spring to mind when they think about eastern Thailand and they’ll probably answer Pattaya, Ko Samet and Ko Chang. These destinations are all good choices for a break by the seaside, but Thailand’s eastern provinces have so much more to offer. Whether you’re looking for adventure, culture or heritage, the east of Thailand has something for everybody.
Phra Chudathut Palace on Ko Si Chang, Chanthaburi morning market, kayaking in Trat province
Many overseas tourists whizz through Chanthaburi in their haste to reach Ko Chang or Cambodia. Not many take time to stop here and that’s a shame because charming Chanthaburi is one of the most underrated provinces in Thailand.
The city of Chanthaburi is home to what is often described as the most beautiful church in Thailand. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception makes for a prominent landmark and is just a short stroll away from the historic and atmospheric Chantaboon Riverside Community. The name Chanthaburi translates as the ‘Moon City’ and in Thai culture the rabbit is associated with the moon. Rabbit symbols abound in the central part of the city appearing on walls and street signs. The Chanthaburi street signs also reveal another of the province’s claims to fame; fruit. Chantaburi is known as the ‘orchard of Thailand’ for the wide-range of fruits grown here and this is honoured every year in May with the Chanthaburi Fruit Festival.
For visitors looking for a beach break away from Thailand’s busier resorts, the Chanthaburi coastline is home to some lovely laid-back beaches. You won’t find picture-postcard images of white sand framed by turquoise seas, but you will find almost no foreign tourists, friendly locals and superb seafood. Check out the beaches at Laem Singh and Chao Lao with the latter also close to the interesting Khung Kraben Bay nature trail with elevated wooden walkways over the mangroves. And if you have your own transport, the ‘Nern Nang Phraya‘ route south of Highway 3399 provides gorgeous views as the road winds around the Chanthaburi coastline.
Undoubtedly the most famous location in Chonburi amongst Thai and overseas tourists is Pattaya. The beach resort tends to be a love it or hate it destination, but there is far more to Pattaya than nightlife and far more to Chonburi than Pattaya. For a quiet seaside break, diminutive Ko Si Chang is a delight. Easy to reach from either Bangkok or Pattaya, the island may lack stunning beaches, but it has a local feel, royal connections and makes for a very pleasant few days of relaxation.
Chonburi province is home to some of the best golf courses in Thailand with world-class facilities. Amongst the best are Burapha Golf Club which has hosted the Thailand Open and the challenging Laem Chabang International Country Club designed by Jack Nicklaus.
Chonburi festivals and events
Like many places in Thailand, the Songkran New Year Water Festival is noisily celebrated in Chonburi. But the province also hosts the unique Wan Lai Festival in April which sees elaborate sand sculptures created on the beach at Bang Saen. Other notable dates for the diary in Chonburi are the Buffalo Racing Festival in October/November and various events in Pattaya including the International Music Festival which is usually held in March and the International Firework Festival in November.
Proximity to Bangkok makes the beaches of Rayong province a popular choice for Bangkok residents at weekends and public holidays. The attractive island of Ko Samet is the biggest draw in Rayong province for foreign tourists with some lovely white sand beaches, a good choice of accommodation and excellent seafood.
Rayong is famous in Thailand for its association with the Thai poet, Sunthorn Plu (1786-1855). Images from his poems are dotted around Rayong province and he is commemorated annually with Sunthorn Phu Day held on his birthday on June 26.
Beyond the beaches, Rayong is working hard to develop eco-tourism. Take a trip to Pak Nam Prasae to see the ‘golden field’ of mangroves known locally as ‘Tung Prong Thong’. Visitors can walk along an elevated wooden pathway through the mangroves with their distinctive yellow hue. Night-time boat tours to see the fireflies are also available at Pak Nam Prasae.
The east of Thailand is proud of its association with King Taksin the Great (reign: 1768-1782). As part of his military campaign following the fall of Ayutthaya to the Burmese in 1767, the man who would become the ‘King of Thonburi’ travelled to Chonburi, Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat where he rallied support. He would ultimately lead armies to recapture Ayutthaya and unite Siam before establishing a new capital on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River in what is now part of Bangkok. Monuments in honour of King Taksin the Great can be found in various locations around east Thailand.
For a small province, Trat sure packs a lot in. With more than 40 islands, the Ko Chang archipelago is the star attraction. The tropical islands are stunning, but the soft-sand beaches are by no means the only reason to visit Ko Chang and Trat. More adventurous travellers should stop off in Trat city and pay a visit to the excellent Ban Nam Chiao Community. Go diving for long-tongue crabs, explore the mangrove forests, try your hand at making a palm-leaf hat and stay overnight at a village homestay.
If you adore seafood, you’ll love Trat. Giant prawns, lobsters, crabs and various varieties of fish are lovingly cooked in restaurants all around Trat province. If you are in Ko Chang it’s worth seeking venues that are popular with Thais. Sample lunch at Salek Phet Seafood in a scenic and rustic setting on the south of the island. And don’t miss dinner at the outstanding Phu Talay restaurant on the west coast with sublime sunset views over the Klong Phrao estuary.
fresh crabs in Trat
sunset views over the Klong Phrao estuary, Ko Chang, Trat province
If you over-indulge in the seafood, there are few better ways to work off the calories than taking a kayak ride through the mangrove forests. With sea eagles circling overhead and little sound to be heard apart from bird-song and the splash of oars in the water, it’s a wonderful way to spend an hour and will only cost around 100 Baht for the privilege. Various companies offer kayaking in Trat province. I recently used Salak Khok Tour Club on Ko Chang which is part of a recognised community based tourism project and highly recommended.
kayaking in Ko Chang
Many tourists travel overland to Trat province and then on to Cambodia using the Hat Lek/Cham Yeam border crossing. Visas on arrival are available for many nationalities, but there is also a very efficient e-visa available in advance online. Unfortunately, there are a number of scam sites offering Cambodian e-visas. Please be careful to only use the official Cambodian government site.
Bangkok Airways fly direct to Trat (1 hour) from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport with onward connections via van and boat to Ko Chang and neighbouring islands. Most buses to Thailand’s eastern provinces depart from Bangkok’s Ekamai bus terminal although there are also a number of services from the Northern Bus terminal at Mo Chit and some services from the Pubic Transportation Centre at Suvarnabhumi airport. A limited train service runs from Bangkok Hualamphong train station to Nakhon Nayok and on to Aranyaprathet close to the Cambodian border, but for most of the destinations suggested here, taking a bus will be a much easier and quicker option. If travelling by bus, it’s better to use the regulated government bus services from the main Ekamai and Mo Chit bus terminals.