This Eastern part of Thailand is a good four-hour drive from Bangkok, and Chanthaburi is a true hidden gem – you’ll see virtually no Western faces here.
Our first stop was the Kung Krabean Royal Development Study Centre, an ecological project that is dedicated to understanding the ecology of the Thai coastline, helping make the community more sustainable.
Our tour saw us feeding sharks and turtles, making artificial seaweed for oysters to cling on to, and even scraping thousands of tiny fish eggs from crabs destined for the local markets – putting the eggs back into the ocean helps to boost the local crab population, providing a huge boost to the economy.
Continuing East, we enjoyed spectacular views over the Gulf of Thailand. Stopping to admire the view, we took the opportunity to shelter from the midday sun and enjoy an ice cream, and some dried durian chips.
The durian is BIG news in Thailand and you can find them everywhere – as fruit (of course), but also made into candy, ice cream, curry and pretty much anything you can imagine. Of course, in their raw form durian smell so bad that many public buildings have signs outside reading, “No durian allowed”. Once dried, though, they are tasty enough – a healthier version of our crisps, certainly!
From here, it was 30-minutes more to get to our lunch stop – J Pen Restaurant, home to some of the region’s most famous noodles.
Like many restaurants in Thailand, the kitchen here is pretty much on the street, with simple rows of tables behind. The specialty here is Yen Ta Fo, a spicy dish made with a red fermented bean curd that turns the noodles – and the soup they’re served in – a shocking, vivid pink.
Typically, yentafo would be served with seafood, and my companions tucked into bowls containing various tentacles and smooth, rectangular slices of coagulated blood. Because I’m a wuss (I admit it), I opted for a tofu version, with spicy noodles and morning glory, topped with deep fried tofu, crispy on the outside and meltingly soft in the middle.
Honestly, yentafo is probably an acquired taste, and this dish is probably the hottest thing I’ve EVER eaten – but the tofu was delicious, dunked into bowls of fresh chilli sauces, along with a steamed sour dough bread, and ice-cold pitchers of water.
As the afternoon sun cooled, we pulled into the old riverside community of Chanthaburi, a centuries old fishing town which provided refuge to Vietnamese and Chinese Christians fleeing persecution in their homelands, and was briefly a French colony.
The Old City of Chanthaburi is a sight to see – faded wooden buildings with wonky shutters crowd the narrow streets, lit by strings of lanterns overhead. The roads are rough and you quickly get the knack of stepping between potholes and dodging out of the way of locals on motorcycles. The pavement is often taken up by street food vendors selling fresh deep fried potato balls, rice crackers, grilled fish and bowls stacked with limes and chillies.
Our home for the night was the Rajamaitri Historical Inn, a 150-year old renovated house that used to belong to a local aristocrat. This Chanthaburi inn has just 12 rooms, each individually themed according to a figure from local history, with wide wooden floor planks, simple white walls and padlocks on the doors, in place of locks.
It’s ridiculously charming, and very comfortable – the hotel was given a UNESCO award for cultural heritage preservation.
We settled on the large, communal deck at the rear of the inn, overlooking the river, drinking fresh hibiscus juice and plotting our time in Chanthaburi. The perfect spot to pass some time reading, and chatting with our Thai hosts.
After a quick shower (only in Thailand does having three showers a day feel normal – the humidity is unlike anything I’ve experienced before) we set out through the narrow streets to explore. When the afternoon rains came, we dodged into a coffee shop for freshly brewed ice coffee and a typical Thai afternoon snack, bananas and chocolate on an enriched milk-soaked toast, sliced into tiny squares and eaten with miniature forks. Perfection.
After an afternoon exploring the area, we ate on the wooden deck at the riverside Tamajun restaurant – the food here served family style on long wooden tables, dimly lit by overhead lanterns suspended from a retractable ceiling – as the night wore on and became dryer, the roof was fully opened so we dined under the stars.
We feasted on Thai fishcakes, steamed rice, crispy fried chicken, pork curry and more. Every time I thought I was stuffed, another series of plates would arrive with frosty glasses of Singha beer, and you’d think, “Well, it would be rude not to at least try it…”
We skipped dessert in favour of a walk along the river, and stumbled on a local festival – the night we were in Chanthaburi marked the end of a month-long Vegetarian festival. Local people were celebrating with loi krathongs – small, intricately decorated baskets filled with flowers and candles, which are placed into the river, to float away.
Our guide told us that this represents sending a year’s worth of bad luck down the river. Watching hundreds of men, women and children, all dressed head to toe in white, setting afloat their offerings, which flowed down the river in a sea of candlelight, was nothing short of magical.
The next morning, we woke up early to cross the river and see the 100-year old street market in Chanthaburi. The market is small, but bustling. You can buy pretty much anything here – we saw fish and seafood and chicken, with every sort of vegetable, curry and fruit you can imagine (and many which I simply couldn’t identify). We sat on small seats in the middle of the market drinking Thai coffee, and I laughed myself silly watching the bloggers challenge eat other to eat ever hotter chillies at 8am, and trying not to cry!
We headed back to the inn for a quick breakfast of coffee and pathangko (fried bread dough served with chilli and sweet and sour sauce) before setting out to the Sen Chan noodle factory to see how noodles are made – it’s pretty amazing to see these noodles, made with nothing but rice and water, mixed, dried in the sun and sliced into noodle strips.
The tour helped us work up an appetite for our final foodie stop on the tour – the Chanthorn restaurant in Chanthaburi, famed for its Pad Thai.
The owner showed us how to make an authentic pad thai, complete with crispy fried crablets as a topping. It’s a simple recipe I can’t wait to duplicate at home (minus the crablets). We also learned how to make a delicious clear tom yum soup – this light, fresh soup took just minutes to make and was probably the best thing I tasted during my whole trip to Thailand.
The lesson was followed by yet another Thai feast, tables groaning with varieties of rice, curry, tofu, pad thai, seafood and vegetable dishes – all finished off with an amazing dessert of espresso granita served with coconut ice cream that I’m determined to try and recreate at home.
I’d like to express my huge thanks to the Tourism Authority of Thailand for sharing this beautiful part of their country with us, and hosting us bloggers in such fascinating and characterful accommodations. My trip through Rayong and Chanthaburi might have been short, but there are many years worth of memories – and recipes – that I’ve brought home with me.