I watched from the roof balcony of Baan Luang Rajamaitri Historic Inn as rain softly pelted the murky waters of Chanthaburi River below. I was planning on a quick nap before exploring the narrow streets of this riverside town but sleep has abandoned me after having a quick glimpse of the area. It excited me. In my mind’s eye, I was seeing a quainter version of Georgetown or perhaps Melaka’s Jonker Walk in Malaysia, sans the throngs of tourists and shops.
|TYPICAL ARCHITECTURE AT CHANTHABOON’S OLD TOWN|
Dusk was almost upon Chanthaboon, a century-old riverside town in the district of Chanthaburi, when I finally decided to go out. It was still slightly drizzling but I wanted to see it before evening fully descends. I leisurely walked from our hotel, tracing the kilometer-long, twelve-foot wide Sukhaphiban Road, dodging incoming motorbikes and cars that take up almost the whole width of the street.
|THE OLD-WORLD PATINA OF CHANTHABOON|
I was fascinated. Chanthaburi may be the only place in Thailand that has been colonized by the French, and indeed it shows on its architecture. Houses with wood-shuttered windows, its walls peeling with paint, line the narrow street. A few has been converted into hotels, some into restaurants, but still, it held its charm.
|A CHINESE SHRINE|
I turned a bend and found a Chinese shrine, the CHAO MAE KUAN IM SHRINE [GPS MAP 12.612660, 102.113296], sitting above a set of concrete stairs. I followed the river and crossed the bridge, another Chinese temple, the WAT CHAN THANARAM [GPS MAP 12.613275, 102.115779]. Chinese immigrants have been in this part of Thailand for centuries now.
|CHECKING OUT, WAT BOT MUANG, A BUDDHIST TEMPLE IN CHANTHABOON|
I moved farther and saw another one, a Buddhist temple this time, WAT BOT MUANG [GPS MAP 12.613922, 102.112995], complete with a golden pagoda set in the middle of two ornate structures. A remnant of the country’s Ayutthaya Period. A group of snarling dogs greeted me as I entered its gate, which were quickly told off by a saffron-robed monk. I smiled at him, he smiled back, I am loving Chanthaboon with each step I took.
|VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL AT WAT KHETNA BOONYARAM IN CHANTHABOON|
Looping back, I spied an alley filled by locals on foot to another temple—WAT KHETNA BOONYARAM [GPS MAP 12.610197, 102.113816]—its gracious curving roof warmly lit against the electric blues of the early evening. On its grounds, locals garbed in white shirts and pants were praying towards a serene-faced Buddha sitting inside its gilded hall.
|I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THESE ARE!|
Outside, the whole grounds were surrounded by stalls selling all sorts of street food; noodles, sweets, rice meals and a plethora of colorful skewered stuff, most of which were alien to me. Apparently, the Chinese community in Chanthaboon were celebrating the last day of the VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL, which is held every October. I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon it.
|DINNER AT TAMAJUN RESTAURANT|
As darkness fully enveloped the town, I met my TBEX Asia companions at one of the riverside restaurants, TAMAJUN [248 SUKHAPIBAN RD., WAT MAI, CHANTHABURI DISTRICT, CHANTHABURI | 039-311-977 | TAMAJUNHOTEL@GMAIL.COM | GPS MAP 12.612239, 102.113856]. The place, dimly lit by stylized lights revealed an ornately and tastefully decorated interior. We seated ourselves on its riverside balcony and watched as plate after plate of Thai dishes crowded our long table.
|MY FAVORITE, FISH CAKE!|
|CRISPY FRIED PORK KNUCKLES|
With glasses of Singha beer and big bowls of Chanthaburi’s signature fried rice, we feasted on crisply fried chicken, soft fish cakes, beef, chamuang pork curry, and surprisingly, crackling crispy pork knuckles—something every Filipinos are more familiar with as crispy pata. I noticed that most of the dishes are fried but that’s not a bad thing; everyone agreed it was one of the best meals we’ve had so far, and I totally agree.
|VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL CULMINATION AT CHANTHABURI RIVER|
|PARADE ALONG THE OLD TOWN OF CHANTHABOON|
From where I was sitting, I saw lights glimmering at an area beyond the bridge. I asked our guide from the Tourism Authority of Thailand and was told that the local Chinese community are setting loi krathongs right by the river as part of their festival’s culmination.
|OFFERING PRAYERS BEFORE FLOATING A KRATHONG|
Wasting no time, we set forth towards the Wat Chan Thanaram temple and watched as the faithful near the river’s edge carefully held krathongs—decorated baskets set with flowers and candles—over their heads, said their solemn prayers and set down the lighted candles floating down the river with their dreams, aspirations and wishes. It was my first time to witness such practice amongst the Thai people and it felt both very solemn and magical.
|RICE PORRIDGE BREAKFAST AT BAAN LUANG CHAMAITRI|
A beautiful day greeted us the next morning. After a quick breakfast of porridge and pathongko or deep-fried dough at the hotel, we immediately set forth on a mini-walking tour of Chanthaboon, the streets were still deserted as we entered CHANTHABOON LEARNING CENTRE [GPS MAP 12.608892, 102.115779], a gallery of sorts housed inside a century-old edifice.
|OLD PHOTOGRAPHS AT THE CHANTHABOON LEARNING CENTRE|
|CHANTHABOON ARCHITECTURAL DRAWINGS|
Inside, photographs—both new and old—of the city and its people line the floors and walls of the museum. I relaxed on the overgrown backyard garden as my companions went up the wooden second floor where more photos and architectural sketches were on display.
|THE LARGEST CATHOLIC CATHEDRAL IN THAILAND|
We were soon walking again, our destination, the largest Catholic Church in Thailand. The CATHEDRAL OF IMMACULATE CONCEPCION [GPS MAP 12.609167, 102.118489] in Chanthaburi is built in 1906 by Vietnamese immigrants who crossed over to Thailand 300 years ago due to religious persecution.
|THE CEILING IS DESIGNED TO REPRESENT AN INVERTED HULL OF A SHIP|
The cathedral is Neo-Gothic in style and rises to a lofty height of 20 meters. It’s is so high that its twin spires were temporarily brought down during the Franco-Thai War in the 1940’s due to its conspicuousness to enemy forces.
|MADE FROM GEMS AND KILOS OF SILVER|
Besides its flawless construction, one of the things that draw people to this structure is the image of the Immaculate Conception that stands on the right side of the church altar. The statue’s veil is made from kilos of silver, gold and more than 20,000 karats of gems, magnifying Chanthaburi’s status as the center of gems and jewelry trade in Thailand
|A CENTURY-OLD HOUSE IN CHANTHABOON|
|ALL MADE FROM IRON WOOD|
The area surrounding the cathedral is beset by houses made in the ginger bread style quite common during the late 1800’s in Thailand. We were taking pictures of one in particular [GPS MAP 12.609091, 102.117805] with a symmetrical facade when the owner opened its tracery-filled gate to invite us in for a closer look.
|THE WIFE OF THE OWNER, SORTING NEWSPAPERS AND LETTERS BY THE STAIRWELL|
The whole structure is made from iron wood and was very well made, in fact, the floors don’t even creak when we walk on it, and we were quite a big group. I can tell the owner is very proud of his 150-year old house, with all its surface wood-stained and polished to perfection.
|HUNDRED-YEAR OLD MARKET IN CHANTHABOON|
|PORK KNUCKLES, ANYONE?|
|DELECTABLE MORNING TREATS|
Before going back, we decided to drop by the HUNDRED YEAR-OLD MARKETPLACE [CHANTHANIMIT 1 COR. CHATHANIMIT 2, WAT MAI, CHANTHABURI | GPS MAP 12.609321, 102.119624] to have tea and coffee. It is pretty small for a marketplace but I was astounded by its age. There were already a lot of locals buying fresh produce when we arrived, but we were more interested with the street food being sold there than anything else. With cups of coffee and Thai tea in hand, we munched on local sweets and delicacies.
|SORTING NOODLES INTO GROUPS FOR PACKING|
|TURNING SHEETS INTO ITS FINAL FORM|
|NOODLES READY FOR DRYING|
Back on the van again with our bags in tow, we bade our fare thee well to the town of Chanthaboon. En route to lunch, we quickly dropped by the SEN CHAN NOODLE FACTORY [2/3 THACHALAB RD., TALAD, CHANTHABURI | 087-723-55-99] and checked out how Thailand’s staple food is made; quite interesting especially since we were able to bring home packs of pad thai packs to cook back home.
|LUNCH AT THE STYLISH CHANTHORN RESTAURANT|
|LET’S COOK PAD THAI|
|PAD THAI WITH CRISPY CRABLETS FOR TOPPINGS!|
CHANTHORN RESTAURANT [1102 / 5-8 ROAD BENJAMARACHUTIT. CHANTHABURI | 039-312-339 | GPS MAP 12.597517, 102.112525] was our last destination before going back to Bangkok. If our previous stop was all about making noodles, this one was all about using that noodles to make, what else, but pad thai! This restaurant is quite famous for this dish and we get to witness firsthand as its owner demonstrated how they make this popular Thai dish. I was surprised when they put in the final toppings; crispy crablets!
And you can probably guess what happened next, another Thai food fest ensued.
|MY FAVORITE COCONUT ICE CREAM!|
As we were having our desserts—my favorite coconut ice cream, no less—I was asked by one of my companions about my impressions of Chanthaburi. I can only burp in contentment. I love the old-world ambience of this town and its mix of Chinese, Vietnamese and French culture. Its relative proximity to another of my favorite city in South East Asia, Siem Reap, makes it another hidden gem that I would love to revisit one day.
BIG THANKS TO THE TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND FOR THE INVITE AT TBEX ASIA 2015