The Gems of Eastern Thailand
Allan Wilson is one of the six winners of the 3rd TAT Newsroom Blogger Thailand competition, and this article is based on his experience during the winners' trip in May 2018.
Until recently we had only really experienced Eastern Thailand on passing, as we hopped on busses leaving Bangkok, en route to the coastal beaches and nearby islands of the Gulf of Thailand. But with our latest visit we were set to explore the more local attractions through the three provinces of Rayong, Chanthaburi, and Trat, and in many ways we were filling the blanks of past travels through local immersion and hands-on workshops. And what we found was a rather exciting mix of homestays, local trades, crafts, cultures, and communities. Yet we still made time to explore the inland mangroves, the coastal scenery and pokey seaside villages, and of course the fantastic seafood fare famous for Eastern Thailand. It is definitely one of the more diverse and interesting regions of Thailand to explore.

Travel in Eastern Thailand
I would forever recommend visiting Eastern Thailand on a road trip, as many attractions are off-the-beaten track, and yet it is still possible to drive onto the island archipelagos via the car ferry to Ko Chang (120 Baht each way + 80 Baht Per Passenger). It is really only a 2-3 hour drive from Bangkok Airport as well (car hire comparison in Bangkok here) before reaching the nearer coastlines of Rayong province. Or, alternatively, starting out from the opposite end at Trat airport will avoid the traffic and stress of leaving Thailand’s busy capital city (which to be fair is still rather stress-free and easy) where car hire starts at around 1000 Baht per day. Otherwise Eastern Thailand is well-connected from both sides, with quiet roads, and is just a pleasant road trip to navigate at all times of the year. But for me the fun was always pulling up at remote mangroves, seaside towns, and lonely beaches, which can be found dotted throughout this relatively untouched region of Thailand.


An Easy Independent Itinerary
As many of the below attractions will be off-the-beaten-track, and not everyone has access to or the will to drive in Thailand, I have put together a simpler itinerary for Eastern Thailand. And itinerary which can easily be covered without the need for personal transport (because the full list would otherwise be near impossible). As the 3 provincial cities, of Rayong, Chanthaburi, and Trat, can all be easily reached through public transport, as well as the coastlines and main ports to the nearby islands. Where busses leave regularly from Bangkok’s Eastern ‘Ekamai’ bus Terminal. Anyway, were I to choose just 3 destinations, I would likely start nearby at the coastal regions of Rayong (the Ban Phe Pier area) for some seafood and coastal seaside scenes. I would then travel up to the charming and quaint riverside and walking street area of Chanthaburi’s city centre. Then, to add in an island retreat, it would undoubtedly be Ko Kood (Trat) which is my favourite of all Thai islands to date.

When to visit? Durian Season
The perfect time to visit Eastern Thailand, at least for me, is during Durian Season (April – July), as the region really is a mecca for the renowned ‘stinky fruit’. Where Chanthaburi alone is responsible for producing half of Thailand’s durian fruits, and also hosts the annual World Durian Festival in early May. And for those who have no idea what durian is, the video below shows us picking up randomly 17kg of the ‘stinky fruit’ on an earlier road trip through Chanthaburi. Before opening and eating them at our base in rural Isan. Otherwise, I would happily visit Eastern Thailand at any time of the year, as seasons really don’t differ from elsewhere in Thailand, and I see it as a year-round destination.

Rayong Province

Fresh Fruit Farms


These fruit farms of course tie in with Durian season, although they are year-round attractions as well, where fruit buffets are found through the various fruit seasons of the year. And these seasons would typically include the more prominent Thai fruits like Mango, Salacca (snake fruit), Mangosteen, Rambutan, Lamyai (Longan), Dragon Fruit and Longkong. Among other fruits (a short description of the weirder fruits here). So any time is worth a visit. But our latest visit (late May) was during durian season, when we called in at one of the larger farms (Supphathra Land) for an all-you-can-eat durian buffet. But there are otherwise varied interests on these fruit farms, such as Som Tam stalls (papaya salad), rubber tree plants, as well as a honey producing demonstrations and bee hives. Again, tying in to the local trades and produce of the Eastern Thailand region. Plus they’re really not far from Bangkok either, as many are found within an hour or so of the city traffic.

Seafood at Ban Pae


In the past I have been to Ban Pae around 5 times, I guess, and then double that for the return journeys. As this simple seaside spot is better known for its pier, and as being the jumping off point for boats travelling to the nearby island of Ko Samet. However, my own interest these days is more for the shoreline, as Ban Pae and Rayong are otherwise famous throughout Thailand for their fresh seafood. I.e. “Rayong has the best seafood in Thailand”. And it is where most regional fishing boats land their catches. So dotted along these coastlines are many seafood restaurants, with scenic sea views, and what is likely some of the freshest seafood Thailand has to offer. And I remember last time looking out to the sea at night, to find a surreal green glow lighting up the distant horizon. Which apparently comes from the squidders (squid fishing boats) which would plough along the nearby seas at night. Anyway, it’s a bit like a seafood paradise.

Ko Samet Island
The journey from Bangkok to Ko Samet (via Ban Pae Pier) can be done in as little as 4-hours (although normally more is needed) which makes this island the perfect getaway for short breaks and long weekends out of Bangkok. And it is typically the students and more youthful workers of the city to make the excursion, meaning the island does take on a bit of a party atmosphere in parts, with late night restaurants, bars, and various night life, which often continue through to the early hours. And this would mostly be found around the “Silver Sands” beach area. However, the island is relatively large in size, meaning there are quieter beaches elsewhere to escape to, if you prefer. For example Ao Prao, or Ao Noi Na beaches, which would be more peaceful and secluded getaways on the island. Check here for our bit on Ko Samet Island.

Chanthaburi Province

Chao Lao Beach
An alternative option for a beach break is Chao Lao Beach in Chanthaburi, which, like most beaches on this coastline, goes overlooked by the traditional tourist trails to the nearby islands. Which of course works to its advantage, as the coastlines here remain serene and unspoilt, and instead of touristic nuisances and crowded beaches, we found soft sand beaches, with a laid-back seaside vibe (we were at the Sand Dunes Resort during our stay). So Chao Lao Beach would be one of the better areas for comfortable seafront accommodation (full list of Chao Lao hotels here) and it also makes the ideal base for visiting the nearby coastal attractions, such as the signposted “Scenic Route” past the Noen Nangphaya Viewpoint, as well as the nearby Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Centre which is involved in marine life study and preservation.

Marine Life Conservation Centre


To give its real name, the Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Centre, is a marine life conservation centre which allows visitors to take part in the various conservation and study efforts in the surrounding mangroves and coastlines. And the centre is kind of found on a stretching promenade and pier on a coastal lake, where it houses and studies some of the more exciting sea creatures, such massive groupers, and (friendly) sharks. And it is possible to even feed the sharks here by hand, only they were no longer hungry during our visit, having already been fed by the earlier visitors to the centre (it maybe best to arrive early). But again it ties in many of the local trades and resources of the region, with workshops involving blue crabs, which are found on almost every menu on this coastline, as well making ‘oyster houses’ by squeezing blobs of cement onto pieces strings. It’s educational, I guess, and interesting enough.

Chanthaburi: The City of Gems


It is rare hat I am surprised in travel these days, in Thailand, but the Gem Street area of Chanthaburi was really unexpected. As I had no idea something like this actually existed, where the street is lined with gems dealers mostly of foreign origin, like Arabs, and Africans, and just a whole load of people that you don’t expect to be there. As, apparently, Chanthaburi is Thailand’s hub for the gem trade, and throughout the central riverside areas are workshops where you can see how the various gems are treated and polished. Not to mention the massive museum and mall on the further outskirts. And there’s no hard-sell either, as buyers instead take a chair and table on ‘Gem Street”, where they slap on a sign showing the gems they wish to purchase, and the dealers then come to them. So it is the perfect place to experience and learn about the gem trade, without being pressured and intimidated to get involved. Anyway, it was in all an interesting and unexpected attraction to come across.

Chanthaboon Waterfront Community


And again I am surprised, as we turn off Chanthaburi’s Gem Street, and onto the riverside walking street known as the Chanthaboon Waterfront Community. Which feels to me like one of those domestic attractions, popular among local Thai crowds, with a laid-back and somewhat quirky and hip atmosphere. The street itself lined with graffiti, regional snack shops, hip hangouts, and yet there’s still plenty of rustic charm in the old wooden shophouses which run parallel to the nearby riverside. It really is a gem in itself. And I would give this area a weekend alone. Then, directly opposite, and crossing a footbridge, is the “Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception” towering over the passing river. Which again is another unexpected attraction, along with the somewhat European styles found through French and Vietnamese influences in the city, as well as a similar flare in design often found during the reign of Rama 5 (I think. My history is rusty at best). 

Fresh Oyster Farms


Tying in the local trades of this coastline, again, as well as our earlier workshop to make oyster houses at the Marine Life Conservation Centre, we then visited one of a handful of fresh oyster farms at Pa Louise Lung Thom Homestay. Although, to be honest, seafood, and more so oysters, have never really been my thing (I like pork and beer). So I was obviously a bit apprehensive when it came to eating these massive, three-year old oysters, given they were triple the size of my last experience with Galway Oysters in Ireland. But I gave it a go anyway, and they proved tastier than expected, with the Thai twist of lime juice, chillies, garlic and fried shallots. Although the texture was still as weird as I expected. They really are an acquired eat. Anyway, these oyster farms are found just off the coast, in a quiet estuary leading to the coastline, where it is actually possible to stay overnight as a homestay on the stilted wooden farms. With all-you-can-eat oysters.

Trat Province

Mangroves at Ban Tha Ranae


We have now been through umpteen mangroves in eastern Thailand (more than anywhere else) including Rayong, but also Ko Chang where we had a free evening firefly tour included at the hotel (AANA Resort Klong Prao). But again this experience was different to any we’ve seen before. For a start, we planted mud clams for breeding, and played “mangrove bowling” with a weird ball-shaped fruit against skittles. But we also disembarked inside the forest, to literally balance along the roots of the trees, to find what was just a rather surreal, enchanting even, landscape where the sun splits through the trees of the mangroves above (although this maybe seasonal with rainy season etc).  Also, as a bit of a bird nerd, I was loving the unusual birds that we passed through the mangrove waterways, including two kingfishers which swooped between perches on each side of the forests. Overall it is just a really serene and surreal experience in these parts of Eastern Thailand.

Trat City Attractions


To make the most of Trat, the obvious provincial capital of the province, we called in at the Trat museum, found in the former town hall which is relatively central to everything going on in the town (although there really isn’t a whole lot going on). But the museum again ties in much of the historical relevance of the region, from the times of Chinese traders, to the more recent occupation by the French and the World War Two Battle of Ko Chang. In fact Trat and Chanthaburi were both at times under French occupation, before Thailand gave up a massive chunk of Cambodia to take them back. Hence the French/Vietnamese influences. Anyway, it is a good way to kill an hour or so. We also called in at the Wat Buppharam temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Trat province. Otherwise the town was more of a base for travel to the wider Trat province. 

Ban Huai Raeng Community


I really struggled for excitement with this excursion, when the highlight of the attraction appeared to be making “Mangosteen Soap”. And it is in no doubt a great place to visit for a love of arts and crafts, but also a worthwhile stop even if not. Although the highlight for me was likely the boat ride through the waterways of surrounding mangroves, as we collected baby nipa palms and other local resources, to use in the workshops. And it shows just how local communities can live off local resources, and the land, no matter how unlikely they are. For example, we were using dried layers of mangrove leaves to roll and smoke tobacco, even though I don’t normally smoke. It was just more fun than I had originally anticipated. And this may be partly due to my love of anything food, as we used local palm plants, and betel leaves, etc. to make various drinks, snacks, foods, and desserts. And of course mangosteen soap. But the overall intrigue I feel was in the interactions with these far-flung rural folk of Eastern Thailand.

Red Hawk Restaurants
Throughout these road trips we were eating rather fantastic food. At the same time I am not one to share individual restaurants simply because there are just too many to choose from. Plus we all like different things. But if I am ever to share restaurants, they must be truly unique experiences, which is what we found at the red hawk restaurants of Trat (in this chase Khon Plat Thin Restaurant). Where we dine in traditional wooden pavilions, as around 200 red hawks circle and swoop down to feed from the pond next to us. It is a manmade pond, made specifically to attract the local population of indigenous red hawks. But I don’t think there are any ethical issues attached otherwise (I remember people complaining about the unbalanced diets of eagles in Langkawi). They’re hardly being force-fed. As expected the menus include local fresh water fish also sourced from the pond, such as Pla Nin (Tilapia) and Pla Duk (cat-fish), along with your usual Thai food fare.

The Cambodian Borders
At the furthest reaches of Trat is “The Narrowest Part of Thailand”, which is geographically interesting, I guess, as a thin stretch of coastline travels down between the Gulf of Thailand and the Cambodian borders. Ending at the crossing from Hat Lek to Ko Kong island in Cambodia. But there are otherwise some remote and pretty much deserted beaches along this coastline, which are great for some frugal romance, as prices are relatively cheap due to this less visited location. And we have stayed at some of the better beaches and resorts here, including a beach side escape at the Mango Beach Resort, as well as staying in the “Honeymoon Suites” of Centara Chaan Talay, where each have private jacuzzis surrounded by mangrove forests. It is however a fair stretch to reach these resorts, but maybe worthwhile if aiming to escape the more crowded resorts and islands.

Ko Chang Island (Trat)
Ko Chang has forever been the most popular tourist attraction in Eastern Thailand, and my first ever visit was back in 2004, when White Sands beach was still relatively undeveloped, and I was staying in 150 Baht a night beach bungalows. But these days are long gone, as the main beach stretches are now cluttered, overdeveloped and can be overly backpacker-ish. However, the island is huge (Ko Chang is the 2nd largest in Thailand) meaning it is still easy to escape the main tourist stretches, and this goes for almost the entire east side of the island. And we took the car over on the ferry with our most recent visit, as the island is easily accessible for a short weekend from Bangkok, and we even arrive to our hotel before check-in had opened (here for independent travel from Bangkok). Anyway, we have been to Ko Chang on a bunch of occasions, and we share some of our favourite areas and resorts here.

Ko Kood Island


I have found few beaches as perfect as those of Ko Kood, with its warm shallow shores, and perimeter of palm trees bowing over soft white sands. It’s about as close as it comes to paradise in Thailand, and this why this island is often described as “Maldivian”. Yet this is only one of many reasons that Ko Kood is my favourite island in all of Thailand. As it is the back-to-basics feel of the island which I love, where it is largely undeveloped all over, and access to many resorts is only by boat. There’s even a scarcity in electricity at the fancier of resorts. So it just feels cut off from the world, miles away from the tourist hubs of nearby Ko Chang, and it is really just a simplistic slice of paradise. There are also alternative routes to reach Ko Kood, either from Bang Bao Pier from Ko Chang (here for travel from Ko Chang to Ko Kood), or, when travelling from mainland Trat, regular boats leave Laem Sok pier. Note, hotel prices are typically more expensive on Ko Kood (partly due to access) but no doubt they are worth paying the extra. 

Ko Mak Island
Ko Mak is the smallest of this island trilogy, and like Ko Kood it is still relatively deserted when compared to almost any island in the southern Gulf of Thailand, or the Andaman Sea. And this is why I really love Eastern Thailand. It’s still relatively untouched by mass tourism. However the beaches, and the overall paradise escape at Ko Mak, isn’t quite on par with that of Ko Kood (my favourite island in Thailand), but the accommodation and access is better suited to that of budget travellers (Ko Mak hotel list here). And it really is still a great island hideaway, where the only negative I can remember is when boredom finally set in, as these islands are otherwise better for peace, relaxation and laziness. So, to entertain ourselves, we kayaked from our resort to explore the nearby, uninhabited island of Ko Kham. Which is roughly 1 kilometer away. 
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