When it comes to Thailand, we are instantly reminded of the azure seas, breathtaking islands, shacks and beaches and unlimited fun. For most of us, Thailand is a place for partying our hearts out and splurging in shopping. Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya turn out to be the most visited destinations in Thailand for exactly these reasons. But in between all these cacophony and touristy places, lies a relaxed and friendly Thailand. And that is what makes this country so beautiful. There are a number of unique places to visit in Thailand that provides immersive experiences beyond the usual. These lesser known places are perfect for travellers who want beyond the parties and sun, seeking immersive experiences.
As travellers, we both love to visit off the beaten tracks, not just visit and see different places, but also connect with the people. In that way, our first visit to Thailand was just perfect, more than we anticipated. We explored a few hidden gems in the eastern part of the country on this trip. We were invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand along with a few other awesome people to visit Chanthaburi and Trat district. I would not blabber much, and share with you about our experience at “The Legend of Eastern Gems”.
Unique Places in Thailand – the eastern gems
This riverside town was our first introduction to Thailand after we landed at the Suvarnabhumi Airport at Bangkok. The place is not as crowded as the other attractions of Thailand and we also found fewer tourists there. Nevertheless the quaint town immediately captured my heart.
Chanthabun Waterfront Community (Old Town Area)
Chanthaburi is actually an eclectic mix of culture and interesting landscape. The Chanthabun Waterfront area or the old town is a beautiful place. The old buildings have been wonderfully restored. One look at the place and you can clearly understand how historically and culturally rich the place is. Distinct Chinese, French and Vietnamese influence is seen in the architecture of the buildings as well as in the life of the people. It is easy to roam around the old town without a map and discover its delights. It feels lovely to walk around the cobbled roads, look at the small stores set up on the roadside. These stalls are the best places to enjoy the local delicacies of the place.
The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception
The Cathedral of Immaculate Conception is located near the waterfront and is one of the biggest church in Thailand. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cathedrals I have seen and reminded me of the cathedral at Yangon. The cathedral is almost 300 years old lying on the east bank of the Chanthaburi river. A footbridge separates the cathedral from the town’s historic Waterfront. The cathedral was first built in 1711 as a chapel and was later reconstructed three times till date. Today the cathedral stands as an imposing Gothic style building in front of the footbridge.
The interior of the cathedral is quite beautiful having elaborate stained glasses. Inside the church is the statue of the Virgin Mary along with Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary. One of the major attractions of this cathedral is the statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a golden dais in front of the altar. Chanthaburi is known for its gemstones and gems trade. The statue of Virgin Mary is said to be studded with more than 200000 glittering semi-precious stones. The blue coloured cloak is made up of thousands of blue sapphires from the Chanthaburi and Kanchanburi areas, while the rest of the statue is decorated with white sapphires, Thai rubies, and hundreds of yellow and orange sapphires from Chanthaburi and other countries. It is such a beautiful piece of art and we could not but stand there and admire the beauty of the statue.
Chanthaburi gemstone market
Chanthaburi is well known for its gemstone market. Trat along with Chanthaburi is a major source of gemstones. Infact, after the military rule took over in Burma in 1962 and the world’s ruby supply was effectively cut off, Chanthabury gradually became a major supplier of the gemstones. Very soon, Chanthaburi along with Trat province came to be known as Ruby Capital of the World, known for its exceptional Siamese rubies.
Today, the mines are depleted and mining is now done on a much smaller scale. But Chanthaburi had emerged as a major gem centre. It has some of the best and skilled cutters along with the best techniques for heating and treatment of gems. Chanthaburi is now known as the city of gems. It is said that most of the gemstones of the world pass through the City of Gems, at least once in their travels!
We visited the Chanthaburi Gen and Jewellery Manufacturer’s Association which had a museum that showed us the history of mining of gemstones in Chanthaburi and the present scenario of the gemstone industry. It is estimated that the gems and jewellery industry accounts for Thailand’s third largest export sector. There is also a gem museum, gem exhibition hall and a demonstration centre. There is a shopping area too, where the gems and jewellery are sold. Once you are here, I am sure that you will be dazzled to see the beautiful gem-studded jewellery and the gemstones. I was totally awed seeing them. Yes, they were great to look at and admire, but they were definitely not on my buying list. I might as well spend the money on another trip!
Bo Ploy Lek Petch Community Learning Centre
This is an interesting place. The place is located in the area of the gemstone source. So this centre is opened for tourists to learn about gemstone mining and other things related to it. “Bo” actually means holes, and here you can actually see how these people mine the gemstones from these holes. There are holes of various depth dug, and the Bo Ploy Lek Petch Community centre demonstrates how they do the gemstone mining. If you so wish, you can also go deep down into the holes and try to get some gemstones yourself!
After seeing the mining activity, we visited the fruit garden. Chanthaburi is known for its fruits. The place is famous for durian, the king of fruits and mangosteen, the queen of fruits. Trees abundant were found at the orchard. Durian, mangosteen, rambutan, langsat, sala (snake fruit) and so many more whose name I do not know were found at the fruit garden. We literally had a fruit party and enjoyed tasting the different fruits there.
Well, I tasted durian for the first time. Well, I had heard not many good things about durian before. I had heard about its incredibly bad smell. So I was a bit apprehensive to taste durian. But contrary to what I had heard before, durian tasted quite good and did not have an obnoxious smell. May be since these fruits are grown organically without the usage of any chemicals, they tasted better! This is just my speculation; I have no proof of this theory of mine.
Travelling to Trat
Between the Chanthaburi province and the Cambodian border lies Trat, a sleepy frontier town surrounded by fertile forests and mountains and also the home of the famous Siamese rubies. The sea here is dotted with a number of tropical islands, 52 exactly and so the place is known as half an island city. Thailand’s third largest island Koh Chang is located at Trat along with Ko Mak, Ko Kradat, Ko rang and several other picturesque islands.
So on the second day of our trip, we took the motorboat ride to one of those 52 islands, Ko Mak. This one-hour journey in the speed boat moving through the azure blue sea was pretty exciting. It reminded me of our trip to Andamans.
Towards Koh Mak, an offbeat destination in Thailand
Koh Mak is a paradise. One look at the place and I fell in love with it. This spectacular paradise island spanning an area of little more than 16 sq kilometres is also known as the coconut island. The island has beautiful virgin beaches and tropical vegetation but is not much known to international tourists. This is what makes this place more appealing as it is yet untouched by mass tourism like that in Phuket or Pattaya.
Well, the inhabitants of the island have taken a special effort to make Koh Mak a low carbon zone and a self-sufficient economy. The community is greatly aware of the importance of sustainable tourism and the preservation of nature. The locals had come together and created certain regulations that need to be followed by all the inhabitants of the island, business owners as well as the tourists. The “8 rules of Koh Mak” are the set of rules that these people follow religiously towards making “Koh Mak Low Carbon Destination”. It was really so heartening to see the locals work towards making the island sustainable as they respect and preserve nature. The best part is that they do not change the rules for the visitors as well.
The Koh Mak Museum
The Koh Mak Museum is located in the southern part of the island. The white coloured house is actually owned by Sutthithankul family and they have converted their house into a museum. The museum has images, pictures and many old artefacts that tell the story of past and present of Koh Mak island.
Later in the day, we went for a sightseeing tour at Koh Mak. True to its low carbon initiative, we used bicycles to go around the island to see the various attractions. The island is a beautiful one and cycling through the island itself is a lovely experience. But the day was warm, and it was quite hard to cycle at such a warm temperature.
The cycling team had a break at the organic garden where we saw papaya, passion fruit, mango and other fruit trees. Honey is also one of the product that they cultivate at Koh Mak and the locals showed us how they rear the bees and extract honey from them.
The last stop was at the Cocoscape Bridge. It is a beautiful place having a long wooden bridge from where we watched the beautiful sunset. The calm blue water, clear sands and the setting sun were all just perfect end for a perfect day at Koh Mak.
Back to Trat
The next day, we travelled back to Trat by the speed boat. As I said before, Trat is a beautiful town. We visited the Trat National Museum and got an insight about the history, culture and the lifestyle of Trat and its people. The Museum building itself is a very beautiful and imposing wooden building. It was good to know so much about the place and its people.
Tha Ranae Community
What I liked about this trip is that we came close to a lot of local people and community and got to know about their lifestyle and stories. I always believe that people make places and people and culture have been one of the recurring topics of our blog.
The Tha Ranae Community is located around the Trat River estuary and had been once a thriving trading centre with the Chinese merchants. The village was once a thriving port having a number of boats, both trading and fishing.
Today, the area is an eco-tourism spot having a number of activities for its visitors. There is a mangrove swamp that provides the main source of food and livelihood for the locals. We took a boat ride along the river canal to the mangroves. Here the mangroves swamps are quite different from that of Sunderbans. We actually entered into the mangrove forests, walked over the mesh of roots and even posed pretty pictures – something that is quite unthinkable at Sunderbans. We also had a friendly bowling match inside the mangrove forest with the bowling ball made of fruit! This fruit is also used as a natural colour for their dyeing industry. Making tie-dyed cloth is also another activity that we took part in. Tie-dyeing is one of the livelihoods of the people here.
Apart from a trip to the mangrove forests and visiting the tie-dyeing centre, you can also indulge in Thai cooking classes making local cuisines and desserts. There are homestay facilities here where you can stay back at the village for a day and enjoy these activities.
Temples of Trat
Apart from all these activities, Trat has a number of beautiful temples. The Wat Buppharam is the oldest monastery in Trat built in 1652 during the reign of King Prasat Thong of Ayutthaya. Also visit the Wat Yothanimit, Wat Phailom, Budthamonthon having a 10-metre high golden sandstone Buddha statue, Trat Pillar Shrine and the many other temples and monasteries.
Did we enjoy these unique places to visit in Thailand?
You bet, we did. The three days in eastern Thailand exploring its hidden gems passed by too quickly. The trip was no doubt a memorable one where we met so many like-minded people. We were quite happy to explore these hidden gems of Thailand along with having such an immersive experience. Beautiful beaches, serene seas, magnificent mangroves and meeting the people made this trip truly enjoyable. And yes, we heartily gorged us on a variety of seafood. Crabs, prawns, mussels, squids, fishes and what not! Maybe I will write another post about the seafood I tried in Thailand.
Here are a few more pictures of these unique places to visit in Thailand – the places where we visited! Hope they can inspire you to visit these lesser known places in your next trip to Thailand.
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Disclaimer: We were invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in association with Ookbee Travels to Thailand for a Local Experience 3600 (The Legend of eastern Gems). However, the views here are entirely our own.