6 June 2024

Whilst tropical islands and seaside resorts make Thailand’s East spectacular, a road trip along its scenic coast is no less of a visual treat.

From wild marshland and lush mangroves to historic riverfronts, a towering Roman Catholic church, lesser-known beaches and a border market, Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat provinces have more to share with travellers than a typical tropical island holiday. The eastern provinces, with their remarkable contrasts, are a haven for those seeking incredible scenery and adventure. And the best way to experience the east is to take a road trip along the scenic eastern coastline. You will be mesmerised by its charm and character.

Rayong province is a good place to start. About a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the east of Bangkok on Highway 3 (Sukhumvit Road), Rayong is best known for a quick dose of tropical island and beach getaways on Koh Samet. Beyond this popular spot, the eastern province of Rayong has many lesser-known destinations dotted along its coastline. They have all the beauty, but with fewer people.

The sun sets over a local beach in Trat, Thailand’s easternmost province. (Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee)

Old fishing community at Pak Nam Prasae

About 20 minutes South of Klaeng district, travelling along Highway 3 (Rayong -Chanthaburi) and Route 3162, you will arrive at Pak Nam Prasae – the old fishing community nestled at the mouth of the Prasae River. This part of Rayong province has not changed much at all in the last few decades. Pak Nam Prasae was once a bustling fishing hub drawing fishermen, fishmongers, cooks, craftsmen, mechanics and merchants from the surrounding area. Today, a glimpse of that old-world atmosphere can be seen at the riverfront marketplace. The most profound experience is just to simply stroll around the old marketplace, soaking in the historic community.

Pak Nam Prasae’s seafood is second to none, and nowhere is that more evident than at the seaside restaurants dotted along a local beach. The cuisine here is very tasty and is dominated by the catch of the day and aromatic herbs and spices. Sea bass, red snapper and blue crab are celebrated in a series of small sharing plates of deep-fried turmeric fish, crispy mussel omelette, stuffed, deep-fried crabs or seafood soup.

A number of the riverside houses have been transformed into cosy but chic small hotels and homestays, making Pak Nam Prasae well worth a few days’ stay before leaving for the next town. While you’re here, check out the Rayong Botanical Garden and the Tung Prong Thong Mangrove. The botanical garden features expansive, scenic marshland and a forest of ancient-looking paperbark trees, making it ideal for kayaking, paddle boarding and traveling in a slow boat. Tung Prong Thong, on the other hand, offers a walking path into the lush and fascinating mangrove forest, Rayong’s largest.

An abandoned ship rests just offshore Thailand’s eastern coast. (Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee)

Next stop – Chanthaburi

From Klaeng, the spectacular journey to Chanthaburi province is both short and sweet. You head northwards along Route 3162 from Klaeng, and turn right on to Route 4036, known by the locals as Chalerm Burapha Chonlathit Road. Recognised as one of Thailand’s most scenic roads, this route offers unobstructed views of the beautiful coastline.

Along the way, you’ll be welcomed by local beaches like Khung Wiman – where you could stop for lunch or to stretch your legs along the tranquil beach. There are various viewpoints to check out on the journey, and the best of its kind is the Noen Nangphaya Viewpoint, where the winding serpentine road provides a stunning view of the eastern coastline. And, once in the town of Chanthaburi, you can venture to the Chanthaboon Waterfront Community to get a true sense of the town.

Seafood noodles is a common dish in Thailand’s east. (Photo by Phoowadon Duagmee)

Thanks to the discovery of gemstones, particularly rubies and sapphires, Chanthaburi has become the richest province in Thailand’s east. Its historic quarter was founded in the mid-seventeenth century along the west bank of the Chanthaburi River, attracting Chinese and Vietnamese merchants looking for scented woods, spices and precious stones. Due to the Franco-Siamese War, the French occupied Chanthaburi from 1893 to 1905 and constructed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on the river’s east bank. The gothic-style cathedral still stands and dominates the riverfront and the Christian communities like a mother hen guarding her chicks.

Today the one-kilometer-long street scene still includes many private homes, but the emerging art galleries, boutique hostels, chill-out cafes and snack stalls entice visiting weekenders. Give yourself time to wander along the riverfront, and you will find myriad delights, an unexpected trading corner, dining and drinking and a far greater sense of what makes this town tick. At the Krachang Alley, you will be captivated by a bustling street gem market. Here, on the weekend, gem vendors ply their trade for rough amethyst, turquoise, and mineral samples along the footpath, while gem dealers examine small pieces of rough rubies and gemstones inside jewellery shops.

Chanthaburi’s historic quarter was founded in the mid-seventeenth Century along the west bank of the Chanthaburi River. (Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee)

Hit the border town

Trat, Thailand’s easternmost province, is without doubt one of the country’s most popular destinations. Whilst island hopping around Ko Chang, Ko Kood and other tropical islands in Trat is truly impressive, the 156km drive from Chanthaburi to Khlong Yai – Thailand’ s easternmost district, is no less so.

Along Highway 3 (Sukhumvit Road), there’s plenty to see. Stop at the Trat City Museum and get to know the history of Trat. Set in the historic wood building, which was once the city hall, the museum offers a range of different galleries and exhibits covering the history of the province from its people to the Franco-Siam War. In 1904, Siam was forced to surrender Trat to French Indochina to regain Chanthaburi. That was the French’s mistake. Three years later, finding that Trat people were hard to rule, the French gave up on Trat and returned it to Siam in exchange for larger areas along the Mekong River.

On the east bank, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception dominates the riverfront and the Christian communities of Chanthaburi.

From the city museum, drive southwards to the Thai-Cambodian border, where on your left is the high range of the Cardamom Mountains and on your right is Trat’s tranquil shoreline. Other worthy stops include the Ban Mai Rut fishing village, Banchuen Beach and Thailand’s narrowest part – where you can hop out for ice cream and stretch your legs on the sand. Keep driving, and you will reach the end of Sukhumvit Road at the Khlong Yai Border Checkpoint where you can enjoy shopping and people watching at a cross-border market.

To make the most of this road trip you’re going to need time, so spend a night (or two) at one of those seaside resorts dotted along the tranquil beaches. Whilst watching the sensational sunset over the eastern coastline of Thailand, you will be pondering, as many have before you, why you have left it so long to fall in love with the truly beautiful East.

By Veena Thoopkrajae

The ancient-looking paperbark forest in Rayong’s marshland. (Photo by Phoowadon Duangmee)