by Harriet Bond
(San Francisco, CA, USA)
Chanthaburi Cathedral – Thailand’s largest Christian edifice
Surrounded by acres of chili and rubber plantations, Chanthaburi, which means “City of the Moon”, is one of Thailand’s most charming towns and the capital of the Chanthaburi province. King Taksin, (r.1767–82), is the most revered monarch here with several shrines and monuments, commemorating his famous victory over the Burmese in 1767.
The town has a diverse ethnic population and strong historical and cultural links with both France and Vietnam due to its proximity to the former French Indochina. A gem-trading center since the 15th century, Chanthaburi is a prosperous city and a significant part of the present-day economy.
Famous as a gem center for more than five centuries, Chanthaburi has drawn prospectors, dealers, traders, and adventurers to its gem markets throughout history. The gem market, locally known as talat phloi, is located on the banks of the Chanthaburi River. Known for its natural wealth of sapphires and rubies, Chanthaburi continues to be an important center of this trade despite the exhaustion of its natural resources.
Today, most stones are brought from areas along the Cambodian frontier, yet the market continues to be famous for the workmanship of its gem cutters.
All kinds of precious and semi-precious stones are bought and sold forjewelry production. There are a range of rare gems and beads from all over Southeast Asia and even as far as Madagascar. Visitors can go to the market to see dealers and prospectors doing business.
The best gem stores are along Trok Kachang and Thanon Sri Chan. This market is at its busiest on weekends.
Located just across the river, east of the Gem Market, is Chanthaburi Cathedral, Thailand’s largest Christian edifice. Also known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception, this structure is designed in the French Provincial style and was built by Christian missionaries in the 18th century. Since then it has been renovated a number of times, especially due to the influx of many Vietnamese Christians. Some of the stained-glass windows in the church date from before its 19th century restoration.
Chanthaburi: Top Tourist Attractions
Extending along the west bank of Chanthaburi River, and a short distance from the Gem Market, the Vietnamese Quarter is the most interesting part of Chanthaburi. The Vietnamese have migrated to Thailand over a century, initially to avoid persecution and later as political refugees.
This quarter has a distinct flavor, evident in its architecture and cuisine. The houses along Thanon Rim Nam are lovely old structures made out of bamboo or wood and standing on stilts. They follow the style of Vietnamese tube architecture and are usually narrow in width with the living quarters extending along the building’s depth. The nearby market offers a whole array of delicious Vietnamese snacks.
Great stacks of Vietnamese spring roll wrappers and local desserts offer appetizing alternatives to traditional Thai fare. Today, there are few immigrants who speak the Vietnamese language, and the process of integration into Thai society is well advanced.
The Vietnamese came to Thailand in a three-part exodus – refugees escaping French colonial rule in the 19th century, Vietnamese Catholics fleeing the communist regime in the 1950s, and migrants who left after the collapse of the Southern regime in 1975. The Thais mistrusted them because of an age old rivalry and the Vietnamese were constantly displaced because of wars.
However, over time, this community has been assimilated into the country’s diverse ethnic fabric bringing with them distinct elements of their own culture.
King Taksin Park
A lush, open space located half a mile (1 km) west of the Gem Market, King Taksin Park is a popular spot with the citizens of Chanthaburi for walks or early morning exercises.
The main park area is divided by two lakes filled with a variety of fish. The park is dominated by a great bronze statue of King Taksin in a heroic pose on the battlefield.
This iconic image also figures on the 20 baht note. Tall trees providing shade make this an excellent place for a picnic or a stroll. Visitors can also sample some of the tropical fruits for which Chanthaburi is famous.
King Taksin Shrine
A nonagonal structure with a helmet-shaped roof, King Taksin Shrine is a curious structure. Constructed in 1920, the shrine houses the king’s statue that is revered by the locals. Every year on December 28, a ceremony is held commemorating Taksin’s accession to the throne.