Chachoengsao province may only be two hours from Bangkok, but the old-school attractions and serene vibe make it seem a world away
Christian saints do not have a monopoly on miracles. The legend-spawning Buddha image known as Luang Poh Sathon is revered for everything from curing terminal illnesses to helping couples have children, and the statue’s miraculous powers are attributed to its incredible origins. Legend, or tall tale, has it that locals found it floating down the Bang Pakong River and installed the image at a temple called Wat Hong, some time in the 18th century.
Nowadays, the statue, housed in Chachoengao province’s oldest temple, attracts a series of supplicants in search of good luck and better karma. For favours that have been fulfilled by the deities the faithful will pay Thai classical dancers to perform in their honour, which is the temple’s pinnacle of performance art. Even atheists and materialists will find the renovated Wat Hong a worthy stopover for its sweeping lines, subtle shades of gold and grey, and the marble floor inside the main shrine, inscribed with sea creatures and the mythical “dragon fish.”
Besides this venerable temple, the main attractants in the town that is the eponymous capital of Chachoengao province are decidedly old-school, like the rustic houses clinging to the edges of the canals, the century-old Klong Suan Market with its vintage shops and local delicacies in the old part of town, and the City Hall itself—a handsome wooden structure with a statue of King Rama V out in front surrounded by areca palm trees.
One of the best parts of visiting such a province as Chachoengsao, which is off the average traveler’s GPS, is that the locals, unused to mass tourism, give you such warmhearted welcomes. So as I walked up to take a photo of City Hall, a security guard at the front of the building, called out, “Hello!” as he beamed a high-wattage smile. In the more mainstream destinations—Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai—which are overrun by tourists, Thailand’s ‘Land of Smiles’ nickname is outdated. These places are just not as friendly as they used to be. But out in the Thai heartland, the country’s old image still shines through in living colours.
Another point of interest and antiquity in town is St. Paul’s Church at the tail end of a serpentine road that wends it way around orchards, banana trees, and wooden houses. The original church was built back in the 18th century, and down the road from the church is a Christian cemetery where the cultural merger has spawned Chinese-style tombs with crosses and Chinese lions.
The lifeblood of this river-straddling province is the aforementioned Bang Pakong River, which stretches from the Korat plateau (the hilly gateway to Northeastern Thailand), through the provinces of Prachinburi and Chachoengsao, to finally spill into the Gulf of Thailand. Near the gulf is one of the few parts of Thailand where you can still spot the endangered Irawaddy dolphin, a shy creature with a humped head that feasts on eel catfish from November to February (which is when the dolphin-spotting tours run). The waterway is also renowned for harbouring one of the biggest river-dwelling creatures on earth: the giant freshwater stingray. In 2008, National Geographic chronicled the capturing of a 4.3-metre-long specimen. Regular tours of the river depart from Wat Hong or at some of the restaurants along the river.
One of the best restaurants in the town is the Eakanake Restaurant & Jetski Club. The menu boasts an extensive selection of all the most popular Thai dishes, but what really makes this place special is the riverside ambience and all the atmospheric touches, like the mural of Marilyn Monroe, reimagined as a housewife with a seriously snarled perm, near a statue of the Incredible Hulk and a metal sculpture of the monster from Predator riding a jet-ski.
Chances are whatever fish you ordered came from the Central Freshwater Fish Center for the Eastern Region (the sign is all in Thai), a few kilometres down the road. In all my years in Thailand I’ve never seen such a bazaar, teeming with thousands and thousands of fish: plastic buckets stuffed with still-gasping dory, the beds of pickup trucks overflowing with fish, the concrete floor of the market a sea of dead and half-dead creatures being scooped into more buckets. Think your air-conditioned office job is hard? Try kneeling for 10 hours at a stretch in searing heat amid the nose-piercing stench of rotting fish and still many of the fishmongers, mostly immigrants from Myanmar, were still smiling.
Small towns breed some delightful eccentrics and Chachoengsao is no exception. On our way to the last stop of the day, we drove past a motorcycle with a buffalo skull on the front that was parked by a roadside stall. Stretching out behind the motorcycle was what looked like a sedan chair, inscribed with the letters VIP, to carry the aristocracy in bygone days.
What sort of witty wacko had designed this contraption? We did not have to wait long to find out. From the shop emerged an older man giving us a smile that showed all his missing teeth. He was the embodiment of the Thai hippie-cowboy personae, with the long hair, moustache, faded denim, a bandana and sunglasses, so beloved of the musicians in the folk rock genre of phleng peau cheewit (“songs for life”).
He turned out to be another congenial local, happily posing on his mutant motorcycle so me and a buddy could snap photos. The surrealism of this roadside stall and buffalo-headed motorcycle was a good preparation for Wat Saman Rattanaram: a spiritual Disneyland replete with an enormous pink Ganesha, many more Hollywood-sized deities in-between statues of the Transformers, as well as Batman and Superman, an Amazon coffee shop, a food court, many mannequins of meditating monks, and a floating shrine in candy colours.
For you Alices who just drove into this rabbit hole and are in search of a Cheshire cat, have a gander at all the multi-hued statues of mice in front of the giant Ganesha. They are supposed to be the heavenly vehicles for this deity, but I’ve never seen a temple where the devout whisper their wishes into the ears of the human-sized mice.
It’s a shame that this province isn’t promoted more by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which got me thinking of a potential slogan on the drive home: “A hospitable heartland only two hours, but a million miles, from Bangkok.”
NOTE: Navigating the environs of such a tourist-unfriendly province is not easy unless you are fluent in spoken and written Thai. If you happen to stay at the Kameo Hotel Amata at Bangpakong, then ask the hotel to hire you a car and driver for the day. Easier still, choose one of the daytrips from Bangkok that many tour agencies offer.