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A place to reconnect

The Chantaboon Waterfront Community in Chanthaburi offers a much-welcomed reminder of life away from all those gadgets

IN THESE days of ever-more rapid information technology, the connections we have to places and people are at risk of being lost. An abundance of information is constantly popping up on our personal screens, telling us where to go, what to do and who to meet, resulting in a disassociation from the physical and psychological realities of daily life.

A place to reconnect

Chanthaburi River sweeps through the old community in the eastern province of Chanthaburi

To reclaim some of what we have lost, my friends and I take a walk along Chantaboon Waterfront Community in Chanthaburi Province. Here, in the province’s oldest area, the Christian church, Chinese shrine, Buddhist temple and old houses lining the waterfront serve up a big dose of reality. A bowl of rice noodles topped with garlicky Mantis shrimp is, for me at least, way more real than the best photos of noodle dishes flying around the social media.
“Can I have two more bowls? Please. An army marches on its stomach,” Pla, my travel companion, asks the vendor even though our “army” will only be covering a few kilometres at most. 
In fact, the old waterfront of Chanthaburi River is barely a kilometre long, flowing north to south from Tha Luang Bridge to the Catholic Church. The right bank is lined with old wooden houses and timeworn European-style mansions. The left bank is home to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception – Thailand’s largest Catholic Church. The cathedral, with its two towers, is visible from anywhere along the Chanthaburi River waterfront and much like a giant mother hen, guards her chicks on both sides of the river.

A place to reconnect

A chapel inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception 

“The Chantaboon community, which was once clearly marked on nautical charts, was an important trading port,” says local guide Krit Phetchang. “It was a meeting point for Thais, Chinese and Vietnamese who traded and exchanged wild produce and spices. Chantaboon was also a strategic location for the French during the Franco-Siamese War of 1893.”
We stop at the church to admire the neo Gothic house of God. Built in 1909, the cathedral celebrated its centennial eight years ago. In fact, the Christianity arrived at the waterfront 300 years ago, when farmers and merchants started trading alongside the river. The present cathedral was built on the site of a chapel constructed in 1711. The chapel is huge and peaceful, and the stained-glass windows are impressive. The statue of the Virgin Mary at the front is decorated with more than 200,000 sapphires – a fitting link between the faith of the locals and city’s gem trade. 
From the cathedral, we cross the bridge to the right bank of the Chanthaburi River. 

A place to reconnect

A visitor admires an old wooden house along Chantaboon Waterfront.

Just as in Hoi An in Vietnam, Takua Pa in Thailand’s South and other ancient ports, the residents of Chanthaburi waterfront started trading peppers, scented woods, wildlife hides and rubber sheets with foreign merchants. Today, the one kilometre-long street still includes many private homes and the emerging art galleries, coffee shops and tasty snack stalls entice visitors over the weekends.
It is a place of contrasts too, with two very different types of architecture, both of them charming.
The first and the more lavish are the colonial style mansions owned by the royal servants with their sculpted clay ornaments. Then there are the wooden houses with intricate lace-like wooden facades favoured by the wealthy merchants. 
“People of Chanthaburi are recognised for their wealth,” notes the local guide. “The rich sent their children to study in Bangkok or Penang and George Town in Malaysia.
“Unfortunately, the younger generation abandoned their family homes along the waterfront and settled in other towns. Some of the old houses are rented out. Others have been sold off and still more have fallen into disrepair.”

A place to reconnect

Locals square up for a game of chess in Chantaboon Waterfront Community.

Walking through the old Chantaboon waterfront is an act of discovery in itself. About midway along, surrounded by wooden house and timeworn mustard-coloured mansions, the visitor comes across a Chinese shrine. An open space – where motorcycle taxies wait for their clients – morphs into a “game centre” from time to time, as locals square off around a chess board. At the northern end, artists add colour to the timeworn buildings and walls with graffiti and stencils.
“The Chanthaburi waterfront is full of beautiful contradictions,” says Krit, our guide.
We couldn’t agree more. Original and wonderfully real, the Chantaboon waterfront is the perfect location to reconnect with place and people.

>> Chanthaburi is in the east of Thailand, 250 kilometres from Bangkok. A regular passenger bus service operates daily between the Eastern (Ekamai) Terminal and the town.

Published : February 28, 2017

By : Phoowadon Duangmee The Nation