Only a two-hour hop from Bangkok, the eastern seaboard town and its surrounds beckon with outdoor adventures, a picturesque island, spiritual sites and appetising dishes.
If you get an early start you can see all the aces in the deck of attractions in and around the sea-leaning Sri Racha in a single day.
Start your day with a jaunt on the wild side.
Zoos can be sad places that seem like penitentiaries for animals, but Khao Kheow Open Zoo is an exception to that dreary rule. One of the world’s largest open-air zoos, the enclosures for animals are large and accommodating; the setting amidst the tree-fortified foothills of Chonburi Province is naturally enticing, and the beasts and birds look like they’re well fed and well taken care of.
Some of the smaller creatures like deer are allowed to roam free in parts of the grounds, making for Walt Disney-like scenes of spellbound children, happy families and photo ops galore.
Possibly the zoo’s most enchanting feature is the African safari zone with giraffes, zebras, wildebeest and other more exotic animals like black bucks, the helmeted guinea fowl and meerkats, which scurry around to stand up on their back legs to look around.
Khao Kheow is also the launching pad for the Flight of the Gibbon zipline that allows land-bound humans to soar like birds of prey over the foliage. The company’s package deals come with free admission to the zoo.
Sri Racha, like many other coastal communities in Thailand, is famous for its fresh and succulent seafood, but the area’s culinary oddity and most famous dish is chicken roasted in earthenware jugs (gai op oan). You can spot these roadside eateries by the rooster statues standing in front of them.
The chefs hang eight chickens from different metal hooks in each big jar to roast them for 45 minutes. Although Thailand has a reputation for chicken dishes, such as the barbecued variety from the northeast and the deep-fried recipe from down south, this local delicacy adds a whole new dimension of roasted succulence. To complete your Thai-ified lunch, order some sticky rice and papaya salad.
Just 40 minutes from Sri Racha via ferry, Koh Si Chang is the closest island getaway for city-weary Bangkokians. With only one road snaking around its hilly environs, you can see the small island’s highlights in a few hours.
The best way to go is by renting a three-wheeled samlor, which is like a tuk tuk with a motorcycle on the front, at the pier. Most tours commence with a pit stop at the island’s most historic part: the Chudhadhuj Rajthan Palace Museum. The original palace, once belonging to King Rama V, has long since been destroyed but some of the mansions and palaces have been rebuilt. Especially photogenic is the so-called “Wooden House by the Sea,” which looks like a gingerbread house from a fairy tale. It contains the local tourism office and hosts regular exhibitions.
From there it’s a short drive to the island’s only stretch of beige sand for swimming, Pang Taam Beach, secluded in a small bay. After a refreshing dip, head for the island’s highest point: a recreation of the Buddha’s footprint set in a mountainside shrine. Behind the shrine you can hike up some steep steps to a lookout point that affords an awe-arousing panorama of the island, sea and cargo ships docked here.
When you’re back on the mainland and ready to wind down, the sea-straddling Health Park functions as Sri Racha’s chill-out central. Encircled by a jogging track, the park has plenty of benches and leafy enclaves for taking a breather. It’s also a popular spot for sunset gazers and the fitness buffs that show up en masse for the free aerobics classes at 6 P.M. set to the tune of blaring techno.
Via a long bridge, the park is connected to the tiny Koh Loi, home to a temple and a pond for sea turtles, near the Koh Si Chang ferry pier.
For now, Sri Racha may be one of the dark horses in the eastern seaboard’s tourism sweepstakes, which also means that you won’t have to herd with too many other travellers.