Just a few hours’ drive from the capital, the east-coast resorts attract a mixed crowd of weekending Bangkokians and sybaritic tourists. Transport connections are good and, for overlanders, there are several Cambodian border crossings within reach. Beautiful beaches aren’t the whole picture, however, as the east coast is also crucial to Thailand’s industrial economy, its natural gas fields and deep-sea ports having spawned massive development along the first 200km of coastline, an area dubbed the Eastern Seaboard. The initial landscape of refineries and depots shouldn’t deter you though, as offshore it’s an entirely different story, with beaches as glorious as more celebrated southern retreats and enough peaceful havens to make it worth packing your hammock.
The first worthwhile stop comes 100km east of Bangkok at the town of Si Racha, which is the point of access for tiny Ko Si Chang, whose dramatically rugged coastlines and low-key atmosphere make it a restful retreat. In complete contrast, nearby Pattaya is Thailand’s number one package-tour destination, its customers predominantly middle-aged European men enticed by the resort’s sex-market reputation and undeterred by its lacklustre beach. Things soon look up, though, as the coast veers sharply eastwards towards Ban Phe, revealing the island of Ko Samet, the prettiest of the beach resorts within comfortable bus-ride range of Bangkok.
East of Ban Phe, the landscape becomes lusher and hillier around Chanthaburi, the dynamo of Thailand’s gem trade and one of only two eastern provincial capitals worth visiting. The other is Trat, 68km further along the highway, and an important hub both for transport into Cambodia via Hat Lek – one of this region’s two main border points, the other being Aranyaprathet – and for the forty islands of the Ko Chang archipelago. The most popular of this island group is large, forested Ko Chang itself, whose long, fine beaches have made it Thailand’s latest resort destination. A host of smaller, less-developed islands fill the sea between Ko Chang and the Cambodian coast, most notably temptingly diverse Ko Mak and Ko Kood.
Highway 3 extends almost the entire length of the east coast, beginning in Bangkok as Thanon Sukhumvit, and known as such when it cuts through towns, and hundreds of buses ply the route, connecting all major mainland destinations. It’s also possible to travel between the east coast and the northeast and north without doubling back through the capital: the most direct routes into Isaan start from Pattaya, Rayong and Chanthaburi. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is less than 50km from Si Racha, and there are two domestic airports along the east coast itself: at U-Tapao naval base, southeast of Pattaya, and just west of Trat. Though a rail line connects Bangkok with Si Racha and Pattaya, it is served by just one slow train a day in each direction; a branch line makes two journeys a day to Aranyaprathet near the Cambodian border.