This secluded hideaway has an identity unlike the play-hard-by-day and drink-hard-by-night experience so easily found in Thailand's more recognizable beach destinations.
When you think of Thailand’s beach destinations, the likes of Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, Pattaya and Krabi come to mind. Each has its own allure, yet has been affected in different ways by pollution, over-development or overcrowding. One wonders if there is still a place where age-old Thai traditions are practiced, a place where fishing villages, rubber farmers and fruit sellers maintain a peaceful, albeit sleepy, lifestyle.
Koh Chang is such a place. Since 1982 this secluded island—along with 52 smaller islands—has been part of the Mu Koh Chang Marine National Park, protected from some of the unfortunate plagues that often come with mortgaging a beautiful destination for tourist dollars.
Thais have enjoyed this island for years, but now foreign tourists are beginning to find out about Koh Chang which lies 360 km. from Bangkok, 30 km. from the new airport in Trat or a 30-minute ferry ride from the Laem Ngop fishing village, also in Trat Province.
Weighing in at 30 km. long and 14 km. wide, Koh Chang is Thailand's second largest island (after Phuket) and is a tropical paradise of white sandy beaches, crystal blue waters and immaculate emerald rainforest. The mountainous interior of the island is largely undisturbed. It’s dense with indigenous flora and fauna including wild deer and pig.
Nature lovers are often surprised by the frequency with which they encounter rarer animals such as the stump-tailed macaque, the small Indian Civet, the Javanese Mongoose, the once-thought extinct Koh Chang Wart Frog and any one of 61 resident bird species.
At the moment, Koh Chang sees about 655,000 tourists each year, two-thirds of whom are Thai. Though local residents and the Thai government have gone to great lengths to preserve the island's natural environment,
including legislation that prohibits using any of Koh Chang's jungles for building materials, there is a palpable feeling of wanting to increase the island's profile by delving into the lucrative foreign tourism market.Despite being 85 percent covered in tropical rainforest, with the entire east coast passable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles through steep mountain roads, residents of Koh Chang have in the last 10 years begun seeing small pockets of development.
There are 25 luxury resorts and holistic spas and almost 100 smaller, bungalow-style lodgings. Still, tropical villages appear in the most unlikely of places and disappear into the jungle just as quickly.
Transport vans hitch and jerk their way to their passengers’ chosen destinations on the two-lane road circumventing Koh Chang. As you soak in the amazing views, you hardly notice it takes nearly two hours to make the 64-km. trip. This is life on Koh Chang. If you are escaping the hectic pace of Tokyo, you’ll appreciate getting nowhere fast.
Best of the Beaches
Whether you're into a lazy afternoon paddle to an uninhabited island, sipping rum from coconuts, scuba diving with sea turtles, nude sunbathing with gypsies, napping in a traditional Thai hammock or snorkeling amidst the vibrant coral reefs, Koh Chang's beaches have it all—sans the crowds.
Hat Sai Khao (White Sand Beach). This powdery white beach is the longest beach on Koh Chang and home to the island's most popular bars, clubs and restaurants. Every driver knows where it is, and most tourists can recall stories of fun water sports by day and exploits at night.
Hat Kai Bae. A major beach on the west coast, Kai Bae is fantastic for snorkeling in the crystal blue waters and keeping the sun off your face beneath huge palm groves. This is one of Koh Chang's best places to enjoy the sunset.
Hat Klong Prao. Home to many of the island’s top resorts, Hat Klong Prao is an exclusive beach with a great variety of restaurants, water sports and first-class digs, buttressed by emerald green rainforests. Lodging here is expensive; everything else is not.
Ao Klong Son. Located on the northern side of the island, this white sandy beach features nice coral reefs and is lined with pine trees.
Beyond the Beach
Thailand is famous for its beach parties, lady boys, spicy food and ridiculously strong drinks. But away from the beaches of Koh Chang, there are a myriad of adventures to be had.
Treetop Adventure Park
Operated by Nantapol Khaimuk, this amazing one-day course is literally a chance to swing among the treetops. Set high above the forest floor, there are red (beginner) and blue (challenging) courses featuring everything from ripcords and tightropes to rope ladders.
Visitors are harnessed to safety cables and put through a series of obstacles that test strength, endurance, balance coordination and courage. It's a rush and it's sometimes frightening, but they adhere to extremely stringent European safety standards, and they've never had a safety mishap.
Although some require a small entrance fee, if you've never experienced bathing in serene pools of fresh water cascading out of the rainforest, it's an experience to remember. Than Mayom and Klong Plu are two of the better known waterfalls on the island and both offer three levels of progressively higher falls, a challenging climb to the top and camping facilities. Klong Nonsi and Kiripet are medium-sized waterfalls to which you can hike in about an hour, while Klong Nueng is the tallest of Koh Chang's waterfalls with the most challenging climb.
If elephant trekking is your thing, Chang Chutiman Tour and the Klong Son Elephant Camp offer this tourist attraction (albeit overrated—not to mention quite sad—in this writer’s opinion).
While the former charges 900 Baht for a two-hour trek into the jungle, the latter charges the same amount for a 90-minute tour and is supported by the Asian Elephant Foundation. The tour offers visitors transportation, bathing and feeding performances, drinking water and bananas and coconuts for feeding the elephants.
Koh Chang is located in Trat Province. The island can be reached by taxi or bus in about five hours from Bangkok’s Ekamai Station There are also daily flights from Bangkok to Trat on Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com), which take 50 minutes, and it’s also accessible by sky train. Boats and car ferries leave Trat Pier and take about 20 minutes.
Once on the island, motorbikes are widely available for rent (US$5-10 per day). Public transportation can be found in the form of pick-up trucks fitted with two rows of seats and a roof rack.
Koh Chang features a number of beautiful, world-class resorts, all of which offer their own version of the Koh Chang experience.
Aana Resort & Spa: www.aanaresort.com
Aiyapura Resort & Spa: www.aiyapura.com
Amari Emerald Cove: www.amari.com
Barali Beach Resort: www.baraliresort.com
Koh Chang Tropicana: www.kohchangtropicana.net
Ramayana Koh Chang Resort & Spa: www.ramayana.co.th
Thailand is perhaps the world's foremost destination for relaxation, rejuvenation and detoxification. Koh Chang and the surrounding provinces are filled with luxury spa resorts specializing in meditation, fasting and achieving emotional clarity.
Lotus Star Holistic Centre: www.lotus-star.com
Rainbow Arokaya Holistic Health Paradise: www.rainbowarokaya.com
The SPA Koh Chang: www.thesparesorts.net