Holiday in Ko Chang
If you squirm at the thought of vacationing on a tiny island with limited resources but still want to experience an island paradise, Ko Chang, appropriately nicknamed the “Beast of the East” might just soothe your anxious minds and tensed muscles.
Ko Chang or “Elephant Island” is a humungous mass of land (but even with an area of 217 square kilometres, Ko Samui and Phuket are still bigger) located east of the Gulf of Thailand just a hop skip and a stone’s throw away from Cambodia. Its terrain is mostly towering mountains and inland, wild jungles and if you glance at it on a map, the whole island is shaped like an elephant’s head (ergo, where it got its name). If you ask some locals where the island got its name, though, you might get two versions of the same story. The first version was derived from numerous mountains present resembling a lying-on-its-back elephant while the second version is a local legend telling the tale of a mischievous but tamed elephant that had three elephant offspring that drowned en route a very tedious swim back to the mainland (since apparently, elephants are not native to the island). The site of drowning, they say coincidentally is also the location of three larger than usual boulders found at the north coast of Ko Chang even to this day.
At Ko Chang, you will see not only overwhelming mountains but also other creations of nature like its eight waterfalls. Khlong Neung is the tallest at a height of 120 metres. At 744 metres, on the other hand, stands the highest point of Khao Salak Phet.
Its jungles are home to so many exotic birds, reptiles, mammals and other wildlife while the oceans around it are favourite hangout spots of dolphins and other marine creatures. Even with this kind of environment, however, Ko Chang is not all wild and rugged. The tourism industry has drastically changed its beaches, main livelihood of the locals, infrastructure and most of its inland parts.
The Ko Chang of today is the site of a plethora of accommodation offerings and more are being built as of writing. All available spaces around the area of Haad Sai Khao Beach have been paved to allow for the building of stores, speciality tourist shops, hotels, restaurants and bars. Nearby Kai Bae and Khlong Prao are next in line adopting the same type of development.
But no one can deny that Ko Chang is still far behind the progress achieved over at Phuket. The only available transport is still via car ferry which is probably the reason why construction efforts are still moderately slow. The eastern areas of Ko Chang like Salak Phet, Dan Mai and Salak Khok are still actively engaged in the fishing industry while those areas near the west coast are still teeming with rubber, banana and pomelo trees.
For a brief historical account of Ko Chang, it is interesting to know that it was originally settled by fisher folks from the Khmer and Thai region together with a few Chinese traders. Two tragedies also happened here. One highly hyped up event by the Thais happened at the Salak Phet Bay which involved the defeat of a Thai battalion called the Thonburi in 1941, courtesy of the naval armaments of France. And two, was the seldom talked about and strongly kept under the rug event in the 1980s which involved the purportedly permitted killings of several boat people from Vietnam. For over a decade, the island was off limits until the tourism industry opened up its doors once again.
Although the sands on Ko Chang’s beaches possess that lacklustre quality compared to those found in neighbouring islands, they have their own merits. Haad Sai Khao is the vastest beach there is while Bang Bao and Lonely Beach have the most pristine waters and picture-perfect surroundings.
At Ko Chang, you will be presented with many activities like diving and snorkelling escapades in the coral reef vicinities, dirt bike and / or elephant touring along the coast of the southeast and forest trekking for some magnificent site seeing moments of the island’s many mountains and waterfalls. If you’re aching for more, you have as many as 51 other islands in the whole archipelago of Ko Chang to discover like Ko Maak and Ko Kut.
A Virtual Tour
There is an upturned, “U” shaped road servicing the towns found in the southwest like Salak Phet, towns in the east and west, a couple of piers up north and back into the southwest town of Ao Bang Bao. The latter is where you can catch a ride on the boats headed towards the islands of Ko Kut, Ko Maak, etc.
Ao Bang Bao, unfortunately, is not connected to Salak Phet by a decent road so if you must travel this route, you have to motorbike a good three hours, non-stop, passing by a connecting road construction, abandoned many years ago which was supposed to finish the loop.
We must caution you when traversing most routes on the island because the turns and twists do get challenging, especially those that unite the area of Haad Sai Khao to Khlong Son, Lonely Beach to Kai Bae and Long Beach to Salak Khok. Reaction driving time do get limited and even the most experienced drivers of songthaews and minibuses meet unfavourable fates, especially when going at high speeds.
The beaches, located mostly around the west coast, have their own unique and particular characters.
The locally themed beach can be seen at Khlong Son, where visitors chasing that elusive rest and relaxation find solace in the many secluded bays and roads.
Haad Sai Khao, south of Khlong Son, is the most progressive area on the island. Here, you will find so many run of the mill accommodations, give or take a few peculiar economical and average priced resorts found around the northern part. The photo bomber of an area at this beach is the strings of stores, souvenir shops, and some shady pubs.
Chai Chet, located south, is a village that seem to be out of place with its many businesses lined up along its major road. It has a night market and a supermarket, motorcycle shops, butcher, a hardware store and a pretty respectable beach. To top it off, it even has its own “red-light” district towards the northern part where several residents (majority expats) have become regular customers, drinking and hanging out.
Moving along, you will pass by the beaches of Khlong Prao. The beaches here spans over a couple of kilometres and are just being developed. The main road is home to many tourism-related amenities such as restaurants and shops (clustered around the southern part). In this town, you will see as well a discreet section inhabited by numerous, low-income Cambodian workers. A local school named Study Buddies can also be found here where resident children satisfy their academic needs. We highly recommend you do your share by donating whatever you can to this establishment.
Another town named Kai Bae is where you will find more travel offices, restaurants (serving an array of international fusion cuisine) and a decent beach which makes it a favourite hangout of couples, groups travelling with children and all sorts of visitors from Russia, Scandinavia and all parts of Europe.
A little further journey of another couple of hours will take you to Lonely Beach, the hotspots for the bohemian and carefree backpacker aficionado. This beach, although really tiny, is where you can find the cheapest accommodation there is on the island. Its party life is also notable. A few minutes’ walk south will take you to the village of Ao Bailan. The beach here is pretty rocky but it seems to attract so many of your typical family groups, backpackers and flash packers perhaps due to its calm ambience.
Further from Ao Bailan is the quaint town of Ao Bang Bao, a fishing village turned completely into a tourism centre. It has a fairly lengthy pier (about 700 metres long) dotted by little resorts located on its east side. Khlong Kloi, west of the pier, is another peaceful beach frequented by extended visitors and “flower children”.
Ko Chang’s coastal shores located towards the east are lined up with mangrove trees and boulders but you can easily discover your very own nook for some quick picnic or swimming. You can motorbike to check out the villages of Salak Phet or Salak Khok but take note, however, that the road that leads to Long Beach is pretty rough. This unfortunate fact is somehow watered down with the area’s amazingly breathtaking vistas, peaceful atmosphere and a handful of bungalows and home stays.
For your currency needs, Ko Chang is packed with money changers and ATM machines. At its major towns, like Haad Sai Khao for example, are full service banks. From here to Khlong Prao is a Bangkok Hospital-run clinic catering to international visitors, which charges around 4,000 baht minimum no matter how serious of non-serious your ailment or situation might be. If you happen to have travel insurance, this establishment will honour it but if you don’t then we recommend heading over to the east coast to the more economical hospital in Dan Mai, the Koh Chang Hospital, or to a smaller clinic at Khlong Prao. Also at Dan Mai is the island’s main police office but there are plenty of tourist police found at Ko Chang’s western areas.
July to October is Ko Chang’s monsoon season when most resorts operate with a skeleton staff but you’re still more than welcome to come over during these months especially if you love the isolation and the half off rates.