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Koh Chang
A great place to hang even if you're not an elephant


"In the past, things Chang never really did it for me.  The Thai market-leading beer, Chang Classic, tastes bitter and artificial. In university, my lab partner Teddy Chang routinely stole my lab notes and claimed them as his own.  The Chang Naga tribe in India cooked some really horrible curries.  And as a kid, I remember reading about the Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker who had a fused liver.  How depressing!  Things Chang all chang-ed after I got to Koh Chang.  Chang-ing could be fun for a change."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


In Thai, the word 'chang' chang means elephant.  Because the most popular beer in Thailand is also called Chang, and visitors see the English word often as a result, it's normal to mispronounce.   I tend to pronounce chang as if it rhymes with hang, bang, or fang.  Actually, it's pronounced as if it rhymes with bong, thong, and wrong, three things partying tourists to Koh Chang may encounter if they go to the earthier pickup bars.  

Koh Chang family tripKoh Chang is Thailand's third largest island.  [For fact seekers, Phuket is the largest, and Koh Samui is the second largest, just 10 sq km bigger than Koh Chang]   Located in Trat province in eastern Thailand, just an hour's drive from the Cambodian border, the island just doesn't register on peoples' minds as an idyllic paradise, not in the way Samui and Phuket do.  Koh Samui and Phuket have been open a lot longer for tourism.  Koh Chang saw a smattering of roughhewn backpackers in the 1990's.   A friend of mine from Washington, Burma Mike, visited in 1991 and seduced backpacker virgins on virgin beaches.  My brother went in 1992.  There were no roads and electricity was limited.  Sounds much like Koh Tao did when I first visited in '94.  The masses stayed away back then. 

Koh Chang has a selling point the other islands don't, and that is its proximity to Bangkok.  Koh Samui is 775 km away from the Kok and involves a long bus ride to Suratthani and then a ferry.  Or a 12-hour train ride and then a ferry. Or a relatively expensive plane fare on Bangkok Airways, the only airline which makes the fight and owns the airport in Samui.   Phuket is even further.  Over 850 km from the Kok, although low cost airlines ply this route. 

Koh Chang is only 315 km away from the Kok and inexpensive air-con buses make the trip.   I timed it.  It's a 6-hour journey door-to-door.  Even if you flew to Samui or Phuket, a more expensive undertaking, you'll expend time taking a taxi or train to the airport in the Kok, checking in, waiting around to board, and then collecting your baggage on the other end, not really saving much time compared to a trip to Koh Chang.

To describe it in one simple sentence, Koh Chang is the nicest, most economical tropical island you can get to from Bangkok with a minimum of effort. 

Klong Plu waterfall

It's waterfall mania and elephant imagery all over Koh Chang -- Klong Plu, Koh Chang's showpiece

Doug's History With Koh Chang


It's a brief one.  I never thought about the place.

When I returned to Thailand from Cambodia for the first time in June 2007, I left Cambodia via Sihanoukville.  The busKoh Chang jungle trek stopped in Trat and everyone but me got off to get on a boat to Koh Chang.   My thoughts were that the island must've ascended the heights of banana pancake trail backpacker respectability.   Thailand has lots and lots of islands.  Not stopping off to see one more didn't seem like the end of the world.  I thought nothing more about the Chang.

Until 2010.  A British friend said he was spending New Year's Eve there with his sister and her fiance.  He raved about Koh Chang.  I didn't pay his raves much mind.  He also raved about the movie Wild Hogs, which got only a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

When I was in Pattaya with my wife in August 2011, I heard he'd gone back to Koh Chang.  His raving was stronger.  Wonderful waterfalls.  Superb food.  Unbelievable nature.  I suggested it to my wife for a family vacation in October. Aside from Phuket, she'd never been to a Thai island before. I don't really count Phuket as an island.  A bridge connects this very large island to the Thai mainland.  My wife was against the idea of going to Koh Chang.  Thailand in October had been ravaged by flooding.  Some waters in the Gulf of Thailand were red from all the dead aqua life, leading some to believe Armageddon was nigh.  It was still rainy season, and Bangkok was getting showers daily.  I rang the hotel she was considering for our stay in Koh Chang and asked about the weather and the water.  When the receptionist told me the last few days were sunny and the waters azure blue, I got my wife -- and her son, who accepted without doubt his mom's insecurities about Thai islands -- to reluctantly agree to go.

Koh Chang map 
     

    
My First Trip To Koh Chang - October 2011

My wife is a hotelier and prefers to stay in higher end places.  I don't mind as long as the accommodation is worth it.  In Thailand, a lot of self proclaimed four-star resorts are barely two-stars.  There are no laws permitting you to sue a hotel that lies about its star rating.  You don't really know what you're getting.  I considered myself lucky she was agreeing to even go.  I booked us two nights at a four-star "resort" on Whitesands Beach, the most developed area of the island, full of the nightlife and widest choice of restaurants.  At USD 50, the room was small, the air-conditioner made the noise of a freight train, and the breakfast was average.  We moved to another beach 15 minutes south on Klong Prao for slightly more cash.  This room had a bigger balcony and a nicer, quieter setting.  At night, we had a private motorboat tour down a narrow waterway adjoining the gulf waters to see the fireflies.  The resort offered free kayaks, and we went on a morning kayak run after breakfast.  

Koh Chang isn't a large island.  About 30 km long and 14 km wide at its widest point.  But it's large enough you don't get bored in one day.  The eastern side lacks considerable development . . . so far. 

We spent one day on motorbikes, driving south from Whitesands to the southern part of the island at Bang Bao Bay.  The road dead ends at the Grand Laguna Resort.  Other maps made it seem like a crude road connects from the Grand Laguna to the eastern side of the island, but we were told there was no road.  Grand Laguna in low season had an admission fee of less than USD 2, entitling one to visit the fun and scenic Prao Talay Waterfall and use the Grand Laguna's pool and kayaks. 

 

kayak koh chang siam bay siam bay pool jungle trek koh chang
Doug missing out on nothing the Chang has to offer - click on any shot to enlarge:  (l to r) Doug kayaking his heart out in Klong Prao; posing in front of the still largely undeveloped jungle near Ta Nam Beach; swimming in the pool ocean side; natural jungle makover during a jungle trek to the island's interior

On another day, we drove our motorbikes to the eastern side of the island all the way to Klong Neung Waterfall. The clouds turned grey, a sign that rain was on its way, and we hightailed it out of there before any real exploration was done.

Koh Chang, itself an island, is surrounded by other smaller islands, some slowing turning into hip relaxed locales of their own, and the hip thing now is to get off the 'developed' island and chillax on the smaller ones.  Places like Koh Wai, Koh Kood, and Koh Mak slide off the hipsters tongue like another dosage of E.

The inexpensive way to see 4 or 5 islands in a day is to book an island tour.  We did this in Krabi and had a memorable experience.  The 4-island tour we booked in Koh Chang was crammed to the gills with tourists, mostly Thais and Russians. It's a good value if you consider that an all-day USD 16 trip gets you lunch, a snack of steamed prawns, fruits, and snorkel gear.  But it was too much package tourism gone wild.  Our already well stuffed boat was met by 6 other boats of similar size wherever we went.  This was cruise ship port tourism at its worst and, thus, probably something you'd love to do.

My Second Trip To Koh Chang - October 2011

My wife, my stepson, myself -- we all left Koh Chang after 4 nights with smiles upon our faces. All good trips must come to an end. The stepson's was due back at school the next day.  The wife had to go to Korea in two days for a family visit.  Tears rolled down our cheeks as we bid our farewells.

Elephant house Koh ChangMeanwhile, in Bangkok, flood warnings in the media were becoming dire.  "At this point it is not a question of if but when . . . inner Bangkok will be inundated by floods," wrote The Nation. Thai MP's were warning that the flooding would last a month.  My wife took the son to Korea and suggested I get the hell out of Bangkok.  Hua Hin, Kanchanaburi, and Pattaya were already flooded with tourists.  The north was out; it had already been flooded.  The south was too far.  I hit on an innovative idea:  go back to Koh Chang! 

Koh Chang fit the bill as an out-of-the-way place to go to that wasn't too out of the way.  On this second trip, I didn't go to Koh Chang from Bangkok.  I first went to Hua Hin to drop my cat off to avoid the impending flood that never came.   To avoid going back to Bangkok with so much traffic on the road, I caught a minibus from Hua Hin to Pattaya.  From Pattaya, I had to catch a series of minibuses, first to Rayong, then to Chantaburi, then to Trat, and then a songthaew to the port.  Five days after I left Koh Chang the first time I was back there for the second.

This time around, I booked no rooms in advance.  Burma Mike, proficient in virgin beach seduction on the island in theKoh Chang Siam Beach early 1990's, had returned to Koh Chang upon my recommendation, to spend a last few days zoning out before he had to return to the U.S.   He invited me to share his luxury beachfront room down in Lonely Beach for his last night.  This 3-star resort had air conditioned hillside bungalows available, including a buffet breakfast and killer views, for just USD 22/night, a better value than the places I'd stayed with my family the previous week.  High season kicked in two days after I arrived, and the resort wanted to double the rates on me.  I moved next door to an outfit owned by relatives of the first resort and into another set of aircon bungalows that were more spacious and better built than the first, this time for only USD 20/night, another incredible value.

This solo outing on the Chang was different than my family trip. I would use the resort pool by day and kayak at sunset and during the day I'd go on outings at my own pace lasting several hours, being as rigorous as I chose.  I visited the Klong Plu Waterfall, the island's best known attraction which my family and I had avoided because of the relatively sky high foreign admission rate.  Solo, speaking a little bit of Thai, I convinced the park cashier to give me the local rate.  My wife would've been too proper to let me work my magic.  Another day, I motorbiked over to the not very popular Klong Chao Luam Waterfall and almost stepped on a snake.  I saw two other snakes on the first level off the falls before I turned around.  Burma Mike had done a one-day 10 km interior jungle trek to Kongoi Waterfall and highly recommended it.  That took up another day.

This second trip lasted a week.

Is Koh Chang Really That Special?

It is now.  Thai island experts would probably say Koh Chang isn't Thailand's nicest island.  And it's not the closest island to Bangkok.  Koh Samet is closer, but also pricier, less spectacular, and much smaller. 

Koh Chang Siam BayKoh Chang, though considerably more developed than it was pre-2000, remains predominantly undeveloped.  Most of the island is a national park, so cannot be developed -- in theory.  There's no inviolate rule in the universe that today's national parks cannot become tomorrow's strip malls. The perimeter of the island isn't national park territory, apart from a small chunk in the island's southeast. The rest of the island's waterfront can and probably eventually will be turned into condos, resorts, theme parks, whatever. You can already see plenty of construction going on on the island's eastern coast.

To see Koh Chang's future course of development look at Koh Samui's and Phuket's past.  For the moment, the island south of Klong Prao retains much of its original national beauty.  Villages are small, accommodation remains exceptionally affordable, the food is delicious and competitively priced.  On other islands, essentials are boated in and markups are high.  Here, things, too, were boated in from Trat province on the mainland, but with the ferry only taking 25 minutes, and paved roads circumnavigating the island, the island price differential isn't very noticeable.  

The island still retains vestiges of the 1990's rustic Thai travel experience, something that is sure to fade as the island's popularity continues to increase and pricey establishments set up base on the island to reap their share of the potential tourism windfalls.  At some point, condo communities will spring up like weeds, with billboard signs every 5 minutes offering studios and one-bedrooms for so many millions of baht. Retirees will relocate here and so will bar-owners bringing their contingents of bargirl sex workers. 

You know how the story continues from there.  Get here before the story changes.


 

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Computer Comprehensive Companion

  Koh Chang is the third largest island in Thailand. You'd be an idiot not come and experience the waterfall culture. Klong Plu anyone? Great developed beaches like Whitesands. Stay in a bungalow and kayak your ass off, mate.