Thailand is certainly a land of contrasts. Bustling Bangkok and its environs, Chiang Mai surrounded by lush, green mountains and fascinating tribal cultures, Phuket, Koh Samui, Krabi and like islands, each with their own flavours and lots more in between.
Having toured all of these places, as well as other less known regions, there was one glaring omission…that of Thailand’s third largest island, Koh Chang, so that’s where I headed to in February of this year.
Of course, being an island without an airport meant getting there by other means. From Bangkok (assuming one starts from there) flying is possible to the mainland town of Trat, then onwards by road to the ferry point, the actual ocean crossing, then onwards again by road to the chosen hotel.
Another alternative is by public transport (bus) and yet a third by private car. So which is best?
- Flying means getting to Bangkok airport from the city…average time 1 hour plus, baggage check-in, then a two hour wait before boarding an aircraft followed by a one hour flight, baggage collected and into a taxi, a twenty minute drive to the ferry point and onwards. Total time to Koh Chang…6 hours or more.
- By public bus…once having arrived at the Bangkok bus terminal from a city hotel, the drive south takes an average of 7 hours.
- By private chauffeured car…Pick-up from city hotel, luggage in the boot, the drive south in an a/c car, two convenience stops en route, drive on to ferry, drive off at Koh Chang and stay in the car until arrival at one’s chosen hotel – a seamless process with one’s luggage only handled twice (in and out of the boot). Overall travelling time approx 5 hours.
For convenience, the latter is a ‘no brainer’ but costs more. In my case (solo passenger) TBT 4100 (approx £90 at current exchange rate) but of course if travelling as a couple, half that.
Anyway, that’s the method I chose and thoroughly enjoyed the ride and the scenic countryside passed through.
Koh Chang, geographically, is like an up-turned 429km square jelly mould, its entire central mass consisting of mountain ridges covered in dense forest and more or less uninhabited. The indigenous population and by far the majority of tourists live or visit the West Coast and the three popular beach areas of White Sands, Klong Prao and Lonely Beach.
Probably the only time tourists head inland and upwards, is to visit one or more of the island’s waterfalls of which there are seven. None of them are large, like those found in Laos but do make up for that by being able to swim at the base of most. I only visited two – Klong Plu – the nearest to my hotel with a 10 metre fall and a twenty minute trek from a car drop off, which triggers the urge to check your swimming trunks are where they should be and dive into the cool refreshing water…and the second, named Than Mayon located at the South East of the island, which has four levels.
Neither fall (excuse the pun) into the category of ‘spectacular’ but are still worth the effort needed to reach them, especially level four of Than Mayon, which is a fair old trek for those with ancient bones.
To enable me to experience various grades of hotel accommodation, my ‘homework’ had led me to book three very different places on the island’s west coast…a small riverside guesthouse with only five rooms – Baan Rim Nam – the newly named Santhiya Tree Resort (formally the Panviman) a resort hotel built in traditional Thai style with high, curving roofs – and the very modern Awa hotel. All three were sited on the popular Klong Prao Beach.
*Baan Rim Nam has great charm. Five timber ex-fisherman’s cottages have been converted into totally functional A/C bungalows. The place is owned and run by a Yorkshire guy and his Thai wife. He, Ian, is the most laid back chap I have ever met…she, Mam, a delightful smiley lady who only seems to be alive to please guests.
Step out of your room door, walk five paces and you find yourself on a polished wooden deck, on stilts, overlooking a peaceful flowing river. Slonk onto one of the bamboo chairs for an hour’s read or tablet/internet catch up. Then, lower yourself into one of the free to use anytime kayaks and paddle downstream a couple of hundred yards to the Andaman Sea, or go upstream along the winding and narrowing river lined with mangrove trees. Whichever way, doing so at sunset is an experience never to be forgotten.
Hungry after all that paddling? Okay, take a shower, glance across the river at one of the restaurants lining the bank, have a word with Ian, pick one and ten minutes later you’re into a boat and deposited at its simple wharf.
I stayed three nights but wished I’d booked a lot more.
*On to the next place I was to lay my head, the Santhiya Tree Resort. Built on many acres, curving pathways lead this way and that to the individual rooms…well, that’s really a misnomer, because each is actually a bungalow built in Thai style. Once inside, even a seasoned old codger in his mid eighties like myself emitted a ‘gasp’.
More than large enough to swing the proverbial cat, there against one wall, was a fourposter bed draped with a mosquito net, another wall taken with two wardrobes, flatscreen TV and drawer sets, a third boasting a fully equipped writing desk, fridge/mini bar, coffee/tea making utensils etc, while the fourth consisted entirely of windows and a door leading to a teakwood balcony.
The bathroom was equally amazing. A mosaic tiled open shaped jacuzzi tub large enough for two, above which was a crafted waterfall built with polished stones each about the size of an apple, down which, water of the temperature one had set, cascaded into the tub..hmmm!
Naturally, with a resort of this type, all its other features such as swimming pools, restaurants, beach chairs, nightly live entertainment, came as standard, so enough said.
*The third hotel was so, so, different. Only two years old it was modern in the extreme. Named the Awa (I tried hard to find an English translation of the word but failed!). Built almost entirely of concrete, the most ‘odd’ thing was the colour scheme…or rather the lack of it. Black, dark grey and white featured throughout, whether on walls, ceiling, pillars, in the public areas or in one’s room. I did speak with a number of guests about such a restricted palette – some liked it but the majority felt it was out of place on such an island as Koh Chang.
Fittingly, the rooms were equally modern and very stylish, sporting the amenities a guest would expect, yet the overall feel didn’t seem to emit the welcome that the more traditional Thai built hotels had.
So, what about the facilities and activities? The large, oblong restaurant was of the ‘half in – half out’ type. Because of my normal penchant of sampling local eating places, I only used it for breakfasts. They were okay but nothing out of the ordinary. What was quite obvious to me, was the uncertainty of many of the staff, mostly young girls, who seemed reluctant to carry out their duties efficiently – perhaps, because the hotel was still in its embryonic stage, the necessary level of training had not yet been reached?
The beach front area was popular and kept spotlessly clean, with more than enough loungers and parasols to cater for the demand and the hotel’s own nearby Thai Traditional Massage set up was nearly always in use.
One thing the hotel management were either not aware of, or not able to find an answer to, was the age old and recurring problem of poolside loungers being ‘reserved’ early each morning, by the placement of books (guess in what language?) newspapers or towels upon them. This really was a big problem, made worse by the fact that loungers were limited to one side of the swimming pool only, because of its design and positioning.
No matter what time of the day one observed the pool, it was invariably devoid of actual bathers, as the small number of loungers were fully occupied, thus preventing any other guest from having a place to put their towel and belongings before taking a swim. On numerous occasions, I overheard guests complaining to each other, which was upsetting to say the least.
The practice had always irked me, so in the spirit of helpfulness, I sought out the senior management to put the point. It was well received and fully understood. I was told how frustrated they were but had not devised a strategy to deal with it. I offered mine. It was very much welcomed but, of course, I do not know how successful it was – if at all instigated?
Most hotels located on the beach but if somewhat inland from the region’s main shopping street, provide a frequent minibus service to and from at convenient times. There were used to capacity at peak hours coinciding with urges to sample some of the local cuisine in restaurants and pavement food stalls, as well as doing some haggling with eager shopkeepers. There were plenty of both to fulfil most folk’s needs.
Enough about hotels, what else did the island have to offer in addition to the waterfalls I wrote about earlier? Well, being an island with warm sea waters all around it, my first choice was to seek out the best of the many companies which offered full day boat trips to the outer isles and included snorkelling (with equipment), comfort, good food, expert local knowledge and affordable. Good shopping list, eh?
One company seemed to ‘fit the bill’, called quirkily, ‘ThaiFun’. Their boat is 24 metres long and sports three decks.
My day went like this:-
From my hotel’s beach line, I wait a few minutes, holding my small haversack and towel…camera at the ready…and watch the boat cruising parallel to the shore at a distance of about 200 metres, then, from its stern appears a sporty looking speedboat, which veers right and heads towards we three booked clients.
Its bow skimmed up the sand, we climbed in and headed out towards the ThaiFun. This scenario was repeated three times along the beachfront until all passengers were on board. Big engines growled and we were soon pointing westward and out to sea.
Our ‘host’, an amenable and jovial woman with a black eye patch, gathered us around her, when, with a mixture of humour and warnings, outlined the safety rules, introduced the other four members of the crew (all male) who were to cater for any of our needs and explained what was available in the way of snacks and drinks at anytime during the nine hour day.
The boat was very stable indeed, easily coping with the gentle ocean swell. Each deck had comfortable basket-ware chairs for the less energetic and plenty of wandering around areas from where to point a camera.
During the cruise, the boat dropped anchor twice near the small islands listed on the itinerary to enable those who wished to go snorkelling (mask and snorkel provided FOC) or for a simple cooling swim. A platform at the stern made for easy entry and return.
The first of the islands did not have any coral surrounding it, so your truly, after a chat with our lady host, let that one pass by, as, according to her, the second island that we would reach after lunch, did indeed benefit from a small coral reef.
Talking about lunch, what a buffet that turned out to be! A long table was almost overloaded with a display of dishes, mostly Thai cuisine, crisp fresh salads, cold dips and sauces, hot offerings of different meats, rice and vegetables, not to mention an array of fruits. Beer, at surprisingly low prices, was available at any time, as were non alcoholic drinks, coffee or tea. Believe me, there were no grumbles.
An hour or so later – after digesting lunch – we arrived at island number two and the word had spread about the clear waters and abundant coral. That meant, for the first time since climbing aboard, we needed to queue, don our masks and decide which way to enter the water…step down onto the platform for an easy soft way into the sea, or like about half the more experienced (such as myself) a leap from deck level resulting in a big splash.
I suppose I should admit right now, that one decision I made was stupid. Having suffered two heart attacks and being told firmly by doctors that my Scuba Diving days were over – and that I should always be aware of the pressure differences at various depths when snorkelling, which I was permitted to do, I got carried away.
Floating on the surface over the coral reef some 30 or so feet below, I spotted through the very clear turquoise water, a medium sized octopus skim across the coral and slip into a crevice. ‘That’s more like it’ I said to myself, filled my lungs with air, jack-knifed and sped down to the sea bed. Through ten feet – great – equalise ear pressure – no problem, – keep going – yippee!
Just before the 30 foot mark it hit. A large invisible ‘hand’ grasped me around the chest and tightened like a vice. Oops…yes, I knew what had happened. As Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army would have said… “Don’t Panic” and with those words in my head, I headed slowly towards the surface, one arm pressed against my chest. As is usual when folk snorkel in a group, one keeps an eye on everyone around, which is why, moments after I broke the surface, two guys grabbed me. Suffice it to say, things turned out okay, which is why I’m able to write this piece. (Didn’t tell my wife till I arrived home!!!!!!)
Listen to your doctor!
With the sun now well past its zenith, we headed back to Koh Chang, chugging along at around 7 knots on a calm, glistening surface. ‘Tea up’ came the cry (or words to that effect). Yet again the large table was laid with cups and saucers, arranged in a cleverly designed pattern, alongside of which were the urns of coffee and tea as well as plates laden with cakes. I did participate and soon afterwards ordered a beer…hey! I was supposed to be on holiday after all.
Thinking to keep my hand and eye coordination somewhat up to date, I was tempted when reading a ‘flyer’, to visit the shooting range, Baan Look Chang and let off a few rounds. Not knowing just how this company operated and exactly which weapons were available to the public to fire and what cameras could I bring with me, I emailed to ask. Two days later I did receive a reply to the effect that the weapons were as described in the leaflet but that under no circumstances could I take any photographs. Totally mystified at such a response I did not visit.
As I said earlier, the eastern side of Koh Chang is much less developed and quieter, yet, I was informed, just as beautiful. To see and experience most of the highlights in a single day’s tour, I was struggling to find a way to do so. Then, on asking Ian, (remember him?) he steered me towards a company which had designed a tour to accomplish that very task. Named Evolution Tour, it is Danish owned and locally managed by a young Swedish guy called Jonas. He happily came to my hotel and over cups of lemon tea (honest!) drank in the shade of my room’s balcony, he described what was on offer. It fitted the bill perfectly.
At 0830hrs the next morning, his driver and guide…a local Thai girl brimming with knowledge, arrived at my hotel entrance in a fully air-conditioned, late model minivan. I got aboard and met the other five folk which had been picked up earlier.
Our first stop was at a Chinese Spirit House built on the top of a hill. The climb up a long, steep flight of steps wasn’t too bad at that early time of day, although I admit to being last to reach the top.
Ornate would be an understatement. Bright colours (predominately red) dazzled one’s eyes at every angle. One hundred metre long, snaking dragon’s tails, decorated with green mosaic tiles led up to oriental displays of statues, figurines of animals, typical Chinese building structures and brilliantly painted murals. Definitely worth every minute of the half hour spent there…and of course, going down the steps was a welcome way to end..
The road onwards not only twisted and turned – reminiscent of Hardknott Pass in the English Lake District, but took most of the van’s engine power when faced a number of times with a one in three climb. But…the next time it stopped was certainly to become the highlight of the entire day.
We alighted, walked across a small piece of treeless ground then stared at a sign screwed onto the side of a wooden building. It read ‘KINDERGARDEN’. Our guide, her face beaming a wide smile, ushered us though a doorway and into a classroom about the size of a badminton court. At some ten or so small, round tables, barely a foot off the floor, sat perhaps thirty pupils, boys and girls aged around six years of age, all busily poring over writing books, modelling plasticine, colouring and doing stuff only children of that age could imagine.
Then, when ‘given the nod’ by one of the two teachers, our guide hinted that we Farangs (white Europeans) could interact with the children as we pleased. That set the whole place into a frantic, screaming, delightfully happy bunch of kids reacting to one of our group, a middle aged Dane who plonked himself on the floor, held out his arms and made ‘growling noises’ in a playful, semi intimidating way, which triggered the children’s imagination. He became an ogre.
We onlookers could do little but point cameras and capture the moments. Certainly the most entertaining and beautiful sequence of film my camcorder has ever taken, Truly magical.
Everything good always has to end. There were ‘High Fives’, ‘Bye Byes’, lots of waving and laughing and quite a few moist-looking eyes when we left the building. That experience alone was worth the cost of the entire trip.
Onwards then to a Buddhist Temple. Although similarities exist between every such, none are the same. We six were not the only tourists admiring the architecture and the often exquisite renderings of artefacts found within. Such visits are always reverential – a place to quieten one’s mind, to perhaps even meditate for a little while. Having been to many all over the country, I am never surprised when my travelling companions climb back into a minivan without speaking and with a calmness not previously displayed. Maybe not ‘enlightenment’ but at least affected.
Southwards once more saw us reach Salak Khok, an area composed of small villages where various professions practice their skills. First stop was to a rubber plantation and a close up demonstration of just how this precious commodity is still harvested and sold on a global scale. Whilst my companions (Scandinavians and Germans) clustered around watching the white gum run down the angled knife cut in the bark, I wandered off among the perfectly aligned rows of mature rubber trees.
When far enough in, the sun’s rays being filtered by the leaves high above and creating darkening gloom, I went all nostalgic, my mind going back to the days when my comrades and I trod the same paths warily, constantly aware that at any moment, a man with a red star on his cap and carrying a an AK47 or an old Korean war leftover submachine gun, would pop up and start firing. I shouldered off those memories and rejoined the group.
Next stop Venice! Well, of course not the one where black gondolas are paddled along canals and under famous bridges…but a small fishing village some one mile inland from the sea. Floating on the river in a group were wooden craft, their oarsman dressed in traditional garb balanced on the tiny rear platform, waiting to be called in order so that a maximum of four people could step gingerly onboard from a makeshift timber decking, squash themselves either side of a what one could call a table and watch as the post of a parasol was slotted into a hole in that table and opened.
The only sounds thereafter were those made by the oarsman in a stroke style I had not witnessed before…cross handed. However, it worked perfectly as he steered his craft until reaching the point where the sea and the river met before with deft strokes, circled around and took us back to base. A peaceful and quiet sojourn which lasted about an hour.
Just south of the village there is an unusual construction indeed….a sturdy walkway made from timber, ten feet or so high, that meandered for half a mile through a mangrove forest. Looking over its sides one could see just how some of the species ‘dropped’ their seedlings into the few inches deep sea water to then sprout vertically, while others had developed different ways to propagate. Not a sight folk can get whilst gazing from the gunwales of a boat. Interesting and informative.
I suspect that our guide knew from experience, just how much exercise we Farangs could endure without rest and sustenance, so, on return to the minivan we were greeted by the driver handing out scented and deliciously cold face towels. That pleasure was added to, when our guide informed us that our next stop was at a fish farm to which attached was a very popular restaurant.
While our reserved table was being set, we strolled along the wooden decking which separated the fish growing and harvesting netted pens. We watched as small bait fish were dropped into each pen and the maelstrom that followed when the captive fish pounced. Within seconds, the water surface went from flat calm to a volcanic like eruption and back again…it was only during that short time that the type and size of those ‘soon to be on the menu’ could be seen.
Needless to say, the mood around our dining table was a happy one. Really tasty dishes just kept coming, accompanied of course with an abundance of the ordered local brew ‘Chang’. It was a time to reflect and chat among ourselves how our day of exploring some of the East Coast had been and whether, now, nearing its end and imbibing, what were the high and low points. The verdict was unanimous…the children’s school visit topped the list and every other experience had been worthwhile and enjoyable.
Refreshed, rested and satisfied, we climbed into the minibus for the last time and watched the scenery pass by until our respective hotels were reached.
There is no doubt in my mind that people choosing Koh Chang as a holiday destination will not be disappointed. Nothing like Phuket and Ko Samui with their Go-Go bars, ‘dodgy’ massage parlours, raging night life and drunken brawls…instead, an island at peace with itself, whose population welcome foreigners into their midst more as guests than merely as cash cows.
In conclusion, then, my stay exceeded expectations as a solo traveller and my observations as to how couples and families seemed equally satisfied.
Well done Koh Chang – and as Arni would say…”I’ll be Back!”