Exploring an under-traveled Thai island
It’s 10 o’clock in the morning. The breeze is calm, the tide is gentle and the elderly Englishmen nearby have just ordered their first round. Island life is good. The allure of Thai islands is no secret, and throughout history travelers have been coming to the Land of Smiles for much needed rest and relaxation. Ko Chang, or Elephant Island, situated in the northeast corner of the Gulf of Thailand, is the second-largest Thai island. Despite being in the land of tourism, the island has retained remarkable charm.
I selected Ko Chang over more popular islands such as Ko Samui or Phuket because of descriptions I had read online and in guidebooks. Most describe Ko Chang as slower-paced and ideal for vacationing families, a con in some travelers’ reviews. However, the majority of reviews loved Ko Chang’s atmosphere and the fact that it is not known as a party island.
As my overly stuffed tuk-tuk pulled up to my resort I thought about the scene in “Apocalypse Now” when the men arrive at Colonel Kurtz’s compound by boat. (You know, the scene with impaled heads, intimidating villagers and the maniacal photographer?) Well, Kurtz’s lush Shangri-La of a compound was just what this resort resembled, and the sounds of tropical birds and lapping waves only added to the sense of seclusion. The rudimentary check-in was followed by a walk along the beach with a Singha in hand, never a bad way to cap off a full day of traveling. The sense of enjoyment was almost tactile.
After several days of slowly winding my way through the surrounding landscape, I was ready to take part in some of the numerous activities Ko Chang had to offer: island hikes that lead to waterfalls, sustainable elephant trekking, scuba diving and snorkeling and boat trips through Ko Chang’s surrounding islands. I mostly enjoyed my time on a daylong boat trip through the surrounding islands. The staff, mostly made up of 20-somethings, kept me and a couple other passengers in stitches with their antics. These guys weren’t simply treating us like dollar signs; they seemed to genuinely enjoy showing us the views surrounding Ko Chang.
The crew attempted to teach me how to catch fish with my hands (which I couldn’t do) and how to properly maneuver a sea kayak (which I cannot wait to do again). If you do decide to see the surrounding ocean, hiring a local crew and negotiating your fee directly, with the captain bypassing package tours, will help sustain the local economy. If possible ask to visit Ko Wai, one of the most scenic beaches I have ever visited. There isn’t a lot to do on the island but a dip in the crystal-clear water and a visit to the island’s sea turtle nursery warrant a visit. The highlight of my day was enjoying the laughs with a couple crew members on the back of the boat while they showed me how to grill squid on a hibachi. The chili oil served with the squid still makes me salivate.
Rather than spending much time in the hotel, I walked the beaches and talked to countless people. As a result I saw the value of gaining a local perspective. Any attempt to sum up Ko Chang as a relaxing destination would simply fall short. Ko Chang is a place of character and must be experienced first-hand. Sadly, like most of its relatives, Ko Chang is slowly changing and a few beaches have already begun hosting Full Moon parties. Get to Ko Chang soon before this quaint little beach develops any further and the guesthouses are all owned by foreigners.
Ecotourism – Hiking, kayak rentals and village homestays are all great ways to help the locals who live near Ko Chang’s mangrove swamps, in Ao Salak Kok bay. Help keep the resort developers away by supporting the local fishermen and guides.
Volunteering – The Koh Chang Pony Rehabilitation Project saves and rehabilitates mistreated horses and ponies. Stop by for a chance to help feed, clean or exercise these animals that are awaiting adoption.