Exploring the vast expanse of the ‘Elephant Isle’
For many seasoned travelers—myself included— Koh Chang, the largest island in the Mu Koh Chang National Park archipelago, has everything a holiday maker could want. And although that summation sounds clichéd, it’s actually quite applicable. The island’s vast 429 sq.km area is as welcoming to upscale guests as it is to budget backpackers, and the terrain offers everything from hiking trails and mountain waterfalls nestled deep in rugged tropical jungle, to the most serenely peaceful stretches of white sand beachfront, stunning coral reefs, and beautiful marine life.
Koh Chang has also seen an incredible amount of development and modernization over the past few decades—some not-so-old residents can still remember a time when the island had no electricity—but despite the ever-increasing number of restaurants, spas, resorts, and recreation spots now open, there’s still an overall laid back feel to the place (something that’s much harder to find in overrun tourist hotspots like Phuket, which now has traffic jams that rival Bangkok).
Getting to Koh Chang still requires some effort, as there is no island airport, and that too keeps the tourist influx to a more manageable level. The boats to Koh Chang are all large car ferries, and they run from 6am to 7:30pm daily, throughout the year, departing from Tha Laem Ngop and Tha Centre Point piers on the mainland in Trat province (timetables and information can be found on www.kohchangferries.com). But once you’ve made the trek, and settled into your resort or guesthouse, the next step is to rent a motorcycle or scooter (about 250 to 350 baht per day, depending upon the make and model) or use the island’s network of song taews and taxis to go exploring. Be aware though that the ideal time to visit is from early October to late May (the dry season), as during the heavy rainy season the steeply inclined mountain roads can become very treacherous.
No trip to an island named Koh Chang—which translates to Elephant Island—would be complete without visiting one of the elephant training camps, where seasoned mahouts take visitors on elephant treks through the jungle forests. Two popular and respected operations are Ban Chang Thai Elephant Camp, centrally located near Klong Prao, and Ban Kwan Chang Elephant Camp, located deep in the jungle at the north end of the island near Klong Son (the latter is supported by Asian Elephant Foundation of Thailand).
The two most frequented waterfalls on Koh Chang are both part of the island’s National Park interior, and therefore both require non-Thai visitors to pay a B200 admission fee. On the western side of the island the Nam Tok Khlong Plu waterfall in Klong Prao (open 8am to 5pm), attracts the most visitors as the lengthy but easy to manage winding forest trail leads directly to the falls. The large tide pool under the falls is also perfect for a cooling afternoon dip, so don’t forget your bathing suit. In addition, a nature walk through the jungle canopy was added a few years ago, which takes about 30 to 40 minutes, so leave yourself ample time if you plan to do both. By contrast, the Than Mayom Waterfall near Dan Mai (open from 8am to 5pm) is located on the island’s eastern side. The lower tier has a refreshing plunge pool, but the 4th tier—by far the most dramatic—is some 5 km inland (accessible only with a private guided trek). Kings Rama V and Rama VII engraved their initials in rocks at different points along the river’s course, so these falls have an added importance with Thai visitors.
Take a trip to the northern end of the island for some lovely cliffside vistas—especially good at sunset—and drop in on the Chinese Buddhist Temple just north of Klong Son. At the southern end of Koh Chang the fishing village of Bang Bao is a great spot for a languorous lunch and some afternoon relaxation. This traditional fishing village features houses built on stilts that overhang the water’s edge, and the Buddha View Restaurant even has a glass floor where diners can overlook the watery depths. This southern enclave is also the spot to access the Bang Bao Boat Service runs daily trips, both slow boats and speedboats, from the Bang Bao pier to the neighbouring islands of Koh Mak and Koh Kood.
The best beaches on Koh Chang are located on island’s western side, and as such they all offer spectacular sunset views. The aptly named White Sand Beach (Hat Sai Khao) to the north is by far the most touristy spot on the island, due in part to the fact that it’s the beach closest to the ferry piers. Everything a visitor needs is within easy walking distance along the busy main street—restaurants, bars, shops, etc.—and the accommodations are mainly 2- and 3-star resorts sitting directly on the beach (although some grander properties are interspersed amongst them). Further south lies Klong Prao Beach, which is the longest beach on the island, although it is cut into three parts by a large estuary in the centre of the beach, and a much smaller one near the south. Accommodations along this serene stretch of sand range from large, luxurious resorts, such as the Centrara Tropicana, The Dewa, and the Emerald Cove Resort to longstanding budget backpacker havens such as KP Huts and Tiger Hut. However, the number of properties is relatively small compared to the length of the beach, so it’s easy to find a quiet spot to swim even in peak season.
Another length of beach that is divided into sections is the charming Kai Bae Beach. The Southern end has the better stretch of sand, and several locally owned bungalow resorts, while the Northern end is home to more upscale properties. Finally, there’s Lonely Beach, which is still ground zero for most budget-minded under 30 visitors to the island—although it’s been moving more upmarket over the years, attracting equal numbers of backpackers and “flashpackers”. The party vibe is in the air at all times, and accommodations run the gamut from cheap guesthouses to higher end properties such as Nest Sense and Warapura Resort.
NOTE: For further information about what to see and do in Koh Chang, including trekking, diving, and even volunteering, visit www.explorekohchang.com
By Bruce Scott