I was told Ko Chang was the new Ko Samui, Presumably this meant it was a once pristine island on the downhill slope to environmental degradation caused by uncontrolled tourist development. Perhaps they meant it in a more positive light. I wasn’t sure. I went there Christmas 2006 to find out.
There are in fact two Ko Changs (literally Elephant Island) in Thailand and probably more. I was going to the big one – down the east coast expressway until you almost hit the Cambodian border and then turn right. Driving down the highway, you don’t see much. The landscape is pretty flat most of the way with few trees and just a few road side shacks selling pineapples to relive the boredom. Oh, and of course the usual construction teams in the never ending process of widening and ‘improving’ the road. However once you get to the end of the road and the ferry terminal, you look across the sea and see a huge mountainous, almost forbidding island rising up in front of you. I am reminded somehow of Jurassic Park. I felt a frisson of excitement, or was I just a bit nervous, as I had also just seen a rusting car ferry approaching not at all gingerly to the small pier?
We crossed without mishap, but left the ferry stuck behind a convoy of trucks carrying construction materials ready to concrete over this beautiful island. From the ferry stop, the road rises abruptly over a small hill and then as it comes down the other side we enter tourist land. Although we knew the sparkling white beach was just metres from the road we were denied a first sight for quite some time. Not by rows of palm trees but by rows of shops, mainly suit shops as it happened along with that bastion of civilisation the 7-11. We couldn’t even see these too well because of all the dust thrown up by the trucks. This was ‘white sand beach’ – or rather white sand beach town. Fortunately the tourist shops thinned out within 20 minutes and shortly afterwards we arrived at our destination: Klong Prau Resort. We checked in at reception but before going to our room we just had to check out the beach. We weren’t disappointed. We had been promised fine white sand and clear blue-green water and we got it, swooping palm trees over the sea? Check. Only problem was, with the tide in and I mean really in, was that there was only a few feet of white sand and that was mostly covered in beach towels from the assembled crowd of lardy European tourists who had got there before us. Ah well not to worry, we can explore up the beach for a quiet spot later. We checked out the rooms and facilities and everything was fine as you would expect from a mid range hotel. It also had quite a nice little restaurant right on the beach and therefore great for a cold beer and our first sunset – perfect!
The following morning after cold bacon and eggs for breakfast it seemed that the same people from yesterday were hogging the sun loungers and beach space again so we decided to walk down the beach and explore a little further afield. In actual fact I was very pleasantly surprised. I was expecting the whole beach to be lined with resorts packed side to side but actually on this beach there was still plenty of space for rapacious developers – at least near our resort. The closest buildings to us were a couple of beach side family run shack/restaurants with bamboo chairs and tables. At 300 metres away, they were also just too far away for most of the package tourists. And this was generally where we spent most of our days. An added bonus was that at the shack – the Lay Lay Tong restaurant to give it its official name (I knew this as this is what it said on a piece of driftwood tacked to a nearby palm tree); the food was far far superior to the resort. Whereas the resort chefs had contrived to dismiss the chilli from their concoctions, the Lay Lay Tong staff had managed to keep their food authentic but not too fiery.
We spent Christmas Eve there as they had a special barbeque – with the biggest and most succulent prawns I had ever tasted. They also put on a little fire show. Twirling fiery batons and the like. They clearly started young here as the youngest performer we were told was four!!!!
Fireshow: the movie
So, most of our days were spent relaxing on the soft white sands but one day we managed to stroll further to the other end of Klong Prau beach where we could see another little group of resorts. Here they were fairly upmarket but more tightly bunched than at our end. Here, we got chatting to a man in a shack selling tours. Unfortunately the following day’s catamaran tour was fully booked so we went with the imaginatively titled ‘Thai Fun’ cruise. I couldn’t wait…
The following day we were ready at the appointed place and time (8.40) and sure enough at 8.40 Thai time (9.15 by my watch) the boat appeared and a small tender came from it to pick us up from the beach. We climbed aboard the mother boat to see it already quite full. More room for everyone cries the captain – plenty of room on the floor! It wasn’t an auspicious start but I must admit it got better throughout the day.
We steamed south. From the sea we could see the extent of development on Chang. There were more and more resorts being built, but it must be said that as we went further south they were more and more spread out. Thankfully they were all at water level and so the steep hills were still a lush green with none of the red scars seen on Samui. South of Ko Chang are a number of other islands, some of which have resorts and some remain pristine for now. One we visited, Ko Wai still seemed to only have the one backpacker resort – a throw back to the 80s. Others like Ko Maak had only a couple of the higher end resorts. As well as stopping for a quick look at the islands it was also good to stop for snorkelling. Apparently the water and reefs on Ko Chang itself aren’t up to much, they are much better on the islands to the south. We went to one uninhabited small island and the reef was just amazing. A really colourful collection of mainly hard corals, and all thriving. The boats, ours included, regularly dropped off food in the water resulting in it becoming alive with fish. Perhaps this is frowned on by the naturalists, but the fish certainly weren’t complaining. By four we turned around for the steam home. We were dropped off at our hotel just after sunset. I am usually sceptical of these organised trips but I would certainly recommend this one. Not too bad at 1000Bht either – Oh I forgot to mention the lunch on board was excellent also.
Before too long our sojourn on Ko Chang was over. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised. Okay, it is getting developed but the most developed resorts have the facilities tourists want and you can still fine pristine islands by spending a little bit more effort to get there. All of the development so far is on the beach and so the backdrop is still magnificent. It will take another few years yet to spoil it, so my advice is to enjoy it while you can.