Koh Chang - Thailand's Paradise Island
There seems to be some dispute over how the island got the name that means ‘Elephant Isle’ in Thai. Some say it looks like an elephant from above, others say that it looks like an elephant as it rises hump-backed out of the Gulf of Thailand. There is also a folk-tale that two of Buddha’s elephants escaped and waded into the sea: the mother was inexplicably ‘fossilised’ to form Koh Chang and the baby become tiny Koh Chang Noi.
What is fairly certain is that it has nothing to do with Thailand’s potent Chang beer. There’s no reason why you should feel any more obliged to partake of Thailand’s best beer here than you would elsewhere.
Koh Chang is now being touted as Thailand’s latest paradise remains one of the best spots you can find for chilling out in a hammock with a beer. In the rush to explore remote ‘secret spots’ it seems that pioneering backpackers who first ‘colonised’ the Thai islands totally overlooked what is actually the country’s most accessible island.
An Idyllic Setting
Koh Chang is Thailand’s second biggest island and it’s five hours’ drive and a half-hour ferry ride from Bongkok. Yet just a decade ago, when Phuket (the county’s largest island) was exploding as a world-famous tourist destination, Koh Chang still had no electricity or phones.
Most of Koh Chang’s interior, along with the other 41 islets in the archipelago, is now part of the Mu Koh Chang National Park, so the brash development that plagued other Thai resorts has been relatively subdued here.
Some complain that Koh Chang is changing quickly, but even at the larger tourist resorts the beaches are pristine and can appear to be spectacularly remote.
At Klong Prao, you drive to the end of a dirt track where a boatman waits to paddle you across the mangrove-lined channels to a great swathe of white sand and swaying palms. The water is perpetually warm, and even at night the air is balmy. Many of the restaurants and hotels along these canals offer romantic after-dinner boat rides through the mangroves, where cicadas chirp, frogs croak, and the trees flicker with fireflies.
Float Your Boat
Most of the centre of Koh Chang is inaccessible unless you are trekking - or precariously balanced on the back of one of its elephants.
Stilted fishing villages occupy inlets where mangrove forests have ceded to the usually benign China Sea swells. Jetties and rickety boardwalks probe out over sparkling reefs to ranks of brightly painted fishing boats. The boats are decked with fishbowl-sized light bulbs, which work as lures. On good fishing nights, and when the moon is dim, the horizon is speckled with these gleaming vessels.
Nowadays there are also plenty of luridly painted dive boats moored alongside the fishermen. It is possible that Koh Chang has more snorkelling boats per tourist than any other island in the Gulf of Thailand. There are no regular ferries among the national park’s satellite islands, and the outlying beaches and reefs can only be accessed by chartered boats.
There are boats for every taste: shiny white double-decker party boats; brightly coloured fishing boat converts, renowned for their grilled seafood; and sleek racing catamarans, offering martinis and bikini-clad Bond girls.
Only from the sea can you get a real idea of how much Koh Chang is covered with rainforest. These forests are home to monkeys, deer, hornbills and occasional herds of ‘free range’ elephants, enjoying R&R from their tourist ferrying duties.
It’s said there are 365 islands in the Gulf of Thailand, but nobody knows for sure. Some, like Koh Mak, have become tourist havens an dive centres, but even here traditional live seems to continue uninterrupted, with locals making a living from fishing, harvesting coconut groves fro copra oil and rubber tapping.
Whatever your ideas of paradise, it is safe to say that in the Mu Koh Chang National Park it’s not likely to be more than a short boat ride away. One Thing almost everyone agrees on, though, is that a visit to Thailand’s ‘Elephant Isle’ is true to be experience you will never forget.