the lazy traveller’s guide to Koh Chang Island, Thailand

(Top: Approaching Koh Chang on the ferry; Bottom: My feet enjoying Kai Bae Beach)

In the Gulf of Thailand, 300 miles south of Bangkok and near the Cambodian border, where turquoise water and sand kiss, rests Koh Chang. It is an island of curves and jungle-clad mountains, not yet overrun by tourists, with one main road that almost circles its coast but does not penetrate the forested interior. Access is by an open-decked ferry that shudders into the dock to be met by a string of Songtaew (pick-up truck taxis where passengers ride in the canopied cargo bed).

(Photo: Songtaew taxi)

Koh Chang is a reward. After weeks of temples and ruins, of history and hiking and 43 C temperatures, I crave a beach, a breeze, a view, and the chance to do nothing or something as the mood strikes.

Of course, rewards must be earned. Transportation to Koh Chang begins from Bangkok, which is why, on a humid Thursday afternoon I was on yet another bus into the humid heart of that city. I’d been instructed to stay on until the final stop but, mid-trip, decided to double-check this information. My question caused both the driver and his assistant to smack their foreheads simultaneously and declare, in two languages, that I had missed my stop. They deposited me street-side with instructions to walk back several blocks and “go right.”

My route lead through the Bang Lamphu area and down Khao San Rd with its tourist throngs shopping for deals or lounging at street-side bars. The sidewalks exploded with pop-up shops selling everything from beach clothing and bedazzled shoes to home baking, exotic fruit and pad Thai cooked while you watch and eaten standing amid the chaos.

(Top: Street food-vendor in Bangkok; Night view of one of Bangkok’s khlongs (canals))

After a restless night in a hostel where the bathroom temperature hovered close to 50 C, I arrived at the shuttle bus office to find an inebriated couple comprised of a young Thai woman seated in the lap of an older British man, she sobbing out her desire for a lost love and he repeatedly slurring, “Don’t get on the bus.” Their audience of one bored ticket taker had, unfortunately, seen this play before.

When the bus started to move (minus the girl after a last minute decision – really it could have gone either way) I found myself seated next to a family from France complete with young twin girls who shyly questioned me through their mother. Six hours later I drove off the Koh Chang ferry in a taxi full of young men on holiday from India and checked into my hostel room inhabited mostly by young Scandinavian women. A bountiful microcosm of the world in one day.

And here, beside a sparkling pool and on the sun saturated beaches, was where everything pretty much ground to a halt. You see, as per the title, this is really a post about all the things available to do on Koh Chang but which I did not, in fact, do. After all, this was my holiday from my holiday.

I started out, one blistering morning, to hike to Klong Plu Waterfall, but after losing my way and my will, along with several litres of sweat, I hailed a Songtaew and just went to the beach. I hear it is lovely (Klong Plu Falls I mean – along with several other waterfalls that dot the island). I almost investigated the Naval Memorial on Koh Chang’s southern tip, but that meant a half day’s journey north then back south (there is no road connecting west to east in the south) so I just lolled on the beach instead. Lastly, I considered a guided trek up one of Koh Chang’s jungle-draped mountains but, and you will notice a theme here, I ended up at the beach.

(Photo: Chai Chet Beach)

But lest you think me completely indolent, here are some Koh Chang activities I did muster the energy to thoroughly enjoy.

I did snorkel for an entire day on a jet boat tour – including five islands, a delicious lunch served under sway-backed palm trees, and with a guide who shouted “Most beautiful island IN THE WORLD!” at regular intervals – and fell in love the second I peered beneath the waves. I swam with parrot fish through undulating beds of rainbow coral, felt the faint flutter of tiny tail fins, and dove to the sea floor to examine a huge star fish.

(Top: Island in our snorkelling tour; Sea anemone with mighty spikes)

I also scored the worst sun burn of my life (Note: While snorkelling the backs of your legs are constantly exposed to the radiant light of earth’s closest star) resulting in a weeks worth of wincing and a new found respect for aloe vera.

I also spent two hours collecting all manner of trash on Chai Chet beach. The beaches of Koh Chang are cleaned regularly but each day’s tides hurl new crops of rubbish onto the white sand. And I admit to uttering quite a few choice epithets while the sweat blinded my eyes and my fingers harvested Qtips, straws, flip flops, gas cans, fish nets and tiny pieces of plastic from those beautiful shores.

(Photo: two hours worth of garbage harvested on Chai Chet Beach – please, I beg you – STOP USING STRAWS!)

And, late on my last afternoon on Koh Chang, I lazed over to a beach-side shop, rented a kayak, and paddled out onto the diamond speckled, azure waters. Fish played hide-and-seek in the coral below. A small palm tree clothed island beckoned across the narrow bay and I nosed my boat onto its shores alongside a gaggle of Thai nurses enjoying a break from their public health convention. One of them organized a photo shoot.

(Top: Communing with some sister RNs from Thailand; Bottom: Koh Chang’s shoreline viewed from a bay island)

To fuel all of this (in)activity I grazed acres of morning glory shoots sautéed in garlic and served over rice, and washed them down with litres of fresh mango smoothies. The perfect meals in a land where it is almost too hot to digest.

So there you have it – my lazy traveller’s guide to Koh Chang where you can ride elephants (but please, I beg you, for the love of all that is humane – don’t!), where a stroll through the mangrove forest is lovely (or so I hear) and where energetic travellers can zip line through the steaming jungle.

At the ferry dock early on my final morning on Koh Chang I was branded with a bright orange sticker printed with “BANGKOK” and herded on board, the only foreigner in a sea of friendly locals (This minority experience is one I enjoy and highly recommend. It never fails to humble me when I think, on a broader scale, of immigrants forced to start afresh in a new country). And make no mistake, those locals watch out for bumbling tourists like me.

Once the ferry docked on the mainland, I shouldered my very dusty backpack, disembarked, and began shuffling through the hovering humidity toward the distant bus stop.

“Madame!” called a voice, so of course I turned, because who else on that landing would a voice be speaking to in English? The speaker pointed to my orange sticker, shouted “Bangkok!” and gestured toward a waiting Songtaew – that drove me to a waiting bus – that rendezvoused with another bus (this one packed with tourists) that deposited me by a highway overpass leading to the subway that swept me to the airport. A very simple and mystifyingly complex journey.

I plan to return to Koh Chang someday, before too many tourists discover its charms. Maybe next time I’ll try scuba diving at one of its world class sites. Or maybe…I’ll just go to the beach…

(Photo: Koh Chang sunset)

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