I spent the festive season up to New Year’s Eve on Koh Chang, Thailand’s second largest island, southeast of Bangkok near the border with Cambodia. While not strictly ‘on location’ for my PhD novel, I do have a part-drafted Jayne Keeney novel, containing scenes set on Koh Chang, albeit nearly 20 years ago. With this in mind, I thought I’d blog a few notes about the place while it’s still fresh in my mind.
The first thing to note is neither my partner nor I recognised anything from our previous visit in 1997. We remembered arriving at the height of Thai New Year festivities; having trouble finding accommodation, we ended up in a guesthouse run by a highly strung Brit who shouted at her guests for leaving wet footprints on the floor. Later we moved to a bungalow on the beach, though neither of us remember it being as close to the high tide line as the bungalows on White Sands Beach today. Seriously, the merest rise in ocean levels and most of the development on that beachfront will tumble into the sea.
In fact, there’s a sense of impermanence about most of the development on Koh Chang. The interior of the island is rugged mountains and dense jungle, a good deal of the coastline shale and mangroves. Most of the land and surrounding sea are protected as part of the Muk Koh Chang National Park. The development, though substantial, is low-rise and generally small scale. I got the impression — especially sitting in the back of a songthaew as it wound its way up scarily steep slopes and around perilous hairpin bends — that the island could shake off the hotels and restaurants, the clothing stores and beer bars, as easily as an elephant shrugs unwanted passengers from its back after a bath.
I experienced the latter firsthand. On Koh Chang, whose name means ‘Elephant Island’ in Thai, the elephant experience is a huge (no pun intended) part of the attraction. We booked a date with the island’s namesakes to celebrate Miss (now) Ten’s birthday. On the advice of the folks at Explore Koh Chang, we went with Ban Kwan Chang, which is affiliated with the Asian Elephant Foundation. Our two-hour package gave us a lengthy ride through exquisite jungle, with Miss Ten replacing the mahout and riding on the elephant’s head for part of the trip; and an elephant bathing experience in a clear jungle stream that was way deeper than it looked, as I discovered when shrugged unceremoniously from the elephant’s back. Despite my near-drowning experience, it was enormous fun. Our mount, Phoupei, was 35 years old, with mottled ears and a fondness for bananas. Our mahout was a local, though another hailed from Surin, famous for its elephant muster.
At the risk of generalising, the Koh Chang locals are a pretty friendly lot. I only had to visit an establishment more than once to be greeted like a friend; and people seemed to respond particularly warmly to my clumsy attempts to speak Thai (discounts on songthaew fares, for example). The island attracts the usual economic refugees from the northeast, who work in the ubiquitous bars, restaurants and Thai massage businesses. There are also a few leathery farang expats, and a significant number of Khmers among the population, including Rei, our guide on the Five Island Tour we did on Christmas Day.
We embarked on the tour from the pier at Bang Bao in Koh Chang’s south, a place so picturesque, we returned a couple of days later to shop and eat lunch at a seafood place overlooking the water. The cruise was bumpy at first, but the swell had settled by the time we reached the first snorkelling spot at Koh Yak Yai. Rei put Miss Ten’s (and my) nerves to rest by guiding us, using an extra lifejacket as a towing device. We saw some nice blue and green corals among the more degraded stuff, and some beautiful tropical fish. The second snorkelling stop was a bit freaky on account of the jellyfish — thankfully not the dangerous box jellyfish we’d been warned about — but the benign ‘scratchy’ ones that are nonetheless disconcerting when you plough through a bloom of them. The highlight was Rei feeding the fish (rice) so they swarmed around us, the ubiquitous black and yellow striped variety, plus gorgeous purple parrot fish.
After lunch and a stopover on the beach at Koh Rang, home to a cast of hermit crabs, we stopped for some line fishing. This seemed to be the preferred activity of the Russians who made up the rest of our tour group, and there were plenty of photo opportunities for them as they reeled in yellow fin, ‘big eyes’, grouper and even a parrot fish. Miss Ten caught a ‘big eye’ with her dad’s help — much to her excitement. But no one was a match for the captain, Mr Yod, who seemed to hook the fish effortlessly with a handheld line. While we went snorkelling for a third time, the guys on the boat cooked the catch for us to eat — as I said to Miss Ten, the freshest fish she’s ever likely to eat.
The highlights of the third snorkel were gorgeous purple and blue giant clams, known evocatively as ‘hoi meu seua’ — ‘tiger’s hand shells’ — in Thai, anemone fish, and a stunning black fish with white spots, that I suspect was a many-spotted sweetlips.
Koh Chang’s rugged landscape also lends itself to waterfalls and we visited the main one at Khlong Plu on our last day. I have a vague recollection of having been there in 1997, but I hadn’t remembered how lovely it was to swim in its cool pools, even with the ‘pla phuong’ (salmon-like fish) nibbling at your feet. The site was busy, boys and men challenging each other to climb higher up the surrounding cliffs to plunge into the water, me trying to convince Miss Ten not to follow their lead. All the same, the crowd did not detract from the beauty and serenity of the place, the backdrop of falling water and cicadas, the air filled with butterflies in blue, green, orange and yellow.
A national park ranger showed me video on his phone of the same spot at the height of the rainy season and it was unrecognisable, the air filled with mist, a river, white and churning, where the pools now were.
I realise I’ve hardly mentioned Koh Chang’s beaches. They’re nice. Not spectacular, like those in Krabi, nor as imposing as those in Phuket, although they do have swings, which are pretty damn fabulous. Our favourite swimming beach was Khlong Phrao/Chai Chet on account of the shade (for me) and lack of rocks (for Miss Ten), though we enjoyed staying in Kai Bae, with its cheap Thai restaurants, fresh fruit stalls and family-friendly vibe. White Sands was way too crowded, and Pearl Bay downright creepy, though I did manage to take one of my best photos of the holiday there.
The other thing to note about Koh Chang is the wildlife: monkeys using overhead wires to travels between scavenging sites; cockroaches the size of puppies; fire ants and mosquitoes (damn them all to hell); sea eagles; and the Asian Koel, whose dawn cry was so loud and insistent, I’m astonished my travelling companions managed to sleep through it.
I suspect Koh Chang will continue to develop, if the constant backdrop of construction noise along the west coast is anything to go by. It’s romantic, I know, but I could equally well imagine the environment fighting back. A rise in sea levels and the beachfront bungalows became a new Atlantis. A quiet tourist season or two, and it feels like the lianas, creepers and vines could snake their way down from the mountain slopes, wrapping everything in their path in lush green foliage, until there is nothing but jungle again.