In a nutshell
Look no further for a classic Thai beach holiday: crystal-clear waters, white sandy beaches and accommodation to suit any budget make this a top seaside — if somewhat overdeveloped — destination. Head inland to explore craggy mountains and jungles boasting an occasional hornbill.
Sometimes called the "Beast of the East" thanks to its sheer mass and location in the eastern Gulf of Thailand near Cambodia, Ko Chang might just be the quintessential Thai island destination. From breathtaking mountains to idyllic beaches, hippy hangouts to salubrious resorts, and traditional fishing villages to neon nightlife, "Elephant Island" truly has something for everyone.
Some say that Ko Chang's name derives from its shape on a map that somewhat resembles the head of an elephant. Others claim it's due to the vast inland mountains that, apparently, resemble an elephant lying down. But the moniker most likely comes from a local legend that tells of a certain rebellious domesticated elephant (the animals are not indigenous to Ko Chang) whose three baby elephants drowned while trying to accompany her on a long swim to the mainland. As the legend has it, the babies transformed into three rocks off the northern coast that can still be seen today.
Whatever the true origins of the name, Ko Chang is most certainly a beast -- Phuket and Ko Samui are the only Thai islands that are bigger. Most of its 217 square kilometres remains unspoiled inland rainforest. The tallest of eight notable waterfalls, Khlong Neung, cascades down a 120-metre-high cliff. The island's highest peak, Khao Salak Phet, stands imposingly at 744 metres tall. Mongooses and macaques roam the jungle among an abundance of birds, including the majestic great hornbill, reptiles and other wildlife. Dolphins can sometimes be spotted off the southeast coast.
Despite its formidable rainforest, Ko Chang is most certainly a developed island. Long gone are the days when intrepid backpackers crashed on empty beaches. Today, Ko Chang is home to hundreds of places to stay, with new developments popping up every month. Every inch of Haad Sai Khao (White Sand Beach) has been filled in with concrete hotel blocks, convenience stores, tacky bars and tourist trinket shops, with Khlong Prao and Kai Bae gradually following suit.
Even so, Ko Chang has a long way to go before reaching the frenzied levels of development found on its larger cousin, Phuket. Its vast terrain and the fact that it can only be reached by car ferry have seemingly kept the building projects from getting too out of hand. On the quiet east coast, traditional fishing life continues in the tiny villages of Dan Mai, Salak Khok and Salak Phet, and a 10-minute walk from some of the western beaches brings you to picturesque fields of pomelo, banana and rubber trees.
First settled by Chinese traders and Thai and Khmer fishermen, Ko Chang was the focal point of two tragic historical events. The first, which is glorified by Thais, was the sinking of a Thai warship, the Thonburi, in Salak Phet Bay during a 1941 battle with French naval forces. The second, which most Thais never talk about, were the supposedly Thai government-sanctioned sinkings of rickety vessels carrying Vietnamese refugees, or "boat people", in the 1980s. The island remained quiet into the ‘90s when large-scale tourism finally took hold.
Ko Chang's almost-white sand beaches don't quite achieve the sparkle of some of the more spectacular islands down south, but they're no slouch either. While Haad Sai Khao is the largest and widest stretch of sand, the clearest water and most irresistibly "tropical" settings can be found further south in places like Lonely Beach and Bang Bao.
Off the sand, activities include snorkelling and diving trips to nearby coral reefs, jungle treks to waterfalls and mountain peaks, elephant rides and motorbiking adventures to the stunning southeast coast. If all this isn't enough, 51 more islands await in the Ko Chang archipelago, including Ko Kut and Ko Maak.
An upside-down U-shaped road runs from Salak Phet on the southeast coast, up past the sleepy eastern shore and the two main ferry piers in the north, then down the length of the developed west coast all the way to Ao Bang Bao in the southwest, where boats can be caught for Ko Maak, Ko Kut and other islands.
There is no road connecting Ao Bang Bao directly to Salak Phet; motorbiking from one end to the other takes between two and three hours without stopping. A partial connector road was built several years ago but the project was abandoned before it could complete the loop.
Use extreme caution when motorbiking or driving on Ko Chang, particularly on the steep and treacherous switchback roads that connect Khlong Son to Haad Sai Khao, Kai Bae to Lonely Beach, and Salak Khok to Long Beach. With numerous hairpin turns high on the cliffs there is little room for mistake. Even on straighter sections, minibuses and songthaews often barrel down hills at breakneck speeds.
Most of the beaches are on the west coast, and each has built up with a distinctive atmosphere.
Khlong Son has a local flavour; travellers usually only stay here if seeking peace and quiet on its sheltered bay, or along a scenic inland valley road. South of that, Haad Sai Khao is by far Ko Chang's most developed area. It's home to countless characterless resorts, but also some interesting budget and midrange accommodation on the beach's quieter northern end. The main drag is a tacky swirl of souvenir shops, convenience stores and pubs, some of which have a seedy element.
Continuing south, the local village of Chai Chet almost feels like a typical mainland Thai town, with a motorbike dealer, hardware store, butcher, small supermarket and night market lining its not-so-attractive main road. The town's northern section has a string of neon pink bars where some of the resident expat men can be found drinking their nights away, though a decent beach is also found in this vicinity.
The road then tapers into Khlong Prao, which hosts a few kilometres of great beaches that are gradually becoming more developed. This is also where you'll find a hidden inland shanti-town where many low-wage Cambodian workers live. A non-profit school, Study Buddies, meets the needs of local children -- you might consider stopping by to donate during your stay. A large number of traveller-oriented services and restaurants are found along the main road, especially towards the south of Khlong Prao.
The restaurants and travel offices become more densely packed in Kai Bae, a favourite of families and couples, including no shortage of mainland Europeans, Scandinavians and Russians. Some of the island's best international food can be scored here, and though narrow, the beach is lovely.
After a tight pinch in the headland road that's sure to make some butts squirm, Lonely Beach ushers in a more "out there" feel that attracts budget backpackers and Bob Marley worshipers. The small beach is also excellent, though most seem to stay here for the affordable bungalows and party scene. A 10-minute walk south of Lonely Beach village lies Ao Bailan, which makes up for its mostly rocky coast with a pleasantly quiet atmosphere suited to families, flashpackers and backpackers who appreciate a good night's sleep.
Beyond Bailan lies Ao Bang Bao, a picturesque bay and former fishing village that has now almost entirely switched to tourism as its chief industry. A 700 metre-long pier juts out into the teal water, and some interesting places to stay are found both on the pier and the rugged peninsula that forms the bay's eastern half. To the west of the pier is Khlong Kloi, a tranquil beach that's a favourite of hippies and long stayers.
Most of the island's eastern coastline is made up of rocks and mangroves, though a few isolated beaches can be discovered if you poke around. We highly recommend motorbiking all the way down to the charming villages of Salak Khok and Salak Phet. The dirt road to Long Beach is one of the bumpiest we've ever ridden, but it's also one of the most breathtakingly scenic. If you seek some serious quietude, a handful of low-key homestays and bungalow joints are also found here.
ATMs and currency exchange booths are scattered throughout all of the island's major centres, with full-on bank branches found in Haad Sai Khao. A quality international medical clinic run by Bangkok Hospital is located between Haad Sai Khao and Khlong Prao. They charge a minimum of 4,000 baht even for something minor, though your travel insurance should cover this. If you're dumb enough to travel without insurance, the Koh Chang Hospital in Dan Mai on the east coast will be cheaper, and a smaller, less expensive medical clinic is also located in Khlong Prao. The island's central police station is found in Dan Mai, with tourist police boxes scattered around the west coast.
Ko Chang experiences a severe monsoon season from July to October. Some resorts close during these months, while others scale down to skeleton staffs. On the other hand, if you don't mind some rain and a very quiet atmosphere, discounts of up to 50% off high season rates are readily available.
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Text and/or map last updated on 20th February, 2014.
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|Koh Chang, Klong Son - Pattaya, Burapha Pattaya ฿500 4h|
|Koh Chang, Klong Son - Suvarnabhumi Airport, Suvarnabhumi Burapha ฿650 6h 30m|