Ko Si Chang – not to be mistaken with Ko Chang – is an island two to three hours from Bangkok, in Chonburi province, 12 kilometres from the western shore of Siracha district and surrounded by eight smaller islands. Ko Si Chang is geographically the closest island to Bangkok, and often overlooked by tourists for more well known destinations.
The small island is popular among Thais living in or near Bangkok and is a great place for a day trip with friends or a pleasant weekend with family. Many backpackers and a lot of expats have not even heard of Ko Si Chang, giving it an "untouched" and empty vibe that makes for a refreshing change of pace from the busy streets of Bangkok or the crowded beaches down south.
Like the fate of many islands in paradise, fishing and tourism seem to be Ko Si Chang's main industries, though the island lacks the "made-for-tourist" vibe of Ko Samet and Ko Chang, and it is still very much an active community for local islanders.
So far, there are no high-rise hotels or luxury condos; dormant barges used for shipping cargo up the Chao Phraya to Bangkok make up the bulk of the development. Some may consider the crowded harbour an eyesore, but the shipping boats and tankers make for a colourful landscape. If you remove the tropical postcard image from your mind – palm trees and unforgettable sunsets – Ko Si Chang is the perfect and easy getaway from Bangkok for a low-key detox, and visiting the island feels almost like a homestay at an off-the-map Thai village. Once you arrive, you'll wonder why more people don't come.
If you're looking for an island to sunbathe by day and party by night close to the city, you should probably go elsewhere. Nightlife on Ko Si Chang consists of walks on the beach or a walk to the island's only bar. But the sabai sabai vibe of Ko Si Chang makes it a worthy place to relax, if doing nothing is what you are looking for.
Unlike nearby seedy Pattaya, 30 minutes' south of Sri Racha, Ko Si Chang has no sex tourism underbelly. Chances are, there will be only one to two groups of foreigners on the island while you're there, so the guesthouses are not necessarily places where lone travellers can find quick friends to explore the island. But the locals are friendly and will be eager to point you in the right direction.
The island has a fascinating history, with a deep Chinese influence in the culture and architecture; it was formerly used as a summer palace for Thai royalty, and was once occupied by the French in a struggle with Thailand over the occupation of Laos. The attractions on the island are not necessarily worth the trip alone, but they're charming once you get here – Phra Judhadhut Palace, the remains of a royal palace for King Rama V surrounded by a terrace garden, a green ‘wooden house by the sea', the statue of a yellow buddha on a cliff, Saan Chao Pho Kao Yai, a Chinese-style Buddhist shrine in a blinged out cave, and above, a mountaintop shrine protecting the buddha's oversized footprint. The tuk tuk drivers are well-versed in the tourist circuit, and can take you around the perimeter of the island, stopping at each sight. To fully experience the island, rent bikes or motorbikes for a self-guided tour, and you could circle the island in under an hour.
There is only one public beach on the island, Haad Tham Phang, which means everyone else on the island will be there, too. But because Thais tend to avoid the sun, you won't have to share your sand space. The sand is not particularly white, nor is the water clear, but a beach is a beach is a beach. A few seafood restaurants line the shore with lounge chairs and tables, all offering Thai cuisine like spicy crab salad or seafood tom yum soup. To get out to sea, you can rent sea kayaks or flotation devices, or hire a private charter for snorkelling.
Most accommodation is on the northeast side of the island, and you probably won't require reservations unless it's a weekend or public holiday. Even if you show up reservation-less during peak season, there are more guesthouses than tourists, and you are bound to find a roof over your head; there are more than 35 different guesthouses to choose from.
A few of the guesthouses have an internet presence, but this does not necessarily indicate they are the best options. Accommodation on the west side of the island is more remote, but all parts of the island are peaceful. Nearby to Ko Si Chang sits Ko Yai Taow, Ko Thaai Ta Muaen, and Ko Kang Kao (home to one guest house) to the south, and Ko Khaam Yai (home to one guesthouse), Ko Prong, Ko Kham Noi, and Ko Ran Dokmai to the northeast. These baby islands are great for snorkelling, though difficult to get to without a speedboat, so plan to go in a group to split the cost.
If you're in no rush to catch the ferry to Ko Si Chang or the bus back to Bangkok, you can spend the night in Sri Racha, a lazy coastal town with friendly locals, an unexpectedly large Japanese population with Japanese restaurants and karaoke bars, a well-maintained exercise park, a floating temple near the pier, a questionable tiger zoo, a night market, and cheap accommodation on the water. Hotels like Sri Wichai, Sri Wattana, and Seaview Sri Racha Hotel provide cheap, worn rooms, with stunning views of the ocean.
Ko Si Chang has one major pier, Tha Lang, which is also home to the Tourist Information Centre on the left side of the docks if you are coming from your ferry. North of Tha Lang pier is the lesser used Tha Bon pier, used during high tides. The Tourist Information Centre is informally run and sparsely staffed, though you should pick up a helpful bilingual map here. Though you can rent bikes and motorbikes through the centre, a more efficient method would be to go directly to Charlie's Bungalows.
At the end of the pier, strange and stylish three-wheeled tuk tuks – sporting robust motorcycle engines – called samlor here, will be waiting to give you a ride to anywhere on the island, or for full- and half-day tours. If you have booked your accommodation ahead of time, some have their own designated tuk tuk drivers, each with an assigned number, to give you a ride to your guesthouse free of charge. Try #19 -- T: (084) 871 9981 -- he's friendly, reliable and speaks English.
Atsadang Road is Ko Si Chang's only main road, with off-shooting Moos. Atsadang Road, starting from the centre of town, makes a loop around the northern part of the island, passes the two piers, touches the central eastern coast, and then continues slightly inland to the southern tip of the island near Ko Yai Taow and Ko Kang Kao. The road is uphill at times, and parts may be difficult to bike for beginners. Chakra Pong Road, where the Morrocan-styled Malee Blue guesthouse sits, leads to Tham Phang Beach on the west side of the island.
The "town", if you could call it that, does not offer the typical tourist experience; infrastructure of the tourism department, especially for foreigners, is a work-in-progress. We found two 24-hour ATMs; one at the 7-eleven on the Moo leading to Tha Lang pier, and one outside Kasikorn Bank (T: (082) 16 132, open 08:30-15:30 Monday through Friday, exchanges travellers checks). The post office is located on Atsadang Road, north of the hospital before Tha Bon pier (T: (038) 216 227, open 08:30-16:30 Mon-Fri, postcode 20120). Past the hospital is an internet/printing shop with no name. A few restaurants and coffee shops, such as Pan and David's, and numerous guesthouses offer free WiFi.
By Stuart McDonald.