Photo: Lazy days on Chai Chet.

Introduction

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Ko Chang’s profile cuts the clouds at sunset and mist yawns off its peaks at dawn. This 213-square-kilometre “Elephant Island” anchors a 52-island archipelago in the far eastern corner of Thailand near Cambodia. Explore beyond Chang’s brash first impression and you’ll likely find a paradise that suits you.


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Ko Chang first caught on with backpackers in the 1980s and you’ll still bump into old timers who once slept in hammocks on Lonely Beach or pitched tents in the coconut groves behind Khlong Prao. First arriving in the ‘90s, Russian package tourists checked into Haad Sai Khao (White Sand Beach), and they remain alongside independent-travelling Europeans, Scandinavians and Anglophones, plus quite a few Thai tourists who swoop in on weekends. Ko Chang has sizeable permanent communities of expats, Khmers and Thais, including native islanders but also many from Isaan (Northeast Thailand).

Raise a lantern on Haad Sai Khao. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Raise a lantern on Haad Sai Khao. Photo: David Luekens

The 1990s and 2000s saw much of the west coast covered in big-block resorts and drab row houses that now hide the sea view in many places. But this is not the most easily accessible of Thailand’s big-name islands, and development has not reached the scale found on many parts of Phuket and Samui. Ko Chang’s overall feel is closer to that of Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Lanta—touristy and tacky in places but with no airport, plenty of jungle and scope for exploration and seclusion.

Some travellers return often, having found their particular haven in the bays, bars, spas, estuaries, waterfalls, bungalows, beach resorts, yoga mats, fishing villages, dive sites, homestays, hippie retreats and back lanes to isolated beaches.

Home to a pretty wild interior. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Home to a pretty wild interior. Photo: David Luekens

The island is a beast, with rainforest blanketing an interior protected as part of Mu Ko Chang National Park—we’re talking mile after mile of old-growth jungle. The tallest of eight waterfalls, Khlong Neung, cascades down a 120-metre-high cliff. The highest of several cone-shaped peaks, Khao Salak Phet, reaches above 740 metres. Mongoose and civet roam the jungle among cobras, boar and the majestic great hornbill. Trekkers and birders will find opportunities to meet the nature.

Underwater scenery is limited off Ko Chang’s shores, but divers and snorkelers do find healthy marine life, including whale sharks, off nearby reefs and islands like Ko Wai and Ko Rang. If you have time, do cruise south to the second and third largest islands in the Chang archipelago: Ko Kut and Ko Mak. Both are well worth a visit.

Meet Grand Lagoona Beach. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Meet Grand Lagoona Beach. Photo: David Luekens

Ko Chang’s beaches don’t quite sparkle like Ko Kut’s, but they’re no slouch either. Haad Sai Khao is the most developed beach, with a backpacker scene dug into the brilliant northern stretch. Sweeping Khlong Prao attracts families to the centre of the west coast; Kai Bae has a terrific food and drink scene; Lonely Beach bags party-minded backpackers; and reggae vibes rise from Khlong Kloi down in scenic Ao Bang Bao. Amid the mangroves and fishing boats on the far southeast coast, Ao Salak Phet and its remote beaches are worth a side trip.

Much glorified by the Thais, the Battle of Ko Chang left a Thai gunship on the bottom of Salak Phet Bay and the French a step closer to winning the 1941 Thai-Franco War. Four decades later, people on Ko Chang’s east coast watched from afar as firepower rained down on a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge in the nearby mountains of western Cambodia.

Prior to the ‘80s, Chang hosted only a small number of mainly Chinese-Thai and Vietnamese-Thai families that have farmed and fished here for generations. In the ‘70s, youngsters probably couldn’t fathom they’d live to see a sealed road connect the entire west coast, a route that includes two steep passes and remains mighty dangerous today.

Not the place to learn to ride a scooter. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Not the place to learn to ride a scooter. Photo: David Luekens

Accidents involving foreign travellers and motorbikes are ridiculously common on Ko Chang, perhaps more than any other Thai island. During our most recent two-week stay, we saw the immediate aftermaths of four accidents, two of them leaving injured people sprawled out in the road or thrown into the woods. Please don’t ride a motorbike if you don’t really know how. If you do ride, see our warnings on Ko Chang’s most dangerous roads, and make sure your travel insurance will cover you if need be.

Some claim the island’s name derives from its shape on a map that resembles an elephant head. An old fisher tale claims it came from a rebellious domesticated elephant (the animals are not indigenous to Ko Chang), whose three babies drowned during a long swim to the mainland. As the legend has it, they turned into rocks off the north coast that you can still see today.

Make a difference
Each year, hundreds of low-paid labourers come to Ko Chang from Cambodia to work and many bring their kids. Off the main road in Khlong Prao, the Cambodian Kids Care Project runs a donation-funded school, Study Buddies, providing educations that make a huge difference in the live of these kids. You’re welcome to stop by and donate—cash, clothes, toys and school supplies are appreciated.

Expect a sunset or two. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Expect a sunset or two. Photo: David Luekens

Families may also be interested in Sports Buddies, a Swiss/Thai-run cultural interchange that provides a safe and fun setting for kids of migrants to meet and play with kids of foreign travellers through sport.

In the animal loving department, the Koh Chang Animal Project based in Khlong Son relies entirely on donations to provide veterinary care for stray dogs and cats. Veterinarians, vet nurses and anyone who loves animals can join a rotating team of volunteers from more than a dozen countries. Also doing great things is Happy Dogs Koh Chang, where you can donate, volunteer or adopt an adorable rescued dog at a shelter dubbed “The Sanctuary of Hope”.

Cambodian Kids Care: Khlong Prao off main road ; T: (085) 994 5101 ; (089) 748 9643 ; https://www.facebook.com/CambodianKidsCareCenter/
Happy Dogs Koh Chang: T: (092) 818 3329 ; happydogskohchang@gmail.com ; http://happydogskohchang.com/
Koh Chang Animal Project: 45/6 Moo 3, Khlong Son ; T: (089) 042 247 ; http://www.kohchanganimalproject.org/
Sports Buddies: Khlong Prao village (near Wat Bang Bao) ; T: (085) 521 2718 ; florian.urfer@hotmail.com ; http://www.swissbuddies.com/




Orientation
Thailand’s third largest island after Phuket and Samui, Ko Chang is located 330 kilometres southeast of Bangkok and around 80 kilometres west of Cambodia’s southwestern border. Its mountains loom around six kilometres off the mainland coast of Trat province, and many travellers heading to Chang (or Ko Kut and Ko Mak) still pass through Trat town along the way.

These are unlikely to be a problem. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

These are unlikely to be a problem. Photo: David Luekens

Ko Chang is frequently described as an “easy” island getaway from Bangkok, but by bus it’s a proper slog involving a six-hour ride and then, often, a songthaew transfer in Trat, followed by some waiting around, then the car ferry ride, and most likely another songthaew to reach your accommodation. Throw in some traffic on the Bangkok end, and the trip can take 12 hours all up. If bringing a vehicle, beware of long car ferry queues around Thai holidays.

Most visitors opt for one of the roughly 300 places to stay found on the west coast, most of them near a main tourism drag that begins in Haad Sai Khao and runs south for 20 kilometres through Khlong Prao and Kai Bae, then up a steep switchback pass and down to Lonely Beach, followed by Ao Bailan and, finally, Ao Bang Bao in the southwestern corner of Ko Chang. Khlong Son introduces a more local vibe on the north coast and this continues through the sleepy east-coast villages, all of which host a small resort or two.

Ko Chang is big and the hills result in slow-moving traffic—don’t expect an easy 20-minute cruise from, say, Salak Phet to Khlong Prao or Haad Sai Khao to Lonely Beach. While it’s only 57 kilometres from Long Beach in Ko Chang’s southeast corner to Khlong Kloi in the southwest corner, the trip usually takes us more than two hours by motorbike.

Don’t forget to watch the road. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Don’t forget to watch the road. Photo: David Luekens

Emergency: Medical
An international medical clinic is located between Haad Sai Khao and Khlong Prao—the care is expensive but your travel insurance should cover it. Cheaper options include the public Koh Chang Hospital on the east coast and clinics found in Khlong Prao, Bang Bao and Salak Phet. If you’re in an accident and need medical assistance, call the donation-funded crew at Koh Chang Rescue.

Koh Chang Hospital: Dan Mai on main road ; T: (039) 586 191 ; (039) 586 130
Ko Chang International Medical Clinic: South Haad Sai Khao on main road ; T: (039) 551 555 ; (039) 551 512
Koh Chang Rescue: Khlong Prao on main road (next to Crocodile Show) ; T: (088) 525 110 ; (039) 613 908

Emergency: Police
The island’s central police station sits next to the hospital in Dan Mai on the east coast, with the main Tourist Police office located on the west coast next to Wat Khlong Prao on the main road through Khlong Prao village. Smaller police boxes are found in all major beach areas.

Koh Chang District Police: Dan Mai on main road ; T: (039) 586 191 ; (039) 586 250
Koh Chang Tourist Police: Khlong Prao village on main road (next to Wat Bang Bao) ; T: (039) 557 312-3

Banks and ATMs
ATMs and currency exchange booths dot all of the main centres, with full-service Thai bank branches located in Haad Sai Khao. If you’re reading this in Cambodia, beware that Cambodian riel (and Lao kip and Vietnamese dong) is non-exchangeable in Thailand.

A bit of exploring can pay off handsomely. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

A bit of exploring can pay off handsomely. Photo: David Luekens

Internet, phone and post
WiFi is available and cell service works fine just about anywhere on or near Ko Chang’s coastline, one exception being the inland spots behind Haad Khlong Kloi, where our cell signal evaporated. You’ll also find a few old-style internet shops on the main drag in Haad Sai Khao and Khlong Prao.

The island’s central post office sits on the main road in Chai Chet, and smaller post offices are found in Bang Bao and Salak Phet.

Visas and immigration
Trat’s provincial immigration office is located in Laem Ngop on the mainland, an easy songthaew ride from either of the Ko Chang ferry piers. Here you can extend Thai visas and visa-exempt stays once for 30 days. Iamkohchang.com has a solid wrap on what to expect at Laem Ngop Immigration.

Located just over 100 kilometres southeast of Ko Chang, the Cambodia border crossing at Had Lek / Cham Yeam used to be very popular with foreign expats doing out/in border runs to get fresh 30-day stays in Thailand. In recent years the Thai authorities have cracked down on people staying long-term on repeated visa-exempt stays, much to the chagrin of Trat- and Ko Chang-based visa-run companies. However, those doing it only once or twice will still find travel agents charging 1,000 baht and up for border runs.

Oh Wai Shak. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Oh Wai Shak. Photo: David Luekens

For more options on travelling into Cambodia, check out our Trat travel page.

When to go
Eastern Thailand experiences a severe monsoon from June to October, when mudslides and rip tides become major threats on Ko Chang. Car ferries do run year-round and rainy season sees some sunshine between the near-daily storms. In low season, most resorts slash room rates by 20 to 50 percent. Peak season runs from just before Christmas through February, while the shoulder months of November, March and April bring thinner crowds and often slight discounts on rooms.

Around the island
Ko Chang’s steep switchback hills divide its coastline into three domains: the backpacker-style southwest (Lonely Beach, Bailan, Bang Bao), the west coast tourism mainline (Kai Bae, Khlong Prao, Haad Sai Khao), and the sleepy north and east from Khlong Son to Salak Phet.

Looking down the spine from Haad Sai Khao viewpoint. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Looking down the spine from Haad Sai Khao viewpoint. Photo: David Luekens

An upside-down U-shaped road runs from Ao Salak Phet on the southeast coast, up past the sparsely developed eastern shore and the two main ferry piers in the north, then down the length of the west coast. There is no road connecting Ao Bang Bao directly to Ao Salak Phet in the south—the only other ways to cross between west and east coasts are by boat or a very challenging trek through the jungle.

Beginning in the far northwest, Khlong Son is the first settlement that most visitors see after heading southwest from the ferry piers. It has a local flavour and travellers usually only stay here if seeking peace and quiet on a sheltered bay, or catching a bus bound for Suvarnabhumi Airport in the morning. From here a scenic inland road leads to Khlong Jao Leuam Waterfall.

No shortage of hidden bays to discover. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

No shortage of hidden bays to discover. Photo: David Luekens

South of Khlong Son, Haad Sai Khao is, by far, Ko Chang’s most heavily developed area. It hosts lots of 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 with a seedy element.

Continuing south, Haad Khaimook has a pebble shore and some good small resorts. South of that is the village of Chai Chet, which almost feels like a typical mainland Thai town with its motorbike repair shops, hardware store and night market drawing travellers and locals to the not-so-attractive main road. The village’s far northern section has a string of neon-pink bars where some of the resident expat men drink their nights away. A good family-friendly beach is however found in Chai Chet, which is also the far northern end of Khlong Prao Bay.

Kai Bae backwaters. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Kai Bae backwaters. Photo: David Luekens

The road then tapers into central Khlong Prao, which covers much of the central portion of Ko Chang’s west coast. It includes a few kilometres of narrow but pretty beaches with patches of development peppered among coconut groves, and a central village where many of Ko Chang’s west-coast Thai community lives; great Thai food to be scored here. This is also where you’ll find Khlong Phlu Waterfall near a hidden village sheltering many of the low-wage Cambodian workers who live on Chang.

The main road narrows as the restaurants and travel offices become more densely packed south of Khlong Prao in lively Kai Bae. Some of the island’s best international food can be scored here, and though it mostly disappears at high tide, the beach has a great outlook to Ko Chang’s northern mountains. From here you can hike inland and be refreshed at Kai Bae Waterfall.

Frolic on Lonely Beach. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Frolic on Lonely Beach. Photo: David Luekens

South of a steep and dangerous switchback turn, Lonely Beach ushers in a more “out there” vibe attracting backpackers looking to party. Most stay here for the scene, but the beach isn’t too shabby either. A 15-minute walk south of Lonely Beach village stretches Ao Bailan, where a quieter atmosphere and some good small resorts for families and flashpackers help to make up for a mostly rocky shore.

South of Bailan lies Ao Bang Bao, a picturesque bay and former fishing village that has now almost entirely switched to tourism. Every Ko Chang diving outfit has an office on or near the 700-metre-long pier. On the east side of the bay stretches Khlong Kloi, a beautiful beach that’s gained popularity in recent years among older backpackers and anyone who prefers a reggae-inspired scene that’s far mellower than the one up in Lonely Beach.

Leave the island behind at Salak Phek. Photo taken in or around Ko Chang, Thailand by David Luekens.

Leave the island behind at Salak Phek. Photo: David Luekens

Most of the island’s eastern coastline consists of rocks and mangroves, but poke around and you’ll find a few waterfalls and reddish-sand beaches near the villages of Dan Kao and Dan Mai. Down in Ko Chang’s southeast corner, Ao Salak Khok and the much larger Ao Salak Phet is a pair of quiet bays with a few places to stay alongside the fishing shacks and mangroves.

Just east of Salak Phet village, the 10-kilometre road to remote Long Beach is one of Ko Chang’s most scenic, and it had been sealed since our previous visit. On the bay’s western side, an extremely rugged lane shoots west to the truly isolated Haad Wai Shak, a pretty beach with only a coconut grove and a couple of houses hidden on the headland.

Other resources
Ko Chang is notably well covered by local media. We’ve long been fans of Iamkohchang.com for its boatloads of advice in a tone that’s insightful, honest and often hilarious. The newer Explorekohchang.com is also worth a look, and do pick up free paper copies of the Koh Chang Treasure Map and The Koh Chang Guide when you arrive. The Facebook group Koh Chang Ticker can also be useful if you have a question for locals.

Travelfish subscriber resources

 Please sign up as a Travelfish member to download the Ko Chang guide PDF (47.9 MB, 194 pages). Membership costs just A$35 per year (less than A$1 per week) and gives you access to over 250 PDF guides.




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