Ko Chang is so big, we’ve split it up into areas, select one of the below for detailed accommodation and food listings in that area. Sights and general overviews for Ko Chang as a whole can be found via the icons above. Don’t know where to start? Read an overview of Ko Chang’s different areas.
"An idyllic, deserted beach" with "no road access" — this was how the Ko Chang tourist map described Haad Wai Shak. Yet satellite maps revealed a thin ribbon reaching into the far southeastern corner of this vast and mountainous island, and we decided to give it a shot. Anyone who says Elephant Island is too crowded or developed has never come this way.
There's no doubt that Ko Chang's west-coast beaches are touristy and sometimes tacky. But at 217 square kilometres and with peaks reaching more than 740 metres high, the island is a beast, and the lack of a cross-island road in the far south has enabled the east coast to retain its rural character. And this is what makes Thailand's third largest island special.
Starting from Kai Bae at the centre of the west coast, we motorbiked north through the tourist centre of Haad Sai Khao; up a mountain via a steep switchback road; down past the Chinese ancestral shrine and ferry piers; and finally on to the smooth and practically traffic-free road that skirts the east coast. Already we'd put 30 kilometres behind us, with more than 30 more to go.
We've been told that in the early '90s, during the final days of the Khmer Rouge, firefights over the nearby Cambodian mountains were visible from Ko Chang's northeast coast. It must have been surreal to watch the outflows of violent battles from such a serene place. On some days, the sea is so calm that you can scarcely tell where it meets the sky.
In the east coast village of Dan Mai, an old pier, village temple and humble homes reveal a simpler Ko Chang preserved despite the mass tourism on the west coast. Apart from a handful of tiny and often very good resorts, the entire east coast has seen only minor impacts from tourism.
While hiking to the cool water of Than Mayom Waterfall, we bumped into Frank, an 80-year-old American who wrote a book about his two-year motorcycling journey from Laos to London back in the 1950s. It was no real surprise to find a seasoned adventurer poking around the east coast, perhaps recalling his glory days from the back of a rented Yamaha Fino.
Further south near the dead end of an unkempt road, Ko Chang's tallest waterfall — Khlong Neung – is not marked by signs. What remains of a long-since-closed visitor centre lies crumbling nearby. At an abandoned hilltop pavilion, we tested each floorboard before taking another step. If you can get past this booby trap unscathed, the views are tremendous.
Following directions provided by an excellent local website, we climbed a rocky streambed to the 120-metre-tall waterfall. Pinned between towering cliffs with tree roots like veins, an angelic stripe of whitewater plummets into a deep and narrow pool of clear mountain water. We let out a "wooohooo!" when the falls emerged from dense jungle.
Following a sandy path to Salak Khok, we found a tiny fishing village. Wooden boats puttered down mangrove-lined estuaries. Sea eagles soared overhead. Though swimsuit-clad travellers on motorbikes haven't been a novelty here for decades, the villagers have largely persisted with their traditional ways of life.
Further south lies Salak Phet, the oldest village on Ko Chang, situated at the mouth of the eponymous bay where two Siamese warships were sunk by French guns during the 1941 Franco-Thai War. Adorned with a single white elephant, the kingdom's old red naval banner still flies here, as it does throughout Trat province.
When King Rama V first visited Salak Phet in the late 1800s, as the story goes, he refrained from telling the villagers that he was their monarch. Mistaking the king for a wealthy traveller, the villagers greeted him with sincere hospitality and refused to accept any sort of payment. Whether this is true or not, tourism has not drastically altered the village's modest character, even to this day.
Starting out smooth and finishing as rugged as they come, a narrow road cuts straight south into the mountainous peninsula that forms the eastern half of Salak Phet Bay. After stopping at a hidden-away beach that hosts Karang Bayview‘s dilapidated bungalows, we ascended sharply before stopping to gaze over a view of the bay that blew us away.
We guided our bike across a makeshift replacement for a washed out bridge, past deep runoff ditches and countless knobby stones. At the distant and misleadingly named Long Beach, we found a single place to stay: a one-time backpacker haunt now reborn as a resort. An ill-conceived concrete block of rooms now overlooks what we still thought was east Ko Chang's only accessible beach.
But then we recalled that tourist map, daring us to "find a way" to reach Haad Wai Shak. On our slow return trip over the rugged road from Long Beach, we resolved to find out first-hand if those paths we'd seen on the satellite map could be handled by a Honda Click.
Then, a stroke of luck. As we enjoyed a tasty massaman curry lunch at Baan Yemaya in Salak Phet village, the owner unfurled a topographic map of the island. Pinpointing the location of Wai Shak, she encouraged us to make the trip: "The snorkelling is unbelievable. It's like an emerald lagoon that barely anyone knows about. And you can go by motorbike."
Some years ago, the authorities began work on a road connecting Salak Phet to Bang Bao in the southwest. It was only partly completed, leaving a pair of dead-end lanes now being reclaimed by jungle. Ms Yemaya guided us: "Look for a little booth with a gate and a green roof off the main road … Follow that for a couple of kilometres, then take a left at the dirt road … Keep going south and you'll find Wai Shak!"
At the end of a loosely defined path that seemed to whisper, "What the hell are you doing here?", we arrived at a crescent of white sand backed by a coconut orchard. Apart from a ramshackle old house perched under the palms and a tent pitched on the beach, we saw no sign of anyone at first. On "touristy" Ko Chang, here was one of the most "out there" places we've come across on any Thai island.
We wandered along the fine coral sand, feeling proud of our "discovery" until stumbling on a hand-painted sign leading up a hill. At a small wooden platform with views over a stretch of sea where Irrawaddy dolphins are sometimes spotted, we were met by surprised stares from a half-dozen backpackers staying in a few bare-bones huts made of bamboo and thatch.
Like a lost chapter from The Beach, Wai Shak Bungalows is a natural response to the development that has overtaken most of Ko Chang's west coast (update March 9, 2015, we've just been advised Wai Shak is currently closed and it is not clear if it will reopen). Long-stay budget travellers seeking unadulterated tranquility moved first to Long Beach before ending up at Wai Shak, where freedom still gushes like the stream water used for bathing.
In so many ways, Haad Wai Shak is the end of the road; a lingering taste of what much of Ko Chang and other Thai islands were like when the first backpackers arrived in the 1970s. If a developer moves in here, that old-school scene will have nowhere left to go. For now it endures, like the tranquil fishing villages across the bay — at the far end of the elephant's tail.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 10th January, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.