Check out the other half
Fishing boats bob beside stilted homes as sea eagles glide over mangroves, orchards and rubber groves. In the background stand 700-metre-high mountains concealing waterfalls shrouded in jungle. Anyone who thinks that Ko Chang is too crowded or developed has never made it to Salak Phet and the east coast, an area that rewards those who are ready to explore.
The lack of a cross-island road from Bang Bao in the south has left Salak Phet Bay to retain its small fishing industry around the southeast corner of Ko Chang. Throughout the east coast, only a handful of small resorts and guesthouses attract travellers seeking seclusion along with kayaking, fishing and trekking opportunities. For some visitors, the genuine cross-cultural exchange is most important.
Yet most travellers hit the east on day trips from the touristy west coast, and they can expect a roughly 70-kilometre round trip from Haad Sai Khao. Whenever we hit the east coast, we usually start out thinking day trip, but realise once we’re over there that staying a night or two is really the way to go.
Venturing north out of Haad Sai Khao you’ll eventually drop into the village of Khlong Son, where you could sidetrack west to the pretty, sheltered beach where Little Sunshine is found, or head east to do the scenic hike to Khlong Jao Leuam Waterfall. Also on the inland road is Baan Kwan Chang, considered the most responsible of Ko Chang’s elephant camps.
North of Khlong Son, the smooth main road passes a Chinese shrine honouring a spirit image known as Chao Por Ko Chang. When you hear Thai drivers honking in this vicinity, don’t worry, they’re displaying respect for the spirit and not telling you to speed up.
From the Chinese gates the smooth road brings you close to the north coast and passes the two car ferry piers before curving southeast around the tiny village of Dan Kao. Around here you might stop at the excellent Amber Sands Resort or Garden of Joy for a bite to eat. Otherwise you’ll find fresh seafood served further south near a long pier and another Chinese shrine in the village of Dan Mai, where a simpler Ko Chang persists despite the mass tourism on the west coast.
Back on the main road heading south you should spot the sign for Khlong Nonsi Waterfall, an alternative for those who don’t want to spend 200 baht to visit the slightly larger Than Mayom Waterfall nearby. While here we once bumped into Frank, an 80-year-old American professor who penned a book about his motorcycling journey from Laos to London in the 1950s. He proved to be the highlight, as there was no water in Khlong Nonsi Waterfall on that day in February.
Not far from the cool mountain streams you’ll find benches set on a rocky shore along with another lengthy concrete pier. Keep an eye out for a sign that says “Haad Sai Dang”, which means “red sand beach”—this is as good a place as any to see the ocher-hued sand that rims parts of the east coast.
Cruise a few more kilometres south to find Ao Salak Khok, a small east-coast bay draped in healthy mangroves. On the west bank stretches The Spa Koh Chang Resort, where you can grab a wheatgrass juice or take a yoga class. On the other side of the bay, a gravel lane runs past watery coconut groves on the way to Baan Salak Khok, a tiny village of stilted houses, fishing boats, squid laid out to dry and one place to eat: Salak Khok Seafood.
Rather than return to the main road, cruise straight south from Salak Khok village and you’ll bump into another tiny community, Chek Bae, which overlooks the vast Salak Phet Bay from its eastern shore. Keep south, perhaps pausing for a drink at the Journey’s End, and you’ll find the end of the lane at Karang Beach. This small but very pretty beach hosts only the eponymous bungalow joint, which was closed at research time.
After briefly backtracking, take a right (east) just after Rommai Seafood and before long you’ll begin to ascend while piercing through jungle on a recently sealed lane. At the top of the hill, pull off at the national park office to find a truly breathtaking vista spanning Karang Beach, the Chek Bae coconut groves, a few islets and the summit of Khao Salak Phet towering in the background.
The ocean-meets-jungle scenery continues as you cruise another four kilometres down a once-bumpy lane; at time of writing it was a breeze to ride on thanks to the fresh concrete. Near the end of the west coast of the bulky peninsula which forms the far southern tip of Salak Phet Bay (and Ko Chang), the road ends after bumping into Long Beach.
Though not particularly long and often littered with tidal garbage, Long Beach, or Haad Sai Yao, has become a fairly popular daytrip destination thanks to the fine sand and remote feel—some come by motorbike or bicycle while others pull up in boats. The one spartan bungalow joint and restaurant was originally founded as Treehouse back when hippie expats who had spent years on Lonely Beach sought relief from the development crush. Though the Treehouse gang didn’t last, the thatch-roofed pavilion that they built remains.
We won’t be surprised to find Long Beach gradually developed in the coming years, and at research time we did see a concrete building being constructed at the end of the road. We wandered past that and found a small cliff-sheltered bay hiding some fishing boats on the opposite coast from Long Beach. This area’s only other “attraction” is a memorial marking a naval battle in which French ships broke through Thai defences during the Thai-Franco War of 1941.
With Long Beach in the bag, backtrack all the way up to Salak Khok and hang a left (south) on the main road. This runs into Baan Salak Phet, a charming village marked firstly by a school and temple of the same name.
The only temple on Ko Chang that’s worth seeking out in our opinion, 19th-century Wat Salak Phet sports exquisite mother-of-pearl mosaics depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life along with more imaginative visions, including a sea of faces representing the Buddhist lay community. You’ll also find an impressive mural showing the water goddess battling Mara’s demon army at the hour of Buddha’s enlightenment. Behind a handsome seated Buddha image, another mural features colourful three-dimensional figures representing deities from heavenly realms.
When King Rama V visited this temple in the late 1800s, he neglected to tell the villagers that he was, in fact, their monarch, and he later wrote that the hospitality he received in Baan Salak Phet left him feeling all warm and fuzzy. If judging by the smiles we received while stocking up on street snacks across from the temple, the villagers are no less welcoming to outsiders nowadays.
Dipping further south into the village you’ll find a few good places to stay—Baan Chan Lay, The Mangrove Hideaway and Baan Yemaya—set beside a soothing estuary or in one of the stilted houses clustered off the bay’s central bank. Take a wander to watch women sorting fish as men putter home in their colourful boats. This is also a fabulous place to rent a kayak.
If you want to explore a mangrove forest but don’t have time for a paddle, take the gravel lane that cuts east from Wat Salak Phet to find Ko Chang’s very own mangrove walkway. Here we found a not well-maintained concrete boardwalk reaching for some distance into a vast tangle of long-arching roots and lime-green leaves. If you don’t mind balancing over concrete framework in sections where boards are missing, the trees eventually open to reveal striking views.
Cruising over to the bay’s western shore you’ll find the area’s main pier and marina, perhaps worth a quick stop on the way to Salak Phet Seafood, where you can join Thai travellers to fill up on fresh (and expensive) seafood. Along the way you’ll pass the bay’s main pier, a surprisingly handsome affair with public restrooms and pavilions. Quite a few sailors drop anchor around here.
Heading back towards Baan Salak Phet, look left for a little brown-and-green booth and gate perched open. Here you’ll find the start of a narrow lane built as part of a road that was intended to link Salak Phet to Bang Bao, thereby completing a circular road all the way around Ko Chang. When the rocky terrain proved impenetrable, construction was abandoned. The road did however provide a way to reach Ko Chang’s most remote beach: Haad Wai Shak.
The lane—more of a trail really—makes for a great hike or mountain bike ride that deposits you at a sublime stripe of soft off-white sand backed by a coconut grove with a southern outlook to Ko Wai and Ko Khlum (just be prepared for some steep hills). Wander to the far end to find a lagoon spilling cooler water into the cerulean-blue bay. In the other corner, a trail leads up to a now-derelict bungalow joint—the dusty billiards table with queues and balls was still up there when we last peeked. Those looking for true isolation could bring supplies and pitch a tent beneath the palms for a night or two here; just remember to pack out what you pack in.
A quick note on the “road” to Haad Wai Shack: the condition had worsened since our previous visit and we feel the road should not be attempted by motorbike. Bring one and you’ll be up against foot-deep ruts and steep embankments leaving no place to put a foot down. Take our word for it: Park at the rubber grove near the beginning of the lane and make it a hike.
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 backpackers first arrived in the 1970s. As with the entirety of Ao Salak Phet and the rest of Ko Chang’s east coast, we don’t expect serious tourism development to impose itself on Wai Shak any time soon.
If you’re a traveller who never says quit, more adventure awaits at Khiri Phet Waterfall and Khlong Neung Waterfall. Both cascade through deep-jungle scenery and are reached by scenic lanes cutting northwest out of Baan Salak Phet. Khlong Neung is our favourite of Chang’s waterfalls, but you will need some boulder-scrambling skills to get there.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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