Koh Chang, Thailand’s second-largest island, is being touted as the country’s next big beach resort, but it hasn’t yet lost its laidback charm
It’s been trumpeted as the next Phuket, a lesser-known rival to Thailand’s most fashionable resort area. Koh Chang’s real appeal, however, may lie not in how it resembles the playground of the rich and famous, but in how it doesn’t. The beaches might not be as spectacular as they are in Phuket, which has bounced back from the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 260 people there and devastated the island’s tourist trade. But for many visitors, Koh Chang’s tranquillity and unpretentious vibe will be more than ample compensation.
Stroll down the tiny main drag of Hat Sai Khao — better known by its English translation, White Sand Beach — and you can still find modest little huts to rent for about 600 Thai baht (about £11). The shops sell flip-flops and funky T-shirts, but no pricey designer beachwear.
The long sandy beach is one of the few places on the island you'll see vendors approaching tourists with displays of jewellery and trinkets, but they're nowhere near as persistent as the hawkers you'll find in any Mexican tourist town. And at the nearby Aiyapura Resort and Spa, at the northern tip of the island, get up early enough and you may find yourself alone on the private beach. Your only companions are likely to be the peacocks that strut unmolested between the villas, demanding that you admire their showy tails.
The good news is that the laidback beauty of Koh Chang, 300 kilometres southeast of Bangkok, isn't likely to be completely destroyed by development. The island is part of a national park, which means more than 70 per cent of its surface is untouched tropical forest. Growth will also be limited by the fact that an airport can't be built on the island — the nearest one is an hour's ferry ride away in Trat.
Most of Koh Chang's tourist-oriented beaches and resorts are on the west coast, with the largest cluster at White Sand Beach near the northern tip of the island. Of those, the Aiyapura Resort is among the swankiest. Its 84 private villas and suites are set in a 16-hectare coconut grove, and are complemented by three restaurants and a spa.
It may take you a while to get bored of getting massages at the spa and lounging on the beach, but when you do, you can hike into the lush rainforest to one of the island's many waterfalls, visit a traditional fishing village or take a short speedboat trip to a neighbouring island to dive or snorkel in a coral reef. And since Koh Chang translates as Elephant Island, it's no surprise that you can also take an elephant trek through the jungle, where you may run across a wild boar and a mongoose or two.
To get to Koh Chang, you'll have to take a 50-minute Bangkok Airways flight from Bangkok to the tiny Trat airport, then a short ride to the pier at Laem Ngop to catch a ferry (one hour) or speedboat (20-30 minutes) to the island. The faster option can be a bit nauseating when the sea is choppy - but having more time to spend on the island may be just compensation for your suffering.