Koh Chang’s idyllic setting
Koh Chang is Thailand’s second biggest island and it’s five hours’ drive and a half-hour ferry ride from Bangkok.
Yet just a decade ago, when Phuket (the country’s largest island) was exploding as a world-famous tourist destination, Koh Chang still had no electricity or phones.
Most of Koh Chang’s interior, along with the other 41 islets in the archipelago, is now part of the Mu Koh Chang National Park, so the brash development that plagued other Thai resorts has been relatively subdued here.
Some complain that Koh Chang is changing quickly, but even at the larger tourist resorts the beaches are pristine and can appear to be spectacularly remote.
At Klong Prao, you drive to the end of a dirt track where a boatman waits to paddle you across the mangrove-lined channels to a great swathe of white sand and swaying palms. The water is perpetually warm, and even at night the air is balmy.
Many of the restaurants and hotels along these canals offer romantic after-dinner boat rides through the mangroves, where cicadas chirp, frogs croak, and the trees flicker with fireflies.
All aboard in Koh Chang
Most of the centre of Koh Chang is inaccessible unless you are trekking – or precariously balanced on the back of Nam Pet or one of her pachyderm colleagues.
Stilted fishing villages occupy inlets where mangrove forests have ceded to the usually benign China Sea swells.
Jetties and rickety boardwalks probe out over sparkling reefs to ranks of brightly painted fishing boats. The boats are decked with fishbowl-sized light bulbs, which work as lures. On good fishing nights, and when the moon is dim, the horizon is speckled with these gleaming vessels.
Nowadays there are also plenty of luridly painted dive boats moored alongside the fishermen. It is possible that Koh Chang has more snorkelling boats per tourist than any other island in the Gulf of Thailand.
There are no regular ferries among the national park’s satellite islands, and the outlying beaches and reefs can only be accessed by chartered boats.
There are boats for every taste: shiny white double-decker party boats; brightly painted fishing boat converts, renowned for their grilled seafood; and sleek racing catamarans, offering martinis and bikini-clad Bond girls.
Thailand island life
Only from the sea can you get a real idea of how much of Koh Chang is covered with rainforest. These forests are home to monkeys, deer, hornbills and occasional herds of ‘free-range’ elephants, enjoying R&R from their tourist ferrying duties.
It’s said there are 365 islands in the Gulf of Thailand, but nobody knows for sure.
Some, like Koh Mak, have become tourist havens and dive centres, but even here traditional life seems to continue uninterrupted, with locals making a living from fishing, harvesting coconut groves for copra oil and rubber tapping.
Other islands, such as tiny Koh Wai, are idyllic with not much more than a stretch of white sand and a rickety jetty leading to a clutch of bungalows nestling under palms.
Whatever your idea of paradise, it is safe to say that in the Mu Koh Chang National Park it’s not likely to be more than a short boat ride away.