As an on site intern with ATMA SEVA based in Chiang Mai, I recently took the opportunity to visit an island in the south of Thailand called Koh Chang. The tropical beaches of the south are readily accessible from Chiang Mai, and can be well worth a visit. I chose to visit a small and relatively undeveloped island called Koh Chang in Ranong (not to be confused with the big, very touristy island on the east coast).
There are flights available to both Bangkok and Ranong, but to save money I chose to travel by bus. The longest leg of the 24-hour journey is a 15-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chumpon Muang Mai. You have your own personal entertainment system with movies and games, as well as a massage chair, which almost fully reclines, allowing you to sleep fairly comfortably. The bus departs Chiang Mai at 4 pm (dinner stop and good food included) arriving in Chumphon Muang Mai at 9am. From Chumphon, it’s just a couple of hours by local bus to Ranong, where a soung taew takes you directly to the pier. The boat to the island is an old fisherman style boat loaded with tourists and supplies for the island alike. You may very well find yourself sitting on a bag of ice!
The crossing takes about an hour and on the way you see many chow Lair, or Sea Gypsies, who are indigenous to the area. They live on large, traditional boats for extended periods, although they traditionally camp on beaches too. Historically, they make a living as fishermen but they have suffered from relocation due to the tourist industry. The government is now making a move to protect their land rights, but in the past they have had little assistance.
After landing on the island, I found a great beach front bungalow for only 300 baht per night (about $10). There are many “resorts” on the island, usually consisting of a few bungalows (beach huts) with a double bed, mosquito net, and basic bathroom. There is generally a social area and restaurant attached too.
Koh Chang is a simple place, not a hugely developed tourist center like Phuket or Koh Samuii, nor a wild party paradise like Koh Phan Ngan. The showers are cold water only, and the toilets are usually bucket flush. Be prepared for this, but the simplicity adds to the beauty of the place. There is no main line electricity, but each resort has a generator to give light and provide power between sunset and about 10:30 pm. Any cell phone connection is unreliable and there is no internet except for a couple of satellite fuelled laptops which are painfully slow and expensive!
So…what is there to do? Well, there are a lot of friendly locals to hang out with, and you can go walking in the jungle. Spotting wildlife is always fun- there are monkeys on one part of the island, along with typical sea birds and other wildlife, including hornbills and owls. There are three great beach bars offering affordable beers and cocktails, and the restaurants are delicious! The food is primarily grown on the island; the fruit is always fresh and juicy, the fish are caught daily, and the veggies and nuts are local too. Some of the resorts offer fishing expeditions, and many people fish on the rocks. The sea is generally gentle, although the tides can be extreme. It’s safe to swim, and a local dive company offers 3 day live aboard dive expeditions in the Andaman Sea. There is also the possibility of a boat trip to neighboring Koh Phayam and kayaks are available for rent. There’s plenty to keep you busy!
I completed several hikes around the island, including one seven hour loop of the north. To do this, I walked to the furthest beach on the northern tip, crossed the water at Mama’s Bungalows and climbed to a trail above the rocks. After hiking for a couple of hours though the jungle, you emerge at a secluded beach- perfect for cooling off. From here, the trail here gets quite tough, heading uphill and across the island. Upon arriving at the west coast we found some small cafes to enjoy a drink in the shade before walking along the coast, and then cutting inland to reach the farmland. Much of the island is rubber plantation, which you can see this en route. After a few more breaks, we made it to one of the “roads” (paved trails) that lead us to the infamous “crossroads” –the center of the island in every sense! Here there is a small restaurant, a store, and the point where the two paved trails that cross the island meet. It was a great place to refuel before moving back to the beach and the bungalows for nightfall!
Another day I took a smaller hike to a beach called Hornbill, about 1.5 hours through the jungle south from the Long Beach. There is a small restaurant there and perfectly clear shallow water. They make great food and snacks, and offer a cozy area with hammocks strung up under a communal shelter, right on the beach.
There are fewer people and vehicles on Koh Chang than most islands, so wildlife are more easily seen and heard here. Some people are a little alarmed by their proximity! I encountered 4 large spiders, a scorpion and a Gecko in my bungalow, as well as numerous frogs, leaf insects, butterflies, beach dogs, eagles, hornbills, giant fruit bats and snakes outside. The noise at sunset and sunrise is almost deafening, with a cacophony of insects, birds, bats and more!
Aside from recreational pursuits, while I was visiting there was an event held at the school, to raise money for local Burmese children. Ranong and Koh Chang have a lot of refugee families from Burma, many of whom are not eligible for government education. The event, including a football match, speeches, and other entertainment, is held annually and it seemed to be a big event for the locals.
The islands down south are significantly hotter than the north of Thailand, and much more humid. They also have their own pace of life- you never feel like you are in a rush- and the scenery is without compare. I enjoyed my stay and would definitely recommend a visit!